Monday, September 30, 2013

Remembering My Bubby - Yehudis Friedman z"l

My uncle Zvi Friedman wrote the following yesterday about his mother (and my grandmother):
Today is the 32nd Yahrzeit of my mother יהודית בת הרב יצחק דוד ע"ה, Yehudis (Lichtenstein) Friedman also know as The Rebbetzin, Mommy and Bubby. My mother was a powerhouse of a woman - a real "Rebbetzin" from the old days. She would be in Shul every Shabbos making sure that the women knew where they were up to and leading the women in singing. Our house was always full of guests and there was always plenty to eat. She was active in the Sisterhood and Haddassah and all the things that an "Out of Town Rebbetzin" did. This was in addition to her raising 6 children and teaching pre-school and cooking and baking up a storm. She would collect clothing for the poor and sent tons of clothing to Israel for those who had nothing. There are generations of frum Jews because of my parents and their open home. My mother is missed by her 6 children and their spouses, 29 grandchildren, well over a hundred great grandchildren and now the start of the next generation - her great great grandchildren. Unfortunately most of her descendants never were zoche to meet her but anyone who did will never forget her. תהי זכרה ברוך.
I'd like to share a few personal thoughts that I remember about my grandmother - who died when I was all of nine years old, and yet I do remember her pretty well.

How to sweep the floor: One year, my parents took a vacation - I think to Israel, and my grandparents came down from Boston to take care of us. My grandmother thought nothing of handing me a broom and telling me to sweep the kitchen floor, which I proceeded to do, without much effect. She took the broom and explained that I was pushing too hard, and that if I wanted to sweep, I needed to do so gently. Later on I realized that while she was talking about sweeping the floor, the lesson she taught me applies to many other areas of life. Often, we move things far more effectively with a gentle sweep than with great force.

The Essential Importance of Jewish Education: For as long as I knew them, my grandparents lived in Winthrop, Massachusetts - as my uncle described - about as "out of town" as you can get. There my grandfather served as a shul rabbi for decades. Yet, my grandparents didn't always live in Winthrop. My grandfather's career began in Atlanta, Georgia (my mother used to have a southern belle accent, from what I'm told), where my grandfather served at Congregation Shearith Israel (you can read about a memorable Simchat Torah from Atlanta in the 1940s here.) Yet, my grandparents left a successful and growing pulpit in Atlanta, against the wishes of the community there, for Winthrop. It was not a move "up" in the rabbinic sense. Why did they do it? They moved for Jewish education.
The way my grandfather told me, he really didn't want to make the move - and I can well understand why. Yet, when my grandmother heard that Rabbi Soloveitchik had opened the Maimonides School in Brookline, the decision was made. They were moving - and so they did. And while her dedication and devotion certainly played a role in the fact that all of her children and grandchildren continue to follow in her footsteps and proudly live Orthodox lives, I believe it was that decision - her insistence that the family move to a city where her children would have to travel by subway on their own - but to a Jewish Day School - that made the critical difference.
It was a great sacrifice - both for her and for my grandfather. But it's a sacrifice that continues to pay divideds to this day.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sukkot: The Holiday of Fiction

Finally this summer, our shul got around to building the pergola that we’ve been planning for several years. We’ve needed a shaded space where people can congregate away from the main sanctuary and schmooze, and the pergola fits the bill perfectly. When the time came for Sukkot, the pergola seemed like a perfect shul Sukkah. The slats were built with Sukkot in mind (many wood pergolas are built that way now, with slats that slide into perforated grooves without being attached to the frame of the structure.) The only problem is the walls – or the lack of walls. Moreover, the contractor had built lovely wooden benches permanently in the ground exactly where the walls should go. What to do? Well, being that it’s Sukkot, we could build “fake” walls. That’s exactly what the rabbi did.

As you can see, he strung strings around the bottom perimeter of the sukkah forming “walls”, utilizing two halachic concepts concurrently. The first concept – “lavud”, posits that we consider strings, beams or posts within three tephachim (about a foot) of each-other to be “connected” which, for all intents and purposes, represent a solid structure. The second concept, called “gud asik”, teaches us that when wall reaches a minimum height of ten tefachim (forty inches about), an imaginary wall continues along the plane of the wall until it reaches the schach. Thus, the strings join together to form (an imaginary) wall, and the wall then rises to form (an imaginary) whole wall stretching to the ceiling. Voila! A Sukkah! Other similar halachot regarding Sukkah construction exist as well (Dofen akumah, anyone?)
It is no coincidence that Sukkot – the holiday which falls immediately after Yom Kippur -  involves a great deal of what we might call “legal fiction.” In fact, I believe that this legal fiction goes to the heart of what sitting in the Sukkah represents.
In a famous passage in Halachic Man (pp. 19-21), Rav Soloveitchik describes the manner in which the Halachic Man views the world. Instead of seeing the world as it is, he sees the world through the lens of halachic definitions. Everything he encounters is defined not by objective reality, but instead through the prism and lens of halachic paradigms.
When halakhic man approaches reality, he comes with his Torah, given to him from Sinai, in hand. He orients himself to the world by means of fixed statutes and firm principles. An entire corpus of precepts and laws guides him along the path leading to existence. Halakhic man, well furnished with rules, judgments, and fundamental principles draws near the world with an a priori relation. His approach begins with an ideal creation and concludes with a real one. To whom may he be compared? To a mathematician who fashions an ideal world and then uses it for the purpose of establishing a relationship between it and the real world, as was explained above. The essence of the Halakhah, which was received from God, consists in creating an ideal world and cognizing the relationship between that ideal world and our concrete environment in all its visible manifestations and underlying structures. There is no phenomenon, entity, or object in this Concrete world which the a priori halachah does not approach with its ideal standard. When halakhic man comes across a spring bubbling quietly, he already possesses a fixed, a priori relationship with this real phenomenon: the complex of laws regarding the halakhic construct of a spring. The spring is fit for the immersion of a zav (a man with a discharge): it may serve as mei hatat (waters of expiation); it purifies with flowing water; it does not require a fixed quantity of forty se’ahs; etc. (See Maimonides, Laws of lmmersion Pools, 9:8) When halakhic man approaches a real spring, he gazes at it and carefully examines its nature. He possesses, a priori, ideal principles and precepts which establish the character of the spring as a halakhic construct, and he uses the statutes for the purpose of determining normative law: does the real spring correspond to the requirements of the ideal Halakhah or not?
Halakhic man is not overly curious, and he is not particularly concerned with cognizing the spring as it is in itself. Rather, he desires to coordinate the a priori concept with the a posteriori phenomenon.
When halakhic man looks to the western horizon and sees the fading rays of the setting sun or to the eastern horizon and sees the first light of dawn and the glowing rays of the rising sun, he knows that this sunset or sunrise imposes upon him anew obligations and commandments. Dawn and sunrise obligate him to fulfill those commandments that are performed during the day: the recitation of the morning Shema, tzitzit, tefillin, the morning prayer, etrog, shofar, hallel, and the like. They make the time fit for the carrying out of certain halakhic practices: Temple service, acceptance of testimony, conversion, halitzah, etc. Sunset imposes upon him those obligations and commandments that are performed during the night: the recitation of the evening Shema, matzah, the counting of the Omer, etc. The sunset on Sabbath and holiday eves sanctifies the day: the profane and the holy are dependent upon a natural cosmic phenomenon - the sun sinking below the horizon. It is not anything transcendent that creates holiness but rather the visible reality—the regular cycle of the natural order.
To paraphrase the Rav, when halachic man looks at a Sukkah, he’s entirely uninterested in whether the structure is physically sound or not. Rather, his only concern is whether the building comprises a halachically valid Sukkah or not: Does the legal definition transmitted through the literature and tradition of halachah define the building as a Sukkah or not? It may very well be totally structurally unsound; a person could never live in it for very long. Yet, as long as it’s halachically a Sukkah, that’s all that really matters. It’s perfectly suitable for the mitzvah of yeshivah b’sukkah. We may add walls and decorations to assuage our sensibilities. Those elements may very well add to the beauty of the mitzvah. But, to halachic man, despite what we see with our eyes, if it’s a halachic Sukkah, that’s all that matters.
This, I think, is a critical element of the mitzvah of sitting in the Sukkah.
We live our lives struggling to balance between the world we see - success, money, power – and the underlying spiritual rules that we believe truly matter: closeness to God, self-control, subservience, spirituality. In essence, what we see blinds us to what we know.
We work all year to allow what we know to guide us, even when the two contradict one-another. On the simplest level, we refrain from work on Shabbat because we know working on the day of rest cannot bring true prosperity – despite the fact that what we see with our eyes seems to indicate the opposite. On Yom Kippur, we rise to our highest spiritual level when we abandon, to the best of our ability, the physical world which we inhabit – of pleasure, food, drink, sexuality – for a spiritual existence guided by spiritual reality. And then Yom Kippur ends and we are forced to return to our homes, to eat, drink – back to life as we know it.
Sukkot, then, represents a kind of middle ground. It’s a time of great physical joy – of dancing and celebration and rejoicing, of eating and drinking, and socializing with friends. But at the same time, we do all of those things not in our physical homes, but instead in the phantom construct we call the Sukkah – whose rules are defined not by the world we see, and whether the building could in fact protect us from the elements. It could not. Instead, we take shelter in a structure defined by halachic rules and regulations.
In essence we declare, simply by sitting in the Sukkah, that at least for another week we wish to live our lives guided not by the eyes which too often fool us, but instead by the eternal strictures which have faithfully guided the Jewish people throughout history.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Why Must I Say "I'm Sorry"?

Judaism is anything but easy. While most nations celebrate their New Year with drinking, partying and staying up late, we spend our New Year coronating God as king of the world, while we also engage in an extended process of self-evaluation and introspection. The entire period culminates with…that's right, a day of fasting spent entirely in shul.

Moreover, Teshuvah can be quite complicated. While repentance suffices for the sins I committed against God, the same cannot be said for the sins I committed against someone else. The Mishnah in Yoma (8:7) tells us that, עבירות שבין אדם למקום, יום הכיפורים מכפר – "Yom Kippur atones for sins between man and God". (Of course, you have to repent for Yom Kippur to work its magic.) But what about עבירות בין אדם לחבירו – "sins between man and his fellow man? Teshuvah is not enough. For these sins, we must do more.

שבינו לבין חברו אין יום הכיפורים מכפר, עד שירצה את חברו.  את זו דרש רבי אלעזר בן עזריה, "מכול, חטאותיכם, לפני ה', תטהרו" (ויקרא טז,ל)--עבירות שבין אדם למקום, יום הכיפורים מכפר; שבינו לבין חברו--אין יום הכיפורים מכפר, עד שירצה את חברו. 
Yom Kippur does not atone for [sins] between man and his fellow man until he appeases his friend. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria extrapolated this idea from the following verse: 'From all your sins, before God, you shall be purified." (Vayikra 16:30) Yom Kippur atones for sins between man and God. [But] Yom Kippur does not atone for [sins] between man and his fellow man until he appeases his friend.
Indeed, Rambam (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:9) adopts this approach in Mishneh Torah, stating that you must first appease the victim of your sin before Yom Kippur can offer atonement.

We've always taken this fact for granted. After all, it makes intuitive sense, at least at first. How can God forgive you if you haven't even apologized to the person you hurt? And yet, the more I think about it, the less sense it seems to make. Why indeed should I have to apologize to the person I hurt? Let's assume that I stole money from a neighbor. I feel terrible about it, and vow never to repeat my sin. Moreover, I return the money, leaving an anonymous envelope full of cash on his doorstep. I've made him whole. I confessed my sin to God, and will truly never commit that sin again. Why should I have to then go to the neighbor and confess? Why should my atonement hinge on his goodwill (or lack thereof), state of mind, and sensitivity?

Moreover, it's not so clear that the verse that Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria quotes says what we think it says. The verse he quotes says,

כִּי-בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם, לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם:  מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם, לִפְנֵי ה', תִּטְהָרוּ.
For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins shall you be clean before the Lord.
Read the last phrase again: "From all your sins shall you be clean before the Lord." It doesn't say "some". It says "all." This would seem to go against both the Mishnah and the Rambam. Yet, the translation really hinges on how you read the verse, and where you pause during the reading. I'll explain:

Option 1: If you read the phrase: מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם, לִפְנֵי ה', תִּטְהָרוּ (with a pause after the word חטאתיכם), then the phrase means "from all your sins shall you be clean before the Lord."

Option 2: If you read it without a pause after the first two words the meaning changes dramatically: מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי ה', תִּטְהָרוּ – "from all your sins [committed] before the Lord, you shall be clean."

Which reading is grammatically correct? When we check the trop (טעמי המקרא), 

מִכֹּל֙ חַטֹּ֣אתֵיכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֥י ה֖' תִּטְהָֽרוּ
we see that there's a zakef katan – a small pause – after the words מכל חטאתיכם. Option 1 is correct. The Torah seems not to distinguish between different types of sins. At least according to the simple text, Yom Kippur offers atonement whether we apologize or not.

This, I believe, is why the Mishnah notes that Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria extrapolated this idea from the verse. It's not the simple meaning. It's a drush, and the Mishnah says so explicitly. The Mishnah continues:

אמר רבי עקיבא, אשריכם ישראל, לפני מי אתם מיטהרין ומי מטהר אתכם--אביכם שבשמיים:  שנאמר "וזרקתי עליכם מים טהורים, וטהרתם . . ." (יחזקאל לו,כה), ואומר "מקוה ישראל ה'" (ירמיהו יז,יג)--מה המקוה מטהר את הטמאים, אף הקדוש ברוך הוא מטהר את ישראל.
Rabbi Akiva says: Fortunate are you O Israel! Before whom do you purify yourselves? [And] who purifies you? Your Father in Heaven! As it is said: “I will sprinkle upon you pure water and you shall become purified” (Ezekiel 36:25), and it is further said: “The hope of Israel is the Lord” (Jeremiah 17:13), just as a mikvah purifies the defiled, so too, does the Holy one Blessed is He, purify Israel.
It's a famous quote, and a beautiful idea. But is it just a nice ending to the Masechet (it is the last Mishnah of Yoma), or is Rabbi Akiva chiming in on the previous issue? One could suggest that Rabbi Akiva is in fact arguing with Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria, and suggesting that Yom Kippur purifies everyone, for every sin – regardless of what category the sin falls in. In fact, this is exactly what the Sefer Meor Einayim (quoted by the Tosfot Yom Hakippurim) suggests:

וראיתי בספר מאור עיניים (דף קכד ע"ב) דפירש דראב"ע סבירא ליה דמי שיש לו עבירות שבין אדם לחבירו אין הקב"ה מכפר לו אפי' על עבירות שבין אדם למקום. ור"ע חולק עליו וס"ל דאפילו על עבירות שבין אדם לחבירו הקב"ה מכפר אף על גב שלא ריצה את חבירו ואין דבריו מחוורין אצלי.
I saw in the book Meor Einayim who explained that Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria held that God does not offer atonement to someone with sins between himself and his fellow man – even for the sins he committed against God. Rabbi Akiva argues with him and it is his opinion that God atones even for sins committed against one's fellow man, even though he did not appease his friend. And [Meor Einayim's] words are not clear to me.
While the Tosfot Yom Hakippurim (and Rambam and pretty much everyone else) disagrees with Meor Einayim, the opinion is fascinating. Why indeed should my atonement hinge not only my asking for, but my receiving my friend's forgiveness? It's not enough just to ask; I have to actually make strenuous efforts to secure his forgiveness. Why is it so important that the person I hurt forgive me?

This is a great question to ask ourselves as we struggle to pick up the phone, call and offer a sincere apology before Yom Kippur.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Audio Shiur: Why Should I Care if My Friend Forgives Me?

Audio Shiur:
Why Should I Care if My Friend Forgives Me?

We take it as a given that we have to apologize to those whom we've hurt in order to achieve atonement on Yom Kippur. But an interesting reading of a famous Mishnah might very well indicate otherwise. Why is it so hard to say we're sorry?

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My Old New Job and a New Volunteering Experience

Several months ago, I joined the staff of Irgun Rabbanei Tzohar (on a part-time basis) to help the organization connect in a more effective way with rabbis in chutz l’aretz. (I’m still working majority-time at Orot.) Recently, most people heard of Tzohar by way of its chairman, Rav David Stav, who ran a rather public campaign for the position of Chief Rabbi of Israel. But in Israel, Tzohar is more well-known for its regular work of trying to build bridges between religious and secular society in Israel. Tzohar runs holiday-oriented programs like Shavuot night learning programs in many cities across the country, and is in the process of organizing two hundred and fifty minyanim for the general public (those who don’t normally attend shul) across Israel later this week on Yom Kippur. But those are not Tzohar’s bread and butter. Tzohar made its name by performing weddings. Thousands of weddings.
Almost immediately after the murder of then Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, the secular public in Israel harbored open animosity towards the religious public, and religious Zionist Jews specifically. It’s not difficult to understand their feelings at the time.
During that difficult and painful period, a group of rabbis began have a series of meetings to try to find a way to breach the great chasm that divided between the secular and religious public. Over time, they came upon the idea of officiating at weddings, for free. Back then, and still to some degree now, rabbis officiating at weddings can ask for a hefty sum, leaving couples feeling fleeced. More importantly, the local rabbi often acts as a functionary, performing the wedding but failing to utilize a golden opportunity to create a meaningful religious experience for an otherwise irreligious couple. In addition to the condition that Tzohar rabbis refuse payment for their services, the couples also agree to meet with the rabbi at least once before the wedding. (This is a bigger deal than it sounds like. Many secular couples have never spoken at any length with a religious person, much less a rabbi, much less been in a religious home.) Each bride also participates in special training specifically geared towards non-religious women.
At the Rabbinic Training Program
Tzohar’s founders quickly realized that they had hit on something. Couples were looking for rabbis who they could more easily relate to (and who didn’t charge money), and rabbis were also yearning for a way to reach out beyond the religious world and try and effect change in the country. Eighteen years later, Tzohar has performed over 80,000 weddings. That’s 160,000 secular couples who have met with, engaged with and been married by a religious Zionist rabbi. Think about the guests at each of those weddings, and over time Tzohar has touched a significant percentage of Israeli society.
I’m connected to this huge wedding factory (hundreds of weddings a month, thousands a year) in a small way, but after joining Tzohar professionally, I also wanted to become a Rav Mechaten – a marrying rabbi. In truth, I have been looking for a way of volunteering my time in Israel in a meaningful way. Every oleh sees his neighbor in shul periodically in his army uniform, either on the way to or from his miluim (reserve duty). The army doesn’t want me. Trust me. I even considered joining the local community watch, but never followed through. I already give shiuim in my shul – but wanted to do something “bigger.” So, over the summer I took a five-meeting course on the Tzohar “way” (Yes, even though I worked there, I still needed to take the course), and two weeks ago got my first request to marry a couple.
The young man called me immediately, and we arranged to meet in my home last night.
I must admit that even though I’ve performed enough weddings over the years, I was nervous – although I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps just the newness of the whole thing. I’ve performed weddings for non-religious people in America, but this seemed different. What about the cultural gap? Would the fact that I’m an “Anglo” matter to them? Would they be antagonistic towards Jewish tradition? Would I be able to properly answer their questions?
Truth be told, the meeting went great. The couple was lovely, and it was nice to spend the time with them. “Secular” in Israel can mean any number of things, and it turns out that this couple knew at least a little bit about Judiasm, and were open to the ideas that I shared with them. They actually want me to share a short dvar Torah under the chuppah! (The kallah had one request: Please make it relevant to the wedding. She’d apparently been at a wedding where the rabbi spoke about some topic unrelated to “anything at all”. I told her not to worry. Rena, who sat with us, also told her not to worry.) We spoke mainly about the technical aspects of the wedding, but of course touched on spiritual and religious aspects of marriage as well.
The evening ended leaving me uplifted. I felt that I had somehow reached beyond myself and my “small” circle of community and work. There was also a nice side benefit that I hadn't thought about. My kids cleared out of the dining room for the evening, but afterwards my son gave me a "thumbs up", and told me that he was proud and excited that I was doing these weddings. Hopefully, the wedding itself will go as well, but it was a good start, and feel honored, excited and privileged to be able to take part in this important project.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

An Israeli Story and the Pomegranate: A Quintessential Israeli Fruit

Israeli moment today.
The power cuts out suddenly in the house. I call the electric company. After checking, the representative (Rena - very nice, if a bit rushed) tells me that as I'm the only one who's called from Yad Binyamin, I'll need to call a private electrician to ensure that it's not my house, but the electric company's problem.
I go outside to investigate, and hear the loud sound of drilling from nearby. The noise leads me to a large truck parked outside of a huge power box, protected from the sun by a huge umbrella. A worker has dug a huge hole in front of the box, and I see huge wires protruding from the ground. Aha. Now I understand.
"Excuse me," I say. "This work wouldn't happen to be the reason why my power went out?"
"Of course it is," he replies. "Not just you. The whole neighborhood. This is a special rush job. We wanted to get the work done before Rosh Hashanah."
"Did you think of letting us know that you were going to cut the power?" I ask him.
"What," he says. "Tell the whole block? How should I do that?"
I didn't really have an answer. It seemed so obvious to me that he should have told us, and so clear to him that he shouldn't have. He picked up his phone and called his dispatcher, who assured him that his work order was indeed in the system. Sadly, Rena the customer service rep didn't know anything about it. No harm done.
"How long will it take you to finish?" I asked.
"About forty minutes," he told me, and I wished him well, and left him to work.
"Wait," he called after me.
I turned around, wondering what he wanted.
"Chag Sameach and Shanah Tovah," the electric repairman wished me.
I returned the good wishes, and walked home with a smile.

A neighbor brought some of the extra pomegranates that he culled from his tree recently. Apparently, they could only use thirty or forty and had to give some away. Opening the fruit at home, it dawned on my that more than the Sabra, the Rimon is the quintessential Israeli fruit.
On the one hand, it's proud. Name another fruit with it's own crown.
There really isn't much of a fruit. The fruit is the seeds - divided into small clusters. Sound like a country we all know and love?
It tastes terrific - really amazing.
But here's the catch. To get that great taste, you need to work hard, cutting open the fruit, removing the seeds. It almost seems like more work than it's worth, until you bite into a mouthful, and you get a burst of amazing flavor. Then you have to swallow the seeds.

That, in a nutshell, seems a lot like Israel to me. It's a lot of work to get to the flavor. And you're going to swallow some seeds to get to the taste. But it's oh so sweet and flavorful!

Wishing you all a sweet, safe, meaningful year. 

Audio Shiur: The Centrality of Akeidat Yitzchak on Rosh Hashanah

Audio Shiur:
The Centrality of Akeidat Yitzchak on Rosh Hashanah

Why does Akeidat Yitzchak play such an important role throughout the tefillot of Rosh Hashanah and the High Holidays? What does it have to do with: Adversity, Land for Peace, the Crisis in Syria, and our own personal Teshuvah?

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