Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Making the Hard Choices - Table Talk for Parshat Vayigash

Why is it that at times, the thing that we want is probably not very good for us? Like that pint of Ben and Jerry’s? Or Facebook? (After all, do we really need to know what every person we know is doing at every moment of the day? When do “friends” become a distraction?) Yaakov’s fears in Vayigash remind us that sometimes the path towards growth involves traveling the road that we fear the most.

After Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, he insists that they return to Canaan to collect Ya’akov and move the family down to Egypt. Ya’akov, while excited about his reunion with Yosef, reacts with fear. What will happen to him and his family and to the promise of Eretz Yisrael? If you think about it, his fears make sense. He knows what’s available to his grandchildren in Egypt: the Internet, that crazy Egyptian music, and the clothing and culture. Sound familiar? (OK – maybe they didn’t have email back then.)

His fears are so well-founded that Hashem must address them, telling Ya’akov:

אל תירא מרדה מצרימה, כי לגוי גדול אשימך שם
“Don’t be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there.” (Bereishit 46:3)

Yet, Yaakov’s questions make sense. Why should he bring his entire family down to Egypt? Couldn’t Yosef send them food and let them stay in the Promised Land? Why does Hashem want the entire family to move to Egypt?

S’forno explains that staying in Canaan would have actually been more dangerous and detrimental than moving to Egypt. He says that Hashem tells Ya’akov, “If your children stay here, they would marry the nations of the land and become intermingled with them. But in Egypt that won’t happen, ‘because the Egyptians will not eat bread with the Hebrews (43:32). In this way, they will become a great nation.” S’forno says that Hashem wanted Ya’akov to move his family to Egypt precisely because life would be harder for them there. They would be rejected as outsiders, never accepted or integrated into Egyptian society. But in that way they would grow to be a great nation – and a Jewish nation.

Sure, it would have been easier to stay in Canaan. But taking the easier path would have undoubtedly led to assimilation, intermarriage, and the slow but definitely decline of Yaakov’s family and legacy.

Thank God, none of us (I hope) face this challenge of intermarriage and assimilation directly. We understand the importance of maintaining a sense of identity and individuality as Jews, no matter where we may live. But we do face the larger question each and every day: do we take the easy path which we want or the harder path that we need? Do we sit down to the computer to check our email (yet again), or use that half-hour to learn about the parshah? Do we choose the ice cream (easy and good) or make that salad (hard, but also good in a different way?

These choices are really up to us.

Living in the South of Israel Today

On my way to work this morning, I listened to a reporter in Be’er Sheva as the warning sirens wailed, and hear a rocket explode close enough to him to clearly recognize the fall of the Grad rocket. Mind you, I was driving the other way. But it does bring things home.

Yesterday, the school system conducted a series of assemblies to explain what would happen in case of a rocket attack that threatened Yad Binyamin. With Be’er Sheva in range and a rocket falling yesterday on Kiryat Malachi (where we do most of our grocery shopping), the kids needed to be made aware. I hadn’t really thought about it. We hadn’t sat the kids down and told them what was going on. But the school was absolutely correct; they have a responsibility to our children, and in case of emergency, they need to be prepared.

Leah was understandably traumatized at school – but a nice treat successfully calmed her nerves. We explained to her that while we needed to take precautions, we didn’t think that there was very much to worry about. And I still don’t. Gaza is pretty far away and life proceeds as normal. I haven’t lost sleep over this, which is the first thing that would happen if I was really, truly worried.

How does the situation make me feel? Have I wondered about the wisdom of moving my family and children to where we now live? Not for a moment.

First and foremost, this is our land – and I understand that it doesn’t come free. We must be willing to defend and protect the land – and that doesn’t just mean soldiers. It means me and my family, willing to live our normal lives even when there’s something to worry about. But I strongly believe that when we sacrifice for something, we grow closer to it. When we stay – despite the worries – we grow stronger in our connection to the Land. It’s not just a place to live; it’s a place that I’m willing to sacrifice something for – be it a job, financial security, or even a sense of physical security (as elusive as that may be anywhere). Every Oleh knows this feeling of sacrifice, and appreciates how it brings him not to resent the Land – but that much closer to it.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Missiles Raining Down

We knew that something was up.

Our small yishuv (settlement – but it’s the kosher kind, well inside the Green Line) sits about a mile away from the Tel Nof Air Force base – a major hub of IAF activity. You kind of get used to the jets streaking overhead all the time, and tune out the noise.

Except on Shabbat. On Shabbat there are never jets. You cherish the quiet. After all, why disturb the Jewish day of rest unless there’s an emergency. And that’s how we knew something was up – when we heard the jets on Shabbat afternoon.

For some weeks now we’ve been hearing about the bombs and missiles and rockets landing throughout the south of Israel. And I’ve been listening to the news along with all Israelis with a growing sense of frustration. While it has been a relief to hear (most of the time) that there were “no injuries,” how long could that really last? (Not long enough.) When would we do something to stop the shooting? What would we do? What could we do?

I learned today that my house sits in harm’s way. Yad Binyamin lies smack between Kiryat Malachi and Gadera, about forty kilometers from Gaza, at the outer range of Hamas rocket capabilities. (it's right on the red line between the purple and green zones. Not close - but on the map. And it's not a great map to be on.) Unlike the residents of Sederot, who get only fifteen seconds warning, we’ll have forty-five. Not that I’m that worried. But it does give me an eerie sense to know that for better or worse, I'm “within range” of a terrorist. It also didn't help that we all got "preparedness" memos in our mailboxes yesterday. (As if the bombings in Mumbai didn’t remind us that all of us are – inside Israel and out.)

I view the army fighter jets differently than I used to. In the United States, jets were a nuisance; a source of noise that disturbed our otherwise quiet lifestyles. They were part of the background, to be taken for granted and ignored. In fact, the only day I can remember not hearing the roar of the jets was September 11th, 2001, when I yearned to hear a jet in the sky.

Now though, when I hear a jet roar overhead, or especially when I see a helicopter flying south (they often fly in formations of two or three), I think about the men inside. Actually, it’s probably boys. And they’re our boys, who we’re sending to do some very adult-like behavior to protect our country, our families, and our people. Lately, whenever I spot an aircraft overhead I think a small prayer in my head. I pray for the well-being of the pilot. For the safety of the crew. For the peace of mind of their parents. And for the safety of our country.

Because a jet or a helicopter is no longer just a noise to me. It’s our children. And this week especially, they need all of our prayers.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

An Alternative Chanukah Gift Guide

I remember it like it was yesterday. Sitting in a hospice room in Hartford Hospital, Bill Schulman (not his real name – but the story is true) lay dead in the bed next to me as I waited, together with Bill’s wife for the funeral home to come, and for Bill’s son to arrive from France. When her son finally arrived, we sat down at the small table to talk about funeral plans. As we began talking, Bill’s son stopped the conversation and asked a question (with his father still lying there in the room) that I’ll never forget: “When can we probate the will?”
I wondered what could make a person so selfish, self-centered and crass. Bill’s son answered my question, albeit unknowingly, during the shiva. Speaking lovingly about his father he told me, “We were always the first ones on the block to have anything. We had the first basketball hoop, the first color television – my father always bought us anything we wanted.” Indeed.
America celebrates its holidays – especially the religious ones – by doing what we do best. We buy stuff. I feel bad for Christian clergy. After all, America has transformed one of their holiest holidays of the year into a crass commercial extravaganza that now begins the day after Thanksgiving. We can’t even digest our turkey properly, as we have to rise at 5am to beat the crowds for the doorbusters. We all get “gift guides” in the mail: in newspapers, magazines, catalogues, brochures and mailings of all shapes and colors. And this commercialism colors our attitude towards our own holidays as well. Who doesn’t buy Chanukah gifts for their children or grandchildren? Do gifts have anything to do with Chanukah at all? And, most importantly, if we’re going to give gifts, what should we give that will enhance, and not detract from the greater message of Chanukah?
In all honesty, Chanukah gifts fly in the face of everything that the holiday represents. At the same time though, I must admit that I will be buying and giving my own children presents this Chanukah. Why? For three reasons: my parents gave me presents on Chanukah, my kids expect them, and it’s not fair to make them the only children in town who did not get anything for Chanukah. We have ingrained the notion of “presents” too deeply into our social consciousness to ignore them completely. But if we do give gifts, we can use those gifts to both express our love, and convey values that we hold dear.
First and foremost, gifts should be expressions of affection. They should not only say, “I love you,” but “I care about you and your interests.” For that reason, I’ve never been a big fan of giving money as a gift (unless the recipient really needs the money to cover expenses). A gift of money conveys the clear message that “I don’t really know what you want, so go buy it yourself.” But that check also says, “I couldn’t think about what you’d want and go out and purchase that thing for you. So get it yourself” If you’re giving a child or grandchild money for their college fund – great! But otherwise, think about what they like; their hobbies or interests and values – and get them something that matches those interests. If they don’t like it, let them return it (and don’t be hurt). At the very least, they’ll appreciate the fact that you took the time and energy to find something specifically for them. And when the item is gone – or lost or broken – the value of that time and thought and energy investment will endure.
If you’re buying something for a child, I have come to realize that our kids have way, way too much stuff. From electronics to games to music to toys, they have so many things that they don’t use a vast majority of them. Today’s latest and greatest device will by lying on the shelf next by next week. They don’t need another cellphone, or video game or television. So why not give a gift of time: get them a lesson with a tennis instructor, or tokens to the batting cages; tickets to a concert of a (kosher) musician or take them to a sporting event.
And then take them there.

New Audio Shiur - The Role of Women on Chanukah

The original title of this shiur was "Severed Heads and Women's Initiative: the Role of Women on Chanukah". Either way, the shiur examines the fundamental role of two very fascinating women who appear in Midrashic literature and play prominent roles in the Chanukah story. Enjoy!

Click here to access the shiur.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Wonderful Lesson from a Gadol

I paid a shiva call on Friday for Rabbi Yehoshua Zev Abramoff of Toronto. While I never knew Rabbi Abramoff personally, my mother asked me to pay a shiva call as Rabbi Abramoff was a chavruta (study partner) of my father’s about forty years ago in Washington Heights. It just so happened that when I arrived, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and his wife were sitting in the room also paying a shiva call. It seems that Rabbi Abramoff learned in YU’s Kollel when Rav Aharon was the Rosh Kollel.

Understandably, the conversation turned to Rav Aharon’s influence on the deceased, and the family started to tell Rav Aharon about a lesson that always stayed with Rabbi Abramoff that he had learned from Rav Aharon and taught all of his children. It seems that one evening Rav Aharon gave Rabbi Abramoff a ride home from learning – down the hill from YU to Washington Heights. As Rav Aharon was driving, they got to an intersection where Rav Aharon would have had to turn off to go home, and Rabbi Abramoff told Rav Aharon to let him off and he would walk the rest of the way.

“Nonsense,” said Rav Aharon. “I started a mitzvah, and I’m going to finish it.” And he took him all the way to his building.

The Abramoff children all said that this was a lesson that their father told them all throughout his life. When you start a mitzvah, do it all the way.

A wonderful lesson indeed.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Lying Liars and Parashat Vayeshev

Fraud and theft have been at the top of the news these past few weeks. Sadly, Orthodox Jews committed these crimes, causing unimaginable chillul hashem and unthinkable monetary losses. Every one of us either has or will be personally affected by the money that was acknowledged to have been stolen this past week. We all benefit from Jewish organizations: from Orot to your local Jewish Day School to the Jewish Federation in your city. No – Orot didn’t have money in the Madoff fund (not even close), but the trickle-down effect of a loss so massive will eventually affect the entire Jewish world.

We need to start to talk about honesty. And integrity. And we need to start reminding ourselves regularly that Orthodoxy isn’t only about מצוות בין אדם למקום – but equally about מצוות בין אדם לחברו – being honest in business, truthful with our friends and customers, and ethical in our daily lives.

Dishonesty rears its ugly head in many ways in Vayeshev. The brothers steal Yosef’s coat and sell him into slavery. Bad enough. But then, instead of owning up to their crime before their father, they lie to him and pretend that Yosef had been killed, causing him decades of anguish. Yosef isn’t entirely innocent either. The Torah tells that Yosef would bring דבתם רעה – “evil tales” about his brothers to Ya’akov. While Rashi says that Yosef reported every negative thing he could find about his brothers to Ya’akov, Ramban disagrees, saying, אבל מוציא דבה כסיל האומר שקר – “one who brings out dibbah is the fool who says falsehoods.” Put simply, according to Ramban Yosef lied too. He made up evil stories about his brothers to denigrate them in Ya’akov’s eyes.

Fraud finds its way into Yehudah’s life as well. In the famous story with Tamar, following the tragic deaths of his first two sons Er and Onan, Yehudah sends Tamar home telling her, “Go home to your father’s house and wait for Shelah to grow up. But don’t call me. I’ll call you.” Rashi (38:11) tells us clearly that Yehudah has no intention of calling her. In other words, he lies to her. Not to be outdone, Tamar gets back at him by dressing as a prostitute and seducing him by the side of the road. When the world discovers her pregnancy and sentences her to death for violating her marriage, she doesn’t rat him out. Rather, she leaves everything up to him. “Do you recognize this seal? Do you know whose ring this is? The owner of these items is the father of my child.”

Yehudah can easily say nothing. If he only chooses this option, all of his problems will disappear. Tamar will be dead leaving his son Shelah free from marry anyone but this black widow. Best of all, no one would know about his little dalliance at the roadside inn a few months back. What could be simpler than simply saying nothing? But it’s not so simple. Yehudah finally admits his lie in two words: צדקה ממני – “she is more righteous than I.”

What does he mean? Why doesn’t he just say צדקה – “she’s right”? How is she more right than he? And most importantly, why does he finally admit to his fraud?

Sforno explains that both Yehudah and Tamar lied. Yehudah realized that her lie wasn’t for her own benefit. Rather, she masqueraded as a prostitute to bring a child into the world. But he lied for his own personal benefit – to increase his own honor and achieve greater personal leverage. That’s why he said צדקה ממני. Her lie is better than mine. At least she didn’t lie for herself.

Even more importantly, Yehudah finally realized that the lying must end. The deceit and fraud that had become hallmarks of his family now threatened to destroy him – and all of them as well. The time had come to own up to his behavior – to tell the truth and accept the consequences. From this point forward Yehudah can becomes the de-facto leader of the family and takes his place in leading the family through the dangers of Egypt.

Fraud, lying, theft – sometimes they seem so easy. If you forgot to study for an important test, it’s so much easier to copy your neighbor’s paper than own up to the failing grade. Apparently, it’s much easier to take people’s money and give it to new investors as dividends than it is to actually find ways to make real money. But sooner or later it all catches up to us. Someone catches on. The cheating becomes obvious. Your investors ask for their money back. And then cleaning up the mess, dealing with the consequences, saying צדקה ממני – becomes that much harder to do.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Petachya came home from gan today with a question: "Right I don't eat dogs Ima?"
"Right I don't eat dogs?" Petachya asked again.
"Who said that you don't eat dogs?" Rena wondered.
"Mazal" - his ganenet. (The woman in charge of his gan).
What in the world was he talking about. Then Rena looked around and noticed that all of the other kids were carrying small bags of Bamba. And then the light went on in her head.
You see, our next-door neighbors have a small dog that they named Bamba. Petachya happends to be allergic to sesame and peanuts, so we're very careful about what foods we give him. (Rena likes to say that we brought a child allergic to sesame and peanuts to the land of chumus and bamba.) As Mazal is well-aware of his allergy, when she gave out the Bamba she gave him a chocolate wafer instead, and must have said to him, "You don't eat Bamba."
Which Petachya obviously translated as: You don't eat dogs.
Right Petachya. You don't eat dogs.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What's In a Name? Everything.

The Jewish people are called the B’nei Yisrael – the Children of Israel. Where did we get this name from? From this week’s parshah.
After Ya’akov spends an entire night wrestling with the angel of Eisav, the angel decides that it’s time to go. Only Ya’akov doesn’t want to let him: “I won’t let you go until you bless me,” he tells the angel.

“What’s your name,” the angel asks him.

“What’s my name? You don’t even know who I am? Don’t you think you should have asked me that before we had this whole fight?”

“What’s your name?”

Sigh. “Ya’akov.”

The angel replied: “No it’s not – at least not anymore. From now on, your name will be Yisrael, ki sarita im elokim v’im anashim va’tuchal, “for you have striven with God and with man and have prevailed.” The word sarita is the root of the word Yisrael that identifies us as a people. What does it really mean? What does the word say about us?

Let’s look at two interpretations and see what we can learn from them. Rashi teaches that the word sarita comes from the word serarah, ruling and leading. Ya’akov’s old name implied sense of weakness, shame and deceit. Yisrael implies a sense of power, strength and pride. Radak explains the word in terms of struggle. Yisrael is a person who is willing to struggle – to work hard to overcome obstacles to accomplish his goals.

Both of these explanations tell us a great deal about the Jewish people and especially the State of Israel. We are a people who are willing to work hard and overcome challenges to build a land and recreate the Jewish people. At the same time, we stand before the world with a sense of pride. Israel has made tremendous strides during the past sixty years, and for all our faults, we have a lot to be proud of.

This asks a lot of each of us as members of the Children of Israel. Do you face challenges or run away from them? Do you stand up as a Jew with a sense of pride and accomplishment? Or do you hide your Jewish identity from the people around you?

Only you can answer those questions.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Lavan's Motto - Parshat Vayetze and the Mumbai Attacks

Enraged at Ya’akov’s midnight flight from Haran, Lavan gathered his brothers and chased after his son-in-law, daughters and grandchildren. The Midrash (Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer 9a) explains that Lavan decided that rather than lose his extended family, he would destroy them. In fact, we take note of his evil intentions at the Passover Seder when we recite, Arami oved avi, “an Aramite (Lavan) intended to destroy my father.” Lavan only desisted from murdering his family because God appeared to him in a dream, warning him to refrain from harming Ya’akov.

When Lavan finally reached Ya’akov and confronted him, he threatened him using curious language: Yesh l’el yadi - “it is in the power of my hand” to harm you. I wanted to kill you all, but I won’t because your father’s God warned me not to. (verse 29) The term el yadi – the power of my hand, carries a double implication. Rashi explains that the word el means “power” or “ability.” Yet, the word el clearly carries a deistic connotation as well, often used to refer to God. In fact, Chizkuni explains the phrase to mean, “Even your God knows my power, and fears that I will take vengeance against you.” Why does Lavan strangely infuse God in his threat against Ya’akov?

Lavan invokes God because tyrants and terrorists must always invoke God to justify their heinous crimes. How can Lavan - a father and grandfather - even contemplate the cold-blooded murder of his entire family? Yesh l’el yadi. He invoked the name of his god. After all, Lavan asks Ya’akov, “Why have you stolen my gods?” (verse 30) In the battle for religious supremacy, Lavan foreshadows a world devoid of morality, whose only goal of religious domination justifies any act, no matter how barbaric and repugnant.

The world witnessed yet another example of Lavan’s fanaticism in the vile terrorist attacks in Mumbai this past week. In addition to the senseless murder of over 174 civilians and countless more injuries, the attackers also specifically “were sent specifically to kill Israelis to avenge “atrocities” against the Palestinians,” the Times of India reported. They accomplished their goal, killing six Israelis among nine Jews, including the local Chabad emissary Gavriel Holtzberg, 29, and his wife Rivka, 28 – both American citizens. Moreover, we this week learned that they were not only murdered. Debka reported that, “Mumbai hospital doctors were horrified by the condition of the six Israeli bodies recovered from the smashed, blood-spattered rooms of Chabad Center Monday. Local and Israeli pathologists confirmed they were tortured by their Islamist terrorist captors before being bound together and killed in cold blood.”

Israelis and Jews have always served as a target for religious extremists. After all, Arami Oved Avi is the continuation of vehi she’amdah – “in every generation they stand up against us to destroy us.” The entire world last week painfully discovered Lavan’s motto: yesh l’el yadi. In the name of God, one can justify any act. Even the brutal murder of a father and pregnant mother in front of their two-year-old son.
The hagaddah offers only one consolation: ve’hakadosh baruch hu, matzileinu m’yadam; in the end, we believe – we know that “the Holy One blessed be He, saves us – and will continue to save us, from their evil, violent and brutal hands.”

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

My Statement on Agriprocessors

By now you know that a federal grand jury has handed down a 12-count indictment against Agriprocessors and its managers, effective shutting the door on what was the largest kosher slaughterhouse in America. (Link) While we needed to give this story time to play out and for the wheels of justice to turn ever so slowly, I think it's time for me to make my statement regarding this issue, without implying any wrongdoing on the part of any party in this matter:
One should not cheat in business. One should not break federal or state law, even if you don't think that you won't get caught. You should not lie to investigators, break immigration law, cheat on taxes, or do anything else that's dishonest, deceitful or otherwise illegal.
There. I said it. And now no one can say that Orthodox rabbis don't come out and make strong statements about current issues.

Steak anyone?

Shades of Grey

We like it when things fall into clear categories: black and white, right and wrong. I either add someone to as a “friend” on Facebook or I don’t. There’s no in-between category for “sort-of-a-friend-but-not-really-and-I’d-like-to-say-hi-but-not-have to-stay-in-touch-forever.” Yes or no. Friend or not. In or out. Life’s easier that way – simpler too. We want everything to fit into categories we can deal with.

But life isn’t that way. Things aren’t as simple as they seem. We don’t fit into simple boxes. Each of us has qualities that make us different, special and unique – qualities we can’t label as “good” or “bad.” And what’s true for each of us also applies to every child – especially in the eyes of their parents. Even if that parent’s name is Rivkah, and her son’s name is Eisav.

We generally like to fit Ya’akov and Eisav into those same simple categories. Ya’akov - dweller of tents, learner of Torah, cooker of soup: Good Son. Eisav - hairy hunter, sells his birthright for a bowl of stew, marries Cana’ani women: Bad Son. And then everything fits. Ya’akov gets the brachah, Eisav loses out. Ya’akov becomes the father of the Jewish people, Eisav’s children hate us. It’s simple – or at least seems simple.

But what about the fact that Ya’akov loved Eisav? The Torah tells us that ויאהב יצחק את עשו כי ציד בפיו – “Yitzchak loved Eisav because he put food in his mouth.” (see Bereishit 25:28) Sure, Rashi says that Eisav “tricked” his father with silly questions, like “Do you have to take Ma’aser on salt?” But, at the very least Eisav shows a great deal of respect for his father. When Yitzchak tells him to hunt some food to make him a tasty meal, Eisav doesn’t walk. He runs to fulfill his father’s wishes. (When’s the last time any of us ran to do what our parents asked us to do?) Also, is Ya’akov really the angel that we always think he is? Sure, he doesn’t want to trick his father into giving him the brachah. But why not? Not because it’s wrong – but because he’s afraid that he’ll get caught. Why doesn’t he tell his mother that tricking your blind father is wrong? Would Eisav have stolen the brachah had the shoe been on the other foot?

Nechama Leibowitz makes an interesting point about a strange phrase at the end of the parshah. When Yitzchak and Rivkah send Ya’akov away to hide from Eisav, the Torah tells us that,וַיִּשְׁלַח יִצְחָק אֶת-יַעֲקֹב, וַיֵּלֶךְ פַּדֶּנָה אֲרָם--אֶל-לָבָן בֶּן-בְּתוּאֵל, הָאֲרַמִּי, אֲחִי רִבְקָה, אֵם יַעֲקֹב וְעֵשָׂו“And Yitzchak sent Ya’akov, and he went to Padan Aram, to Lavan the son of Betuel the Arami, the brother of Rivkah, the mother of Ya’akov and Eisav.” (28:5)Why does the Torah tell us that Rivkah is “the mother of Ya’akov and Eisav”? Don’t we already know that from the story? In fact, this is such a good question that Rashi actually says, אינני יודע מה מלמדנו – “I don’t know what this teaches us.” (Note that Rashi wasn’t afraid to admit that he didn’t know the answer to a question. Sure, he could have given us an answer. But he didn’t like any of the answers he thought of – and he’s honest enough to tell us so.)

Nechama answers this question by looking at what Rivkah tells Ya’akov when she first wants to send him into hiding: לָמָה אֶשְׁכַּל גַּם-שְׁנֵיכֶם, יוֹם אֶחָד – “why should I lose you both in one day?” Her question seems strange. If Eisav killed Ya’akov, she’d only lose one son that day. What does she mean by saying that she’d lose “both”? Nechama quotes the explanation of the Italian commentator Ben-Amozag, in his Eim Lamikra.

“Rivkah said: whichever of you kills the other, I will mourn for you both
on the same day. The murdered will be dead, and the one who kills will be hated
in my eyes like a stranger and an enemy, and it will be as if he is gone. So in
any case I will mourn for both of my sons.”

Nechama suggests that by calling Rivkah “the mother of Ya’akov and Eisav,” the Torah teaches us that Rivkah sent Ya’akov away not just to save Ya’akov from Eisav, but to save Eisav from killing Ya’akov. She understood his anger, and instead of allowing him to kill Ya’akov, she sent Ya’akov away to give Eisav time to calm down.Rivkah knew both of her sons. Just as she realized that Ya’akov needed the brachah from his father, she realized that the very same brachah would be disastrous for Eisav. He could never be the father of the Jewish people. He was special and unique and strong and had many amazing talents; but that brachah was just not for him. We should never think that Rivkah did not love Eisav as her son. Just because he wasn’t Ya’akov does not mean that his mother wasn’t looking out for his best interests, making sure that he got what he needed to grow and succeed in life.

Like Rivkah, every parent loves his or her children both for their strengths, and for their weaknesses. Children aren’t robots. They’re good at some things, and not so good at others. But that’s what makes them unique and individual; it’s what gives them their own original perspective on life, and their own insights to offer to others.

And, what’s true for parents must also be good for educators. Good teachers can see the qualities that make each individual child shine – even if she might not be the “best” student. And sometimes the very best students – the strongest, most studious – the ones who get the best grades – sometimes need to learn how to see beyond the books; how to apply knowledge or even just connect to others.

No, not everyone should be our Facebook friend. And how many of your “friends” do you really know that well? But every person does have something to add to your life and something to teach each of us.We can even learn from an Eisav. Just ask his mother.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Coming Home

After three and a half weeks of traveling for Orot, I finally came home on Friday morning. In truth, this is the first time that I've really been away from my family for more than a few days, and it wasn't fun.
I was still able to stay in touch with the family, sometimes in amazing ways. I bought a cellphone at radioshack for $10 and a plan that gave me unlimited minutes for the month, and then I could call home to our Vonage phone without giving it a second thought. It was essentially free - and I called home a lot. I also used my laptop to Skype the kids at home, and even read the children a bedtime story over the Internet. But the distance was still too much.
As easy as communication is nowadays - it's easy to forget the critical importance of presence, not over the phone, but being there in person. Making kiddush for my family. Washing the dishes. (Yes, I do that.) Giving my children blessings on Friday night, and sitting next to them during davening. While I helped my son with his Gemara homework over the phone, I learned with him in person over Shabbat.
In so many ways, big and small, it's good to be home.
But there's another dimension to coming home. This is the first time that I arrived in Israel not as a visitor or tourist or even immigrant, but as a resident. It felt strange, but also strangely comfortable, to arrive at Ben Gurion airport on my way home. Any other time I've arrived in Israel, I always felt a pang of jealousy for people who lived in Israel. I had no idea what they had gone through to get here, but they had the luxury of being both in Israel and at home.
This week, I finally got to know what that felt like. In ways both small and big, I came home.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Parshah Questions for Kids - Vayera 5769

Sorry that I haven't updated in a while. I've been traveling the world recruiting for Orot. If you know of a high school girl looking for a great seminary experience, please have her contact me. I'm really excited about our program at Orot, and looking forward to building an amazing program.
Meanwhile, enjoy the Parshah Questions at the Shabbos Table.
If you have any comments or questions, let me know.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Keeping the Boss Updated - Table Talk for Bereishit 5769

In the rabbinate, I always had the blessing of a great deal of self-motivation. It's a requirement for the job. Sure, there's a board and president and officers, but they really have neither the time, desire or inclination to oversee the rabbis daily activities. As long as the complains remain at a manageable level, they're busy enough with the business ends of the shul. Usually, boards have to reign in the rabbi, because every good idea, program and initiative costs money.
At the same time, the position also gave me a great deal of autonomy. No one really asked how I spent my time, and no one checked to make sure that I was doing programs or classes.
So, with that it mind, my new job has been a real learning experience. My new boss emailed me this week asking about my progress. It wasn't that he thought that I wasn't working or was unhappy with my progress. I just hadn't updated him at all about what I'm doing. Truth be told, it never occurred to me to do so. I figured that as long as I was doing my job (which I think I am), all was well. He - rather reasonably, I think - expects regular updates. So, we've decided to meet regularly to keep communication open, so that he has an idea of what I'm doing.
All of this got me thinking about another kind of updating as well. We think of God as a boss We call God an אדון - a Master. But אדון can also mean "Boss." In fact, my son is now reading a very popular Jewish book called "All For the Boss" about Rabbi Ya'akov Yosef Herman, who lived in New York during the early to mid-twentieth century. (The book is so named due to the fact that its protagonist constantly referred to God as "the Boss.")
In light of my recent experience, I started to wonder: Am I supposed to keep the Boss updated as well? After all, I had always assumed that He knows what I'm doing. After all, He is God. Of course he knows. But then, in the parshah, we see two examples where God clearly knows what people have done, but He wants them to give Him an update.
First, following the Original Sin - when Adam eats the forbidden fruit, instead of immediately confronting Adam and Eve with their sin, He asks them, "Where are you?" Only when Adam explains his desire to hide because of his nakedness, God asks him, "Who told you that you are naked? Did you eat from the tree?" (3:12)
Later, when Cain kills his brother Abel, again God does not immediately confront Cain with his crimes. He first asks Cain, איה הבל אחיך - "where is your brother Abel?" Only when Cain denies any knowledge and culpability does God throw the book at him.
In each case, God looks first for an update: What have you been doing? Is everything OK? Of course He knows the answer. But he wants us to come to Him. He needs us to approach.
And, if we must approach God and admit our mistakes when things go wrong, should we not also approach God with an update when things are well?
He is, after all, the Boss.

Traveling, with a Little Different Perspective

This coming Monday, I leave Israel for a long (three and a half week) trip to England and the United States to recruit for Orot. I'm excited about the program that we're developing and the trip itself, but neither Rena nor I are looking forward to the length of the trip and my separation from the family. It's a long time, no matter how you slice it, by far the longest I've ever been away.
Yet, talking to a neighbor gave us a little different perspective. Rena was speaking with our next door neighbor about my trip and its length. Our neighbor, while sympathizing with her said, "At least he's not going for a month to miluim, where you'd have to worry about the dangerous things he might be doing as well."
Good point. We hadn't really thought about it that way.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sleeping in the Sukkah and Living with Less Stuff

I'll be honest. I've never slept in the sukkah, at least before this year. I always told myself that it was too cold, too wet (in Michigan both were true) - too whatever to sleep in the sukkah. I admit it; I'm not really the out-doorsy type. My idea of camping involves a good mattress, soft pillows and air conditioning. But sleeping in a sukkah isn't really about camping. Or maybe it is. And this year, the sukkah took on a little extra meaning for me.

Moving to Israel was a large-scale excercise in downsizing. You have no idea how much stuff you've managed to accumulate until you have to move all of it. And then imagine moving to a place that you know is about half as big as your old house. Then you truly start getting rid of stuff.

The process went in stages:
1. Selling relatively valuable stuff on Ebay. Very slow with limited success.
2. The garage sale. Craigslist. Etc. Selling one car.
3. Giving stuff away - that included some furniture, and also food.
4. Deciding what we were going to keep, and sending it off to Israel on the lift.
5. Packing up whatever would possibly fit into the minivan.
6. Selling the minivan.
6. Sending our stuff onto the bottom of the plane.
It occurred to me that at each stage, the stuff that we were directly connected to grew smaller and smaller. When we finally got on the plane with just our carry-on luggage, it was at that point that I realized that I had the least amount of "stuff" that I probably have for the rest of my life. My house was stuck on a boat somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea. My luggage was on the bottom of the plane. If someone took all of your stuff away, and left you only with a carry-on piece of luggage, what would you take? It's an interesting question.

In any case, Sukkot itself prompts us to ask precisely this question: how much stuff do I need? On sukkot, we're supposed to move out of our homes into the Sukkah. While we normally make-do with lawn furniture, that's not really how we're supposed to do it. We're supposed to take our nicest things - our best furniture into the sukkah, and live with only that stuff for the week of sukkot. We're not supposed to just eat in the sukkah. We're supposed to live in it; eat and sleep, hang out and chat in it. Interestingly, you're not supposed to take regular things into the sukkah either. You don't bring in your pots or garbage - that stuff stays out.

So what would you - if it wouldn't rain in the sukkah - take with you? If we truly lived in a Sukkah for a week, how much of your stuff would you really need?

I guess what we learned most this year is that we really didn't need as much stuff as we thought. Instead of four couches we do fine with one. We left our breakfront and sideboard (which I really, really loved) and all the things (read here - junk) that we had crammed into them. Instead, we have a simple curio cabinet from Ikea with our kiddush cups and other assorted items. Instead of four separate rooms not including a basement, we have only one big room (with a kitchen) downstairs, but we all seem to get along - at least most of the time. The whole downsizing process made me realize just how much stuff I thought I needed, but don't really, and how much that "need" motivated many of my actions.

Which brings me back to sleeping in the sukkah. As I lay in the sukkah the first night, it made me think back to the nights we slept on mattresses on the floor - both in Oak Park and here in Israel, because our real beds were in transit. No, it wasn't fun to sleep on the floor, but we survived. Actually, we were fine, and that lesson has stayed with me. I looked up at the sky, and gave thanks to God for the fact that this Sukkot, my things meant just a little less to me than in years past.

I could sleep in the sukkah without the creature comforts, but feel more blessed nonetheless.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Change of Place and Identity - Thoughts After Yom Kippur

About a year after we arrived in Michigan, Rena and I went out for dinner to celebrate my birthday. We took in a late dinner at Milk and Honey (ob"m), and then decided to head to a movie. I wanted to see the new Spiderman movie and the movie had already been out about two months, so we figured that the theater would be pretty empty.
It was. As we walked in, it was clear that not many people were out to see Spiderman on a Sunday evening eight weeks after its release. Not many - other than the two families from the Young Israel of Southfield (the other Young Israel in Michigan) that were sitting five rows behind us.
"Hey Rabbi! How's it going?" they asked good-naturedly. While I was somewhat taken aback, they didn't seem perturbed that I was in a movie theater.
"Should we call you the Spider-rabbi?" I didn't get it, but I think it was a half-hearted attempt at humor. Looking back, perhaps they themselves didn't expect to end up in a movie with a rabbi, and it was they who were uncomfortable, and not me.
At that moment, I turned to Rena and said, "You know what I just realized? That I can never do anything at all anywhere in this community, and not expect the entire communty to know about it."
And I was right - that's just the way it is for shul rabbis.

The frightening imagery of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer prominentls highlights the seriousness of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: "Who shall live, and who shall die? Who by water and who by fire?" And yet, at the conclusion of the prayer, we find some consolation in the crescendo,

ותשובה, ותפילה, וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזרה

And repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree

(Parenthetically, we should note an important aspect of this phrase: first of all, it does not mean that these three acts remove the evil decree, as many mistakenly believe. If so, the prayer would have said, מעבירין את הגזרה הרעה. Rather, they remove the harshness - the evil of the decree. For a fascinating lecture on this issue and much more about Unetaneh Tokef, listen to this lecture by my teacher Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter at
Most authorities agree that the author of this prayer derived the highlight from a well-known gemara in Rosh Hashanah (16b):

ואמר רבי יצחק: ארבעה דברים מקרעין גזר דינו של אדם, אלו הן: צדקה, צעקה, שינוי השם, ושינוי מעשה. צדקה - דכתיב +משלי י+ וצדקה תציל ממות, צעקה - דכתיב +תהלים קז+ ויצעקו אל ה' בצר להם וממצקותיהם יוציאם, שינוי השם - דכתיב +בראשית יז+ שרי אשתך לא תקרא את שמה שרי כי שרה שמה, וכתיב וברכתי אתה וגם נתתי ממנה לך בן, שינוי מעשה - דכתיב +יונה ג+ וירא האלהים את מעשיהם, וכתיב +יונה ג+ וינחם האלהים על הרעה אשר דבר לעשות להם ולא עשה. ויש אומרים: אף שינוי מקום, דכתיב +בראשית יב+ ויאמר ה' אל אברם לך לך מארצך, והדר ואעשך לגוי גדול ואידך - ההוא זכותא דארץ ישראל הוא דאהניא ליה.

Said Rabbi Yitzchak: four things rend apart a man's decree, and they are: charity, crying out, changing of one's name, and changing of one's actions. Charity - as it is written, "and charity shall save [one] from death." (Proverbs 10) Crying out - as it is written, "and they cried out to God in their anguish, and from their desperation he removed them." (Psalms 107) Changing of the name - as it is written, "Your wife Sarai, her name shall no longer be Sarai, rather her name shall be Sarah," (Genesis 17) and it is written, "And I shall bless her and I will also grant her a son." Changing of one's actions - as it is written, "And the Lord saw their actions," (Jonah 3) and it is written, "and the Lord regretted the evil that He had spoken to do to them and he did not do it." Some also say, even changing one's place, as it is written, "And God said to Avram go forth from your land," (Genesis 12) and then, "and I will make you into a great nation." And the other opinion says, that is the merit of the Land of Israel that helped him.

We readily recognize three out of the four from the prayer: charity and crying clearly refer to charity and prayer from Unetaneh Tokef. Moreover, changing of one's actions seem to signify a sense of repentance - the teshuvah from the prayer. Yet, aside from the fact that the the final two (or one and a half) - change of place and change of name - never appear in the text of Unetaneh Tokef (a subject Rabbi Schacter addresses wonderfully), they seem to challenge our sense of what Teshuvah is all about.
I'd like to focus on one of the two - the change of locations, and ask a simple question; why should the fact that I relocate from one place to another have any bearing on my spiritual standing before God? What difference does it make whether I reside in Oak Park, Michigan, or Silver Spring, Maryland or Yad Binyamin, Israel, if I'm still the same person?
While intellectually the question makes a great deal of sense and I truly had difficulty answering these questions, this year I came to an appreciation for the teshuvah of "changing of one's place." This year I think I understand. I came to realize that teshuvah is much more than an intellectual process. It can encompass a great deal of emaotion turmoil, and probably should.

To what degree do we evaluate and justify ourselves by the way that those around us relate to us? After all, I've lived in a community for a number of years; I've been active and involved, made friends and business relationships. Not only do others know who I am - I know who and what I am by the way that they relate to me. When I walk into shul, or a friend's home or a business, they recognize me, acknowlege me and in a very real sense establish who I am in my own mind. I don't need to search for my place. I have a place both physically but metaphysically as well: I'm the philanthropist (or the tightwad); I'm the shul talker (or the guy who never talks in shul); I never listen to the rabbi's speech (or never miss a word). Everyone expects me to be who they recognize, and I don't disappoint. It's that very sameness - the expectations of those who surround us that keep us constant and steady.
But what if one day you woke up in your own community and no one recognized you. The lady at Starbucks didn't give you your regular cup, because she doesn't know what you want. Would you buy soemthing different, or just the same cup of coffee that you do every day? Probably get the same. But then your secretary didn't know how to handle your emails. And your coworkers didn't know what to expect from you. And your kids didn't know what set you off or made you happy. Would you still act and react the same way you always did? We'd be thrown for a loop, because we'd need to reevaulate our actions, interactions and reactions - because you could no longer take anything for granted.
And what if you had a position in your community, and woke up one day and it was gone. You were just a regular Joe like everyone else. Would you still act the same? Would you still have the same expectations of yourself, and everyone else around you?

That's what happened to me this year.

Perhaps the most difficult aspects of serving as a communal rabbi is the "fishbowl" phenomenon. Everyone's watching you. They're looking at what you do, what you buy, who you greet, who you don't. They see you even when you don't see them, and care not only about what classes you give and hospitals you visit, but what movies you watch - or whether you watch them at all. And while it's really hard to maintain that constant sense of vigilance and attentiveness at all times in public, there's another side to it as well.

You get used to the fact that people know who you are. When you walk into shul, they subtely acknowledge your presence; they're (usually) comforted that you're there. When you walk into a shiva house or hospital, they visibly relax. They wait for you to finish davening in shul, and for you to make kiddush before anyone starts eating. When you visit them for a meal, it's a big deal - an honor.

I don't kid myself. I'm quite aware that it's not me personally - but my position as their rabbi. (Although I do think I'm a good guy also.) But that status - those reactions - become part of your psyche. You assimilate them, not necessarily in an egocentric way, but as a matter of identification. Being a rabbi wasn't just my job - it became in a sense a very real part of my identity, not just for others, but more importantly, for myself.

And then I moved to Isreal, left the rabbinate, and moved to another country. To be honest, people here know that I was a rabbi; I've spoken in shul here, give a regular gemara shiur, given a few classes and answered questions. But even to those people, while I'm a rabbi, I'm not their rabbi. And to most people here and all the Israelis, I'm just a regular person. A nice guy - somewhat knowledgable - but nothing special.

Which is just fine. I like my anonymity. I enjoy dressing casually in shul and around the community. I love not having to look around at the supermarket to make sure that I didn't miss saying hello (and inadvertantly insulting) someone.

But it's also very, very painful. If I'm not "Rabbi Spolter" - if I'm just Reuven Spolter, then while I know who I am, I've lost a very real part of "what" I am. I have to reassess: do I learn enough? What's my place supposed to be in my new community? What is it reasonable to expect of myself?

These are all questions that I never asked myself as a rabbi, because they more or less answered themselves. And they don't anymore. This last Yom Kippur - during davening actually - I finally became aware of the extent of this loss of self-identity and how much it was affecting me. And that's when the questions truly came to the forefront. I think this is part of what the Gemara means when it refers to "change of place." It's that sense of confusion, self-awareness and reevaluation from losing the surroundings you took for granted. It's about asking questions you never thought to ask.

Answering these very questions are the essence of what teshuva is all about. And they don't stop at Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur is just the beginnning.

Monday, September 29, 2008

A Tale of Two Containers

Two containers. They look the same. They both have Hebrew writing. Except, if you look closely, the one on the left is fructose, our sweetener of choice. On the right, you'll find peglax, the Israeli equivalent of Metamucil.
Add Erev Rosh Hashanah. Mix well. And you get the following:
Rena was making challah for Rosh Hashanah. (Don't say it.) She reached for the white canester, which of course contained fructose, necessary to make the challah rise properly. (Don't say it). Little did she realize that yes, instead of taking the fructose, she took the peglax. (There, I said it.) They looked the same. They both have Hebrew and are the same size. And no, we didn't discover her mistake after eating the challah. Long before.
Lesson for today: Don't keep your Israeli laxative in the food pantry.
Now we know.
Shanah Tovah! Have a sweet (and regular) year!
From the Spolters
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The Banking Crisis, Teshuvah, and Rosh Hashanah

Even in Israel we hear about the financial crisis plaguing US banks and sending shockwaves around the world. The combination of the devaluation of the dollar combined with the drop in the stock market has especially affected the poorest of Israelis, who count on donations from the US to make ends meet, as noted in this piece in the Jerusalem Post. (And not all of them learn in Kollel. Many are just poor.)
So, we all breathed a sigh of relief when the US government announced a massive bailout plan aimed at stemming the crisis, relieving the pressure on the banking industry, and returning Wall Street to normal. Many pundits - both political and financial from across the spectrum have come to agree that no matter how distasteful the bailout seems to be, non-intervention on the part of the government would bring even greater pain and calamity than the cost of the bailout.
It sounds true. But the bailout still bothers me - not because of my conservative "small-government" leanings. Rather, the bailout bugs me because of teshuvah - or the lack of it.

Rambam, along with so many other authorities, divide the process of repentance into a series of steps. First, one must regret one's past. Then I have to abandon the sin -- in essence, stop sinning. I must also confess my sin, either before God, if it's a ritual sin, or to my fellow man, if I harmed him in some way. Finally, I must definitively decide to never again return to my sinful ways. I must make a commitment never to transgress that sin again in the future. Without any one of these components, one cannot call himself truly "repentant." There is no real teshuvah. After all, can one truly call himself repentant if he doesn't regret his behavior? Or if he cannot commit himself to change in the future? Each and every component carries critical weight; without it teshuvah is lacking and faulty.
What then is the sin of the banking crisis plaguing Wall Street? Who is the guilty party - the sinner that must repent? While one might want to point the finger at some executive, who made the bad bets that sealed his or her bank's fate, that's only partly true. To my mind, we are all guilty. We're guilty of trying to transform a system designed to foster economic vitality and growth into a monetary printing press. We didn't just want our investments to grow. We wanted them to skyrocket, because normal, slow growth wasn't enough. In essence, we have been guilty of the cardinal sin of greed.
For some reason, I've always been a "buy and hold" kind of investor. My uncle bought me two shares of Dow Chemical for my Bar Mitzvah, and I've still got them. Only now they're six shares and worth several times their original value. But that type of investing doesn't really work right now. You see, investors aren't interested in slow growth; they're interested in meteoric growth. They don't want to know that you've made money for the past forty years. They want to see that you've got a plan to make significantly more money in the near future, or else your stock isn't worth holding on to -- and then it's not worth that much at all.
Shareholders get it, as do corporate executives, so they take steps that might not be in their long-term best interest to spur short-term growth. They front-end their stock options, and don't make plans for a viable long term future. I owned UPS for five years. UPS is a great company; it serves a need worldwide, and makes money year after year. And yet, its stock is worth less now than it was when I bought it. That's the world of investing in which we live today.
Banks got it too. It was not enough to make small profits by lending money to solid potential homeowners. That didn't bring a large enough return. So they started making even larger bets, and enjoying larger returns, a process that only fed upon itself. Until the whole house of cards came crashing down.
I really do feel that this crisis is something that we've all created and fed. Unless we all change fundamentally; unless we change our outlook on work and investing; unless we stop viewing the stock market as some type of slot machine that will safely and reliably keep on making payouts - we will only revisit this crisis again.
Which brings me to my problem with the government's bailout. I really do understand what it's trying to prevent: recession bordering on depression, rising unemployment, widespread misery. Who wouldn't want to avoid such a disaster?
And yet I wonder: Other than that scenario - other than real pain, spread throughout the country, and even the world - what can possibly change the underlying attitude that brought us this crisis in the first place? Where is the teshuvah? Where is the regret about the past? Where is the commitment not to commit the same sin in the future? Sure, the goverment will provide oversight, but how can government even hope to reign in a normal emotion and desire without the need to worry about the consequences?
From another vantage point, the US government is only going to make things worse: all it's really done is shown people that no matter what bad decisions they make; no matter how greedy they get and no matter how much money they lose - it won't be their responsibility. They won't have to pay the price. Someone will step in and save them.
Until someone won't.
I worry about the next time. Where is the US getting the $70 billion to finance this bailout? We're borrowing the money, of course. That's a lot of money to borrow. Who's lending us the money? What's going to happen when someone - or everyone - loses confidence that the US government - the biggest bank of all - can pay back all that money that it owes?
Then we'll have a run on the biggest bank - us - and every other bank as well. And then the "depression" that we're avoiding this year will seem small in comparison, a minor scrape compared to the terrible trauma we will then endure. And the US government will be powerless to prevent it.
I truly believe in the power of pain. No one likes pain, but everyone grows from it. In fact, pain is our most effective symbol of growth. Pain is also our natural radar system, warning us when we're going too far. Imagine a child born without the ability to feel pain. Rather than fortunate, that child must be watched and guarded at all times, because he has no ability to sense just how dangerous his actions might be. What about the parent constantly shielding his daughter from painful situations? Is that protection productive? Hardly, because his daughter never learns how to navigate life situations on her own.
And that's what's happened to us - to American society. In our unwillingness to feel any pain at all; to suffer through the relatively mild pain of a recession, we are losing any ability to sense our own limits. Run out of money? Borrow on a credit card. Maxed out your credit card? Refinance your house. Until no one wants to buy that house, and the bank forecloses. What's going to happen when the foreclosure isn't on Main Street, but on Wall Street?

It sounds depressing. It really is scary. But I cannot see how I'm misreading this situation. Am I missing something? Is there a silver lining? Is there any way that our society of debt - and living beyond our means, both as individuals and as a society - can escape unscathed? I don't see how.

But I sure hope I'm wrong.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

I Did Not Miss Selichot. But What if I Had?

I daven in a shul that has a minyan at 6:30am, followed by a second minyan at 7:30am. Because last night we recited Selichot for the first time at 12:30am, we had no need to arrive early for the morning davening.
After the first minyan ended, as I sat learning my morning mishnayot, a young boy - he looked about eleven - approached me. Would there be selichot, he asked me, before the 7:30 minyan. I didn't think so, but told him to ask the gabbai. The gabai told him matter-of-factly that because we had recited selichot during the night, there would not be an additional selichot in the morning.
The boy was crushed. Tears began to well in his eyes. He returned to his seat to wait for the second minyan to begin, and began to cry.
"Little boy," I called to him, "Come over here."
I showed him what he could recite from the selichot without the benefit of a minyan - reminding him to skip the י"ג מדות הרחמים - the 13 attributes of mercy of God - that require a minyan. When he learned that he could indeed, recite Selichot, he calmed down, returned to his seat, and began to pray.
And I wondered: what if I had missed selichot this morning - or any morning for that matter? Would I be upset, or would I simply chalk it up as "one of those things - what can you do?" Would I ever be so upset that it could bring me to tears?
I didn't think so.
I've got work to do.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Shopping Trip, Israel and Parshat Ki Tavo

Today Rena and I went shopping. Actually, we went to the bank to get a loan for our car, and truth be told, it was a pretty good experience. The bank gave us a great rate (plus a discount on the loan), and the service was terrific. We waited almost no time, and were dealt with promptly and efficiently. (I know what you're thinking. Yes, this is Israel. Go to Bank Leumi in Kiryat Malachi, and speak to Dani. He's the manager.) While we were signing over and over again, I asked the woman helping us who she got auto insurance with. Not only did she tell me the name and give me the number, she picked up the phone and called them for us. That's Israel. It's like a big family.
In any event, we had some extra time, so we went to get a cup of coffee. Now in the States, you can also get a cup of coffee, but because it was a kosher coffee shop, we were able to drink our coffee not in the cheap paper cups, but in the glass mugs. It was just a pleasant experience that I really was never able to have in the U.S., and I appreciated being able to have it in Israel.
Then we went to the grocery store, where it's impossible to forget that Rosh Hashanah is coming. You walk into the store and there's a big sign that says, "Shanah Tovah!" The honey display is quite large as well. I even got into a small discussion with a middle-aged man about the sugar-free items in the health aisle of the store.
Finally, on the way out Rena bought a pizza at the store next to the grocery store, and she ended up having a nice discussion with the "secular" guy making pizzas about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rena commented on the fact that she never looks forward to Yom Kippur, and that it's a hard day. He told her that he always likes the day, because he feels spiritually cleansed and rejuvinated afterwards.
While each of these little vignettes aren't that special, put together I came away from a simple shopping trip with a great sense of positive warmth. While in America all our efforts go into living a Jewish life - who we congregate with; what we eat; where we go, in Israel, that life surrounds us in so many ways big and small.

All of this caused me to pause at a specific phrase that grabbed my attention from this week's parhsha. Ki Tavo begins with the מקרא ביכורים, the special declaration that each person must make when he brings his first fruits to the Kohen in the Beit Hamidash. Yet, even before he presents the bikkurim to the Kohen, the Torah tells us that,

וּבָאתָ, אֶל-הַכֹּהֵן, אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה, בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם; וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו, הִגַּדְתִּי הַיּוֹם לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כִּי-בָאתִי אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְהוָה לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ לָתֶת לָנוּ.
And you shall come to the priest that shall be in those days, and say unto him: 'I profess this day unto the LORD your God, that I have come to the land which the LORD swore to our fathers to give us.'
The verse caught my eye because as I was reading it, I felt that I was reading about myself, and my family. כי באתי אל הארץ אשר נשבע ה' לאבותנו לתת לנו - I have come to the Land which God swore to give to our fathers. I truly have. It's exciting and chilling to personalize the words of Torah in such a meaningful way.
But the verse bothered me as well.
Rambam writes that this text is actually part of the ceremony of bringing the bikkurim. The farmer must put the basket of fruit on his shoulder and make this declaration to the Kohen. But this statement made me wonder: What does the farmer mean when he says, "that I have come to the Land which God swore to our fathers to give us"? Is that really true. Truth be told, he was probably born in Israel. He's lived there his whole life. He's never been anywhere else. Why then does he tell God and the Kohen that he has come to the land, when that in fact is untrue?
Kli Yakkar suggests that we cannot really call the Land our own until we have given of it to another. Only when we share the bounty of the land with others can we take ownership over the land that God has given us.
Which, I guess is really the point. The beauty of Israel is really the community; the fact that since everyone here is Jewish, we can, for the most part, eat together. We share holidays together. We wish each other a shanah tovah. We share our health issues with strangers, because we're not supposed to be strangers. And maybe that's when the Land truly becomes ours.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Leah, not really realizing it, put me in my place.
Me: "Hi Leah. How was school today?"
Leah: "Great!"
Me: "Yeah? What did you do?"
Leah: "Well, first we had davening, then we had art and made glue. Then we learned how to cross the street. Then we learned about a rabbi."
Me: "Oh yeah, which rabbi?"
Leah: "Not you."

Friday, August 29, 2008

Parshah Questions for Kids - Re'eh

This week I've changed the format a bit, and the parshah questions are all on the first aliyah of the Parshah, and also on the Rashis on that piece, so you can do the questions out of the chumash.

Click here for Parshah Questions for Kids
Click here for Parshah Questions for Kids with Answers

Table Talk - Re'eh 5768: God's Place

In no less than five places in Chapter 12, Moshe refers to the“place which the Lord your God shall choose.” (see verses 5, 11, 14, 18 and 21):
כִּי אִם-אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר-יִבְחַר ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, מִכָּל-שִׁבְטֵיכֶם, לָשׂוּם אֶת-שְׁמוֹ, שָׁם--לְשִׁכְנוֹ תִדְרְשׁוּ, וּבָאתָ שָּׁמָּה.

וְהָיָה הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר-יִבְחַר ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בּוֹ לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם--שָׁמָּה

כִּי אִם-בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר-יִבְחַר ה', בְּאַחַד שְׁבָטֶיךָ--שָׁם, תַּעֲלֶה עֹלֹתֶיךָ

כִּי אִם-לִפְנֵי ה' אֱלֹקיךָ תֹּאכְלֶנּוּ, בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ

כִּי-יִרְחַק מִמְּךָ הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה' אֱלֹקיךָ לָשׂוּם שְׁמוֹ שָׁם
The appearance of such similar language in such close proximity is striking. Clearly Moshe places great emphasis on "the place", so much so that if forms a central them in Parshat Re'eh.
What is this unnamed place that Moshe repeatedly refers to in the Torah? Midrash Sifrei (on Devarim 72:5) answers based on the rest of the verse: לשכנו תדרשו ובאת שמה -- “unto His habitation shall you seek.” You seek and find, and then the prophet will tell you. This is what we find with King David [who sought out the Temple Mount in Jerusalem]. And how do we know that he followed the instructions of the prophet? As it is written, '[The prophet] Gad came to David on that day and said to him, Go up, build an altar unto the LORD in the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite,' the location of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem today.,
It's fascinating to me that in the tradition of the Midrash, Yerushalayim is not something that God chooses unilaterally and we accept. If He had done so, it would have been fine with us. But that's not the case. It must be a place "that we seek" together with God. It's not a one-way street. It's a partnership between God and the Jewish people. Sure, he shows us the place, but we must seek it, build it and establish it as His holy city.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Parshah Questions for Kids - Eikev

Here's this week's installment of Parshah Questions for Kids. Just as an aside, I started asking my kids parshah questions about a year ago, giving them jelly beans (my personal favorites are Jelly Bellies) when they'd get a question right. It turned into an immediate ritual, with Jelly Bellies flying all over the dining room, but with the parshah as an integral part of our Shabbat table. Right after we finish the challah, my kids are already shouting, "Questions! Questions!" Even if you don't give the kids the sheets to fill out before Shabbat, feel free to use the questions (with or without answers) as a great tool at the Shabbat table.

The parshah questions are based on the Mibreishit Sheet for Kids from last year. The sheets are available here.
Download the parshah question sheet here.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Table Talk for Eikev - And Some "Last Minute" Aliyah Stories

As many of you already know, we did not sell our home before we moved to Israel. Sure, we tried to sell our home. And someone even made an offer on the home, and went through the process of having the house inspected. So when he called me to tell me that based on the inspection they decided that they didn't want to buy the house, I was, to say the least, upset. It really sent us right back to the drawing board. As the time for us to depart Michigan approached, I started making arrangements to have someone show the house to potential renters; someone else gracefully agreed to make sure that the rental went through - all in all, everyone in Oak Park was truly generous with their time and energy to try and help. Yet, it's somewhat disconcerting to leave town without having taken care of our single biggest expense - our home.
On Wednesday evening, I decided to try again on Craigstlist and see if someone might want to rent the house. It was a last-ditch effort, as Friday was July 4th, and we were scheduled to leave on Sunday, which we did. Thursday morning I got two calls about the house, and showed them both Thursday afternoon. Both actually filled out applications. When we called the family that we preferred to ask them if they still wanted the house and they answered in the affirmative, we asked them, "When would you like to take possession of the house." They said, "Would Monday be too soon?" Actually, it would not. While we were packing on Sunday they came and got the keys, and they took the house on Monday.
If that sounds like last minute, wait until you hear about our minivan: because we were making aliyah from Edison, where my inlaws live, we needed to keep our minivan until the last week. Then I figured that I would sell the car in New Jersey. After all, I had sold my other car on Craigslist in less than twenty-four hours. So how hard could it be to sell a Honda Odyssey minivan - a really great car. As it turns out, harder than I thought.
I looked on (Kelly Blue Book) to estimate the value of the car, underpriced it a little, and posted the car for sale. No bites. Nothing. So I waited a bit. Towards the end of the week, I was getting a little nervous, so I took it to a local used car dealer who looked at the car and called me on Thursday afternoon to let me know that he could only offer half of what I thought I would get. Half. (That's a lot of money.) It turns out the car wasn't worth as much as said it was, and he would also have to have work done to make the car new enough for him to sell off his lot. So, he advised me to try and sell it myself (with two days to go), where I'd do much better. So I posted to Craigslist again, with a much lower asking price. I got a couple of calls - and one email from someone who might be interested, but he wasn't sure.
One family came Friday, said that they loved the car, and would most definitely buy it on Sunday, but that their father had to come look at it and bring the money. Great. They call me Sunday morning (Shiva Asar B'tamuz), tell me that they're coming in the evening, and that they're really buying the car. Again, great.
They show up around 6pm, get in the car, take it for a spin to show the father, and get out of the car with long looks on their faces: "Sorry." What do you mean sorry? "It has stains that won't come out, so we don't want the car." What do you mean? Your wife and son saw the car last Friday, and didn't say a word? "Sorry." (To this day, I still don't know if he was trying to bairgain for a lower price or not.) So they walked away, the night before we're supposed to go to the airport and fly off to Israel. That's that.
But it wasn't. On a lark, I called the guy who had emailed me. Do you want the car? Perhaps. OK, I told him, but you have to come see the car tonight - or I can't sell it to you. Can you come? He could. You understand that it's a family car - it has some stains in it? He did.
He came, liked the car, and said that he would bring his mechanic the next morning. OK, we told him, but we need to have the car back by 9:30am so that we can load it up to get to the airport.
8:00am - my cellphone rings: "Reuben, my mechanic won't come to the house. He's kind of old, and wants to bring the car to his garage. Can you do it?" Sure, why not. After all, we're only moving 5,000 miles away today.
His mechanic looks at the car, tells him that it's fine, and we drive back to my inlaws. Now I'm out of time. We have to load up, no easy feat with nine of us going (including three inlaws coming with), and twelve bags that had to fit in a minivan and a small car. My buyer tells me: I need to go to the bank to get the money for the downpayment - he would give my father-in-law the rest later on in the day. Fine. Whatever. To be honest, I wasn't really sure whether he'd also decided to change his mind, and in the back of my head something told me that I wasn't going to see him again.
We stuffed ourlseves in the cars. We're about to leave. The kids are getting antsy. And finally, as I'm getting into the driver's seat, the buyer of the minivan pulls up, gets out of his car, and hands me the cash for the downpayment.
How's that for last minute? I really can't think of any way that it could get any closer.
Why do I tell you all this? First of all, because I think that they're really great stories. But also because I couldn't help but think of both of these "last-minute" stories when I read a great d'var Torah from the Ohr Hachayim on Eikev in a book called "Ma'ayan Hashavua."
Ohr Hachayim notes the strange language found at the beginning of the Parshah:
והיה עקב תשמעון את המשפטים האלה -- "and it will be because you listen to these commandments" (Devarim 7:12). What is the meaning of the word והיה - "and it will be"? He explains that the word והיה always connotes joy, as it says in the Midrash, אין והיה אלא לשון שמחה -- "the word והיה always refers to a state of joy." What does this have to do with listening to the commandments? In his second answer he says, שאין שמחה לאיש אלא בסוף השמיעה -- "a person only experiences joy at the end of [his] hearing."
Sometimes, in the middle of a process, it can be difficult to see the joy during the middle. But then, oftentimes later on at the "end" - בסוף השמיעה -- it becomes easier to see the larger process from hindsight, to understand that God's hand had been behind life's events all along.

Friday, August 15, 2008

New Chopping Wood Feature - Parshah Questions for Kids

During these slow summer months, I find it very hard to review the parshah with my children, and when we come to the table, because they don't have school, they don't know what's in the parshah. So, I made up a parshah sheet for them, which, if all goes well, will be an ongoing feature here on the blog. Feel free to tell your friends!

The parshah questions are based on the Mibreishit Sheet for Kids from last year. The sheets are available here.
Download the parshah question sheet here.
Download the parshah question sheet with answers here.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Tisha B’av and Ganei Tal

I started noticing the small signs just a few days after I arrived. In truth, they were unmistakable. A note in a car here; a comment there. But only over the last few weeks has it begun to sink in to me. Today, on Tisha b’Av, the day we set aside to commemorate and mourn Jewish tragedy and loss, I find myself focused on the evacuees from Gush Katif, specifically the citizens of Ganei Tal. Three years ago, almost to the day, the government of Israel evicted the citizens of the twenty-one communities that comprised the Jewish towns throughout the Gaza strip. Then it destroyed their homes, one by one, until the lives that they had spent the last three decades building were nothing but piles of rubble.
In truth, my new life rests firmly on their tragedy, giving me a small, vague sense of guilt. Personally, I had nothing to do with the expulsion from Gush Katif. Politically, I opposed the plan. So then why do I feel guilty? I’ll explain.
Because the residents of Gush Katif refused, under any circumstances to believe and accept that their government would actually carry out the eviction plan, they made almost no plans for the day after. Following the disengagement, they found themselves dazed, homeless, and bereft of their possessions and livelihoods. After spending three months in temporary lodging, the government sent the people of Ganei Tal, en masse, to a small caravilla-city on the outskirts of a small yishuv called Yad Binyamin, found in the Sorek region about twenty miles west of Jerusalem. In addition, the Torat Chaim Yeshiva, formerly located in Neve Dekalim, the largest settlement in Gaza, relocated to a new home in a formerly closed school in Yad Binyamin. Almost instantly, a small, lazy town of thirty families found itself host to a community several times its size with a yeshiva to boot. The residents of Ganei Tal settled into their new, albeit tiny homes, tried to find jobs, and rebuild their lives following their eviction from the only home that they had known.
This being Israel, someone realized that there might be money to make in Yad Binyamin. And he – actually they -- were right. Yad Binyamin presented a wonderful real estate opportunity. Just a forty-minute drive from Jerusalem, thirty from Tel Aviv and sitting right on the brand new Highway 6, Yad Binyamin could offer large, spacious homes within reasonable commuting distance of good jobs. Moreover, with the yeshiva anchoring the community and the Israeli residents of Ganei Tal serving as a base, the community would attract Torah oriented religious Zionists looking to buy new homes outside of the regular overpopulated areas. Two years ago the building began, and Yad Binyamin has experienced a tremendous period of growth and expansion – as well as skyrocketing home values for those lucky enough to have bought their homes on paper at the beginning.
Today, Yad Binyamin continues to expand at a breathtaking pace. New families move into their homes weekly. I watch from my back porch as the construction on our new shul continues apace, hopefully to be completed in time for Rosh Hashanah. Today, the residents of Ganei Tal find themselves not on the outskirts of Yad Binyamin, but in the heart of town. Their arrival marked the beginning of the explosive growth of Yad Binyamin. Without their presence, I have no doubt that I would not be living here either.
Having just moved into my new home – large by Israeli standards, I walked to shul one morning through the caravilla-town of the residents of Ganei Tal, and realized that these residents lived not in nice homes, of brick and concrete like mine, but temporary small homes made from converted trailers. This past Shabbat my son said to me, again while walking to shul, that it was a good thing that we didn’t live in one of those houses. “Why?” I asked him. “Because our lift container was almost as big as those houses. There’s no way that we would have been able to fit our stuff into one.” Of course he was right. Our lift (a forty-footer, holding way too much stuff) was indeed almost as big as a trailer. And these people have lived in these trailers, every day of the year for the past three years, still waiting for their government to approve the construction of their new homes.
Last night, after reading Eichah, I visited the exhibit just put on display by the residents of Ganei Tal about their yishuv. I found myself unexpectedly, but profoundly moved. The exhibit graphically describes the birth of their yishuv in 1970, literally out of the sands of Gaza. They displaced no one. They took no unclaimed land. The Arabs of the area, they told me, informed them that the last people to plant successfully in the sands of Gaza were Abraham and Isaac. And yet they planted – and the earth, at least in their hothouses – sprouted forth. Every progressive photo documents the growth of the yishuv, the construction of even more and larger hothouses, to accommodate their ever-expanding agricultural industry.
Of course, on tables lie burnt shells and rockets; mortars that landed within the yishuv, fired at the residents for the crime of living in Gaza. And finally, the wall of the fallen; men and women who died in terrorist attacks, living their daily lives, traveling to work or walking near their homes. There aren’t many – five or six. But that’s five or six too many.
I learned about some of daily life in Ganei Tal; the community center, the makolet (small store); the municipal building and the shul. Another wall simply presents pictures of houses – beautiful homes, large even by American standards. The homes were surrounded by green grass, plants, trees – an oasis in the desert.
And as I looked at those pictures – those magnificent, gorgeous homes, I thougt of the homes the very same residents occupy today, a fraction of the size, stuck in the center of a town, as nice as it is, that they did not choose. And I turned to the next wall – a wall of Ganei Tal today – to find pictures of piles of rubble where homes once stood, and the shul – the only building left standing by the Israelis - now a shell of concrete, looted of any material that might be of any value.
Today, on Tisha B’av, I find my mind filled with thought of the people of Ganei Tal. My feelings are not really political. While I realize that many Israelis seethe with anger over the disengagement and even dream of returning to Gaza when the army inevitably reenters Gaza, I’m not so sure. In some ways, we’re far better off without the responsibility and demographic obligations of a million and a half Arabs who hate us. But Tisha B’av isn’t about politics. It’s about national and personal suffering. And as a nation – as a people, we suffered for two reasons: we suffered because the government of Israel felt that we needed to destroy Jewish communities, for whatever reason; and we suffered because we caused wonderful people, our Jewish brothers and sisters – immeasurable pain, pain that they still feel to this day, and probably will feel for the rest of their lives.
In America, I never gave them a second thought. Tsk, tsk – a terrible thing, the evacuation from Gaza. But these are real people, with real challenges and problems, struggling to make a life for themselves each and every day. And on Tisha B’av we need to ask the important questions: what did we do to cause their suffering? How did our behavior fail to save them, and us, from their fate? And, perhaps most importantly of all, what will we change to ensure that what happened to the people - the mothers and fathers and children of Ganei Tal, never happens again?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Thoughts on Fairness, Ethics and Jewish Leadership - Parshat Pinchas 5768

With the gut-wrenching swap this week between Hizbullah and the government of Israel, I felt motivated to write this piece about the nature of Jewish leadership and the ethical and moral commitment that we have to our soldiers, wherever they may be.
May the memories of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev be a source of strength for the Jewish people.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

News as Entertainment - the Newseum in Washington

Last week, we took some time to visit the Newseum, the brand new museum dedicated to news opened sponsored by a consortium of organizations. Surprise, surprise -- the museum was "pro-news". Go figure. Actually, I enjoyed it quite a bit. I am, after all, a bit of a news junkie. But I found that the museum was more interested in the actual news events themselves than the way that news is covered per se.
Most alarmingly, I didn't see any attention given to the shortening and changing nature of news - and especially television news. It has become increasingly clear that the attention span of the average viewer has become increasingly shorter as time progresses. Yet, the museum did not really address the gradual shift from news coverage to sound bites and formulaic coverage. While the 4D infotainment movie about the news (straight out of Epcot Center and Universal Studios) was certainly fun and highlighted the contributions of Edward R. Murrow and the investigative reporting of Nellie Bly, the museum conveniently neglected the shrinking budgets of news services, increasing reliance on blogging, and the near eradication of investigative reporting.
A former member of mine (I left the shul, not her) recently left the newspaper business for precisely that reason; the lack of reporting integrity, the increasing pressure of coming in on deadline, and the inability to have the time and resources to do true community reporting.
The museum was certainly flashy and entertaining, but it lacked a sense of depth and seriousness in covering the news.
Kind of like news coverage itself. I guess in that way the Newseum presents an accurate depiction of the news.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Rest Stop on the Jersey Turnpike

Passing by a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike - I think that it was the Woodrow Wilson stop, Rena wondered alound how they decide who to name the rest stops after. I wondered in response whether in fact it was an honor, and whether one could refuse. I imagine the following conversation.
"We'd like to name a rest stop after you."

Long pause.

"Gee...thanks. Can you think of something else?"