Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Table Talk -- Vayikra 5767

Parshas Vayikra, which focuses primarily on issues relating to sacrifices, begins in a rather unusual manner. God tells Moshe that any person -- אדם -- "a man" who wishes to bring a sacrifice, תקריבו את קרבנכם -- "you shall bring close your offering." Why does the verse begin in the singular (אדם -- one man) but end in the plural (קרבנכם -- your sacrifices)?
Once the author of the Ollelos Ephraim, Rabbi Ephraim of Lunshitz, approached his local magistrate to make a request on behalf of the local Jewish community. Immediately, an anti-semitic priest demanded that the magistrate refuse the rabbi's request on the grounds that the Jews were bitter enemies of the non-Jewish population.
"That's a pretty strong accusation," the magistrate told him. "Do you have any proof?"
"Indeed I do, and the rabbi will back me up. Does it not say in the Talmud that the Jews are called אדם -- "a man" and the nations of the world are not called אדם. So if we're not men, we must be animals in the eyes of the Jews -- and they come to ask us for favors!?"
The rabbi smiled and explained: We find four words in the Hebrew language to refer to human beings: איש, גבר, אנוש and אדם. Each of those formulations can appear in plural form except for the word אדם. There is no Hebrew plural form for that word.
Therefore, in telling us that the nations of the world are not called אדם, our sages convey to us the diverse natures and interests of the different nations of the world. After all, Russia might have different priorities and interests than Italy. Yet, the Jewish people are אדם -- a single unified people. Even when they come from different places and speak different languages, they still remain united and care for one another. When one Jew suffers anywhere in the world, every other Jew suffers with him.
The magistrate smiled and turned to his priest. "Indeed," he said, "see how true the rabbi's words are! For he comes before me for his fellow Jews, and not for his own personal benefit."

Community Redemption -- For the YIOP April Bulletin

Somehow, the Pesach story seems more real and immediate this year than in years past. The notion of a single man riling up his people, and coaxing them to destroy the Jewish people doesn't seem that farfetched this year. Having watched the president of Iran make genocidal statements, all while attempting to develop his country's ability to deploy nuclear weapons, I find the words of the hagadah chilling:

והיא שעמדה לאבותנו ולנו שלא אחד בלבד עמד עלינו לכלותנו אלא שבכל דור ודור עומדים עלינו לכלותנו והקב"ה מצילנו מידם
"and this [rule] has stood for our forefather and for us: that not only one stood against us to destroy us. Rather, in every generation, they stand up against us to destroy us, and the Holy One Blessed be He saves us from their hands."

The Gerrer Rebbe, using a play on the words of the hagadah, suggest an additional understanding to this passage that carries an important message for us. We normally translate the words שלא אחד בלבד -- to mean "for not only one -- i.e. Pharoh sought to destroy us. But he explains that the words שלא אחד -- can be understood to mean "since we are not one," -- בלבד -- "alone." Thus, the hagadah teaches us that because we do not act in a united manner, our enemies are able to stand over us to destroy us. Jewish unity is the greatest power that we can muster, and our disunity our greatest potential weakness. Unity does not mean that we give up on our principles. Rather, it means that when we find common ground, we work together on the issues that bind us together as a people.
Each year for many years, the Metropolitan Council of Young Israel has sponsored a community-wide Yom Ha'atzmaut celebration, either at YIOP or at the Young Israel of Southfield. Together, we have mourned the loss of Israeli soldiers and citizens who gave their life defending and protecting the state, and we celebrate the tremendous gift of the State of Israel that God has bestowed upon us. Yet, each year I found myself wondering whether the Orthodox community could reach out to the broader community to share in our Israel commemoration and celebration. After all, support for Israel spans the denominational spectrum, and it represents one of the few issues that binds us as a people.
So, for the first time, we will commemorate Yom Hazikaron and celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut truly as a community. On Monday night, April 23rd, the two Young Israel shuls will join together with Congregation Beth Shalom, Temple Emanuel, and other congregations and organizations for a true community-wide celebration. In addition, we will have our regular traditional minchah and celebratory ma'ariv at the JCC as well.
During the prayer for the State of Israel we recite in shul each Shabbos, we thank God for the State of Israel, and we call it ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו -- "the beginnings of the flowering of our redemption." Each year at Pesach we hope and pray that this "beginning of a flowering" continues to develop and grow into a full-blown redemption. Perhaps if we cause a little more unity in our community, we can coax that flower to blossom just a little more this year.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Table Talk -- Vayakhel-Pekudei 5767

The Torah divides the 613 mitzvos into two types of commandments: 248 positive and 365 negative commandments. This number also corresponds to parts of the body. According to rabbinic count, the body consists of 248 limbs and 365 sinews. In fact, we mention this number during the prayer for the sick -- רמ"ח איברים ושס"ה גידים. And, this number also appears with regard to the mishkan in our parshah.
While both Vayakhel and Pekudei deal with the construction of the mishkan, Pekudei sums up the final construction and including a tally of the money and materials used in the process. In the parshah, the Torah tells us that they "made" and "built" and "created" numerous times in numerous ways, using some form of the word לעשות -- from the root ע.ש.ה. -- meaning "to do" or "to make."
Rabbi Yitzchak Karo, author of the work "Toldos Yitzchak" actually counted how many times that the root of the word appears in Pekudei. Not surprisingly, the number of times that the verb עשה appears in the parshah comes to 248. This numeric connection reminds us of the inherent connection between our bodies and the holiness that we can achieve with them. By following God's commandments, we have the power to transform our physical selves, quite literally, into a mishkan -- a sanctuary for God.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Milk and Honey and the JCC

Thankfully, and due to some very hard work on behalf of numerous individuals, we - inside the Orthodox community -- enjoy a very productive and beneficial relationship with the broader Jewish community. This has allowed us to partner in a number of different important communal areas of concern, from Jewish education, to support for Israel, to communal needs. It is in that spirit that I'm writing about a recent development in the hope that we can again positively communicate with the members of the larger community, and solve a looming communal problem.

As we all know, the JCC in West Bloomfield houses the Milk and Honey Restaurant, the only upscale kosher dining establishment in Southeastern Michigan. Milk and Honey, run by Matt Prentice, is cholov yisroel with a mashgiach temidi, and in a recent review by an outside expert, received an excellent review for its kashrus -- a source of great pride for Mr. Prentice. It is an important resource for members of the observant community who need a venue for business meetings, celebrations, or just a nice night out.

As you might guess, Milk and Honey alone would at best struggle for financial viability. Without Friday nights and Saturdays, let alone holidays, a restaurant cannot cover its own expenses. Yet, in an agreement with the JCC, Matt opened Milk and Honey five years ago and also became the exclusive kosher caterer at the JCC and Handleman Hall. He agreed to pay minimum rents assuming that with the beauty of the room and his catering expertise, he would easily be able to cover those minimums and the expense of the restaurant. Unfortunately, the events never materialized at the JCC. The income never came, and Matt was forced to pay out of his own pocket to cover the minimum rent agreements.

When his contract came up for renewal, Matt could no longer guarantee the JCC a minimum income for Handelman Hall. The business just wasn't sufficient to make that kind of commitment. But, the JCC needed that revenue in order to cover their budget. So, the JCC decided that any private party need not be kosher at the JCC. At the same time, it reaffirmed that any JCC event would still be strictly kosher. With this new policy in place, in negotiations with Matt Prentice, the JCC insisted that in order to renew his contract, he would relinquish his exclusivity and Handleman Hall, meaning that any caterer, kosher or not, could now service the JCC.

Although Matt initially agreed to these stipulations, he now feels that allowing other caterers to offer non-kosher catering in Handleman Hall puts him at an unfair disadvantage. If others can bring in treif food, they why can't he? In fact, the JCC would have no problem with Matt catering treif parties at the JCC. But it does present major kashrus issues:

  1. First and foremost, experience tells us that to allow a caterer to have kosher and non-kosher service at the same venue is a recipe for disaster. Parties are the most difficult events to monitor and plan for -- there are too many people, factors and possibilities that can come up, and must be dealt with quickly. Having non-kosher parties in the same location as the kosher parties would create a situation where mistakes would happen, no matter how iron-clad the previously put in place precautions.
  2. If Matt Prentice were to cater both kosher and non-kosher affairs at the JCC, that would create a sense of confusion for patrons. How would anyone really know whether the affair was kosher or treif? Would they have to ask? Would it have to be on the invitation? Who would agree to advertise: "this Bar Mitzvah is a non-kosher event"?
For this reason, if Matt Prentice began catering treif affairs at the JCC, he would no longer be able to cater kosher affairs as well. And if he couldn't have the kosher catering business there, it would not make sense business-wise for him to keep Milk and Honey kosher either.

So we seem to have a conundrum:
  • The kosher-eating community needs and wants Milk and Honey to continue to operate, and...
  • The JCC needs more revenue from Handelman Hall and feels that the only way to increase revenue is by offering treif parties, but...
  • The Vaad cannot allow a caterer -- even with a great track record -- to offer kosher and non-kosher catering at the same location, and...
  • Matt needs to cover his costs and cannot compete with other non-kosher caterers at the JCC.

That's where we come in:

We would like to encourage you to communicate with the JCC about this issue. Please note that we don't think that we should immediately begin to complain: there are valid concerns from each party. At the same time, with good communication, perhaps we can prevail upon the JCC to reconsider its decision to allow non-kosher parties at the JCC.
  • First and foremost, have they done any serious studies to assess whether allowing treif will significantly increase revenues? It's one thing to say empirically that we know people who would take the room, but does that really bear out to be true? Currently, Matt is able to cater kosher parties on Shabbos, although Shabbos clearly does place restrictions on what he can and cannot offer. Why aren't people hiring Matt Prentice to do their parties now, and how would allowing non-kosher food change that?
  • Secondly, assuming that the decision to allow treif catering in the JCC would result in the loss of Milk and Honey as a kosher restaurant, is that a trade that the JCC would be willing to make for the expected income? The Board of Directors, when it made this decision, was not aware of these ramifications. Now, perhaps they could reconsider this decision in light of these new facts. The Jewish community puts a great deal of additional revenue into the JCC to preserve its viability: while the cost of keeping kosher might be great, the community needs to decide whether that's a cost that it's willing to bear. That's a decision that should not be placed solely on the back of the JCC, but on the community at large.
It's important to communicate to the leadership of the JCC and to our friends in the community, in a positive manner, the value that the Orthodox and kosher community places in Milk and Honey. It brings people into the building, and creates important opportunities for interaction between different facets of the community. It creates a wonderful space for interaction, and its a great restaurant.

We will all need to work together to solve this issue and come to a resolution that's viable for everyone involved. We know that with the right attitude, that's something that we've accomplished before, and can again achieve with this issue as well.

Rabbi Yechiel Morris, Young Israel of Southfield
Rabbi Reuven Spolter, Young Israel of Oak Park

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Table Talk - Ki Tisa 5767

I'd like to share some thoughts that we discussed during the week at the womens' parshah shiurim -- Tuesday at 1:30pm at YIOP and Wednesday at 8:45am at Akiva. And no, I never miss an opportunity to plug a shiur.
The world recognizes the Two Tablets as perhaps one (or two) of the most famous Jewish symbols ever. In airports and other public places around the world, they represent a Jewish house of worship. Jewish chaplains in the US Armed Forces wear a pin of the tablets to signify their faith. And, you can find some reprsentation of the tablets in pretty much every shul in the world. (In our shul, we have a set from the old Young Israel of Oak Woods building above the aron in the Beis Medrash.)
This recognition comes for good reason: these are no ordinary Tablets. The Torah tells us that these tablets are מַעֲשֵׂה אֱלֹקִים, הֵמָּה -- "the work of God," and their writings was also "the work of God." כְּתֻבִים מִשְּׁנֵי עֶבְרֵיהֶם--מִזֶּה וּמִזֶּה, הֵם כְּתֻבִים -- "written from both sides, from each side they were written." (34:15-16) The Midrash explains that while God hewed the writing in the Tablets all the way to the other side, if you then looked at the Tablets from the back, instead of seeing the writing backwards, you would see the writing forward again. In Rashi's words, they were מעשה נסים -- "a product of miracles." They could not really exist in the natural world, but they did.
What do they Jewish people do with the Tablets? We know that they place them in the Aron -- the ark, which they then place in the Mishkan -- the Tabernacle -- in the קדש הקדשים -- the Holy of Holies. Only the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, and even then, he certainly never opened the Aron to look at the Tablets. (If you've ever seen "Raiders of the Lost Ark" you'd know why.)
If so -- if no one were to ever see them, ever -- why does God even give these Tablets to the Jewish people?
Discuss amongst yourselves.