Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Table Talk -- Beha'alosecha 5767

When the Jewish people complain to Moshe, and actually threaten to return to Egypt because they miss the Egyptian meat, God responds swiftly. “They want meat?” He asks. “I’ll give them meat, but only meat. And by the end of thirty days, they’ll be so sick of the meat that it will come out of their noses.” Obviously, this was before the Atkins diet.
But then, when the quail begin to fly and the people collect huge piles of quail to satisfy their craving, the Torah tells us that הַבָּשָׂר, עוֹדֶנּוּ בֵּין שִׁנֵּיהֶם -- “Even as the meat was between their teeth,” the wrath of God struck the people. So which really happened: did the people eat the meat growing progressively disgusted with it until it literally killed them, or did they perish swiftly and suddenly at the first bite? Rashi tells us that it was both. Some died suddenly, while others only after a month. Who got which punishment? That’s less clear.

According to the first opinion in Rashi (see Rashi on
11:20), the כשרים – the more worthy – lived through the month of meat, while the רשעים – the truly evil – perished immediately. But Rashi presents the position of the Midrash that presently precisely the opposite position: the evil lasted a month, while the meritorious lost their lives right away.
So what’s worse: getting a punishment up front, or suffering through a long and difficult process? I guess that depends upon your point of view. But I’d like to ask the opposite question (which is also a good discussion for the Shabbos table): if you had to receive a reward or a gift, which would you rather have: getting a big reward all at once, or receiving a little bit at a time over a long period?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Table Talk -- Naso 5767

Democracy and equality play crucial roles in American life. In fact, our founding fathers openly declared one of their most cherished “self-evident beliefs” that “all men are created equal.” While we might hope for that belief to be true, in the words of George Orwell, “some animals are more equal than others.” Money, prominence, power and influence do affect decisions and actions in the real world. In politics, this has the unwanted effect of alienating most normal people, who come to believe that what their leaders do in the halls of power has very little to do with them and their needs. And unfortunately, they’re often correct.

Yet, God takes great strides to avoid that pitfall – to whatever degree possible – in the sphere of Jewish religious life. When commanding the Kohanim – the priests – to give His blessing to the Jewish people, God tells them, כֹּה תְבָרְכוּ אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל – “So you shall bless the children of Israel.” What does the word כה teach us?

Rabbi Yisrael of Modzitz explains that God instructs the Kohanim to bless the people as they are, without giving preference to one individual or group of people over another. If you think about it, that’s precisely the way our Kohanim bless the members of the community: they stand together, covering their eyes from the looking at the people, and bless the congregation as a whole. In this way, every Jew receives God’s blessing, and not only the wise, or righteous, or wealthy.

This reminds us that while we might not always realize it, at least in God’s eyes, all Jews really are created equal.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Table Talk - Bamidbar 5767

As happens most years, we read Parshat Bamidbar on the Shabbos before Shavuos - the holiday of the receiving of the Torah. What connection can we find between our parshah and the coming holiday?
The rabbis teach us that before the revelation, the Jewish people display an unusual sense of unity and togetherness. In fact, when the Torah tells us that the people camp at the base of Mount Sinai, it describes the people as a single unit: ויחן שם ישראל נגד ההר -- "and he -- Israel -- camped near the mountain."
Parshas Bamidbar begins by telling us that God speaks to Moshe במדבר סיני -- "in the Sinai desert." Rabbi Haim Yosef David Azulai (known as the Chida) notes that the gematria of the words במדבר סיני is equal to the word בשלום. God spoke to Moshe precisely because the Jewish people lived with one-another in peace.
Through this subtle message in the beginning of the parshah, explains Rabbi Azulai, we learn that the very best way to receive the Torah this week is through acts that promote Jewish unity. We should increase our acts of kindness for one-another, as well as our sense of love and caring for our fellow Jews. In this way, we pray that we truly merit to receive the Torah in the fullest sense.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Quiet Kashrus Resolution

Many of you might remember that a few months ago, the JCC in West Bloomfield considered allowing non-kosher catering at the JCC, thereby threatening the kashrus status of Milk and Honey, the only upscale kosher restaurant in Detroit. If you don't remember, check the post here. At the same time, the restaurant is still operating, remains kosher, and seems to be running as it always had. Did the issue die a quiet death? Hardly. Through the diligent efforts of a number of members of our community, the JCC decided to maintain its kashrus policy, thereby ending the crisis.
First and foremost, numerous members of the Jewish community communicated with the JCC leadership -- both lay and professional -- regarding the importance of maintaining Milk and Honey as a kosher restaurant, and emphasizing the value that the restaurant brings to the JCC as an institution. Kudos for that.
Secondly, the rabbinic leadership on the Vaad maintained a unified stance against the possibility of having non-kosher catering in the JCC and allowing Milk and Honey to remain a kosher restaurant. Had the JCC board heard different messages from different members of the Vaad, they would have easily been able to argue that there was room to allow non-Kosher catering and still maintain kashrus on site. This was an important lesson about just how much we can achieve when we present a unified front to the community.
Third, many members of the non-Orthodox community came forward, especially those with a stake in the Jewish Academy, whose new building will be the second and third floors of the main JCC building. Having a non-kosher restaurant in the same building as the Jewish Academy would not have been a tenable situation.
Fourth -- and probably most significantly -- the leadership in Federation -- both lay and especially professional, communicated the impact that this decision would have on the entire community to the JCC Board, and strongly pushed for the maintaining of the status quo, allowing Milk and Honey to remain kosher. Moreover, the Jewish Federation has encouraged the JCC to apply for funding to supplement some of the financial hit that it takes in lost revenue because it maintains a kosher-only policy. If you read that and didn't think that's a big deal, think again. It's important to emphasize that in many other communities around the country, federations are the organizations pushing against traditional values like Kashrus. Here, we see precisely the opposite - where our federation is pushing for the values and needs of the traditional community, even when it's going to cost some money. Again, that's a testament to the unique sensitivity of our federation's leadership, and also to the Orthodox community's continued involvement with federation activities.
Finally, we must also thank the members of the JCC Board. While I disagree with their initial desire to allow non-kosher catering at Handleman Hall, I understand the financial realities and pressures that they face. In the end, they too compromised for the sake of the community's well-being, and shouldered a greater financial burden in the process.
I guess one of the great lessons from this episode is the importance of our involvement in the broader community. If we close ourselves off from the larger community, then when we have needs and concerns, we have no one to turn to. On the other hand, experience shows us that when we engage with Jews from across the religious spectrum on a host of issues, they open themselves to the needs of our community as well.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Table Talk - Behar-Bechukosai 5767

If you were born after 1950, you probably don't know what it means to be hungry. Sure, we've all fasted on Tisha B'av and Yom Kippur. But that's not real hunger; it's delayed eating. While we might not eat until after sundown, we know that we'll have a nice filling meal waiting for us at the end of the fast. Put simply, we live in a time of such prosperity that most of us cannot remember not having enough food to eat.
Contrasting this reality with the blessings we find in our parshah can help us appreciate what we already have. At the beginning of Parshas Bechukosai, God guarantees His people great blessing should we follow the commandments of the Torah meticulously. Among those blessings God promises that, - ואכלתם לחמכם לשבע - "and you shall eat bread to satiation." (26:5) Basically, you'll have enough to eat that you'll actually be full.
While we in our generation find that blessing hard to appreciate, throughout much of world history, simply having enough to eat sufficed to fulfill most people's dreams - and blessings. If nothing else, understanding the meaning of the blessing then -- and how we take it for granted now -- gives us a new appreciation for the prosperity that God blesses us with today.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Table Talk -- Emor 5767

אמור תשס”ז

The Gemara in Shabbos (88b-89a) relates that when Moshe climbs Mount Sinai to receive the Torah on behalf of the Jewish people, the angels protest. How, they ask, can God degrade the Holy Torah by allowing it in to exist in our lowly, physical world? Instead of answering Himself, God prompts Moshe to answer.

“Tell me,” Moshe asks them, “I notice that it says in the Torah, ‘do not kill,’ ‘do not steal,’ and ‘do not commit adultery.’ Do you angels have jealousy up here? Do you have an evil inclination here in the heavens?”

Immediately the angels acquiesce to God’s wishes to grant the Torah to the Jewish people.

Kli Yakkar uses this story to explain a curious detail about one of the sacrifices offered on Shavuos. The Torah tells us that on the holiday of fiftieth day of the Omer (which we call Shavuos), the Jewish people must offer a מנחה חדשה – a new grain sacrifice – to God. While the Omer offering brought on Pesach consists of smaller measurement of barley, this new offering must consist of fine flour, and חמץ תאפינה – must be baked as Chametz. Why must it specifically be Chametz?

Many commentators explain that chametz represents the yetzer hara -- the evil inclination. As Moshe argued on Mount Sinai, the only antidote to help us fight this inclination is the Torah. Therefore, God commands us to bring an offering of chametz on Shavuos, to remind us how the gift of the Torah that God gave to the Jewish people on Shavuos can help us overcome the chametz in our hearts.