Saturday, February 28, 2009

Studying Navi?

Rabbi Shalom Carmy, in his introduction to the new edition of Tradition, throws in a spot-on comment about the study of Navi.
Likewise, speakers and audiences at home in halakhic discourse, who feel obligated to spend time studying Tanakh, but find themselves at sea in the unfamiliar world of Biblical prose and poetry, with its relentless entanglement in moral complexity and religious crisis, often find a welcome escape from the human condition by fastening upon some halakhic question to which the text may be made pertinent.
In other words, it might be called a "navi" shiur, but if the speaker is really giving a talk about an interesting halachic issue that rises from the text (e.g. - studying the story of Shaul's suicide, discussing the halachic issues of suicide in battle), are you really studying Navi? Or is it just a halachah shiur in different clothes? And why call it a "navi" shiur anyway?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Most Ridiculous Label Translation - Episode 1

Rena asked me to pick up some garlic powder at the grocery store. Granulated Garlic - got it. In Hebrew that's שום גבישי. But I just couldn't resist buying the product right next to it, which in Hebrew is שום טחון. But in English it's...
Ground Farfic? What is a farfic?
Posted by Picasa

Kedushah and Candy Bags - Table Talk for Terumah 5769

By Rabbi Reuven Spolter

Back when I lived in Michigan, one of my sons to studied Kung Fu in a local dojo. One way that they projected the seriousness of martial arts was in the established "sanctity of space" surrounding the dojo. Administrators politely but firmly discouraged cell phone use anywhere in the building. Neither students nor visitors were permitted to wear shoes on the workout mat. These and other minor but firmly enforced rules conveyed the tangible message to students that this dojo was a serious place for serious personal growth. Not surprisingly, this was the most successful martial arts center in Southeastern Michigan. Because the sifu (master) took his craft seriously, his students followed suit and grew both physically and spiritually during their time in the dojo.
After a while, I realized just how similar the dojo's rules are to the halachot related to kedushat beit hakenesset (sanctity of the shul). Halachah establishes very clear and firm rules about the sanctity of the Beit Hakeneset. The Shulchan Aruch (see אורח חיים סימן קנ"א) writes that in a Beit Kenesset:
1. One may not act with frivolity or light-headedness.
2. One may not discuss mundane or trivial matters, like business or world events.
3. One may not eat or drink.
4. One may not kiss his young children – really. (See רמ"א אורח חיים סי' צ"א סעיף א')
Chazal instituted these rules for a very specific reason: the way that we treat and relate to our Beit Hakeneset directly influences not only how we behave there, but how we use that space to relate to Hashem.
I raise this issue because the words of the Sefer Hachinuch on Parshat Terumah caught my attention. Terumah (and Tetzaveh, Vayakhel and Pekudei) relate the blueprints for and construction of the mishkan. But even before they delve into any of the details of the mishkan, Chazal confront a critical introductory question addressed by Shlomo Hamelech at the dedication of the first Beit Hamikdash in Yerushalayim. Why does Hashem command the construction of the Mishkan at all? After all,
כִּי, הַאֻמְנָם, יֵשֵׁב אֱלֹהִים, עַל-הָאָרֶץ; הִנֵּה הַשָּׁמַיִם וּשְׁמֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם, לֹא יְכַלְכְּלוּךָ--אַף, כִּי-הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בָּנִיתִי
But will God in very truth dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You; how much less this house that I have built!
Sefer Hachinuch, (see Mitzvah 95) in a long and powerful essay worth reading, explains that while Hashem doesn't need a Beit Hamikdash, we certainly do.
הלא ידועים הדברים וברורים שהכל להכשר גופותינו, כי הגופות יוכשרו על ידי הפעולות, וברבות הפעולות הטובות ורוב התמדתן מחשבות הלב מטהרות מתלבנות מזדקקות. והשם חפץ בטובתן של בריות כמו שאמרנו, ועל כן ציונו לקבוע מקום שיהיה טהור ונקי בתכלית הנקיות, לטהר שם מחשבות בני איש ולתקן לבבם אליו בו...ומתוך הכשר המעשה וטהרת המחשבה שיהיה לנו שם יעלה שכלינו אל הדבקות עם השכל העליוני
Behold these ideas are well-known and clear, that all of this is for the preparation and perfection of our bodies. For the body is prepared through action, and with these continued good acts and their continued steady practice, the thoughts of the heart are purified, clarified and refined. God desires the benefit of [His] creations, as we have said, and therefore He commanded us to set aside a place that will be pure and clean in the greatest possible cleanliness, to purify there the thoughts of man and to refine their hearts toward Him…And through this preparation of action and purification of thought we will have there, we will exalt our intellect to cling with the Exalted Intellect.
Hashem commands us to build a Mishkan and Beit Hamikdash to give us a place completely and totally devoted to our spiritual development. We treat that place with reverence, respect and purity because we need that purity to leads us towards Hashem.

The comments of the Chinuch resonate strongly with me this week. Last Shabbat in my shul in Yad Binyamin, we celebrated the Bar Mitzvah of the son of a neighbor. After the kriat hatorah came the compulsory candy-throwing and the literally dozens of children writhing on the ground, lunging for toffees. In one sense, it was a beautiful scene: a shul packed with children celebrating a young man's entrance into the ranks of Jewish men. But in the real world, pandemonium ensued. Kids ran everywhere, diving between benches at stray candies. Girls threw candy at the men. Men threw candy at men. The davening stopped completely, and even when prayer resumed, it would be hard to argue that many other than the chazzan were actually praying for a long while.
Commenting on the prohibition to kiss your children in shul the Mishnah Berurah writes,
בשל"ה קורא תגר על המביאים ילדים לבהכ"נ והיינו קטנים שעדיין לא הגיעו לחינוך מטעם כי הילדים משחקים ומרקדים בבהכ"נ ומחללים קדושת בהכ"נ וגם מבלבלים דעת המתפללים ועוד גם כי יזקינו לא יסוקו ממנהגם הרע אשר נתחנכו בילדותם להשתגע ולבזות קדושת בהכ"נ אבל כשהגיעו לחינוך אדרבה יביאנו אתו לבהכ"נ וילמדהו אורחות חיים לישב באימה וביראה
The Shelah strongly criticizes those who bring their children to shul – and this refers to those children who have yet to reach the age of education. This is because small children play and dance in shul and desecrate the holiness of the shul. They also disturb the concentration of those who are praying. Moreover, when they grow older they will not abandon the bad habits that they learned as children, to go crazy and denigrate the sanctity of the shul. But when they reach the age of education quite the opposite is true: one should bring [his children] to shul and teach them the way of life, to sit with awe and fear.
Reading the wise words of the Chafetz Chaim, I realize: I am one of those children. My entire generation grew up chasing candy in shul, wandering the aisles waiting for davening to end. True, at least we were in shul. But can we truly claim that we treat our shuls today with a level of sanctity that encourages an atmosphere of sanctity and seriousness that brings us closer to Hashem? Do we honestly refrain from frivolous talk in shul? Do we turn off our cell phones before we enter (that's mostly for men during the week) or do we text quick answers during chazarat hashatz?
And, perhaps even more importantly, are we raising our children in exactly the same way? Or will we prevent them from repeating our mistakes? Consider these questions the next time you (unwittingly) go to kiss your beautiful baby in shul on Shabbat morning.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Personal Parshah Terumah 5769 - Life Lessons from the Aron

This week's shiur:
Parshat Terumah: Life Lessons from the Aron
The Aron - the ark that held the luchot, conveys critical messages to us about the way we can lead more meaningful and spiritual lives. In this shuir we focus on the subtle but critical messages hidden in the text describing the blueprints for the aron - and how this relates to Jewish day schools, raising children, and learning in kollel. Really.

You can click on the player to play the file, or right click here to download the file and play it on your mp3 player.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Small Steps - Table Talk for Mishpatim 5769

It's gotten so bad that I can't even listen to the news anymore.
If you thought that new elections in Israel would break the political gridlock and move the country forward, you thought wrong. We don't even know who won. Likud? Labor? Lieberman. Who knows? Even Shimon Peres said that he was wrong this week. I think moshiach really might be coming!
And if we thought that we could record some progress on our end, our enemies certainly aren't going anywhere. Gilad Shalit remains in the blood-stained hands of Hamas, who hold him to extort the release of still more murderers. Hizballah and Iran continue to mass weapons and technology. Arab citizens in Israel supported Hamas during our last war. It just doesn’t seem to end, leading to a sense of weariness – and despondency.
That's where a pasuk in this week's parshah can help. Describing the process of entering the Land of Israel, Hashem tells Moshe that,
אֶת-אֵימָתִי, אֲשַׁלַּח לְפָנֶיךָ, וְהַמֹּתִי אֶת-כָּל-הָעָם, אֲשֶׁר תָּבֹא בָּהֶם; וְנָתַתִּי אֶת-כָּל-אֹיְבֶיךָ אֵלֶיךָ, עֹרֶף. וְשָׁלַחְתִּי אֶת-הַצִּרְעָה, לְפָנֶיךָ; וְגֵרְשָׁה, אֶת-הַחִוִּי אֶת-הַכְּנַעֲנִי וְאֶת-הַחִתִּי--מִלְּפָנֶיךָ.
I will send My terror before you, and will confus all the people to whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. And I will send the hornet before you, which shall drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite, from before you. (Shemot 23:27-28)
Sounds good. I like the idea of my enemies, confused and dazed, running away from me chased by a swarm of hornets. If only. But then we read on:
לֹא אֲגָרְשֶׁנּוּ מִפָּנֶיךָ, בְּשָׁנָה אֶחָת: פֶּן-תִּהְיֶה הָאָרֶץ שְׁמָמָה, וְרַבָּה עָלֶיךָ חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה. מְעַט מְעַט אֲגָרְשֶׁנּוּ, מִפָּנֶיךָ, עַד אֲשֶׁר תִּפְרֶה, וְנָחַלְתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ.
I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the beasts of the field multiply against you. By little and little I will drive them out from before you, until you increase and inherit the land. (Shemot 23:29-30)
Why not? Why not just get rid of our enemies in one fell swoop, driving them out in an instant? Wouldn't it be easier for the Jewish people to enter an empty land, ready for them to settle and develop? Couldn't we actualize the Zionist Dream if we didn't have to keep fighting the Arabs all the time? Ironically, we could not. Commenting on these pesukim Abarbanel explains,
שלא יחשבו ישראל שפתע פתאום יהיו כל העממים מגורשים מן הארץ, וכאשר לא יהיה כן יאמרו כי מבלתי יכולת ה' לא גורשו משם. לכן אמר: "לא אגרשנו מפניך בשנה אחת", אך "מעט מעט אגרשנו מפני
So that Israel will not think that suddenly all of the nations will suddenly be driven out of the land – and when that did not happen they will say that they were not driven out because God was unable to do so. [For this reason it says] "I will not drive them out in one year" rather, "little by little I will drive them out."
While we would love the redemption and conquest of Israel to be an instantaneous and cataclysmic event, we also want it to be real and lasting. And you can't have both. Life just doesn't work that way. Your wedding day (if you're married) was amazing. Mine sure was terrific – what I remember of it. The chuppah, the dancing, the food. Actually, we didn't have a chance to eat any of the food, but no matter. If you ask yourself whether your wedding was the most significant event in your relationship with your spouse, I hope you'll say no. It's never one specific event, as great as each one may be. Rather, real relationships rise from daily life, from the ongoing joint struggle to succeed and flourish together. Flashy events, while exciting and powerful, don't create lasting impressions, nor do they create facts on the ground. Only the slow, difficult work of growth and inheritance can establish a presence that will endure.
What's true for each of us in our personal lives certainly holds true for the Jewish people as a nation. It won't happen in a day or a year, and not even in sixty. We need to "grow and inherit the land." We're not there yet – physically, spiritually or religiously. But every time I drive to work up a modern highway, dotted with flourishing companies, green farms and growing businesses, I feel that we've taken one step closer to that goal. Every day that we continue to take the small steps each and every day: to build another school, another community, another business, another home, another student and another teacher, we inch ever closer to Hashem's promise in the Torah:
וְשַׁתִּי אֶת-גְּבֻלְךָ, מִיַּם-סוּף וְעַד-יָם פְּלִשְׁתִּים, וּמִמִּדְבָּר, עַד-הַנָּהָר
And I will set your border from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the River.
אמן כן יהי רצון.

Bugs Still in Your Food

In my last post about bugs in your food, I noted the "clear and present danger" of violating many Torah prohibitions in the consumption of garden-variety salad. ;- )
Surprised I was to then see a web post on a mailing list from Michigan that I still belong to, offering a solution to the problem. At least it seemed that way.
Yes, it's PestCatch™ - a new system approved by major kashrut organizations for insect checking. Sounds like the end to our problems. After all, you just stick your salad into the device, run it, and the produce is kosher and ready to eat, right?
It turns out that PestCatch™ is only a system for checking bugs. Basically, you still have to wash the salad, rinse it and check the water for bugs. That's how we would do it. But now, instead of checking the water, you can check the filter in the bottom of the bucket for bugs, with the included magnifying glass. (Why you'd want to use a magnifying glass I have no idea. Isn't the whole point that it's not treif if you can't see the bug with the naked eye? But I digress.)
Listen to the endorsement of the Badatz Iggud Rabbanim of England:
“I am pleased to endorse the use of PestCatch™ tool for the verification of vegetables and fruit that require checking for infestation. When used as per the instructions included with it, the tool is a very effective and time-saving method to ascertain the freedom from infestation for produce that can be cleaned by a proper washing process prior to verification with the PestCatch™ tool. I would however comment that where one starts with a product that is knowingly infested one should have two consecutive clean PestCatch™ filter tests before approving the use of the product.”

Some endorsement. But there's more. On the web site itself the following note appears:
Important Note:
The PestCatch™ device is a TESTING device to determine small pest infestation level. It is NOT a produce-cleaning tool. Also, please note that while PestCatch™ was confirmed as an excellent verification tool which will give high confidence and probability, it does not guarantee 100% success in detecting bugs, many times it depends on the use, inspection method and other external factors.
So, it's only for testing. And to be honest, it really doesn't work 100% of the time. And you might not use it correctly anyway.
It this false advertising? Not really. They do tell the truth. But stating that the product has the endorsements of these major kashrut organizations gives the impression that using it will make your salad kosher. Which it won't.
That's a job that you have to do yourself, with a bowl, some water, soap and really good eyes. And a magnifying glass. There I go again.

Disclosure notice: I am not an owner of PestCatch™ nor do I have any financial interest in this endeavor - if that wasn't already clear from this post. This post is not to be construed as a recommendation for or against the use of this product. Please use it only in a safe, sanitary kitchen environment. ChoppingWood takes no spiritual responsibility for any bugs consumed as a result of the improper or proper use of the PestCatch™ system. All right reserved. Copyright 2009. Have a good day.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Personal Parshah Audio: Parshat Mishpatim - Medicine and Faith

This week's shiur:
Parshat Mishpatim: Medicine and Faith
When we get sick, we go to the doctor. Yet, how does our reliance on modern medicine affect our faith in Hashem? Is there a conflict between our spirituality and our medical insurance?
You can click on the player to play the file, or right click here to download the file and play it on your mp3 player.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Bugs in Your Breakfast. Or lunch, or dinner.

For years rabbis have tried to educate their congregants about the dangers of bugs in produce. Halachically, bugs present a major source of concern, as the knowledgeable and avoidable consumption of a bug constitutes a significant kashrut violation. (The size of the insect matters not - as long as it is a whole and visible organism, the Torah prohibits its consumption.) For more information on bugs and kashrut, there's a ton of stuff on the internet. You can check here and just google "kashrut" and "bugs" for a nice long list of information.)
Too many people have difficulty believing that produce presents a problem. Enter a recent op-ed piece in the NY Times appetizingly titled, "The Maggots in Your Mushrooms." It's a must-read for any kosher consumer, simply for it's gargantuan gross-out factor. (Are you enjoying the alliteration in this post? I'm trying.) My favorite segment:

Tomato juice, for example, may average “10 or more fly eggs per 100 grams [the equivalent of a small juice glass] or five or more fly eggs and one or more maggots.” Tomato paste and other pizza sauces are allowed a denser infestation — 30 or more fly eggs per 100 grams or 15 or more fly eggs and one or more maggots per 100 grams.

Canned mushrooms may have “over 20 or more maggots of any size per 100 grams of drained mushrooms and proportionate liquid” or “five or more maggots two millimeters or longer per 100 grams of drained mushrooms and proportionate liquid” or an “average of 75 mites” before provoking action by the F.D.A.

The sauerkraut on your hot dog may average up to 50 thrips. And when washing down those tiny, slender, winged bugs with a sip of beer, you might consider that just 10 grams of hops could have as many as 2,500 plant lice. Yum.
So, if you didn't believe the rabbis, believe the FDA. And if you're wondering: how is it that there can be kosher canned mushrooms? Wash them. And what about the sauerkraut? The kashrut organization checks the batches of cabbage to insure that the lot isn't infected - so they can rely on the halachic principle of "rov" - an assumed majority - for your particular hot dog. And what about the insect pieces in the peanut butter? Sorry - there you're out of luck. Only whole bugs are really, completely treif. Bug pieces, do not present a kashrut problem. Since they are so small and not an actual organism but only a part of one, they become halachically batel (nullified) in the butter.
So the peanut butter and jelly sandwich you sent in your daughter's lunch? Kosher - but not necessarily bug free. Be'tayavon!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

New Audio Series: Personal Parshah - Parshat Yitro

Join the women of Yad Binyamin for a new audio series that will (hopefully) appear each week. In this shiur we will look at the weekly Torah portion with an eye towards learning valuable and important lessons that affect our daily lives.

This week's shiur:
Parshat Yitro: Protective Parenting - Benefits and Dangers
In this shiur, we examine the challenge of parenting and leadership, and the challenges and conflicts that these dual roles raised for Moshe - and for each of us.

You can click on the player to play the file, or right click here to download the file and play it on your mp3 player.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

On the Wings of Eagles - Table Talk for Yitro

Having lived through the recent Gaza war, Israel has seen its share of miraculous events. The story of the "mysterious woman" who saved numerous soldiers in Gaza has made the rounds around the world. Even less overtly miraculous events surrounded the Gaza War. When describing the recovery of 2nd Lieutenant Aharon Karov, "Doctors at Beillinson Hospital in Petah Tikvah called the soldier's rapid recovery miraculous." Other miracles occurred as well that Parshat Yitro allude to.
When introducing the giving of the Torah to Moshe and the Jewish People Hashem tells him,
כֹּה תֹאמַר לְבֵית יַעֲקֹב, וְתַגֵּיד לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם, אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי לְמִצְרָיִם; וָאֶשָּׂא אֶתְכֶם עַל-כַּנְפֵי נְשָׁרִים, וָאָבִא אֶתְכֶם אֵלָי. (שמות י"ט:ד-ה)
"So you shall say to the house of Ya'akov and tell the Children of Israel: You saw that which I did to Egypt; and I carried you on the wings of eagles and I brought you to me." (Shemot 19:4-5)
Commentators wonder what Hashem means when he refers to carrying the people "On the wings of eagles." When did He carry the people at all? (Nowadays, as we fly to Israel in comfort on 777s, we have no trouble envisioning that image. But what did the Torah mean back then?) Different parshanim offer a number of possibilities, all of them figuratively.
Seforno explains the term in terms of uncharted territory: just as an eagle flies where no other bird can, so too did Hashem separate the Jewish people from the rest of the nations to bring them close to Him. Ibn Ezra sees the term as a symbol of strength - and of slow travel. The eagle cowers before no other bird, so he travels at his own deliberate pace without fear of attack. Similarly, Hashem could lead the Jewish people at a leisurely pace without fear of external attack.
Rashi also interprets the phrase symbolically, but in doing so offers us a new insight into the Divine protection that Hashem gives His people. Says Rashi,
כנשר הנושא גוזליו על כנפיו שכל שאר העופות נותנים את בניהם בין רגליהם לפי שמתיראין מעוף אחר שפורח על גביהם אבל הנשר הזה אינו מתירא אלא מן האדם שמא יזרוק בו חץ לפי שאין עוף אחר פורח על גביו לכך נותנו על כנפיו אומר מוטב יכנס החץ בי ולא בבני. אף אני עשיתי כן ויסע מלאך האלהים וגו' ויבא בין מחנה מצרים וגו' והיו מצרים זורקים חצים ואבני בליסטראות והענן מקבלם:
Like the eagle that carries his young on his wings; for all the other birds put their young between their feet, because they fear another bird flying above them. But this eagle only fears man, who may shoot an arrow (from below), for no other bird flies above her. For this reason she places her young on her wings saying, "It is better that the arrow should enter me than my child." So too – says God – did I do, (as it is written) "and the angel of God traveled…and he came between he camp of Egypt and the Jewish camp…" The Egyptians would shoot arrows and catapult stones – and the cloud would absorb them.
In other words, the "wings of eagles" formed a sort of shield, protecting the Jewish nation from external attack. No matter what the Egyptians fired at the people – whether weaker arrows or more powerful boulders – the projectiles continually missed their mark.
Does that sound familiar? To anyone living in Israel over the past few months, it's been a daily phenomenon. While we can never minimize the suffering of people who fell victim to Hamas attacks, time and time again the news would report multiple attacks and conclude the report by telling us that the rocket or mortar fell in an open area and end with the phrase, איש לא נפגע – "no injuries." Several times rockets fell in schools with no children in them. On days that school did meet the rockets fell out of range. Since 2005, Hamas has launched over 6,800 rockets and mortars into Israel. In 2008 3,278 rockets and mortar shells landed in Israeli territory. And while even one death is a tragedy, and Israelis have been injured and suffered from shock and trauma, the low, almost miniscule number of fatalities and injuries that we have suffered from such a withering attack is nothing short of miraculous.
It's almost like we're sitting "on the wings of eagles."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Tu B'shvat - Thoughts on Growth and Patience

Living in Yad Binyamin is watching Israel sprout before my eyes. As a very new and growing yishuv, the town offers something new to see every day. New houses rise; new roads and sidewalks span the homes. New parks sprout and even our new shul brings something new - a new bookcase, new elevator. It's the excitement of building and growth.
We also have many new trees. After paving the roads and laying the brick sidewalk, the town planted new trees. I guess the way they plant these trees is that they grow them in a nursery until a certain age. Then they trim the trees down to their branches leaving them no leaves at all, dig them up and transport them for replanting.
These new trees always strike me as kind of sad, naked. Someone stripped their leaves, uprooted them from the ground and moved them to a strange place. So each day as I ride (or walk) past them, I look carefully for some sign of growth. Are there any new leaves? Have they acclimated enough to their new environment to begin to grow anew. As of this writing, not yet. But they will.
Last week we got new plants (actaually plants) in our yard - a bush outside our window, climbers near the fence, and even a lemon tree (We're still waiting for the grass.) These plants arrived at a far younger age, alive with leaves and even flowers. And though only a few days have passed since their relocation, I have already noticed new growth; a new set of leaves - a new sprouting of branches.
And then I realized that we are those trees. Young plants grow. It's what they do almost regardless of their environment. Just give them some water and sunlight, and they're off. But older trees have already adjusted to their location. You can't just uproot them and expect them to pick up where they left off. They need time to adjust to their new surroundings - to take root in the new soil, to sprout new leaves. In a very real way they can't pick up where they left off. They need to start anew, with a new set of leaves that match their new climate and environment.
Tu B'shvat is a weird holiday. In America, other than not saying tachanun that day, Tu B'shvat passed with barely a notice. I'm not even that big a fan of the Seder Tu B'shvat that has regained popularity over the years. Sure, it's based on some kabbalistic customs from 500 years ago in Tzfat. But sitting around a table eating buxer and drinking wine always felt kind of forced to me, and still does.
This year we celebrated Tu B'shvat with our neighbors, sitting outside together eating and enjoying the fruit and the company. Today, the day after Tu B'shvat, as I read a Sefer in shul that clearly correlated people to trees, I came to see that from a certain perspective, Tu B'shvat is about us. כִּי הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה -- For man is like the tree of the field (Devarim 20:19) Chazal understood this verse to compare human beings to trees in numerous ways: the fruit that they can give, their responsibility to the world at large. But they bring us smaller lessons as well. On some level, Tu B'shvat reminds us just how similar we are to the plant world - and how much we must learn from them.
My children remind me of those young plants in my garden. I uprooted them from their home, from their friends and their language. But they're young - they hadn't yet planted deep roots. And we've brought them to a place with plenty of water and sun - and they've truly begun to blossom; to learn the language, grow in Torah, make new friends and acclimate to their new environment.
But adults aren't so easy. In a way, we really did have to strip our leaves down to the branches and start to grow anew. We really are Americans - culturally, educationally, intellectually. We think differently than Israelis. We see different problems - and very different solutions that don't always work here. Workplaces run on different assumptions and values that don't always translate. Community dynamics seem very different as well.
And most importantly for me, finding my personal identity hasn't been easy. In Detroit I was the rabbi. I had a place and a role. Here things seem much more murky. I give shiurim and answer questions, but I dress casually and don't feel obligated towards others. My job is a struggle, learning my new environment and trying to find ways to contribute meaningfully.
Still, I'm meeting more people, getting to know my surroundings better. And hopefully soon, leaves will start to sprout. And, like the trees, it's going to take some patience.
The leaves don't come out right away. But if all goes well and I can find that patience, they will come, and my growth might be slow, but steady and real.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Really, Really Scary Statistics

I saw the following in a recent article in the New York Times:

Consider that the average American household consists of 2.7 persons and contains 2.9 television sets, in front of which we sit for record-setting spells, according to Nielsen figures. In the quarter ended Sept. 30, the typical American watched 142 hours of television monthly, up about five hours from the same quarter the previous year. Internet use averaged more than 27 hours monthly, an increase of an hour and a half, according to Nielsen.

We are so smitten with screens that we often can’t bear to choose one over another: 31 percent of Internet use occurs while we’re in front of a TV set. We are also taking an interest in watching video on our phones: 100 million handsets are video-capable.
Adding those two numbers together means that the typical American spent 169 hours a month sitting passively in front of a screen. Take away the 31 percent of double-dippers, that still leaves us with an average of 160 hours a month screen-sitting. That's over 5 hours a day. I'm still trying to figure it out. Let's say you sleep 6 hours a day. Work, including travel should take something like 10 hours a day. That leaves 8 hours left - and five of them are in front of the television. Could these statistics in some way contribute to our economic malaise? Is it possible that America has stopped producing because it's more interested in relaxing than working? Other than debatably-good entertainment, what does America really produce all that well anymore? Cars? Clothes? Pots and pans? Not anymore.
Religious Jews have to ask a more probing question: how is all this TV making me a better person or a better Jew? How is it bringing me closer to God? How is it contributing to the education and spiritual and personal growth of my children?
In my home we do watch vidoes; we used to watch DVDs from Netflix, but they don't ship to Israel. So now we watch select shows over the web. The reason we got rid of broadcast TV is because we found that it began to control us. What started as a reasonable hour of relaxation at 10pm would somehow turn into a silly episode of whatever's on at midnight. Why? Because TV is designed to do one thing, and it does it really, really well: get you to keep watching. Just one more show. Just one more ad. Just another hour. And contrary to what we think, they choose what we watch, not us.
Is it so hard to get rid of? Perform an experiement. Leave the DVD player connected, but disconnect the antenna for a month. I guarantee that you're life won't be worse. You want to watch something: pop in a DVD. But measure the following during the month:
How much more time did you spend with your children?
How much more time did your kids spend reading, or playing outside, or building?
How many more real conversations did you have with your spouse?
How much more sleep did you get?
If you can't unplug for just a month - that's a sign of a far deeper problem.
I have an even more perplexing question: If Americans watch TV or surf the web for five of the eight non-work/sleep hours of the day, what do they do during the other three hours?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Kosher Phones II - The Next Big Thing That Won't Be in a Kosher Phone

In this post (on our aliyah blog), I described how we purchased kosher cellphones to save money. And save money they have, at the expense of being able to use SMS - which is basically text-messaging. All kosher phones have their text-messaging capabilities disabled.
It's hard to describe how pervasive text messaging really is here. People use it for all sorts of daily needs. Just a couple of examples:
  • When our kids won't be in school (due to illness, a day off, etc.), you're supposed to SMS the school. We don't have SMS, so they let us call in by phone. But they never answer the phone and never check the voicemail, so we always get a call anyway informing us that our children didn't show up at school.
  • Bezalel's afterschool chug often changes time and location. The head of the chug doesn't like to call people - it's a pain. But he has no problem sending SMS messages.
Why can't our cellphones use SMS? I have no idea. For some reason, the powers that be figured that they could be use to send illicit messages, so they banned them on kosher phones.
I have never really understood this kind of logic, because by that thinking, cellphones themselves should be banned. After all, think of all the terrible things that people do over the phone: there's lashon hara, nivul peh, rechilut, theft, lying, inappropriate sexual speech - the list goes on and on. By the same token though, the phone offers all kinds of positive benefits as well: Torah learning, bikkur cholim, comforting the mourner, saving lives in an emergency - that's a long list as well.
I'm a big fan of Wired Magazine. So I asked my mother - who's visiting - to pick me up a copy of the latest issue at the airport, which she did. I discovered a new technology that will clearly not be included in the next kosherphone: GPS. Currently, many new cellphone models have the ability to know their own location, opening up a world of new applications. You can find out where the closest gas station is, where the speedtraps are on the highways - the list is endless. There's even a mitzvah component to all of this.
On a recent visit to the States, my cousin, cellphone guru Avi Greengart, showed me a new app that he bought for his iPhone. (He gets this stuff pretty much always for free to review, so if he buys something, he must really like it.) He showed me his new siddur application for the iPhone, which not only has the siddur itself, but because it knows where you are, it will tell you the exaxt zmanim for your location, and also connect to a minyan database and tell you where the next minyanim are closest to your location. That's an amazing application!
And today I came across the following quote in this article in Wired:
I love tinkering with new gadgets and diving into new applications. But WhosHere had me stumped. It's an iPhone app that knows where you are, shows you other users nearby, and lets you chat with them. Once it was installed and running, I drew a blank. What was I going to do with this thing?
So I asked for some help. I started messaging random people within a mile of my location (37.781641 °N, 122.393835 °W), asking what they used WhosHere for.
My first response came from someone named Bridget, who, according to her profile, at least, was a 25 year-old woman with a proclivity for scarves. "To find sex, #$%hole," she wrote.
"I'm sorry? You mean it's for finding people to have sex with?" I zapped back. "Yes, I use it for that," she wrote.
So is GPS technology good, because it can help you find the latest minyan or closest daf yomi? Because it can save your life if you need help and don't know where you are? Or is it terrible because you can use it to solicit sexual encounters with strangers? When do the positives outweigh the negatives? These are difficult questions to answer. Somehow, the need to talk on the phone is so critical that the positives outweigh the negatives. But the benefits of texting do not. (Personally, I think that all new technologies start out as "assur" and gradually gain acceptance. When the positives become clear and unequivocal, then the chareidi community can adopt that technology. Otherwise, if the benefits are dubious and the risks overwhelming, the negative outweighs the positive.) The answer to these questions must depend on the predominant uses of a given technology, the positives and negatives, and be a of formula based on:
(the potential benefits of the technology) + (the actual way the technology is normally used) - (the potential hazards of the technology)
We cannot attribute either benefit or evil to any particular technology per se. Technology itself is neutral. What's good or bad is how we decide to use that technology. Each of us must answer that question before we decide to bring a new gadget, device or capability into our homes and lives.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Fighting Our Fears - Devar Torah for Beshalach 5769

Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.
Why did the Jewish people cross the Yam Suf? You might think that they also crossed the sea to get to the other side, away from the charging Egyptian army. Chizkuni (on Shemot 14:22) didn't think so. In fact, he says that they didn't go to the other side at all.
לא שעברו בני ישראל את הים על דרך רוחבן, כי ידוע שאין הים מפסיק בין ארץ מצרים ובין ארץ כנען.
It is not that the Children of Israel crossed the sea at its length, for it is known that this sea does not divide between Egypt and Canaan.
Rabbi Aryeh Carmel, in a really interesting article that appears on the Da'at website, explains that this position in Rishonim emanates from a detailed Tosfot (ערכין ט"ו עמוד א' ד"ה כשם) that makes the same claim:
ואומר ר' בשם אביו רבי שמואל שישראל לא עברו הים לרחבו מצד זה לזה שא"כ היו ממהרים ללכת אל א"י אלא רצועה אחת עברו בים לאורך הים עד שפנו למדבר לצד אחד
And Rebbe said in the name of his father Rabbi Shmuel that the [Children of] Israel did not cross the sea lengthwise from one side to the other, for if so they would have hurried towards the Land of Israel. Rather, they passed through a single strip in the sea at its length, until they returned to the desert on the same side.
Rav Carmel suggests that Tosfot's view emanates from a misunderstanding of the geography of the terrain. (If you actually look up the Tosfot you'll see a really wild map of the Middle East – far stranger even than some of the maps you see from the U.N.) Using modern maps Rabbi Carmel suggests that the Jews did actually cross the sea lengthwise after having doubled back. See the dotted route on the map.
I'd like to ask a simple question: Even based on Rav Carmel's calculation of the route out of Egypt, the Jewish people really didn't have to cross through the Yam Suf. They could have easily continued through the Sinai Desert without crossing any body of water at all. Although amazing miracle and historical, what prompts Hashem to generate such a fantastic, yet unnecessary spectacle? Chizkuni answers:
אלא לא היה צורך שיכנסו בו, רק כדי שיכנס פרעה אחריהם ויטבע. ונכנסו בו חצי עגול, שהרי ממדבר איתם נכנסו לים וממדבר איתם חזרו מן הים.
Rather, there was no need for them to enter [the sea], except so that Par'oh would follow them and drown. And they entered in a half-circle – for they entered from the Eitam Desert, and returned to the Eitam Desert from the sea.
Why did we have to enter into the Yam Suf? The greatest miracle in the history of the Jewish people was a simple gimmick to lure the Egyptians to their watery deaths. The miraculous crossing was actually a massive military victory geared to inspire fear and awe across the globe.
But what about the Jews? Couldn't Hashem have spared them the agony and anguish of being chased through the desert? Why did Hashem put the Jewish Nation through such a difficult and challenging experience if the entire purpose was to decimate the Egyptians? To my mind, the crossing of the Yam Suf was not only about the Egyptians: rather, it served as a lesson for the Jewish nation – and for us as well.
The other day my family went on tiyyul to עיר דוד and took an amazing tour of many centuries of Jewish history through the newly discovered walls of ancient Yerushalayim. As we descended from the main level to the lower level, we ended up standing on a raised, grated metal platform. My mother, visiting from the United States, who's not a fan of heights, sat on the side. She just didn't like walking on a grate where she could see the depths. It made her uncomfortable and nervous. She got over it.
Imagine walking not on a solid metal grate, but on water. Yes, water. Commenting on the fact that ויבקעו המים – "the water split," Chizkuni states,
"ויבקעו המים" משמע עד קרקעיתו של הים וכתוב אחד אומר: קפאו תהומות בלב ים (ט"ו:ח) דמשמע שלא נבקעו לגמרי. אלא ים זה גדוש הוא, ואילו לא נבקעו המים כלל, הוצרכו ישראל לטרוח ולעלות למעלה, ואם נבקעו לגמרי הוצרכו לירד עד תהום. לפיכך נבקע הגודש דתילתא הוי ונעשה לישראל חומה מזה ומזה.
"And the waters split" implies [that they split] down to the floor of the sea. And another verse says "the depths froze in the heart of the sea," (15:8) which implies that they did not split completely. Rather, the waters were packed together [beneath the people]. Had they not split at all, the Jews would have had to expend energy to climb above [the waters], and had they split completely they would need to descend to the depths. Therefore the waters packed "until a third" and also gathered as walls for Israel on either side.
Imagine that you're a Jew living through יציאת מצרים. One minute you're walking along on dry land, and then the next minute someone tells you to literally walk on water - between two solid walls of water rising high into the air. And don't worry, it will hold you. And stay up. And not fall crashing down on you resulting in your horrible drowning.
We'd like to imagine that we'd have no problem taking that first step between those tall walls of water. But would we casually stroll out through the Yam Suf? Or would we think twice before inching out nervously, fearfully, carefully.
For this reason, the Torah twice repeats the phrase, ומים להם חומה מימינם ומשמאלם – "and the water was for them a wall – to their left and to their right." As much as the splitting of the sea served as a sign for the rest of the world of Hashem's might and power, the event also represented both a test and a rite of passage for the Jewish people. In order to be saved, they had to believe. They had to literally put their lives in the hand of Hashem, and have total faith that He would save them. And putting your life on the line – while simple and obvious in hindsight – could not have been easy at the time.
Life is full of similar rites of passage. No, the challenges of faith are not nearly so daunting and the stakes never so high – but still. Each of us faces decisions in life where we must make a choice: to follow the path lying before us, despite the dangers – despite the tall walls of water held in place by some unseen force; or to remain firmly rooted in place, paralyzed by our fears and doubts and unwillingness to take action based on the faith we so loudly profess.
As you listen to the Torah reading this week, as yourself this question: if I didn't have the Egyptian army at my back, would I have taken the leap of faith to walk into the Yam Suf? What about the Yam Suf of my life? Have I take that fateful step despite the dangers? Will I?
Why did the "chicken" cross the road? To get to the other side.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The City of David, and It's Our Fault (like always)

With my mother in country for a visit (for my nephew's Bar Mitzvah), we took a "Bubby Day" and toured עיר דוד - the City of David, which lies just outside of the old city, and is an incredibly fascinating place and quite important if you want to understand Jewish history, the history of Yerushalayim, and many parts of Tanach. We had the good sense to hire a tour guide (what a treat!) and were fortunate enough to have Rabbi Asher Altschul, (pictured here with the kids) who just so happens to have spent a good chunk of time working for the City of David foundation both as a researcher and a tour guide. (Good tip on touring: if you want to really understand an important historical location, hire a guide. Otherwise, you're just walking around looking at a bunch of rocks. Better tip: If you really want a fascinating and exciting tour, hire someone with a passion and expertise for the material, like Asher. No, I don't have a deal worked out with him.)
I'd like to share a few somewhat unrelated comments about the day.
  • I had never been to Ir David before. Big mistake. It's a fascinating and important place. The first thing that you learn there is that what's now Yerushalayim where all the Jews live was not biblical Yerushalayim at all. Rather, in olden times (and farther back than that), Yerushalayim ended at Har Habayit (where the Temple Mount is now), and ran down the hill south (where the southern wall excavations were) all the way down the hill. This is what's now called "the Silwan" and is a predominantly Arab neighborhood. So while we fight about some neighborhoods, we really don't have that great of a foothold in the places where there is real archaelogical and historical evidence that Jews lived there for hundreds and hundreds of years. (To really get a sense of all this, see the City of David web site, which is a wonderful site that I think won some kind of web award.)
  • There was a really cool movie at the beginning, that kind of took you back to the times of the first Beit Hamikdash. Also in 3-D. Very well done.
  • During our tour, we heard a bunch of sirens and ambulances coming from far towards us. Asher inquired and heard that there was some type of "collapse" in a school. He began to fear that the collapse was caused by the archaelogical digging, and that it would somehow hurt the site and its ongoing work. Nothing of the sort. We found out later that the floor of a UN school had caved in, injuring several students, but that the incident was in no way connected to the City of David in any way. "Not to worry," I told Asher (and the lead archaeologist on the site, "I'm sure that they'll find a way to blame us." He agreed - but it was all in jest. And then I came home and saw this article on the Yediot Achronot web site. My favorite quote:

    One of the residents, Ala, whose cousin was hurt in the incident and evacuated to the hospital, offered his own explanation. "It's because the settlers are digging into the Western Wall," he told Ynet. "They dig under the earth and the Jerusalem Municipality is helping them."

    I guess I was right after all. It was our fault. And you can't make it up.