Thursday, March 27, 2008

Rabbi Spolter’s Top Ten Pesach Questions - YIOP Bulletin April 2008

1. Are there any new products are available this year for Pesach?

Sure, tons. I’m partial to the Manashevitz (I know, that’s not how you spell it – but who can spell it for real?) whole wheat matzo meal, but that’s just me. I recommend hitting the stores early and often to get your favorite product.

2. Can I kasher my glasstop stove for Pesach?

Not really. Although this is a matter of some debate among rabbinic circles, all rabbis agree that one can only kasher the burner areas of the stove, and would have to cover the areas between the burners with foil. Then, if a liquid leaked under the foil, not only would you have a mess on your hands, but it could potentially carry the non-kosher-for Pesach taste back to your pots. So it’s best to stay away from glass-tops.

3. Do I have to move my stove to clean behind it?

Yes, but you don’t have to unscrew anything to get to chametz. Anything that’s out of reach, even if you know about it is not considered accessible chametz, and can be ignored. So you don’t have to unscrew the bottom of the freezer to get the crumbs underneath. That being said, Pesach cleaning is not spring cleaning! Don’t dust under every dresser and wipe down the walls. Clean for chametz, not dirt. They’re not the same.

4. Is it enough to put my oven on self-clean for Pesach?

Generally, yes. But first make sure to thoroughly clean the rubberized area that serves as the gasket for the oven. Then run the self-clean and wipe away the ash that remains. Remember your mother cleaning the oven with thick gloves and caustic oven cleaner? And who says God doesn’t send small gifts like self-cleaning ovens?

5. What can I eat on (Shabbos) erev-Pesach?

Erev Pesach is usually the hungriest day of the year. After the fourth hour, bread is out, of course. In addition, though, we don’t eat matzoh on the day before Pesach, and most Ashkenazi Jews don’t eat matzoh from Rosh Chodesh Pesach. In addition, those who don’t eat matzoh also don’t eat any baked items derived from matzoh meal, farfel or the like. So matzoh rolls, pizza, lasagna – are all out on erev Pesach. Yet, one may eat boiled foods made with matzoh products, like gefilte fish, kneidels (matzoh balls), etc, as well as fish, produce, and poultry.

6. How do I kasher braces?

Rinse your mouth with boiling water. Repeat. Call an ambulance.

7. What are some great learning opportunities at YIOP to prepare for Pesach?

Funny you should ask. There are a great many learning programs for Pesach at the shul, and I’d like to highlight the top three:

Ø On Shabbos, April 5th, I’ll be giving my annual Shabbos Hagadol Drashah, complete with a family Shalosh Seudos. While it’s not Shabbos Hagadol (it’s actually two weeks before Pesach), I will be speaking on the topic of “Erev Pesach: The Lost Holiday”. Minchah begins at 6:30pm, followed by a Family Shalosh Seudos at 7:00pm and the Drashah at 7:45pm.

Ø On Monday night, April 7th I will give my annual Pesach Prep Refresher Course at 8:00pm. This will take place in lieu of the normal Beit Midrash programming.

Ø For the two weeks before Pesach, my normal women’s parshah shiurim will focus on themes in the hagaddah. These will meet on Tuesdays, April 8 and 15 at 1:30pm at YIOP, and on Wednesday s, April 9 and 16 at 8:30am at Akiva.

Ø Finally, the Man’s Seder returns for Man’s Seder IV on Sunday, April 13th at 8:00pm. We’ll have four Torah thoughts to share with your family at the Seder, four courses of food (you will not walk away hungry – just ask anyone who’s ever been to a man’s Seder before), and have a four-beer tasting led by local Brewmeister Joel Grand-weiser.

8. If I’m leaving for Pesach, do I have to clean my house?

Even if you’re “selling” your whole house for Pesach, a person should clean at least one room and make a search (bedikah) on that room the night before you leave. If you’re leaving after Thursday night, you make a brachah on that search as well. In addition, often people who leave for Pesach allow guests to use their homes over the holiday. In that case, one may not sell the entire home. This is simply because you can’t sell something that you’re going to be using – or at least lending to someone else. So, you must clean and search any areas that will be open and used during Pesach, and close off all other areas that will be sold. So, if you’re letting your neighbor’s cousins sleep in your house, you must clean at the very least the front entranceway, the hallway that leads to the bedrooms, the bathroom and the bedrooms themselves, and close off access to all other rooms that you don’t want to clean.

9. When is the rabbi available for mechirat Chametz?

Starting on Sunday, April 6th, I’ll be available after morning and evening davening, and as usual feel free to contact me if you need to set up an appointment to sell your chametz.

10. So, are we (the Spolters) going anywhere for Pesach?

Strangely enough, we get that question a lot. But being that I’m the rabbi, we’ll be staying in Oak Park for Pesach. I’ve heard that some rabbis in California go away for Pesach. Go figure.

11. Does milk need a hechsher for Pesach?

If you buy your milk before Pesach, it does not require a special hechsher. If you buy your milk on Pesach, it must be Kosher for Passover.

12. Why are all the foods on Pesach triple the regular price?

There’s actually a good reason for that. First of all, companies make money when the use a factory for a long period of time to produce the same item. A great deal of expense goes into changeover – recalibrating a factory to produce a new item. Pesach products, due to their limited demand, cannot justify whole factories dedicated only to their production, so they must be made on special limited runs at existing factories, which can cost a great deal. That’s why Grape Juice need not be more expensive than it is year-round, but Toasty-O’s cost a fortune. In addition, Pesach hashgachah requires dedicated supervision which can significantly increase the cost of the food. Moreover, every plant must be koshered, which can also be a laborious, involved and expensive endeavor. Yes, someone’s making money on this food, but it really does cost a lot more.

This is also a good opportunity to remind you about the mitzvah of Maos Chittim, “money for wheat,” which is a special tzedakah dedicated to helping others afford the additional Pesach expenses. In light of the sluggish Michigan economy and rising food prices, the need this year will be that much greater, so if you can, I encourage you to give generously for Maos Chittim to Yad Ezra, Matan B’seter, or through the YIOP Charity Fund.

13. How can I make my Pesach seder more interactive for both children and adults?

See above -- #7.

14. That’s not ten questions?

It’s to encourage the children to ask.

15. Do I have to vacuum out the pockets in my coat?

It depends. Do you put food in your pockets? If yes – as we do, then you must at least check the pockets for wrappers, leftover food and the like. If there are small random particles, that’s not chametz that you have to worry about. The general rule is, if it’s smaller than a Cheerio, don’t worry about it. If not, get rid of it.

16. If I don’t allow food upstairs in my house, do I still have to clean for Pesach?

Do you have grandchildren? Do they listen to you? If you have any reason to suspect that chametz did make its way to a given room during the year (the cat dragged a hamentashen, for example), then the room must be cleaned. But if you’re certain that the room remained clean, then one need not clean it for Pesach.

17. Do paper plates need to be kosher for Pesach?

Are you eating the plates?

18. What’s the deal with cosmetics and toiletries?

Any inedible cosmetic or toiletry does not require special supervision or need not be put away, and can be used during Pesach.

19. Why does the carpool line at Akiva take forever?

That’s a question that no one has the answer to. In the words of the Gemara, Teiku.

20. What are some good Pesach resources for Kashrus and preparing for Pesach?

The OU has a wonderful website set up for Pesach, at, and the CRC (Chicago Rabbinical Council also has a site which can be accessed at

21. How do I get rid of all my shalach manos before Pesach? Do I have to?

I would rate the following methods in order of preference:

ü Give them to Yad Ezra

ü Throw them away

ü Feed them to your dog

ü Eat them

Rena and I wish you a happy, healthy and Kosher Pesach!

Rabbi Reuven Spolter

Erev Pesach 5768: Why is this Shabbos Different Than Every Other Shabbos?

To download a pdf version of this guide, click here.

This year Pesach begins on a Saturday night, creating a slew of questions: When do we prepare the Seder? When do we burn the Chametz? Here is a primer on Pesach 2008, handling some of the issues which arise. Of course, please feel free to call me (248-967-3652 in shul or 248-967-8692 at home) or email me ( if you have any questions. Note that all times mentioned are appropriate only for Oak Park, MI

When do we search for Chametz?

While we usually search for Chametz on the night before Pesach, this year we can’t because of Shabbos. So, we search on Thursday night, April 17th, after the stars emerge, at 9:02pm. Before searching we recite the blessing of “Al Biur Chametz,” and after the search we recite the “Kol Chamira;” (found in the standard Artscroll Siddur on pg. 655.) The “Kol Chamira” paragraph (the first one printed in the Siddur) annuls our ownership of any Chametz which has escaped our notice, so have that in mind when you say it.

When do we burn Chametz?

Ordinarily we burn our Chametz on the day before Pesach, before the 6th hour of the day. (“Hours” are determined by dividing the time between sunrise and sunset into twelve equal parts; each part is an “hour.”) This year, obviously, we can’t burn Chametz on Shabbos. Even though we could technically destroy Chametz by other means even on Shabbos (as we’ll soon see), the sages felt the need to preserve the practice of burning Chametz. So, to preserve the practice of burning Chametz, we burn our Chametz on Friday, April 18th, at the normal time – before 12:25pm. This year, in order to prevent unnecessary dangers in our backyards, we are again working to arrange a communal fire to fulfill this minhag, and we will let you know the place and time for the communal chametz burning when that information becomes available. We do not recite any blessing at the time of the burning this year.

When do we say “Kol Chamira,” annulling our ownership of Chametz?

In an ordinary year, we recite one version of the “Kol Chamira” paragraph when searching for Chametz at night and a second version when burning the Chametz on the next morning. (Both versions may be found in the standard Artscroll Siddur, page 655.) The language we use at night allows us to save some Chametz to use at breakfast. The language we use when we burn the Chametz states that we annul our ownership of all Chametz. This year we cannot recite the second version of “Kol Chamira” when burning our Chametz, because we are keeping some Chametz for use on Shabbos. So, we recite the first version when we search for Chametz, on Thursday night, and the second version of “Kol Chamira” on Shabbos morning, before 12:25pm, after having disposed of Chametz as described below.

When do the first-born sons fast?

The first-born sons usually fast on the day before Pesach, commemorating the fact that they were saved from the plague of the first-born in Egypt. We do not fast on Shabbos, nor on Friday, since fasting would cause people to enter Shabbos in discomfort. So the first-borns must fast on Thursday, unless they attending a celebration honoring a Mitzvah in order to exempt them from fasting. One popular option is to attend a “siyum” celebrating completion of a course of Torah study. This year’s siyyum will be given by Shmuel Kresch.

What should we eat on Shabbos April 23rd?

All cooked food should be kosher for Pesach. I don’t recommend serving any cooked Chametz food, as it’s quite challenging to get rid of the dishes, utensils and residue from that food. This is because utensils which are used with Chametz may not be washed on Shabbos, as the rinsing of the utensils of Chametz would be an act of preparation for Pesach, and you can’t prepare for Pesach on Shabbos. Moreover, I recommend serving on paper utensils over Shabbos in order to avoid any problems with your dishes. Also, even if you did use Pesach dishes, you can’t wash dishes on Shabbos for use after Shabbos, and who wants to start washing dishes before the Seder? If you have a pressing need to serve cooked chametz food on Shabbos, please contact me to discuss the issue.

But what about the bread? What do we wash on?

Good question. Eating the Shabbos meals present a unique challenge. On a normal Erev Pesach, we would eat Chametz until the end of the fourth hour (this year that 11:16am), and get rid of the Chametz by the end of the fifth hour (12:22pm). After that point, it’s matzoh balls, potatoes and canned fruit until Pesach time. We do this because while you can’t eat bread, the rabbis also prohibited the eating of matzah on Erev Pesach because they wanted us to be really hungry when we come to eat the matzoh during the Seder. On Shabbos, not eating bread presents a problem, as we have to make not one, but two separate meals to fill out the normal three-meal Shabbos requirement. So you have two options:

Ø The first option, suggested as optimal by Rav Moshe Feinstein, is to eat Egg Matzah for the Shabbos meals. While you normally wouldn’t make a blessing of Hamotzi on Egg Matzah, if you’re using it for a Shabbos meal, that’s certainly alright. At the same time, because of the unique properties of Egg Matzah, we Ashkenazim normally do not eat Egg Matzah over Pesach unless there’s some pressing need. I could explain why, but that’s a pretty involved issue. Just trust me on this. While Egg Matzah is not Chametz by any means, it does have “Chametz cooties,” so we don’t mix it with the regular Pesach dishes. This way, if your kids decide to have a food fight during the Friday night meal, you can rest easy knowing that they’re not throwing chametz across your living room. If you have any Egg Matzah left over, you can leave it out with the Pesach foods. Just don’t eat it unless you really have to.

Ø If you don’t want to eat Egg Matzah (or Grape Matzah), you can eat regular bread up until the times listed above. Make sure to keep the bread completely separate from the rest of the food, the kitchen, your cat, and everything else. Just eat it. And be really, really careful about where you keep the chametz. It’s a good idea to only keep as much chametz as you need for the Shabbos meals. If you have extra chametz left over that you need to get rid of, you can either allow a non-Jew to take the chametz off your property or flush whatever’s left down the toilet. As a cautionary note, if you have children, I do not recommend this option.

Whichever option you choose, all bread and/or Egg Matzah eating must be finished before 11:15am. For this reason, we will daven at 7:00AM on Shabbos morning to allow people time to return home and enjoy their Shabbos meal. When you’re finished eating, wash out your mouths and dental apparatus to rid them of any chametz residue, and then recite the second “Kol Chamira” paragraph, as explained above.

Does Chametz become Muktzeh on Shabbos afternoon?

Why, yes it does. Actual Chametz becomes Muktzeh at 1:32pm, when one is no longer allowed to benefit from Chametz. If you find Chametz after that time, either find a Gentile who can dispose of it or cover it with a vessel until Chol haMoed when you must burn it.

When do we eat Seudah Shlishit (the 3rd Shabbos meal – you know -- Shaleshudes)?

Ah, shaleshudes. On the one hand, many authorities rule that the third meal of Shabbos must be bread-based, like the first two meals. On the other hand, the third meal is ideally eaten on Shabbos afternoon, at which time Chametz is forbidden! We already noted that you can’t eat Matzah on Erev Pesach, so what’s a shaleshudes Jew to do?

Many poskim say that you can fulfill the requirement of shaleshudes without bread anyway, and on Erev Pesach, we can certainly rely on their position. So, during the afternoon eat a third meal of matzah balls, meat, fish or fruit. It is important to be careful not to eat this third meal so close to Pesach that it diminishes one’s Seder appetite. (The first solution does not satisfy the view that the 3rd meal must be bread-based. Those who wish to satisfy this view should split their “lunch” into two parts, bentching, and then taking a twenty minute break before starting to eat again, completing both meals before 11:15am.)

May we make any preparations on Shabbos for the Seder?

No. One may not prepare on Shabbos for events occurring after Shabbos. One may nap with the intent that this will help him at the Seder, though, because that is a normal part of Shabbos activity. Just don’t state that the purpose of his nap is to prepare for that night. After Shabbos is over (9:05pm), one may prepare for the Seder. Before beginning the preparations, either recite Maariv, or recite the abbreviated version of Havdalah, in Hebrew or English: Baruch haMavdil Bein Kodesh leKodesh (Blessed is the One who distinguishes between one type of sanctity and another). The full Havdalah is recited during Kiddush at the Seder.

How does one light candles for Pesach night?

When Yom Tov begins on a Saturday night, we wait to light candles until Shabbos is over, and we light from an existing flame: We light a 24-hour candle before Shabbos, which we then use as the fuel for the Yom Tov candles. We also light a second 24-hour candle on the first day of Yom Tov, and use that candle as the fuel to light candles on the second night of Yom Tov, after the first day has ended.

How does one make Havdalah on Pesach night?

Havdalah is recited as part of Kiddush at the Seder, before the “Shehechiyyanu” blessing. The Yom Tov candles are used for the Havdalah candle. Some people remove two Yom Tov candles from the candlesticks and place them side-by-side, to simulate a multi-wicked Havdalah candle. Others simply leave the candles in the candlesticks. Follow your normal custom.

Friday, March 21, 2008

2008 Purim Torah - For Real!

You can download my 2008 Pre-Purim Primer PDF by clicking here.
You can listen to a shiur by Mrs. Rena Spolter on the Hidden Character of Megillat Esther (in mp3 format) by clicking here. Source page download (pdf) is here.
You can listen to a shiur that I gave on "The True Nature of Purim" by clicking here.
If you want audio on the entire megillah, check out this link.
Chag Sameach!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Table Talk for Tzav 5768

Every morning after we recite the morning blessings, we spend about five minutes reciting (read here: rushing through) korbanot -- sacrifices. What do we recite and why?

We recite those sections of the Torah in which the Torah commands us to offer the various daily and weekly sacrifices in the Temple. The Chafetz Chaim explains in the Mishneh Brurah (Orech Chayim 48:1) that the Rabbis added this recitation to the daily davening because they believed that although we cannot offer sacrifices in the Temple nowadays, “one who immerses himself in [the study and recitation] of the sacrifices, the Torah considers him as if he had actually offered them to God.” So it’s a good idea to try and get to shul early enough to recite the daily korbanot.

Kli Yakkar finds a powerful source for this practice at the beginning of the parshah. The Torah tells us that God tells Moshe, צַו אֶת-אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת-בָּנָיו לֵאמֹר, זֹאת תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה: הִוא הָעֹלָה עַל מוֹקְדָה עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ כָּל-הַלַּיְלָה, עַד-הַבֹּקֶר – “Command Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the law of the burnt-offering: it is that which goes up on its firewood upon the altar all night unto the morning.” Kli Yakkar explains that the words הִוא הָעֹלָה refer not to the sacrifice itself, but to the study of Torah about the sacrifices. He therefore reads the verse slightly differently.

זֹאת תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה – “one who studies the Torah of the sacrifices”; הִוא הָעֹלָה – “this study is equivalent to the offering of the sacrifices themselves”. And, we must study about these sacrifices without being able to offer them כָּל-הַלַּיְלָה, עַד-הַבֹּקֶר – “the entire night until morning.” Here the Torah hints to the dark night of exile and our need to remember and study about the sacrifices until the morning light of redemption. But, when the redemptive light of morning comes, we will no longer need to recite the verses about the sacrifices. We’ll be offering them in the Beit Hamikdash.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Table Talk for Parshat Zachor 5768 - Amalek's Descendants

We all know the story of Amalek as we read about it every year. But the story itself leaves us with a very important question: how does Amalek's attack succeed? After all, didn't the ענני הכבוד (clouds of glory) protect the Children of Israel from all attackers? How does a weak roving band of marauders penetrate the protective clouds when the powerful Egyptian army could not? Simply put, they couldn't. What then, does Amalek attack?
When the Torah tells us regarding Amalek אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל-הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ, "how he met you on the way, and struck the hindmost of you, all that were weakened in the rear," the Midrash explains that in fact, the people in the rear are those expelled from the camp due to their sinful ways. The clouds only protect those deserving of Divine defense; all other find themselves outside the camp in the rear. Because Amalek cannot get inside the Jewish camp, they attack those who cannot protect themselves.
In reality then, Amalek has no chance to actually defeat the Jews. Why then do they attack? What's the point of attacking unarmed and unprotected civilians unable to defend themselves? We might ask that very same question of our enemies today - as we watch ancient history repeat itself on almost a daily basis. The nation of Amalek carries the dubious distinction of being the worlds first terrorists.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Holding Onto the Land -- Some Thoughts about an AIPAC Rabbinic Briefing

On March 11th I attended an AIPAC rabbinic briefing presented by Raphael Danziger, AIPAC's director of research and information. During the question and answer period, I asked him about the current peace talks and tentative plans to evacuate settlements in Yehuda and Shomron. "How," I wondered (and still wonder), "with what we've seen from Hamas in Gaza, how they have shot rockets and mortars from Gaza into Israel proper, can Israel even entertain withdrawing from areas adjacent to the major population centers? Won't the Palestinians simply begin firing missiles at all of Israel? What are they thinking?"
He answered that everyone agrees that were the Israeli military to withdraw from the areas behind the security fence (i.e. most of Yehuda and Shomron), without a doubt Hamas would seize control of the area. While America and Israel support the Palestinian Authority both financially and politically, Hamas clearly has the more motivated fighters and deeper ideological base, and clearly would begin shooting at every part of Israel it could reach. How then can Israel contemplate abandoning these areas? Well, he said, they distinguish between population and military withdrawal. No one thinks that the military should withdraw. Israel needs to maintain control of its territory and ensure that what has happened to Sderot does not take place in Tel Aviv. At the same time, why should the military need to protect and defend a small minority of the population from a large Arab majority? So, the proponents of withdrawal advocate not military, but population withdrawal as a step towards achieving peace.
But I -- and I think the Rambam -- would have a problem with that argument. Discussing the holiness of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, Rambam writes:
ולמה אני אומר במקדש וירושלים קדושה ראשונה קדשה לעתיד לבוא, ובקדושת שאר א"י לענין שביעית ומעשרות וכיוצא בהן לא קדשה לעתיד לבוא, לפי שקדושת המקדש וירושלים מפני השכינה ושכינה אינה בטלה, והרי הוא אומר והשמותי את מקדשיכם ואמרו חכמים אע"פ ששמומין בקדושתן הן עומדים אבל חיוב הארץ בשביעית ובמעשרות אינו אלא מפני שהוא כבוש רבים וכיון שנלקחה הארץ מידיהם בטל הכבוש ונפטרה מן התורה ממעשרות ומשביעית שהרי אינה מן ארץ ישראל, וכיון שעלה עזרא וקדשה לא קדשה בכיבוש אלא בחזקה שהחזיקו בה ולפיכך כל מקום שהחזיקו בה עולי בבל ונתקדש בקדושת עזרא השנייה הוא מקודש היום ואע"פ שנלקח הארץ ממנו וחייב בשביעית ובמעשרות על הדרך שביארנו בהלכות תרומה
And why do I say regarding the Temple and Jerusalem that the initial sanctity remains for all future time, and the sanctity of the Land of Israel with regard to the Sabbatical year and tithes and similar laws does not remain for all future time? This is because the sanctity of the Temple and Jerusalem come because of the Shechinah (presence of God) and the Shechinah cannot be negated, as it says, "and I will destroy your holy places," about which the sages said, "even though it they are destroyed, they retain their holiness."
But the obligation of the Sabbatical year and tithes throughout [the rest of] the Land is only due to the communal conquest. And, since the Land was taken from their hands, that conquest was nullified and [the Land] was exempted by Torah law from tithes and the commandments of the Sabbatical year -- for it is not from the Land of Israel.
But when Ezra returned to the Land and sanctified it, he did not sanctify it with conquest, but with the right of possession that they held onto the Land. Therefore, every place that the Babylonian returnees acquired and held onto and was sanctified with the holiness of Ezra is holy today, even though the Land was taken from us, and is obligated in the laws of the seventh year and the tithes.
Clearly, according to Rambam, possession (and occupation) of the land carries more spritual meaning than military conquest alone. Only those places that Jews actually settled and lived retain their sanctified status today as "The Land of Israel." Simply controlling a place militarily does not imply possession. Only when citizens of a country actually live there does land become the possession of that country.
Indeed, what we know from Rambam makes implicit sense to me logically as well. If the Israeli government were to evacuate the settlements and leave the IDF for protection, how long would it be for the Palestinians to call for the removal of an occupying force. In fact, the best excuse for an army's presence is the need to protect its citizens in the areas where it operates. Were there to be no citizens to protect, the justifications for the army's presence would be tenuous at best. Just look at what happened in Lebanon. After years of stability inside a 3-mile buffer zone in Lebanon, calls for the IDF's withdrawal - for needless military deaths to protect a piece of land unwanted by Israel -- prompted the government to remove the army from that buffer zone back into Israel proper. Hizbullah -- not the Lebanese Army -- wasted no time in securing that area, fortifying it, and establishing a secure base from which it could launch missiles at Israel with impunity.
The only way to protect Tel Aviv from bombardment is by maintaining an armed presence in the West Bank. And the only way to justify that presence -- and maintain a hold on that land both militarily, politically and spiritually -- is the continued presence of dedicated Jews willing to live their lives to hold onto that Land.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Drashah in Memory of the Victims of the Mercaz Harav Massacre

Click here to read the drashah that I delivered at YIOP on the Shabbos after the terrible massacre at Yeshivat Mercaz Harav this past week.
ה' ינקום דמם.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

More on Imagination

In this post on Hirhurim, I shared some thoughts that emanated from a dvar Torah I gave in shul during Shalosh Seudos on Judaism and imagination. After sharing the dvar Torah and discussing creativity and imagination with my Wednesday morning parshah shiur at Akiva, I decided to try and practice what I preach, and try to incorporate some imagination and creativity into my teaching.
This year, I teach gemara to seventh grade boys, and we're studying the fourth chapter of Brachos. That day we studied the Mishnah about Rabbi Nechunia ben Hakana, who would offer a prayer each day before he would enter the Beit Midrash and after he would leave. What, the Gemara wonders, did he used to say? Upon leaving the Beit Midrash he would "thank God for his lot," highlighting the difference between us and them.
שאני משכים והם משכימים - אני משכים לדברי תורה והם משכימים לדברים בטלים, אני עמל והם עמלים - אני עמל ומקבל שכר והם עמלים ואינם מקבלים שכר, אני רץ והם רצים - אני רץ לחיי העולם הבא והם רצים לבאר שחת.
For I rise and they rise - I rise for words of Torah, and they rise for wasteful things. I toil and they toil. I toil and receive reward, and they toil and do not receive reward. I run and they run - I run to life in the World to Come, and they run to a bottomless pit...
(Incidentally, we include this very prayer in the text usually recited at a siyyum at the conclusion of the study of a body of Torah.) In any case, I decided to give my students an opportunity to be creative. I asked them to go home and come up with their own prayer, using the formula of Rabbi Nechunia -- "for I rise and they rise." They should then describe what each of them rise for as opposed to why "they" rise. I didn't tell them who "they" should be -- I left that up to the students. I gave them the assignment excited about what they would come up with.
It was a total bomb.
Of my fourteen students in the class, only five of them submitted the assignment on time. Of the assignments I did receive, only two of them were at all memorable for their thought and creativity. The rest that I did get seemed to be whatever the student could put down on paper with the minimum of effort and energy. (Truth be told, they are seventh grade boys!).
Some never completed the assignment at all despite repeated requests and warnings, some even claiming that "they didn't know what to do." It seems to me that the request to add some creative input threw the students for such a loop that the simply shut down, unable to do the assignment. It can't be simple laziness, because the very same weekend I gave them a significant amount of what I would consider spitback homework -- answering questions in their workbooks, and to a man, they completed the lengthy assignment which took far more time that the initial creative work.
I found this lack of creative ability in other places as well. Last Shabbos Bnei Akiva brought a Zach (grades 7-8) shabbaton to our shul, and I gave another variation of this dvar Torah to the kids, encouraging them to be creative in their Jewish lives. (Yes, rabbis do recycle. There, I admitted it.) During my talk, I asked the kids to raise their hands if they were taught to use their imaginations to express themselves Judaically. Of the sixty kids in the room, five raised their hands; one was American, and the other four were the Sherut Leumi girls spending a year in America. I looked at the Israeli girls and asked them again, "You learned to be creative in school?" Yes, they told me. But what about the American kids, who stared at me with blank looks in their eyes?
Finally, that very afternoon, my son was entertaining a friend and like all kids,
couldn't figure out what to play with. We only have closets bloated with toys. (I know, I sound like my parents. That's what happens.) I suggested Kinex - a great building toy. What he said shocked me.
"But Abba, we lost the directions, and I don't know how to make anything." I just looked at him. You don't know how to make anything? Isn't the point of building toys not just following the color-coded guides, but coming up with your own creation? Then I rea
lized just how much things had changed. Think about the Legos that you got as a child. I remember that we had a big box of Legos all mixed together, and you just sat down and put something together - whatever came to mind. Sure, you could buy a really cool set to build a car with the working pistons. But we couldn't afford those fancy sets. We just bought the sets that came with a bunch of different pieces mixed together, and you made whatever you could think of. You can't buy those sets anymore. Go to Toy R Us and see for yourself. You can only buy Star Wars Lego sets, or car sets, or movie-themed sets, designed to be built to create a specific model using specific directions, no imagination required.
When I built my front porch a few years ago, I had some cedar wood
left over . Remembering fondly a set of blocks I used to play with as a child, I cut and sanded that wood into a huge set of building blocks, filling a large plastic tub in the basement. To my surprise and chagrin, my kids hardly use it, opting for gameboy, computer -- anything electronic first, and then even reading before they use the blocks.
I used to be upset about the lonely blocks sitting in the corner of the basement, and wondered why my children ignored them.
Now I think I know why.

Communal Service -- A Privelege or a Burden? Table Talk for Pekudei 5768

We all know the feeling: that heavy sensation we get when the phone rings, and it's the rabbi, or the school president - calling us to ask for our help. Yes, we'll help. But we somehow convey the attitude that we'd rather be doing something else, and that the opportunity to participate is more than a little bit of trouble.
Yet, some people feel precisely the opposite. I was speaking with someone this week about a ticket that I got (yes, I deserved it), and he told me that if I didn't call his wife for help, "she would genuinely be mad at me." Meaning, if I neglected to call her for assistance, she'd be angry that I didn't want to ask her for help. She sees participation and helping others not as a burden but as a privilege, which is just how Moshe wants us to see things.
When the Jewish people finally finish building the mishkan, they bring the completed work to Moshe for his inspection. The Torah tells us that when he sees their meticulous attention to instruction and their wonderful work, ויברך אותם משה -- "Moshe blessed them." What did he say to them?
Rashi tells us that he gave them a simple blessing: "May it be God's will that the Shechinah (presence of God) dwells in the actions of your hands." In other words, I hope God likes this mishkan as much as I do.
But the Seder Olam gives a different version of Moshe's blessing. According to this version Moshe told them, "You are fortunate, O' Israel, that you merited the work of the mishkan. And just as you merited this, so you should merit that you will be given the Temple, and the Shechinah will dwell in your midst."
First and foremost, Moshe tells us that they - and we - must see the ability to contribute to the construction of the mishkan not as a burden, but as a privilege. It's a merit to have the talent, ability or even wealth to contribute to God's dwelling place. And if we truly see our communal service as a gift and not an obligation, that very attitude will brings us the merit of the Temple and God's presence back into our midst.