Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Graduation. From Sixth Grade.

My son graduated from sixth grade last night. First and foremost, I'm really, really proud of him. He did an amazing job studying, learning, acclimating, and growing in his first year in an Israeli school.
But the graduations have really gotten out of hand.
Full disclosure: I had both a shiur and a meeting last night, so I only suffered through a half-hour of the program. But the essential point remains accurate. But my son's sixth grade graduation, which began over half-hour late (another pet-peeve of mine), ended over three hours later.
Last week Rena was away, so I got to attend my four-year-old's "End of year ceremony." For a four-year-old. From gan. And do you want to guess what he did the very next day? That's right. He went back to gan. And what's he doing tomorrow morning, after his gan has officially "ended" today? Again, you guessed it. He's going to "camp". Oh, did I mention that "camp" is in the same building, run by the same people as "gan"? It's a good thing that he had an hour-and-a-half long "graduation".
These graduation ceremonies are really getting out of control. For some reason, schools feel the need to mark the end of the school year with a program including speeches, plays, programs, movies, dances, and anything else you can imagine. Don't get me wrong, but these programs are almost unbearable. Yet, in a grade with sixty kids, every child must have some significant role in the program, making it ever longer and more intolerable.
I celebrated three graduations in my life: high school, college and Semichah. I remember each of them (although not the college one that well), and each one marked a significant milestone in my life. When we start graduating from one year to the next, we not only assign greater significance than necessary to imaginary milestones. We also make every milestone that much less significant, making it difficult for our children to know whether they've accomplished anything at all.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Tying and Untying

A few years ago, I led an amazing trip to Israel with the members of my Eim Habanim Semeichah shiur. During the trip, we stopped at the P'til Techelet factory, where I picked up two pairs of techelet tzitzit - one for my weekday tallit, the other for my Shabbat tallit. I intended to attach them as soon as I returned, but never did. I'm pretty sure that there are some deeper psychological reasons for my not having "switched over." Or maybe I was just being lazy.
Finally, this past Friday I started the job. I went to a minyan that I thought started at 8am, but turned out to begin only at 8:30am. I had a half-hour to kill, so I started on the tzitzit.
Obviously, before I could put on new tzitzit, I had to remove the old ones. So I began to untie them, which actually took quite a long time. At one point, someone came up to me and said, "You know, you can just cut them off. That's what most people do."
I didn't mention the obvious: I didn't have any scissors with me. But there was something deeper. "Yeah - but then I can't use the old strings again if I cut them. This way, I still have usable tzitzit."
I'm not sure what it was, but there was something about the act of untying that I found particularly satisfying. It also gave me an interesting insight into the laws of Shabbat.
The Torah prohibits us from performing inherently constructive acts on Shabbat. According to many opinions, the rabbis derive the thirty-nine melachot (prohibited activities) from the construction and service in the mishkan. Among those thirty-nine are the activities of tying a knot, and untying that same knot. (I gave a shuir on the melachah of tying in my Hands-On Halachah:Hilchot Shabbat series. You can download the audio here, and the source sheets here.) While we can readily understand the constructive nature of tying, how is untying constructive? Aren't you undoing a knot - an act that's inherently destructive?
The answer, I think, is that while you might be untying the current knot, you're really preparing your rope for a new knot. In this way, untying is actually the very first act in the tying of the next knot. Because, if you really didn't need the rope anymore, instead of untying the knot, you'd simply cut the rope, rendering it useless in the future. Interestingly, cutting string or rope is certainly not prohibited from the Torah, and in some instances is actually permitted on Shabbat. (Check with your LOR - local Orthodox rabbi - for details.)
This got me thinking about the knots that we make in life - and what we do with them when we no longer need them.
Life is a process of relationships. Sometimes we use a knot for a period, but then need to move on, whether it's to a new job, a new friend, a new social group. What do we do with the old knots? It's always easiest to cut the string. It's instantaneous and painless. But then you don't have the string available, should you need it in the future.
On the other hand, untying is hard work. It takes time, and can leave our fingers blistered and frayed. (The tighter the knot was, the more difficult it can be to untie.) But that effort and energy exerted to untie the knot is a constructive act. You may no longer want the friendship - but the relationship can end on a positive note; the job may not have paid well enough, but instead of firing off a "go to hell" email, maintaining positive contacts could prove useful in the long run.
But those contacts take energy, both mental and even physical. It's the energy of untying a knot, carefully and slowly, so that the strings are still there to tie the next not should the need arise.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Wired Magazine: The Saga

I'm a big fan of Wired Magazine. Despite its self-assured arrogance and atheistic tendencies, the writing is great and always interesting, so I was a regular reader in the States. So around January, I decided that I wanted to resubscribe. My father in law was kind enough to order a gift subscription. (Thanks Dad!) And then the saga began:

to rspolter
date Wed, Jan 14, 2009 at 8:02 AM
subject Enjoy your Wired magazine gift subscription!
You have just been given a gift subscription to WIRED magazine! Visit the following link to get details... Gift link

from Reuven Spolter
to "Rosen, Philip"
date Tue, Mar 31, 2009 at 5:50 PM
Dear Dad,
Hope all is well, and that your Pesach prep goes well. I'm writing for two reasons:
1. I'm writing to see if you actually ordered the Wired Magazine - I'm pretty sure that you did, but I have yet to receive anything from them. Is there any way to contact them and see what the deal is?

from Philip W. Rosen
to Reuven Spolter
date Thu, Apr 2, 2009 at 7:01 AM
Dear Ruby,
I ordered Wired magazine and got the attached confirming e-mail on 1/13/09. Our credit card was charged on 1/20/09. Checkout your mailing address on the attached confirmation e-mail. I suspect the magazine is floating around somewhere in Yad Binyamin. Please let me know what you find out. Thanks!

from Philip W. Rosen
to wircustserv@cdsfulfillment.com
date Thu, Apr 2, 2009 at 7:14 AM
subject Gift subscription not received
Hi! In January, I ordered an international gift subscription of Wired magazine for my son-in-law. On January 20, 2009, my Visa card was charged $70. To date, my son-in-law has not yet received any copies of the magazine.

From: Wired [mailto:wircustserv@cdsfulfillment.com]
Sent: Thursday, April 02, 2009 2:32 PM
Dear Philip W Rosen:
We are extending your gift subscription to compensate for the March 2009 issue missed. Please allow six to eight weeks for this change to appear on your address label.
We are working with a different distributor for our International subscribers. Please allow time for this change to take effect.
Your patience is greatly appreciated.

from Reuven Spolter
to wircustserv@cdsfulfillment.com
date Fri, May 1, 2009 at 9:25 AM
As you can see from the email trail below, my father-in-law ordered a
subscription for me in January of this year, and followed up about a
month ago. I have yet to receive any issues of wired at all. Is there
a way that we can resolve this issue, and get me some issues of Wired?

from Wired
to Reuven Spolter
date Fri, May 1, 2009 at 6:59 PM
Dear Reuven Spolter:
Our records show your postal address was not completely accurate in our
records. Please accept our apologies for this mistake.
The address on your subscription has been corrected and we are extending
your subscription. Please allow six to eight weeks for this change to
appear on your address label.

from Wired
to Reuven Spolter
date Mon, May 4, 2009 at 2:58 PM
Dear Mr. Spolter:
The address on your subscription has been corrected and we are extending your subscription. Please allow six to eight weeks for this change to appear on your address label.
Your subscription will now start with the July 2009 issue and will continue through the June 2010 issue.

So, after waiting literally six months to try and get a copy of Wired Magazine, Rena traveled last week to the States to see her grandparents. Thank God, they're doing well, and it was a good trip. She came back on Wednesday evening bearing gifts, among which she brought a copy of the July issue of Wired Magazine (as per my request). Wonderful.
And then the very next day, I got to check my mail, and sitting in the mailbox is...you guessed it - the July issue of Wired Magazine. So after six months of no copies, now I've got two.
Anyone living in Yad Binyamin want a copy?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

What Hashem Wants From Us - Devar Torah for Parshat Chukat

If you'd prefer to download a pdf copy of this dvar Torah and add it to your Shabbat reading list, click here.

For the last couple of weeks, people in Israel have been feeling a little more tense than usual. Many of us are worried about the direction that the US government has been moving – more towards Arab appeasement, more pressure on Israel. Working at a school in the beautiful city of Elkana, looking out over the hills at the city of Tel Aviv below, you wonder how anyone could even think of abandoning not just beautiful land, but strategically critical areas. And yet America's President keeps insisting on "no more building the in settlements." Where I work. On the wrong side of an arbitrary line. So we're a little more nervous than normal.
When I brought up the topic with a relative living in the States, she told me that of a conversation she had with someone who said, "Whatever Hakadosh baruch Hu wants – that's what's going to happen." Clearly, that's true. But it also implies that what we do really doesn't matter in the end and that everything is in Hashem's hands only. I couldn't disagree more.
Chukat relates the strange story of the Nachash Hanechoshet – the copper serpent that Moshe made to save the people from death. At the conclusion of the forty years of wandering in the desert, the reborn nation is now ready to enter the Land of Israel. Yet, as their travels begin to drag on and they travel around Edom (instead of attacking and going right through it), the young nation grows impatient and begins to complain.
לָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם, לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר: כִּי אֵין לֶחֶם, וְאֵין מַיִם, וְנַפְשֵׁנוּ קָצָה, בַּלֶּחֶם הַקְּלֹקֵל
Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul hates this light bread.
They don't complain about the issue at hand – their desire to enter the Land. Moreover, they don't actually tell the truth: there is water, and they're not dying in the desert. In short, they're simply kvetching. Hashem punishes them swiftly and severely: serpents emerge in the desert and begin fatally biting the people. They immediately repent and beg Moshe to pray for the removal of the snakes and their salvation, which he does. Hashem, instead of immediately eliminating the snakes, instructs Moshe to construct a serpent and hang it on a pole, וְהָיָה, כָּל-הַנָּשׁוּךְ וְרָאָה אֹתוֹ, וָחָי, "Whoever is bitten, when he sees [the serpent] will live".
Yet, Rashi notes that when the Torah tells us what actually happens, the people don't just "see" the serpent. Rather, וְהָיָה, אִם-נָשַׁךְ הַנָּחָשׁ אֶת-אִישׁ--וְהִבִּיט אֶל-נְחַשׁ הַנְּחשֶׁת, וָחָי, "if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked at the serpent of brass he lived." Why, Rashi asks, if Hashem tells Moshe that the people only need to see the serpent do they specifically look at it? Rashi explains,
שלא היה ממהר נשוך הנחש להתרפאות אלא אם כן מביט בו בכוונה
It would not heal a bitten person quickly unless he intentionally looked at it.
Chazal derive an important and well-known principle from this story (in Gemara Rosh Hashanah 29a):
Does the serpent kill or give life? Rather, when Israel looked towards the heavens and subjugated their hearts to their Father in Heaven they would be saved, and if not they would wither.
From Rashi we can derive three levels of activity and salvation among the people: Someone who was bitten but for some reason never saw the serpent tragically died. A snakebite victim who happened to see the copper snake would heal, but slowly. Finally, the person who stared intently at the serpent enjoyed a speedy recovery. All of this makes me wonder: If Hashem had already forgiven them and if the matter truly hinged on an individual's personal level of Teshuvah, why create the copper snake in the first place? Why should the speed of someone's recovery depend on whether he saw the snake peripherally or stared at in intentionally? What difference does that make?
It makes a great deal of difference. While it's true that "everything is in Hashem's hands and whatever He wants will happen in the end," I believe that Hashem wants most for us to take an active role in our own lives. Sure, He could have healed the sick without any input from us whatsoever. But Hashem doesn't want us to lead miraculous lives. He wants us to live in the real world and appreciate that what we do truly makes a difference, both spiritually and physically. He wants us to have faith; but also to believe that our efforts can and must effect change in the real world.

That's precisely what I said in response to the person who said about the "settlements" that, "Whatever Hakadosh baruch Hu wants – that's what's going to happen."

I couldn't agree more. But what He wants is for us to stand up, be counted, and do our utmost to ensure that His Land remains firmly in the hands of His nation.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Audio Shiur: Chukat - Dealing with Tragedy in Jewish Life

Audio Shiur:

Parshat Chukat - Dealing with Tragedy in Jewish Life
This shiur begins with a discussion of the phenomenon of Israeli religious widows who marry but do not register their marriage in order to continue receiving their pensions. This issue frames the story of Mei Merivah - the episode which results in Moshe's punishment and his banishment from the Land of Israel.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Is it Just Me?

The New York Times' Ethicist - who's not an ethicist at all, but actually a clever humor writer, shares the following ethical query in this week's NY Times Magazine:
I belong to a Catholic religious order and am in formation to become a priest. As part of my training, I attended a university that was founded by my order and whose president is a priest and a member of the order. Nonreligious students also attend, but we religious students receive scholarships. Is this akin to any other scholarship, like that for an athlete, or is it discriminatory, especially because the order does not admit women? NAME WITHHELD, PORTLAND, ORE.
Is it just me, or if you're in a Catholic order studying in a Catholic religious university, and you're turning to the New York Times for ethical advise, you have a bigger problem than an ethical dilemma?

Cell Phone Manners

During my senior year of high school, Rav Meir Schlessinger - then the Rosh Yeshiva of Sha'alvim came to visit, deliver a shiur and interview. During the middle of his shiur, the secretary knocked on the door to the Beit Midrash and interrupted. Someone was on the phone for the Rosh Yeshiva; could he come and take the call? Rav Meir refused. "I'm in the middle of a shiur," he said. He then turned to us and commented, "Why is it that people rush to answer the phone? Here I am, sitting in front of you, in person. Why would I interrupt that conversation in order to speak to someone over a wire (this was before cellphones) who's probably hundreds of miles away?"
The story made enough of an impression on me that I remember it even today. I mention it because the notion of telephone ethics, and especially cellphone ethics, have gotten totally out of control.
Two recent articles, from very different sources come to mind. The NY Times ran a piece about the "question" of cellphone use in business meetings. I think that the Times thinks its rude to check your email or the internet during a meeting, but I'm not sure. Personally, I think it depends on the meeting. If it's a one on one meeting, then I would say it's rude. If it's a meeting with tons of people sitting there while someone drones on, what else should they do? It's a sure-fire sign that people are bored. Maybe then it's not the cellphone surfers who are rude, but the speakers who won't stop talking. (I've been to many a meeting like that.) It's interesting to note that smartphone rudeness lost the Democrats control of the NY State Senate. The Times reported that,
Tom Golisano, a billionaire and power broker in New York State politics, said last week that he pushed to remove Malcolm A. Smith as the State Senate majority leader after the senator met with him on budget matters in April and spent the time reading e-mail on his BlackBerry.
Even in politics, sometimes politeness pays.
I saw a very different source on this issue this week as well. In this week's B'ahavah V'emunah, a parshah newsletter published by Machon Meir (one of the zillions), Rav Aviner writes about the numerous negatives of cellphone use. In addition to physical danger, car accidents, cost, inappropriate content and other cellphone drawbacks, Rav Aviner writes,
הסלולרי האמור לחבר בין אנשים בחברוּת נעימה, לא פעם פוגע בה, כאשר באמצע שיחת רעים מתנתק אדם מבן שיחו כדי להשיב לצלצול. זו שערוריה. יש בדיחה עצובה על זוג שיצא לבלות יחד בבית קפה, אך לא יכלו לנהל שיחה כי הבעל ישב מול רעייתו ועסק בשיחות בסלולרי. אשתו התרחקה ממנו כמה מטרים, טלפנה לבעלה, והסבירה לו שזו הדרך היחידה שנותרה לה כדי לשוחח אתו. הוא הדין כאשר האדם מדבר עם ריבונו של עולם בבית הכנסת. כמעט כל תפילה רואים אדם קם באמצע ויוצא לדבר, והוא אינו קצין תורן או רופא כונן. וכן כמעט כל תפילה מופרעת על ידי צלצול.
The cellphone that was intended to connect people in pleasant friendship, many times harms it instead, when in the middle of a friendly chat one person separates himself from the conversation to answer a call. That's an outrage! There's a sad joke about a couple that went out together for coffee, but they couldn't conduct a conversation becaues the husband sat opposite his wife taking cell calls. His wife moved a few feet away, called her husband, and explained to him that this was the only way she had left to speak with him. The same is true when a person speaks to the Master of the Universe in shul. During practically every tefillah we see someone get up in the middle of davening and leave to take a call - and he's not an officer [in the IDF] on duty or a doctor on call. Nearly every tefillah is interrupted by the ringing of phones.
I feel a little guilty. This morning during mussaf (the silent one) my phone rang. While I quickly silenced the phone, I stole a glance and saw that it was my house. The kids. (Rena's in the States.) After I finished - faster than usual, I left to call and see who was killing whom. Thankfully, all was well. But I had done precisely what Rav Aviner described.
I'm not sure what Rav Meir would have said. On the one hand, maybe I shouldn't have brought the phone to davening - or at least turned it off. On the other hand, I think it's probably better that I made it to shul at all.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Joy of Less

A recent article on the NY Times website caught my attention.
Author Picco Iyer writes about how he abandoned the frenetic, object-obsessed New York lifestyle for a simpler, more austere, but he thinks happier life.
The piece resonated strongly with me as well, especially almost a year into our aliyah. I gave up an "important" position, downsized my home by half, my salary but much more than that - and there are certainly parts of the rabbinate that I really miss - especially the people and the speaking. But when you're the in the water, it's difficult to imagine life outside the fishbowl, whether the water you're breathing is a job, a position, or just a level of economic comfort.
Sometimes, you can only truly understand a situation once you've left it, and have the ability to look back objectively.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Collective Punishment, Orthodox Style

Anyone familiar with the devastation caused by terrorism in Israel recognizes the challenge of house demolitions. It goes something like this: if someone murders innocent people by blowing himself up in a pizza store, there's no real way to punish him to prevent future attacks. The only possible option is punishing his family, usually through home demolitions and the like. Hopefully, if a person knows that if he blows himself up his family will be out on the street, he'll think twice before actually doing it. Additionally, while the family might ideologically have been all for his suicide, when they face the prospect of homelessness their perspective may change somewhat.
Human rights advocates challenge this practice, charging that it's essentially immoral. How can you punish someone (or a family) for a crime that his relative has committed? In essence, this boils down to a form of collective punishment, banned by international law. On the other side of the debate is the argument of the practical: it works. When Israel uses house demolitions reliably, terrorist bombings go down. It's no coincidence that the Israeli supreme court, not usually known for any right-wing tendencies, has repeatedly upheld the practice as an unavoidable measure to prevent terrorist attacks.
But what about using collective punishment in a different arena altogether? What about using it to achieve a desired goal in the Orthodox world? While we might justify this type of morally ambiguous behavior to save lives, would we - or should we use it to free an agunah?
I ask the question because that's precisely what happened here in Israel this past week.
The Israeli Hebrew-language newspaper Mekor Rishon (which is really the paper of record for the religious Zionist community) raised precisely this issue in the Yoman section (page 14 of the June 19th issue) of this week's paper. (I can't link directly to the article because they have a weird website, so you'll either have to read it yourself after registering or trust me.)
Many of the facts in this case are clear: five years ago, the marriage between Yisrael Meir and Dina Briskman fell apart. Since that time, he has refused to give his wife a get, resulting in a declaration from the Jerusalem Beit Din that he is a recalcitrant husband subject to the full force of the Israeli justice system. There's only one problem: no one really knows where he is. And it's pretty clear that he's not in Israel.
Dina works at Machon Lev. So the people that she works with joined together to protest at the shul of Yisrael Meir's father, Rabbi Zalman Briskman, the rav of the Shimon Hatzaddik shul in Katamon, who says that he himself doesn't know his son's whereabouts. So we're left with a moral dilemma: is it right to protest against seemingly innocent parents, in the hopes that the either the family (which does know where their son is) will ultimately pressure their son to give his wife a get, or the son will want to prevent his parents from further suffering, so he will submit...
Or, as Miriam Goldfischer, a toenet rabbanit said, (and I'm translating),
If we're speaking about murder - and let's not forget that embarrassing someone in public is likened to murder - when the matter is not thoroughly examined, there a likely miscarriage of justice. In this case, pointing a finger of guilt at the Rav is not appropriate. The community should excommunicate the recalcitrant husband, but sometimes when that recalcitrant husband goes missing, it's easy for the community looking for a guilty party to turn to the family, something we should be very careful about. It's important to determine with absolute certainty that the family is actively supporting the recalcitrant husband before attacking [the family]. The struggle against the recalcitrant husband does not permit us to spill the blood of his family members, nor does it permit us to trample on their fundamental rights by attacking their good name and privacy.
It's a heart-wrenching case, and a gut-wrenching question, with no easy answers.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Audio Shiur: Korach - the Power and Danger of Community

Audio Shiur:

Parshat Korach- The Power and Danger of Community?
The choice of words that the Torah utilizes tells us a great deal about the message those words convey. In this shiur we discuss the words "Eidah" vs. "Kahal" and the powerful and frightening connotations those words have not only in the Torah, but for us.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Finally, a Modest Bar Mitzvah

Recently, the Rabbinical Council of America issued its yearly list of resolutions, most of which were summarily ignored. One of them, focusing on the economic difficulty that has left so many people struggling, recommended a sense of modesty and propriety in the celebration of family s'machot. Among the numerous recommendations, the RCA said that,
We call upon our simcha vendors, including caterers, florists and photographers, to offer low-cost, modest options for weddings and other celebrations.
We call upon every Jew to opt for modest choices and lower costs, to guard against deficit spending, and to direct some of the consequent savings toward assistance for others.
And we ask those who can afford more to purchase less, in pursuit of modesty and responsibility and in recognition of the social pressure that their luxury brings to bear upon others.
Well, it seems like someone was listening.
I've read a number of reports about the Chassidishe world, in which a particular Satmar Chossid conducted a party for his son's Bar Mitzvah, and only invited sixty guests! What's more, the band only had one singer! And instead of renting some fancy hall, he held the party in a gym!
I'm so impressed, and quite happy that the RCA's message is finally getting through.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Does A Kosher Resraurant Require Hashgachah (Supervision)?

The Jerusalem Post carried this article about a restaurant whose owner decided for ideological reasons that he didn't want rabbinical supervision. Speaking about his restaurant in the city,
Owner Noam Frankforter, an observant Jew, says that the restaurant is kosher and closed on Shabbat, but he chooses not to have a teudah for ideological reasons. "Part of the point is that I am trying to break the sense of alienation, distrust and suspicion that exists among people in today's society. I say to people who come here that if they try to get to know me, they will realize that I keep kosher."
So, is he right? Does he really need hashgachah or not?
In one sense, he's correct. Let's say that you walked into my shul Shabbat morning out of the blue. Seeing a newcomer in shul, I immediately invite you to join me in my home for lunch. Can you eat there? If you think that I'm shomer mitzvot - that I observe Shabbat and the rules of Kashrut, you sure can. You need not say, "Well, I'd love to join you. But who's your mashgiach?" That would sound kind of ridiculous. (Although I would get the occasional call asking me about the observance of a particular member and whether I felt someone could eat in their home.) In private life, halachah grants normal, observant people a chezkat kashrut - an assumption that people observe the rules of Jewish life and wouldn't intenionally serve their guests non-kosher food.
In principle, the same could apply to restaurants as well. Truth be told, if someone you know opens a restaurant and you trust their kashrut, you don't need a rabbi to tell you that it's OK. Halachically, you can eat there. But then there's the practical, real-world side of things.
First and foremost, how well do most people know the owners of restaurants? Not that well, to be honest. At most restaurants that I eat in, I don't have any idea who owns the restaurant and what his level of kashrut is. But there's a more important factor in play: money.
When someone invites you for lunch out of the goodness of his heart, he wants to welcome you, serve you good food, please you. But his livelihood is not on the line. Whether he feeds his children and sends them to day school has no bearing the level of the kashrut of the food that he feeds you.
Not so in the kosher food business. There, it's business - not pleasure, and money can cause people to make all sorts of bad decisions, all while finding very legitimate and real justifications and excuses. He might be the frummest guy in the world, well-known throughout the entire community, but with the proper set of circumstances, even the most upstanding person can find himself cutting corners. Anyone remember the Monsey meat fiasco? The OK published this retrospective, which explained that,
I spoke to someone who was involved in certifying the store, and asked him if there was a mashgiach tmidi onsite. He replied, “The owner was an orthodox observant Jew. How should I have suspected he would do this?” It is natural for us to want to trust a business owner when he seems to be a G-d fearing Jew. But we must bear in mind that every business owner is a “nogeiah bidovor” and has a vested interest in the success and profit of his business. This interest could lead anyone, chas v’sholom, to be tempted—especially when he faces other stresses in his life. So it is imperative for the kashrus agency to monitor strictly, even when the owner is a religious person.
I know personally of cases where someonne - in whose home I would eat - made compromises in kashrut in his/her business that they would never tolerate in their own homes. It's just a fact. What if a kashrut mistake would put your friend out of business? How many of us would independently make the right choice in that situation?
Even when you know the person, do you know them as a businessperson? Are you sure that they would never cut corners, even at their own expense?
You might be, but I'm not. Which I why I always, always ask for a kashrut certificate. And if someone tells you he doesn't need it, something smells funny.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Parking Lot in Yerushalayim, Chareidi Protests, and Tactics

The press here carried large reports of a huge protest that took place last Shabbat in Yerushalayim. Truthfully, the spin on the protests focused primarily and almost exclusively on the fact that the Chareidim in their protest grew violent, throwing rocks and garbage - incluing diapers - at the police.
Their tactics were clearly terrible. No one should ever protest violently. There is never a legtimate reason to throw anything - much less rocks which have the power to maim and kill (isn't that what we said about the Arabs thowing rocks at IDF soldiers?). To me though, the most depressing aspect of the entire episode is that because of their tactics, the Chareidim became their own worst enemies, placing the focus on the protest, and not on the issue itself: the opening of a parking garage in Yerushalayim on Shabbat.
Because the truth is, on the issue itself, the Chareidim are right.
The issue originated with the fact that the government closed the Old City to auto traffic on Shabbat. Essentially, so many people would come and park in the alleyways of the Old City that it became impassible. So, instead of parking in legal spaces and walking, they began parking on the sides of major thoroughfares, blocking access to emergency vehicles and the like. This only raises the question: if, by law the city of Jerusalem and all municiple offices and functions are closed on Shabbat, how then could the city open a parking garage on Shabbat? Here's the answer in this week's B'sheva newspaper (see the middle article on the bottom of page five of this link).
המשטרה נימקה את בקשתה ב"פיקוח נפש", שכן לדבריה כיוון שהרובע היהודי סגור לתנועת כלי רכב בשבתות, וגם חניון קרתא אינו פעיל בהן, הרי שהכביש הראשי העובר סמוך לחומות מתמלא ברכבים שחונים לא על פי חוק וחוסמים את נתיבי
התנועה. כיוון שכך, הכביש היחיד שאמור להיות נתיב מילוט לרכבי חילוץ והצלה במרה של אסון חלילה, חסום בשבתות, והדבר מהווה סכנה לאזרחים
The police explained their request with the reasoning of "danger to life" since, according to its claims, since the Jewish Quarter is closed to vehicular traffic on Shabbatot, and the Karta parking is also closed, the main road adjaescent to the walls [of the Old City] filled with illegally parked vehicles which blocked traffic. Thus, the only road meant as an escape route for emergency and evacuation vehicles in the case of tragedy, is blocked on Shabbat, and the matter constitutes a danger to citizens.
In other words, to ease the congestion, the police recommended opening a parking garage with easy walking access to the Old City, for free, to be manned by an non-Jewish worker. This, they thought, would make everyone happy. The visitors would park in the lot, leaving the streets unblocked. The residents of the city could not object, because it wasn't the city itself that violated Shabbat.
Actually, wrong. Who are the people who are driving into the Old City on Shabbat? Jews, of course. And while the city of Yerushalayim was technically not violating Shabbat, it was sanctioning that chillul Shabbat, which should rightfully make religious people upset. This does raise the thorny issue of coersion, which is certaily a topic of lively debate here in Israel. But I argue simply that the fact that you want to violate Shabbat need not compel the government, which legislates Shabbat observance, to sanction that behavior. It really is a grey area, which makes protest the perfect reaction to objectionable behavior. You don't like something? Protest it. That's what democracy is all about.
But what about the issue of danger? After all, it's pikuach nefesh. People's lives are in danger, right?
Again no. Is opening a parking garage the only way to deal with the problem? I agree with the Chareidim. The city should not kowtow to people parking illegally on the sides of major thoroughfares by opening city-owned parking lots. They should tow the cars (with Arab workers, of course). After enough towing, people would stop parking illegally, and either find privately-owned lots to park in (that they'd have to pay for) or park on the street legally and have to walk a little farther.

This entire episode leaves me with two reactions:
1. I'm upset that this has become only a Chareidi issue. Why do they care so much more about Shabbat than I (and those who are like me) do? Every Shabbat Observant Jew should defend and protect Shabbat, and be willing to protest its violation and desecration. While you don't get a sense of this discomfort in the English-language press (JPost, IsraelNationalNews.com), when you read the Hebrew language versions, it comes out loud and clear. Take for example this quote, which appears in the Hebrew language version of Arutz 7, but I didn't see translated into English.
ח"כ ד"ר מיכאל בן ארי (האיחוד הלאומי) מביע התנגדות לפתיחת חניון ספרא בשבת, "שבת היא אחד מערכיה הבסיסיים של היהדות, חבל שעיריית ירושלים פוגעת במה שקדוש לעם היהודי, יחד עם זאת אין מקום לאלימות ולגידופים ויש לפתור בהסכמה את הסוגיה שפוגעת בנפשם של המוני בית ישראל."
Knesset Member Dr. Michael ben Ari (Ichud Haleumi) expressed his opposition to the opening of the Safra Parking on Shabbat. "Shabbat is one of the basic values of Judaism. It is sad that the city of Jerusalem strikes against that which is holy to the Jewish nation. At the same time, there is no place for violence or cursing, and we should resolve this issue - which strikes in the souls of the masses of the House of Israel by concensus."
Even more interesting is the article that appeared in this week's Besheva, the newspaper published by Arutz 7 in Hebrew and distributed for free here in Israel. You'd think from the press reports that the city of Jerusalem went ahead with its plans to open the parking lot without consulting with anyone, and that it wanted to run roughshod over Shabbat, irrespective of the feelings of religious Jews on the matter. But that was not the case. The article in this week's B'sheva reported that,

בקשת המשטרה נדונה בפורום של מועצת העיר בנוכחות הרב נבנצל והרב שמחה קוק. הפורום דחה את הרעיון לפתוח את חניון קרתא, שכן הדבר יגרום לחילול שבת המוני, בעיקר בשל העובדה שמעל החניון ממוקם קניון ממילא, אשר יתפתה לפתוח את שעריו בשבת לנוכח ריבוי התנועה באזור.
הפתרון שהוצע ואושר לבסוף ע"י ראש העיר היה פתיחת חניון ספרא בכיכר העירייה, שנמצא סמוך לעיר העתיקה. על פי ההחלטה, על מנת לצמצם את חילול השבת למינימום, החניון יופעל חינם, המאבטחים שיעבדו בשבת יהיו גויים, ומעליות ואורות לא יופעלו. חברי הפורום קיבלו את החלטת ראש העיר בהסכמה שבשתיקה.
סגן ראש עיריית ירושלים ונציג המפד"ל, דוד הדרי, מדגיש כי ההחלטה לא התקבלה על ידי חברי הפורום, שלא נדרשו להצביע עליה. "קיבלנו את ההסברים של המשטרה על פיקוח נפש ואת הסברי ראש העיר על צמצום חילול השבת בחניון ספרא עד למינימום".
The police request was evaluated in a forum of the city council, in the presence of Rav Neventzal and Rav Simcha Kook. The forum rejected the idea to open the Karta parking, for they felt that it would cause mass Chillul Shabbat, essentially because the Mamilla mall lies above that parking structure, whose opening would entice the mall to open on Shabbat due to greater traffic in the area.
The ultimately approved solution requested by the mayor was the opening of the Safra parking structure in the municiple square, located adjaescent to the Old City. According to this decision, in order to keep the violation of Shabbat to a minimum, the parking structure would be operated free of charge and the security personnel working there would be non-Jewish, and the elevators and lighting would remain off. The members of the forum accepted the decision of the mayor through silent acquiesence.
Deputy mayor of the City of Jerusalem and Mafdal (Religious Zionist) representative David Hadari, emphasized that the decision was not accepted by the members of the forum, who were not asked to vote on it. "We accepted the explanations of the police regarding pikuach nefesh and the explanations of the mayor to try and keep chillul Shabbat in the Safra parking structure to a minimum."
Sorry, sounds really weak to me. Truth be told then, the Chareidim were not just protesting against the police. They were protesting against us - the religoius Zionist community which knew about the plan and silently stood by allowing it to happen. And they were right.
Why should we protest disengagement but not Shabbat? Do we care more about the Land of Israel than the sanctity of Shabbat? Maybe, if we want the Chareidi communities to care more about the things that are important to us, we should start caring - and protesting - over the things that are important to both of us.
2. The tactics. Ahh, the tactics. Why? Why throw garbage? Someone has to sit these people down and explain to them the power of the media, and the damage to frumkeit (and chillul Hashem) that they cause when the give the media pictures like these to beam around the world. Secular media loves nothing more than to show just how Neanderthal-like we all are, and this really doesn't help.
So what should they have done? Not protest? No - they can and must continue to protest. But peacefully. They should have brought a bunch of tables and gemaras, and given shiurim on daf yomi at the entrance to that parking lot all afternoon. They should block the driveway with a long communal minchah. And Shalosh Seudot. And a kumzitz. Until the end of Shabbat.
But just don't throw rocks or diapers. Because then you turn the discussion into one about hatred of Chareidim, and not about shemirat Shabbat.
And that doesn't help anyone or anything - much less the sanctity of Shabbat.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Crazy Story - With a Shocking Ending

I'll admit that I didn't see this story in the Israeli Press about the Israeli woman who accidentally threw out a mattress in which she had hidden a million dollars. If you haven't seen the story, read it. It's a crazy story, and it raises so many questions: where did she get a million dollars? Why did she hide the money in her mattress? (It's so cliche!) Even crazier - and more uplifting is the ending where the article reports,
Even so, she said it could be worse. ''People have to take everything in proportion, and thank God for the good and the bad,'' she said.
But that's not exactly what she said. To Israeli reporters she said,
הלב בוכה, אבל יכול היה לקרות משהו יותר גרוע יכולנו להידרס בתאונת דרכים או לחלות במחלה ממארת. אני גם לא דודו טופז, למשל. הוא היה מתחלף איתי בכיף
"My heart cries, but much worse things could have happened. We could have gotten killed in an auto accident, or gotten sick from some terrible illness. I'm also not Dudu Topaz, for example. He would switch with me in a heartbeat."
I'm not sure which is better - the English or Hebrew version. Either way, how many of us would have that attitude?

Audio Shiur: Parshat Shelach - To Tell the Truth?

Audio Shiur:

Parshat Shelach - To Tell the Truth?
The story of the spies raises the challenging question of whether to tell the truth or not: in public life, in military and political matters, and even in our personal lives.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Swimming? Booorrriinng....

I was watching this segment from a recent 60 Minutes (that's actually a rerun) about Olympic Gold Medal Swimmer Michael Phelps, who said that he spent literally thousands and thousands of hours, staring at a black line in a pool, swimming.
All I could think was, "Jeez. How boring!"
Now don't get me wrong. I think that swimming is a wonderful form of exercise - easy on the joints and great for cardiovascular fitness. But, as opposed to training for a marathon or biking long distance, or even track, when you train for swimming your head is stuck in the pool, for hours on end with nothing to distract you from...the water, other than the count of how many laps you've swum.
It seems to me that it would also be a little more interesting if they stuck you in a lake and told you to swim from one side to the other. But going up and back and up and back - I just don't see it.
When I was a student at YU, I actually used the pool every day after class. It was great excercise, and it even got me out of a gym requirement, and I lost twenty pounds without even trying. But it was boring as spit drying on a log. (And that's boring.) I finally asked Rav Schachter if I could review that day's gemara shiur in my head in the pool while I swam, even though I would not be wearing a kippah. He said "sure", and it helped a little.
But it didn't change the fact that swimming is still boring. Especially if you're going to do it for long stretches.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Halachic Work Ethic - Work IV

Imagine the following scenario:
You work for a religious boss at an hourly rate. Included in your work agreement is a short lunch break, but only for lunch. One day, your boss walks in towards the end of lunch and notices that you've been reciting the entire bentching. He becomes irate and starts screaming at you: "You're wasting my time! I pay you to work and you sit around bentching!" When you begin to claim that bentching is actually part of "eating" (he should theoretically agree, as he is a religious man), he says, "Sure, but not the WHOLE THING!" If you want to bentch, that's fine, but all the "harachamans" the now comprise the second half of birkat hamazon are extra, and I can say them on my own time. When you suggest that you can get back to work screwing in widgets and recite the rest of the bentching by heart, he again refuses, claiming that you won't be able to concentrate fully on my job if you're bentching.
That's when you lose it: "You're supposed to be a frum guy! How can this not be part of bentching? Let's go ask a shialoh, and whatever the rav says we'll do. If he tells me to stop half-way through bentching, I'll agree, but there's no way he's going to agree with you!"
You make the call. What do you think that the rav would say?
It's a pretty safe bet to assume that the Rav will take the worker's side. After all, first of all, he wants to finish bentching! Moreover, is it really such a long period of time? What kind of boss won't give his employee the three extra minutes to bentch?
And yet, if you look in the Shulchan Aruch - that's right, the code of Jewish law, things are not at all clear. In Orach Chayyim 192 Rabbi Yosef Karo writes,
פועלים העושים מלאכה אצל בעל הבית, א מקצרין בבהמ"ז, כדי שלא לבטל מלאכת בעל הבית; כיצד, ברכה ראשונה כתקנה, ושנייה פותח בברכת הארץ (א) וכולל בה בונה ירושלים וחותם בברכת הארץ, ואין אומרים ברכת הטוב והמטיב (ב) כלל. בד"א, (ג) כשנוטלים שכר על מלאכתן מלבד הסעודה, אבל אם אין נוטלים שכר אלא הסעודה שאוכלים לבד, מברכין כל ד' ברכות כתקנן
Workers employed by the master of a house must shorten their blessing after meals, so that they do not waste the work of the master. How is this done? They recite the first blessing in its entirety, and the second blessing begins with the blessing on the Land and he includes in it the construction of Jerusalem, and he concludes with the blessing on the Land. And he does not say the [fourth] blessing of "Who is good and brings goodness" at all. When does this rule apply? When the workers receive payment for their work aside from the meal. But if their only payment is the meal that they are eating, then they recite all four blessings as they were instituted.

Don't get too excited. In the very next halachah, the Shulchan Aruch writes that nowadays no one is so meticulous a boss that he won't let his workers finish the actual text of birkat hamazon. Yet, the original halachah is actually a direct quote from the Gemara (Berachot 16a) which is also cited by Rambam (Hilchot Berachot 2:2). Yet, what i find so interesting is the work ethic underlying the halchah.
The gemara assumes that when I take a job to work for someone at an hourly rate, I'm on the clock. My time is now his time, which makes sense, because he's paying for it. But that principle goes so far, that I don't even have the right to recite any additional, unnecesary aspect of bentching, to the point that the rabbis made special accomodations for workers - in essence designing an entirely new type of brachah, just so that the workers could get back to the job.
Contrast that with our sense of work ethic today.
When I was in high school, I got a job at a local software shop that designed recruiting software for the US Army. My brother-in-law worked there, and he helped me get the job. First I did all kinds of research for them, but eventually they decided that I could handle a software mop-up project that required going through a zillion routines and making simple changes in the code. It was great money, and I wasn't a counselor in summer camp. I was happy.
Well, they just stuck me in an office which had an empty desk. There were a couple of other people in the office, and I have vivid memories of other workers - one particular woman in fact, who would come into the office sometime early in the morning, and just hang around and shmooze literally all morning. I even remember her once staying so long that she finally only left when it was lunchtime. And I'd sit there, changing my code wondering, don't these people get paid.
Now I was no angel. I could chat a little as well. But there was also a frum guy there who would literally not talk to anyone at all. He had a Talmudic work ethic. He was being paid to work - so he worked. Ironically, while people respected him for his computer knowledge, I can't say that they really related to him, which is also important if you want to advance in an office environment.
I was just struck by how far we've sunk. What happened to the work ethic of bentching; a sense that if you're being paid by the hour, you work a full hour? Somehow over time that's been lost. And I'm not sure that our society is better off because of it.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Audio Shiur: Parshat Beha'alotecha - Miriam and Humility

Audio Shiur:

Parshat Beha'alotecha - Moshe, Miriam and Humility

The story of Miriam's lashon hara - while short, comprises some critical themes in Beha'alotecha. Why were they talking about Moshe? How did he react? How was he different than they? All of these questions lead us towards understanding not only how Moshe was different, but how we can strive towards humility today.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Right-Wing Reactionism: Why Can't We Be Civil?

It's hard to be a right-winger nowadays.
Yes, I find the recent pressure that the Obama administration has been putting on Israel very upsetting. If you've been reading this blog, you'll know that I think that lumping all settlements together denies realities on the ground. You cannot compare huge cities with thousands of residents to trailer parks surrounding a mound of dirt. And I really don't agree with the notion that Israel has to make concessions while the Palestinians sits idly by waiting for Obama to pressure Bibi to hand over the keys to the kingdom.
But right-wingers are just nuts.
Yesterday I noticed on Hirhurim an ad for a protest that was to take place in Yerushalayim yesterday afternoon. It just so happens that we were planning on being in town to meet someone for dinner anyway, so for a brief moment, Rena and I considered bringing the kids to the protest. I'm really glad that we didn't, especially after I saw the article about the protest i the Jerusalem Post.
I certainly respect and agree with the opinion of Rabbi Shalom Gold, who said,
"Mr. Obama, we started demonstrating 16 years ago," said Rabbi Shalom Gold, the founder of Kehillat Zichron Ya'acov in Jerusalem's Har Nof neighborhood, alluding to the early days of the Oslo Accords. "You were in your '30s and you probably didn't know the first thing about Eretz Yisrael... but we're part of God's divine plan, we're here and we're staying here!"
But the protest itself, and the imagery portaying Obama as anti-semitic and anti-Israel, are just over the top.
The Jewish National Front, which is backing the protests, said in a statement: "We decided to launch a campaign against the president of the United States and to say that Barack Hussein Obama is bad for the Jews."
"From the moment that he entered the White House, we have been feeling anti-Semitism and hatred toward Israel."
Really now? Anti-semitism? Do you know how many Jews serve in Obama's administration? You might not like or agree with Rahm Emanuel. But he's pretty Jewish. Very Jewish. Oh, and hatred towards Israel? Every time someone says something you don't like, all of the sudden he's a Jew-and-Israel-Hater?
And then I read this article, about people sending hate mail to officers of the IDF.
These types of displays do nothing for those who seriously disagree with the change in American policy. They allow those who disagree with us to deligitimize us as "crazies" who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals. They feed into the worst stereotypes of "settler youth" and right-wing activists. And if they don't stop their hateful and bigoted rhetoric, they'll soon find that they themselves their own worst enemies.
Just to be clear: Mr. Obama, I believe that you are a friend of Israel, and abhor those who would call you anti-Semitic. I thank you for your support of Israel, and respect your desire to promote goodwill throughout the Middle East. I also find your desire for even-handedness and honesty refreshing.
In that spirit, I invite you to see the truth about the settlements you demand halt all construction. While our Arab neighbors certainly don't like them, they are not the obstacle to peace. Until all moderate Arab nations overcome their instinctive hatred of Israel and accept our right to be here, in God's promised land permanently, speaking of peace deals, concessions and the like seems incredibly naive. Furthermore, your view of Arab demands and expectations seems especially shortsighted from this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Is it really so hard to disagree with civility?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Trumpets of Praise and Prayer: Devar Torah for Beha'alotecha

This past Tuesday, the entire population of Israel participated in a "drill", simulating an attack on Israel. At 11am, sirens sounded throughout the country, and children in schools, people in offices – basically everyone – was supposed to find their protected space and get there. Did they do it? No idea. I was actually already working in our Mamad (I don't remember what the acronym stands for, but that's what you call it). But as the siren sounded and I continued to work I thought, "I don't remember ever having to do this in America." ("Duck and cover" was long before my time.)
The siren also reminded me of a different type of "sounding" mentioned in this week's parshah. (For those of you outside of Israel, this week we read Beha'alotecha, as Shabbat was not a day of Yom Tov. So even though you'll be reading Parshat Naso, in Israel we'll be a week ahead until you catch up in about a month.) I'm sharing a thought that Rav Gutel, Orot's President, mentioned at Orot's Yom Yerushalayim lunch and lecture this week.
One of the more famous "religious Zionist" verses in the Torah appears in this week's Torah reading. We read,
וְכִי-תָבֹאוּ מִלְחָמָה בְּאַרְצְכֶם, עַל-הַצַּר הַצֹּרֵר אֶתְכֶם--וַהֲרֵעֹתֶם, בַּחֲצֹצְרֹת; וְנִזְכַּרְתֶּם, לִפְנֵי ה' אֱלֹקֵיכֶם, וְנוֹשַׁעְתֶּם, מֵאֹיְבֵיכֶם. וּבְיוֹם שִׂמְחַתְכֶם וּבְמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם, וּבְרָאשֵׁי חָדְשֵׁיכֶם--וּתְקַעְתֶּם בַּחֲצֹצְרֹת עַל עֹלֹתֵיכֶם, וְעַל זִבְחֵי שַׁלְמֵיכֶם; וְהָיוּ לָכֶם לְזִכָּרוֹן לִפְנֵי אֱלֹקיכֶם, אֲנִי ה' אֱלֹקיכֶם.
And when you go to war in your land against the adversary that oppresses you, then you shall sound an alarm with the trumpets; and ye shall be remembered before the Hashem your God, and you shall be saved from your enemies. Also in the day of your gladness, and in your appointed seasons, and in your new moons, you shall blow with the trumpets over your burnt-offerings, and over the sacrifices of your peace-offerings; and they shall be to you for a memorial before your God: I am the Hashem your God.' (Bamidbar 10:9-10)
These verses have taken on such significance that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate instituted that we read the first as part of the davening on the evening of Yom Ha'atzmaut.
Looking at the two verses, you get the sense that these are two related but different commandments. The first relates to the blowing of the trumpets during times of distress and war. We blow the trumpets as a kind of prayer; a form of calling out to Hashem to save us in our time of need. The second verse alludes to a very different trumpeting. When we sound the trumpets on holidays and Rosh Chodesh, the soundings serve as a kind of praise for Hashem. Think of it (lehavdil) as a form of "Hail to the Chief" sounded in the Beit Hamikdash. The two verses describe the same activity, but serve decidedly different functions. Or so we think.
Many hundreds of years ago, someone asked the Ritva (Rabbi Yom Tov ben Aderet) why they didn't blow trumpets on fast days. After all, if the purpose of blowing the trumpets was to call out to Hashem in timed of need, the Middle Ages in France certainly qualified. He explained that the French custom not to blow trumpets was based on the understanding that the trumpets could only be blown in the Beit Hamikdash. The two verses are not separate mitzvot, unconnected and unrelated. Rather, they are inherently connected and constrained by the same set of rules. Rav Moshe Feinstein (see Igrot Moshe Orach Chayyim Volume 1: 169) uses this principle to explain why the Rambam, in his list of commandments, lists the blowing of the trumpets not as two commandments, but as one (positive mitzvot, number 59). Rav Moshe explains that Rambam too considered the trumpets of both travail and celebration to be one and the same mitzvah.
If so, then even when we blow the trumpets crying out to Hashem for salvation, we still do so as a form of praise (like the trumpets of joy). And when we blow the trumpets of Yom Tov in celebration, there's a measure of supplication and prayer as well.
To me, this makes sense on a deeper level as well. Even as we celebrate the holidays with korbanot and joy, don't we need to call out to Hashem for his continued support and guidance? Even when we recite Hallel, a prayer clearly focusing on praise of Hashem, we still cry out, אנא ה' הושיע נא – "please Hashem, help us!" And by the same token, as we turn to face our enemies who attack us from without and blow the trumpets to cry out to Hashem for help, should there not also be an element of thanks and praise as well? After all, we have the benefit of crying out from Yerushalayim, the seat of holiness for the entire world. We enjoy the spiritual solace of worshiping Hashem in the Beit Hamikdash. Even in our worries, we must also give thanks for the blessings that we still enjoy.
Praise and prayer, crying out and giving thanks – so often in life they make up two sides of the same coin.
Which brings me back to the siren in that Mamad. Sure, it's terrible that we have to sound the "trumpet" of attack, preparing the population for an enemy that stands at our borders, always searching for new and more devious ways to destroy us. But in that siren, is there not also a measure of praise as well? Sure, I never heard such a siren while living in America. But this year I have the merit to not simply read about it on JPost.com or in a Devar Torah. I heard these sirens from my home in Eretz Yisrael.
And for that I will continue to give Hashem my unending thanks.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Truth about the "Settlements"

We need to stop talking about settlements in a broad stroke. Sure, there are settlements in the classical sense. There are small communities on hilltops, and little outposts with caravans. But most of the population living in Yehudah and Shomron don't live in settlements. They live in cities and towns just like you, and the quicker we get that into peoples' consciousness, the better off we'll all be.
The world clearly likes the image that it has of "settlements." They're filled with a bunch of renegade Israeli crazies, hell-bent on holding onto any and every piece of land to fulfill God's promise to the Jewish people. Truth be told, I guess I'm one of those "nutjobs." Witness the picture associated with the article in the New York Times in this article. Who wouldn't be against crazy masked bare-chested settlers brandishing sticks. (Note to bored Israeli youth: please stop. You're not helping. Take off the masks, put on a shirt, and go back to school. Thank you.)
But in the real world, the vast majority of "settlers" want nothing more than a normal life. Writing about Kfar Tapuach, the article itself (far less inflammatory than the headline) states,
Revitalized from within, the community also attracted young couples from other settlements and from cities in Israel who were seeking a lifestyle that combined relatively cheap suburban comfort with the national-religious ideal of settling the land.
It's about Eretz Yisrael, sure. But it's also about affording a house and living in a place where your kids have parks and can run around freely. And it's not as simple as most Americans, including our President, think. How entwined is my life in the "settlements"?
  • I work in a settlement, in a college just over the Green Line, in Elkana. It sits on a hilltop from which you can literally see Tel Aviv on a clear day. The notion of giving that land to the Arabs, from which they wouldn't need missles - they could just shoot mortars - is an absurd and untenable proposition. But I digress.
  • My brother lives in a settlement - called Modiin Illit - but we call it Kiryat Sefer, together with 40,000 other Chareidi "settlers." That's the biggest badly-kept "secret" of all: most "settlers" live there not because of political views, but cheap housing. What does Barack Obama suggest we do with an entire city of 50,000 people. (Yes, I know I said 40,000, but with the birthrates in Kiryat Sefer, it probably grew significantly in the time it took you to read this article.)
  • Our cousins - another Chareidi couple - are "settlers" - living in Beitar Illit, another huge city that has very little to do with settlements.
  • Good friends of ours have "settled" across the land - in Ma'aleh Adumim, Ariel, Gush Etzion, Givat Ze'ev, Talmon and other places.
It's difficult to express just how entrenched Israeli life is in all of these places. They're places people live and work. Calling them "settlements" and demonizing the people that live and work there won't change that fact.