Wednesday, June 30, 2010

I Thanked My Congressman. Have You?

I'm a big, big AIPAC supporter. Even before I moved to Israel, I got involved in AIPAC, attending the policy conference in Washington, local event in Michigan, and even bringing in AIPAC representatives to our shul for a small event. I really came to the conclusion that one of the best ways American Jews can support the Jewish State is by getting involved in the legislative process. Simply put, United State's support for Israel provides crucial backing to the Jewish State, both in financial terms, but also in the international community. Putting our energy into ensuring that the US government continues to support Israel is a great investment of time and energy.
This week, seventy five percent of the US House of representatives signed a letter encouraging the US to stand behind Israel's right to self-defense. Without a doubt, the UN is eventually going to get around to criticizing Israel for its commandos acts of self-defense on the "Peace Flotilla" ship. The letter from Congress to President Obama demonstrates the strong support that Israel has across the country, and how important it is for the US to stand behind Israel's right to self-defense.
My congressman, Rep. Sander Levin, signed the letter. I know, because I checked. And I also don't believe that because he's Jewish, we should take it for granted that he's going to sign these types of letters, and make Israel a priority. So I called to thank him. No, I didn't speak to him - but I did leave him a message.
It was pretty easy. I looked up the phone number in Washington on his web site, and asked for the name of the legislative assistant for foreign affairs. Turns out that her name is Erin Hughes. I asked to speak to Erin, and explained to her that I'm a constituent of the Congressman living in Israel (which surprised her) and that I wanted to thank him for signing the letter. She clearly appreciated the call, and told me that she'd convey the message.
That was it. Not a big deal. Took about five minutes. But it is a big deal, especially if enough people do it.
I thanked my Congressman. Have you?

My New Favorite Web Application

I work on a number of different computers: home, netbook, work, other work, and often find myself in need of files from one job at a different computer. (This is a rather common need. I'm pretty sure that I'm not alone.) A few months back I stumbled upon a great web app that fills exactly this need called Dropbox. Basically, it creates a folder on your computer in which you put any document you want. Then you install Dropbox on any other computer you want, and you'll immediately find every document that you use in the folder automatically updated. Even better, if you use the file and make changes on one computer, those changes will be updated on every computer.
You can even access the files on the Dropbox web site if you need. So now, wherever I am, the files that I need are right where I need them, and I don't have to wonder whether I've got the latest version of that file.
I must admit: this is not rocket science. It's something that a zillion people have needed for ages, and one wonders why Microsoft never built this into Windows. Oh yes, they're trying with something called Windows Live Skydrive from Microsoft. In typical fashion, Microsoft has succeeded in creating a convoluted, cludgy, difficult-to-use web application that I can't see anyone adopting. (expect Dropbox to be bought out by Google in the near future.)
Stick with Dropbox. It's simple, intuitive, easy, simple, and useful.
And oh yes, for up to 2gb of information it's also free.

Disclaimer: I am not an employee of Dropbox or any of its subsidiaries. Nonetheless, I would be happy to receive free stuff from them at any time. To that end, if you're considering trying Dropbox (which you should), I'd be very happy if you used this link to connect to the service, so that I can get some free space. Thanks.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Thoughts for Shiva Asar B'Tammuz: Can't We All Just Get Along?

Last week as I entered the Beit Midrash of Torat Hachayyim (the local yeshiva in Yad Binyamin), I noticed that on the computers in the front of the Beit Midrash, a couple of the bachurim were watching a shiur by a rav that I did not recognize (and don't remember his name). When I asked my chavruta about it, he not only told me the rabbi's name (which I forgot), but also that he's a very well-known rabbi in the world of "nistar", and that his message was stern and frightening: bad things are going to happen. Apparently, the death of Rav Mordechai Eliyuha gave us a three month reprieve, but things aren't looking good for us.
"So what are we supposed to do?" I asked.
"Teshuva," my chavruta told me.
That's not enough for me. Just Teshuva? For what? If you just tell people to repent, improve, change, I think that's such an overarching, far-reaching goal, that it's difficult to know where to start, and hard to feel that my general repentance will actually make a difference.
"No," I said. "I need something more specific. Give me an area, a general direction. What should we be doing teshuva for?"
I think I know. At least for the next few weeks.
I was listening to Rabbi Berel Wein speaking on JM in the AM, and after he described his Talmud Yerushalmi project, Nachum Segal asked him what he thought of the whole Emmanuel issue, and whether he felt there was a historical precedent that he could relate. He said that it reminded him of the Jews during the Second Temple era. So much Torah. So much learning. But so much divisiveness and derisiveness for others who are not like we are.
Today is Shiva Asar B'Tammuz. We recited Kinot this morning for the breaching of the walls, leading to the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. But the real walls - the important ones - fell long before, when the Jews lost trust in one-another; when they began to distrust each other more than their enemies. When they forgot what united them, and the fact that all of them were supposedly acting in the service of God.
This, I think, is a proper teshuva for us all that we can begin right now.
This Three Weeks, I think we all, starting with myself, need to work on our unity. I generally try not to bash other groups, but through Tisha B'av I'll try especially hard. I'll make an effort to see the good in other Jews with whom I often do not agree. I'll try to accentuate the positives, making an effort to see the side that I often disregard. I'll try and build, and not tear down.
And I hope you will too.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Real Cause of Anti-Semitism: A Vort from the Netziv on Parshat Balak

This year in particular, we're feeling the sting of antisemitism more profoundly than we're used to. From the international focus and condemnation of Israel, to the world-wise rise of Jew hating, to the overt Israel-bashing from Iran, it's becoming alarmingly acceptable to disdain the Jews. All this despite the continued hard work of tens of alphabetic Jewish Organizations from the ADL to the SWC (Simon Wiesenthal Center. OK, that acronym I made up) to the JCRC? Why, if we're working so hard to combat hatred of the Jews, do things still seem to be getting worse?
The Netziv, commenting on our parshah, offers a striking answerIn his famous blessing of the Jewish people Bilam said:
הן עם לבדד ישכן, ובגויים לא יתחשב
"lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations" (Bamidbar 23:9)
What did Bilam mean when he said this? What does it mean for the Jewish nation to dwell alone? Commentaries throughout the ages interpreted this phrase in different ways, adjusting their interpretations for the times in which they lived. (listen to this year's shiur to learn more).
One very striking interpretation is the commentary of the Netziv in Ha'amek Davar, who offers a novel reading of this phrase, writing (in his comments to Bereitshit 15)
"המה מבקשים לכלותינו, הוא בשביל שאנו מבקשים להתערב עמהם. וכבר ניבא על זה בלעם 'הן עם לבדד ישכון ובגוים לא יתחשב'. ובארנו שאם יהיה לבדד ולא ירצה להתערב עמהם, ישכון במנוחה. ובזמן שהוא בגוים שמתערב עמהם, לא יתחשב בעיני אומות העולם ואין לו תקומה ביניהם. וזה בתורת השגחה מן שמים שיהיה כן"
They wish to destroy us - and the reason for this is because we want to intermingle with them. Bilam already prophesized about this when he said, "lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations". And we explained that if [Israel] will be "alone" and not wish to mix with them, then "he will dwell" in tranquility. And at the time that he is "among the nations", then "he will not be reckoned" in the eyes of the nations of the world, and he has no stature among them. This is a matter of divine providence from heaven that this should be so.
In his commentary to our parshah, Netziv offers a chilling additional, tragically prophetic point:
אינו נחשב בעיניהם כלל כאדם...והרי כקוף בצורת האדם
He is not considered in their eyes at all like a human being, and he is like a monkey in the form of a human being.
(There's a long, important essay that I skipped during the ellipsis within which he explains his logic, but I don't have the time to translate the whole thing.)
It's frightening to think about Netziv's point: when we try to act like the nations of the world, instead of liking us more, the world only hates and derides us, to the point that they consider us subhuman; animals in human form.

How tragically, chillingly prophetic were his words, written towards the end of the 19th century, only decades before the rise of the Nazi regime that followed his prediction precisely.
This truly is the struggle of our time: what does it mean to be a Jew? How must a Jew live? What is the definition of Judaism? Torah Jews point to the words of the Netziv as frightening truth. The more we try to be "like them", to assimilate, westernize, and abandon our holy tradition, the more we hurt ourselves.
Assimilation doesn't just destroy the Jews from within. According to the Netziv, it's the most powerful cause of anti-Semitism known to man.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Shwekey Jr.

Petachya has, for the longest time, been on a Shwekey kick. Once he was looking through the newspaper, and saw a large ad for a Shwekey concert in which Shwekey appeared like this:

This prompted Petachya to strike his own Shwekey pose, like this: (notice the glasses and kippah placement).

I guess there are worse role-models he could have chosen to emulate.

Audio Shiur: Balak 5770 - The Walls We Build

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Balak 5770 - The Walls We Build

Recent events in Emanuel raised the charges of racism within Orthodoxy as well as the challenging issue of ethnic and religious separatism. Why do we build the walls we build? Should we? Is it better to separate ourselves from the outside world - even Jewish - or to try and integrate and suffer the consequences?

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on

For last year's shiur, "The Sexual Ethic of the Jewish People," click here.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Ethnic Profiling and Emanuel

I was racially profiled this morning. And it didn't bother me in the least.
Bezalel had a dentist appointment at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, but I also had three huge food warming boxes that I needed to return to our caterer in Jerusalem. (long story, different post). Any time you drive into any complex in Israel, be it an office complex, mall or hospital, security searches your car. So here I was, entering a major hospital complex, with three huge, sealed blue boxes in the back of my car. The security guy took one look at us, and without a second thought, waved us in.
Why didn't he check the boxes? Didn't he wonder at least why I have them in the car and what I was doing with them? He didn't, because he was profiling us. I'm a religious Jew with a kippah, and I was driving into the hospital with my wife, son and infant daughter. Probability, and probably his sixth sense told him to wave us on, and that searching the boxes (which were empty) would be a waste of his and our time. He was right.
Contrast this morning with another, very different security check that I also underwent, also right here in Yerushalayim exactly a week ago, at the American consulate. There, instead of profiling you, they treat every one - every single person - like a criminal. I've never been through such a thorough check anywhere in Israel before.
When you get there, they first check to see if you have a reservation, and only then do they let you into the outer courtyard, where you have to leave your baby stroller. No strollers inside. Period.
Then, a security guard hand-checked every bag. He took any electronics - even the USB key on my keychain. He took our cellphones as well. (Are there really any secrets at the US consulate in East Jerusalem?) He made Rena apply some lip balm on her hand, and asked me to taste the water inside the baby bottles that we had brought for Moriyah. It was really ridiculous. Then, after that, we went through a locked door into a second room, where we went through a second metal detector, and they put our bags, which they had just searched, through an XRay machine. Really?
I felt victimized because I wasn't racially profiled. In Israel proper (the consulate felt like a different country), they would have done exactly what they did this morning: looked at a couple with an infant child, checked our bags, and waved us through. But the US cannot profile everyone. Everyone is suspect; a potential threat. So everyone suffers.
The recent Emanuel case raises the important issue of racial profiling. Is it right for Chasidim to assume that Sefardim are different than they are?
Truth be told, in general - and those are important words - Sephardim and Ashkenazim really are different. You just have to open up to any page of the Shulchan Aruch to see just how true that is. We have different fonts in the book; the block lettering is for the Sephardim, the Rashi script for the Ashkenazim.
And it's not just about ritual. Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewry have significantly different perspectives to Jewish practice and community.
In Sephardic tradition, there's really no such thing as sectarianism. There's no Conservative Sephardic Judaism. Does this mean that every Sephardic Jew follows the halachah to the letter of the law? Hardly. But the community doesn't excommunicate someone who doesn't adhere. It admonishes him, even shames him. But for whatever reason, it never rejected him to the point that he broke away and began his own flavor of religion. A Sephardic Jew may sin, but his shul and rabbi are still Orthodox.
Ashkenazim, for better or worse made a different choice, resulting in breakaway sects that attracted huge numbers of followers, but left the original community "pure", with far less tolerance for people who do not adhere to the precepts of faith with precision and care.
Someone from a true Sephardic background grows up with the values of his faith tradition, as well he should - with great pride. He will view the "sinner" in a very different way than will his counterpart raised in an Ashkenazi household.
Now, if I know that a certain faith tradition teaches a certain set of values, would it not make sense for me to assume that someone Sephardic subscribes to his own ethnic values? We all do it, all the time.
The media (and much of Western society) treat racism and ethnic preference as if it's a zero-sum game. It's all black and white. If you make any racial distinctions, then you're a racist. You have to treat, judge, address, assess and evaluate every single person equally, regardless of any predilection or indication you may have based on ethnicity. That's the American way, where the label "racist" is literally a death-sentence to a career and reputation. But in the real world, we all profile. It's the way that we function in the world.
It's how we decide to which school to send our children. It's how we decide where to buy a house. It's how we decide whether to suspect the man that just got on the bus, whether to open the door when the stranger knocks; whether to call the police when someone unusual appears on our block. We might not like it, and profiling sometimes paints too broad a stroke, punishing the innocent.
But I'm not sure that the American way, of suspecting no one, but therefore suspecting everyone, is really any better.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Beautiful Bar Mitzvah

This past Shabbat we celebrated the Bar Mitzvah of my oldest son, Simcha. It was a wonderful, powerful and meaningful experience, from a number of different perspectives.
I'll spare you the boring details of who spoke when and what we ate for dinner. Suffice to say that Simcha spoke about the contrast of the Eizov and the Erez - the hyssop bush and the Cedar tree, both of which are used for the parah Adumah mixture. In a nutshell, he explained how the tall Erez referred to the attribute of haughtiness and self-confidence, while the lowly Eizov alluded to both humility and self-effacement, and how the Torah wants us to find that sweet spot between arrogance and self-negation. Nice message.
For me, the most moving aspect of the Shabbat was my aliyah, listening to my son read from the Torah. It was tremendously meaningful to have him lead me. I had the feeling that he had reached a point where he was beginning to find a level of independence that can only come after years of guidance and direction. It was a moment that you cannot buy; these moments only come with the hard work of parenting, disciplining, encouragement, not a little frustration and sweat.
But these are the best moments; the ones when you stand next to your son, watching him read from the Torah with poise and confidence, and give thanks to God for His granting you such a powerful, meaningful experience.
One other point struck me. Simcha spoke twice - he gave his drashah once in English, and then at Seudah Shlishit when we invited friends from the yishuv, he gave the same talk in Hebrew. He wrote his speech on his own (his mother helped him with some of the sources), and I just helped him clarify his ideas. But he translated the drashah entirely on his own. Watching my son deliver a drashah entirely in Hebrew - and from my point of view - in rather beautiful Hebrew, also resonated strongly with me.
We left the United States for Israel, giving up careers, family and friends, first and foremost for our children. We wanted them to connect to their Judaism and the Jewish nation in the most powerful possible way. Seeing my son deliver a sophisticated devar Torah in Israel in fluent Hebrew emphasized to me how fortunate we are to have made this challenging choice. It's wasn't easy - and it's still not easy.
But, this Shabbat it was nice to give myself the luxury of sitting back and allowing myself to enjoy the fruit of our hard work.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Audio Shiur: Parshat Chukat 5770 - Unrealized Expectations

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Chukat 5770 - Unrealized Expectations

Unrealized expectations always lead to disappointment - both in our private lives, and in communal life as well. Moreover, how we deal with that disappointment has a great impact on us, on how we fight with each other, and the relationships that we have. Why did the Jewish people complain to Moshe about circumventing Edom? Why did Moshe build a copper snake? How did it help?

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on

Monday, June 14, 2010

Wearing a Tallit After Bar Mitzvah - Part 1

About a month before my Bar Mitzvah (almost 25 years ago!), my tefillin arrived to my great excitement. The entire Bar Mitzvah process represents a gradual rite of passage that commences at the outset of a boy's twelfth year with the study of trop for the Torah reading, continues with the wearing of the tefillin, and I assume reaches its crescendo at the Bar Mitzvah itself.
I know all of this because we're about to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of Simcha, my oldest son. (As every parent I'm sure feels, it's difficult to imagine that my child has reached Bar Mitzvah age, but that's a different post entirely.)
I remember that when my tefillin arrived in the United States from Israel, my uncle also purchased a beautiful matching Tallit and Tefillin bag with my name on it, as well as a rather lovely Tallit. I remember this because I wondered why my uncle had purchased the Tallit. Other than at the celebration itself when I led the davening, when else would I wear it? Indeed, the Tallit remained in its special bag for years, languishing in a closet. At my wedding, I rescued the beautiful bag (its Tefillin counterpart had long before frayed from the year of use) to use with my Shabbat Tallit, but the Tallit itself was now too small for regular use.
I think that Tallit still sits on the top shelf in the closet of my mother's den. Just thinking about it kind of makes me sad. I never really used it. In fact, I had no intention of using it, and as far as I can remember, no other kid in my class wore a tallit during davening. In fact, I never even thought about it. Nobody did it, and I didn't really give it a second thought. We are, after all, hardcore Ashkenazim, and we don't wear a Tallit until our wedding. I never really asked – or cared – why.
Except, now that my son's Bar Mitzvah approaches, I'm not sure why I failed to wear a tallit for the ten years following my own Bar Mitzvah. More to the point, I think that I was wrong. This is why my son wore a Tallit during davening when he dons his Tefillin for the first time later this month, and will continue to do so.
If you look in the Shulchan Aruch, you'll find no mention of any custom of children not to wear a tallit. In fact, you find exactly the opposite, in the instruction to specifically teach our children to wear tzitzit from a young age. The Shulchan Aruch writes (Orach Chayyim 17:3),
A minor who knows how to wrap himself – his father must purchase tzitzit for him to educate him.
Rema adds:
This specifically applies to a child old enough to wrap two tzitzit in front and two behind him, and he knows to hold the tzitzit in his hand when reciting the Shema.
Two interesting points stand out in this text. Both Shulchan Aruch and Rema use the term להתעטף, meaning “to wrap oneself,” the ideal manner of wearing tzitzit. More importantly, it’s clear that children begin wearing tzitzit at a very young age. How old do you have to be to know to wear two tzitzit in front and two behind? Not very old.
Moreover, the point seems obvious. We educate our children to perform mitzvoth from a very early age. We teach them to recite the Shema at three, to pray, recite blessings, wave the lulav – ritual acts forms the very fabric of Jewish life as soon as our children can grasp them. Why should donning tzitzit be any different? In fact, Shulchan Aruch specifically emphasizes that teaching our children to wear tzitzit is different in that we educate them about this particular mitzvah before most others, at an earlier age than we might have thought.
If this rule applies to children as young as four or five, it without a doubt applies to “children” above the age of Bar Mitzvah. Technically, they’re certainly not children. Judaism considers young men and women above the age of mitzvoth adults “for every matter,” certainly regarding the wearing of tzitzit as well.
At least you would think.

To be continued.

A Great Email Tool, Made in Israel

Pretty much the entire world uses gmail. Or if you don't, at some point your probably will.
And while gmail offers an incredible array of options and capabilities, for some reason gmail does not offer the ability to create sophisticated email signatures, including html, links, colors, etc. I've been looking for a while for this type of capability, and came across a great little tool called WiseStamp.
In my old emails, my signature was:
For free divrei Torah, articles and audio, surf on over to!
Also, we've updated our US number. It's now 248-809-1048
But with Wisestamp, my emails now end with;
Rabbi Reuven Spolter
Cell: 054-220-4347
Home Phone in Israel: 077-501-1327
US Phone Number: 248-809-1048 For Torah articles and shiurim, visit my website, or my blog, Chopping Wood

It's more visually appealing, useful and informative. You can also add feeds and other information. (I'm thinking of trying to add my shiur feed from YU Torah. But it might be too much.)
Anyway, Google has a habit of buying companies that improve its products and then incorporating them into the googlesphere. What a great investment opportunity, I thought. But it's not a publicly traded company. No, Wisestamp was created by a small group of programmers from, you guessed it, Israel.
I always find it exciting to learn that a new exciting product or service emanated from the Holy Land. It's the side of Israel that the world never really sees (or just doesn't appreciate) - Israelis making great things to make the world a better place.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Can Tefillin Have Values?

The popular Beit El Tefillin company has been running this ad in a few of the Shabbat journals. (I got this one from Tzohar's Shabbat Sheets.)

Loosely translated it means: Tefillin, With Your Values: Torah, Zionism, Settlement (of the Land), Army, Faith.

I have a very simple question: Can Tefillin have values? How is serving in the army a value that you can imbue into Tefillin? Sure, I believe in each of these values, and feel that they're intrinsic to Judaism itself. But I still don't see what they have to do with the Tefillin that I wear.
To me, the best value that Tefillin can have is that they're kosher. After that, they should just be a good value. And if you've seen their prices, I'm not sure that Tefillin Beit El can make that particular claim.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Audio Shiur: Parshat Korach 5770 - Community Responsiblity: Drilling a Hole in the Boat

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Korach 5770 - Community Responsiblity: Drilling a Hole in the Boat

Following the flotilla fiasco in Israel, many Israelis have been left to wonder: where is everyone? Where were all the Jews? This question raises the larger issue of communal responsibility and obligation: to what degree are we required to act on behalf of one another? How much of the burden do we bear for the sin of others? All this - and the Midrash's explanation for why the world believes CNN, and not Israel.

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on

Korach and Hamas: Sharing PR Tactics

Following the recent flotilla fiasco facing the IDF last week, Israelis are wondering: Is Everyone Crazy? How is it that only we can appreciate the missiles raining down from Gaza, even today? How can the world watch Hamas continue to vow to destroy Israel, send terrorists to attack civilians, holds Gilad Shalit hostage – and still consider us to be the villain. In the words of Yossi Klein Halevi in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, "Has the World Lost its Mind?"
No, it hasn't lost its mind. Rather, to our great dismay, the Palestinians have long last learned the media savvy and publicity techniques of Korach.

Click here to download a pdf version of the full Dvar Torah.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Surrogate Triplets. With Rabbinic Supervision!

Yediot Achronot, one of the main Israeli newspapers, carried a beautiful story about a couple that just had triplets - through a surrogate mother. The article appears in full in Hebrew, along with a short explanation of some of the halachic issues here. The process took place with the guidance of Machon Puah - a very well-known institute that deals with issues related to fertility and halachah. This is the first example of Orthodox triplets born through surrogate parenthood, and raises a number of fascinating halachic issues.

Who is the Mother?
Generally, while some rabbis prohibit surrogacy completely, many (including Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and others) permit it. Yet, the question is: who is the "real" mother: the genetic mother, or the birth mother? It's not a simple matter. Some rabbis feel that the genetic mother is the halachic mother, while others feel that we should be strict and rule that perhaps the birth mother is the "real" mother as well. (Yes, it gets complicated.)

What Religion Makes the Best Surrogate?
Is it better for the surrogate to be non-Jewish, so that there is never a possible complication regarding marriage? (What if the child didn't know he was a surrogate, and then later fell in love with a child of his surrogate mother? Scary.) Yet, if one chooses a non-Jewish surrogate, then the opinions which feel that the birth mother is the "real" mother would require that the parents then convert their "own" children - which is troubling for many. On the other hand, if the surrogate is Jewish, how do we account for the possible complications that may arise later on? Who keeps the records? Who ensures the sanctity of the Jewish family?

What about Multiple Fetuses?
Many cases of artificial insemination result in the challenging halachic issue of multiple fetuses: if there are too many, doctors recommend terminating some to raise the probability of viability among the others. In this case, the doctors were not happy with triplets, but in this case neither the Orthodox parents nor the Orthodox divorcee who served as the surrogate wanted to terminate the pregnancy. Thank God, she gave birth to three healthy children.

This fascinating story highlights to me the amazing convergence of technology and halachic development taking place here in Israel. This miracle has brought three more beautiful Jewish children into the world, ended to misery of two parents struggling to have children, and demonstrated yet again how the struggle to merge the worlds of modern life and Jewish tradition sometimes produces fantastic results.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Feeling Quite Alone following the Flotilla. Where was Everybody?

Following the disturbing events on the boat "flotilla" last week, I've been feeling quite alone - not personally, but nationally. I really have to wonder: where is everyone? And I'm not sure that I like the answer.
Everyone watched the videos; everyone saw the protests in countries (mostly Arab) around the world - and even in the United States. But what no one saw was any counter protest. The Israeli press - both on Arutz Sheva and even the Jerusalem Post, carried the video of the lone young man waving an Israeli flag in the face of an pro-Palestinian protest. That kid's got guts - that's for sure. But I wonder something different: why was he alone? Where was everyone else? (As of today, the video's been watched by half a million people - a testament to the power of even one person in today's internet connected world!)
Listening to liberal pundits on my podcasts recently (see here and here), it has become increasingly clear that liberal Jews are uncomfortable with the notion of Jewish power. Israel was great when it was a plucky little state, fighting for its existence. But as soon as Israel asserts its right to exist, and demonstrates a willingness to bring the fight to the enemy instead of waiting for its citizens to be slaughtered like cattle, everyone gets a little jittery. Hey wait - that's not the Jewish state that I know?
I got an email from a major Jewish organization last week (right after the flotilla incident) with the subject line: "Secure your institution", cautioning community leaders vigilance in making sure that their buildings, staff, etc. are safe. It seems that there hadn't really been any threats at all made against any Jewish institutions, but nonetheless Jews were warned to be "vigilant."
I'm all for vigilance; it's clearly important to be aware of what's going on around you. But I find it fascinating that when something happens related to Israel, Jews immediately feel threatened, but don't feel the need to take positive action.
Where were the pro-Israel protests? Why didn't more Americans speak out?
I wrote back to the email sender, that perhaps instead of hunkering down, she should be organizing a counter-protest. She responded politely, but clearly making public statements in support of Israel was a no-go. Why? I can think of two reasons:
  1. American Jews really are queasy about Israeli displays of power, no matter how justified they may be. They buy into the liberal mindset that the weak must always be in the right, and he who suffers on TV must necessarily be on the side of morality and justice. They didn't put together a protest, because they weren't sure that anyone would come.
  2. The sha-shtill mentality still reigns supreme. Here in Israel, when we're quiet and complacent, our enemies use the lull as an opportunity to build their arsenals for the next attack. Jews living in the Diaspora still maintain the stance that if they don't stir the pot then things will remain quiet.
I hope that they're right. But I doubt it.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Audio Shiur: Parshat Shelach 5770 - Swimming Against the Tide

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Shelach 5770 - Swimming Against the Tide

Standing up for what's right, especially in the face of challenging pressure, presents a difficult challenge. How do we make the proper choice when it seems like everyone else is going in the opposite direction? Kalev ben Yefuneh faced precisely this challenge in rejecting the report of the Meraglim. How did he do it? And how do we?

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Summer Grillin' Season Begins. Too Bad You Can't Find a Decent Steak.

Upon my arrival in Detroit, one of my first stops was a meeting with a man named Moshe Flatt. If you're from Detroit, you know Reb Moshe. Among his many other accomplishments, Reb Moshe founded and created the Cornbelt Beef Processing plant, a vehicle from which he supported pretty much every Orthodox Jewish institution in Detroit, including the Young Israel of Oak Park.
When I got there, Reb Moshe still went to work every day, although he was well into his eighties. He invited me to join him once, and I went to watch him buy cows. To kill. For food.
We drove out for a couple hours to somewhere in the middle of Michigan where they were holding a cattle auction. We sat on concrete bleachers, as the farmers brought out one cow after the next, while the announcer threw numbers around. I had no idea what anything meant; just that every now and then Reb Moshe would twitch his hand just a little bit, which I think meant that he bought the cow. Truth is, they all looked like cows to me - I couldn't tell any difference between them, which made sense. I had no training whatsoever. But Reb Moshe knew exactly what he was looking for. And he only bought what he wanted.
(Reb Moshe was a "fleish" man through and through. If you're curious, you can email me and ask me what he had one of canes made out of.)
Cornbelt was one of the last independent kosher slaughter houses in the United States. I don't even know if any exist anymore. Everything has become so centralized and commercialized, that it's difficult to run a small meat-packing plant, much less a kosher one. But back then, the Flatts' business killed several hundred head of meat a week, many for kosher (at least as many as the shochet deemed kosher).
I mention this short story because Reb Moshe (and his son Sam) were in the habit of sharing with the rabbi meat for the holidays, both on Rosh Hashanah and Pesach. And, by sharing his meat with me, he spoiled me on any other meat or steak, probably for the rest of my life. Never before tasting his meat, nor since, have I ever eaten meat that tasted as good.
I thought of Reb Moshe and my trip to the cattle auction when I saw an article in the Wall Street Journal about the quality - or lack thereof - of meat in America. A short excerpt:
Today, four big companies—Cargill, JBS Swift, National and Tyson Foods—dominate beef packing. Feedlots and slaughterhouses have gotten enormous. At every level, the chain of beef production has been tweaked to get cattle fat cheaply. But mass production is not without its drawbacks. Cheap beef doesn't taste good. What we have gained in yield and efficiency, we've lost in flavor.
Reading the article, I instantly understood the article precisely. If you've never tasted what a real steak should taste like, then you'd never know the difference. If all you can remember eating is Rubashkin or Empire, bought and killed in lots of hundreds, if not thousands, how would you know the quality of the cow from which the meat came? You would not - and you'd never know that the steak lacked any discernible natural sweetness and taste. You wouldn't know, because you'd have nothing to compare it to.
When other people talk about a great steak that they had, or look forward to an "all you can eat meat restaurant" or a great steakhouse, I find myself unmoved. Cornbelt meat was the best meat I have ever tasted in my life, without exaggeration. And I'm fairly certain that I might never taste as good a steak again.
The factory burned down about five years back - maybe more, and while Sam still produces kosher lamb, he doesn't do kosher beef anymore. It's too expensive, too risky, and too difficult.
But it's not his loss as much as our loss. Except that by this point, no one really can tell the difference anymore.