Monday, March 30, 2009

Books I'm Reading: A Connecticut Yankee and the Jewish Community

I'm in the middle of reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (full text available online here), by Mark Twain. For whatever reason, I avoided reading "literature" during high school, probably because someone was trying to force it on me. But here, I'll read pretty much whatever I can get my hands on. Rena had a copy of Huck Finn, so I went back to it, and it was much better than I remembered. That got me on a "Mark Twain" kick - so I had my sister-in-law pick up a collection of Twain's short stories (not as good) and A Connecticut Yankee, which so far is delightful. Twain's wit, his storytelling, and his accurate depiction of society speaks volumes even today.
For those of you not familiar with the story, read the Wikipedia synopsis - but suffice it to say that a 19th century American finds himself back in 6th century England - and he proceeds to introduce numerous societal and technological innovations common to his newfound home. He institutes a system of education, including a program of religious practices. (I'm highlighting the section I find most thought-provoking.)
I had started a teacher-factory and a lot of Sunday-schools the first thing; as a result, I now had an admirable system of graded schools in full blast in those places, and also a complete variety of Protestant congregations all in a prosperous and growing condition. Everybody could be any kind of a Christian he wanted to; there was perfect freedom in that matter. But I confined public religious teaching to the churches and the Sunday-schools, permitting nothing of it in my other educational buildings. I could have given my own sect the preference and made everybody a Presbyterian without any trouble, but that would have been to affront a law of human nature: spiritual wants and instincts are as various in the human family as are physical appetites, complexions, and features, and a man is only at his best, morally, when he is equipped with the religious garment whose color and shape and size most nicely accommodate themselves to the spiritual complexion, angularities, and stature of the individual who wears it; and, besides, I was afraid of a united Church; it makes a mighty power, the mightiest conceivable, and then when it by and by gets into selfish hands, as it is always bound to do, it means death to human liberty and paralysis to human thought.
Twain's comment about "spiritual wants and instincts" strikes a chord in me, and reminds me of a comment in Rashi found in Parshat Pinchas. When, at the conclusion of forty years of wandering in the desert God instructs Moshe to climb up Mount Aravim, view the Land of Israel and return to his Maker, Moshe makes one final request:
יִפְקֹד ה', אֱלֹקי הָרוּחֹת לְכָל-בָּשָׂר, אִישׁ, עַל-הָעֵדָה.
Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation
Moshe asks God not to leave the people without a leader. Rather, God must appoint Moshe's replacement before his death so as not to leave the people with an vacuum they would find impossible to fill. (sound like any group you've heard of?) Yet, Rashi wonders why Moshe refers to the God as "the God of the spirits" specifically in this context. Rashi answers:
אמר לפניו: רבש"ע! גלוי וידוע לפניך דעתו של כל אחד ואחד ואינן דומין זה לזה, מנה עליהם מנהיג שיהא סובל כל אחד ואחד לפי דעתו:
[Moshe] said before [God]: Master of the Universe! It is reveals and known before You the attitude of each and every individual, and they are not like each-other. Appoint over them a leader that can suffer each one according to his attitude.

While Orthodoxy rejects the legitimacy of what the Jewish community commonly refers to as "denominations", differences among spiritual practice and devotion most certainly remain - as well they should.
In fact, when I look around me in Israel (and to a lesser degree in the United States), I see a spectrum of religious expression all within the rubric of Torah Judaism, all devoted to adherence and faithfulness to Jewish law and practice. Modern Jews attempt to integrate Torah into a life while engaging the world. It's a struggle - but they're (we're?) trying. Others integrate Chassidut into their lives, and still others live full Chassidic lives. Many, many others consider themselves Chareidi, shunning to the greatest possible extent the modern world in favor of a total Torah life. Some love the State of Israel. Some love only the Land of Israel. Some build walls, while others are trying to tear them down - all in the name of Torah Judaism. And, among these different streams we find permutations of these extremes exactly equal to the number of Jews trying to find their proper path in a Torah framework.
Which one is correct? Which one is best? While my chareidi brother would probably say that his is best (I would expect no less), I would agree with Twain: it's best for him. But that's not to say that it's best for everyone. It's certainly not best for me.
To paraphrase Twain, every Jew will only be at his best when he is equipped with the religious garment whose color and shape and size most nicely accommodate themselves to the spiritual complexion, angularities, and stature of the individual who wears it.
It matters not if it's a knitted kippah or black; a black hat or none at all; a shaitel or scarf; the clothes matter less than the fact that each of us is trying to find the garment that best fits our size and shape, and helps us best approach the Divine.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


I'm cross-posting this post by my wife, Rena, who wrote about a very moving azkarah (memorial service) that we attended last night.
Mar 28, 2001 - Eliran Rosenberg-Zayat, 15, of Givat Shmuel and Naftali Lanzkorn, 13, of Petah Tikva were killed in a suicide bombing at the Mifgash Hashalom ("peace stop") gas station several hundred meters from an IDF roadblock near the entrance to Kalkilya, east of Kfar Saba. Four people were injured. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.
The above quote is from the "Victims of Palestinian Terror Since September 2000" section on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel. The Zayat family lives two doors down from us, so last night we went to their house for Eliran's yahrzeit. Two of his sisters, Shiran (age 13) and Noga (age 8) gave a stirring presentation about God's will. We do not have to thank God for doing something that is painful to us, but He definitely has his reasons, which we cannot understand. That was their message. Rav Hadaya, the Rav of our yishuv, gave a shiur, before and after which Refael Zayat (Eliran's father) said kaddish. A fitting and appropriate way to raise the neshama of their son.

I have come to know the Zayat family somewhat because they have a son, Ziv, in Bezalel's class. Ziv has a cochlear implant and wears a hearing aid, and he and Bezalel get along very well. Michal (the mother) is soft spoken and sensitive to others. She has even offered to make phone calls for me to the necessary services if I find the Hebrew too overwhelming. Every week she hosts a shiur in her house for women given by Rav Hadaya to enhance our spirituality. Shirin ran a camp this past summer, which Leah attended and loved. Hila (age 15) regularly babysits for my neighbor when she works in the afternoon. We had no idea about Eliran. The Zayat family does not walk around depressed or shrouded in mourning. They are a vibrant part of our growing community.

We sat with Refael and Michal at a recent wedding, and they asked us how old Ruby was when his father died. Ziv, they said, is obsessed with death, and asked Bezalel if he ever had anyone close to him die. Bezalel said that his Zaide died when his Abba was nine, information which Ziv then passed on to his parents. Death is a part of their life, said Michal, and they then told us about Eliran. Ziv does not know quite how to deal with the brother he never knew.

This morning I asked Bezalel if Ziv ever talks about death with him. Bezalel said that they don't talk about those things, and so I told him that Michal told me about the question Ziv asked him. Oh yes, said Bezalel, and I told him that Zaide died and he told me that his brother died when he was 20 as a soldier in the army - Arabs killed him.

I feel blessed that I can still shelter him from the cold, horrible truth. I pray to God to continue to support the Zayat family for the sacrifice they have made.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Shebechol Dor Va'dor - The Modern Day Blood Libel

Thoughts on the Hagadah

One of the most compelling parts of the Seder night is the emotional paragraph of vehi she'amdah - "This is what has stood." In the midst of the hagadah we raise our cups of wine and say:
This is what has stood by our ancestors and us! For not just one alone has risen against us to destroy us, but in every generation they rise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One blessed be He, saves us from their hand!"
On the night of the Seder we don't simply remember an event from our history. We reenact the past, but apply it to today. We affirm the understanding that persecution and hatred of the Jewish people has remained a constant across the spectrum of time. Pharaoh did not just hate us then; he hates us today. Except that today's Pharaohs don't carry scepters; they write articles. They don't wear their hatred and derision on their sleeves; they hide it in their smug elitism and humanism.
The Torah tells us that Pharaoh used delegitimization as the first step in the enslavement of the Jewish people. You cannot perpetrate terrible acts on an entire people before you have reduced them in your mind to less than human. Once they no longer share the same status; once they have been reduced to inhuman, anything and everything goes, including enslavement, oppression, even infanticide. The Torah clearly communicates this campaign of hate through its choice of language describing the growth of the Israelites in Egypt.
וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ--בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, אֹתָם.
And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.
The most important word in this verse is the word vayishretzu - "and increased abundantly," because it must be understood in context. The root of the verb is lesharetz - literally meaning "to swarm." In the context of the Torah, a sheretz is an impure, defiled organism; a low, degraded life-form. In essence the Egyptians, watching the rapid growth of the Israelites within their country, saw them not as an engine of growth for the Egyptian economy but rather as a "swarm" of locusts that had descended on Egypt and which, if left unchecked, would one day destroy the country.
Kli Yakkar (on Shemot 1:7) makes precisely this point.
And we can also explain the language of vayishretzu, that after the death of Joseph and his brothers and that entire righteous generation that was protecting them, from then on they became degraded like vermin crawling in the dirt in the eyes of the Egyptians. That is why [the verse] says vayishretzu.
"The land was filled with them." Not something you'd say about citizens. But this is precisely how you'd describe a plague of cicadas, begging for extermination. From that point forward the path seems relatively clear: degradation leads to oppression; oppression to enslavement.

She'bechol dor v'dor. In every generation. When we think about the world we live in today and wonder who hates us and wants to destroy us, the answers seem to come easily: radical Islamists; murderous terrorists; most member-states in the United Nations. But in the United States, Jews enjoy an unprecedented level of freedom, prominence, status - precisely the opposite of oppression. True enough. But when you look a little deeper, the signs do not seem promising.

Christopher Hitchins recently authored an article called "An Army of Extremists" published in Slate Magazine. (For those of you who might not know, Slate is an online venture owned by the Washington Post Company, which also publishes Newsweek. It's considered very "fresh" and "hip", and has an important voice in the news media.) Spurred on by the recent flurry of allegations against religous soldiers in the Israeli Army, and citing this article that appeared recently in the New York Times, Hitchins took the evidence to its logical conclusion.
Peering over the horrible pile of Palestinian civilian casualties that has immediately resulted, it's fairly easy to see where this is going in the medium-to-longer term. The zealot settlers and their clerical accomplices are establishing an army within the army so that one day, if it is ever decided to disband or evacuate the colonial settlements, there will be enough officers and soldiers, stiffened by enough rabbis and enough extremist sermons, to refuse to obey the order. Torah verses will also be found that make it permissible to murder secular Jews as well as Arabs.
So, anyone religous is the following:
  • Violent in the extreme, and obvoiusly guity of creating the "horrible pile of Palestinian civilian casualties" (is it just me, or do you also see the "Holocaust" imagery in his description?)
  • Zealots
  • Murderers, willing to kill not only Arabs, but secular Jews who dare to contradict their view of Israel, Judaism and the world
I wish I were making this up. But this is the underlying attitude that has fueled the furor over when the IDF is really moral after all. (Obvious message: it's not.) There's really no point in trying to rebut any of the allegations. Truth, facts, substance, nuance - none of that matters.

In the old days, they used to say that we killed Christian children to bake our matzah for Pesach. It really does sound crazy. Had anyone ever looked at a matzah? How in the world would such a charge make any sense at all? But sense never really mattered, when the true agenda was deligimization. Nowadays, they don't claim that we murder Christian children - just Palestinian ones. And Arabs. And even secular Jews. All in the name of the Torah.

In every generation. Indeed.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Shabbat's Secret Service

During my college years, on a number of occasions I flew down to Florida to spend time with my grandfather, who had (by that time) aged significantly, and would no longer fly up to visit.
Every so often, I would ask my grandfather to tell me about his youth. It was no picnic. Born in Calumet, Michigan during the copper boom there, when the mines ran dry his family decided to move back to Poland. (Who knew?) Because he happened to have the fortune of American birth, he had no problems returning to America as a teenager to build a life.
Arriving in New York, he worked hard - very hard. He stocked shelves, worked in stores; my Zayde never shied away from hard work. But what about Shabbat? I asked him. Stories abound of people who abandoned their observance of Shabbat, finding it impossible to keep a job without working Saturdays.
He shrugged. He wasn't the most eloquent of speakers. What did he mean?
"I didn't go in Shabbos," he told me in his heavy Polish accent. "And when I came in Sunday, they'd say, 'Where were you yesterday?' I wouldn't say nothin'. Most places told me to get lost. One week I was working in a dairy. When the man asked me where I was, instead of firing me, he just told me to get back to work."
My grandfather eventually built a family and successful business and in South Florida. He had three children, and over a dozen grandchildren, and to this day every one of them is what we'd call a shomer shabbat. But we'd be wrong.
Don't misunderstand me - every one of us does keep Shabbat. But to my mind, to be a shomer Shabbat - a guardian of Shabbat - you have to do much, much more.

When describing the observance of Shabbat, the Torah repeatedly returns to the concept of shemirah - guarding the Shabbat.
וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל-משֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: וְאַתָּה דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר אַךְ אֶת-שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ כִּי אוֹת הִוא בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם לָדַעַת כִּי אֲנִי ה' מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם: וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת כִּי קֹדֶשׁ הִוא לָכֶם מְחַלֲלֶיהָ מוֹת יוּמָת כִּי כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בָהּ מְלָאכָה וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִקֶּרֶב עַמֶּיהָ: שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים יֵעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן קֹדֶשׁ לַה' כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה מְלָאכָה בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת מוֹת יוּמָת: וְשָׁמְרוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת לְדֹרֹתָם בְּרִית עוֹלָם: בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹת הִוא לְעֹלָם כִּי-שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים עָשָׂה ה' אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שָׁבַת וַיִּנָּפַשׁ
And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 'Speak you also to the children of Israel, saying: Verily you shall keep My sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctify you. You shall keep the sabbath therefore, for it is holy unto you; every one that profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whosoever does any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel for ever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and rested.' (Shemot 31:12-17)
Three times during the course of six verses we find different references to Shemirat Shabbat - translated by Mechon Mamre as the "keeping of Shabbat." But a shomer is much more than a "keeper." Rather, the word can also connote a guardian - one who exerts energy to actively protect Shabbat. Moreover, the Torah itself seems to imply that "guarding" or "keeping" the Shabbat entails far more than just not violating its rules. In fact, the Midrash derives from this verse that one must be מוסיף מחול על הקודש - add from the profane onto the holy - essentially start Shabbat a little earlier than the required time, because the Shabbat requires guarding from without, and not from within.
Thinking about what it means to "guard", in life we encounter different types of guards. Let's say, for example, that the White House invited you to a meeting with the President. You'd encounter many types of guards along the way. First you'd be met by a guard at the gatehouse, who would check your identification and who stands at the door to ensure that strangers don't just walk into the White House. (As a total aside, they did used to do that. Read Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals and you'll see that during the Civil War, soldiers not only walked in off the street - the bivouacked there as well.) Then, you would proceed to yet another guard, who would check you and your bags for weapons, dangerous items, banned materials and the like.
Finally you make it into the White House, secure and free from threatening paraphernalia. The President should be safe. But there's another, far more intimate level of protection provided by a third type of "guard": the Secret Service agent who serves in the Presidential Protection Unit. These guards don't simply stand at a door or gate. Rather, they commit to put themselves between a bullet and the President. In essence, they're willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to protect their charge. They take great pride in that sacrifice and their service to their country, as well they should.
Each of our three officers "guards" the President. Each plays an important role in his protection and safety. But we wouldn't for a moment suggest that the guard at the gate makes the same commitment and rises to the level in devotion and commitment to that of the Secret Service agent standing outside his bedroom each night.
Shemirat Shabbat has the same types of distinctions. Like the President, Shabbat requires constant vigilance and defense. But who are the guards at the gate, and who rise to the level of Shabbat's Secret Service agents?
I think I'm related to one.

Four years ago, my brother finished college and entered medical school. Even before beginning his medical education, he seriously considered abandoning his life-long dream of becoming a doctor, worried about the halachic compromises he would be forced to make during his years as a med student and resident. I strongly encouraged him to proceed, and that he would find a way to both become a doctor and maintain his shemirat shabbat. First of all, I told him, there are doctors who did find a way to navigate medical school without compromising on Shabbat. But my arguments had an ideological perspective as well: imagine that every Jew took his position, and no one entered medical school due to legitimate halachic concerns. What would happen to the Jewish world and the religious Jewish community were it not to have a cadre of strong, professional, Torah-allegiant doctors?
Whether or not he liked my advice I don't know, but he did enter med school, gaining admission to the University of Maryland in Baltimore.
During his second year of med school, my brother posted the following comment to a Medical Halachah blog post (Sadly, the blog doesn't seem to have been updated since 2007) about the importance of submission to halachah in the field of medicine:
I very much appreciate Akiva Bergman's comments regarding halachic observance and the practice of medicine. I am about to start my second year of medical school and have been waiting for a forum such as this to begin to address these complex issues. It is important for orthodox physicians to begin to address these issues as pertinent instead of using the "everybody does it" excuse. I was once talking to a resident in a non-shomer shabbos program. He justified his venture by stating that he would not be happy in any other specialty. Why was he willing to placate himself with such an excuse? Would someone practicing any other profession use such an excuse? I doubt that they would. I hope that this forum will be a starting point for us to advance the cause of adherence to halacha among orthodox physicians, residents, and medical students. The mere fact that we are engaging in this type of dialogue is an important beginning to this process.
He did well. I'm not that surprised. He's smart. He won scholarships, was recognized for excellence - the whole shebang. When the time came for him to choose a specialty he chose neurology - not the most popular on the list. I know that he liked neurology certainly, but clearly he had other factors in mind as well.
This month was "match" month, where future residents find out which hospital has accepted them into their residency programs, and whether they matched their choice with that hospital. For his neurology specialty, he needed both a year-long internship in regular internal medicine, and then three more years in neurology itself. But, when he flew around the country interviewing, my brother made it clear that he was only looking for a Shomer Shabbat residency: he would be happy to work as many hours as needed - but just asked that he would never be given rotation on Shabbat or Yom Tov.
My brother found a match for his three-year program, but not the one-year internship. A furious flurry of phone calls found him a one-year stint in, of all places, Metro Detroit. (Oh, the irony.) But what also was crystal clear was the fact that had he been willing to take a "normal" residency, he would have been taken with open arms at a hospital in Baltimore, for all four years. His wife could have kept her job. His family would not have needed to move. In essence, for the sake of Shabbat - so that he would never feel like he had compromised on his religious principles - my brother has sacrificed tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in income, comfort of community, and the need to move not once, but probably twice if not three times.
All for Shabbat. To ensure that he's a shomer shabbat.
Except, to my mind, he's not a regular, run of the mill "guard at the gate" Shomer Shabbat. He's a member of the Shabbat Secret Service.
I'm quite proud to say that he's my brother. And I know that my zayde would feel precisely the same way.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Here Comes the Sun, History Dept.

An email list I belong to pointed me to this incredible link, from the New York Times of April 18, 1897.
Be sure to read the article carefully - it truly is a fantastic description.
Most amazing is the humility of the rabbanim, and the brazenness of the police, which are difficult to comprehend. Today that rav would have his lawyer at that jail, along with several media outlets, threatening to sue anyone and everyone from the meter maids to the mayor.
How times have changed.

Audio Shiur: Arami Oved Avi

Arami Oved Avi
Who is the Arami of the Hagadah? Where does this text come from? This text, taken from the Torah, speaks clearly to us especially today.

Click here to download the shiur, or you can play inside the handy-dandy audio player I have graciously provided for you.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Bircat Hachamah: Shameless Self-Promotion Dept.

No, I'm not above some self-promotion. (After all, isn't that at least partially what a blog is?) In any case, I recently wrote this article about the upcoming bircat hachamah for the Aish Hatorah web site. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

New Audio Shiur: Understanding the Hagadah

Ha Lachma Anya - Not Your Mother's Matzah
The first paragraph in Maggid rasises some fascinating questions. Who wrote it? Why is it in Aramaic? As we address these and other questions we'll learn not only about the nature of matzah and the timeline of yetziat Mitzrayim, but also important tools to help make the seder meaningful to our children.

Click here to download the shiur, or you can play inside the handy-dandy audio player I have graciously provided for you.

Rabbi Spolter's Updated Top Ten Pesach Questions

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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?

4. What can I eat on 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 Nissan. 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. 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.

11. Does milk need a hechsher for Pesach?

(This answer is for the United States. Gotta check on Israel.) 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?

Listen to this shiur. And prepare beforehand. And please, please don't read aloud from English haggadot at the table. Nothing says "boooorrrrinnnng. Please fall asleep now more than someone opening up Artscroll's "The Amshinover's Hagaddah" and beginning to quote freely from the prosaic prose. Hagadah means "to tell." Not "to read".

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?

Addendum: I recently noticed that the CRC Pesach Guide (page 3) states that "Paper plates shouldn't be used with hot foods unless specifically certified for Pesach." Would you then feel comfortable using them with cold food? But the OU Guide for Pesach lists "Paper cups, plates and towels" as a "Non Food Item" where "The consensus of the OU’s Poskim is that the [it] may be used on Pesach without certification." I guess it's a machloket ha-websites.

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.

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

The OU has a wonderful website set up for Pesach, and the CRC (Chicago Rabbinical Council also has a great Pesach site. There are a zillion others, including YUTorah for great Pesach shiurim, and of course, the Spolter family website.

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:

1. Give them to a needy (or just hungry) soldier, or to Table to Table. They always take food donations.

2. Throw them away

3. Feed them to your dog

4. Eat them

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

Rabbi Reuven Spolter

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Missing Piece - Table Talk for Vayakhel-Pekudei 5769

Thoughts on the Kohen Gadol and Gilad Schalit

Here in Israel, the government and public finds itself caught in the gut-wrenching debate over just how far to go to secure the release of captured soldier Cpl. Gilad Schalit. The two sides of the argument present clear but compelling contrasting arguments. On one side sit Gilad's family; his parents and brother, literally camping in a tent outside the Prime Minister's office hoping to compel the government to reach an agreement with Hamas and secure Gilad's release. On the other side sit the families of terror victims who, despite their sympathy for the Schalit family, feel that the price to be paid for Gilad's release is simply too high, and that bartering his life for the freedom of hundreds of terrorists and criminals will only further endanger the people of Israel.
They both right. It's a terrible decision to have to make, and it only makes me yearn for the days when we didn't have to make such decisions ourselves. Once upon a time Hashem Himself would answer these impossible questions for us – through the garments of the Kohen Gadol.
Among the different garments of the Kohen Gadol for his service in the Mishkah, he wore the Choshen – a breastplate. We all know what it looked like: four rows of three different types of stones. On these stones Bezalel carves the names of the tribes of Israel. But the Choshen carried an addition, critical element. Hashem instructs Moshe,
וְנָתַתָּ אֶל-חשֶׁן הַמִּשְׁפָּט אֶת-הָאוּרִים וְאֶת-הַתֻּמִּים וְהָיוּ עַל-לֵב אַהֲרֹן בְּבֹאוֹ לִפְנֵי ה' וְנָשָׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת-מִשְׁפַּט בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל עַל-לִבּוֹ לִפְנֵי ה' תָּמִיד:
And you shall place to the Choshen the Urim and the Tumim, and they shall be on the heart of Aharon when he enters before Hashem; and Aharon shall carry the judgment of the Children of Israel on his heart before Hashem always.
The famous Urim V'tumim raises all kinds of questions. First and foremost, what exactly was it? What does the Torah mean by telling us that through it Aharon would carry the "judgment" of the Jewish people on his heart? Finally, when we look at Parshat Pekudei and the final construction of the Choshen we learn that while Bezalel and his workers followed Moshe's instructions to a tee, they seem to have omitted one critical detail: there's no mention of the Urim V'tumim at all. (see Shemot 39:8-21) The stones were there. They weaved the garment properly. But where was the Urim V'tumim so seemingly critical to its proper function?
What was the Urim V'Tumim? Rashi (on Shemot 28:30) tells us:
הוא כתב שם המפורש, שהיה נותנו בתוך כפלי החשן, שעל ידו הוא מאיר דבריו ומתמם את דבריו. ובמקדש שני היה החשן, שאי אפשר לכהן גדול להיות מחוסר בגדים, אבל אותו השם לא היה בתוכו, ועל שם אותו הכתב הוא קרוי משפט...
This is a writing of the Holy Name which [Moshe] placed in the folds of the Choshen, through which it would light up (from Urim) his words and purify (from Tumim) his words. In the Second Temple there was a Choshen – for the Cohen Gadol could not serve with [the proper number of] garments. But that Name was not inside it, and through that name it was called "Mishpat"…
Rashi explains that the while the Urim V'tumim served as the spiritual "battery" of the Choshen, it was not a critical aspect of its construction. Perhaps this explains why the Torah considers the Choshen complete even without the Urim V'Tumin. Ramban, agreeing with Rashi adds that,
הם סוד מסור למשה מפי הגבורה, והוא כתבם בקדושה, או היו מעשה שמים
They were a secret given to Moshe from the mouth of Hashem, and [Moshe] wrote them in Holiness, or they were a creation of heaven.
Ramban points out that Moshe himself eventually placed the Urim V'Tumim inside the Choshen when he dressed Aharon for service in the Mishkan. (see Vayikra 8:8) So, while the Urim V'Tumim were not considered part of the Choshen itself, Moshe placed this mystical scroll (or whatever "they" were) crafted by Hashem Himself into the Choshen later on. What was did Aharon use it for? Why was it so important? Rashi explains:
דבר שהם נשפטים ונוכחים על ידו אם לעשות דבר או לא לעשות.
A matter that they would judge and decide based on [the Urim V'Tumim] whether to do something or not.
The Jewish people used the Urim V'Tumim to ask the impossible questions that no one person could legitimately answer himself. Should we go to war now or not? Whose sin caused the terrible suffering among the Jewish people? Is now the time to conquer new territory or remain on the sidelines? Is it better to trade terrorists for Gilad Schalit or suffer the painful price of refusing to negotiate?

Except today, we live without a direct connection. No Urim V'Tumim lights up the way. So we stumble along, groping around in the darkness, hoping that we don't make the wrong decision. All the while we must continue to pray not only for our country and her leaders, forced to make these difficult decisions, but also that Hashem bring a level of comfort and well-being to Gilad, held captive now for over one thousand days.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Living the Dream?

Last spring when I was still in Oak Park, a well-known rabbi from Israel came to Detroit to speak over the weekend, and gave a shiur in my shul. After Shabbos, when he learned that I was making aliyah he came over to me and said, "I hope that your yissurin (sufferings) aren't too bad." I laughed. He laughed. But inside I wondered and worried not a little.

Speaking to a local Yad Binyamin resident recently, I asked her how she was doing.
"Not so well," she told me. "Actually, we've decided that we're going back."
Saddened to hear the news, she shared with me some of the details. Her husband retained his job in North America (don't want to say where). He decided to commute back and forth - two weeks here and two weeks at work.
Now, six months in they feel like things are falling apart for them:
He's always exhausted, and never feels settled in any one place. His kids feel like he's never home - and they don't like it. Actually, they hate it, and have told him so. Now he's having trouble disciplining them, as they are beginning to see him less as an authority figure. In addition, the work situation is quite difficult because his business suffers greatly from his two week absence every month. Compounding the issue is that their children, after a good few months of misery, have finally begun to get the hang of school. They're speaking Hebrew fluently. Whereas a year ago they didn't want to come to Israel, now they don't want to leave.
So, while it was disheartening and distressing to hear their story, I didn't have much to say to her. What would you say? "Stay"? "Remain miserable"? "It'll work out"? How do I know that it will, especially when things are so difficult for them.

Nefesh B'nefesh does an amazing job of promoting aliyah. They've truly put it on the map in a powerful way, making regular people think about and consider moving to Israel. I think that the tools they bring to the aliyah process also make a huge difference, helping people streamline the process, understand it better, and deal with the bureaucracy (which was really not nearly as bad as I expected). I think that Nefesh B'nefesh has also, to a large degree, changed the culture of agencies here in Israel towards a more customer-oriented focus.
Still, the way that they promote aliyah still bothers me. NBN exhorts Americans to make aliyah by encouraging them to, "Live the Dream." (It's interesting, but when I checked their website, the "Live the Dream" slogan is nowhere to be found, although it's still in their logos and other publicity materials.) Sounds amazing. You take an incredible flight. You have a tremendous celebration which they beam around the world. And it is amazing.
But it's not. Because then you have to go about the business of building a real life. Which is anything but easy, especially here in Israel.
Don't get me wrong. I'm a huge, huge aliyah booster. I think that every Jew belongs in Israel. But I have said often that I think the NBN slogan should be much closer to Home Depot's: "Aliyah: You Can Do It, and We'll Help".
This, I think, is the one of the first things that people need to understand about moving to Israel. Nefesh B'nefesh can help you - and they do amazing work - but they're not going to do it for you. You need to learn Hebrew to truly fit in (unless you live in very specific communities). You need to find your own job - although they can give you leads. You need to enroll your kids in school, fight for their benefits and ulpan, advocate on their behalf, and deal with their very real struggles and sometimes tears.
And I fear that some people, enticed by the "dream," wake up one morning in Israel without a job yet, not understanding the morning news (or the letter their child brought home from school, face a screaming child who refuses to even go to school, and begins to wonder: when does the "dream" start? Where's the dream?
It's not a dream. It's hard work. It's a sacrifice and a struggle. You give up a tremendous amount to move to Israel and live in God's land.
The Gemara in Berachot (5a) really says it best:
תניא רבי שמעון בן יוחאי אומר שלש מתנות טובות נתן הקדוש ברוך הוא לישראל וכולן לא נתנן אלא ע"י יסורין אלו הן תורה וארץ ישראל והעולם הבא
We learned: Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: the Holy One blessed be He gave three good gifts to Israel, and he gave all of them through suffering. They are: Torah, the Land of Israel and the World to Come.
So I guess I'm not saying anything new. It's not a dream. It involves giving up a lot. It involves sacrifice and hard work.
Is it worth all that? Of course it is. The Mishnah in Avot reminds us that לפום צערא אגרא -- "according to the toil comes the reward." Or, reversing the same statement, there are no free lunches in life, and anything that you get for free isn't really worth that much at all. Some costs are monetary. Other things don't cost money, but take an emotional, physical or even spiritual toil. Anything in life that's worth something requires sacrifice and hard work. Why should Israel be any different?
But I guess you can't say that to Americans. Hard work doesn't really sell. Dreams do.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Moshiach Madness

One of my favorite personal Lubavitch stories comes from my stint in West Hartford as the rabbi of Congregation Agudas Achim.
One morning during aseret yemei teshuvah, one of the local Chabad shluchim - his name is Mendel Samuels - (he's still there in Connecticut - Chabad shluchim are funny that way) came to me in my shul to borrow a Torah. They were just getting things off the ground, and he needed the Torah for Yom Kippur. Sure, no problem.
After Yom Kippur he came over to return the Torah.
"How did it go?" I wondered.
"Well," he said, "Kol Nidrei was amazing. We had over a hundred people." He was right - that truly was amazing.
"But what about Yom Kippur morning?"
"Actually, that wasn't so great. We had to wait until eleven in the morning for a minyan."
It was then and there that I gained a tremendous amount of respect for Chabad shluchim. I myself served in a shul whose membership was far less frum than I. I learned to call frantically for a tenth man for minyan, daven until yishtabach and wait (and pray) for a tenth man, and even to daven without a minyan at all. But never on Yom Kippur. Right then I realized the level of devotion and decidation that these guys have, to go where no one else will go to build a Jewish life.

I write this story because I don't want to seem like a Chabad basher - especially because I'm about to criticize Chabad. By the way, this is my blog and my post, but it's really Rena's passion. She got much more worked up about this than me.

On Friday morning, I picked up a copy of one of the two religious Zionist newspapers published in Israel called B'Sheva. (It's the newspaper of Arutz 7 - the one you all know and love.) The paper was fine, but the back cover caught Rena's attention. It was an ad for a concert by Avi Piamenta. Here it is:

So you look at the ad and think: OK, I might not like Avi Piamenta, but what's wrong with the ad? I'll give a closer look at the upper part of the ad, and translate:

במצות הרבי מלובביץ' מה"מ להתוועד ביחד בעניני משיח וגאולה בחודש אדר בשנת "הקהל" שאחרי שנת השמיטה לאחדות העם ולשלמות התורה והארץ
According to the instructions of the Lubavitcher Rebbe מה"מ (I'll get to that soon) to gather regarding matters of Moshiach and redemption in the month of Adar during the year of hakhel after the year of Shemittah, for the unification of the nation and the completion of the Torah and the land.
What caught Rena's eye was the מה"מ after the Rebbe's name. What does it stand for? Can you guess? I checked a reference of Hebrew abbreviations (page 8) and came up with a few suggestions:
מהא משמע - "from this we learn" - nope, doesn't fit.
מלאך המות - "the angel of death." I sure hope not.
Of course, the abbreviation stands for מלך המשיח -- "the King Moshiach".
I'm not sure why it surprised us. Were we shocked seeing a reference to a dead, great rabbi as the Moshiach in a regularly read religious Zionist paper. On the back page? Was it upsetting to see it so boldly proclaimed, as if it was a matter of fact that the Rebbe is/was/will be the Moshiach? Or perhaps what upset me is the fact that Lubavitchers feel the need to both state their belief that the rebbe is Moshiach and at the same time hid it, in plain view in code. I'm not sure. But for whatever the reason, I find the ad very much upsetting.
I shouldn't be surprised. Dr. David Berger has been writing about this sort of thing for years, and we conveniently ignore it - perhaps because of all the good that Chabad does, perhaps because we prefer to take a "Don't ask, don't tell" position. Perhaps because the mainstream Orthodox movement really has no idea what to do about it.
Yet, every time Dr. Berger's name comes up somewhere, a chorus of Chabad sympathizers try and discredit him for his "malicious slander" of Chabad. (See the comments on this article, or here to see what I mean.) I guess I sort of thought that it was a "secret". Even Chabad officially seems to admit that the rebbe died. Rabbi Samuels' Chabad of the Valley website explains that,
The Rebbe started his leadership in 1950, with only a few hundred followers in America, from what was once a large and vibrant community in Europe before the War. He passed away in 1994, and Jews study his teachings and wisdom around the world.
I guess now we've reached the point where things aren't so secret anymore.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Crime and Punishment - A Drashah for Ki Tisa 5769

This past Thursday night, I got my first Israeli traffic ticket. Did I get a ticket for I speeding down the 6 at near sonic speed? Do that all the time, but that wasn’t it. No, I got a ticket for stopping to pick up a hitchhiker. One minute my neighbor from down the block is trying to get into my car, and then next minute he’s slamming the door shut, and I hear a knock on my passenger window. See what happens when you try and do a mitzvah?

Actually, it wasn’t so cut and dry. Yes, I did stop to pick up a tremp – a wonderful act. But I also did so smack in the middle of the road. Apparently, that’s not only illegal. It’s also dangerous.
I begged. I pleaded. I tried the עולה tactic. I spoke in English. Nothing worked. The policewoman was adamant. You’re going to have to pay. לא נורא she kept saying. Just pay the fine and move on.
The sad part is that I’m not sure that I disagree with her. After all, I did stop in the middle of traffic – even for a good reason. I did something rather dangerous; I was lucky someone wasn’t directly behind me. And as much as I wanted her to let me off with a warning, for the past 24 hours, I’ve been a more careful driver. I won’t do that again. I’ll be sure to pull over to the side of the road. And I wonder to myself, had she let me off with a warning, would I be as careful next time? In essence what I’m asking is: was she right? Did she really have to punish me?

This theme of Crime and Punishment occupies my mind precisely as we read about חטא העגל. When the Jewish people build the עגל, we know what they really deserve:
וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי, וְיִחַר-אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם; וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל.
And now leave me and I my anger will grow, and I will destroy them, and I will make you into a great nation.
The punishment the people deserve is total annihilation. It’s over. Yet Moshe, with his quick thinking and passionate pleas saves the people from certain death. He descends down the mountain, deals with the Golden calf, and then returns to God to plead for mercy.
וַיָּשָׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶל-ה', וַיֹּאמַר: אָנָּא, חָטָא הָעָם הַזֶּה חֲטָאָה גְדֹלָה, וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם, אֱלֹהֵי זָהָב. וְעַתָּה, אִם-תִּשָּׂא חַטָּאתָם; וְאִם-אַיִן--מְחֵנִי נָא, מִסִּפְרְךָ אֲשֶׁר כָּתָבְתָּ.
Moshe returned to God and he said, Please - this nation has committed a grave sin and they made an god of gold. And now, if you carry their sin -- and if not, erase from the book which You have written.
“Look God,” he tells him. “While they might deserve to be destroyed, I can’t let you do it. In fact, I insist that you forgive them. Because if you don’t, I don’t want to have any part of this entire endeavor. If you cut them out, you cut me out too.”
God’s answer is more subtle and circumspect:
וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל-מֹשֶׁה: מִי אֲשֶׁר חָטָא-לִי, אֶמְחֶנּוּ מִסִּפְרִי..
And God said to Moshe: He who sinned against me I will erase him from My book.
And we then immediately read:
וַיִּגֹּף יְהוָה, אֶת-הָעָם, עַל אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ אֶת-הָעֵגֶל, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אַהֲרֹן
And God smote the nation on the fact that they made a calf that Aharon made.
What was the plague? Rashi says that it was מיתה בידי שמים – the divine death penalty. Ramban points out that we don’t even know how many were killed. I think I know why we don’t know who they are: because, as part of their punishment God erased them from the Torah. They no longer exist, not even as a number to be counted. That’s some punishment.
But I’d like to ask the question a different way: why did God need to punish the nation? After all, if He’s really the ה' ה' אל רחום וחנון, do we think for a moment that He gets any pleasure out of punishing the Jewish people? You know that phrase, “This hurts me more than it hurts you”? With God, it’s really true. It does hurt Him more than it hurts us. And yet punish us He does.
In fact, we mention the specter of punishment each and every day. Where? In the קריאת שמע. After we declare our faith in God and accept the yoke of Mitzvot upon ourselves, we turn in the second chapter to the theme of reward and punishment. והיה אם שמוע תשמעו אל מצוותי – if you listen to God’s commandments – then ונתתי מטר ארצכם בעתו – you get rain, and food and plenty and prosperity. But, השמרו לכם פן יפתה לבבכם – don’t slip up and slide down that terrible path towards idolatry, because if you do – ועצר את השמים ולא יהיה מטר – no rain, no food, much death and loss of ארץ ישראל. We say it twice a day, morning and night.
No one wants punishment. I am often struck on Yom Kippur by the very end of the וידוי, when we ask God for compassion and forgiveness. We say,
יהי רצון מלפניך ה' אלקי ואלקי אבותי, שלא אחטא עוד. ומה שחטאתי לפניך מרק ברחמיך הרבים, אבל לא על ידי יסורים וחלים רעים.
Let it be your will, my God and the God of my fathers, that I will not sin any more. And that which I have sinned before You cleanse in Your great compassion, but not through affliction or difficult sickness.
Who wants יסורים? No one. But sometime, perversely, we need them, because while we all like positive reinforcement, somehow punishment is so much stronger and more pronounced, that it serves as a more effective method of education and reinforcement.
This is actually a topic of great debate is today’s current political and economic crisis, especially regarding the financial bailout not only of banks, but also of homeowners who bit off bigger mortgages than they could handle, often recklessly. Commentators call this moral hazard, which Wikipedia defines as,
The prospect that a party insulated from risk may behave differently from the way it would behave if it were fully exposed to the risk. Moral hazard arises because an individual or institution does not bear the full consequences of its actions, and therefore has a tendency to act less carefully than it otherwise would, leaving another party to bear some responsibility for the consequences of those actions.
Put simply, if you don’t suffer from mistakes – or sins – the chances increase that you’ll simply repeat the same mistake (or sin) again.
Reward an punishment become especially important when we tackle the job of parenting. Let’s be honest: no parent likes punishing their children. It’s almost always easier to capitulate, forgive and forget, and hope that the behavior doesn’t happen again. But without the punishment, it always, always does happen again, usually in a more pronounced and severe manner.
No parent likes denying their children the things that they want. Who needs it? They’ll only whine, complain, and make our lives miserable. “Why can’t I have that ipod, cellphone, dboard, wii”? It doesn’t matter what it is. It often feels cruel to say “No, you can’t have it.” If you can’t afford it, that’s one matter. But many of us can, and we still say no. Why do we fight and argue and refuse when the path of least resistance a simple “yes”?
We say no because of a Rashi in the parshah. When Moshe climbs up הר סיני and tells God that, , חָטָא הָעָם הַזֶּה חֲטָאָה גְדֹלָה, וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם, אֱלֹהֵי זָהָב, Rashi says that he actually said much, much more.
אתה הוא שגרמת להם, שהשפעת להם זהב וכל חפצם, מה יעשו שלא יחטאו. משל למלך שהיה מאכיל ומשקה את בנו ומקשטו ותולה לו כיס בצוארו ומעמידו בפתח בית זונות, מה יעשה הבן שלא יחטא
It is You who caused them [to sin], that you gave them as much gold as they wished; what should they do so as not to sin? This can be compared to a king that fed and gave drink to his son, adorned him, hung a wallet full of money around his neck and stood him before a house of harlots. What should he do so as not to sin?
When our children hear a “no,” as much as they don’t like it and don’t want it, often it’s the very thing they need the most.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Baruch Dayan Emet...To My Beloved Car (ob"m)

I got an email yesterday from the woman who bought my old car. It said:
Just thought you would like to know the car died. The transmission went and was to expensive to fix.
(Name withheld by me)
How am I supposed to react?

Sure, I feel bad about the car dying. But I feel neither any monetary, nor ethical obligation regarding the death of my car. When you buy a used car, the value of the car takes into account the possible problems that you might encounter. No warranties, either expressed or implied were offered. So, while I'm pretty sure I know what she wanted, I'm not going there.
How would you respond?

Kosher Food Costs Solutions from "America's Rabbi". Maybe Not as Simple as He Thinks

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, ("America's Rabbi" - his words, not mine. Really. See for yourself.) writes and speaks a lot. Perhaps too much. (To be honest, I'm not sure of the value of airing our dirty laundry in the Huffington Post, but you gotta pay the bills somehow, I guess.) You see, sometimes it becomes hard to keep up with an impossible publication schedule. So you - he - seems to write things that on paper or screen sound good, but don't make much sense.
To wit, Rabbi Boteach complained recently about the high cost of Jewish life and the fact that Jewish young men (and old men) are pigs. Aside from being two columns in one, Rabbi Boteach makes several assertions about potential ways to lower the costs of Jewish food which I find speculative, to say the least. He writes:

A national campaign should be launched to make Kosher food mainstream for Jew and non-Jew alike. Already studies show that approximately twenty percent of Americans buy food with kosher symbols because of the high food quality. Doubling that number would create an economy of scale which would vastly decrease the costs.
I wonder whether Rabbi Boteach has any knowledge of the kosher industry. "Make kosher food mainstream"? Has he ever heard of Cheerios, or Heinz Ketchup, or any of the other hundreds of thousands of products that boast kashrut supervision. Let's face it: the greatest difference in expense of kosher food comes essentially from meat, poultry and cheese. Does Rabbi Boteach seriously think that the American consumer will suddenly willingly pay significantly more for a piece of meat? And even if he did succeed in creating a real "national" kosher brand, it would still cost a great, great deal more than non-kosher meat, which does not require the shechitah, supervision, salting, watching - all the elements of kosher meat and poultry production that really do cost a lot of money. He continues:

The same applies to kosher restaurants. Imagine a national kosher restaurant chain that markets itself to the mainstream public, available everywhere, and accomplishing two important goals. First, the dramatic reduction of costs through millions more customers and second, achieving the widespread availability of kosher food so that kosher travelers need not starve. If, say, a national organic Kosher food chain would open, many non-Jews who currently avoid fast food because its unhealthy may well flock to it because of high food quality.

Here Rabbi Boteach plays into the worst of stereotypes, that kosher food is better because it's higher quality food. Baloney. Nothing could be further from the truth. Kosher french fries are still fattening. Kosher hamburgers will still clog your arteries. The fact that a restaurant is kosher has no relationship to its cleanliness, healthful food production, quality, or any other standard. (And if you've been in the back of any kosher fast-food joint, you'd know what I mean.) McDonalds is probably much, much cleaner.
But Rabbi Boteach assertion that a national food chain of kosher stores would lower costs also defies logic. Would these restaurants have hashgachah? Would they serve kosher meat? Would they close for Shabbat? Anyone in the restaurant business will tell you that Friday night is the most important restaurant night of the week. Imagine opening a business that must remain closed on the biggest money-making day each and every week, and you'll begin to understand why kosher restaurant food costs so much more. The owner doesn't get a cut in rent. He just has to make up his Shabbat losses throughout the rest of the week - no matter how big the chain might be. So as much as Rabbi Boteach wants us to believe that "nationalization" would save us money, I truly doubt it.
The only way to create national brands of kosher foods and restaurants is to have a sufficient market that demands it. Without the market forces, building businesses based on complaints and ideals will only lose investors a great deal of money.
One other thing: a national food market already does exist. There is a place with national kosher food chains that offer readily available kosher food, meat, cheese, wine - you name it. This place also boasts national kosher restaurant chains and smaller kosher stores, shops and eateries, open and available across the country.
We call it Israel.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Personal Parshah for Ki Tisa 5769: The Terrible Sin of the Golden Calf

This week's shiur:
Parshat Ki Tisa: The Sin of the Golden Calf
Reading the sin of chet ha'egel - the sin of the golden calf, one question comes to our mind: how? How could a nation at the height of spirituality and closeness to God fall so far so fast? We'll discuss this critical question using the language of the chumash, and hopefully learn something about ourselves as well.
You can click on the player to play the file, or right click here to download the file and play it on your mp3 player.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The "Settlers" Aren't So Excited

From this post in Slate Magazine, you'd get the impression that the residents of Yehudah and Shomron (Judea and Samaria) are jumping for joy at the election of Bibi Netanyahu. ("Why Jewish settlers in the West Bank are looking forward to Benjamin Netanyahu's premiership")
In reality, "settlers" (can there be a more sinister moniker?) harbor no such illusions.
As an aside, while there are some who choose to live in Yehuda and Shomron for purely ideological reasons, the vast majority of "settlers" settle where they do for one simple reason: economics. Simply put, you can afford a nicer house with more land in a quieter place in the "territories."
Take my brother and his family for example. He's no settler - at least not by Slate's definition. And yet, a "settler" he is, living in Kiryat Sefer (er, Modiin Illit) together with 35,000 like-minded Hareidim. Why do they (and the residents of the even larger Beitar Illit) live "over the Green Line"? For two reasons:
1. Because they can afford to.
2. Because they like the quality of life.
Prices of apartments in Jerusalem and Benei Brak long ago climbed out of the range of most chareidi families starting out. Moreover, these cities are crowded, cramped, dirty places which boast wonderful communities but challenging lifestyles. In contrast, Kiryat Sefer boasts more open space, fresh air, room for children to play - all while maintaining the spiritual protection of a closed chareidi community.
The Western Media tries to portray all settlers as replicas of Baruch Goldstein, ready at a moment's notice to kill the closest Arab. In reality most "settlers" are much more docile, apathetic about the Arab-Israeli conflict, and to be honest, chareidi. But I digress.
Since receiving a mandate from Shimon Peres to try and form a government, Bibi has made it painfully obvious that he'd like nothing more than to create a "unity" government with the left: Kadimah, Labor - it doesn't really matter that much. Heck, it wouldn't shock me if he tried to create a coalition with Arab parties before turning to the "far right," including, of course, the religious parties. The media here speaks with open disdain about the viability or legitimacy of a government based in large part upon religious parties, be they chareidi parties or religious-zionist parties. So Bibi holds us in his back pocket as a failsafe, all the while hoping that he won't "need" us. That's doesn't make for a great shidduch. Nobody wants to be the "second choice." And it's certainly not a great start for the "right-wing" coalition so emphatically approved by the Israeli electorate.
But hey, it's politics. Israeli politics. When the wooing of the left ultimately fails and Bibi turns rightward, everyone will jump at the chance to sit in the government in power. But the dowry in this marriage will be high - higher than it would have been two weeks ago, and we harbor no illusions about "friendship" and political identity. That went out the window with Ariel Sharon, Gaza, disengagement and the rise of political expediency long, long ago.
The religious Zionist population (so many of whom live in Yehuda and Shomron) does expect Bibi to have to "pay" for their loyalty in relaxed building rules, allowing new apartment blocks and even neighborhoods to develop. But no one expects an ideological shift on the part of the government, even a "far-right" government. He'd drop us like a hot shnitzel at the first sign of a Nobel Peace prize; or a ride on Air Force One. Or a game of Putt-Putt with the American Undersecretary of State for Environmental Affairs.
In the words of one Yesha resident to me, "We're gearing up now for the next hafganah (protest)."

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Knock Knock. Table Talk for Tetzaveh 5769

By Rabbi Reuven Spolter, Director of Recruitment and Special Projects, Orot College of Education

To download a printable version of this Devar Torah, click here.

My son, who attends a weekly chug that concentrates on logic and thinking games, came home with the following brain-teaser:
A certain thief was terrorizing a neighborhood. Yet, despite repeated attempts to catch the thief, he always managed to elude them. One day he heard the police knocking on his front door. He quickly jumped out the window and checked himself into the most upscale hotel in town, where he went back to work. Again our thief, a master of disguise, avoided hotel security and soon terrorized most of wealthiest hotel guests. Before long, the wealthy clientele, tired to being robbed blind, began to leave the hotel.
One woman, Mrs. Thompson, refused to leave. "I am not afraid of thieves," she said, remaining at the hotel. One morning she heard a knock at her door, and when she answered, a well-dressed businessman stood in the threshold. "Oh, so sorry," he told her, "I thought this was my room."
As soon as he closed the door, Mrs. Thompson called hotel security. "The thief," she said, "just came to my door. He's riding the elevator down to the lobby as we speak."
Security caught the man and after a short interrogation, he confessed to his crimes. The hotel manager, relieved to finally catch the thief, visited Mrs. Thompson in her room with a token of appreciation from the hotel for her quick thinking.
"I have to ask you," he said to her, "how did you know that he was the thief?"
How did she know? And more importantly for our purposes, if the people in our story followed parshat hashavua (and specifically Parshat Tetzaveh), she would never have known. Why not?

Among the eight vestments (that's a fancy word for clothes) that the Kohen Gadol wore during his avodah in the Mishkan, the me'il – the coat of blue, served at least two distinct purposes. First and foremost, the techelet of the coat contrasted the Kohen Gadol from the distinct white garments of the other kohanim. But the coat had an auditory feature as well. The Torah tells us:

וּפַעֲמֹנֵי זָהָב בְּתוֹכָם, סָבִיב. פַּעֲמֹן זָהָב וְרִמּוֹן, פַּעֲמֹן זָהָב וְרִמּוֹן, עַל-שׁוּלֵי הַמְּעִיל, סָבִיב. וְהָיָה עַל-אַהֲרֹן, לְשָׁרֵת; וְנִשְׁמַע קוֹלוֹ בְּבֹאוֹ אֶל-הַקֹּדֶשׁ לִפְנֵי ה' וּבְצֵאתוֹ--וְלֹא יָמוּת).שמות לב:לג-לה)
And bells of gold between them round about: a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, upon the skirts of the robe round about. And it shall be upon Aaron to minister; and the sound shall be heard when he goes into the holy place before Hashem, and when he comes out, that he die not.
Why did the coat have bells? Why were the bells so important that their sound prevented the death of the Kohen Gadol? Commentators offer different explanations.
Rashi interprets the "lifesaving" quality not on the me'il, but on all of the bigdei kehunah. Indeed, a Kohen may not serve in the Beit Hamikdash missing any of the bigdei kehunah under the threat of the death penalty. (And you thought that the dress code at your place of work was harsh.) Yet, most commentators apply the threat specifically to the sounds of the me'il.
Rashbam explains that on Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol had to be the only person in the Beit Hamikdash during the avodah. The bells on the lip of his coat would warn any kohanim present of the approaching Kohen Gadol, giving them sufficient time to stay away. Thus, the bells served as a kind of protective warning system to keep danger at bay. Ibn Ezra suggests that the chimes of the bells formed a part of the Kohen Gadol's prayer, providing a "background" music track to augment his personal tefillah to Hashem. Chizkuni raises the possibility that the bells alerted those around him to the presence of the Kohen Gadol, not as a warning, but to allow them to know when he performed the service in the Beit Hamikdash, so that they could focus together with him. Rashbam also allows that the bells served simply as another way to distinguish between the Kohen Gadol and the other kohanim.
Each of these explanations gives us a different understanding of the purpose of the bells. But the gemara in Pesachim (112a) provides a different interpretation that offers a practical lesson for each of us that we can and should implement in our daily lives. The Gemara lists seven lessons that Rabbi Akiva taught his son, Rabbi Yehushua. Among them,
ואל תכנס לביתך פתאום, כל שכן לבית חבירך
And you should not suddenly enter you own home, and certainly your friend's home.
Why not? Rashbam explains,
השמע את קולך להם דילמא עבדי מילתא דצניעותא. [בויקרא רבה] ר' יוחנן כי הוה עייל לביתא מנענע משום שנאמר "ונשמע קולו בבואו אל הקדש".
You should make your voice known to them, for perhaps they are engaged in a private matter. [In Vayikra Rabbah we learn that] Rabbi Yochanan, when he would enter his home, would shake [and make a noise], because it is written, " and the sound shall be heard when he goes into the holy place."
According to the Gemara, the bells of the Kohen Gadol also served as a means to protect privacy – not of the Kohel Gadol himself, but of anyone he might encounter. We can readily imagine not wanting to bump into the Kohel Gadol while performing some innocuous activity. Imagine yourself after a nice lunch, checking your teeth in the mirror for that small poppy seed stuck between your teeth. Suddenly you realize that someone important – your boss/a potential client/the Kohen Gadol is standing right behind you. Were you doing anything wrong? Of course not. But it's embarrassing nonetheless. For this reason, the Torah ensures that while your boss or client might silently walk up behind you, the Kohen Gadol never would. His bells would give him away, and protect you from the slightest sense of shame.
What a wonderful lesson! Every person deserves a sense of privacy and protection from embarrassment. Moreover, Chazal extend this protection even to our own homes. No one likes to be surprised suddenly, even by the closest family member, even when they're standing in their own kitchen.
So get in the habit of knocking when you walk into your own house or your own bedroom (assuming that you share it with someone). It will make you a more sensitive person – and transform your house into an even holier home – one the kohen gadol would be happy to enter.

That, of course, is the answer to the riddle: The woman knew it was the thief because no one would knock on his own door. When the man apologized and said, "So sorry, I thought this was my room," that's when Mrs. Thompson knew that she had her man.
Unless he read this week's parshah.