Monday, April 30, 2012

Yom Ha'atzmaut in Israel vs. in the Diaspora

Even though I'm no longer an actively practicing pulpit rabbi, I remain connected to many of my rabbinic friends, and somewhat active in the rabbinic community. To that end, I receive (and sometimes participate) in a rabbinic email list, which discusses fascinating topics, issues and challenges pertinent to rabbis of all stripes.
Each year, as Yom Ha'atzmaut approaches, the rabbis begin a series of discussions about the religious observances of the day, including whether and how to recite Hallel, tachanun, and the suspension of the mourning practices of Sefirat Ha'omer. I recently wrote a response not to any particular email, but to the entire genre, as it highlighted a substantial gulf between the observance of these holidays here, and the way that we observed them in the States. Then, my good friend Rabbi David Brofsky sent a moving response, which I am also sharing. (Note: While the email list is private, I have removed any reference to members of the group, and only share my own and Rabbi Brofsky's words with his permission.)

Inevitably, it seems, each year the same discussions arise in some form. Do we recite hallel, when, with a brachah or without? Did the Rav recite hallel? What's the position of the Chief Rabbinate? I know that the questions come from a desire to adhere precisely to the letter of the law, but feel that sometimes they overshadow the true nature of the day. Instead of focusing on the nisim and yad hashem, we occupy ourselves with whether to say hallel with our without a brachah, and which rabbanim advocate what (which is sometimes also code for "is or is not a big enough Zionist").

[A certain rabbi] asked about what actually takes place here. In my religious yishuv Yom Ha'atzmaut is treated as a fully religious holiday. People came to shul on YH eve dressed by and large in white shirts (which is pretty much like Shabbat), we recited a tefillah chagigit
(without hallel), and on YH morning the shul recited Hallel with a brachah. More to the point, the davening itself had a celebratory tone - in the way that people prayed. It wasn't a rushed, weekday morning davening, but more like the relaxed davening of a minor holiday. This might have much to do with the fact that no one had to get to work. To be honest, I find myself
in an unusual situation, in that personally I don't recite the brachah, following the practice that has become accepted in the United States (as communicated from Rav Soloveitchik). But I haven't communicated this to my children, and they recited a normal hallel with a brachah - which is the accepted, universal practice here in Israel in the community where I live.
I see no reason to confuse them.

Personally, I long for a time when these discussions take a backseat to the univserval acceptance on Yom Ha'atzmaut as a religious event; when our communities will see it as such, and spend more time thanking God for the State of Israel and the sovreignity of the Jewish people in our Homeland, than allowing the nuance of ritual, as important as it may be, to distract us.


Rabbi David Brofsky
I would like to add a few thoughts to R. Spolter's email, which focussed on the content and experience of Yom HaAtzmaur, from the perspective of one, like R. Spolter, who lives in Israel.
To be honest, when I lived in America, I found great difficulty connecting to the religious side of Yom HaAtzmaut. Yes, my "Zionism" was solid, as was my firm belief that the establishment of the state of Israel and its continual existence is a miraculous event- the largest event to affect the Jewish people in almost two thousand years, and obviously one must give thanks to HKB"H. However, the feeling was somewhat dry, and often, I felt that Yom HaAtzmaut events were "hijacked" by who I perceived as "nationalists"- who did not necessarily emphasize the religious aspect of the say (or at least I thought then).

After living in Israel for almost two decades, I must relate the following: 
1. Yom Ha-Zikaron: There is no day similar to Yom Ha-Zikaron in the secular or religious calendar. Chazal were aware that despite the intensity of the aveilus of Tisha BeAv, Aveilus Yeshana (old mourning) is important to commemorate, and we should all merit feeling it in the depths of our soul, but it is still Aveilus Yeshana. We all know, however, that the intensity of a shiva house in which a young woman and children have lost their husband/father is far more intense than Tisha BeAv. That is Aveilus Chadasha. (New mourning) Yom HaZikaron is Aveilus Chadasha. One listens to the radio, watches the television, attends ceremonies in military ceremonies- and simply spends the day crying. If one has not personally known a soldier that was killed, or a civilian killed in a terror attack, then one is certainly connected in another way; one remembers the incident, mourns those who have lost their lives, cries for the widows and children left behind. There is nothing like it. Halavay our feelings on Tisha BeAv should be so intense; halavay the nation should mourn on our religious days of mourning as they do on Yom HaZikaron.

2. Yom HaAtzmaut: R. Spolter noted the festive mood during davening. In many religious communities, tefillot yom haatzmaut, especially hallel, are the most heartfelt of the year. For me, this reminds me of R Hai Gaon's understanding of hallel on leil ha-seder: shira. It is praise which is not imposed, like the regalim, or even lke Chanukka, which the Chasam Sofer
suggests may even be mi-deoraisa! - but rather which comes from the feelings and experiences of the kehilla. Imagine if we really felt that we were saved by the hand of God on Chanukka, or that if the salvation of Purim was still felt! Imagine if we really felt as if we had just left Egypt and were marching towards the land of Israel! Here, the niflaot Hashem (wonders of God) are apparent to all. The feeling of what was, what could have been, what could be (which we all try to feel during the tzomos and chagim during the year- as that is partially their purpose!) is felt by all. (Incidentally, one who experiences Yom HaAtzmaut in such a manner cannot fathom how one can omit tachanun on Tu B'shvat or pesach sheini, but say it
on Yom Ha'atzmaut. Similarly, one cannot understand the objection to suspending nihugei aveilus for the day- just as shiva is set aside for a regel.)

It is possible that the commemoration of Yom HaAtzmaut in chutz la'aretz should be different- as the expectation that one so intensely feel gratitude to HKB"H may not be reasonable. In addition, culturally, the American equivalents, Memorial Day and July 4, are, to the best of my
memory, days of shopping family get-togethers (also noble activities...). But I feel that rabbinic leadership outside of Israel should at least understand what these days are to a religious-zionist Israeli, and hopefully, as R. Spolter suggested, the discussion of how to make Yom
HaAtzmaut a more intensely/religiously felt holiday should take a greater role in these yearly discussions.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Audio Shiur: Parshat Achrei Mot - To Life!

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Parshat Achrei Mot - To Life!

As we gathered on Yom Hazikaron to study the introduction to the section of the Arayot at the beginning of Chapter 18, the words "vechai bahem" resonate strongly. What's are the "rules" that bring life? What kind of life do they bring? We touch upon aliyah, Brooklyn, sports, soccer and the sacrifice of those holy people who gave their lives to protect and defend the Jewish nation.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012


We've all seen the photos of stopped traffic as the sirens wail here in Israel. This morning I realized that the pictures don't really do it justice. Usually I'm alone at work at 11am. And last night, we were ready for the siren, waiting attentively at a Yom Hazikaron program in the yishuv.
But this morning, somehow, even though I knew the siren was coming, it caught me by surprise.
I was sitting at a second-floor balcony at the bank - which was quite busy this morning, when the siren sounded at precisely 11:00am. Everything just stopped. Everyone stood up, and we all bowed our heads, left to our thoughts, prayers and emotions. I actually found the shift from movement and activity to frozen silence jarring. Think about it: have you ever seen a group of people, simply standing silently at attention, not moving, not speaking? Everything just stopped, and I marveled at the quietness; the stillness of the busy bank as the siren blared outside.
As we all stood in silence. I looked down at the scene below. I saw a group of Ethiopians; two elderly chareidim, who had been meeting with a bank official at one of the desks: young Sabras and immigrants of all stripes and ages.
Over the week between Yom Hashoah and Yom Haatzmaut, for two minutes, the entire country really does stand still. Standing at the bank, I felt a sense of oneness with all of these people who I don't know; a sense of shared sacrifice and a feeling of the shared burden that we all appreciate. And I thought of the families of those who we remember on this day.
Why do we unite only for sadness? Why is it so difficult to stand together on other days of the year? Who knows.
But these silent moments give me strength. Because as much as we argue, they remind us all that if we ever need it, we will stand together as one.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Halachic Significance of Yom Ha'atzmaut

I take it as a given that Israel's declaration of independance in 1948 represents a momentous day in Jewish history, with fundamental implications not just on the future of the Jewish people, but also on our very definition. Yet, is there also halachic meaning to the fact that we, as a nation, once again control our own destiny? I just heard a short talk from Rabbi Professor Neria Guttel (my boss), where he asserted that indeed there is halachic significance to Yom Ha'atzmaut. I'll share one example that he cited.
The Gemara in Megillah (14a) wonders why we don't recite Hallel on Purim, and offers several explanation. Among them we find:
1. Because we don't say Hallel for miracles that took place outside of the Land of Israel
2. The reading of the Megillah constitutes a form of praise, obviating the need to recite Hallel.
Rava adds a different perspective.
רבא אמר בשלמא התם הללו עבדי ה' ולא עבדי פרעה, אלא הכא הללו עבדי ה' ולא עבדי אחשורוש? אכתי עבדי אחשורוש אנן
Said Rava, Regarding [the Exodus from Egypt when the nation did recite Hallel], we can say that "these [the Jewish people] are the servants of God and not servants of Pharaoh. Yet here [in the Purim story], can we say that "these are the servants of God and not the servants of Achashverosh?" We are still the servants of Achashverosh.
According to Rava, the fact that God saved the entire Jewish nation from annihilation on Purim is not sufficient justification to recite Hallel, because they remained the subjects of the King Persia afterwards as well. As great as the salvation was, as long as the Jews remained subject to the whim of a foreign ruler, they should not recite Hallel.
We can derive, of course, the opposite rule as well. Living in an era that witnessed the rebirth of the Jewish nation, we can proudly proclaim that we no longer live as "subjects of Achashverosh." Whether we like the government's decision or dislike it - it remains a Jewish decision, made by the Jewish nation.
For that fact alone, we must declare thanks and praise to the Creator.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Audio Shiur: Parshat Tazria-Metzora: There Will Be Blood

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Tazria-Metzora: There Will Be Blood

While most of the parshah deals with tzaraat in many forms and its ramifications, the double parshah both begins and ends by describing the ramifications of uterine bleeding. What is the difference between niddah and zivah? Why does a woman become impure after childbirth? And what does all this have to do with original sin?

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Lose Weight, and then Gain it Right Back! All in One Email!

I'd like to thank the good people of Group-e, the Orthodox Groupon (that's right, the people that brought you Arba Minim over the internet), for the following email.

On the right hand side, you'll notice an ad for a weight loss solution, which promises a "natural diet" of Dr. Simons (Do you know him? Where did he go to medical school?) for a loss of up to 15 kilograms in 40 days! Amazing. I'll take it.
And once I lose all that weight, I can then click on the ad on the left for guessed it, Belgian Waffle Maker - "just like in the restaurants! 58% off!" So then, when I eat all those waffles and gain the weight back, I can go back on the miracle diet.
Maybe they should stick to Lulav and Etrog.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Thoughts on Yom Hashoah

National Gevurah
Interviewing a current Orot student for a public relations piece that I'm working on, she described a trip that she participated in to meet educational figures in action. Among the people who met with the group was Rav Sharon Shalom, who among the many other hats that he wears, is a lecturer in history at Orot. In addition, Rav Shalom is the Rav of Kehillat Kedoshei Yisrael, a shul founded by survivors of the Holocaust in Kiryat Gat.
Rav Sharon is an impressive person: a rabbi, scholar, Talmid Chacham and an academic. Oh yes - he's also Ethiopian.
Discussing her experience of listening first to a Holocaust survivor tell of his experiences, and then hearing from his forty-year-old Ethiopian rabbi, the student spoke about the powerful emotions she felt. Where else, she wondered, but the State of Israel, could someone who lived through the Shoah speak with pride about his black rabbi, who walked from Ethiopia to the Promised Land?
Where else, indeed?
Yom Hashoah is of course about the destruction and devastation. But it's that's only half the story. It's really Yom Hashoah V'hagevurah. As we note the massive loss of the Holocaust, we should also mark the bravery and strength of Am Yisrael to get up off the mat, look at the world squarely in the face and rebuild itself yet again, in its ancestral homeland, into a country for all Jews, no matter their country of origin or the color of their skin.

Never Again? No...and Yes.
The Memorial at Dachau
Even more than six decades after the fact, Yom Hashoah is a very frightening day for children (if not for adults as well). My son's school screened the film adaptation of "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas", which left him somewhat jarred. (I'm not a personal fan of the film or the book, which is, according to IMDB, "a story seen through the innocent eyes of Bruno, the eight-year-old son of the commandant at a concentration camp." Sorry, but only Hollywood would try to see the Nazis' side of the Holocaust, so that we should feel sorry for their innocent children.) In any case, the film led to a discussion about the Shoah and whether it could happen yet again. It's scary to watch a depiction of Jews marching towards their own deaths in the showers of a concentration camp. Bezalel, my twelve-year-old son, felt that the Holocaust could indeed happen again. If no one rose to protect the Jews of Europe, what assurances do we have today?
Moreover, Bezalel added, the Jews can lose. He's learning Navi, and noted that Jewish kings fought and lost wars against their enemies. So who is to say that even in Israel, even with the strength of the IDF, that we're safe?

I agreed with him. It could indeed happen again. Indeed I feel that the Jewish efforts (and the tens, if not hundreds of millions of Jewish dollars spent) to ensure "never again" seem naive and short-sighted. After all, who could have imagined that it could happen in Germany? No one believed it possible, even while it was happening. Moreover, there indeed are no shortage of people trying to kill us. After all, just last month we enjoyed yet more family time in our protected room, as our Arab cousins to the south shared some of their homemade and imported rockets. (Thanks!)
No, there are no guarantees. But, I told him, there is a critical difference. Something has indeed changed.Today, even as our enemies attack us, we stand up and fight. Indeed, we may (God forbid) lose and suffer a terrible defeat. But at least if we go down, we will go down fighting.
No one can say that never again will an enemy of the Jews rise to power on a wave of hatred, racism and fanaticism, hoping to exterminate the Jewish people. It's happened before, and probably likely to happen again, sooner than anyone would like to believe.
But we can say a different type of "Never again."
As long as their is a Jewish State, we will never again walk placidly to our own deaths without a struggle. We will "never again" allow an enemy of the Jews to kill us without a fight.
Of that, we can indeed be sure.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Rabbinic Tricks of the Trade: Making Source Sheets (with a Smartphone)

Most teachers and rabbis use source sheets in their classes and lectures. They give the listener and learner a text to focus on and a sense of tangible connection to the material that they're studying. There are two general types of sheets:
1. Text bases sheets, built using the Bar Ilan CD (or some other similar source)
2. Scanned sheets of original sources
Many teachers prefer the first method for a simple reason: it's much, much easier. After all, you don't have to go scrounging through books for the right sources. You don't need to deal with scanners, resolution, or photocopying. You're good to go.

The Better Method: Scans of Original Materials
I personally prefer the second method despite the added difficulty because I feel that a student (or learner) should have a sense of the books that they're studying. Text is simply that: you can't look at a text and identify its source. You don't have a feel for the book that you're reading from. It's just text.
Source material scanned from books is just different. A text from Tanach looks fundamentally different...

than a piece from Mesillat Yesharim.

Also, many modern texts have vowels (which many students really need) as well as translations (which are very, very helpful). 
The problem with this method is obvious. It's a pain in the neck, especially if you use the old, old method of photocopying each source you'd like to use, cutting out the relevant text and pasting it on to your new page. If you're doing that, this post will save you a tremendous amount of time and energy.

The Old New Method: Scanner and Computer
For years, I scanned each book into my computer, imported the scan into a program called PaperPort, and then cut and paste (digitally) that source into a document in Microsoft Publisher. You can still do that, and it's a very effective method, but it's got shortcomings.
1. You have to have access to a scanner
2. You need to be able to bring the books to the computer, which isn't always possible. Often, I'd find myself in a library or a yeshiva Beit Midrash, and I couldn't take the book home with me to scan. At times I found myself asking to use a local copier, just to be able to take the source with me. But that's not much better than manual cutting and pasting.
Thankfully, I've found a solution that's (mostly) free, easy and incredibly convenient, allowing me to make source sheets in almost no time at all, using readily available digital tools. All you need is a smartphone.

The Smartphone Solution
(I've got an Android phone, but I think that the apps that I mention are widely available on iPhones as well)
Step 1: Acquiring the Texts
Camscanner Screenshot
Many business people have long realized that the camera on their phone is of sufficient quality to simply take a picture of needed documents. This method works quite well. Moreover, I found an amazing App called CamScanner, which allows you to take a picture of a document (or sefer), which it then transforms into a black and white pdf document (which is exactly what you need for your source sheets!). Moreover, the program allows you to group the scans into a single pdf document. So, just for example, I'm giving a shiur tonight on Shining Shoes on Chol Hamoed. I wanted to use the Steinzaltz version of the Gemara (because it has vowels), so I went into our shul Beit Midrash with my smartphone, and five minutes later had the scans that I needed for the shiur. 
Step 2: Uploading to the Web
This is actually the easiest aspect of the job, as your smartphone does all the work for you. Camscanner allows you to share your document in about a zillion ways. If you've got Dropbox, you can do it that way. (If you don't have Dropbox, you really, really should have it - but that's another post. If you don't have it and would like it, please click here, as I'll get more free space.) I actually started using a program called Evernote, which allows you to keep a virtual notebook on the web. Either way is fine. You can even email yourself the file. It really doesn't matter, as long as you get the pdf to your computer.

Step 3: Opening the file and copying it
To me, it's important that the scans remain at a high resolution for your source sheets. The best way to do this is to use a free PDF program called Foxit Reader. The program allows you to take a picture of your open document, and even more importantly, set the resolution of the picture that you're copying, so that you can ensure that your sheets are at a good (high) resolution.
Go to Tools >> Preferences and click on "General". There you'll find an option to "Use fixed resolution for snapshots. Check that. I set mine to 300, which is high, but great for sheets.

Now you just click on the Camera to take a snapshot, and highlight an area of text that you want to copy. 
This will copy your text onto the clipboard.

Step 4: Placing Your Text in Microsoft Publisher
Actually, you don't really need an added program like Publisher to make this work. You can do it in Microsoft Word if you'd like (and you don't want to pay for Publisher). But it can be a pain to work with a bunch of images in Word, and this is exactly what Publisher is made for, so it's really worth the added expense. (And thus far in this little exercise, you haven't spent a dime!)
Just open a new document in Publisher (you can set up a template for your source sheets if you like) and Paste in your image.

You can the resize, move your image around - whatever you like. Add Source numbers, text, etc. and there you got - you've got Sheets!
Simply save your work as a PDF file (or print yourself), and you're done. (If you're interested, here is the final sheet shared on Evernote).

While this method might take you a few minutes longer the first time you do it, after a few tries you'll find that you're spending less and less time making your actual sheets, and more time preparing the sources you need to teach.

Audio Shiur: Parshat Shemini 5771 - The Sound of Silence

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Shemini 5771 - The Sound of Silence

I gave this shiur last year while still reeling here in Israel the terrible murder of almost an entire family in Itamar. We look at Aharon's reaction to the sudden death of his sons. What did Moshe say to him to console him? Why was Aharon silent? And what lessons can we take away from national tragedy and mourning?

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Friday, April 6, 2012

The Best Time to Take a Vacation in Israel

After having failed to take a family vacation for the past three years (we have gotten away, but not the entire family together), we decided to go away for a couple of days this week. Yup, on the week before Pesach we took a vacation to Teveria. It was a great decision. Let me count the reasons:
1. The Seder isn't that Big of a Deal: First of all, here in Israel there's much less to do, as there's only one Seder and one day of Yom Tov to prepare for. We make the Seder for our family alone :-( , and we're actually invited out for lunch tomorrow. So the cooking is for all of one meal. Moreover, we stopped eating a large meal at the Seder years ago. After all the Matzah and Romaine lettuce, we eat chicken soup and matzah balls, my mother's famous fricassee, some desert, and move on to the afikomen.
2. Cleaning: We don't do spring cleaning. We clean for Chametz. It's not that big of a deal when you stop washing the walls. (Also, with all the kids home from school beginning last week, the older ones helped quite a lot. I was still working).
3. Amazing deals: Basically, pretty much no one takes a vacation during the week before vacation, so we had the entire city of Teveria more or less to ourselves. And the tiyyullim we took were also more or less empty, other than the random families who are as nutty as us, or groups of men and boys who were kicked out of their homes by the ladies. That means that empty hotels are looking to grab you, and we found a really good deal (at a Groupon-like site) for a hotel that included breakfast and dinner. That was a good move. There's nothing like a vacation when you don't have to worry about most of the food (lunch = ice cream) and you can get up from the table after dinner and walk away.
4. Gorgeous Weather: If you like hiking, walking around and outdoor activities, this is the time to do it. We went on two tiyyulim over two days (to Tel Dan and Nachal Amud), and the weather was perfect!
So, if you're looking for something to do over the week before Pesach, try taking a vacation in Israel. You'll save money, have a great time, and get back home just in time for Bedikat Chametz.
OK, that was a little hectic.
Chag Sameach!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Pesach, Matzah and Maror: The Essence of Jewish Education

Every Sunday morning, a student studying in Orot's M.A. program for Educational Counseling hitches a ride with me from Yad Binyamin to Elkana. During the ride, conversations often turn towards the material that he's studying. (While Orot's B.Ed. program in Elkana is for women only, men also study in separate classes towards M.A. degrees.) It's been interesting to watch as the trajectory of our conversations has shifted over the course of the year.
At the beginning, my "tremper" complained bitterly about the program. "It's so theoretical! I deal with real kids every day. I need to know how to handle the kids in the real world, and not delve into arcane psychological theory." And yet, as the year has progressed, his complaints have grown more tempered, and his appreciation for the program has grown. This morning he told me that he's already enlisted three friends to register for the program for next year.
What changed? I can tell you categorically that the program didn’t suddenly shift orientation due to his complaints. Rather, his appreciation for the material slowly matured. While he at first failed to see the significance of the theory to his work, over time he began to appreciate that while the theory of counseling might not directly impact on his counseling specifically, it allowed him to gain a broader, deeper appreciation for his work.

The "Obilgation" of the Three Symbols: What Obligation?
As we near the conclusion of Maggid and can almost taste the matzah in our mouths, we recite a famous statement from Rabban Gamliel, which is actually a direct quote from the Mishnah in Pesachim (116b):
רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל הָיָה אומֵר: כָּל שֶׁלּא אָמַר שְׁלשָׁה דְּבָרִים אֵלּוּ בַּפֶּסַח, לא יָצָא יְדֵי חובָתו, וְאֵלוּ הֵן: פֶּסַח, מַצָה, וּמָרור.
Rabban Gamliel used to say: Anyone who did not speak about three things did not fulfill his obligation. And they are: Pesach (the Paschal lamb), Matzah, and Maror.

While his statement which obligates us to mention each of these three critical elements during the Seder seems clear, it's actually anything but. What "obligation" does one fail to fulfill should he not mention the three elements? Where do we find such an obligation? Not surprisingly, the answered to this question is mired in dispute.
According to Ramban (see מלמחות ה', דף ב' בדפי הרי"ף), one who fails to mention these three elements does not properly fulfill his obligation to eat the three foods on the night of Pesach. While the Torah commands us to eat, Rabban Gamliel adds that eating is not enough. One must also speak about them, understand them, and place them in the context of the story. Others, including Ra'avan, disagree, explaining that one who fails to mention these three foods does not completely fulfill the obligation to tell the story of יציאת מצרים.

A Critical Educational Lesson
Yet, when we take a step back, both positions seem to be two sides of the same coin. According to each position, Rabban Gamliel was expressing a critical idea.
On the first night of Pesach we confront two very different types of mitzvot. The first is academic: והגדת לבנך – "and you shall tell your child" the story of the Exodus from Egypt. At face value, telling a story is a theoretical exercise, as we recount the historical tale of our ancestors' exit from slavery. (Anyone who has ever been stuck in a boring history class can attest to just how irrelevant names and dates can be.) The second type of Mitzvah is action-oriented. More specifically, on this night we are commanded to eat, whether we taste the simplicity of the matzah, the bitterness of the Maror, or the richness of the Korban Pesach.
According to Rabban Gamliel, if we allowed these two elements to remain separate and disconnected, we would fail both in our telling of the story and in our eating of the food, as we neglected to focus on the critical connection between the learning and discussion and the tastes associated with that story. Rabban Gamliel reminds us that Chazal designed the different elements of the Seder to complement each-other. The study and action go hand-in-hand, each building upon the other to create a complete educational experience.

Rabban Gamliel's Lesson in the Real World of Education...and Parenting!
Education is a tricky thing. On the one hand, in the purest sense, learning is an academic, intellectual pursuit. It can be dry and theoretical, conducted in the sterile, antiseptic Ivory Tower, devoid of any real-world meaning. At the same time, practical education without underlying thought, analysis and study leaves students with a shallow, peripheral understanding of the material. Without the deeper meaning, contemplation and reflective analysis academic study demands, a student's understand is cursory at best.
In the world of Chinuch, the same holds true. If our students can analyze and parse complicated tracts of Gemara but don’t see any connection between their Torah studies and the music that they listen to or the movies that they watch, then their Torah education is sorely lacking. At the same time, if through fantastic experiential programming we've instilled in them a passion for spirituality and love of Judaism but they can't read a line of Rashi, we've also failed them.
On the night of Pesach, Rabban Gamliel reminds us that our children's education must be comprised of both academic knowledge and practical meaning. It must combine the story of יציאת מצרים together with the tastes of the Pesach foods. Only when we, as parents and teachers, combine these two critical elements together, can we rest assured that we have indeed fulfilled our educational obligation to our children.

A New Look at the Wicked Son

This past Shabbat, Rena and I traveled to Naharia (a nice beach town north of Haifa) for Orot's staff Shabbat. I heard a wonderful thought about the Rasha - the wicked son - from Rav Ze'ev Hass, an instructor at Orot.
For parents and educators, we find the Wicked Son the most challenging of children. First of all, what parent would even label her child as "wicked"?
רשע מה הוא אומר? 'מה העבודה הזאת לכם?' - ולא לו. ולפי שהוציא עצמו מן הכלל וכפר בעיקר, אף אתה הקהה את שיניו, ואמור לו: 'בעבור זה עשה ה' לי בצאתי ממצרים' - לי ולא לך, אילו היית שם לא היית נגאל! 
What does the Wicked Son say? "What is this worship for you?" - and not for him. And because he excluded himself, he has rejected a founding principle. You too must blunt his teeth and say to him, "For this God did for me when I left Egypt." For me and not for him. Had you been there, you would not have been redeemed.
The Questions
We all well know the questions regarding the Rasha. At face value, his question really isn't that difficult: מה העבודה הזאת לכם - "what is this worship of yours?" His question is so similar to the question of the Wise Son that we are left to wonder why we react to him in such a seemingly harsh manner, and to the Wise Son with such love and care. Secondly, as soon as he stops speaking, we stop talking to him, and start talking about him - in third person. Only then do we return to speaking to him to deliver our harsh response. Finally, the answer that the Hagadah provides to the Rasha should trouble us. Blunt his teeth? Tell him that he would still be in Egypt? When has that worked on a child?

Not an Only Child
Rav Hass suggested an answer by considering the "Wicked Son" not in a vacuum, but in contrast to his brother - the Wise Son. Imagine this son growing up, constantly trying to compete with his older, "perfect" brother. (This phenomenon isn't that unusual.) The oldest is often the most accomplished - intellectually, physically, educationally. Imagine how his brother feels when he's the one in school whose teachers always say, "Are you the Chacham's brother?" (As much as we ask teachers not to say things like that, somehow they still do...) How about at report card time, when he invetiably compares his grades to his "perfect" brother's? It's not hard to imagine him thinking that he can never really live up to the standard his brother set for him, so why bother?

The "Wicked Son" in our Schools
If you've ever taught in a school that tracks students by ability, you can see this phenomenon outright. It doesn't matter how you label the classes: "A1, A2, A3"; "Masmidim, Lomdim" - whatever you call them, the students in the bottom class know that they're the "dummy" class, and they'll say so outright. Oh - they'll do something else as well. They'll stop trying. After all, if their very own school calls them idiots, then why should they even bother trying to disprove them? (It's a good question that schools constantly struggle with: how do you establish an environment that allows excellent students to grow without labeling the others as inferior?)
That's our "Rasha". If he can't compete with his brother - and he can't - then why bother. So he begins to act out. We don't believe that children are inherently wicked. But he acts wickedly. His behavior certainly is bad, manifesting an attitude of apathy and indifference. And so he asks his question: "What is this worship of yours?" Why should I bother if I'll never measure up?

The Unique Nature of the Jewish Nation
Chazal teach us that at the time of the Exodux, the Jewish people found themselves in the depths of spiritual depravity and degradation. In the words of the Midrash, they had reached the 49th level of impurity, as far down as one can possibly descend and yet repent and return. What if they had adopted the attitude of the wicked son. Had the Jewish nation given up, the Exodus would never have taken place. This, explains Rav Hass, is the concept of the "Chosen Nation"; the unique quality of the Jewish people that we contain within us a spiritual spark which can, and ultimately must propel us to improve, grow and acheive spiritual greatness. This is an eternal "rule" of the Jewish people. Even if we ourselves cannot see the great potential within us, God can. He will redeem us and nurture us in order to draw out the spark of holiness that we all contain.
This inherent Jewish inherent quality will never change. And yet, it's the very notion that the Wicked Son rejects. So we say not to the Rasha - but about him, that if his apathetic attitude had been in Egypt, then he and the rest of us would never have been redeemed. Change can only come about when you believe in yourself and see not only your shortcomings, but the great potential within you to grow.

The Solution: Show Him the Truth
For this reason, we are instructed specifically to "blunt" his teeth (and not knock them out). Rav Hass noted a fascinating truth about God's creations: the more sophisticated and advanced a being is, the more primitive it is at birth. Think about it: animals are expected to get up and walk on their own moments after being born. Human beings, on the other hand, enter the world helpless, unable to care for themselves in even the most simple manner. We require nurturing, care and attention for years before we can take the necessary steps to care for ourselves, and then hopefully, our children. Nothing symbolizes this idea better than our teeth. We're born without them, and as we grow, our teeth grow, symbolizing our development and maturity. (Baby teeth --> adult teeth --> wisdom teeth). So, when addressing the Rasha's attitude of indifference, we tell him to look at his teeth. Does he really think that he was supposed to be born with a mouth full of teeth? Why then should he necessarily have to live up to the Chacham from the very beginning? Just as his teeth will grow and sharpen, so too will he develop, grow and become the person that he was meant to be.

"Our" Rasha
No parent today would label her child a "Rasha." (God forbid!) And yet, every parent and teacher knows which child feels inferior; that he cannot keep up with the stronger kids, and would rather not bother. Our task must be to instill in our children a sense of potential. We must help them sharper their teeth (ושננתם לבניך - from the word שן - see Rashi) to the point that they too have a sense of confidence in their unique abilities.
Like the Jewish nation, every child has that spark. It's up to us to help it emerge - to bring each and every child the personal redemption he or she can and must achieve.

Audio Shiur: Hagadah Shel Pesach - Celebrating Half Geulah

Audio Shiur:
Hagadah Shel Pesach - Celebrating Half Geulah

With our national return to our ancestral homeland, the night of Pesach leaves us in a quandary: How do we celebrate a future redemption that we believe has already begun? How did Chazal design the seder to reflect a future (and a missing past) that we have begun to realize? Answering these questions will help you bring meaning to your Seder.
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Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Lucky MegaMillions Winner: Really So Lucky?

Sure, at face value, the prospect of becoming an instant half-billionaire seems oh-so-enticing. After all, who wouldn't want to win five hundred million dollars, wiping away your financial worries forever.
According to the Washington Post,
Had you won the whole pot, and invested the $300 million conservatively, Steve Fazzari, an economics professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said you could have expected to collect a nice “salary” of about $7 million “after taxes every year for the rest of your life and the rest of the life of your heirs.”
Put another way, that’s $19,000 a day. Forever. And even a one-third share of that is pretty sweet. “If you put it in perspective, you’re pretty rich,” Fazzari said.
And yet, the article notes that most Lottery winners self destruct, under the crushing weight of money most people wouldn't know what to do with. But I often wonder: as much as I'd love to believe that I'd be among the few that would use the money well, is that really true. Imagine if I really earned 19 thousand dollars a day for doing nothing, for the rest of my life. What then would I do with the rest of my life? That sounds more challenging than it seems.
Most of us tell ourselves that we'd study in Kollel forever. But are we made for that?
OK, we'd spend our time giving away our money. Really? Think it's so easy?
Most of us struggle to reach the 10 percent ma'aser threshold without great wealth. I believe that the spiritual challenges of wealth are far greater than the challenges of poverty. Most of us don't really pass the wealth-spirituality test. (When you have nothing, it's much easier to turn to God and put your faith in Him than it when you have anything and everything you need. We, who have so much, have far more faith in ourselves than we do in the Almighty.) My friend Rabbi Barry Gelman points out that the Jewish people, immediately after reaping the spoils of Egypt, proceed to build a Golden Calf. That didn't turn out so well.

Reading about the incredible jackpot from this past weekend, I'm reminded of an Atlantic article about the problems of the super rich that appeared last year.
Does great wealth bring fulfillment? An ambitious study by Boston College suggests not. For the first time, researchers prompted the very rich—people with fortunes in excess of $25 million—to speak candidly about their lives. The result is a surprising litany of anxieties: their sense of isolation, their worries about work and love, and most of all, their fears for their children.
We joke that we'd love to have such problems. But would we?
Ask yourself this: If you could set your children up so that they never had to lift a finger forever to support themselves, would you? Would they end up happy, or just listless - and ultimately miserable? And if we wouldn't want that for our children, why do we buy tickets trying to win such a life for ourselves?
When I lived in the United States, I used to only buy a lottery ticket if winning would change my life unalterably. I figured I needed to win about 20 million dollars to achieve that goal, so I'd only buy my single ticket when the jackpot went over 40 mil. And yet, in retrospect, perhaps the best jackpot is the one that helps - even a lot - but doesn't change your life in a fundamental way. Pay off your house? Great. Buy a vacation and put away money for your kids' college education? Terrific. But winning enough money that you never have to worry about money again?
Sounds like a blessing, but it might be more trouble than we bargain for.