Friday, January 30, 2015

Opportunism or Extortion?

You’re standing on the street in the rain, desperately trying to hail a cab, flailing away, recognizing just how late you are for your flight. Finally, a taxi stops for you, and you explain your plight, and beg the driver to make haste to the airport.
He fully appreciates the gravity of the situation. So he turns to you and says, “No problem. I’ll be happy to take you, and pronto. But…it’ll cost you $250 dollars.”
“What!?” you protest. “That’s at most a thirty dollar cab fare! How can you charge me so much?”
“No problem,” he answers. “It just so happens that I just went off duty. Please sir, step out of the cab, and have a nice day.”
He’s got you. It’s clear that if you don’t agree to pay, you’ll never make the flight, or that critical meeting, and will probably lose the client. So, begrudgingly, you close the door and tell the cabbie, “Two-fifty it is.” But I better make that flight.
He’s a man of his word, and apparently knows every possible shortcut, cut-through and alleyway, and you arrive at the airport with moments to spare. As you get out of the cab, you put a wad of cash in his hand and run to the terminal.
“Hey!” he calls out to you. “This is only fifty! Where’s the other two hundred!”
“Fifty is more than fair,” you call back. “Including the tip. Thanks for the ride.”
“But you agreed to my price! I want the rest of the money.”
You pause, now under the awning, and finally admit the truth. “You were trying to take advantage of my distress, and were hoping to rip me off. I only agreed to your price because I knew that you’d never take me unless I did. I never had any intention of paying you the full amount. To my mind, you’ve been well paid for your efforts. Thanks for the ride!”
And with that, you turn into the terminal and rush to the flight.
Who’s right: the harried traveler, or the cabbie? Do you owe him another two hundred dollars, or was he paid fully for his efforts?

To be continued…

Rav Soloveitchik on Amalek

In light of this morning's Washington Post article on Hamas terror day camps quoting children training to kill Jews, and with the reading about the war with Amalek in shul tomorrow, I thought it appropriate to share the powerful, chilling words of Rav Soloveitchik on the topic of the identity of Amalek today. He said these words in an address over fifty years ago which was then published in his monumental work, Kol Dodi Dofek. His thoughts ring especially true today.
In the crisis that the Land of Israel is [at present] passing through, Providence is again testing us. Iti is fitting that we openly state that this matter does not just involve Israel's political future. The evil intentions of the Arabs are not only directed against our national independence but against the continued existence of the Jewihs presence in Israel. They aspire to exterminate (God forbid) the Yishuv [i.e. the Jewish community in the Land of Israel] – men, women, children, infants, sheep and cattle (see I Samuel 15:3). At a meeting of the Mizrachi…I repeated, in the name of my father (of blessed memory) that the notion of “the Lord will have war against Amalek from generation to generation” is not confined to a certain race, but includes a necessary attack against any nation or group infused with mad hatred that directs its enmity against the community of Israel. When a nation emblazons on its standard ‘Come, let us cut them off from being a nation so that the name of Israel shall no longer be remembered’ (Psalms 83:5), it becomes Amalek. In the 1930’s and 1940’s the Nazis, with Hitler at their helm, filled this role. In this most recent period they were the Amaleikites, the representatives of insane hate. Today, the throngs of Nasser and the Mufti have taken their place. If we are silent, I do not know how we will be judged before God. Do not rely on the justice of the "liberal world". Those pious liberals were alive fifteen years ago and witnessed the destruction of millions of people with equanimity and did not lift a finger. They are liable to observe, God forbid, the repetition of the bloodbath and not lose a night's sleep. (Kol Dodi Dofek, Chapter 11 - pp. 78-79)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Audio Shiur: Parshat Beshalach - The God of War

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Beshalach - The God of War

In Az Yashir, the Jewish people characterize God as "Ish Milchamah" - literally translated as a "Man of War". Really? God is a warrior? God is a man? How do we reconcile this image with our understand of God as a God of peace and harmony? After looking carefully at the text, Midrashim and a number of commentaries, we study a section of Orot from Rav Kook that addresses this fundamental question in a surprising manner.

There is a source sheet for this shiur, which can be accessed here. Also, you can find Professor Chanah Kasher's article on this topic here.

Click here to navigate to the shiur on

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

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Cold Plums and a Grilled Chicken Sandwich

Before many Shabbatot, I grill a few chicken breasts which we then slice to make sandwiches on Shabbat (usually morning).  It is very delicious. So delicious in fact, that my son decided that he would use a good portion of the leftovers to make himself a huge sandwich which he would bring with him to school. He carefully assembled said grilled chicken sandwich on Saturday night, adding pickles, ketchup, etc.

On Sunday afternoon, I received the following text: "Forgot my sandwich. :-("

I felt bad. Truly I did. I even contacted a teacher who lives in Yad Binyamin, in an attempt to send him the sandwich, to no avail.

So on Monday, I sent him the following text: "I had a great sandwich today. I actually tried to send it to you but couldn't find a way to get it to you. So thanks. It was yummy."

To this he responded: "I found plums in the fridge. They were so good. And juicy..."

He is clever. And it was a really good sandwich.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Navigating the Telecommunications Maze in Israel: The Cheapest Way to Call the USA That I've Found

Twenty five years ago, when I studied at Sha'alvim, when I wanted to call home, I'd stick in our asimon (remember those?) and then our Telecards (remember those??), and wait for hours as the AT&T hold message cycled through in three languages. Some of the guys spent so long on hold that they could recite the Arabic version of the hold guy by heart. I was allowed to call home once every three weeks for a simple reason: a simple call to the States cost more than a dollar a minute.
Times have changed, and as we all know, you can now talk overseas for pennies, literally.
In the old days (when we first moved), we had Vonage. Then we switched to MagicJack. Both worked pretty well, but we had to keep a separate phone for our US and Israeli numbers. And we had to keep them hooked up to a computer, or a router, and then leave the computer on all the time.
I wanted a single phone that could handle all calls, with a reasonable price.
For a while, we were using TCS Telecom. For the rate of about 100 shekel a month, we got 600 minutes of talking (both ways), as well as a US telephone number that relative could call and reach us in Israel. It worked well for a few years, until we started experiencing service problems in the form of dropped calls and static that made the service unusable. I was looking for a way to have both incoming and outgoing calls from our regular home phone line (yes, we still have a home phone), while people in the US could call us on an American number. (They can always call us on our Israeli number, but experience has shown that most of our relatives simply don't do this. This is somewhat upsetting and distressing, that they can't be bothered to take the additional step of acquiring an inexpensive calling card, or pay the international calling rate, but that's another post entirely.) I did not want a service that required another phone, a VPN, a router, or any additional equipment I would have to purchase and maintain. Here's what I found.

First, I switched our cell service to Golan. Right now we're paying 36 shekel a month for the first line, and 23 for the second line, which includes voice, text, and internet. (Currently, they're running an insane deal where all additional lines are a shekel a month for 12 months. It's crazy.) The plans include free international calls (outbound) as well. I was hoping to take advantage of Golan's ability to have a US phone number for incoming calls, but you only get that if you pay 99 shekel a month (the premium plan), which I'm not willing to pay. If you want to reach me on my cell, it's on you.

For our home line, I needed a way to have both unlimited international calls, as well as a US phone number. For the outgoing calls, I saw an ad for (which is a cell service). They offer an 017 number that gives unlimited international calls for 10 shekel a month. You can purchase a plan for any Israeli number. A small warning. They're very nice on the phone, but it can be a challenge to get them to understand exactly what service you want to buy.

What about incoming calls? I found a call forwarding service called SendMyCall which, for a dollar a month plus 2 cents a minute (to Israeli land lines), relatives call my American number and it simply forwards the call to our home phone in Israel.

The math:
Old bill: 600 minutes (max) for 100 shekel a month (US Telecom)
New bill: Outgoing calls - 10 shekel a month (HotNet); Incoming calls: 4 Shekel + 2 cents a minute ( Assume 300 minutes = 6 dollars = 24 shekel a month = 34 shekel total. And it will never be that much. Total cost: 44 shekel a month.

I hope this saves you money.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Tables Have Turned

At the end of Ma'ariv on Friday evening, our Rav stood at the Bimah and noted the tense situation in a kosher store in Paris, asking the shul to recite two chapters of Tehillim on behalf of the Jews of France. He proceeded to open the ark and lead the congregation in heartfelt prayer; at that time we had no idea of the tragic outcome.
During the Tehillim, I found myself struck by a fascinating, albeit strange feeling. From the time that I was born, I was raised as a "galut" Jew to pray for the people of Israel. I have vivid memories of reciting Tehillim in grade school during the first Lebanon War. Some shuls in the United States have simply added a permanent chapter of Tehillim to the end of every davening for "the situation" - whatever's going on in the world, there's some situation in Israel.
But on this Friday night, the tables were turned. We were praying for the welfare and well-being of Jews in the Diaspora. And we, the people of Israel, are offering them safe haven from danger.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately called for the Jews of France to come home to Israel, where they will be welcomed with open arms. Truth be told, can one truly argue that these immigrants will be safer here in Israel than in France? We've got our share of terrorism, and Muslim extremism isn't a French or European issue by any means. 
Still, while people are murdered for being Jews both in Paris in Jerusalem, the Jews in Israel murdered by terrorists not only died for being Jewish: they fully lived their lives as Jews as well.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

They Can't Count to Fifteen

At the Bayit Hayehudi meeting in Yad Binyamin 
Last night, as I was watching an episode of Road to the Winter Classic (a reality show about the lives of NHL hockey players), my wife wandered into the room and sat down for a moment (that's about all the hockey she can stand). Almost immediately, she commented on the intense pressure these players consistently face. While of course their job is physically more difficult, I suggested that we all work hard in our jobs.
Yes, she said, but their pressure is a completely different level. They are being evaluated on a daily basis. If they succeed, they play. If they fail, they don't. In our jobs, there is of course pressure to succeed, but what other profession carries with it the constant pressure that you might lose your job tomorrow if you fail to perform?
She was right, of course. Few professions carry that pressure. And then I thought of another profession with a similar pressure: politics.
This past Tuesday evening, I attended a community gathering of the Bayit Hayehudi in Yad Binyamin. I went mostly out of curiosity - I didn't plan on learning anything new - but I'm a registered BH voter, and I felt that I should make the effort to listen to the people I'm about to vote for (or against). It was an impressive list of Knesset members who actually attended: from Naftali Bennett (shorter than I expected, but he immediately went to the food table and poured himself a cup of soup, which he ate from the dais) to Ayelet Shaked to Nissan Slomiansky (who actually got there earlier than I did - which was early, and was shmoozing with people milling about waiting for the event to begin) all the way down the list (even the MK's who couldn't make it on time came as the meeting progressed). I couldn't really understand it: MKs are notorious no-shows. They schedule zillions of events, and often cancel on you at the last minute. What's different now? They all - or at least most of them - are up for re-election. In other words, they're all out of a job, unless we - the voters - reelect them. And there is a very, very long list of people who want us to give them the job instead.
If you're not living in Israel, you have no sense of this phenomenon, but yesterday, with the closing of the Bayit Hayehudi list for the coming primary elections, a total of forty two (42!) candidates have registered in the primary (the entire list appears here in Hebrew). A good number of them were actually at the Tuesday meeting, milling about, and sitting in the front row waiting for their turn to make their pitch to the masses. Sadly, after the MKs spoke, the crowd thinned considerably, leaving the poor candidates to talk to a good number of empty chairs.)
How much money do you need to spend to even have a chance to get elected to a reasonable spot on the list? A good friend told me that a candidate has no hope of getting elected to a reasonable position spending less than 250,000 shekel. At least. After all, you need to produce a video to post on Facebook (and spend money pushing that video so that people will actually see it. These videos - one of which I've included here for MK Avi Vortzman, run from the clever to the sublime to the ridiculous. But they're what get you elected in 2014, without any doubt). You need signs, ads, consultants, and let's not forget that you needed to take two months off from your job to run.
What's a reasonable spot? Most polls see the BH numbers rising from 12 to 15 in the coming Knesset. But let's go crazy, and assume that the BH will reach the incredible number of 18 seats this coming election. What are the chances of an unknown candidate actually making the list? The answer to this question lies in understanding the makeup of the list itself. Here's the actual delineation of the BH seats:
1. Chair (that's Bennet, although some guy named Shimon Or is running against him. That takes guts. Really. No chance. None.)
2. Guaranteed spot for Tekumah. The BH party is actually the combination of two factions - the old Mafdal - the National Religious party, and Tekumah - the party that represented the Chardal and more right-wing branch of the RZ world. For many weeks, it was unclear whether BH and Tekumah would actually run together against in the coming elections as they did last election or split apart. That's an important post that I hope to write soon. But, as part of the deal to run together, the Tekumah candidates are guaranteed spots on the BH list, so they're off the table in the primaries. That spot will go to Uri Ariel, currently Minister of Housing.
3. Personal choice of the Chairman - that will go to Yinon Magel, a well-known journalist (who is supposedly secular, but whose wife is religious and who keeps Shabbat) in an effort to expand the reach of the party beyond the Religious Zionist community, to broaden the party's power and base.
4. Seat promised to a female candidate - whichever woman gets the most votes. In all likelihood, that will go to Ayelet Shaked, which is fine with me. In the Tuesday meeting, she didn't give a meaningless stump speech, but instead said, "You've heard enough speeches. Any questions?" She then proceeded to answer with poise and tact, in a very direct but also intelligent manner. I was impressed.
5. Open
6. Personal choice of the Chairman
7. Open
8. Female candidate - that will probably go to MK Shuli Muallem, simply because she has the greatest name recognition
9. Tekumah
10. The candidate representing the Center of the Country (6 people are running for that spot)
11. Personal choice of the Chairman
12. Female candidate
13. Open
14. Open
15. Tekumah
16. Personal choice of the Chairman (are you noticing a trend here? That's a lot of power for the chairman to pack the list with "his" people.)
17. Female candidate
18. Tekumah

So let's count it up. Among the first eighteen spots (and the realistic number for BH is fifteen), there are...four total open spots. That's right: four. And let's not forget that among the people vying for those spots are:
MK and Minister for Senior Citizens Uri Orbach
MK and Vice Minister of Education Avi Vortzman  (who, it seems, paid for the Yad Binyamin event. His posters were all over the room, and they were even playing his them song in the background. Yes, he had a theme song. And, apparently, he's also Superman. Or Superman is his secret identity. Or something. See his video.)
Vice Minister of Religious Affairs Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan (who I will be voting for. He's done great things to bring religious affairs into the twenty-first century, and also strongly supported the Tzohar Law, which passed last year.)
MK Moti Yogev
MK and Chair of the Knesset Finance Committee Nissan Slomiansky

That's correct. The current BH members of Knesset themselves are running for four spots, and there are now five of them (of course, Naftali Bennett could choose a couple of them with his reserved spots, but he doesn't have to). Then add to the list nationally recognized names like former Chairman of the Yesha Council Dani Dayan, former IDF Chief Rabbi Avichai Ronski, and others who I don't even know, and you begin to wonder: what possible chance would any of the other twenty-five candidates have to make a reasonable spot on the list?
What could possibly motivate someone to spend 250,000 shekel from his savings, when the odds are so stacked against you? As my friend noted, these are all wonderful, dedicated and devoted people. They really do feel that they have something important to bring to the table.
But, sadly for them, they can't count to fifteen.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Audio Shiur: Parshat Shemot - The Paradox of Leadership

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Shemot - The Paradox of Leadership

What's the paradox? We study two specific pesukim in Shemot which describe the beginning of the conversation between God and Moshe at the burning bush.

Click here to navigate to the shiur on

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