Wednesday, August 31, 2011

New Audio Shiur: Derech Hashem (The Way of God) of Ramchal

Audio Shiur:
Derech Hashem Shiur 1 - Emunah vs. Da'at

(This shiur studies the classic work of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto on Jewish Thought.)

In our first shiur on Ramchal's Derech Hashem, we analyze why he specifically chose to insist that we must both have emunah and Da'at that a prime force exists. We then continue to Ramchal's powerful definition of shleimut.

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

Want to subscribe to this shiur as a podcast? It's not set up yet, but hopefully will be soon!

It's Elul. Take the Thirty Day Challenge.

Saw this video on the Rav Tzair blog. As he put it: this is Elul! The real question is, What's your thirty day challenge? Rosh Hashanah is in thirty days...

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Seeing the Good - A Great Gemara for Finding Happiness

"So, how are things?" How many times do people ask us that simple, innocuous question, really not that interested in an actual answer? And how many times do we feel like the answer isn't as good as we'd like it to be. This is because we evaluate how "things are" not based on how they are, but on how we think that they should be. Our expectations often determine whether we're really happy or not. Despite the fact that my expectations might be unrealistically high, when they aren't met, I'm unhappy with the result. On the other hand, if I can somehow see the amazing good in that which I do have, this abiilty can bring a sense of gratitude, tranquility and happiness.

I give a shiur in Gemara on Shabbat (in Hebrew), and yesterday we came across two important pieces that are worth reading and considering. The Gemara (Berachot 58a) discussing Ben Zoma, writes,
הוא היה אומר: כמה יגיעות יגע אדם הראשון עד שמצא פת לאכול: חרש, וזרע, וקצר, ועמר, ודש, וזרה, וברר, וטחן, והרקיד, ולש, ואפה, ואחר כך אכל, ואני משכים ומוצא כל אלו מתוקנין לפני. וכמה יגיעות יגע אדם הראשון עד שמצא בגד ללבוש: גזז ולבן ונפץ וטוה וארג, ואחר כך מצא בגד ללבוש, ואני משכים ומוצא כל אלה מתוקנים לפני. כל אומות שוקדות ובאות לפתח ביתי, ואני משכים ומוצא כל אלו לפני. הוא היה אומר: אורח טוב מהו אומר - כמה טרחות טרח בעל הבית בשבילי, כמה בשר הביא לפני, כמה יין הביא לפני, כמה גלוסקאות הביא לפני, וכל מה שטרח - לא טרח אלא בשבילי. אבל אורח רע מהו אומר - מה טורח טרח בעל הבית זה? פת אחת אכלתי, חתיכה אחת אכלתי, כוס אחד שתיתי, כל טורח שטרח בעל הבית זה - לא טרח אלא בשביל אשתו ובניו. על אורח טוב מהו אומר - +איוב ל"ו+ זכר כי תשגיא פעלו אשר שררו אנשים. על אורח רע כתיב - +איוב ל"ז+ לכן יראוהו אנשים וגו'.
Ben Zoma ...used to say: What labours Adam had to carry out before he obtained bread to eat! He ploughed, he sowed, he reaped, he bound [the sheaves], he threshed and winnowed and selected the ears, he ground [them], and sifted [the flour], he kneaded and baked, and then at last he ate; whereas I get up, and find all these things done for me. And how many labours Adam had to carry out before he obtained a garment to wear! He had to shear, wash [the wool], comb it, spin it and weave it, and then at last he obtained a garment to wear; whereas I get up and find all these things done for me. All kinds of craftsmen come early to the door of my house, and I rise in the morning and find all these before me.
He used to say: What does a good guest say? 'How much trouble my host has taken for me! How much meat he has set before me! How much wine he has set before me! How many cakes he has set before me! And all the trouble he has taken was only for my sake!' But what does a bad guest say? 'How much after all has mine host put himself out? I have eaten one piece of bread, I have eaten one slice of meat, I have drunk one cup of wine! All the trouble which my host has taken was only for the sake of his wife and his children!' What does Scripture say of a good guest? Remember that thou magnify his works, where of men have sung. But of a bad guest it is written: Men do therefore fear him; [he regardeth not any that are wise of heart].
All of us find ourselves in Ben Zoma's situation. Thankfully, we don't need to plow our own fields to bake our daily bread. I'm not familiar with anyone who knows how to spin the thread for his own clothing. But do we see the amazing effort that went into ensuring that our phsyical needs have been met. When I open the refrigerator in the morning, I simply take for granted that the food is going to be there, never giving a second's thought to the efforts that entailed getting that food to me. When I go into my closet to pull down what I'm going to wear, forget the fact that I never think of the person who made that pair of pants. I usually don't even appreciate the fact that my wife was the one who washed my shirt for me. Which leads to Ben Zoma's second lesson, which resonates with me especially strongly.
It's so easy to write off the things that other people do for us, as his "bad guest" so easily does. After all, they didn't make the effort for us - they made if for themselves. (Reminds me of that famous Monty Python skit - "What have the Romans Ever Done for Us? Nothing!") But all too often, we take this attitude not with our hosts, but with those we love the most - a spouse, a parent, a sibling or friend - we just take them for granted, which we should never allow ourselves to do.
If we took the time to focus on the effort that goes into meeting our daily needs, and appreicating the good that others do on our behalf, we'd be much happier, content and more fulfilled.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

I've Got a Problem

I just opened the OU's Jewish Action magazine's latest issue to find a bunch of letters more or less agreeing with my recent piece about obesity in the Orthodoxy community. They mostly agree with me, but add that I didn't mention exercise (I run thrice weekly - thank you Nike+Ipod!) and a number of other points including that a frum lifestyle brings with it other health benefits as well. Great!
But then, on a grocery run to Kiryat Malachi this afternoon, my wife suggested that I stop off at the Ben and Jerry's Factory store. It is literally on the way home - perhaps thirty seconds out of the way. And then, arriving at the store, I discover that through the end of the month, they're having a hot-weather sale between the hours of 11am and 4pm. During this time, they will reduce your total bill by the percentage equal to the temperature outside in Celsius. Petachya and I got two cones (one regular, one kids) for 20 shekel.
And, while digging into my Coffee Heath Bar Crunch, all I could think was, "Man, these guys really, really know how to make ice cream."
Thankfully, the sale ends next week.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Yet Another Half-Hearted Israeli Sales Rep

Grocery stores have entered the credit card market, and have adopted the hard sale method. I'm pretty sure this involves giving the checkout ladies a financial incentive to sign up new customers. I say this because, as my wife was checking out at Shufersol outside Kiryat Malachi, the checkout girl seemed intent on getting her to sign up for a new credit card.
"You'd save so much money on these groceries if you bought them with a Shufersol card." She was telling the truth. Much of the store was twenty-five percent off with their card.
"Next time you go shopping, you'll save even more money."
After a while, my wife finally told her that she wasn't interested in a new card, and the sales pitch subsided. For a  while.
A short time later, the woman started up again.
"You really should get the card." Pointing to a package of diapers she said, "Look, you'd save money on these if you bought them with your card."
Rena had finally had enough, and told the woman,
"Look, I don't want to be in minus (overdraft - very common here). The way I do it is that I have one card, and I pay it off at the end of the month."
The woman's attitude shifted immediately.
"You can say that again. I have two credit cards (one of them from the supermarket, because she works there), and I'm drowning!"
Apparently, her heart wasn't into the credit card after all.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Book Review: Hilchot Tefillah – A Comprehensive Guide to the Laws of Daily Prayer, By Rabbi David Brofsky

A number of years ago, I was looking to give a series of shiurim on the laws of Kashrut. (You can listen to the entire series here.) I’d studied kashrut intensively for my semichah, and shailot kept me current. But giving a shiur on such a broad topic proved far more challenging, especially since this shiur would be geared towards laypeople, looking for a broader, more general approach to the topics we’d study. If you’ve ever prepared classes like these, you’ll know that the most challenging aspect of preparing the class isn’t knowing what to teach. Rather, it’s knowing what not to teach. What are the classic and critical sources relevant to the topic at hand, and what’s too much inside baseball which will only confuse?
Fortunately, I had help. Several years before, a good friend of mine, Rabbi David Brofsky, had written a series of shiurim on Hilchot Kashrut for Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Yeshiva. I quickly downloaded the series, and used his shiurim as the basis for my own. Brofksy gave me exactly what I was looking for: a clear, concise presentation of the sources, comprehensive but concise enough to address the topic at hand without losing the forest for the trees.
I thought of Brofsky’s series when he asked me to review his first (hopefully of many) book, based on a similar VBM series on Hilchot Tefillah. Full disclosure: He sent me a “review” – i.e. “free” - copy of the book, and he’s a good friend, so don’t expect me to trash the book. Nonetheless, I hope that my take on his work will both encourage you to buy it (you’re welcome, Rabbi Brofsky), as well as encourage you to use it in a new and exciting way. (Also, if you want to buy the book, you can find it on Amazon here.)
The most important question you must be asking yourself is: Another book on davening? Why would I need this book? Brofsky himself answers this question in the introduction, explaining that he wrote neither a book of rules, nor a deeper, more explanatory work which focuses on one specific approach. Rather,
Each topic begins with its primary sources… [and] traces the halakhah through the Rishonim and Achronim, including relevant debates among the poskim regarding contemporary applications. At times, historical and philosophical sources, as well as traditional lomdut are woven into each chapter. This sefer, however, is still committed to presenting the “bottom line” practical halakhah.
In essence, he set out not just to write a “how to” book, but a “why do we” book, tracing the sources from their origins, analyzing their halachic and ideological implications, and arriving at a halachic conclusion. In the book, we don’t just learn what the Rosh and Rambam write about a particular issue. Rather, Brofsky delves far deeper, trying to find the underlying logic that brought the Rishon to his specific conclusion. Tefillah becomes not only a set of laws, but a sea of ideology and a window into a deeper understanding of the words we say each and every day.
But that’s also when we run into problems.
Rabbi Brofsky
Over the past few years, I’ve been giving a shiur on Gemara Brachot, and found myself often, if not nearly always frustrated by precisely this problem. Rashba and Rambam will present two diametrically different understandings to a specific topic. Let’s take netilat yadayim (I didn’t read the whole book, OK?) as an example. According to Brofsky, Rosh understands netilat yadayim as a “preparatory act before prayer,” while Rashba sees it more as a “gesture expressing sanctification of the day.” These two visions of the halachah should manifest themselves in the final psak. And yet, as Brofsky writes, “interestingly, R. Yosef Caro seems to codify all of these reasons, at least optimally.” So, while the theoretical understanding does indeed offer a deeper sense of appreciation for why we wash our hands in the morning, the discussion carries very little weight in the practical halachah. It’s not one or the other (or a gezeirat hakatuv). Rather, the final halachah often ends up far messier than the clean, neat lines that the Brisker methodology laid out for us. That’s not to suggest that the lomdus is lacking, but rather that while it’s important and meaningful, it doesn’t often translate into the world of practice.
Moreover, the book is divided by topic, and not necessarily organized in a manner that encourages looking up practical questions. I asked my wife to suggest a question on Hilchot Tefillah, and she asked me, “What are the guidelines for a woman who wants to daven but is pressed for time?” Good question. Brofsky does address the issue. But he didn’t make it easy to find. I had to know that I’d find it in the chapter on “The Obligation to Pray”, and he only addresses the Shemoneh Esreh, not which brachot of Keriat Shema she must or must not recite. Rather than a “Comprehensive Guide to the Laws of Daily Prayer”, it’s more of a “Thorough Look into the Halachic Methodology of the Laws of Tefillah.” But I don’t see that as a negative.
The beauty of this sefer is that it can and should serve as a guide to study the laws of Tefillah in depth. In essence, he’s taken the time to write out his shiurim in a clear, lucid manner. I found myself wishing that he had given me the sources in Hebrew (with the English translation) at the beginning of each chapter, along with some leading questions. The book would then serve as a wonderful guide to the study of Halachah, offering first a chance for self-discovery, and then the ability to “listen” to a wonderful shiur afterwards.
Another book might clearly lay out what specific prayers a woman must recite each morning. But most other books will not explain the underlying issue of whether Tefillah is a mitzvat aseh she’hazeman grama or whether Shemoneh Esreh is a manifestation of the obligation to pray mid’orayta. Brofky’s book cares enough to give you that detail of background information, not in footnotes, but as an integral part of the work.
On the back jacket of the book, the blurb encouraging you to buy the book says,
This book is ideal for anyone looking to understand Jewish prayer. Students, teachers, rabbis and laypersons should have this book in their home and synagogue libraries for quick reference and extensive study.
I wouldn't have included the words “quick reference.” It’s not a quick book in any sense. That halachic work already exists in numerous forms. It’s been written dozens of times by talented talmidei chachamim. The deeper book of halachic analysis, necessary for extensive study, didn’t really exist for the English public, until now.  I think Rabbi Brofsky is really onto something. He has written a source book for a generation of teachers looking to teach the laws of tefillah in depth, and opened up the world of deeper halachic study to those unschooled in the sophistication of analysis common to a seasoned yeshiva student.
So, when you buy the book, don’t buy it to look up a quick question. It’s not the best book for that. But if you buy it and learn (not read) it, you’ll not only come to a new understanding of tefillah, but will also grow in your personal prayer as well.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Weekly Parshah Tweet - Eikev 5771

I saw in Mekor Rishon an article about a woman who writes a Dvar Torah and sends it as a text to her friends. Seemed like a good and challenging thing to do. It's actually trickier than it sounds. I tried writing a dvar Torah. No way. Not enough space. All I could come up with is a question that might hopefully lead to some thought and discussion. I'll try it for a while and see how it goes.
This week's Parshah Tweet:
The mitzvah of Bircat Hamazon (Dev. 8:10) seems more about the Land of Israel than the bread we eat. Are we blessing the food or the Land?
You can "follow" me on Twitter by clicking here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Women, Gemara Learning, and Making Babies

Five years ago, a young couple moved into Oak Park and joined our shul. He was a Doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, she also a graduate student in Advanced Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University. After a short period it became clear that this couple, and especially the young woman, had a great deal to offer the community, and I asked her if she would be willing to give a shiur to the women of the community on a regular basis.
She readily accepted the challenge, and for the past five years, (now Dr.) Shana Schick taught the only women's Gemara shiur in the metro Detroit area.
I, of course, never attended the shiur. But walking the halls of shul on Sundays, I'd sometimes peek into the Beit Midrash to see a group of women around the table, focused in concentration on a sugya, and get a deep sense of pride. Without fanfare and with a minimum of controversy, we were offering women yet another avenue to deepen their spiritual connection to Judaism.
I'm reminded of this scene because of recent news reports that Shana has finally defended her dissertation, and received her PhD in Talmud this summer. I know this because it's been a big news item recently. It appeared first in the JTA, then on Jpost and Ha'aretz.
“Orthodoxy has long emphasized the value of the study of Talmud,” Schick told JTA in an interview. “But Talmud study, which in yeshivot is the central focus of the religious duty to learn Torah, is still rarely emphasized as a vital part of women’s education.”
While it's a great achievement, hopefully she'll be the first of enough women earning advanced degrees in Talmud that they don't make the news. I'm really happy for Dr. Shick, and know that she'll make an important contribution to Torah learning here in Israel.
Yet, I found a thread of comments on the Jpost article about her saddening and disappointing. (It's dangerous to follow comment threads. The anonymity allows people to spout in truly disturbing ways. But I'll wade in nonetheless.) A commenter wrote,
this woman in 30 and has acheived a doctorate in Talmud, but it seems she is not married, and has not brought any children into the world (if I am mistaken, my apologies) this really so meritorious?
First of all, as many other comments noted, she is married and has been blessed with two children. But that fact is irrelevant to the larger point: How does her motherhood prevent her from learning Torah? How does it prevent her from earning a doctorate? Had she earned her PhD in biology, would anyone have batted an eye? Only when a woman chooses to engage in serious Torah study does it raise the "question" of whether she's fulfilling her duties as a mother.
I fear that the underlying attitude of the comment represents a more insidious and dangerous attitude that I think affects more of our community than we would like to admit. Too many (and I think this includes women as well, and many in the Modern Orthodox community) see women primarily as baby machines first, and anything else second. To people with this attitude, women's primary (and perhaps only) mission is to raise Jewish children after the Holocaust. (Somehow, Hitler always finds his way into these discussions, as if a woman learning Gemara isn't properly fighting the Nazis.)
But, by suggesting that women serve as baby-making-machines, we minimize the contributions that women can and must make to society, especially now that they have the opportunities to do so. Moreover, what about women who cannot have children? What about women who haven't found their "bashert"? Are they supposed to curl up in a corner, and hibernate until they find a proper sperm donor? This destructive attitude, to my mind, makes the shidduch crisis far worse than it needs to be, because it conveys the clear message to our young women that unless they're married and popping out kids, they're really just wasting their time.
And that's exactly what many of them do. Instead of growing, developing, working, earning another degree and building the world, they fall into such a state of despair that they're not doing what they "should" be, that they don't do anything meaningful at all. Either they really do "curl up," (at least figuratively), or they figure, "If I'm really just wasting time before I get married, I might as well have fun," frittering away potentially productive years, and instead of earning a PhD in their early thirties, find themselves in the very same place they were when they finished college, only they're not ten years older (and not much wiser).
So Ladies, contrary to the foolish commenters on the interwebs and their ilk (of which there are many), I hope you reject the attitude that insists that you're mainly baby machines. With God's help, you either have or will be blessed with the gift of children, but the advancements that women have made over the past hundred years don't just give you rights. They bring responsibilities as well.
So start learning Gemara (if that interests you). Or Chumash. Or biology. Join a shul (and pay membership dues.) Get on the Finance committee or the Social Action committee of your local Jewish Day school's board. Encourage your friends to do something meaningful for your community. Join the board of your local JCC. Or the public library. Or your local food bank. Get another degree - in Talmud - or in whatever interests you. (Note: All of these suggestions apply to single men as well.)
But never allow yourself to fall into the baby-machine trap. Because, as disgusting as it is, I fear that too many Modern Orthodox women have allowed a backwards, and truly disturbing mindset, to creep into their psyches, preventing them from becoming the women they can and should truly be.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Summer Lesson about Mesirut Nefesh: A Visit to the Ayalon Institute

The Place: Pre-State Palestine
The Time: Mid 1940's
The Problem: With Arabs attacking Jews relentlessly and the British preventing Jews from procuring weapons, ammunition supplies presented a serious problem. Where would Jews get bullets to shoot to protect themselves from attack and fight the inevitable war?
The Solution: Build an underground factory right under the noses of the British authorities, in which dedicated people work in total secret to produce millions of bullets crucial for the initial stages of the War of Independence.

I'm on vacation for a couple of weeks, and today we visited the Ayalon Institute, a very small museum on the outskirts of Rechovot, which takes you into the underground factory that the Haganah built in order to produce bullets in total secrecy. For a full description you can see here, or just Google the Ayalon Institute.

First of all, it's powerful to experience history first-hand. They still have the original machinery (much of it still works), and you get a sense of the tight working conditions, and how hard they worked to keep the factory secret even from many of the people living above the factory in the working kibbutz. It's also a pretty short tour - about an hour and a half - that goes by really quickly. It's really something that an entire family can (and should) do.
Mostly though, I was taken by two aspects of the visit: Firstly, I'm in awe of the self-sacrifice of the young people who worked, day in and day out, in that factory. They lived under constant threat of discovery - and if so - execution at the hands of the British. And yet, they volunteered to work in the heat, noise and danger because they knew just how important their work was. We don't live in such desperate times, thank God, but we also seem to lack that same sense of self-sacrifice and dedication to the klal.

The visit also reminded me that as much as things change, they remain the same. The tour began with our excellent guide asking us, "Imagine that someone was punching you in the face, but the person charged with protecting you wouldn't let you fight back or defend yourself." That was the situation of the Jewish community in Pre-State Palestine, forcing them to work as they did in secret.
But it's also still true today. The world still deems it necessary to tell us how we're supposed to defend ourselves, and what is and is not legitimate to protect our citizens. We still hear about how Israel is guilty of "disproportionate response", as if we don't have the right to decide the best way to protect ourselves.
Thank God, today we've learned to listen less and do what we think is right. But it's always good to remember that not that long ago, the world not only told us how to behave, but took steps to prevent us from taking the necessary measures to defend ourselves. We made the bullets we needed, but we did it in secret, under their very noses. (Take the tour. It's fascinating).
We still act in secret, without the knowledge or assent of the powers that be when necessary. The people of Israel learned the hard way that the world wouldn't come to our defense and protection, and if we felt endangered, it would be up to us to take action. We did back then, and thankfully, when we have to we continue to do so to this very day.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Cheapest Way (that I've found) To Change Money in Israel

Many Olim continue to earn a significant portion of their income from sources in the United States, and are paid in dollars to their American accounts. This raises issues regarding taxes and reporting in Israel (which I won't address). And, with the United States printing money as if it wasn't worth more than the paper it's written on, that's slowly becoming the reality as the value of the dollar plummeted over a period of months, meaning that people have experienced a painful reduction in salary of over twelve percent during that time period. Combine that with the continued rise of the cost of living here in Israel, and you've got Olim looking harder than ever to squeeze every possible cent (or agorah) out of their paychecks. An additional challenge Olim also face is the conversion of those dollars into shekel. Sure, you can pay for your groceries with an American credit card, but that doesn't cover "all" of your expenses, and many credit cards charge per-item fees. (Capitol One doesn't). But most people can't pay their rent on their credit card, nor many other day-to-day expenses that arise and need to be paid in Shekel. What's the best (read here: cheapest and easiest) way to convert?
Many people used Cheerfully Changed, the now defunct money conversion business with locations across Israel wherever there were Anglos. Many made the mistake of converting large sums of money at a time, using Cheerfully as a kind of private bank, which would then issue payments at the direction of clients. From what I gather, the owner of CC found himself sitting on a pile of money - like any bank does - and instead of just letting it sit there, he decided to invest it. You can guess what happened. He did not invest wisely, suffering devastating losses - especially devastating as he wasn't really investing his own money. Banks do the exact same thing, but they usually have deposit insurance. This of course had led to lawsuits, dinei Torah, and people out of large sums of money.
I too was a faithful client of Cheerfully, but I'd only change enough money to pay my rent each money. All I had to do was leave a voided check at their office (which I did), and then they would withdraw money from my American account and deposit that money, magically converted into shekels, into the account of my landlord. For this service they charge the generally accepted fee of 1% of the check amount. That's not exorbitant, and seems to be the going rate.
With the demise of CC, I found myself scrambling for a new company who would do the same thing, but my contact at a new outfit in Beit Shemesh explained that they hadn't yet set up the service and that I'd have to mail him signed blank checks to use one at a time. I really do trust the guy but didn't want to use that option. In my search for a different solution, I found one that's not only easier, but actually cheaper: the Israeli bank.
Yes, that's right. I'm pretty sure that my bank - Bank Leumi - is the cheapest way to change larger sums of money. I'll explain.
First of all, let me just say that I love - really love - Bank Leumi. Apparently, as Kiryat Malachi is not a town generally known for its affluence, our bank likes wooing Anglos who they think have money, and they always give us amazing treatment. I never - really, never wait on line at the bank. It took them about an hour to lend us a ridiculous amount of money for our car. I have no idea how the service is at other branches (because they all act independently), but I highly recommend the Kiryat Malachi branch of Bank Leumi.
When we opened up our accounts upon moving to Israel, we opened up both a regular shekel account as well as a dollar account. This way, we can make dollar deposits into our Israeli bank. Sadly, they charge a not insignificant service fee to deposit checks - over three dollars per check, so it only makes sense to deposit large checks. Eighteen dollar checks for birthdays get mailed back to the States for deposit. (As an aside, it's worth noting that Israeli banks charge fees for everything - literally. Just checking your balance at the ATM costs about a shekel and a half. Every bank does this. So, if you're used to free everything at your bank in the States, it's a little different here.) I also discovered that on the Bank Leumi website, I can do automatic transfers from dollars to shekels for the small fee of a half-percent. Then, I can also automatically pay my landlord, again online, depositing my rent directly into his account.
So, if I deposit a sizable check of a few thousand dollars, the three dollar service fee is rather small, and instead of paying the full percent surcharge that the money-changers charge, I pay half that. Plus, I get the security and convenience of dealing not with a private firm, but with a real bank.
If you know differently, I'd love to hear from you. But we've always "known" that Israeli banks charge ridiculous fees and that it's always cheaper to do business elsewhere. I truly was surprised to discover that when it comes to changing money, the easiest and cheapest option I could find was - Bank Leumi.

February 2012: Update to the post!
Last month, my wife deposited a check for $3,000 into our dollar account at the bank. When I got the statement, I learned that they had charged me a fee of $28.50 to cash the check. What!?! I couldn't believe it. I went into the bank to give them a piece of my mind, and they tried to explain that there are different ways to handle checks, and that for a $1,000 dollar check, they only charge the lower fee ($3 per check), but for an amount as large as $3,000, they have to run the check in the more secure way (for them), that has an additional $25 fee. I made it clear to them that if they weren't willing to work with me, I'd find someone who would (Forex maybe? See the comment below), but that I wasn't going to pay almost thirty bucks! to deposit a check. I have learned that here in Israel, you must speak your mind. You need not yell, but if you want someone to do something for you; if you want them to work to find a better way to do it, you've gotta speak up. Otherwise, you'll always end up getting the worst possible deal. People find this fact to be a frustrating aspect of Israeli culture. I tend to agree with them.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A "Kol Hakavod" From an Unexpected Place

Yesterday, right before the fast, Rena got a phone call from a salesperson from Hot. (Hot is both our phone company and our internet provider.) They wanted to let us know that in addition to the phone and internet services they provide, they also offer cable TV service as well.
That's nice, my wife told them, but we don't have a TV.
"You don't have a television at all?" the saleslady asked.
"Nope. No TV. So we're not in the market for cable."
"Kol Hakavod," the saleslady said. "Have a nice day."

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Thought for Va'etchanan: For Whom Do We Pray?

Rav Yoel Bin-Nun
I recently spent a day at the Tanach Yemei Iyyun at Yeshivat Har Etzion. I've never taken a day off before to spend the day learning. It was a special opportunity, and even saw some old friends there. If you're planning on being in Israel during the summer (next year) and can make it to the Gush, it's well worth the effort. Make reservations before, though. The program sells out.
The first talk I attended was supposed to be about leadership by Israel's Minister of Education Gidon Saar, and while he did say a few words (which are very relevant to today - perhaps another post later on in the week), he admitted that he didn't have time to prepare, and handed over the podium to Rav Yoel bin-Nun, who spoke about "Leadership (and Avraham Avinu)." I took notes.

When God revealed His divine plan to destroy to cities of Sedom and Amorrah, Avraham’s response is both immediate and somewhat shocking:
ויגש אברהם ויאמר האף תספה צדיק עם רשע? אולי יש חמשים צדיקים בתוך העיר...חלילה לך מעשות כדבר הזה להמית צדיק עם רשע והיה כצדיק כרשע, חלילה לך השפט כל הארץ לא יעשה משפט (בראשית יח:כג-כה)
And Avraham approached [God] and said, “will you also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Perhaps there are fifty righteous men in the city…it is forbidden for you to do this thing, to kill the righteous with the wicked, that the righteous should be like the wicked, it is forbidden that the Judge of the Earth should not do justice. (Bereishit 18:23-25)
How could Avraham speak to God about the destruction of the city of Sedom with such apparent chutzpah? Rav bin-Nun explained that Avraham was able to argue with God because he was arguing about the welfare of others. He never prayed (explicitly) for himself. God made great demands of Avraham, and we never find him complaining about his own difficulties. From the challenge of leaving his homeland to sacrificing his own son, Avraham accepted a great deal of personal suffering without questioning God’s will.
Similarly, Moshe Rabbeinu prayed for the Jewish people time after time, and each time his prayer was accepted. Only one time did God reject Moshe's prayers, and even tell him to stop praying: When he prayed for himself, and asked to enter into Eretz Yisrael: ואתחנן אל ה' בעת ההיא לאמר.
When we pray, are we praying for ourselves primarily, or do we put the needs of others first? When we pray for health, are we praying for our own health, that of our family and children? Or, do we put the needs of others ahead of our own? When we ask God for sustenance – a job, a raise, a new project – what about the neighbor, whose financial struggles are far more pressing than my own? Do I pray for his problems as well – or even first?
Perhaps before God answers us, He wants us to be worried about others as well.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

If You Could Ask for Only One Thing

If you could only ask for one thing from God, what would you ask for? Health? Prosperity? Success? It's an important question, because when we boil down our hopes and yearnings to one specific request, it says a lot about who we are.
Throughout the Torah, Moshe Rabbeinu asks God for many things: for guidance, assistance, forgiveness, support. It's a long list. Yet, when we examine his requests carefully we notice that Moshe never really asks for anything for himself. Throughout the Torah, Moshe never makes a personal request for anything – except once. And then when he asks, he doesn't just ask. He begs. He pleads.
וָאֶתְחַנַּן, אֶל-ה', בָּעֵת הַהִוא, לֵאמֹר.... אֶעְבְּרָה-נָּא, וְאֶרְאֶה אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה, אֲשֶׁר, בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן:  הָהָר הַטּוֹב הַזֶּה, וְהַלְּבָנֹן. (דברים ג:כג-כה)
And I pleaded with God at that time saying…Let me go over, I pray to You, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly hill-country, and Lebanon.' (Devarim 3:23-25)
Moshe pleaded with God for one thing: Please allow me to enter into the Land of Israel.
I've recently become reacquainted with the Me'am Loez, and find myself taken both by its simplicity, but also by its powerful honesty. What is Me'am Loez? According to Wikipedia,
Me'am Lo'ez, initiated by Rabbi Yaakov Culi in 1730, is a widely studied commentary on the Tanakh written in Ladino - it is perhaps the best known publication in that language. In Rabbi Culi's time, many individuals in Turkey were not sufficiently fluent in the Hebrew language to study the Torah and its commentaries in the original. Rabbi Culi thus undertook the "colossal task" of writing a compendium of the major fields of Torah study. The commentary was to be user-friendly and was thus written in Ladino, the Jewish language spoken by the Jews in Turkey. The book was divided according to the weekly Torah portion (Parashat hashevua); Rabbi Culi explains each chapter in detail according to the Midrash and Talmud. In his introduction Rabbi Culi personally guarantees that "everyone who reads the Me'am Loez every day will be able to answer in Heaven that he has learned the whole Torah, because all aspects of the Torah are covered on it".
I guess you could say that Meam Lo'ez was the world's first Artscroll – an attempt to adapt Torah to everyday people in an easy, readable way. And it power and simplicity offer timeless messages that resonate, especially today.
In answering why Moshe so badly wanted to enter into Eretz Yisrael, Me'am Loez gives ten answers. Here's number six (from Rabbi Kaplan's translation of the Me'am Loez):
As long as the Israelites are in the land of Israel they are called God's children, as it is written, "You are children to God your Lord" (Deut. 14:1). Just as a son can find all his father's hidden treasures and can enter any place he wishes, similarly the Israelites can discover all the mysteries of the Torah when they are in the Holy Land.
However, when the Israelites are outside the land of Israel they are called slaves, and a slave may not know all the hidden secrets that his master has.
We thus find that when Moses pleaded before God he called himself a servant, as it is written, "You have begun to show Your servant" (Deut. 3:23). Moses pleaded with God in order to reach the level of a son. God said to him, "You already reached this level when I told you to make the Tabernacle. At that time I called you and revealed to you all My secrets."
It's worthwhile to take some time to study the words of the Me'am Loez. I've copied the relevant sections from Parshat Va'atchanan, both in Hebrew and in English.
Reading these powerful words today, one might get the feeling that they were written by someone from the Religious Zionist movement trying to convince Jews in America to move to Israel. But in truth, they were actually written in the mid-1700's before there even was a Religious Zionist movement. Or, to be more accurate, they were written when all of Orthodox Judaism was a religious Zionist movement. Somehow, we've lost that collective sense of the unique special nature of the Land of Israel and the close connection that it brings between God and His people.
Each year, when Tisha B'av comes around, I find myself struggling for a reason to mourn. Of course, I know that we're mourning the past and the tremendous suffering that the Jewish people have endured. I also know that we yearn for the Beit Hamikdash. But it sometimes seems so abstract. What does that really mean for the Jewish people? Me'am Loez writes,
When the Temple existed and we were in our own land, all blessing and bounty came from God's hand, while the other nations only had what was left over, like a slave dependent on his master. However, now, due to our sins, this has changed. God gives all good to the nations and we can only hope for what they leave over. However, even now when the Temple is destroyed and the land is desolate, through the merit of the land of Israel all the world is fed.
Today these words continue to ring true. Israel depends on the generosity and assistance of the nations of the world for financial and military assistance as well as for its national and political security. We haven't reached true independence, and certainly don't serve as a source of sustenance for others yet. We mourn the fact that as much as we have achieved, we have not come close to reaching our true national potential.
As much as Tisha B'av is about focusing on what happened in the past, we must also utilize the day to consider just how great we can be – and how far we must go to finally reach that great goal.

Should Rabbis be on Facebook? Part 2 (of 2)

Continued from this post.

Last week, I took part in a rabbinic discussion surrounding rabbis, Facebook and the Internet, and described some of my thoughts on what Facebook is good for (chatting, quick discussions, and sharing links and pictures) and what it's not good for (substantive discussions). That being said, do rabbis belong on Facebook, or should they stay away?
Interestingly, at the Tzohar Symposium which brought together rabbis from Israel and the Diaspora it was taken as a given, though, that Facebook (or some similar social networking site) would become increasingly native to the experience of the Internet, and that there really wasn't any way around social networking completely. Still, every one of the Diaspora rabbis sitting around the circle said that he was connected to Facebook, and every one of the Israeli rabbis was not.
The moderator of the discussion also raised another seemingly unrelated question. In Israel, websites which allow you to anonymously ask halachic questions have become very popular. Additionally, thousands of people send text-message shailot to numerous rabbanim, which you can read in the various weekly parshah sheets that litter the shuls each month. Yet, in the Diaspora this phenomenon is almost unheard of. Why do Israelis ask their shailot from rabbanim they don't know, while Americans do not?
Some of the answer might have to do with recognizable poskim in the Israeli world, and their availability over email. Here, everyone has heard of Rav Aviner, and they're comfortable asking him their questions, even over SMS. In America, who would you text your shailah to - who would actually get your text and answer you back? Still, one could suggest that if there was enough demand, rabbis would find a way to make themselves available. Is it really that hard to get Rav Belsky a phone with texting capabilities? (Those phones are only treif in the States. In America, I'm pretty sure that they're still kosher.)
Sitting at the conference, I got a strong sense that the different digital practices of rabbis from Israel and the United States stemmed primarily from our different sense of what it means to be a communal rabbi.
From my training and experience in the United States, the heart of what it meant to be a rabbi was to serve, help and know the members of my shul. Sure, I taught them, and I gave nice speeches. But the most critical aspect of my job was knowing what was going on in their lives; being there for them in times of need - be they sick or depressed or just lonely - and shepherding them, quite literally, through the most challenging times in the their lives, be in the loss of a loved one, or the tricky navigation of a simcha (which can be incredibly daunting). I knew - and they expected me to know - which one of their children was having trouble in school, and how they were doing in college. I couldn't always solve the problems. Often there was nothing that I could do. But a rabbi can and must serve as both a spiritual guide, and a sort of anchor, giving his "flock" a sense of balance and stability as they navigate the world.
In truth, this model is a uniquely "American" notion of the rabbinate, as it's really a form of servicing the spiritual needs of individuals. You're a social worker but also a sort of guru; a mentor, a spiritual model, sometimes a guide, and at others a teacher. It's all of the above. But you're never really separated from the people that you lead. You're not the same as them - not their friends really, but also not so distinct from them as to be distanced from their lives.
And that's exactly how I think Israeli rabbis perceive their rabbinic positions. They're available to answer questions, to teach and to guide. But they feel that it's not their business (or perhaps their role) to inquire into peoples' personal lives. It would be intrusive and out of place. Many seem to see their responsibilities primarily as that of teacher, speaker and posek. And if someone could get a p'sak from a source on the internet, why not? Why waste time answering someone's question when he can send a text-message to a gadol?
In fact, that was exactly the comment of one of the Israeli rabbis during our discussion. He said (and I'm paraphrasing), "I love when my members send the rabbanim text messages. It saves me time and energy. But I can't stand when they ask shul related questions, and then ask me why I say we should do things differently."
I was extremely surprised by his comment.
First and foremost, I really don't think that text messages are a good medium for halachic questions. Almost always the issue requires greater clarification, and cannot and should not be answered perfunctorily. More importantly, halachah is often very, very subjective. Any posek will tell you that in order to properly answer a question, he must know not only who is asking, but the background of the question. But that's another post.
I was most surprised by his comment because as a former shul rabbi rabbi, I wanted my members to feel that they could and should come to me with their questions. Shailot provided yet another path towards nurturing relationships with the members of the shul. Sometimes their questions were not personal: is the pot still pareve, and whether they could light candles early. But it's surprising just how personal seemingly innocuous questions can be - whether they were related to hilchot Niddah or Aveilut or Shabbat - they often revolved around very personal and individual considerations that were of great importance to the person asking the question. And, no matter what the answer, they knew that the rabbi understood what they were dealing with and the issues that they struggled with at any given time.
So, should rabbis be on Facebook? Yes, and no.
Yes, because when their member is stuck in a hospital today, with no one to reach out to, the rabbi is now aware that his member needs help.
Yes, because today it's an amazing tool to organize and plan events, especially for young people today. Instead of making phone calls and sending out email blasts, Facebook is a one-stop shop for effective and efficient program planning.
But then again, no. People share far too much on Facebook, and often its not the tone or content that's rabbinically appropriate. You wouldn't tell all of your dirty jokes to your rabbi, nor should you. And that goes for many of the posts and pictures people share on Facebook as well.
Which is why, at the meeting, I suggested a happy medium: the rebbetzin should be on Facebook. She could forward him the information he needs, without exposing him to the things he should not and hopefully doesn't want to see.
And yet, I think that my comments were totally lost on my Israeli colleagues. Because they come from such a different perspective on what it means to be a rabbi, they simply could not comprehend why they'd want or need Facebook. And if, as Tzohar says that it does, it wants to build a community rabbinate in Israel from the ground up, they're first going to have to do the most difficult thing of all: teach Israelis to rethink what it means to be a rabbi.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Yet Another New Low for Conservative Judaism

Rabbi Nevins
When Rabbi Daniel Nevins, now the dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary, together with Rabbi Eliott Dorff penned their now-famous Teshuvah permitting Conservative clergy to perform commitment ceremonies for members of the same sex, I spent the time to actually read it. In fact, I devoted two shiurim on Shavuot night (the first and the last shiurim of the night - it was a great way to keep people awake), explaining how the entire Teshuvah represents a complete departure from accepted halachic norms and logic, making a complete mockery of the notion of "halachah" and "psak." (As an aside, it's pretty clear that this Teshuvah was, de facto, Rabbi Nevins' interview for the job of Dean of JTS. Why else would it be cited specifically in his bio on the JTS website?)
While I'm somewhat certain that I was the only Orthodox rabbi to read the Teshuvah, it's now becoming increasingly clear that, other than the committee that approved the position paper, no Conservative rabbis have read it either. Because, while they seem very happy to follow what they assume is the p'sak of the Teshuvah - that Conservative Judaism now accepts homosexuality - nothing could be farther from the truth.
Just to be clear: I disagree with pretty much every one of the very large logical leaps the authors make to arrive at their clearly predetermined conclusion. 
While the authors of the responsa did indeed permit Conservative clergy to perform homosexual marriages and commitment ceremonies, they found no way around (despite trying pretty hard) the prohibition against homosexual male intercourse. On page 5 of the Teshuvah they write,
Although we sympathize with the motivation that inspires such readings, as a general rule the established rabbinic understanding of the Torah governs halakhah, even when modern scholarship is at one in proclaiming a different p’shat (which is hardly the case here). Simply stated, these verses have been understood and codified as creating an unqualified prohibition on anal intercourse between men, rather than a conditional and limited restriction.
Moreover, the particular negative commandment associated with male homosexual sex is listed in the Torah among the גילוי עריות - (literally, “exposures of nakedness”), and of these prohibitions it is said יהרג ואל יעבר “one should die rather than transgress.” To strike this law from the Torah is a radical step.
While the rabbis held themselvse back from "striking" an explicit Torah prohibition, they then permitted men to marry each other, but forbade intercourse between the newly married couple. It's really in black and white in the conclusion of the paper (page 19):
A. Piskei Din: Legal Findings
Based upon our study of halakhic precedents regarding both sexual norms and human dignity, we reach the following
1. The explicit biblical ban on anal sex between men remains in effect. Gay men are instructed to refrain from anal sex. (page 19)
It's ridiculous, I know. Consecrate a loving, devoted relationship into the Jewish people, but then tell the happy couple that they can't consecrate the marriage. But that's what these Conservative rabbis had to do to claim to adhere to the Torah while permitting homosexual marriage.
He doesn't perform same-sex marriages
So what do Conservative clergy actually do? Are they counseling the men that they marry to refrain from anal sex? That seems pretty unlikely, especially in light of a recent article in the New York Times about the Conservative Movement's great rabbinic divide over the issue. While rabbis of the "older generation" can't bring themselves to marry members of the same sex, the younger generation seems fine with it. The article states,
The latter opinion, however, fell short of explicitly authorizing an authentic Jewish wedding for same-sex marriages.
But the movement, which believes that Jews must conserve traditions yet also holds that laws must evolve to meet the shifting realities of modern life, has long given individual rabbis in its 700 congregations in North America the authority to make many decisions for their communities under a privilege known as mara d’atra — authority for a place.
Many rabbis have capitalized on this concept to perform Jewish wedding ceremonies for gay couples, complete with a chuppa, or traditional wedding canopy, and a ketubah, or marriage contract. They say they overlook the Torah’s prohibition against homosexual sex as an ancient dictum that has lost its moral force.

But he does.
I guess I take it back. Perhaps they did read the Teshuvah. And while the law committee accepted two positions - one prohibiting homosexual marriages, and another permitting them in limited fashion (giving new meaning to the term eilu v'eilu), rabbis out in the field not only rejected the prohibitive decision; they also reject the permissive one, instead deciding on their own to take the "radical step" of "striking" a law from the Torah.
So, basically any rabbi can decide, in his or her position as the mara d'atra, to ignore any halachah, law, verse, prohibition or practice that he or she finds has "lost its moral force."
In a way I feel bad for Rabbi Nevins. As much as he tries to navigate that golden path between modernity and fealty to Jewish Law, and as far as he's willing to go to bend the Torah to modern life, it's really not enough. He's still an old-timer, far behind the times. The article concludes,
Rabbi Kalmanofsky, who has declined to perform one same-sex marriage because one of the partners was not Jewish, also believes that his Conservative colleagues will slowly come down on the side of same-sex marriage — though for slightly different reasons. “This is going to line up heavily on age lines,” he said. “People in their 50s are simply going to be less likely to reach this sea change, and people in their 30s are going to be much more inclined.”
It doesn't really matter what the law committee decided. Rabbis in the Conservative movement can and will do whatever they want nonetheless.
On his fine blog, JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen writes,
We stand at Sinai, with every previous generation of the children of Israel, and reaffirm the promises made there to God, to one another, and to the world. I believe—humbly but firmly—that the Sinai Covenant continues in 2011/5771 through us. Participation in the set of relationships set forth in Covenant adds immeasurably to the meaning and purpose of our lives. The fact that the Covenant at Sinai established a people simultaneously with a relationship to the Holy One stands at the heart of Conservative Judaism today and in the future.
Conservative Judaism continues to claim that it maintains a fine balance between modern life and fealty to halachah. But when any community leader can arbitrarily decide to reject the halachic decisions of her movements leadership and scholars, how is that fealty to halachah? What is law, when anyone can do whatever he or she wishes? The word "Covenant" means an agreement - a pact between God and the Jewish people. What kind of Covenant can Conservative Judaism claim to represent when its leaders continually rewrite their side of the deal?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 29 - Prayer is Not Enough

AudioAudio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 29 - Prayer is Not Enough
(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 shiur shifts gears moving forward, going from an in-depth study of the entire text, to a more broad understanding of Rav Teichtal's ideas. (This way, we'll cover more ground and get the ideas, without reading every single word, which is quite repetitive). Rav Teichtal asks the age-old question: If we've been praying for redemption for so long, why haven't our prayers been answered? If you've been listening for this long, his answer probably won't surprise you.

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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Parshat Devarim - The Disturbing Original Plan

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Devarim - The Disturbing Original Plan

Each year, as we read in the end of Bamidbar about the desire of Reuven and Gad to settle on the East Bank of the Jordan River, I always have one over-arching question: Why didn't Moshe say "No"? He could have. And it really seems like he should have, and that if he had, Jewish history would have been fundamentally different. So why didn't he? By looking at a difficult text in our parshah, we can begin to understand that Moshe realized that things might not be up to him.

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Monday, August 1, 2011

A Tale of Two Protests

Two protests took place on the very same day - yesterday in fact, in neighboring countries in the Middle East.

In the first protest: At least 45 civilians were killed in a tank assault to crush pro-democracy protests, bringing the total number of killed since the protests began to at least 1,600, with 3,000 having disappeared and more than 20,000 having been detained, according to human rights groups.

In the second protest: More than 100,000 people took to the streets to protest the spiraling costs of living. Marches and rallies took place in eleven cities across the country... The protesters chanted "the people demand social justice" and "we want justice, not charity." The government...did not react. At least not violently.

The first protest took place, of course, in Syria. The second took took place in the neighboring country of Israel.

At the United Nations? Member states of the U.N. General Assembly are busy hammering out how to slam Israel and restrict human rights like free speech at “Durban III” – the racist “anti-racism” event to be held in New York on Sept. 22.  What about the U.N's reaction to the events taking place in Syria? Two special advisers to UNSecretary-General Ban Ki-moon say there is "a serious possibility" that crimes against humanity have been committedin Syria and are continuing to take place.
Yes, that is a possibility. 
It's watching the theater of the absurd. Excepts it's taking place right before our eyes.