Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Greatest Jewish Generation

I'm not bashful at shiva houses. After years paying shiva calls as a shul rabbi, I no longer beat around the bush. I'm not there to talk about politics or neighborhood issues. So I sit myself down as close as I can to the aveil and simply say, "Tell me about your mother."

And they always want to do exactly that. And sometimes I find myself in awe of what I learn. Take yesterday.

Last week, I received an email from Orot about the passing of Mrs. Sarah Lev, the mother of Mrs. Shoshana Feuer, who works in the office of the President of the College, and I paid a Shiva call yesterday afternoon. Nowadays, when an older Israeli passes away my first question is always, "Was she born in Israel?" (After all, so many were not, which leads to fascinating aliyah stories). So, when Shoshana told me that her mother was born in Europe, I wasn't surprised. But what Shoshana told me next moved me greatly. (I didn't write everything down, so I'm sharing from memory.)

Mrs. Lev grew up in Lodz, Poland. As a child, she studied in a Mizrachi school where she learned Hebrew, and even traveled to the United States as a Mizrachi representative to promote the values of Zionism. (I didn't even know that they sent such missions before the War!) When the Holocaust broke out, her entire family moved east – and continued to move east, until they found themselves in a Russian work camp in Siberia, where they remained until the war ended. After the war, she returned with her family westward, and eventually ended up in a camp in Germany, where she met her future husband.

In Germany, she and her husband began to care for a group of some sixty children who were orphaned during the war, many of whom knew nothing about their families. (Later in life, one refused to marry an Ashkenazi girl, for fear that she might somehow be related to him.) She taught the children Hebrew, and together with her husband became their de-facto parents, accompanying them to Israel when they made Aliyah in 1948. While they didn't remain close to all of them, they did remain quite close with a group of them, and many would bring their future husbands and brides to the Levs before getting engaged. During the shiva Shoshana pointed out an elderly-looking gentleman, about seventy years old now and said, "He made aliyah with my mother." Even now, so many years later, he came to honor and remember the only real mother he had ever had.

Thinking about the stories Shoshana told about her mother, I cannot help but find myself in awe of the tremendous suffering that Mrs. Lev and her generation endured on the one hand, and their amazing fortitude and strength on the other. By and large, they didn't talk about how hard things were (and I'm sure things were no picnic when they got to Israel either). They didn't complain. They did what had to be done. And they – their entire generation, built the country that I am blessed to live in today.

In America, we refer to the generation of Americans who fought in World War II as the "greatest generation" for similar reasons. They fought and suffered and endured, and built the country that the United States is today. The same is true of the heroes that fought Israel's wars and defeated the enemies bent on our destruction.

But we don't talk often enough about a different type of greatness; that of the thousands of Sarah Levs, who gave their strength and dedication to helping others because that's what needed to be done; who accepted their lot in life – the tremendous loss and terrible pain – often with tremendous fortitude, and literally built the country and rebuilt the Jewish people on their backs.

That generation is, inevitably, moving from this world to the World to Come. We must remember them, honor them, and cherish them – and commit ourselves to pass on their shlichut and mesirut nefesh for Klal Yisrael to the next generation who did not have the zechut to know them.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Little Patience

I've been trying to work on my patience recently, to little avail. Still working. Tonight I noticed that Haman's lack of patience brought about his downfall.
During the Purim story, when Haman, filled with anger at the fact that Mordechai refuses to bow down to him, even after being invited to the queen's private party, receives the following advice from his wife (who is specifically not listed as one of his "friends"):
וַתֹּאמֶר לוֹ זֶרֶשׁ אִשְׁתּוֹ וְכָל-אֹהֲבָיו, יַעֲשׂוּ-עֵץ גָּבֹהַּ חֲמִשִּׁים אַמָּה, וּבַבֹּקֶר אֱמֹר לַמֶּלֶךְ וְיִתְלוּ אֶת-מָרְדֳּכַי עָלָיו, וּבֹא-עִם-הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶל-הַמִּשְׁתֶּה שָׂמֵחַ; וַיִּיטַב הַדָּבָר לִפְנֵי הָמָן, וַיַּעַשׂ הָעֵץ.
Then said Zeresh his wife and all his friends unto him: 'Let a gallows be made of fifty cubits high, and in the morning speak thou unto the king that Mordechai may be hanged thereon; then go thou in merrily with the king unto the banquet.' And the thing pleased Haman; and he caused the gallows to be made. 

Yet, Haman couldn't wait until the morning. No, he had to speak to the king right away. So, that night, he made his way to the palace to receive the king's blessing to execute Mordechai.
Wouldn't you know it; he just happened to pick the absolute worst night for his request; the very same night that the king was wondering how to reward Mordechai for saving his life. Imagine if he had waited until morning. I can see the king pondering how to reward Mordechai for a while, then tabling the issue as sleep overcame him, and in the morning, forgetting about the matter entirely.
Yet, Haman couldn't wait. And his inability to act with even a modicum of patience contributed to his downfall.
Esther, on the other hand, represents a model of patience. When she finally agrees to pay an unplanned visit to the king, she sensibly instructs the people to fast together with her for three days. But then, instead of bringing her request directly to the king, she...invites him to another party. Even the way she invites him strings him along, making him wait, and wait...just to find out what it is that she wants.
וַתַּעַן אֶסְתֵּר, וַתֹּאמַר:  שְׁאֵלָתִי, וּבַקָּשָׁתִי.  אִם-מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ, וְאִם-עַל-הַמֶּלֶךְ טוֹב, לָתֵת אֶת-שְׁאֵלָתִי, וְלַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-בַּקָּשָׁתִי--יָבוֹא הַמֶּלֶךְ וְהָמָן, אֶל-הַמִּשְׁתֶּה אֲשֶׁר אֶעֱשֶׂה לָהֶם, וּמָחָר אֶעֱשֶׂה, כִּדְבַר הַמֶּלֶךְ.
Then answered Esther, and said: 'My petition and my request is-- if I have found favor in the sight of the king, and if it please the king to grant my petition, and to perform my request--let the king and Haman come to the banquet that I shall prepare for them, and I will do to-morrow as the king hath said

"Sure," she says to the king, "I'll tell you what I want, and what I risked my life to ask you...tomorrow."
It cannot be a coincidence that the king had trouble sleeping that night. Too many questions swirled around in his head to allow him to sleep, all because Esther, instead of rushing head on, took her time, and let him stew over one simple question: What does she want?
A little patience destroyed Haman, and saved the Jewish people.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Ruth Calderon's Clarion Call

In what must have been the most important speech delivered from the podium of the Knesset in years (politicians don't really talk to each other any more; they talk at each other, and rarely, if ever convince each other using something as arcane as "argument" or "logic"), Dr. Rut Calderon, in her initial speech to the Knesset as a newly elected member of Yesh Atid, essentially turned Israel's legislative body into a short Gemara shiur.
It's a powerful, insightful, and important speech. If you haven't yet watched it, you should, and if you don't understand the Hebrew, you can read a translation here although watching it is much better, because you get a sense of her masterful teaching skills. (When she opens the book, she simply stops reading her speech, and begins to teach, instinctively and masterfully. You also immediately recognize that she knows her stuff; she knows not only how to read Gemara, but is intimately familiar with Gemara terminology and idiom. This isn't a one-off of some vort she heard. She's teaching from the inside.
And her choice of which section to teach was clearly picked to send a clear message to the Chareidi world: You can't just learn Torah in a vacuum. A true student of Torah cannot simply sit on the rooftop basking in the glory of his study. Rather, he must also account for how his learning affects others around him. She said this almost explicitly:
What can I learn about this place and my work here from Rabbi Rechumei and his wife? First, I learn that one who forgets that he is sitting on another’s shoulders – will fall. I agree with what you said earlier, MK Bennett. I learn that righteousness is not adherence to the Torah at the expense of sensitivity to human beings. I learn that often, in a dispute, both sides are right, and until I understand that both my disputant and I, both the woman and Rabbi Rechumei, feel that they are doing the right thing and are responsible for the home. Sometimes we feel like the woman, waiting, serving in the army, doing all the work while others sit on the roof and study Torah; sometimes those others feel that they bear the entire weight of tradition, Torah, and our culture while we go to the beach and have a blast. Both I and my disputant feel solely responsible for the home. Until I understand this, I will not perceive the problem properly and will not be able to find a solution. I invite all of us to years of action rooted in thought and dispute rooted in mutual respect and understanding.
Of course, the Chareidi condemnation came swiftly (short English summary here). How could they not see a Gemara-learning-secular-woman as a threat to their way of life, especially when her party's clear goal is to force the Chareidi community, by and large, to leave the Beit Midrash and "share the burden".
Yet, if that's all we take away from Calderon's speech; if all we see here is a political talk, then we're missing her primary audience.

Calderon began her talk by noting her secular upbringing, (it really was a masterful speech, crafted with great care and skill. And I'm pretty critical of such things) devoid of any spiritual or true religious content. Yet, she spoke of herself as an example of her entire generation.
The Torah is not the property of one movement or another. It is a gift that every one of us received, and we have all been granted the opportunity to meditate upon it a we create the realities of our lives. Nobody took the Talmud and rabbinic literature from us. We gave it away, with our own hands, when it seemed that another task was more important and urgent: building a state, raising an army, developing agriculture and industry, etc.
It's not that the Chareidim took the Gemara, or Jewish tradition, away from secular Israelis. We, she said, didn't want it. We had other things to do. But in building a powerful, advanced, strong state, we forgot about our souls,and built a secular state devoid of meaning, empty of spiritual and cultural richness.
The people of Israel vaulted Yesh Atid to prominence on the power of the slogan "Shivyon B'netel" - or "Sharing the burden equally." Yet, Calderon wasn't simply calling to the Chareidim to serve in the army and pay taxes. She does, of course, call for that. But she wants the sharing of the burden to go the other way as well.
She wants secular Israel to recognize that the Torah isn't just the possession of the Chareidi world. They too must "share the burden." They too must delve into the richness and depth of Jewish tradition, to make it part of their cultural identity.
I aspire to bring about a situation in which Torah study is the heritage of all Israel, in which the Torah is accessible to all who wish to study it, in which all young citizens of Israel take part in Torah study as well as military and civil service. Together we will build this home and avoid disappointment.
Calderon concluded her remarks by mentioning the passing of her teacher, the late Rabbi David Hartman, who she said, "opened up the doors of his beit midrash for me." With all the numerous eulogies commemorating the contribution Hartman made to the Jewish world, the Orthodox world has been curiously silent about his death. Personally, I've never studied any of his books, and am only vaguely aware of the institute that he founded decades ago. His life, and his passing, seemed unrelated to my life - or that of the Orthodox world - in any tangible way. That is, until I heard Calderon's talk.
Perhaps her talking about forcing the Chareidi world to "share the burden" scares them. But perhaps the other side of her talk scared them even more.
To my mind, we can only hope that Calderon has the vision, power and influence to turn her dream into a reality. While I might not agree with all of her conclusions about each text, that matters to me much less than the fact that she has the potential to bring Torah to the masses in an unprecedented way. (As of this writing, her talk/she has been viewed over 120 thousand (!!) times. When is the last time any Torah shiur of any kind had been watched that many times?)
I hope she succeeds.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Mishnah Yomit Follow Up

Got the following Questions via email, so I thought that I'd share:

Rav Reuven,
We’ve tried this – but we just end up with so many questions.  We’ve used Art Scroll, Kehati, and even the extremely thorough site of Rabbi Pogrow -
But, how do you get thru it?  Do you just gloss over the questions?
Per your post, you’re about to start Arba Avos Nezikin.   Will you discuss the machlokes Rav and Shmuel?  And that there aren’t really 4? Will you discuss how the mishna attempts to derive one from the others – in only a half-hearted manner?   So many more  questions– how do get thru it?
Finally, would you be willing to open your blog to mishnayos questions? Or do you know someone who would?
Phil Goode.
P.S.  I was not able to post this as a comment on your blog since I don't have a blog ID.
Hi Phil,
Thanks for the email. From my perspective, at some point, you're not learning Gemara, you're learning Mishnah, so you can't answer every question. Mishnah is more about information than about gaining a complete understanding of very complex issues. 
Personally, Bezalel and I learn the Mishnah, and then read Kehati's commentary. Usually we don't go any deeper than that. I think if I (or he) drew it out any longer than that, we'd have never made it this far. We usually learn about 15 minutes a day (on average), and that seems about right to me for mishnah yomit.
Re your last point, I don't think my blog is the best place for mishnah questions, but if you want to ask via email, I'm happy to try and answer.
Reuven Spolter

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Audio Shiur: Parshat Terumah - Equality

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Terumah- Equality

Does God like rich people? You'd think so, but it all depends on how they use their money.

Click here to navigate to the shiur on

Click to play the Shiur (or right-click to download)

Now you can subscribe to this shiur as a podcast, directly from iTunes! To subscribe, click here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Mishnah Yomi with a Child. Just Do It.

Almost two and a half years ago, I started doing the Mishnah Yomi program together with my son Bezalel, when the cycle began at Brachot. (He reads, and I listen and comment ever so often). While he at first resisted, after about a week he came to value it about as much as I do. We're now almost three Sedarim in, hoping to finish Masechet Kiddushin later this week and begin Seder Nezikin.

While the learning itself is good (and important), I'd like to put in a plug to you, my reader, to give the father-son (or mother-son, or father-daughter, or mother-daughter) Mishnah Yomit a try. I can give you quite a large number of reasons:
1. Systematically working through Mishnah exposes you to a wide variety of topics and subjects and gives you a sense of the scope of halachah and Jewish law.
2. It only takes a few minutes a day
3. Like daf Yomi, the fact that it's a daily program, forces one to learn even a little bit each day. Unlike Daf Yomi, it's only two mishnayot. Bite size chunks.
4. Even though I didn't think that I had the time, it's clear that I did. We make the time.
5. Here's where the parent-child learning gets important: There have been days when I've been so mad at my son that I didn't want to talk to him, much less sit and learn with him. But the Mishnayot keep coming, and there's no way to stop them. So we learn. And this forced communication, especially when we're struggling to communicate, is powerful and important.
6. You can accomplish a great deal just doing a little bit over time. It's only two mishnayot a day, and now we're almost done with three Sedarim, that we've learned together.
6a. Even when we're apart, we still find ways to learn together. We've done the Mishnah via Skype, phone, Google Hangout - the Mishnah has forced me to spend time with my son, even when I didn't "have" the time.
7. My son's reading and learning skills have grown tremendously over time.
8. Finally, the Mishnah often covers topics, like sexuality, fairness, and other issues, that gave me, as a parent, an opening to discuss topics that I may not have been comfortable breaching in another forum with my teenage son. Halachah doesn't mince words, and at some point when you learn a Mishnah you have to say, "Do you know what that means?" and if he doesn't, explain it. What better way to broach difficult and challenging topics than over the study of Torah.

So, to sum up, Just Do It! Even if you think you don't have the time, as soon as you're doing this for a month, you'll realize that you do. Don't know how to learn Mishnah that well? Buy an Artscroll, or Kehati, or listen online. You can even find a podcast from the OU. Seder Nezikin begins this Friday.
You will never regret joining the program. That's a guarantee.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Populist Rabbi

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner recently penned a scathing piece which he published both online and in print (in a Shabbat sheet distributed in shuls throughout the country) entitled "The Populist Rabbi", in which he excoriated rabbis who issue halachic rulings and statements for the sake of populism and popularity, and who, in their desire to make Judaism palatable to a secular an irreligious public, play down certain aspects of Jewish law and life, issue lenient rulings, and deride rabbis who take an opposite view.
It seems obvious that Rav Aviner's words are a thinly veiled swipe at Beit Hillel, a new rabbinic organization that arose specifically to do the very things that Rav Aviner accuses them of doing. I say this because Rav Aviner wrote the following, immediately after Beit Hillel promoted the fact that it has enjoyed a wonderful and productive meeting guessed it, Rav Aviner.
The populist Rabbi unrelentingly seeks to receive the legitimacy of the great Torah luminaries -- and he does not succeed. Yet since those great luminaries relate to him with love and brotherhood and peace and friendship, he very often interprets that position as agreement. 
Rav Aviner's piece has generated a flurry of internet activity (much of it on closed rabbinic email lists, some out in public), mostly critical of his piece. They wonder about the timing, placement and appropriateness of his criticism.
Rav Yuval Sherlo makes two interesting points about the criticism of populist rabbis: On the one hand, how is anyone to know the true motivations of another? Who are we to judge the "for the sake of heaven" of someone else, especially in areas of religious life? At the same time, accusations of populism go both ways. The same swipe can boomerang: you can be a lenient populist, or a strict populist. Both are catering to a crowd; they're just looking for support from different groups.
Who's right? As with many arguments that really are "for the sake of Heaven", both are right.
Of course there's a danger of populism in rabbinic life. This blog is a populist enterprise. I don't write everything I think, and often censor myself for personal, political or even politically correct reasons. (Just ask Jeremy Gimpel about whether it's wise to say everything we believe to be true). At the same time, that desire to be "accepted" can be quite dangerous: at what point does a populist like myself become so devoted to the populist cause that he begins to truly distort the truth for the sake of acceptance? That's a very difficult question to answer.
On the other hand, living in the "four amot of the Beit Midrash" can give a person a myopic view, disconnected from the people that want a connection to Jewish life. Failure to translate the eternal values of Jewish life to the masses will ultimately not enhance Judaism, but degrade it.
Both Beit Hillel and Rav Aviner have important points to make, and it behooves rabbis - populist or not - to try and find the proper balance between rigidity and populism, appropriate for their specific communities.
And yet, while both are correct, somehow having this dispute out in public diminishes its value. (I find it commendable that Beit Hillel did not respond, and hope that they maintain their radio silence on this issue.)
Some arguments, as important as they may be, belong safely within the walls of the Beit Midrash.