Thursday, December 31, 2009

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayechi - Yosef, His Brothers, Forgiveness and Family Unity

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayechi - Yosef, His Brothers, Forgiveness and Family Unity

The description of the strained relationship between Yosef and his brothers at the conclusion of Bereishit floods many of us with deep feelings. We identify with the brothers' desire for family unity, but also with Yosef's bitterness. Yosef's ambiguous actions also leave the brothers plenty of room to doubt their future relationship with him.

Technical Note: The recorder ran out of memory right when I was about to conclude with a powerful and frightening comment from Rabbeinu Bachya. Sorry about that. (See his comments on the last chapter of the Chumash. Scary stuff.)

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

How Do You Take Your Coffee?

Rena and I have a theory: you can learn a lot about a person by the way that they take their coffee. Take myself for example. (After all, it's my blog)

The coffee: Freshly Ground
I only like ground coffee. I can't stand instant, to the point that if given the choice between instant and nothing, I'll take nothing. I can live without the caffeine for a day. We also brew our coffee in a bodum (I think the technical term is French Press), which makes the brewed coffee richer and creamier.

The Milk: Cooking Cream
Speaking of cream, I also like cream in my coffee. In the US, where they sell half and half, that wasn't hard. But here in Israel, they really don't understand coffee at all. Just to illustrate, the Turkish coffee that many Israelis drink is also known by the beloved moniker בוץ - "mud". In Israel, Starbucks failed. The closest thing to brewed coffee in most places is "kafeh hafuch", which is an espresso with a bunch of cream on top. If you're lucky, you can ask for "cafeh filter" - and they'll bring you a tiny, personal size bodem. But I digress. Here in Israel, you can't get cream for your coffee, so I find myself buying cooking cream and adding it to my coffee. It's not bad, but people have wondered why we use so much cooking cream. At least the lady at the makolet asked me about it once. I live in a small town.

The Sweetener: None
I used to add splenda to my coffee, but then suffered on Pesach. Splenda is kitniyot. (darn that Ashkenazic custom!) After Pesach, I figured that if I could live without the splenda for a week, why not keep going? My body certainly doesn't need the chemicals.

So: I like freshly ground, bodem brewed coffee with no sugar and a healthy amount of cream. What does that say about me? I think it says that I want authentic, rich experiences without added "sweetener", and that I'd rather do nothing that waste my time with an "instant" experience that's not satisfying or fulfilling.

What does your coffee say about you?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Tree or the Ham? A Conversion Question

The NY Times featured this article about converts struggling with the celebration of Christmas. The article certainly addresses an element of truth. Although halachically, halachah considers a convert כקטן שנולד דמי - "like a newborn child," and it was assumed that the convert had completely segregated herself from her previous life, today that just is not the case. People maintain cordial, loving relationships with their families, creating challenging demands, especially around Christmas Time.
“I am fully committed to becoming Jewish, so it’s been hard to know what I am supposed to do,” said Ms. Jett, who is in graduate school, studying to become a nutritionist. “There’s a piece of me that really feels the need to preserve something I had when I grew up.”
I can appreciate her struggle - her desire to balance her yearning for a Christmas tree and her reluctance to alienate her mother, a devout Methodist who supports her conversion. She settles on the blue and white festooned tree pictured. What saddens me so is that while she struggles so valiantly with Christmas, she gives mainstream Judaism not a second thought. The article continues,
Though Ms. Jett usually goes to her mother’s house for Christmas, this year, her mother came to New York instead, and Ms. Jett and Mr. Silver decided to invite several friends — they affectionately called them “Jewish orphans” — over for dinner. They planned a traditional Christmas menu of bourbon-glazed ham, mashed potatoes, roasted broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green beans and yams, cooked by Mr. Silver, who works for a real estate investment firm and is the designated chef in the relationship.
What did they teach her in her conversion classes? What does it mean to be Jewish? Why is a Christmas tree bad, but bourbon-glazed ham raises not an eyebrow? If she would have asked me (or any other rabbi that I know), I would have told her that if she had to choose, she should keep the tree and dump the ham. The tree is a nice custom with no real connection to Christianity at all. The ham, on the other hand? A Torah prohibition.
That, to me, is the true tragedy: a generation of converts with not only little to no knowledge of Judaism, but with spouses who lack the same, calling themselves and their children Jewish.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Where Will You Be in Ten Years? Thoughts for Vayigash

With the close of the first decade of the 21st century, media outlets are rife with retrospectives of the past decade: the decade in pictures, the decade in news stories, the decade in movies. (Truth be told, when I look at the lists of top movies from the decade, I've never heard of most of them.) But one podcast that I enjoy asked a poignant question: where were you ten years ago? It's a good question, because it also begs the next question: And where will you - and do you want to - be in ten years.
After learning that Yosef was still alive, Ya'akov decides to travel to Egypt to see his long-lost son. On the way down, he stops to offer sacrifices to God, who appears to him in a vision during the night. God tells him,
אל תירא מרדה מצרימה, כי לגוי גדול אשימך שם
Do not fear from descending to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there (46:3)
Rashi (along with most everyone else) notes that clearly Ya'akov feared something. What did he fear? Rashi answers that, "he was upset that he was forced to leave the Holy Land." It's a nice idea, and certainly highlights the value of living in Israel - but it doesn't answer the question: what made him afraid? The Zohar gives a different answer:
Said Rabbi Yeisa: When Israel traveled down to the exile in Egypt, a great fear and dread fell upon him. Said to him the Holy One blessed be He: "Why are you afraid? Do not fear from descending to Egypt." From the fact that it says, "Do not fear," it's clear that he was afraid. [Ya'akov] said to [God], "I fear that my children will be destroyed." He said, "I will make you a great nation there."
In essence, Ya'akov feared not the near future, but the distant future. What would be not next year, but in ten, twenty, a hundred years? Would his children survive the spiritual wasteland of Egypt? Would they suffer debilitating persecution that could destroy them? Or perhaps would they end up assimilating into a warm, welcoming Egyptian land? We can well understand Ya'akov's worry at this point in time, and his fear for the future.

Ten years ago, right about this time, I was actually asked where I would be in ten years. I was the rabbi at Agudas Achim in West Hartford, and it was time to move on. By the time we decided to try out for new shuls, it was really the beginning of the year (and only one shul - the Young Israel of Oak Park) was looking for a rabbi. On Saturday night, during the "Ask the Rabbi" session, someone asked me, "Where do you see yourself in ten years?" What they really wanted to know was, "Do you see us as a stepping-stone for your next rabbinic job?" But that's not what they asked. So I answered, "In ten years I see myself living in Israel, together with all of you." Truthfully, at the time I didn't mean it. I had no concrete plans to move to Israel. I thought it was a rather clever dodge of an unfair question.
But when I think of how my life has changed during the past ten years, I find it difficult to think of a way in which it has not changed. We've been blessed with two additional children. I've changed jobs - and cities (actually countries) twice. And yet, none of this happened on its own. I feel that my life has followed a path - with each decision leading to the next, big or small.
All of this makes me wonder: what about the next ten years? I think it's a good, and important question not because we can know the future - nor should we try - but more because the visions we have for our long-term future can focus our behavior. If I want to see myself as a computer programmer in ten years (I don't - it's just an example), at some point during that time I'm going to have to take a class or two in that field. If I want to be living in Israel in ten years, that requires not a little bit of life-tweeking as well.
At the same time, long-term planning does not mean agonizing about the twists and turns of life. Personally, I'm quite good at worrying, specifically about the near future. Aliyah has proven to be an ongoing lesson in patience; doing my part, and waiting to see how things play out; making my hishtadlut, and putting things in the hand of the Almighty.
I guess that's the sense of balance we all need. Ten years is a sizable chunk of time - a significant portion of one's life. So we need to have a vision of where we want to see ourselves in ten years' time, and make the small course corrections that will hopefully steer us towards that goal. But we also must recognize that we are subjects of God, whose plans and infinite wisdom far outstrips our feeble vision. So, armed with our visions of the future, we place ourselves in His hands and pray for the best.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayigash - Is It All Really for the Best?

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayigash: Is Is All Really for the Best?

Yosef's reaction to his brothers' sale so many years earlier leaves us literally shocked. He seems not only to absolve them of responsibility, but even tells them that their actions were somehow divinely inspired. Really? How much action comes from us, and how much from God?

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

Monday, December 21, 2009

I Don't Have a Facebook Account

Usually, I like being at the front of a tech curve. I like technically oriented magazines, blogs, podcasts, etc. I designed my own website, and do all kinds of things with digital media. Despite all of this, I never opened a Facebook account (nor do I Tweet). I've been thinking about why not for a while, and I can now boil it down to a few reasons:

1. Time Wasting: The NY Times posted this article about kids swearing themselves off of Facebook and watching their grades (and real friendships) improve. I already blow a staggering amount of time on the Interwebs. (see above). I console myself by telling myself that at least some of it carries a redeeming Torah value. At least I hope so. I also spend too much time reading news, checking the weather - you name it. I'm pretty confident that this is not a phenomenon unique to me. But Facebook takes time-wasting to a whole new level. Now it's not just famous people that I'd have to keep up with, but everyone: my friends, their friends, and their friends. And their pictures. And fun videos that they've flagged. And articles they'There's an almost infinite amount of Facebook worthy material for me to peruse, and I don't have time for it.

Then there's Farmville, Mafia Wars and other social network games - which I am intentionally not linking to. These are incredibly addictive, viral, mind-blowingly-time-wasting game that suck people in and then get them to pay real money for online stuff. I actually think that these types of game border on evil. If you want to waste your own time, that's one thing. But creating a game that asks people to waste time along with you to suck them in - that's an ethically questionable practice. End Farmville rant.

2. Silliness, Minutia and Friends: The funny thing about "friends" on Facebook is that they're not really friends. They're more like acquaintances; people that you know casually and keep track of. I don't care what my friend had for lunch or whether his kid has a cold (sure, it's a pain to them, but do I really need to know?), but I would love a forum where I could talk with real friends about real things. Facebook isn't built for that. It's more about quick hits and short status updates - Twitter on steriods, 140 characters at a time. I probably could build a closed Facebook group for my close friends to discuss real things, but then I'd have to deal with issue #1 (see above).

3. Modesty: There's something inherently immodest about the whole idea of Facebook. I don't mean immodesty in the skirt-length way, but rather in a lifestyle kind of way. Facebook is about broadcasting my status - what I'm doing, thinking, eating, which video games I'm playing - for the world to know. It makes everyone a mini-celebrity. We promote ourselves, because my gripes about my kids' homework, or what we had for dinner must obviously be important news. But this very notion of celebrity runs against the principle of modesty. Modesty teaches us to live a proper life without broadcasting details to the world - the very opposite of the Facebook ideal.

We live in a world fascinated with celebrity. Everyone wants to be famous - either for gatecrashing the White House or planting sweet potatoes in their virtual garden. Judaism wants us to do the opposite: to lead real, meaningful lives in which we engage with and study Torah with our real friends, children, and families. And, when we do these real things, we don't tell anyone about them.
God knows. And that's more than enough.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Yosef: The Great Dreamer

Devar Torah for Parshat Miketz
This is a pretty long piece. If you want to print it out, click here for a printable version.

“I have a dream.”
In his fiery and unforgettable speech, Martin Luther King burnt this passage into the American consciousness, altering history. In these four words he couched his hopes, his efforts and his yearning for a brighter future for himself, his children, his people and his country. His rhetoric, passion and ultimately sacrifice transformed his dream largely into reality.
But his “dream” wasn’t really a dream in the classical sense. The dictionary provides seven definitions for the word “dream.” The first three define a “dream” as “a succession of images, thoughts, or emotions passing through the mind” associated with sleep, and the fourth defines it as, “an involuntary vision occurring to a person when awake.” The common denominator between these definitions is their involuntary nature. You don’t choose your dreams. They come to you.
But then come the fifth and sixth definitions, which categorize a dream as, “a vision voluntarily indulged in while awake; daydream; reverie,” or “an aspiration; goal; aim.” This type of dream has very little in common with the first form. In fact, they’re not really “dreams” at all. They’re goals and aspirations; desires for the future.
Which “dream” did Martin Luther King have? Did his dreams come to him, involuntarily in the night? Were they waking “visions” that appeared to him during those long days in county prisons in the South? Or were they the second kind: not visions that came to him, but visions he brought to himself, to his people, and to his country?
Dreams play a prominent role in the second half of Bereishit. Beginning with Ya’akov’s vision of the ladder ascending to the heavens, we find dreams throughout the ensuing biblical narrative, specifically surrounding Yosef. He dreams about the sun, moon and stars, and the bowing stalks of wheat. He interprets the dreams of the baker and butler. And then he interprets the dreams of the Par’oh, leading himself to prominence and power. But his dreams provide not only vision but also motivation.
When Yosef identifies his brothers, instead of revealing himself and reconciling with them, we read that (Bereishit 42:9),
וַיִּזְכֹּר יוֹסֵף--אֵת הַחֲלֹמוֹת, אֲשֶׁר חָלַם לָהֶם; וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם מְרַגְּלִים אַתֶּם
And Joseph remembered the dreams which he dreamed of them, and said unto them: 'You are spies!”

Rashi explains that in remembering his dreams he realized that, “they had been fulfilled, for they had bowed down to him.” Ramban however disagrees, arriving at precisely the opposite conclusion. Yosef remembered that in his dream, eleven stars bowed to him, and not ten. “And since he did not see Binyamin with them, he conjured this plan so that they would bring Binyamin as well to him to fulfill his original dream.” Somehow, says Ramban, his dreams not only envisaged his future, but also prompted his behavior to bring them to fruition. In his mind, his dreams carried so much weight that they compelled him to conspire against his brothers, imprison them and cause anguish to his father – just to make his dreams “come true.”
All this makes me wonder: which type of dreams did Joseph have? Were they the first type of dreams: prophetic, involuntary visions which appeared whether asleep or awake? Or, when we describe Yosef as a “dreamer”, do we really mean that he was a “visionary”, whose voluntary visions drove him to greatness later on? What I really want to know is: did Joseph control his dreams, or did they control him?
When Yosef recounts his dreams to his brothers, we find no mention of sleep. The Torah simply tells us, ויחלם יוסף חלום – “and Yosef dreamt a dream.” (37:5) In addition, his brothers hated him for those dreams. After he tells them about the second dream of the constellations, we read that (35:8),
וַיּוֹסִפוּ עוֹד שְׂנֹא אֹתוֹ, עַל-חֲלֹמֹתָיו וְעַל-דְּבָרָיו
And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words

While we can readily understand their hatred for “his words” – after all, no one forced him to recount his dreams of domination to his brothers – why did they hate him for his dreams? If dreams are simply involuntary visions that arrive whether awake or asleep, how could the brothers blame Yosef for them? Could it be possible that Yosef’s dreams were not dreams in the classic, subconscious sense, but something more voluntary? Was it possible that he himself conjured his dreams of domination over his brothers?
Par’oh’s dreams clearly come during sleep. After each of his dreams we read, וַיִּיקַץ, פַּרְעֹה, “and Par’oh awoke.” And yet, he finds these dreams so powerful that he cannot simply ignore them. Something inside him prompts him to search not only for an interpretation, but for the “right” one. When he awoke in the morning, ותפעם רוחו – “his spirit was troubled.” Rashi explains that it “rang inside him like a bell.” (פעמון). He knew that his dreams carried a critical message, yet he could not unravel their message. No matter what interpretations his servants suggested, אין פותר אותם – “there was none that could interpret them for him.” (41:8) Rashi notes that of course people tried. Still, “their voice did not enter his ears and he had no ‘peace of spirit’ from them.” He just knew that their interpretations were off the mark. He knew that the answer to the riddles of his dreams was locked somewhere inside him. He simply needed the right person to find the key.
That person was, of course, Yosef. Who better to unravel the complicated meaning of dreams that the “dreamer” himself. Who more than Yosef could appreciate the mysterious and complicated connection between divine vision and personal aspiration; between strange visions and personal interpretations – and maybe even between hopes and aspirations and the desire and willingness to make the effort to translate them into reality?
On the one hand, Yosef tells Par’oh that his dreams bear the stamp of God: “What God is about to do He hath declared unto Par’oh,” (41:25) and, “it is because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass.” (42:32) But then Yosef proceeds to insert himself into “God’s” plan – in order to make his own “dreams” come true. “Now therefore let Par’oh seek out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.” (42:33) Let’s see. Who could Yosef possibly be talking about? So did his dream presage his rise to power, or did it cause it? Did he act in accordance with God’s original plan, or did God’s message motivate him to fulfill that Divine desire? It’s a maddening Catch-22. There’s no way to know.
Even more importantly, even if we entertain the possibility that Joseph’s dream came to him during his waking moments, does that make them any less “real”? What is our imagination, our ability to “dream”; to see the impossible, to year an unlikely and improbable future; to see the world not as it is but as we feel it should be – other than the spark of the Divine?
Yosef’s greatness lay in two critical areas: First and foremost, his personal dreams and hopes mirrored those of the Creator. His vision of rule over his brothers derived not from a selfish desire for power and glory, but for the betterment of his father’s family and the fulfillment of God’s plan. He saw his own greatness in the future because he realized his potential – and his destiny, to use him capabilities to change and ultimately save the world. But he also realized that dreams aren’t simply visions which come true. They must be made true. Had he sat back and waited for his dreams to fulfill themselves, they never would have been realized. Yosef realized that dreams demand action; so he told them to his brothers, bore the brunt of their hatred, and set into motion the unlikely chain of events that transformed his dreams into reality.
Today we no longer have the first type of dream. God doesn’t come to us in visions during the night, sending strange messages to world leaders through images of sheep and wheat. (Can you imagine what would happen if Barack Obama called for a dream-interpreter, to help him make a critical policy decision? Impeachment? Insane asylum?) But we do have an abundance of the second type of dream: aspirations and yearning for fundamental change, whether in our personal or communal or national lives. In moments of peace and tranquility – not unlike Yosef, alone in the fields with his sheep for hours on end – we allow our minds to see the world the way it should be; it could be and perhaps it will be. Do we see in them the spark of the Divine? Do our dreams mirror the will of God? Do we envision in our dreams the redemption of the world, the betterment of life, or perhaps bringing the Jewish people closer to our national goal? (Or do our “dreams” have more to do with large LCD television sets and man-caves with surround sound?) And then, have we done anything to follow in Yosef’s footsteps: not just to have the dream, but to make it happen?
Martin Luther King’s greatness lay not just in his ability to dream a future of racial equality. Rather, he also gave the speech, and organized the protests, and sacrificed his life. And ultimately, translated his dream into the social fabric we take for granted today.

And here is the rest of it.

The Flash Mob is Working

I got a call from a friend the other day. He was thinking about me. Why, all of a sudden? Turns out that he was watching the Flash Mob dance video from Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem. (he, along with a seven hundred thousand other people). I had seen it. But I didn’t get it, I told him. What’s the big deal about a bunch of people dancing spontaneously in the middle of Ben Yehuda?
“That’s just it,” he said. “They’re dancing in the streets of Jerusalem. What the heck am I doing here?”
I guess the Flash Mob thing worked. It would have never dawned on me.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sex-Ed in Jewish Schools

The New York Times featured this article about Rabbi Haskel Lookstein's ongoing sex-ed class at Ramaz that he calls, "Sex with the Rabbi". (Thanks to Hirhurim for pointing it out.)
While some might like to criticize, I applaud Rabbi Lookstein, although I'm not sure why the class merits a piece in the NYT. I also wonder whether the class would be better taught in a separate setting. Still, this class and others of its kind are a critical component for children growing up today.
During my last year in Detroit, I taught halachah to a small group of tenth grade boys once a week. After a couple of months of Hilchot Shabbat, I decided to study hilchot Issurei Bi'ah (forbidden sexual relationships) of the Rambam, specifically chapter 21, which deals with many of the issues young people struggle with as they grow: sexuality, prohibited behavior, marriage, objectification of women - it's all in there, really. (Needless to say, the change of subject addressed the lagging attendance issues.)
What emerged was clearly a necessary class: these kids have seen everything - or at least they think that they have. What they have not seen is a healthy sexual relationship - and that's because you're not supposed to see one. It's supposed to be private. But what they have seen - and I don't care how frum you are and what school you send your kids to - is the objectification of women, the value of sex as an act, not as a covenant, the expectation that every woman have a certain body size and type. The list goes on and on. And still schools cower from fear that they might "corrupt" the kids. The kids are already corrupted. What they need is a sense of balance that a Torah perspective on sexuality can give them.
So if your school has a class like this, thank your lucky stars. And if it doesn't, it should.

Eight Days of Chanukah, with the US Navy Band

In my last post, I mentioned that during elementary school I sang in the Hebrew Academy (of Greater Washington) choir, under the capable leadership of Mrs. Leah Lipman. Choir was serious. There were try-outs, bi-weekly practice during lunch, and a zillion performances, often not during school. We performed in shuls, at government functions, old-age homes, you name it, we were there.
When I was in second grade (the first grade they'd let you be in the choir) we performed with the United States Navy Band in Constitution Hall. It was a really big deal. The Navy bussed us out to practice with the band as well as the Sea Chanters (they were really unbelievable) several times, and then we performed twice before a couple of thousand people. I had a really big solo for the song, "Eight Days of Chanukah", and my name even made it into the program. I still have very fond memories of those shows: watching the Sea Chanters play poker before the show, singing with the band. It's probably a good thing that we didn't appreciate how large the performance was. If we had, we really would have been nervous.
I'm sharing a clip of Eight Days of Chanukah that I've converted from the tape we got of the performance. If you're an Academy alum and want the rest of the show, email me and I'll try and upload more.

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

I also found another clip from the performance here.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Oh Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel...

I don't get the dreidel. It doesn't really have much to do with the holiday of Chanukah. Sure, the four sides have four letters - נס גדול היה שם- "A great miracle happened there" - but what does the spinning of the top have anything to do with the holiday? At least on Purim I know what the grogger is for: to make noise. But dreidel? I just don't get it.
More to the point: I don't like playing dreidel. I really never understood the rules very well. If you get the full pot on a gimmel, and half the pot on a hay, then the math doesn't really add up. Or at least that's how it seems to me. (If you really want to know the "official" rules, you can check them out at
I do have a fond memory of dreidel playing: I remember that my father (who died when I was very young) was great at making the dreidel spin on its head; I thought that was really cool. Still do.
I also find playing dreidel kind of boring. It's probably for the same reason that I don't like playing war - there's no skill involved. After you draw your cards in war, you're just playing out the luck of the draw. You could give them to a computer and have it figure out who won more quickly than if you played the game out yourself.
Funny dreidel story: this year I was going through a pile of old stuff, and found the tape from when I was a member of the Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington choir, and we sang with the United States Navy Band in Constitution Hall. Yes, we really did that. It's an amazing memory. (I'm in the process of converting the audio to mp3, and hope to post it for your listening pleasure soon.) Anyway, late in the program we come to the dreidel medley. At which point, a small group of poor choir members who were consigned to the back row were instructed to sneak off the stage. They then proceeded to the back of the hall where they were fitted with giant dreidel costumes. When we got to the part of "Sivivon, sov sov sov", they started twirling down the aisles of the hall. Just thinking about it now makes me smile.
There is one part of the dreidel that I really do like. For years, our dreidels had the four letters - nun, gimmel, hay and shin, which stand for נס גדול היה שם - "a great miracle happened there." Indeed, these represented the four sides of the dreidel for as long as there's been a dreidel. (I actually heard today that the Chatam Sofer played dreidel with his grandchildren, so it has been around for a while.) But now those aren't the right letters for us anymore. Now that we live in the Holy Land, our old dreidels are all wrong. The letters now should be: nun, gimmel, hay and pay - נס גדול היה פה - "a great miracle happened here." And as much as I don't get the game, and see the connection between the dreidel and the rules, I love the fact that I need new dreidels, because now we're no longer talking about the miracle that happened שם - there, but פה - here. And I give thanks to God that I have merited the blessing of raising children with a different dreidel song than the one I grew up with. They don't need to sing the song about "there", because they're living "here."
That's reason enough to play dreidel this Chanukah.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Wacky Video about Chanukah

Little did I know that Senator Orren Hatch of Utah (Mormon) was such a big fan of Chanukah. He apparently has written a Chanukah song that was recorded in New York (sung by a Syrian-American singer). I'll reserve judgment on the song; I just love the idea that the Senator wrote it. Also, check out his necklace on the video.
It's also worthwhile to note Jeffrey Goldberg's comments about Chanukah in the article about the song. He writes,
Hatch said he hoped his song would be understood not only as a gift to the Jewish people but that it would help bring secular Jews to a better understanding of their own holiday. “I know a lot of Jewish people that don’t know what Hanukkah means,” he said. Jewish people, he said, should “take a look at it and realize the miracle that’s being commemorated here. It’s more than a miracle; it’s the solidification of the Jewish people.”
He’s right. Without Judah Maccabee’s militant intervention in 167 BCE, the Syrian program of forced Hellenization might have brought about a premature end to the Jewish story. But, for such a pivotal figure, Judah Maccabee is one of the more misunderstood leaders in Jewish history. He was not, for one thing, a paragon of tolerance. One of contradictions of Hanukkah—an unexplored contradiction in our culture’s anodyne understanding of the holiday—is that the Maccabee brothers were fighting not for the principle of religious freedom but only for their own particular religion’s freedom. Their understanding of liberty did not extend even—or especially—to the Hellenized Jews of Israel’s coastal plains. The Maccabees were rough Jews from the hill country of Judea. They would be amused, if they were capable of amusement, to learn that their revolt would one day be remembered as a struggle for a universal civil right.
On the one hand, it's a tragedy that a Mormon Senator from Utah is teaching Jews about the religious and spiritual nature of Chanukah. But it's also incredible - and truly American phenomenon. I emailed Hatch, thanking him for not the song so much, but his continued support for Israel. (He's a co-sponsor of pending legislation for tougher sanctions on Iran. Very important stuff.) Enjoy the song - or at least what it represents. And then go and teach your children an authentic Chanukah song.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Parshat Vayeishev - The Roots of Sibling Hatred

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayeishev: The Roots of Sibling Hatred

The tragedy of the hatred between Yosef and his brothers begins not in Canaan, but with Yaakov's marriage to Rachel and Leah. The rivalry and differences between them set the tone for the hatred that rises between their sons later on in life.

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

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Good Old Days of TV

As a kid, I spent many a half-hour watching this show. It was not only entertaining, had a great mystery feature (bloodhound gang), but because it was educational (and aired on PBS), my mother couldn't find a reason not to let me watch it. Those were the days! I'd love to be able to show old episodes of this show to my kids, but they're really not available online - at least that I could find...

Monday, December 7, 2009

In For a Penny, In For a Pound

Back in September, I wrote this post about how the proposed housing freeze would affect Haredim more than any other constituency in Israel. It seems that I was right. Yesterday's Jerusalem Post contained this article about how the Chareidim living in Beitar Illit and Modiin Illit (a.k.a. Kiryat Sefer) want Barack Obama to exclude them from the freeze. The article, for all its irony, contains some precious gems, like:
"The US is the real boss here, not the Israeli government, so we need to convince America that we're not an ideological settlement," said Mayor Meir Rubinstein..."They pushed us to come here. They gave us no other choice. We didn't necessarily want to settle in a place beyond the Green Line. But we had no other options inside the Green Line...America does not want us either," he said. "They won't give us a green card. We're in a worse situation than Sudanese refugees. They don't want us in Israel, they don't want us in America, where are we supposed to go?"
First some (unsolicited) advice for Mayor Rubinstein from Pirkei Avot (3:17):
רבי עקיבא אומר...סיג לחכמה שתיקה
Said Rabbi Akiva: the "fence" for wisdom in silence.
He's really not helping himself at all here, whether we're talking about the Israeli public that sees his comments as a חילול ה' - ("We're really not one of you!") nor the American Chareidi public that truly is right-wing in its politics. Does he actually mean what it sounds like he means? I really hope not. Does he really mean that given the choice, hundreds of thousands of Chareidim would prefer to live in Lakewood as opposed to Kiryat Sefer? That would make the next quote quite questionable:
We're true Zionists. We came because of our religious faith; we're not ideologically motivated," he said.
I have three responses:
1. Sorry, life doesn't work that way. You wanted the West Bank specifically because the land was cheap and plentiful. Why did you think it was so cheap? You specifically wanted locations within reasonable reach of Yerushalayim that was also reasonably priced. Well, the West Bank prices were just right - for a reason. And now that reason has reared its ugly head.
2. Do we really think that most "settlers" live in the West Bank for purely ideological reasons? Sure, some people are true ideologues, living in far-away places on hilltops, giving the New York Times unlimited photo fodder. But most "settlers" moved the West Bank for the very same reason that the Chareidim did: it offered plentiful housing at an affordable price. The location was sometimes annoying (read here: road closures, rocks, bullets, etc.) and often ideologically appropriate. Still, most people that I know bought (and buy) houses in the Shomron because that's where they can afford to live.
3. Finally, Barack Obama doesn't care what motivated people to live in the West Bank. Nor do the Palestinians. They protest the expansion of Kiryat Sefer just as much as the expansion of Ofrah. It's a line on a map. If you're on the wrong side, you've got a problem that won't go away with a plea from a mayor.
Today Shas started to feel the heat. An Arutz 7 news item quoted Religious Services Minister Yacov Margi of Shas who said that, "the decision to freeze Jewish construction is inhumane and immoral," and that there should be "exceptions" to the freeze - I guess that means for Chareidim, but he couldn't say that. The article ended by noting that,
The Shas party absented themselves from the cabinet vote on the freeze.
Why did they skip the vote? Because they hate getting into ideological fights that might cost them Torah funding for yeshivot. Unfortunately for them, the Chareidim now face a pressing housing crisis that will only get worse. At some point they're going to have to decide which cost crisis will need to take precedence: funding for yeshivot, or the additional costs of a housing shortage. When the pressure from the lack of living space overwhelms the Chareidi political establishment forcing them to exert pressure on the government, we'll see some loosening of the settlement freeze.
Note to the Chareidim: Unlike Ya'akov Avinu, you knew who you were getting in bed with. At least wear the "settler" badge with pride.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

New Order: No Tefillin in Judea and Samaria

I received the following notice in the Yad Binyamin email list. You can click here to download the item yourself or send the link to a friend. It's just a good way to get a feel for the mood in the Religious Zionist community in Israel.

Heading: To the Mayors/Heads of Regional Councils in the Areas of Judea and Samaria

Subject: Orders Regarding Suspension the Procedures of the Donning of Tefillin (Temporary Order)
1. On the date of November 25, 2009 the decision of the National Ministry Committee accepted the decision regarding the suspension of the donning of Tefillin in Judea and Samaria.
2. The decision is anchored with the appropriate command signed by the IDF commander in the region.
3. Attached for your attention in the IDF Force order in its complete form.
4. The fundamental implications of the order are that it is forbidden for the residents that fall under the jurisdiction of these authorities to don Tefillin - beginning from the date of the signature of the order (i.e. November 26, 2009). Tefillin that we written after this date are subject to this order, and one may not take any action of donning with them, including the wrapping of the Tefillin on the arm, nor tightening them to the body.
5. We would like to call to your attention that the point of reference that has been established is that someone who has completed the tightening of the Tefillin of the head can continue with the donning.
6. In order to deal with individual cases - a board will be appointed in the Regional Authority that will examine requests according to the procedures and criterion which will be distributed to you.
7. We understand the implications of the order and the challenge that stands before you as representatives of the community in this complicated situation.
8. As a democratic state and its security arm, it is expected from us to actualize the decisions of the government. It is expected of you that as public representatives you will act lawfully and responsibly.
9. Arabs in the region can continue to don Tefillin as they had before this order.
10. With Blessings of Shabbat Shalom.

Parshat Vayishlach - Bridges in Jewish Life

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayishlach: Bridges in Jewish Life
This shiur is dedicated in memory of my father (Harav Simcha ben Yitzchak Kalman).
Ya'akov's battle with the strange "man" serves as a source of both intrigue and inspiration. His actions in grappling with this stranger, and the lessons that we learn from him, lead to some spirited comments about Jewish life and aliyah.

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

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Judaism According to the "Times" 2

Second in a series. (Previous article here.)

Two columns in the Times this week caught my attention. Both relate to the interesting and unusual (and rather sad) perspective on Judaism so prevalent in the Western World. It's a sort of love-hate relationship - a love of Judaism and staunch protectionism, but a rather visceral recoil from any sense of obligation.
Roger Cohen, writing about being Jewish in London, addresses the ongoing court case addressing the question of defining Judaism as a set of beliefs or a genealogical reality. (See my post on the matter here). Cohen writes,
I won’t go into the case here but will say that I found the court’s ruling that the criteria for Jewishness must be “faith, however defined” — rather than family ties — quaint. Nobody I know ever defined a Jew, or persecuted one, on the grounds of whether or not he went to synagogue regularly.
His argument seems two-faced. On the one hand, he rejects the notion that one's Jewishness must be defined by his behavior. He's a Jew - and no court in England has the right to question that fact, whether he attends synagogue, eats bagels on Sundays, or davens thrice daily. (I have no idea what he does or doesn't do. But I have a strong suspicions that the "thrice daily" thing isn't likely.) It's in the blood. But then he concludes:
Openness has grown. Bigotry’s faint refrain has grown fainter still. But I think my old school should throw more light on this episode. And I still believe the greatest strength of America, its core advantage over the old world, is its lack of interest in where you’re from and consuming interest in what you can do.
One second. Several paragraphs before he demanded to be defined as "Jewish" because of his lineage. Behavior didn't matter. Blood did. But now he's lauding America as the place where your lineage matters not at all. All that's important is "what you do."
Is it just me, or Cohen trying to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to be Jewish because he is. But then he wants to say that it doesn't really matter what you are, it matters how you act. Which is it?

Maureen Dowd, writing about Washington Wizards (although to me they'll always be the Bullets) owner Abe Pollen after his passing records Pollen's son's words:
Bob noted: “My mother and he always celebrated Shabbat dinner on Friday night. And they always had lobster.” As strongly as Abe Pollin felt about Judaism, Bob said, it was not the rituals that he considered important so much as “leading a moral life.”
I'll let the Shabbat-lobster issue go. I don't understand, but we all pick and choose. But it's Bob's words that I really don't understand. If Shabbat was really that important, and they always celebrated dinner on Friday night, why would Bob then say that rituals weren't important? Clearly they were very important to Pollen.
Of course "leading a moral life" was important to Abe Pollen. But so was Shabbat. It's a shame he could never communicate that fact to his children.