Thursday, February 11, 2016

Audio Shiur: Parshat Terumah - The Secret of the Jewish People

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Terumah - The Secret of the Jewish People

Why does the Torah describe the details of the physical construction of the Mishkan - specifically the walls - in such minute detail? We look at how the Mishkan was put together, and two beautiful Midrashim about the Briach Hatichon - the center beam that held it all together.

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The Blinding Power of Money

The Babylonian Talmud relates a tale about the sage Rabbi Yishmael, who often sat in judgment on the local population.
"He had a sharecropper who would regularly bring him a basket of fruits as part of their financial agreement  each Friday. One week the sharecropper brought the basket on Thursday. "What is this?" the rabbi wondered. "I have a court appearance and I thought that once I was traveling, I would bring you the produce today." Rabbi Yishmael refused to accept the parcel, recused himself from sitting in judgment on the case and appointed two other judges in his place. During the give and take of the proceedings Rabbi Yishmael thought to himself, "If only [the sharecropper] would make this claim! If only he'd make that claim!" He then said, "Damn those who take bribes! If I – who refused to take the produce, and even if I had, it would have been my own money – am so influenced in judgment, how much more biased must be those who actually take bribes!"
Throughout the course of his campaign, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders has attacked former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for accepting lucrative speaking engagements as well as significant financial donations from a litany of sources, including major Wall Street financial institutions. Sanders has implied that the donations affected Mrs. Clinton's judgment and her ability to accurately assess and reign in the danger of the most powerful financial institutions in the world. Recently, Clinton lashed out at the attacks, insisting that the money had not affected her judgment in any way. “Anybody who knows me, who thinks they can influence me, name anything they’ve influenced me on. Just name one thing,” Clinton said at a televised CNN forum in New Hampshire.  At the Democratic debate last week, Clinton directly challenged the notion that she could be bought and bristled at the suggestion: "Time and time again, by innuendo, by insinuation, there is this attack that he is putting forth, which really comes down to -- you know, anybody who ever took donations or speaking fees from any interest group has to be bought. And I just absolutely reject that, Senator. And I really don't think these kinds of attacks by insinuation are worthy of you. And enough is enough. If you've got something to say, say it directly."

Is she right? Are Sanders' accusations an attack on her integrity? Do campaign donations bias a candidate?

The prohibition of accepting gifts appears twice in the Old Testament. "And you shall take no gift; for a gift blinds those that have sight, and perverts the words of the righteous." (Exodus 23:8). "You shall not pervert judgment…neither shall you take a gift; for a gift blinds the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous." According to the Bible gifts – money given to those in positions of power – does three things: It "blinds those that have sight", it "blinds the wise" and it "perverts the words of the righteous". We don't unduly influence the wicked; there's no need – they already have a warped sense of right and wrong. Rather, gifts affect people with "sight" - those who we would consider righteous and upstanding people, and prevent them from seeing what anyone else can plainly see. Accepting money specifically affects the righteous – decent, honest people with a proper sense of right and wrong – and prevents them from being truly objective.

Is Hillary correct? Are Bernie Sanders' accusations an attack on her character? Far from it. In fact, Sanders refused to attack her integrity, and has insisted that he respects her greatly. Rather, the Wall Street money she has taken has blinded her, and prevented a righteous woman from objectively seeing the true danger and power that Wall Street wields, even after the most recent round of legislation.

Did Mrs. Clinton fight hard to pass laws to reign in the banking system? Of course she did. But it's also impossible to know whether far stronger legislation would have been passed had Wall Street not paid tens of millions of dollars to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

We'll never know what would have been without those gifts, because we – all of us – have been blinded by them.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Do Chumrot Go Hand-in-Hand with a Lack of Derech Eretz? A Thought from the Daf (Gittin 54a)

The Gemara presents a rather complicated discussion about whether it's appropriate to legislate a fine or punishment when someone accidentally violates a specific halachah in order to prevent them from later violating the same law intentionally - גזרינן שוגג אטו מזיד. The Gemara presents an apparent contradiction between two positions of Rabbi Yehudah. Whereas normally Rabbi Yehudah felt that in cases of דאורייתא we do legislate שוגג אטו מזיד, it seems that in the case of Shemittah, where a person planted during the Shemittah year accidentally, Rabbi Yehudah did not feel that the plant had to be uprooted. He was not גוזר שוגג אטו מזיד. Why not? The Gemara explains:
דרבי יהודה אדרבי יהודה לא קשיא באתריה דרבי יהודה חמירא להו שביעית
The apparent contradiction between the positions of Rabbi Yehudah are not difficult, for in the locale of Rabbi Yehudah [violation of the laws of] Shemittah was considered very severe.
In other words, Rabbi Yehudah felt no need to legislate in a case of accidental planting (where one thought it was a non-Shemittah year) because in his community, violation of Shemittah was considered such a terrible act, that no one would do it on purpose. Hence, there's no reason or need to legislate שוגג אטו מזיד.

Then, the Gemara tells a troubling story to illustrate just how serious people took the violation of Shemittah:
דההוא דאמר ליה לחבירו דייר בר דיירתא אמר ליה אנא לא אכלי פירי דשביעית כוותך
For there was a certain man who said to his friend [in an attempt to insult him], "You are a convert the son of a female convert. The man retorted: At least I don't eat the fruits of Shemittah like you!
Apparently, it was considered worse in Rabbi Yehuda's community to eat the fruits of Shemittah than to be a convert the son of a female convert! Moreover, someone in the Daf shiur last night pointed out that in Rabbi Yehuda's time, Shemittah was no longer a דאורייתא - a Torah law. It was by then exactly like it is today - a דרבנן - a rabbinic law. Yet, the people in that community still treated the rabbinic law as if it was still a D'oraita!

Reading the story, I found the whole exchange both terribly troubling but familiar. Why were the same people who were so meticulous about adhering to the nuances of the ritual law of Shemittah so callous about insulting someone else in such a demeaning and inappropriate manner? Why do the two somehow seem so often to be connected to each-other? Is there some link between over-meticulous observance of ritual law and laxity with regard to mitzvot bein adam l'chaveiro? 

Reading the two short vignettes connected in the Gemara, it seems that they are indeed linked.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Audio Shiur: Parshat Yitro - Is it Racist to Call Ourselves the Chosen People

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Yitro - Is it Racist to Call Ourselves the Chosen People

The topic of the shiur was originally, "Did we make the right choice to raise our children in Israel?" But it's really about the issue of racism in the Religious Zionist community, and the difficulty of preaching against racism in a country where every citizen is a potential target of terrorism. This led to the difficult question of whether calling ourselves "chosen" is an invitation to hatred, and an amazing piece from Rav Neria (which you can download here) on the implications of accepting the Torah. Sheets are attached. We conclude with a fascinating insight about Moshe's children, and why we raise ours in such a challenging environment.

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Monday, January 25, 2016

Facing the Difficult Questions – A Thought for Parshat Yitro

Over ten years ago, when I was a community rabbi in Metro Detroit, I invited a the Rosh Kollel for the Kollel Torah Mitzion, to a brief meeting.
“Rav Shlomo,” I said to him, “the programming at the kollel is incredible. You guys have so much energy, passion and excitement. The community members really love you. But I need to you to do something for me.”
“Sure,” he said. “What do you need?” He never saw the next sentence coming.
“I need you to stop talking about Aliyah.”
He seemed momentarily stunned.
“What do you mean ‘Stop talking about Aliyah’? That’s what we’re here for. We believe passionately in the value of Aliyah. Why would we stop talking about it?”
He was right, but so was I. Many community members, tired of hearing the same message over and over again, were simply tuning the members of the Kollel out. I wanted the Kollel to continue to have an influence over the members of the community, so I encouraged them to broaden their message.
I often feel that same estrangement from Diaspora Jewry today. If I write a piece about the importance of living in Israel, the response I get is tepid, indifferent, or hostile. “You made a choice for yourself” – they say – “but why do you insist on imposing your ideology on us?”

I preach Aliyah, of course, is because I believe that it’s the right thing to do.  If so, why do we tune out the messenger when we don’t like what he has to say? One answer lies in a quality of Moshe Rabbeinu that emerges from advice he receives from Yitro.

After settling in during his visit with Moshe in the desert, Yitro decides to join his son-in-law at the office. There he finds an intolerable situation, as the people stand from morning ‘till night, waiting to speak with Moshe. Yitro doesn’t mince words: לא טוב הדבר אשר אתה עושה – “the thing that you’re doing is not good.” (Shemot 18:17) Yitro gives Moshe what would seem to be obvious advice: You need to delegate. You can’t handle everything on your own. It’s not good for you, and it’s not good for the people either.

Moshe heeds Yitro’s advice and establishes a system to allow lower judges to handle the “easy” questions, while the more challenging queries made their way up the line to Moshe. If we think about it, Yitro’s advice isn’t all that unusual nor surprising. Wikipedia calls delegation “a core concept of management leadership.” If it’s so obvious, why didn’t Moshe think of it himself? And, if we assume that he did – which I believe is a fair assumption – why did he not delegate until Yitro came along and insisted that he do so?

According to the Harvard Business Review, “There are plenty of reasons why managers don’t delegate. Some are perfectionists who feel it’s easier to do everything themselves, or that their work is better than others’.”  It’s very easy to see Moshe Rabbeinu fall into that trap. After all, he really could do it better. The people really did want to speak specifically to him. Who wouldn’t want to talk to Moshe about their problems or questions? If the people want to wait, why should he stop them?
When Yitro insisted that he delegate, he also forced Moshe to ask himself some challenging questions: Why wasn’t he delegating? Why hadn’t he implemented the obvious system to deal with the impossible crush of people? It’s not easy to ask yourself questions like these, and many times we simply don’t want to hear the answers. They’re deeply personal, and oftentimes, the answers reveal aspects of our personalities that we’d rather leave unexplored.

The greatness of Moshe lay in the fact that rather than ignore Yitro’s advice and put the challenging questions aside, Moshe confronted them head-on. He was willing to honestly ask himself: Why don’t I ask other people for help? Why haven’t I changed? And, after asking the questions (and discovering the honest answers), he exhibits a willingness to make the appropriate and obvious course adjustment.

If you’re still with me, you probably can see where I’m going here. If you’ve read this far in this D’var Torah, you’ve either made aliyah, or appreciate the fact that aliyah must be a strong priority in the value system of every Torah Jew. Yet, too many people fear the difficult questions that they’d have to ask themselves if they actually confronted the issue head-on. (Why don’t we make aliyah? What am I really afraid of?) So they shun the messenger (or the message) and tell them to stop preaching Aliyah, and instead ask their scholars in residence from Israel to share fun stories about the IDF from the pulpit instead.

The story of Yitro’s advice teaches us that greatness stems not from knowing all the answers, but from the ability and willingness to confront the most difficult, challenging questions inside of us.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Audio Shiur: Beshalach - The Sting of the Needle

Audio Shiur:
Beshalach - The Sting of the Needle

The murder of Dapna Meir hy"d this week left us all reeling. In this shiur we discussed some of the different messages relating to how the Jewish people dealt with the pain and trauma of loss; the desire for revenge, the overarching need for faith in times of distress, and the recurring theme of suffering and its connection to growth.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Lessons from the Daf: Just Because I Have a Sevara Doesn't Give Me License to Paskin

In the middle of an involved discussion on Pruzbol, the Gemara raises the question of whether Shemittah would nullify a written loan contract with a lien against real estate. (Yes, it's pretty involved.) Reish Lakish and Rav Yochanan suggest that Shemittah would not cancel such a loan, while Rav and Shmuel disagree, and rule that Shemittah would cancel this type of loan. The Gemara also brings a proof from a Beraita which explicitly supports Rav Yochanan's position. The Gemara (Gittin 37a) then relates the following story:
A relative of R. Assi had a bond containing a lien clause. He came before R. Assi and said to him: Is this cancelled [by the seventh year] or not? — He replied: It is not cancelled. He left him and went to R. Yochanan [and asked the same question]. [R. Yochanan] replied: It is cancelled. R. Assi went to R. Johanan and asked him: Is it cancelled or not cancelled?
He replied: It is cancelled.
[Rav Assi asked] But you yourself [once] said that such a bond is not cancelled?
He replied: Because we have an opinion of our own [different from what we have learnt], are we to act on it?
Said R. Assi: But there is a Baraitha in support of your opinion?
[Rav Yochanan] replied: perhaps that follows Beth Shammai...
Rav Yochanan's comment is more striking in Aramaic: וכי מפני שאנו מדמין נעשה מעשה - "Because we imagine (or think) something to be so, should be act upon it? Commenting on this strange phrase Rashi writes, נראה בעינינו וכמדומין אנו כן ולא שמענו מרבינו - "It seems to be correct in our eyes, but we did not hear it from our rabbis." Rav Yochanan even rejects a clear proof text to his legal theory, suggesting that it might not be a normative opinion.

The story represents a fascinating tension between theoretical interpretation of a text and actual implementation. Rav Yochanan teaches us that while learning in the Beit Midrash must be honest and open, translating that theory into action requires great care and precision. You don't make changes without the approval and instruction of your rabbis.

To me, this message seems especially relevant in the halachic climate in which we live today.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Audio Shiur: Parshat Bo: Fake it Till You Make It

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Bo: Fake it Till You Make It

The recent Lottery craze with a billion-dollar jackpot got me thinking: How does focusing on winning riches affect people? This led us to study in depth a famous essay from the Sefer Hachinuch on the nature of the mitzvot, and why God commanded so many detail oriented mitzvot. Like always, it's tricky to find a good balance.

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Thursday, January 7, 2016

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vaera - Hail to the Chief

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vaera - Hail to the Chief

A careful look at the plague of hail reveals a great deal about the structure of the plagues altogether, and one understanding of the psychology of hardening Par'oh's heart.

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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Raising Religious Zionist Children: A Question of Education

So much of what takes place in the Jewish world revolves around education – or the lack thereof. The recent controversy surrounding the "Hilltop Youth" is to me, first and foremost, an education issue. Somehow, teachers, rabbis and educators failed to reach these young people before they abandoned home and school for the "freedom" of the hilltop. At the same time, the growing alienation between Israel and America also relates to education and a failure to properly communicate critical values through both parenting, but also our educational system.

Nowhere does education play a more significant role in the Torah than in the story of the exile and subsequent redemption from Egypt. God tells Moshe explicitly that education must play an essential role in the process of the Redemption and the formation of the Jewish Nation. God tells Moshe that He has hardened Par'oh's heart,
וּלְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר בְּאָזְנֵי בִנְךָ וּבֶן-בִּנְךָ, אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם, וְאֶת-אֹתֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר-שַׂמְתִּי בָם; וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי-אֲנִי ה'. (שמות י', ב')
So that you will tell in the ears of your son and your grandson what I have wrought upon Egypt, and My signs which I have placed upon them; so that you may know that I am the LORD.' (Shemot 10:2)
We are also commanded to teach our children about the story of the Exodus on the night of Pesach – the ultimate educational experience.

But what happens when education is missing? What happens when parents and teachers don't provide the education that our children need and deserve? To answer this question, I share a novel answer to a classic question from the beginning of Sefer Shemot.

At the outset of Shemot, we learn that a new ruler arose to lead Egypt, אשר לא ידע את יוסף – "who did not know Yosef." (Shemot 1:8) This raises the obvious question: How could it be possible for a ruler to arise over Egypt who had never heard of the man who single-handedly saved not only their country, but the entire region from starvation? Rashi suggests that, "he made himself as if he did not know Yosef" – meaning that, like so many world leaders that followed throughout history, Par'oh chose to ignore the past in his desire to persecute the Jews. Yet, that's not the simple meaning of the words. Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor explains simply that he neither "recognized him, nor knew of him." This of course only begs the question: How is this possible?

I found a very simple, compelling answer in a commentary on Chumash called “Meir Einei Yesharim” written by Rabbi Meir Schwartzman, who served for many years as a rabbi and dayyan in Winnipeg, Canada. (You can download the full Sefer on here.) He explains that it is indeed possible that the new king never heard of Joseph. How is this possible? He suggests that a new Pharaoh would never have heard of Joseph because a previous government erased any memory of Joseph’s existence. Rabbi Schwartzman writes,
When a new party succeeds in wrestling the bridle of government from a rival faction...then it removes from their positions all of those officials that were appointed from the previous government and it appoints only those officials who it trusts to fulfill its demands, and all the laws that were enacted by the previous ministers and legislators are annulled...and even the textbooks in the schools are that the students do not learn the story of the greatness of this hero or that warrior…
When Marshall [Jozef] Pidulski was exiled from the Polish government (1923-1926), his adversaries removed his picture from the official schoolbooks... and when Hitler arose at the helm of Germany, they revised and printed new school books and encyclopedias... so that in an instant someone who had been a hero and redeemer was transformed into a rebel against his people and country - a liar and a traitor... those who could not be tainted were totally erased from the historical record, as if they had never been born...
This, I believe, is what happened in Egypt. Even though a new king arose over Egypt, nonetheless he did not know of Joseph and had never even heard of him, for the enemies of Pharaoh who ruled when Joseph was young later took control of the government into their hands...and the entire story of Joseph’s greatness and how he saved the nation from famine, all of which was undoubtedly found in the national record... all of this was hidden or intentionally destroyed.
According to Rav Schwartzman, Par'oh never heard of Yosef because a previous government erased him from Egyptian history. How could Egyptian children know about a man if they were never taught? By that very same token, is it really that surprising to see Arabs refuse to acknowledge Israel's right to exist when Jewish history has been erased from their school curriculum?

Here in Israel, Religious Zionist parents assume that our children will not only assimilate our passion for the Land, but that they will also acquire our love for the State – the government and the rule of law – with all of its warts. Yet, the "Hilltop Youth" are teaching us that while we might be channeling our religious fervor to our kids, for some of them, we are failing to communicate the values of democracy, equality and freedom for all crucial to civil society.

By that very same token, while we might believe strongly in the importance of Eretz Yisrael, I am beginning to think that we don’t teach that passion properly, in a source-based manner, especially in the Diaspora where Zionism and Religious Zionism are often not properly emphasized or valued. I remember a number of conversations with parents who sent their children to non-Zionist yeshivot, and then expressed surprise and disappointment when those children returned home with values that did not include a love for the Jewish State. I would often caution parents: "Don’t send your children to a school and expect them not to absorb the school's ideology." It seems so simple and obvious. And yet, so many parents make this very mistake.

In the end, it boils down to education. If it's important enough, we teach it to our children, with love, patience and clarity. If not, we should not be surprised when we recognize that they lack the passion and love for Israel that we hold so dear.