Monday, October 31, 2011

Rav Benny Eisner, ob"m

Rav Benny Eisner, ob"m
This past Shabbat, Rav Benny Eisner passed away. He was not my teacher, but I did study with him, during my year in Israel at YU's Gruss Kollel. He was teaching at BMT (which was then housed at YU Israel), and happened to live next door, so he offered to teach Orot to the fellows of the Kollel. I must admit that I don't remember the material, but I remember his fire, and passion, and love. Men like Rav Benny played a fundamental role in shaping the last generation of American Orthodoxy, through the influence that they had over their students. I'm sharing with you the thoughts of my good friend, Rabbi Barry Gelman, who sent this message to his congregation about his rebbe, Rav Benny Eisner.

There are so many things I can say about the man who changed my life forever, but will limit myself to a few brief thoughts.
Rav Benny was a man of great faith in God. His faith was unwavering regardless what difficulties he struggled with in life. Even during the worst period of his illness he maintained his faith and believed that God loved him.
Rav Benny was a great lover of all Jews. To be sure, he had his opinions and tried to convince you that he was right, but it was never personal. I saw it in action so many times over the years. It was a wonder to behold and something I will never forget
Rabbi Gelman and his Rebbe
Rav Benny was a fierce defender and protector of Eretz Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael. For him, there was no question that the establishment of the State of Israel was a gift from God. I recall one evening he invited me to speak to a few of his students who were about to enter the Israeli Army. Before I spoke he told them to remember that serving in the Israeli army was the greatest privilege in the world. He once told a group of students that he tried to convince the army to let him continue to serve even after they discharge him because he had such a large family.
Rav Benny introduced me to a brand of Judaism that is full of joy, passion and compassion. Like a good Rebee he not only taught me how to learn, he taught me how to live. Words cannot express the gratitude I have for all that he did for me. 
This summer I spent time in the hospital with Rav Benny as he was having a chemotherapy treatment. Since the treatment was going to take several hours, I asked Rav Benny if he had the strength to learn some Torah with me. He said sure and then proceeded to take out a copy of a book called Tomer Devorah (a mussar book focused on imitating the attributes of God). I was amazed as I had just started studying that book shortly before my trip. When I told Rav Benny he was very excited to hear that I was studying it. I do not recall Rav Benny ever mentioned this particular book to me. I am not one to make mystical connection when these things happen. My joy came form the realization that even after so many years, Rav Benny's influence on me was still apparent as I had chosen to study a book that he thought was very important.
One of my biggest regreets is that my own children will not have a chance to learn from him directly. From time to time I would think about how wonderful it would be if my children could learn from him when they studied in Israel. That day will not come and it saddens me a great deal.
May His Soul Be Forever Bound Up In The Bonds of Life.

About Rav Benny Eisner:
Rav Binyamin Eisner, affectionately known as “Rav Benny” is Rav and mentor to thousands of talmidim throughout Eretz Yisrael and the United States. Friends and talmidim have been captivated by the initial greeting of “Shalom, ani Benny”, his infectious smile, his passion for Torat Eretz Yisrael, and the warmth of his wife and children. Today, Rav Benny and his family reside in Abu Tor. Rav Benny’s daily shiurim in Yeshivat Torat Shraga, Yeshivat Morasha, Eli and Ateret Kohanim continue to inspire hundreds of talmidim in Eretz Yisrael to this day!
Rav Benny was born in Har Hatzofim in Yerushalayim, attended elementary school in Tel Aviv, and spent his High School years in Kibbutz Yavneh. Following High School the Rav was inducted into the army and fought in the 1967 war. Rav Benny was part of a small brigade of officers with aging rifles and a short supply of bullets looking uphill at opposition tanks. Miraculously, the tanks fled and soon after the brigade recaptured the sacred area of Kever Rachel. Upon realization of the land they had reclaimed, Rav Benny exclaimed, “Rachel Rachel you can stop crying…your children have returned”.
Rav Benny began developing a close relationship with Rav Tzvi Yehuda hakohen Kook zt”l during his army service. He yearned to find a yeshiva that embraced Limud Hatorah together with Ahavat Eretz Yisrael. He found this combination in Rav Kook, developed a close personal relationship, and became his personal driver to many important meetings. Rav Benny’s entire family enjoyed a close connection with Rav Kook which they all treasure to this day.
Soon after the war, Rav Benny met his wife, Sarah Ulman. With the encouragement of his wife Sarah, Rav Benny embarked on his first teaching position in Kibutz Yavneh followed by several years in Ohr Etzion in Merkaz Shapiro.
Having cultivated a following of Israeli talmidim, Rav Benny embraced American talmidim at Yeshivat Beit Midrash L’Torah and concurrently began teaching in Yeshiva L’Tze’irim Merkaz Harav.
In the early 1980s, the organization Shlach Et Ami – “Let my People Go” was established in the Eisner home. Avital Sharansky pining for the release of her beloved husband, Anatoly became close friends with the Eisner family and the families have remained friends ever since.
As the years went by the Eisner home was filled with talmidim – and their own children (3 boys and 8 girls). The dining room lights and kitchen oven stayed on until the early hours of the morning as talmidim dropped-in for a lesson on Rov Kook, Torat Eretz Yisrael, Kedusha – or simply a late night snack. Their home was a revolving door and an address for Torah, warmth and acceptance.
The talmidim’s love and devotion continue to this day. The Eisner continue to take part in the lives of their tamidim, regularly traveling to weddings, brisim, and r”l other life cycle events.
Rav Benny has been invited to speak and lecture in Batei Knesset and Yeshivot throughout Israel and the United States. Rav Benny has had the privilege and longevity to have students who are second generation talmidim, young men whose parents were students of Rav Benny.
Shortly after Pesach of 5771 (2011), Rav Benny faced a diagnosis and a new challenge – an ailment (and treatment) that challenge his physical strength. Nonetheless, having seen his share of challenges, he is faithfully and whole-heartedly committed to rising above and continuing his holy work; living life, serving God, living in the Holy Land and inspiring and loving Jews wherever they may be.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Journalistic Relativism ad Nauseum: The New York Times Strike Again

So I'm sitting in my home office this past Wednesday night, and we hear a faint siren. (The window was open). Rena gives me a puzzled, slighly worried look, and I respond, "I'm sure it's nothing. It sounds like they're running drills at Tel Nof." (The air force base close by). Then, a couple minutes later, we heard a faint "BOOM!". It wasn't nothing after all. We shrugged and went back to work.
The next morning, our cleaning lady (who came from Ashdod) told us about the rockets having fallen in and around Ashdod. Thank God, no one was hurt. Getting the news first-hand from your cleaning lady is a rather different experience than getting it from the internet.
Last night, we read about yet more rockets fired at Ashdod (and the Israeli response), and this morning, a siren in Yad Binyamin brought the family into the Mamad (protected room) for some early-morning togetherness. Moriyah quite enjoyed the sudden company. She never gets visitors like that so early.
I mention all of this as a preface to rail against the New York Times. In a "balanced" and "even-handed" piece entitled, "Israeli Drone Strike Kills Militants in Southern Gaza", the Grey Lady tells us,
GAZA — Israeli airstrikes killed seven Palestinian members of Islamic Jihad’s armed wing in southern Gaza on Saturday, according to the militant group, and Gaza militants fired salvos of rockets at cities in southern Israel, killing one Israeli man and wounding at least two others in a sudden escalation of cross-border violence.
Really? That's how it went down? It sounds like Israel, in an unprovoked attack, killed some "members of an armed wing" (read here: terrorists) for no apparent reason...."And" - that's a great word, isn't it - Gaza militants fired rockets at cities, killing Ami Moshe, 56. But that's not what really happened, is it? In fact, if you read the next sentence, you'd see that.
The Israeli military said that it had first hit a terrorist squad that was preparing to fire long-range rockets into Israel early Saturday, and that the same squad had been responsible for firing a rocket that struck late Wednesday near the Israeli port city of Ashdod.
What happened, is what always happens.
1. Terrorists fire rockets at civilians Wednesday night. Sometimes they hit something, often they don't.
2. More terrorists planned to fire additional rockets on Shabbat morning. Isreal killed them before they could fire.
3. In response to this outrageous provocation and escalation, terrorists fire even more rockets at innocent civilians, and this time killed a man who was guilty of the terrible crime of driving in his car in the Jewish State of Israel. (הי"ד)
4. Israel, outraged that someone actually got hurt (why does it always come to that?), finally gets serious and takes out one of a long list of terrorist safehouses, factories, hideouts, etc. that it's known about for ages.
5. Terrorists get even angrier, vow vengeance, and try and fire more rockets.
6. The New York Times posts an even-handed piece, careful to present the facts as seen by both sides, without bias. To wit,
Witnesses to the first raid said that an Israeli drone fired two missiles at a training site situated on sandy dunes in a former Jewish settlement near the city of Rafah, killing five. Islamic Jihad pledged that it would respond forcefully to the Israeli drone strike. Hours later, several rockets fired from Gaza slammed into the southern Israeli cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon, damaging buildings and setting fire to parked cars.

What exactly was the "training site"? Were they training for the Olympics? Was it the Gaza bobsled team? (What's the bit about "in a former Jewish settlement"? Not sure what the point of that is.) The whole article is bound by the "cycle of violence" dogma - that violence simply begets more violence; one side is no more to blame than the other; oh - and it doesn't really matter who started it.
Sorry Mrs. Times. It does matter. And these ongoing attempts at even-handed, balanced reporting to show a bias, as they obscure the true fact.
Fact 1: Terrorists in Gaza fired rockets at innocent civilians.
Fact 2: They want to provoke an incident, and want to kill civilians - men, women, children - the more the better.
Fact 3: Israel can, must, and will respond to these attacks, and doing so doesn't make us culpable in any "cycle of violence." It's called self-defense.
And, your sad attempts to simpy fit these very tragic events into your preconceived perception of the Middle East conflict only hides the true facts of life here near the Gaza border. So much for journalistic integrity. If you can't report the truth, it would be better if you didn't say anything at all.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Parshat Noach - An Honest Look at Ourselves

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Noach - An Honest Look at Ourselves

We begin the shiur by studying Netziv's famous introduction to Bereishit, in which he analyzes why Chazal called Bereishit "Sefer Hayashar." His chilling comments have powerful meaning to us today. Then, we use the background of his introduction to understand more about Noach, and about the generation of the Tower of Bavel, and why God dispersed them.

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on

Now you can subscribe to this shiur as a podcast, directly from iTunes! To subscribe, click here.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Letter from the Prime Minister...Sort Of

As faithful Chopping Wood readers might remember, I've been reading Yehuda Avner's powerful book "The Prime Ministers". I finally finished it. (As an aside, after all of his devotion and admiration for Menachem Begin, I marveled at the fact that he began his political career firmly entrenched in the Labor camp. It's a wonder how a high level government official on the left suddenly switched course and became an equally if not higher level official on the most right-wing of Israeli governments. What exactly were his political beliefs? And could Begin not find an English speaking aide to do the job so he needed to borrow one from the previous prime minister? Imagine the uproar if Barack Obama had retained George W. Bush's political advisers to assist him in vital government matters. But I digress.)
In any case, I was taken by the powerful chapter describing Begin's weekly shiur, and I thought to myself, "Our current Prime Minister is a big Tanach fan. His son was in the Chidon Hatanach. He'd probably like the idea of reviving the Prime Minster's shiur." So I sent him an email, from his website, suggesting the idea.
That was a while back. Well, this week I got a response, not from the PM, but from the Public affairs Department (their capitalization - really) Here's the letter:

It says:
Honorable Rabbi Spolter, first of all, we thank his honor for his communication to the Prime Minister, Mr. Netanyahu. Secondly, of course, for his important idea to reestablish the custom of Mr. Menachem Begin z"l with relation to the Tanach.
Honorable Rabbi Spolter, it is true as you note in your communication, that the Prime Minister is occupied by an exceedingly busy schedule, a matter that prevents him from participating in activities that do not directly relate to the many subject that he must deal with.
Honorable Rabbi Spolter, due to his busy schedule, the Prime Minister is not answering you personally,your communication has been transmitted to his office.
Wishing you a good year,
Shnaider Nechemia

In other words, he can't learn. He's too busy. (Except, of course, no one seems to have asked him.) Sounds just like the rest of us.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Genesis and the "Big Bang"

When I Googled "Big Bang Theory," the first result wasn't the astronomy theory I was looking for. Tells you where our culture's collective head is. In any case, Wikipedia describes the "Big Bang Theory" (the real one) in this way:
The Big Bang theory is the prevailing cosmological model of the early development of the universe. The major premise of the Big Bang theory is that the universe was once in an extremely hot and dense state that expanded rapidly (a "Big Bang"). This rapid expansion caused the young universe to cool and resulted in its present continuously expanding state. According to recent measurements, scientific evidence, and observations,the original state happened around 13.7 billion years ago (see age of the Universe), which can be referred to as the time that the Big Bang occurred.
In 1991, Dr. Gerald Schroeder, a noted physicist and lecturer published a book called, "Genesis and the Big Bang", which, according to his website, "offers convincing evidence that science's "Big Bang" creation model and the Bible's Genesis One's explanation for the creation of the universe are one-in-the-same." I love Dr. Schroeder. An engaging and fascinating figure and dynamic speaker who spoke in my former shul in Michigan, his work represents an important attempt to reconcile theology and scientific theory. But his work isn't a work of fact. Neither is the Big Bang Theory itself. It's only a scientific theory - with many possible difficulties that I personally don't understand. (Read the real Wikipedia article if you're interested.) A problem arises though, when writers and thinkers confuse theory and argument with fact, and write as if the Big Bang Theory and Creation are one and the same.
In a recent piece that appeared on the Jewish Ideas Daily website, Michael Carasik (who I don't know, but is described as "the creator of The Commentators' Bible and of the Torah Talk podcast", who "teaches at the University of Pennsylvania") opens his Torah piece ("The End of the Torah") writing,

The Torah begins with a bang—the Big Bang, the creation of the universe.  But it ends with a whimper, albeit a whimper concealed by a very loud noise of another kind.  
The piece concludes similarly,
Literarily, the Torah ends as it began, invoking the historical story of the Jewish people in a cosmic frame.  The Big Bang of Genesis 1 distracts us from the silent mystery of the instant "before" creation (if that is indeed a theologically or scientifically possible moment at all).  
Personally, I don't find the piece all that compelling and wouldn't have written about it. But Carasik's casual intermingling of the "Big Bang" with Creation does trouble me.
I have no issue with modern attempts to rectify science and theology. Yet, we must always remain cognizant of the fact that these represent attempts to reconcile theories - nothing more and nothing less. We make these attempts in an effort to accept seemingly contradictory theories, when science tells us one thing and religion another. How indeed can the universe be the product of a billions-year-old explosion when the Torah tells us that God created the world several thousands years ago? Good question. We can either reject science (not a good option in my view), reject religion (a far worse option), or try to find some way to merge the two, as Dr. Schroeder does. But, when we begin to refer to these efforts as facts, we endanger our faith by equating the two systems with each other. I'll explain.
A Torah Jew accepts axioms of faith. Creation is a pretty important one, upon which every other religious tenet rests. These principles are, by definition, eternal. They do not and will not change.
Science finds itself under no such restrictions. It creates theories based on observations and rejects them when new observations cannot be reconciled with those theories. A scientist cannot hold eternal scientific truths. She can only believe what she can see right now, and must reject a theory, no matter how ingrained, when it can no longer be proven. (Even this year, scientists have questioned the Holy of Holies of Theories: Einstein's Theory of Relativity, based on recent experiments.)
Allowing ourselves to identify a religious doctrine with a certain scientific theory creates two problems: First and foremost, it equates two very different systems of belief, one eternal and unchanging, and the other in constant flux. By definition, this cheapens the strength of our belief and faith, until we feel comfortable shifting religious philosophy and tenets of faith as we would an antiquated scientific theory. And, on a more practical level, what happens when science comes up with a new theory to replace the Big Bang which better matches new observations from even more powerful technology? Do we then say that Creation was wrong as well? After all, weren't Creation and the Big Bang one and the same?
Am I making too much out of a pithy literary attempt to frame a Torah piece on a popular website? Perhaps. But meshing theology and science is always a dangerous game which requires a very delicate touch. As we read Bereishit yet again this week, and return once again to  the mystery of Creation, let us commit ourselves to accept our own limitations, and realize that the Creation story isn't a scientific text, nor should it be. Underlying any attempt to reconcile science and faith must be a firm commitment to our religious beliefs.
Scientific theories come and scientific theories go. Today the Big Bang is an important astronomy theory, and tomorrow it will just be a bad sitcom from the early 21st century. But our faith in God, whether we can accurately explain how He created the world, remains absolute.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Kayin's Canine Companion

Can you believe the name of this place? It's real!
I get a weekly parshah piece called Netvort written by Rabbi Joshua Hoffman. This week he pointed out a Midrash I hadn't heard before.
We all know that after Kayin kills his brother and finds himself confronted by God, he says to God, גדול עווני מנשוא - "my sin is too great to bear" (Bereishit 4:13). Yet, it's not altogether clear whether in this cryptic statement Kayin fesses up to his heinous act and his statement represents a declaration of repentance, or whether he rejects God's wrath telling Him, "Sorry, it's all too much for me to worry about, God. Not my problem." (I think it's the latter, but it's a huge machloket.) In any case, God responds that, "Whoever kills Kayin will be punished seven-fold," (verse 15) and God gives a "sign" to Kayin to protect him. What sign did God give Kayin. The Midrash says,

אמר ר' יהודה - הזריח לו גלגל החמה. א"ר נחמיה - לאותו רשע היה מזריח לו הקב"ה גלגל החמה? אלא מלמד שהזריח לו הצרעת...רב אמר כלב מסר לו. אבא יוסי בן קסרי אמר קרן הצמיח לו. רב אמר עשאו אות לרצחנים. רבי חנין אמר עשאו אות לבעלי תשובה  - בראשית רבה כ"ב
Rabbi Yehudah said, [God] rose the sun for him. Rabbi Nechemia said, For that evil person would God have risen the sun? Rather, it must mean that God shone upon him leprosy. Rav said that he gave him a dog. Abba Yossi ben Kisma said that he grew a horn upon him. [Another] Rav said that he made him a sign for murderers. Rabbi Chanin said that he made him a sign for Ba'alei Teshuvah. (Bereishit Rabbah 22)
Clearly, the rabbis in the Midrash themselves couldn't agree whether Kayin had repented, and interpreted the sign that God gave Kayin in light of how they viewed his declaration. If they felt that he did repent, he got the sunrise or a "sign for Ba'alei Teshuvah" (whatever that was). If not, he got leprosy, or a horn. (Was he then the first "humacorn?" Get it: human + unicorn?)
In any case, what about the dog? Was it a sign of his repentance, or of his refusal to repent? Rabbi Hoffman notes that Ramban, who quotes the Midrash, sees the dog as a sign of Kayin's repentance, as the dog would now serve to guide him away from any dangerous animals looking to kill him.
I've got my doubts. Despite our current infatuation with dogs as pets, Chazal (as well as the Torah) didn't see dogs in a very positive light. Think of the dog references in the Torah. What do we do with treif meat? We "Throw it to the dog." When is chametz no longer forbidden? When it's no longer ra'ui l'achilat kelev - "edible by a dog", the lowest of animals.
I guess then if you're a dog owner, you'd have to agree with Ramban and see the dog as a gift. But if you're not, Kayin's dog might be more of a punishment than a gift.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

An Unusual Tiyyul and Praying for Rain

Reading one of the weekly alonim (parshah sheets - but they're really more like booklets) in shul called Matzav Haruach, I noticed the pictured advertisement for an unusual (and fascinating tour) of a Matash - that's a Hebrew acronym for מפעל טיפול שמרים, which is a nice way of saying, "Sewage Treatment Plant." I often write (in another forum) about Israeli efforts involving ecology and the environment, so I'd heard about advances in this area. And if you look at the ad carefully, the price was right (read here: free). So, off we went.
That's right. Yesterday we took a fascinating tour of the Jerusalem municipality's sewage treatment plant. What exactly do they do with the sewage that you flush down the toilet? Well, after they clean it, they send it right back down the river. (Not to worry. You don't drink it.)
Did you know that 98 percent of raw sewage is water? I didn't (but do now). Well, up until not too long ago, that raw sewage just flowed out of the city and into Nachal Sorek, literally mucking up the environment. At some point, people came to their senses and realized just how disgusting and environmentally destructive that is, and they built the sewage treatment plants.
At the plant,
  • The sewage is filtered about three times, first for solids, and then twice for sediment and fats
  • The sediment is then biologically treated with enzymes and bacteria, which produces methane gas (see the big gold dome in the picture?) which is converted into electricity and sold back to the power grid. The sediment itself is then sold to farmers as fertilizer.
  • Water leaving the sewage plant
  • The water, after being filtered a third time (and biologically cleaned with whatever enzymes they use), it's sent down the wadi into a system of man-made lakes that are then piped through the country for agricultural use. You might have noticed purple pipes in parks or near fields and a sign that says (Irrigation Water - do not drink!). That's essentially treated sewage water. This water source is critical for Israel's continued growth and prosperity. There's already a well-known water shortage in Israel. (My guide wasn't a big fan of the desalination plants either.) Imagine if the entire agriculture industry used tap water instead of treated sewage water...think of how low the Kineret would be then? (Think empty.) Without reusing our sewage, we would either not have crops, or not be able to shower, or possibly both.

I found the tour both informative and fascinating. Some interesting facts emerged:
Down the River it flows. Clean...Sort of.
1. The reason that you can't drink the sewage water isn't because of biological agents. Biologically, the water is clean. But they don't get out either soap or salt, so don't drink it.
2. Most streams in Israel are either raw sewage (I wouldn't hike in a Wadi between Yerushalayim and Ein Gedi if I were you. You can thank the Palestinians for that, who'd rather allow untreated sewage to flow into the environment than allow Israel to build a modern plant) or treated water. Either way, don't drink it unless you know that it's natural rainwater flow (think way up north).
3. We think that heavy rains are great for the country. While this might be true in northern areas that flow into the Kinneret and other water aquifers, it's not true about rain over much of the country. Too much rain is never good for the system. Rainwater flows into the sewage system and literally overflows the machinery. All they can do is let the sewage flow through and hope that not too much gets downriver. This fact reminded me of the famous story (see Ta'anit 3:8) of Choni Hame'agel.
מעשה שאמרו לו לחוני המעגל, התפלל שיירדו גשמים.  אמר להם, צאו והכניסו תנורי פסחים, בשביל שלא יימוקו.  התפלל, ולא ירדו גשמים.  עג עוגה, ועמד בתוכה ואמר, רבונו של עולם, בניך שמו פניהם עליי, שאני כבן בית לפניך; נשבע אני בשמך הגדול שאיני זז מכאן, עד שתרחם על בניך.  התחילו הגשמים מנטפים; אמר, לא כך שאלתי, אלא גשמי בורות שיחין ומערות.  ירדו בזעף; אמר, לא כך שאלתי, אלא גשמי רצון, ברכה ונדבה.
Once they told Choni Hame'agel, "Pray that the rain should fall." He said to them, "Go and bring your Pesach ovens indoors, so that they don't get ruined [in the rain]. He prayed, yet no rain fell. He drew a circle, stood inside it and said, "Master of the World, your children turned to You, for I am like a member of Your household. I swear in Your great name that I will not move from this spot until You have compassion upon your children." It began to drizzle, and [Choni] said, "This is not what I requested - rather [I want] rains that will fill wells, cisterns and caves." The rains fell with wrath and he said, "This [too] is not what I requested. Rather, [I want] rains of blessing and benevolence."
Choni understood that when it rains too hard, that's also not a symbol of blessing. Great downpours overwhelm the fields and wash away into the ocean without sinking into the underground cisterns. And, they even overwhelm the sewage system, washing the sewage down the wadi without having a chance to treat the water.
So, when we pray for rain this week, we shouldn't just pray for a lot of rain. We do need the rain in great quantities. But we also need it in a smooth, steady stream, so that we can collect the water, treat it properly, and use it to generate life and blessing in the Holy Land.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Have More Children! An Old Piece from the Detroit Jewish News

A former congregant (and friend) from Michigan is now the editor of Red Thread Magazine, a Jewish venture seemingly focusing on a youngish Jewish demographic. Perusing the magazine's website, I came across an article (The Price of Progeny) describing the parental dillemma of exactly how many children to have, and the advice of a New Jersey based therapist to carefully consider the question of how many children to have and their effect on one's marriage.
It's a sobering piece, and certainly one cannot ignore the statistics and the good doctor's research. But while the question of how many children to have should certainly include questions of marital and financial health, the article failed to include an important additional factor that Jews should consider in this perplexing question: faith. Put simply, it's a mitzvah to have children, and a greater mitzvah to have more children.
Then I remembered that I wrote about this once in my parshah column in the Detroit Jewish News. So I'm sharing with you the article I wrote back then (and hope to share more in the future). This piece first appeared back in 5763 (2003).

Building the World One Child at a Time
I don’t need to tell you that we, as a Jewish population, are not growing as we should be. While the Jewish population in 1970 was somewhere close to six million, we’re still hovering around that six million mark more than thirty years later. Why? It’s a rather complex question, but I can think of two pressing reasons: first and foremost, intermarriage carves a devastating chunk out of the Jewish population pie. But, there’s an equally obvious reason that we don’t have Federation studies and synagogue initiatives to counteract: American Jews simply aren’t having enough children.
Quick: What’s the first mitzvah in the Torah? To believe in God? Close, but not really. No, it must be the Ten Commandments, right? Actually, wrong again. The very first mitzvah in the Torah commands us to have children – a lot of them. The Torah tells us, “God blessed them [Adam and Eve] and God said to them, be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” Be fruitful and multiply. To me, that sounds like much more than the 1.6 children Americans (and most American Jews) have nowadays.
In fact, not only is it a blessing, it’s an imperative, a mitzvah, a commandment. The Chinuch, in listing the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, explains that having children must be the first commandment in the Torah because it’s the commandment upon which all others are based. How can we fulfill the mission of the Torah – to bring spirituality and godliness into the world without doing so ourselves, in our families, with our own children?
Today we consider how many children (and whether we have children at all) to be an issue of personal choice. With the wonders of modern medicine we (if we’re blessed with the ability) can decide when to have children, how many children we want to have, and now, even whether we’re going to have children at all. Yet, the Torah reminds us that having children isn’t so much a biological question as much as a religious one: what’s my mission here on this earth? What do I want to accomplish, and can I do more? If I’m here to make sure that I enjoy myself and have a comfortable life, then I’ll put off having children, or not have them at all. But if I understand that my mission in life is be a tzelem elokim, to live in God’s image and to emulate Him to the best of my ability, I can only do that by giving to others, and we give our best to our children.
Yes, having children is hard. Raising them is even harder. But the satisfaction and love and beauty of raising children, despite the hardships, the costs, the difficulties and frustrations are more than worth it. They justify our existence in the world.
While I’m writing to all Jews, I’m really writing to you – someone who’d read the “Rabbi’s message” in the Jewish News each week. You, just because you’re reading this, must be a caring, thinking member of the Jewish community. You must be someone who wants to grow spiritually each week. That’s why you’re reading this column right now. Don’t you think that you can give some of that wonderful energy to another child?
So, have more kids! There’s no better mitzvah to begin the Torah, and the New Year!

Chag Sameach? This Year It's Been Challenging

Sukkot is supposed to be a time of joy. After all, it's a mitzvah, especially on Sukkot, when we're surrounded by other mitzvot. You eat - and it's a mitzvah (if you're in the Sukkah). You sleep, and it's a mitzvah. Normally, those two only have religious value on Shabbat. What's not to be happy about?
And yet, I find myself in a funk. There's a heaviness that weighs me down, always in the back of my mind. This morning, I figured it out. It's about Gilad Shalit.
I'm not a general, but the outcome of freeing hundreds of terrorists can be good, even from the perspective that you're bolstering the standing of a terrorist organization who will glorify these murderers and extol others to follow in their footsteps. This is clearly an emotional decision, not a logical one, and one wonders about the cost of making emotional decisions like these. Moreover, I have no blame for Gilad's family whose only wish was to see their son return home. I understand their pain and their efforts to secure their son's release.
But I cannot help but feel for the families of the victims of these terrorists. Every day when I read the news, yet another name comes to the fore, reminding us of a heinous terrorists whose vicious acts will forever remain etched into our collective consciousness. It was bad enough the we had to live through their actions once. Now we have to set them free?
And, if I feel pain, I cannot imagine the pain of the families who lost loved ones during these many acts of murder. Do they not have a say in these matters? We've been hearing the Shalits for years (sadly). Before we made such a momentous decision, would it not have been fair to hear the side of the victims of terror - at least to allow them to voice their frustrations and anguish before signing off on the deal.
Their pain must be our pain as well.
I can see the joyous headlines on the news sites about Gilad's return, but in truth, there's nothing to be happy about in this entire ordeal. I wish - even though I know it won't happen - that Gilad Shalit and his family could return home quietly, without fanfare, and especially without the certain media circus to follow, if only out of a sense of compassion for the people suffering yet again through this ordeal. And yet, the media must have its fill. And with a story like the freeing of Gilad Shalit, the media's hunger cannot be satiated.
With these thoughts swirling in my head as I sit in my Sukkah, I'm still supposed to be happy? A very diffiult task indeed.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What's Under the Me'arat Hamachpelah Part 1

Noam Arnon, Spokesman for the Chevron Jewish Community
As I mentioned in earlier posts, I was in Chevron last week for a work-related conference. After the "work" related portion ended, we headed to the Me'arat Hamachpelah for davening and then a tour. After we all davened minchah, we gathered together for a talk from Noam Arnon, who is the official spokesman for the Jewish community of Chevron. He also writes semi-regularly for Arutz 7 in Hebrew here.
There, he told a somewhat well-known story that I had never heard before and answered a question that I had always wondered about: What is really under the Me'arat Hamachpelah.
After the 1967 Six Day War, Israeli leaders made the tragic decision to return control of Judaism's holiest sites - including the Temple Mount and the Cave of the Patriarchs - to the Muslif Wakf. It's a decision we're still paying for to this very day.
It so happens that in one of the main halls (The Hall of Yitzchak) of the Tomb in Chevron, there's an obvious circular door in the floor. One only need lift up the cover and climb down to find out what's there.  Two things stand in the way of climbing down. The first is simple fear. There's a significant literature of legends promising death (or worse) to people who violate the sanctity of the final resting place of our Forefathers (and, according to the Midrash, Adam Harishon as well.) The second reason is more practical: the Arabs refused to allow anyone to do any type of archaeological research in "their" holy places.
Michal Dayan Being Lowered into the Cave
Moshe Dayan, then the Mister of Defense, had a thing for Israeli antiquities. (Apparently, he liked keeping them for himself too, or so I've heard.) He soon began to regret returning control of Me'arat Hamachpelah to the Arabs, because they  refused to consider the issue of exploring the cave. So Dayan, not to be troubled with simple matters like the opinions of Arabs took matters into his own hands. His daughter Michal, then around twelve years old, happened to be exceedingly skinny, and could slip into the hole through one of the small openings in the door so that the cover could then be returned without the Arabs learning what he had done. (This story is referenced on the Machpelah website in Hebrew here.) One evening, he told the Arabs to "get lost for a while" (back then people listened to Moshe Dayan) and they lowered his daughter into the cave. When she reached the ground, she found herself along a long narrow passageway. She followed the path until she reached a staircase - leading up. She climbed up the staircase and found a large stone blocking her path. She knocked on the stone and soon...heard someone knock back. (That would have freaked me out too!) She quickly made her way back down the stairs and had herself lifted out of the hole, no worse for wear, but no secrets revealed.
Yet, Arnon said, what she told them gave the Jews of Chevron the critical information that they needed to make their own attempt to enter the cave.

To be continued...

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The More Things Change...

The NY Times Magazine carried a fascinating piece (A State is Born in Palestine) on the undercover efforts of Zionist interests to sway the opinions of the UN Special Committee on Palestine - called UNSCOP. It's a short piece, and a captivating read of how the early Zionists embraced the UN committe, and worked hard to win over sceptical delegates who would write the report that led to the creation of the Jewish State. It's an important piece for a number of reasons:
1. It points to the resourcefulness of the Israelis (then Palestinians) who were willing to use whatever tools necessary to promote their cause. Sure we had to have the guns to fight and defend ourselves afterwards. But before we could even fight, we needed an internationally recognized state, which is exactly what we got.
2. It highilghts the critical importance of diplomatic efforts and the need for Hasbarah. Because the world - or at least the committeee - saw our point of view, it was able to write a report that could accept the Jews receiving half of Palestine, and not nothing at all. If you think that these efforts are any less important today, you're kidding yourself. World (and US) opinion really does matter. It matters not only what members of the US Government think (so join and get active in AIPAC). It also matters what your friends, coworkers and classmates think. So share that pro-Israel video on Facebook and forward the YouTube video. Every little bit matters.
3. It highlights just how foolish the Arabs have been - and continue to be. At times, it seems like the only thing that saves us from ourselves is the Arabs' intrasegience. If the Arabs had accepted the '48 plan, would we control Jerusalem today? Would I have been able to pray at Me'arat Hamachpelah last week? What if Arafat had accepted Israel's offer of 97 percent of the "West Bank" in 2000 at Camp David? What would have come of the Palestinians' current UN bid if they weren't also still shooting rockets at us and killing our citizens on the roads?
Clearly, God works in mysterious ways. But sometimes it seems clear that God prefers to operate through our enemies' foolishness. Or, to quote the Iranian delegate to UNSCOP, Nasrollah Entezam, “What asses the Arabs are! The country is so beautiful, and it can be developed. If they gave it all to the Jews, they would transform it into Europe!”

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Tears of Sacrifice and a Visit to Chevron

Each year during the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, Orot (where I work) coordinates a day for all of the educators which combines meetings, speeches, etc, as well as an Israel component. This year we had the in-service day in Kiryat Arba/Chevron. It was a very moving experience for me. No, not the meetings. They were fine. But Chevron during the Asert Yemei Teshuva was very significant. I'll explain.
The sages wove the theme of Akeidat Yitzchak throughout the entire liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. That single event - the willingness of both Avraham and Yitzchak to make the ultimate sacrifice - carried eternal meaning for God and His people. Avraham built up an eternal, unending credit with God that we invoke to this very day. Mussaf on Rosh Hashanah makes repeated mention of the Akeidah. Selichot mention the Akeidah incessantly; in fact, there's a special selichah each day dedicated to the Akeidah. This year I came across a very beautiful, quite well-know piyyut recited by the Sefardim each day called עת שערי רצון - whose moving language somehow stirs my soul, with the refrain at the end of each verse returning to the theme, העוקד, הנעקד והמזבח - "the binder, the bound and the altar." (You can find the words here, and numerous musical versions exist on YouTube. One particularly haunting one is here.) If you follow the poetry, you'll notice four lines of a particular rhyme - and then the fifth line ends with a word that ends with the sound "aiyach" - leading to the final line of each verse: "oked, ne'ekad v'hamizbeach."
The most moving verse (to me) is:
הֵכִין עֲצֵי עוֹלָה בְּאוֹן וָחַיִל
 וַיַּעֲקֹד יִצְחָק כְּעָקְדוֹ אַיִל
וַיְהִי מְאוֹר יוֹמָם בְּעֵינָם לַיִל
וַהֲמוֹן דְּמָעָיו נוֹזְלִים בְּחַיִל
 עַיִן בְּמַר בּוֹכָה וְלֵב שָׂמֵחַ
 עוֹקֵד וְהַנֶּעְקָד וְהַמִּזְבֵּחַ 
He prepared the wood of the Olah with strength and vigor (chayil)
And he bound Yitzchak as he would bind a ram (ayil)
And the light of the day was in their eyes night (layil)
And many tears flowing in force (chayil)
Eyes bitterly crying with a joyous heart (sameach)
Oked, V'hane'ekad V'hamizbeach
The last lines haunt me, as I think of the bitter tears of sadness and trauma, and the simultaneous emotion of joy at fulfilling the will of God - and perhaps the interconnection of the two; the greatest devotion can only come from that willingness to sacrifice that which we consider most dear.
I just find the notion of the akeideh very powerful and moving this year. God does not ask us to sacrifice our children, nor would he. It was a once-in-history request. But He does ask us to make different sacrifices in His service, some smaller, some larger. Perhaps it's the sacrifice of a new car, as the yearly tuition bill makes a new car impossible. Perhaps it's the sacrifice of career advancement in the face of Shmirat Shabbat. Perhaps it's the sacrifice of family, career and comfort for the challenge of Aliyah. But religious life finds its greatest meaning in the mingling and melding of the joyous heart and the tears of sacrifice.
And then we went to Chevron.
I'm sure you've been there. It's often a madhouse, and this experience wasn't much different. There were numerous school groups, some reciting selichot (in the middle of the day), others singing and dancing. But somehow, through the noise and din - and perhaps because of it - I was able to find a level of concentration in my tefillot, and tried to connect to the memory - and zechut of a Forefather so totally dedicated to God, that he willingly sacrificed his dreams, love, hope and future simply because God asked him to.
That act shaped our collective history. It affects us to this day. It established a bond between God and His people and a model for us to emulate that continues to drive us all. May it also serve as a merit for each of us. May it spur us to make the sacrifices that we need to, and feel the joy that comes from that act. And may the merit of Avraham Avinu bring us closer to God this year, and serve as a source of connection, closeness and blessing for Klal Yisrael.
Gmar Chatimah Tovah.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Shabbat Shuvah 5772: Temimut - A Critical Key to Teshuvah

Audio Shiur:
Shabbat Shuvah 5772: Temimut - A Critical Key to Teshuvah

The Grave of Avraham Yedidyah in Chevron
A recent tour of Chevron, and my focus of late on the Avot and the Akeidah in particular, turned my attention to the mitzvah of Temimut. What does it mean to be "tamim"? How do we achieve this attribute? And how can pursuing temimut make us better people, and enhance our Teshuvah?

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Derech Hashem Shiur 6 - The Stages of the Soul Part 2

Audio Shiur:
Derech Hashem Shiur 6 - The Stages of the Soul Part 2

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

We finish Part 1 Chapter 3, analyzing the various stages of existence intended for man's development and purification as we come closer to God and our personal perfection.

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Derech Hashem Shiur 5 - The Stages of the Soul Part 1

Audio Shiur:
Derech Hashem Shiur 5 - The Stages of the Soul Part 1

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

Section 1 Chapter 3 continues with a description of how God originally intended for man to develop and purify his body through his soul - and how things dramatically changed after Adam Harishon sinned.

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Derech Hashem Shiur 4 - Earning God's Goodness

Audio Shiur:
Derech Hashem Shiur 4 - Earning God's Goodness

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

Would you rather earn God's goodness, or just get it? Well, God would rather you earn it. Which makes life much, much more challenging...but possibly rewarding.

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The Good Life

On our list of items for which we pray, we generally include: health, blessing, and prosperity. In our minds, parnassah plays a prominent role in our assessment of the blessings that we enjoy. This seems logical, as our livelihood impacts prominently on so many other areas of life.
And yet, during davening today, it dawned on me that while we do certainly pray for a good livelihood, it's not at all connected to the quality of our lives. During the responsive section of Avinu Malkeinu, we pray that God inscribe us in a number of books.
כתבנו בספר חיים טובים
כתבנו בספר גאולה וישועה
כתבנו בספר פרנסה וכלכלה
Inscribe us in the Book of Good Life
Inscribe us in the Book of Redemption and Salvation.
Inscribe us in the Book of Livelihood and Sustenance
These clearly are three distinct and separate books. (Wouldn't you love to download the Book of Good Life on your Amazon Kindle and read that!) We pray first for a Good Life, and only later for parnassah. They are not, as we might have imagined, interconnected. Apparently, one need not be blessed with Livelihood and Sustenance to be inscribed in the Book of Good Life.
What then does it mean to live a Good Life?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Two Days of Yom Tov and Other Halachic Challenges

Tablet recently ran a piece about the challenges of keeping two days of Yom Tov, especially when the calendar bombards Shomer Shabbat communities with three three-day Yom Tovs in a row (and will again over the next three years!) The piece, while chronicling the challenges of fastidious observance to Yom Tov, also notes that there are people in the Orthodox community who "choose" to keep only one day. After all, they reason, the first day is biblical, while the second is only rabbinic.
This isn't a new observation. I can remember one member of a shul I served in who would "work" on the second day of Yom Tov for many of the same reasons outlined in the piece. Moreover, I've noticed a growing phenomenon of Orthodox Jews who, when in Israel, don't keep a second day of Yom Tov in any way - not even a "day and a half".
If this is a "growing" trend, I can think of several reasons:
Many people who live within the big tent of Orthodoxy are not all or nothing people. They struggle with the challenge of the demands of traditional Judaism, and make compromises. I'm not judging them, and actually celebrate the fact that they consider themselves Orthodox nonetheless. But they should keep both days, and I hope that they know this, despite any justifications they create for themselves.
More significantly, people who come to Israel and keep only one day (because they either own an apartment here, or they come for all three yom Tovim, or they have a cousin who operates an Israeli website, or any other reason) then return home for the next holiday and and feel a sense of dissonance. After all, last year, they ate a falafel on the 8th day of Yom Tov, and this year it's completely forbidden? Last year, they were snorkeling in the Kineret on the first day of Chol Hamoed while their friends were sitting down to yet another heavy meal in the Sukkah. And this year they too must "suffer". What other halachah seems to change by location? (Imagine having to keep the laws of tzniut in Brooklyn, but not in Miami. Ridiculous, right? Er...) That dissonance makes it easier to begin to slowly reject the entire notion of the validity of the second day.
Moreover, with the advent of global, instant communication, people in the Golah know exactly what concerts we've been to on their "second" day. They have an immediate sense that people they know who are perfectly observant don't observe two days of Yom Tov. And, while they know the law, that doesn't make it any more emotionally palatable.
I suppose that we here in Israel don't make things any easier for our exiled brethren. In emails and phone calls, blog posts and Facebook updates, we're constantly extolling the virtues of one day of Yom Tov: the added vacation day of Chol Hamoed, the avoidance of three-day yom Tovs, (two this year. And next year. And the year after that. Sorry, I'm doing it. See? We just can't stop ourselves.) One Seder! But, in doing so, we cheapen the idea of the two days of Yom Tov in the exile, and the obligation of observant Jews to maintain both days under all circumstances. Sure, it's in good fun. And of course Golah Jews could avoid our good-natured jabs by simply moving to Israel. But I must admit: It's not that nice, and it probably doesn't help matters. Nor do I believe it promotes aliyah either. (I just can't see Nefesh B'nefesh's new marketing campaign as, "Aliyah: You'll Never Make a Second Seder Again.")
On the other hand, I have little sympathy for people who complain that keeping two days is just two hard. The article quotes Rabbi Alan Brill who posted on his blog,
“The past few years there has been a growing tension among those who work in interactive professions about their need to check their blackberries on Yom Tov,” he wrote. “Some fields need daily input.”
Really? These people never go on vacation? They never ever walk away from their Blackberries for more than one full day? Please.
I just think back to the stories my grandfather would tell about his work life during the early 20th century in New York. He'd get a job on Sunday in some store, and not show up on Shabbat. When he'd come back on Sunday morning, his boss would tell him to get lost. That went on until he found a boss who didn't fire him on when he came to work on Sunday morning.
He sacrificed for Shmirat Shabbat, and every one of his grandchildren remains observant today. I don't doubt that putting away the iPhone for three days is hard. I'm certain that the work pressures are immense. But the costs of not making the sacrifice are far greater in the long run.