Thursday, December 27, 2012

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayechi - Seeing What's Real

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayechi - Seeing What's Real

While, on face value, Yaakov can't see very well at the end of his life, Chazal teach us that he could actually see quite well. It all depends on how you look at things. In the shiur we get quite deep...

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Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Old (and Modern) Pashkevil, and the Dangers of Radio (and iPods)

Over Chanukah, the family took a one-day trip to the Old City of Jerusalem, where the municipality offered self-guided tours for families. For a relatively modest fee we got a guidebook, a jelly doughnut for each of us (at the Marzipan bakery) and admission to three old city sites, as well as a couple of craft projects. There was even a musical performance. It was a really wonderful day; we toured at our own pace, and noticed some things in the Old City that we had taken for granted.
One of the sites that we visited was the Old Yishuv Museum, which, if you've ever been to the Old City, you've passed a hundred times. The museum houses artifacts that try and give you a sense of what life was like for Jews living in the Old City before the creation of the State. I can sum it up for you in two words: Really hard. Small tidbits that stuck with me: The mortality rate for newborns was 80%. Eighty. Women usually split each egg they acquired into four portions. And most people slept on mats on the floor, and a really generous husband would rent one of the six beds in the entire community for his wife to give birth. Like I said: Really hard.
As you walk through the rooms of the museum, you progress through different historical periods, and we came upon an early twentieth century room which displayed the following poster that appeared in the Old City. (Translation follows)

The Angel of Death in This Person's House (Heaven forbid)
Anyone who brings a "Radio" into his house, it is as if he brought the Angel of Death into his home, God forbid.
For, aside from the serious transgression and its terrible punishment, there is also the prohibition of "music in the house", about which our Sages said, the home with music will ultimately be destroyed...
Aside from this, his home becomes wide open for any prohibited matter, God forbid: to hear the nakedness of a woman's voice, to hear matters of scoffing, light-headedness, foolishness, profanity; to hear the voice of apostate preachers who influence with their words of apostasy, heresy, anarchy and abuse, God forbid.
To hear the "comedy" that they make from the reading of the holy Torah and the reading of the Megillah and the recitation of Selichot and from every holy matter, for this "comedy" uproots and weeds out any remnant of holy feeling in the heart of Israel, for the soul of a Jew used to wonder from trembling over the holiness of these matter when they were done in their [proper] holiness, in their time and place in an appropriate and customary manner. And this "comedy" blasphemies and extinguishes any spark of feeling of holiness, by transforming everything into an act of comedy and silliness for any religious ceremony; a mass "comedy:" that approaches the level of the conversation of those who sit in the gates and the melodies of drunks.
Sometimes this also causes the [gathering] of rabble-rousers and strangers in the house with the excuse of [wanting to] hear the "radio". The house loses in this manner the entire framework of life and any self-evaluation, because at the time that a person used to be free to think about his obligations in his world, instead he turns on the radio which chatters foolishness and nothingness - it sings and rings and confuses - and all the days in this home are like holidays and unadulterated joy which then leads to sorry, God forbid.
For this reason, anyone who cares about his soul and the souls of the people of his house will not allow this great destroyer to enter his home. "Leave, impure one!" he should say to it, and one who guards his soul will distance himself from it!
At the museum I couldn't help but think, "The more things change..." Just switch out "radio" for "Television", "Internet", "Cellphones" - and you've got the very same pashkevil you might find on the street today. You don't even have to change the words.
Except one thing did catch my attention, because there's certainly some truth to it. (Actually, there's truth to the whole thing. Any tool is dangerous - radio, telephone - even a pen and paper - depending on how you use it.) I've written before about how I enjoy running with my iPod, and enjoy a number of different podcasts. But I listen not just when I run, but also during my daily commute, when I'm doing housework (dishes, laundry and the like). But, if I'm honest with myself (and I don't think it's just me), sometimes we put on something in the background because we're trying to avoid the quiet. I'm not talking about loneliness; rather, we're trying to avoid forcing ourselves to use the quiet times in our day to do the cheshbon hanefesh - the personal introspection and self-evaluation so critical to spiritual growth.
And, it doesn't matter what's on: Jewish music, news podcast, TV in the background, as long as there's some noise, that's enough to prevent ourselves from thinking. And, sometimes I think that's exactly what I'm trying to avoid.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Pain of Losing a Child

In the wake of the terrible shootings late last week, my mind is filled with thoughts of the poor families struggling with the loss of their children. As I read through the parshiot describing the story of the sale of Yosef, the Torah provides a vivid picture of the scope of the pain of losing a child, as we watch Ya'akov mourn the apparent death of his beloved son Yosef.
When the brothers return home with the bloodied coat of Yosef we read that,
לג וַיַּכִּירָהּ וַיֹּאמֶר כְּתֹנֶת בְּנִי, חַיָּה רָעָה אֲכָלָתְהוּ; טָרֹף טֹרַף, יוֹסֵף.  לד וַיִּקְרַע יַעֲקֹב שִׂמְלֹתָיו, וַיָּשֶׂם שַׂק בְּמָתְנָיו; וַיִּתְאַבֵּל עַל-בְּנוֹ, יָמִים רַבִּים.  לה וַיָּקֻמוּ כָל-בָּנָיו וְכָל-בְּנֹתָיו לְנַחֲמוֹ, וַיְמָאֵן לְהִתְנַחֵם, וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי-אֵרֵד אֶל-בְּנִי אָבֵל שְׁאֹלָה; וַיֵּבְךְּ אֹתוֹ, אָבִיו.
33 And he knew it, and said: 'It is my son's coat; an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn in pieces.' 34 And Jacob rent his garments, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days. 35 And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said: 'Nay, but I will go down to the grave to my son mourning.' And his father wept for him.

Rashi wonders why it is that Ya'akov refuses to accept the comfort and consolation of his remaining children? Why does Ya'akov never find consolation? Rashi explains
אין אדם יכול לקבל תנחומין על החי וסבור שמת, שעל המת נגזרה גזירה שישתכח מן הלב ולא על החי:
A person cannot be consoled for someone who is living who he considers dead, for only on the dead was a decree issued that he should be forgotten from the heart, and not on the living.

The ability to forget is a great blessing indeed. Without it we would cease to be able to function in life, constantly consumed not only by grief for the inevitable losses each of us endure, but also by the shame of our sins, the guilt for our transgressions, and the constant pain of lost opportunities and missteps. For this reason, God blessed us (most of us at least) with the ability to forget; to move on, and somehow go on with life. So, if Ya'akov could not forget, even many years later, that must mean that somehow, something went wrong. For this reason, Rashi concludes that somehow Ya'akov knew that Yosef was still alive, and therefore he refused to accept the finality of Yosef's death.
Yet, Maharshal (quoted in Siftei Chachamim) adds another explanation, writing that, "When a person inflicts pain upon himself, he does not recognize that he is doing so excessively, for he considers this great amount of pain to be insignificant."
Put another way, Ya'akov didn't want to forget. He insisted on remembering Yosef, despite the pain that memory caused.
Truth be told, no parent can truly forget a child. The loss of a child remains with a parent in a way that no other loss can, leaving a deep scar, which might close over time, but never truly heals. Ya'akov's refusal to be consoled isn't out of the ordinary. Rather, he reacts as every parent does: life does go on, but the pain remains.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Why Women Light: A New Perspective on an Old Halachah

A New Perspective on an Old Halachah

Recently, my wife and I were discussing the different reactions of local residents during the recent Operation Pillar of Defense "altercation". She noted that Anglo Olim, wanting to do their part, collected cakes, donations, and other supplies that they brought to the soldiers massing on the Gaza border not far away from our home. While Israelis were also involved in chesed during the harrowing days of the non-war, instead of preparing packages for soldiers, they were making meals and arranging babysitters for the harried wives who found themselves without their husbands, who were called up for Miluim and were themselves stationed outside of Gaza. When Israel finds itself forced to confront an aggressor, we immediately think of the soldiers and the different ways we can help them, either by sending pizzas, or socks, or moral support. But we sometimes forget that especially in Israel, during wartime a large percentage of the army consists of "older" reservists, who left wives and children behind to go protect their country.

While Jewish law exempts women from the obligation to fulfill most time-bound commandments (like shaking a Lulav, sitting in a Sukkah or wearing Tefillin), the Sages did not extend this exemption to the mitzvah of lighting candles on Chanukah.  In fact, the Gemara (Shabbat 23a) is unusually emphatic about this point stating that, האשה ודאי מדליקה – "a woman must certainly light," explaining that the Sages obligated women to light candles of Chanukah, שאף הן היו באותו הנס – "for they too were involved in that miracle."

What miracle were the women specifically involved in that makes it clear that women should be obligated to light the Chanukah menorah? Clearly, the Gemara does not refer to the miracle of the Menorah, as women had no role in the lighting of the Menorah in the Beit Hamikdash – or any other service in the Temple. So, the Gemara must refer to the role of women in the revolt that expelled the Greeks and returned the Jews to power. What role did they play, and why did that role make it obvious that women should also be obligated to light the Chanukah candles? Moreover, the obligation is especially ironic in light of the fact that most women never actually light despite their obligation to do so. Sephardic households uphold the custom that the head of the household – usually the male – lights the menorah for everyone. Even in Ashkenazic families, where each member of the family lights, in many if not most families, the wife/mother fulfills her obligation through the lighting of her husband. If we truly wished to highlight the role that women played in the Chanukah miracle, in addition to including them in the obligation to light, wouldn't the Sages have specified that they themselves actually, physically light the candles on Chanukah?

The Rishonim offer two general explanations for the role that women played in the Chanukah victory. But, during a shiur with my students in Orot on this subject, I discovered a third, compelling explanation for the Gemara that resonates with us, especially today.

Explanation 1: The Actions of Chanah the Daughter of Matityahu – The Actions of A Woman Prompted the Men to Rebel

Commenting on the Gemara in Shabbat, Rashi writes,
שגזרו יוונים על כל בתולות הנשואות להיבעל לטפסר תחילה, ועל יד אשה נעשה הנס
For the Greeks had decreed that every married virgin must first cohabitate with the [Greek] general. And, the miracle took place through the actions of a woman.
Rashi's comment alludes to a critical story that appears in full in the Otzar Hamidrashim (Chanukah pp. 189-190) The Midrash relates:
כיון שראו יונים שאין ישראל מרגישין בגזירותיהם, עמדו וגזרו עליהם גזירה מרה ועכורה, שלא תכנס כלה בלילה הראשון מחופתה אלא אצל ההגמון שבמקום ההוא. כיון ששמעו ישראל כך רפו ידיהם ותשש כחם ונמנעו מלארס, והיו בנות ישראל בוגרות ומזקינות כשהן בתולות...והיו יונים מתעללות בבתולות ישראל, ונהגו בדבר הזה שלש שנים ושמונה חדשים, עד שבא מעשה של בת מתתיהו כהן גדול שנשאת לבן חשמונאי ואלעזר היה שמו, כיון שהגיע יום שמחתה הושיבוה באפריון, וכשהגיע זמן הסעודה נתקבצו כל גדולי ישראל לכבוד מתתיהו ובן חשמונאי שלא היו באותו הדור גדולים מהם, וכשישבו לסעוד עמדה חנה בת מתתיהו מעל אפריון וספקה כפיה זו על זו וקרעה פורפירון שלה ועמדה לפני כל ישראל כשהיא מגולה ולפני אביה ואמה וחותנה. כיון שראו אחיה כך נתביישו ונתנו פניהם בקרקע וקרעו בגדיהם, ועמדו עליה להרגה, אמרה להם שמעוני אחיי ודודיי, ומה אם בשביל שעמדתי לפני צדיקים ערומה בלי שום עבירה הרי אתם מתקנאים בי, ואין אתם מתקנאים למסרני ביד ערל להתעולל בי! הלא יש לכם ללמוד משמעון ולוי אחי דינה שלא היו אלא שנים וקנאו לאחותם והרגו כרך כשכם ומסרו נפשם על ייחוד של מקום ועזרם ה' ולא הכלימם, ואתם חמשה אחים יהודה יוחנן יונתן שמעון ואלעזר, ופרחי כהונה יותר ממאתים בחור, שימו בטחונכם על המקום והוא יעזור אתכם שנאמר כי אין מעצור לה' להושיע וגו' (ש"א =שמואל א'= י"ד). ופתחה פיה בבכיה ואמרה רבש"ע אם לא תחוס עלינו חוס על קדושת שמך הגדול שנקרא עלינו ונקום היום נקמתנו. באותה שעה נתקנאו אחיה ואמרו בואו ונטול עצה מה נעשה...
When the Greeks realized that Israel was not affected by their decrees they rose and issued a bitter, ugly decree, that a bride on the first night [after her wedding] must leave her wedding canopy for [the bed of] the local hegemony. When Israel heard this their hands weakened and their strength abated, and they refrained from betrothing…and the Greeks would mistreat the daughters of Israel. They maintained this practice for three years and eight months, until the daughter of Matityahu the High Priest because engaged to a Hasmonean by the name of Elazar.
When the day of her joy[ous wedding] arrived, they seated her in a throne. At the time of the meal, all the elders of Israel gathered in honor of Matiyahu and this son of the Hasmoneans, for there were no greater in that generation than them. When they sat down to the meal, Chanah the daughter of Matityahu rose from upon her throne, clapped her hands together, and ripped her garment and stood revealed before all of Israel, her father, mother and her in-laws.
When her brothers witnessed this act they were embarrassed and looked towards the ground and tore their garments, and then began to approach her to kill her [for her terrible act]. She said to them, "Hear me my brothers and cousins! If you are zealous towards me for the fact that I stood naked before righteous people without committing any sin, yet, you are not zealous to hand me over to an uncircumcised heather to mistreat me!? We must learn from Shimon and Levi the brothers of Dinah, who were only two, but still zealously endangered their lives to destroy Shechem for the sake of God's name – and God helped them and did not shame them! And you are five brothers, Yehudah, Yochanan, Yonatan, Shimon and Elazar – and the young priests number over two hundred – place your trust in God and He will help you, as it is written, 'for there is no restraint to the LORD to save by many or by few.'" (Shmuel 1 14:6) Then, she burst into tears and said, "Lord of the Universe – if You do not have compassion upon us, have compassion upon the holiness of your great Name by which we are called, and avenge our vengeance on this day!"
At that moment, her brother were zealous and said, let us gather and consider what course of action we should take…
This incredibly powerful story speaks for itself. The brazen, almost unthinkable act of a single pious girl shook the Jews to their very core, forcing them once and for all to overcome their fear and rise up against the Greek oppression.

Explanation 2:  The Actions of Yehudit – Jewish Women Took Up Arms Themselves

The Gemara (Megillah 4) notes that women are obligated in the reading of the Megillah, for, just as we find regarding Chanukah, on Purim as well, אף הן היו באותו הנס – "they were also in that miracle." Women's involvement in the Purim miracle is relatively obvious: Esther played the primary role in saving the Jewish people from extinction. Yet, Tosfot on that Gemara add that, בחנוכה על ידי יהודית – "on Chanukah [women were involved in the miracle] through the actions of Yehudit." This, of course, refers to the story related in the Book of Yehudit (which, like the Book of the Macabees, never made it into Tanach), which relates the story of a widow named Yehudit, who ingratiates herself with the Greeks to gain their trust, only to lure the Greek General Holofernes into her tent, where she chops off his head, throwing the Greek army into turmoil.
In reality, it's difficult to know whether the story actually took place at all – as different versions of it appear in the Midrash. (In fact, the continuation of the Midrash quoted above suggests that the brothers used Chanah herself as bait for the Greek general), but the gist of this interpretation is clear: in the story of Chanukah of Chanukah, the women couldn't allow themselves to sit on the sidelines. Rather, when needed, they themselves fought to rid the nation of the invading Greek armies.

Explanation 3: Women as Supporters, Sending their Husbands to Fight

When I taught these sources during a class on Midrash at Orot, I began by asking the class whether women may light Chanukah candles at all. One married student answered that she knew that she in fact could. How did she know? She knew because the issue had already come up at home, and she would be lighting in her home that year, on behalf of her husband.
"Where is your husband?" I asked her. "Why won't he be lighting for you?"
"He's an officer in the army, currently in a training course, and he won't be home for Chanukah," she explained. "So we already planned for the fact that I would light at home, and he would fulfill his obligation through my lighting."
Hearing her words, I found myself truly moved by her nonchalance. She didn't think much of it, but how often do we consider the wives of our soldiers, who send their husbands to defend the Jewish nation, maintaining homes, raising families – or even just suffering many, many nights of loneliness – on our behalf.
I believe that this might very well be another meaning of the Gemara's statement that women too were involved in the miraculous victory of Chanukah. Even if the women never physically fought in any of the battles, Jewish women paid a very heavy price for the victory over the Greeks. They encouraged their husbands and sons to go out to war; they maintained their homes during the months of battle; and too many of them made the ultimate sacrifice when their loved ones never returned home. Even victory carries a heavy price.
If the victory of Chanukah represented the last Jewish military victory before the destruction of the Second Beit Hamikdash, today, we truly merit to live in a time when we can enjoy the great gift of our return to that very same Land. Yet, that gift is not free. We continue to pay a heavy price to ensure Jewish sovereignty over the Promised Land.
This Chanukah, as we light our Chanukah candles, let us resolve to focus on the great sacrifices that Jewish women have made to ensure Jewish freedom, whether those sacrifices were בימים ההם – "in those days", or whether they are בזמן הזה – "in our days as well."

Chanukah Sameach!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Parshat Vayeishev: Yosef as a Model for the Jews in Exile

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayeishev: Yosef as a Model for the Jews in Exile

The text describing Yosef's years of service in the house of Potifar - and the Midrashim Rashi mentions, provide a clear blueprint of the Jewish experience in the exile.

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The Connection Between Yosef and Chanukah - A Shiur by the Rav

The Connection Between Yosef and Chanukah
A Shiur by the Rav

I was looking for a file on my hard drive and found this article. I think that I listened to a shiur given by the Rav one year and was so blow away by it that I transcribed it as best I could. Any errors of transcription or explanation are mine, and mine alone. It also appears in Days of Deliverance. (Joseph and Hanukkah - p. 155) It's a truly powerful shiur - and remains relevant and timely today, perhaps even more so.

The story of Yosef is a paradoxical drama. On the one hand, it really should not happen, and yet it does. The entire episode is completely absurd – with too many crazy details and unanswered questions.
1. Doesn't Ya'akov understand the important rule: parents should not give one child preferential treatment to one child over another? It’s one thing to love one child more than another, but that doesn’t have to manifest itself in such a public display. Why does Ya'akov make the כתנת פסים for Yosef, especially when it creates such jealousy between the brothers?
2. How can the brothers sell their brother into slavery? Isn’t that a moral law that they know to be despicable?
3. How can Ya'akov send Yosef to שכם when he knows that the brothers hate Yosef? Clearly, he knows very well how the brothers feel about Yosef. Now, all of the sudden, why is he worried about שלום אחיך בשכם? It’s very unusual that he should all of the sudden be worried.
4. Where does ראובן go? After he intervenes, why does he suddenly disappear? חז"ל say that it was the day that he served his father, so he had to go. But, wouldn’t the best way to serve his father be to protect Yosef and save his father from distress. Why disappear if you know that your brothers want to commit murder?
5. Yehudah’s actions and explanations are also quite difficult. On the one hand, we find later that he’s brave enough to take on the entire nation of Egypt to protect Binyamin. Yet, he’s unwilling to kill Yosef, and gives a pretty weak explanation: מה בצע כי נהרג את אחינו וכסינו את דמו.
6. After Yosef rises to his highest level in Egypt (he always rises to the top) and becomes the manager of Egypt, he knows how much his father loves him. Can’t he send a letter or a messenger to his father to tell him that he’s alive? רמב"ן addresses this question.

The whole story appears incredible – it’s hard to believe that it happened, but it did. We cannot deal with each question separately. But, we can try and answer all of these questions using five words: וימצאהו איש והנה תעה בשדה – these words not only answer the story, but also give us insight into all of Jewish history.
Usually, the Torah never tells us about details, and unimportant facts. In fact, it should just have said, וילך יוסף לשכם. Who cares about the fact that he can’t find the right way and that he has to ask for directions on the road?
Who is the איש in this story? Who is this strange man? Who is the “certain man?”  According to the Rav, he’s a peculiar man, a strange man, a mysterious man. Who is this strange, peculiar, mysterious man? Why is he eavesdropping on the brothers that he knows where they are going?
Rashi explains that he’s גבריאל. גבריאל is the executor of Jewish history. He is the executor of the Jewish destiny that is planned by God. The strange, unique Jewish destiny is controlled by this גבריאל.
והנה תעה בשדה – who was lost? יוסף. He was lost in the field. He hadn’t made a decision, and didn’t know where to go. So, he became an instrument in the hands of Jewish destiny – one that we have great difficulty understanding.

When אברהם entered into the covenantal agreement with הקב"ה, we know what אברהם gets out of the deal. But what does God get out of the deal? It seems that what God gets out of the deal is Jewish suffering: וענו אותם ארבע מאות שנה. While אברהם doesn’t have to pay, Ya'akov does have to pay the debt that’s owed, so Yosef is the first one to fall into the hands of the Jewish historical destiny. He is the first to realize the destiny of Jewish history. Look at Rashi on וישלחהו מעמק חברון – what does that mean? Rashi notes that חברון is in on a mountain, so what valley does the Torah refer to? אלא מעצה עמוקה של אותו צדיק הקבור בחברון לקיים מה שנאמר לאברהם בין הבתרים: כי גר יהיה זרעך. Yosef is the first one to pay up on this debt. Yosef doesn’t make the final decision – he places himself in the hands of the איש, he surrenders to the איש – the destiny of the Jewish people.
All the crazy, compulsory decisions and actions made by the different people in the story – not because they considered the actions sound and good, but rather because they were forced by the sheer impact of historical destiny and the historical realizations of Jewish destiny, to act in the way that God desired. Ya'akov and the brothers don’t make their decisions. Rather, the mysterious man made those decisions, and he tells them that the realization of Jewish historical destiny begins in דותן. Sometimes God acts all by himself. Sometimes he sends an איש to act on His behalf, with God supervising.

This brings us to a truth in Jewish historical philosophy: God uses man as the tool in order to realize His will. Yosef was the tool God elected, and once chosen, he is driven by this mysterious איש into history:
There are three possible ways of understanding the relationship between God and man in the realization of history:
1.    God does not use man as the one who fulfills and executes His will. He does everything Himself. He makes decrees, and fulfills them himself. All man can do is to watch, admire, adore and accept God’s will. At times this happens. God makes the plan and man has no mission whatsoever. The מבול is an example: but we’re talking about good – God’s salvation of the world. Another example is when God saves חזקיהו even though he couldn’t muster an army together.
2.    In this case, man’s role is not to execute the will of God, but to herald God’s greatness. One such example is בני ישראל in מצרים. Then, there was no role assigned to man. Man becomes a kind of announcer, he is the prophet, the messenger as far as God’s word is concerned, but not as far as God’s actions are concerned. This was Moshe’s role in Egypt. He is the representative of God, but not as far as bringing redemption to the people. He tells them what to do, what will happen, how to behave. But the drama of יציאת מצרים happens only at the hand of God. For this reason, Moshe isn’t mentioned during the הגדה – we say לא על ידי מלאך, לא על ידי שליח, etc.
3.    Man engages in action that brings about the will of God. God wants man to participate in the process, to join God. But then God demands from man not just action, but sacrifice, as if the final outcome depended on man exclusively. Man allegedly becomes the central actor: God determines the destiny, either letting man win or lose; yet, in such cases, God demands heroic action – not just courageous action, but heroic action, which demands sacrifice. There’s a difference between כח – strength, and גבורה – heroism. During the blessings recited each morning we refer to God as, אוזר ישראל בגבורה. Every nation has physical strength. As far as כח is concerned, we aren’t distinguished for our כח. Many non-Jews have כח. But Jews have גבורה, which we have engaged in for the last 4500 years. Jewish existence is a heroic existence. As far as יציאת מצרים in concerned, man is not involved in the salvation. He does not participate in the event. He has no share in the planning or the execution. Therefore, man doesn’t suffer either.

Yosef isn’t so lucky. He is destined to play a role in the formation of Jewish history, so he must pay a price as well. Because he plays a role in Jewish destiny and executes God’s will, he must suffer at the same time. At that time, the will of God is to have the people leave the Promised Land, and He chooses Yosef to be the instrument of that exile. חז"ל say that if Yosef had not complied, they would have brought Ya'akov in chains in captivity.

מדרש תהלים (בובר) מזמור קה ד"ה [ה] ויקרא רעב
[ה] ויקרא רעב על הארץ. אמר ר' יהודה בר נחמני בשם ר' שמעון בן לקיש ראוי היה יעקב לירד במצרים בשלשלאות של ברזל, ועשה הקב"ה כמה מנגנאות כדי להורידו בכבודו, לכך נאמר ויקרא רעב על הארץ, וכל כך למה ויבא (יוסף) [ישראל] מצרים (/תהלים ק"ה/ פסוק כג). אמר ר' פנחס הכהן [בר המא] משל לפרה שהיו מבקשין למשוך אותה למקולין שלה, ולא היתה נמשכת, מה עשו, משכו בנה תחלה, והיתה רצה אחוריו, כך קודם שבא יעקב למצרים כמה מנגנאות נעשו, שיעשו אחי יוסף כל אותן הדברים, כדי שירד יוסף למצרים, ואחרי כן ירד יעקב אחריו למצרים.

Rather, Yaakov got the smooth, painless method. But, had he refused to go, he would have been brought as a prisoner, and not with receptions and pomp. God’s will would have been done.

In spite of all his successes, Yosef is a tragic figure in many respects:
It’s not pleasant to be the target of envy and hatred. He is persecuted because of who he is, because of his talents and visions, and because he rises above everyone else.
•    He is sold into slavery for thirteen years (seventeen years old when he’s sold, and he’s thirty when he rises to the monarchy in Egypt). For thirteen years, he’s lonely, alone in strange land. He remains attached to his family. Anyone else would have tried to erase any memory of his family, trying to completely forget everyone else. But he does not, and he remains devoted to his family. He always maintains that he belongs in ארץ העבריים – that he has been plucked from the Promised Land, and that’s really where he belongs. (This connection to ארץ ישראל manifests itself in his great desire to be buried in the land of Israel.)
•    Even when he rises to power, he remains lonely and can never integrate himself into the Egyptian people. He always remains separate from them.
בראשית פרק מג
(לב) וישימו לו לבדו ולהם לבדם ולמצרים האכלים אתו לבדם כי לא יוכלון המצרים לאכל את העברים לחם כי תועבה הוא למצרים:
We understand why the brothers can’t eat with the Egyptians – they had just come from a foreign land. But why can’t Yosef eat with the Egyptians? He’s the Prime Minister! Apparently, he can be the Prime Minister of the country, but he can’t become an Egyptian. He never feels comfortable and integrated into Egyptian society. He lives a life alone – he is forever lonely in Egypt. They need him in Egypt – they tolerate him. But they never really accept him. He leaves instructions twice in the Torah to bring him out of Egypt after he’s already dead: once in ויחי, and again in בשלח. In the first instance he says, והעליתם את עצמותי מזה – take me out of this place. Yet, in בשלח he says, והעליתם את עצמותי מזה אתכם. What’s the difference between the two? The second time is Moshe’s interpretation: he realizes that Yosef wants to leave not for cultural reasons, to be connected to his father. But rather, because he wants to be buried with the Jewish people because he says אתכם – “I am one of you, and I belong to the Jewish people. Even while I was Prime Minister, the most powerful person in the entire nation of Egypt, and even when I accused you of being spies, I had never forgotten that I was אתכם – I never forgot where I belong.”

For the privilege of being the instrument of God’s will in bringing about Jewish history, Yosef must suffer. He must live through the long dark night of loneliness, in order to become God’s messenger. Why does Yosef get two portions in בני ישראל? He gets a greater portion because he spends longer time in exile than everyone else – 22 long bleak years of loneliness, surrounded by strangers.

In simple terms, Yosef’s job is to bring Ya'akov into a land of slavery. But, it isn’t so simple – it’s much more sophisticated and deeper than just this. This must be true because Yosef is not the first person to spend time in exile. Rather, he follows in the footsteps of his father Ya'akov.

Ya'akov is also taken away from his parents’ home at a young age. Ya'akov also spends that long dark night of loneliness in his uncle’s home, living in exile. Avraham didn’t live in exile – he was deported and just visited there for a short time. Yitzchak couldn’t even leave the land of Israel. Ya'akov is the first person to spend time in exile. What did he have to do there? Why send him there - to what purpose? Again, when we examine the story that drives יעקב into גלות we find that the השגחה uses יצחק and רבקה in a very strange unusual story to bring about the השגחה פרטית.
Looking at the events surrounding Ya'akov’s flight from עשו, we must raise several questions:
1.    What’s the big deal about the ברכה? Why can’t Yitzchak give עשו a ברכה?
2.    Why does עשו take the blessings so seriously?
3.    Why does יצחק then later turn around and give the original ברכה to Ya'akov, as if he had intended to do so throughout?
Again, we find the paradoxical unfolding of history – too many good questions. Again, we find that Ya'akov is the instrument in the hands of God. So why send him into exile? What is the purpose of Yaakov’s exile? What does he prove? He proves that the word of the covenant continues not just in the Promised Land, but in the exile as well. After 20 years in חרן, his commitment to God and God’s way of life; his commitment to the Promised Land – all remain after his time in exile. His task is to prove that יהדות is universal, regardless of place, and whether or not they’re in ארץ ישראל.
This is the point of the Midrash when it states: עם לבן גרתי ואת תריג מצוות שמרתי. Chazal don’t just like playing with words. Here, they focus on the idea of גרתי – it’s only a temporary time. I always felt like a stranger in the land of לבן – never assimilating, never integrating, never accepting לבן’s morals, ethics or way of life. I was always a גר – and I kept the תריג מצוות – keeping the Torah. After twenty years, Ya'akov remains as committed to his father, his grandfather’s covenant, as he was on that first night at הר המוריה.
Why was it necessary to prove the capability of the covenantal way of life outside of the Promised Land? Why did anyone have to prove this? Why does Ya'akov have to go into חרן to prove the universality of this way of life? Because ultimately, there would come a time of payment where the people would leave their land, and God had to prove that it was truly possible to live outside of the Promised Land, and remain loyal to the ways of the God of Avraham. Only when the people can retain the Jewish identity after hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt can the covenant remain. Therefore, God uses Ya'akov as an instrument to prove that this covenant can exist even outside of the Land, and that the deal with Avraham will go on. And, if one person can do it, then certainly a whole nation can do it.

Yosef has a similar task. He too had to prove that the moral laws are not based on geography or chronology. (The Rav added, that if he could, he would have added the fourteenth אני מאמין: אני מאמין באמונה שלמה שכל התורה כולה יכולה להתקיים בכל מקום ובכל זמן. If you don’t accept that one, then what’s the use of the first thirteen? If it’s dependent upon chronology or geography, there are Jews throughout the entire world, throughout all times!)

But, what’s the difference between Yaakov’s mission and Yosef’s mission? Why the repetition?
1. Yaakov had to prove that one can maintain his identity to God and the Jewish people in poverty and depression: no matter how downtrodden the immigrant, no matter how hard the work, if he makes up his mind, he can maintain that allegiance to God. But Yosef had to demonstrate that even with enormous success, admiration and unqualified power are not incongruous with a Jewish, spiritual lifestyle. In the eyes of the Torah, no matter how successful he is or how miserably he fails, Ya'akov and Yosef show us that he remains obligated to maintaining an allegiance to the Jewish way of life.
2. חרן was a desolate country. Yosef remained loyal to God in the most advanced country in the world. Historically, the Jew has remained loyal to his tradition in poverty. However, he failed miserably in maintaining that spiritual connection in material wealth. The challenge of poverty and persecution we met and passed with flying colors. But the challenge of wealth and prominence, of over saturation with cultural values, of prominence in society -- that challenge we failed miserably. 
Today, the Jew has never been freer, wealthier, more successful and more prominent. But at the same time, the Jewish commitment to the ancient lifestyle that we have defended with blood sweat and tears – that is something that we haven’t lived up to.

What is חנוכה? How does God act with the חשמונאים? Is that relationship similar to the way that He relates to Moshe, just telling him what’s going to happen and doing it all by Himself? Or, does He involve them in the process, demanding that they play a critical role – total commitment and heroic action, including sacrifice - in the salvation of the covenantal community?
(Later, Moshe does become involved, not at the יציאת מצרים – but after the עגל הזהב, when God wants to condemn the entire community, there Moshe becomes involved and takes a primary role in history, saving the Jewish people. There Moshe has the courage and the will to give God a sort of ultimatum – without the Jewish people I don’t want to be a part of that history! With the first עשרת הדברות, Moshe is just a mailman, a messenger. But with the second לוחות, it’sפסל לך – you must make the לוחות – you are involved and you participate in the formation of history. In becoming involved in the process, Moshe became the רבן של נביאים – the greatest of all prophets.)

Of course the חשמונאים fought like lions – and when you fight, there is sacrifice. Many people died, because when there’s battle, people die. רבים ביד מעטים, טמאים ביד טהורים, גבורים ביד חלשים – their hands must have been involved. God was involved, and helped them, but man had to start. Their initiative and engagement, their sacrifice – saved us even today, and for that we are grateful.

It seems that the על הנסים is out of order: it should say על המלחמות ועל התשועות ועל הגבורות ועל הנסים. Why put them seemingly out of order? Because we really thank God for two things: we thank Him for His hand in our victory, without which we would have lost the war. First you have to thank God. But we had to start and get involved. So, then we have thanks for the people that had the courage and determination to get involved and fight with great suffering and sacrifice on our behalf. פרקן is the Aramic translation of גאולה. Why use the Aramaic substitute of גאולה and not Hebrew? Because גאולה in Hebrew is the term reserved for יציאת מצרים and ימות המשיח. Without the war the Jewish people would have been lost, but it’s not the ultimate redemption.

This is the connection between Yosef and the story of Chanukah – the total sacrificial involvement to exhibit the courage to engage and get involved in the destiny of Jewish history.

Then the Rav said,
“It’s premature...I have a feeling that ארץ ישראל is going to confront a war. How and when – I hope not. I pray that this confrontation takes not place, but I’m not sure that my prayer is accepted. The way destiny is unfolding lately, will be like אברהם העברי – כל העולם בצד אחד – the whole world on one side, and אברהם on the other side. Has the Jew the courage and heroic quality of his ancestors to confront the world and defy the world? I hope yes. Whether it will be necessary, I don’t know. This is what every Jew should have in mind.”

The story of Chanukah is typical of all of our confrontations in גלות. What was the emblem of Yosef? Was the shield of Yosef?  What’s his coat of arms? His symbol is his coat of many colors. The brothers knew it, and they stripped him of it when they wanted to weaken him. What does the כתנת הפסים represent? It’s the symbol of the Jewish people, of the חשמונאים and of us as well.

Yosef dreams of his sheath, which rose up and the other sheaths came around and bowed down to his sheath. The brothers were not jealous of him because of that dream. They hated him, but weren’t envious of him because of it. Yet, in the second dream he dreams of the sun, the moon and the stars. After this dream, his brothers are now jealous of him. Yosef has two visions: one of material and economic power, which came true totally. These are the אלומות – the sheaths. But the other dream revolves around spiritual greatness, and not just powerful and feared by people – loved and revered by people. He wants to be worshipped by the sun and the moon and the stars. Can one person combine both qualities of economic, military power, and also the dream of spiritual greatness and moral heights? Can one person unite both elements of power and greatness together with spirituality and visionary leadership? Are they mutually exclusive, or can they be merged? Apparently, Yosef thought yes, and he combines them, and this combination is symbolized by the כתנת פסים – many colors that contradict one-another, but somehow synthesize together.

This is the vision of the Jew throughout history – to achieve power and greatness and success; this is the Jew’s reputation of a good merchant and businessman. Without this quality, we couldn’t have survived. But at the same time, that Jew comes home for Shabbos from peddling his wares, with another dream of spiritual greatness – השמש והירח והכוכבים – to be great spiritual personalities.

That is what the חשמונאים were as well. They fought well, and hard. But as soon as they laid down their arms, their interests turned to the בית המקדש, to the פך השמן and to returning to spirituality and greatness.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Seeing the Signs - A Message from Rav Zalman Sorotzkin

This was shared with me a couple of weeks ago, but I haven't had time to share it...sorry for the delay.

The Torah tells us that after Yosef was born, Yaakov realized that the time had come to return home. Yet, when we look at the text, it seems that something else also contributed to Yaakov's desire to leave Haran and return the the Land of Canaan. It seems that he no longer got along with his brothers-in-law as well as he used to.

וַיִּשְׁמַע, אֶת-דִּבְרֵי בְנֵי-לָבָן לֵאמֹר, לָקַח יַעֲקֹב, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר לְאָבִינוּ; וּמֵאֲשֶׁר לְאָבִינוּ--עָשָׂה, אֵת כָּל-הַכָּבֹד הַזֶּה. וַיַּרְא יַעֲקֹב, אֶת-פְּנֵי לָבָן; וְהִנֵּה אֵינֶנּוּ עִמּוֹ, כִּתְמוֹל שִׁלְשׁוֹם .וַיֹּאמֶר ה'אֶל-יַעֲקֹב, שׁוּב אֶל-אֶרֶץ אֲבוֹתֶיךָ וּלְמוֹלַדְתֶּךָ; וְאֶהְיֶה, עִמָּךְ  - בראשית לא:א-ג
And he heard the words of Laban's sons, saying: 'Jacob hath taken away all that was our father's; and of that which was our father's hath he gotten all this wealth.'  And Jacob beheld the countenance of Laban, and, behold, it was not toward him as beforetime. And the LORD said unto Jacob: 'Return unto the land of thy fathers, and to thy kindred; and I will be with thee.' (Bereishit 31:1-3)

Commenting on this interesting progression in the Torah, Rav Zalman Sorotzkin writes in his commentary to the Chumash (called Oznayim L'torah),

Translation: According to the order of the verses it emerges that after Lavan and his sons began to speak and look with an evil eye towards Ya'akov, only then did God say to him, "Return to the Land of your fathers." This is a sign for the children, that at the moment that the Holy One wishes that [his children] should return to their borders, he places in the hearts of the nations [the desire] to do evil to, and to afflict Israel in the lands of their dispersion. Fortunate is the Jew, who sees the finger of God in this matter, and hears the voice of God calling to him, "Return to the Land of your Fathers."
Fortunate indeed.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The True Cause of Antisemitism

Gilad Field shared this on his Facebook page. It's worth reading, sharing and internalizing.

On the verse: "An [Esav] fell on [Yaakov's] neck and he kissed him and he cried, Rashi quoted the Midrash: Said Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: It is a halachah (a ruling): It is known that Eisav hates Yaakov.
Hagaon R' Menachem Ziemba (who was killed in the Holocaust - for a bio of Rav Ziemba, see here - thanks Rabbi Uri Cohen!) explained:
It is well known that Rabbi Shimon consistently attemted to derive the underlying explanation for the verses, and her wished to give a reason why Eisav hated Yaakov, and more broadly, why do the nations of the world hate the Jews. The "intellectual" reasons that the nations always give always contradict each other. In one instance the explanation is because [the Jews] follow the commandments, and another time its because they abandon the Torah and try to emulate the nations. In one instance their great wealth is the reason, and at the same time they accuse the Jews of being poor and lazy, etc, etz.
In the end, Rabbi Shimon arrives at the conclusion that the hatred of the nations for the Jewish people has no rational explanation. Rather, it's a halachah - a stated ruling, issued by God, so that we do not assimilate among the nations.

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayishlach - The Burial of Rachel (in memory of Beth Isaacs, a"h)

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayishlach - The Burial of Rachel (in memory of Beth Isaacs, a"h)

Why did Yaakov bury his beloved wife on the side of the road? What seems at first glance to be troubling, is actually a sign of something much, much deeper. This shiur is dedicated to the memory of Beth Isaacs, whose hakamat hamatzeivah was this week. She is very much missed, even from afar.

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Monday, November 26, 2012

Winners and Losers - A Thought for Vayishlach

Following the recent "exchange" with Hamas in Gaza, the world seems preoccupied with the question of who "won" and who "lost"? My fourteen-year-old son asked me this very question last night: who won? How can we say that we won if they can still shoot at us?
My answer was simple: we're not trying to "win" - at least not by the standard definition.
After all, it seems like we - Israel and Hamas - are playing a very different game. They're trying to kill as many of us as they can, and we're trying to kill as few of them as we can. How do you define "winning" and "losing" when the two sides are playing with different rules? How do you fight a war when you're trying specifically not to kill people.
And yet, we're not the first Israelis who had an aversion to fighting. Actually, the first Israeli to demonstrate such an aversion was Yisrael - Ya'akov himself.
As he returns from Haran towards Canaan, Ya'akov sends a message of peace to Eisav, hoping to avoid a confrontation. Yet, when he learns that Eisav too approached, with 400 armed men, we read that, ויירא יעקב מאד ויצר לו - "and Yaakov was greatly afraid, and he was distressed." Essentially he was frightened twice. What's the difference between ויירא - "he was afraid" and ויצר - "he was distressed"? Rashi explains,
ויירא שמא יהרג, ויצר לו אם יהרוג הוא את אחרים
He was afraid of being killed, and he was distressed that he might kill others.
Ya'akov wants to have his cake and eat it too. He'll fight if he has to, to protect his family. But he's particularly disturbed about the prospect of having to kill others, no matter the justification.
That's the way of the Jewish people. We'll fight if need be, to defend ourselves. But there's no thirst for blood, and whenever possible, we will try and protect the even the lives of those who despise us and wish us ill will. Ya'akov was distressed not just about the possible deaths of innocents; rather, he worried about having to kill anyone - even among Eisav's four hundred warriors.
The fact that we didn't "win", I told my son, isn't a weakness. If anything, it's a source of strenght, and a badge of pride worn proudly by the soldiers of Israel. I go to sleep well at night knowing that, if need be, our soldiers will do what they must to protect us. But, first and foremost, whenever possible,
דרכיה דרכי נעם וכל נתיבותיה שלום - "Her ways [of the Torah] are ways of pleasantness, and all of her path are peace."

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayeitzei - Faith in the Face of Falling Rockets

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayeitzei - Faith in the Face of Falling Rockets

The morning of the shiur, we sent our kids back to school despite the ongoing semi-war raging around (and above) us. The initial story of Yaakov's flight from his brother, his suffering, and his lingering doubts - convey critical lessons for all of us, struggling to find a sense of footing with rockets flying, sirens blazing, and soldiers massing at the edge of Gaza. This week, a little less text analysis - and a little more Chizuk.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Wings of Doves: Another Way to Protect the People of Israel

If you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, I can guarantee you had you lived in Yad Binyamin (or Gadera), this morning you would not have had a problem. For the first time since the Gaza War (soon to be war? Mini war?) broke out, a siren jolted us out of bed in the middle of the night. Actually, we had no idea what time it was, because no one thought to look at the clock until after we got into the safe room. Thank God, we're fine, but when I checked the clock and realized that it was 5:20am, that was it for the day. I checked the news sites to learn that they hadn't reached a cease-fire agreement yet (go figure), and then went to catch up on the Daf. I'm glad that instead of going back to bed I learned the daf, because today's daf (Shabbat 49) relates a well-known story that lifted my spirits. The Gemara relates a halachic fact about a man named Elisha Ba'al Cnafayim (Elisha the Man of Wings), and then wonders why he had that strange nickname. The Gemara answers by relating a story:
שפעם אחת גזרה מלכות רומי הרשעה גזירה על ישראל שכל המניח תפילין ינקרו את מוחו והיה אלישע מניחם ויוצא לשוק ראהו קסדור אחד רץ מפניו ורץ אחריו וכיון שהגיע אצלו נטלן מראשו ואחזן בידו אמר לו מה זה בידך אמר לו כנפי יונה פשט את ידו ונמצאו כנפי יונה לפיכך קורין אותו אלישע בעל כנפים ומאי שנא כנפי יונה משאר עופות משום דאמתיל כנסת ישראל ליונה שנאמר (תהילים סח) כנפי יונה נחפה בכסף וגו' מה יונה כנפיה מגינות עליה אף ישראל מצות מגינות עליהן:  
And why is he called the man of wings'? Because the wicked Roman government once proclaimed a decree against Israel that whoever donned tefillin should have his brains pierced through; yet Elisha put them on and went out into the streets. [When] a quaestor saw him, he fled before him, whereupon he gave pursuit. As he overtook him he [Elisha] removed them from his head and held them in his hand. 'What is that in your hand?' he demanded. 'The wings of a dove,' was his reply. He stretched out his hand and lo! they were the wings of a dove. Therefore he is called 'Elisha the man of the wings'. And why the wings of a dove rather than that of other birds? Because the Congregation of Israel is likened to a dove, as it is said, "as the wings of a dove covered with silver::  just as a dove is protected by its wings, so is Israel protected by the mitzvot. (translation from here)
I opened Facebook this morning to find a wonderful message from friend in Michigan:
rabbi spolter,
hope you and your mishpocha are doing well and the tumult ends quickly and safely. please let us know if there's anything (besides davening and correcting misinformation) we can do for for you.
First of all, those messages really do help. We don't feel alone in this at all, but it's always nice to hear from friends. But if you want to help, I can think of two other ways (in addition to the davening and correcting information - both of which are important):
Advocacy: While we all say that Israel should act irrespective of world opinion (and sometimes must), world opinion is undeniably a fact that Israel faces. To that end, American support for Israel's self-defense has been critical, not to mention the financial support that provided the amazing Iron Dome system that's saved countless lives, literally. That support, both political and financial, is the direct result of an ongoing, never ending lobbying campaign that depends on committed Americans communicating with their elected officials. So, if you want to make a real difference on the ground here, short of Aliyah (which I continue to recommend highly), get involved with AIPAC.
Yet, we must also heed the Gemara's message about the defensive power of mitzvot. Living here, listening to the radio, hearing about the constant rocket barrage, I wonder about our national "bank" of merit. We're using up a heck of a lot of credit upstairs. We need more mitzot - and none better than the mitzvah that protected Elisha himself. So, if you're not usually so great about wearing Tefillin, put on Tefillin and fulfill that mitzvah. If you are good about tefillin, pick something else. In the words of the Talmud, the Jewish people are "like a dove" because, like the wings of the dove, which protect her from danger, our fulfillment of mitzvot, as much as any missile system, tank or soldier, offer yet another, critical way to protect the Jewish nation.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Is the Torah Really for Terror Victims?

It's a pretty reliable phenomenon. As soon as the rockets start flying, emails begin flooding our mail asking for donations. Sometimes the emails are relevant, like the OU email asking for donations to help flood victims. But sometimes they seem at best only tangentially related to crisis itself.
For example, this morning I received an email titled, "Please help write a Sefer Torah," which stated that,
With the missiles falling in the South, over 1 million of our brethren have come under this blanket of terror. Please join with me in a project that was started before the current 'rain' of terror, but is dedicated to Victims of Terror.
I really wanted to be fair about the email and appeal, which bothered me - and still does, so I sent a letter to the originator of the email, (Hillel Levin - hillel at israelchesed dot com) that said:

Dear Hillel,
I'm really sorry, but is this really the time to be raising money for a Sefer Torah? If people want to send money, perhaps they can do so to alleviate the suffering of the people in Sderot, the families of those killed in Kiryat Malachi, or the many other causes actually related to the rockets themselves. Where is this Sefer Torah even going to be housed? How is it helpful, other than in some kind of pseudo-mystical way that no one can really understand?
I could even accept sponsoring additional learning of some kind during this challenging time.
This really smacks of tzedaka opportunism, and leaves me with a very bad taste in my mouth. I was going to post this on my blog, but felt that you should have the opportunity to respond. If you want to raise money for chesed, that's great! But use it for chesed.
Reuven Spolter

I'm sharing his prompt answer with you in full with his permission:
Dear Rabbi Spolter,
I appreciate your questions and the opportunity to respond.
First, I think that you should know that I made Aliyah 6 years ago and spent 4 of those years working for an amuta which connected Jews all over the world to both Chayalim and to families/children in Sderot. So I am sensitive to the needs of those groups.
The motivation behind this particular Sefer Torah is to honor the neshamot of terrorist victims. It was started about 3 months ago by an amuta: Ahavat Chinam, which provides services: education, dormitory, counseling etc to girls at risk and girls coming back from relationships with arabs, drugs, lack of observance etc. These problems exist before, during and after the current escalation of this 64 year ongoing war with the world around us.
While the project was started 3 months ago, the efforts have only resulted in a handful of complete Parshaot being sponsored. I was asked to assist in the effort 2 weeks ago.
Timing is such, but one can sponsor a psuk in the merit of our chayalim.
This is a time for us to do t’shuva, t’filla and tzedakah. Out right, this is a tzedakah opportunity, they have received p’sak that funds for this Sefer Torah can come from one’s Ma’aser Funds. In addition, since part of the funds will go to the amuta to assist these girls in their personal t’suva process and one of the things that these girls do is t’filla, supporting the writing of this Sefer Torah is a means to support all 3 things that we need to do every day, but especially during this particular Matzav.
One of the things that I have seen some Rabbis say is that we need to continue life as much to normal as we can as a means to show HKBH that we have emmunah and bitachon in Him and our enemy so that he sees that we trust in HKBH.
I know that Yad Binyamin is a lot closer to the missiles then Shiloh is, but travel to Shiloh has always been under attack and while, not missiles, the rocks and boulders that are thrown and the fire bombs that are tossed have increased in frequency on the roads to and from Jerusalem.
At the same time that we here in Israel are under rocket assault, our brethren in the Eastern US are pumping and digging out of Storm Sandy. So they also have a tremendous need for funds, even if only for a temporary fix as they all pack up and make Aliyah. Is it insensitive to ask them for help in writing this Sefer Torah? They need a connection with HKBH also. They lack both the walking, breathing and living in Eretz Yisroel as a z’scut as well as being outside of HKBH umbrella of protection, where He neither slumbers nor sleeps.
This particular Sefer Torah will be housed at the Kotel, the center of the world and the place that the survivors of Terror turn in their prayers. It is also a global fund raising effort, so for both these reasons, I believe that this is an appropriate location for this Sefer Torah.
Rabbi Spolter, we are not a lot of money for participation in this Sefer Torah only US$ 18 or 72 NIS, so one can participate in this project and other chesed projects as well.
One of my correspondents, on Moshav Shokeda, which is a lot closer to Aza then Yad Binyamin has asked for assistance to purchase a migunit-shelter which runs 70-80,000 NIS. Here is another opportunity to do Chesed: how much can you and your ‘community’ (local and on-line) raise for this project?
If you are going to post to your blog, please share this.
Hillel Levin

Of course it's nice to sponsor a sefer torah. But, first of all, does the Kotel really need more Sifrei Torah? More importantly, the money really isn't for the Torah. Rather, it's to raise money for an organization doing other wonderful work - but the Sefer Torah is the means, not the end. Why not just ask for money for the organization? Probably because that hasn't worked so well. Finally, while the charity is wonderful, it really has very little to do with the current situation. The money raised goes to help girls at risk - an important cause, but one that has no connection whatsoever to terror victims. Intimating that it does seems questionable, at best.
Perhaps I'm over-reacting, but I don't think so.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Not Your Normal Shopping Carts

shoppingI’m at the grocery store trying to buy food for Shabbat. Trying, because half the check out counters are empty. Many of the checkout people didn’t show up. Usually its packed with people, but not tonight. All of the other stores in the strip mall are closed; only Rami Levi is open. After all, war or not, rockets or no rockets, you still need food for Shabbat.
As we’re waiting on line alarms sound over the radio. The first rush of adrenaline passes quickly, when you hear that the alarm is for somewhere else: Ashdod, Netivot, anywhere but Kiryat Malachi. Everyone seems nicer than usual. The lines at the checkout aren’t competitive. Everyone gets it. We all just wait for our turn to check out, and get the heck out of dodge.
Then, another alarm – but this time, the announcer does say “Kiryat Malachi.” Most people sprint for one of the two sealed rooms – actually not so much sealed, but at least concrete reinforced. The first time, I didn’t make it into the room when I heard the boom in the distance. The second time I did.
On the way back to the checkout line (yet again), we passed through a storage area, and I noticed one of the workers pointing to three shopping carts with a sign that said, “Don’t touch. Don’t move.” She explained that the three equally loaded carts – mostly with drinks and cups and such, were put together for the three shiva homes of the three people killed today in Kiryat Malachi.
Not your regular shopping carts.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Audio Shiur: Parshat Toldot: Rivka, Yaakov, Eisav, and Flying Missiles

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Toldot: Rivka, Yaakov, Eisav, and Flying Missiles

The Midrashim focusing on the text at the end of Toldot, when Eisav wants to kill Yaakov and Rivkah sends Yaakov away, convey a nuanced message about how to deal with our adversaries.

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Sunday, November 11, 2012

My Article in Mekor Rishon

I got published today in Mekor Rishon. If you don't believe me, click here and scroll to page 5. Yes, I know that most people don't know that the paper is published daily, much less read the daily paper, and it is a translation of this post, but it's still pretty cool to be published in Hebrew in the paper.
Enjoy! (Click on the picture to view it in full size and perhaps read it.)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Spirituality of Sarah

Parshat Chayei Sarah begins with some very unusual language:

וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים--שְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.
And the life of Sarah was a hundred and seven and twenty years; these were the years of the life of Sarah.
I'd like to focus on the phrase at the end of the verse: שני חיי שרה – "these were the years of the life of Sarah." Obviously, this phrase screams out for interpretation and clarification.

Netziv, in his commentary Ha'amek Davar, offers a unique insight into the difference between Avraham and Sarah that explains this unusual language. He explains that the word חיים has two meanings, the first being "life", the normal interpretation of the word. But the word חיים can also refer to a sense of joy, and excitement – what the French called "joie de vivre." 

Netziv notes that according to Chazal, Sarah was greater that Avraham in prophecy, which is somewhat difficult to believe. How could it be possible that Sarah, who never spoke directly with God (to our knowledge), could be a greater prophet than Avraham Avinu, who communicated with God directly numerous times?

To answer this question, Netziv distinguishes between two types of "prophecy." In the first type, direct communication with God, Avraham clearly outshone Sarah. But Sarah excelled in a second form of prophecy called רוח הקודש – "divine inspiration"

הוא מה שאדם מתבודד ומשרה עליו רוה"ק ויודע מה שרואה. אמנם לא דבר עמו ה'.
This is where a person secludes himself and the spirit of God dwells upon him, and he knows what he is seeing, but the word of God is not with him.
Why was Sarah greater than Avraham in Ruach Hakodesh?

הוא משני טעמים. א' שאברהם בצדקו היה מנהיג העולם ומדריכם לעבודת ה'...ומי שעסקו עם המון רבה אינו יכול להתבודד כ". משא"כ שרה היתה יושבת באהלה בקדושה וטהרה (וע' מש"כ הגאון חתם סופר בהקדמתו בזה דברים ראויים אליו ז"ל). שנית דאין רוה"ק חל אלא מתוך שמחה...ושרה זה צדקתה להפלא שהיתה באמונתה...ע"כ לא נתעצבה בכל ימי חייה והיתה שקועה ברוה"ק.
For two reasons: First of all, Avraham in his righteousness, was a world leader who guided the people to the service of God…And one who deals with the masses cannot isolate himself that much, which is not true of Sarah who sat in her tent in holiness and purity. Secondly, Ruach Hakodesh only rests upon a person through joy, and Sarah was exceedingly righteous in that she had great and wondrous faith…for this reason, she was never saddened nor worried throughout her life for all of her days, and she was therefore immersed in Ruach Hakodesh.
Sarah, explains the Netziv, was a woman of חיים – she had a joy for life, a deep faith and a positive attitude. Thus, the meaning of the phrase, שני חיי שרה is, "the years of a life of joy of Sarah."

This beautiful depiction of our great matriarch also challenges us today. With the confusing division of roles prevalent in modern society, we no longer laud the concept of התבודדות within the "tent." (And, to be honest, it's not really feasible today either.) But, we must acknowledge that this reality does have a cost, as we no longer have a sense of deep faith and often lack the חיים – the joy of life – that can only come from התבודדות.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Audio Shiur: Parshat Chayei Sarah - Inside vs. Outside the Tent

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Chayei Sarah - Inside vs. Outside the Tent

From a strange nuance in the text at the beginning of the parshah, we then turn to the end of the Parshah, and then back to the beginning of last week to focus specifically on the unusually accurate description of the choreography of the angels' visit. That brings us back to an amazing commentary of Netziv at the beginning of Chayei Sarah, which describes what made her special and unique, and has a lot to teach us about politics, ourselves, and what's missing from our homes today.

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Monday, November 5, 2012

More Israeli RZ Politics - 2012 Edition

They didn't even pretend the sheet was about Torah
Aside from race for the head of the party (the election is this Tuesday), on the following week we'll pick the slate for the full list of candidates for the party. So, the weekly Alonei Shabbat (supposedly parshah sheets, but it's all politics now) are full - really full of ads for the different candidates running for office. These things really don't belong in the shuls, and the people who make these weekly rags are clearly the big winners in this race - as is Rav Chaim Drukman, who appears in almost every ad.
The most popular weekly is called Olam Katan (you can download it here for yourself, or if you prefer Giluy Daat), which is supposedly aimed at young people, with type so small you can barely read it. I say supposedly, because while the target audience can't really vote, the paper is full of ads for people that you've never really heard of running for the Bayit Hahehudi list.

Each ad lists:
1. The candidate's qualifications
2. How he served in some elite military unit
3. What a great guy he is
4. Which Rav endorses him (It seems that Rav Druckman has endorsed pretty much everyone)
5. How he will unite the party. In fact, the ads seem to be endorsing each other, with each candidate claiming to get along with both Orlev and Bennett.
What's the difference between each of them? No idea. None whatsoever. Again, it's all about who you know. Although if you're reading this, I'm going to vote for Jeremy Gimpel. He seems like a really good guy, and he speaks English.

My favorite ad by a very wide margin? I love the ad for Harav Rachamim Nissimi. It proclaims: OUR POWER IS IN OUR UNITY! Sounds great, doesn't it?

Again, I know nothing about Rav Nissimi. He seems like a good guy, and he's a Sfardi running on the Bayit Hayehudi list.
His ad claims that he's the man to unite the party. After all, look at that great picture! He's standing there with Orlev AND Bennett, and they're all holding hands in the huddle, ready to break and start playing football! Hike!
But then you read the words, and he tells you: For the head of the party, vote for Zevulun Orlev. Then, vote for Bennett and Nasimi high on the list for the Knesset the next week.
So now you know what team he's on.
The best part of the ad? Look at the tiny words on the side when I have circled in red, which I'll help you with: התמונה הינה הדמיה בלבד - which means, "picture for illustrative purposes only", which really means, "This picture never happened. It's a fake that we Photoshopped."
I love it! Can Rav Nissimi unite the factions of the party? Sure he can - with Photoshop.
In real life? That's another question entirely.
But this isn't real life. It's politics.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

November 2012 in Israel: All Politics all the Time

Obama vs. Romney? Hardly. It's go time in the Bayit Hayehudi.

In one corner, we have MK Zev Orlev, who successfully overwhelmed the current party head Minister of Science and Technology Rabbi Dr. Hershkovitz, so now they're running on the same ticket. Mr. Orlev's slogan is, מוביל ת'עניינים - loosely translated as "Making things Happen", which I take to mean, "taking care of people who I know who ask me to help them with their local issues."
That's not a knock, actually. He's known as a very caring member of Knesset, who's apparently quite willing to use his power to help people in the RZ community. Sadly, he's also been on the job while the party's power has consistenly waned over the past few years. See this ad, which has thoughtfully provided a nice visual aid charting the party's decline.

In the other corner is Naftali Bennett, a former Likudnik who made $140 million selling his software company, now vying for the party's leadership. He's trying to make the Bayit Hayehudi more of an "open tent", which as I understand it means seeking the votes of people who aren't necessarily Orthodox per se, and also addressing issues other than the settlements. Also, Bennet promises to finally unite the different factions together into a single party, which he claims has a chance of getting eight or more seats in the Knesset.
Actually, politically, I have no idea whether the two "sides" disagree fundamentally about anything. It's more about personalities now. Welcome to Israeli politics, where people vote more for people than for ideologies. How else would former media personalities have any chance of getting elected? Can you imagine Tom Brokaw getting a serious look in politics? Really?
In any case, the way I see it, it's boiling down to an election of old vs young. The old guard, (read here: over age 40 - or maybe 45?) who know Orlev, just don't trust Bennett. Sure, he's a good guy, but let him work his way up the ladder and earn his keep. They're all in for Orlev.
Anyone younger than that is simply fed up with the old guard, and the fact that they can't seem to get along with each other. The "Young Rabbi" wrote this morning that he doesn't know anyone in his circles who will vote for the Bayit Hayehudi if Orlev is elected. Young people are sick of the old way of doing things, and want someone new, who didn't make a life in politics to give things a try.
Will Bennett really do things differently? Will he really succeed in uniting the party? Who knows? I always feel like new people claiming to be able to do things differently (read here: Barack Obama) quickly discover that politics is a rough world, and idealism and promises don't always pan out as you'd hope. But at least they offer something different.
More of the same means even greater irrelevance for the Religious Zionist community in the coming government.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayera - Why Waste Good Meat on Angels Who Don't Eat?

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayera - Why Waste Good Meat on Angels Who Don't Eat?

We're all familiar with Avraham's famous hachnasat orchim. Yet, we probably don't realize that the many midrashim which describe Avraham's kindness are firmly based in the text of the Torah. After studying some of these Midrashim, we also turn the obvious question of why God would send angels disguised as people to Avraham to perform acts of kindness, if they're not actually real people?

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Monday, October 29, 2012

Shabbat Aliyah in Antwerp Part 2: Will the Last Person Out, Please Turn off the Lights

In 2004, I wrote an article for the OU’s Jewish Action Magazine called, “In Search of Leaders,” lamenting the toll that aliyah was taking on my attempt to build a committed Modern Orthodox Jewish community. All assumed (incorrectly) that I was decrying aliyah; some applauded the article while others openly defended life in Chutz L’aretz. Yet, the principle thesis of the article – that aliyah was emptying American Modern Orthodoxy of many of its strongest leaders – both lay and professional – remained sound.
I didn’t really know how sound until this past Shabbat, which I spent as a representative of the Jewish Agency speaking about Aliyah over what they called, “Shabbat Lech Lecha.”
Each year, the Jewish Agency (and other sub-groups whose logos must legally appear in this blog post) sends representatives to cities around the world to strengthen ties between the community and Israel and encourage Aliyah. It just so happens that a young man who shares a bench with me in shul spent two years in Antwerp several years ago as a Shaliach Bnei Akiva, and he remains close with many of the community members. He also has ties to the Jewish Agency, so when he heard about this program, he asked me whether I’d go to Antwerp for Shabbat, mostly to speak to the kids in Bnei Akiva. I agreed, and that’s how I ended up in Antwerp for Shabbat Lech Lecha.
Several things strike you (or at least me) immediately upon visiting Antwerp. The Jewish community (at least the Orthodox community) is situated in an extremely small area in the most congested downtown location of the city; kind of like living in Manhattan – except with smaller buildings, most only six or seven stories. This is because the community settled in very close proximity to the Diamond Exchange, which is within walking (or biking – everyone bikes in Antwerp) distance.
All Belgians they speak at least three languages: Flemish, French and English. Most, if not all Jews, even Chareidim, speak Hebrew, a fourth language, and many Jews speak Hebrew as their primary language. In fact, in both Jewish Day schools where I spoke, I spoke to the children in Hebrew which they understood perfectly. Their Hebrew is probably better than mine.
It’s amazing to me how communities around the world suffer from similar problems. Like Detroit, which had a smaller, more Orthodox Religious Zionist day school (Akiva) and a wealthier, less religious, better attended high school (the Jewish Academy), Antwerp had two schools: Yavneh (150 students across all grades) and Tachkemoni (600-700 students). While the bulk of Tachkemoni’s students are not religious, Yavneh is squarely Religious Zionist, with separate boys and girls schools (in the same building, separated by the Rosh Yeshiva’s office). That’s right: 150 total students; separate boys’ and girls’ studies beginning in seventh grade. The high school classes that I saw numbered in the small single digits. If you’re wondering how they possibly can afford to keep the school afloat, in Belgium private schools receive money from the state. That probably helps quite a bit.
Here’s the most surprising aspect of Yavneh by far: one hundred percent of its graduates make Aliyah. That’s right: all of them. I wasn’t there to convince them to make Aliyah; they’re all going to do that anyway, something they openly admitted. Rather, I was there to strengthen their sense of Jewish identity, and to offer them words of encouragement and chizzuk, a mission I feel that I accomplished. Their parents actively encourage them to go learn in Yeshiva in Israel and then either join the army or study in university in Israel and then make aliyah. Not one family that I met did not have at least one child, if not more, who already lives in Israel.
This slow migration is clearly having a devastating effect on the Religious Zionist Community of Antwerp. While the Chareidi chadarim and yeshivot continue to grow, the one true RZ shul, Mizrachi, boasts a regular Shabbat minyan of approximately fifty to sixty men. (I couldn’t see the women’s section), a number which, I was told by more than one person, used to be more than double that. While most children daven at B’nei Akiva (the Snif is actually a huge building complex), the average age at shul could not have been less than fifty. Simply put, the community is aging, and there are no young people who are moving in to pick up the slack. The entire experience was very surreal. One mother I spoke to talked proudly of her children leaving Antwerp, never to return permanently, telling me, “There’s nothing for them here.”
This fact was most striking during the dinner the Shlichim coordinated for college-age students (and those working as well). We put out the word on Facebook, and while a couple (literally two) didn’t join us, there were seven young people at the Shabbat table. That’s it. The rest are long gone.
While the Jewish Agency (in Israel) doesn’t play an outwardly prominent role in Jewish life in Antwerp, the role it plays behind the scenes is crucial. Many of the Judaic Studies teachers are or were Shelichim, sent from Israel for a limited period of time. The Rosh Yeshiva (Rav Herschkovitz) who also serves as the rabbi of the Yavneh shul is serving his second year of Shlichut. Bnei Akiva is coordinated by Shlichim – and the Bnei Akiva clearly plays a critical communal role; many kids daven at the Snif every Shabbat, and they all attend Snif on Shabbat afternoon, where the high school kids coordinate programming for the younger children. Without the Sochnut, Antwerp’s RZ community would have long ago turned to more Chareidi-oriented educators and leaders, ultimately changing the very nature of their own community.
Clearly Antwerp is a unique, unusual community. I’ve traveled to schools across North America and cannot think of a school where you could speak Hebrew to the entire student body and they would not only understand, but converse with you in Hebrew as well. (It made the American notion of Ivrit B’ivrit seem pathetic.) As I spoke with the kids about Jewish identity and how Americans often struggle with a dual sense of fidelity to America and Judaism and the possible conflict between the two (as in, are you an American Jew or a Jewish American), while the Belgian kids found the topic fascinating they simply couldn’t relate. They have no sense of pride in being citizens of Belgium. (They claim that most Belgians don’t either) It seemed clear to me that this lack of pride in being Belgian (Belsh?) had a great deal to do with their willingness to leave their country for Israel. After all, if you don’t identify with where you live, why stay?
I wonder how long the community will be able to sustain itself, keeping the school open and the Bnei Akiva active. At what point are there just not enough kids? At what point does it no longer make sense to run an entire school? Antwerp used to be flush with profits from the diamond industry, but numerous people made it clear that the good old days are long gone, and that many of the community’s wealthiest, most influential members had left, taking their assets with them to…you guessed it: Israel.
Commenting on this phenomenon, most of the Israelis I spoke with had a single response: “Baruch Hashem.” Indeed, who can complain about the fact that a community’s children are slowly but surely settling in the Jewish State. After all, it’s where they belong.
But I wonder about an Orthodox community without a Modern Orthodox element. Are we truly unnecessary to the greater frum community and they’ll do fine without us, or do we play a larger communal role that will be missed when there’s no significant RZ community, shul or school to speak of? I doubt that anyone in the Chareidi community will admit it, but I wonder how Orthodoxy in Antwerp will change when the last person at the Mizrachi Shul turns out the lights.