Thursday, January 31, 2013

Audio Shiur: Parshat Yitro - Should we Force Our Kids to Be Frum?

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Yitro - Should we Force Our Kids to Be Frum?

The story of the revelation seems to present contradictory evidence. On the one hand, God asked us whether we wanted to accept the Torah. On the other hand, the famous Gemara in Shabbat explicitly states that we were forced to accept the Torah. So which is it: voluntary, or coerced? We study the short section from Shabbat 88a in depth, and conclude the shiur with a beautiful and powerful piece from Rav Kook in Ein Ayah. Not to be missed!

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Friday, January 25, 2013

The Bitter Tree of Life - Why Torah Study is Hard

During a recent meeting with a successful educational administrator in the United States, our discussion turned to one of the great challenges in teaching Gemara to day school students. Many American day school students, for lack of a better word, hate Gemara, and I can understand why. The text isn't even in the foreign language they don't really understand (Hebrew). Rather, the Aramaic makes it even more difficult. The classic text has no punctuation, and an internal logic that's quite difficult to grasp. But perhaps, most critically, students just don't connect to the material. In its best, most pristine form, Gemara is abstract, analytic, and esoteric - the opposite of the practical, "what's the bottom line" perspective prevalent among many students today. (I find the same phenomenon in many of my current students, who don't want to be bothered by the process of the development of a halachah, but instead just want to know what it means, or in their words, "what do I have to do"?)
In the end, teaching Gemara boils down to a simple question: how do you teach a difficult, complicated, confusion subject that students generally don't like?
The answer, I believe, is that you force them to study Gemara, just like you force them to study grammar, math, history, English - and every other subject whether they like it or not. And you force them to do it because you believe that's it's good for them, and that the struggle and hard work will ultimately prove worthwhile.
Torah study was never designed to be easy. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (6:4) succinctly states:
 כך היא דרכה של תורה, פת במלח תאכל ומים במשורה תשתה ועל הארץ תישן וחיי צער תחיה ובתורה אתה עמל, אם אתה עושה כן, (תהלים קכח ב): "אשריך וטוב לך". אשריך בעולם הזה וטוב לך לעולם הבא.
This is the way of the Torah: Bread and salt you shall eat, and drink water in small measure, and sleep on the ground and a life of pain you shall live as you toil in the Torah; if you do this, "Fortunate and good for you" - fortunate for you in this world, and good for you in the World to Come.

Sound enticing? It's interesting that we fail to highlight this point as we educate our children. You're not supposed to enjoy it; Torah study is toil; bread, salt and water. Sleeping on the ground. Truth be told, it doesn't really play that well in today's world. Suffering just doesn't sell today.
But that's the way it works - and has worked - from the very beginning, even before we received the Torah.
Following the euphoria of Kriat Yam Suf, the Jewish people immediately encounter the first of many existential challenges. There's no water, for a very simple reason. God didn't give them any. After traveling for three days without water, they finally locate a spring of water but find the water too bitter for consumption.
כג וַיָּבֹאוּ מָרָתָה--וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לִשְׁתֹּת מַיִם מִמָּרָה, כִּי מָרִים הֵם; עַל-כֵּן קָרָא-שְׁמָהּ, מָרָה.  כד וַיִּלֹּנוּ הָעָם עַל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר, מַה-נִּשְׁתֶּה.  כה וַיִּצְעַק ה' וַיּוֹרֵהוּ ה' עֵץ, וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ אֶל-הַמַּיִם, וַיִּמְתְּקוּ הַמָּיִם; שָׁם שָׂם לוֹ חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט, וְשָׁם נִסָּהוּ.  כו וַיֹּאמֶר אִם-שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע לְקוֹל ה' אֱלֹקיךָ, וְהַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו תַּעֲשֶׂה, וְהַאֲזַנְתָּ לְמִצְו‍ֹתָיו, וְשָׁמַרְתָּ כָּל-חֻקָּיו--כָּל-הַמַּחֲלָה אֲשֶׁר-שַׂמְתִּי בְמִצְרַיִם, לֹא-אָשִׂים עָלֶיךָ, כִּי אֲנִי ה' רֹפְאֶךָ. 
23 And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter. Therefore the name of it was called Marah. 24 And the people murmured against Moses, saying: 'What shall we drink?' 25 And he cried unto the LORD; and the LORD showed him a tree, and he cast it into the waters, and the waters were made sweet. There He made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there He proved them; 26 and He said: 'If you will diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD your God, and will do that which is right in His eyes, and will give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases upon you which I have put upon the Egyptians; for I am the LORD that heals you.'
This strange story raises a number of fascinating questions: why did God bring them to a bitter well? What was the test, and did the Jewish people pass it? Chazal note that this sojourn at Marah serve as the opportunity for a mini-revelation. Rashi (on verse 25) comments that at Marah God transmitted three mitzvot: Shabbat, the laws of the Red Heifer, and tort law (dinim). The events at Marah were far more than a simple rest stop. Rather, the experience there was meant to set the stage for the Revelation that was soon to come. 
Kli Yakkar asks a different, fascinating question: What kind of tree did God show Moshe? Logic would dictate that it was a sweet tree. After all, the best way to sweeten bitter water is with a lot of sugar. Yet, Kli Yakkar notes that the Midrash offers three suggestions for the identity of the tree. Some say that it was an olive tree, some say it was a willow, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said that God showed Moshe a concept from the Torah - the Tree of Life. According to the first two opinions (leaving Rabbi Shimon aside for now), how did the tree sweeten the water? Why would God specifically tell Moshe to use a bitter tree to make the water sweeter? Kli Yakkar explains that in the identity of the tree lies an essential message about the nature of Torah study.
וביאור הענין שהתורה תחילתה מרה ונקראת תושיה שמתשת כוחו של אדם, וחז"ל אמרו (דברים רבה ז ג) למה נמשלה התורה לזית מה זית זה תחילתו מר וסופו מתוק אף דברי תורה כן, והמצוות גם כן לאו ליהנות ניתנו, וכמו שנאמר (שמות יט ג) ותגיד לבני ישראל דברים קשים כגידין, כי חולי הנפש כמו חולי הגוף כי כמו שרוב חולי הגוף דרכם להתרפאות על ידי לקיחת עשבים מרים ואם אין החולה מאמין אל הרופא ימאן לקבלם, כך בחולי הנפשות שהיו חולים על ידי קניית אמונות רעות שקנו במצרים, רצה הקב"ה לרפאותם על ידי קבלת התורה שנמשלה לזית כי ראשיתה מרה כזית
The explanation of this matter lies in the fact that the Torah begins in a bitter fashion, and it is called "weakening", for it weakens the strength of a person. And our Sages said, 'Why is the Torah compared to an olive [tree]? Just as an olive is initially bitter and ultimately sweet, so too are the words of Torah. And the commandments were also not given [to us] for our pleasure, as it is written, "And you shall say to the Children of Israel" - 'words that are hard like sinews'. For sickness of the spirit is like sickness of the body. And just like most physical illnesses are healed by taking bitter herbs - and if the patient has no faith in the doctor, he will refuse to take the medicine - similarly, regarding the sickness of the soul which infected the people through their acquisition of destructive beliefs in Egypt - God wished to heal them through their acceptance of the Torah which is compared to an olive - for [Torah] too is initially bitter like the olive...
When the people saw how a bitter tree could make the water sweet, they would also understand that Torah study and observance - which is hard - quite hard, in fact, is in fact very sweet as well.
Sometimes I feel like we ignore this truth - especially related to the manner in which we raise our children - at our own peril. We try and make life sweet, almost nauseatingly so, and then when they encounter bitterness, in a strict teacher, or a challenging or difficult assignment, or a failing grade - instead of allowing them to taste the bitterness of that water, we sweeten it; by taking their side, or minimizing the suffering, or propping them up artificially.
This is especially true with regard to the study of Torah. It was never meant to be easy, and the easy kind of Torah study is usually the least fulfilling as well. Torah is like a good olive: bitter at first, but sweet in the end, if you're willing to put in the time, toil and sweat necessary to appreciate its unique sweetness.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Seeing the Daily Miracles

With the elections here in Israel now behind us and the political wrangling just beginning, it's a good time to take a step back and look at the larger picture.
Yesterday, Election Day, was for me (and so many others that I know) just glorious. Aside from the day off and the great honor many olim feel at the opportunity to vote in a Jewish homeland, the incredible weather presented a perfect opportunity for the family to take a long hike in a local forest, to marvel at the beauty of our Homeland.
Just the drive itself to the hike took my breath away, as we were surrounded on all sides by the lush green wheat fields. (I also love running in the daylight during this time of year, especially in the fields around Yad Binyamin.) Even after almost five years in Israel, I continue to marvel at the amazing beauty of our country and its amazing accomplishments in its relatively short history.

In his work Tosefet Brachah (which you can actually download here  -  highly recommended!), Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein (author of the Torah Temima), asks a very simple question about the opening line of Az Yashir:
אשירה לה' כי גאה גאה, סוס ורכבו רמה וים
I will sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted; the horse and his rider has He thrown into the sea
Wonders Rav Epstein: Is that really such a big deal? After all, if you throw a horse and chariot into the sea, you'd expect them to sink to the bottom. How is that miraculous? Moreover, Moshe fails to mention the true miracle of Kriat Yam Suf until the very end of the song.
כי בא סוס פרעה ופרשיו בים, וישב ה' עליהם את מי הים, ובני ישראל הלכו ביבשה בתוך הים
For the horses of Pharaoh went in with his chariots and with his horsemen into the sea, and the Lord brought back the waters of the sea upon them; but the children of Israel walked on dry land in the midst of the sea.

The Jews walked on dry land while the Egyptians drowned? That's an impressive miracle! Why then did Moshe not mention it at the beginning of the song, and instead leave it for the very end? Rav Epstein suggests an answer that contains a critical message for each of us, especially today.
The Midrash notes that the song begins in the future tense - אז ישיר - literally meaning that, "Then he will sing." Writes Rav Epstein,
This hints to future generations, that they will sign songs of praise to God for the miracles that He performs for Israel. For this reason it is written, אז ישיר (in the future tense).
Behold, it is known that in future generations during the exile of Israel, explicit overt miracles ceased, and we only [see] miracles like those that emanate from natural events, as if they are clothed in natural clothes. Miracles such as these never ceased and will never cease from Israel, and the person with a discerning eye and understanding heart - he will see and feel through the natural pathways of the lives of Israel among the nations, individually and communally, the shining beams of heavenly guidance.
This is what Moshe wished to convey to us when he began the great Song of Praise on the Yam Suf. While true that the Jewish people saw great miracles at the Reed Sea, the events that they would witness in the future would be no less miraculous. Even the seemingly natural drowning of a horse and its rider in deep waters also depends on the watchful providence of God. The Jewish people would, in the future, witness miracles dressed in the cloak of nature, but with the proper perspective we would be able to see God's guiding hand in those natural events as well.

Who cannot marvel at the hidden miracles that have guided the building of the Jewish State today? It's easier to see when literally hundreds of rockets and missiles fall on our cities and we suffer (relatively) few casualties. But even the green fields, the incredible growth, Israel's thriving economy in difficult times - all of those are miracles as well.
These are the miracles Moshe alluded to so many centuries ago; the miracles that I think about when I run in the fields around my home. These are the miracles that I saw from the hilltop overlooking the Lachish region yesterday.
They might be cloaked in the garments of nature. Wheat does grow in many places around the world. But here, in the Land of Israel, we must use our discerning eyes and knowing hearts to see the guiding hand of the Holy One, making the fields blossom once again.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Upcoming Elections. Still Exciting.

My first vote as an Israeli. We took pictures.
Elections are – and probably always were – rather nasty affairs.
Politics is dirty, and no matter how much we think that things are worse now than they've been in the past, I get a sense that politics was always a dirty game.
Yet, despite the mudslinging and the nasty ads (that ad makes me laugh every time I see it) and the personal attacks, as my second opportunity to vote as a citizen of the State of Israel approaches, a sense of pride and excitement wells up within me.
My vote counts for the future of the Jewish people, in a real and meaningful way. Had I not chosen to move my family to this country, my vote would never have been cast. My children will, God willing, serve their country and their people. They are growing up with a sense of belonging and identity that I could never properly articulate living in the United States; and they receive excellent – and I really do mean excellent – Torah education funded (mostly) by the government. Even the money that the government taxes me – my work, the clothes I buy, pretty much everything else – pays to defend the Jewish State, educate her children, buy fancy cars for government leadership – yes, even that. It might be payola, but it's the Jewish people's government's payola.
In the United States I viewed my vote as important, but somewhat impersonal. In truth, whether the President of the United States is left-wing or right-wing would never affect my tax rate (I don't make nearly enough money), my kids' education (which the government cannot pay for) or my daily life. Sure, the war on terror, or gun control, or the crazy level of U.S. government debt are all important issues, but only in an abstract, distant kind of way (for now).
Here in Israel, my vote is very personal. The issues that guide my vote are far more personal to me: I want my government to reflect the values that guide me: a sense of Am Yisrael and the importance of the Jewish nature of the State we build. (Can anyone guess what party I'm voting for this year?) But I also care about the high tuition I pay for high school compared to most Israelis, and the fact that food costs far too much here, and I care that National Service (Sherut Le'umi) and Garinim Toraniim are properly funded.
Even the "big" issues here are far more personal. Peace with Palestinians isn't abstract. What the government says and does today directly affects whether rockets will start falling across Israel tomorrow. It's not just "them" or "in the future." It's about us, right here, right now.
And however a small voice my may be, it's one vote more that, compounded over many olim, is slowly but surely changing the face of the State of Israel, and by extension, the Jewish people.

Friday, January 18, 2013

An Imbalanced Look at the Orthodox Working Mother

Jewish Action published a recent multi-page spread on working mothers, during which a number of working women were interviewed about how their careers affect their ability to care for their families and their children. Does a full-time job have any negative impact on a Jewish, Orthodox mother? According to Jewish Action, the answer is a clear, emphatic, "NO". The introduction to the issue says it all.
Overwhelmed. Exhausted. Stressed. Somewhat surprisingly, few of the women we interviewed for our cover story on balancing career and family used the words above to describe their very full lives.
Their lives aren't "stressed". They're full. Balanced. Just ask the women themselves. Here are a few choice quotes.
"Even though the fellowship was very demanding with a sixty-hour-a-week commitment, it gave me the independence I needed to balance work demands with family."
"Currently, I have a very large and busy solo practice; I deliver around 600 babies a year...It used to be extremely frustrating for me when there was some school event that may have been important to my kids but wasn’t important enough that I could arrange for coverage at work. I would feel terrible missing it, but I knew if I started taking off for the little things, it would all come apart. Did I want to go help my daughter pick out her wedding dress when she was a kallah? Of course I did! But she managed on her own, and sent pictures to my phone as she shopped...
"Hashem blessed me with deep reservoirs of energy. In my day, there was no such thing as telecommuting, so I would sometimes come home from work at 5:00 pm, put the kids to bed, then go back to work until five in the morning. Then I would come home, get the kids off to school and go back to work. But not everybody can handle such a physically taxing schedule. You shouldn’t feel guilty or like a failure if you’re not able to function at full capacity on almost zero sleep.
I did certain things to stay close to my kids. When they were little, I would record stories for them to listen to..."
The irony in these pieces is that they weren't written with a sense of irony. Delivering 600 babies a year while raising a family? You can never do anything outside of work - and she alludes to the fact that they was barely at her own chidren's weddings. Recording stories to play for your kids while you're at work? Really. Here we read about women describing ridiculous schedules, which made serious demands on their time, and they really think that those choices didn't affect their families and their children? Of course they did. To think differently is naive. Some also make allusions to difficult life events: divorces in the family, problems with children's development - but the article makes no attempt to connect between the choices these women make and the results of those choices.
And what about the husbands and children? It would have been interesting - and to my mind far more informative - to ask the family members of these superwomen how they viewed the fact that mom was working so hard. Were they really as fine with it as their mother seems to think? Or, is she sweeping a great deal of dust under a very large rug?

The entire piece left me feeling confused an a bit angry. Countless families make tremendous sacrifices so that they can raise their children on their own, without relying on full-time nannies. How does an article like this one make them feel? Well, obviously they just can't get their act together. After all, look at the success of these career women who didn't have to make any sacrifices! (at least according to the article). A great line in the article: "We also pay full tuition, and sometimes I wonder if I’m killing myself trying to pay the bills while other people are getting breaks because they’re not working. It’s hard enough to pay our own tuition, so I don’t really want to subsidize someone else who’s not sweating as hard as I am to meet the payments." Now it's not just a choice. No, it's wrong for a parent to work less. That costs everyone else more!

I don't know how I feel about the issue of working mothers. My wife works, and we depend on her income to survive financially. (she doesn't work full-time, but when you add the hours of grading that she does at home, it comes close!) Moreover, she needs the intellectual and personal stimulation from her work, her teaching colleagues, and her professional life.
But I still struggle with the issue (and I've got a good amount of Judaic knowledge and learning in my background). So I began to wonder: doesn't Judaism have something to say about this? Wouldn't it have made sense for the OU to ask...a rabbi about Judaism and the role of women? Or a female scholar? Someone with some Jewish knowledge?
Does the Torah have anything to say about an issue that the vast majority of Orthodox families struggle with? I daresay it does.
Moreover, the OU should have at least have interviewed the other side of the coin, families where parents do stay home and work less. What sacrifices does that entail? How hard is it really? What are the ramifications of making that type of choice?
Then the article about "Striking A Balance" would have been somewhat balanced. As published, the Jewish Action piece on working mothers had very little to say about a very important issue.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Audio Shiur: Parshat Bo - Becoming a Nation Anew Each Year

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Bo - Becoming a Nation Anew Each Year

A troubling article by a YU student recently published in the Jerusalem Post highlighted to me the growing gulf between the Jewish community in America and that of Israel. The text of the commandment for the Korban Pesach reveals important truths about the sacrifice and the meaning behind the ritual - and what it means (and doesn't mean) to be a Jew today.

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Saturday, January 12, 2013

It Must Be Confusing to Be Sephardic

No, I'm not writing about reciting Selichot at midnight for a month before Rosh Hashanah (although I'm happy I don't have to do that as well). Rather, I'm writing about the upcoming elections. It's got to be really confusing if you're Sephardic. I am, of course, writing about the ads now running across Israel.

First, I saw this ad:

I'll translate:
Whose heart pains him over the weak and the poor? The Sephardim have compassion for the poor...We have the Shas movement, the only movement of the Sephardim" (from the words of Maran [Ovadia Yosef] during his weekly shiur)
A Religious Sephardi Votes Shas! So ruled Maran.

There you have it. If you're Sephardi, you ostensibly follow the halachic rulings of Rav Ovadia, and he ruled that one votes for Shas. (Actually, if you read the text carefully, nowhere did Rav Ovadia "rule" anything. But I dare not quibble with the Shas people writing their ads. If they say Rav Ovadia ruled vote Shas, who am I to disagree?

But then, I turned the page. Literally. In some papers, on the very next page, was this ad:

I'll again translate:
"Anyone who decides in his heart to immerse himself in Torah and not work, and will be supported from charity - this person desecrates the Name [of God] and denigrates the Torah and extinguishes the light of religion and causes harm to himself and removes his life from the world to come (From the Mishneh Torah of Rambam).
Anyone who really wishes to [enact] change is willing to pay a heavy price. Like Rav Amsallam.
Only one who fights with vigor against the massive "business interest"can fight racism and extremism, the integration of Chareidim into society and the army, and to build a bridge between the religious, the secular, and the other parts of the nation.
Only someone who comes from the inside.
Not Livni, not Lapid, and also not Bennett...and certainly not Shas. Because creating change demands strength.
The choice of the Strong!

Aside from the fascinating historical assumptions that the ad makes and the incredibly direct attack on Shas, calling it a corrupt, self-interested party of hacks who lack vision, strength and any sense of integrity - the ad must be confusing.

After all, how could Maran tell us to vote for Shas if Rambam himself would have voted Am Shalem? Did the Shulchan Aruch pasken like the Rif and the Rosh against the Rambam? Is there some Sephardi precedent that told Rav Ovadia to ignore Rambam here?

How is a Sephardic religious voter to know how to vote?

It must be so confusing.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Which Politician Is Frummest? (And Not the Relgious Ones)

It's becoming increasingly clear that the Israeli public will vote in a right-leaning government, a fact that seems logical, given that the left-wing goal of giving land to the Arabs for free hasn't worked out all that well (read here: rockets falling on the south). The real question is how right wing?
People here take it for granted that Bibi Netanyahu and Likud will once again garner the most votes and remain Prime Minister. The big fight is who takes second (and third and fourth) place. For years, the religious Zionist population has been slowly migrating to the Likud. Sick and tired of an ineffective, sectarian leadership running the classic religious parties (Mafdal, Ichud Haleumi, etc.), religious voters turned to the Likud in ever increasing numbers, a fact evident by the sizable list of religious Likud members of Knesset.
All that has quickly changed with the sudden rise of Naftali Bennett, whose charisma, freshness and success (personally, militarily and professionally - he sold his high-tech firm for somewhere around $150 million) has drawn voters from across the spectrum.
Plenty of commentators fill the blogosphere with political screed. I'm much more interested in the cultural shift that Bennett's rise both indicates, and has accelerated. On his Facebook feed (which is really worth following), Bennett recently shredded Tzippi Livni, who doesn't actually seem all that interested in her own candidacy, truth be told. The interview is a great lesson in talking points and political strategy. Yet, at the end of the interview, the host (who was interviewing both Livni and Bennett) asked her about whether she'd be celebrating the New Year in a club. He was clearly waiting to ask her the question in order to show footage of her dancing and make her look silly. She gave a glib answer, and then the host turned to Bennett and asked the same question. He said, "First of all, I'm a terrible dancer. But more importantly, the New Year that I celebrate is Rosh Hashanah on the first of Tishrei." Poor Livni was left to insist that she too celebrates the New Year on Rosh Hashanah, of course. Ouch.
It was no surprise to see that the on the very next day, Livni took a visit guessed it, the Kotel. She's got a lot to daven for, and it probably doesn't hurt to have her photo taken as she's praying for political salvation.
On Netanyahu's Facebook feed, he sends out Shabbat Shalom greetings, and shares insights from his monthly Tanach group. The entire country is bending over backwards to demonstrate just how frum, how Nationalistic, and how connected to the Jewish people he or she really is. They're all fighting for the vote of the religious and traditional community, in any way they can.