Friday, April 17, 2015

Audio Shiur: Parshat Tazria-Metzora - Tzaraat in the Home: The Danger of Permanence

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Tazria-Metzora - Tzaraat in the Home: The Danger of Permanence

The text of the Torah seems to treat Tzaraat in the home as a "gift", especially when we compare the text to other similar texts in the Torah. Some gift. What lessons can we learn from this unusual spiritual phenomenon?

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My Two Cents on the KosherSwitch: Forbidden Today. In the Future? Not So Sure...

The OrthoWeb is once again ablaze about the KosherSwitch (which is not in fact new in any way). If you haven't seen the press, just google it. I've written before about similar issues, such as texting on Shabbat and Shabbat speaker systems.

First let me make it clear that I am not in any way in favor of the KosherSwitch, and don't support its use in normal situations. It's pretty clear that I'm not alone in this view. That being said, a few comments:

Most lay people have trouble distinguishing between sha'at hadchak and lechatchila. One person's lechatchila is another's sha'at hadchak. Would you suggest to someone minimally religious, who tells you that they use the lights in their home - to install this switch? Is it permissible in medical situations? Security situations? Would you install one (or a similar switch) in your shul connected to an emergency alarm in case of medical emergency or some kind of terror attack? A person versed in halachic thinking readily appreciates the nuanced differences, but lay people often wonder at our nuanced perspective, and adopt the lenient view thinking, "I'm not that frum anyway."

Many rabbis have criticized the KosherSwitch as a device which will essentially ruin the essence of Shabbat, turning it into a glorified Sunday. Again, for technical halachic reasons, I'm against using this switch in normal situations. But I don't know how we're supposed to claim that using electricity ruins the spirit of Shabbat, when we do it all the time.

Many years ago, in a famous responsa, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein severely limited the use of Shabbat timers, as he considered having melachot being performed automatically to be a violation of Kibud Shabbat. He only permitted, begrudgingly, the use of Shabbat timers for lights, but not anything else.

He forbade their use, and the world adopted their use for everything from air conditioners to lights to alarm clocks (they have kosher clocks too, with haskamot of poskim). Essentially, we live in a world that universally allows the switching on and off of electrical devices on Shabbat as long as we do it beforehand. And we don't bat an eyelash about it. Has this practice turned Shabbat into Sunday? Hardly. It's just what we're used to.

Would a rabbi permit a quiet Shabbat robot to sweep the floor after we go to sleep on Friday night? How about a dish washing machine that works on a timer, and washes the dishes so they can be clean on Shabbat morning? (may authoritites already allow this). Why is it greater shmirat Shabbat for me to have to wash those very same dishes by hand? I can well envision my grandchildren (I should live and be well) asking me: "What? You washed dishes by hand on Shabbat morning? Why?" How would we feel about a robot that was programmed to clean the table and clear the kitchen after we've already gone to sleep? (not yet invented, but is it that hard to imagine?) Why are we OK with live "help", but find mechanical assistance so troubling?

I get the sense that halachah has yet to settle on a way of categorizing and addressing the incredible technological advances we have witnessed over the past twenty years. We're fine with hashgachah (for kashrut) over video systems, but not with conducting a virtual minyan. We accept Shabbat clocks and lamps, but not switches. It's incredibly confusing for rabbis - much less your average ba'al habayit (layperson). This imbalance is natural and to be expected. A halachic system that slowly developed over centuries is not designed - nor should it - instantly digest incredible changes in lifestyle and society. Our natural halachic "conservatism" is what has maintained us all these years. And yet, we must also acknowledge that something is out of whack, and it will take time for things to come back into balance. We should not cavalierly dismiss people who use the Shabbos switch as "mechalelei Shabbos" who are "turning Shabbos into Sunday." While they might not have an explicit heter, that's a far cry from Chillul Shabbat.

I wonder what poskim who lived two hundred years ago would say about our Shemirat Shabbat - with our kosher lamps (which you essentially turn on and off) and our whole-house timers and our Shabbat ovens. I get a sense that they'd be shocked. I also have a strong feeling that our sense of what Shabbat is or is not will have very little bearing on the practices of future generations.

Their Shmirat Shabbat might look very much different than our own.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Tefillin of the Holocaust: Thoughts for Yizkor

Rav Tamir Granot begins his series of shiurim on Faith and the Holocaust at Yeshivat Har Etzion's Virtual Beit Midrash with an incredibly powerful story, which I feel bears quoting in its entirety. My grandfather's entire family was also decimated in the Holocaust, and around this time of year, especially as we recite the Yizkor on Pesach that falls before Yom Hashoah, I often think about how little I knew of him and his family. I know that his brother, who survived the war, abandoned his faith, while my Zeide did not. He was a tireless supporter of Israel, and sacrificed a great deal to ensure that his children enjoyed the benefits of a Jewish education. He didn't leave a pair of tefillin, but left a legacy of descendants that would make him quite proud.
I will share one of the most meaningful parts of this journey with you. When I celebrated by twelfth birthday, my grandfather, R. Tzvi Greenstein, z"l, phoned my father, ylch"t, and told him that he had decided to buy me tefillin for my bar mitzva. My father was surprised at my grandfather's alacrity, and mentioned that doubtless my other grandfather, R. Yosef, ylch"a, would also want to buy me tefillin, because I was the oldest grandson on both sides of the family. Remonstrance was of no avail: Grandfather Tzvi forced my father and everyone else to comply with his wishes. His insistence bore fruit, and several weeks later he purchased the tefillin.
My grandfather knew what he was doing. He did not merit to attend my bar mitzva. Shortly before my bar mitzva, he died peacefully in his sleep, kissed by God. He suffered no prior illnesses; he was seventy-two years old. In his drawer, we found two envelopes: one contained a standard will, and the other contained a piece of paper with the heading,
"My Heart's Desires." I will now share the latter with you:
Tzvi Greenstein, Kiryat Motzkin, 23 Harav Kook St.
My help comes from the Lord,
My Heart's Desires!
a. Do not, under any circumstances, perform an autopsy upon my body.
b. I sincerely importune you to bury me next to an upright, God-fearing individual.
c. I request that you do your utmost to bring me to burial on the day I die.
d. I request that you place the head-tefillin (sitting in the clothes closet, next to my prayer shawl and tefillin, in a special case) in my grave, next to my head, so that it will bear witness that under the most trying conditions I risked my life to perform the commandment of laying tefillin, which have [inscribed on a parchment] within them His oneness and His unity, may His name be blessed in the world.
e. I request that you place a very modest and simple headstone upon my grave, and engrave upon it the words attached to this letter.
I accept upon myself the yoke of the heavenly kingdom unreservedly, with no remorse or desire to repent of my decision. I believe with complete faith that You, God, are true and Your Torah is true forever, unto eternity.
Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. God reigns; God has reigned; God shall reign forever and ever. Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom, forever and ever.
Your faithful and devoted servant,
Tzvi Greenstein
Son of Shemaya and Sara Pesil, z"l, Hy"d (May God avenge their deaths)
These moving words were written by a Jew whose entire family – except for his brother Shelomo, ylch"t – was wiped out by the Nazis: both his parents, four of his brothers, and, above all else, his first wife and his only son. His wonderful declaration of faith at the end of the letter was neither a theological conclusion arising from the Holocaust nor even a decision arrived at in spite of it. This spark of faith, as I understand it, is the real reason he survived the trials of the Holocaust and had the strength to start a new family in Israel.
My grandfather's request regarding the tefillin was the surprising part of the letter. We had not known about the old head-tefillin he wrote about, which indeed was sitting in his closet. My grandfather spoke about the Holocaust a lot, but not in the first person. The story completing the picture, which was told only after his death, was that he had smuggled these tefillin into Auschwitz, and later into Buchenwald, where he was imprisoned during the war. Risking his life, he had put them on every day. Near the end of the war, he had been caught wearing them during his prayers, hiding behind one of the barracks. An S.S. officer began strangling my grandfather with the straps, and he would have completed his task, had God not been with my grandfather, for at that moment an air raid siren sounded warning of incoming Allied bombers. The German left him alone, and the head-tefillin had remained in his possession ever since.
In retrospect, I realized that, for my grandfather, the act of purchasing the tefillin completed the circle of his life: it was a joyous departure from the life that tefillin had imbued with meaning and force (and that, in the end, went with him to his grave). He left his gift for me, his grandson and successor, confident and joyful in the knowledge that the Jewish life he believed in would be continued by his descendants.

When I put on my tefillin, I have in mind not only the well-known kavvanot (mystical intentions) included in the "Le-shem Yichud" recitation, but also kavvanot and thoughts of continuity, gratitude to God, and remembrance and appreciation of my grandfather, z"l. In so doing, I reaffirm his tremendously powerful faith.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

What's Your Special Holiday Food?

Two summers ago, we spent a few weeks in New York, and visited the Museum of Natural History, which features a special exhibit on food. Among the fascinating elements of the exhibit was a display on special holiday foods, describing the different foods that people of different cultures use during their celebrations.
After watching the video and seeing the exhibit, I turned to my own children and asked them what food they most associate with the holidays. To my mind, I thought that they'd say something like apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah, or matzah on Pesach. Nope, and nope. Each one said the exact same thing: Fricassee. That's right. My mother's fricassee.
She served it as an appetizer, made of chicken wings, necks, pupiks (if you have to ask, don't) and meatballs. I've done away with the necks and pupiks, but the taste is the same. I make it twice a year: Sukkot and Pesach, and especially on the night of the Seder, when you're already full from eating eight tons of matzah before you even start eating, all we have is chicken soup with kneidlach, and fricassee. And then it's on to the afikomen.
I was pleasantly surprised that my children have grown so attached to a food I learned from my mother (which she learned from hers). I'm certain that every family has its fricassee. Unless you're from one of those families that goes to a hotel for Pesach. Oh well.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Two Audio Shiurim for Pesach: "Two Types of Redemption", and "Pesach and Eliyahu Hanavi"

Audio Shiur 1:
Two Types of Redemption

Different clues in the text of the chumash lead to very, very different opinions in the Gemara about how the redemption took place. What happened on that night? How did they eat the Korban Pesach? And what does that teach us about redemption today? We conclude with a beautiful piece from Eyn Ayah by Rav Kook

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Audio Shiur 2:
Pesach and Eliyahu Hanavi

We encounter Eliyahu twice over the Pesach period: in the haftarah for Shabbat Hagadol, and when we pour him a cup of wine during the Seder. What's Eliyahu Hanavi's role during Pesach? Not surprisingly, there are two, very different ways to understand his relationship to redemption. We again meet a very significant Religious Zionist personality in the form of Rav Uziel, who served as the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv.

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Post Election Redux

The Family Enjoying a Lovely Sunday - er - Election Day
We Need More Election Days
The greatest aspect of the elections are the fact that the entire country has off on a weekday. Once every two (to four) years, the people of Israel finally get to have a Sunday. I miss Sundays. The country would be so much calmer if people had a day to shop, spend time with their kids, or just hang out, unrelated to Shabbat. My proposal: Once a month during the summer months Sunday should be a day off, with the extra eight hours spread over the other four days: nine hours from Monday through Thursday, and a short workday on Friday from 8am to 1pm. If only.

Votes in the Toilet
Losing fully 25 percent of your base really is pretty bad. Part of that can be blamed on the Chardal elements of the party moving to Eli Yishai's Yachad party, led by their Rabbinic leadership, including Rav Tau of Har Hamor, Rav Dov Lior, and Rav Aviner. Fully 40 percent of Yad Binyamin's electorate (presumably the entire population of Torat Hachayim) voted for Yachad which did not reach the minimum threshold, thereby throwing almost 120,000 votes (about 3.5 Knesset seats) in the toilet. 

Bibi's Brilliant Scare Campaign
Many people did vote Likud, fearful of not just of a Labor government, but even more fearful of a Likud-Labor unity government. If you're nervous about territorial concessions, that's the nightmare scenario. Think about it this way: when was the last time a left-wing government (which could only survive in the Knesset with Arab support) made a major territorial concession or peace agreement? Somehow, the right-wing governments (with left-wing support) are the ones that give back land we've never gotten back. It's a good bet that Netanyahu wanted the right wing to fear that he would do exactly that, hoping to scare people into voting for him. It worked, pretty well.

Alienating Your Base
To me, the Bayit Hayehudi loss began almost immediately after the election, surrounding one simple issue: Day School Tuition.
No, we don't spend nearly as much money as our friends in the Diaspora. No, we cannot understand how they make ends meet, especially in the United States, with tuition costs out of control. But tuition still represents a major, major expense for the Religious Zionist community, with tuition costing at least ten thousand shekel per child (after elementary school) per year, and up to twenty thousand shekel for kids who dorm. That's a lot of money for many, many families, and was clearly an issue motivating many voters during the last election.
No problem, Bayit Hayehudi told us. We've got you covered. We'll take care of it - especially the Assistant Minister of Education, (future former) MK Avi Vortzman. They won't so far as to promise to reduce tuition by a staggering forty percent!
What did they do? They sent an urgent dictate to all schools: lower tuition by ten percent. Having no choice, the schools did exactly that, and lowered tuition by ten percent. The government then transferred to the schools, exactly zero. Nothing to cover the tuition reductions. Efes. So, what do you do when you're income is reduced? You cut back on services to cover your losses. Parents were left frustrated, especially when the Bayit Hayehudi then ran an ad campaign proclaiming that "We kept our promise! Problem solved!" Hardly. The whole cynical experience left every parent who pays tuition with a bad taste in our mouths. No one that I know is crying for (future former) MK Vortzman, who will soon see himself (together with Orit Struk and Shuli Mualim) out of the Knesset.

Naftali Bennett's Upcoming Decision
Then Naftali Bennett tried to expand the party to include first popular journalist Yinon Magal - who's traditional-religious (how many votes did he bring to the table?), so we looked the other way. Then he ridiculously tried to bring former soccer player superstar Avi Ochana as well, prompting a mini-revolt within the party. I got the sense that voters felt like, "Hey, if you're trying to make the Bayit Hayehudi into the Likud without catering to the Religious Zionist sector's needs, no problem. We've already got a Likud with plenty of religious members of the Knesset. So we'll vote for them." Speaking with a neighbor about this issue the day after the election, we discussed the fact that in the end, the Bayit Hayehudi is a sectorial party, and my neighbor said, "And I'm very, very proud to belong to this sector." I agreed with him. I am proud as well, and my vote reflected that pride.
In the end, Naftali Bennett faces a choice that he must  make in the near future: Does he want to be the head of the Likud? These elections clearly showed that the Bayit Hayehudi will never be that. It's a "sectorial" party, representing the needs of its constituents, which often overlap with national goals, but sometimes do not. Or, will he be happy being the strong, charismatic leader of a very vibrant, very important community in Israel, knowing that he can be Finance Minister or Minister of Foreign Affairs, but that the head of Bayit Hayehudi will never be Prime Minister, at least not the way Israeli elections are currently configured.
We'll never be Likud-2, and we should stop trying.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Amazing Blessing of Israeli Elections

Harav Moshe Yekutiel Alpert
Many Israelis can’t wait for the elections – which take place tomorrow – to end. Let’s just put it this way: elections don’t bring out the best in Israeli society. And that’s putting it mildly.

Yet, we need to take a broader look at the amazing opportunity (and mitzvah) that we will be privileged to perform tomorrow when we cast our ballots tomorrow. The following story is floating around the internet today, but I feel it worthy of sharing, just in case you haven’t already seen it yet. (The translation of this item is from a blog post by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of Cross Currents).

Harav Moshe Yekutiel Alpert lived in Jerusalem from 1917 – 1955. Below is his description of the day of the first elections held in the State of Israel.  Reading his diary makes me think of my grandfather – a man who lived in Miami Beach but loved the State of Israel with all of his heart. Today, both his son (and his family) and two grandsons live in the Jewish State, a fact which would, no doubt, bring him great joy. The election season reminds us that while we do indeed have much work to do, we are living in a time of incredible blessing which we cannot allow ourselves to take for granted.
At 5:35 A.M. my wife and I got up early, as did my brother, Reb Shimon Lev, my brother-in-law, Reb Netanel Sleduchin and my son Dov. After we drank a quick cup of coffee we dressed in our Shabbat clothes in honor of this great and holy day for which we recite: “This is the day proclaimed by G-d; let us rejoice and be happy”. After 2,000 years of Exile, actually since the six days of Creation, we have never had an opportunity as today—that we can go and vote in a Jewish State. Blessed be He that He has enabled us to live to see this day. My son, Dov, left the house at 5:45 A.M. and went off wherever he went, because he’s a big supporter of the Herut Party, and he didn’t return all day and all night.
My wife and I and my brother and brother-in-law went to the voting station of District 10, in the Hapoel Hamizrachi Building on Habashim Street, holding our State of Israel issued Identity Card in our hands. We walked the short distance from our house to the poll with great joy. We were currently living downstairs from the Dvasha Goldsmidt family in Batei Wittenberg since our house in Beit Yisrael had been hit by a rocket and was being repaired. That’s why we were assigned to vote at this station, rather than the one in Beit Yisrael.
All the way to the polling station I felt like on Simchat Torah when we dance with the Torah (during the Hakafot), but instead of a Scroll I held my Israeli Identity Card in my hand. You can’t imagine the happiness and joy I felt. At 5:50 A.M. we came to the Hapoel Hamizrachi building. We were the first ones there. Only the janitor was there, and the light were on. I asked the janitor, “Where are the polling officials? They haven’t arrived yet?” We waited until 5:54 A.M. Two members of the committee arrived. At 6:02 the chairman finally came, Mr. —– a lawyer. I complained that he didn’t come on time because by law the polling station was supposed to be open from 6:00 A.M. The chairman apologized.
Then he announced since there was a quorum, the two committee members, an observer from Herut and himself, they could begin to work. The janitor brought the ballot box and the chairman then called me and my brother over to give honor to the elderly and asked us to witness the fact that the box was empty and observe its sealing. This was recorded in the protocol where he wrote, “I, the chairman, arrived at 6:00 A.M. (which isn’t true because we came at 5:50 and he only got there at 6:02), and at 6:23 we opened the proceedings.” The chairman said since I’m the oldest person there I would have the privilege of being the first voter.
Quivering with emotion of awe and sanctity I gave the chairman my Identity Card. He read out my name from the I.D. card and the deputy chairman wrote it on the voters list in front of him as number one. He gave me an envelope and I went into the closed off area where all the party letters were placed. With a shaking hand and a feeling of holiness I chose a note marked “Bet”, the United Religious parties’ letter, placed it carefully in the envelope and returned to the polling station. I showed them all that I only had one envelope in my hand, and then, at the moment of greatest exhilaration in my life, a moment that neither my father, nor my grandfather, nor any of my ancestors experienced, (only I had the privilege), I recited the Shechiyanu blessing and carefully placed the envelope in the ballot box. “Blessed am I and blessed is my portion!” I shook the chairman’s hand heartily and the other committee members’ hands too and went out. I waited for my wife, my brother and brother-in-law and at 6:28 we left. I went off to pray and my wife went home. A great holiday indeed!”

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Parshah Puzzler for Vayakhel-Pekudei

What word appears in Vayakhel-Pekudei, that also appears in Tanach as a person, place and thing (all three)?
Please don't post the answer in the comments. If you think you know, email me at rspolter at gmail.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei: Building a Mishkan, Building a State

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei: Building a Mishkan, Building a State

The artisans who built the Mishkan didn't actually put it together, but brought it to Moshe in pieces, Ikea style. Why didn't they finish and bring him a finished building? According to Rashi, they couldn't. Yet, Rashi (and the Midrash) convey a message that related not only the to Mishkan, but to all of us, and to the building of the State of Israel. We conclude by reading a wonderful piece from Siach Shaul, based on talks of Rav Shaul Yisraeli.

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Monday, March 9, 2015

Rants #1: Ten Million Dollars, and an Electric (non) Bicycle

1. Ten Million Bucks for What?
I saw this article making its way through the social networks:
Temple Israel in West Bloomfield receives $10M endowment
A West Bloomfield-based synagogue has received a $10 million endowment from a Birmingham couple.
The money donated by Temple Israel members Sarah and Harold Gottlieb will establish The Stephen Gottlieb z"l Cantorial Chair, in memory of their son who died in 2006. The endowment also will support the music program at the temple and fund an annual concert called the Stephen Gottlieb Tribute Concert.
Harold Gottlieb said he hopes the event will be a catalyst for increased music education and commitment to Judaism and Jewish music in Southeast Michigan.
His son, Stephen Gottlieb, was a music lover who taught himself how to play the piano, guitar, flute, drums and banjo. He also taught others how to play music.
The annual concert is scheduled for July 19 at Temple Israel.
After reading the piece I had two different thoughts:
1. Good for Temple Israel. They've always known how to raise funds
2. That's it? A "Cantorial Chair" and an annual concert? That's one very, very expensive chair. Who's sitting in it? Pavarotti? 10 million dollars used to buy a whole heck of a lot more. Like a campus. Or an entire staff of teachers. Sure, interest rates are terrible, but couldn't they get a bit more bang for their buck? If anyone reading this is interested in donating 10 million dollars to a good cause, contact me. I can guarantee much more than a "chair" and a concert.

2. That's Not a Bicycle.
There's a new phenomenon in Israel of electric bicycles. Basically, these are bicycles with batteries attached to them that you can pedal like a bicycle, although no one does. Instead, you turn the handle and ride it more like an electric moped. Now, if the only people to ride these things were the elderly, I could appreciate their value. But mostly, people are buying these things for their children. I know, I'm officially old, but when I rode my bicycle to school back in the 1750's (in the snow and rain, by the way), I actually had to pedal my bike. With my legs. With no battery assistance.

Someone should tell the Israeli parents buying these things for their kids that exercise is good for their children. Kids don't need batteries for their bicycles. Pretty soon they'll be driving them all over the place so that they don't have to "walk".