Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Making the Hard Choices - Table Talk for Parshat Vayigash

Why is it that at times, the thing that we want is probably not very good for us? Like that pint of Ben and Jerry’s? Or Facebook? (After all, do we really need to know what every person we know is doing at every moment of the day? When do “friends” become a distraction?) Yaakov’s fears in Vayigash remind us that sometimes the path towards growth involves traveling the road that we fear the most.

After Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, he insists that they return to Canaan to collect Ya’akov and move the family down to Egypt. Ya’akov, while excited about his reunion with Yosef, reacts with fear. What will happen to him and his family and to the promise of Eretz Yisrael? If you think about it, his fears make sense. He knows what’s available to his grandchildren in Egypt: the Internet, that crazy Egyptian music, and the clothing and culture. Sound familiar? (OK – maybe they didn’t have email back then.)

His fears are so well-founded that Hashem must address them, telling Ya’akov:

אל תירא מרדה מצרימה, כי לגוי גדול אשימך שם
“Don’t be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there.” (Bereishit 46:3)

Yet, Yaakov’s questions make sense. Why should he bring his entire family down to Egypt? Couldn’t Yosef send them food and let them stay in the Promised Land? Why does Hashem want the entire family to move to Egypt?

S’forno explains that staying in Canaan would have actually been more dangerous and detrimental than moving to Egypt. He says that Hashem tells Ya’akov, “If your children stay here, they would marry the nations of the land and become intermingled with them. But in Egypt that won’t happen, ‘because the Egyptians will not eat bread with the Hebrews (43:32). In this way, they will become a great nation.” S’forno says that Hashem wanted Ya’akov to move his family to Egypt precisely because life would be harder for them there. They would be rejected as outsiders, never accepted or integrated into Egyptian society. But in that way they would grow to be a great nation – and a Jewish nation.

Sure, it would have been easier to stay in Canaan. But taking the easier path would have undoubtedly led to assimilation, intermarriage, and the slow but definitely decline of Yaakov’s family and legacy.

Thank God, none of us (I hope) face this challenge of intermarriage and assimilation directly. We understand the importance of maintaining a sense of identity and individuality as Jews, no matter where we may live. But we do face the larger question each and every day: do we take the easy path which we want or the harder path that we need? Do we sit down to the computer to check our email (yet again), or use that half-hour to learn about the parshah? Do we choose the ice cream (easy and good) or make that salad (hard, but also good in a different way?

These choices are really up to us.

Living in the South of Israel Today

On my way to work this morning, I listened to a reporter in Be’er Sheva as the warning sirens wailed, and hear a rocket explode close enough to him to clearly recognize the fall of the Grad rocket. Mind you, I was driving the other way. But it does bring things home.

Yesterday, the school system conducted a series of assemblies to explain what would happen in case of a rocket attack that threatened Yad Binyamin. With Be’er Sheva in range and a rocket falling yesterday on Kiryat Malachi (where we do most of our grocery shopping), the kids needed to be made aware. I hadn’t really thought about it. We hadn’t sat the kids down and told them what was going on. But the school was absolutely correct; they have a responsibility to our children, and in case of emergency, they need to be prepared.

Leah was understandably traumatized at school – but a nice treat successfully calmed her nerves. We explained to her that while we needed to take precautions, we didn’t think that there was very much to worry about. And I still don’t. Gaza is pretty far away and life proceeds as normal. I haven’t lost sleep over this, which is the first thing that would happen if I was really, truly worried.

How does the situation make me feel? Have I wondered about the wisdom of moving my family and children to where we now live? Not for a moment.

First and foremost, this is our land – and I understand that it doesn’t come free. We must be willing to defend and protect the land – and that doesn’t just mean soldiers. It means me and my family, willing to live our normal lives even when there’s something to worry about. But I strongly believe that when we sacrifice for something, we grow closer to it. When we stay – despite the worries – we grow stronger in our connection to the Land. It’s not just a place to live; it’s a place that I’m willing to sacrifice something for – be it a job, financial security, or even a sense of physical security (as elusive as that may be anywhere). Every Oleh knows this feeling of sacrifice, and appreciates how it brings him not to resent the Land – but that much closer to it.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Missiles Raining Down

We knew that something was up.

Our small yishuv (settlement – but it’s the kosher kind, well inside the Green Line) sits about a mile away from the Tel Nof Air Force base – a major hub of IAF activity. You kind of get used to the jets streaking overhead all the time, and tune out the noise.

Except on Shabbat. On Shabbat there are never jets. You cherish the quiet. After all, why disturb the Jewish day of rest unless there’s an emergency. And that’s how we knew something was up – when we heard the jets on Shabbat afternoon.

For some weeks now we’ve been hearing about the bombs and missiles and rockets landing throughout the south of Israel. And I’ve been listening to the news along with all Israelis with a growing sense of frustration. While it has been a relief to hear (most of the time) that there were “no injuries,” how long could that really last? (Not long enough.) When would we do something to stop the shooting? What would we do? What could we do?

I learned today that my house sits in harm’s way. Yad Binyamin lies smack between Kiryat Malachi and Gadera, about forty kilometers from Gaza, at the outer range of Hamas rocket capabilities. (it's right on the red line between the purple and green zones. Not close - but on the map. And it's not a great map to be on.) Unlike the residents of Sederot, who get only fifteen seconds warning, we’ll have forty-five. Not that I’m that worried. But it does give me an eerie sense to know that for better or worse, I'm “within range” of a terrorist. It also didn't help that we all got "preparedness" memos in our mailboxes yesterday. (As if the bombings in Mumbai didn’t remind us that all of us are – inside Israel and out.)

I view the army fighter jets differently than I used to. In the United States, jets were a nuisance; a source of noise that disturbed our otherwise quiet lifestyles. They were part of the background, to be taken for granted and ignored. In fact, the only day I can remember not hearing the roar of the jets was September 11th, 2001, when I yearned to hear a jet in the sky.

Now though, when I hear a jet roar overhead, or especially when I see a helicopter flying south (they often fly in formations of two or three), I think about the men inside. Actually, it’s probably boys. And they’re our boys, who we’re sending to do some very adult-like behavior to protect our country, our families, and our people. Lately, whenever I spot an aircraft overhead I think a small prayer in my head. I pray for the well-being of the pilot. For the safety of the crew. For the peace of mind of their parents. And for the safety of our country.

Because a jet or a helicopter is no longer just a noise to me. It’s our children. And this week especially, they need all of our prayers.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

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.

New Audio Shiur - The Role of Women on Chanukah

The original title of this shiur was "Severed Heads and Women's Initiative: the Role of Women on Chanukah". Either way, the shiur examines the fundamental role of two very fascinating women who appear in Midrashic literature and play prominent roles in the Chanukah story. Enjoy!

Click here to access the shiur.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Wonderful Lesson from a Gadol

I paid a shiva call on Friday for Rabbi Yehoshua Zev Abramoff of Toronto. While I never knew Rabbi Abramoff personally, my mother asked me to pay a shiva call as Rabbi Abramoff was a chavruta (study partner) of my father’s about forty years ago in Washington Heights. It just so happened that when I arrived, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and his wife were sitting in the room also paying a shiva call. It seems that Rabbi Abramoff learned in YU’s Kollel when Rav Aharon was the Rosh Kollel.

Understandably, the conversation turned to Rav Aharon’s influence on the deceased, and the family started to tell Rav Aharon about a lesson that always stayed with Rabbi Abramoff that he had learned from Rav Aharon and taught all of his children. It seems that one evening Rav Aharon gave Rabbi Abramoff a ride home from learning – down the hill from YU to Washington Heights. As Rav Aharon was driving, they got to an intersection where Rav Aharon would have had to turn off to go home, and Rabbi Abramoff told Rav Aharon to let him off and he would walk the rest of the way.

“Nonsense,” said Rav Aharon. “I started a mitzvah, and I’m going to finish it.” And he took him all the way to his building.

The Abramoff children all said that this was a lesson that their father told them all throughout his life. When you start a mitzvah, do it all the way.

A wonderful lesson indeed.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Lying Liars and Parashat Vayeshev

Fraud and theft have been at the top of the news these past few weeks. Sadly, Orthodox Jews committed these crimes, causing unimaginable chillul hashem and unthinkable monetary losses. Every one of us either has or will be personally affected by the money that was acknowledged to have been stolen this past week. We all benefit from Jewish organizations: from Orot to your local Jewish Day School to the Jewish Federation in your city. No – Orot didn’t have money in the Madoff fund (not even close), but the trickle-down effect of a loss so massive will eventually affect the entire Jewish world.

We need to start to talk about honesty. And integrity. And we need to start reminding ourselves regularly that Orthodoxy isn’t only about מצוות בין אדם למקום – but equally about מצוות בין אדם לחברו – being honest in business, truthful with our friends and customers, and ethical in our daily lives.

Dishonesty rears its ugly head in many ways in Vayeshev. The brothers steal Yosef’s coat and sell him into slavery. Bad enough. But then, instead of owning up to their crime before their father, they lie to him and pretend that Yosef had been killed, causing him decades of anguish. Yosef isn’t entirely innocent either. The Torah tells that Yosef would bring דבתם רעה – “evil tales” about his brothers to Ya’akov. While Rashi says that Yosef reported every negative thing he could find about his brothers to Ya’akov, Ramban disagrees, saying, אבל מוציא דבה כסיל האומר שקר – “one who brings out dibbah is the fool who says falsehoods.” Put simply, according to Ramban Yosef lied too. He made up evil stories about his brothers to denigrate them in Ya’akov’s eyes.

Fraud finds its way into Yehudah’s life as well. In the famous story with Tamar, following the tragic deaths of his first two sons Er and Onan, Yehudah sends Tamar home telling her, “Go home to your father’s house and wait for Shelah to grow up. But don’t call me. I’ll call you.” Rashi (38:11) tells us clearly that Yehudah has no intention of calling her. In other words, he lies to her. Not to be outdone, Tamar gets back at him by dressing as a prostitute and seducing him by the side of the road. When the world discovers her pregnancy and sentences her to death for violating her marriage, she doesn’t rat him out. Rather, she leaves everything up to him. “Do you recognize this seal? Do you know whose ring this is? The owner of these items is the father of my child.”

Yehudah can easily say nothing. If he only chooses this option, all of his problems will disappear. Tamar will be dead leaving his son Shelah free from marry anyone but this black widow. Best of all, no one would know about his little dalliance at the roadside inn a few months back. What could be simpler than simply saying nothing? But it’s not so simple. Yehudah finally admits his lie in two words: צדקה ממני – “she is more righteous than I.”

What does he mean? Why doesn’t he just say צדקה – “she’s right”? How is she more right than he? And most importantly, why does he finally admit to his fraud?

Sforno explains that both Yehudah and Tamar lied. Yehudah realized that her lie wasn’t for her own benefit. Rather, she masqueraded as a prostitute to bring a child into the world. But he lied for his own personal benefit – to increase his own honor and achieve greater personal leverage. That’s why he said צדקה ממני. Her lie is better than mine. At least she didn’t lie for herself.

Even more importantly, Yehudah finally realized that the lying must end. The deceit and fraud that had become hallmarks of his family now threatened to destroy him – and all of them as well. The time had come to own up to his behavior – to tell the truth and accept the consequences. From this point forward Yehudah can becomes the de-facto leader of the family and takes his place in leading the family through the dangers of Egypt.

Fraud, lying, theft – sometimes they seem so easy. If you forgot to study for an important test, it’s so much easier to copy your neighbor’s paper than own up to the failing grade. Apparently, it’s much easier to take people’s money and give it to new investors as dividends than it is to actually find ways to make real money. But sooner or later it all catches up to us. Someone catches on. The cheating becomes obvious. Your investors ask for their money back. And then cleaning up the mess, dealing with the consequences, saying צדקה ממני – becomes that much harder to do.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Petachya came home from gan today with a question: "Right I don't eat dogs Ima?"
"Right I don't eat dogs?" Petachya asked again.
"Who said that you don't eat dogs?" Rena wondered.
"Mazal" - his ganenet. (The woman in charge of his gan).
What in the world was he talking about. Then Rena looked around and noticed that all of the other kids were carrying small bags of Bamba. And then the light went on in her head.
You see, our next-door neighbors have a small dog that they named Bamba. Petachya happends to be allergic to sesame and peanuts, so we're very careful about what foods we give him. (Rena likes to say that we brought a child allergic to sesame and peanuts to the land of chumus and bamba.) As Mazal is well-aware of his allergy, when she gave out the Bamba she gave him a chocolate wafer instead, and must have said to him, "You don't eat Bamba."
Which Petachya obviously translated as: You don't eat dogs.
Right Petachya. You don't eat dogs.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What's In a Name? Everything.

The Jewish people are called the B’nei Yisrael – the Children of Israel. Where did we get this name from? From this week’s parshah.
After Ya’akov spends an entire night wrestling with the angel of Eisav, the angel decides that it’s time to go. Only Ya’akov doesn’t want to let him: “I won’t let you go until you bless me,” he tells the angel.

“What’s your name,” the angel asks him.

“What’s my name? You don’t even know who I am? Don’t you think you should have asked me that before we had this whole fight?”

“What’s your name?”

Sigh. “Ya’akov.”

The angel replied: “No it’s not – at least not anymore. From now on, your name will be Yisrael, ki sarita im elokim v’im anashim va’tuchal, “for you have striven with God and with man and have prevailed.” The word sarita is the root of the word Yisrael that identifies us as a people. What does it really mean? What does the word say about us?

Let’s look at two interpretations and see what we can learn from them. Rashi teaches that the word sarita comes from the word serarah, ruling and leading. Ya’akov’s old name implied sense of weakness, shame and deceit. Yisrael implies a sense of power, strength and pride. Radak explains the word in terms of struggle. Yisrael is a person who is willing to struggle – to work hard to overcome obstacles to accomplish his goals.

Both of these explanations tell us a great deal about the Jewish people and especially the State of Israel. We are a people who are willing to work hard and overcome challenges to build a land and recreate the Jewish people. At the same time, we stand before the world with a sense of pride. Israel has made tremendous strides during the past sixty years, and for all our faults, we have a lot to be proud of.

This asks a lot of each of us as members of the Children of Israel. Do you face challenges or run away from them? Do you stand up as a Jew with a sense of pride and accomplishment? Or do you hide your Jewish identity from the people around you?

Only you can answer those questions.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Lavan's Motto - Parshat Vayetze and the Mumbai Attacks

Enraged at Ya’akov’s midnight flight from Haran, Lavan gathered his brothers and chased after his son-in-law, daughters and grandchildren. The Midrash (Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer 9a) explains that Lavan decided that rather than lose his extended family, he would destroy them. In fact, we take note of his evil intentions at the Passover Seder when we recite, Arami oved avi, “an Aramite (Lavan) intended to destroy my father.” Lavan only desisted from murdering his family because God appeared to him in a dream, warning him to refrain from harming Ya’akov.

When Lavan finally reached Ya’akov and confronted him, he threatened him using curious language: Yesh l’el yadi - “it is in the power of my hand” to harm you. I wanted to kill you all, but I won’t because your father’s God warned me not to. (verse 29) The term el yadi – the power of my hand, carries a double implication. Rashi explains that the word el means “power” or “ability.” Yet, the word el clearly carries a deistic connotation as well, often used to refer to God. In fact, Chizkuni explains the phrase to mean, “Even your God knows my power, and fears that I will take vengeance against you.” Why does Lavan strangely infuse God in his threat against Ya’akov?

Lavan invokes God because tyrants and terrorists must always invoke God to justify their heinous crimes. How can Lavan - a father and grandfather - even contemplate the cold-blooded murder of his entire family? Yesh l’el yadi. He invoked the name of his god. After all, Lavan asks Ya’akov, “Why have you stolen my gods?” (verse 30) In the battle for religious supremacy, Lavan foreshadows a world devoid of morality, whose only goal of religious domination justifies any act, no matter how barbaric and repugnant.

The world witnessed yet another example of Lavan’s fanaticism in the vile terrorist attacks in Mumbai this past week. In addition to the senseless murder of over 174 civilians and countless more injuries, the attackers also specifically “were sent specifically to kill Israelis to avenge “atrocities” against the Palestinians,” the Times of India reported. They accomplished their goal, killing six Israelis among nine Jews, including the local Chabad emissary Gavriel Holtzberg, 29, and his wife Rivka, 28 – both American citizens. Moreover, we this week learned that they were not only murdered. Debka reported that, “Mumbai hospital doctors were horrified by the condition of the six Israeli bodies recovered from the smashed, blood-spattered rooms of Chabad Center Monday. Local and Israeli pathologists confirmed they were tortured by their Islamist terrorist captors before being bound together and killed in cold blood.”

Israelis and Jews have always served as a target for religious extremists. After all, Arami Oved Avi is the continuation of vehi she’amdah – “in every generation they stand up against us to destroy us.” The entire world last week painfully discovered Lavan’s motto: yesh l’el yadi. In the name of God, one can justify any act. Even the brutal murder of a father and pregnant mother in front of their two-year-old son.
The hagaddah offers only one consolation: ve’hakadosh baruch hu, matzileinu m’yadam; in the end, we believe – we know that “the Holy One blessed be He, saves us – and will continue to save us, from their evil, violent and brutal hands.”