Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Table Talk -- Shemot 5768

On average, each and every day three shells, mortars or Katyusha rockets land somewhere in Israel, lobbed from Gaza by some faction affiliated with Hamas. In response, Israel has placed a virtual economic stranglehold on Gaza, causing a great deal of suffering for the average Gaza resident. Why doesn’t the controlling Hamas leadership put an end to the shooting, and alleviate the suffering of its people? Because it’s better politically for Hamas to continue to resist, no matter the consequence.

In putting the suffering of their enemies ahead of their own citizens’ well-being, the leaders of Hamas follow a long pattern of this type of behavior, beginning with Par’oh in Egypt.

As we all know, Par’oh initially attempts to force the Jewish midwives to murder Jewish infants during childbirth. When the midwives refuse, Par’oh issues an all-encompassing decree: ויצו פרעה לכל עמו לאמר כל הבן היאורה תשליכהו וכל הבת תחיון – “And Par’oh commanded his entire nation saying, every male shall be thrown in the Nile and every female may shall be left alive.” Rashi notes that Par’oh never distinguishes between Jewish and Egyptian babies. Rather, אף עליהם גזר – “he even decreed on [their own children].” Par’oh, warned by his astrologers of the impending birth of a child that would ultimately cause his downfall, doesn’t care whether he’s throwing Jewish or Egyptian babies into the river. As long as he remains in power, that’s all that matters to him. If a few – or thousands -- of his own people suffer in the process, that’s of no concern to him.

It’s amazing how often history repeats itself.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Jewish Family Education Comes to YIOP - YIOP Bulletin for January 2008

As an institution that positions itself in the center of the Orthodox community, YIOP has, thank God, attracted a wide array of members from a broad spectrum of the Orthodox community. We offer programs that cater to adults and children, attempting to address their spiritual, educational, and even social needs. But during my tenure at YIOP, our shul and community demographics have shifted. We need to adjust the programming that we offer to mirror those shifts.

Most synagogues, where many of the children attend Hebrew school at the shul, find a great divide between the kids who were required to attend supplementary school and their parents who drop them off at Hebrew school but remain uninvolved in their religious or spiritual growth. To bridge that divide, Federation coordinates and partially funds a program called J.E.F.F. – Jewish Education For Families, under the auspices of the Alliance for Jewish Education (AJE). This program places a professional Jewish family educator on the staffs of area synagogues who creates meaningful Jewish education not for children or parents, but for families as a whole.

YIOP faces different challenges than other non-Orthodox synagogues. YIOP families usually send their children to local day schools, obviating the need for a religious school. Very invested in religious life, our families usually attend davening if not weekly, then at least monthly. That being said, in light of the many pressures Orthodox families face, the need for family programming and education is pressing and very real.

  • With the growing cost of day school education, the day school education that was once taken for granted is no longer a given. A small but growing number of families are opting out of full-time Jewish day school, and our shul must make an effort to help pick up the slack in programming and activities.
  • We are thankful for the growing number of Ba’alei Teshuvah in our community. Yet many families find themselves in the unusual situation of a knowledge gap between children and their parents. Our children, with their full-time education, quickly surpass the Jewish knowledge and ability of their parents, who did not benefit from a formal Jewish education. Clearly, we must provide opportunities and programs to allow families to study Jewish content together, hopefully bridging that knowledge gap and allowing families to grow religiously together.
  • While member families do attend davening fairly regularly, the davening setting isolates different family members rather than bringing them together. The Mechitzah obviously separates between men and women. Children participate in Shabbos groups, and small children attend babysitting. While each component serves an important function in our shul, they often separate families instead of uniting them. For this reason, we see a need to create other opportunities to bring families together in a religious context, through creative programming, additional services and other venues.
  • Finally, with our fast-paced, busy lives, parents spend less time than ever with their children. We are no exception to this rule. Our can – and must be – a venue to help bring families together and give them opportunities for interaction and relationship building in a positive religious atmosphere.

To address all of these needs, I approached the AJE to inquire about the possibility of hiring a Jewish Family Educator at YIOP. Working closely with Lisa Sobel Siegmann, the coordinator of the JEFF program at the AJE, we began the lengthy process of applying to the program, received approval, sought possible coordinators, and are finally ready to begin the program. We would never have reached this stage without the help, advice and support of many individual members including Stine Grand, Dr. Michelle Sider, Dr. Jonathan Frogel and Amy Schlussel, and the generous support of two anonymous donors.

This month we have hired Mrs. Aliza Sosne –a longtime YIOP member – to serve as our Jewish Family Eduator. Aliza, who begins January 2nd, brings a sense of passion and energy to her new position, and I am very excited about the great programming that she will bring to our community.

Hiring a family educator is really uncharted ground for YIOP, but I believe is a crucial step both to enhance the lives of our members and also to ensure our shul’s future. Still, for the JEFF program to truly succeed, it will need your participation. So, take the time and energy to get involved. Help Aliza plan and program. Come with your family – and learn and enjoy. And know that by taking an active role in our new Family Education program, you’ll not only be helping our shul, but you’ll be educating your family, and hopefully growing closer to God and to each-other at the same time.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Table Talk - Vayechi 5768

American pop culture has long associate the symbol of the fish with Chrisitianity. (Think of the term "holy mackerel". Really.) Yet, once again an important symbol has been "borrowed" from the Jewish people, as the fish has been a symbol of Jewish fruitfulness since the time of Ya'akov. The Torah tells us that when Ya'akov blesses Yosef's sons, Ephraim and Menashe, he gives them the famous blessing that we sing with our children each night:
הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל-רָע, יְבָרֵךְ
אֶת-הַנְּעָרִים, וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי, וְשֵׁם אֲבֹתַי אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק;
וְיִדְגּוּ לָרֹב, בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ.

the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and let my
name be named in them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let
them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.'

While we translate the word וידגו to mean "and let them grow," in reality the word emanates from the root לדוג -- "to fish." So in essence, Ya'akov blesses his grandchildren that they should become "many like the fish in the midst of the land." Why does Ya'akov use this curious language? What message does he convey by blessing his grandchildren to grow like fish?
Rashi, basing his comments on the Gemara in Brachos explains,

Just as the fish of the sea are covered by the water, and the 'evil eye' does
not rule over them, so too the children of Yosef - the 'evil eye' does not rule
over them.

Ohr Hachayim gives a different explanation. He suggests that when God creates the world, He gives special blessings to the fish to reproduce because the ocean is a particularly unhospitable place to procreate. For this reason, God increases endows the fish with special ability to thrive and multiply.
Why then does Ya'akov give his grandchildren this special blessing of the fish? Perhaps Ya'akov foresees a day in Egypt when his descendants would no longer be able to reproduce without fear of repercussion. That day comes soon enough when the government decrees death for all infant male children, forcing the women to give birth in secret.
Indeed, Ya'akov's blessing has protected us all too often throughout our history, giving us the will and divine blessing to bring another generation of Jews into the world - sometimes despite great challenge and difficulty -- to carry on our forefather's great legacy.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Table Talk -- Vayigash 5768

Chanukah challenges our entrenched notion of Jewish strength. We generally associate Jewish strength with spiritual strength – with a steadfast devotion to our heritage; a stubborn willingness to sacrifice for our beliefs, and our refusal to abandon Jewish beliefs at any cost. After all, after almost two thousand years of exile, we have scant examples of any other type of Jewish strength.

Yet, the Torah clearly envisions a very different type of strength. God wants the Jewish people to have not just spiritual strength, but physical strength as well. He wishes us to develop economic strength, academic strength, and personal and military strength. And, while we celebrate the miracle of the candles and the spirituality of Chanukah, we would never have kindled those lights were it not for the willingness of the Maccabis to fight for their independence.

This notion of Jewish strength appears in our Parshah. The Torah tells us that when Yosef brings his family to Egypt, ומקצה אחיו לקח -- "some of his brothers he took" to present to the king. Which brothers does he bring? Why does he only bring some of them, and not them all?

Rashi presents two options, first suggesting that Yosef brings the weakest of his brothers before the Phar'oh, because he worries that if Phar'oh would see the stronger, more powerful brothers, he would draft them to lead his military. (It's interesting to note that Yosef makes a great effort to separate and shield his family from the larger Egyptian society.) So who are the weaker brothers? They are Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yissachar and Binyamin - the brothers Moshe only names once and not twice in his final blessings in the Torah.

What surprises me most about this list are the second two names: Shimon and Levi. These very same brothers single-handedly wiped out the entire city of Shechem - albeit after mass circumcision. Still - these are the weak brothers?!

It makes me wonder just how powerfully strong the other brothers must have been.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Table Talk -- Miketz 5768

In his 17th Meditation, Anglican Priest John Donne writes of “for whom the bells tolls,” using the imagery of the ringing bell to signify God’s call to action. He explains,

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

The imagery of the bell strikes us strongly (pun intended), and really works as metaphor for a personal message from God. God does indeed ring a personal bell for each of us, and it’s up to us to listen and hear that toll when it comes. Yet, from where does Donne derive this image? Does he make it up on his own? Far from it. He lifts the powerful language from our parshah.

The Torah tells us that one night Par’oh dreams two disturbing dreams that he cannot understand. The thin cows eat the fat cows; the weak stalks eat the strong stalks – and yet he cannot fathom their meaning. These powerful dreams haunt Par’oh to the point that he even unearths a Hebrew slave – Yosef - from prison to interpret them. In describing Par’oh’s state of mind, the Torah uses wonderful language, telling us, ויהי בבקר ותפעם רוחו – “and it was in the morning, and his spirit was troubled.” (41:8)

The Midrash, wondering about the meaning of the word ותפעם – which we translate as “and was troubled,” explains that it means that היתה מקשת עליו כפעמון הזה – “that [the dream] was beating upon him like a bell.” (The word ותפעם shares the same root as the word פעמון – bell.) Apparently, the bell did indeed toll – but it tolled first for Par’oh in Egypt.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Table Talk - Vayeshev 5768

What makes a crime a capitol offense? How bad must an act be to rise to the level that merits the death penalty? In reality, the action itself matters. But so does the identity of the perpetrator.

As Yosef languishes in prison, we learn about the tragic fortunes of the royal baker and vintner. They find themselves thrown into prison awaiting trial for seemingly heinous, terrible crimes. What did they do? What crimes did they commit? The Torah only tells us that חטאו – “they sinned,” לאדניהם מלך מצרים – “to their master, the king of Egypt.” (40:1) Rashi explains that a fly fell into the royal goblet and a stone landed in the royal bread.

Siftei Chachamim – a commentary on Rashi explains that from their punishments we can discover their crimes. The fly in the wine wasn’t necessarily the fault of the vintner, so the Pharoh restores him to his position. But the stone in the bread is only due to the baker’s negligence, so he gets the death penalty.

That’s it? A fly in the wine and a rock in the bread – and they’re thrown in jail? Doesn’t that seem somewhat extreme? Not really – because these men work not in a local bar or bakery, but in the royal palace. They serve the king. They enjoy the status of “Royal Baker” and “Royal Vintner,” and with that status come responsibility and obligation. The greater the honor and distinction, the higher the stakes grow, and the greater the consequences for even seemingly small slip-ups.

Imagine if they worked not for the king of Egypt, but the King of Kings!

Friday, November 23, 2007

An Alternative Chanukah Gift Guide

I remember it like it was yesterday. Sitting in a hospice room in Hartford Hospital, Bill Schulman (not his real name – but the story is true) lay dead in the bed next to me as I waited, together with Bill’s wife for the funeral home to come, and for Bill’s son to arrive from France. When her son finally arrived, we sat down at the small table to talk about funeral plans. As we began talking, Bill’s son stopped the conversation and asked a question (with his father still lying there in the room) that I’ll never forget: “When can we probate the will?”

I wondered what could make a person so selfish, self-centered and crass. Bill’s son answered my question, albeit unknowingly, during the shiva. Speaking lovingly about his father he told me, “We were always the first ones on the block to have anything. We had the first basketball hoop, the first color television – my father always bought us anything we wanted.” Indeed.

America celebrates its holidays – especially the religious ones – by doing what we do best. We buy stuff. I feel bad for Christian clergy. After all, America has transformed one of their holiest holidays of the year into a crass commercial extravaganza that now begins the day after Thanksgiving. We can’t even digest our turkey properly, as we have to rise at 5am to beat the crowds for the doorbusters. We all get “gift guides” in the mail: in newspapers, magazines, catalogues, brochures and mailings of all shapes and colors. And this commercialism colors our attitude towards our own holidays as well. Who doesn’t buy Chanukah gifts for their children or grandchildren? Do gifts have anything to do with Chanukah at all? And, most importantly, if we’re going to give gifts, what should we give that will enhance, and not detract from the greater message of Chanukah?

In all honesty, Chanukah gifts fly in the face of everything that the holiday represents. At the same time though, I must admit that I will be buying and giving my own children presents this Chanukah. Why? For three reasons: my parents gave me presents on Chanukah, my kids expect them, and it’s not fair to make them the only children in town who did not get anything for Chanukah. We have ingrained the notion of “presents” too deeply into our social consciousness to ignore them completely. But if we do give gifts, we can use those gifts to both express our love, and convey values that we hold dear.

First and foremost, gifts should be expressions of affection. They should not only say, “I love you,” but “I care about you and your interests.” For that reason, I’ve never been a big fan of giving money as a gift (unless the recipient really needs the money to cover expenses). A gift of money conveys the clear message that “I don’t really know what you want, so go buy it yourself.” But that check also says, “I couldn’t think about what you’d want and go out and purchase that thing for you. So get it yourself” If you’re giving a child or grandchild money for their college fund – great! But otherwise, think about what they like; their hobbies or interests and values – and get them something that matches those interests. If they don’t like it, let them return it (and don’t be hurt). At the very least, they’ll appreciate the fact that you took the time and energy to find something specifically for them. And when the item is gone – or lost or broken – the value of that time and thought and energy investment will endure.

If you’re buying something for a child, I have come to realize that our kids have way, way too much stuff. From electronics to games to music to toys, they have so many things that they don’t use a vast majority of them. Today’s latest and greatest device will by lying on the shelf next by next week. They don’t need another cellphone, or video game or television. So why not give a gift of time: get them a lesson with a tennis instructor, or tokens to the batting cages; tickets to a concert of a (kosher) musician or take them to a sporting event. And then take them there yourself – and give them time alone with a parent – which is what many kids really want most anyway. That way, when the game is over, the memory will endure but not gather dust in their room.

Finally, we often find ourselves trying to buy gifts for people who don’t really need anything – usually adults. What can you give to someone who – if he or she wants something – can and will go out and buy that thing themselves? You can give them something. You can value what they value. When I want to thank someone for a favor or give them a gift – and they really don’t want anything from me, I have found that a great gift is giving to a tzedakah that they like in their honor. That gesture (a) really does help others (b) is a great way to spend money and (c) strongly conveys to the recipient that I not only value them, but their values as well. That, to my mind, is a great gift.

Gift-giving season can be challenging, strenuous and difficult – even if you didn’t get up at 4am on Black Friday. But, with thought, care and consideration, giving gifts can be an opportunity not only to make our loved ones happier – but to make them better people as well.

Have a wonderful, warm, light and meaningful Chanukah!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Table Talk - Vayishlach 5768

As Ya’akov approaches the Land of Cana’an on his return home, he learns of Eisav’s plans to meet him on the road. Concerned about Eisav’s intentions, Ya’akov sends gifts to Eisav with a message of peace and goodwill. Yet, when the messengers return with the news of Eisav’s four hundred men, Ya’akov becomes truly afraid. ויירא יעקב מאד ויצר לו – “and Ya’akov became very afraid and he was very distressed.” Commentators struggle to understand what generates such great fear in Ya’akov. After all, God promises to protect and guard him on at least two occasions. So, blessed with divine protection, why is he so scared?

Some suggest that Ya’akov fears that שמא יגרום החטא – “perhaps sin would cause [his downfall]. Yet, Kli Yakkar rejects this suggestion outright. After all, God had reiterated his Divine protection just eight days previously. What great sin could Ya’akov have possibly committed that would produce such calamitous results in such a short time? Kli Yakkar offers one suggestion: flattery (in Hebrew known as chanifah - חניפה).

When Ya’akov sends the messengers to Eisav he takes a subservient position to his brother, showering him with lavish praise and flattery: “Say to my master Eisav…” (see 32:5) Afterwards, Ya’akov inherently realizes the dictum of Chazal which states that ‘One who flatters the wicked will ultimately fall into his hands.’ Ya’akov understands that when he flatters his wicked brother he unintentionally elevates Eisav’s stature and enables his evil behavior. After all, why should the wicked change his ways if his righteous brother is happy to lavish praise upon him?

What about us? When we praise people who perpetrate problematic performances, do we realize that we encourage that behavior to continue?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Table Talk - Vayetze 5768 - Shabbos Yerushalayim

With the ongoing talk in Israel about peace negotiations, and the current administration’s stated willingness to discuss abandoning parts of Yerushalayim to the Palestinian Authority (God forbid), the OU has designated this Shabbos as an opportunity to focus on the centrality of Yerushalayim in Judaism to enhance our connection to God’s holy city.

Not surprisingly, Ya’akov meets God at the beginning of our parshah in the future city of Yerushlayim. The Torah tells us that as he runs to Charan fleeing from his brother Eisav, ויפגע במקום וילן שם – “and he arrived at the place and he lay down there.” Ya’akov stops for the night and dreams of ladders, angels and God. But the Torah never tells us where that “place” is. Rashi explains that by calling it המקום – “the place,” we know exactly where it is, because we’ve seen that place before.

When God commands Avraham to sacrifice his beloved son Yitzchak, he also doesn’t specify the exact location. Yet, after Avraham travels for three days the Torah tells us that וירא את המקום מרחוק – “and he saw the place from a distance.” Again, the place remains nameless, but we call it הר המוריה – the location of both akeidat Yitzchak -- the binding of Yitzchak – and the prophetic dream of Ya’akov.

These two events that transpire on that mountain are only the beginning of a long history binding the Jewish people with that holy place. It’s that connection that we must rekindle and strengthen if we wish to ensure that Har Hamoriah remains a Jewish mountain. Let us take some time this Shabbos to learn about Yerushalayim, connect to the city, and commit to make some tangible effort to ensure that she remains eternally united.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Table Talk Toldos 2 - Could You Eat Avraham's Food?

You've just invented a time machine out of a Delorian (or some other nifty car), and have decided that the first person you'd like to visit is our forefather, Avraham Avinu. You get in the car, speed up to 88mph, and in a flash you're back in Cana'an basking under Avraham's tree. Naturally, Avraham runs to greet you, and before you know it, he's offering you dinner. Only after he places the tongue and roast beef in front of you do you begin to wonder: "Hey, can I eat this? Is it even kosher?" That all depends on how much you trust -- and take literally - the commentary of Rashi.
The Torah tells us that when Yitzchak attempts to journey to Egypt to avoid a famine, God appears to Yitzchak commanding him to remain in the Land of Cana'an, and God will give him the blessings of his father. Why does Avraham deserves these blessings? עֵקֶב, אֲשֶׁר-שָׁמַע אַבְרָהָם בְּקֹלִי; וַיִּשְׁמֹר, מִשְׁמַרְתִּי, מִצְו‍ֹתַי, חֻקּוֹתַי וְתוֹרֹתָי - "because that Abraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.'"
We're left to wonder what these different terms refer to. What statutes does Avraham keep? Rashi (Bereishis 26:4) immediately explains each of these terms clearly.

וישמר משמרתי - גזרות להרחקה על אזהרות שבתורה, כגון שניות לעריות ושבות לשבת:
מצותי - דברים שאילו לא נכתבו ראויין הם להצטוות כגון גזל ושפיכות דמים:
חקותי - דברים שיצר הרע ואומות העולם משיבין עליהם כגון אכילת חזיר ולבישת שעטנז שאין טעם בדבר אלא גזירת המלך וחקותיו על עבדיו:
ותורתי - להביא תורה שבעל פה, הלכה למשה מסיני:

Clearly according to Rashi, Avraham not only keeps the accepted ethical and moral laws that apply to any society. Moreover, he not only observes normative Torah law including Sha'atnez and prohibited foods. Rather, Avraham keeps everything -- the big and small, Torah and rabbinic, including the Oral Tradition and everything in-between. He wears tzitzis and washes neigel vasser in the morning, puts a blech on his stove on Shabbos, and uses a kos shelishi to make his tea on Shabbos (if he holds like R. Moshe). How does he learn all of this Torah? The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 95) wonders the very same thing.
מהיכן למד תורה אברהם? ר' שמעון בן יוחי א' נעשו כיליותיו כשני כדין שלמים והיו נובעות תורה.
Those are some pretty knowledgeable kidneys! In any case, it seems clear that had you stopped to pick up Rashi on the way to Avraham Avinu in your time machine, while you might not have eaten the food, Rashi clearly would have.

Table Talk - Toldos 5768

Most of us consider Meah Shearim a rather religious neighborhood. From the numerous yeshivot to the seforim stores to the requested (and required) modesty restrictions, people classically associate Meah Shearim with frumkeit (religiosity). This association is really nothing new. Meah Shearim has always been a rather religious region.
While living in an area called G’rar, Yitzchak plants produce – and does well. וימצא בשנה ההיא מאה שערים ויברכהו ה' – “and he found that year ‘one hundred measures’ and God blessed him.” What are these מאה שארים (pronounced Meah Shearim) – “hundred measures?” What does Yitzchak find?
Rashi explains that after Yitzchak projects the anticipated yield for the crop that year, the field actually produces one hundred times the projected yield. Rashi adds, “And our rabbis said that this crop approximation was for the purpose of tithes.”

Siftei Chachamim (a super commentary on Rashi) wonders: why does Rashi feel the need to add this piece of information? Who cares why they approximated the field’s yield? He suggests that Judaism always frowns on measuring one’s wealth. The gemara in Baba Metzia (42a) tells us that, “We don’t find blessing in something counted and measured.” God gives His gifts whether we count them or not. For this reason, we refrain from counting our blessing, or chickens or even crops. If so, how could Yitzchak measure his expected field yield?

According to Siftei Chachamim, this must be why Rashi explains why Yitzchak counts his crop. He must measures merely for the purpose of tzedakah – to know how much to tithe from his crop, reinforcing the association between Meah Shearim and frumkeit (and tzedakah) to this day.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Counting Our Blessings - Table Talk - Chaye Sarah 5768

Have you said “thank you” today? While we always considered expressing our appreciation polite, science teaches us that saying “thanks” can also be good for you. In fact, in her new book “Thank You Power”, journalist and author Deborah Norville demonstrates how by “beginning with those two small words, thank you… you can be happier and more resilient, have better relationships, improved health, and less stress.” (Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book. That’s in the press release.) But Norville is right on the money, because long before science discovered “thank you,” we learned about it from our parshah.

The parshah relates the long arduous journey of Avraham’s servant Eliezer in his search for a wife for Yitzchak. After finally finding Rivkah and determining that she’s the shidduch for Yitzchak, Eliezer asks for permission to bring the girl back with him to Cana’an. When Lavan and Betuel answer in the affirmative, the Torah tells us, “when the servant of Avraham heard their words, he bowed down to the ground to God.” Why does he bow down? Rashi explains that, מכאן שמודים על בשורה טובה – “from this we learn that we must give thanks for good news.” When I first saw Rashi’s comment, initially the lesson seemed obvious. But then I realized: when we think about our own lives, how many of us truly count the tremendous blessings that we enjoy in our lives? How often do we allow the small frustrations in life to cloud the greater good that give us pleasure?

Rabbi Berel Wein, in a little book called “Buy Green Bananas” writes: “Life, family, work, friends, society, are all sources of immense blessings. They are also invariably also sources of friction, disappointment and frustration. Our view of life should not be an image of a never-ending complaint department. Rather, it should be a place of hope and steadfastness. Such an attitude is achieved by counting our blessings consistently and sincerely.”

But we can take it one step further. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov writes: “When someone asks you how you’re doing, do not complain and grumble about your troubles. If you answer ‘Things are bad for me,’ then the Creator says, ‘That’s bad in your eyes? I’ll show you what’s truly bad.’ But when someone asks you how you’re doing, and despite difficulties and tribulations you say ‘Good,’ then the Creator says, ‘That’s good in your eyes? I’ll show you what’s truly good.’”

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Davening Decorum: Making What’s Good Even Better - YIOP Bullentin November 2007

Talking in shul is an age-old problem – perhaps as old as shuls themselves. Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller, the author of the Tosfot Yom Tov (a commentary on the Mishnah), penned a misheberach in honor of those who refrained from talking during davening as far back as the 17th century. I personally believe that we talk in shul for a number of different reasons (some more legitimate than others):
  1. We feel disconnected from the words that we say. If we knew and understood the prayers better we would talk less.
  2. We haven’t seen our friends since last week, and see shul as a time to reconnect and catch up. After all, in Hebrew we call a shul a Beit K’nesset – “house of gathering” and not a Beit Tefillah – “house of prayer.”
  3. There are a number of times during the davening when all we do is listen. From misheberachs to announcements to the repetition of the Shemoneh Esreh, throughout much of the davening we sit passively, not engaged in prayer. That passivity lends itself to a certain sense of restlessness and boredom, so we talk.
  4. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, davening is long on Shabbos and Yom Tov mornings, and we often find it challenging to refrain from making a comment to a friend.
One comment doesn’t really hurt. But when everyone – or too many of us – make that one comment, the cacophony has the potential to ruin what could be a powerful spiritual experience.
The OU’s most recent Jewish Action magazine includes an article by Rabbi Danny Frankel, the executive director of the Young Israel of Woodmere in New York. Rabbi Frankel describes a concerted effort by the leadership and membership of their shul to change the culture of their shul from a “talking” shul to a “non-talking” shul. They made of number of significant changes, from having the members of the shul sign a “no-talking pledge,” to moving around some of the davening, to adding educational components about the davening to the rabbis’ talks.
Lately we have, to some degree, let things slip a little bit and allowed the conversation to grow inside our shul. To combat this trend, we don't need drastic changes. If we focus on small but subtle changes, we will improve the flow and tone of davening in shul.
  1. First and foremost, each of us must check ourselves. We all have some quick and innocuous small comment to make to a friend. Unfortunately, all too often it’s neither small nor quick, and results in a conversation that disturbs others and disrupts the tone of the davening. If each of us makes an effort to be better about our own talking in shul, that collective effort will bring a dramatic improvement.
  2. No one is perfect, but we are all mutually responsible. If we’re talking and someone asks us to stop (nicely, of course), don’t get insulted or upset. They’re right. We should stop. So, instead of getting angry and firing back, take the comment to heart and either take the conversation outside, or delay it until davening ends.
  3. As a shul, we also need to improve the flow of the davening and minimize delays. If you’re given a kibbud or aliyah, please be present for the aliyah or kibbud to avoid unnecessary delays. In addition, if you want your family members named during a misheberach, make up a card with all of those names clearly written for the gabbai to read. It’s not fair to make the shul wait while someone tries to remember his wife’s cousin’s sister (on her father’s side).
  4. Finally, we will be making other small changes to try and increase the flow and minimize talking opportunities during the davening. They might not be what you’re used to, so give yourself time to adjust to them to let us see if they really do make a difference in the level of talking during the davening.
If you struggle keeping up the pace of davening, it's better to slowly recite less of the prayers than to run through too many words without understanding them well. Take the time to read some of the prayers in English, and make an effort to learn the meanings of the Hebrew prayers, especially the Shema and Shemoneh Esreh. The investment of time that you make in understanding the davening will pay great dividends for years to come. Also, Rena gave a shiur on Tehillim that covered many of the Psalms that we recite during the davening. Her lectures are available to listen to online on our web site ( as well.
If you're interested in some reading material that will aid in understanding davening, I'd like to suggest the following titles that focus on davening or developing a closer relationship with God. You can find each of these books in the YIOP library, but do not remove them from the shul building.
  • Family Redeemed, The Lonely Man of Faith, and an article called "Prayer as Dialogue" in Reflections of the Rav, Volume 1, all by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
  • Rigshei Lev: Women and Tefillah, by Menachem Nissel
  • How to Get Your Prayers Answered, by Rabbi Irwin Katsof (not in the YIOP Library)
  • Living Inspired, by Rabbi Akiva Tatz
  • The World of Prayer, by Rabbi Dr. Elie Munk
  • Rabbi Schwab on Prayer (based on the teachings of Rabbi Shimon Schwab)
  • If You Were God, by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan
We make a strong effort to maintain a sense of decorum in our shul, with significant success. But we still need to remain vigilant about the decorum inside the shul, to ensure that during our davening we converse not with each other, but with God.

Table Talk - Vayera 5768

How long should it take an angel to travel from Be'er Sheva to Sodom? Well, since you're immune to the laws of physics, it really should take no time at all. Yet, we find that while the three angels seem to take their leave of Avraham sometime during the day (they started eating during "the heat of the day"), וַיָּבֹאוּ שְׁנֵי הַמַּלְאָכִים סְדֹמָה, בָּעֶרֶב - "the two angels came to Sodom in the evening. (19:1) What took so long?
Rashi explains that the angels intentionally wait to arrive in Sodom in order to give Avraham a chance to argue with God and save the city. Only when Avraham's appeal fails do the angels proceed to fulfill their fateful mission. The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, Lithuania, 1818-1890) writes in his commentary to the Torah called Ha'amek Davar, that while the angels themselves can travel instantaneously, Avraham accompanies them a distance of three parsaot -- a considerable way. Only when they take their leave of him can they "transport" to Sodom. They arrive in Sodom so late in the day due to Avraham's insistence on considering them his guests long after they leave his home.
In fact, Rambam (Laws of Mourning 14:2) explains that the rabbis decreed that accompanying guests out of one's home to be a rabbinic commandment based on Avraham's behavior. Rambam writes, "The reward for accompanying [a guest] is greater than all [other reward]. And this is the law that Avraham established and the custom of kindness that he practiced: he fed travelers and gave them drink and accompanied them...and accompanying them on their way is greater than welcoming them...Even if one only accompanied his friend four amot, his reward is great indeed!"

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Update of Lincoln Kosher Meats

After speaking with Rabbi Krupnick at the Va'ad, I feel that it's important to update my previous post and add some new information about why Lincoln Kosher Meats lost its hechsher.
Rabbi Krupnick explained that of the mashgichim who were working in the store, Mr. Cohen was unsatisfied with three of them, and fired them without seeking permission from the Va'ad. Regardless of whether he had legitimate complaints about any particular mashgiach, he had no right to send one away without permission from the Va'ad. So, while from his perspective the Va'ad did not supply him with suitable mashgichim, the Va'ad did provide him mashgichim who he removed without Va'ad authorization.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Table Talk - Lech Lecha 5768

Can you take a compliment? When someone says something nice about you, are you able to say “Thank you,” or do you feel the need to either come up with some kind of excuse, (“It was just a lucky guess!”) question the sincerity of the compliment (“You really think it looks nice?!”), or even negate the compliment entirely (“I thought I sounded so stupid!”? Many of us are happy to give complements to others. But when we get them, our lack of self-confidence and negative self-image often hinders us from taking them as graciously as we give them.

Sarai has no such problems. As she approaches the Land of Egypt with her husband Avram, he realizes that when the Egyptians see her fantastic beauty they’ll kill him to take her as a wife for the Pharoh. Indeed, Avram correctly assesses the situation, as they immediately grab Sarai as soon as they cross the border. When spelling out the plan to his wife Avram tells Sarai, הנה נא ידעתי כי אשה יפת מראה את – “Behold, I know that you are an exceedingly beautiful woman.” “So, to save my life,” אמרי נא אחותי את – “Please say that you’re my sister, and not my wife.”

How does Sarai react? Does she deny it (“Oh, I’m not that pretty!”) or question his sincerity (“Do you really think so, Avram?”) Actually, we don’t hear her say anything. But it’s safe to say that when Avram tells his wife that she’s the most beautiful woman in the world – and would she mind saving his life, all she needs to say is, “Thank you…my brother.”

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Detroit Va'ad Removes Supervision from Lincoln Kosher Meats

Unlike any packaged products, unpackaged kosher meat requires an extremely high level of supervision, for the simple reason that it's simply impossible to distinguish one piece of meat (that's kosher) from another (that's not). In fact, normative Jewish law prohibits a person from eating any piece of meat from any source that was not under constant, ongoing supervision by a religious, Torah-observant Jew. Failure to maintain that constant supervision would render the meat בשר שנתעלם מן העין - (pronounced basar she'nisalem min ha'ayin) "meat that is out of constant view," and would make the meat seriously questionable for use in a kosher home. (For a more detailed explanation of this topic beyond the scope of this piece, click here for an article by the Star-K.)
This being the case, any non-Orthodox Jew who wished to sell meat would require a mashgiach temidi - a constant supervisory presence, which is the highest level of kashrus supervision. This was the understood and accepted requirement at Lincoln Kosher Meats, a store recently opened by Mr. Michael Cohen - and which now applies at Harvard Row in West Bloomfield as well. In fact, Mr. Cohen opened his store without having the keys to the lock on his own freezer -- a common practice in this type of case.
You might have noticed recently that the Va'ad has sent out several notices searching for people looking for work as mashgichim here in town. This is because it's very hard to find qualified people who are willing to work as mashgichim in butcher stores around town. Turnover is very high, and it's difficult to find workers who are both reliable and satisfactory to the store owner. This being the case, there were several instances where the mashgiach left the store before any alternative supervision could be established.
This week, the leadership of the Va'ad came to the conclusion that due to the small size of the store and the several instances where a lapse in hashgachah had occurred, it could not in good conscience continue to provide kashrus supervision to that establishment. It is important to emphasize that at no point did Mr. Cohen knowingly violate any kashrus policy. He has tried to comply with Va'ad rules and regulations. But the nature of the store and the fact that he himself is not Shomer Shabbos makes continued supervision technically unfeasable.
Personally, I'm saddened by this development. Our family had begun to purchase meat and poultry from the store, and Mr. Cohen's service and assistance was truly wonderful. He trimmed the meat, gave us certain cuts, and was happy to provide great service. On a number of occasions, he made recommendations that made our meals even better, based on the type of meat my wife wanted. In addition, I believe that it's never good to have a monopoly in any town. While Shloimie Luss provides a tremendous service to our community and the kashrus is impeccable, competition is always good for the community. Losing a promising new butcher stings.
At the same time, I am encouraged by this decisive action by the new leadership of the Va'ad. In the past, it could very well be argued that the Va'ad would have allowed a situation of questionable kashrus to continue indefinitely, arguing that "it was good for the city," or "well, we have to give it another chance and more time." But that flexibility led to a situation where people legitimately questioned the kashrus of each individual establishment, and whether the kashrus at that particular store is up to snuff. The Va'ad is determine to establish a single, unified standard of kashrus throughout our city -- one which every Jew can trust without question. While the removal of supervision from Lincoln Kosher Meats is certainly distressing, at least from the perspective of kashrus in our city, it's a move in the right direction.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Table Talk - Noach 5768

We all know the phrase "You are what you eat." But Noach teaches us that the phrase is only half true. In addition to the food that we eat the Torah would add that sometime, "You are what you drink."
After finally leaving the ark to begin life anew, the Torah tells us that, וַיָּחֶל נֹחַ אִישׁ הָאֲדָמָה וַיִּטַּע כָּרֶם - "And Noah the husbandman began, and planted a vineyard." He plants grapes, presses those grapes into wine, and proceeds to get riproaringly drunk. The results of this type of activity are never good, and Noach is a great example of that rule.
Rashi notes that the word for "began" -- ויחל, shares the same root at the word חולין -- "profanity", connoting the opposite of sanctity. Commenting on this strange choice of language Rashi notes, עשה עצמו חולין, שהיה לו לעסוק תחלה בנטיעה אחרת - "He made himself profane, for he should have engaged in another planting first."
While we can all understand Noach's need or desire for a good glass of wine, he should have planted something more practical first. By making the wine his first crop, he allowed the alcohol and his need for it to become his defining quality. A good drink is fine -- but only in its proper time.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Candle Lighting for Yom Kippur

As with all holidays, we light candles at the onset of Yom Kippur. Because Yom Kippur this year falls out on Shabbos, when reciting the brachah add in the additional words for Shabbos. Yet, particularly in our shul where most women come to shul on Yom Kippur eve, women must be especially careful when lighting to follow the halachah carefully.

Candle Lighting before Shabbos
Normally, when women light candles on Shabbos, they automatically accept the sanctity of Shabbos upon themselves immediately upon reciting the brachah. This is the reason why women first light the candles and then recite the brachah afterwards. If she recited the brachah (and accepted Shabbos) and then lit the candles, she would inadvertently be violating the Shabbos! But what if a woman wants to light candles a little early but still has some work she needs to take care of after lighting? Normally, it's not a good idea to do this, and it's much better to finish the work and then light the candles. But what if she wants to light candles and then ride to shul Friday night? If she accepts Shabbos when reciting the brachah, she wouldn't be able to get into the car. What should she do?
Many poskim permit a woman to light candles on condition that when she lights, she does not accept the Shabbos upon herself. But to do this, she must verbally state that she does not accept the Shabbos when she lights.

Candle Lighting before Yom Kippur
Unfortunately, making this verbal condition before lighting candles does not work on Yom Tov for a very simple reason: the brachot include the brachah of she'hechiyanu. When a person recites this brachah, he implicitly acknowledges the sanctity of the day, and may not perform any prohibited work afterwards. So what then should a woman who wants to light at home and then drive to shul before Yom Kippur do?
  1. She should verbally state that she does not accept the sanctity of Yom Kippur upon herself when she lights candles and recites the brachah.
  2. She should light candles normally, but recite only the first brachah on the candle lighting, and she should not recite the she'hechiyanu at home.
  3. When she comes to shul, she should recite the she'hechiyanu together with the shul at the proper time. (In addition, a woman who lit normally and accepted the sanctity of Yom Kippur when she lit and walked to shul should not recite the she'hecheyanu in shul, as she has already said that brachah at home.)
I'd like to make one other obvious but important point: Erev Yom Kippur is a very, very busy time, and it's a struggle to eat the meal, give the kids their blessings, do kaparos, and all the other things we need to do and still make it to shul on time. Yet, with candle lighting at 7:14pm (one may light before 7:14pm -- any time after 6:16pm) and Kol Nidrei at 7:20pm, it's very important that every person take special care to arrive at shul with enough time to park, put away any muktzeh items and conclude any prohibited activity before sunset, at 7:32pm. It would be a terrible shame to begin the holiest day of the year by unintentionally violating the sanctity of the holiday.
If we make an extra effort to maintain the kedushah -- the holiness of Yom Kippur, we can then stand before God with the feeling of hope that He will bless us and inscribe us all with a year of health, blessing and prosperity.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Equation for Communal Growth

Two interesting but seemingly unrelated articles appeared in the Rosh Hashanah Edition of Detroit's Jewish News. The first piece, describes the sale by Congregation Sha'arei Zedek of it's Laker Educational Center in West Bloomfield to Temple Shir Shalom. While seemingly un-noteworthy, a couple of interesting points caught my attention:

"The reason we are selling the building is that during the last few years, its usage was less than in previous years, primarily due to the fact that we reduced our educational requirements for attendance by one day," [Sharei Zedek Executive Director Janet] Pont said.
Interesting. But there's more.

Those plans are highlighted by what Shir Shalom Rabbi Dannel Schwartz calls "changing the paradigm of what synagogues do. We are ready to interface and create a bridge bringing our two congregations together," he said. "And that will give us four rabbis instead of two."
Calling it a significant initiative, he said, "The whole concept of the building is synergy. We will begin with an adult education program for both congregations next month. And it has been proposed that our religious school kids do programming together as well."
Enthused by the upcoming efforts of the two congregations, CSZ Rabbi Eric Yanoff maintains that although there will be combined programming between members of both synagogues, there is absolutely no talk of merging CSZ and Shir Shalom.
Of course there won't be a merger. After all, we're talking about two streams of Judiasm, with very different outlooks and perspectives on core Jewish values. Or are we? How else would they be able to share not only classroom space, but also rabbis and programming? In the end, what difference does it make if there's a technical merger or not, if the two congregations work together, establish programming together, and share rabbinic duties together? Where's the line between coexistence and cooperation, and merger?
Moreover, the entire tone of conciliation and accommodation in the piece raises serious questions for me -- not about Shir Tikveh -- I know what Judaism they stand for -- but about Shaarei Zedek. What do they actually teach in their supplementary religious school? How in the world can they consider sharing religious school programming with a Temple that preaches doctrine completely alien to Conservative Judaism's teachings?

In the same issue, JN publisher Arthur Horowitz wrote a piece suggesting a number of bold changes intended to bolster the Conservative Jewish community over the next five years. While a number of his ideas were indeed important and positive, one of them actually shocked me. He suggests the merger of Congregations Shaarei Zedek and Adat Shalom, creating a mega-congregation (the largest in the country), that would be able, due to its strength and size, to cater to the community better than the two congregations now can. I have a few simple questions:

  1. What does this say about the nature of each of the congregations right now? It seems that in Horowitz's mind, shuls are just like department stores. They're really all the same, and people only care about the departments and services that they offer. That being the case, why not merge every single conservative synagogue in the region to form one mega-shul with a large number of different prayer services available, from the traditional style sanctuary service to a music-filled ruach service to a family service, a youth service, a babysitting room, and perhaps even a Yoga service. (I wish I were kidding about that one.) After all, wouldn't it be more cost-effective to merge secretarial services, maintenance, overhead -- and all the other costs associated with running a synagogue?
  2. How does shrinking the number of synagogues actually strengthen the community? Doesn't diversity in numbers of institutions strengthen us, and not the opposite? Have the Conservative mergers of the past strengthened the Conservative community, or only further weakened it?
  3. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it seems to me that Horowitz views the shul - and any religious institution from entirely the wrong perspective. A shul is not a business out to make money. It doesn't sell a product. It's a house of worship - a mikdash me'at -- a House of God. It must connect with people's hearts and minds, and become a spiritual home for its members and the community at large. Mega-shuls (and Churches) might offer services, but no one ever felt at home at Walmart or Costco, and without that sense of connection and spirituality, Judaism will never convey the warmth and authenticity that motivate people to grow closer to God. And let's not forget that the ultimate goal of a synagogue is not balancing the budget (not to say that's not important): it's connecting its membership with God.
While lowering the Hebrew school requirements (probably to cater to demands of parents unwilling to bring their children three days a week) might seem harmless, that concession ultimately leads to the closing of the synagogue - or its merging with another. (Any way you look at it, one shul in a merger closes). While this might seem harsh, it's actually rather obvious to me, because diluting what you stand for makes your members wonder what it is you actually provide, and why they should value membership at all.
We're watching the gradual dilution of Conservative Judaism both in our community, and across America. They lose adherents and members for the precise reason that they don't actually know what they want to, or should be. Therefore, in a bid to remain competitive for membership, they dilute their Judaism while at the same time reaching out to every possible constituency, and allow the dilution of their denomination.
This ambivalence will continue to destroy Conservative Judaism, until we're left with two major movements: Orthodox, and not Orthodox. And to be honest, that really does make me sad, because too many Jews, unwilling to make the leap to an Orthodox synagogue, will find themselves on the slippery reform slope to assimilation and intermarriage.
While the Orthodox community might consider itself unconcerned with these matters (and many refuse to even read the Jewish News anymore), if we're concerned with the future of the Jewish people, it really is our problem. Kiruv cannot possibly reach enough people. Conservative Judaism used to play a critical role for the Jewish people, offering those unable or willing to commit to a life of frumkeit an option that at least resembled traditional Jewish practice. That, it seems, is slowly melting away, and that loss is one we must mourn.
What can be done? How can Conservative Judaism grow and thrive in Detroit?

  1. Build smaller shuls. We need small synagogues -- or smaller branches -- in more places. From what I hear, Shaarei Zedek's branch in West Bloomfield is doing just fine. It has a heimish atmosphere, a nice chevra, and a sense of community. Why not build (or create) another branch in Huntington Woods, and yet another in Berkeley, and another in Commerce Township, each with its own dedicated rabbi, and each its own feel, and each its own sense of family? Better yet, who needs branches of a larger shul? Smaller is better, more intimate, and less costly. Moreover, smaller shuls demand more member involvement and less reliance on professional staff. My shul runs hundreds of classes throughout the year and tens of programs for youth, families and adults. How do we do it? People volunteer because they realize that if they don't get involved and active, no one else will. Sure, we could use more help, and there's never enough volunteers, but there's no feeling like walking into a kiddush prepared not by a caterer, but by the shul membership. And there's no greater feeling than attending a program organized, arranged and run by shul members. You'll never have that feeling in a mega-shul.
  2. Get rid of Hebrew Schools entirely. They don't work. I have never met a person who went to Hebrew school who didn't hate it. If Conservative Judaism is to survive, it will have to teach its members that Jewish Day School is not an option -- it's a necessity. And, as peer pressure grows to send children to Hillel, more families will do just that, and integrate the religiosity of the school into family life. Fortunately, that simple move will save the synagogues their greatest expense, allowing them to remain small and financially viable.
  3. Get serious about halachah. To quote "E-Loan", people are smart. They get authenticity. And sometimes that means saying "no" -- both to homosexuality (which traditional Jews understand the Torah prohibits - despite anyone's good intentions), and especially driving to shul on Shabbos, which the former chancellor of JTS acknowledged was a cardinal error, and probably the beginning of the decline of the movement. These small shuls must start insisting that their members walk to shul. They must insist on kashrut, both in shul and at home, and also at the parties they attend and the Bnei Mitzvah they celebrate. The must talk about mitzvot not as good deeds, but as commandments. As they must acknowledge that in the Torah God gives two types of commandments: positive commandments, and negative ones, all equally binding. Without the word "no" halachah is meaningless, and everyone, including laypeople, intuitively know it.
We in the Orthodox community must be ready to reach out to traditional families, welcoming them into our homes and our shul, giving them the sense of authentic Judaism and warmth that they've been missing. It sounds simple -- but it's actually quite difficult to maintain our own sense of identity and integrity while still remaining open to newcomers unfamiliar with Orthodox practice and ritual. I'm not just talking about kiruv, which we already do. I'm speaking of changing the closed-door mentality so prevalent in Orthodox life, and pervasive in our homes, shuls and even schools. We've started moving in that direction, but to make a significant and meaningful difference, we will have to accelerate what will undoubtedly be a painful and difficult process.
As you can see, I'm pretty passionate about this issue, because I feel it's so critical for the Jewish community. Will the Conservative congregations take my advice? I doubt it.
But then don't be surprised if, one day soon we do see a merger between Adat Shalom and Shaarei Zedek, and then not long after that, another merger between "Adat Zedek" (or "Shaarei Shalom"?) and Shir Tikveh. And then there won't be anything left of Detroit -- or America's -- Conservative Community.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Avodas Halev - A Thought for Rosh Hashanah

Last night at Shalosh Seudos (before slichos 5767), I gave the following דבר תורה that I wanted to write up so I would remember it in the future:

Standing at the edge of the ימים נוראים season, we struggle trying to prepare oursevles for the upcoming יום הדין. All too often, while we know that we're supposed to do something, we don't really know what it is we're supposed to do. Perhaps we can find some direction both from the Rambam and the parshah.
At the outset of הלכות תפלה, the Rambam introduces the notion and source for the requirement to daven to God. He writes:
מצות עשה להתפלל בכל יום, שנאמר "ועבדתם, את ה' אלוהיכם" (שמות כג,כה): מפי השמועה למדו שעבודה זו--היא תפילה, ונאמר "ולעובדו, בכל לבבכם" (דברים יא,יג); אמרו חכמים, איזו היא עבודה שבלב, זו תפילה.
First and foremost, the word להתפלל itself requires explanation, as does the word תפלה itself. At face value, the word תפילה shares the root as the word להפליא -- as in judgment or separation. Yet, how does that word connote the notion of reaching out to God, speaking to Him, and opening our hearts to Him? Moreover, the word להתפלל uses the reflexive form of the word, implying that this separation or division is self-induced. How is one supposed to separate himself, and how does that imply worship and prayer?
We can find initial answers to these questions by examining the text of the first הלכה of the Rambam. In this section, Rambam notes that the Torah never uses the words תפילה or להתפלל. Rather, the Torah commands us לעבוד את ה -- to serve God. Yet, without the added instruction of the חכמים, we would never know what the Torah intended when using this cryptic phrase, עבודה שבלב. For this reason, the תורה שבעל פה teaches us that this work -- this service refers to תפילה.
But we're still left to wonder: what is this עבודה שבלב? Is it simply the act of opening one's heart when praying to God instead of simply reciting meaningless words? If so, wouldn't the Torah then use the term תפילה, and then have the תורה שבעל פה teach us the importance of כוונה? Is there a notion of עבודה שבלב independent of prayer that can also manifest itself in the act of prayer? What is עבודה שבלב?
חז"ל teach us that in creating man, God combined two totally incompatible elements, each which struggles to return to its natural and original state. God took our souls -- the צלם אלקים, literally a spark of the רבונו של עולם Himself and placed this totally spiritual existence in the midst of a physical body. The body, created from the earth, yearns to return to its roots, seeking to satisfy its primal, physical urges and desires. The soul, also wants to return to its original form -- only it struggles to return to the heavens and free iteself of the burden of a cumbersome and futile physical existence.
This, in a nutshell, is the struggle of humanity. We find ourselves stuck in the middle of the battle between the physical and the spiritual; the struggle between the יצור הטוב and יצר הרע; the impulse of a physical body against the soaring and lofty goals of the soul.
I think that this is what Rambam alludes to when he refers to תפלה as עבודה שבלב. The real work that we need to do on our hearts is the battle between the יצר הטוב and the יצר הרע -- the struggle between the desire to soar to the heavens and submit to the mundane and coarses aspects of human nature. That's why we refer to prayer in the reflexive form: להתפלל -- to separate ourselves, from ourselves.
I often tell my students (7th graders) that while we can force them to say the words of תפילה, no one can force them to daven. No one can force them to focus, concentrate, and reach out to the infinite. That inner work -- that עבודה שבלב -- the work both of the heart, and in the heart -- is something that must come from within, or not at all.
This is the greatest challenge of the ימים נוראים: to rise to the occasion to find meaning through the words, but not to seek refuge in the ritual and recitation itself. To transform תפילה from recital into reflection and division. When we truly reach out to God and find our true selves, we have begun the process that Rambam calls "worship of the heart."

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Table Talk -- Netzavim-Vayelech 5767

One of the verses in this week’s parshah presents a unique challenge addressed in three different ways by three different commentaries. At the end of Moshe’s final speech, the Torah tells us that, וַיִּכְתֹּב מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת – “and Moshe wrote this Torah, and he gave it to the Kohanim, the sons of Levi…” What exactly does Moshe write down?

  1. Ramban explains that Moshe actually writes down the entire Torah from the beginning of Bereishit until the very end of the Torah. Yet, according to Ramban’s interpretation, Moshe chronicles his own death before it actually occurs.
  2. Seforno suggests that Moshe only writes down the section of the Torah dealing with the commandment of hakhel – the commandment to gather the people together once every seven years to hear the reading of the Torah. Yet, why would Moshe write down and hand over only this small section of the Torah?
  3. Rashi agrees with Ramban, that Moshe writes the entirety of the Torah and hands it over to the Kohanim. Yet, he says that the handover takes place later – כשנגמרה כולה – “when it is completely finished.” Yet, according to Rashi, we’re left wondering why the Torah mentions the giving of the Torah when it actually happens later in the text.

Which interpretation is correct? They’re all correct; yet each one solves one problem while it creates another.

Monday, September 3, 2007

My New Laptop, Computer Woes, Advice, and More

With the demise of the screen on my shul laptop, it was time to spring for something smaller for personal use. So, I went out and got an HP Pavilion tx 1210. I actually bought it at Officemax, and after rebate (which I don't really like, because I have to remember to mail in the rebate) it was $999 - a really great deal. To be honest with you, thus far I'm really happy with the notebook. It's got a great screen, seems somewhat fast, although with Windows Vista there's really no way to know, and it's worked well in a bunch of different places. The only real problem is that I'm having some trouble getting used to the touchpad (my IBM Thinkpad -- yes, it was that old -- has an eraser/pointer that I loved), and the right shift button is way too small, so I often accidentally find myself one line above in the text because instead of shifting, I ended up hitting the UP arrow instead. Other than that, the notebook is really great -- about 4 pounds, has a DVD player for trips and the like, and feels pretty good. The big problem thus far is, you guessed it, Windows Vista. What are the problems? Let me count the ways:
1. First of all, I really liked the old folder system in the start menu. Now, all my programs show up in an annoying list. Is there any way to go back to the old system?
2. Next, was the Hebrew, which is the source of major frustration for me. I added the Hebrew in the Microsoft Office Tools, checked that Hebrew was enabled in the Control Panel, but when I went into Word, nothing. I did the regular Alt-Left-Shift that works in WinXP, and nothing. I didn't know what to do. Tried a number of different ways, with no sucess. Then I searched the Help for Hebrew support, and learned (or so it seemed) that if I wanted Hebrew support -- which is actually essential for my work -- I would have to purchase an upgrade to Vista Ultimate, which has the Hebrew language module. Very annoying -- but what are you going to do? I shopped around, and found the best deal for the software at Provantage, and they sent me the upgrade the very next day. Great.
After I installed the software, which, unbeknowst to me did a full install - and took hours (which I'll come back to later), I tried the Hebrew again, and still no luck. Now I'm frustrated. Wasn't this supposed to work now? After playing around for a while, I discovered that all I really had to do in the first place was use the mouse to click on the small Hebrew menu in the language menu at the bottom of the screen, and switch from English to Hebrew with the mouse. But it wasn't clearly documented, so I wasted $150 to upgrade to Vista Ultimate, which I have no use for whatsoever.
3. The upgrade: When I got the Upgrade disk and entered the code, it just didn't work. So I took out the disk, put it back in again, and this time it seems to work. Only now when I go to activate the software, Windows tells me that the code isn't valid, because after all, I only bought the right to upgrade from Vista Home (preloaded on the computer) to Vista Ultimate, and I for some reason loaded a fresh, new copy of Vista Ultimate. I have a few questions:
a. If I bought a disk that was supposed to be an upgrade, why would it even have a full install version of the software on it?
b. what's the difference between an upgrade and a full install, if I end up with the same thing?
I'm planning on calling Microsoft to see if they'll help me out of this. Otherwise, I'm not sure what to do.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Table Talk - Ki Tavo 5767

When the Torah introduces the commandment of the recitation of the Bikkurim (first fruits), it seems to employ some repetitive language. The parshah begins, וְהָיָה, כִּי-תָבוֹא אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר ה' אֱלֹקֶיךָ, נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה; וִירִשְׁתָּהּ, וְיָשַׁבְתָּ בָּהּ – “And it shall be, when you come into the land which Hashem your God gives you for an inheritance, and you possess it, and dwell in it.” Rabbi Simcha Raz wonders about the double language of this first verse: If God gives it to us as an inheritance, then why of course it belongs to us. Why then must the Torah add that we must also “possess it, and dwell in it?”

Rabbi Raz suggests that we must acquire the Land of Israel in two ways. First and foremost, the Land of Israel belongs to us because God gave it to us; it is our eternal homeland. But, at the same time, the land becomes our only through our sweat and hard work. In Rabbi Raz’s words, “A man does not merit inheritance and dwelling in the Land unless he worked and acted and sacrificed for its settlement. It is not enough that God gave it to us. Rather, we must also ‘possess it and dwell in it.’”

Monday, August 20, 2007

Table Talk -- Ki Tetze 5767

I recently saw an Internet poll that asked the following question: “Would you pay higher taxes in order to preserve a species from extinction?” To be honest, while I didn’t click on the poll (I hate those things), in my mind I answered “I doubt it.” After all, after being indoctrinated by right-wing talk radio for too long, environmentalism and environmental protectionism are creations of the liberal left-wing. Right? Not according to Rabbeinu Bechaya they’re not.
Among the numerous commandments we find in this week’s parshah, the Torah forbids us from taking both a bird and her eggs from the same nest. Rather, שַׁלֵּחַ תְּשַׁלַּח אֶת-הָאֵם, וְאֶת-הַבָּנִים תִּקַּח-לָךְ – “send away the mother and take for yourself the children.” Many commentators, especially Rambam, see an ethical imperative in this commandment. After all, it takes a special level of cruelty to wipe out an entire family of even birds in a single moment. But Rabbeinu Bechaya (a Medieval Spanish commentator), rather than seeing an ethical commandment, finds an environmental message.
“In its simple meaning, the scripture commands us to maintain the species and not uproot it, for even though the Torah permits the slaughter of animals for the benefit of man, it does not permit the destruction and uprooting of them. And if he takes the mother with the children together, it is as if he has destroyed that entire species.”
Perhaps then, the Torah cares more about the environment, and the way that we treat it, than we might have previously thought.

YIOP Bulletin September 2007: A New Year for Torah Learning

Rosh Hashanah is a time for resolutions: we resolve to grow as people – to be better friends and relatives, more attentive and caring to those around us. We resolve to change ourselves, working harder to root out behaviors that we know we should change. And finally, we resolve to become better, more knowledgeable Jews, in order to grow closer to God.
As I have said many times before, the very best way to grow in our own Judaism is through the study of Torah. Torah study has the power to accomplish each of these goals: it can make us better, more sensitive people. It can give us internal, spiritual strength to withstand temptations and desires. And finally, the more we know about God and His Torah, the closer we can become to Him.
Because I never miss an opportunity to plug a YIOP program or shiur, I thought that I would take this space to share with you some of the new and ongoing YIOP shiurim beginning this month at the Beit Midrash program. Some shiurim are new, others have moved, while others remain the same.
Our Monday evening Beit Midrash program begins its sixth year this September with several important changes. First and foremost, instead of having a special pre-Rosh Hashanah program, we will begin the regular class schedule during September which will continue through December. In addition, we have several staffing changes. Rena Spolter will not be giving her class on Torat Nechama, and as we bid farewell to Kollel Torah Mitzion members Asaf Cohen and Shai Urim, we welcome new member Rabbi Ze’ev Friedlander, and a new shiur from a longtime community member. Please note that all shiurim are open to both men and women.

Monday Nights at 8:00pm:
Navi Melachim with Rabbi Spolter – the popular summer Navi shiur continues this year on Monday nights, as we study the Book of Kings. We will learn about the reign of King Solomon, the construction of the first Temple, and the tragic split of the monarchy. Please bring a Navi with you.
Kuzari with Kollel Torah Mitzion Rosh Kollel Rabbi Bezalel Safra: Rabbi Safra will continue his study of the Kuzari, one of the seminal works in Jewish thought, in Hebrew.
Mitzvot and the Meaning, with Rabbi Ze’ev Friedlander: While we intuitively know about many of the different commandments found in the Torah, a good number still remain a mystery. What commandments comprise the 613 found in the Torah? How can we understand the meaning behind them? Join Rabbi Friedlander to study the Sefer Hachinuch, a classic work on the commandments.
Chafetz Chaim with David Tenenbaum: Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen Kagan (also known for his classic work called Chafetz Chaim), wrote his work to teach others about the dangers of gossip, slander and other dangerous forms of speech. In addition to studying the text, this class will offer an in depth discussion of the laws and how they apply to our every day lives and conversations, and will be a very rewarding learning experience.
9:00pm: Ma’ariv
9:10pm: Gemara Brachos with Rabbi Spolter: The Gemara shiur moves from Tuesday evening at the Kollel to Monday evening as an addition to the Beit Midrash. This weekly shiur, now in the third chapter of Brachos, offers a fascinating look at the nature of davening today, giving us a better understanding not just of how we’re supposed to daven, but how the halachic process molded the modern-day davening that we know. While you don’t need to know how to read the gemara on your own, a basic ability to follow along in Hebrew-only texts is required for this shiur.

If you’ve been a regular participant in our Beit Midrash, I look forward to welcoming you back, and ask you to bring a friend with you. But if you haven’t been to shul on Monday night, I encourage you to join us. There really is something for everyone, and I know that making Torah learning a regular part of your life at the beginning of each week will have a profound impact on the rest of the week as well.

In addition, the Beit Midrash has continued to flourish and thrive due to the generosity of our members, who have sponsored individual nights of learning in memory or honor of a friend or loved-one. Should you wish to sponsor an evening of Torah study at our shul for $54, please either sign up on the bulletin board outside the Beit Midrash, or contact me directly.

As we look forward to the upcoming chagim, Rena and I and our entire family wish you a שנה טובה ומתוקה – a sweet, happy and healthy New Year.

Rabbi Reuven Spolter

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Table Talk -- Shoftim 5767

While change is often good and neccesary in life, the Torah prohibits other types of change. For example, the Torah explicitly forbids השגת גבול -- adjusting and overstepping boundaries in the Land of Israel. Put simply, I can't change the markings on the border between my fields and my neighbor's so that I get more while he gets less. Rashi explains that while moving the border of my house to overstep my neighbor's is indeed also stealing, God gives an additional admonition in this particular area. Why would the Torah need to prohibit a behavior that it already forbids?

Ramban notes that a person might come to feel that God had apportioned the Land of Israel unfairly for any number of reasons: the land tracts seem uneven; my needs are greater than my neighbor's -- or any number of other reasons. When I arrive at this type of conclusion I don't feel consider moving boundaries "stealing." Rather, I'm just setting things straight.
For this reason, the Torah adds the additional prohibition of "changing borders." God knows what he's doing. He gives every person the proper piece of the Land of Israel -- despite the fact that we may feel slighted. So even though I might feel justified, I still may not take what is not mine.

In other words, when we approach the notion of change during the month of Elul, instead of looking to change what we've been given, first we need to change ourselves. That's the best place to start.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Power of Change - YIOP Bulletin August 2007

Here in Michigan, we’re no strangers to the forces of change. In fact, we’re now experiencing the painful results of resistance and indifference to change, as economic forces, international trade agreements and numerous other factors have conspired to throw us into the slump we find ourselves in now. But perhaps, more than anything, Michigan finds itself in its one-state recession because of an unwillingness to change. The auto companies continue to produce gas-guzzling cars irrespective of the rising cost of fuel. Unions continue to demand and expect significant concessions from these companies, irrespective of the prospects of the companies’ viability. Politicians refuse to continue to promote the notion that we should enjoy all of the benefits of the past, irrespective of our ability to afford them.
We make all of these mistakes, and many more, because most of us abhor change. We are creatures of habit. We like our routines, enjoy our regular activities, have the same friends and acquaintances, and don’t often try new things because we find the very notion of change painful and difficult. In the words of British novelist Arnold Bennett, “Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts.”
Yet, change is perhaps one of the only constants of life. Change is all around us: the world continues to develop and grow, both for the better, and for the worse. We change professionally, personally, intellectually and emotionally. Our community changes, ever so subtly and gradually, but definitively. Our families change and grow. Our jobs change – whether we transfer to a different firm or company, or simply take on new responsibilities. And yet, despite all this, we still resist change.
Perhaps that is why Judaism considers change an integral aspect of religious life. After all, as the month of Elul begins, we blow the shofar each morning at the end of davening to awaken ourselves to begin the process of Teshuva. Sure, we translate the word תשובה to mean “repentance” or “return,” but isn’t that just a fancy way of referring to change? In order to “repent” or “return” we must change the way we do things: the way we act and react to each-other; the priorities that set the agenda for the way that we lead our lives. Sometimes I think that because we undergo the Teshuva process in the religious arena of life – in shul, during davening – we allow ourselves to divorce that process from what we consider “real life”: from our jobs and marriages, from our friendships and families.
But if we think about the High Holidays as a time not just of Teshuva, but a time of “Opportunity for Change,” then other avenues begin to open themselves to us. Perhaps someone needs to change jobs, because the one he has now doesn’t allow for any real family time. Someone else might need to consider changing friendships, because her current relationships are negative and destructive. And to me, these changes are much more fundamental, significant and all-encompassing than any particular ritual commitment, as important as that may be.
To highlight the importance of this notion of change, YIOP’s annual Pre-High Holiday lecture will revolve around the topic of “Navigating Change.” As always, we have the privilege of hearing from wonderful and enlightening speakers local and regional speakers and educators. They include our rebbetzin Rena Spolter, Rabbi Yehuda Gettinger, a Rosh Yeshiva from South Bend, Indiana, Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis, who teaches throughout the community and runs the Lidrosh Institute, and the ever-popular Rabbi Leiby Burnham of Partners in Torah. Also, the series concludes with a family Shalosh Seudos and the Shabbos Shuvah Drashah.
While it’s hard to think about the High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah will be upon us before we know it. And if we embrace the possibility for change within ourselves, our shul, and our community, that openness and willingness to change also gives the potential for incredible spiritual growth.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Table Talk -- Vaetchanan 5767

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter was once returning home quite late at night. As he walked through the dark alleyways towards home, he suddenly realized that a candle still burned in the house of the shoemaker. Rabbi Yisrael knocked on the door of the shoemaker and entered.

“Why,” Rabbi Yisrael, “are you still sitting and working at such a late hour?”

“Rebbe – as long as the candle burns,” the shoemaker replied, “it is still possible to fix.”

Rabbi Yisrael was extremely moved by the simple, yet deep lesson from the shoemaker, and from that point on, he would quote the phrase often.

“Do you hear?” Rabbi Yisrael would ask his students. “As long as the candle burns, one can still make repairs. As long as a person lives, and his soul remains inside him, he can return to God and mend his ways…”

Friday, July 20, 2007

A Fishy Email Conversation

I recently had the following email discussion with Lisa Winer, which I thought might be useful to others as well:

Now that Farmer Jack has closed it is harder to find kosher fish. Is it necessary to go to a place where they have a separate kosher fish knife or is it okay to just buy fish anywhere and rinse the fish off since its all cold.
thanks, Lisa

It's much better to use a place that has a separate fish knife -- the gemara and shulchan aruch speak about a concern that a shamnunis -- a fat residue -- remains on a knife once it's used, even though it's all cold, that's difficult to remove without thorough washing with soap, warm water, etc.
but I'm not sure which place has such a knife...which place do you know of that has a kosher knife? Maybe we can encourage a local store to have such a knife? Perhaps Meijer would be interested. I know that Rabbi Morris has a relationship with them -- perhaps I'll ask him about it. Also, I know that One Stop carries kosher fish that's fresh.
-Rabbi Spolter

Superior Fish Co. on 11 mile Road (just east of Woodward) has one. You obviously have to select a whole fish and they'll filet, debone and scale it. But it ends up being more expensive and you're obligated to buy the whole fish. This means that I can't buy a salmon unless I freeze it) b/c its just way too much fish. It would be really nice (especially in a community this size) to have a place with a separate fish counter, like Farmer Jack had, where they run specials and you're not obligated to buy the whole fish.
I am not aware of other places have a kosher knife. In Ann Arbor we used to go to a place in Kerrytown that had one. Since they were willing to do this for such a small demand there, II'm guessing other local fish suppliers would be open to it, espcially if they heard from you and Rabbi Morris that there was a demand. My sense from talking to people is that a lot of people just purchase fish anywhere. So, if you are able to sway another fish market to obtain and keep a kosher knife, please publicize this information. It would be especially nice to have this type of convenience at a place where they sell other food items, like Vics or Westborn markets.

I was thinking about your email....even if the fat residue were not properly washed off the knife, wouldnt rinsing the fish off at home get it off? Also, if any residue remained, wouldnt it create a batal b'shishim case -- not enough fat residue on the fish to make it traif? While I understand that its better to use a kosher knife that's been only used for kosher fish, is it really halachikly necessary?

You asked a great question, and I looked into the issue further. Fresh fish purchasing has a couple of issues involved:
1. If it's cut, then there is the issue of the knife. You are correct on the first issue: because we cannot assume that the knife was properly cleaned from the (shellfish - for example) residue, we must assume that the residue is still on the kosher fish that was cut from the knife. But, because the fish is still cold, you can rinse that residue of if you scrub the fish with some kind of brush under running water.
Regarding the issue of bittul, we might apply bittul if one accidentally cooked the fish without washing it after the fact (bedieved), but the halachah forbids one from entering into a bittul situation lechatchilah. Perhaps the best option might be to keep your own fish knife, and ask them to put a piece of fresh paper down on the counter and use your knife to cut the fish with your knife in the store. Not practical to carry around, but halachically ideal.
2. Fresh fish nowadays raises another problem, and that's the issue of identification. Most fresh fish is no longer sold whole. Rather, the vast majority of the fillets that you see in the store are filleted in a plant and shipped boxed to the store, where they sell it. So, how do you know that what they say is rainbow trout actually is? What are the identifiable marks? That perhaps was the greater value of the hashgachah in Farmer Jack. Regarding finding another store, I was in Westborn this week, and their fish setup is not at all feasible -- the kosher and treif fish types are all mixed together, and they also sell pre-prepared fish in the same cooler, so there's just too much possiblity of actual treif contamination there. I would also look into Holiday Market. They just hired David Neumark, who was the mashgiach at Farmer Jack, and having him supervise a kosher fish knife, cooler or something like that might be the best bet right now. If you have any other thoughts, please let me know. Also, after we had this exchange, I realized that other people might have the same questions regarding the kosher fish, so I'd like your permission to share this discussion with the shul -- either with or without your name - your choice.
Rabbi Spolter

When you talk about brushing the fish, do you mean taking the type of brush used for dishes and keeping it for this use only? Or could you take a dish brush used for pareve dishes and scrub it with soap and cold water after brushing the fish? I just want to be sure I understand you correctly after this long discussion!
I'll give the store location more thought and ask around to see if others have any ideas.
Thanks again.

You can use any kosher brush -- since it's cold and you're washing it off afterwards.
Rabbi Spolter