Monday, September 26, 2011

Seeing Yad Hashem in the World

Remember those "Magic Eye" books?
A few years back, these books were all the rage. You've seen them – pictures of seemingly blurry blotches of nothing, but if you look at the picture in just the right way from the proper distance, you begin to see that there's a picture inside the picture, hiding in plain sight.
If you never figured out how to properly "see" the hidden image, these books are infuriating. After all, your friends stare at a page for a second and then say, "Whoa! Look at that!" And no matter how long you look, you can't see anything at all. But it's not that you can't see the picture. You're looking straight at it. You just haven't learned how to look at it in the manner which will allow you to see the picture inside the picture. With enough practice, a person can indeed learn to see the picture in the picture.
These Magic Eye books are a great metaphor for spiritual life.
We live our lives knowing that God plays an intimate, direct role in our lives, aware of the fact that God's firm grasp continues to guide klal yisrael. And yet, we cannot see what's right in front of our eyes. Like those "magic" pictures, the keys lies in learning how to look for what we see but cannot identify. How can we learn to see the Hand of God in the world? Rav Kook, commenting on a beautiful Aggadah, provides an fascinating suggestion.
The Gemara (erachot 58a) tells the story of ben Zoma, and the proper attitude towards the acts of kindness that others perform for us.
He used to say: What does a good guest say? 'How much trouble my host has taken for me! How much meat he has set before me! How much wine he has set before me! How many cakes he has set before me! And all the trouble he has taken was only for my sake!' But what does a bad guest say? 'How much after all has mine host put himself out? I have eaten one piece of bread, I have eaten one slice of meat, I have drunk one cup of wine! All the trouble which my host has taken was only for the sake of his wife and his children!' What does Scripture say of a good guest? "Remember that you magnify his works, where of men have sung." (Job 35:24)  But of a bad guest it is written: "Men do therefore fear him; [he regards not any that are wise of heart]". (37:24)
It's so easy to write off the things that other people do for us, as his "bad guest" so easily does. After all, they didn't make the effort for us - they made if for themselves. But all too often, we take this attitude not with our hosts, but with those we love the most - a spouse, a parent, a sibling or friend - we just take them for granted, which we should never allow ourselves to do. If we took the time to focus on the effort that goes into meeting our daily needs, and appreciating the good that others do on our behalf, we'd be much happier, content and more fulfilled.
It's a beautiful Gemara. But Rav Kook, in his commentary Ein Ayah on the Aggadah, sees ben Zoma's lesson as a critical key to seeing God's hand in the world.
Rav Kook begins his essay by noting that the issue of whether to believe in God's Hand in the world or not is not an intellectual question. It's not a matter than can be proved or disproved. "Rather, these two [attitudes] are dependent on the condition of the soul, whether for good or for bad…" How then do we learn to see God's goodness in the world? We do this through practice, by learning to see the good in those around us.
…the pure soul, which is ready to do good, will look upon the Divine influence with a good eye, for his soul will see that God's will is only to bring good. And where does this goodness come from, if not from the Divine light that is good and bestows good. Therefore, he will be certain that all is done for the good, and those seemingly negative events in the world have an ultimate positive end.
In essence, the way we look at the world at large is the very same way that we'll see the people who surround us. If we see God's goodness in the world, we'll also see that goodness in the actions of our fellow man. And, if we refuse to see the Hand of Hashem in the world, we won't see goodness or kindness in the things others do for us either.
Yet, the opposite rule also applies. If we can learn to see the goodness in the small things, that positive attitude will spread as well to the way we look at the world. In essence, if we can learn to not only see, but appreciate the small acts of kindness that others do for us in life, we'll train ourselves not only to see small acts of goodness in the world, but the big ones as well. In a nutshell, the more goodness we learn to see, the more we'll see it all around us.
How many kindnesses do we allow to go unnoticed? How many times has a loved one gone out of his or her way on our behalf, and we just took it for granted? How many times has a neighbor done us that small favor – one which we forgot to acknowledge? Think about the small kindnesses built into the fabric of daily life: someone cooked us dinner (and if you cooked it, odds are that someone else earned it.) Someone made sure to post the schedule of davening in shul. Someone took the time to ensure that the community tiyyul arrangements were properly addressed. The list goes on and on. And it's not their job. They weren't doing it anyway. (That's what ben Zoma's "bad guest" says, remember?) They did us a kindness, and we didn't even notice.
And then we wonder why we cannot see the larger, hidden good, when we fail to pay attention to the obvious acts of kindness happening right in front of us!
How then can we learn to see something we know is there but invisible all the same? Like those "Magic Eye" books, the answer lies in knowing how and what to look for. When we start focusing on all of the good in our lives; when we begin to see the small acts of kindness and goodness that surround us, we'll begin to train our eyes to see that which was already there: the Divine goodness of God, guiding us and bestowing goodness upon us, our families, and Klal Yisrael.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Right Rosh Hashanah Video

In a previous post, I questioned the wisdom and value of a video produced by Aish Hatorah that featured cool break dancing and great scenes of Yerushalayim, but little religious value. This morning, I saw the Rosh Hashanah video that it could and should have been, produced by the Maccabeats.
I'm pretty sure that the piece will virally make its way through the Jewish world.  It's a powerful example of the strength that these videos can have simply by combining wonderful music, talented singers, clever lyrics and a sense of the story the video can tell.
We tend to compartmentalize our religious lives and our "outside" lives. When we look at the past year and the process of Teshuvah, we place our primary focus on our religious lives: how was my Shemirat Shabbat? Did I speak too much lashon hara? (Of course I did. Who hasn't?) But we don't ask the broader questions: Was I a good, sensitive spouse? Did I live a healthy life? Not only did I go to the shiur, but did I listen and use the time in the best way that I could? Was I a good employee or boss?
Rosh Hashanah really is about all of these questions, and not just how many mitzvot or aveirot I've done over the past year. Teshuvah must be about improving ourselves in all areas of our lives - in shul and yeshiva, but also at home, work, on the subway and at the gym. All represent critical areas of our lives, and all reflect our relationship with God.
This video conveys this powerful message in a strong, but meaningful way. It might even be the perfect video. If only they were filming it depicting life not in Washington Heights or Riverdale, but Tel Aviv or Modiin. Hopefully, someone as talented and insightful as the Maccabeats and their producer will come here and produce similar Hebrew language titles for a public that badly needs meaningful, beautiful, spiritually motivated media.

Orthodoxy in the Age of Groupon

I'm not the greatest at taking care of things exactly on time. For reasons that are not so difficult to understand actually, I usually put off buying my 4 Minim (Lulav, Etrog, etc) until I find myself scrambling to see who's got a set left, and how much it will cost.
Imagine my surprise then, when I opened my email this morning, and found a Groupon (OK, it's not Groupon - it's really a much smaller business called "Group-E" - it Hebrew it's גרופי, which makes more sense), email offering me "top of the line" sets of 4 minim for the whopping price of...59 shekel a set, a discount of 61 shekel off of the normal 120 shekel price. Group-E is Groupon for frum people. What a concept!
I can guess what you're thinking: That seems too low to be true. Actually, I was thinking that. But then again, 120 shekel is about right for a very good set here, and one of the distribution points happens to be right here in Yad Binyamin. Maybe it's worth their while to guarantee the sale. Then again, who knows? Also, in the end I was going to buy a "closed" set for myself without searching through crates and boxes shopping for 4 minim. I'm past the point of going into the shuk and bargaining for the "best" lulav that I can find, searching for minute differences between lulavim. I'm happy buying something good and kosher, and calling it a day.
So I bought three- for myself and my two sons. If the sets are good, which I'm confident they will be, I will have saved a ton of money. And if they're not so great, how much can I really expect for a whopping sum of 177 shekel?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Parshat Netzavim-Vayelech: The Real Peace Process of Teshuvah

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Netzavim-Vayelech: The Real Peace Process of Teshuvah

Moshe's efforts to reach out to the Jewish people before his death, carries a powerful message found in Kli Yakkar for each of us before Rosh Hashanah.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Jarring, But True Video

In its efforts to encourage expatriate Israelis to return home, the government of Israel has latched onto a sure bet: Jewish guilt. That's right, come back to Israel, or your children won't really be Jewish.
If you can't understand the video, the grandparents ask their granddaughter, "And do you know what holiday it is?" Hint - see the menorah in the background! Granddaughter doesn't really know. Deep Voiced Israeli Announcer says: "They will always be Israeli. But their children won't. Help them return to the Land." What he doesn't need to say is, "Before it's too late."
Sadly, the video is totally and completely accurate. Israelis assimilate better and faster than almost any other ethnic group, for a very simple reason.
Israelis take their Jewishness for granted, for good reason. It's everywhere, all the time. It's impossible not to know when Rosh Hashanah is, because all the grocery stores switch over to RH mode weeks in advance. (The might be true in highly concentrated Jewish areas, but certainly not in the mainstream United States, where most secular Israelis live.) The country shuts down for the chagim - so even if you never set foot in shul, you didn't really work on Rosh Hashanah. Or Shabbat (usually). Judaism is simply pervasive in the Jewish state, as well it should be. It's a really good reason to live her.
It's not even only for religious people. Many secular Israelis like the Jewish rhythm of life in Israel. It gives you structure and informs life with meaning, all without needing to make any special effort. You don't need to reach out to other Jews. After all, everyone is Jewish.
Now take that person and plop him down into the melting pot that is the United States. Jews who grow up in America (at least the ones that want their kids to be and act Jewish) understand that you can't take religious affiliation and involvement for granted. You've got to reach out, connect and involve yourself. This represents the essence of community life for Jewish Americans. But the Israeli isn't used to reaching out and getting involved. For his entire life in Israel, religion and Jewish identity flowed in your veins. So many Israelis fail to make that necessary effort to connect to the larger Jewish community. And while they themselves might connect to other Israelis, their children, lacking any Jewish structure and home, assimilate at a fantastically quick pace into mainstream American society, and out of Judaism.
Exhibit A: A recent New York Times piece about a chef who, after the death of his brother in the IDF, turned to making Israeli food.
The chef, Michael Solomonov, following the death of his brother by a Hizballah sniper, decided that the best way to honor his memory was to open a restaurant dedicated to Israeli food. He's the poster child for Israel's message about assimilation:
He was born near Tel Aviv, spent much of his childhood in Pittsburgh, then returned to Israel with his family. 
Nothing altogether surprising here. After all, he spent most of his childhood in Pittsburg. I guess in a way it's at least good that he felt enough of a connection to cook Israeli food. But what about the larger point? What about the issue of assimilation? Does it strike even the cook closely connected to the Jewish State whose brother died protecting it? Sadly, yes.

Last year, in a piece about the restaurant, the Chestnut Hill Local reported,
“Everyone in my family is a good cook,” Michael told me, “including my father, who was born in Bulgaria, and my grandmother, who is a Sephardic Jew. She really inspired me.” Michael’s wife, Mary Armistead Solomonov, who grew up in Mt. Airy, now lives with her husband in South Philadelphia. “She’s an Episcopalian, which is close to Judaism,” joked Michael. “They just drink a little more.”
No, Michael. It's not close. And your children will indeed know more about Christmas than they do about Chanukah, no matter how many hummus infused latkes you sell in your Israeli restaurant.
And that make me sad.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Derech Hashem Shiur 3 - Finding God's Goodness

Audio Shiur:
Derech Hashem Shiur 3 - Finding God's Goodness

(This shiur studies the classic work of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto on Jewish Thought.)

Returning to the beginning of chapter 2, we review the notion of God's goodness, His desire to bestow that goodness upon others, and the very best way to achieve that goal. Then, we study a section of Agaddah from Brachot and a piece from Rav Kook in Ein Ayah, focusing on precisely how to recognize the goodness of God in our daily lives.

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The Boss from Hell

My wife never ceases to amaze me. After trying the seminary scene here in Israel, Rena decided that she had had enough:

  • Enough of trying to entertain rather than teach
  • Enough of running from school to school, trying to find hours
  • Enough of not knowing whether you'd have a job the next year, depending on whether the school had a good year recruiting or a not-so-good year

So she decided to retrain as an English teacher in the Israeli school system. Last year, Rena started taking classes at Achva College nearby (she'll finish hopefully this year. That's a long story too) and taught part-time at a local elementary school. She also subbed, which is no picnic.
This year, she found a full-time job teaching at a high school in Gadera to mainly disadvantaged children from the city. They're not your typical, privileged American Day School students: many divorces, single parent homes, victims of abuse - they're the Israel that you normally don't see on the tours.
It's been a difficult transition, not the least of which is getting used to the job. The problem isn't really the teaching; that she'll figure out over time. She's a great teacher, if I do say so myself (and I do). The problem is her Boss.
Who. Is. Incompetent. Truly.
Where do we begin? Let's start at the beginning:

  1. Rena didn't get a schedule until the week before school started, which means that she couldn't prepare any classes until that time, as she didn’t know what classes she'd be teaching.
  2. By the first day of school, they had not yet ordered books. That continued for at least a week until Rena finally went herself (remember, she's never taught in Israel before) and forced the secretary to order the books. They have yet to arrive. Oh, yes, her Boss suggested that until they come, she should purchase her own books herself (which is incorrect. The publishers supply them for the teachers. It's the least they can do.)
  3. At least one of her classes wasn't really divided properly by level. So she was supposed to teach a group of high-school kids, without books, who weren't even on the same level. They finally divided them last week. Rena got 28 students, and the other classes were 11, 11 and 14. Ummm….something's wrong here.
  4. One of her classes takes place in the computer room, as there's no other available room. But the computer room is locked, and they haven't given Rena the key. Instead, she's supposed to find the principal to open the room. Today, Rena went to the office to find her Boss (instead of eating lunch), and she wasn't there. So, when the time for class came and Rena wasn't in the room, her Boss yelled at her for not being in class on time. (Did I mention that she's a yeller? No? Apparently she is.) When Rena pointed out that she skipped lunch to find her and she wasn't in the office, her Boss said, "I was here!" Sorry, yelled. She's something of a yeller. But I mentioned that already.
  5. Rena went over her test schedule, which is divided up at the beginning of the year. Many of her classes are fine. One of them has a test tomorrow (yes, the third week of school. And they didn't have books. But so what?) Their next scheduled exam? January.
  6. Remember what I told you about the books not arriving on time. I neglected to mention that her Boss also carefully monitors and limits the amount of copies that teachers are allowed to make. (After all, why make copies, which are expensive, when you have books. Makes sense, unless you don't have books because no one ordered them because the classes weren't divided because no one's in charge…but I digress.) Anyway, when the books failed to come, she told her Boss that she'd have to photocopy pages until they did. "No problem. You can copy as many as you need." Sure thing. Tomorrow, Rena's supposed to give a test, but when she went to make copies of the tests she's supposed to give, she learned that the machine locked her out. She was out of copies. Something about making too many.
  7. Today takes the cake. Rena's in her classroom teaching and in walks her Boss along with another teacher and that teacher's class in tow. She tells Rena, "You'll sit on one side, and she'll sit on the other, and you'll teach alongside each-other." What? Really? Rena says to her boss, "Can I speak to you outside for a moment?" Her Boss, outside, tells her why she's combining the classes, and that there's no other option. "This is common practice. Call the regional supervisor and ask her." To which my wife replied, "I will." And she did. And it turns out not to be so common after all. Shocking.

If you're a teacher, ask yourself: as bad as your Boss is – and there are better principals and worse – you may have dealt with one of these problems, or two. But all of them, at the same time? At let's not forget: Rena made it clear that this would be her first year teaching full-time, and that she'd need some help getting settled.
"Sure," her Boss told her. "No problem."
I could only my wife one suggested consolation. This must be a kaparah for something. Whatever she's done wrong this year, the suffering she's undergoing trying to be a capable teacher for her students – and that's really what motivates her – must be atoning for a great many sins.
My wife is a tzadeiket. Of that I am sure.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Truly Ridiculous Position. Goldblog Strikes Again

Did you hear? The Palestinians would not allow Jews to live in their new state. Shocking.
"After the experience of the last 44 years of military occupation and all the conflict and friction, I think it would be in the best interest of the two people to be separated," Maen Areikat, the PLO ambassador, said during a meeting with reporters sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor. He was responding to a question about the rights of minorities in a Palestine of the future.
Such a state would be the first to officially prohibit Jews or any other faith since Nazi Germany, which sought a country that was judenrein, or cleansed of Jews, said Elliott Abrams, a former U.S. National Security Council official.
Commenting on this less-than-shocking revelation, Atlantic Blogmeister and Middle East expert Jeffrey Goldberg wrote,
"The Jews who would theoretically live in Hebron under the framework of a theoretical peace deal should be offered Palestinian citizenship, and would have to live under Palestinian law, and be protected by Palestinian authorities. But the idea that Israel would agree to a settlement in which Jews were denied their religious rights in Hebron is ludicrous."
The last time Jews lived in Hebron under Arab rule
Seriously? Would he live comfortably under Palestinian law and feel safe protected by the Palestinian Authorities? Jeff, have you forgotten what happened the last time Jews lived in Hebron under Arab authority (er, British. Sorry, my bad. Didn't see much difference.) And have you forgotten what happened last week in Cairo, when no less than the President of the United States had to intervene to prevent a lynching of Israelis in Cairo. (How's that Arab Spring going?) And what of the Jew who was killed this year in Nablus (which we call Shechem) by a Palestinian police officer for committing the crime of wishing to pray at the Tomb of Joseph?
Goldberg lives in that American liberal fantasy world where because people should act reasonably and nicely, they will. He advocates relinquishing Judea and Samaria (er, the "West Bank") because the current situation is "untenable," but then makes crazy statements suggesting that Israel should not hand over said land without first guaranteeing their religious rights to live in the territories that they hand over.
The only sensible statement in the entire post is Areikat's. He might be stupid for telling the truth, but at least he's being honest.

Derech Hashem Shiur 2: God is Good

Audio Shiur:
Derech Hashem Shiur 2: God is Good

(This shiur studies the classic work of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto on Jewish Thought.)

We conclude the first chapter, spending some time focusing on the Oneness of God, and then begin the second chapter which deals with God's goodness, and tries to answer the question, "Why did God create the world?"

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Parshat Ki Tavo - Viduy Maaser - Our Money, Ourselves

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Ki Tavo - Viduy Maaser - Our Money, Ourselves

How we give our money to others says everything about who and what we are. The unique mitzvah of Viduy Ma'aser conveys critical messages about how the Torah wants us to relate to money, and to God.

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Monday, September 12, 2011

A Video I'm Having Trouble Understanding

I've recently come to realize just how old I truly am:
  1. I have a son in high school. Scary.
  2. Forty rapidly approaches. 
  3. A new cool internet Kiruv video makes absolutely no sense to me at all.
Someone on Facebook linked to a new Aish video called "Rosh Hashanah Rock Anthem" in which a clearly non-religious person complains that Rosh Hashanah is boring. "Jewish New Year? It's just going to be a bunch of guys praying, right? I mean, what's the fun in that?" To this, the frum person says, "It's the holiest time of the year. A time for introspection, appreciation..." At this point, the kiruv-candidate feigns snoring. So the frum guy says, "You know what, let me explain it to you a little bit differently."
At this point, a group of frum-dressed men begin dancing to what must be dance-party music. I must admit, the dancing - if that's what it is, is quite impressive. Something tells me that these guys didn't learn to dance this way at the recent Aish Melave Malka, if you know what I mean.
But I can't hear the words to the song at all, and if anything, the video seems to reinforce exactly what our not-yet-frum friend complained about: Rosh Hashanah really is boring, and it's much better to break dance on your head, jump around Jerusalem, and leap over people (during davening? I'd go to that shul!)
The video, while visually impressive and fun to watch, doesn't seem to have anything to do with Judaism, unless you count the miracle of keeping your kipah on while doing a triple-lutz while overlooking the Kotel.
Aish does incredible work, but I truly fail to see how this video has anything to do with Kiruv. It seems that in our bid to increase page views and attract eyeballs, we're now in a race to the bottom where anything remotely related to Judaism can somehow be considered kiruv.
The best proof? A comment on YouTube about the video:
WOW! This is coool! Especially that blond guy that balances/dances on one and both hands! I'm not Jewish, so whenever Rosh Hashana is, HAPPY NEW YEAR TO YA'LL! :->
Great. So now the non-Jewish world thinks that Rosh Hashanah is precisely like the American New Year. Parties. Dancing. Music.
How again is this supposed to be kiruv?

I just got the video sent to me as a link with this email:
I wanted to share with you an amazing Rosh Hashanah video featuring one of Israel's top break dance teams.  We hope that you can post this video on your site, blog, Facebook or twitter accounts and hopefully we will get the entire Jewish nation excited about the upcoming Jewish New Year.
Wishing you a happy and healthy new year,
Ben Feferman
Executive Producer
Forbidden Fruit Media

Again - I have nothing against the break dancing per se. But what connection does it have to Aish HaTorah?

The Limits of Faith - A Lesson from Rav Kook

The Gemara (Berachot 58b) relates a story about Rav Chisda, who upon seeing the ruins of the house of R' Chana bar Chanilai - who was a very rich, very generous man - became depressed. I'll leave out the middle of the story for now, (which I will address in another post soon). Ulla, who was with Rav Chisda at the time, tried to appease him by quoting a pasuk which says,
הַבֹּטְחִים בה'--  כְּהַר-צִיּוֹן לֹא-יִמּוֹט, לְעוֹלָם יֵשֵׁב.
"Those who have faith in Hashem are like Har Tzion, which cannot be moved, but abide forever."
On this the gemara comments,
"Just as Hashem promises to rebuild Har Tzion, so too will Hashem return the houses of the righteous (that were destroyed)."
On this point Rav Kook (Ein Ayah Berachot Vol II, p.  writes,
Bitachon is limited [only to the point] that we complete our efforts to the best of our abilities. That which our hands cannot reach - there is the place for Bitachon. For the place which our ablilies reveal, God forbid that we should use our Bitachon, for this isn't Bitachon, but instead foolishness and insolence towards Heaven."
I'm pretty sure that Rav Kook was talking about building the Land of Israel, and especially those who rejected Jews physically building the Land, instead insisting that we wait for a miraculous redemption. Yet, the message also applies to all aspects of our lives. God doesn't want to have Bitachon first. He wants us to act - to do our part, to the best of our abilities. After we've done that, then we turn to God with faith.
Then it's all up to Him.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 Then and Now

Like most everyone older the age of eighteen, I do and always will remember 9/11 - the sense of sadness, the eery quiet in the sky that followed, and the sense of disbelief watching the towers fall. Yet, my memories focus not on the tragedy, which was remote, but in our response. I was a new rabbi in Detroit, having arrived earlier in the summer to my shul. It seemed to me, as if often the case, that our best option was to pray. So I called for a communal davening, offering my shul to the community.
It really wasn't that hard to do. People needed an outlet. They wanted to cry out to God, and appreciated the opportunity. But what was most striking was the communal unity on that one night. Detroit, for all its wonderful attributes, isn't unlike many different Orthodox communities, comprised of many varied sub-groups, which often act independent of, and sometimes in conflict with each other. Sure, we got along, but there was (in my memory) all too often a sense of negation of the other, something all too common in the Jewish world today.
But not on the evening of September 11, 2001. On that evening, hundreds of Jews came to our shul to recite Tehillim. Rabbi Irons of the Kollel delivered a short talk. So many people came that the men filled the entire main sanctuary, and the women filled the social hall.
And it wasn't that hard to do. Just a few phone calls, some simple arrangements, and the community came together.
I doubt that our experience was unique. I imagine that this scene played itself out in communities across the United States. But it continues to sadden me that our greatest unity comes from tragedy and loss, and that we cannot come together unless we're suffering together.
Thoughts of the past bring me to the present. I'm worried about our immediate future. Tensions with Egypt. Palestinians about to announce a state in the United Nations - and then protest when nothing happens. And meanwhile, we fight with our neighbors about a building. (No, I'm not laying blame on the victims. But it's a reality.) Who's to say where this all leads?
I yearn for the unity of that evening, but fear the forces necessary to bring it.
One of the major themes of focus on Rosh Hashanah is the concept of Malchut. On that day, we coronate God as King of the World, perhaps best articulated by the powerful words of Aleinu:
והיה ה' למלך על כל הארץ, ביום ההוא יהיה ה' אחד ושמו אחד
And God will be King over the entire world. On that day, God will be One, and His Name One.
Yet, I sometimes wonder: How are we supposed to get the world to agree with us when we have such a hard time agreeing with each other?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Parshat Ki Teitzei - The Battle Within

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Ki Teitzei - The Battle Within

The strange section of the Yefat To'ar raises numerous questions about both the text, and the subject matter. Why does the Torah allow a soldier to "succumb" to his urges? Three approaches to the section teach us about war, about the soul (and converts), and finally, about ourselves.

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Your Worst Moment - Caught on Tape

Recently, Facebook has been abuzz over a security video shot at the Kotel of a man beating his elder daughter. (I'd link to it, but YouTube removed it.) The video is simultaneously both mesmerizing and horrifying: sickening to see a man not just strike his older daughter - which is prohibited in halachah, but also push her down onto stone steps. You watch a helpless mother literally turn away, unwilling or unable to watch the man as he hits the child. Watching the video is like rubbernecking. You know that you should hit the gas and keep moving, but you can't help slowing down to get a good look.
Yet, you (the viewer) knows that this wasn't a one-time incident. Sooner or later, the man will hit his daughter again.
The video struck (no pun intended) me in another way was well. Watching the video in horror, I couldn't help but wonder: what if cameras caught me at my worst, and someone posted it for the world to see? I can honestly state that it doesn't come near the level of the video, but it certainly would be embarrassing, terribly so. The Midrash tells us that after sinning with Batsheva, David Hamelech begged God to leave the story out of the Bible, which I can understand. How would you feel knowing that every educated Jew for the rest of time would know about your worst, most troubling behavior.
All of this seems particularly relevant around this time of year. On Rosh Hashanah, we acknowledge that God sits before us in divine judgment, with the Book of Memories open to our page. But now its pretty clear to me that it's not any old book. It's an iPad. And all God needs to do is click on the link for each day of the year, to watch the YouTube video of me forgetting to bentch, yell at my kids, waste time blogging on the Internet, or any of the other things I'm not actually going to tell you.
Ages ago, Albert Brooks made a film called "Defending Your Life," which imagined that people had to watch the mistakes they had made during their lifetimes after they had died. It's not a new concept. But watching that man on YouTube at the kotel reminded me once again that the cameras are indeed there, whether we see them or not. And they are recording.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Is a Divorce Ever Final?

As painful, messy and confusing as most divorcees find the process, they take solace in one thing: when it's over, it's over. When the Get (and in the Diaspora the civil divorce) comes through, each side can take a deep breath, enjoy the feeling of freedom, and look forward to a new beginning. It's over.
But is it?
If the marriage produced children, then it's obvious that while the partners have disconnected from each-other, they nonetheless continue to share in the responsibilities, burdens and joys of raising their children. This demands an ongoing interaction with the former spouse over an endless array of issues. From future Bar Mitzvah's to day school tuition to the naming of your grandchildren, a divorcee's former spouse will always be a part of his or her life.
But what if there were no children? At least then can we suppose that divorce represents a "final" separation between former husband and wife? Here again, a mitzvah in the Torah teaches us that while their bond may be small, even unnoticeable, a bond between husband and wife, even after divorce, remains nonetheless.
Among the many mitzvot listed in Ki Tetzei, we find the relatively obscured prohibition against מחזיר גרושתו – remarrying one's divorcee. Actually, that's not an accurate description of the prohibition. One can and should remarry his former wife, but only on the condition that she didn't marry someone else in the interim. If she did, then they may never marry each-other again. The Torah teaches us, )Devarim 24:1-4)
כִּי יִקַּח אִישׁ אִשָּׁה וּבְעָלָהּ וְהָיָה אִם לֹא תִמְצָא חֵן בְּעֵינָיו כִּי מָצָא בָהּ עֶרְוַת דָּבָר וְכָתַב לָהּ סֵפֶר כְּרִיתֻת וְנָתַן בְּיָדָהּ וְשִׁלְּחָהּ מִבֵּיתוֹ. וְיָצְאָה מִבֵּיתוֹ וְהָלְכָה וְהָיְתָה לְאִישׁ אַחֵר: וּשְׂנֵאָהּ הָאִישׁ הָאַחֲרוֹן וְכָתַב לָהּ סֵפֶר כְּרִיתֻת וְנָתַן בְּיָדָהּ וְשִׁלְּחָהּ מִבֵּיתוֹ אוֹ כִי יָמוּת הָאִישׁ הָאַחֲרוֹן אֲשֶׁר לְקָחָהּ לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה: לֹא יוּכַל בַּעְלָהּ הָרִאשׁוֹן אֲשֶׁר שִׁלְּחָהּ לָשׁוּב לְקַחְתָּהּ לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה אַחֲרֵי אֲשֶׁר הֻטַּמָּאָה כִּי תוֹעֵבָה הִוא לִפְנֵי ה' וְלֹא תַחֲטִיא אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה' אֱלֹקיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה:
When a man taketh a wife, and marrieth her, then it cometh to pass, if she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some unseemly thing in her, that he writeth her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house, and she departeth out of his house, and goeth and becometh another man's wife, and the latter husband hateth her, and writeth her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, who took her to be his wife; her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD; and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD   thy God giveth thee for an inheritance
This commandment raises the obvious question: what's the difference whether she married someone else after she got divorced. Why can't her first husband decide to remarry his former wife after she divorces her second husband?
One of my jobs at Orot is editing the weekly sheet that we send out to our contacts (in Hebrew). Yes, there is some irony in the fact that I'm editing a Hebrew newsletter, but someone else checks the grammar after I'm done checking the content. In the d'var Torah for Ki Tetzei, Yishai Shavit, a student in Meretz Kollel in Mevaseret Zion raises this question, and arrives at a somewhat surprising conclusion.
The fact that halachah prohibits a couple from remarrying after the woman has married someone else in between indicates clearly that even after divorce, a couple remains connected in some way. In fact, the term used for the divorce itself represents a bond between husband and wife.
We know that when a couple divorces, the husband gives his wife a get. But the term get is a Mishnaic word that's really a generic word for "contract." The Torah tells us that the husband writes for his wife a "sefer" - which is the word we use for book. Shavit explains that the Hebrew root ס.פ.ר. always connotes a binding and connection. A Sefer - a book - is a binding of pages. לספור - to count - is to bring a group of items together into a single unit. סיפור - story - is a group of sentences bound together. A sefer, rather than separating, accomplishes precisely the opposite task. It binds. But this is a ספר כריתות - a book of divorce.
Moreover, the doesn't just give her the book. Rather, "he sends her from his house." He doesn't remove her from the house. In the words of the Torah, she is a שליחה - a messenger. She carries something of his, and like any שליח, she serves as his agent and representative in the world.
Shavit suggests that she takes with her "the root connection that they shared." In essence, once they married, he became a new person, someone different than he had been before they had joined together in matrimony. Now that they have decided to separate permanently, what is the man? Does he return to being the man he was before they married? That hardly seems plausible. But he can no longer be the man he was during the marriage either. He's not a husband, and now disconnected from his former wife, he undergoes yet another change. That chapter of his life lives on not in him - but in her, and in the "book" that he gives her representing the part of him that she will forever carry.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Shalom Kitah Aleph

When you make aliyah, they don't tell you everything. Not that anyone's hiding information, but people just don't always realize that something Israelis take for granted as common knowledge would be totally new to you. One of those things is called "Shalom Kitah Aleph." On the first day of school, the entire school crowds into the auditorium for a ceremony to welcome the new first graders into school, and it's a big deal. As Rena was teaching, I took off to watch Petachya's Shalom Kita Aleph. To my great surprise, it was quite emotional.
As I watched my son take his first steps into the big world of "real" education, my mind kept flashing back to the moments in his life; his birth in Michigan on Chol Hamoed Pesach, not really that long ago. Aliyah with a very small three year old. I still remember him crying as we would leave him at gan each morning whimpering, "I don't want to go to Hebrew gan...I don't want to go to Hebrew gan..." It would break your heart to walk away, but that's what you had to do. Three months later he would run into gan, already fluent in Hebrew. Just this past week he finally got the hang of riding his bike, just in time to ride to school. It seems that the growth takes place sometimes in leaps, and other time in baby steps. It's still hard to get used to.
All of these thoughts rushed through my head watching my son, a little confused at the commotion, walk through the homemade "Shalom Kitah Aleph" arch on the stage and take his seat. He seemed unsure of himself. Everything is so new - a new school, new uniform, new rules, new learning. He seemed just a little scared, but determined. It would be all right. And indeed it was.
Oh yes, another thought crossed my mind. Watching the Rav Bet Sefer get up and tell the kids a short d'var Torah to the sixty boys and sixty girls in separate first grade classes, all I could think was, "If I lived in Teaneck, this would cost me seventeen thousand dollars a year."

The Model of Yerushalayim at the Israel Museum

Click on the image to see it bigger.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Would You Want to Work for Steve Jobs?

With the media circus surrounding the recent retirement of Steve Jobs, and the plethora of eulogies-while-still-alive comparing him to the likes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford (not a comparison I'd personally like), I've found myself wondering: would I want to work for Steve Jobs?
At face value, the answer is, "Of course. Who wouldn't want to work at Apple, which sits at the top of the technology sector, making money hand over fist? It's a prestigious place to work, seems pretty cool. Why wouldn't I want to work for him?"
You might not want to work for him because, while you do end up making really cool, really excellent products, the work environment might not be that pleasant.
Journalists have been falling all over themselves extolling the greatness that is (or was) Jobs. He truly did have a hand in creating new products, and product categories that have defined modern technological life in the 21st century. People are now writing silly articles about how you should run your company like Steve Jobs. But you can't run your company like he did. He ran his company the way he did for one reason, and one reason only: He knew that he was the smartest person in the room, and he made sure that you knew it too. He made all the important decisions, and had a hand in every detail. He knew that he could do it better than anyone else, and he was right. Essentially, he built the behemoth that is Apple by bullying people. In fact, in 2009 he made Forbes' Bully Bosses Hall of Fame (he's number 4). The piece says that,
Apple CEO Steve Jobs is known for his obsessive attention to detail and iron-fisted management style. He is often accused of making his subordinates cry and firing employees arbitrarily. But Jobs' subordinates remain loyal. Several deputies--even those who have left the company--say they've never done better work. As one Apple employee told journalist John Martellaro, "His autocracy is balanced by his famous charisma--he can make the task of designing a power supply feel like a mission from God.
Really? A (current) Apple employee saying something good about Steve Jobs? I'm shocked. Even journalists shied away from crossing him for fear of being blacklisted by Apple and losing all-important access.
I don't know if people really loved working for Jobs, but they definitely would want the money and prestige that came with working for a winner. So they were willing to put up with a boss that might scream at you, make you cry, and fire you arbitrarily to enjoy the benefits of working for Apple.
But I wouldn't try this in your business for a few reasons:
  • You might be in charge, but there's a good chance that you aren't really the smartest guy in the room. Other people sometimes have very good ideas.
  • People don't like working in hostile environments. There's a good chance your company isn't as cool as Apple (or as wealthy and powerful), and you could lose employees who jump ship because they don't need to deal with your garbage.
  • Finally, have we ever considered the possibility that Jobs' management style might have hurt Apple instead of helping it. How many good ideas from Apple employees never saw the light of day for fear of incurring the "Wrath of Jobs"? If you've ever working in such an environment, people are happy to do their jobs, lay low, and stay off the radar screen.
Have you ever worked in that type of environment? Is it really a recipe for success that can be duplicated (even at Apple)?
I have my doubts.

Hasagat Gvul - A Message for Each of Us

Normally, when we think of the term "hasagat gevul" (overstepping boundaries), the phrase has come to connote a person who engages in predatory business practices in which you open a business in direct competition with mine, knowing that both of us cannot coexist. Yet, that's not really what the phrase means. It means just what it sounds like - overstepping boundaries. The Torah tells us,
לֹא תַסִּיג גְּבוּל רֵעֲךָ, אֲשֶׁר גָּבְלוּ רִאשֹׁנִים--בְּנַחֲלָתְךָ, אֲשֶׁר תִּנְחַל, בָּאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.
Thou shalt not remove thy neighbour's landmark, which they of old time have set, in thine inheritance which thou shalt inherit, in the land that the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it. (Devarim 19:14)
Rashi comments, 
לשון נסוגו אחור (ישעיה מב יז), שמחזיר סימן חלוקת הקרקע לאחור לתוך שדה חברו למען הרחיב את שלו. והלא כבר נאמר (ויקרא יט, יג) לא תגזול. מה תלמוד לומר לא תסיג? למד על העוקר תחום חברו שעובר בשני לאוין. יכול אף בחוצה לארץ? תלמוד לומר: בנחלתך אשר תנחל וגו', בארץ ישראל עובר בשני לאוין, בחוצה לארץ אינו עובר אלא משום לא תגזול:
The language of תשיג is from the language, "they shall be turned back," that one pushes back the markings of the division of the Land into the field of his friend in order to expand his own. Yet, does it not already state, "Do not steal?" What is the reason for the [prohibition] of "do not move back [the boundaries]?" This teaches you that one who uproots the boundary with his friend violates two prohibitions. I might think this applies even outside the Land? For this reason the verse teaches, "in the inheritance which you shall inherit." In the Land of Israel one violates two prohibitions, [but] outside the Land one [who changes boundaries] only violates [the prohibition of] "you shall not steal."
Rashi's comments, based on Chazal, only compound the questions: If stealing is prohibited, then why does the Torah add a special prohibition for encroaching on boundaries of property? How is property different than other possessions? And, if property truly is different, then why does this halachah apply only in the Land of Israel? Shouldn't moving property lines be equally bad no matter where one does it, whether in the Land of outside it?
The answer to both these questions lies in appreciating the nature of the division of the Land of Israel. The Torah goes to great lengths to describe in detail the divine division of the Holy Land. In Bamidbar we read about the divine, miraculous nature of the distribution of the Land, telling us that the Land was divided as follows:
אַךְ-בְּגוֹרָל, יֵחָלֵק אֶת-הָאָרֶץ:  לִשְׁמוֹת מַטּוֹת-אֲבֹתָם, יִנְחָלוּ. עַל-פִּי, הַגּוֹרָל, תֵּחָלֵק, נַחֲלָתוֹ--בֵּין רַב, לִמְעָט
Notwithstanding the land shall be divided by lot; according to the names of the tribes of their fathers they shall inherit. According to the lot shall their inheritance be divided between the more and the fewer.'(Bamidbar 26:55-56)
There, Rashi (on 26:54) explains that this wasn't just any old lottery. Rather, the words על פי הגורל teach that the lottery itself spoke, and announced the winner of every piece of land. (Think of the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter.) God wanted everyone to know that He had decided who should receive each piece of land, and how much they should receive.
This, I think, explains the special prohibition of hasagat gevul which applies only in the Land of Israel. While we're always supposed to believe that God gives us as much as we require and not more, the division of the Land left nothing to doubt. God Himself gave you your piece of Land. It was not a matter left to question.
For this reason, should a person go ahead and move the border of his property into his neighbors' land, he clearly declares his dissatisfaction with the portion he received from God. It's as if he says, "Sorry God, I think You made an error. You didn't give me enough." That's not just theft. That's a direct affront to one's relationship with God.