Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Selfishness and Selflessness in Megillat Rut
These two themes form an underlying motif throughout the Megillah. A close look both at the text and the Midrashim on the text reveal a critical message for us as we prepare for Shavuot.
Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.
Rut and Excellence - Click here to download a pdf file of the drashah.
I commented that it's sad that we think that every single child needs to sit in school for hours at a time reading, writing and studying. Some kids just aren't wired that way. I think that we need to begin to think about these issues in a completely different way.
Truth be told, how much learning do you really need to do to get along well in life? Obviously, if you're going to enter into a career in a specific field, then you need to develop an expertise in that area. But my son is now learning biology.
If a child becomes a lawyer, will the fact that he needed to memorize the different names of cell parts be remotely valuable or even useful to him - especially since by the end of this summer he will have forgotten them all. He's also learning Jewish history. It's great that he's getting a sense of Jewish history and the trials and tribulations, errors and triumphs of the Jewish people. But why in the world should a child memorize names and dates? Who really cares what the name of this or that Roman general was? You want to know a fact - look it up. On Wikipedia. On the other hand, I'm a big believer in skills knowledge. You need to know how to add. You have to know how to write and read. These critical skills build on each other and a child's ability to handle increasingly difficult challenges progresses as the level of difficulty increases.
(By the way, this discussion relates to me only to the fields of secular knowledge. In the world of Torah, every step and bit learned is, in and of itself valuable, and also serves as a springboard for future growth and learning.)
In his powerful article in the NY Times magazine, Matthew Crawford writes,
If the goal is to earn a living, then, maybe it isn’t really true that 18-year-olds need to be imparted with a sense of panic about getting into college (though they certainly need to learn). Some people are hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, against their own inclinations and natural bents, when they would rather be learning to build things or fix things. One shop teacher suggested to me that “in schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement. Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.”
A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self-destructive. There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions. Further, there is wide use of drugs to medicate boys, especially, against their natural tendency toward action, the better to “keep things on track.” I taught briefly in a public high school and would have loved to have set up a Ritalin fogger in my classroom. It is a rare person, male or female, who is naturally inclined to sit still for 17 years in school, and then indefinitely at work.
Why do we force our children sit for hours and hour on end learning material that will in no way be useful to them later in life? If a child doesn't like math, why should we force her to sit through Algebra 2, memorizing abstract principles that she doesn't understand or care about? Sure, she should learn percentages and fractions. Your son should know how to reliably halve a recipe and convert metrics to standard measurements. He should be able to figure out how much to tip a waiter, and calculate how long it will take him to drive to Chicago. From anywhere. Your daughter should know how to balance her checkbook and manage her money (which we shockingly don't teach). She should know how to figure out whether it's cheaper to buy the paper towels at Target in the large pack, or with coupons by the unit in the grocery store. But does any child not entering the world of advanced mathematics and science really need to know how to figure out the integral of an equation as it approaches infinity? I liked math - and even almost minored in it in college. But if you'd ask me how much math knowledge I use today? Minimal at best.
Education then, needs wholesale reconsideration. Are we giving our children life-skills to help them navigate the world? Why is it that high-school kids never really learn how to hammer and saw; build and construct? Every single person who owns a home will at one point need - absolutely need - to fix a light switch, hang shelves; plant a lawn. Why is it that we ignore these needs in school, and then have to hire specialists to do these things for us?
For the very children who hate school - who cannot sit still - might they not enjoy caring for farm animals; running a school canteen under the guidance of a teacher, where they'd learn issues of running a business, math, ordering supplies, the value of work, and so many other useful skills? What about the skills of cooking, sewing, first aid, basic machine repair? How many kids learn how to change a tire, or the oil on their car? Our kids are learning how to design Power Point presentations, which is good. But are we teaching them anything useful to present?
Apparently we can't teach them those things, because we're too busy teaching them French. Or European history (I got a 5 on my AP History exam. Don't remember a thing, other than that the word "defenestrate" means "to throw out of a window".)
Which, I'm sure, is what our friend's child wants to do to his books, teachers, and entire school career.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
But the impetus for this post was this article in the New York Times magazine, which I read with a great sense of identification. The author writes about how he eschewed his PhD job in a think tank to open a motorcycle repair shop, and how he finds the latter far more intellectually challenging and fulfilling than the former. I would like to show how I believe that the Torah addresses this issue specifically.
At the beginning of Bereishit, we learn that after creating Adam, God places him in the Garden of Eden. But he doesn't just put him there to play Nintendo. Rather, God situates man in the Garden for a reason.
Don't just read the translation. I pulled it from a website to make my life easy. In truth, translating this verse raises serious questions, not the least of which is, What does it mean to "dress" a land? I have no idea. But the verse raises other questions, both linguistic and contextual:וַיִּקַּח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ.And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. (Bereishit 2:15)
1. Looking carefully at the last two words, they end in the feminine form: לעבדה ולשמרה - which I would translate as "to work it and to guard it." But the "it" here clearly refers to a feminine form. Otherwise the verse would have said לעבדו ולשמרו - in the male form. The problem here is that the word גן is a "male" word, so it's difficult to explain that the verbs modify the noun גן - garden. The problem then becomes, what did God place man in the garden to "work and guard" if not the garden itself?
2. The verse itself raises another question: what exactly is man supposed to do in this garden? Looking back at the previous six verses, we learn about how God had planted the garden, watered it, pretty much made it the best darn garden ever in history. Adam could eat whatever and as much as he wanted (other than that darn tree!) If God's your gardener, what's there left for Adam to do other than lounge around?
Because of these two issues, many commentators interpret this verse allegorically. Seforno, commenting on the word לעבדה - "to work it," explains simply, "לעבוד את נשמת חיים" - "to work on the soul of life." God placed man in His garden not to weed and prune the grass, but to weed and prune his soul; to improve himself and become more spiritual, ethical and moral.
Pirkei D'rabbi Eliezer states,
ומה עבודה היתה בגן, שאמר לעבדה ולשמרה - והלא כל האילנות נצמחות מאליהן? אלא לעסוק בדברי תורה ולשמור את דרך עץ החיים, ואין עץ חיים אלא תורה, שנאמר "עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה"What "work" was there in the garden, that God told him to "work it and to guard it" - for did not all the trees grow on their own? Rather, [the instruction refers to a commandment] to immerse in the words of Torah and to guard the ways of the "tree of life," for the tree of life refers to the Torah as it is written, "It is a tree of life to those who grab hold of it." (Mishlei 3:18)
And yet these interpretations leave me wondering: why then did God give Adam a physical form? The garden seems to have been an actual, real place. If Adam's entire goal was spiritual perfection, why put him in a physical place? Why give him a body at all? Why write that God put Adam in the garden for "work" which seemingly implies physical toil? And finally - and perhaps most perplexingly - God never gave Adam the Torah. How was he supposed to grab hold of the Torah and keep the commandments that he never received?
Add to this the following Midrash:
תניא: רבי שמעון בן אלעזר אומר, גדולה מלאכה שאף אדם הראשון לא טעם כלום עד שעשה מלאכה, שנאמר "וינחהו בגן עדן לעבדה ולשמרה" והדר "מכל עץ הגן תאכל"Said Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar: great is [the value of] work, for even original man did not taste a morsel until he performed some work as it is written, "and He placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it" and only then it says, "From every tree in the garden you may eat." (Avot D'rabbi Natan 11)
This is an allusion to the inhabitants of the world that it is unworthy to benefit from the world without bringing any benefit and pleasure to the world's population and its existence. For the world from its perspective gives benefit to man. Therefore it is appropriate from man's side to benefit the world.According to Torah Temimah, we should not and cannot just be takers. We must also contribute in some way to the growth, development and completion of the world.
But to me it's more than that. It seems to me that in some way, God hard-wired into us the need to not only grow and develop spiritually and emotionally, but physically as well. By giving us a physical form and strengths and capabilities, God told us in a sense: Here's my garden. Here's the world. Let's see what you can do with it.
Living in a yishuv in Israel, I often find myself marveling at the fields as they grow and develop. The natural world has a great physical beauty when left untouched by human hands. But those rows of fields; or the clean, shining, golden stalks of wheat, swaying ever so softly in the wind - they have a different and perhaps no less stark beauty. The beauty of man's toil; the beauty of man "working and guarding" the garden.
Monday, May 25, 2009
Truth be told, I have long enjoyed working with my hands. My first real project in the house was a small closet for toys in the basement. That went relatively well, so the deck also seemed doable. Rena didn't say much. I think she figured that while it was a nice idea, I was never going to actually build the thing. So I think she was somewhat surprised when I started pulling out trees and bushes. By hand.
I really didn't have much of an idea of what I was doing. But I took a couple of books out from the libary, and watched a video on deck building a couple of times, and off I went.
The project took weeks. I measured and designed. I drew a detailed sketch of the way I wanted the deck to look. I pulled out the shrubs (not easy at all), and dug the post holes by hand. It was back-breaking labor, having to dig four feet down below the frost line. I could have hired someone else to do the holes, but (a) I was cheap -- really cheap, and (b) something in me wanted to do the whole thing myself. I mixed concrete and poured the footings. I cut the wood and laid the foundation. I drilled the holes in the house and attached the main boards. From start to finish, it was an incredible challenge, but I found myself rushing home to get to the project. Once I finished the main porch, I added a fence and stained and was done.
And it felt great. I loved coming home and seeing that deck. I loved knowing where I had cheated to get the thing to look right - a little extra sanding here, a cut there. I loved sitting on the deck.
I also spoke about the deck in shul, probably too much. But it was good speech fodder, as much as I can remember.
I have a friend in the rabbinate who I discovered also liked working with his hands. He told me that he thought that the reason we enjoyed the physical labor so much was the imprecise nature of rabbinic work. You visit the sick, give classes, deliver sermons. Even when people react positively to your work, (which did happen, ever so rarely), you never really know how much tangible effect you actually had. Sure, you have a vague sense that the speech really went well; that a certain family's growth in mitzvot is related to your efforts. But it's all just that - vague.There no immediate sense of gratification and accomplishment, the way you feel when you've finished fixing a door, or installing a ceiling fan, or painting a room.
I think that in a certain way, we're hard-wired to only get this true sense of accomplishment out of real, tangible work.
I'll explain why in my next post on this topic.
Saturday, May 23, 2009
The most famous reason, quoted by the Chafetz Chaim (see Mishnah Berurah 494:12) in the name of the Mogen Avrohom, is that when the Jewish people returned to their homes after the harrowing, exhausting experience of receiving the Torah, they did what all Jewish people do when we get home – they went and stood in front of the refrigerator with the door open. (At least that’s what the men did.) Only this time, there really was nothing to eat, for a very simple reason. Before they had accepted the Torah, they could eat anything they chose – meat and milk together; improperly slaughtered meat – anything. But, staring into that fridge on that monumental morning, they realized that not only was the half-eaten corned beef sandwich on the bottom shelf not kosher; all of their dishes were treif and would have to be kashered as well. Then came the epiphany! As complicated as meat preparation is according to the Torah, with the shechitah and de-veining and kashering and salting and soaking – milchig food requires none of that confusion. So, until they could get their act together, learn the new halachah and prepare a proper kosher hot dog, they decided to stick with milchigs. So they all promptly rushed to the drive in at the Mount Sinai Dunkin Donuts, which ran out of bagels in under an hour. (Or so I hear.)
For this reason, we too enjoy milchig meals on Shavuot. In the spirit of fraternity with our forefathers of so many years ago, we reenact their sacrifice of barbecue for the sake of the Torah, and make do with pizza, cheesecake and ice cream on Shavuot.
But what if don’t have it in me? What if it’s just not Yom Tov for me without a roast, or meatballs, or steak? In fact, don’t the rabbis tell us precisely this idea? The Gemara does say that that אין שמחה אלא בבשר ויין – if you want to truly enjoy Yom Tov, which the Torah commands us to do, you cannot really have enjoyment without meat and wine. So, as good as that ice cream is, how am I supposed to enjoy Shavuot without a nice piece of roast? Or a steak? Or a hot dog? Or all three?
According to the Ramo, I’m not. Yes, I should eat milk. But then, I should also eat meat. You got that right – we should eat both, at the very same meal!
Commenting on the Shulchan Aruch (סימן תצ"ד), Ramo – Rabbi Moshe Isserles – explains that,
“There is a custom in some communities to eat dairy foods on the first day of Shavuot. It seems to me the reason is similar to the two cooked foods that we take on the night of Pesach to remind us of the Pesach offering and the Chagigah offering. Similarly, we eat dairy food and then we eat meat food, and we need to bring with these foods two breads on the table, which represents the altar, to remind us of the two breads that they would bring in the Temple on Shavuot.”I’ll explain. On Shavuot, the Torah commands us to bring as one of the offerings in the Temple a sacrifice called the שתי הלחם, literally meaning, “Two breads.” We call this the “two bread” sacrifice because God commands the כהן to offer two breads as a sacrifice on Shavuot. (No, it’s not a very creative name, but it does get the point across.) Just as on Pesach we put different foods on the seder plate (the shankbone and egg) to remind us of the different sacrifices offered in the Temple, on Shavuot people wanted a way to remember the “two bread” sacrifice as well. This is where the milk and meat enter the picture. The Shulchan Aruch (in Yoreh Deah 89:4) writes that one may not use bread that was served in the course of a meat meal for a dairy meal, even if the bread remained untouched. (This rule applies only to cut bread and not whole challahs or rolls.) Therefore, I cannot used challah leftover from my fleishig Shabbos lunch to make French Toast on Sunday morning. (On a personal note, I try not to cut up huge amounts of challah if we’re having a small family meal for this reason. This way, I leave the uncut challah on the side, ready for my kids’ cream cheese sandwiches during the week.) Armed with this information, we can now understand why people have the custom to eat both milk and meat on Shavuot.
When, on Shavuot morning, I smear my cream cheese on my challah, I now can’t use that same challah if wanted to switch to meat and eat salami. Halachah requires me to get another loaf of bread instead – two breads! Thus, I remember the שתי הלחם – the “two bread” sacrifice of the Temple. Brilliant!
You’re probably wondering why we don’t just use the two challahs we use on every Shabbos and Yom Tov to remember the שתי הלחם. I suppose we could, but this way, we’ve actually created a minhag that allows me to have my (cheese) cake and eat (my steak) too! I think that this is one custom that every family should adopt. Just make sure to eat the milchig part first, or you’ll be sitting down for one long, long, meal.
Friday, May 22, 2009
1. An article where YU Chancellor Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm declared that Orthodoxy would "soon say kaddish for Conservative and Reform Judaism." For the record, he said that we would say kaddish in sadness, but I'm not so sure he's right. I don't think they'll die. I think they'll merge.
2. A piece this morning about how an IDF rabbi refused to allow a Conservative woman to recite kaddish for her grandmother in shul. It's actually a rather complex issue that was handled rather sensitively by the IDF, if you ask me. But headlines are what's important nowadays - not the facts of the story. If anything, it's more a story about Orthodox vs. Orthodox - but who'd want to read an article about an intra-orthodox debate on the merits of women reciting kaddish in a minyan.
3. A piece quoting a major member of the Knesset slamming Reform Judaism and Reform Jews. It is about this piece that I would like to comment.
This week the Jerusalem Post reported that,
Knesset Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) said Wednesday that he will block any attempt to transfer state funds to non-Orthodox institutions involved in preparing converts to Judaism.So, in the span of thirty seconds, Gafni, who is the chairman of the Finance Committee of the State of Israel:
"The Reform Movement is not a legitimate form of Judaism," Gafni said in a telephone interview. "The Reform are a bunch of treacherous backstabbers to Judaism. They are jokers who operate without hierarchy and without rules."
Gafni insisted that "MKs are not a bunch of marionettes who will do whatever the Supreme Court tells them to do. I will block any attempts to provide state funds to Reform."
1. Insulted Reform Judaism
2. Insulted Reform Jews personally (all of whom I am sure he has never met)
3. Announced that he would ignore a decision of Israel's Supreme Court, undercutting one of the cornerstones of democracy. (There is a legislative way to get around the Supreme Court decision. I hope that's what he meant.)
I have a few comments for Mr. Gafni, who I'm sure is a regular Choppingwood Reader.
1. Please be quiet.
2. Thank you.
3. Have you ever met a Reform Jew in your life?
4. What exactly do you - or anyone - gain by calling anyone "a bunch of treacherous backstabbers to Judaism" or "jokers"? Do you think that's going to get them to see your point of view?
5. I wholeheartedly reject (and denounce) both the content and tone of your message.
6. Please be quiet.
7. Calvin Coolidge once said, "I have never been hurt by what I have not said."Good advice. Oh, but he wasn't Orthodox. So I have another quote for you: The Mishnah in Avot (1:17) says:
Good advice.שמעון בנו אומר כל ימי גדלתי בין החכמים ולא מצאתי לגוף טוב אלא שתיקהShimon the son [of Rabban Gamliel] says: For my entire life I grew up among the scholars, and could find nothing better for the body than silence.
And he was Orthodox.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
The introductory panel featured, among others, Rav Yuval Sherlow, a well-known thinker and leading rabbi in the Modern Orthodox community. While many speakers focused on the numerous potential pitfalls that modern media presents, Rav Sherlow also noted some of the advantages and benefits that today's communication tools afford us. I'd like to share some thoughts from his talk through the prism of the Parshah.
During the count of the nation, the Torah lists the count of the Kohanim, beginning with Aharon. Instead of just counting the people present, the Torah also mentions two men who did not make the count:
וַיָּמָת נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא לִפְנֵי ה' בְּהַקְרִבָם אֵשׁ זָרָה לִפְנֵי ה' בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי וּבָנִים לֹא-הָיוּ לָהֶם:This raises a very simple question: we already know what happened. We know why and how Aharon's sons died. Why does the Torah need to mention this painful episode yet again? The Midrash explains that through the Torah's description we learn some new information.
Nadav and Avihu died before Hashem when they brought a strange fire before Hashem in the Sinai desert, and they had no children. (Bamidbar 3:4)
וכי במדבר סיני מתו ? אלא מלמד שמהר סיני נטלו אפופסין שלהם למיתה. הה"ד (שמות כד) ואל אצילי בני ישראל לא שלח ידו.According to this Midrash, Datan and Aviram died not because of the strange fire that they offered in the desert. The fire was simply the last straw. They had clearly engaged in some type of inappropriate behavior at Mount Sinai that put them in an extremely precarious position. When the brought the funny fire, Hashem decided that He had had enough, and their punishment ensued.
Did they die in the Sinai desert? Rather, this teaches us that that from Mount Sinai they were already designated for death, as we read, "And upon the nobles of the Children of Israel He did not extend His hand." (Shemot 24)
It's interesting to note that the Torah doesn't pull any punches. We might have thought that it was enough to think that they died because of what happened in the Mishkan. But the Torah believes in full disclosure: we learn of their mistakes; their missteps and their sins, so that we can improve ourselves and avoid their actions and their fate.
This, said Rav Sherlow, is one of the unique benefits that the world of communication affords us. While we must always be careful about violating lashon hara, spreading malicious gossip and rumor, there's a corresponding value as well. The Torah commands us, לא תעמוד על דם רעך – "Do not stand idly by the blood of your brother." The world of communication has the ability to bring to the light of day issues and practices that were once hushed up and pushed under the table.
The media has saved numerous children. It has shielded families, protected students and defended women through television stories, internet blogs and newspapers. Modern media has many problems, but we cannot ignore the benefits that it has also brought to our society.
Even when they're not pleasant, sometimes bringing painful issues out into the open isn't just a right. It's a mitzvah.
Bamidbar, full of names and numbers, describes the wholesale differentiation of the tribe of Levi. What are the ways that God separates the Leviim, and why? Most importantly, what does their separation teach us about our own lives?
Click here to download the shiur, or you can play inside the handy-dandy audio player you see below.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
May 12 - What does Netanyahu have to do to get the peace process moving? (Isn't it funny how the onus always falls on Israel? But I digress.)
The days leading up to the meeting gave me the impression that things would probably not go well; Netanyahu would be forced to cave in to Obama's overwhelming political power and personal charisma, and if not directly declare a Palestinian state and Israel's intention to withdraw to the Green Line, at least take some steps in that direction. Don't they wish.
So opening the NY Times website this morning, I looked for the story about the meeting "above the fold" - displayed somewhere prominent on the site. Nothing there. What happened?
What happened is quite simple. It seems that they had a civil, even amicable meeting where each party expressed its needs and wants, and how it views dealing with the complex issues of Iran and the Palestinians. Neither really bent very much, but each made an effort to entend itself. Obama did not, at least overtly, threaten or force Israel, and Netanyahu seems to have been straighforward and honest.
No big fight. No big split. In other words, a boring meeting and not much news.
Hence, when you search this morning's paper for the story on the meeting, instead of a front-page picture and bold headline, you'll find the story on page A12, hidden in the International section, sitting quietly between a story on how terrorists are trolling Facebook for victims (page A5), and another story on A12 about how 40 percent of Israeli Arabs deny the Holocaust.
In other words, "Nice job, Bibi."
Monday, May 18, 2009
Last week, I traveled to Yerushalayim to attend a wedding at Ramat Rachel. To get there from anywhere in the city, you have to cross a road called Derech Chevron. Just my luck that at that very moment, the pope happened to be visiting, and for whatever reason, they seemed to think he needed the whole road. When I explained to a cop that I was missing a wedding, he said, "The Chattan and Kallah can't get there either, so don't worry." We both laughed, but it wasn't that far from the truth. It turns out that the mesader kiddushin was also caught in traffic. When he explained his predicament to the police, they were gracious enough to provide him an escort to the wedding. Right before sunset. Probably.
In any case, stuck in Yerushalayim I did the only sensible thing. I parked and went for a schwarma to wait for traffic to open up. On the way, I stopped to read the pashkivilim. I always find them interesting and entertaining. I noticed a poster for the "Cornerstone Laying Ceremony for the Third Beit Hamikdash" scheduled for Yom Yerushalayim which is of course, later this week. Wow! I didn't know that we've started rebuilding the Beit Hamikdash, but I guess we are! Then I noticed the poster next to it, a poster announcing the appearance of Macy Gray, performing in Jerusalem on that very same day.
I thought to myself, perhaps before we start laying cornerstones for the Beit Hamikdash, we need to worry more about Macy Gray performing in our holy city. We'll know it's time to start building when we (all of us) stop wanting to have the Macy Grays of the world perform for us.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Galut Judaism is well-built on the principle of preservation, as well it should be. Without that built-in inertia (set to "grindingly slow"), things would have changes too quickly to maintain the system.
If you think about it, this was really beginning to happen in Eastern Europe before the Shoah. Rabbanim from there were making rather shocking halachic decisions, and despite Artscroll's attempts to change the historical record, very forward-thinking Yeshivot and rabbis were sprouting all across Europe, starting mostly in Western Europe but filtering their way east. Rav Kalman Chameides, the father of a member of mine from West Hartford, Dr. Leon Chameides, served as a rav in Katawice, Poland in the mainstream Orthodox shul there. Leon showed me some of the essays that he wrote in his local Jewish paper, and many of them were anything but "mainstream" by today's standards. (See this article - amazing!)
Which gedolim ended up in America? The most prominent leaders were also the very rabbis who were willing to leave Eastern Europe by choice. By nature that would also make them the most flexible. Rav Moshe Feinstein left Lituania in 1936 - well before the Holocaust. The Rav left Germany and followed his father as to America as well. He certainly could have found work somewhere in Germany, or Poland. Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz came to the US in 1913! R' Yaakov Kaminetzky came in 1937 - not the best of times, but certainly before the worst of times. Rav Ruderman came to America in 1930 settling first in New Haven and then moving to Baltimore.
Can you imagine how many people thought that they were nuts to leave the safety and security of Europe for the "tarfut" of America?
It stands to reason that their halachic attitudes reflected their personalities - certainly adherents to tradition, but willing to adjust, change, and remold. It should come as no surprise that all of them sanctioned learning together with college study: Rav Ruderman in Ner Yisroel, Rav Moshe in Lower Manhattan (my father got semichah from Rav Moshe but eventually got a law degree), Rav Shraga Feivel was perfectly willing to open a college associated with Torah Vadaas. Many of Rav Moshe's piskei halachah (see Agunah, ger katan and many others) are certainly creative, if not revolutionary. But he had the broad shoulders to carry that great weight.
Of the group of big-time Roshei Yeshiva who moved to America, only R' Aharon Kotler came following the Holocaust after there was literally no choice but to get out or be killed. The article about Rav Hutner (who learned in Hevron and made his way to America as well) states:
He viewed secular studies as essential in learning a profession for people to support themselves by eventually going to college and becoming professionals. Together with the dean of the Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz a charter to set up a combined yeshiva and college was obtained from the New York State Board of Regents. However, this plan was abandoned upon the insistence of Rabbi Aaron Kotler the anti-secular leader of the Lakewood yeshiva (Beth Medrash Gevoha), which would become the largest yeshiva of its kind in the United States, who wielded great influence and rabbinical power. In this and other matters Rabbi Hutner acquiesced to Rabbi Kotler.From the best of my understanding, Rav Aharon was also the one who was the strongest voice against change in America. To me, this makes sense. Rav Aharon was the most anti-change, as opposed to Rav Ruderman, the Rav, Rav Moshe - all of whom moved with the times.
But then again, which yeshiva was the most forward-thinking about community kollels, and spreading its message? You got it - Lakewood. They set the tone for chareidi America, clearly in the R' Aharon's mold. He set the tone for American Judaism, and Lakewood represents the greatest stronghold of Chareidi Orthodoxy in America.
Monday, May 11, 2009
In this Hirhurim post, Gil Student writes about the OU's recent initiative to address the growing tuition crisis. And a crisis it is, with skyrocketing costs and dwindling ranks of those able to pay full freight. The OU has a number of interesting suggestions which I don't want to address. But the discussion in the comments brought up the idea of aliyah as a possible solution to the problem.
A commenter named Eli Parosh writes,
There is, of course, a much more simple solution...
Move to Israel. Tuition and health insurance are much, much cheaper. 170 shekel a month for the top family plan health insurance. 13 shekel for medicines at the pharmacy. My $4,000 tution bill for private school for 4 children is quite funny when compared to its US equivalent and level of learning. In fact, I would venture to say that $30,000 a year here goes further than $200,000 in the U.S. (and that does not even include the ruchnius) Perhaps Hashem is forcing the geulah, and the OU is trying to come up with ways to say a dime with energy efficiency, to prevent it. it looks pretty sad...
This led to the following comment:
I want to add that I think that an Orthodox Jew making Aliyah solely for the purpose of solving the tuition crises is BAD. An Orthodox Jew should make Aliyah for a variety of reasons involving being mekayem mitzvat yishuv haaretz, educating one's children in the most full Jewish Torah environment one can live in today, and many many other reasons. (including solving Shmuly Boteach's lack of readily kosher food and restaurants problem that seems plague American Jewry today according to him....) see Rav Aron Lichtenstein's essay in the recent Orthodox Forum book for a good listing and discussion of the spiritual considerations to take into account.
If solving tuition is the sole raison detre of Aliyah than when the disposable income to tuition costs possibly goes out of whack in Israel people will leave if they haven't absorbed all of the other reasons to live in E"Y.
I really could not disagree more, both practically and ideologically.
From a practical standpoint, making aliyah because of the tuition crisis is really an articulation of values. It means that sending our children to day school is so critical for their well-being, that we're willing to transport ourselves to another country, culture, etc - simply to ensure that they continue to enjoy and benefit from that education. Moreover, for all the challenges and complaints that parents have with schools here, the amazing choice and quality of Jewish education astounds me.
But making aliyah to save money seems like a sound ideological choice as well. A well-known principle in Judaism teaches us that, מתוך שלא לשמה בא לשמה - "out of performance of a commandment not for its own sake, one will come to perform it for its own sake." Put simply, when someone performs a mitzvah for the wrong reason, he will eventually perform that same mitzvah for the right reasons. Of course God would want you to do it for the right reasons. But He'll take what he can get. And if you can't bring yourself to make aliyah out of a Zionistic fervor for the mitzvah of yishuv eretz yisrael, day school tuition will do just fine.
In reality, somehow we've come to think - and allow our children to think as well - that mitzvot have to have meaning and "speak" to us in order to follow them. My wife has discussions all the time with students who tell her that they struggle with some mitzvah or another because they don't "relate" to it, or "get" it. The answer is pretty straightforward: sure, we'd love it if you identified with every mitzvah, and performed each and every one from a position of understanding, love and devotion to God. But that's not realistic. Not every person is going to love every mitzvah. Many are quite hard. They can make life difficult. But that's why we call them mitzvot - commandments. God doesn't ask us to fulfill them if we feel like it and identify with them. He commands us. Our job is to follow His commandments. If we can arrive at the point where we appreciate the beauty of each commandment, all the better. But if not, that in no way absolves us from their observance.
So if you're considering aliyah to save money on your tuition - great! You'll save a boatload of money. Our tuition this past year for three children in grade school and one in nursery was something in the range of 2,000 shekel - $500. (You'll make much less too, but it might just even out in the end.)
But at least you'll be here. And with aliyah, that by far, is the hardest part.
Sunday, May 10, 2009
On the other hand, what about for frum kids? I state at the outset that I have never been on a heritage-type trip, so I have no personal knowledge of these types of experiences.
But I can't help feeling that many of these Holocaust Poland trips fall into the growing list of edu-tainment experiences that have become part of the process of growing up in America. For the kids, it's less about learning and feeling the Holocaust and growing in some way, than having the experience. They relate to Poland as some type of morbid theme park - a great big Death Adventure. Of course it's serious and directled and properly led. But it's about having been there and seen it in person.
This post was prompted by a comment next to a YouTube video of the ending of Sha'alvim's recent trip to Poland. (As an alumnus, I'm on their email list, which sent me the link to the video.) The video is of the kids who, having just returned from Poland meet Yonatan Razel (well-known musician) who sings with them at 4am in the airport. Which is fine. But what got me is the comment on the side of the video.
As R' Hendler שליט"א said on Shobbos, "You Never Know." We were waiting and waiting for that special thing to happen to wrap up our trip in poland, and סוף כל סוף it did. We had the most amazing ku...Let me understand. You just spent the last few days in Poland traveling from town to town learning about destroyed comunities. You walked through death camps and gas chambers, and the most amazing "special thing" that happened on the trip was the kumzitz that you had in the airport as you returned to Israel? Am I missing something?
These trips also point to the fact that education has begun to focus far more on experience than knowlege or skills. Schools have become academies of fun, first and foremost. How many schools now offer "color war"? Didn't that used to happen only in camp? How many periods a week are students out of class for "special programs?" How many Shabbatonim, ski trips, skill-building and other non-classically educational experiences do our students now have?
We want our children to have good memories, enjoy their time, and of course learn something. But we have come to place more stock in the educational value of "experience" (which can be powerful, but fleeting) than we have in the business of hard work; poring over books and struggling with challenges.
And I'm not sure that our children have become better Jews for it.
I wonder: how many students who went on a trip to Poland attended a Yom Hashoah event the next year?
Friday, May 8, 2009
I will take this opportunity to mention another story regarding a unit that entered a certain house [in Gaza], and from the cartons of fruit it was clear that they were "Shemittah Mehadrin." In the same house they found Kassam rockets. Obviously, the order was given to destroy the house and the adjaescent greenhouses. It became clear that the people who claim that buying produce from Arab sources indirectly supports attacks against Israel were mistaken: it supports them directly.
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
At the same time, Judaism very strongly believes in the notion of coercion. The Gemara makes no distinctions between interpersonal transgressions (stealing or maiming) and spiritual transgressions (violating Shabbat or kashrut) when discussing punishments meted out in Beit Din. The Jewish community can – and must – force each individual Jew to adhere to the Torah. The fact that modern courts lack the jurisdiction and power to mete out these punishments in no way diminishes the very real coercive role of the Jewish court. Unlike our less schooled brothers and sisters, we understand that mitzvot are neither "good deeds" nor positive acts. Mitzvot are commandments. God doesn't ask us to follow them. He commands us, warning us that should we fail to comply we will ultimately suffer the consequences. What are mitzvot if not a form of coercion? More importantly, how do we square this perspective with our basic understandings of freedom of choice inherent in modern life?
This notion of coercion appears in several places in Emor. Hashem commands us to sanctify the Kohen. As our representative before Hashem in the Beit Hamikdash, the Kohen himself enjoys a higher level of kedushah that demands special behavior. He cannot defile himself, other than for immediate family members. He cannot marry certain types of women, such as converts and divorcees. וקדשתו – "and you shall sanctify him," the Torah tells us.
Yet, in two separate places, Rashi inserts the notion of coercion. What if the Kohen – born a Kohen against his will – doesn't want to adhere to the rules? He desires neither the rights of Terumah, nor the obligations of his Kehunah. What if he falls in love with a pious convert and wishes to abrogate his kehunah and lead a "normal" life? Sorry – that's not permitted. Rashi (on 21:8) explains, על כרחו – "against his will – if he does not wish to divorce [such a woman after he married her in violation of halachah], they must lash him and afflict him until he does divorce her.] The Kohen doesn't have a choice. His father was a Kohen (yes, we all know the joke), so he must bear not just the rights, but the responsibilities of that kehunah as well. (see also Rashi on 21:6)
Coercion again appears at the conclusion of the chapter. Now speaking to the entire nation Hashem tells us,
וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, מִצְוֹתַי, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם: אֲנִי, ה'. וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ, אֶת-שֵׁם קָדְשִׁי, וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: אֲנִי ה' מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם.And yet, when we look at Rashi, he again interprets these verses in a rather striking manner. What does it mean that we must sanctify Hashem's name? Says Rashi, "Give yourself over [to be killed] and sanctify my name." Here Hashem tells us that we must be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to protect and defend His sanctity.
And you shall guard my commandments and do them, I am Hashem. And you shall not defile My holy name, and I will be sanctified in the midst of the Children of Israel, I am Hashem who sanctifies you.
Somewhat surprisingly, in each case the coercion appears in the form of Kedushah. Holiness isn't a feeling of spirituality; some vague sense of godliness or specialness. Rather, holiness emanates directly from a willingness to bend our own will to God's; to submit to His desire and sublimate ourselves. The Kohen achieves great kedushah precisely because he doesn't have a choice. He is kadosh – whether he likes it or not.
What's true for the Kohen applies to each of us as well. Every Jew was born into the גוי קדוש – Hashem's holy people. We all wear that mantle of kedushah on our shoulders, not despite the fact that it was forced upon us, but because of it. The real question we must ask ourselves is: do we see that Kedushah as a yoke and a burden forced upon us against our will, or a crown of glory bringing God's holiness into the world.
That's a choice that only we can make.
Ramban and Eretz Yisrael
Ramban's commentary at the end of Parshat Kedoshim is one of the more important sources in the Torah relating to the holiness of Eretz Yisrael. In this shiur we discuss the Ramban and his worldview of the Land and how Mitzvot relate to it..
Click here to download the shiur, or you can play inside the handy-dandy audio player you see below.
Monday, May 4, 2009
As nice as that seems, it's not that easy to spend hours at a time learning. He sits there alone in his tiny office, all week long. If you haven't spent much time trying to focus and concentrate, you'd never undertstand how challenging it can be. How does he avoid this problem? He uses a little help: Ritalin. Not every day - and not that much. But the way he described it to me, on Ritalin he can concentrate better and for a longer period of time than when he doesn't take the pill. And if they give it to kids who can't sit still (which they do all the time), why shouldn't he use it to learn better?
For men, the obligation to learn Torah is all-encompassing. There's never a time when one is not required to study Torah. Even a cursory reading of Rambam's Laws of Torah Study gives us a sense of the scope of the obligation. I'll quote just a couple of choice sections.
כל איש מישראל, חייב בתלמוד תורה: בין עני בין עשיר, בין שלם בגופו בין בעל ייסורין, בין בחור בין שהיה זקן גדול שתשש כוחו, אפילו עני המחזר על הפתחים, ואפילו בעל אישה ובנים--חייב לקבוע לו זמן לתלמוד תורה ביום ובלילה, שנאמר "והגית בו יומם ולילה"Every Jewish man is obligated in the study of Torah: be he poor or rich, healthy or suffering, young or old and weak, even a beggar making his daily rounds, even a husband and father - he is obligated to appoint time for Torah study in the day and night, as it is written, "And you shall engage [Torah] day and night." (1:8)
עד אימתיי חייב אדם ללמוד תורה--עד יום מותו, שנאמר "ופן יסורו מלבבך, כל ימי חייך"Until when is a person obligated to study Torah? Until the day of his death, as it is written, "Lest they stray from your hearts all the days of your lives." (1:10)
כיצד: היה בעל אומנות--יהיה עוסק במלאכה שלוש שעות ביום, ובתורה תשע:How [should he divide his study into thirds]? If he is a craftsman, he should work for three hours a day, and study Torah for nine. (1:12)אין דברי תורה מתקיימין במי שמרפה עצמו עליהן, ולא באלו שלומדין מתוך עידון ומתוך אכילה ושתייה--אלא במי שממית עצמו עליהן, ומצער גופו תמיד, ולא ייתן שנת לעיניו, לעפעפיו תנומה. אמרו חכמים דרך רמז, "זאת, התורה, אדם, כי ימות באוהל" (במדבר יט,יד)--אין התורה מתקיימת, אלא במי שממית עצמו באוהלי החכמה.The words of Torah do not endure in one who weakens himself upon them, and not for thoes who study in comfort, eating and drinking - rather [they endure] in one who pains himself over them, and constantly stresses his body, and gives no sleep to his eyes nor slumber to his eyelids. Our sages said by way of a hint [from the verse] "This is the Torah of a man who shall die in a tent," - the Torah only endures in one who kills himself in the tents of Torah. (3:12)
אף על פי שמצוה ללמוד ביום ובלילה, אין אדם למד רוב חכמתו אלא בלילה; לפיכך מי שרצה לזכות בכתר התורה, ייזהר בכל לילותיו, ולא יאבד אפילו אחת מהן בשינה ואכילה ושתייה ושיחה וכיוצא בהן, אלא בתלמוד תורה ודברי חכמהAlthough it is a mitzvah to study Torah in the day and the night, a man truly learns the majority of his study at night. Therefore, one who wishes to merit the "crown" of Torah will be careful with all his nights, and will not waste even one of them with sleep, eating, drinking, conversation and similiar pursuits - but instead with study of Torah and words of wisdom. (3:13)
I often wonder about the practicality of this obligation - at least for most of us. When are we supposed to sleep? According to Rambam, pretty much never - at least if you want to learn seriously. Work is fine - even important - but only for a few hours; just enough to cover expenses. The rest of your time should be spent learning. Finally, the best Torah learning is during the night, when most of us are the most tired.
We've all read the gedolim stories, and know how great, true scholars really did fulfill Rambam's vision of the obligation to learn Torah to a large degree. But what about the rest of us? Was Rambam only writing for the elite? How realistic does this obligation seem?
To me the question boils down to three issues:
1. Can one take a prescription medication in order to enhance one's cognitive ability? This would seem to be a question of costs vs. benefits. Halachah has no problem with a person taking vitamins to enhance one's physical health. Why then, if modern science has developed the means, shouldn't one also take a pill to enhance the mind?
2. If one can take such medicines, should he? Does the Torah want me to artificially enhance my learning performance if that will enable me to learn yet another mishnah or page of gemara? Or, am I supposed to learn the way God made me - and that's enough.
I study with a chavruta twice a week at the local yeshiva. As much as I'd like brag about my superior level of concentration and claim that my mind never wanders, that is not the case. Early on in life my I remember my grandfather telling my mother, after a short learning sessions that, "he's got a good mind, but no zitz-fleish." (I still can't sit still.) So I medicate - with caffeine. I show up to each session with a small bottle of Coke-Zero, which I administer slowly as we learn. It helps, just enough to keep me focused. My chavruta's drug of choice is coffee, black - hot or cold. I should be able to learn for two hours at a time, twice a week, without stimulants. Or should I? And if I can't, I really don't think that I should give up my chavrusa for a half-liter of Coke which I would probably drink anyway.
3. Finally, if I should use stimulants when necessary to enhance my learning, then must I as well? If the Torah obligates me to study Torah "day and night" - always without fail, if I can't do it without help, must I use that help to fulfill this obligation? Do we really think that Rav Schach, or the Chafetz Chayim didn't drink coffee or smoke to stay awake during their late-night learning sessions? Would we think any less of them if they had?
Put another way, is taking Adderall part of the commandment to study Torah?
Sunday, May 3, 2009
After the disengagement, the residents of the Gush (Katif - we just call it "The Gush", which many Americans confuse for Gush Etzion) were reeling, with no home (destroyed by bulldozers), no permanent place to live, and no designated realistic temporary housing. Israel rushed to put together "tent cities" for the residents of Gush Katif, but it took time. A new friend this past Shabbat told me that they spent months living in the dormitories of Yeshivat Kerem B'yavneh, and on Shabbat often all seven members of the family slept together in a single room. Tough.
Meanwhile, the government built them housing. Many of the evacuees moved to Nitzan, but others were placed in Yad Binyamin. The difference between the two is stark. While the evacuees live in identical housing, (what we call here caravillot - small trailers made to look like houses), the areas are truly very different. While the residents of Nitzan are in the process of building the infrastructure for their permanent homes (streets, sewers, utilities) - yes, three years later - the Yad Binyamin evacuees' homes were almost immediately surrounded by construction of homes for other Israelis - namely us. In addition, Yad Binyamin was already an established community with services like health, a small shopping center, shuls, a yeshiva and a pool. It's difficult to overemphasize how much these small things influence us; a regular place to daven, a local store to buy groceries, a community to live in. Yad Binyamin just finished the first of two brand new shuls, with the second one ready for occupation any day now. Even so, many of the members of our new shul were evacuated from the Gush and struggle to rebuild their lives. But I'm quite sure that the presence of a growing and thriving community around them is helping. They're not the only ones starting over. They see Olim with almost identical challenges each and every day. And they're not the only ones building houses here. So the presence of "regular" Israelis and other Olim clearly has a positive effect on the lives of the "evacuees."
But they influence in a critical way as well. One of the potential problems with a place like Yad Binyamin is its affluence. Simply put, many Israelis can't afford to buy a house in a place like this - other than the ones that bought on paper at the very beginning. (Most don't fit that description.) What ends up happening is that the community values tend to reflect the values of the people that could afford to live there, and that's not something that's necessarily desirable.
That's where the former residents of Gush Katif play a cricital role. They're simple people, who were willing, for whatever reason, to live in a complicated place and work hard to build their lives. Their very presences "grounds" the rest of us - to keep us "real," and ensures that the values of the community remain strong, focused on our children, on living lives committed to Torah and the Jewish people.