Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Audio Shiur: Parshat Mishpatim - How Should We Give Tzedakah?

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Mishpatim - How Should We Give Tzedakah?

Two meshulachim knocking on my door this week got me thinking about the way we do - and don't give tzedakah. We carefully examine the language the Torah uses to describe how God expects us to relate to the weakest members of society. We examine some rather frightening Midrashim, and conclude with a beautiful message from Kli Yakkar about the appropriate attitude towards giving tzedaka.

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Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 9 - The Truth of the Torah Part 1

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 9 - The Truth of the Torah Part 1
(This shiur studies the classic work of Rav Yissachar Teichtal on the importance of settling the Land of Israel, following the Hebrew text with English translation.)

Rav Teichtal introduces the notion that the Torah is a "morashah" - an inheritance. In order to do so, he introduces the words of Rambam in the famous "Iggeret Teiman" (Letter to Yemen) in which Rambam encourages the people of Yemen to resist persecution, and begins by describing the truth of Revelation at Har Sinai. We begin with antisemitism, and work our way towards proof in God, and the fundamental foundations of Jewish faith.

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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Tzedakah App I'm Not Going to Design. But Someone Should.

Yesterday, two events took place in close proximity that got me thinking. I've often got "great" ideas, but usually don't do anything about them. At least I'm sharing this one.
I got a call at Orot about placing an advertisement in the paper. We work with a media company in Israel, and I needed a picture of a specific teacher at the school. So I fired up my Picasa software (the free photo software that you can download from Google), and it quickly showed me every picture of this instructor that I had stored on my computer. Apparently, facial analysis software is so commonplace that they now give it away for free. Turns out that I didn't have a good picture to use, but I also didn't spend hours searching my files to find that out.
That evening, a quiet knock on the door announced a pair of tzedakah collectors, who told me that they were collecting money for the niece of one of them (the other just came along to "help out"), and handed me a four-page full-color flier calling for donations on behalf of a poor, cancer-stricken young girl (her eyes covered for privacy), complete with rabbinic approvals and a toll-free number for credit card donations on the back. I was, to say the least, skeptical.
"Do you have any identification that would connect you to this girl?" No.
"Do you have any personal letters of recommendation so that I know that you're actually telling me the truth?" No.
I told them that while I was very sorry, experience had taught me to wonder whether they found the fliers in some shul, and saw a great opportunity to make some money. Without any corroborating documentation, I didn't feel comfortable giving them money.
Funny thing is, they were quite nice and reasonable, and didn't really make a fuss. They thanked me, and moved on to the next house. They encouraged me to call the phone number and donate over the phone. (I called to try and check into the identification of the "uncle." They took my name and number and promised to call me back. I'm still waiting.) In truth, I'm still not sure whether they were telling me the truth. There's really no way to know - both who they were, and whether they really did represent an actual need.
But then I realized, that there is. Or there should be.
In most cities in America, when someone arrives to collect for tzedakah, his first stop is the office where he gets his local tzedakah I.D. He undergoes some type of background check and receives a document attesting both to his identity and the cause for which he's collecting. It might be himself or his eighth daughter's wedding, and it might be a fund or a kollel. In Detroit, it was commonly accepted to withhold donations from an individual collecting without such a document.
In Israel, that system has yet to exist. But the American system also contains a number of inefficiencies. Each city must do its own checking, adding toil and expense both to the collector and to the local representative. What if there were a central database of meshulachim, which could be instantly accessed from around the globe? Moreover - and even more importantly, could there also be a database of individuals known to have falsified information to collect money?
I hope you see where I'm going.
Imagine a smartphone app in which you simply snap a picture with your phone of the person standing at your door. Using readily available face-identification technology, the database would then search for the person's identity, and also tell you who he was collecting for (if he's on the database). In addition, people could also submit photos to the database for research and corroboration, and report suspicious behavior.
With such an app, there's no longer any need for local identification and also no way to game the system as your face is your ID. You can't fake your face (unless you've got a really good makeup artist, ala Mission Impossible) and you can't escape your past. And, if you truly represent a worthy cause, a positive ID will enable you to collect more easily and safely.
There's a possible added benefit to this system as well. Imagine that a meshulach knocks on my door collecting for his kollel. I snap his picture in my Android Meshulachim app, and learn his name, the name of the kollel, and some background information about the institution. I'd like to donate. Meshulachm face major challenges both carrying far too much cash (making them obvious victims of theft), and being forced to pay heavy fees to cash checks, combine checks - basically to collect the money they've actually collected. What if I could, in the app, donate to the kollel automatically through an online payment system. I donate an amount and he immediately receives an email informing him of my donation. He's not carrying cash. He's not paying an exorbitant percentage to his driver. And when he gets back to Israel (which is almost always where he's from), he can simply access his money from his online account.
I've been mulling this idea in my head and I think it's got a lot of potential. If you see holes, please share. If not, this seems like a great potential use for technology to make life easier for everyone: for people wishing to give tzedakah and feel good about the donation; for local authorities often overwhelmed by the demands of meshulachim; and even for the honest collectors looking for a way to build trust and collect more simply.
I think it's a pretty interesting idea for an App, and I know that I'll never do anything about this idea. But maybe someone should.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Too Much Information?

A recent article in the NY Jewish Week about TMI caught my attention. In general, we all feel overloaded by information: too many articles, books, blogs (not including this one, of course), magazines. Who could possibly keep up with it all? And yet we try.
I've recently been feeling overwhelmed by a different form of TMI: Too much sad information. As a former rabbi, YU graduate and RCA member, I get emails from each organization. Yet, the single largest category of organizational emails that I get, by far, is death notices. I will often get three notices about the same death. Somehow, every organization seems to feel the need to share the news of the passing of every member - whether you knew them or their close relative or not.
To tell you the truth, I could deal with the death notices. You get used to them. You quickly check to see if it's someone you know, and then delete. Far more challenging to me is finding way to deal with all the illnesses that, thanks to the power of the web, I now learn about.
With the advent of instant international communication, we now are aware of many, if not most of the more tragic illnesses in a given community. I receive emails forwarded to lists (either the local Yad Binyamin list, or a student group I work with, or even rabbinical lists) about tragedies, injuries, illnesses - asking me to pray for recovery and health for the sick.
This is something of a sensitive topic, I realize, and I'm clearly in danger of sounding callous. But I wonder: is it better for the friends and family of an individual to pray for the recovery of a loved one, with passion and devotion, or for as many people as possible to add yet another name to their "list" of cholim? Can't you have both? In a way, I guess you can, but I wonder whether every name we add to the list doesn't reduce our ability to passionately pray for others. Do we have unlimited wellsprings of kavanah? Who hasn't sat through a mi sheberach for the cholim after Torah reading, where people swarm the gabbai with lists of names who they themselves most probably don't even know? Does the fact that the gabbai says a name out loud add additional power to the prayer? It seems clear from our behavior that we assume it does. Yet, when I think about it I'm just not sure.
I wonder, also, about our collective psychological well-being. We now walk around with a great deal of sad, tragic information. Yesterday I learned of the tragic passing of the grandson of a community member. A coworker's son is recovering from a terrible accident, and faces a long, arduous recovery. Those are people whom I know. But what am I to do with the surgery of a daughter of a rabbi living in New York, or the medical procedure of a student's father? Are we meant to carry around that much psychological pain? And if not, how am I to pick and choose whose pain to care about and whose to discard?
Of course we should pray for health for the ill. Yet, I wonder if we've reached the point of too much information.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Saying it Like It Is: An Obvious Solution to the Tuition Crisis

Kol Hakavod to Rabbi Alan Haber of MMY. In response to this article in the NY Jewish Week about the crazy cost of Yeshiva tuitions, Rabbi Haber posted:
Interesting article; real dillema.
I would like to remind American Orthodox Jews that there is also another option! There is a country over here in the Middle East where day school tuition is funded almost entirely by the government. And alt×™ough salaries are lower here, other expenses (like health care) are also much lower than they are in the States. I am well aware (from personal experience!) that the decision to make Aliya is not an easy one, and that there are many factors that can legitimately affect the decision. Still, it is worth pointing out that there was a time very recently when the single most important reason NOT to make Aliya was the fear of not being able to manage financially. Today, however, for Orthodox families in America struggling with tuition and other expenses, the reverse is often true: you will be much better off financially here than you are there.
So at least give it some thought! Make a phone call to Nefesh b'Nefesh and at least consider your options!
We're waiting for you over here....
Rabbi Alan Haber
Alon Shvut
I was thinking of writing the same thing, but he got there first. And Americans are by now clearly sick of hearing the same aliyah mantra over and over. But at some point, maybe the message really will sink in. Perhaps that's the direction NBN should go in as it considers its marketing of aliyah. Instead of "Living the Dream" (they've already picked off all the dreamers), they should start targeting the Orthodox Jews living in Teaneck by explaining that if they're going to stress over the expenses of Jewish life, they might as well do it from the Jewish State.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 8 - The Story of the Name

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 8 - The Story of the Name
(This shiur studies the classic work of Rav Yissachar Teichtal on the importance of settling the Land of Israel, following the Hebrew text with English translation.)

Rav Teichtal concludes his second introduction by sharing a powerful and moving story explaining why he named the book Eim Habanim Semeichah.

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Audio Shiur: Parshat Yitro - Religious Coercsion: Not as Bad as We Might Think

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Yitro - Religious Coercsion: Not as Bad as We Might Think

Especially in Israel, religious coercion is automatically considered something negative, destructive and harmful. Yet, almost no one grows on their own. Their upbringing clearly included some level of coercion. By examining the story of the giving of the Torah, we'll look at the way God coerced the Jewish people, and how that might instruct the way we raise our own children.
We also referenced this article on The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

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A Giving Opportunity I Declined

Yesterday, sitting in my office, my cellphone rang.
"Rabbi Spolter? (in Hebrew) My name is (don't remember his first name) Teichtal, and I'm the grandson of Rav Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal (the author of Eim Habanim Semeichah). I understand that you give a shiur on my grandfather's book. Do you have time to speak?"
I had a few minutes, and knew exactly what he wanted - which is money. Truth is, we'd had this conversation before. After a few minutes of casual conversation, he came to it. Could I help him by giving him a list of people in Detroit to solicit for his kollel in memory of his grandfather?
Truth is, we had had this conversation before, when I was still a rabbi in Michigan. So I asked him exactly the same question I had asked about five years ago: "Tell me, do the members of your kollel study your grandfather's book?"
He hemmed. He hawed. He mumbled something about how he had skimmed the book himself, but the bottom line was no, they didn't study the book.
Sorry, I told him. If you truly read the book, you'd know that he didn't write the book for me. He wrote the book for you. And your refusal to study his most important work - which he wrote and the very end of his life - is a rather strong rebuttal of his teachings, if you ask me. My connection to Rav Teichtal stems directly from his passion for Eretz Yisrael, so I have no interest in a kollel that utterly rejects one of his last, and most passionate loves.
He tried to argue, telling me that his aunt just wanted a kollel learning in his memory. They wanted to stay out of politics, so they shied away from anything controversial. I wasn't (and am not) buying it. Ignoring Rav Teichtal's great love for the Land of Israel is, in and of itself, a political statement. Pretending that you can memorialize a person by rejecting core elements of his theology is without a doubt political, and as much as I want to identify with and memorialize Rav Teichtal, I'll do that by teaching his Torah, and not by sending money to a kollel that happens to have his name on a sign over the door.
So, if you live in Michigan and get a call asking for money for a Rav Teichtal Kollel, you can rest assured that they didn't get your name from me.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Kindle in Israel Update 3

When can two people read one book at the same time, without driving each other crazy? When they're reading a Kindle - or two, to be precise.
Is Amazon reading my blog posts? (See here and here.) I don't know, but things have sharply improved. Last I posted, there were a bunch of books that we received as gifts that we couldn't download here in Israel - many of them books that the kids really wanted. Well, after we announced that people could buy the kids English langauge books on the Kindle, my in-laws, in their great wisdom realized that one device would be a source of endless fighting, arguing and strife. How right they were. So for Chanukah, they ordered a second Kindle for the kids. (The second one came with a built-in nightlight, so now I can rest assured that our children will never go to sleep, even when they got to bed. Remember the flashlight in bed? That's so last century. Now the book is the flashlight.)
When Rena charged the Kindle and loaded on our books, on a lark she decided to try ordering the much-desired Rick Riorden book, the Lost Hero. Or a Redwall book. Or Percy Jackson. Truthfully, it's all a blur to me. Only this time, they all worked! Hooray.
So now our kids are plowing through these books at a frightening rate, which is great. I've just finished John Grisham's latest, The Confession (a good read, but a bit too preachy for me), and the Kindle has even stopped crashing as much as before.
Which makes me again ready to recommend the Kindle to English speakers in Israel looking for ways to keep their kids reading English books.

Had You Heard about Reboot? Neither did I?

As a former pulpit rabbi, I am often seen strolling around Yad Binyamin in my rabbinic garb. No, I'm not describing a dark suit or black hat. Rather, I'm referring to the large stock of Timberland jackets that I accumulated over the years from seminars I attended at the Soloveitchik Institute in Boston and later at the CJF Rabbinic seminars across the U.S. The jackets, always donated by the generous owner of Timberland, are still some of my favorite items of clothing, and as the years progressed my jacket collection grew steadily. The piece de resistance was clearly the down winter parka we all received one snowy winter.
And then, when the downturn hit, the jackets rightly stopped. Funds were scarce, and while YU never paid for the jackets, the money was needed in other areas. Nowadays, every worthy cause pinches pennies, and stretches its dollars as far as possible. All, it seems, except one.
The New York Times recently did a writeup of Reboot, an amorphous Jewishy program aimed at connecting Jews to whatever Judaism they want to connect to. Aside from wondering about the effectiveness of the program, and the exclusivity of inviting forty important people a year, the budget seems staggering. And I quote:
“Our goal is not to get the 40 most successful people,” said Roger Bennett, a founder who lives in New York and is senior vice president at the Andrea & Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, an initial contributor to Reboot that now has 18 donors and a yearly $1.8 million budget.
What? Did they say $1.8 million a year? For forty people? What does that money pay for exactly?
Ms. Soloway and Ms. Subrin arrived separately on Friday, May 20, 2005, at the five-star Stein Eriksen Lodge. (Other attendees that weekend were Jonathan Abrams, who created the social networking site Friendster, and Jessi Klein, now a writer for “Saturday Night Live.”) Conference organizers chose Park City (Utah) because there are direct flights to the area from both coasts. Accommodations were luxurious: deluxe suites with down pillows, bathtubs with whirlpool jets and twice-daily maid service.
Really? Because last I checked, Newark, NJ also has direct flights from both coasts. Could it be that they chose Park city more for the down pillows and "twice-daily maid service"? (Twice daily? How dirty can a room get in half a day?)
I'm all for Jewish rediscovery. In this age of intermarriage and incredible assimilation, I'm open to trying anything. But $1.8 million for forty people a year? Imagine what Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn of the West Side Institutional Synagogue could do with $1.8 million. (on JM in the AM, it was pretty clear that his Rock and Roll Shabbaton was a sellout. Yes - a Rock and Roll Shabbaton. What do you want? It's the Upper West Side?) I have no idea what he'd come up with, but it's a sure bet that he'd affect more than forty people a year.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Kol Hakavod Bibi! Kol Hakavod IDF!

For this. And this.
We complain, and rightly so, when things go wrong. But let us not forget that the thousands of people working to protect us are doing an amazing job. Keep up the good work!
We laud the soldiers who stand on the fence, or fly the planes the defend us. But this year, the greatest defender of Israel might very well have been a computer programmer sitting in front of a screen.
Thanks to the U.S. for its collaboration and assistance. And let us continue to pray to the Creator to give us continued strength to protect the Jewish State from all attackers.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Brain Death and Halachic Debate: Not for Public Consumption

If you follow such things, a major debate has recently grabbed headlines over the sensitive and complicated issue of brain death. In layman's terms, it boils down to this:
Doctors have determined a criteria that defines a person as being "dead" even though her heart continues to beat. Thus, doctors can harvest the organs of the "dead" person, saving the life of another sick individual waiting for a heart, lung, liver, etc. Removing the (still beating) heart doesn't actually kill the patient as she is already legally "dead".
As soon as organ donation became a medical reality, Jewish scholars began debating whether Halachah considers the medical definition of death to be acceptable, or not. If not, then harvesting organs is nothing less than murder. Judaism never sanctions the killing of one to save another. Regarding the debate of the issue itself, a few points stand out in my mind:
1. This is a very, very complicated, intricate halachic issue. As a former pulpit rabbi, I have no compunction admitting that it's way, way above my "pay grade." (and I've got to say, far above the level of halachic expertise of many rabbis taking a stand on the issue.) I'm happy to answer questions about pots and pans, niddah, Shabbat and the like, but brain death? Sorry, I know enough to know that I don't know. More confusing though, is the fact that rabbis that I respect argue about the issue. Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, the Av Beit Din of the Chicago Rabbinical Council is in favor of the brain death criteria (or so I've heard) while Rabbi Herschel Schacter is against. What's a pulpit rabbi to do? How is he to decide which of his revered teachers is correct? In essence the pulpit rabbi is forced to make a choice he is neither equipped nor trained to make.
2. Personally, while medical science has made great strides and can do great things, what does medicine have to say about the soul? How do doctors have the right to determine when life begins and when it ends? To me, this seems much more of a theological issue than a medical one, and I find the reliance of many on the medical literature, as advanced as it may be, troubling.
3. Even more troubling to me is the way this debate has become a public issue, subject to pronouncements, proclamations, and public pressure. On one side we find the Rabbinical Council of America, whose Vaad Halachah released a report announcing its findings on brain death (basically taking the anti-brain-death position). Who were they releasing it to? What was the purpose of the release? What authority did the halachic board actually have? It seems like the Va'ad Halachah has no authority, because after an outcry, the RCA released another statement essentially saying that the Va'ad Halachah wasn't really official RCA position, telling us that,
The RCA takes no official position as an organization on the issue of whether or not brain stem death meets the halachic criteria of death. The study disseminated by the Vaad Halacha was the product of many years of exploration by that committee and was meant to serve as an informational guide to our membership.
Really? Then why release it to the public? Why is it freely available to anyone who wants to download it? If it was really only "informational", then why do so many feel that it's such a one-sided document?
Then, another group of rabbis felt the need to issue a statement responding to the RCA report suggesting that while both positions are halachically valid, (here's the money quote):
To adopt a restrictive position regarding donating organs and a permissive position regarding receiving organs is morally untenable.
I get what they're trying to say. Personally, I strongly disagree with their point. But I question the forum and the language. Who is this statement really for? What's the point of calling someone with whom you disagree "morally untenable" - essentially "immoral" on a blog, trying to make a public statement. People often don't get the nuance. They just remember the label.
This type of public name calling isn't the way to debate halachah, because it's not a debate of the issues on its merits. You can yell and scream inside the Beit Midrash - even a virtual one - but to open the debate over a very complicated and sophisticated issue - to the public, only opens us to criticism from...that's right, the British Medical Association. And I quote:
Doctors have criticised the chief rabbi, Lord Sacks, for issuing an edict that organ donation as currently practised, and the carrying of donor cards, are incompatible with Jewish law.
Really? Do rabbis have the right to criticize doctors for medical decisions that they make? What right do doctors have to chime in on the London Beit Din's religious ruling? Are they suddenly experts in Jewish law?
I guess that's what you get when you argue halachic issues in the public arena. Suddenly everyone - even non Jewish doctors - are gedolei hador.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Audio Shiur: Parshat Beshalach - Thirst for Torah

Audio Shiur:
Audio Shiur: Parshat Beshalach - Thirst for Torah
After the Jews ran out of water in the desert, God showed them a tree which turned the water sweet. This story carries a great deal of depth and meaning, and represents our first national introduction to Torah life. Then, and now, the water isn't as sweet as we might expect.

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Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 7 - Staying in Galut

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 7 - Staying in Galut
(This shiur studies the classic work of Rav Yissachar Teichtal on the importance of settling the Land of Israel, following the Hebrew text with English translation.)

The straight talk continues as Rav Teichtal tackles the question of why Jews throughout history have refused to take the opportunity to settle the Land of Israel.

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Monday, January 10, 2011

Ping Pong, Israel Style

After a couple of years teaching at American seminaries, Rena got tired of the challenging hours, the lack of job security, and other aspects of the job and decided to teach English in the Israeli school system. Finding work was rather straightforward: there's plenty of it, as there's a real shortage of good teachers who can teach English here.
She got a job, but in order to qualify for benefits and advance in the system, you also need a teudat hora'ah - a teaching certificate. If you had one in the States, they'll accept it here. But Rena did not, so she decided to go back to school in order to get one.
Not a simple matter. As she only has a Bachelors Degree in Psychology and a Masters Degree in Secondary Jewish Education, she needed to take a significant number of courses to get certified as an English teacher. We felt that long-term it would be worth the investment, she in the fall she began her studies at Achva Teachers College nearby.
As luck would have it, last week I was speaking with a kollel student at the Gruss Kollel, who told me that if he earned a graduate degree from the Azrieli Graduate School of Education at YU, it would count both as an M.A. and also as a teudat hora'ah.
I literally stopped in my tracks, and insisted that he was mistaken. We had been told quite clearly that this was not the case. "Check on the Azrieli website. That's what it says," he told me. I did. He was right. I still didn't believe him, and emailed an Azrieli official who not only confirmed this critically important fact, but also said that they honor my (and Rena's) M.A.s as well.
We decided to research the issue, and Rena started making phone calls. And more phone calls. And more phone calls. It seems that the Ministry of Education is something of a bureaucracy, sending her from one office to the next and, I kid you not, back to the first office. Finally we decided to stop wasting time, and ask the YU people (who were amazing!) where to turn. They first told us to just "contact officials at the Ministry of Education", prompting Rena to email them the following:
Thank you, but that is a very broad answer. I spent the morning on Thursday being "ping-ponged" from office to office within the Misrad HaChinuch. If you have the name of a specific office or official, that would be extremely helpful.
Just to give you an idea, the Dipoloma Evaluation office sent me to the Human Resources department, who sent me to my regional office, who sent me to another regional office, who sent me back to Human Resources who sent me back to the Diploma office. Then I sent you the email.
Azrieli did some checking and put us in touch with the proper office, which, if you knew where to look (apparently there's an office for Teachers who are Olim. Who knew?) So this morning Rena sent in all of her documentation, and if all goes well (poo poo poo), she'll have her teudat hora'ah and be able to quit school. Here's hoping!
Here is the beginning of my post. And here is the rest of it.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Can You Study for a Test After You've Already Taken It?

It's happened to everyone at some point in their lives: you wake up in the morning only to realize that you forgot to study for an important exam. Or, even worse, you get to class and only then realize that you forgot about the test. No time to cram. The test in on - and without having studied, you're sure to fail. Right?
Not so fast. Maybe you can study after the test.
After the test? How can that help? You've already taken the exam, so what good would studying afterward do? It seems that a very prominent psychologist has discovered that studying after a test really can make a difference. A NY Times article today (mostly about how scientists can't stand or accept things they cannot easily explain) describes the soon-to-be-published paper by Dr. Daryl J. Bem, an emeritus professor at Cornell on the subject of ESP. Among the experiments he conducted,
Dr. Bem gave 100 college students a memory test before they did the categorizing — and found they were significantly more likely to remember words that they practiced later. “The results show that practicing a set of words after the recall test does, in fact, reach back in time to facilitate the recall of those words,” the paper concludes.
So, if after the test you go back and study better, there's some indication that you'll perform better than you would have otherwise.
In Jewish terms, the article reminds me of the Jewish concept of Teshuvah. According to some views of repentance, when one repents completely he not only changes his life moving forward, but actually has the power to erase events and behaviors in his past. It also reminds me of how Rav Kook (in the limited writings of his that I've read) describes the Jewish people. He described the Jewish nation as a single entity spanning not only space, but also time - a single organism united together with a single spirit.
Perhaps these new experiments will help us understand that while we live in time as a linear process, things are far more complicated than they seem, and events unfolding today effect, and are affected by not only by events that happened long ago, but also by events that have yet to occur.
Wrap your mind around that one.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Audio Shiur: Parshat Bo - Turn Off the Dark

Audio Shiur:
Audio Shiur: Parshat Bo - Turn Off the Dark
The plague of darkness always left me wondering: what's the big deal? So it was dark? That's the second-to-last plague? Moreover, the Midrashim and Rashi don't help much either. Yet, when we look deeper at makkat choshech, we find that the darkness probably worse than we even imagine. With the help of Harry Potter and the wisdom of C.S. Lewis, we apply the lessons of darkness and light to our lives as well.

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A Book I Just Saw: Rise From the Dust

Walking around the Beit Midrash at the YU Israel Kollel, I noticed a book at one of the tables of a student studying at Torat Shraga (which shares space with YU). Called "Rise from the Dust", it's a compendium of sources about the importance of living in the Land of Israel. The pamphlet was written originally in Hebrew long ago by a young man named Tzvi Glatt, who was killed in Hebron in a terrorist attack at the age of 21 in 1980. This year, Moshe Lichtman, who also translated Eim Habanim Semeichah into English.I haven't read the whole thing (or even bought it yet), but if you're into powerful sources demonstrating the central role of the Land of Israel in Judaism, this book is for you. For more about the book and its author, click here.

Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 6 - The Failure of Leadership

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 6 - The Failure of Leadership
(This shiur studies the classic work of Rav Yissachar Teichtal on the importance of settling the Land of Israel, following the Hebrew text with English translation.)

After outlining the need to settle the Land of Israel, Rav Teichtal turns to the obvious question: if Israel is so central to Jewish life, practice and thinking, how could so many Jewish leaders have been so strongly against it? Suffice it to say that Rav Teichtal doesn't mince words.

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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Parshat Bo: Little Leaps of Faith

A young girl brings home her chattan to meet her parents. At one point during dinner the mother tells her husband, “After dinner, go find out about this young man.”
The father and young man repair to the living room while mother and daughter are in the kitchen. “So,” the father asks, “what do you do? What are your plans?”
“I am a yeshiva bachur.”
“Admirable, but how will you provide for my daughter? How will you pay for a house for the two of you?”
“I will study and God will provide,” the young man says.
“And how will you buy her the kind of clothing she desires, and where will you get the money to buy a car?”
“I will study and God will provide.”
“And children? How will you support them?” the man asks.
"God will provide.”
Later that night, the mother asks “So nu? How did it go?”
“Well,” he tells her, “There’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news is that he has no job and no plans.”
"What’s the good news?" the mother asks.
“The good news is that he thinks I'm God.”
When we tell that joke; when we laugh at that joke, we do so with a sense of smugness. After all, we’re not that yeshiva bachur. We’re the father-in-law, with the job and the house and the money. But when we look at that joke a little more carefully and honestly, we see that it’s not the yeshiva bochur who’s mistaken. Rather, it’s the father-in-law. You see, that young man might in fact take money while from his in-laws he’s learning in kollel to make ends meet. But he really does believe that ‘God will provide.” And he’s willing to make sacrifices, give up comforts in life, never eat in a restaurant, have a small house – to truly be poor in order to study and live a Torah lifestyle. And in the end God will provide. But what about the father-in-law? He doesn’t make those sacrifices. Sure, he works and earns, but he’s got a great car, a lovely home, eats out several times a month, vacations where and when he wants. But what does he believe? Where does he place his faith? He doesn’t believe that God provides, and it’s not that his future son-in-law thinks that he’s God. He believes that he is God.

Click here for the full text. (This is actually a drashah that I gave four years ago. Still relevant.)

Monday, January 3, 2011

Perfect Memory: A Blessing or a Curse?

60 Minutes is among the list of podcasts that I enjoy on my way too and from work. They recently did a piece they called, "The Gift of Endless Memory", about people who basically remember everything that ever happened to them. Give them a day, and they'll tell you what happened that day to the smallest detail.
Listening to this amazing story I immediately wondered: Is that really a blessing, or more of a curse?
We tend to think that the greater the power of recall, the greater the blessing. But there's another side to the story. To a great degree, the power to forget is a very great blessing indeed.
While it must be great to remember the good things that happened in our lives, imagine also being able to recall, instantly, with vivid detail, the most painful memories of our lives. Imagine the ability to relive our most embarrassing moments, our most foolish mistakes, and our greatest missteps. Given the choice, I'd pass.
Many times, after making a particular fool of myself, or having a uniquely bad day at work, I am able to find solace in the fact that in a couple of days, the event will be a mere memory - a shadow of the pain that I'm feeling at that moment. I'll still have a vague sense of remorse, but not the sting of shame that I feel in the moment. I wonder what it must be like not to have that luxury; to know that the pain of loss or shame of mistake will forever be with me, and that I'll always be able to recall just how stupid I felt after I yelled at my wife, or messed up that email in work, or lost my temper.
It's interesting that in the piece, the reporter makes a vague allusion to one of the few people affected by this condition.
The first person ever identified with this ability is Jill Price, who says she feels haunted by the never-ending stream of memories and hasn't wanted to meet any of the others.
Indeed. I doubt I'd want to be highlighted for this condition either. Even during the report, we watch one of the women tear up at an event that had occurred years before.

Spanish painter Salvadore Dali's famous work, The Persistence of Memory, has always resonated with me. I have no idea what Dali meant in the work, but it speaks to me about the fading quality of memory, and how memory degrades over time. I've never seen this as a sad phenomenon, but rather on the unique qualities of the human experience that allows us to function in the world, progress over time, and grow from past experiences without having to constantly relive them.
If you offered me this type of memory, I'm pretty sure that I'd say "no thanks." (Of course, it's a condition. You either have it or you don't, but that's besides the point.)
I'm not sure whether I would have called this condition a "blessing" or a "curse".