Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Audio Shiur: Parshat Kedoshim - The Letter and Spirit of the Law

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Kedoshim - The Letter and Spirit of the Law

The first verse of Kedoshim leaves us wondering: what does it mean to be holy? We analyze a spectrum of opinions that shed light on this critical question, in order to arrive at a conclusion that can help us create more holiness in our lives.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Imagine If...

Imagine that a small group of unarmed Arab youths, without permission, entered the Old City of Jerusalem to pray, and an Israeli policeman opened fire on the group, wounding three and killing one.

Imagine that a group of Israeli Arabs, protesting unfair representation in their government, were met with live ammunition and tanks, and were gunned down in cold blood.

What would the international community say? What would the response be in the United Nations? How quickly would international human rights organizations jump up to condemn Israel? We don't have to imagine if...because we see these responses all the time for far less.

And yet, when an Palestinian policemen guns down a helpless Jew for the "crime" of wanting to pray at the grave of Yosef Hatzaddik;

When the world seems indifferent to the mass murder of tens, if not hundreds of Syrians by a ruthless thug and tyrant (I had to search the NY Times website for the story); (The United States is "considering sanctions.")

We need not imagine. We know the double standard.

Pesach just ended. At the Seder we noted that שבכל ודור ודור עומדים עלינו לכלותנו - "In every generation they stand over us to destroy us." We have no doubts about the desires of Syria, Hamas, Hizballah, Iran - who openly declare their desire to destroy us. But what about the rest of the world? They, it seems, just want to "stand over us" - to lord over us and browbeat us into submission.

After enough condemnations and UN resolutions and political pressuring, will Israel finally capitulate and help establish (God forbid) yet another corrupt, inept and ultimately radical regime in Ramallah? (Especially now that the Syrians themselves now seem to prefer living under Israeli control.)

I sure hope not. But we don't need to imagine that scenario. We're watching it unfold right before our eyes.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Pendulum Swings of Redemption

A Thought from the Hagaddah shel Pesach
by Rabbi Reuven Spolter

As we contemplate Pesach as the Chag Hageulah - the holiday of redemption, each year the same questions creep into my mind: If we're moving towards the coming of Moshiach and the State represents a critical step in that process, why do things seem so challenging? Why do some people seem to be moving not closer to, but farther away from religious Judaism? How long will the process take? What stage exactly are we in right now?
While these questions prove difficult to answer, Rav Yitzchak Dadon, in his newly released Hagaddah called "Ayelet Hashachar" uses a well-known theme of Rav Kook to both explain a passage in הא לחמא עניא and also give us a sense of where we are and where we're going.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 18: Banging on the Door

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 18: Banging on the Door
(This shiur studies the classic work of Rav Yissachar Teichtal on the importance of settling the Land of Israel, following the Hebrew text with English translation.)

The image of Kol Dodi Dofek employed by the Rav conjures up a picture of gentle knocking on the door; the gentleman softly trying to awake his beloved from her sleep. Rav Teichtal sees the image in a far more jarring manner, reflecting his view that Jewish suffering is always intended to return us to our roots.

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Audio Shiur - Hagaddah shel Pesach: The Wicked Son

Audio Shiur:
Audio Shiur: Audio Shiur - Hagaddah shel Pesach: The Wicked Son

Among the four sons in the Hagaddah, we often gloss over the treatment of the wicked son. We do this because we'd be troubled by the harshness with which he's dealt. Together, we analyze the different approaches that parshanim took towards the Rasha, from the Middle Ages to today, and deal with the challenges the different approaches present.

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Monday, April 11, 2011


On Tuesday evenings, I participate in a Kiruv training program with the students at YU's Israel Kollel under the auspices of Ner L'elef. This past week, as the group learned about conversion issues, they heard from Rabbi Zvi Romm, who teaches at YU, serves as the rabbi of the Bialystoker shul on the Lower East Side, and also now serves as the menahel of the Beit Din for Giyyur in the Metropolitan New York area.
In his introduction to the topic, Rabbi Romm gave a broad outline of the conversion process, and noted how the way that we convert people today has very little in common with the process outlined in the classical sources, and especially Shulchan Aruch. There you'll find that if a gentile wishes to convert, he or she petitions the local Jewish court (Bet Din) to convert. The members of the court first try and discourage the potential convert by pointing out the degraded position of the Jew in the world ("You really want to be one of us? Really? Have you read the news lately?"); then they teach the candidate מקצת מצוות קלות ומקצת מצוות חמורות - "some of the more simple commandments (Don't kill) and some of the more stringent commandments" (No more Starbucks coffee. Just kidding.); they specifically don't tell him too much so as not to scare the person away. They then perform a circumcision (if necessary), dunk the person in the mikvah and voila! - It's a Jew! The process could take but a matter of hours.
Yet, that's not the way we do it at all. In general, any serious conversion takes at the very least a year. The Bet Din today takes great pains to ascertain the seriousness of a candidate, and must ensure that the candidate has learned enough to live as a practicing Jew. The candidate must live in a neighborhood within walking distance of a shul, and commit to enroll her children in Orthodox Jewish Day school.  These practices are commonly accepted now in conversions around the world, and if a rabbi stands ready to convert someone without these basic requirements, that fact itself would call the conversions he performs into question. His claims that he was, "Just following the Shulchan Aruch" would fall on deaf ears. That's just not how we do it anymore?
And yet I wonder: What happened to the Shulchan Aruch? When did accepted practice so far outstrip the demands of the classical sources that they no longer resemble the authoritative Code of Law in any way? Rabbi Romm answered simply and I think correctly, that the times have changed. People have changed. During the lifetime of Rabbi Yosef Caro (the author of the Shulchan Aruch), things were different in a number of different ways: the status of Jews was so degraded and so belittled that anyone who actually petitioned a Jewish court to convert had to be serious. Secondly, and I think more importantly, people then had a different perspective on religion. It wasn't that they were nothing, and somehow decided to be Jewish. Rather, everyone knew that you had to follow a God. The only question was, which one? You didn't need to know every rule, because the assumption was that if you accepted the Jewish faith, you accepted the entire faith, and could learn the rules on the fly.
That's no longer the case, not by a long shot. People have great reasons to want to be Jewish today: We're highly respected in the world. Being Jewish is an automatic ticket to Israel, a highly coveted country to live in with a standard of living above much of the rest of the globe. And, at a very basic level, people are entering into relationships that propel them to want to enter the faith for other that religious reasons.
To me, though, there's a deeper, more fundamental change in Western thought that has made the idea of conversion more palatable to the convert, but less desirable to the Beit Din, and a reason for even greater caution and concern: We have lost a sense of long-term commitment.
In the society in which we live, everything is temporary. I bought the computer that I'm typing this on knowing that I'd replace it within a few years. It will soon die, and I'll buy a new one. While people used to think that they'd work for one company until they retired, that notion today seems quaint, if not silly. Yet, forget about cellphones (a year at most) or cars (perhaps three). People also cannot commit to each other either. It's quite clear that to much of society, marriage is a temporary condition. When people vow, "'till death do us part," they don't really mean that. They mean, "or until we've outgrown each-other."
If you think I'm wrong, consider this: we all know what "commitment" means. The dictionary defines to "commit" as, "to give in trust or charge; consign." Yet, we also know the other definition of "committed." (#7 on the list) "to place in a mental institution or hospital by or as if by legal authority." In very real terms, someone who is "committed" really is crazy - or at least crazy enough to be placed, against his will in a mental institution. What about the person who's committed to his marriage? Or his religion? Is he also crazy? I think that in our current cultural climate, he very well may be, at least a little bit.

This derision of commitment in our society makes it difficult to convey to a potential convert the life-long nature of conversion. It's not something you "try", nor is it something we believe you can give up later on. When a convert later changes her mind and decides afterward not to be Jewish anymore, that's not a decision that she can make according to Jewish tradition. Once a Jew, always a Jew. So Judaism learned that the old rules can no longer apply. We can no longer simply take someone at their word and teach them later on. We must be sure that when they make that life-long commitment, they know, to the best of our ability to teach them, what they're getting themselves into.
This helps explain why we're so much more strict than we once were regarding accepting converts. It also explains some of the underlying causes of the "Shidduch Crisis."
But that's an entirely different post.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Parshah Shiur now up on iTunes!

You've been meaning to download the Parshah shiur, but you just haven't gotten around to it. Wouldn't it be great if there were a way to download the shiur to your iPhone or iPod automatically? Actually, there is! It's called a podcast, and I'm happy to share with you that the weekly Parshah Shiur is now available in Podcast format! (I'm pretty excited about it). It costs nothing to listen, and now comes in automatic weekly installments! So click on the link here, and enjoy!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Destructive Power of Lashon Hara

I read recently in the name of Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook that the weekly parshah - in Hebrew called parshat hashavua - always relates in some way to the week's events. It's not just the section that we read in the Torah; it's the story of the given week as well. This week Rav Tzvi Yehuda's idea seems especially relevant, given that the subtext of Parshat Metzora is tzara'at - and the lashon hara that causes it.

Judge Richard Goldstone has been in the news of late. Last week, in a now famous mea culpa (Yiddish for "my bad") in the Washington Post, he admitted that while his report indicated evidence of war crimes on Israel's part, now in fact it has become clear that,
"civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy."
"Oops. Sorry. Can we all go home now?"
No judge, we can't. Because while you now probably think that you've wiped your hands of this whole sordid affair, you can't undo the damage that you've caused and will cause to the State of Israel and Jews around the world.
I'm reminded of a famous parable told about a Jew who told vicious lies about the town's rav. After a time the man felt pangs of remorse for his actions, and begged the rav for forgiveness. "Of course I'll forgive you," the rabbi told him. "But before I do you must do one thing for me."
"Anything," the man promised.
"Go to the center of town with a pillow, and rip open the pillow and spread the feathers into the wind. When you're done, come back to me."
The man, puzzled, did what the rabbi asked and split open a feather pillow in the center of town. When he finished, he returned to the rabbi for his forgiveness.
"One more thing," said the rabbi. "Now go and collect all the feathers."
"That's impossible!," said the man. "I can't possibly collect all the feathers?"
Asked the rabbi, "And what about my reputation? How will you return that to me?"
You can't say "oops, sorry" and undo lashon hara. It doesn't work that way. People with an axe to grind against Israel will forever use his original report as fodder against Israel, and claim that his retraction had more to do with pressure from the Zionist cabal than any sense of justice or remorse.
Commenting on Parshat Metzora Rabbeinu Bechaya (on Vayikra 14:2) writes,

 ואמרו במדרש: (תנחומא ב) "מות וחיים ביד לשון" (משלי יח, כא), הכל תלוי בלשון, זכה לחיים, לא זכה למיתה, עסק אדם בתורה בלשונו זכה לחיים, והיא התורה שנקראת עץ חיים, שנאמר: (משלי ג, יח) "עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה"...עסק בלשון הרע מתחייב בנפשו למות, שקשה לשון הרע משפיכות דמים, שכל מי שהורג אינו הורג אלא נפש אחת אבל המספר לשון הרע הורג שלשה: האומרו, והמקבלו, ומי שנאמר עליו.
And [the rabbis] said in the Midrash, (Tanchuma 2) "Life and death are in the hands of the tongue." (Proverbs 18:21) Everything depends on the tongue. If one merits, he [receives] life, if he doesn't merit, he [receives] death. For if one engaged in Torah with his tongue, he merits life, for it is the Torah that is called the tree of life, as it is written, "It is a tree of life to those who grasp onto it."...If one engaged in slander [with his tongue] he obligates himself to [be punished with] death, for slander is worse than murder, for anyone who murders only murders one soul, but one who speaks slander kills three: he who spoke slander, he who accepted the slander, and the subject of the slander.

Is slander really worse than murder? Again quoting the Midrash, Rabbeinu Bechaya explains that at times it really can be worse than murder. The book of Samuel relates the tragic tale of the murder of scores of priests in the priestly city of Nob at the hands of King Saul, (see Samuel I Chapters 21-22). A slanderous report of Do'eg the Edomite set events in motion that lead to the murder of the priests, and ultimately the fall of Saul. Slander certainly can and does lead to murder.

What about Judge Goldstone? Are his words really worse than murder? Has anyone died yet? In an age of global communication, it's impossible to know to what degree the report that bares his name emboldened international terrorists who murder civilians in the name of the Palestinian cause.
Moreover, even after Goldstone's retraction, the Israeli Defense Forces, and especially its soldiers and commanders certainly keep the report in mind, and will be forced to do so during any future action. Every soldier and commander will need to evaluate not only his or her own mission security, but how their actions will be scrutinized, and unfairly so, by international commissions of the UN Human Rights Council. How many more soldiers in the future will find themselves in greater danger because of Goldstone? How many Jewish lives will be lost (and this is not an exaggeration in any way) because of the changes in tactics mandated not so much by his report, but by the fear of another Goldstone Report?
The feathers are long gone. Slander really does kill. And, as a father whose sons will one day serve in the IDF, that gives me real reason to worry.

Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 17: Suffering for Eretz Yisrael

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 17 - Suffering for Eretz Yisrael
(This shiur studies the classic work of Rav Yissachar Teichtal on the importance of settling the Land of Israel, following the Hebrew text with English translation.)

Continuing to analyze the question of why the Jewish people suffer in exile, Rav Teichtal turns to the question of the suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis. Rather unsurprisingly, it has something to do with the Land of Israel. 23.0 MB (24,164,634 bytes)

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Audio Shiur: Parshat Metzora - Tzara'at Today, In the World and in Ourselves

Audio Shiur:
Audio Shiur: Parshat Metzora - Tzara'at Today, In the World and in Ourselves

With the revelation that Judge Richard Goldstone (oops) sadly mistakenly slandered the Jewish State, we study an essay of Rav Neventzal who asks not how lashon hara affects the slandered, but the slanderer. From there we move to last week's haftarah, an amazing vort from Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, and conclude with what might be a modern manifestation of tzara'at. 25.3 MB (26,531,641 bytes)

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Monday, April 4, 2011

Stopping Lashon Hara - A Powerful Thought from Rabbi Nachman of Breslev for Metzora (and Tazria)

This week, between Minchah and Ma'ariv at the Carlebach Minyan at Bobby Rosenberg's house, Bobby welcomed Rav Erez Moshe Doron, who has just moved into Yad Binyamin and is apparently extremely well-known across Israel as a big teacher of Rabbi Nachman's teachings. (I had no idea) Rav Erez shared a powerful thought about lashon Hara that I'd like to share with you. (By the way, if you happen to live in Yad Binyamin, Rav Doron will soon be giving a shiur on Shabbat afternoon on the teachings of Rabbi Nachman. For details contact Bobby directly.)

It's well known that tzara'at emanates from the speaking of Lashon hara - slanderous speech. Yet, with all that we know about the prohibition of slander, and the damage that it causes, we never ask the next question: why do we speak lashon hara? Why is slandering a fellow Jew so powerfully enticing? Why do we like speaking evil about others?
Rav Erez suggested that the principle begins with a famous Mishnah in Negaim. (That's the masechet that deals with tzara'at.) The Mishnah teaches,
כל הנגעים אדם רואה, חוץ מנגעי עצמו.
A man may see every ailment, other than his own.
In the context of the Mishnah, we learn from this that a Kohen can declare all incidents of tzara'at as impure, except his own. Yet, commentators have a field day with this Mishnah, and especially the unusual language of רואה, meaning, "he sees," deriving the obvious truism that, "a person sees all blemishes, other than his own." While everyone else can see my faults clear as day, for some reason I can't see them. How true it is!
Yet, Rav Doron answered our lashan hara question by reading the line only slightly differently:
כל הנגעים אדם רואה חוץ, מנגעי עצמו
Every blemish that a person sees external to him - comes from his own blemishes
Read this way, the Mishnah communicates an even more powerful truth: when I see faults in others, I'm really seeing my own faults without even realizing it. Others' failures that match our own, trigger an instinctive desire to criticize ourselves. Yet, because I refuse to at least consciously acknowledge my own faults, I can only criticize the faults I see in my neighbor.
Why can't we - or at least won't we - see our own failings? That's due to a deeper problem. Quoting Rav Nachman of Breslev, Rav Doron said that deep down, we won't look at ourselves because we really believe that we're bad. We're evil. So I don't want to look at myself, because I'm afraid of what I'll truly see.
But, said Rav Nachman, we're wrong. We're not evil. In reality, we're good - very good, and our failings stem from an unwillingness to believe in and look at ourselves. Because if we really thought that we were good, we'd have no problem seeing the "dirt" in our personalities and trying to clean it. After all, I'm generally clean. All I need to do is brush off a little "stain." But because I think that I'm really bad, I don't even want to look at myself in the mirror, so I look at others around me. I see my own failings in them. And I speak loshon hara.
What's the solution? How do I stop speaking slander about others? The first step is seeing the good in myself, and understanding that we really are good people. This, said Rav Doron, is actually a verse in Tehillim that we all know by heart.
מִי-הָאִישׁ, הֶחָפֵץ חַיִּים;  אֹהֵב יָמִים, לִרְאוֹת טוֹב. 
נְצֹר לְשׁוֹנְךָ מֵרָע;  וּשְׂפָתֶיךָ, מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה.  

Who is the man that desires life, and loves days, that he may see good therein?
Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile.
Again Rav Doron reread the first verse:
מִי-הָאִישׁ, הֶחָפֵץ חַיִּים, אֹהֵב יָמִים - לִרְאוֹת טוֹב
Who is the man that desires life and loves days - let him see the good!

If we want to keep our tongues from evil and stop saying lashon hara we must first fulfill the previous verse: לראות טוב - to see the good within ourselves. Once we understand just how good we are, we can aspire to imagine how much better we can truly be.

A Blog Post Worth Reading

Read this post: Rav Tzvi Pittinsky writes about the dangers and possible benefits of social media to our children. Most alarmingly (and something I never thought about) Google Buzz. My sons don't have Facebook accounts, but they do email through Gmail all the time, giving them easy access to social media through Google Buzz. Something to consider...
Tech Rav: Review of (and Supplement to) Yeshiva University's...: