Friday, July 29, 2011

Should Rabbis be on Facebook - Part 1

This week, I spent a day (plus) at an international rabbinic conference sponsored by Tzohar, a rabbinic group in Israel trying to create an alternative rabbinic presence other than the Israeli chief rabbinate. Tzohar became known for its registry of rabbis willing to perform weddings free of charge. It seems that for many secular Israelis, one of their only interactions with rabbis was at their wedding, and that many rabbis charged exorbitant amounts of money to perform the wedding, leaving a very bad taste, to say the least, of religious people and religion in general. To date, rabbis affiliated with Tzohar have performed tens of thousands of weddings across Israel.
At the conference, one of the more heated discussions surrounded the burning question whether rabbis should have Facebook pages or not. (Interestingly, I only found out that the press was at the conference halfway through the discussion, and it was implied that there was, “nothing to worry about.” If “nothing to worry about” means that, “You’ll be quoted directly by name in the press,” then I guess I didn’t have anything to worry about. I wasn’t quoted inaccurately, but having press representatives at a supposedly closed rabbinic conference isn’t a great way to engender open and honest dialogue.) In any case, this particular discussion made the Hebrew press here and here, and was then translated into English here, and finally blogged about here. I was quoted (pretty accurately) as saying that I didn’t think that a rabbi should have a Facebook page. Here’s the relevant passage:
Rabbi Reuven Spolter of the Israeli community of Yad Binyamin believes that, in general, "a rabbi must be a rabbi and not a friend." He does not rule out rabbinical activity on Facebook, but says it must be supervised.
"All the nonsense of the community members must be ignored," he says. "It would be better if they didn't have to see all their statuses and thoughts."
His practical suggestion is interesting: The rabbi's wife will be on Facebook and relay the spirit and messages from the community members, as expressed only there.
I once wrote a rather emphatic post about the fact that I don’t have a Facebook page. While at the time the post was accurate, today it’s less so, as I recently joined the Facebook phenomenon. (OK, I’m late to the party. But I did get an early invite to Google Plus.) I joined Facebook primarily because I need to use it at work in the context of student recruitment at Orot. You can see my Orot page here. (Please “like” us – I’m trying to build the page…) I opened two personal pages – one in Hebrew and one in English, and became “friends” with a number of acquaintances – mostly people who “friended” me.

At the discussion, I ended up sitting next to Israel’s Minister of Science and Technology, Rabbi Professor Daniel Hershkovitz. He’s a shul rabbi, math professor, and now a politician, and a generally all-around brilliant man. During the discussion, he said a number of times that it’s silly for rabbis to shy away from using Facebook, repeating to me and then to the group at large, “Facebook is a tool. Tools are not good or bad. They’re tools, and we must choose not whether to use them or not, but how to use them properly.”
In general, I agree with him. Tools aren’t good or bad. You can use a saw to cut lumber to build a home. And you can use that same saw to cut your dining room table in half. (Not recommended). But some tools are generally useful (like my screwdriver), and others primarily destructive. We measure whether to bring tools into our home by their design and their intended purpose, and whether their benefits outweigh the costs. So, my toolbox is brimming with screwdrivers. Sure, someone could use one as a weapon – but not likely. On the other hand, while there might be some benefits to keeping a firearm in my home, in my home right now the dangers outweigh them. While in some homes a firearm at the ready is a critically important, my home isn’t one of them. Let’s give another example a little closer to home: Television. One could legitimately argue that TV is a tool that can be either good or bad. After all, television can be informative, convey critical information, and even help me relax. On the other hand, do those benefits outweigh the costs? To me they don’t, because while I certainly miss watching football, I don’t miss the amazing amount of time that I’d waste watching TV. And I don’t miss the values on most television programs, nor the sexuality, violence and depravity that we don’t even notice anymore. So I don’t have a TV. It’s a tool, but not one that I choose to utilize.
What about Facebook? What kind of tool is Facebook? Are its uses valuable and positive? What are the benefits of Facebook, and do those benefits outweigh the costs? In order to answer those questions, you’ve got to (a) use Facebook, and (b) understand how it works.
Using Facebook:
Truth be told, there’s less action than I thought there would be. It’s nice to get pictures of people’s kids (very cute usually), and every now and then someone shares a thoughtful link to an article I hadn’t seen. But mostly, I haven’t found myself moved by peoples’ status updates, and I often find myself not posting for lack of what to post. This is not because I don’t have what to say. I say a lot – and if you’re reading this blog, you know what I mean.
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited by a marketing group to take part in a Facebook seminar, aimed at helping us market educational programs to potential students. The seminar spent a lot of time highlighting Facebook’s hierarchy which determines what posts are visible in someone’s feeds. This means that while you might post a status update, that doesn’t really mean that all your friends are going to see it. It depends on whether your post is “sticky” – and that stickiness follows an algorithm designed by Facebook. They like pictures and videos, and back and forth conversations. They don’t like updates that people don’t respond to. In other words, Facebook is built to get feedback. It’s not really designed for long form articles like this one. It’s really built to share the pictures, videos, short status updates that generate a quick “like”. And if your status update doesn’t get a like or a comment, it falls off the page amazingly fast. So, the trick of the Facebook status update is all about getting people to response.
That means that I’ve got to say something clever, or ask a silly question, or make a sarcastic quip, or share a family picture. It is not good for making serious comments or having an involved discussion, at least on its main pages. (Sure, you can have a private conversation with someone on Facebook, but you can also do that over email.) Facebook isn’t really about actual people. It’s more about the people they’d like others to see them as: clever, witty, outgoing – looking to get a reaction from others. Because there’s nothing worse on Facebook than sending out a status update and having it be ignored. All those friends, and no one cares about what you have to say…embarrassing.
So Facebook is built for chitchat, and not for deep, extended conversations. It’s built around superficial acquaintances, and not substantial friendships. It’s built to keep people in touch, but not to foster deeper connections.
Finally, many people share private and oftentimes inappropriate information (that has at times made me uncomfortable). That’s stuff that I really don’t want to know, and perhaps my friends also don’t want me to know, but forgot (or don’t care) that they’ve “friended” me.
Just as an aside, it’s also important for users to realize that Facebook is a marketers dream. Instead of “them” having to find you, all they have to do is entice you to “like” their page once. You “like” CocaCola? Sure you do. It tastes good. But if you “like” Coke on Facebook, they can now send you an endless stream of advertisements and promotions. Because that’s exactly what you asked them to do when you “liked” them. Why do you think advertisers spend so much energy and money asking you to “like” them? It’s a dark side of Facebook that many users don’t realize or prefer to ignore.
On the other hand, Facebook is not without benefits, and can even be surprisingly powerful. First of all, because pretty much the whole world is now on Facebook, it has reconnected people that lost touch years ago, allowing them to reestablish contact. You might not want to be best friends with your old high school classmate, but you would like to stay in touch and see how he’s doing.
Facebook also allows groups of people to coalesce around a common cause or purpose. My cottage cheese here in Israel costs me less money because of Facebook. It’s possible that the Arab Spring would never have happened were it not for Facebook. The tool allows individuals to share information with groups of interested people in unprecedented ways, with incredible ease. It’s not just about cottage cheese though. It’s used to promote Torah classes and community events as well.
There’s an even more powerful that has deep, powerful ramifications. A former member of our shul recently entered the hospital, and needed to return to the hospital following surgery a number of times due to complications. She spent hours in bed, alone, depressed. Her status updates – understandably gloomy – brought a flurry of responses, offering help, support and encouragement. People helped her – calling her, sending her messages, even visiting in person because they were aware that she was stuck in the hospital due to Facebook.
So, with all this in mind, this leads to my question: Should your rabbi be on Facebook? Do you want him as a friend, or would it be better for him and you if he stuck to email?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Audio Shiur: Parshat Masei - Oh, the Places You Will Go

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Masei - Oh, the Places You Will Go

The laundry list of places appearing at the beginning of Masel begs one critical question: who cares? The answers to this question, from Rashi, the Midrash and others, lead us to a deeper understanding of the times in which we live.

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Monday, July 25, 2011

The Slowly Changing Face of Chareidi Society

Chareidim at a recent job fair in Yerushalayim
Chareidim in Israel find themselves victims of derision, if not outright hatred by the secular public. They are seen as parasites of society, who collect taxes and social benefits, while refusing to work or serve in the armed forces.
But people often fail to consider just how challenging Chareidi life can really be. You're expected to learn full-time for years on end. It sounds easy, but try it. What if you're either not good at it, or you just don't like learning full time? You also can't really get a secular education, because society - that you love - has rejected it as treif. And, because you didn't serve in the army, you can't really work either.
In addition, Chareidim have large families, and while Chareidim truly live very frugal lives, groceries in Israel cost a lot of money. Moreover, Chareidim often buy meat, produce and other products that have only the best hechsherim, which are always the most expensive. (The chicken I buy is regularly 10 shekel per kilo for a whole chicken - I learned to cut up whole chickens very soon after we arrived in Israel; A chicken with a chareidi hechsher would easily cost double that amount. Easily.) Chareidim are expected to buy their children apartments when they marry, and many - probably even a majority, live from month to month by juggling small loans and large debts, paying when they can and borrowing to pay off other loans. And, when things get so large and out of control that there's no way out? That's when you go collecting.
Now, you might not have much sympathy for someone who actively chooses this type of lifestyle. After all, it is a choice. Go out and get a job? Personally, I agree. But it's not that simple. If you're born into this lifestyle, not only is it all that you know, but many, many thousands of Jews find themselves drawn to the insularity, sincerity and religious passion of Chareidi life. It's not as easy to reject your cultural upbringing as we may think.
But things do seem to be changing, ever so slowly. The Nachal Chareidi - the Chareidi brigade of the Israel Defense Forces, while extremely small right now (representing a tiny fraction of Israeli society), is growing and expanding at a surprising rate. Moreover, a recent Hebrew article on Yediot Achronot's website, tells of a recent job fair for Chareidim that attracted 4,000 participants, far outstripping the expectations of the people who organized the fair.
And, as work in the Chareidi world becomes more widespread, it will only continue to grow. After all, until now, even if a Chareidi wanted to work, he might refrain from doing so for fear of ostricization on the part of his community. But, as more Chareidim find gainful employment and remain integral parts of their communities, their friends and neighbors will begin to wonder, "Why am I killing myself mired in thousands of shekel of debt, while my friend and neighbor is able to support his family and remains an honored and respected member of my community?" Good question.
This is not, by any means, a suggestion that the Chareidi lifestyle is going anywhere. Far from it. I actually think that Chareidim working will strengthen their community, making a Chareidi lifestyle a viable, livable option for the next generation. But, as more Chareidim enter the workforce, they will begin to not only integrate into society in small and large ways, but also influece the people that they work with, bringing us all a little closer to the Torah that they hold so dear.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Aliyah and a Free Jewish Education

YNet recently ran a story about people who it says are making aliyah in order to save money on Jewish education. The subhead reads, "With Jewish school tuition fees per child reaching $20,000 a year, many families prefer to make aliyah and get free education. We met some of them onboard Nefesh B'Nefesh flight carrying 250 new olim to Israel."
I'm not sure that the headline is totally accurate. When you actually read the piece, you see that people didn't really make aliyah just to save money on day school tuition, which is smart, as I will explain. Rather, they say that it's one of many factors which push them to finally make the decision to come on aliyah. I notice this phenomenon a lot in the press - headlines that are designed to draw attention, which turn out to be less than accurate. I get the feeling that they're getting tired of writing the same "Nefesh B'nefesh Brings Jews to Israel" article five times a summer, and just needed a new angle. But I digress...
I often think about committed Orthodox American Jews who really struggle to meet the suffocating demands of day school tuition. I wonder how they do it. Just in my own family, my sister and brother-in-law both have great jobs, work hard, make decent salaries, and literally live hand to mouth. True, they have over the years built a nice home. But they certainly don't live high off the hog. They're paying for day school, seminary, yeshivot, and also trying to save for (God willing) weddings as well. It just seems crazy that they work as hard as they do, and have so little savings to show for it.
From this vantage point, aliyah seems like a sensible alternative. After all, isn't public school education in Israel free?
Let's set the record straight: It's not free, at least not for us. And while the prices would seem like a joke to Americans paying U.S. tuition prices, they're not as simple as they seem.
Basic public school in Israel really is free. It's public school, and I get a certain degree of pleasure just knowing that my children learn chumash, tefillah, dinim, and all the other regular, normal Jewish subject in public school. But...
1. There are fees for trips, books and other things that are not included, for which we pay.
2. The school in Yad Binyamin is what's called a ממלכתי דתי תורני - or for short, a ממ"ד תורני - "Mamad Torani" - a Torah-oriented public school. Our children have several more hours in Torah than regular public school kids, and someone's got to pay for those hours. The local Moatzah pays some (because our mayor feels that it's in the municipality's interest to have an "upgraded" school - to which I agree), but we pay the rest. It comes out to about 1,500 shekel for a grade-school age child per year. Yes, I know it's not a lot. That's the good part.
3. Once your child hits seventh grade, the hours in school shoot way, way up. Someone's got to pay for those hours, and that someone is basically you. Tuition for my son going into seventh grade is about 7,000 shekel for the year, not including the lunch program.
4. In high school, it goes even higher. We kept our oldest son local, but the yeshiva insists that all students dorm twice a week and stay in the yeshiva for Shabbat once a month. Total cost, about 11,000 shekel per year, and 14,000 at least if you don't live in the Moatzah. If you live in the States, I know what you're thinking: 11 thousand divided by 3.5 shekel per dollar comes to...about $3,000 dollars for high school tuition per YEAR? That's nothing! True, it might be if we were earning an American salary. But we're not. We earn Israeli salaries.
That's not to say that it's undoable. Thank God, I'm pretty sure that we're OK for next year. The schools also help people out if they can't meet the tuition needs, and I don't think that the scholarship process is nearly as draconian as it is in the States now. But it's not free. (Health care, on the other hand, which is really quite good here, is actually next to free. But that's a totally different post.)
Let me be clear. I'm very much in favor of aliyah. I even did it myself. Contrary to what many people said (and perhaps think and hear) about the education system in Israel, while it has problems, I think that our kids' education thus far has been excellent. Truly.
But there are far better reasons to move to Israel than to save money on day school tuition. Like the fact that God wants all the Jews to live here. Like the fact that it's really a Jewish country, which caters to the unique way of life that the Torah demands. Like the fact that there are many, many more kosher restaurants here than even in Teaneck (although Teaneck does indeed have some good ones). Did I mention that God wants the Jews to live in Israel?
But I wouldn't make aliyah to do better financially. It's not simple here, and people really do struggle to make ends meet.
In the end, though, if you're going to struggle to make ends meet and keep your kids in Jewish Day school - which it seems like most Orthodox Jews in Amerca do, isn't it better to do struggle in the Land of Israel?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 28 - The Munkatcher's Mistake

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 28 - The Munkatcher's Mistake
(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.)

Rav Teichtal finds himself in a huge bind. As a devout Munkatcher Chasid, he himself considers every word of his rebbe as holy and binding. But the rebbe was against supporting building the Land of Israel. How does he deal with this difficult cognitive dissonance?

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Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 27 - The Benefits of Nationhood

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 27 - The Gradual Process of Redemption
(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.)

Nu? What's taking so long? A better question is, does the redemption we think that we're experiencing match the redemption that we expected? If not, what did we really expect? And was that a realistic expectation?

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Audio Shiur: Parshat Matot - My Needs, or Our Needs

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Matot - My Needs, or Our Needs

The issue of selflessness vs. selfishness arises several times over the course of Parashat Matot. It's also a great subject to discuss at the beginning of the three weeks, as we look for ways to improve during this difficult period for the Jewish people.

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Happy Aliyahversary To Us!

No, it's not our wedding anniversary. Rather, this is the day that we celebrate our three year Aliyahversary. That's right, three years ago, a bleary-eyed Spolter family arrived in boiling hot Yad Binyamin with a bunch of luggage, and a get some sleep. Last night, the family celebrated with a steak dinner (I think it's the first time that I bought steak here), and we spoke about the things that we love about living in Israel.

So, how's it going? All in all, terrific. Note that I did not say easy. It's certainly not easy, and not nearly as easy as it would have been staying the course in the USA. But we have a great deal to be thankful for:

Financially, we're doing OK, (thank God!) having been fortunate to find work that we enjoy. But that has come with a willingness to change, adapt, and do things that we didn't ever think we'd be doing. This is not to say that we don't miss our old jobs. It's hard to give up what you loved doing and what you think you were really good at. But we made a choice to move to something new, and change is never easy, and comes with a price. Even after three years.
The Kids, excited for the flight, three years ago
Socially, we've found some level of acclimation in Yad Binyamin, which is a really great place. We've met great people, both Israeli and Anglo. But, truth be told, I feel somewhat betwixt and between: on the one hand, we've gotten to know a bunch of wonderful Israeli families. At the same time, we're just different. We're Anglos, and nothing we can do will ever change that. We're Olim, and always will be, and it can be challenging to know that as successful as you'll be (and we feel that we are successful), you'll never be a native. It's just a fact of life that we didn't understand as fully as we do now, but accept so that our children won't have this struggle. Some choose to live in very Anglo areas like Ra'anana or Beit Shemesh, and they never really feel like outsiders, as they're not trying to enter into Israeli society. We've chosen a different path, which entails a greater sense of alienation. One is not better than the other; both have costs and benefits, and each oleh must find his or her place here in Israel.

Same kids (+1), last Yom Kippur
Kids-wise: The kids are really doing great. Most acclimated to Israel almost immediately, but for some the second year was light-years different than the first. They're fully integrated into the Israeli school system, and while it's of course not perfect, we're really, reallly happy with our childrens' education thus-far. We also added a beautiful daughter (our only Sabra) who needs no integration.

The Gemara tells us that it takes three years to make a Chazakah on a place. Truth be told, I don't miss the United States per se. I listen to American talk-radio (mostly sports) online. I miss the people: our family, the close friends we made in Michigan, and I also miss the reasonably-priced vacations during the summer. I also miss watching NFL football - not that I watched it that much back home. (I'm just too cheap to pay for an online subscription.) But I cannot remember a time that I wished I was back in the States.
I feel truly blessed to be raising my family in Eretz Yisrael; I feel blessed to have acclimated as much as we have. I feel blessed to have the opportunities that I've had over the past three years, and often see the hand of God guiding us on this crazy journey. And I pray that He will give me the wisdom and serenity to continue to handle the inevitable struggles that will come unexpectedly, and to always see the great blessings that I have.

Happy Aliyahversary!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Judaism and Liberalism: Never the Twain Shall Meet?

In Israel, the inherent clash of values that the Jewish State grapples with manifests itself on an almost daily basis. This question of religion vs nationality and democracy vs faith goes to the core of so many of the ongoing debates in Israeli society. But, as more and more American Jews grow increasing culturally assimilated in Western modes of thought, it seems clear that many Jews now grapple with this issue on an internal level as well.
Writing in the Forward, a JTS student named Benjamin Resnick writes about the larger meaning of the alienation of liberal Jews from Israel. He says,
The fact is, liberal commitments and traditional Jewish commitments are in many ways incompatible. They conceptualize political freedom differently, civic responsibility differently, personhood differently and nationhood differently. The American political tradition, emerging from thinkers like John Rawls and Isaiah Berlin, generally construes political freedom as freedom from our fellow citizens (that is, as long as we don’t hurt anyone, we can more or less do as we please). But Jewish tradition, with its robust emphasis on norms of tzedakah and communal obligation, takes a more communitarian approach.
So, Judaism and American liberalism inherently clash in terms of their underlying values. He's right about this: Judaism doesn't promote the same level of personal freedom as does Western society. The Torah demands that the courts system punish people who sin publicly against God, without harming a fellow human being. Most of the sins for which a violator recieves the death penalty are מצוות בין אדם למקום - commandments between man and God, including violating Shabbat and worshipping idolatry. Can we even imagine the reaction of the Western world (and most of American Jewry) if a Beit Din even tried to enforce the halachah as passed down through the Gemara? Resnick continues,
And whereas American political life pushes us to construct our civic identities around such phrases as “I am” or “I want,” the Zionist tradition pushes us to construct those same identities around phrases like, “We need.” Good fences may indeed make good neighbors, but they make it a lot harder to construct an eruv.
(Just as an aside, if you've ever been involved in eruv construction, he's totally off the mark. Good fences make great eruvim. Bad or no fences make it a lot harder to construct an eruv. But I digress.) This point I find truly troubling. If I understand him correctly, he's saying that liberal thinkers struggle to identify with Judaism because it demands that they think of the klal before they think of themselves. This might be true, but is it a good thing? Wouldn't a liberal Jewish person reject this tenet of liberalism instead of advocating a "me-first" attitude?
Jews have, with good reason, been fierce proponents of liberal democratic states throughout history. But from the perspective of American civic participation, the communitarian, tribe-centered approach of both the religious Jew and the committed Zionist is a very radical notion. The ritually observant Jew commits herself to a life that separates socially, visually and physically from the surrounding world. And the liberal-minded Zionist, who is deeply, genuinely concerned about the welfare of the Palestinians and the fundamental “fellowship of man,” nonetheless affirms that the Jewish democratic state must maintain a Jewish majority and a “Jewish character.”
And for my liberal-minded rabbinic colleagues — most of whom hold full participation in both ritual Jewish life and American civic life as high, religious values — this tension is particularly poignant.
Basically, liberally educated Jews have been so infused with their sense of liberalism that the underlying values of Judaism - separatism, tribalism (i.e. peoplehood), and care for each-other first - now seem foreign to them. In essence, their rabbinic training contradicts the American values that they lived for the first twenty years of their lives. Then, they get to seminary and learn that rather than being all-inclusive, Judaism advocates that we be a nation that "Dwells alone." They get to Israel and find a country which strives to maintain both a Jewish character and a Jewish demographic majority, which is an insult to the American values they hold so dear.
I agree with Resnick and find his article well-written but alarming. If the rabbis of the next generation are themselves alienated from the underlying values of traditional Judaism, what about their parishiners? Of even greater concern is the fact that rather than change their core ideals to match traditional Jewish values, they will simply redefine Judaism. They will create a religion of ritual devoid of a notion of peoplehood or separateness. (see early Reform Judaism). They will insist that Judaism need not distinguish itself from other religions. They will insist that the rights of Palestinians supercedes the need to maintain a Jewish State. And, rather than bringing their flock closer to God, they will only be driving them farther away from God and His Chosen people.
Tragically, this will only hasten the almost total complete assimilation of American (non-Orthodox) Jewry that seems to have already snowballed out of control.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Techelet Controversy 2 - An Email, and My Response

Continued from this post.

I received the following email from a very close acquaintance, who wrote,
A few points to ponder:
1. The title Godol is not one bestowed upon "little" people (no pun intended). a "Godol" is a "Godol B'Torah" and they are called that because they no more Torah and have greater insight into the Torah than the rest of us. If all of the Gedolim do or don't do something that IS reason enough for us to do or not do that thing - end of discussion. If there was merit to the opposing view then at least ONE of the Gedolim would do it. Since there is plenty of machlokes in the Torah world and many opposing views within Halacha (note how long the Gemmoroh is - without opposing views Artscroll woudl be out of business). IF a Godol felt strongly about something he WOULD do it. The fact that none of them wear techeiles IS enough of a reason not to do it. I won't go into all the Torah sources for mimiking the behaviour of the Gedolim - nor will I invade the privacy of their bedroom, but it IS in our best interest to follow their lead.
2. You wrote that it's ok to have the color of the tzitzis match the color of the beged and therefore it's ok to have techeiles. I saw your talis and it's not blue, nor are all of your tzitzios...
3. There is a price to pay for going against the accepted "tide". It has become fashionable to do that and that helps destroy the fabric (again, no pun intended) of the community. Bnai Yisroel were lauded for very few things when they were in Mitzrayim - not changing their clothing to follow some new "trend" be it Egyptian or "new age" was one of the them. We are who we are and we are that way because we steadfastly cling to what is handed down to us. Minhag Avosaynu B'yadeinu is not limited to holding an extra day of Chag in CHU"L. Remember the adage - change your Minhag and you're gong to Gehenam - both words may have the same letters but very different outcomes.
I responded to him (and you, as follows)
Dear (Very close Acquaintance),
First and foremost, thanks for your thoughtful response. As you can see, I'm pretty passionate about this issue, and I can see that you are too. All the better.
I'd like to post your response to me - and my answers to you on the blog. If you give me permission, I'll do it with your name, and if not, I'll do it anonymously.
I'll respond to your points one by one:
1. Of course we look to Gedolim for guidance and leadership. But I think that today this has gotten out of hand, to the point that we won't even try and perform a mitzvah unless the gedolim do it. Sometimes gedolim, as great as they are, make mistakes. (see Eim Habanim Semeichah on the position of the Gedolim that advised, and even forbade Jews from moving to Israel. He has very harsh things to say.) But more to the point, I don't think that Judaism was ever meant to be a religion where we only do things that gedolim do. I'm not talking about issur; moreover, gedolim don't say (generally) not to wear techelet; they don't do it themselves. When did the fact that great rabbanim don't do something make it assur?
Secondly, you should know that Rav Tal, Simcha's Rosh Yeshiva, as well as Rav Hershel Schachter of YU do wear techelet. Rav Tal is not my Rav, and I don't ask him questions, but Rav Schachter is certainly someone I consider a rav of mine, and I have and do ask him shailot. Are they "great" enough to rely on?
2. Regarding the color of the beged: the mishnah berurah says that it's a hiddur of zeh keili v'anveihu to have the tzitzis be either white, or the color of the beged. but al pi din, they can really be any color you want. Am I willing to give up the hiddur of all white for the chance to fulfill a d'orayta. You betcha.
3. Regarding לא שינו את מלבושם - this is really a ridiculous argument. Is it really "trendy" now to want to fulfill דאורייתות? For years and year, people wore תפילין דקות. Why? Because they didn't have the technology to properly make גסות. When someone finally figured out how to do it well, why didn't the whole world say, "you know what, we've got a minhag that we don't want to give up"? Because גסות are better. They're a hiddur. Go check your father or grandfather's tefillin. They didn't have גסות. But you do. And I do. Isn't that the abandonment of a minhag that will lead us all to gehenim? Of course not! It's an attempt to fulfill a mitzvah in a more special and appropriate manner.
And to suggest that putting techelet on our clothing is some trend, and that we're abandoning the principle of שלא שינו את מלבושם represents nothing less than a complete bastardization of the midrash. I can tell you one thing: this morning, when you said ונתנו על ציצית הכנף פתיל תכלת, you knew with absolute certainty that despite the fact that you're saying the words, and you know God wants you put that blue string on - you're still not doing it. When I say the very same words, I think, "You know, there's a chance that I'm actually doing what הקב"ה wants in this one area." And instead of thinking about bucking trends and changing minhagim, I feel lucky - fortunate about the fact that I live in a time when we've been given the gift of being able to fulfill this mitzvah once again.
And I feel pretty good about that.

Audio Shiur: Parshat Pinchas - Zealous Zeal for God

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Pinchas - Zealous Zeal for God

While God lauds Pinchas' action, which saved the Jewish people, the issue of zealotry in general is far from clear. Should we really follow Pinchas' lead and take the law into our own hands? Probably not. Then what really can we take away from Pinchas' story?

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

What's That Song Again? (Spolter Version)

I've been a fan of the Alan Parsons Project for years. For some reason, their music appeals to me, and in an age of singles and pop hits, their old albums were especially well thought-out and developed a specific theme. In any case, their song Sirius became hugely popular when it became the music that accompanied the introduction of the Bulls at the beginning of games during the Michael Jordan era. See the attached video if you're too young to remember.
Anyway, on the way to Beit Shemesh for Shabbat last Friday, I put my iPod on shuffle, and this song came on. The kids started playing, "Where's this song from?" They knew it from somewhere, but just couldn't place it. Finally, Petachya, my six-year-old, got it.
"I know! It's from Bezalel's Kung Fu Video."
What? And then I remembered. He's right. It is from Bezalel's Kung Fu video. I didn't bother to explain to him that I had put the music in the video. He'll figure it out one day. (If you're interested, that Kung Fu dojo was amazing for Bezalel. Just listen to the mantra that they'd say before and after every practice. When you say, "I will be disciplined, and try as hard as I can at everything I do" time after time, it begins to sink in, even to a seven-year-old. That was a great Dojo.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Techelet Controversy, or: I Can't Understand Why People Won't Wear Techelet

During my shiur on Parshat Shelach, I mentioned the mitzvah of Techelet, which, from the text of the Torah represents an integral part of fulfilling the commandment of tzitzit. Today, as many people are aware, there's a great debate about the identity of the organism that produces the enzyme from which we can manufacture authentic Techelet. The fine folks at the Techelet Institute believe that they have identified the source as a Murex snail, and now produce tzitzit strings from that snail. Others question whether that snail is the correct organism, and reject the notion of wearing blue strings today.
Full disclosure: I wear Techelet on my tallit. I do this for a simple reason. I have no idea whether the Techelet people are correct or not. When I read (and listen to) their arguments, they sound convincing. And then, when I read the opposing view, it sounds convincing. I'm not equipped to decide who's right. But, as someone in the Eim Habanim Semeichah shiur recently asked me, there's a much simpler way to look at things.
He wondered: If I took my regular white tzitzit strings, and colored them with a blue magic marker, would they still be kosher? The answer is yes, without a doubt. That's a clearly acknowledged point in the halachic literature. The Mishnah Berurah writes that it's a hiddur - a beautification of the mitzvah - to have either white strings, or to have strings that match the color of the garment. Clearly, colored strings are not problematic. This being the case, if there's no halachic downside, I simply fail to understand why someone would resist using strings that might be a fulfillment of a Torah commandment. People wear wool tzitzit in the summertime, sweating through the heat because according to a major opinion in the Rishonim, only wool garments fulfill the Torah obligation to have tzitzit. But many, if not most of those very same people refuse to wear a blue string on their tzitzit. Why? I simply have no idea.
I recently listened to a shiur given by Rav Reisman on Techelet, which was powerful, if not convincing. He spent an hour generally explaining the problematic aspects of identifying the Murex as the original chilazon. Personally, I found many of his arguments less than compelling. But his approach and his level of respect for the people who advocate Techelet was refreshing and inspiring. He's ninety-nine (one hundred?) percent sure that the Murex isn't the chilazon. I'm not so sure. I then listened to a rather passionate (and convincing) response from Rav Aryeh Lebowitz. It's also worthwhile to read the response from Dr. Sternman as well. (Both links also appear in the notes to Rav Reisman's shiur on YUTorah.)
As I listened to Rav Reisman's shiur, his arguments raised another issue about psak halachah in my mind. I'll admit it - I've got skin in the game. I wear Techelet, so I want the Murex to be the chilazon. So, as I listened to his arguments, I immediately began to question his arguments, poke holes in his logic, and find fault where I could. But he also, even before analyzing the issue, has a predilection towards the position that the Murex is not the chilazon. Can we really imagine Rav Reisman, a leading figure in the American Chareidi world, rejecting the accepted Daas Torah and deciding on his own that he's going to wear techelet? I don't know him personally, but I doubt it. And if he did, he'd pay a heavy price for doing so. So that fact, in and of itself, clouds his ability to make an absolutely objective analysis of the facts.
This is not a criticism of Rav Reisman personally. It's also not an anti-chareidi thing. (Rav Aviner also came out against wearing Techelet.) When we make decisions about issues, we all have skin in the game. We bring a set of values and attitudes that color our perception of the facts. I want the Techelet to be real, so I find one set of arguments convincing. Rav Reisman has a strong sense of fealty to Gedolim who rejected the Murex, so his predilection is to see the other side. It's not a good or bad thing. It's just there, and I think it's important to point out that this phenomenon exists everywhere. (The reminds me of a recent clip that I saw from the Daily Show about the Wisconsin Supreme Court justices who couldn't agree about whether one member of the Supreme Court put a choke hold on another fellow justice.)
Returning to Techelet, I still have yet to hear a satisfying answer to my underlying question: At the end of the day, there's everything to gain and nothing to lose. If you wear Techelet and when Moshiach finally arrives he tells us that the Murex is the correct and proper source for Techelet, then you've fulfilled a positive Torah commandment. If it ends up not being the real thing, then you've lost nothing. I simply don't understand why Jews - and many of them - who care deeply about meticulous Mitzvah observance, ignore this argument. And I have yet to hear a convincing response that has moved me in the least.
I'll do it when the Gedolim do it? I just don't get it.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Shabbat, Phones and Techonology - The Story Continues

A follow-up to this post

Rena sent me a link to this article, about special Shabbat phones created by Machon Zomet which were purchased by the government to allow government officials to use them on Shabbat. I think that these phones are a great thing, for a number of reasons:
First of all, I think that it's great that the Prime Minister doesn't look at whether a person has a kippah on his head, but rather whether the individual is right for the job. Moreover, Shemirat Hamitzvot isn't considered a detriment that will hinder the civil servant's ability to get the job done. It's a fact, and it's also nice to know that the Prime Minister thinks so as well.
Some might wonder: if the situation mandates that one can talk on the phone on Shabbat - i.e. there's a matter of life and death, or national security - then a government official could use a regular phone. Why then buy the special phones? The answer has to do with the nature of work and "melachot" on Shabbat.
Let me take you back a few years to the birth of my third child, Leah. For our first three children, my wife had a habit of going into labor on Shabbat. At the birth, my wife actually arrived at the hospital with sufficient time to receive an epidural, and immediately asked for one. (other times she wasn't so lucky.) Yet, the doctor would not administer the drugs until she signed a waiver. Could she do so? Without a doubt, and I'll explain why.
A woman in active labor is, in halachic terminology, a חולה שיש בו סכנה - "one who is sick, and in (potential) mortal danger." According to halachah, we violate the Shabbat for someone in this situation, which is why we could have driven to the hospital had the cab not shown up on time. So, when the doctor insisted that she sign to get the drugs, according to Jewish law she was permitted to do so. Yet, we always try and minimize the violation of Jewish law, even when an act is permitted. So, while she could have signed the form normally, it was advisable for her to sign (i.e. write - which is a melachah on Shabbat) with a shinuy - in an abnormal manner. Normally, one is still prohibited from writing in an abnormal manner on Shabbat as well. But writing abnormally is a rabbinic prohibition, and doesn't rise to the level of a Torah prohibition. So she scribbled an X with her left (wrong) hand, the doctor was happy, and the drugs began to flow.
The same is true for our hard-working Israeli government officials. If the situation calls for them to speak to the Prime Minister on Shabbat, then in reality they could use a regular phone. Yet, it's far better for them to use a phone specially designed to present only rabbinic prohibitions, and not possible Torah violations.  (If you want to know how Machon Zomet does that, you should really visit them and hear their presentation. That's a lot of inside baseball that's beyond the scope of a blog post. For full disclosure, it's also important to realize that a number of major poskim completely disagree with Zomet's entire methodology, and don't consider many of the Zomet technological innovations to be halachically preferable. If you'd like to know more about it, listen to a shiur given by Rabbi Dovid Miller on precisely this issue, that he gave right after the YU Israel Kollel visited Machon Zomet this past year.)
This is also why doctors should make an effort to procure these special phones. While they often must call to issue orders on Shabbat, it's always best that they minimize the level of Shabbat violation as well, which is what these phones do.

The phones do present a challenging problem, that Rabbi Rosen, the Head of Zomet, alludes to when he says,
"If the user realizes the call isn't justified or is not urgent we recommend that they ask the caller to postpone the call until after Shabbat," Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, Zomet Institute head said. "But if the phone has already been picked up, there is no problem, as the actual action of talking on an already open device does not constitute Shabbat desecration." 
Let's say that you're a high-level official who gets a call about an important issue. You take the call and the topic is dealt with. But then, the guy on the other end of the line asks you about something that can really wait until after Shabbat. Will it wait? Will you hang up on him? Remember that he's probably not Shomer Shabbat himself? And, when members of the P.M.'s staff grow accustomed to being able to reach you on the phone, will they limit themselves to calling in only true emergencies? An even more difficult question to answer is: Where's the line between life and death that must be dealt with on Shabbat, and diplomacy and politics? It's a truly fine line. Finally, as these phones make inroads into the general population (for doctors, emergency workers and security personnel), will we grow so used to them that we'll no longer see using the phone as a form of chillul Shabbat?
In truth, Halachah truly does deal with not only how we speak - i.e. what implements we use, be they microphones, hearing aids or telephones - but what we say. The Torah forbids us from speaking about business on Shabbat, making deals, and even discussing mudane issues. But, we've become so form-focused, that we completely neglect the issue of content. Perhaps that's becase it's easy to draw clear lines: you can't use a telephone. The computer is forbidden. Put away the blackberry. It's far, far harder to censor the discussion itself. But in truth, on Shabbat it's not only how we say it. It's also what we say.
More on this later.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Going it Alone This Week - "Dad is Great! He Gives Us..."

With Rena away in the States, leaving me to fend for three remaining children, the kids have been particularly helpful - especially Simcha. (See my previous post about the soup). So, shopping for groceries yesterday, I was in a particularly generous mood, and bought a couple of things I usually would not have. (They were found in the center of the store - the most dangerous part!) This - and a question about giving kids ice cream in the morning - of course led me to Bill Cosby's famous skit: Dad is Great! He Gives us Chocolate Cake. If you haven't seen it - and even if you have, watch it again.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Nation That Dwells Alone - An Amazing Discussion on this Week's Parshah from "The Prime Minsters"

When we met for dinner a few months back, my good friend Rabbi Barry Gelman mentioned that he was reading Yehuda Avner's "The Prime Minsters". My wife, listening in, took note and bought the book for me on our Kindle.
It's a fascinating read. Avner had incredible access to the leaders of the Jewish State for decades, and shares some powerful memories and gut-wrenching issues that they faced. It's really worth reading. Yet, the most powerful figure of them all thus far must be Menachem Begin. I'm not sure about his politics, but from his early days running from the British to his "amcha" appeal, I'm learning things about Begin that I find deeply moving.
Today, as I sat down to relax, I hit upon Chapter 33, which happens to be about Begin's Bible Circle - basically a Torah discussion that he conducted in the Prime Minster's residence periodically. It just so happens that the discussion he records is also about this week's parshah - and the famous prophecy that Bilam made about the Jewish people - הן עם לבדד ישכן ובגויים לא יתחשב - "they are a nation that will dwell alone and amongst the nations not be counted". I'm taking the liberty of sharing with you the entire chapter, which is worth reading. If Mr. Aviner has any issues about me quoting such a large swath of the book, I assume that he'll let me know and I'll be happy to take the post down. I'm not worried because if you read the entire piece, you'll also buy the book.
Chapter 33 The Bible Circle
Though Mr. Begin had to forego his open house, he did open up his home to a Bible study circle which convened every Saturday evening. Approximately twenty people, among them Bible scholars of repute, would seat themselves around the couch on which the prime minister sat, and for an hour or more they would delve into some particularly attention-grabbing passage of the Book of Books. I would participate as a matter of course; being in attendance on the prime minister was part of my job.
On the first such Saturday night, held on the very eve of Begin’s departure for Washington, the chosen passage was from the Book of Numbers, chapters twenty-two to twenty-four, in which the Bible records how, in the fortieth year after the children of Israel embarked on their Exodus from Egypt, and just a few months before entering the Promised Land, the heathen prophet Balaam was coaxed – bribed actually – by the Moabite King Balak, to curse the advancing Israelites and thereby devastate them before they could devastate him. However, Balaam, impelled by God’s command, and much to Balak’s displeasure, found himself involuntarily blessing them instead.
That evening’s discussion centered primarily on the evocative verse nine of chapter twenty-three, in which Balaam foretells with remarkable prescience the future destiny of the Jewish people, predicting, “…this is a people that shall dwell alone and shall not be reckoned among the nations.”
Reading the verse out loud, Prime Minister Begin gave a mild chuckle and said, “One does not have to be a mystic for the imagination to be stirred by such an improbable vision of a nation forever ‘dwelling alone.’ Is it not a startlingly accurate prophecy of our Jewish people’s experience in all of history?” Even as he was saying this, I vividly recalled the remark Prime Minister Golda Meir had once made about how lonely she invariably felt when attending a session at the United Nations. “We have no family there,” she had said. “Israel is entirely alone there. But why should that be?”
Being a socialist, with no bent for theology, Golda Meir had made no attempt to answer her own momentous question. But now Menachem Begin was opening discussion on this indisputable reality.
“Why does the Jewish State so frequently face solitude in the family of nations?” he asked rhetorically. “Is it because we are the only country in the world that is Jewish? Is it because we are the one country in the world whose language is Hebrew? But why are there no other Jewish states? Why are there no other Hebrew-speaking states, just as there are multiple Christian states, Moslem states, Hindu states, Buddhist states, English-speaking, Arabic-speaking, French-speaking, Chinese-speaking states? In short, why have we no sovereign kith and kin anywhere in the world? In the United Nations, everybody is grouped into regional blocs, each bloc bound by a common geography, religion, history, culture, and language. They vote with one another in solidarity. But no other country in the world shares our unique narrative. Geographically, we are located in Asia, but the Asian bloc won’t have us. Our Arab neighbors see to that. Indeed, they want to destroy us. So, geographically, we really belong nowhere. And since membership in the Security Council is in accordance with regional blocs, we have no realistic chance of being elected to it. The one blood tie, the one kindred bond we have with anybody at all in the world, is with our own fellow Jews in the Diaspora, and everywhere they are a minority and nowhere do they enjoy any form of national or cultural autonomy.”
Professor Ephraim Auerbach, a rotund, semi-bald scholar of refinement, wit and brilliance, picked up the theme, citing classic commentators who suggested that the meaning of “dwelling alone,” as cited by the heathen prophet Balaam, really meant voluntarily setting oneself apart. In other words, the Jewish nation distinguished itself from other peoples by virtue of its distinctive religious and moral laws, and by the fact that it had been chosen by God as the instrument of a divine purpose within the family of nations. “In that sense, the Jewish people dwells alone of its own volition,” he said.
A woman in her fifties asked for permission to comment. She was tall and lean, her face equine, her dress and hat plain, and her eyes brilliantly intelligent. This was Nehama Leibowitz, a renowned Bible scholar famous for her immensely popular weekly Torah commentaries, composed in a highly comprehensible style. Deftly, she drew attention to the verse’s grammatical structure, elaborating upon and reinforcing Professor Auerbach’s comment, explaining that the word yitchashav, generally translated to mean ‘reckoned’ – “this is a people that shall not be reckoned among the nations” – was rendered in the reflexive form, which therefore gave the meaning, “this is a people that does not reckon itself among the nations.” And as an aside, she pointed out that this form of that particular word occurs but once in the whole of Scripture.
Professor Yaakov Katz, a slight figure with dour features and a deeply analytical disposition, broke in to refer to the eminent Talmudist Marcus Jastrow. Citing Jastrow’s Talmudic sources, Katz showed that the reflexive form of the root word chashav [reckon] signifies “to conspire,” meaning that Israel “is a people that dwells alone and does not conspire against other nations.”
Professor Harel Fisch, educator, literary scholar, and future laureate of the prestigious Israel Prize, raised a finger for attention. Stroking his goatee, he mused that in modern society the Jewish people were unique in personifying a seamless blend of peoplehood and religion, born out of the two seminal events that forged the Jewish national personality: the Exodus from Egypt, when Jews entered history as a people, and the giving of the Torah at Sinai, when Jews entered history as a nation-faith. A Jew, therefore, was a synergy of both – Exodus and Sinai. He could not be the one without the other, though many throughout the centuries had tried to keep them apart. Whether one was a believer or a skeptic, this subtle nation-faith individuality was indivisible. And since this was what distinguished the Jewish people from all other peoples, they would always, uniquely, “dwell alone.”
Another participant, whom everybody knew simply as Srulik, a bushy-haired archaeologist and Bible prodigy wearing an emerald green yarmulke which he had picked up at the door, provocatively remarked that whichever way one interpreted Balaam’s prophecy, it stamped the Jewish people as an eternally abnormal nation within the family of nations – and that this flew in the face of the classic Zionist creed, which expounded that Zionism’s aim was to normalize the Jewish people so that it could become a goy k’chol hagoyim – a nation like all other nations. Indeed, the central thesis of the Zionist thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly the Labor Zionists, was that once Jews possessed what every other normal nation possesses – a land of their own – they would automatically become a normal nation within the family of nations. And the consequence of that, so the classic Zionist theory held, would be that anti-Semitism would wither and die. Well, it hadn’t withered and died. On the contrary, the very existence of the Jewish State was often a cause for anti-Semitic prejudice, and this, surely, cast a shadow on a fundamental article of Zionist faith.
To which Dr. Chaim Gevaryahu, chairman of the Israel Bible Society, added that he wondered what led those brilliant secular Zionist founding fathers of yesteryear to predict so confidently that Jewish self-determination would, of itself, lead to national normalization and put an end to anti-Semitism. Indeed, once Jews became a normal people they would cease being Jews. But that could never happen, because nothing could ever put an end to anti-Semitism. In fact, one thing to be learned from the biblical portion under review was that the so-called prophet Balaam was the archetypical anti-Semite. His whole intent was to curse the Jews, not to bless them. The blessing was God’s doing, not his.
Irresistibly, the prime minister plunged in once again, expanding on the uniqueness of the Jewish national identity, saying, “As Professor Harel Fisch has pointed out, other peoples are multi-religious; other religions are multinational. But we Jews are one and the same – religion and nationhood both. And as Professor Auerbach and Professor Leibowitz have indicated, we have forever maintained this distinctiveness by refusing to assimilate into other nations. It all began with the father of our nation, Abraham of Ur of the Chaldees, who, at the age of seventy-five, deduced the eternal truth of the One God, and bolted the idolatry of his parental home in order to worship Him. Hundreds of years later we see his descendents, by now an enslaved people, again embarking on a God-commanded journey – the Exodus from the idolatrous land of Egypt – again in order to worship the One God. In both instances their destination was Eretz Yisrael, there to fulfill their religious-national destiny. Never in Jewish history was this identity severed.” Then the line of his mouth tightened a fraction showing he was about to draw a practical conclusion: “And since there can be no separation between nation and faith, this means there can be no total separation between religion and state in the Jewish State.”
This triggered off a firestorm of controversy, because while some of the scholars present took the Bible as a paradigm of God’s own writing, others related to it secularly, as a piece of extraordinary literature. Listening attentively, Mr. Begin lowered the temperature by saying in an earnest voice that whatever the differences of view, the eternal fact remained that, by any reading of the text, the Jewish people did, indeed, constitute an exceptional phenomenon in world history. To illustrate his point he picked up a volume of the utterances of Dr. Yaakov Herzog, my mentor, counselor and inspiration when I took my first steps into the world of diplomacy. Yaakov died prematurely in 1972 at the age of fifty, and Menachem Begin appropriately described him that evening as “a master of the perplexities of international diplomacy and a prodigy in the field of Jewish erudition.” He continued, “In fact, he is the only man I ever met who was given the choice at one and the same time of being asked by Levi Eshkol to be chief of the prime minister’s office, and approached by Anglo-Jewry to be chief rabbi of Great Britain.”
In closing the discussion that night, Menachem Begin read from Herzog’s profound philosophical anthology, A People That Dwells Alone :
The theory of classic Zionism was national normalization. What was wrong with the theory? It was the belief that the idea of a ‘people that dwells alone’ is an abnormal concept, when actually a ‘people that dwells alone’ is the natural concept of the Jewish people. That is why this one phrase still describes the totality of the extraordinary phenomenon of Israel’s revival. If one asks how the ingathering of the exiles, which no one could have imagined in his wildest dreams, came about, or how the State of Israel could endure such severe security challenges, or how it has built up such a flourishing economy, or how the unity of the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora has been preserved, one must come back to the primary idea that this is ‘a people that dwells alone.’ More than that, one must invoke this phrase not only to understand how the Jews have existed for so long; one must invoke it as a testimony to the Jewish right to exist at all in the land of their rebirth.
“So there you have it,” concluded Begin snapping the book shut. “Cease dwelling alone and we cease to exist. What a conundrum!”
I have only one other question: how did one get invited to that shiur?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Audio Shiur: Parshat Balak - The Evil Eye

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Balak - The Evil Eye

Rashi teaches us that Bilam tried to harm the Jewish people by imposing the "evil eye" upon them. What is the "Evil Eye"? Is ayin hara even real? And if it is, how do we protect ourselves from it?

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Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 26 - The Gradual Process of Redemption

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 26 - The Gradual Process of Redemption
(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.)

Nu? What's taking so long? A better question is, does the redemption we think that we're experiencing match the redemption that we expected? If not, what did we really expect? And was that a realistic expectation?

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Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 25 - Us Undeserving Jews

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 25 - Us Undeserving Jews
(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.)

If the Holocaust is supposed to herald the time of the Moshiach, how come he hasn't come yet? What's taking so long? According to Rav Teichtal, it's not Hashem. It's us.

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Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 24 - Those American Jews

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 24 - Those American Jews
(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.)

In the concluding section of chapter 1, Rav Teichtal addresses the Jews of the United States, and answers how they too suffered during the Holocaust.

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Monday, July 4, 2011

The "Eyes" Have It: A Dvar Torah for Parshat Balak

Ayin Hara and Ayin Hatov in Parshat Balak

Masaru Emoto has made a living taking pictures of water. No, these are not pictures of seascapes or sunsets. Rather, he photographs frozen water under a microscope, after people have directed their thoughts at the water. Dr. Emoto claims that human thought has the power to directly affect the world around us, and has sought to demonstrate this fact with his pictures. Amazingly, when subjected to "good" thoughts, the frozen water crystalizes into beautiful shapes, and when people think "bad" thoughts at the water, the shapes seem drastic and severe.
Dr. Emoto has drawn significant criticism over the years, primarily because others haven't been able to recreate his water crystals in scientific studies, leading many scientists to question the validity of his claims. What does Judaism have to say about the matter? Can our thoughts really affect the world around us? That depends on who you ask.

Click here to download the D'var Torah for Parshat Balak.

My Son, the Chef

Wife just left this visit her grandparents for a week and a half. Neighbors have been offering to look in after us, just to make sure that we'd be OK. My wife thanks them but assures them that her husband can look after himself. Food wise. After all, when I grew up, my mother had a policy: if you want it, make it yourself. (She cooked, of course, but didn't mind the help as we grew up.) So I did.
This morning, I woke up at 3:30am to take wife and two kids to the airport. Worked the whole day, and stumbled into the house at 5pm. Dinner? Hadn't given it a second thought. Or a first.
Happily, my 14-year-old had it taken care of. He sent the nine-year-old to the makolet for a package of mushrooms, and proceeded to make a delicious sweet potato mushroom soup that he found in the Kosher Soup cookbook. He said that it sounded good. He was right. Then he made garlic bread from a recipe that he found in the Betty Crocker cookbook. I fell asleep. Daughter woke me up an hour later telling me, "Abba, dinner." Sweet.
Good job, Simcha.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

20 Billion in Air Conditioning? Not A Good Sign

The forecast on the radio this morning: Hot. Tomorrow - a little hotter. The weather lady actually said, "And if you're looking for relief, ask again in October." Great.
A few weeks back, a young man from Detroit who made aliyah when we did came to visit for Shabbat. He joined the IDF, and has since served in a number of roles, including as a commando in places that he wouldn't tell us about.
We mentioned to him that my nephew is strongly considering joining the IDF. He's actually not "considering" it. He says that he's doing it, but I'm not so sure. In any case, when this young man heard about this, all he said was, "It was great, but Tzahal is hard." When I pressed him a little, he said that living conditions for soldiers was especially difficult. The food isn't great, and they live in tents much of the time. You simply put up with a lot that you're not used to in regular life. He went on to say that someone who served in the US Marines joined his unit, and after a few months got fed up and simply left. It was too hard for him.
That surprised me a little. Until I read this article about the fact that the United States spends $20 billion each year on the overall costs of making sure that US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have air conditioning.
I don't begrudge the soldiers for having A/C - I certainly like mine - but the idea did kind of surprise me. I didn't think about before, but I always assumed that soldiers out in the field didn't require the same creature comforts they do back home. I just have this picture of Hawkeye Pierce sweating out the hot summer days during the Korean War. (Remember the episode when he gave out sugar pills that kept people cool?) It makes me wonder: Does having creature comforts make soldiers worse at fighting? Are Israeli soldiers better fighters because they don't have air conditioning? Or are they just hotter?