Sunday, August 30, 2009

Feeling the Pressure - Devar Torah for Ki Tavo

As American pressure on Israel to get serious about peace talks with the Palestinians continues, the Obama Administration continues to insist on a total freeze of construction in the West Bank. (We call it Yehudah V'shomron). Even as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu officially balks at the prospect of freezing all construction, that's exactly what he's done. Listen to Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (from the AIPAC website).
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Thursday that Israel had effectively frozen construction in West Bank settlements, The Jerusalem Post reported. Lieberman's comments substantiated earlier reports that the Israeli government had not issued a single tender for building in West Bank settlements, including large settlement blocs, since March.
So, while Netanyahu complains about the pressure for a settlement freeze, and declares that he cannot agree to such a freeze, he has in fact totally frozen any and all construction over the Green Line. No new apartments, no schools, no nurseries. Nothing. Our parshah has a word for this type of pressure.
Ki Tavo begins with with the ceremony of Bikkurim, presenting the declaration that every Jew would make as he presented his first fruits to the Kohen in the Beit Hamikdash. As part of the declaration that a Jew would make as he brought his bikkurim to the Beit Hamikdash he would say,
וַיִּשְׁמַע יְהוָה אֶת-קֹלֵנוּ, וַיַּרְא אֶת-עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת-עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶת-לַחֲצֵנוּ
and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression (Devarim 26:7)
What is the meaning of the term לחצנו - our oppression? In what way did the Egyptians "oppress" the Children of Israel? Clearly they oppressed us in numerous ways including enslavement, torture and murder. But which specific way do we allude to in this verse? The Midrash points us back to Shemot which also speaks about this very same לחץ. There God says to Moshe,
וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה צַעֲקַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָה אֵלָי; וְגַם-רָאִיתִי, אֶת-הַלַּחַץ, אֲשֶׁר מִצְרַיִם, לֹחֲצִים אֹתָם
And now, behold, the cry of the children of Israel is come unto Me; moreover I have seen the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppress them. (Shemot 3:9)
Again we wonder: what specific oppression does He refer to? Rabbeinu Chananel (in Shemot) offers the following explanation:
שנכנסו למצרים בשבעים נפש, והושיבם יוסף בארץ גושן ולא היתה הארץ מכילה אותם כי היתה הברכה בהם. והמצרים לא היו מניחים אותם להתרחב בארץ, אבל היו לוחצים ודוחקים אותם
When they entered Egypt with seventy souls, Joseph settled them in the Land of Goshen, but the land could not contain them for blessing was within them. Yet, the Egyptians would not permit them to spread out in the [Goshen], but instead pressured them and crushed them.
Communities grow. People, thank God, have babies. Kollel families looking for reasonably priced housing in either Beitar Illit or Kiryat Sefer are watching real estate prices slowly climb out of their price range, asdwindling supply of apartments in those Chareidi cities inevitably leads to rising prices. (That's right: when the meshulach knocks on your door asking for money for a poor kollel family in Israel that can't pay the rent, there's a good chance that some part of the reason they can't pay that rent is that Barack Obama has made it more expensive to rent an apartment in Israel precisely where those kollel families live.) Children, after finishing college and starting families of their own, often want to move back into the communities were they grew up and raise their children. Only right now they can't, because the government of Israel, under tremendous pressure from the United States, refuses to let anyone build so much as a tool shed in Yehuda or the Shomron.
That's לחץ - "pressure." And Barack Obama should remember that while the Jewish people suffer under לחץ in the short-term, he who applies that pressure never ends up better off in the end.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Parenting Lessons from the Wayward Son - Table Talk for Parshat Ki Tetze

A couple I know had trouble getting their son to go to minyan in the morning, especially during the summer. The kid (naturally) wanted to sleep in, and the father could never coax his son to get up on time for davening. Truth be told, though, is that the father's biggest obstacle to getting his son to shul wasn't the child. It was his wife.
She feels that summer is a time to relax, and that she didn't want her son to grow up resenting being forced to go to shul. So the child knew that if he simply did not go, the father could never actually force his son because his wife would never back him up. So the boy didn't go.
Who's right? Is the father right - that it's important to strong-arm a child (not yet Bar Mitzvah) and strongly encourage him to daven with a minyan, even during vacation? Or is the mother right, and summer is a time to relax and not coerce children religiously? Actually, I think that in this case they're both wrong. I'll explain why.
The Gemara tells us that the ben sorer u'moreh - the wayward son, never actually existed. There never was a young man who stole from his parents, drank wine and raw meat, got turned over to the courts by his parents and then executed not for what he had done - but for what he would inevitably do in the future. It never happened, ever. If so, why does the Torah include an entire section describing a practical impossibility? The Gemara in Sanhedrin (70a) explains, דרוש וקבל שכר - "study and derive from it, and receive reward." Whether it happened of not, we have much to learn not just from the rebellious son, but from his parents.
The Torah tells us that when the "rebellious son" acts out in the prescribed manner,
וְתָפְשׂוּ בוֹ, אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ; וְהוֹצִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל-זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ, וְאֶל-שַׁעַר מְקֹמוֹ
then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place (Devarim 21:19)
Based on the inclusion of both the father and the mother in the verse, the Mishnah in Sanhedrin (Chapter 8) makes the following observation:
If the father wanted [to hand over his son] but the mother did not, or the mother wanted and the father did not, [the son] does not become a "rebellious son" until they both want. Rabbi Yehudah says, if the mother was not "worthy" to her husband, [the son] does not become a "rebellious son".
The Gemara immediately jumps on Rabbi Yehudah's final comment. What does he mean when he says, "if the mother was not 'worthy' (in Hebrew the word is ראוייה - which I translate as "worthy" but can also mean "appropriate" or "suitable") to her husband"? The Gemara rejects a number of possibilities and concludes that Rabbi Yehudah's rule teaches us that she must physically resemble her husband. The Gemara quotes a Beraita that states,
רבי יהודה אומר אם לא היתה אמו שוה לאביו בקול ובמראה ובקומה, אינו נעשה בן סורר ומורה
Rabbi Yehudah says, if she is not equal to her husband in [the sound of her] voice, in looks and in stature, [the son] does not become a "rebellious son".
Does he mean this phrase literally? Must they really look like each-other, sound identical and be the same height? Remember that this phenomenon never actually happened. Rabbi Yehudah surely did care about the technical details, but he also wanted to use those specifics to teach us critical lessons about parenting. This one is pretty clear: parents must be on the same page when raising their children.
Kids need the stability and safety of a unified message from their parents. They need to understand the ground rules - what's expected and what's not; what's over the line and what's acceptable. And they must present a unified front to their children, so that kids don't have a sense of confusion and lack of clarity.
Let's take it one step further. When parents disagree with each other in front of their children, they undermine their own authority. A child can reasonably conclude: well, my father doesn't agree with my mother, so why should I listen to her? My son is sitting here watching me write, and after reading this last sentence he said, "Actually, a kid thinks that if parents disagree with each other, why should I listen to either of them?" Smart words. The reason for this is that when one parent's authority is undermined, the other is automatically undermined as well.
So do parents have to agree on everything? Of course not. They should hopefully agree on most things, but each parents brings a different set of values to parenting their children, as they should. What then should they do when they disagree? Keep if to themselves.
This is where the couple went wrong: the father thinks his son should go to shul in the summer. The mother doesn't want to force him. Both have legitimate points of view. But they needed to discuss those points of view together first, come to a reasonable compromise, and present that compromise to their child.
That is not what they did. They openly talked about their disagreement to friends in front of their children. So their son did not attend minyan all summer long. After all, he knew that his mother wouldn't force him. But what his mother might not realize is that the next time she wants to parent, she too has lost her authority. In the end, her son won't listen to her either.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Selichot Conundrum: Sefardi or Ashkenazi? You Make the Call.

As arrived at shul this past Sunday morning, I saw a group of tired-looking people davening in another room. I wondered what they were doing until it dawned on me: They're Sefardim, and they've got to recite Selichot for the entire month of Elul.
Truth be told, Selichot can often feel like a real drag. I don't think that's a bad thing. There's something to be said for getting up a little bit earlier as Rosh Hashanah approaches, adding the 13 Attributes of Compassion to the davening, reciting shema kolenu every morning. My mood builds towards Yom Kippur, and when we finally reach the emotionally draining pinnacle of Neilah, when basically all we recite are a summation of all the Selichot that we've said to that point, everything comes full circle. It's a powerful, tiring, moving process. I often feel that people who have difficulty on Yom Kippur suffer from the fact that they didn't invest in Selichot. It really serves as the pinnacle of the prayer process that began two (or more) weeks before. If you haven't made the effort to truly prepare for Yom Kippur, how can you expect to achieve meaningful results from the process of repentance?
This is how I feel after starting Selichot on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah - giving me only two weeks of Selichot. Having to start a full three weeks earlier, at Rosh Chodesh Elul and reciting selichot for a full forty days - that seems like a bit too much for me.
But with the costs of following Sephardic custom come benefits as well, the biggest of course being Kitniyot. Sefardim eat all kinds of kitniyot on Pesach, and here in Israel the difference is even more pronounced with all kinds of yummy looking foods stamped לאוכלי קטניות בלבד - "For those who eat kitniyot ONLY". I sometimes think that the food companies are mocking me. I spot a nice looking chocolate pudding, pick it up to check the hechsher and stamped on the front in big letters it says: "Sorry Mr. Ashkenaz. Not for you. Too bad."
Of course there are other differences as well, including:
  • Three Weeks: Ashkenazim observe most of the customs of mourning from the 17th of Tammuz, while Sefardim not only don't keep three weeks; they don't even have nine full days, observing the mourning period only on the week of Tisha B'av
  • Milk and Fish: While Sefardim can't mix milk and fish (and my wife makes a great tuna-cheese casserole), Ashkenazim can
So then I got to thinking: what would I rather have: the benefits of kitniyot on Pesach, or the ability to sleep in for three more weeks come Elul. Would I rather have the costs and benefits of Sepharditude, or those of Ashkenazi-ness? (Of course this discussion is completely academic - unless you're a young woman contemplating marriage trying to decide whether to date Ashkenazim or Sefardim. Then it's quite relevant. But if that's a real criteria to you for marriage, you've got other issues to deal with.) In any case, which would you rather be? You may have noticed the new feature of my blog: the poll. So let me know what your preference would be if you had the choice.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Minchah in the Golan

Last week we took a wonderful family trip with about 30 other families from Yad Binyamin to spend three days in the Golan. It was a great family trip - tiyyulim, hiking, seeing important sites, and even some time on the top of the Hermon. One particular point stands out in my mind.
On the first day we dropped our stuff off at the hotel and then rushed out to see the ruins of spectacular Beit Knesset. We parked and walked down a long path, climbed down even more steps and found ourselves at the ruins of a shul from a place called Um Al Kanatir (the Jews call it Keshet Rechavam) that was destroyed in an earthquake in 742. What was interesting about the shul is that because it was on the side of an obscure mountain, no one ever bothered to go back there, so all the stones were left lying in their places for over 1,300 years. Until Israel retook the Golan in 1967.
Sometime later - like 30 years later in 2003, an Israeli archeologist Yeshu Dray decided that he wanted to put the shul back together, which is exactly what he did until he ran out of money in 2008. He got pretty far. (You can see a lot of the work on his website.)
The shul is rather impressive. Looking at the quality and craftsmanship of the stonework, it's clear that the community invested a great deal of money in this shul. Just look at the pictures of some of the carvings. Mostly though, I found the idea that I was standing in a shul that was probably built sometime around the time of the Gemara or shortly afterwards mesmerizing. You can clearly see the structure of the shul, including the bimah facing south towards Yerushalayim.
We arrived just in time to daven minchah, which I led. As I davened, thoughts of nusach came to my mind. (There's a minor debate about which nusach our shul should daven, which is a rather common debate in Israel. Currently we daven Nusach Sefarad, although I've always davened Ashkenaz.) I wondered what nusach - what text - they prayed in that very shul. I thought of this because it was clear that the shul and community predated the existence of the Jewish communities in Ashkenaz (Germany) and Sefarad (Spain). That's not to say that they didn't fight in the shul about something. They probably didn't fight about the nusach. (Then again, who knows?)
Everyone knows that Israel and Syria remain in a state of war after the cease-fire following the Yom Kippur war in 1973. Syria maintains its claim to the entire Golan, all the way down to the banks of the Kinneret. Ignoring the incredible strategic and military value of the Golan, (which cannot and should not be ignored), it struck me that the Jewish people has a historic and powerful connection to the beautiful tract of land that looks out over Israel. It housed shuls and communities that dotted the landscape across the Golan.
The Golan should remain part of Israel not just because it's so vital to our security. It should eternally remain a part of Israel because it has been a part of our history and nation for many, many centuries.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Battling Swine Flu with...a Shofar? Stephen Colbert Responds

You've got to wonder: How did this guy get through security with that thing? Don't they have metal detectors? You'd think it would have set off some type of alarm. Also, The passenger sitting in front of him doesn't look too happy. Sure, we've all had our in-flight horror stories - the baby that won't stop crying; the guy playing loud music that everyone can hear; the lost luggage. But I've never heard of anyone having to sit in front of a trumpet player on a flight. But I digress...
When I first began to see the reports, I instinctively cringed. Now, I'm not a kabbalist and I certainly don't know any kabbalistic prayers, but I've never heard of a prayer for a specific disease. And if there was a prayer that could rid a country of a disease, I'm not sure that I'd first go after the Swine Flu. (Anyone heard of cancer? Heart disease?) I've also never heard of blowing a trumpet or shofar to ward off H1N1 - but who knows? I could be wrong.
So it makes me wonder when people with the title "rabbi" make proclamations like,
"The purpose of the flight was to stop the epidemic," Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri told local media. "We are certain that because of our prayers, the epidemic is already behind us."
What I do know is that pictures and videos like these look absolutely ridiculous, and make a mockery of what the Judaism that guides and informs my life. Judaism is very much about connecting to God through the prism of the Torah. It is very much about study, instilling our lives with eternal values, improving ourselves, and living meaningful and productive lives.
Judaism is not - I repeat not - about using semi-magical formulas to rid a country of a specific virus with really good PR. (By the way - who's the Swine Flu's publicist? He should get a tremendous raise.) This smacks much more of Madonna's Kaballah than my Judaism. Just read this comment on USA Today about the Swine Flu flight:
LMFAO ... OMG this is funny. I thought Israel was supposed to be a country with ties to the 21st Century; instead we see that is closer to the lost tribes of New Guinea.
Absolutely and pathetic, the idea that Jewish Juju will have any effect on whether swine flu enters Israel.
You folks need to get lives, already.
I couldn't agree more.
I also know a little bit about public perception and modern media. Somehow, religious Jews just don't seem to get that modern media (1) feels very threatened by us (2) considers us backward and anachronistic and (3) looks for every and any opportunity to promote these two "facts." Just as a "Chassidic perp walk" makes for great copy, so too does a video or image of Chareidim throwing rocks and diapers at people looking for a place to park, or blowing a shofar at a virus from 15,000 feet.
Thankfully, Steven Colbert has come to the rescue, pointing out just how incredibly ridiculous the entire escapade seems. (He also makes a pretty good point: If you really can get rid of the swine flu, why just for Israel? Why not for the whole world?) Anyway, Colbert makes the point better than I could - and he's not a bad ba'al tokea either. Maybe Steve's got a future in kaballah. I've seen stranger things.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Death of End-of-Life Counseling

In the hysteria of "Death Panels" promoted by Sarah Palin and talk-radio, the proposal to fund end-of-life counseling through Medicare has met its untimely demise. Some celebrate this fact, noting that they don't want the government anywhere near the end of their lives. While I understand the sentiment, I strongly disagree. Right now, the government isn't the problem at all. The problem really, is with the doctors, and that's where prior decisions could be extremely useful in determining end of life care.
Judaism has a great deal to say about the decisions that we make as we approach life's end. According to classical Jewish thought, life represents sanctity and holiness. Every moment that a person spends on this earth represents a gift from God and an opportunity to perfect the soul and grow closer to the Divine. For this reason, Judaism will almost always steer a patient towards life.
It's important here to be clear. Judaism does not require a patient to suffer in all circumstances. Judaism does not obligate the suffering patient to choose any and every procedure and medical technique to preserve life, no matter how painful for no matter how short an extension. There is a balance that I think many in the Orthodox community fail to appreciate.
Some people seem to think that Judaism requires you to always do everything possible. I've even seen rabbis insist that families force doctors to perform painful procedures that were clearly against the patient's wishes for this reason. My heart still pulls at me when I remember these poor people, connected to a respirator, unwilling to communicate, but clearly afraid and subject to the decisions of family members who were taking what I consider to be harsh and extreme advice.
The notion that Judaism forces patients to extend life is simply not true. The wishes of the patient are critical. We must take into account his willingness to endure pain and his wishes regarding his illness, and this personal decision carries great weight. So it's not a black-and-white issue. It's a subtle, complicated and difficult issue that requires careful analysis in each specific situation.
America and Western culture don't share this underlying sense of sanctity. Life is more about experience, pleasure and, as the Declaration of Independence states, "the pursuit of happiness." If you're suffering, it's difficult if not impossible to be happy. If you're chained to a hospital bed, how can that be a life worth living? Why would we engage in extraordinary measures to prolong your life, if that will translate into another month of pain, or another week in bed on a respirator? So doctors, armed with their own sense of values, legitimately will steer patients away from a choice of life, towards a choice focusing on comfort and lack of pain at life's end, in essence giving up the fight, and accepting and even welcoming (and in some cases advancing) death.
Despite the challenging balance within Jewish thought about the end of life, the American medical system operates on a completely different set of values, which emphasize comfort, quality of life and productivity, values that Judaism rejects.
All of this makes end of life counseling all the more important. It's nearly impossible to calmly and rationally consider this complicated and rather personal ethical question in the heat of the moment. These questions need to be discussed, considered and addressed long before anyone enters the hospital.
Ideally, I think it's best to talk about these issues with a spiritual leader, and to consider which rabbi (and what type of rabbi) you'd want to help with this type of decision during such a difficult time. I strongly advocate using the RCA's health care proxy, which allows you to designate who has the power to make these important decisions for you during illness and crisis. (I would also add that your child's rabbi might not be the right fit for you. Rabbis from different streams within Orthodoxy view these issues quite differently, with vastly different outcomes. So choose your rabbi, let your children know about your choice, and ask them to honor your wishes should the need ever arise.) The bottom line is, every single Jew should fill out a health care proxy, appointing trusted religious figures to assist in the making of these decisions when the time comes.
And there's the rub. Who wants to talk about death? No one wants to consider what decisions they'd like to make while they're in an ICU, connected to who-knows-how-many machines, unable to speak, unaware of their surroundings. I don't even like going to the dentist. What makes anyone think that they'd voluntarily approach their doctor or rabbi or clergy and say, "Let's sit down and talk about how I'm going to die."
Only, that's precisely what they should be doing.
As a rabbi, I was happy to help people fill out a health care proxy. But the number of people who actually approached me was rather small. And I really didn't feel right calling members of my shul out of the blue and saying, "I'd like you to come in so that we can talk about your death." Maybe that's what I should have done. Probably. But that's not such an easy call to make.
Which is why it's so sad that Congress chickened out on the funding for this type of counseling. It's not that doctors don't discuss these issues with patients. Of course they do. But they discuss these issues when patients are facing a difficult diagnosis or procedure, and it's already late to make a rational, calm decision. Moreover, once again, they present their unique perspective, and not necessarily one aligned with Jewish values.
Funding would have created a small industry. It would have given social workers and part-time rabbis the ability and financial incentive to call people, schedule precisely these types of appointments, and receive compensation for their time and efforts. (Hey, maybe rabbis could have billed Medicare for their counseling. New type of shul fundraiser?)
But without the funding, there's no incentive for people with training to invest the energy in getting the elderly to even have these types of discussions. So they won't have them, because no one wants too.
And then it will be too late. And the pressures of the doctors, the hospital staff, the nurses - are almost overwhelming and impossible to resist.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Pendulum of Teshuvah: Thoughts on Ledavid Hashem Ori

As Rosh Chodesh Elul rolls around, we add two things to the daily tefillah: the blasts of the Shofar and the recitation of Ledovid Hashem Ori - the twenty-seventh chapter of Tehillim. It's easy to understand why we blow the Shofar. It serves as a warning call that Rosh Hashanah quickly approaches.
But Ledovid Hashem always left me wondering: what does it have to do with Teshuvah? Why do we recite this specific chapter around the time of repentance?
Yet, when we take a careful look at David's powerful words, we find that it speaks not only about Teshuvah, but about the human condition. If we read his words with care and sensitivity, they can help us prepare ourselves for the coming Days of Awe.

Click here to download the shiur.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Searching for Spirituality in...Uman?

Arrive at any Religious Zionist Shul on Friday evening, and somewhere near the back you'll find a pile of what we call "Alonim" - parshah sheets. These sheets contain words of Torah, articles of interest, political diatribes, and of course, advertisements. (That's how they pay for the full-color publications.) If you want to get a real sense of the vibrancy and also the richness of religious life in Israel, you've gotta take a regular survey of these alonim. Many, many organizations publish different versions of a parshah sheet, from Machon Meir to Tzohar to Tzomet to Chabad to Yesha. In our shul alone, we get about fifteen different kinds.
One of my favorites is a very popular sheet called "Olam Katan", directed specifically towards teens. It's got a nice feel to it, and tries to speak to kids in language that they can relate to. We like reading a particular section of Olam Katan called שו"ת סליולרי - which means exactly what it sounds like: Shu"t stands for She'elot Uteshuvot - questions and answers - and "selulari" means "via cellphone". Basically it's questions about anything and everything in a text message - 140 characters or less. (In truth, the entire text-halachic question phenomenon deserves a post of its own. I'll get to it one day - just not today.) We like these questions because we sit around the Shabbat table sometimes and ask our kids the questions and see if they can guess what the rabbi answered.
This past week's questions included one about traveling to Uman for Rosh Hashanah.

It's kind of hard to read (I highlighted the question in yellow), but the questioner says:
"It's very difficult for me to leave the Land [of Israel], but from another perspective, there is a promise from Rav Nachman for those who visit his grave in Uman. What advise can the rav give me on this issue?"
To this Rav Eliyahu (not sure which one - but I think it's Rav Mordechai Eliyahu) writes: "Stay in the Holy Land."
Good answer. I couldn't agree more. In fact, I find the entire phenomenon of leaving Israel to travel to Uman for Rosh Hashanah troubling. And it's a rather large phenomenon, from what I can tell. How can I tell? Because if you look at the advertisement to the right of the cellphone-question you'll notice that it's a large ad guessed it, spending Rosh Hashanah in Uman.
Why do thousands of Jews flock to Uman to spend Rosh Hashanah near the grave of Rabbi Nachman? Sure, many of them are Breslover Chassidim. But many of them are not. What attracts 25,000 Jewish men and boys to a city in the Ukraine instead of wanting to stay home with their families, children and communities for one of the most important Jewish holidays of the year?
But looking at this phenomenon from a different perspective, is it not a rather strong indictment of the way we conduct our davening on Rosh Hashanah? Clearly, the people rushing to Uman are searching for something. They're searching for passion, spirituality, and a connection to God that for some reason they're not finding in shul, whether that shul is in the United States or in Israel.
Why not? What's missing? And why are many of our youth flying of to Uman to find it?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Why I Blog...

I recently received the following email:
Dear Rabbi Reuven Spolter,
I've stumbled upon your blog "Chopping Wood" and I would like to interest you in joining the Jerusalem Post’s Submission Contest powered by BloggersBase. com
I thought your posts could fit perfectly in this contest, which is powered and driven by users like you.
Top-rated entries will be published in The Jerusalem Post online and print editions, increasing your overall exposure.
My initial reaction was, "sure, why not?" But then ambivalence began to set in. Do I really care about "increasing overall exposure"? (Honest answer: yes.) But if so, then it's really all about me, isn't it? All of this blog-soul searching led me to the ultimate question: why am I doing this? Bottom line, why do I blog?

I know why I started blogging. Writing weekly Divrei Torah for the YIOP announcement sheet (I strongly felt that every shul publication should have some Torah value), I would email the piece to Julie in the office every week. I quickly realized that I could just as easily post the piece to a blog for her to copy the piece, and it would also be available - out there - for anyone else to find.
Truth be told, I've always been a proponent of internet-based Torah. I've had a website for a bunch of years where I upload different shiurim and source sheet in both audio and pdf formats. I enjoyed creating the web pages, and got a great deal of nachas out of the fact that I could look back after a period of time and know that I had given shiurim to literally thousands of people (or at least thousands of shiurim) without having lifted a finger. So blogging my divrei Torah was simply an extension of the website.
Initially, I used the blog solely to publish shul materials: Table Talks and articles for the YIOP Monthly Bulletin. Every so often I would use the blog to express myself on an important community issue. (this post was quite effective.) But as my tenure with the shul ended and I left the pulpit, I lost a critical avenue of personal expression. I loved speaking in shul. I worked very hard at it, almost always writing out my drashot in long form (but never, ever reading them from the pulpit). In my drashot, I always tried to say something. While the Torah component played a critical role, I wanted my drashot to be more than just a d'var Torah. I wanted the members of shul to walk away with an idea, a message - something that they could take home and consider and discuss. To a large degree, I feel that I was successful, and took pride in my drashot in shul. (I won't kid myself - there's a big element of ego, in having the ability to stand before hundreds of people each week and say whatever you want.)
And then we left Oak Park, and that avenue was gone. I missed the ability to express myself and connect issues and events happening in the world to the timeless ideas of the Torah. Actually, that's not totally true. I missed expressing myself and knowing that someone else cared what I thought. I not only wanted to speak. I wanted people to listen.
I guess I still do. A little more than a year into our aliyah, I look back at the adjustments that we've made and the changes we've undergone in our lives. It was a great decision to move to Israel, without a doubt. But I won't deny that there are aspects of my old life that I miss - and public speaking is certainly one of them. So I blog to have a voice; to say something in the hopes of adding to the conversation, giving people food for thought, and teaching Torah as well.
But blogging for me isn't only about looking back. It's also about moving forward. Exposure is important, especially if I want to continue to teach and speak and hopefully publish. Even with a small following, I will sometimes get feedback that tells me that a post hit the mark and really did make a difference. And the bottom line is, blogging to me is a form of teaching that allows me to continue to teach about Torah and Jewish values even from Israel.
But there's a small snag. If the goal really is to "increase exposure", that can easily lead a writer to focus not on what's important, but what's popular. I could begin to write pieces that I think people want to read, but not what I want to (or should) write about. I am not a foreign policy expert. I don't know more than you about the Israeli-Palestinian debate. And there are already too many blogs and articles on these types of issues.
Still, as a former pulpit rabbi, I know a little Torah which
I enjoy teaching. I have good sense of the issues that challenge the Orthodox community. I write about issues relating to Jewish education about which I know. And I also feel that there's a huge amount of information that appears in the Israeli religious press (specifically the weekly Shabbat sheets and the major weekly newspapers) that doesn't show up in translation, and that an English-only reader would never know about. I try to share that information as well.
So, I think I'm going to enter the "contest." But if you notice that my posts begin to get more and more salacious; if I start writing about Madonna and her "conversion" or if you see a post about "American Idol", call me on it.
Because then I'll be writing for the hits and the exposure, and not to promote the values of Torah so critical in the seemingly crazy times in which we live.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Because I Said So: An Old Drashah That's Still Relevant

After writing my last post, somewhere in the back of my head I knew that I had written about this before. A quick search on my hard drive revealed that I had spoken of the notion of obedience and submission before, as it turned out, specifically regarding the controversial and difficult subject of homosexuality.
In 2004, homosexuality and Judaism took center stage in Michigan, including a controversial agenda that made the ballot which attempted (ultimately successfully) to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. At the same time, the Detroit Jewish News broke its longstanding policy and announced that it would announce homosexual unions. I gave this as a drashah at the Young Israel of Oak Park in response. I find it interesting that the piece seems to combine both the parenting issues that we struggle with, and the challenge to Orthodoxy specifically in the area of homosexuality.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Because I Said So: Saying No to Our Children - Part 2

The discussion at our Shabbat table about parenting also led to the following question: when you say no, do you have to explain yourself to your children? Must they appreciate the fact that you're doing it for a reason, or is it better to impose your authority on them?
Most people would argue that it's better to explain the logic behind the parental imposition. After all, we're parents, not tyrants. To a point, I would agree. Children need to relate to their parents as logic-driven beings, and not irrational despots. But I think that a parent should also at times specifically not explain or justify. "Do it because I said so." I think this is important because our children need to learn to submit to authority in their lives, a critical part of spiritual and religious development.
In numerous discussions with young people, it seems clear that many were never educated to submit. They were taught how to "relate" to a mitzvah or a halachah. If it made sense to them then they followed that law, but if it doesn't seem logical to them then they did not. Many had very little sense of obedience and acceptance of a system of laws (halachah) when the law either didn't speak to them and give them a sense of spirituality, and especially when they did not agree with the law.
But that's not how we raise children who aspire to spirituality and religiosity. While it would be nice for us to understand and appreciate every mitzvah, not only is that not reasonable; it's not possible. God embedded into Judaism mitzvot called chukim whose reasons we simply do not and cannot comprehend. They're beyond us, and yet we follow them.
More importantly (to my mind), Judaism places great emphasis on obedience. The word mitzvah refers neither to a good deed or meaningful act. Rather, it's a commandment. "Do it," God says, "because I said so." If we want to find beauty and meaning, that's fine. But the beauty and the meaning are never the underlying motivation for the mitzvah. They're just the icing on the cake. Why then do we do it? Because it's a mitzvah. Because God commanded us. In a very real way, "Because He said so."
In our attempts to instill meaning and purpose into every religious activity, we have also forgotten the crucial importance of obedience. Of course spirituality and meaning are important. But what about the days when a child wakes up in the morning, and simply doesn't feel like davening? Or putting on tefillin? Or going to school for that matter? Do we withdraw, fearful of imposing upon them and having them hate religion (funny, but I never hear that argument when it comes to school - only shul), or do we tell them that we're sorry, but this is what we do?
Imposition as a parent - forcing our children to follow God's Torah - isn't easy, and of course requires balance and care. It is obviously possible to come on too strong and push a child away. But to my mind, today's generation of parents often errs on the side of caution, failing to impose itself at all. That failure can also carry dangerous repercussions later on.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Parenting and Ekev: The Courage to Say No

As our children grow older, the challenges seem increasingly complicated and tricky. As a parent, how much should I impose, and when should I pull back? When do I insist and coerce in any and in every area of a child's life - homework, obedience, davening, fighting with siblings - the list goes on and on - and when should I pull back and just let things be (and hope for the best)?
I know that I'm not alone. I still get questions from parents struggling with these very same issues: my son doesn't want to go to shul - how do I get him to go? Should I force my daughter to learn during the summer? One wonders why the kids didn't come with some kind of manual. But maybe they did. Actually, I think that the manual came before the kids. Long before.
I find myself drawn to particular passages in the Torah that seem to give us a direction in terms of parenting our children, and I came across a very powerful one in Parshat Eikev which we just concluded. Describing the extended trek through the desert and the "mon" (there's no good way to spell that word in English. "Man"? No. "Mon" - sounds like some Jamaican's trying to get you to take his taxi from Newark Airport. But I digress.) that the people ate throughout, Moshe says, (Devarim 8:2-4)
וְזָכַרְתָּ אֶת-כָּל-הַדֶּרֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר הוֹלִיכְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ זֶה אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה--בַּמִּדְבָּר: לְמַעַן עַנֹּתְךָ לְנַסֹּתְךָ, לָדַעַת אֶת-אֲשֶׁר בִּלְבָבְךָ הֲתִשְׁמֹר מִצְו‍ֹתָו--אִם-לֹא.וַיְעַנְּךָ, וַיַּרְעִבֶךָ, וַיַּאֲכִלְךָ אֶת-הַמָּן אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַעְתָּ, וְלֹא יָדְעוּן אֲבֹתֶיךָ: לְמַעַן הוֹדִיעֲךָ, כִּי לֹא עַל-הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם--כִּי עַל-כָּל-מוֹצָא פִי-יְהוָה, יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם.שִׂמְלָתְךָ לֹא בָלְתָה, מֵעָלֶיךָ, וְרַגְלְךָ, לֹא בָצֵקָה--זֶה, אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה.
(Sorry about the YeOlde translation. It's what you get for free on the Mechon Mamre website.) And thou shalt remember all the way which the LORD thy God hath led thee these forty years in the wilderness, that He might afflict thee, to prove thee, to know what was in thy heart, whether thou wouldest keep His commandments, or no. And He afflicted thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that He might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every thing that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live. Thy raiment waxed not old upon thee, neither did thy foot swell, these forty years.
Moshe tells the people that God had afflicted them - caused them to suffer during the forty years of travel in the desert. They were constantly hungry. But it wasn't arbitrary. Rather, God did it for a reason: to teach them the critical lesson that bread doesn't bring life, but God does. Fair enough. But then Moshe adds the following:
וְיָדַעְתָּ, עִם-לְבָבֶךָ: כִּי, כַּאֲשֶׁר יְיַסֵּר אִישׁ אֶת-בְּנוֹ, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, מְיַסְּרֶךָּ.
And thou shalt consider in thy heart, that, as a man chasteneth his son, so the LORD thy God chasteneth thee.
This is what caught my attention. What I read from this verse is that the Torah expects a man to "chasteneth" - which really means "afflict" his son. (The word ייסר shares the same word as the word ייסורין - "afflictions" or "sufferings.") God only treated the Jewish people in the desert the way that a father would treat his son in order to educate him properly. And it seems that proper education involves a kind of affliction. If we want our children to learn and grow, then we have to make them suffer - not through physical harm, God forbid. No, we must parent the way God parented, by not giving the people what they wanted, but only what they needed. In essence, God parented the people by saying "no."
The more I think about this notion, the more I think that it's true. If we want our children to truly grow to be responsible, thoughtful, spiritual people, we must develop the courage to say "no" and not give our children what they want.
In my limited experience, parents today suffer from this malady to a great degree. We love saying yes and we hate saying no. Actually, yes is often easier than no. Who needs the backlash, whining, begging, cajoling - the torture that comes with a no. If I don't let my child watch a movie or play video games all summer afternoon, who's going to have to deal with that child the entire day, and provide the entertainment instead?
Think about your own children: what thing do our children truly want that we will not buy them? When is the last time that our children asked for something - and then nudged and pestered and begged, and the answer remained "no"? In the age of affluence in which we live, we somehow have come to believe that because we can afford to give our children something, that they should have it, whether it's a cellphone, a new video game system, a car, a concert, new clothes, anything. And if their friends have it, then of course we have to capitulate as well, because we would seem cruel in comparison.
Sadly, also in my limited experience with American teenagers, it's precisely the parental habit of giving children everything that makes them value nothing. In a spurt of honesty kids would admit to me that they really didn't care much about the electronic equipment costing hundreds of dollars that their parents bought for them. It didn't mean much to them. How could it? It was handed to them on a silver platter.
So the next time your daughter asks you for money to go to the movies with her friends, say no. Tell her to spend her own money that she earned babysitting (if it's appropriate for her age). And if she doesn't have any money, tell her to get a job so that she'll have the money to go when she wants to. While she'll probably complain, of all her friends who go see that movie she'll appreciate it most.

The Rush to Judgment

Last week an unknown gunman rushed into a community center for homosexuals in Tel Aviv and murdered six people in cold blood.
Let me first put priorities in order: Murder is terrible and must be condemned in the harshest of terms. The victims, their personal lifestyle choices, their sexual orientation - make not one bit of difference. We must mourn and combat violent crime with all our strength.
At the same time, the Torah still forbids homosexuality. I cannot and will not change that fact simply because teenagers in a gay center were the victims of a violent crime.
And, most surprisingly, while the perpetrator is still at large, everyone seems to know who is to blame. It's God. Or anyone who believes in the Torah. And the more you seem to adhere to the Torah, the more blame you deserve.
The rush to judgment seemed to begin even before the police arrived at the scene of the crime. It was a chareidi - at least it probably was. And if it wasn't, the mass killings resulted in the anti-gay rhetoric spewed by chareidim, most notably Shas. At least that's what you heard here in Israel. Don't get me wrong, but I haven't really heard Shas officials, rabbis, politicians - anyone - make much of any comment about the gay community in Israel. When the gay community insists on having a gay pride parade in Yerushalayim, then people from numerous political parties respond. But can someone point to a comment, lecture, speech or tirade where a chareidi incited violence against the homosexual community?
But the rush to judgment didn't just come from the secular Israeli press. Apparently, it also exists in the Orthodox community as well.
Take a look at this prayer penned by Rabbi Dov Linzer, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York City. The prayer (which is rather long) states,
"Help us to value every member of our society for whom he or she is, to care for them, to support them, and to recognize that they are an equal part of our community כגר כאזרח יהיה. Give us the strength to fully actualize – in our speech and in our actions – the maxim that כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה, that the entirety of the Jewish people, straight and gay, is interwoven with and responsible for every one of its members.
We cannot change the past, but we can work to change the future, so we pray, O Lord, that You accept our mourning and our prayers, and give us the strength to change."

At face value, the prayer is right. Leaders of a community must take responsibility for terrible crimes and ask what went wrong, and how murder could happen in their midst. But which leaders? The prayer assumes that the "cause" of the murders was of course religious intolerance. We have no idea who committed this crime and why he or she did it. We don't know if it was a hateful anti-gay activist, as everyone assumes, or someone else entirely. While the press here would love it to end up being an ultra-Orthodox kollel student with a big beard and long payos, what if it turns out to be a gay teenager angry at his or her friends in the center, or a someone who frequented the center and for whatever reason took out his frustrations on those who he knew best? (Truth be told, shooting up anything doesn't really seem very chareidi. Throwing diapers? Lighting garbage? That I could believe. But most chareidim wouldn't know how to take the safety off an automatic weapon.)
Rabbi Linzer believes that the ultimate culprit of the violence is our belief that homosexuality is against the values of the Torah. In our unwillingness to accept homosexuality as a lifestyle, we are guilty of planting the seeds that sprouted this terrible violence.
Well I'm sorry, but I disagree. I can stand against a lifestyle without hatred - and I do. I stand against murder of any Jew. But I will not apologize for the values of the Torah that instill in us a sense of holiness and sanctity - no matter how unpopular they may seem today.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Part of the World or Not? Us Against the Goyim

My sister told me about a speech given by Attorney Ben Braffman at a recent "Asifah" of several thousand on erev Tisha B'av run by the Agudah. (She saw the link on Yeshiva World News. I'm not a regular YWN reader.)
I have no idea what the Agudah thought when they invited Attorney Braffman. As a noted Orthodox criminal defense attorney who has defended many, many frum people, I think that they wanted him to scare the crowd into legal behavior. What they got instead (or in addition), was an extensive rant against the underlying values of the Chareidi world: no jobs, no education, hiding from the secular world. He makes every Modern Orthodox complaint against the chareidi world out there - and he was invited by the Agudah to do it!
Over and over again he says, "You live in a secular world. You have to take part in that world. You can't only take. You have to give back as well."
"We no longer can use the Shoah as an excuse. We can and should never forget...but you can't continue in this generation to say 'I lie because my parents lied to get out of Germany.' They had a right - it was mesiras nefesh, because the government was trying to exterminate the Jews. That's not how it is in the United States in 2009"
All well and good. I agree wholeheartedly.
But listening to Mr. Braffman speak, underlying his entire speech was the very "us verses them" mentality that contributes to the elitsm that enables frum Jews to convince themselves that there's nothing wrong with lying and cheating from the government. After all, they're only "goyim."
The following are some direct quotes from Mr. Braffman's talk:
"It's always been that way, there's always been an Amalek who wanted to kill us."
"...goyishe law firms that thirty-five years ago wouldn't hire a Jew."
"You don't have a goyishe kopp..." (Why aren't there more frum/Chareidi doctors and lawyers?)
"I'd be very happy to represent goyim for the rest of my life."
"The media always sees Jewish blood as cheap, and it's biased and it's anti-Semitic, and that's just the way it is. Jewish blood is cheap, especially in the media."
"Who puts on the lights - you? The Goyim who work for ConEdison do it."
"A friend of mine who is a goy..."
The "everyone hates the Jews" mentality is precisely the social environment that fosters government or insurance fraud. "It's only from the goyim. And they hate us and want to kill us, so why not steal from them." (my paraphrase).
Is there anti-Semitism? Of course there is. But just like we can't use the Shoah as an excuse to lie, steal and cheat, we can't use the crutch of the "goyim" either.
I would have expected a respected lawyer like Mr. Braffman to know that as much as anyone.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Competition in Education Part 2: The Recruiting Mess

In this post, I noted how the opening of a new four-year Hesder program was simply an attempt by the Hesder Yeshivot to compete with and take students from post-High school mechinah programs.
This weekend's Mekor Rishon featured an article titled "High School Seniors Feel Like Kids in a Candy Store." Not a good sign if you're trying to run and recruit for a serious yeshiva. (I have scanned the article, as Mekor Rishon does not allow for linking. Click on the article to see it in full size.)
Last week, approximately fifty representatives from high schools, Hesder yeshivot and other educational institutions gathered to try and find some way to help high school seniors make good decisions about where they'll plan on studying during the following year. Currently, there are 59 Hesder yeshivot, 15 Mechinot, 16 Yeshivot Gevohot (that are not connected to army service), and numerous other post-high school programs and other army/educational tracks. A high school administrator put it this way: there are about 180 school days during the year. If 100 yeshivot want to send a representative to the school, on the first day, the kids are willing to listen. On the tenth day, they're already heard it. By the twentieth day, they're falling asleep. Even more troubling is the damage that this causes to the standing of the Roshei Yeshivot, who find themselves pandering to students hoping to attract them to their yeshiva. How can a student truly respect a Rosh Yeshiva who needs to almost be that student to attend? Moreover, how is a student supposed to decide what yeshiva to attend? How can these yeshivot possibly differentiate themselves? Are there really 59 different and unique Hesder yeshivot?

According to the article, it has gotten so bad that one yeshiva actually offered potential students a jeep-tour to entice them to come visit the yeshiva - which doesn't really surprise me. At the end of the day, a yeshiva is a place to learn full-time, with hopefully good teachers who will be positive role-models and good educators. They can't all be that different. So how else are they supposed to attract students?
The group of educators did decide to hold a fair where all the yeshivot will set up booths and present their yeshiva to potential students. Which is fine, I guess. But I doubt that many of the students will leave the fair with any better sense of where they want to study than they did before the fair.
On a practical level, the high schools need to start giving formal Yeshiva guidance - very much like college and yeshiva guidance in America. They need to act as filters for the schools, so that they can at least give their students a sense of direction.
At the same time, there need to be fewer yeshivot. Does Israel really need 59 Hesder yeshivot? Would it be better for there to be 30, with each yeshiva having double the students? (In 1990 there were 15 Hesder yeshivot, 25 in 1995, 44 in 1999, and now 59. That's a pretty staggering growth rate. A little too staggering.)
Rabbis open yeshivot because they want to move up in the world. They've taught for a certain number of years, and now they want their own place. So they open a yeshiva, put out a shingle, and try and attract students.
And, as I've written before and will continue to write about in future posts, what attracts high school seniors is almost never the best education. High school seniors care about a lot of things, but not always which yeshiva will work them the hardest, be the most challenging, and make them the best person they can be.
Sometimes, all a high school senior really wants is a jeep ride. And with competition the way it is now (and not changing anytime soon), if anything, the future holds more recruiting jeep rides, and not less.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Parents or Peers? Who Plays a Greater Role?

Who would you think has greater influence on teens as they develop religiously: their parents or their peers? Most people would say that peers have the greatest influence on religious choices. Not true, says a noted Israeli educator.
In a recently published study by Dr. Shraga Fisherman of the Orot College of Education (full disclosure: I work at Orot, and know Dr. Fisherman. ) addressed the issue of religious influence on children.
In the end, parents have the greatest influence on their children's spiritual choices. In his survey of teenager boys he found that children in grade seven very much value their parents' wishes. As the kids got older, that level of importance declined, reaching a low at eleventh grade. But then, as the teens got even older, they once again gave greater weight to their parents' values, and by age twenty valued their parents' opinions almost as much as they had in seventh grade.
What did he take away from this survey? Dr. Fisherman concluded,
ולכן חשוב לא להתייאש ולהמשיך ולתת את הדעת על חינוך לזהות דתית גם בשלהי גיל ההתבגרות
Therefore, it's important not to give up, and to continue to express [parental] opinions in order to educate towards religious identity, even during the teenage years.
I have heard so many parents tell me that they're afraid of coming down too hard and driving their children away. This study carries great importance because it tells us that no matter what we do or say, our children naturally gravitate away from us during the middle high school years. As they search for a sense of inner guidance, they feel a need to rebel on some level, and find their own spiritual path. But they're still listening. And while during the difficult years of high school they may not always do what we say, they do want to know how we feel. So when they grow a little older and more self-confident, they have solid guidance on a direction to turn.
While our children may recoil from our opinions, it's probably what they most need - and even want to hear. If so, the worst thing parents can do is not say anything at all.