Thursday, January 31, 2008

Table Talk - Mishpatim 5768 - To Tell The Truth

When a person takes an oath before giving testimony in a court of law, he promises “To tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” While the phrase sounds nice, in reality it seems rather confusing. If he promises to tell the truth, why then should he need to tell “the whole truth”? Are they not both the same? What’s the difference between telling the truth, and the whole truth? Perhaps our parshah can shed some light on the issue.
Among the many, many different mitzvot that appear in our Parshah, the Torah commands us, מדבר שקר תרחק -- "distance yourself from words of falsehood." (23:7) While we know that God prohibits us from lying outright, what does the Torah mean by commanding us to "distance" ourselves from falsehood?
The gemara in Shavuos (30b) explains, that this verse makes greater demands than simply telling the truth. Rather, the verse teaches us, "that if a inherently judge knows that the case is corrupt, he may not say, 'Since the witnesses are testifying, I'll just adjudicate the case and the responsibility [for the miscarriage of justice] will lie with them!' It's not enough to simply tell the truth. The Torah demands that each of us uphold the truth, whether we actually speak the words or not.
Perhaps that's the intention of the oath to tell not only the truth, but "the whole truth." A witness might himself be telling the truth, but withhold further information that would complete the picture and change the nature of the case. That, the Torah tells us, isn't telling the truth. And no amount of self-justification can absolve us from that responsibility.
If only our elected officials followed suit.

The Coney Island Sheitel Controversy

Gil Student posted on his blog about the recent Coney Island wig controversy. To sum the story up, the Rosh Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin has asked his followers not to patronize a certain sheitel store that's across the street from his yeshiva, because the store refuses to cover up the pictures of the women wearing sheitels. What does the store look like? Like this:

Personally, looking at the pictures, it's not as if the women aren't wearing tznius clothing. In fact, one could argue that since they're wearing sheitels, they're totally tznius. If you ask me, if one were to take issue with the women in these pictures, I can't really see a difference between these women and the frum ladies who actually buy the sheitels. Is a head-tilt that provocative? Does Chaim Berlin ban women wearing sheitels from walking in front of the yeshiva? Or tilting their heads?
I really don't understand the commotion.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

YIOP Bulletin for February 2008 - Mussaf Mishpachah: You Asked – And we’re Answering

YIOP has always prided itself as a shul that focuses on our families, especially on Shabbos. We invest our time, energy and space to create childcare for children every Shabbos and Yom Tov. Our youth groups meet every Shabbos to provide programming for elementary school children. But, despite these efforts, we still struggle as a congregation to find a good way to include our older children in Shabbos morning davening. While Steve Katz’s incredible efforts with the Teen Minyan brought great results, ultimately an entire minyan each week became to difficult to maintain.

Aliza Sosne, our new family education coordinator, has been working hard speaking to parents throughout our community to try and address this and other problems. She’s working on programming and events to make our shul an even more inviting place for families to grow. To that end, it’s a great pleasure to introduce our first exciting new program: Mussaf Mishpachah.

Mussaf Mishpachah will be a parent-child Mussaf service that will meet once a month in the small shul, beginning on Parshat Tetzaveh, February 16th. It will be a separate Mussaf service that will begin after the rabbi’s speech on Shabbos morning, and will be open to any parents with their children who wish to attend – but no parent will be admitted without a child. We will encourage Bar Mitzvah boys to lead the Mussaf, and any younger children can lead Anim Zemirot and Adon Olam. The davening will include a short D’var Torah either by an adult, or preferably a child, and will conclude with a fun cholent Kiddush. This davening will include a little more singing and ruach, and hopefully create a meaningful davening experience.

But this program will only succeed with your help: we need parents to make the effort to come with your pre-teen children, and expend the energy to make the minyan an enjoyable and spiritual experience.

Table Talk - Yitro 5768

In a person's service of God, what's more important: thoughts, words, or actions? Most people would probably debate between words and actions. Words, after all, carry great meaning, and can affect others around us profoundly. Our actions directly affect ourselves and our neighbors, both for better and for worse. But thoughts remain private, intimate and personal. While our thoughts carry great importance for us, how do they relate to our worship of God?
Ibn Ezra (on 20:1) suggests that of the three categories, our thoughts are by far the most important, and that the Torah gives numerous commandments to direct our thoughts in a religious manner, including, "and you shall love Hashem your God", (in the Shema), "you shall fear God", "you shall love your fellow man as yourself," and many others. In addition, the Torah conveys negative thought commandments as well, prohibiting us from hating our fellow man, taking vengeance, or even entertaining thoughts of idolatry.
According to Ibn Ezra, our thoughts lead the way for us to follow. We control them -- and not the other way around. For this reason, the Torah commands us to direct our thoughts in positive, constructive ways demanded by the Torah, and in that way our words and actions will follow suit.
For this reason, the very first commandment deals with thoughts and belief: "I am the Lord Your God." If we believe and accept this fact in our hearts, then all the other commandments become that much easier to accept and fulfill. But without it, the other nine commandments don't mean very much at all.
One other thing crossed my mind. Following Ibn Ezra's rule about the critical nature of our thoughts, it's important for us to not only entertain and maintain a belief in God and faithful thoughts, but that we also keep our thoughts positive and energetic. When a person fills his thoughts with positive energy, those positive thoughts have the power to carry him or her a long, long way.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Table Talk -- Bo 5768

When does a taker help a giver? When he’s taking tzedakah.

The Torah tells us that after the plague of the firstborn, the Egyptians try to hurry the Jews out of their country. Yet, Moshe had them ready. Before they agree to leave the Jews, following Moshe orders, request the gold and the silver of their Egyptian (former) masters. The Torah tells us that Egyptians happily comply: וַה' נָתַן אֶת-חֵן הָעָם, בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרַיִם—וַיַּשְׁאִלוּם – “and God gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians so that they let them have what they asked,” וַיְנַצְּלוּ, אֶת-מִצְרָיִם – “and they despoiled Egypt.”

Clearly, the Jewish people ask for property and the Egyptians comply. Yet, the language at the end of the verse is striking. What does the Torah mean by the word וינצלו – “and they despoiled.” (By the way, “despoil” means “to sack or plunder”.) Rashi follows the translation of Onkelos, who translates the word to mean ורוקינו – “and they emptied out”. But this translation, while appropriate contextually, ignores the true meaning of the word. וינצלו seems to be some derivation of להציל – to save. If so, what do the Jewish people save? Why does the Torah use this strange word to describe the plunder of the wealth of Egypt?

We can answer this question by understanding the meaning of the word tzedakah – a word we translate as charity. In reality, tzedakah has nothing to do with charity. Rather, the word emanates from the word צדק – or truth and righteousness. When we give tzedakah, we acknowledge our understanding that God gives us plenty in order to share that bounty with others. Our giving isn’t just an act of kindness, but an act of righteousness, distributing the wealth of God the way He wishes us to.

The Midrash tells us that during the great famine in Egypt, Yosef gathered the entire wealth of the world into Egypt. When the Jews leave Egypt with all of her wealth, they return that wealth to the world – its rightful owner. So, while they plunder and empty Egypt, in a very real way, they “save” the Egyptians from the money that never really belonged to them in the first place.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Table Talk - Vaera 5768

Jewish leaders always seem to have a skeleton in their closet. Many doubted the very Jewishness of King David, the progenitor of the Moshiach, as he descends from Rut the Moavite convert. Moreover, David's entire family emanates from our forefather Yehuda's curious relationship with Tamar, his former-daughter-in-law. Ya'akov Avinu finds himself married to two sisters - a clear violation of a future Torah law. At least Moshe -- our greatest teacher -- has nothing to hide. He has impeccable family credentials - doesn't he? Actually, he doesn't.
The Torah explicitly states: "And Amram took Yocheved his aunt for a wife, and she bore him Aharon and Moshe..." (6:20) Yes, Moshe's father marries his aunt, a relationship soon to be forbidden not only to Jews, but to Noachides as well. Moshe's entire family emanates from a completely forbidden familial relationship. How can it be that our greatest teacher, and so many of our progenitors are the product of questionable family relationships?
Chizkuni comments: "The fact that God allows that a man as great as Moshe should emanate from a relationship that He would ultimately prohibit, is because we never appoint a leader over the community unless he has a 'box of vermin' hanging from his neck, lest he become haughty over his community."
Throughout his life and despite the greatness he achieves, Moshe remains the most humble man in history. Perhaps he never allows himself to forget that box hanging from his neck.