Friday, January 19, 2018

Making Decisions - Dvar Torah for Parshat Bo by Bezalel Spolter

Last year, as a senior, I had to check a couple of yeshivot for the next year. All over the place, no matter where I went and who I talked to, the question was always the same: "Have you decided what yeshiva to go to for next year?" The answer was always no.

The pressure was very intense. The decision I had to make would decide what I would do for the next five years, what kind of Torah I would learn, and even what kind of person I would turn out to be. Yet, people kept asking me the same thing over and over again. I had only checked out two yeshivot but I really liked both of them. It was a very hard to choose between them.

As I thought about this earlier today, watching seniors check out my yeshiva, I wondered. How do you make that kind of decision? How do you decide what's best for you? How can you know what the right decision to make is? The yeshiva decision is just one of many other decisions I will have to make in my life, all of them probably equally as hard, if not harder. The truth is, I have no idea how I did it.

Luckily, that is exactly what the Baal Shem Tov talks about on this week's parsha (On a side note. It amazes me that I had a thought this morning and then that day learned about it with my chavruta that afternoon).

The Baal Shem Tov asks a similar question. How can one know if he is on the right path, making the right decisions? לוט's daughters thought the world was destroyed and they were the last human being alive. Were they making the right decision? What aboutבני ישראל at מעשה פעור? They thought they doing the right thing but got severely punished. So how can one know what to do?

Charedim or Dati Leumi? Right or Left? Raanana or Kiryat Shmona (the yeshivot I liked)? And many more personal or general dilemas.

The Baal Shem Tov starts by stating that in reality, it is very hard to know whether the thing you choose is the right one or not.

However, the way you make the decision is very important. There is a big difference between rushing into the decision and sitting on it for a while. There's a difference between frantically pushing for an answer and calmly choosing. The way you make the decision, is what decided what the outcome will be.

More so, it doesn't end there. Once a person calms himself (the Baal Shem Tov says a good way to calm yourself is by learning Torah), there is one more thing needed. Hashem. Inspiration from above.
Lightning won't strike and make the answer suddenly become clear. Hashem won’t choose for you. But he will certainly guide you to what you really want, what's really good and what’s really right. Now the question is: are you able to receive his guidance? Are you panicking and making an irrational choice? Or are you slowing it down, calmly and logically making what you think is the right choice.

And that's what מכת בכורות is about. At midnight, possibly the first half of the night or the second.

Exactly in the middle. A ספק. In the still, calm atmosphere. That's when Hashem will make his move.

That's when he intervenes.

It's a very small technical difference, but it drastically changes everything.

It's true whether you're deciding on switching to a different path or staying where you are. Choosing what profession to focus on, or where to live. Whether to dramatically change everything or keep walking the same path.


Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Israeli press are ablaze about the terrible things Bibi Netanyahu's son said two years ago. I find myself torn: on one hand, he's a private citizens, and happens to be the son of the Prime Minister (and his political opponents don't care about how they attack Bibi. They just hate him.) On the other hand, my mind keeps coming back to a famous story at the very end of Masechet Sukkah.

The last Mishnah in Sukkah, in the context of discussing some of the perks that the Kohanim received when they served in the Beit Hamidash, notes that one Mishmar - that of the Bilgah Watch - was put into permanent punishment, having their locker priveleges suspended among other minor inconveniences.

The Gemara asks what prompted the punishment. What did the Kohanim of Bilgah do to deserve the public dressing down? The Gemara (Sukkah 56b) explains:
The Sages taught in a baraita: There was an incident involving Miriam, the daughter of a member of the Bilga watch, who apostatized and went and married a soldier [sardeyot] serving in the army of the Greek kings. When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, she entered with them and was kicking with her sandal on the altar and said: Wolf, wolf [lokos], until when will you consume the property of the Jewish people, and yet you do not stand with them when they face exigent circumstances? And after the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greeks, when the Sages heard about this matter and how she denigrated the altar, they fixed the ring of the Bilga watch in place, rendering it nonfunctional, and sealed its niche.
In other words, because a daughter of Bilga, who had abandoned Judaism and married a Greek soldier, the Sages permanently punished the Priests of the Bilga Watch. The Gemara asks the obvious question:
...According to the one who said it is due to Miriam, daughter of Bilga, who apostatized, do we penalize the entire watch of Bilga because of his daughter? Abaye said: Yes, as people say, the speech of a child in the marketplace is learned either from that of his father or from that of his mother. Miriam would never have said such things had she not heard talk of that kind in her parents’ home.
The speech of children in public does indeed teach us a great deal about the way their parents speak at home.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Where Are the Women? In Haredi Comics, Women are Nowhere to be Found

This past Shabbat, my daughter discovered a book that had been sitting in our library for a while. "A Yiddishe Kop" is a very popular puzzle book, which asks the reader to look at beautifully illustrated pictures and decipher puzzles hidden throughout the book. My daughter spent hours poring over the pictures trying to find clues and answers to the very clever questions, and asked me at one point to help her. The author, Gadi Pollack, is a talented illustrator, and the pictures jump off the page.

I've seen the book before, and enjoyed some of the sharp puzzles. But this time, as I sat next to my seven-year-old, one question jumped out at me from each and every page: Where are the women? In the vast majority of instances, they are nowhere to be found. Here's a sample page I found on the web:

No women on the street, perhaps. But the book has a large number of scenes. I get that there are no women in shul or cheder. But no women at the doctor's office? No women at home? The clever way he gets out of that one is by creating a scene where the mother has just given birth, so the hapless father is stuck in kitchen. There is a woman at the zoo, but you can barely see her hidden in the golf cart. (I can only imagine a zoo where they let patrons drive around in goft carts!)

Pollack just released the second volume of the series (which I learned is also avaiable in English). Here's the sample page:

Again, boys, girls and men. But no women! In the park! In America! (They do not have minivans like those in Haredi communities in Israel.) What happened to the women?

I'm not entirely sure why Pollack feels the need to erase the women from his illustrations. After all, he can draw them as modestly as he liked, in wigs, snoods, however he sees fit. Does he really feel that mere drawings of women will hurt sales of the book?

Modern families must fight back. They must go to their bookstores and tell the owners that they won't buy books, clever as they may be, that erase women from every possible situation. They must send the clear message that until women are portrayed properly, they won't expose their children to this type of media.

Until they do that, the media in which women are absent will continue to expand.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

In Those Days and In Our Time

In his powerful essay Kol Dodi Dofek, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik outlines what he views a six "knocks" – divine messages from heaven which a sensitive Jew must hear, recognize and incorporate into his or her religious worldview. He writes,

First, the knock of the Beloved was heard in the political arena. From the point of view of international relations, no one will deny that the rebirth of the State of Israel, in a political sense, was an almost supernatural occurrence. Both Russia and the Western nations supported the establishment of the State of Israel. This was perhaps the one resolution on which East and West concurred [during the Cold War era]. I am inclined to believe that the United Nations was especially created for this end — for the sake of fulfilling the mission that Divine Providence had placed upon it.

The Rav reminds us that sometimes political events, especially related to the Jewish people, represent something greater than simply the decisions of individuals. They reflect the guidance of the Divine, bringing blessing to the Jewish people and to the world.

I believe that this past month we experienced just such an event. For the first time since the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple, the individual who represents the most powerful nation on earth (the President of the United States) officially recognized Yerushalayim as the capital of the Jewish State, the homeland of the Jewish people.

Some will argue that nothing has changed. Currently, they may in fact be correct. The US State Department announced that it has no plans to recognize my daughter (who was born in Hadassah hospital) as having been born in "Jerusalem, Israel" on her US passport. (As of now, she was only born in Jerusalem.) But if it's so unimportant, why did tens of thousands of Muslims protest in Indonesia? Why is the President of Turkey up in arms? Why is Egypt introducing yet another UN Security Council resolution aimed at declaring the American recognition illegal? Politics matter, and have very real consequences in world. While the President of the United States' statement was just, in his words, "a recognition of reality," it also established a new reality – one that Israelis intuitively appreciated and understood.

As religious Jews, we must ask ourselves: What is our religious response to this declaration? Have we responded spiritually in any way at all? I'm not referring to Facebook posts or WhatsApp messages. Rather, has this recent news affected us spiritually? Have we reacted religiously to this great gift to the Jewish people?

Orthodox Judaism is notoriously (and justifiably) conservative. We don't like change, and don't adapt to it very well. Our strength lies in our allegiance to our traditions; to adhering to the way things have been done because that's how our parents and their parents did things. We're reluctant to introduce new liturgy which makes us inherently uncomfortable (I'm still uneasy reciting parts of Lecha Dodi on the eve of Yom Ha'atzmaut). At the same time, that reluctance to innovate and introduce seems downright inappropriate in the face of historic events. If we can't or won't give thanks to God when our Holy City is recognized internationally as belonging to the Jewish people, what does that say about us as a religious people? I believe that one answer to the pull between these two values lies in coming to a new understanding and appreciation of a blessing and prayer we already recite throughout this entire week of Chanukah.

When we kindle the Chanukah lights we recite two blessings – the first on the rabbinic commandment to light the candles – a birkat mitzvah. Tradition teaches us that we recite a second blessing as well.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אלקינו מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁעָשָׂה נִסִּים לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בַּזְּמַן הַזֶּה.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe who made miracles for our ancestors in their days in this time.

This is of course a reflection of the opening to Al Hanisim where we give thanks,

עַל הַנִּסִּים וְעַל הַפֻּרְקָן וְעַל הַגְּבוּרות וְעַל הַתְּשׁוּעות וְעַל הַמִּלְחָמות שֶׁעָשיתָ לַאֲבותֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בִּזְּמַן הַזֶּה:
[And we praise You] For the miracles and for the redemption and for the mighty deeds and for the victories and for the battles that You performed for our fathers in those days at this time.

In his Levush commentary on the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayyim 682), Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe writes that in his opinion, one should add a "vav" to the last two words of this sentence.

We says, שעשית לאבותנו בימים ההם ובזמן הזה – "That you have done for our forefathers and in our time"...[through this language] we give thanks for the miracles that [God] did for our forefathers in those days, and we are also thankful for the miracles that You have done for us in this time, for each and every day He performs among us revealed and hidden miracles, as He did in the era of our forefathers...

The halachah does not follow the position of the Levush; the Taz (O.C. 682:5) rejects his suggestion and we don't add the additional "vav". Nonetheless, I find his sentiment inherently appealing. In addition to giving thanks for the miracles that occurred centuries ago, we must also give thanks to God for those miracles that take place in our time. And, if the author of the Levush – who suffered great persecution and exile, had no problem seeing hidden miracles in his lifetime, how can we, who live in the era of the greatest renaissance in Jewish history, not see even greater miracles today?
Commenting on the timelessness of Chanukah Rabbi Berel Wein writes that,

The Rabbis framed one of the blessings over the lights of Chanuka as recognizing the events ‘bayamim hahem,’ in those days’ bazman hazeh,’ in our time. We always have to look at how past events play themselves out in the current scene.

When we recite Al Hanisim and the second brachah of She'asah Nisim, we must concentrate not only on the miracles of long ago, but those taking place literally in our time – this year, and this month. It is incumbent upon each of us to add a special kavanah when reciting these brachot, to give thanks that dominion of the Jewish people of Yerushalayim has been strengthened and reinforced across the globe.

Finally, we must also give thanks and recognize that this small but significant declaration brings us closer to the day when the Jewish people will light the candles of the menorah not only in their homes, but in God's true home as well.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Praying for Rain in an Age of Desalination

The Chief Rabbinate has issued a directive to add Anenu (an additional prayer for rain) to our shemonah esreh. This makes perfect sense and follows a long line of halachic tradition, from the Mishnah Taanit down through the Shulchan Aruch. Rain is a critical element, fundamental to human life. When periods of drought threaten, we must cry out to God and beseech Him for mercy to bring the necessary rain. While it has rained a bit, it hasn't been nearly enough, and halachically, this call is a response to a crisis situation.
Except it's not. There is no water crisis here in Israel. With four major desalination plants online producing vast quantities of fresh water at very reasonable prices, the country is not in any crisis at all. We've gotten no directives to cut our water use in any way. No one has even asked us to cut the watering of the lawn, nor have water prices risen. There is no water shortage.
So we're left with a situation where we're supposed to recite a prayer of supplication and anguish, of great need due to a technicality, where there really isn't that great of a need.
This is not meant as a criticism of the Chief Rabbinate - far from it! It's an expression of a sense of frustration from a disconnect between ritual and reality. Sure, Jews around the world will add Anenu. But will that translate into religious fervor? Will the words reflect any real feelings?
Is it better to add something to davening when it will just be one more paragraph that you don't really feel strongly about? How does this affect our connection with the rest of our davening?
There are many, many things about which we need to cry out to God. A terrorist stabbed a security guard yesterday. Hamas shot rockets this week. The Israeli government decided to subsidize televisions rather than education yesterday.
But until the Water Authority tells me to take shorter showers and stop watering my lawn, we don't have a water shortage. Why then are we praying like we do?

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Audio Shiur: The Avodah on Yom Kippur

Audio Shiur:
The Avodah on Yom Kippur

The Avodah represents the pinnacle of service on Yom Kippur. The Mishnah dedicates seven out of eight chapters to the service in the Beit Hamikdash. What actually happened? Why was it so dangerous? What message did Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi convey to us about religious leadership through the language of the Mishnah? And does God control every single thing that happens in the world?

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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Audio Shiur: Ein Ayah on Ki Tavo - Finding the Spiritual in the Physical

Audio Shiur:
Ein Ayah on Ki Tavo - Finding the Spiritual in the Physical

From the Mitzvah of Mikra Bikkurim we move to a powerful piece from Rav Kook about the purpose and meaning behind the recitation of Brachot

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Audio Shiur: Parashat Vaetchanan - Seeing the Positive in Judaism

Audio Shiur:
Parashat Vaetchanan - Seeing the Positive in Judaism

All too often, we allow ourselves to focus on the negative, failing to see the amazing positives in Jewish life. Despite facing difficult news, Moshe never allows himself to fall into this trap. Ever the optimist, Moshe Rabbeinu, through his language and message, encourages us to see the good and act upon it.

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Audio Shiur: Parashat Devarim - Why Do We Need a Second Torah?

Audio Shiur:
Parashat Devarim - Why Do We Need a Second Torah?

Why do we need a "Second" Torah? Isn't that concept a bit problematic? We also study the beginning of the Abrabanel's introduction to Devarim, where he poetically describes the destruction of Spanish Jewry?

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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Keeping Our Promises

Several years ago, we were in the process of buying our house in Israel, and had found a great home being sold by its original owner. After a brief period of negotiations, we finally managed to agree on what we felt was a fair price. We were ecstatic, excited to have found a home in the Jewish State for a price that was within our budget.

A week later the seller called me and said, "When you made the offer, were you serious? Had you made a decision to buy the house?" My palms immediately started to sweat. I could sense that this phone call wasn’t going to end well.

"Look," he said. "When I told a neighbor on our final price, he couldn’t believe it. He told me that he'd give me 100 thousand shekel more than you offered for the house."

I thought I knew what was coming next. I was sure of it. We had no written agreement, not even on a napkin. He was going to raise the price or the deal was off. I was sure of it. But then he told me, "But I'm a man of my word. These things are very important to me. I just wanted to make sure that you really had decided to buy the house, and since you do, I will honor our verbal agreement."

Parashat Matot opens with a description of the halachot of nedarim -- oaths. Before describing how a person can nullify his oaths and who can make and nullify different types of nedarim, the Torah establishes an important rule. Moshe tells us that, "Should a person make an oath to God he shall not desecrate his word; Whatever comes from his mouth he shall do.” (Bamidbar 30:3) At first glance, it might seem that this only applies to oaths or promises. What about regular types of commitments? What if I promise to do something, but don’t swear to it?

Rambam, in the Sefer Hamitzvot explains that in saying "Do not desecrate your words," the Torah is warning us in plain and simple language, not to go back on our word. In the words of the Midrash, "Do not make your words chullin – profane". When you make commitments, keep them. When you make promises, honor them. Why is it so important that the Torah command me not only to keep my oaths, but also to keep my non-oaths?

The answer to this question lies in understanding the choice of words in the Midrash. When the Midrash teaches us not to make our word chullin – "profane", this reminds us that from the perspective of the Torah, everything that we say has a level of kedushah - of inherent holiness. Indeed, this makes a great deal of sense. The primary physical characteristic that distinguishes man from animal is our power of speech. Only when we use this power in a positive way do we elevate ourselves. When we desecrate our speech, be it by speaking slander or with profanity or even not keeping our words, we take that spark of holiness that lies within each of us, and we make it chullin – profane. We take something beautiful and bright, and turn it into plainness and ugliness. It is for this reason that the Torah commands us to think about what we say and then follow through on our commitments. Only in this way can we ensure that our words retain the kedushah that God instilled within us.

As parents, we strive to raise our children with consistency. Common sense tell us, “Don’t make a threat if you’re aren’t going to carry it out.” If you do, your children know that you aren’t serious, and you’ll lose your ability to discipline. Have you ever been driving your car as your children scream at each other in the back, and turned around [while driving] and said, “If you kids don’t stop fighting, I’m going to stop this car right now?” You’re not going to do it – so don’t say it.

As our children grow older, these issues become even more serious. Teenagers find inconsistency and hypocrisy particularly frustrating. Time and time again they’d say, “I don’t care what crazy rules the school makes. That doesn’t bother me. What does bother me is when the school makes rules and then doesn’t enforce them.” To kids, hypocrisy and duplicity are the worst possible crimes. If our children feel that we don’t keep the commitments we make to them, or they see us not keeping the promises that we make to others, we run the danger of having them tune out everything else that we say as well. That’s a terrible risk to take.