Wednesday, September 29, 2010

New Feature: Siddurim at the Kotel

After our visit to Ir David this week, we made our way to the Kotel to daven minchah. Recently, during my visits to the Kotel, I've noticed an interesting feature unique to the Kotel: Inscriptions in siddurim, and specifically English ones. About a zillion siddurim are lying around the Kotel area, but interspersed among the normally donated ones are siddurim that have either been left there intentionally - essentially abandoned, or donated on a personal whim. As I read these siddurim, I've found myself wondering about the people who've left them. Each one has a story. Each one opens a window into a deeply personal aspect of someone's life. Take the following siddur:

This siddur was sitting in the men's section, of course. I wonder who Alexandra Alpern is. Is this her? (I don't know - I don't have a Facebook account. I know, I think I'm one of three people left on the internet who doesn't.) I'm guessing that she left the siddur at the Kotel as a donation, in the hopes of finding a soul mate. Did she? Has her siddur brought her closer to finding a זיווג טוב - a "good match"? Maybe this blog post will.

What about this siddur:

I imagine that B.B. and Rachel meant to inscribe the siddur to help the people davening at the Kotel, and not necessarily the Kotel itself. But maybe they did want the Kotel to daven better. People develop relationships with the Kotel. They visit and get a sense of solace, and connection. Sometimes a wall is more than a wall.
But I'm not sure that the Kotel would choose to daven from an Artscroll softcover siddur.
Then again, who knows?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

More Fun Hebrew Words

Every mafia maven knows that the very worst crime someone can commit is to "rat" on someone else. (The same rule applies in the classroom too.) Over the last Yom Tov, I learned that the same value system has entered the Israeli lexicon as well. How do you say, "to rat"? (as in, "to snitch on another"): להשתנקר - l'hishtanker.
Usage: Student who threw the wad of paper in class to his friend who saw him, when the teacher turns around: אל תשתנקר עלי - al tishtanker alai - "Don't rat on me!"
What do you call someone who actually does rat on someone else? Of course, a שתינקר. (shtinker) No, I am not making this up. And I have no idea what the origins are.

Another fun Hebrew translation: How do you say "front end alignment" (in the context of auto repair)? Easy: כיוון פרונט -- kivun front. Many Hebrew terms are "borrowed" from the English.
Now guess: How do you say "rear-end alignment"? You'd think it would be כיוון אחורי - kivun achori. Only you'd be wrong. No, you say כיוון פרונט אחורי - kivun front achori, or literally, a "rear front-end alignment." Again, I don't get it. But that's what it is.
Go figure.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Freeze Ends. Were We Ever Really Frozen?

The media this evening marked the end of the building freeze in the "settlements" across Israel, celebrated with fanfare and the immediate construction of new buildings. A few thoughts on the freeze:
1. I'm not entirely sure that there even was a building freeze. Really. I work in Orot in Elkana, officially designated as a "settlement." It was clear at Sukkot time last year - a full two months before the "freeze" began, that something was up. I remember quite vividly spending time in Revavah with my cousins, and listening to the pounding of the trucks banging out foundations in the ground. The rule was that any building that had already been started could be completed. This was no more obvious than in Elkana, where a row of absolutely gorgeous homes has been going up for - just about ten months now. They should be ready in a matter of weeks.
In addition, we just spent Shabbat Chol Hamoed with my brother in Kiryat Sefer - yet another "settlement." While the "freeze" did suspend any new work, somehow a sizable number of apartment buildings have gone up over the past few months, including a new building directly opposite my brother's building. Funny thing about this freeze. It seems that the freezer must not have been working all that well.
2. Should there have even been a "freeze" at all? I spent the day with members of the YU Israel Kollel at Ir David (City of David), a powerfully important archaeological site found directly south of the Old City of Jerusalem. I've been there a couple of times, and they're always discovering something new. Today our tour guide led us up the steps that Jews took during Herodian times as they made their way to the Beit Hamikdash to be oleh l'regel. It was pretty amazing to follow in their footsteps on Sukkot, although it would have been even better had we actually been on our way to the Beit Hamikdash. Ir David has quickly become one of the most important tours that Jews today take in Jerusalem.
If I had to sum up Ir David in a nutshell, the Old City isn't really the Old City. It's the Jerusalem that was built after the first one was destroyed. The original, biblical Jerusalem is clearly and obviously located at the site that's now called Ir David, and contains ample biblical, historical and archaeological evidence to demonstrate the Jewish roots in the land that date back thousands of years.
There's only one problem with Ir David - at least some people think it's a problem. It's located in East Jerusalem, just a tiny bit over, on the wrong side of the Green Line. It's in "disputed" territory. But as a Jew, a line on a map drawn by a bureaucrat sixty years ago doesn't hold a candle to the rich, powerful historical hold that the Jewish people have on this land - and have had for ages.
That's the problem with the "freeze." I'm not naive. I know that we've got political and societal issues with the Palestinians that just won't go away. But is preventing Jews from building up a Jewish presence on land that belonged to us since the times of the Tanach going to improve the situation? Some might argue that it would. I would say that they're just denying history.
Much of the areas surrounding Ir David - in fact the vast majority - in inhabited by Arabs. But on the outskirts of the project live a number of Jewish families, and you can make out their sukkot dotting the hill below a massive police presence. Looking at the landscape I asked my son on the tour, "Do you think that the opposite hill we be a Jewish neighborhood in our lifetime?"
"Yes," he told me. "I do."
I agree with him. To quote the great sage Arnold Horschack, "What is, is. What was, was. What will be wa-us, but will be again."

Monday, September 20, 2010

Some People Really Are Nuts. Figuring Out Figure Eight Racing

Imaging that you never stopped for red lights. Ever. You just kept driving through, hoping that the car coming in the other direction missed you.
Sounds crazy, right. Well, watch the video. Apparently, people do this all the time.
When I saw this video, I immediately thought of a former member of mine in Michigan who's a big fan of "alternative" racing, and sent him the link. We spoke later on in the day, and he said that he always tries to find the wisdom and lesson in everything he sees, quoting the famous Mishnah in Pirkei Avot, בן זומא אומר, איזהו חכם? הלומד מכל אדם - "Ben Zoma said, 'Who is wise? He who learns from every man.'"
But I'm still trying to figure out: what in the world is there to learn from Figure Eight racing? That's some people are just plain nuts? That life's a crap shoot, and you never know where you're going to get hit from?
Actually, I think that the lesson is pretty clear: if you drive into an intersection, you will get into an accident.
And some people really are nuts.

For more Figure Eight goodness, of it you just want to laugh a little - more than a little, check out this video. (At some point in the video, you can hear someone in the background say, "Only in Michigan." So true.)

The Total-Body Experience: A Thought for Sukkot

I saw this thought in a number of books in Hebrew, but a quick internet search brought me to it in English here, in the book Tallelei Oros by Rav Yiśakhar Dov ben Shaʼul Rubin (it's scary what's online). You can buy it here.

The real question is: what does it mean? What difference does it make that these two mitzvot share the quality of a "total body experience?" To me the answer has to do active faith.
According to the Gemara, the Sukkot that we sit in represent either the "Clouds of Glory" that protected the Jewish nation in the desert, or the actual booths they dwelt in during their travels in the desert. Which ever option you choose, either represents a symbol of divine protection and influence. The Jewish nation left the relative safety (things were bad, but at least they were safe) of the desert for the danger of the desert. How was a nation of millions supposed to survive the harsh, unlivable conditions of the desert? And yet they did.
To remind us of both the faith of the nation, and God's miraculous protection of His people in seemingly impossible conditions, we leave our home, with their solidity and security, and live unprotected in the Sukkah. One cannot demonstrate that level of faith halfway. We either sit in the Sukkah or we don't. Sticking your hand in the sukkah won't cut it. We must leave our homes and move into the Sukkah for a week, and actively demonstrate our dependence on the divine.
The same applies to the Land of Israel.
In a way, you've got to be crazy to live here - and I'm not writing from a financial point of view. (I've come to believe that Orthodox people who live in the United States are crazy. How do they afford tuition?) I'm talking from a security point of view. We've got:
  1. Hizballah to the North. With a gazillion missiles.
  2. Syria to the Northeast. They're the ones giving the missiles to Hizballah. Thanks for that.
  3. Gaza in the south. They're committed to attacking Israel pretty much daily.
  4. Even farther east, we have Iran - whose nuclear aspirations are truly disconcerting. And they're giving money to anyone with a gun and an I-Hate-Israel website.
  5. And let's not forget the unknowable number of terrorists living among us - in cities and down not only in the West Bank, but in Israel proper.
In a nutshell, you've got to be nuts to live here. And yet we do. And we thrive and grow and succeed. Coming here - staying here - demands full-body emunah. It asks us not only to live with this reality, but to send our sons to protect it.
I think about this reality more and more as my oldest son grows older. One day, in not-so-many-years, he will, God willing, leave home to serve his country in the military. I will be proud, and pray for his safety, but this is not a scenario I had to contemplate when I lived in the States. That's whole-body emunah.
Food for thought as we sit in the Sukkah this year.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Troubling. And Sad.

Consider the case of Esther Petrack. A recent Maimonides graduate, she decided to try out for America's Next Top Model. Troubling enough. But, as a recent piece in Tablet Magazine explains, during the interview, when she explained about the fact that she's Shomer Shabbat,
Ty Ty asked her about her Orthodox Jewish practice. “Do you honor the Sabbath?”
“Yes I do,” Esther responded, proceeding to explain the rules regarding the usage of electricity, computers, cell phones, and cars on Friday night and Saturday. Tyra sternly informed her that ANTM contestants work all the time, seven days a week. (I never realized that modeling was so urgent!) Would Esther, Tyra wanted to know, be able to adhere to the ANTM work schedule? Her Jewish identity was all of a sudden squarely on the spot, not unlike that of her Biblical namesake.
She replied after a momentary hesitation: “Yes, I would do it.
First of all, what is it about Maimonides? This is the second high-profile Maimo grad who's publicly rejected a frum lifestyle. One could argue that Maimonides is simply known as a good school with great academics, so it attracts a wide variety of students whose frumkeit level doesn't conform with the ideals of the school.
Or. I've been to Maimonides. Academics are a huge part of the culture - perhaps a reflection of Boston's college orientation. Is there something about a Maimo education that might inculcate skills, but leaves out some "yirat Shamayim?"
I'm not sure what to make of this. On the one hand, I don't want to indict the entirety of Modern Orthodoxy for the actions of one eighteen-year-old kid. Plenty of non-M.O. kids leave the fold.
But not many do it on international television.
And this one calls herself Orthodox.
It certainly doesn't look good.

Update: My mother, and a number of others, make a good point. She took strong exception to my comments, which makes sense, as she's a graduate of Maimonides. Class of 1882. Truth be told, though, she has a point. Maimonides has produced, and continues to produce many, many representatives who not only represent Orthodoxy proudly, but are what we would consider to be the finest representatives of frumkeit and Modern Orthodoxy - and the other flavors of Orthodoxy across the religious spectrum. You can't fairly judge a school by one or even several of its graduates.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I'm Sorry. Really.

Some time ago, during my former life as a pulpit rabbi, I gave a sermon about the importance of hair-covering, pr some such hot-button topic. I don't remember exactly. I knew that the membership was divided on the issue - but that didn't often stop me from speaking out. Anyway, for some reason I was pointed to the blog post of a member of mine, who wrote about me both critically and incorrectly. I must admit that it was a very painful experience, to be attacked by someone who you considered a friend, albeit anonymously. It still kind of stings.
The amazing publicity and literally global reach of the internet is also its greatest danger. The same blog that can promote Torah, shiurim, and Religious Zionism around the world can also carry words that inflict harm and cause pain.
I write with a strong sense of awareness of this fact. So, I make a very concerted effort on my blog (and anywhere I write) to speak with civility, refrain from personal attack, and promote ideas and values that I hold dear. Sometimes my positions and opinions might upset the reader, but I hope that it's because he or she disagrees (which is healthy) even passionately, and not because they consider themselves insulted or maligned.
So, if I've written (or said in a shiur) something during the past year that was personally hurtful and insulting, I apologize and ask for your forgiveness.
It seems like the right thing to do this time of year. After all, Yom Kippur's the day after tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Audio Shiur: Aseret Yemei Teshuvah and Parshat Bereishit - Frumkeit on the Back of My Brother

Audio Shiur:
Aseret Yemei Teshuvah and Parshat Bereishit - Frumkeit on the Back of My Brother
We often think of our own frumkeit in terms of the relationship we have with God, giving little thought to how our spirituality affects those around us, and those that we're closest with. The story of Kayin and Hevel has a great deal to teach us not only about brotherly love, but about our yearning for spirituality, competitiveness in religiosity, and the need for repentance and improvement.

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

Monday, September 13, 2010

Rav Mordechai Eliyahu in France: A Powerful Expression of Religious Zionism

Since his passing, Rav Mordechai Eliyahu has continued to dominate the Religious Zionist scene. His teaching are all over the weekly Torah sheets, stories about his piety abound. I feel sorry that I was not aware of his greatness in life.
Over Rosh Hashanah, one of the more popular publications (called Mima'ayanei Hayeshua - ממעיני הישועה) published an interview with his son, Rav Shmuel Eliyahu, the Chief Rabbi of Tzefat (who I believe will one day be a chief rabbi of Israel. He really is a special man.) In the interview, he included a story about a state visit that his father once made to France when he was the Chief Rabbi of Israel. If you'd like to read the interview in Hebrew, you can find it here. Translation of the story follows.)

When our teacher Rav Eliyahu ob”m was the chief rabbi of Israel, he traveled to France for an official visit. France, as usual, was not with us. As always, she exerted pressure of Israel to abandon sections of Jerusalem and the Land of Israel for the benefit of the Arabs. During that period, the pressure was quite strong.
The visit schedule included a state reception in the presence of French President Jacque Chirac. Before the official reception the Rav had to follow the accepted tour route, including the State Museum which contains cultural treasures of the French people.
During the visit they showed the Rav a throne upon which Napoleon sat. “When did Napoleon live?” the Rav asked. The hosts were embarrassed by the question, and “explained” to the Rav when Napoleon lived. The Rav then asked, “Is the throne of Napoleon for sale?” An awkward silence hung over the room. “No,” the hosts finally answered, “This is a very important item. We don’t sell historic heirlooms.”
They continued the visit and arrived at the section which described the French monarchy. They showed him the room of Louis XIV: “Who was Louis XIV?” the Rav asked. “What did he contribute to the world? Was he ethical?”
“No,” the hosts answered honestly. “The entire monarchy was not that ethical, but this is our history, and we’re proud of it and honored by it.”
At the state reception with the French president before a large crowd, the Rav spoke about his visit in the museum. He told the guests about how embarrassed his hosts felt that a rabbi from Israel would not know who Louis XIV was. After all, these are very important historical figures. “I asked them whether they were ethical people and they hemmed and hawed, but they told me that this is their history, and they’re proud of it.”
The Rav said to the crowd, which included the president of France and some of his cabinet: “You expect me to know and honor French history, despite the fact that I’m not a citizen of France. Am I as an Israeli not supposed to know and honor my own history? Do the French not have to honor the Bible which has made such a great contribution to the world? Am I able to not honor the words of Moses that told us not to place the Land of Israel into the hands of strangers? Why must we honor your kings, that lived two or three hundred years ago, but not honor a chain of our own kings that lived long before them?”
The [Israeli] translator from the embassy was not so bold as to translate the Rav’s words exactly. The rebbetzin signaled to the Rav – who wasn’t intimidated by anyone, and stopped in the middle of his talk, and said, “I understand that my translator does not exactly recognize the rabbinic mode of speech. I ask the Chief Rabbi of France to translate my words.”
He had no choice. The Rabbi of France rose to translate the Rav’s talk. The Rav explained that he tried to find out the price of Napoleon’s throne. “I wanted to buy it.” The audience burst out laughing. He explained how they “explained” to him, in all seriousness in the museum that the effects from Napoleon are very important, and not for sale. “These are historical items, and we don’t sell our history.”
“Napoleon lived two hundred years ago,” the Rav answered, “and you respect him and refuse to sell his throne. Now I ask: must we sell Jerusalem, a city that has belonged to the Nation of Israel for 2,800 years?”
The entire audience stood, moved, and began to applaud. Even the President of France stood up, approached the Rav, shook his hand firmly and said to him, “I have never heard words like these.” The French President turned to the invited guests and said to them, “We would like to bestow upon the Rabbi a precious golden medallion that we give only to heads of state. When we arranged this reception we did not think to give it to the rabbi. But the instructive words of Rabbi Eliyahu were a ‘once in a lifetime experience.’ We would like to express our appreciation with this state medallion.”
I tell this story because it’s not just a story about Rav Eliyahu. It’s a story about ourselves. This is a story of life training. It’s a story of faith – for if we are strong in [faith] it will prevail.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Eruv Tavshillin Simplified

The Three Day Yom Tov. No other words strike as much fear into the Jewish mother. (Other than Three-day Yom Tov on Pesach. If you're not going to a hotel.) Three day Yom Tov's demand preparation, and lots of it, for the seven meals that will ensue over the course of the holiday. What to prepare? Who's got all that time?
Actually, a three day Yom Tov requires that one make an "eruv tavshillin" in order to permit preparation of the food on Friday for Shabbat. What's an Eruv Tavshillin? I'm glad you asked.
While we refrain from forbidden melachah (forms of work) on Yom Tov (holidays) Jewish law permits acts of cooking on holidays. Yet, while I can cook for a particular day of Yom Tov, Halachah prohibits preparing from one day of Yom Tov to another. So, despite the fact that I can cook on Thursday Yom Tov to eat that day, I cannot therefore cook a large pot of pasta to send with my kids to school the next day - or even to eat on Friday, which is also Yom Tov. Cooking is only permitted for that particular day.
What if Yom Tov happened to land on the day before Shabbat? How would I be able to prepare my cholent so that I could eat it Shabbat morning? (While a 24-hour cholent is delicious, a 72 hour cholent seems ridiculous. Then again...) To alleviate this problem, the rabbis devised a solution called an "eruv tavshillin." In essence, I designate a food as the beginning of my preparations for Shabbat, so that when Friday comes around, I'm simply "continuing" the preparations that I began before Yom Tov.
How do you make an "Eruv Tavshillin?"It's one of the easiest Jewish things you can do. Take a cooked food (like an egg, a piece of fish - anything you'd eat with bread), a roll (or equal amount of bread), and recite the following:

It's actually quite important that you know what you're saying, so it might be a good idea to also recite the text following the Brachah in English:
"With this we will be permitted to bake, cook, cover with heat, light a fire, prepare and make all that is necessary from Yom Tov to Shabbat - for us, and for everyone who dwells in this city."
That's it. Now, when Friday comes you can cook and prepare food normally not only for Friday, but for Shabbat as well.
A couple of added points:
  • You need to have your eruv Tavshillin around on Friday. So, after you recite the brachah and designate your food, don't eat it until Shabbat. If you eat your eruv (by accident), contact your LOR (Local Orthodox Rabbi).
  • Even if you won't be at home for Rosh Hashanah, or you know that you won't be cooking for Shabbat on Friday, it's still a good idea to make an eruv. Some rabbis even require one in order to light the candles Friday night. After all, you're lighting candles on Friday for use on Shabbat. But in this case, one should designate the eruv Tavshillin without a brachah.
To make things as simple as possible, you can follow this handy schedule:
  • Wednesday: Cook food. Designate your eruv Tavshillin.Put in fridge. Do not eat it.
  • Thursday: Cooking is permitted, but only for that day. One may not make any preparations on the first day of Rosh Hashanah for the second day. You cannot warm food, set the table - anything of that nature - until after sunset and candle lighting on the second night.
  • Friday: Here the order is precisely the opposite. Because you made an eruv Tavshillin, now you can make all necessary Shabbat preparations, including cooking food, warming food, putting food on the blech (or Shabbat platah, etc.) In fact, I feel that one should make an effort to cook food for Shabbat as one normally would - which I think is precisely the point of the Eruv Tavshillin.
Our sages realized that after a long Yom Tov, it would be easy for a person to minimize the importance of Shabbat. After all, we've already had four large meals. We've been sitting around the table for hours. The conversations have already run their course. We're tired of Yom Tov. Do we really want another Shabbat meal?
In short, yes. Shabbat is still Shabbat, and deserves the respect, honor and preparation we normally accord it. In fact, this Shabbat will be the very first Shabbat of the new year - during aseret yemei Teshuvah no less. This is not the Shabbat to shortchange ourselves. This is a Shabbat that will set the tone for the year to come. It's the one Shabbat of them all during which we should specifically dedicate ourselves to sing zemirot; to share words of Torah around the table; to enjoy the warm soup and the wafting waves emanating from the cholent.
That takes preparation - both physical, and spiritual. It demands that even before Yom Tov begins, we remember that we've got to prepare food for Shabbat. And it also demands that we take a few minutes over the chag to review the parshah (Ha'azinu - shameless plug), and ensure that we've got questions for the children, a story to tell, and the right mindset for a pleasant, joyous Shabbat experience.
Especially on the tail end of a three-day Yom Tov, that takes preparations - which is precisely what the Eruv Tavshillin is all about.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Audio Shiur: What's Your Mitzvah?

Audio Shiur:
What's Your Mitzvah?
We live in an era of specialization: professional, rabbinic, medical, legal – but what about religious? Is there such a thing as a religious specialist? There really is. Have we ever considered becoming religious specialists? When we take a closer look, we find that the notion of "specialization" in spirituality is actually a rather common theme that spans much of Jewish thought.
After listening to this shiur you yourself might be wondering: what's my mitzvah?

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

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Chain of Choice

At 8pm Last night, Brachah (she’s imaginary) sat down at her computer to check her email. When she looked up, it was 1am and she was playing Farmville on Facebook. She had skipped her regular shiur, failed to do the laundry, and would now need to wake up early the next morning to make her kids’ lunch, leaving no time to daven before rushing to work.

Where did Brachah go wrong? Easy – when she decided to play Farmville. But that’s only half the story. A number of different choices led her to Farmville, some good, others less so. Along her “chain of choices”: the choice to have internet access in her home; the choice to join Facebook; the choice to check her email; the choice to logon to Facebook; the choice to play Farmville; the choice to keep playing until 1am. You could argue that her only bad choice was the last one. But Brachah has a weakness for the internet. It might not be a good idea for her to have internet in her home. If she needs internet access at home it would make sense for her to have set aside a specific time during the day to check her email. Or maybe she should avoid sites on the internet that tend to suck up time.
Each choice in life leads to yet another choice that ultimately leads to the final, wrong choice. And, the closer we got to the final choice, the harder it becomes to make the right choice. Brachah’s (and our) problem lies in the fact that she didn’t really think that sitting down to check her email at night was a choice. It’s just part of life, something we do automatically, without thinking. That’s the root of the problem, and also a fundamental point made by Rambam in Hilchot Teshuvah.
Our ability and freedom to make choices in life form the foundation of Jewish though. Rambam devotes two entire chapters of Hilchot Teshuvah to the principle of Freedom of Choice. He writes,
רשות כל אדם נתונה לו: אם רצה להטות עצמו לדרך טובה ולהיות צדיק, הרשות בידו; ואם רצה להטות עצמו לדרך רעה ולהיות רשע, הרשות בידו... אל יעבור במחשבתך דבר זה שאומרים טיפשי האומות ורוב גולמי בני ישראל, שהקדוש ברוך הוא גוזר על האדם מתחילת ברייתו להיות צדיק או רשע. אין הדבר כן, אלא כל אדם ואדם ראוי להיות צדיק כמשה רבנו או רשע כירבעם, או חכם או סכל, או רחמן או אכזרי, או כיליי או שוע; וכן שאר כל הדעות. (רמב"ם הלכות תשובה פרק ה' הלכות א-ב)

One has a free choice to follow either the good ways and to be righteous, or to follow the bad ways and be wicked…Do not even consider what the stupid gentiles and most of the idiots of Israel say, that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, decrees upon each person at the time of birth whether he will be good or bad. This is not so - every person has the potential to be as righteous as Moses our Teacher, or as wicked as Jeroboam, clever or stupid, merciful or cruel, misery or noble, or indeed to possess any of the other temperaments. Nobody can force one, decree upon one, or lead one into one of the ways, but one should choose a way out of one's own free will. (Maimonides Laws of Repentance Chapter 5, 1-2)
Without choice, Teshuvah loses all meaning. What difference would my choices make if they weren’t really my own? But Rambam also makes a larger point: Every action is a choice, and it’s up to us to remain aware of this critical fact. Our choices also compound each other. The sooner we make a good choice, the better off we are. The longer we push off the right choice, the harder it is to make. A person really can achieve greatness (or the opposite, God forbid), if he makes the right (or wrong) choices at each step of the way.
This principle is critically important to us as parents? Do we teach our children that everything in life is a choice? All too often as parents, we make the small and large choices for our children, in order to guide them on the proper path. But if we set overly restrictive limitations on them, we rob them of the opportunity to learn how to make good choices. Obviously, life is about finding the middle ground: choosing for our children when necessary, but giving them enough space, especially as they grow older, to choose for themselves.
Most importantly, we must always remind them that what happens to them depends on the choices that they make, and the sooner they make the right choice, the better off they’ll be.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Did God Create the Universe?

Did God create the universe?
I'm pretty sure that He did. It's a pretty strong tenet of Judaism, and every other religion as well.
Rambam opens his Mishnah Torah (Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 1:1) addressing precisely this point.
יסוד היסודות ועמוד החכמות, לידע שיש שם מצוי ראשון.
It is the foundation of foundations and the pillar of all wisdom, to know that there is a first presence.
(Question for discussion - and there's a lot of it - how can Rambam tell us that we must know that God exists? Isn't that a belief? Shouldn't he write, "to believe"? Also note that the first letter of the first four words spell out the name of God - yud - hey - vav - hey. Not a coincidence.)

Rambam's statement serves as a fundamental tenet of every other religion as well. That is, every religion except one: the religion of science.
That's right - science.
Why do I call science a religion? Because it has somehow evolved into a system of belief. The latest evidence: Physicist Stephen Hawking's new book in which he declares that, "God did not create the universe." Reuters reports:
In "The Grand Design," co-authored with U.S. physicist Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking says a new series of theories made a creator of the universe redundant, according to the Times newspaper which published extracts Thursday.
"Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist," Hawking writes.
"It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."
Here's what I don't understand: who made gravity? No matter how far back you go, there's a point at which you simply can't answer the question, "and who made that?" unless you invoke a higher being.
These theological pronouncements leave me baffled for another reason. I always understood science to be the study of something that you can prove. Wikipedia defines science as,
any systematic knowledge that is capable of resulting in a correct prediction or reliable outcome.
You observe something, posit a theory about it, and then go about the business of trying to prove whether the theory is true or not. Until it's been proven, it's just a theory.
Yet, for some reason, theory now takes on the role of truth. As soon as science postulates a theory that it really cannot empirically prove (evolution, big bang, etc.), the scientific world immediately accepts that theory as truth, especially when that theory challenges religious dogma.
Why do scientists feel so threatened by God? Why does Stephen Hawking feel the need to deny the existence of God due to his latest theory of M (which I'm sure I'd never understand)? Why is science on such a crusade against God? Even more to the point, if Stephen Hawking is willing to define truth despite the fact that he cannot prove his assertion, the according to my understanding, he's not acting like a scientist.
No, he's a theologan. And not a very good one.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Audio Shiur: Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech - Follow Your Heart?

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech - Follow Your Heart?
In his speech to the Nation of Israel, Moshe mentions or alludes to the "heart" a number of times. The language he chooses contains critical lessons about whether we should listen to our hearts, especially as we approach the High Holidays and the season of Teshuvah. And I manage to throw in a mention of The Screwtape Letters.

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

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Surprised that I Was Surprised

When I read the news last night about yet more senseless murder, I was a little surprised, saddened, as I am sure you were as well. After all, every attempt to reignite the peace process brings with it attempts to thwart its success. In the end, are we really all that surprised that a car full of gunmen would murder two men and two women in cold blood?
Yet, even for me the news from last night is strangely personal. One of the things that I do in Orot is the e-Newsletters to contacts from the college, including donors, teachers, students, alumni, etc, both in Hebrew and in English. This week I'm assembling the Hebrew email, and this morning I received an email from Orot's director of Development, asking me to add an announcement:
בית המכללה שותף לכאבה של גב' סיגלית שינדלר, בוגרת המכללה, על קטיעת פתיל חייו של בנה אבישי הי"ד בידי בני עוולה. המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים ולא תוסיפו לדאבה עוד
Orot Israel College sends sincere condolences to Sigalit Shindler and her family, a graduate of Orot, upon the brutal murder of her son Avishai z"l.
Somehow, it's no longer a name in the news. It's the son of a graduate of the college where I work. The news felt just a little more personal, immediate.
That's life in Israel.