Friday, February 26, 2010

Audio Shiur: Megillat Esther - Mordechai's Mysterious Message

Audio Shiur:
Audio Shiur: Megillat Esther - Mordechai's Mysterious Message
Among the mysteries of Megillat Esther, we wonder why in the world Mordechai seemed to instigate the entire affair. By carefully analyzing the wording in the text, we can discover not only what Mordechai told the people of his own time, but the message he left for us as well.

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

A Society of Schnorrers - Tzedakah Part 2

Second in a series. (Part one here)

A moment ago, I heard a soft knock on the door - literally. You can pretty much tell who's at the door by the way that they knock. I opened the door to find two yeshiva bachurim collecting money for their yeshiva (one which I've never heard of and actually don't even remember the name of anymore). They had a sheepish look on their face - the one that says that they'd rather be anywhere else but asking me for money - and yet there they were, telling me that they're from "Yeshivat something something in Yerushalayim", collecting for a fund for "kollel families and needy students."
I smiled, and calmly explained to them that I prefer to focus my donations on the local yeshivot that we have here in the area. It's not a copout. I actually did write a check to a local yeshiva this week.
I'm sure this experience is not unique to me. If you're reading this blog, there's a strong chance that you've heard the same knock on your door, multiple times, to find young men standing there asking for money for their yeshivot. I'm not even sure how this custom developed, but it seems to have grown exponentially in recent years, with yeshivot sending their students out during the weeks before and after Purim collecting.
On one hand, yeshivot need money. They can't survive without donations, and running a yeshiva is really expensive. But this new phenomenon, of bachurim collecting for the yeshiva, bothers me for a very simple reason: we're training an entire generation of schnorrers.
Yesterday in shul, not one but two people asked for money at the end of davening. The first was a young man who said that he came from a large family (of 13 children), and that the family simply could not provide sufficient funds for his upcoming wedding. So he came collecting. I wondered: if he had an upcoming wedding and needed to pay for expenses to build his home, who gave him the right to sit in yeshiva and ask me to pay for his household? Why didn't he first assume that he should go out, get a job, do his best, and then ask me for help with his shortfall (which I would have been more open to)?
By sending our students out collecting for their yeshivot (and by extension, for themselves), we're training them to ask other people for money. We're giving them a head start on overcoming what should be a natural aversion to asking other people for help. We're teaching them that the best way to support yourself is to ask someone else to pay your way. And while these boys might very well be learning a lot of Torah in their yeshiva, this might be the most practical aspect of their education.
In the third brachah of Bircat Hamazon, we ask God for the following:
ונא אל תצריכינו, ה' אלקינו, לא לידי מתנת בשר ודם, ולא לידי הלואתם, כי אם לידך המלאה הפתוחה הקדושה והרחוה, שלא נבוש ולא נכלם לעולם ועד.
And please do not make us require, Hashem our God, neither the gifts of the hands of flesh and blood (other people), nor their loans; rather [supply us with the bounty of] Your full, open, holy, benevolent Hand - so that we never feel neither shamed nor debased.
Where is the obvious sense of shame and debasement that's so basic to human nature that it's part of the birkat hamazon?
I guess with enough practice you can get used to anything.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Society of Tzedakah and the Kli Yakkar

First in a Series

A rather common occurrence took place in shul this morning. Again.
At the end of davening (sometimes it starts before we're even done), a man dressed mostly in black, clearly not from our yishuv, made the rounds asking for a donation. He held in his hand a pamphlet asking for fund for a family of orphans.
I have stopped giving money to people like this for a very simple reason: I have no way of verifying that they're telling me the truth. This man carried no identification indicating that he represented the given charity. He offered no evidence that the money people give him actually goes to the charity for which he claims to collect.
So I didn't give. Even a small amount.
This is not to say that I don't give tzedakah. I am making a concerted effort to be meticulous about my ma'aser. But I write checks to organizations that I recognize and support. I don't give to people collecting in shuls, the kotel, or on the street. When people come to my door, if they're collecting for themselves I will often give a token amount (I don't feel comfortable asking for documentation for a shekel or two.)
Often, when people come to my door asking for money for a kallah, a wedding or the like, a simple question enters my mind: do you work? How much? If you did, would you need to be asking me for this money?
It sometimes seems like large segments of our society have grown accustomed to "working" in the field of tzedakah. It's simply more lucrative to collect than it is to work. If each door you know on only gives you a shekel or two, you can easily make fifty to a hundred shekel in an hour. Cleaning houses earns forty. Knocking on doors is easier - at least physically, and less demanding.
This clearly isn't just a modern problem. Charlatans have been taking advantage of people's good will and generosity for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
Should we happen upon the donkey of our fellow man toppling under its heavy load, the Torah requires that, עזוב תעזוב עמו-- "you shall surely help with him." (Shemot 23:5) Commenting on the requirement to help "with" him, and not "instead" of him, Rav Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, in his commentary Kli Yakar on the Torah writes,
לומר לך דוקא שרוצה להיות עמך במלאכתו ורוצה להקים עמך אז אתה מחויב לסייע לו אבל אם יושב לו ואומר הואיל ועליך מוטל הדבר חייב אתה להקים לבד, על כן אמר וחדלת מעזוב לו...ומכאן תשובה על מקצת עניים בני עמינו המטילים את עצמם על הציבור ואינן רוצים לעשות בשום מלאכה אף אם בידם לעשות באיזו מלאכה או איזה דבר אחר אשר בו יכולין להביא שבר רעבון ביתם, וקוראים תגר אם אין נותנים להם די מחסורם, כי דבר זה לא צוה ה' כי אם עזוב תעזוב עמו הקם תקים עמו כי העני יעשה כל אשר ימצא בכוחו לעשות ואם בכל זה לא תשיג ידו, אז חייב כל איש מישראל לסעדו ולחזקו וליתן לו די מחסורו אשר יחסר לו, ועזוב תעזוב אפילו עד מאה פעמים
This teachs you that specifically he who wishes to be "with you" in his work, and wants to raise the donkey with you - then you are obligated to help him. But if he sits to himself and says, "Since the burden is placed upon you, you alone are obligated to raise [the donkey]", for this the verse teaches us, "you shall hold back from helping him"...And from here we derive a response to the some of the paupers among our nation, who place themselves upon the community, and do not wish to engage in any form of work, even if they are able to perform some work or find some other means to bring sustenance to their homes; and they cry foul if they are not given sufficient means. This is not what God commanded. Rather, only if, "You help with him and raise up [the donkey] with him", should the pauper do everything in his power, and despite these efforts, it is not enough, then every person from Israel must feed him, strengthen him, and give him what he lacks, and must "help him" even a hundred times.
Sometimes it seems like the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Monday, February 22, 2010

More Shameless Self Promotion

You know that you've made it to the big time when you're featured in Baltimore's premiere Jewish magazine, "Where What When". Or is it "Where?What?When?" Or maybe it's "Where-What-When"? Whatever.) Now that most frum Jews no longer subscribe to the Baltimore Jewish Times, WWW probably is the frum community's premier Jewish magazine.
In any case, I was prominently featured in an article spanning six pages - the vast majority covered by ads - that's what the thing is really for - about rabbis who made or will make aliyah.
If you were looking for another article encouraging you to move to Israel, here it is!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Wisdom of Rav Shmuel Eliyahu Re Rav Moti Alon

The RZ press has written reams surrounding what it calls, "Parashat Rav Alon" - the Rav Alon "Story". The word "affair" fits better, but seems inappropriate. In Olam Katan, one of the weekly parshah sheets that magically appears in shuls throughout the country, Rav Shmuel Eliyahu responds to the painful events that transpired this past week. The following is a direct translation of what he wrote:

Whoever Says that David Sinned is Surely Mistaken
During one of the interviews regarding the "Rav Moti Alon Story" a reporter asked me: If you knew about this story before, why didn't you publicize it? The real answer is that the public doesn't need to know everything. It's not necessary for every person who tuned into the radio to judge whether Rav Alon sinned and how. We're speaking about a great, important rabbi. We're speaking about a man with a great many merits in Klal Yisrael. We're speaking about a man of education.
The gemara states: "Whoever says that David sinned can only be mistaken." One of the commentaries explains that David certainly erred in the story with Batsheva. This is why the prophet approached him with the story of the poor man's sheep. This is why he was punished so harshly. But you, the student - immerse in your own sins. Don't think that you're so ethical because you engage in the sins of King David. There are rabbis and judges appointed to that role. There is a "Takana" forum assigned this role. You - don't wonder about your rebbe. You can and must continue to recite Tehillim and to view King David as an exalted figure.
"With righteousness you shall judge your fellow man," certainly so when we're speaking about a man rich with such a great many merits. There are in the gemara (Shabbat 127b) fantastic stories about the fact that we must judge each person favorably, even when the facts seem so clear and solid. After the students of Rabbi Yehoshua judged him favorably in the story where he could have seen in an extremely negative light he says to them, "And you, just as you have judged me favorably, so too should God judge you favorably." The way you judge others reveals something about you.
Even regarding a sin that's "as clear as the sun" the Gemara says: "They taught in the house of Rabbi Yishmael: If you see a Talmid Chacham commit a sin at night, do not wonder about him during the day, for perhaps he repented. 'Perhaps' - you might think? Rather, 'certainly he repented!'" The gemara is speaking about someone whom you saw with certainty sin during the night - regarding this person Rabbi Yishmael asserted that he certainly repented. Not maybe. Where is this, and where is the story that the media so much enjoys engaging in, which if it happened, happened many years ago. Let us fulfill the words of Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Yishmael: "And you, just as you have judged the Rav meritoriously, so too should God just you favorably as well."

And here is the rest of it.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Audio Shiur: Terumah - Tetzaveh 5770 - When Leaders Fail

Audio Shiur:
Terumah - Tetzaveh 5770 - When Leaders Fail
The disturbing revelations regarding a leading figure in the Religious Zionist community have brought about a sense of bewilderment, anguish and despair. Why brings great leaders to descend to such depths? What are some of the factors that they deal with? How should we relate to their Torah and their teachings after we learn the truth? By examining some of the details of the clothing of the Kohen Gadol, as well as some of the descriptions of Moshe Rabbeinu, we approach this sensitive issue with delicacy.

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

Leadership and the Problem of Ego

It seems to be a regular occurrence now: charismatic leader gains large following, great popularity. Charismatic leader lets popularity get to his head. Charismatic leader engages in bad, dangerous, harmful behavior. Leader falls from grace. Community suffers.
In a way, it seems natural, almost expected. We all think that we’d be immune, but we’re not being honest. (Kind of like the way we tell ourselves that we’d give so much to charity if only we won the lottery. It’s very easy to give away money you don’t have. It’s much harder to write the check when someone’s actually going to cash it.) The same rule applies to ego: humility’s not a big deal when you’re not a popular person.
But imagine if you are popular – not in the modern media sense, but in the sense that people seek you out. They thirst not only for your teachings, which today can become instantaneously recognized worldwide, but also for your personal counsel. They want to meet with you at all hours of the day and night, and are constantly hounding you for attention.
At some point, does it not make sense for a person to begin to believe what everyone else does: that he really is special, important, even different; that he has unique qualities that make him indispensible, even invincible; that the rules don’t really apply to him they way they do to everyone else?
This, the Torah tells us, was Moshe Rabbeinu’s greatest quality. At the conclusion of the Torah we read that Moshe was ענו מכל אדם – “the most humble of men.” He wasn’t the smartest, the wisest, probably not the best looking. No, he was the most humble. Some part of us wonders, “Is that the best that the Torah can tell us about him? Wasn’t their some trait that outshone his humility?” The reason that we wonder is because we were not in his shoes. We didn’t stand on Sinai and receive the Torah from God. We did not challenge the leader of the world and redeem a people from bondage. We didn’t create a people and change world history forever.
Moshe did. And, as opposed to every single one of us, he amazingly realized that for all of his historic accomplishments, they weren’t really his after all. He had the unique self-awareness to know that it wasn’t really him after all. He never allowed himself to believe his own press.
And that’s how he remained Moshe Rabbeinu. Because imagine if he lacked that sense of humility – God forbid. Imagine that he one day began to see his accomplishments and achievements as symbolic of his own greatness. Imagine if he let things go to his head. What would have come of the Torah that he delivered from God and transmitted to the people?
We all want that great popularity so sought after today. We think that we could handle the pressure with grace and ease, and be the leaders we imagine we should be.
I’m not so sure. Humility seems so simple. Yet for most of us, it often proves elusive.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Settlement "Freeze"

OK - I wasn't going to say anything. But now that the Jerusalem Post has let the cat out of the bag, I don't think a little blog post of mine is going to make much of a difference.
It's not much of a "freeze."
1. Last Sukkot, before the "freeze" began, we happened to take a walking tiyyul of Nachal Kannah, which runs between Yakir and Karnei Shomron. It was a beautiful hike (but one that you can only take on days like Chol Hamoed, when you know the army will be around). Starting the hike in Yakkir, you could clearly see trucks hammering out foundations for homes in Yakir, which would have been unusual to see on Chol Hamoed. Clearly, they were in a hurry, only back then we didn't know why. The word was that something was going to happen, and we needed to get as many houses started as possible as quickly as possible.
2. Driving into Elkana on any given day, you've got to wonder about the "freeze", as it's impossible not to notice the large series of houses going up right at the entrance of the yishuv. Now I know that you'll tell me that the houses are legal, as their foundations were completed before the beginning of the "freeze", but that's not much of a freeze if you ask me.
I case you were wondering, I'm no fan of the "freeze" and feel passionately that Jews should have the right to build anywhere in Israel that they wish. I'm not even sure that the local Arabs want the freeze, as they rely greatly on the construction jobs available from the building to support their families.
I guess I'm not a good politician. I think that building is great, but if we're going to do it, why hide that fact? Instead of hiding behind building freezes we should come out and proclaim to the world: "This is the Land of Israel, where Jews have an eternal, God-given right to build anywhere they can."
The sooner we do that, the sooner the "freeze" will end once and for all.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Audio Shiur: Parshat Mishpatim - Hating Our Enemies

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Mishpatim- Hating Our Enemies
Through the commandment to help unburden the overloaded and collapsing donkey belonging to the person that we hate, we take a careful look at the notion of hatred in general, and who and what we're specifically supposed to hate, if anything at all. Who really are our enemies, and how should we relate to them. Oh, and should we give money to meshulachim that come to the door asking for tzedakah?

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

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Mouths of Babes Department

Our youngest child, Petachya, aged 4 and a half, often has trouble getting himself downstairs in the morning. Rena will wake him up, make sure that he's awake, get his clothes set for him, and then move on to other things. I frequently arrive home from shul to find him slowly moving down the steps a half-hour later.
We're trying several remedies: a check system (not really working), taking away his DS time (working a little), positive encouragement (makes him feel good but also doesn't work).
Today we had the following conversation.
Me: Petachya, you can't read in the morning. You have to get dressed.
P: I'm not reading.
Me: Well, you can't just stand around looking at things.
P: I'm not looking at things.
Me: Then what are you doing for all this time?
P: I'm lying in bed.
Stupid, he's not.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Power of a Phone Call

The New York Times features a lovely piece on Alan Shlomo Veingrad, the former NFL player turned Chabad speaker, who travels the country using his NFL fame to promote living a Torah lifestyle. It's not a new story (I blogged about it here), but it's certainly a new angle to the ongoing Super Bowl media blitz.
Yet, something fascinating caught my attention. What brought Veingrad, a NFL lineman living in Wisconsin, closer to Judaism? A business card.
The article begins by telling the story of what connected him to Judaism.
After practice one late-summer day in 1986, Alan Veingrad strode into the Green Bay Packers’ locker room, feeling both spent and satisfied.
An undrafted player from an obscure college, he had made the team and then some. On the next Sunday, opening day of the N.F.L. season, he would be starting at offensive tackle.
In his locker, Mr. Veingrad found the usual stuff, his street clothes and sweat suit and playbook. On a small bench, though, lay a note from the Packers’ receptionist. It carried a name that Mr. Veingrad did not recognize, Lou Weinstein, and a local phone number.
Alone in a new town, too naïve to be wary, Mr. Veingrad called. This Lou Weinstein, it turned out, ran a shoe store in Green Bay, Wis. He had just read an article in the paper about a Jewish player on the Packers, and he wanted to meet and welcome that rarity.
A few days later, Mr. Veingrad joined Mr. Weinstein for lunch at the businessman’s golf club. There Mr. Weinstein invited the player to accompany his family to Rosh Hashana services at Cnesses Israel, a synagogue near the site of the Packers’ original home field, City Stadium.
It had been a long time since Mr. Veingrad had spent much time in shul, nearly a decade since his bar mitzvah. He knew the date of the Packers’ Monday night game against the Chicago Bears better than he did Yom Kippur. “But when I heard the Hebrew,” he recently recalled of that service in Green Bay, “I felt a pull.”
Lou Weinstein isn't a frum guy - at least that's not how it sounds. He was simply a Jew reaching out to another Jew. He took him to lunch, and then invited him to his Conservative shul for Yom Kippur. I doubt Weinstein intended that Veingrad should be frum. He just wanted to share some yiddishkeit with a fellow Jew.
It sounds so simple, and yet it's so intimidating. How many of us would leave our business card in just such a situation? There's a guy who runs a restaurant not ten minutes from my home. Each time I eat there I spend a few minutes chatting. I've thought about inviting him (and his family, if he has one) for a meal some time, and yet I haven't.
Why not? What am I afraid of? I'm not sure.
I guess I'm no Lew Weinstein.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Individualism vs. Community Unity

Imagine that that you just moved to a new community - a one-shul town. Everything's great; the people are wonderful, the job is good, you like the shul and the community. But there's one problem: they daven shacharit too late. As much as you'd like to sugar-coat things, sunrise is really early and the daily and Shabbat tefillah begin late, and by the time the shul reaches Tefillah, the time for davening according to halachah has long passed. You spoke to the rabbi, but as much as he sympathizes with you, there's not much he can do. He has tried in the past to get people to come earlier, to no avail. (Not that surprising.)
So you're left with a choice: you can either daven at home, on time, by yourself, or you can daven with a minyan, but daven late, literally missing the appointed time for tefillah each and every day. What do you do: Daven alone, but on time, or with the community, but late?
It seems pretty clear to me that most halachically sensitive people would choose to daven on time, without a minyan. Then, if they wanted to participate in kedushah, hear the Torah reading, or answer a kaddish they could attend shul afterward. After all, no harm done - what's the difference if someone wants to pray on his own at home?
Truth be told, this is not a new question. It's actually a very old one, not about Shacharit, but about Ma'ariv. Throughout literally centuries, Jews faced a conundrum regarding the evening service. Most shuls gathered a minyan for minchah, before sunset, but were unable or unwilling to regather later for Ma'ariv. So they davenend Ma'ariv after sunset, which is technically fine to fulfill the Shemoneh Esreh obligation, but still too early to recite the Shema at night. What to do? On the one hand, people wanted to recite the Shema with the surrounding blessings at night. But they also wished to connect the blessing of גאל ישראל to the Shemoneh Esreh - an important value in davening.
Today, most people who daven Ma'ariv at a shul that davens "early" solve this problem by repeating the Shema after nightfall - when they remember. But that solution means that one is reciting the Shema later without its blessings - not perfect.
We find this well-known early-Ma'ariv problem extensively documented in the halachic literature. The Beit Yosef (Orech Haim 235) discusses several options, as does Rema in his commentary. While rabbinic authorities down through the ages decried to problem of davening Ma'ariv too early, Rema notes that, "Maharik and many spiritually meticulous people would not pray with the community, but [would wait until] nightfall." Yet, Rema concludes his comments by quoting his teacher, Rabbi Yisrael Isserlin who wrote that,
This custom spread through the weakness, hunger, desires and thirsts to eat and drink while still light outside - and for this reason they moved forward the time so that they could eat immediately afterward. Yet, even a Talmid Chacham (Torah scholar) should not separate himself from the community if he cannot admonish them not to pray so early, unless he has accustomed himself to other "separations" of piety - then he can pray at night.
How many of us would sacrifice our own spiritual goals for the sake of communal unity? In davening alone we think that we cause no harm - but we do cause harm - the separation of the individual from the larger community, and the subtle communal splintering that results.
In today's super-individualistic climate of self-fulfillment, could we imagine a pious person davening after the proper time each day simply to remain integrated in the community? I doubt it.
I noted that our imaginary davener had two options: davening late with the shul, or davening on time at home. I neglected to mention a third option that I think would be the most likely outcome in today's Jewish community.
He'd probably start his own shul.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Audio Shiur: Parshat Yitro - A Nation of Individuals

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Yitro - A Nation of Individuals
Through careful examination of the language that describes the introduction of Matan Torah, we can learn a great deal about the underlying values of the Torah, the roles of men and women, and even Gilad Schalit.

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

Teaching to Technology: Good for the Students?

We live in a culture infatuated with technology. Last week, it seemed that more people cared about Steve Jobs' launch of the iPad than President Obama's State of the Union address. Truth be told, the iPad is certainly more exciting and garners more interest, but therein lies the problem: do people really think that a new tablet computer is more important than the future of the United States moving forward? Or is it just more entertaining and interesting?
I ask this after reading an article in which Israel's Minister of Education declared that,
The school system is not keeping up with breakthroughs in technology, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar said on Tuesday.He argued that schools must adopt new teaching practices for the 21st century. “Nowadays, graduates of the school system live in a completely different world than the one we grew up in,” Sa’ar said, adding that we must make sure to teach them “21st-century skills.”
He then called for more money for Israel's education system, which is of course legitimate and in my mind correct. (What do you cut? Not sure - but that's not Saar's problem.) But the infatuation with technology makes me wonder: what do we want our children learning in school? How does he want technology to enter the classroom? In the frenzy to digitize our classrooms, maybe we need to take a step back and ask: Are the computers really teaching our children anything? An example:
My son (seventh grade) was assigned a project on England. In the "old days", I would have had to write a report, which would include a trip to the library, reading old encyclopedias, a book or two, some magazine microfiche. (Remember scrolling through old newspapers in the library? Ah, those were the days!) But at some point, I'd have to combine those three sources together into a coherent "report" while avoiding blatant plagiarism. Wasn't easy. Took a little bit of thinking, learning research skills, some organizational work, and a tad of effort in the writing. Boy, I hated those reports. My son's project was to put together a Power Point presentation. I must say, he's an absolute whiz at Power Point. It was a great-looking presentation. He knows Power Point better than I do. But he spent far more time with the "look and feel" of the report - getting the transitions right, downloading pictures, inserting the music for the English National anthem - than he did researching or writing. I'm not blaming him at all. He completed the assignment. But did he learn anything about organizing his thoughts, researching (now reduced to a Google search), thinking or organizing? Or was he so distracted by the "bells and whistles" that he learned a lot about Power Point, but little about England, and almost no greater thinking skills at all? The article continues,
Gila Ben-Hor, general secretary of the Center for Educational technology, called on the state to implement educational reform policies to prepare pupils for the changing demands wrought by advances in technology, and to ensure that they can compete with students from elsewhere in the developed world.
Ben-Hor presented figures from a poll compiled by the Center for Educational Technology in January 2010 that found 52% of Israeli students think that schools are not preparing them for the future, and that 82% would prefer a curriculum in which they are required to carry a laptop to class in lieu of textbooks. Students also said that schools should provide laptops to all teachers and students, with wireless Internet access and completely digital classrooms.
Really? What, pray tell, do we think these students will be doing with their laptops in the classroom? Researching mathematical formulas? Writing term papers? Or will they be doing what most college students do during lectures: surf the web, IM their friends, and check Facebook. From what I've seen thus far, it seems to me that school tech serves more as a distraction than a boon to learning.
Yes, we have reached the 21st Century. The iPad might be an amazing device. But Israel won't have the educated population it need to create the next iPad unless it leaves the iPads out of the classroom and the students learn in the best possible way: by teaching critical thinking skills, developing intellectual curiosity, and forcing our children to learn core material instead of exciting digital bells and whistles.
And the ideal way to do that is still by sticking to books.