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".

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Audio Shiur: Parshat Tetzaveh - The Me'il - Let's Make Some Noise!

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Tetzaveh - The Me'il - Let's Make Some Noise!

What are some of the deeper reasons for the blue cloak of the Kohen Gadol? Why did his clothes need to "ring"?

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Smart Daughter. Less Smart Dad.

My daughter's cellphone died.
It just wouldn't charge, and it was time to buy her a new phone. Smart dad decided that to save some money, he would buy the phone direct from China. I've bought other minor doodads from China (on, and they usually arrive in one piece, so why not save some money. After all, they make these things in China anyway, right? And, if I didn't work out, I'm only down sixteen bucks (and 34 cents). And free shipping!
After about of month of waiting (yes, they really do ship using a slow boat from China), the package finally arrived. Only one problem: when I turn the thing on, everything is in Chinese. I fiddle with the buttons for a while, but can't seem to figure it out. And, what's worse, every so often a button I press locks the phone, and I can't decipher the Chinese to unlock it.
Smart daughter takes over. She opens Google Translate, and starts entering English terms, like "Unlock". We quickly match the right button with the symbols, and we're in. Next we search for language, and finally find how to switch to English. Very smart daughter.
Only one problem. We download her messages, which are all in Hebrew. The phone doesn't have Hebrew. Only English and Chinese. Not so smart dad.
I guess we've now got an extra English-Chinese cell phone lying around. Oh well.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Hidden Costs of Modern Orthodoxy in America - and How Different Things are in Israel

Elli Fischer has written a fascinating an important article on some of the hidden costs of Modern Orthodoxy in America. He notes that the exorbitant costs of day school tuition force parents towards careers such as law, finance and medicine, that allow for the possibility of paying Jewish day school tuition without having to apply for scholarships. One of these costs is the near absence of a creative class. He writes,
That is, the pressure to produce high earners discourages and marginalizes those members of the community whose calling is in music, literature, the visual arts, or the performing arts. The problem is not only that creative types will likely be unable to afford the Modern Orthodox lifestyle; the community itself tends to marginalize those who pursue artistic careers, viewing them as irresponsible. Some creative types will gravitate toward the rabbinate or Jewish education, careers that can offer a creative outlet, financial incentive in the form of tuition reductions, and social acceptability. Many will either give in to the pressure to pursue a stable, lucrative career, or leave Orthodoxy behind.
It's difficult to measure the importance of creativity to a community, society or individual. Yet, creativity clearly plays a critical role not only in personal development, but in communal health and expression as well. Fischer notes that in Israel, where tuition is free, creativity plays a much larger role in Religious Zionist society. I completely agree with him, and would like to elaborate.
Just off the top of my head, I can think of a number of different areas where creativity plays a fundamental role for communal expression.

Dance: I work at the Orot College of Education, a Religious Zionist teachers' college with campuses in Elkana and Rechovot. The women's division boasts the only religious education program for dance teachers. We train religious women who will be the dance teachers in religious schools around the country. Earlier this month, Orot hosted the second annual Dance Education Conference in the Religious Educational System (Chemed - chinuch mamlachti dati), where over 400 participants (students and teachers) representing fifteen different schools from across the country gathered to watch, learn and enjoy experiencing different types of dance. I was invited to watch the only program by men of the day, a twenty minute piece by the only religious male dance troupe in the world (that I know of) called "Kol Atmotai Tomarna". I admit that t was not for me. But I fully appreciated that they even exist. I cannot imagine such a group existing in America.

Film and Television: By now, many of you already know about the Ma'aleh film school, and Orthodox school that trains future filmmakers. But many people don't also realize that schools of education, including Orot (we actually just celebrated the release of two new student films this week), but many others as well, train high school teachers who run programs in film, giving high-school age children the tools and creative outlet to express themselves through video and film. It's incredibly empowering for them, and some actually do move on to careers in film. Even the local yeshiva in Yad Binyamin called Torat Hachayyim (which moved quite far to the right after getting kicked out of Gush Katif years ago) opened a school of film and drama, as they appreciate that the very best way to influence the next generation is through film, drama and television.

Art and Drama: There's a growing list of religious drama troupes, the most famous of which led by Chagai Luber called Aspaklaria. These groups put on productions about challenging issues in the religious (and general) community, using the arts to shine a light on life, and allowing us to view ourselves and others from an outsider's perspective. Moreover, many of these actors also engage in skit comedy as well as playback theater, and perform for schools, groups and communities, using the arts to convey messages, address interpersonal issues - but all using the cultural language of the religious community. Last month I joined my son Bezalel at his school for one such evening, in which a comedy duo performed a number of skits about the relationships between parents, children, teachers and school. The evening featured no follow-up discussion whatsoever. The Rosh Yeshiva felt that the skits spoke for themselves, and offered enough food for thought to allow us to follow up with our children on our own.

Creative Arts: Aside from the famous Israeli art schools, other schools exist (again a school of education) that focus on Art Education and training teachers to teach with art, theater and graphic design, again all under religious auspices.

Music: My son is taking music lessons with a teacher who's studying at a new religious music school in Givat Washington, a short drive from here. His teacher is great - and while I like him to do classical pieces, he prefers to give him jazz, blues, and anything else he can think of. He's now suggested that my son come to the school one day a week and join an ensemble. After all, he told me, exposure to other musicians is the best way for him to grow.
But it's much more than music school. Israeli music - Jewish music - has a range and quality that is almost nonexistent in "classical" Jewish "yeshivish" music (which is the main reason that I can't listen to it anymore). When was the last time you heard a good "Jewish" song in English? They've gotten so corny, and just plain bad, that they've stopped writing them.
This richness expresses itself in performers who express the joys, pain, challenges - whatever - of the religious experience into music. Sure, Avraham Fried is quite popular in Israel. Again, not my taste. But so are Yonatan and Aharon Razel. And the popular "American" Jewish music band Moshav Band are really all Israeli. And Shuli Rand. Wow. For most Americans, the Hebrew is too fast, and too complicated. But wow. Just wow. His first album expresses so many powerful religious feelings in such sophisticated ways, without resorting to quoting a verse from Tehillim over and over and over again.

Other categories that I haven't mentioned include comedy and literature, but you get the point. I don't want to give the wrong impression. I'm not at shows and exhibits and book discussions each and every week. Far from it. But I appreciate the fact that cultural offerings are not only available in Israel, but that they speak from, and to, my personal experience, and carry a power and speak to me in a way that non-religious, secular culture never could.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Audio Shiur: Parshat Terumah - Planting for the Future

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Terumah - Planting for the Future

The Midrash, Rashi and many others address an interesting question: where the heck did the Jews get trees from to build the Mishkan? These trees don't normally grow in the desert. We focus specifically on Ibn Ezra's answer, in which he lays out his view of accepting Midrash as fact - or not. We also learn a critical lesson about sending a message to future generation, through the planting of trees.

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