Monday, October 29, 2007

Counting Our Blessings - Table Talk - Chaye Sarah 5768

Have you said “thank you” today? While we always considered expressing our appreciation polite, science teaches us that saying “thanks” can also be good for you. In fact, in her new book “Thank You Power”, journalist and author Deborah Norville demonstrates how by “beginning with those two small words, thank you… you can be happier and more resilient, have better relationships, improved health, and less stress.” (Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book. That’s in the press release.) But Norville is right on the money, because long before science discovered “thank you,” we learned about it from our parshah.

The parshah relates the long arduous journey of Avraham’s servant Eliezer in his search for a wife for Yitzchak. After finally finding Rivkah and determining that she’s the shidduch for Yitzchak, Eliezer asks for permission to bring the girl back with him to Cana’an. When Lavan and Betuel answer in the affirmative, the Torah tells us, “when the servant of Avraham heard their words, he bowed down to the ground to God.” Why does he bow down? Rashi explains that, מכאן שמודים על בשורה טובה – “from this we learn that we must give thanks for good news.” When I first saw Rashi’s comment, initially the lesson seemed obvious. But then I realized: when we think about our own lives, how many of us truly count the tremendous blessings that we enjoy in our lives? How often do we allow the small frustrations in life to cloud the greater good that give us pleasure?

Rabbi Berel Wein, in a little book called “Buy Green Bananas” writes: “Life, family, work, friends, society, are all sources of immense blessings. They are also invariably also sources of friction, disappointment and frustration. Our view of life should not be an image of a never-ending complaint department. Rather, it should be a place of hope and steadfastness. Such an attitude is achieved by counting our blessings consistently and sincerely.”

But we can take it one step further. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov writes: “When someone asks you how you’re doing, do not complain and grumble about your troubles. If you answer ‘Things are bad for me,’ then the Creator says, ‘That’s bad in your eyes? I’ll show you what’s truly bad.’ But when someone asks you how you’re doing, and despite difficulties and tribulations you say ‘Good,’ then the Creator says, ‘That’s good in your eyes? I’ll show you what’s truly good.’”

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Davening Decorum: Making What’s Good Even Better - YIOP Bullentin November 2007

Talking in shul is an age-old problem – perhaps as old as shuls themselves. Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller, the author of the Tosfot Yom Tov (a commentary on the Mishnah), penned a misheberach in honor of those who refrained from talking during davening as far back as the 17th century. I personally believe that we talk in shul for a number of different reasons (some more legitimate than others):
  1. We feel disconnected from the words that we say. If we knew and understood the prayers better we would talk less.
  2. We haven’t seen our friends since last week, and see shul as a time to reconnect and catch up. After all, in Hebrew we call a shul a Beit K’nesset – “house of gathering” and not a Beit Tefillah – “house of prayer.”
  3. There are a number of times during the davening when all we do is listen. From misheberachs to announcements to the repetition of the Shemoneh Esreh, throughout much of the davening we sit passively, not engaged in prayer. That passivity lends itself to a certain sense of restlessness and boredom, so we talk.
  4. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, davening is long on Shabbos and Yom Tov mornings, and we often find it challenging to refrain from making a comment to a friend.
One comment doesn’t really hurt. But when everyone – or too many of us – make that one comment, the cacophony has the potential to ruin what could be a powerful spiritual experience.
The OU’s most recent Jewish Action magazine includes an article by Rabbi Danny Frankel, the executive director of the Young Israel of Woodmere in New York. Rabbi Frankel describes a concerted effort by the leadership and membership of their shul to change the culture of their shul from a “talking” shul to a “non-talking” shul. They made of number of significant changes, from having the members of the shul sign a “no-talking pledge,” to moving around some of the davening, to adding educational components about the davening to the rabbis’ talks.
Lately we have, to some degree, let things slip a little bit and allowed the conversation to grow inside our shul. To combat this trend, we don't need drastic changes. If we focus on small but subtle changes, we will improve the flow and tone of davening in shul.
  1. First and foremost, each of us must check ourselves. We all have some quick and innocuous small comment to make to a friend. Unfortunately, all too often it’s neither small nor quick, and results in a conversation that disturbs others and disrupts the tone of the davening. If each of us makes an effort to be better about our own talking in shul, that collective effort will bring a dramatic improvement.
  2. No one is perfect, but we are all mutually responsible. If we’re talking and someone asks us to stop (nicely, of course), don’t get insulted or upset. They’re right. We should stop. So, instead of getting angry and firing back, take the comment to heart and either take the conversation outside, or delay it until davening ends.
  3. As a shul, we also need to improve the flow of the davening and minimize delays. If you’re given a kibbud or aliyah, please be present for the aliyah or kibbud to avoid unnecessary delays. In addition, if you want your family members named during a misheberach, make up a card with all of those names clearly written for the gabbai to read. It’s not fair to make the shul wait while someone tries to remember his wife’s cousin’s sister (on her father’s side).
  4. Finally, we will be making other small changes to try and increase the flow and minimize talking opportunities during the davening. They might not be what you’re used to, so give yourself time to adjust to them to let us see if they really do make a difference in the level of talking during the davening.
If you struggle keeping up the pace of davening, it's better to slowly recite less of the prayers than to run through too many words without understanding them well. Take the time to read some of the prayers in English, and make an effort to learn the meanings of the Hebrew prayers, especially the Shema and Shemoneh Esreh. The investment of time that you make in understanding the davening will pay great dividends for years to come. Also, Rena gave a shiur on Tehillim that covered many of the Psalms that we recite during the davening. Her lectures are available to listen to online on our web site ( as well.
If you're interested in some reading material that will aid in understanding davening, I'd like to suggest the following titles that focus on davening or developing a closer relationship with God. You can find each of these books in the YIOP library, but do not remove them from the shul building.
  • Family Redeemed, The Lonely Man of Faith, and an article called "Prayer as Dialogue" in Reflections of the Rav, Volume 1, all by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
  • Rigshei Lev: Women and Tefillah, by Menachem Nissel
  • How to Get Your Prayers Answered, by Rabbi Irwin Katsof (not in the YIOP Library)
  • Living Inspired, by Rabbi Akiva Tatz
  • The World of Prayer, by Rabbi Dr. Elie Munk
  • Rabbi Schwab on Prayer (based on the teachings of Rabbi Shimon Schwab)
  • If You Were God, by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan
We make a strong effort to maintain a sense of decorum in our shul, with significant success. But we still need to remain vigilant about the decorum inside the shul, to ensure that during our davening we converse not with each other, but with God.

Table Talk - Vayera 5768

How long should it take an angel to travel from Be'er Sheva to Sodom? Well, since you're immune to the laws of physics, it really should take no time at all. Yet, we find that while the three angels seem to take their leave of Avraham sometime during the day (they started eating during "the heat of the day"), וַיָּבֹאוּ שְׁנֵי הַמַּלְאָכִים סְדֹמָה, בָּעֶרֶב - "the two angels came to Sodom in the evening. (19:1) What took so long?
Rashi explains that the angels intentionally wait to arrive in Sodom in order to give Avraham a chance to argue with God and save the city. Only when Avraham's appeal fails do the angels proceed to fulfill their fateful mission. The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, Lithuania, 1818-1890) writes in his commentary to the Torah called Ha'amek Davar, that while the angels themselves can travel instantaneously, Avraham accompanies them a distance of three parsaot -- a considerable way. Only when they take their leave of him can they "transport" to Sodom. They arrive in Sodom so late in the day due to Avraham's insistence on considering them his guests long after they leave his home.
In fact, Rambam (Laws of Mourning 14:2) explains that the rabbis decreed that accompanying guests out of one's home to be a rabbinic commandment based on Avraham's behavior. Rambam writes, "The reward for accompanying [a guest] is greater than all [other reward]. And this is the law that Avraham established and the custom of kindness that he practiced: he fed travelers and gave them drink and accompanied them...and accompanying them on their way is greater than welcoming them...Even if one only accompanied his friend four amot, his reward is great indeed!"

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Update of Lincoln Kosher Meats

After speaking with Rabbi Krupnick at the Va'ad, I feel that it's important to update my previous post and add some new information about why Lincoln Kosher Meats lost its hechsher.
Rabbi Krupnick explained that of the mashgichim who were working in the store, Mr. Cohen was unsatisfied with three of them, and fired them without seeking permission from the Va'ad. Regardless of whether he had legitimate complaints about any particular mashgiach, he had no right to send one away without permission from the Va'ad. So, while from his perspective the Va'ad did not supply him with suitable mashgichim, the Va'ad did provide him mashgichim who he removed without Va'ad authorization.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Table Talk - Lech Lecha 5768

Can you take a compliment? When someone says something nice about you, are you able to say “Thank you,” or do you feel the need to either come up with some kind of excuse, (“It was just a lucky guess!”) question the sincerity of the compliment (“You really think it looks nice?!”), or even negate the compliment entirely (“I thought I sounded so stupid!”? Many of us are happy to give complements to others. But when we get them, our lack of self-confidence and negative self-image often hinders us from taking them as graciously as we give them.

Sarai has no such problems. As she approaches the Land of Egypt with her husband Avram, he realizes that when the Egyptians see her fantastic beauty they’ll kill him to take her as a wife for the Pharoh. Indeed, Avram correctly assesses the situation, as they immediately grab Sarai as soon as they cross the border. When spelling out the plan to his wife Avram tells Sarai, הנה נא ידעתי כי אשה יפת מראה את – “Behold, I know that you are an exceedingly beautiful woman.” “So, to save my life,” אמרי נא אחותי את – “Please say that you’re my sister, and not my wife.”

How does Sarai react? Does she deny it (“Oh, I’m not that pretty!”) or question his sincerity (“Do you really think so, Avram?”) Actually, we don’t hear her say anything. But it’s safe to say that when Avram tells his wife that she’s the most beautiful woman in the world – and would she mind saving his life, all she needs to say is, “Thank you…my brother.”

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Detroit Va'ad Removes Supervision from Lincoln Kosher Meats

Unlike any packaged products, unpackaged kosher meat requires an extremely high level of supervision, for the simple reason that it's simply impossible to distinguish one piece of meat (that's kosher) from another (that's not). In fact, normative Jewish law prohibits a person from eating any piece of meat from any source that was not under constant, ongoing supervision by a religious, Torah-observant Jew. Failure to maintain that constant supervision would render the meat בשר שנתעלם מן העין - (pronounced basar she'nisalem min ha'ayin) "meat that is out of constant view," and would make the meat seriously questionable for use in a kosher home. (For a more detailed explanation of this topic beyond the scope of this piece, click here for an article by the Star-K.)
This being the case, any non-Orthodox Jew who wished to sell meat would require a mashgiach temidi - a constant supervisory presence, which is the highest level of kashrus supervision. This was the understood and accepted requirement at Lincoln Kosher Meats, a store recently opened by Mr. Michael Cohen - and which now applies at Harvard Row in West Bloomfield as well. In fact, Mr. Cohen opened his store without having the keys to the lock on his own freezer -- a common practice in this type of case.
You might have noticed recently that the Va'ad has sent out several notices searching for people looking for work as mashgichim here in town. This is because it's very hard to find qualified people who are willing to work as mashgichim in butcher stores around town. Turnover is very high, and it's difficult to find workers who are both reliable and satisfactory to the store owner. This being the case, there were several instances where the mashgiach left the store before any alternative supervision could be established.
This week, the leadership of the Va'ad came to the conclusion that due to the small size of the store and the several instances where a lapse in hashgachah had occurred, it could not in good conscience continue to provide kashrus supervision to that establishment. It is important to emphasize that at no point did Mr. Cohen knowingly violate any kashrus policy. He has tried to comply with Va'ad rules and regulations. But the nature of the store and the fact that he himself is not Shomer Shabbos makes continued supervision technically unfeasable.
Personally, I'm saddened by this development. Our family had begun to purchase meat and poultry from the store, and Mr. Cohen's service and assistance was truly wonderful. He trimmed the meat, gave us certain cuts, and was happy to provide great service. On a number of occasions, he made recommendations that made our meals even better, based on the type of meat my wife wanted. In addition, I believe that it's never good to have a monopoly in any town. While Shloimie Luss provides a tremendous service to our community and the kashrus is impeccable, competition is always good for the community. Losing a promising new butcher stings.
At the same time, I am encouraged by this decisive action by the new leadership of the Va'ad. In the past, it could very well be argued that the Va'ad would have allowed a situation of questionable kashrus to continue indefinitely, arguing that "it was good for the city," or "well, we have to give it another chance and more time." But that flexibility led to a situation where people legitimately questioned the kashrus of each individual establishment, and whether the kashrus at that particular store is up to snuff. The Va'ad is determine to establish a single, unified standard of kashrus throughout our city -- one which every Jew can trust without question. While the removal of supervision from Lincoln Kosher Meats is certainly distressing, at least from the perspective of kashrus in our city, it's a move in the right direction.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Table Talk - Noach 5768

We all know the phrase "You are what you eat." But Noach teaches us that the phrase is only half true. In addition to the food that we eat the Torah would add that sometime, "You are what you drink."
After finally leaving the ark to begin life anew, the Torah tells us that, וַיָּחֶל נֹחַ אִישׁ הָאֲדָמָה וַיִּטַּע כָּרֶם - "And Noah the husbandman began, and planted a vineyard." He plants grapes, presses those grapes into wine, and proceeds to get riproaringly drunk. The results of this type of activity are never good, and Noach is a great example of that rule.
Rashi notes that the word for "began" -- ויחל, shares the same root at the word חולין -- "profanity", connoting the opposite of sanctity. Commenting on this strange choice of language Rashi notes, עשה עצמו חולין, שהיה לו לעסוק תחלה בנטיעה אחרת - "He made himself profane, for he should have engaged in another planting first."
While we can all understand Noach's need or desire for a good glass of wine, he should have planted something more practical first. By making the wine his first crop, he allowed the alcohol and his need for it to become his defining quality. A good drink is fine -- but only in its proper time.