Friday, April 25, 2014

Audio Shiur: Why You Should Live in Israel According to Rav Shaul Yisraeli

Audio Shiur:
Why You Should Live in Israel According to Rav Shaul Yisraeli

Rav Yisraeli, in essay on Yom Ha'atzmaut, offers a number of suggestions why it's better for a religious Jew to live in Israel than in Passaic. But his final answer, quoting Rav Kook, sets our sights much, much higher.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

An Amazing Visit to Amatzia

On Pesach, we're always looking for interesting, cheap, uncrowded tiyyulim. There's an organization called Iggud Hamidrashot, which is a loose conglomerate of dozens of tiny Midrashot which comprise small groups of young women doing national service by teaching about the Land of Israel. The Iggud put out a brochure before Pesach with a bunch of flyers advertising different programs over Chol Hamoed, and the first one, from Midreshet Hadarom, caught my eye.

The flyer invited you to see the new archaeological finds in Amatzia, which is the Lachish Region. It caught my eye because I knew that Lachish was relatively close to our house - about a half-hour drive on relatively unpopulated roads (and who wants to fight traffic on Chol Hamoed?). So we loaded up the car, ran to the grocery store for BBQ supplies (hey, it was Pesach), and took off south.

When the tour began, we walked through a fence outside the yishuv, and from there took a short walk up a gravel road. It was there that our tour guide explained that this area would in fact be the new home of Karmei Katif, which would house families that had been expelled from their homes almost 8 years ago. Yes, they're still living in caravans.

But when they went to clear the area to prepare it for houses, they made some amazing discoveries. They found an ancient house, including a bath, and perhaps a mikveh, that they believe existed in Roman times, some two thousand years ago.

You can see the intact floor tile from that period in the background - which we were all walking on. Our tour guide from the Midrasha (who recognized our daughter Leah from a tour she had given to the girls from school) told us that the site would probably not be preserved, as it was slated for future housing. Seemed to make sense to us. You can't preserve everything. Anywhere you dig in Israel you find an ancient site. But the view from that house was breathtaking. (click the picture to enlarge)

I couldn't help but think, standing on that hill and surveying the mountains in the distance, that someone stood on this very hill and enjoyed the same incredible view two millenia ago - and how appropriate it is that in a year or two a Jewish family will be enjoying the self-same view, returning this hill to its rightful owners.

We then progressed down a hill to another huge clearing, where along the side of the road we entered a small cave, which emptied into another cave, which emptied into an ancient oil factory. In fact, it was the largest ancient, underground oil press in the entire State of Israel. (This one they're preserving). When they found the caves, they were only open a small amount at the top - the rest had filled with dirt over time. But what they found was truly astounding.

It was quite easy to see how the oil presses were made - where they crushed the olives; how they then placed the mush in mesh bags where they were pressed into oil using heavy stones to weigh down a huge beam: It was really an amazing site.

With room...

After room...

After room.

In addition, there were smaller tunnels above connected to the caves themselves leading to other caves, which our tour guide suggested were used during the Bar Kochva rebellion. It was like finding a new piece of history that we never knew existed.
But it makes quite a bit of sense.
We've all been to the Bell Caves at Beit Guvrin, which house beautiful, numerous caves which represent an ancient civilization and great economic activity. But why would we imagine that there was only one set of caves? Notice just how close Amatzia is to Beit Guvrin:

It would make sense that there were many more caves and areas of economic activity in the region, which is filled with caves that are perfect to both live and work in, away from the blistering southern heat, and situated on an ancient streambed, which provided water necessary for survival. Our tour guide noted that she had hiked with friends to other hills in the region and had found other caves with sealed earthenware jars (!) - that they just left there (!!!). I guess she didn't want to touch them. When you stand on the site in Amatzia and look at the surrounding hills, you realize just how much Jewish History is left to be uncovered.

At the same time, I couldn't help but feel that this small hill represented something much larger: A people finally reclaiming its lost Land, and rediscovering the history we always knew we had.

Was It a Great Day Yesterday? That Depends on Your Point of View

My day in a nutshell: They wouldn't accept my passport picture at the US consulate in Jerusalem, I lost my car keys, and the grocery store we drove to closed two months ago. And they wouldn't sell me a book at Mosad Harav Kook.

Yes, all those things really did happen. But it was a great day nonetheless.

For the first time in ages, I noticed that my passport was going to expire in plenty of time to renew it before my next trip. I dutifully scheduled an appointment to renew it, and left Yad Binyamin with plenty of time to arrive at the consulate for my appointment. I invited Simcha to join me for the day so that we could spend some time together.
We arrived without a hitch. There's even parking at the consulate, and almost no wait during security. Yet, although I arrived with three different passport pictures, they wouldn't accept any of them. (Actually, they were very nice about it, and promised to readmit me if I ran to have my picture taken). Run, I did, to the mall in Talpiot; had my picture done (after the printer broke), and ran back - where I was promptly readmitted, and didn't even have to wait that long to submit my application.

From there we proceeded to Geulah to make Afikomen present purchases (among other things). We walked around much of the neighborhood, stopping at numerous stores, eating lunch, enjoying a nice afternoon. Yet, as we were about to reach the car, I felt my pockets and realized that I couldn't feel my car keys - because they weren't there. You know that feeling that you get when you realize just how many places you've been to, and the miniscule chance that you'll be able to retrace your steps and find those keys. I was already wondering how I'd be able to get the spare keys from home when Simcha suggested, "Maybe you left them in the ignition?" Maybe. I didn't think that I had - but who leaves their keys in the ignition on purpose? Arriving at the car, I discovered the keys were indeed right where I had left them: in the ignition. How to open the locked car? Easy. Don't tell this to potential thieves, but one of the back seat doors simply doesn't lock. I've been meaning to take car of that for a while now, but small inconveniences like those can be blessings in disguise. Like when you lock your keys in the ignition.

From there we proceeded to Mosad Harav Kook for their yearly Seforim Blow Out Sale! We went there because Rena asked me to purchase a volume of the Torat Hachayim chumash of hers that's missing pages. No problem. Except the guy at the checkout told me that they don't sell individual volumes during the big sale - only sets. "Come any other day, and I'll take care of it no problem! Just not during these two weeks." But I didn't come away empty-handed: standing at the checkout, I noticed that they have just put out three volumes of the writings and teachings of Rav Shaul Yisraeli - which I snapped up. So, not a total waste.

The grocery store Waze directed us to in Mevaseret really doesn't exist anymore (at least temporarily. The roof caved in during the major storm last December). Not much of a big deal. In the end, we just went to a different grocery store in Beit Shemesh.

Yes, there were inconveniences along the way. We took a few wrong turns - actually more than a few - and returned home much later than anticipated. But it was still a great day, for a few reasons:
1. Great time spent with Simcha
2. I actually accomplished most of my goals for the day
3. I was able to look at the bright side of things, and maintain my patience and some good cheer when things didn't go my way - something I can't say that I would have always done in the past.

A very good day indeed.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Fours Sons Are We - The Song

Each and every year since I was a child, as soon as we reach the Four Sons, we sing the famous "Four Sons" song. Yet, it seems that the song isn't as famous as I might have thought, because whenever I mention it, people give me blank stares. Well, I've found it on the Internet for your listening (and singing) pleasure. You can listen to it above. It's from a record that I'm sure many families had back "in the day".
Also, I'm happy to share the words for you to download. (Thanks to my aunt, Debby Greengart for the lyrics.) The original record is available in its entirety here. Well worth a listen. I think that much of my family's Seder came from it.

Four Sons Are We
Four sons are we we’re one family,
Listen and learn how we think differently

The wise son am I, who asks how and why
My goal is to learn and apply
The words of our sages live down through the ages
The source of our wisdom and pride.

This is the way a son aught to be
Setting examples for you and for me
Four sons are we we’re one family,
Listen and learn how we think differently

I don’t like to study, who want to be good
I don’t care if I’m call wicked son
Who needs all this learning I’m sick of page turning
I’d rather be bad and have fun

Don’t learn from him, he’ll lead you astray
What can you learn from what he has to say
Four sons are we we’re one family,
Listen and learn how we think differently

The last two are we, in this family
I’m simple I never ask why
What’s all this confusion explain what you’re doing
They don’t understand that’s their cry

Four sons are they each one had his say
Now you decide which one thinks the best way
Four sons are we we’re one family,
Listen and learn how we think differently

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Man's Seder: The Backlash

Rabbi Adam Starr teaching at the Man's Seder
I guess I should have seen it coming.
After all, if the backlash hadn't come, it wouldn't be a truly successful program.
Yesterday, a good friend of mine pointed me to a Facebook group called, and no, I'm not making this up, "I'm also fed up with the way women are treated in Orthodoxy", and the fact that a specific member of that group had pointed to the page of the Young Israel of Toco Hills' Man's Seder pictures (70 participants! Amazing!) with the comment, "My family's "modern orthodox" shul has hit a new low with this event."
This led to a torrent of criticism about how exclusionary Orthodoxy is, and wondering why we have to serve steaks and beer at a Men's event.

The Facts:
Let's get the facts straight: I developed the program after watching my wife participate in a women's only pre-Pesach seder sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit. I wondered why only women were having such an event, and decided to organize a similar program for the men. Was there an outcry at the exclusionary tactics of the Federation for creating a gendered version of the Seder? Hardly. There was a need, and we created it.
Let's ask another question: At your Seder, who recites the Kiddush? Who breaks the Matzah? Who makes the Motzi? At most Sedarim (although I wonder about those of the members of the IAFUWTWWATIO FB group), a man makes the kiddush, breaks the Matzah at Yachatz, etc. In other words, he "leads" the Seder. That doesn't mean he monopolizes or controls it. He leads it. Wouldn't it also make sense that in addition to the technical aspects of leading, that he also came to the Seder prepared to lead a discussion and engage in meaningful conversation about the Exodus? Yes? You agree? That's the basic idea of the Man's Seder.
Why men only? Truthfully, because at the time of its creation, there was already a women's-only event. But there's more to it than that.
Why can't some women recognize that group dynamics change in different environments  Mixed-gender environments have a certain atmosphere, as do separate-gender environments. It's just a different dynamic, and sometimes the "Men's Club" camaraderie is a critical element to a successful program. Like the Man's Seder.
Why steaks and beer? You may not have noticed this, but men like steak and beer. In general, in marketing, its a good idea to use the things that people like to draw them to a program, no matter how snarky and nasty the silly comments on a Facebook page might be.

The Targets
Particularly galling to me, is that the target of this criticism is a synagogue (and the rabbi of that shul) that is not only sensitive to the issues of women in Orthodoxy, but which goes to great lengths to make Orthodoxy as inclusive as possible. I am not a personal friend of Rabbi Adam Starr, but I consider him a colleague, and he's is known, even here in Israel, as a rabbi that takes the issue of inclusiveness in shul and religious life very, very seriously. So, to attack him publicly on Facebook, and to "lump" him in with every other anti-Orthodox gender-related rant is both inaccurate and unfair. The same applies to every other rabbi who organized a Man's Seder this year.

The Tone
I find the tone of the IAFUWTWWATIO FB group appalling.
You're fed up? You're angry? Can there be a more negative, nasty, distasteful group on Facebook? (It is the definition of what's wrong with Facebook. While FB can be a tool to spread ideas and share constructive thoughts, too often it serves as a clearinghouse for venomous spewing of negativity and hatred). If you think that Orthodoxy needs to be more inclusive - and I can readily understand how one might feel this way - how about creating a group titled "I Would Like to Create More Meaningful Opportunities for Women In Orthodoxy", in which dedicated people could share their ideas for programs, encourage one-another, and offer tips to help women become more devoted to God in a positive manner. I can say this quite definitively: participation in the IAFUWTWWATIO will not bring anyone closer to God. Quite the contrary.
I also wonder what percentage of the group members are actually Orthodox. What you end up with is a group of Feminists from across the religious spectrum who have gathered to criticize Orthodoxy. Great.
To the member of the IAFUWTWWATIO group who complained about the Man's Seder: Instead of whining, why not approach your rabbi about creating a similar program for women? I doubt that there would be steaks and beer - maybe smoked salmon and a grilled vegetables (which the Jews ate in Egypt as well). But that would entail work, involvement, and a positive attitude, none of which are necessary in order to rant on a Facebook page.

In a recent article, Rabbi Berel Wein writes,
Perhaps the area of greatest contention in today’s world regarding these matters relates to what is generally called “women’s issues.”  There is no doubt that the status of women in today’s society – even in the most rigorous and conservative Orthodox society – is far different than what it was in eighteenth century Eastern Europe. But after all of the sloganeering and current political correctness is removed from the equation, the basic fact remains that Judaism recognizes and legislates gender equality in human terms but does not favor gender sameness.
The differences in the psychological and emotional makeup between men and women are innate – part of their biological and mental nature. This is a chazaka that is strong and “great.” It teaches us that what was before is now as well, and will also be in the future. One of the great failures of the feminist movement over the last 50 years, in my opinion, is that it tried to make women not only the equal of men in the work place and society but it also tried to make them the same as men.
I'm sure that the members of the IAFUWTWWATIO page don't agree with Rabbi Wein. But in their desire for fairness and equality, they seem to have forgotten that other people have the right to disagree. If these people really care about promoting the inclusion of women in Orthodoxy, item number one on the list should be leaving a Facebook group which will only cause them to grow increasingly angry, disillusioned and disconnected from the Torah.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Audio Shiur: Hagadah shel Pesach - Vehi She'amdah

Audio Shiur:
Hagadah shel Pesach - Vehi She'amdah

In his famous version of "Vehi She'amdah", Yonatan Razel leaves out an important line from the Hagaddah. He just skips it. Why? And does that change the meaning and tone of the text? What is the "thing" that has "stood" - which we refer to in the Hagaddah? Finally, we study an incredible comment of Netziv on this section.

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Monday, April 7, 2014

The Wise Son: The Missing Answer

Among the Four Sons listed during the Seder, we identify most with the Wise Son. We don't really accept the premise of the Wicked Son (we might criticize children today for acting badly, but we don't identify them as "bad" or wicked children), and we like to hope that our children grow out of being either Simple or that they Don't Know to Ask.

Which leaves us with the Wise Son. Who among us don't really, deep down in our heart, consider our children "Wise"? Moreover, looking at his question, we recognize that his question is excellent:

חָכָם מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מַה הָעֵדוֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה' אֱלֹקינוּ אֶתְכֶם?
What does the Wise Son say? "What are the testimonies, statutes and dictates that the Lord our God commanded you?"
In fact, we find this exact question in the Torah, as Moshe instructs the Jewish people,

כִּי-יִשְׁאָלְךָ בִנְךָ מָחָר, לֵאמֹר:  מָה הָעֵדֹת, וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה' אֱלֹקינוּ, אֶתְכֶם.
When your son asks you in time to come, saying: 'What is the meaning of the testimonies, and the statutes, and the ordinances, which the Lord our God has commanded you? (Devarim 6:20)
Ibn Ezra explains that the word מה – does not mean "what", but instead means למה – "what is the reason". In essence, the Wise Son asks, "Why do we do keep of these commandments?" It's not just an ancient question found in the Chumash. Rather, it's an eternal question, asked by children – good, wise children – throughout Jewish history.

Every Jewish parent should not only expect this question, but should hope for it. We want our children to ask.  We want them to inquire about why we do what we do. But, if we want them to ask good questions, we better be ready with good answers. What indeed do we tell them when they ask us, "Why should I keep the Torah? Why do you keep the Torah?" (Because I said so only works for the first few years. After that, you'll need to provide a better answer.)

The Hagaddah provides an answer – and that's where we begin to run into problems.

וְאַף אַתָּה אֱמָר לוֹ כְּהִלְכוֹת הַפֶּסַח: אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן.
You, in turn, shall instruct him in the laws of Passover, [up to] `one is not to eat any dessert after the Passover-lamb.
What is the relevance of the answer we give him to his question? He's asking why we keep the commandments, and we're talking about dessert and the Korban Pesach? This isn't my own question, either. Ritva, is his commentary to the Hagadah writes,

וקשה, מה ענין תשובה זו לשאלה זו?
This is difficult, as what is the relevance of the answer to the question?
Moreover, we ourselves need not search for an answer to this great question, as Moshe Rabbeinu has already provided us a wonderful, powerful answer. Right after telling us what our children will ask us in the future, Moshe teaches us how to answer them.

וְאָמַרְתָּ לְבִנְךָ, עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם; וַיֹּצִיאֵנוּ ה' מִמִּצְרַיִם, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה.  וַיִּתֵּן ה' אוֹתֹת וּמֹפְתִים גְּדֹלִים וְרָעִים בְּמִצְרַיִם, בְּפַרְעֹה וּבְכָל-בֵּיתוֹ--לְעֵינֵינוּ.  וְאוֹתָנוּ, הוֹצִיא מִשָּׁם--לְמַעַן, הָבִיא אֹתָנוּ, לָתֶת לָנוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ.  וַיְצַוֵּנוּ ה', לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-כָּל-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה, לְיִרְאָה, אֶת-ה' אֱלֹקֵינוּ--לְטוֹב לָנוּ כָּל-הַיָּמִים, לְחַיֹּתֵנוּ כְּהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.  וּצְדָקָה, תִּהְיֶה-לָּנוּ:  כִּי-נִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-כָּל-הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת, לִפְנֵי ה' אֱלֹקֵינוּ--כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּנוּ. (דברים ו:כ-כה)
Then you shall say to your son: 'We were Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. And the Lord showed signs and wonders, great and sore, upon Egypt, upon Pharaoh, and upon all his house, before our eyes. And He brought us out from there that He might bring us in, to give us the Land which He swore to our fathers.  And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that He might preserve us alive, as it is at this day. And it shall be righteousness to us, if we observe to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as He has commanded us.' (Devarim 6:20-25)
This is a wonderful answer, especially when we read the text with care. In his answer, Moshe emphasizes our collective history, and our connection to our Forefathers and the Promised Land. More importantly, he describes the Torah and a life of adherence to the Mitzvot as "good", and the giving of the Torah as an eternal act of kindness that God did for us.

That's the true answer to this all-important question. We follow the Torah because we know that God wants goodness for us, and transmitted to us the ideal way to achieve that ultimate Good. While we don't always understand every detail, and cannot always perfectly answer each question, when we do answer the Wise Son, we must convey that sense of Goodness inherent in a Torah-true life.

This only makes the answer in the Hagadah all the more perplexing. Where's the connection to our history? What about the mitzvot? There isn't any mention of God! All we hear about is the Afikomen. Is that really a good answer for the Wise Son? Couldn’t the Hagadah have given us a better answer?

Ritva explains that the key word in the answer to the Wise Son is the word אף – "even". The answer provided here isn't the whole answer. Rather, it's the very end of the answer.

Of course we must provide the complete answer. and any Seder that doesn't address these critical questions, and focuses only on the minutia of the practical aspects of the Seder (How much Matzah to eat; how quickly to eat it, etc.) misses the most important element of the Seder. The very essence of the Seder is answering the underlying question of the Wise Son: "Why are we sitting here tonight?"

Only when we have finished answering his questions – all of them! – can we then proceed to the more intricate aspects of the Seder. Only then, וְאַף אַתָּה אֱמָר לוֹ כְּהִלְכוֹת הַפֶּסַח – "even teach him about the halachot of Pesach".

As parents, we sometimes fail in this critical mission. Sadly, we're good at details and minutia and "do it because I told you to," but fail miserably to convey the sense of goodness, fulfillment and love that the Torah brings into our lives. We fail to address the deeper questions, somehow afraid that we might say something wrong, give an incorrect answer, and mislead our children away from the truth.

Yet, the opposite is true. We must simply do our best and answer these challenging questions as best we can. We can start by studying the answers that appear in the Torah. But then we can and should answer the question our children really want to know: Not "why should they be Jewish?", but "Why are we Jewish, and why do we keep the Torah?"

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Audio Shiur: Hagadah shel Pesach - The Wise Son

Audio Shiur:
Hagadah shel Pesach - The Wise Son

The short text relating to the Chacham - the wise son, leaves us with a great many questions, and the answer that the Hagadah offers leaves us wanting more. In this shiur, we examine the question that appears in the Torah itself, and the great answers offered by Moshe Rabbeinu himself. Then we'll analyze why Moshe's answer never made it into the Hagadah.

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