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Ready for the Super Bowl

February 5, 2016 at 10:47 am

Quarterback SackWhen I saw the headline for the article on Torah.org, “Murder and the Super Bowl,” I knew I had to have a look. The article is by Rabbi Yisroel Ciner, whom I’ve known for many years, long before he became Rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Irvine, CA. And with such a timely headline (yes, even I know we are approaching Super Bowl Sunday), how could I not?

I thought he was going to discuss the violence of football. It’s a very rough sport, one which trains players to be physically aggressive. I’m not sure why we are surprised when we find that this violence sometimes spills outside of the stadium.

But that wasn’t his point at all.

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) tells us that just the first word of this week’s reading contains a profound lesson. It begins: “And these are the judgments which you shall place before them.” [Ex. 21:1] Why “and”? These are the judgments! All we need is “eileh” rather than “v’eileh.”

But Rashi explains that “v’eileh” means that what follows is an addition to what came previously. In this case, we just read about the Revelation at Sinai, receiving the Torah and some of its laws. Specifically, last week’s reading concludes that one must not cut the stones of the Altar with metal tools, and to have a ramp rather than steps up to the Altar, so as not to inadvertently reveal beneath a Kohen’s robes.

Those laws are “chukim,” laws provided by G-d that are not immediately logical or well understood. The “mishpatim,” judgements, that we read this week are civil laws — the foundations of civilization. Without rules of interpersonal conduct, one has anarchy. If the Torah had not provided us these rules, then like every other nation, we would have had to create them.

But based upon this, Rabbi Ciner adds a fascinating point: that the laws created by nations are simply a “consensus of what they want according to the time, place and situation that they find themselves.” “They” must be taken to mean the ruler and the ruling class, but the point is sound. The rules made are colored by circumstance.

He gives a perfect example: what was “entertainment” in ancient Rome? Gladiator fights! A gladiator was not a soldier, he was a performer. It was the ultimate reality show, as the gladiator faced dangerous animals, convicted criminals, and other gladiators — knowing that only one would emerge alive. The “noble” gladiator murdered others for the delight of the audience. And that is what we call ancient Roman “civilization” — a society that celebrated barbarism, calling murderous fights to the death a form of entertainment.

The Romans, of course, were the ones who conquered Jerusalem and exiled the Jews from their land. According to the ways of the world, the Jews should have been assimilated into Roman society. Instead, it is the ancient Roman civilization that is gone, and the Jews who are still here. Even more, the idea of murder for entertainment is anathema to the Western world. Why? Where did they get the idea that murder is evil? Where did they get the idea that there is such a thing as good and evil at all?

Good Shabbos!

And Yisro Heard

January 28, 2016 at 10:25 pm

ListenIn this week’s reading, we are told that “Yisro heard all that G-d had done for Moshe and Israel his nation, for HaShem had taken Israel from Egypt” [18:1].

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) asks: what did Yisro hear? He answers, “the parting of the Reed Sea, and the war with Amalek.”

These two events were, to say the least, public knowledge. The Medrash says that at the moment that the sea parted for the Jews, every body of water, even every glass of water, also parted. This happened so that everyone would know about the miracle done for the Jews at that moment. So, yes, Yisro heard, and saw. He was sitting in his living room about to have his tea, and it split before his eyes. But this also happened for every other Midyanite, and every other person. So why does the Torah say that Yisro heard? Everyone heard!

We learn from Yisro the essence of “hearing.” A “shomea,” one who hears, does not merely have a functioning inner ear. Yisro, the “Kohen Midyan”, the priest of the Midyanites, dropped everything to go join the Nation of Israel. Why? Because he alone really heard the message. G-d sent the message to every person on earth — but Yisro heard.

While computers are doing a better and better job of automating this task, it is still important that we save our work frequently. Anyone with computer experience has experienced the unique frustration of spending an hour or more at the keyboard working on an important task, and then having the computer freeze up or power off without the opportunity to save one’s work. Whatever we do not commit to the computer’s memory, we lose.

We ourselves are not all that different. We often claim to “hear” something that goes “in one ear and out the other.” G-d sends us messages. He enters the data. But it is our responsibility to process and save that data. When something happens, when we receive a message, we can only say we have truly “heard” if we remember, understand, and learn from the experience. In the Torah, “hearing” means “Sh’ma Yisroel” [Hear, Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One], and “Naaseh V’Nishma” [We will do, and we will hear…].

Did we get the message?

[Based upon a class by Rav Asher Z. Rubenstein zt”l of Jerusalem.]

Interview on Open Orthodoxy

January 24, 2016 at 2:43 pm

I have to give credit to reporter David Ze’ev and Kol Yisrael, The Israel Broadcasting Authority’s national station, for investigating both sides of the Open Orthodox story. The JTA (like most of the Jewish media outside the Orthodox world) seems prepared to declare Open Orthodoxy “Orthodox” without question. David Ze’ev is of a different sort, and this is what resulted (content owned by the IBA):

DZ: Rabbi Yaakov Menken is very involved with Cross-Currents.com, which has what some refer to as a go-to source for the perspective of traditional Jews; Rabbi Menken speaks out against Open Orthodoxy.

YM: Well, it’s very interesting, you know people are talking about it with regards to women rabbis, etc., and that’s almost a red herring, because it’s something where… the key here is that Open Orthodoxy is describing itself as an Orthodox movement, using that moniker of being Orthodox, but according to all of the Rabbinic organizations in the world, nobody is certifying them as Orthodox except they themselves.

DZ: I mean what do you need, what is it called to be certified as Orthodox?

YM: Well, certifying is perhaps a loose term. We should understand that Orthodoxy is basically a synonym for traditional, observant Judaism. It’s not a moniker that the Orthodox made up for themselves. On the contrary, as Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch pointed out in the 1860s, this was the name that the Reform gave to the old, backwards, traditional Jews. And so Orthodox was supposed to mean old and stale, and what it really means is traditionally observant.

DZ: So, to the substance, do you Rabbi Menken disapprove of women having a greater role? Most of these people from this, for example Yeshivat Maharat, are not calling themselves rabbis, they get ordained, they have more of an education; are you against more inclusion of more segments of the population? That’s what the people in Open Orthodoxy say that they are.

YM: Again, with regards to Open Orthodoxy all of that is simply a sideshow. It’s not really the core issue. There are definitely different schools of thought with regards with what women should or should not be involved with, and current circumstances, and this and that, all of which are certainly able to be discussed within a context of observance. But what’s being discussed here, really, is not a particular Halachic observance. It’s a philosophy that says oh, we’re going to claim to be Orthodox while believing, for example, challenging the historicity of the Torah itself, saying that Abraham made a horrible mistake and was prepared to murder his son rather than follow the Divine Commandment, when we know in the text itself it says that G-d rewarded him for doing so. It’s saying that Moses taught G-d a thing or two about who G-d needed to be. I mean, these are things that are totally foreign to what it means to be observant, to follow G-d’s law, and they’re claiming to be an Orthodox group while they do it.

DZ: Rabbi Yaakov Menken, who is also founder and director of Project Genesis, and creator of its website Torah.org. More of that on Sunday’s 12:30 p.m. newscast.

You can hear that second interview here:

One More Kiddush HaShem, One Less Anti-Orthodox

January 17, 2016 at 2:01 pm

From Kikar HaShabbat:

Kiddush HaShem: that’s what this Chassidic Bachur made with 130,000 Sha”Ch he found at a bus stop

A young “anti-Orthodox” man, as he testified about himself, lost 130,000 shekels at a bus stop and could not believe his eyes: Nehemiah Indursky, a 19.5 year old Belzer Chassid was waiting at the station with an exciting surprise.

The Mitzvah of returning a lost object by a Belzer bachur went viral: last Friday, a non-religious person wrote an exciting post in which he described an Orthodox bachur who performed hashovas aveidah, returning a lost object, with a particularly high amount of money.

The man wrote that he forgot a bag with 130,000 shekels in cash at a bus station in Haifa. He said that after half an hour he returned, completely out of his mind with worry that someone had taken the bag. “I thought that with all that, maybe a miracle will still happen and I will find it.”

xr3p7i6z__w470h289q95“When I got to the station, there was a Charedi bachur sitting there, and he asked me if he could help me. I told him the story and he told me: ‘I came here 25 minutes ago and saw the bag. I opened it and saw a large sum of money. I told myself that I’ll wait here a quarter of an hour, and if the man didn’t come, I’ll put up a note with the number of my cellphone so he could reach me.

“‘Fifteen minutes later, when no one came, I told myself that since I live in Jerusalem and possibly the one who lost the money needs it urgently, I will wait for some time. I said a Psalm that he should come soon, and not 10 minutes later you arrived.’ The bachur asked the one who lost the bag for signs that it was his, and returned the money intact.

“Until the moment I finished counting, I could not believe it was with me or that I could find this at all (I was so ‘anti-Orthodox’… but only until now). I wanted to give him a nice gift, but he absolutely did not want to accept it, saying that it is his Mitzvah” excitedly said the one who lost the money.

In an interview with Kol Hai radio, the bachur, Nehemiah Indursky, a 19 year old Belzer Chassid who studies in the Belz Yeshiva, recounted thoughts went through his head about good things one can do with that amount of money, like giving ma’aser (charity). But then he said to himself that this money does not belong to him, and the owner needed it.

Nehemiah decided to wait another fifteen minutes. “I said, ‘Master of the World, I passed my test, now You need to do Your part and send him.”

If you think this reminds you of a story you heard before, you would be right.

Like the Face of a Dog

January 11, 2016 at 2:40 pm

The Mishnah at the end of Sotah talks about the Messianic era. Among the many things that it says (e.g. Chutzpah Yisgeh, that brazenness will be common), it records that “the face of the generation will be like the face of the dog.”

dog-06Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement, explained the Mishnah as follows: When you take a dog out for a walk, the dog goes running ahead, and to the outside observer it might look like the dog is leading, and you are following. But what if you decide to turn right at a corner, and the dog continues on ahead? Within seconds, the dog will be out in front of you once again, running ahead in the new direction you have chosen. The dog isn’t really leading at all.

This, he explained, is what the Mishnah means when it says “the face of the generation” will be like the face of a dog. The leaders will only walk ahead of us the same way a dog does — taking us where we want to go.

R’ Yisrael never lived in a democracy, and probably knew nothing of what was going on in England, France and the United States even during his lifetime (1810-1883). Yet he described democracy accurately. We choose leaders to take us in the direction we want to go, and if we don’t like the direction in which they lead us, we elect new ones who will do it better.

Even if that is a desirable form of government under current circumstances, it’s quite certain that religion isn’t supposed to work that way.

I’m working on a longer article about this, but the Conservative movement has now clarified that the Mishnah, with R’ Yisrael’s commentary, was talking about religious leadership as well. Confronted with a dramatic decline, the movement has hired a PR firm, which has polled hundreds of member families to determine how the movement should “rebrand” itself.

It is truly the leadership that R’ Yisrael told us to expect — much as we might never have believed it.

Pharoah and the Jews: a Case Study in Anti-Semitism

December 30, 2015 at 9:44 am

Israel-Apartheid-WeekThe Biblical Book of Exodus begins with the tale of Pharoah and the Jews under Egyptian rule. Most people are at least vaguely familiar with the story, but few notice that it is the first account of organized, institutional anti-Semitism against the Jews.

At the end of Genesis, we learn that the insight and guidance of one prescient Jew saved the entire nation of Egypt from starvation and anarchy. Joseph, the son of Jacob, correctly foresaw that the region was destined to enjoy seven years of plenty, not knowing that seven dark years of famine would follow. He suggested that Pharoah build storehouses and implement a mandatory 20% tax during the years of bounty, rather than allowing the populace to consume and waste the excess.

Though Joseph came before Pharoah as an imprisoned slave, Pharoah was so taken with his foresight and advice that he appointed Joseph to be his second-in-command, and placed him in charge of this crucial project. Joseph was so successful that, as we see from the text itself, the Egyptians were able to not only feed their own, but even to sell the surplus to residents of other nations – such as ten brothers from Cana’an. Once reunited as a family, Joseph brought the entire clan to settle as a separate but loyal community of citizens under Egyptian rule.

Years later, a new Pharoah was crowned, one who claimed to be unaware of the Jews’ pivotal contribution to Egypt’s survival and enhanced international reputation. He insisted that something must be done about the Jews, for they had too much power. Otherwise, he said, the Jews could show disloyalty, joining those who come to wage war and (commentators differ on this point) either plundering Egypt’s wealth and carrying it off to Cana’an, or even expelling the Egyptians and taking the real estate for themselves.

To be certain, all of Pharaoh’s accusations were baseless lies – until his own blind hatred made them reality. He not only enslaved the Jews, he made their lives impossible, and tried to kill them out by drowning all newborn Jewish boys. The oppressed Jews cried out to G-d, Who punished the Egyptians with a series of plagues that killed their crops, their livestock, and even their firstborn sons. Oral tradition teaches that the Egyptians willingly handed over their wealth to the Jews so that they would leave and stop the plagues.

In the end, another bout of irrational hatred consumed Pharaoh. He ran to wage war against the Jews and drag them back – and he and his entire army were drowned.

Perhaps you find yourself among the many millions of people who believe this story to be nothing more than an interesting fable. If so, it is all the more necessary to ponder why it might be that although the Egyptian nation of that era has disappeared in the sands of history, the lies that Pharoah believed and told about the Jews are precisely those that continue to be circulated to this day:

  • The Jews have too much power and control.
  • They care only about themselves.
  • They think they are superior to us.
  • They are disloyal.
  • They will make war against the innocent.
  • They want to take our money and property.
  • They want to kill or exile us.
  • The Jews will do to us the very things we now plan to do to them.
  • And finally, all of this is the Jews’ own fault.

To which we might add one more: the Jews talk too much about their victimization at the hands of others. After all, they’ve been reading this story for over 3,300 years.

A Labor of Love

December 24, 2015 at 5:38 pm

learningIn this week’s reading, Yaakov parcels out blessings to his sons, based upon his prophetic understanding of their futures. He describes Yissachar as a strong-boned donkey, who saw that “rest” was good, yet “bent his shoulder to bear, and became a servant to tasks” [49:14-15].

The commentators universally understand that the tribe of Yissachar devoted itself to Torah study to an extraordinary extent: Rashi derives from a verse in Chronicles that the tribe produced 200 heads of the Sanhedrin, the supreme Rabbinic Court located in the Temple in Jerusalem.

That is but the first of three common threads in the understanding of these two verses. The second is that Torah study is seen as a burden, a monumental task. Rashi says that Yissachar received a fruitful portion of the Land of Israel, yet burdened himself with Torah. The Ohr HaChaim writes that the verse refers to the ultimate rest in the World to Come, leading Yissachar to toil in this one. And the Kli Yakar says that Yissachar was like a donkey tied to its load — his burden was always there.

And third, this task of Yissachar’s performed a critical service for the Jewish Nation. The verse referenced by Rashi (I Chronicles 12:33) is describing King David gathering military troops, yet says: “And of the children of Yissachar, men who understood the times, who knew what Israel should do; their heads were 200, and all their brothers acted on their words.” Torah guides Israel in all its affairs, so Israel’s best strategists were those who studied constantly.

Torah study is not meant to be a relaxing activity — enjoyable, yes, but not easy. Mort Zuckerman, the real estate magnate and editor-in-chief of US News and World Report, visited the famous yeshiva in Lakewood, NJ and called it “the single most intellectually active, energetic, fascinating environment I had ever witnessed.” He even said that Harvard Law School (which he attended) paled by comparison! When we study Torah, this must be our goal — to immerse ourselves, for our minds to be completely engaged with the material.

The phrase “became a servant to tasks” actually refers to “mas,” a tax. The Ohr HaChaim reads “servant to tasks” as applying to the rest of the Jewish nation, rather than Yissachar — meaning that everyone had to “tax themselves” to support those studying Torah, as the tribe of Zevulun did for Yissachar. “And so in every generation,” the Ohr HaChaim concludes, the rest of us claim a portion in the continuation of Torah scholarship, ensuring the Jewish future, by supporting schools and scholars.