Thursday, October 29, 2015

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayera - Tzedakah and Mishpat

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayera - Tzedakah and Mishpat

Avraham is included in the decision to destroy Sodom because he will instruct his descendants to be people of Tzedaka and Mishpat. Yet, these two values can often contradict, especially in the lives of Avraham and the people of Sodom - and in our lives as well.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Audio Shiur: Parshat Lech Lecha - Does Prayer and Study Prevent Attacks? The Line Between Action and Faith

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Lech Lecha - Does Prayer and Study Prevent Attacks? The Line Between Action and Faith

The attached video, currently making the rounds of Facebook, features Rav Uri Sharki, a well-known Religious Zionist rabbi, essentially ridiculing the idea that prayer and Torah study are the appropriate response to the current wave of terrorist attacks plaguing Israel. Instead, he suggests learning how to fight properly, and the Israeli government imposing its will on those who would do us harm. Is Rav Sharki correct? What is the role of faith in difficult times? In the shiur, we look at two episodes where Avram chose action over faith, and how different commentaries interpret and criticize Avram's actions.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Audio Shiur: Parshat Noach - Murder and Tzelem Elokim

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Noach - Murder and Tzelem Elokim

The prohibition against murder, one the seven Mitzvot commanded of all humanity, has been on our minds here in Israel in recent weeks. The Torah specifically connects the commandment to the notion that we are all created "Bzelem Elokim" - in God's image. This week, we discuss whether there was a moral and legal code before the time of Noach, and how we can cope and grow during such a challenging time.

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Monday, October 12, 2015

Our Enemies Give Us Strength

A display set up in the lobby at the Orot College of
Education, where I work. The sign reads
עם ישראל לא מפחד מדרך ארוכה - "The Nation of Israel is not
afraid of a long road..."
Don’t let anyone fool you.

Things are not "business as usual." Times are very tense across the country, as people struggle to commute to work all the while looking over their shoulder, wondering whether – and from where – the next attack will come.

Our children returned to school (away from home) this past Sunday, which required that they travel through busy public areas. Every parent breathes a sigh of relief when each child sends that text that they've arrived and all is well.

A few things to remember: Despite all of the suffering, the bravery and strength of the Israeli people amaze me. When I watch the videos of the attacks or immediate aftermath (and these videos are all over the internet), I'm struck at how not only police, but ordinary citizens run towards the attacker. There's a strong realization that we're all in this together. The victim is a friend, neighbor, cousin, cousin of a cousin. Every victim is family, and we're all called to fight.

Secondly, I believe that it's useful to keep things in proportion and remember the terrible scale of the last wave of attacks that took place fourteen years ago. Today, due to incredible work of the security services, combined with tremendous Yad Hashem, what were once brutal attacks with many casualties are now far, far less damaging. This doesn't minimize the suffering of the victims of terror in any way. But it's important to recognize this fact and give thanks that things are what they are.

What our enemies never seem to realize is that waves of terror only serve to strengthen the resolve of the Jewish people. They serve to unite us and bind us together. We are at our weakest during long periods of quiet. We begin to bicker about politics and back-room deals and inter-religious squabbles and budget battles. We quickly forget our common goals, and attack those closest to us for the smallest slight. These waves of attacks help hammer home the obvious reality that history never changes: The enemies of Israel don't care if you're a "settler" from Har Brachah or a secular Jew from Afula or a Hareidi from Yerushalayim; they're trying to kill Jews, for no reason other than that. What other reason would there be?

Moreover, for every victim of a terrorist act, many hundreds of thousands more gain strength and a sense of connection to Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael. Precisely because it's a frightening time, everyday acts carry greater meaning and impact. A visit to the grocery store becomes an act of patriotism, as does a bus trip to school and dinner with friends in a restaurant. Every act of sacrifice – and sometimes that's as simple as commuting home –strengthens the faith and resolve of each citizen who refuses to stay home and carries on as if everything was normal. Even when it is not.

One day – tomorrow, in a week, a month – whenever it is, this Wave of Terror will end. And, as always, our enemies will have exacted a terrible toll. But they will also have made us a stronger, more resilient, more faithful, more interconnected Am Yisrael in the process.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Using Fruit of Shemittah for the Four Minim - Yad Binyamin Edition

I've noticed a bit of an uptick in social media regarding the use of Shemittah fruit for the Four Minim this year (since the fruit in Israel are Shemttah). I strongly encourage that my chu"l friends make a point of purchasing Israeli produce through the Otzar Beit Din system, thereby supporting Israeli farmers who are having a difficult enough time getting through Shemittah. (See Rabbi Daneil Korobkin's letter here.)
Here in Israel, the point is moot: all the fruit here is Kedushat Sheviit.
But this year, my etrog is really Kedushat Sheviit. I know this because I picked it myself.
Yesterday morning, I was running in the fields near Beit Chilkiyah (which is a Chareidi argricultural yishuv right next door to Yad Binyamin), and I noticed that a gate which is normally closed was instead open). So I took a look, and found myself in an Etrog tree orchard open to the public for Shemittah. The trees grew in such a way that they formed a canopy over you, so as I walked down the road it felt like I was walking in an enclosed Etrog forest. Better still, the owners of the fields who are meticulously observing Shemittah left clippers for visitors to cut Etrogim, asking only that we take care not to harm the trees.
I didn't have anything to carry etrogim with me, and I wanted to share the experience with the family, so I brought Rena, Leah and Moriyah with me back to the field later in the day. Here are some pictures.
While someone told me that we got there very late in the season, I managed to find a really lovely etrog that I will use on Sukkot. To me, there's nothing more hadar - beautiful, than using an etrog of shemittah that I merited to pick myself in the field five minutes from my home.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Parshat Netzavim - Lo Bashamayim Hee - Seven Lessons to Prepare for Rosh Hashanah

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Netzavim - Lo Bashamayim Hee - Seven Lessons to Prepare for Rosh Hashanah

The phrase "Lo Bashamayim Hee" carries critical lessons, especially as we approach Rosh Hashanah. In this shiur, we discuss some of the challenges of Teshuvah and some suggested ways of approaching the Yamim Noraim using Lo Bashamayim Hee as a guide.

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Monday, September 7, 2015

The Slog of Selichot

My good friend Rabbi David Brofsky shared a Facebook post defending Selichot:
There’s a lot of complaining this time of year- Selichot.
First, it’s a significant addition to the three daily tefillot, and it’s a considerable hit to one’s sleeping schedule, either early in the morning or at night. Waking up at ashmoret ha-boker is a beautiful idea. As an idea.
Second, they are rather difficult to understand. At least fully.
The Shulchan Arukh (OC 1:4) writes טוב מעט תחנונים בכוונה, מהרבות בלא כוונה (better few supplications with concentration than much without concentration). R. Hutner adapted this statement: טוב מעט בלי כוונה מהרבה בלי כוונה. In fact, in Yeshivat Chaim Berlin (and Pachad Yitzchak in Israel), I have heard that they say abridged selichot. I full identify with this sentiment: I often say a shorter, abridged Tachanun (Mon and Thurs), Pesukei De-Zimra, Kinot and of course, Zkhor Berit (Erev RH).
But, I also have to say the following: I enjoy Selichot. I find them meaningful. I like saying (yelling?) the first part ('לך ה and שומע תפילה). I enjoy finding the rhythm in the different selichot, even if I don’t always fully understand the meaning. I say the 13 midot of rachamim with great awe and trepidation, as I recall the image of God revealing them to Moshe, as the key to forgiveness. I like the tune of the final pizmon, and how the sheliach tzibbur and the tzibbur say each part. Yes, and I love rushing through the zkhor rachamekha, hoping to say ve-havi’otim before the sheliach tzibur says shema koleinu. Shema Koleinu! Hashiveinu! Al tashlikheinu! How can one not find meaning in a good confession (viduy)? And racing through the final aneinus matches the Rav’s description of “tze’aka”- a prayer said in a time of crisis - spiritual crisis.
Finally, the voices and tunes of decades of ba’alei tefila are in my head; R. Amital’s deep yet haunting tefillot ring in my ears (see minute 28 below..).
There is meaning in tradition. There is meaning in structure. There is meaning in years and years of melodies. And there is meaning in oscillating between slow and fast, and whispering and screaming, while the voices of great baalei tefilla echo in one’s ears. I wouldn’t trade that for all the uplifting “hashiveinu”s and funky “rachamana”s out there.
Rabbi Brofsky is right. Selichot today has a "bad name." Today it's Carlbach Selichot. Here in Israel, Tours of Jerusalem end with a recitation of Selichot somewhere in the Old City. It's not enough to pray; Selichot needs to be an experience.

I agree with everything that Rabbi Brofsky wrote, except I really don't usually experience Selichot as uplifting and passionate. Nor, really, do I expect them to be.  
In theory, it would be great if I had a passionate religious experience every time I pray. But I don't - far from it. Nor do I think it's reasonable to have that expectation. Human nature is such that we experience rhythms in life - highs and lows, and I believe the expectation of a perpetual spiritual high is unreasonable, unrealistic, and unfair to ourselves. 

This same rule applies to the recitation of Selichot. I don't get much out of Selichot (less so after midnight, which is why I say the Sunday morning Selichot on Sunday morning, at not at 12:30am) Despite the lack of such a high, I still make a concerted effort to say Selichot (albeit too fast) as I think that they're very important even without that spiritual high. This is because to me Selichot is a process building towards the end goal of Yom Kippur. 

I see Selichot both as an intentional slog, an extra effort we make around the Yamim Noraim, and also a way to gradually move towards the Tefillot on Yom Kippur. If a person experiences Yom Kippur on the first night of Selichot, what then can he expect to have left later on? During the waning moments of Yom Kippur, I always think of - and in truth feel bad for - the people who don't say Selichot leading up to Rosh Hashanah and during the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah. At that time, as we're piercing the heavens with the 13 Middot of Rachamim, we pause between each volley for a brief recitation, a respite of sort, most of which recall Selichot we have recited over the past weeks.Each stanza takes me back to those early morning Selichot, and gives me a bit more strength to push forward. Neilah - like everything else is life - means so much less if you didn't put in the time during the weeks of Selichot, steadily building momentum with each passing day.

I don't for a minute think that my Selichot this morning were Neilah. Nor do I think they should be. Selichot are a slog. But to my mind, that just how they're supposed to be.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

How Arye Deri Might Force the Chief Rabbinate to Recognize Rav Rabinovitch's Conversions

My favorite political writer in Israel, Zev Kam, floated a fascinating theory in last week's Mekor Rishon suggesting that the individual who might be most responsible for the official acceptance of the conversions performed by the new conversion Beit Din of Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch might be none other than Arye Machlouf Deri, head of Shas.

Deri? you ask. He's the head of a Hareidi party, and a devoted follow of Rav Ovadia Yosef zt"l. Rav Ovadya's son, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Rav Yitzchak Yosef, recently criticized the Beit Din by asserting that,
"They want to convert children who will eat pork and violate the Shabbat. This represents a falsification of the words of Torah, even according to Rav Kook and Rav Yisraeli. These conversions are forbidden." 
[A short digression on Rav Yosef's comments: On the first point there is no debate. The Beit Din does not require that the children commit to an Orthodox lifestyle. On the second point, Rav Rabinovitch doesn't need my defense. Yet, I note with interest Rav Yosef's choice of words about the conversions themselves. He could have said that they are illegitimate and will never be recognized. He did not say that. He said, הגיורים האלו אסורים, meaning that in his mind, it is forbidden for a rabbi to perform such a conversion. What would the halachic status of a person converted by a recognized rabbi? Rav Yosef did not answer that question. End digression.]

Yes, Deri.

How would Deri coerce the Chief Rabbinate to accept and legitimate these conversions? He'd do it, unintentionally, through the magical world of Israeli politics. This is because while Deri himself would never suggest accepting these conversions, given the proper incentive, Prime Minister Netanyahu would. Why in the world would Bibi want to get himself involved in this fight? Because he needs a gas deal, and he needs it sooner rather than later.

The Gas Deal
Jews around the world, and especially in Israel, rejoiced when we learned of the discovery of huge natural gas reserves in Israeli waters in the Mediterranean Sea. The first field, Tamar, is estimated to have 7.9 trillion cubic feet of gas. That's a lot. Discovered in 2009, the field came online and began producing gas in 2013. Just to get a sense of the crazy Israeli politics involved: Tamar is directly west of Haifa, but due to lawsuits and holdups in the Supreme Court, it turned out to be easier to just pipe the gas under the sea all the way to Ashkelon, one hundred miles to the south. (And if you drive north today on Road 6, you'll see crews laying pipeline to carry natural gas north from Ashkelon to the utility plants in the north. Crazy.)

Tamar turned out to be an appetizer for the main meal, as Noble Energy announced that it discovered another field they called Leviathon, which is estimated to contain 16 trillion cubic feet of gas (more that a lot; much more). Yet, before the company can begin producing gas, the government must sign off on the agreement that it made with the company to buy the gas. This turns out to be incredibly complicated. The general sense that I get is that right-wing parties want to sign the deal, while left-wing parties think that the government should hold off and demand a better deal from the fatcat tycoons who are getting filthy rich by selling gas that belongs to the Israeli public. Both are probably right. It's very confusing, which is why you're probably not even reading this paragraph, and skipped to the next heading when you read the words, "The Gas Deal"

Deri's Role
How does Deri fit into all of this? Well it turns out that in order to trigger the deal already approved by the Cabinet, it must be certified by the government's Antitrust Commissioner, ensuring that contracts to do not give monopolistic rights to specific companies. (This deal does seem to have all the markings of a monopoly). Yet, like so many Israeli laws, this one also has a loophole. Article 52 of the Antitrust law states that in cases of national security or foreign policy concerns, the Economy Minister (Deri) could sign a waiver that would circumvent the antitrust commissioner's objections. In other words, Bibi had a "Get out of jail free" card for his gas deal: Arye Deri. All Deri had to do was sign the papers, the gas deal would have gone through, the companies would have gotten rich, and the Israeli public would have enjoyed a windfall from the taxes on that gas (albeit less than they should get, but who's asking?)

Deri refused to sign the deal. Not once, but twice. It's clear that if Bibi thought for a moment that Deri wouldn't sign off, he never, ever, ever would have made Deri the Economy Minister. Never. But that's water under the bridge. And, on top of it all, the current Antitrust commissioner just resigned, and Deri has to find someone else to take the job. That person will then need to reexamine the whole agreement, create a commission to conduct an inquiry - a huge tumult. It will take months, if not years for this gas deal to go through. And, Egypt just found an even bigger gas field in its waters.

Bibi wants this gas deal. Badly.

How do you get approval for the deal if you can't get Deri - who you appointed as your Economy Minister - in your coalition, to sign the papers? Well, you can bring it to the Knesset for a vote, and approve it officially, without the need for loopholes.

There's only one problem: Bibi's coalition is 61 out of 120 seats - razor thin - and he'll never get the vote passed with that margin. He needs breathing room, and there's only one natural place for him to turn: Avigdor Lieberman.

The Lieberman Factor
Lieberman surprised the political pundits when he announced that his Yisrael Beiteinu party would not be joining the government this year. He can change his mind at any time, given the proper incentive. In fact, it has been widely assumed that he would eventually join the government, as Bibi himself never actually filled the post of Foreign Minister (keeping it for himself, and placing Tzipi Hotoveli as Assistant Foreign Minister) which he seems to be saving for Lieberman. What might Lieberman want in order to enter the government? I assume that he'll want a whole host of things, but included in the list might very well be the issue of conversions.

Lieberman represents an almost exclusive constituency from the former Soviet Union, and for them, the issue of conversions really is important, no so much because they want to convert, but more because those who are not halachically Jewish can't marry legally in Israel, and feel like second-class citizens. This is a symbolic issue that's very important to Lieberman's community, even if practically it won't make that much of a difference.

Last month, Lieberman held a very public meeting with Tzohar Chairman Rav David Stav in order to discuss ways to promote the acceptance of the conversions promoted by the new Beit Din. A Hareidi website reported that,
"Lieberman and Rav Stav agreed that the Yirsrael Beiteinu party will work with the relevant parties in the government and the Chief Rabbinate, in order to find a way to allow these alternative Batei Din to operate, with official recognition for the conversions performed."
Lieberman further threatened that if the conversions were not recognized, his party would once again introduce a new "Tzohar Law" legislating the rights and recognition of the new conversion courts. These threats and any new legislation, only have a hope of passing if Lieberman joins the government and helps pass the gas deal.

So, in the end, who might have forced Bibi to turn to Avigdor Lieberman to pass his gas deal, who in turn will force the Chief Rabbinate to accept Rav Rabinovitch's conversion court? That's right: none other than Arye Deri.

Maran would be appalled.

Audio Shiur: Parshat Ki Tavo - Mutual Responsibility vs Individual Rights

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Ki Tavo - Mutual Responsibility vs Individual Rights

Two themes play an important role not only in Ki Tavo, but also in the beginning of Nitzavim. On one hand, the Torah communicates the value of Areivut - mutual responsibility. At the same time, people have the ability to act in private. How do these two seemingly conflicting values coexist?

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Perfection and the Yamim Noraim

Way back when I was in the rabbinate, someone emailed me the description of the perfect rabbi:
The results of a computerized survey indicate the perfect Rabbi preaches exactly fifteen minutes. He condemns sins but never upsets anyone. He works from 8:00 AM until midnight and is also a janitor. He makes $50 a week, wears good clothes, buys good books, drives a good car, and gives about $50 weekly to the poor. He is 28 years old and has preached 30 years. He has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all of his time with senior citizens. The perfect Rabbi smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his work. He makes 15 calls daily on congregation families, shut-ins and the hospitalized, and is always in his office when needed.
You get the point: there's no such thing as a perfect rabbi, as much as there is a perfect teacher, lawyer, doctor or mother. Yet, ever since the first blast of the Shofar in shul last week, I've been thinking about perfectionism and the delicate balance between the dangers of perfectionism on one hand, and our concurrent need to strive for perfection.

Being a perfectionist can be extremely destructive. A perfectionist by definition is never happy. Because achieving perfection is literally impossible, one's work is never really good enough. Actually, it's never really good at all. And since it's not going to be "good" (i.e. perfect), often the perfectionist won't even bother starting a project or endeavor at all. After all, what's the point of working on something that you know will fail?

And yet, for all the dangers of perfectionism, that seems to be precisely the demand that Judaism places upon us during the Yamim Noraim. Rambam writes,
ומה היא התשובה--הוא שיעזוב החוטא חטאו, ויסירנו ממחשבתו ויגמור בליבו שלא יעשהו עוד, שנאמר "יעזוב רשע דרכו, ואיש אוון מחשבותיו" (ישעיהו נה,ז).  וכן יתנחם על שעבר, שנאמר "כי אחרי שובי, ניחמתי, ואחרי היוודעי, ספקתי על ירך" (ירמיהו לא,יח); ויעיד עליו יודע תעלומות שלא ישוב לזה החטא לעולם, שנאמר "ולא נאמר עוד אלוהינו, למעשה ידינו--אשר בך, ירוחם יתום" (הושע יד,ד).  וצריך להתוודות בשפתיו, ולומר עניינות אלו שגמר בליבו.  - הלכות תשובה ב', ג
What constitutes Teshuvah? That a sinner should abandon his sins and remove them from his thoughts, resolving in his heart, never to commit them again as [Isaiah 55:7] states "May the wicked abandon his ways...." Similarly, he must regret the past as [Jeremiah 31:18] states: "After I returned, I regretted." He must reach the level where] He who knows the hidden will testify concerning him that he will never return to this sin again as [Hoshea 14:4] states: "We will no longer say to the work of our hands: `You are our gods.'" He must verbally confess and state these matters which he resolved in his heart.
Each year, as I review these important halachot, I stop on that line from Rambam: He must reach the level where] He who knows the hidden will testify concerning him that he will never return to this sin again. Really? Never again? Can I really testify before God that I'll never revert to my past sins; that I'll never slip up? That I won't fall prey to my evil inclination, and commit a sin from my past?

Is not the obligation to "never return to this sin again" a demand for perfection? Never doesn't mean "try not to" or "promises not to" – it means never. Ever. Perfection.

Like many questions, I'm not sure that there's one good answer to this question. This year, I have come to understand that Rambam's formulation demanding a commitment to perfection represents a core aspect of Yamim Noraim that we, as imperfect beings, must confront at least once a year.

On Yom Kippur, the spiritual high point of the year, we emulate the angels. For one day, we eschew our physical selves; our hunger, sexuality, work and leisure, and spend this one day basking in the glory of God. We are, as much as we can possibly be, spiritual. At the same time, we recognize that this yearning is impossible.

That, in a nutshell, is the human condition: the desire for perfection, combined with the knowledge that it is something we will never achieve. During the rest of the year, we take refuge in our humanity, excusing our mistakes and shortcomings. But for one day, we expect perfection of ourselves, and that expectation propels us to improve, repent, return and transform ourselves into better, more perfect people.

There's a famous custom mentioned by the Rema (Orech Chayyim 583:2):
יש המדקדקים שלא לאכול אגוזים שאגוז בגימטריא חטא
There are those who are meticulous not to eat nuts [on Rosh Hashanah] for the gematria (numerical equivalent) of (the Hebrew word) "egoz" (nut) equals "cheit" (sin).
There's only one problem with this custom – or at least the explanation for it: the math is off. The words are not equal. Egoz (אגוז) is 1+3+6+7=17. Cheit (חטא) is 8+9+1=18. They're not even equal to each other!

Maybe that's precisely the point. Sin represents the definition of imperfection. Through our shortcomings, we demonstrate just how incomplete we truly are. In this simple custom, we refrain from eating nuts, to remind us of this exact point – that we are not perfect, and have much to strive for during the Ten Days leading up to Yom Kippur.