Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Parshat Emor - Men, Women and the Rabbah

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Emor - Men, Women and the Rabbah

The RCA's recent resolution regarding female Orthodox rabbis - namely that they're beyond the pale of Orthodoxy, once again raises the challenging issue of gender in Judaism. We find ourselves torn between modern values and our ancient timeless tradition. We study some of those traditions found at the outset of Emor, and discuss how we struggle with the messages of the pesukim and how they impact our lives.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Orthodox Leadership Forum - A Meeting at the Knesset

A few months ago, I received an email inviting me to join the initial meeting of the "Orthodox Leadership Forum", the initial meeting of a group hoping to find leadership voices among Olim that had moved to Israel from across the globe. The thinking is that there are many people who have served in leadership positions in their former communities who could bring those qualities to the Orthodox community in Israel. Is there a way to harness their talents to improve the role of Orthodoxy in Israel? It's an important idea, and I was flattered to be invited.
Moreover, the meeting was to be hosted by MK Zevulun Orlev, was to take place in the Knesset, which I thought was fairly cool. So I went. You can find a writeup of the meeting in Hebrew here.
At the meeting, MK Orlev gave an introduction where he spoke about the need for a "Second Orthodox Zionist Revolution". What did he mean? He didn't say specifically, but I'll take a guess.
In Israel the Religious Zionist community, although in numbers a very, very large community, rarely takes a leadership position in the public arena, allowing the national agenda to be driven by others, usually from the secular or Chareidi communities. And, when Religious Zionists do find themselves in the news, it's often because of their "extreme" positions, most notably the recent and ongoing brouhaha regarding Rav Melamed and the Har Brachah yeshiva, and their expulsion from the Hesder movement.
The fact of the matter is, Religious Zionists play a very strong role in the IDF today, but for whatever reason, when the roles of leadership come about, we haven't taken the reigns - politically, rabbinically or communally. Leaders who come from the more "moderate" community have a great deal to say that will resonate in the broader community. We have the ability to speak with a strong voice and articulate religious values in a way that resonates with the public instead of alienating them.
This, I think, is the point of this forum.
I think.
I'm not sure, because the meeting, while interesting (and long), didn't really set out a clear agenda. It gave people the opportunity to express their views, but did not really establish a clear path forward. It was in the end, I guess, a forum.
Among the participants:
(there were some others there - I don't remember all of them. And we didn't get a complete list.)

How was the meeting? Long. Also, many of the speakers spoke about the slights - mostly real, but some imagined - that our community has suffered at the hands of the Chareidi community. Our relationship with, reaction to, interaction with the Chareidim seemed to take a prominent role among many of the speakers.
There were a number of "younger" leaders, and I was impressed by their energy and passion. The need for this forum clearly touched a nerve with them, and they have a sense of excitement about what the forum could possibly be.
Uncharacteristically for me, I hadn't planned on saying anything. I really just listened to what people had to say. Except, right before the end Rabbi Waxman asked me whether I have contact with my former members back home (I do with a good number), and what I thought about the forum. So I said,
"Truth be told, I'm not sure yet what to think, because I don't yet know what the forum is supposed to achieve and how that's supposed to happen. I've been listening to the speakers, and in all honestly, I've mostly heard a great deal of negativity. I'm not interested in what the Chareidim are doing. I'm much more interested in what we are and should be doing. I'm less interested in reacting, and much more interested in leading and promoting our agenda."
I'm pretty sure my point was well-taken. At least I hope it was.
After the meeting, someone asked me, "So, are you going to go back?" Despite the length of the meeting (more than two hours), I will, for a number of reasons:
  1. I was invited to participate in a forum in Knesset. It was quite cool.
  2. These things take time to develop. Even though it's a slow process and everyone wants to have his say, it's difficult to tell how the Forum will coalesce and whether it can make a difference. Sometimes you have to sit through a lot of boring meetings to make a real accomplishment.
  3. Finally, it was an honor to be included in a group of such prominent and accomplished people. I relish the opportunity just to spend a little more time with them, learn from them, and hopefully get to know some of them better.
Final nuggets:
  • The meeting was around a huge wooden table in the official meeting room for the Committee for Culture and Education. That was neat.
  • It was energizing to meet Rabbi Mendelevich in person. I remember growing up that there was an empty seat reserved for him in the front of the shul as Prisoner of Zion. Now, seeing him as a recognized teacher in Israel gave me chills
  • The meeting broke for minchah, and ended with Ma'ariv. The best part was when the guard came to lead us out of the building after the meeting (it was late), he pointed the direction to daven in towards Har Habayit and joined us for Ma'ariv. Only in Israel.

Monday, April 26, 2010

How Do You Spell...

As I walked into the house tonight, my son Simcha asked me what he thought was a simple question: "Abba, how do you spell relief?" He didn't realize that it was a funny question.
There was only one possible answer: "How do I spell relief? R-O-L-A-I-D-S."
He had no idea what I was talking about. So Rena showed him the old commercial.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Violence in our Culture: An Old Drashah, Still Relevant

On my commute, I enjoy listening to podcasts. (I love my iPod. It's an amazing invention. One day soon I'll post about my Nike+Ipod. Amazing.)
Among a number of different podcasts I subscribe too, I really enjoy two Slate podcasts: the Political Gabfest, and the Culture Gabfest. I recommend both.
This week's Culturefest contained a segment about a newly released movie, whose title I'm not even comfortable writing in full on this blog, called Kick-***. You've might have heard of it, as it was the top grossing film in the United States last weekend.
What's got people talking about the film apparently, is a supporting character called Hit Girl. In the film, Hit Girl is exactly that: an eleven-year-old, foul-mouthed (apparently really foul), martial-arts assassin. She literally kills dozens of people in the movie.
Now, I like a good Jackie Chan movie as much as anyone. In his (really negative) review of the movie Roger Ebert wrote,
Shall I have feelings, or should I pretend to be cool? Will I seem hopelessly square if I find “Kick-Ass” morally reprehensible and will I appear to have missed the point? Let's say you're a big fan of the original comic book, and you think the movie does it justice. You know what? You inhabit a world I am so very not interested in. A movie camera makes a record of whatever is placed in front of it, and in this case, it shows deadly carnage dished out by an 11-year-old girl, after which an adult man brutally hammers her to within an inch of her life. Blood everywhere. Now tell me all about the context.
Many people really do feel that a line has been crossed. But I often wonder: where do you draw the line? What violence is truly innocuous, and what's harmless. Where's the point beyond which we say: you know what? At some point some child is going to start trying to be like Hit Girl in the real world?
All of this got me thinking about a drashah that I gave at YIOP three years ago. Following the shocking deadly rampage at the University of West Virginia, I gave a drashah about our society's addiction to violence, connecting the theme to the topic of Tzaraat.
Reading it again this week, following the release of Kick_***, the drashah seems as relevant as ever. Maybe more so.
Click here to download the drashah.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Audio Shiur: Kedoshim - Careful Speech

Audio Shiur:
Audio Shiur: Kedoshim - Careful Speech

Examining the section of Kedoshim dedicated to proper speech raises challenges: Do we speak positively and properly? Do we offer proper rebuke or recoil from the challenge? And is Facebook a good thing or a bad thing? What about the iPhone?

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Privacy, Parshat Kedoshim and the Lost Iphone

The media has been abuzz about the lost new prototype of the next generation iPhone. At Apple, secrecy represents a large part of their marketing strategy, building a mystique and demand for their products that garners literally millions of dollars worth of attention. If you're not familiar with this story, I'll summarize briefly.
An Apple engineer, (now named on the internet) working on the new phone, went out drinking with his new phone
After drinking beer, he left the phone at the bar (note to self: top secret gadgets and alcoholic consumption don't mix well)
Someone else found the phone, and in a drunken stupor, gave it to the person sitting in the next booth, who he thought was a friend of the owner. (He thought wrong).
That person played with the phone, and even identified its owner through the Facebook page on the phone. No one came back to claim the phone, so he took it home.
He claim to have called Apple trying to reach the owner.
Realizing that this wasn't just any phone (it looked a little bit different), he opened the phone. The website (I'm specifically not linking to the site. If you click on the link, they'd make a profit, making me a willing conspirator to their profit from illicitly obtained information. If you're really interested, find it yourself.) continues,

He reached for a phone and called a lot of Apple numbers and tried to find someone who was at least willing to transfer his call to the right person, but no luck. No one took him seriously and all he got for his troubles was a ticket number. He thought that eventually the ticket would move up high enough and that he would receive a call back, but his phone never rang. What should he be expected to do then? Walk into an Apple store and give the shiny, new device to a 20-year-old who might just end up selling it on eBay?

When he failed to find the owner, he did what any normal person would do with a phone that they had found: he sold it for $5,000 cash to a tech website.
What does Judaism have to say about this event? A great deal, and all of it's sad. Really sad.
There's well-known mitzvah called השבת אבידה - the commandment to return lost items. The mitzvah is pretty straight forward: if you find someone's property, you can't use it or benefit from it. Just give it back. Like the drunk guy tried to do. You can't open it, examine it, sell it, or manipulate it in any way. If you can't find the owner, just keep it. Maybe one day you will. The only real exception to these rule is when the item itself will rot or deteriorate. Then you can sell the item (like a cow, or a squash) and keep the money to return to the original owner.
So if you find a phone, you can turn it on to find its owner. But you certainly can't open it and you definitely can't sell it.
But there's something more nefarious that went on here as well. The value of the phone stemmed from the proprietary information that it contained. I personally could care less that the new iPhone will have a camera, but many people apparently really do care. The existence of the phone and its form are (er, were) industrial secrets. And no one, not a journalist nor private citizen has the right to reveal information acquired against the will of its owner. We learn this from a Midrash in this week's parshah.
גדול כסוי הסוד, שכל המגלה סוד חברו, כאילו שופך דמים, שנאמר (ויקרא יט, טז): 'לא תלך רכיל וגו' [לא תעמוד על דם רעך]'. גדול המכסה סוד חברו, שהוא מקיים מחשבות חברו.
So great is the keeping of secrets, that one who reveals secrets is compared to one who spills blood, as it is written, "You shall not be a talebearer among your people, and do not stand idly by the blood of your friend." Great is the person who keeps his friend's secret, for he fulfills the wishes of his friend.
Perhaps your thinking: isn't that a little bit of stretch? It's like spilling blood?
Actually, is that really so difficult to imagine, even in this case. Imagine the engineer who lost the phone. OK, it was dumb to bring the phone to a bar. But who among us can say that we haven't done a stupid thing or two? But now that his name is out, imagine that Apple fires him. Can you see him finding another software engineering job anytime soon? What would your state of mind be in this type of situation? Does anyone know how he'll react?
We live in a world where the drive for the scoop - the latest information at any cost, has robbed us of any semblance of privacy or secrecy.
Which should give us all pause to wonder: what's on my phone?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Parents on Yom Hazikaron

It's been an emotionally challenging day - and I don't even know anyone who died, at least not personally.
Last night, we attended the local Yom Hazikaron commemoration. All the things that you'd expect: yizkor, candle lighting, a choir. This morning we heard the siren. This afternoon we met the Klausner family at Latrun, where guards stood by the memorial for the fallen soldiers from the tank corps.
Then, the Klausners told us that their shul was going on a tiyyul - at least that's what they called it, and did we want to join? Sure. We traveled to a yishuv called Gimzu, where we climbed to the top of the hill from which the view was fantastic. You could see Modiin to the west and Tel Aviv to the northeast, and atop the hill sat a small gazebo-like structure. It had a few picnic tables and some great breeze, and was called "Mitzpeh Yehonatan V'hashnayim" - "the lookout of Yehonatan and the Two".
Soon David Einhorn came into the hut, and he began to speak. He spoke briefly about the history of Gamzu and the hill overlooking it upon which we were standing, and the two Israeli soldiers who fell when Israeli forces captured the hill in 1948. (That's why it was called "Mitzpeh Hashnayim" - the lookout of the "two".) Then he began speaking about his son Yehonatan Einhorn, who gave his life during a battle with Hizballah during the Second Lebanon War. I won't share all the details, but you can learn more about Yehonatan here. He told a the very moving story of his son's bravery, poise and leadership, both in the battle that took his life and at other times. He spoke lovingly, proudly of his son. But it was clear that these talks, and he's obviously told the stories many, many times, serve as a form of therapy, a healing of sorts. They renamed the hilltop after his son's death, for it had been a favorite place of his during his childhood.
During his talk he said something startling. The night after his son's death, before the burial, he and his wife sat on their porch. And he suddenly turned to his wife and said to her, "You know, I've made a decision. Our children just lost their brother. They cannot also lose their father. I will not allow myself to fall into a pit of despair." And he didn't.
At that moment, I realized that there's an entire group of heroes who we don't always recognize on Yom Hazikoron. On this day we remember the soldiers and their sacrifice. But we forget about the poise and stature of the parents who sent their sons to battle. We forget their suffering, and the sacrifices they made on our behalf.
This year, the prospect of parenting a soldier somehow seems closer. I don't view the prospect of sending my sons to the army with dread. It's a privilege that generations of Jews dreamed about. But this year, I felt a greater sense of appreciation for the sacrifice that the parents of our soldiers make.
Their strength gives me strength.
May Yehonatan Einhorn's memory be blessed. יהי זכרו ברוך.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Rabbi Gedalya Anemer, zt"l

My rebbe from High School, Rabbi Anemer, passed away suddenly this week. He was an anchor of the Silver Spring community for over fifty years, and had a profound impact on my entire family. Growing up in the Kemp Mill Section of Silver Spring, MD, Rabbi Anemer was a dominating presence. I remember how people would walk from other communities to hear his Shabbat Hagadol and Shabbat Shuvah drashot. He was a fiery, passionate speaker. He represented a connection to a Torah world that most American Jews never really knew; a Torah of devotion, dedication, and even reverence.
Four years ago, when his shul celebrated his fiftieth year, I sent him a letter of thanks. Now, after his sudden passing, I share it with you.

Dear Rabbi Anemer, שליט"א
It is my great pleasure to extend my warmest wishes of Mazel Tov on the occasion of Young Israel Shomrei Emunah’s annual dinner marking your fifty years of service and dedication to the Silver Spring Jewish community.
On a personal level, it is difficult for me to express my gratitude to you for the energies that you put into me and my family. So many of the most formulative of my personal memories revolve around your influence. Permit me to share some personal thoughts and memories:
I once wasn’t feeling well, and visited the doctor for an illness that we feared might be more than a simple cold. After the doctor visit, my mother stopped off at Shalom’s to buy something, and we bumped into you. I was – I guess understandably so – somewhat apprehensive about doctors and illness. When you saw me out of school and inquired about me, you told me, “Oh, I’m sure that it’s nothing.” And I felt better – because your reassurance meant a great deal. If you said that I would be all right, I would be – and I was.
I have vivid memories of learning in your Gemara shiur. Somehow, reaching your shiur was an honor that had to be achieved – and not assumed. While we were certainly scared and intimidated – it was a יראת הרוממות – not a יראת העונש. You had a way of inspiring us to want to grow in learning without feeling small about ourselves, but great about what we could be. I have always felt privileged to have learned with you in my high school years. The high bar that you set has stayed with me to this day.
I have many memories of personal interaction. I appreciate the time that you spent with me both at a very young age, trying to explain things that I could not understand – and also the advice that you have given me since, guiding me through many difficult decisions. Even today, I feel privileged to be able to call you for a שאלה whenever necessary.
It is not an exaggeration to say that we are who we are today at least in part because of you. I am quite certain that a good many Silver Spring products would echo my sentiments as well.
Finally, now that I am in the rabbinate, and can begin to understand the tremendous pressures and challenges that rabbanus presents, I find myself in awe of your dedication and longevity. To me, fifty years in a community seems like an impossibly long time. Yet, as I develop professionally, it’s also clear to me that communal growth, development and expansion is closely tied with a rav who has invested himself in that community – who has made personal connections, established a presence, and watched the seed that he has planted grow and flower.
This past Shabbos, I gave my Shabbos Drashah about the עצי שטים that they used to construct many of the כלים in the משכן. Rashi quotes the Midrash that they got the trees for the משכן because יעקב אבינו brought down trees from ארץ ישראל that he planted in Egypt, for their ultimate use at the time of the גאולה.
Yet, Rav Ya’akov Kaminetzky asks in אמת ליעקב why יעקב needed to plant trees at all? Didn’t they have trees in Egypt? Moreover, he notes that the מדרש רבה tells us that Ya’akov specifically stops in באר שבע to bring with him trees from אברהם אבינו to Egypt. Why did he need to specifically plant trees from ארץ ישראל when they could have brought Egyptian trees with them out of מצרים?
Rav Kaminetzky answers that יעקב teaches us a critical psychological insight: for him, it would have been enough to believe the promise that ה' would one day redeem His nation from Egypt. But for his children, they needed something tangible – something real, for them to see and nurture, that would remind them constantly of a world they never knew, but would one day see again. So, he brought with him the trees of אברהם אבינו from באר שבע, and planted them in מצרים, knowing that every time they tended those trees; every branch they cut, every weed they pulled; every time they walked by that area in Goshen they would think to themselves: these are the trees of the redemption. These are the trees that our grandfather planted so many decades ago that we – or perhaps our children or grandchildren – will take with us out of this place.
I can only imagine the level of frumkeit – or lack thereof – that was Silver Spring, when you arrived fifty years ago. Yet, to me you always represented that tree that was a מסורה given over to you, that you nurtured and grew and fed and watered – and now you can look at the forest of Jewry and frumkeit throughout the Washington area, and talmidim spread across the United States and the world, and know with a great degree of confidence that these are the offspring of your trees, planted fifty years ago.
May הקב"ה grant you continued health and well-being, and may He give you the strength to continue to plant, nurture and grow many more trees in the future.

Reuven Spolter
Young Israel of Oak Park
Oak Park, MI

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Audio Shiur: Parshat Tazria-Metzora: Ear, Thumb, Big Toe and the Jewish Community

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Tazria-Metzora: Ear, Thumb, Big Toe and the Jewish Community

One of the primary challenges in reading about tzara'at is finding relevance in a "disease" we've never seen and cannot relate to. By analyzing both the sacrificial process that purifies the Metzora, and the causes of tzara'at listed in the Midrash, we find that tzara'at speaks not only to our actions and behavior today, but tells us a great deal about how we must behave to build the idea Jewish community

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Tax Season in America: An Israeli Bonanza

I followed a link to an article in the Jewish Press called, "Society's Proud Parasites" about, you guessed it, Chareidim, and the common practice of living on food stamps, in section 8 housing - taking advantage of pretty much every government program available to continue studying in kollel. Where, the author wonders, is the sense of shame described in classical Jewish literature about living on the dole? Not only is it gone, but it's been replaced with a sense of pride.
I could pile on, but I don't really think it's appropriate - especially not for me. After all, am I really all that different?
No, I work. Thank God, I have a job that pays the bills. I pay my taxes, and even try and give a fair amount of money to charity. But I'm also on the dole from the U.S. government. After all, I'm an American oleh.
Because of the disparity between the systems of pay in Israel and in America, someone living and working in Israel can easily be considered "poor" by American standards. Moreover, he can deduct the foreign taxes that he's paid to Israel to make himself even poorer. And through the largesse of United States economic policy, the government created a program called the EITC - Earned Income Tax Credit where, if you meet certain income requirements, the government will not only reduce your taxes to zero; no, if you're eligible, it will mail you a check. And not a small one. All of this is totally legal. (If you're an American reading this and you actually owe taxes, you can justifiably start getting really mad right about now.)
What's emerged is a small industry of American tax preparers who will help you file your taxes in the States in order to receive what amounts to a relatively large gift from the American government - often thousands of dollars. ($4,000 is not uncommon). Moreover, Israelis are getting in on the deal as well - at least those with American parents. They borrow money to take a trip to America with their children, where they register them for citizenship (for which they are legally eligible). From there they proceed to the Social Security Administration so that they can register their children for U.S. tax purposes. It takes about two years to pay off the cost of the original trip (flights can be expensive), and the rest is gravy. All totally above board - completely legal.
In America, most citizens dread tax season. It's not only the forms and the drudgery. It's the reminder of how much money Uncle Sam took for Obamacare. But here in Israel, April 15th is an Oleh-Holiday. How soon after I file will my rebate come? (I've often wondered: you know how America gives Israel $3 billion in foreign aid each year? If they added the tax rebates that made their way into Israeli homes, how large would that number really be?)
Over Pesach at our cousins home in Otniel, I asked him whether his children were legal American citizens. (He knew exactly what I was asking: do you get money from the U.S. government.) He said something I have never heard anyone say before. "Do I look like I need tzedakah? Am I poor?" (Actually, according to the IRS, he really is poor, with eight children and I'm sure a modest salary.) "Baruch Hashem, I'm able to put bread on the table. I've got a home to live in. I'd rather not take the charity."
I really respected his answer. He's leaving thousands of dollars on the table that he could really, really use that he could access legally because of the obvious principle that you shouldn't take tzedakah that you don't need; the act of taking by itself is damaging; that we really should hate "free gifts" from others.
While I truly respected his answer, does this mean that I'm not going to file my taxes in the U.S.? No way. (First of all, I did have income, which I have to report. And I don't even know if you can refuse a refund you're eligible for when you do report.) If I'm eligible for the rebate - which I'm pretty sure I am - I'm not going to turn it down.
But my willingness to "take" makes it harder for me to criticize others who also legally find ways to live off the generosity of the American taxpayers. People who live in glass houses...

Sunday, April 11, 2010

As the Shoah Fades Away

Gary Rosenblatt wrote a moving piece about the gradual fading relevance of Yom Hashoah. I strongly agree with him. I remember as a child years ago attending Yom Hashoah commemorations at the Young Israel Shomrei Emunah in Silver Spring that were packed - standing room only. The entire community felt the need to participate, bring their children, pass the message on to the next generation.
Fast forward to the early 21st century. The attendance was so paltry that things got to the point where I wondered whether we should even have a community Yom Hashoah event. My friend and colleague Rabbi Yechiel Morris insisted (rightfully so), and he did most of the work putting the event together. But I always felt a twinge of embarrassment for the survivors. Year after year they would come, every year so much the frailer; each year one or two unable to make it to the program, or even in the next world. Didn't we owe them more? Could we not at least make a better showing? We could not.
And yet, my worry about the fading memory of the Shoah centers not on the Orthodox Jewish community. A community rooted in learning and study can never forget the sudden loss of some of its greatest luminaries, and the sudden decimation of great centers of learning and teaching. Moreover, the Orthodox community observes ritually the mourning of suffering and loss on Tisha B'av. Some of my most powerful Shoah images came from talks given by Mr. Manny Mittelman on Tisha B'av. The Orthodox community, which actively commemorates our suffering, will transfer Yom Hashoah to that fateful day (or perhaps to the tenth of Tevet, known in Israel as Yom Hakaddish haklali - the day of general Kaddish), where it probably should have been all along.
I worry more about the secular Jewish community which lacks these very rituals that form the basis of collective and religious memory. Without a Tisha B'av or a fast day or a framework within which to place the tragedy of the Shoah, as the Jews who suffered through the Holocaust first-hand die out, so will the communal need and desire to remember them and the Shoah.
Until the next one.

Friday, April 9, 2010

How Do You Know it's During Sefirah in Israel?

Is it...

...Because they count the Omer after Ma'ariv each night? Obvious, but no.
...Because men go to work unshaven, and do not feel out of place? A good guess, but again no.
...Because you stop seeing weddings until after Lag B'omer (for the most part)? Still true, but not the best way to tell.

No, the reason that you know it's definitely during the Omer in Israel is when you see...

...random children collecting wood from building sites, corners, garbage bins - basically anywhere, as they prepare to build obscenely large bonfires on Lag B'omer.
We can't wait!

Thursday, April 8, 2010


We spent the last day of Pesach with cousins who live in Otniel, a yishuv in the southern Shomron. (Just for reference purposes, the Shomron is the area to the North while Yehuda - Judea - is the area south of Jerusalem which includes Chevron, Kiryat Arba, and Otniel.)
In the afternoon we took a tour of the yishuv. It wasn't a long tour as the settlement consists of 120 families mostly in single family homes, as well as a few caravans. In addition, Otniel is the host of the Otniel Hesder Yeshiva (which you'd assume would be in Otniel), which is apparently a very popular yeshiva now which boasts enrollment of 350+ students.
A few things struck me about Otniel:
  • Otniel doesn't have a fence around it for security, by the choice of the residents. The party line was, "as soon as you build a fence, the Arabs build houses right up to it." But I think that there's an ideological as well as emotional aspect as well. People who live in Otniel are strongly ideologically driven. They're not coming just for the cheap housing (and it is cheap - which in Israel is quite rare), but because they believe in the mission of settling the Land. Fencing yourself in sends the message that the Jews must isolate themselves - and that the surrounding area is not for them, but for someone else. They're not ready to make that statement.
  • Security awareness was constant; I constantly saw soldiers on patrol, regular citizens carrying M-16s; something you don't see even in many other settlements.
  • Since we were visiting for the seventh day of Pesach, I was in shul in Otniel for yizkor, which included a special kel malei for the victims of terror from Otniel. It was a pretty long list, longer than I expected, probably more than ten names. I asked my cousin about it, and he told me that each of the people was connected to Otniel, either having lived in the yishuv or studied in the yeshiva. Listening to the almost nonchalant tone of the chazan during yizkor saddened me. It seemed like losing friends in Otniel is just part of life.
  • I asked my cousin whether he worried about being forced out of his home in the future. He told me quite simply (and honestly), "Look, we've been here for fourteen years now. I don't really worry about what will be in the future. We just want to live our lives. Hopefully, fifty years from now we'll still be here."
Most striking to me was the view in Otniel. High atop a hill overlooking Nachal Chevron, the view is gorgeous. Just as surprising to me, though, was the dearth of other Jewish settlements. You could see only two other settlements, far in the distance to the North and south. Last Sukkot, we visited other cousins living in Karnei Shomron. In the Shomron, I noted the large number of Jewish yishuvim in close proximity; you could see a number of Jewish settlements from Karnei Shomron dotting the hillside, something you cannot do in Otniel.
Seeing the stark difference made me realize that speaking of "territories" and "withdrawal" rather nonchalantly in Washington becomes far more complicated when you look at facts on the ground: each settlement is different, every area unique. Some areas have less Jewish presence, but others have much, much more.
Most importantly, while the media loves to paint these "hardcore" settlers as fanatics, they're anything but. Passionate? Definitely. Willing to live in a challenging place because of their beliefs? Without a doubt. But fanatic? Hardly. We all have a lot to learn from their deep faith, happiness, and willingness not only to have a belief, but to back it up with action.

Audio Shiur: Parshat Shemini - Aharon's Shame, Aharon's Pain

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Shemini - Aharon's Shame, Aharon's Pain
We generally find the sacrificial descriptions like those at the opening of Parashat Shemini dry and boring. Yet, by uncovering the tragic truth underlying the sacrificial offerings on that fateful eighth day, we come to an entirely different understanding of Aharon, the first Kohen Gadol. By understanding both his shame and his terrible pain, we can learn why he was perfectly suited to be the ritual conduit between God and the Jewish people.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Next Year: A Kosher, Happy and Healthy Pesach

For Rosh Hashanah, we wish each other a happy, healthy New Year. For Pesach, instead of "healthy" we wish for a "kosher" Pesach. We could have used "healthy" this Pesach.
Petachya attends gan, and brought home with him along with a kiddush cup for the Seder and a mini-hagadah, a case of shigella. He suffered for about a week before Pesach, until we finally decided to get him antibiotics.
Everyone was fine, getting ready for the Seder. Then Leah got sick. It wasn't fair for her to miss the Seder, so we pushed the couch over next to the table. She leaned like the Romans of old, but you can't really say that she ate that much, if anything at all. Antibiotics for her.
After Yom Tov, we had a couple of sick-free days. Actually, one sick-free day, which we spent in Yerushalayim at a family-wide picnic. It's something of a tradition for everyone to get together, and we were happy to join it.
The next morning, Simcha woke up not feeling well. Maybe it's just a bug. (Sure.) We dragged him to a community-wide family event run by a company called Nivutteva (which means "Navigation in Nature") in which families navigated around a state park trying to find different stations. It was really a great event. Sadly, Simcha spent the second half of it on the ground, getting sicker. Antibiotics for him.
By Friday morning, he was already feeling better, bringing us to decision time: should we travel to Otniel to visit cousins, as we had long planned, or should we stay home owing to Simcha's illness? We wisely elected to stay home, pushing the visit to Otniel to the last day of the chag. Why wisely? Because while Simcha was much better by Shabbat evening, Rena was starting to feel sick, and by Shabbat morning was totally out of commission. Much Tylenol ensued, as well as antibiotics for her.
Sunday rolled around, and while the proposed tiyyul to Susya was out of the question (Rena still weak), we were willing to travel to Otniel as long as our cousins knew what they were getting themselves into. They conferred, and called back to tell us that they "didn't care if they got sick afterward, as long as we came to visit." We were touched. And off to Otniel.
It was a great chag. First of all, we appreciated the invitation, but being at home alone was beginning to get us down. It's one thing to be a rabbi in a community, when you know that you're not able to travel to family for Yom Tov. Most years some family came and visited for Pesach, if not my mother, a sibling. We have many fond seder memories with family.
But this Pesach, I found spending the chag without family more difficult than usual. It's a reality of aliyah for many: living here is very rewarding and wonderful, but we do miss our immediate family very much, especially on Pesach. (It doesn't help that Pesach is a very, very family-oriented time. In our little street, we were the only family out of eight that stayed home for the first day of the chag. It was very, very quiet.) So, getting out and spending a day of Yom Tov with others was terrific. The food was great. The company was wonderful. One small problem.
Bezalel got sick. He was really a trooper, because being sick away from home is the pits.
More Tylenol. More antibiotics.
Meanwhile, Yom Tov has ended, and hopefully, life will return to normal.
They say that new Olim often get sick. They don't call you an oleh-chadash, but a choleh-chadash. It's taken a year for our bodies to adjust to this new environment. This year, we can really call ourselves cholim chadashim. And, at the same time, we're grateful for our great doctor, and thankful that our sicknesses have been treatable and short-lived.
Next year, I'll hope not only for a happy and kosher Pesach, but for a healthy one as well.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Simpsons Visit Israel

So the Simpson family visited the Holy Land this past Sunday, and the verdict is in: Not really all that funny.
You have your obvious pushy Israeli jokes, Bart Simpson scaling the Kotel, Homer sleeping in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher - but there's not all that much to laugh about. I actually found the silly soda names and mock Israeli locales kind of lame.
Krusty the Clown shows up for a brief stint, explaining that he's in the Holy Land because every Jew feels the need to visit Israel at least once before they die. I hear that that really is true. Israel does rank high on the Jewish "bucket list."
Surprising detail: Sasha Baron Cohen does actually speak in Hebrew for a bit, cursing out his tour group. That was clever.
The show is at its best when it's making pointed observations about nuance and hypocrisy in American society. The Middle East and Israelis don't really fit that bill. The Simpsons should stick to what they do best: make fun of Americans from Springfield. Unless they've run out of things to write about. Then they should just stop writing.