Monday, March 31, 2014

Framing the Conflict

In yet another attempt to once again show “both sides” of the Middle East conflict, the New York Times recently ran a story about Muqdad Salah, who has been trying to build a life for himself after being released from prison in exchange for ongoing peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. Yet, in its quest for balance, the story highlights the great imbalance – in attitude and action – between Israel and the PA.

The Money and the Message
Salah, who murdered Israel Tenenbaum, a seventy-two-year-old Holocaust survivor in his sleep, “was welcomed before dawn by a cacophonous crowd…of 4,000 near the Palestinian financial hub of Nablus.” Munqeth Abu Atwan, who works at the PA’s Prisoner’s Ministry, says that, “We receive them as national heroes, we give them awards and medals,” a quote taken at face value, without question.
Furthermore, Saleh was paid $50,000 by the Palestinian Authority, and receives an $1,800 monthly stipend – in addition to the payments that were made to his family over the past twenty years. What exactly were these payments for? Where is this money coming from, especially in light of the fact that the PA, corrupt and bankrupt, cannot even pay its own employees? What message do these payments – and the celebration of murderers – convey to the thousands of Palestinian children looking for a way to give themselves and their families a leg up? Mr. Saleh sits in his living room, “under a framed portrait of himself in a quasi-military uniform bearing the honorary rank of brigadier general.” He sees himself as a military hero, as does the governmental authority that pays him. How is that supposed to lead to peace?

The NY Times Agenda
“Only one prisoner has been rearrested, for failure to pay property taxes, a matter that was quickly resolved.”  The New York Times is also subtly trying to encourage more prisoner releases by implying that these prisoners aren’t dangerous, nor do they represent a threat to Israel. Aside from the fact that releasing prisoners encourages others to commit similar crimes, figuring that they’ll eventually be released (which rings true, if you think about it) has the Times done a comprehensive survey of the activities of former prisoners to know that they haven’t been involved in terrorist activities?
“I’m away from the conflict now,” Mr. Salah said. “I’ve paid the tax in full. If tomorrow there is a third intifada, I’ll sit on this couch, and watch it on TV.” So we’re supposed to feel better that Mr. Salah himself won’t engage in the violence. He’ll just encourage it and watch it unfold on TV.

What about Justice?
The ongoing prisoner releases, in exchange for essentially nothing except a willingness to continue talking – raises the thorny issue of fairness. What about justice for the victims, and those who continue to live with the aftermath of terrorism and murder? “I want to travel. I want to see people. I want to breathe the air, I want to walk,” Mr. Saleh says. I’m sure he does. Don’t we think that’s exactly what Mr. Tannenbaum wanted – “to breathe the air, to walk”? What about the desires of his widow, “Mina, now 86, savors a snapshot of them dancing the tango.” (I do give kudos to the Times for giving the family ample space in the story. They are, indeed, an important part of the story).
“Ms. Harris, (Mr. Tenenbaum’s daughter) who lives next to her parents’ home in Ein Vered, did not attend Mr. Salah’s trial, and even now does not know his name. ‘I don’t believe hate and anger will move anything forward,’ she said. ‘I was ready, maybe, to sit opposite him at this table, for him to convince me that he supports peace.’”
As much as the New York Times would love for that to happen, from the article that appeared in the paper this week, that meeting will not take place anytime soon.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Men's Seder Final 5774 Update

A few final update for this year's Men's Seder.

I got another email from Potomac about the "Beth Sholom Seder Summit which said that they now have over 500 guys registered, and they're adding an initiative encouraging people to bring in a suit or sports jacket that will be donated to an organization that provides professional clothing to those who don't have the financial wherewithal to be dressed appropriately for an interview or job. ( It's really impressive. Keep up the great work Beth Sholom!

My friend Rabbi Barry Gelman sent me the flyer for this year's Man's Seder in Houston - their 9th Annual!

Rabbi Adam Starr of the Young Israel of Toco Hills in Atlanta shared the flyer for their first Mans Seder. Amazing.

That makes Mans Seders in: Michigan, Chicago, Atlanta, Maryland (which is Sold Out!) and Houston

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Shabbat Drashah…and Controversy Part 2 – The Dvar Torah

(Continued from this post)

What’s the difference between watching a sporting event at home and watching it live at the stadium? In many ways, it’s better to watch at home. You don’t have to deal with the parking, the trip, the crowds, or the eight-dollar beverages. You don’t have to wait in line to go to the bathroom. And, at the end of the day, it’s the same game, no matter where you’re watching from, isn’t it?
Actually, it’s not.
Anyone who has ever attended a really good game immediately knows that there’s nothing like being there, during the event, watching it live. Sure, it feels great when you watch the slugger on your favorite team hit a game winning homer from your living room. But there’s nothing like being there and watching it live. There’s a passion and an excitement that doesn’t transmit through the television.
What’s the primary difference between the two experiences? The crowd.
When you’re at the game, you’re sharing an experience with thousands of other fans, who are just as excited as you about the hit, or the goal or the touchdown. You find yourself high-fiving the guy sitting in the row behind you, even though you have no idea who he is. That shared experience carries a power and energy that simply doesn’t exist in the privacy of our own homes - the larger the crowd, the better. The same game is just better – more fun, more exciting - when it’s played before a sellout crowd. A movie is funnier, or more exciting, or more dramatic when you’re watching it in a packed theater than when you’re sitting at home watching it on your iPad.
That’s the nature of the human experience: The larger the setting and the more people we share it with, the deeper, more enriching the experience will be.
What’s true for sporting and cultural events applies equally to communal life as well. This past Purim night, our community gathered together for an incredible Purim party. It was really impressive: somehow, the organizers managed to build a real Shtetl, with real booths and stalls. The program was lovely and meal tasty. But those elements didn’t make the program great. What made it great was the fact that so many couples came, participated, and had a great time. Those same booths and that same meal wouldn’t have been nearly as good had only twenty couples attended. But with almost two hundred people, it was an event that we’ll talk about until next year.
This principle – the notion that the community makes the experience – can explain a strange episode that read about in Parashat Shemini.

The opening section of Shemini describes the initiation of Aharon and his sons as Kohanim and the different sacrifices and rituals offered in the process. Moshe makes the ritual a very public event, witnessed by the entire nation. Moreover, Moshe makes them an exciting promise.
וַיִּקְחוּ, אֵת אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-פְּנֵי, אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד; וַיִּקְרְבוּ, כָּל-הָעֵדָה, וַיַּעַמְדוּ, לִפְנֵי ה'. וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה ה' תַּעֲשׂוּ--וְיֵרָא אֲלֵיכֶם, כְּבוֹד ה'  - ויקרא ט:ה-ו
And they brought that which Moses commanded before the tent of meeting; and all the congregation drew near and stood before the Lord. And Moses said: 'This is the thing which the LORD commanded that ye should do; that the glory of the Lord may appear unto you.'
Moshe promised them that when the whole thing was over they would see and experience the glory of God. One can imagine their excitement and anticipation. After months of donations, collections, craftsmanship, work and a lot of waiting, the people would finally see the fruit of their labors. More importantly, they would once again experience the very real presence of God that had avoided them since the tragic sin of the Golden Calf. They would know, once and for all, that they had been forgiven and redeemed.
At first, everything goes off without a hitch. Aharon and his sons offer the sacrifices as instructed. And, when Aharon concludes the Avodah he even blesses the nation.
But nothing happens. At least at first, no glory of God appears.
וַיִּשָּׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת-יָדָו אֶל-הָעָם, וַיְבָרְכֵם; וַיֵּרֶד, מֵעֲשֹׂת הַחַטָּאת וְהָעֹלָה--וְהַשְּׁלָמִים. וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן, אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, וַיֵּצְאוּ, וַיְבָרְכוּ אֶת-הָעָם; וַיֵּרָא כְבוֹד-ה', אֶל-כָּל-הָעָם.  וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ, מִלִּפְנֵי ה', וַתֹּאכַל עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, אֶת-הָעֹלָה וְאֶת-הַחֲלָבִים; וַיַּרְא כָּל-הָעָם וַיָּרֹנּוּ, וַיִּפְּלוּ עַל-פְּנֵיהֶם.  - ויקרא ט:כב-כד
And Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people, and blessed them; and he came down from offering the sin-offering, and the burnt-offering, and the peace-offerings. And Moses and Aaron went into the tent of meeting, and came out, and blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared unto all the people. And there came forth fire from before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt-offering and the fat; and when all the people saw it, they shouted, and fell on their faces.
After Aharon blesses the nation, he enters the Mishkan with Moshe. Sometime later they both emerge, and they both bless the nation again. Only then does the heavenly fire consume the sacrifices representing the glory of God, giving the people the redemption they had so long yearned for.
What happened? Why doesn’t the fire appear after Aharon blesses the people? Why does it only appear when he reemerges with Moshe and they bless the nation a second time?
Commentators offer a number of possible answers to address this question. I would like to suggest an answer based on Rashi’s explanation of the two different blessings given to the nation on that fateful day.
According to Rashi, when Aharon turns for the first time to bless the nation, he blesses them with ברכת כהנים – יברכך...יאר...ישא - “The blessing of the priests: May the Lord bless you…May he Shine his light [upon you]…May He lift his countenance [to you]…” Yet, when Moshe and Aharon emerge to bless the nation a second time, they offer an entirely different blessing:
אמרו ויהי נועם ה' אלוהינו עלינו (תהילים צ יז), יהי רצון שתשרה שכינה במעשה ידיכם.
They said, ‘And let the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us; [establish You also upon us the work of our hands; yea, the work of our hands establish You it.’] – ‘let it be [the will of God] that He should cause the Shechinah to dwell upon the works of your hands.”
Only after this blessing does the divine fire descend from the heavens and the glory of God appears before the nation.
What’s the difference between the two brachot? Why did God’s presence not appear after Aharon’s first brachah, but only after he and Moshe offered the second blessing?
I believe that the difference is that in the first blessing, the nation is entirely passive. We stand at attention and receive the blessing without any act on our part. Aharon (or his sons) bless us, and all we have to do is stand there to receive it.
The second blessing, on the other hand, tells a very different story. In this blessing the Shechinah appears not because we are passive – to the contrary! Shechinah – the glory of God – appears specifically due to the “work of our hands”. With this blessing we recognize that only when we make an effort can we expect to experience the glory of God. It doesn’t happen on its own. Rather, through the work of our hands we have the power to bring the Shechinah into the world.


Several weeks ago at the membership meeting for the Beit Knesset, a member brought up the issue of the lack of energy and passion during the Tefillah. He asked – and received permission – to form a committee to come up with a formula to improve the tefillah in our shul; to make it more inspiring, passionate and meaningful. He threw out a few ideas, like choosing chazzanim wisely, adding more Carlebach (or less), more dancing, etc.
Yet, while I completely agree with the sentiment and applaud the effort to improve the davening which I agree can seem at times stale and uninspiring, I’m not sure that there’s a particular formula that you can apply that will improve the situation. It’s not a recipe to which you can add a dance here, a niggun there, and expect the davening to improve. This is something that’s dependent upon all of us. The spirit of the Tefillah will only get better if we as a community want the davening to improve and only if we’re willing to work on ourselves to make it better. This means each of us focusing a bit more on the tefillah personally, but it means something else as well.
I’d like to raise an issue that’s been concerning me for some time now. You can, of course, disagree with me, as it’s my opinion. But, as I’m not the rabbi, the worst thing that can happen is that I won’t be asked to speak again, so here goes.
Oftentimes, sitting in my seat at shul during Kabbalat Shabbat, I find myself surrounded by wonderful people, reading alonei Shabbat. They’re not disturbing anyone in a real sense, but it’s demoralizing. Tefillah – and of course Tefillah B’tzibbur – is a communal exercise. It requires – and demands – that the community pray together, not just in the technical sense of proximity and presence, but in the real sense of coming together to praise God, united, as a single Kehillah. So, it’s no wonder that it’s hard to get “into” Tefillah, and the energy and passion of our shul is low when many people would rather sit and read the paper instead of praying.
This isn’t a personal criticism of any individual. I like Alonei Shabbat as much as anyone, and they can be incredibly distracting, even enticing during tefillah. It is for this reason that I sent a request to the Vaad (Board) of the shul asking that we consider distributing the Alonei Shabbat not before tefillah, but instead once tefillah has concluded. I would like to encourage our shul to take this very small step, which I believe could have a significant positive impact on our communal prayer.
If we want the Shechinah to dwell among us, it will only come from the “work of our hands.”
יהי רצון – Let it be the will of God - שתשרה שכינה במעשה ידינו - that You cause the Shechinah to dwell in our midst through the work of our hands.
Shabbat Shalom.


Having concluded my remarks, I returned to my seat, receiving a few “yashar koachs” on the way, ready to start Ma’ariv. It’s at that point that the controversy began.

(To be continued)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Shabbat Drashah…and Controversy - Part 1

Every Friday, over twenty organizations from across the religious spectrum publish alonei Shabbat – Shabbat Sheets, which cover the gamut of issues, politics, news and personalities in the Religious Zionist world. Some of these alonim are indeed short, but many are full magazines and newspapers catering to different small slices of the Religious Zionist population. Advertisers pay thousands upon thousands of shekel to reach this coveted audience which, unplugged from their cellphones, tablets and laptops, must instead thumb through the full-color pages of these publications for free news and information. From Olam Katan (which caters to the young, but which everyone reads) to Giluy Da’at to Matzav Haruach to Shabbaton to Shabbat B’shabbato…the list goes on and on (you can access a majority of the Alonei Shabbat here). Oh, and they also have some divrei Torah. 

The publishers distribute these Shabbat sheets in the most economically feasible manner – by giving them out in shul. The average shul attendee in Israel on Friday evening, arrives (if he arrives on time) to a smorgasbord of Alonim, from which he selects his favorites – or all of them. This is fine, if our friendly shul-goer puts his pile of sheets in his talit box and takes them home after davening. But, as we all know, that’s not what happens. Most people end up leafing through the pages either during davening itself, or during the dvar Torah between Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma’ariv.

I have tried to teach my children that we don’t read the alonim during davening (speeches are another matter entirely). Nonetheless, sometimes, I find myself sitting in Kabbalat Shabbat, literally surrounded by people reading the paper, and not davening. I find it both demoralizing and disturbing. Yet, one might legitimately wonder why I care what the people around me are doing. After all, at least they're not talking. The guy reading the alonim next to you isn’t making any noise. Isn’t it his business what he chooses to do during the davening? Why should his reading bother me?

I don't think so, for reasons that I will so explain.
And, when the head of our shul's education committee called me last Monday and asked me if I would be willing to give the dvar Torah on Friday night, I knew exactly what I was going to speak about.

Little did I realize that I was about to spark a controversy much larger than the issue of alonei Shabbat…

(To be continued)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Audio Shiur: Parashat Shemini - Aharon's Burden

Audio Shiur:
Parashat Shemini - Aharon's Burden

The issue of the Eigel Hazahav plays a primary role throughout the first section of Parashat Shemini. From the final sacrifices of the "yemei miluim" to the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon can never free himself fully from the weight of the Golden Calf.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Audio Shiur: Parshat Zachor - The Essence of Amalek

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Zachor - The Essence of Amalek

How did Amalek attack us? Why? Could we have prevented or avoided their attack? Careful reading of a single passuk demonstrates that these questions are more complicated than we might have thought.

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Monday, March 10, 2014

Purim and Panem

At the Presidential Palace in Shushan (Panem)
I recently saw Catching Fire, the second Hunger Games film, which depicts a world in which a vibrant, rich, ostentatious capitol survives by enslaving and oppressing surrounding regions which must support and supply its largesse. During the movie, the two main characters find themselves at a magnificent party at the President's palace. Encouraged to eat yet another treat, Peeta explains that he cannot eat another bite. To this he is offered a glass of liquid in a fancy goblet. When he asks about the liquid he is told that the liquid makes you throw up, so you can then continue eating. "How else can you taste everything here?"
That's the world of the Capitol: A life of fancy television programs; of fantasy and fashion on the surface, firmly rooted in and dependant on oppression, torture and murder. Beauty in the Capitol literally is only skin deep, as an entire society justifies the systematic murder of children as ultimately in the long-term best interest of society.

Then it came to me. Panem is Shushan. Where else would a king demand that his queen appear "in all her glory" for everyone to see, but a place that values externality and excess over substance. Where else would you find a "feast for all his princes and his servants; the army of Persia and Media, the nobles and princes of the provinces, being before him; when he showed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the honour of his excellent majesty, many days, even a hundred and fourscore days"? (1,3-4) The Megillah takes pains to describe, in painful detail, the emphasis on the external, the beautiful, the magnificent.
There were hangings of white, fine cotton, and blue, bordered with cords of fine linen and purple, upon silver rods and pillars of marble; the couches were of gold and silver, upon a pavement of green, and white, and shell, and onyx marble.  And they gave them drink in vessels of gold--the vessels being diverse one from another--and royal wine in abundance, according to the bounty of the king. (1,6-7)

Before the maidens could be brought before the king for their night-long "examination", they had to undergo extensive preparations:
Now when the turn of every maiden was come to go in to king Ahasuerus, after that it had been done to her according to the law for the women, twelve months--for so were the days of their anointing accomplished, to wit, six months with oil of myrrh, and six month with sweet odours, and with other ointments of the women... (Esther 2,12)
And when the king wishes to give honor to an unnamed favorite, what advice does Haman give? 
Let royal apparel be brought which the king useth to wear, and the horse that the king rideth upon, and on whose head a crown royal is set; and let the apparel and the horse be delivered to the hand of one of the king's most noble princes, that they may array the man therewith whom the king delighteth to honour, and cause him to ride on horseback through the street of the city, and proclaim before him: Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delighteth to honour.' (Esther 6,8-9)

How about a better job? A raise? Greater responsibility? Nope. Those things don't seem to cross Haman's mind. All that matters is external glory: to be "seen" in the king's garb, riding the king's horse. Haman is totally tapped into the Shushan vibe: You want to honor me? I want to look even better than I already do. What can the king give a man who spent his days and nights with the king himself? What better than to dress like the king?

The facts themselves aren't that interesting. Rather, more interesting is the external emphasis as described in such numbing detail in the Megillah. Who cares that each maiden spent six months sitting in myrrh oil and six months sitting in other sweet scents? But that's precisely the point. They cared. In Shushan, not only were these details important. They were the most important details. A girl wouldn't dream of appearing before the king without the "right" clothes, having the "right" stylist.

This, the Megillah teaches us, is how we recognize that a society has rotted to its core. When style trumps substance, and success is measured in terms of popularity and style - to the exclusion of any other consideration. It is at this point that society is primed for moral indifference. Genocide is fine, as long as it puts on a pretty face.

Purim is all about opposites. ונהפוך הוא. Left is right, up is down. Ahashveirosh rules the world, yet he cannot even remove a law he dislikes. Haman, armed with the signet of the king is all-powerful, until the moment of truth arrives, and he finds himself groveling on the ground for his life. Esther is the meek, moldable queen, until she reveals that she has been masterminding the story all-along. Finally, Mordechai, the lowly and degraded Jew, shows the world what happens when a Jew refuses to prostrate himself, and stands up for his pride and his people.
Our celebration of Purim reflects this inverted reality.
On Purim, we "dress up", wear masks and pretend to be someone other than ourselves, until we drink enough that we can no longer conceal our inner secrets. נכנס יין, יצא סוד. – "When wine enters, secrets emerge."
Purim is about peeling back the layers of the onion; peeling off the rotten external shell, to find vibrant, sharp and powerful layers lying deep beneath the surface. Purim forces us to confront stark truths and to wonder whether we aren't just fooling everyone else, but ourselves as well.

Where do we live? Do our lives revolve around internal truths, guided and grounded by firm moral and spiritual principles? Or do we live in the Capitol of Panem/Shushan, where externalism, fashion and show matter most, and carry the day? Purim isn't just a day of costumes and revelry. Rather, on the day that we put on our play masks, we take off our real masks as well.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Audio Shiur - Parshat Vayikra - In Defense of Animal Sacrifice

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayikra - In Defense of Animal Sacrifice

Animal sacrifice plays a central role throughout the book of Vayikra (and much of the Torah). Yet, most religious Jews find the notion of animal sacrifice distasteful, at best, if not downright troubling. How do reconcile ourselves to this seeming conundrum? I offer my defense for animal sacrifice, coming to a Beit Hamikdash near me soon.

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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Nauseating Video

A siyyum - the celebration of the conclusion of a major Jewish work - be it a Mesechet (tractate) of Gemara, or a Seder (order) of Mishnah or even a book of the Tanach - is a momentous occasions. Finishing these extended works takes a great amount of time, effort and energy, and provide great reason for celebration. In fact, the Sages provided a traditional text that we recite at every siyyum. As part of that text we say:
מוֹדִים אֲנַחְנוּ לְּפָנֶיךָ ה' אלוקינו ואלוקי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ שֶׁשַּׂמְתָּ חֶלְקֵנוּ מִיּוֹשְׁבֵי בֵּית הַמִּדְרָשׁ, וְלֹא שַׂמְתָּ חֶלְקֵנוּ מִיּוֹשְׁבֵי קְרָנוֹת. שֶׁאָנוּ מַשְׁכִּימִים וְהֵם מַשְׁכִּימִים אָנוּ מַשְׁכִּימִים לְדִבְרֵי תּוֹרָה וְהֵם מַשְׁכִּימִים לִדְבָרִים בְּטֵלִים. אָנוּ עֲמֵלִים וְהֵם עֲמֵלִים. אָנו עֲמֵלִים וּמְקַבְּלִים שָׂכָר וְהֵם עֲמֵלִים וְאֵינָם מְקַבְּלִים שָׂכָר. אָנוּ רָצִים וְהֵם רָצִים. אָנוּ רָצִים לְחַיֵּי הָעוֹלָם הַבָּא, וְהֵם רָצִים לִבְאֵר שַׁחַת
We are thankful before you God, our God and the God of our forefathers, that you placed our portion among those who sit in the study hall, and did not place our portion among those that sit on the corners. That we rise and they rise. We rise for words of Torah, and they rise for useless things. We toil and they toil. We toil and receive reward, and they toil and do not receive reward. We run and they run. We run to the World to Come, and they run to the bottomless pit [of hell]...

In the text, we never really spell out who "they" are. We give thanks that we are among the portions of those who understand and appreciate the value and holiness of Torah study. But the identity of "them" - who toil worthlessly, is left to our imagination.
Until now, that is.

I didn't go to the "Million Man" Asifah (gathering) - and it wasn't a million, but who's counting? And even though they claimed that it wouldn't be a political gathering but rather simply a mass, public prayer, the gathering itself carried clear political overtones. Thankfully, it went off without a hitch. People went, prayed, and returned to their homes safely.
I've tried to keep away from the press surrounding the event. It really upsets me, and what's the point of reading things that upset you? Then someone shared with me what they're calling the "official" video from the "Asifah", put to a pseudo-rocky chassidish tune with words taken from the text we recite at a Siyyum.
Who are the "we" who sit in the Beit Midrash? The holy "we" are yeshiva bachurim, kollel students, rabbis and basically anyone at the gathering, who took time from their yeshiva schedules to leave the Beit Midrash and gather at the mass rally for yeshiva students.
And who are the "they" who do "wasteful things and are "sitting on street corners"?
"They" are the soldiers of Nachal Chariedi.

"They" are random soldiers who happened to walk through the gathering and were caught on camera.

"They" were the policemen assigned to protect the very safety of the hundreds of thousands of people who gathered at the entrance to Jerusalem!

"They" are Yair Lapid (of course).
And "they" are also Prime Minister Netanyahu, speaking to the United Nations about the threat of a nuclear Iran.

I am very rarely at a loss for words (if you know me personally, you know just how true that statement is), but I am at a loss for words.
Is there no sense of decency? Is there no appreciation at all for the sacrifice of the young men and women in the IDF and the police personnel manning their rally? You may be angry at that Prime Minister of Israel, but do you really think that he's wasting his time dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat? Most disturbingly, these are Torah values? This is what you learn when you spend your days studying Torah??
Moreover, I don't buy the argument that this video was produced by one crazy individual or a single group. It was published by a major Chareidi website. If the video doesn't reflect the values of the larger group, why would the site publish it? Wouldn't their be an outcry from the Chareidi camp? Sadly, I have yet to hear such voices.

Sometimes the obvious must be stated clearly and emphatically: No, these are not Torah values. It is a reprehensible display of hypocrisy, cynicism and selfishness to identify those who defend you, your country, your safety and your interests as people who waste their time away on the street corners.
The producers of this video can't see any of this. They can spend hours cutting and pasting and creating this video, uploading to the Internet (which is supposedly forbidden), to take a nasty swipe at anyone they dislike or with whom they disagree.
Of course I value Torah study. It is an exalted enterprise that I engage in daily; support and encourage. I spent years of my life studying Torah full time. But defending our Homeland is also  a Mitzvah - a critical one at that - and is precisely what made the Chareidi renaissance possible in the first place.
The failure of the Chareidi community to see this fact only highlights the great chasm that they have created between themselves and the rest of Israeli society and the Jewish community at large. Perhaps they do this by design - to create a sense of enmity that will distance themselves from greater Israel. I can only hope so.
How should we respond? In two ways: First and foremost, we must continue to forcefully advocate the religious significance of serving others and serving our country, and the fact that we must give thanks to God for living in this incredible time when the Jewish people proudly and forcefully defend and protect ourselves.
But there must be a negative statement as well. It's now two weeks before Purim, a time when bochurim from yeshivot will begin knocking on my (and your) door. When they do, I will ask them a simple question: Were you at the "asifah"? If the answer is yes, then I have no intention, incentive or desire to give them any donation at all. Maybe, if enough of us stop giving, that will get someone's attention.

Unraveling the Puzzle of Megillat Esther

Megillat Esther is a brilliant work.

On the one hand, it masterfully and suspensefully relates the Purim story - a story we all know. Yet, like all great books, each re-reading offers a new and unexpected pleasure. I still get a kick out of how the Megillah refers to "all the people who loved [Haman], and Zeresh, his wife." (5,10)

But, as we know, the Megillah is much more than that. Woven into the fabric of the work - hidden beneath the surface - like Esther's Jewish identity, is a core of religious identity and belief essential to our identity as Jews.

Therein lay the brilliance of Mordechai and Esther: On one hand, they wrote an entirely secular story which they spread across the known world. But, read with the proper perspective, that very same work represents a core religious Jewish text.

I'd like to give one, very simple example of how Chazal read the book of Esther.

A very famous gemara in Shabbat (88a) relates that the Revelation on Har Sinai was a bit more dangerous than we might have considered:

ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר (שמות, י"ט, יז). אמר רב אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא: מלמד שכפה הקדוש ברוך הוא עליהם את ההר כגיגית, ואמר להם: אם אתם מקבלים התורה - מוטב, ואם לאו - שם תהא קבורתכם
אמר רב אחא בר יעקב: מכאן מודעא רבה לאורייתא
אמר רבא: אף על פי כן, הדור קבלוה בימי אחשורוש; דכתיב (אסתר, ט', כז) "קיימו וקבלו היהודים" - קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר
"And they stood at the foot of the mountain" (Shemot 19,17) Said Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa: This [verse] teaches us that God held the mountain over them like a barrel and said to them, 'If you accept the Torah - very well; But if not - here is where you will be buried!"

Said Rav Acha bar Yaakov: From this [statement] there is a great criticism against the Torah (Rashi - because the Jewish people were forced to accept the Torah).

Said Rava: Nonetheless, they later accepted [the Torah] during the times of Achashveirosh, as it is written, "The Jews fullfilled and accepted" - [this means that] they fulfilled what they had already accepted.

This short piece of Aggadah is rich with meaning, and raises many important questions. Yet, I'd like to focus on the final statement of Rava who derives the fact that the Jews willingly accepted the Torah during the times of Mordechai and Esther from the words קימו וקבלו היהודים - "the Jews fulfilled and accepted."

How does Rava arrive at his conclusion? Where does he see this deeper meaning hidden in the text? The answer is, in fact, right before our eyes, if we know how to properly piece the puzzle together.

In the text of the Megillah, the verse cited seems to have nothing to do with the Torah at all, but instead seems to be about the acceptance of Purim.

;קִיְּמוּ וקבל (וְקִבְּלוּ) הַיְּהוּדִים עֲלֵיהֶם וְעַל-זַרְעָם וְעַל
כָּל-הַנִּלְוִים עֲלֵיהֶם, וְלֹא יַעֲבוֹר--לִהְיוֹת עֹשִׂים אֵת שְׁנֵי
הַיָּמִים הָאֵלֶּה, כִּכְתָבָם וְכִזְמַנָּם:  בְּכָל-שָׁנָה, וְשָׁנָה.
The Jews fulfilled, and took upon them, and upon their descendants, and upon all
such as joined themselves unto them, so as it should not fail, that
they would keep these two days according to the writing thereof, and
according to the appointed time thereof, every year; 

Yet, when we consider the verse (and the phrase at hand) one of the words seems unnecessary and unusual. Why does the verse say that קימו וקבלו - "they fulfilled and took upon themselves" when it could have simply said, קבלו היהודים עליהם ועל זרעם - "the Jews accepted upon themselves and upon their descendants". What is the extra word telling us? How can one fulfill something before he even accepts it?

Yet, this very paradox reminds us of another, similar phrase found in the Torah:

 וַיִּקַּח סֵפֶר הַבְּרִית וַיִּקְרָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם וַיֹּאמְרוּ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ד' נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע
And [Moshe] took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the ears of the nation, and they said, 'Everything that God said we will do and we will hear."

It's precisely the same progression:

קיימו -- קבלו
נעשה  -- נשמע

This, I believe, is exactly what the authors of the Megillah were hinting to at the conclusion of the Purim story.

The Jews living at that time didn't just commit themselves to keeping the holiday of Purim in the future. Rather, what precipitated the tragedy of Purim was the wholesale abandonment of the Torah after the exile from Jerusalem. The tragedy of Purim forced the Jews to make a choice: do we want to just die like Jews, or do we want to live like Jews as well.
קיימו וקבלו היהודים.

They rechose, yet again, after the events of Achashveirosh. If we're going to suffer the hatred against the Jews, ought we not live by the values that God gave us as well?
Yet another piece to the Purim puzzle.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Let it Go - and the Challenge of Modesty

Last night, the song "Let it Go" from the Disney movie "Frozen" won the Oscar for Best Original Song. I haven't seen the movie, but it has grossed over a billion dollars during the course of its Disney marketing bonanza. Moreover, the song has also gathered over a hundred million views on YouTube.
On last week's Slate Culture Gabfest, the hosts discussed the movie and song, and a specific ten second clip during which the protagonist, who is a kind of ice princess, decides that she needs to do what's right for herself, and "Let it Go" - stop acting out of concern only for the people around her. That's why, during the song, she builds herself an ice castle (or something like that...) Yet, towards the end of song, she undergoes a different type of transformation - one from a modestly dressed maiden to a slinky, Beyonce-type fashionista (who sashays sexily).

The feminist voices on the podcast loved the movie, but felt that the transformation was entirely against the movie's ethic. Why, if she really is doing what she wants, does she suddenly transform herself into Hollywood's idea of a diva?
I wonder about something else? How does this transformation affect the image of young girls and what they expect of themselves? This isn't a new issue, of course, but clearly the "before" wasn't nearly good enough.
When our daughters dress themselves up this Purim, which costume will they want to wear: the one on the left, or the one on the right?