Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Audio Shiur: Parshat Netzavim-Vayelech: The Connection Between Hakhel and Shemittah

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Netzavim-Vayelech: The Connection Between Hakhel and Shemittah

We here in Israel will spend a great deal of energy on one tiny aspect of Shemittah: What can and should we eat during the coming years? But, in doing so, we'll also be ignoring many essential aspects of Shemittah, that we can discover by examining the connection in the Torah between Shemittah and the mitzvah of Hakhel.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Apple Partners with Machon Zomet of Alon Shvut, Israel, to Create ShabbatModeAppleWatch

September 15, 2014

Cupertino (JTI) - With great fanfare, Apple, the worldwide leader in portable technology, recently introduced the AppleWatch, a smart-phone connected smart-watch which monitors health, relays messages, tells time, and performs hundreds of other currently unknown functions, which will only become known when they are actually developed. Yet, this new device will present a challenge to Sabbath observant Jews, who cannot text, email, watch movies on their wrists, or send playful pings to their spouses sitting on the other side of the mechitzah.

Solving a Dilemma
To alleviate the Shabbat concerns of the AppleWatch, and to encourage the large market of religious Jews who will rush to buy Apple's latest offering, Apple reached out to the Zomet Institute in Alon Shvut outside Jerusalem, which has developed numerous technological innovations that allow Jews to live fully technological lives, without technically violating the Shabbat, according to some opinions.
"We were excited to work with Apple," said Rabbi Israel Rosenberg of Zomet. "The AppleWatch will undoubtedly become the must-have item of 5775, and we wanted to ensure that religious Jews weren't left out."
Asked about the modifications necessary to turn on the AppleWatch SabbathMode, Rosenberg beamed. "You don't have to do anything at all. The SabbathModeAppleWatch comes pre-programmed to sense your exact location, down to plus or minus two centimeters, so that the watch can turn on the Sabbath mode setting automatically for the next eleven thousand years, based on your location, the time, the day of the year, and whether you hold of Magen Avraham or Rabbeinu Tam." Asked how a watch could possibly identify an individual's halachic propensity, Rosenberg simply said, "Siri knows."

What Does it Do?
What does the AppleWatch do in SabbathMode?
"Actually," said Rosenberg, "this presented both halachic and technological challenges." As the AppleWatch is a health-monitoring device, Zomet felt reluctant to limit the blood-pressure monitoring software in the case of a health-related need. Thus, the watch will, based on an individual's health status, decide whether to (a) shut down health monitoring, (2) monitor blood pressure regularly or (3) call Hatzolah, if necessary. Zomet programmed the watch to call the appropriate phone number, again based on location.

What does the device do on Shabbat for a healthy wearer?
Rosenberg explains that the patented technology, sensing the arrival of Shabbat, deactivates all sensors and wireless communication, and places the AppleWatch in a time-only mode for the duration of the day of rest. The software also deactivates the alarm, and any buttons, so that a Sabbath observant wearer does not accidentally press a button, forcing him to wear the watch in StopWatch mode for 24 hours.

But if all the SabbathModeAppleWatch can do is tell you the time, how then is the SabbathModeAppleWatch different than any other watch?
Rosenberg smiled broadly.
"Ahhh, but it is different. Very much so. It's a ShabbatModeAppleWatch."

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Ray Rice, Teshuvah, and The Book of Remembrances

I've been thinking recently about the Ray Rice video (showing him knocking his wife unconscious in a hotel elevator). Before the revelation of the video, he received a two-game suspension, and was set to resume his well-paying career as an NFL running back. After the release of the tape he was fired, suspended, and may never play football again, costing him literally millions of dollars in lost revenue.
What really happened this week? Did Ray Rice do anything different? Did we not think after the release of the first video  (showing him dragging his wife out of the elevator) that he had hit her? Did we imagine that she suffered from a diabetic-related sudden blackout? Hardly. The world "knew" what had happened, but without the information right before our eyes, we looked the other way. We forgot. We moved on.
That's exactly what happens to us as we approach Rosh Hashanah.
When the time comes to make an accounting of the year, in order to begin the process of repentance and renewal, suddenly things become quite fuzzy. We conveniently forget the many, many times we acted  selfishly, harshly, crudely, nastily - you name the adverb. We forget the times we forgot to pray, bentch, make a brachah, do a mitzvah. We forget our sins - or at least the vast majority of them, and when looking back at the year think to ourselves: Sure, I can always improve, but I had a pretty good year, didn't I? Sure I did, assuming that I forgot all of my blunders, mistakes and misdeeds.
There's only one problem: there's a tape, just like the Ray Rice recording. Of everything,
The Gemara in Rosh Hashanah relates a familiar but chilling image.
אמרו מלאכי השרת לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא: רבונו של עולם, מפני מה אין ישראל אומרים שירה לפניך בראש השנה וביום הכפורים? - אמר להם: אפשר מלך יושב על כסא דין
וספרי חיים וספרי מתים
 פתוחין לפניו - וישראל אומרים שירה? (ר"ה לב, ב)
Said the heavenly angels before the Holy on Blessed be He: Creator of the world, why is it that Israel does not recite words of praise (Hallel) on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? [God] said to them: is it possible that the King sits on the seat of judgment, with the books of life and the books of death open before him, and Israel should sing praise?
The Midrash raises a number of fascinating questions, such as: what is the book of the dead? Who in fact is being judged (see here for a fascinating interpretation); why not sing praise during a time of judgment? Wouldn't that get us a better deal? But we'll leave those aside to ask another question: what's written in those books?
During Unetaneh Tokef, we get even more specific. In the context of this solemn, chilling prayer, we say to God,
אֱמֶת כִּי אַתָּה הוּא דַּיָּן וּמוֹכִיחַ וְיוֹדֵעַ וָעֵד
וְכוֹתֵב וְחוֹתֵם וְסוֹפֵר וּמוֹנֶה
וְתִזְכֹּר כָּל הַנִּשְׁכָּחוֹת וְתִפְתַּח אֶת סֵפֶר הַזִּכְרוֹנוֹת
וּמֵאֵלָיו יִקָּרֵא וְחוֹתָם יַד כָּל אָדָם בּוֹ
It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness;
Who writes and seals, Who counts and Who calculates.
You will remember all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Chronicles
 —  from it, it will be read - in which everyone's signature is. (translation from Wikipedia)
What is this "Book of Chronicles" that God reads on Rosh Hashanah while standing in judgment? What's written in it? And I don't remember signing any such book?
Actually, we've seen a similar book before in Tanach - in the Book of Esther, when the king can't sleep and has his servants read from his ספר הזכרונות - Book of Remembrances. Only then does he remember the favor Mordechai did in saving his life, and takes steps to repay Mordechai (and save the Jewish people). What's in this book? It's a detailed diary of everything - every word we've said over the past year, and over our entire lives. Every thought. Every feeling. And every action.
But the author of the Unetaneh Tokef poem only used the language and imagery available at his time. The idea of the signature connotes the undying accuracy of what's written in the book. How can you deny the veracity of a book's contents if they bear your signature. Today we'd say it differently. If we were writing a modern Unetaneh Tokef we'd say:
It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness;
Who writes and seals, Who counts and Who calculates.
You will remember all that was forgotten. You will open the Divine YouTube,
 — from it, all will be viewed - in which everyone's action are found. 
There is a video. Of everything. Whether you can see it or not, there is a camera in the room. In all probability, there is in fact a camera on the device you're using to read these words. So it's not that difficult to imagine. Except that it's on, and recording, all the time, uploading to a special Sefer Zichronot YouTube site we cannot access. While we might not have access to this specific version of YouTube, it's there, and one day we too will watch it.
In the aftermath of the Ray Rice media circus, his wife Janay (who he punched) wrote, "To make us relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day is a horrible thing." It must indeed be horrible to have your worst mistake splashed on screens around the world; to have to live with the consequences of your most terrible behavior for the rest of your life.
But it's not just Ray Rice.
It's all of us. We just might not realize it yet.

Audio Shiur: Parshat Ki Tavo - Finding True Joy

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Ki Tavo - Finding True Joy

You might not expect simchah to be a primary theme found in Ki Tavo, the parashah of the Tochechah. But it is. How do we find joy, and why is it critical to a proper religious life?

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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Audio Shiur: Parshat Ki Teitzei - Rebellious Children

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Ki Teitzei - Rebellious Children

The troubling section describing the treatment of the rebellious son causes many of us today to recoil: kill him? For what? For what indeed. Not to worry - we're not the first to ask these questions, and the answers that Chazal and the commentators offer have a lot to teach us about ourselves as individuals, as parents, and as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Is Democracy Ideal? Thoughts for Parshat Shoftim

For many years - decades in fact, the United States actively promoted the idea of spreading democracy around the world, spending many millions of dollars on efforts to promote democracy, believing that this would lead to greater freedom, fewer regional conflicts, and greater global stability.
Sometimes, this did in fact work. Japan is now a stable, democratic country, after centuries of imperial rule. But, in more recent history, this effort has backfired, and even has served to bolster those who wish to do the United States harm.
As we've witnessed in recent years, giving people the right to choose their government does not guarantee that they'll choose a liberal government that guarantees rights and freedoms. In fact, when given the right to choose, citizens of Egypt chose the Muslim Brotherhood, while their cousins in Gaza chose Hamas - sister organizations dedicated to the promotion of radical Islam. In fact, rather than leading to "liberal democracies", free elections in Muslim countries have resulted in "illiberal democracies" whose governments then proudly promote their legitimacy, as they were indeed freely elected.
None of this should come as any surprise to those who study Chumash with Ha'amek Davar, the commentary of Netziv. While following the will of the people seems inherently sensible, Netziv, noting a seeming self-contradiction in the Torah points out an obvious truth: what's seems sensible, isn't always the best choice.
Moshe instructs the nation that when the enter into the Chosen Land, they must appoint a king to lead them:
כִּי-תָבֹא אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ, וִירִשְׁתָּהּ, וְיָשַׁבְתָּה בָּהּ; וְאָמַרְתָּ, אָשִׂימָה עָלַי מֶלֶךְ, כְּכָל-הַגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתָי. שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ: מִקֶּרֶב אַחֶיךָ, תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ--לֹא תוּכַל לָתֵת עָלֶיךָ אִישׁ נָכְרִי, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-אָחִיךָ הוּא.
When thou art come unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein; and shalt say: 'I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me'; thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the LORD thy God shall choose; one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee; thou mayest not put a foreigner over thee, who is not thy brother. (Devarim 17:15-16)
Netziv notes that rather than just instructing the people to appoint a king, that appointment can only come should the nation desire a king - when the people say, "I will set a king over me." It seems that the Torah only commands the nation to appoint a king when they look at the nations around them, and wish to have a similar form of leadership. Yet, this condition seems to contradict the apparent commandment to appoint a king. In fact, Chazal do indeed interpret these verses as a commandment - a mitzvah - to appoint a king. So, must we appoint a king or not? Is it a mitzvah or not? According to Netziv, it depends. He writes:
ונראה דמשום דהנהגת המדינה משתנית אם מתנהגת ע"פ דעת מלוכה או ע"פ דעת העם ונבחריהם. ויש מדינה שאינה יכולה לסבול דעת מלוכה ויש מדינה שבלא מלך הרי היא כספינה בלי קברניט, ודבר זה אי אפשר לעשות ע"פ הכרח מצות עשה, שהרי בענין השייך להנהגת הכלל נוגע לסכנת נפשות שדוחה מצות עשה. משום הכי אי אפשר לצוות בהחלט למנות מלך כל זמן שלא עלה בהסכמת העם לסבול עול מלך ע"פ שרואים מדינות אשר סביבותיהם מתנהגים בסדר יותר נכון או אז מצות עשה לסנהדרין למנות מלך.
It seems [that the verse is ambiguous] because the leadership of the State is varied - whether it be a leadership of monarchy, or a leadership based upon the will of the people and their chosen [leaders]. There may be a state that cannot suffer monarchy, while another state without a king is like a boat without a captain. This matter cannot be enforced through a positive commandment, for matters related to the public can be issues of life and death, and would therefore supersede a positive commandment. For this reason, it is impossible to issue an absolute command to appoint a king, as long as the public has not agreed to suffer the yoke of a king, having seen the countries surrounding them functioning with greater order [due to their king]. Only then is it a positive commandment for the Sanhedrin to appoint a king.

Some nations - at some times - cannot suffer a monarchy, while others (or even that same country, in a different era), would literally disintegrate without the firm guidance of a powerful leader. It interesting to note that the Obama Administration seems to have come to this very conclusion (a bit late, in my opinion), drastically cutting funding to promote democracy in the Middle East.
Look what happened to Egypt (and Tunisia and Gaza - and probably Syria as well): While democracy sounds good, it seems clear in retrospect that only the firm grip of a powerful leader kept those countries from destroying themselves, and those around them.
Is Democracy the best choice? It can be. But, Netziv reminds us that it's only a good choice of government when the nations themselves are ready for it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Audio Shiur: Parshat Shoftim - Is Democracy a Jewish Value

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Shoftim - Is Democracy a Jewish Value

The modern State of Israel chose a democratically elected form of government. Had the founders of the State followed the Torah, would they have made this choice? The answer, based on a section in Parshat Shoftim, might surprise you.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Assertiveness in the Holy Land

My sister and her family are visiting from the US, and decided that they'd like to visit Tzefat and take a tour. She had heard of a place that offered walking tours of the Old City, and their website does advertise a daily walking tour at 11am.
Just to be on the safe side, I figured that I'd call and confirm that a tour would take place today. And, sure enough, they did indeed confirm that there would be an 11am tour.
"Do I need to make a reservation?" I asked.
No need, I was told. Just sure that they're here at 11.
Great. They woke up early, and were on the road a bit after eight, to be sure that they got there on time.
At 11:05am, my cell rings. It's my sister.
Did you get there on time? I asked.
"Yup. We're here, but there's no tour," she says.
"What do you mean there's no tour?"
"There's no tour. That's it." She was calling to see if I could quickly find something else for them to do.

Yet, I've learned that in Israel it really doesn't work that way. There's always another way, usually if you're insistent enough, and especially if you're right.
Let me speak to her, I said.
My sister was reluctant. What, do you think you can get her to give us a tour? There's no tour. Why do you want the phone?
I persisted: Let me speak to her. After some additional protest, she handed the phone to the young woman - "Tamar" - running the desk.
There's been a mistake, Tamar explained. When I said that both their website and a subsequent phone call had confirmed a tour, she apologized for the mistake, but said that while my sister could join any shiur she chose (they apparently have a full slate of lectures at the place), there would not be a tour.

I was insistent, and somewhat forceful. She asked me not to yell - which I don't really think that I did - OK, I did yell a bit - but I was certainly upset, because they were wrong. They had made a commitment and I expected them to live up to it. After a few minutes of listening to me, she gave my sister the phone back, and guessed it - decided to call her manager. Together, they managed to locate an English speaking guide, and in the end, there was a tour.
What frustrates me most about the exchange is that while she insisted that I not yell (speak forcefully), I know that the only reason that she took the initiative and actually found someone to give a tour was because I did. It's not fun to be "Israeli" with people, and Americans often recoil when Israelis act this way. But, had my sister acted typically American, she would have walked away upset that she had driven two hours up to Tzfat for nothing, and rightfully so.
Why couldn't the cheerful Tamar at the desk have done the right thing, acknowledged their mistake, and tried to fix it - without needing someone to insist that she do it first?
In the end, they gave the tour of Tzefat, but still left everyone with a bad taste.

I know that many Americans struggle with this aspect of life in Israel. I agree with them. It's unpleasant. But perhaps things will improve over time. After all, if people wait patiently on line at the butcher in the grocery, and at the post office, perhaps things are in fact changing, ever so slowly.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

How to Replace Your License Plate in Israel

Sometimes, the most challenging aspects of aliyah are the small, simple things. Like license plates.
Rena called me from the road to tell me that our rear license plate had fallen off, and she didn't know what to do. I began to envision a long, drawn-out process. Thoughts of the DMV entered my mind, temporary license plates, receiving new ones via registered mail...I thought it would be a long, drawn-out process.
It turns out, that it was nothing like that at all.

I told her to drive home, and began scouring the interwebs for information about replacing our license plate. Only one problem: how do you even say "license plate" in Hebrew? It turns out that it's called a לוחית רישוי. Now you know.
I called the local policeman in Yad Binyamin, who explained that you have to come to the police station and file a report. We went, and he asked us a bunch of questions, and then filled out a form that he gave to us. We took that form to the local "test" location (technically, it's called מכון ישראל) - but everyone knows where their local "test" place is, because it's where you have to take your car to be tested each year, and they yell incomprehensible instructions in broken Hebrew ("Turn right! Left! Brake! Neutral!") while you frantically attempt to comply, hoping that they don't fail your car for something stupid like dry windshield wipers out of spite. Yes, that "Test".
Anyhow, we gave the form to the proprietor (a rather colorful man, for a number of reasons) who, in literally a minute, had his worker stamp out a new license plate, and screw it to the car. We paid 50 shekel and were on our way.

So, if you've lost a license plate (or it was stolen):
1. File a report with the local police
2. Take the report to your local "Test" center
3. Pay 50 shekel
4. Drive away

What seemed threatening and daunting, potentially laden with beurocracy, turned out to be a simple process that took less than an hour.
Hope this helped!

Monday, August 4, 2014

How Can You Support Israel During this Difficult Time? Send Me on Vacation!

Supporters of Israel around the world, watching the Jewish State get battered by Hamas and bashed by the international community, have wondered: What can I do? How can I help. There are many different ways to help, both personally and financially. I'll mention a few you might already know about, and then suggest one perhaps you haven't considered.

1. Prayer: If you're reading this blog, there's a good chance you already do this. Keep doing it. I also suggest adding Psalm 144 to your list, but take the time to read and understand it. I spoke about it in this shiur, and it gives me a lot of comfort.

2. Political activism: This can take a number of different forms: (a) Participating in rallies (b) Writing letters to the editor, and supporting Israel in the media (c) Communicating with an elected official. I want to emphasize this point.
Over the past few weeks, we've seen the important role that Congress plays in supporting Israel's right to self-defense. Without the Congressional counter-balance to the pressure that has been brought to bear upon Israel to stop fighting, we'd be right back where we started, and Hamas would already be rebuilding tunnels with concrete supplied by the United Nations. Did you notice that Congress passed a number of resolutions supporting Israel's right to fight over the past few weeks? It cannot be coincidental that the FAA reversed its decision to halt American flights to Tel Aviv after a prominent Senator began asking pointed questions. And the money to pay for those expensive Iron Dome rockets helps a great deal.
I was involved with AIPAC when I was a rabbi, and continue to support AIPAC's work even from Israel. This is the very best time to get involved with AIPAC. Congressional elections take place later this year. Prominent supporters of Israel, including great friend of Israel Senator Carl Levin - who is retiring - will be fighting for their seats. Michiganders: Who will take Levin's place? Will he or she be as supportive of a strong US-Israel relationship as Levin is (hard to believe, truthfully, as Levin was as supportive as they come...) That really depends: Who's working for the candidate that will take his seat? Who's canvassing for votes, and working the phones? Who's writing the checks to support the campaign? It really is as simple as that. The people who get involved early have access later on.
It's not about supporting a candidate you don't believe in. Rather, it's about getting involved in the political process, and supporting someone you really do support, so that the friendship you create now can have a lasting impact down the road.

3. Send me on Vacation for You: All of this prayer and activism is fine and good, but you need to make a real difference right now. How best to do that? Send food to the soldiers? Already been done, and besides, the IDF insists that it's sending enough food to the soldiers already. (I know a guy who runs a food service company here in Israel supplying tens of thousands of meals a day.) Buy soldiers cell chargers? Again a good idea. But all the good IDF ideas have already been tapped out. How much Bamba can a poor private consume? How many pairs of dry-fit tzitiziot can a soldier wear?

What people may not realize Israel's economy, and specifically the tourist industry, has suffered badly during the war. People simply stopped coming, taking trips, cab rides, eating in restaurants, etc. This is, of course understandable, and it's also quite challenging for people who want to support Israel, who can't simply leave their homes, jobs and families and take a trip to the Holy Land.
The Solution? I will take your vacation for you!
I've taken the liberty of setting up an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for the express purpose of bolstering the Israeli economy. Over a two week period I (and my family) will:

  • Stay in a luxury hotel
  • Eat in fancy restaurants
  • Travel by taxi only
  • Take tours with paid tour Guides
  • Visit popular and expensive attractions
  • Offer service-people generous tips

These activities will provide vital support for the tourism industry in Israel, so badly battered by the continuing war in Israel. They need our support, and by teaming together (your support and my willingness to take a vacation in your place), together we can do our part to help those in Israel who are in need today!
So visit my campaign and join me in doing our part to help Israel win this war!

Small print: Donations are not tax deductible. They also don't count as ma'aser. Or tzedakah.