Monday, December 15, 2014

What Do The Coming Elections in Israel Mean in the Real World?

With the breakup of the government, the media is in a frenzy, ecstatic about the prospect of the coming elections in March for two reasons: it gives them something to talk about, but even more importantly, politicians will be spending gobs of money buying media in all its myriad forms for the foreseeable future. Now is a good time to own a newspaper. Or a radio stations. Or a PR firm. Or all three.
Many think that other than the unending chatter about who will run with whom and which place he or she gets in the party rankings, the elections have no real bearing on the lives of regular Israelis. Nothing can be farther from the truth. I'll give two small examples, both connected to the Ministry of Education.

Reform #1: Bagrut Exams 
Love him or hate him, it's a recognized fact that Rav Shai Peron took on the post of Minister of Education with great passion and energy. He decided that Israeli education is too test-based, connected to the rote memorization of information, and uninspiring. (If you ask me, he's right.) So, in less than two years, he introduced a series of sweeping reforms that literally altered the high school curriculum for students across the country. He made teachers lives' harder, giving them greater freedom (and responsibility) in the classroom, and removed entire swaths of required subjects, drastically reducing the number of Bagrut (matriculation) exams both in terms of subject matter and number of tests. Teachers complained (somewhat legitimately) that he imposed the program too quickly, without giving them time to adjust to the new system, properly explaining how it would work, or giving them the necessary training (all valid complaints). He responded by telling them, in so many words, to deal with it.

Reform #2: Getting into College
I work in the admissions office of a large college of education called Orot. Our state-sponsored, four-year, degree-granting college awards its graduates both an undergraduate degree as well as a teacher's certificate. Because we're a government recognized (and funded) college, the Ministry of Education determines the requirements for acceptance, which are universal for all teachers colleges. If you can get into one school, theoretically you should be able to get into any of them.
In the past, in order to get into pretty much any undergraduate program in Israel, you needed to take (and score relatively well on) a test called the Psychometry. (its pronounced psee-cho-me-tree in Hebrew). Israelis universally hate the exam, as it's a combination of Hebrew language, advanced math, and English language. Kind of an SAT on steroids. Students understandably hate it. And, like in the United States, an entire industry has sprung up around teaching how to study for and take the test. Also, like in the States, the connection between success in the Psychometry and in college is anecdotal at best. Remember also that for most Israelis, there's at least a three year break between the end of high school and the start of college. Think about how hard it must be to return to formal education by preparing for a mindnumbingly annoying, pointless exam. Welcome back!

Last year, the Ministry of Education changed the admission standards (at least for colleges of education), requiring far less students to have taken the exam to gain admission. It in fact left the choice of which students to admit up to the schools, leaving, to borrow a Hebrew term, a balagan. Like many government decisions, the exact details of the regulations were left somewhat opaque and would only be determined over the course of time. Now, with the fall of the current government, no one really knows how many students to admit, and what requirements to ask them for.

So, if you're a high school student, you really have no idea how many subjects you need to learn over the coming years to graduate high school. My tenth-grade son came home and told me that he and his classmates were planning on going on strike (yes, he really said that) to protest the fact that they didn't know what subjects they were supposed to learn. (His mean dad made him go to school. Apparently, so did every other parent in the country.) And if you've completed your army service or national service and want to gain admission to college, do you need to invest thousands of shekel and hundreds of hours to take a meaningless and essentially pointless test to get into college or don't you? No one really knows.

And truthfully, no one will really be able to answer these questions until well after March 17th, when the new government (and Minster of Education) is not only sworn in, but settles into his or her new job enough to be able to answer these very simple questions.

And, truth be told, these are relatively minor issues. How about the people running hospitals, or army divisions? Who answers their tough questions between now and March about future policy decisions that need to be made now?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Hallel on Chanukah: Praising God Despite the Darkness

What would happen if this week, leading politicians from across the political and religious spectrum in Israel declared a new national holiday for our victory over terrorism? How would we react? I imagine that we would be at least somewhat perplexed. Celebrate? This week? Isn’t it just a little bit early? For all of our efforts this past summer, Hamas seems determined to proclaim its great hatred and wish to annihilate us. Iran is lurking in the background, and even our friends celebrate terrorists as martyrs. It's hardly a time to celebrate.
Yet, this is exactly what the Jewish people do during the Chanukah war. The conquest of Jerusalem and the re-dedication of the Beit Hamikdash by no means signaled the end of the war against the Greeks. In fact, the war dragged on for at least another two years, and the hero of our story, Judah the Maccabee, died in a subsequent battle against the Greek army. One can easily wonder: how could they celebrate? OK – rededicate the Beit Hamikdash  and quietly begin the sacrifices again. That much we can see. But why not establish Chanukah at the end of the war, when everyone can enjoy the peace and prosperity that peace finally brings?
The answer to this difficult question lies in the words of Hallel that we say throughout Chanukah, words that reflect an important Jewish value that we must keep in our minds, especially during such difficult and trying times.
When we examine the chapters in Tehillim that comprise Hallel, at face value, several sections don't seem like much of a Hallel at all. What’s supposed to be praise turns out to be rather depressing. Yes, there’s the הודו לה' כי טוב – we do praise God for the good, and declare His greatness and goodness to us. But then there are entire chapters that are not so positive, that really must make us wonder what they’re doing in הלל.
אפפוני חבלי מות ומצרי שאול מצאוני – the pains of death encircle me, the confines of the grave have found me;
אתהלך לפני ה' בארצות החיים: I will walk before God in the lands of the living
האמנתי כי אדבר אני עניתי מאד: I have faith even though I say, “I have suffered greatly.”
How is this הלל? Why are these words of praise and thanks to God?

During my first year of study in Israel at Yeshivat Sha’alvim, I learned what הלל is really all about. On יום הזכרון, Israel’s Remembrance Day for fallen soldiers, Rav David Kimchi, then a Madrich at the yeshiva who had fought in Lebanon in מלחמת שלום הגליל – the (first) War for Peace in Galilee in the 1980’s, spoke to the American students. He described the terror of battle and the randomness of war. You simply didn't know who would live and who would not. After surviving a tank battle, he explained how the paragraph of מה אשיב came to have special meaning to him:
מה אשיב לה – how can I repay God for all his kindness to me – for saving me from the chaos and horror of battle?
נדרי לה' אשלם – I will repay my vows to God. What vows? What does King David mean? Rav Kimchi explained that when you’re in battle, in a tank – and things aren't going well, you’re scared – terrified, and cry out to God for salvation. So you make נדרים: “God, if you get me out of this alive, I promise to learn this many pages of Gemara; to do this many מצוות.” So, when we are delivered, we must keep our vows.
Finally, David says, יקר בעיני ה' המותה לחסידיו – “Precious in the eyes of God is the death of his devout ones.” Everyone, said Rav Kimchi, lost a friend, a platoon member, and family member. Those are the חסידים – the devout ones who give their lives for the Jewish people. 
This is the Hallel of King David. He says praise and dedicates himself to God not when things are wonderful and happy. Rather, he says Hallel when the pain of war still burns freshly in his mind – when the smell of the battle and the vivid and painful images fill his head. It is at that time that King David says: Yes, I have suffered – BUT. Yes, I feel pain – BUT. But, I must still give thanks to God. But, I must still say הודו לה' כי טוב – and give praise to God, for all the good that I still enjoy.

Yes, BUT. There must be a but, and we must continue to say הלל, because we must also see the positive side of the picture, and appreciate what we take for granted in today’s day and age.

This past year has been more challenging than years past. We endured a challenging war which placed many Israelis - citizens and soldiers - in the line of fire. We have witnessed a resurgence of terrorism that once again strikes, seemingly at random, leaving horror and dread in its wake. And still we say Hallel and give praise, because we have so much for which we must be thankful.

When we read the history of the Chanukah revolt, historians teach us that one of the most perplexing aspects of the entire Chanukah story is Antiochus himself. After suffering a humiliating defeat in Egypt, Antiochus returns to Jerusalem to reassert his authority on the Holy Land. Yet, in a real sense he is already in control. He has no real need to rule with an iron fist, but for some reason he does. Repudiating the Greek policy dating back to Alexander the Great to let the local culture maintain its own religious practice, Antiochus decides that he’s going to get rid of Judaism. And he does try, although to this day, no one really knows exactly why. Upon his return to Judea, the Book of the Maccabees tells us that he and his army massacre Jerusalem, murdering 40,000 people, and selling another 40,000 into slavery.
One can easily imagine today what would happen to the Jewish people were we not in control of the Land of Israel. Let’s not kid ourselves: we know how our enemies about us. There would be no worldwide outcry if an Ayatolla turned himself into another Antiochus. He’d love the opportunity. But this time things are different. Finally, for the first time in Jewish history since Chanukah, we can protect ourselves. We can, and we do.
And for this, even during our suffering, we must say Hallel.
The lighting of the Menorah does not signify the end of the war by any means. Yet, the people during those times are able to see יד ה' – and to rededicate themselves to their traditions and their teachings. They’re able to pick up and go on – and not focus on the terrible suffering that they have endured, and continue to endure at the hands of the Greek army. So too we must do the same: to cry for those we lose, but to never lose sight of the יד ה', and never to forget the goodness that we enjoy and can never take for granted.
Even while we say יקר המותה לחסידיו – “Precious in the eyes of God is the death of his devout ones” – we must still say, הודו לה' כי טוב, and forever remember the goodness and blessing and strength that God gives the Jewish people today.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayeshev - Yosef's Sin

Audio Shiur:
Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayeshev - Yosef's Sin

Dedicated in memory of my father, Harav Simcha ben Yitzchak Kalman, whose yartzeit was this week.

The Sages castigate Yosef for failing to have faith in salvation from God by asking the Egyptian Minister of Wine to rescue him from prison. I've always wondered: Isn't that what we're supposed to do? Aren't we supposed to try and save ourselves? Why is he criticized, and in the eyes of Chazal, punished so severely, for an action that seems, at face value, positive? I think I have an answer, but you'll have to listen to the end to hear it.

Click here to navigate to the shiur on

Click to play the Shiur (or right-click to download)

Friday, November 28, 2014

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayeitzei - Rachel's Hidden Agenda

Audio Shiur:
Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayeitzei - Rachel's Hidden Agenda

Why did Rachel steal her father's "trafim"? What in the world are trafim? We discuss biblical motivations, voodoo dolls, and the unintended consequences of our actions.

Click here to navigate to the shiur on

Click to play the Shiur (or right-click to download)

Friday, November 21, 2014

Audio Shiur: Parshat Toldot- Our Response to the Har Nof Murders - The Persistence of Yitzchak

Audio Shiur:
Audio Shiur: Parshat Toldot- Our Response to the Har Nof Murders - The Persistence of Yitzchak

The single chapter that describes the life of Yitzchak highlights the strong influence and presence of Avraham in his son's life. We discuss the theme of strength through persistence, and how Yitzchak's gevurah entrenched the spirituality of Avraham, and gave us the strength to overcome terrible challenges such as the one Klal Yisrael faced this week.

Click here to navigate to the shiur on

Click to play the Shiur (or right-click to download)

Thursday, November 20, 2014


Each of us, in our own way, suffered – and continues to suffer – as the slow passage of time edges us away from the horrible murders in Har Nof. In an age of instantaneous media, the images are now firmly etched into our psyches: of blood stained tallitot and siddurim; a lifeless hand still wrapped in Tefillin. I haven’t tried to make sense of the events in my own mind because I know that any such attempt would represent an exercise in futility. There is no sense to be made in abject hatred. There’s no logical explanation, no legitimacy possible for the murder of Talmidei Chachamim as they pray Shemeh Esreh. But there is a response; not a military or police response. Those tasks are left to others. Rather, our response must follow the response of the residents of Har Nof, who undoubtedly did what those four scholars would have insisted they do; what they would have done themselves; what we all did:
They got up in the quiet of the morning and went to daven. In shul.
Daily minyan isn’t one of the more glamourous aspects of Jewish life, but it might very well be its anchor. A shul – any shul – no matter how many members it may boast, no matter how many outside scholars it welcomes, no matter how lavish its kiddushim may be – is only as strong as the daily minyan. The act of rising, each and every day, to try and commune with God before (and after) the day begins together with the larger communit, represents both an individual dedication and desire to live a pious life, together with a recognition that we find our great religious meaning not in the bombastic moments of exciting ritual; not in the Bar Mitzvah or wedding, and not even only in the passion of the Yamim Noraim; but in the rigor of repetition of ritual, day in and day out. It is the daily davening and the daf yomi that makes us who we are. Without them, we lack the bedrock foundation that gives us both strength and a true, deep-rooted connection to God.
This week, terrorists, knowingly or not, attacked this bedrock of Jewish living. They were probably looking for the easiest target available, but in that effort focused on people who dedicated their very existence to maintaining this anchor of the Jewish condition, not only through prayer, but through their ongoing, ceaseless devotion to Talmud Torah, built over uncountable hours of study in the Beit Midrash, again invested without pomp or fanfare or nary a Facebook post or Tweet. It was these attributes of Judaism that were attacked in that quiet shul in Jerusalem: a dogged persistence to prayer, a steadfast devotion to Torah study, and an untiring dedication to religious ritual that has sustained the Jewish nation through two millennia of exile.
Thus, the most fitting response – the only response – is exactly how the people of Har Nof, of Jerusalem – of Jews throughout the world – did indeed respond. We went back to shul that night, and the very next morning. We maintained our vigil. We make it clear, each and every day, that no matter how many of our enemies rejoice and celebrate at the sight of murdered Jews, no matter how many candies they distribute or garish cartoon they publish, we will continue to rise early each morning to reestablish our relationship with God.
This vigil – the persistence – represents the strongest reason why those Jews are now living in Jerusalem, in Har Nof today. For thousands of years, Jews have risen each and every morning to pray to God: ולירושלים עירך ברחמים תשוב – “return us to Jerusalem, Your city, in compassion.” ותחזינה עיננו בשובך לציון ברחמים – “May our eyes witness Your return to Zion with compassion.” After so many centuries of heartfelt prayer, someone, armed with the divine blessing of God, decided that it was time to transform those prayers into reality. God returned, and so did we.
It was that persistence that brought us here, and it’s that very same persistence that will keep us here. So, the morning after the murders, Jews across Jerusalem, and around the world, rose early in the morning once again for daily prayers. We were all a little heartbroken, a little at a loss for words. But we went to shul, because that’s what we do. We didn’t do it to tell our enemies anything. We didn’t do it to send a message. But, in our daily acts of devotion, we do indeed broadcast to the world in a loud, clear voice: We aren’t going anywhere.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayera - the Mystic Mount Moriyah

Audio Shiur:
Audio Shiur: Parshat Noach - Unraveling the Mystery of Avram's Origin

Why is the mountain called Mount Moriyah? We give you seven - and maybe eight - different reasons. Also, did Avraham fulfill the commandment to sacrifice Yitzchak with alacrity, or did he drag his feet? Evidence is mixed.

Click here to navigate to the shiur on

Click to play the Shiur (or right-click to download)

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Drashah for Lech Lecha 5775 – Eli Klausner’s Bar Mitzvah - Unlocking the Greatness Within

I spent Shabbat as a Scholar in Residence at my old shul, the Young Israel of Oak Park. Here's the drashah that I gave.

Eli, imagine that archaeologists in Iran somehow discovered to old report cards of Avraham Avinu – his mother saved everything in earthenware jars. Except back then he wasn’t Avraham Avinu; he was just plain Avram. What would his teachers have written on his report card? You might think that he would have gotten all A’s. After all, he’s one of the greatest leaders and teachers in our national history. And, as we all know, the Midrash teaches us that even from a very young age, he sensed the presence of God. But you’d be wrong. He didn’t get all A’s. The comments would have looked something like this:
“Avram is very disruptive in class. He doesn’t pay attention, especially during idolatry.” (that’s from his Zoroastrianism teacher). And his homeroom teacher would have written: “Avram refuses to pray to the idols like the rest of the class, and instead fidgets uncontrollably during idol worship.” And of course there would be the mark about his suspension from school for damaging school property.
You see, Avram, even from a very young age was different. But that difference wasn’t easy, far from it. It must have been very, very hard to be different than everyone around him. But that struggle, perhaps more than anything else, is what made Avram into Avraham Avinu. By facing difficult challenges, and overcoming those challenges, Avram became Avraham, and unlocked the potential hidden inside him that would ultimately change the world.
In fact Eli, the entire Parshah that you read today is a chronicle of Avram’s lifelong experience of being different. The very first commandment God gives Avram – לך לך מארצך וממולדתך ומבית אביך – “Go forth from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s home” – that command, in the language of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot, represents the first of a series of tests that Avram must pass on his journey to greatness.
עשרה ניסיונות נתנסה אברהם אבינו עליו השלום ועמד בכולם, להודיע כמה [גדולה] חיבתו של אברהם אבינו עליו השלום [על הקדוש ברוך הוא[
Our forefather Avraham was tested with ten tests, and he passed them all, to teach us how great was God’s love for Avraham Avinu.
The first test? Leave your homeland. Leave your comfort zone. Go away, where no one knows you, where your reputation won’t help you, and begin life anew. Avram followed this commandment precisely. For the rest of his life he was known as אברהם העברי – which some think means, “Avraham the Hebrew” – but that’s not accurate. עברי refers to עבר הנהר – from the “other side of the river.” He’s Avraham from “over there” – he’s not from “here” – wherever “here” happens to be. It’s hard to always live life as a stranger. But that’s what he does, always moving from place to place to place.
The entire story of Avram is a series of tests: he leaves his home in חרן and travels to כנען. Almost as soon as he gets there there’s a famine, and he must leave once again. And then his wife is commandeered by the Pharaoh of Egypt. And then he must fight a war to free Lot. The list goes on, one test after another.
Why? Why all these tests? Because, as the Mishnah says, to teach us how must God loved him.
We might have thought the opposite: My grandfather, עליו השלום, used to take us fishing in the canal behind his house in Miami. We never caught a single fish. Not one. But he used to ask us: Do you know what the fish say? They say: "If you like me, leave me alone."
Don’t you think that at some point Avram would have had the same feeling? "God, enough with the tests!" If you really love me, leave me alone and let me spread Your Name in peace." And yet, that’s not what happened. Challenge after challenge, test after test. Why so many tests? Why so many challenges?
Ramban suggests an answer that carries an important message for us all. Introducing the final test of עקידת יצחק, we read:  - ויהי אחר הדברים האלה והאלקים נסה את אברהם -"And it was after these events, and God tested Avraham."
Again with the tests. Why so many tests? Why such a difficult one as asking him to sacrifice his beloved son? Ramban explains:
“The actions of man are of his own free choice whether he chooses to act or not; but the “tester” – God – commands him, in order to bring out from his potential into actuality, so that he will have the reward of a good action, and not just the reward of a good heart.
Yesterday I was in a shul in Cleveland, and the rabbi asked an interesting question. Last week, when the Torah introduced Noach, we read that נח איש צדיק, תמים היה בדורותיו – “Noach was a righteous man – a tsaddik, pure in his generation.” Why is there no such verse about Avraham, who must have been far greater?
The answer, I believe, is that Avraham wasn’t born אברהם אבינו. He had the potential for greatness; it was inside him, hidden in his heart. But only through challenge; by passing tests, and overcoming obstacles, did Avram release his hidden potential, and transform himself אברהם אבינו  - into the person that changed human history.
People have been asking me about how things are in Israel. Thank God, for us personally – for me and Rena and the children, things are really great, thank God. Busy, but great.
But, as you know, it was a very, very challenging summer. Yad Binyamin, where we live, is 37 kilometers from the Gaza border, and we had about a rocket siren per day. That means dropping whatever you're doing, and running to the protected room in the house. Thank God, they usually fired at us during the day, so it wasn't so bad. But for people living in Ashkelon or Ashdod, it was far worse. The country spent the entire summer on pins and needles – defiant, strong. But the war, which followed the terrible murder of those three boys took a toll, and by the end of the summer the entire country was on edge. It was a very hard summer.
Then again, at the same time, it was perhaps the greatest summer for the Jewish people in decades. On the evening before the discovery of the bodies of those three boys, tens of thousands of Israelis from all walks of life - secular and religious - gathered in Rabin Square for an evening of prayer, and song, and unity. Those mothers – they were the embodiment of the Imahot; giving strength and inspiration to a nation. And then, during the war, people just gave; women made challot and cookies. People made hundreds of sandwiches, and just drove them down to the makeshift army camp outside Sderot. Barbers came down and gave free haircuts to soldiers. It got so crazy that the army simply had to close the area to civilians and say, “Thanks. We know that you love us, but we’ve got a war to fight.” People who had lived in Israel for decades said that they couldn’t remember the country being so united since the Yom Kippur War.
We were tested. And that test, and the painful sacrifices we made during those months brought out something that’s usually hidden and that we forget as we’re fighting the usual fights over budgets, and religious issues, and politics: We are one nation, and when pushed together, our power to love each other gave us a strength we didn’t remember that we have.
What was true for Israel this summer, is true for each of us as well. Most of us don’t enjoy struggle, and trial. We like things quiet. But that’s now how life is – life is about meeting the tests that we face head-on, and using those tests to become better people; better communities; and a stronger nation.
Eli, today might have been one of the hardest things that you’ve ever had to do, and we’re all – your parents, and teachers, and friends – so proud of you for the work that you put in for your Bar Mitzvah. And I’ve got good news, and better news. The good news is that for this week, the hard work is over, and now you can enjoy the Bar Mitzvah. But the better news is that for you, this is only the first test of many that you’ll face in life. And those tests, like the one that you had today, will challenge you – to become better, and different, and stronger, and make you the person that you have the potential to be.
Eli, anyone who meets you can sense your warmth and caring; your sensitivity to others, and your desire to help. In that sense, you’re following in your parents’ footsteps, who spend so much of their lives helping others: both in their professional lives and in the chesed that they do. When your mom isn’t helping the poor with legal aid, she’s working in the community, on shul committees, and with community institutions. And, aside from literally saving lives during his day job, your dad serves the country to ensure national emergency preparedness; he went to New York after 9-11, and spent weeks somewhere in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. So, if you’re wondering where you get that sensitivity and caring from, you don’t need to look that far.

Eli, as we celebrate your Bar Mitzvah together with you, the greatest brachah we can hope for you is that, as you grow, you continue to face your tests head-on; and, like Avraham, each success will make you a greater, more complete person. We will watch with excitement as you unlock and discover the greatness inside you, and become the person you are meant to be. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Audio Shiur: Parshat Noach - Unraveling the Mystery of Avram's Origin

Audio Shiur:
Audio Shiur: Parshat Noach - Unraveling the Mystery of Avram's Origin

The Torah gives conflicting evidence about the origins of Avram, our first Patriarch. What happened at the beginning of his life? Where was he born? Why did he leave? Was he really thrown into a fiery furnace? A careful study of the text reveals that there's a lot more to the story than what we all learned in nursery school.

Click here to navigate to the shiur on

Click to play the Shiur (or right-click to download)

Monday, October 20, 2014

On the Convert's Bill of Rights

Bethany Mandel has written a fascinating piece demanding a convert's Bill of Rights in which she lists ten points that she feels converts deserve as they undergo the process of conversion. Generally, her article is courageous and important, if only to give "outsiders" (non-converts) perspective into the ordeal and challenge of conversion. I agree with almost all of her points, but have a few caveats.

She writes:
1. Converts are in a state of persistent limbo. During the process we are never told how long it can or should take. We cannot get married if we are dating, we cannot date if we are single. We lose control over the most important choices in our lives and hand them over to men with whom we are unfamiliar for an indeterminate amount of time. I was unable to give a new job a start date, to give my former job proper notice, sign a lease on a new apartment or set a wedding date because I was kept in the dark about how much longer my conversion could possibly take. Days? Weeks? Months? A year? Several? This is psychological torture. A rough estimate and a clear plan for how to move forward to get to the finish line, the mikvah, is the least that a convert deserves.
While this point seems to make sense, it doesn't really address the process of conversion. Conversion is not a course that one takes and then passes the test in a linear fashion (although in Israel it is precisely that, which is one of the primary criticisms about the process of conversion here). Rather, conversion represents a a process of spiritual growth and change that is not linear, but dependent totally upon the progression of the candidate. How is it possible to know when the candidate is "ready"? True conversion represents the inculcation of values, spirituality, passion and commitment. How do you demonstrate those in a written exam? How much time does that take? For some it can be weeks. For others, much, much longer. Imagine being given a clear timeline, and the rabbi feels that the person just isn't ready. Should he convert her anyways, because he needs to adhere to the schedule he gave her? And if he ignored the schedule, wouldn't that be worse? The limbo must indeed be painful, but I imagine that the entire process is painful as well, and sometimes that pain is a sign of growth.
3. The reasonable costs associated with conversion should be clearly laid out from the outset.
Right on. I have heard too many horror stories about people undergoing private conversions and being told, late in the process, about unexpected costs that they'd have to pay to "finish".
4. Communities have welcoming committees for Jews who move to the area but nothing in place for converts in the process.
5. Converts are constantly asked to discuss extremely personal questions by strangers in social settings.
6. Help us with matters of Jewish ritual. This falls on rabbis and community members alike.
These are, to my mind, common sense. Sadly, there's often not enough common sense in our communities.
7. If converts are expected to provide their “papers” proving their Jewishness for a school, synagogue, or wedding ask born Jews for the same.
This already happens in Israel to anyone wishing to get married. It probably also happens in many Diaspora schools and shuls.
8. The conversion process for those of Jewish heritage should be accelerated and unique.
This is a subject of great debate among contemporary poskim and one of the primary reasons for the ongoing debate about the proposed conversion law in Israel. While the concept of zera yisrael can be justified halachically, it's far from agreed upon by the vast majority of poskim. This isn't a common sense issue or a mentchlechkeit issue, but a halachic one that doesn't belong in this article.
9. Converts deserve to be treated with the same love and care as Jewish orphans from the moment we become Jewish.
10. We should not have to live in fear about the status of our conversions in perpetuity.
Also both true, and should be obvious.

Ironically, I believe that the effort to unify conversion standards was all about alleviating that fear: if rabbis adhered to a standard, then no one could come afterwards and question whether they were properly converted or not. This effort stemmed from decades of shady practices of rabbis from Orthodox communities who converted too many converts without requiring proper kabalat hamitzvot. Rather than blaming the rabbis who worked (and continue to work) tirelessly to uphold the honor of geirim, we need to point that finger at rabbis who perform personal conversions knowing all the while that they're following a da'at yachid not accepted by the broader community. When this type of conversion is called into question (and it will be), people will write angry editorials at the Times of Israel blaming the RCA and the Beth Din of America, when they should really blame the rabbi who converted them in a questionable manner.

While I can try and appreciate the anxiety of converts who now fear that their conversions will somehow be questioned due to the troubling allegations about Rabbi Freundel, in truth, the thought never entered my mind. It's good, I guess, that the RCA just issued a statement affirming the validity of past conversions, but I doubt that the issue was ever in doubt. (This was probably one of the easier statements for the RCA to publish in recent memory).
Rabbi Barry Freundel was the head of the Conversion Committee. But there was an entire committee committed to ensuring that each and every Beit Din adhered to the mutually agreed standards. The whole idea of the GPS is to take the individual rav (and his reputation - for better or for worse) out of the equation, so that we would never question the validity of the giyyur. Had Rabbi Freundel performed the conversions alone with a Beit Din of his own construction, people might be doing just that. But because he acted within the framework of a unified system, anyone who questions the validity of the conversions is doing so either to stir the pot, or to promote their own personal agenda.
I don't think that we could ever have imagined these circumstances, but to my mind, the GPS worked exactly as it was designed, protecting the Jewish status of converts even when a major representative from within the GPS is called into question.

It's now clear that opponents of universal standards will use the recent news as proof that unifying standards is a bad idea. Tragically, if they get their way, they will ultimately be harming the very converts they claim to defend.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Audio Shiur: An Overview of Tefillat Yom Kippur

Audio Shiur:
Audio Shiur: An Overview of Tefillat Yom Kippur

General themes built into the Tefillah of Yom Kippur.

Click here to navigate to the shiur on

Click to play the Shiur (or right-click to download)

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Sukkot 5775: Modern Day Clouds of Glory

For those of us living in the South (I live in Yad Binyamin, almost 40km from Gaza. Ashdod, Ashkelon and Be'er Sheva had it much worse, to say nothing of Otef Aza), this summer was the summer without a vacation. Everyone I know entered into the school year feeling that now that the summer had ended they need a vacation – and rightfully so. In fact, many schools in the south have given the students off during the "gesher" – the bridge days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, in order to give them a little time to breathe after such a trying summer.

Yet, the past summer's experience enriches and deepens our understanding for and appreciation of the mitzvah of ישיבה בסוכה – dwelling in a Sukkah.

The Gemara (Sukkah 11b) famously offers two explanations for the commandment to dwell in the Sukkah.

תניא כי בסכות הושבתי את בני ישראל: ענני כבוד היו דברי רבי אליעזר, רבי עקיבא אומר סוכות ממש עשו להם
It was taught, “That I settled the Jews in booths.” Rabbi Eliezer said that this refers to the Clouds of Glory. Rabbi Akiva said the Jews made actual booths for themselves.
While we can readily understand Rabbi Eliezer's position, and the need to commemorate and celebrate the miraculous Clouds of Glory that protected the nation in the desert, Rabbi Akiva's position seems curious. Why would we commemorate the fact that the people lived in booths that they themselves had built?

Rabbeinu Bachya explains that according to Rabbi Akiva we commemorate the fact that the Children of Israel dwelled in man-made booths to remind us that despite their efforts, their survival nonetheless required supernatural protection.

דעת האומר סכות ממש עשו להם, מפני זה נצטוינו לעשות סכות דוגמתן כדי שיתגלה ויתפרסם מתוך מצות הסכות גודל מעלתן של ישראל במדבר שהיו הולכים עם כובד האנשים והנשים והטף במקום ההוא אשר אין בטבע האדם לחיות בו...כי שם באותו מקום הכנתי להם כל צרכם ולא חסרו דבר
According to the opinion that says that the Jews made actual booths for themselves, we are commanded to make booths like those, to publicize the greatly elevated state of existence which the Jews enjoyed in the desert. They traveled in the desert with masses of men, women, and children in a place where it is not the nature of man to live … Even in that place, God prepared for them all of their needs and they lacked nothing.
The houses they built for themselves were not enough. They still needed God's help and protection to survive and thrive in the dangerous desert habitat. This lesson is especially relevant for the residents of the Jewish State, following the challenging, but miraculous summer we recently endured.

This summer, we discovered yet again that the homes we normally associate with safety and protection do not suffice. We required – and continue to require – an added level of protection, and I refer even to those of us who have a Safe Room that we ran to at the sound of the siren. This year, when we sit in the Sukkah under the open sky, we will not only immediately recognize our frailty and fragility. Rather, we'll also think back to the summer and remember how, even when sitting in our regular homes, we recognized that we were not in fact safe. We needed more protection – and thankfully, received it as well, as the Jewish people benefited from miraculous (from the root word "miracle") divine protection over the course of the summer. Nothing less than miraculous.

The same can be said of our own "Clouds of Glory".

Over the course of the summer, I tried to maintain my regular routine, including my regular runs around Yad Binyamin. Sometimes I run on the path that circles the yishuv, while usually I enjoy running along roads and paths through the local community and the local fields. Looking back, perhaps this wasn't such a good idea.

On one particularly clear Sunday evening, I found myself running along the road near Chafetz Chaim when a siren sounded. I watched as the Iron Dome rockets fired to intercept the unseen rockets rushing towards us suddenly took a turn – directly towards me. That's when I figured it might be a good idea to quickly seek additional shelter, and I spent the next few moments in a concrete drainage pipe.

Watching those rockets rise into the air, it was impossible not to marvel not only at the technological prowess that built the system, but also again at the Divine Hand guiding those rockets to their targets, and also directing the Hamas rockets the Iron Dome missed away from civilian areas. While Hamas fired literally thousands of rockets towards us, the vast, vast majority missed Israeli civilian areas, landing either in Gaza, in the sea, or in open areas, away from the populace.

Those misses represented nothing less than our own, national ענני הכבוד.

This coming week, as we sit in the Sukkah, we can and must celebrate, and give thanks for the additional protection we received, even while sitting in the booths that we have built, and also for the Clouds of Glory that protected the People of Israel who continue to thrive in the most dangerous neighborhood in the world.

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.

Click here to navigate to the shiur on

Click to play the Shiur (or right-click to download)

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?

Click here to navigate to the shiur on

Click to play the Shiur (or right-click to download)

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.

Click here to navigate to the shiur on

Click to play the Shiur (or right-click to download)

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.

Click here to navigate to the shiur on

Click to play the Shiur (or right-click to download)

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. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Modern Day Clouds of Glory: A Story from the Battlefield in Gaza

The commander of Givati, Col. Ofer Winter, who made headlines with an impassioned letter of encouragement to his troops that borrowed heavily from Tanach and other Jewish sources, told the following story, which appeared today on NRG.
"I have never seen a miracle in my entire military career like the one that took place in the ruins of Chiza.
We decided to attack a certain target before sunrise so that no one could identify us. The advance force arrived at the location on time, the fighters themselves for some reason were delayed. We didn't know what to do, because the sun began to rise, and the rays of light began to illuminate the soldiers. We we almost forced to attack, when suddenly the clouds protected us. Clouds of Glory. Suddenly, they covered us - all of the fighters - with a heavy fog, that accompanied us during the entire attack. No one saw us. Only when the targeted houses had been destroyed and there was no longer any mortal danger, did the fog suddenly lift. Literally, is was, "For the Lord your God walks before you to save you." (Devarim 20:4)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Audio Shiur: Parshat Devarim - Be Strong and Give Thanks

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Devarim - Be Strong and Give Thanks

The night before the shiur, sirens at 2:30am had us running to our safe room in Yad Binyamin. So, we begin with a brief study of Tehillim 144, a chapter that I've been saying during the war after Tefillah, which has resonated strongly with me. We then turn to Devarim, and study some incredible Midrashim about seemingly irrelevant places, which are actually quite relevant after all. Did you know that Gaza appears in Parshat Devarim as well?

Click here to navigate to the shiur on

Click to play the Shiur (or right-click to download)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

What to Pray for During Times of War, and What Not to Pray For

As the Gaza War continues, I've made two short lists of what to pray for, and what not to pray for.

What to pray for:
1. The safety, success and victory of our soldiers
2. The health of the injured
3. Praying for individuals who I know of: I have been slowly gathering names of relatives of people who I know are in Gaza. The son of a coworker (אלון בנימין בן שרון), the husband of a vendor (יואב בן יהודית), the son of a coworker's neighbor (חגי בן חנה). It helps me when to pray not only for "everyone", but when I know that these are sons, fathers, husbands, with real names.

What not to pray for:
1. Peace
What? Not pray for peace? How is that possible?
The Minchat Elazar
In Rav Rafi Shtern's weekly email (contact him directly sternr111 at gmail dot com if you'd like him to add you to his list), he included a quote from the responsa Minchat Elazar from Rav Chaim Elazar Shapira, the second Rebbe of Mukatch, who was asked about what to pray for during the first World War. He wrote,
"לאשר אנו רואים כי אלו המלחמות הם חבלי משיח... העיקר להתפלל על הגאולה שלימה במהרה בימינו, לא כן ההמון שהטעו אותם שצריכים להתפלל עתה העיקר רק על 'שלום העמים' ושעל ידי זה יופסק המלחמה ישוב למצרים הוא הגלות המר... ומאריכים הגלות ומעכבים הגאולה... וכמ"ש בספר הזכרון להגאון החת"ס זצ"ל (מהד' תשי"ז עמ' נג) כי אם נתפלל על השלום הרי זה עיכוב הגאולה וכמו שאמרו חז"ל 'מלחמה נמי אתחלתא דגאולה הוא... רק שנרבה בתורה ובתפלה... נתפלל רק על הגאולה ולא נחוש על המלחמה כלל, עכ"ל החת"ס...." (ועיין דרכי חיים ושלום עמ' רי"ג ואילך).
As we see that these wars are the birth pangs of the Messiah...the essence is to pray for Complete Redemption quickly in our days, not like the masses who have been misled to think that the essence of what we must pray for now is, "Peace among the nations". For through this the war will stop, and we will return to the anguish of the bitter exile...and those people extend the Exile and delay the it is written in the Sefer HaZikaron of the Chatam Sofer (5617 edition page 53). "For if we pray for peace, this hinders the Redemption, as our Sages said, 'War is also the beginning of the Redemption...' Rather, we must increase prayer and the study of Torah...and we must pray for the Redemption and not concern ourselves with the war at all."
It's not enough to pray for peace. We pray for the Ultimate Peace. Praying (or working)  for an "immediate cessation of hostilities", doesn't make things better. It just delays the peace for which we truly yearn.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Parshat Masei - Parshat Eretz Yisrael

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Masei - Parshat Eretz Yisrael

The Land of Israel represents a primary theme that runs throughout the entire Parshah. This shiur, given during Tzuk Eitan - the ongoing war in Gaza, was dedicated to the safety of our soldiers. Not surprisingly, in the parshah, we found much material related to the current struggle for the Land of Israel.

Click here to navigate to the shiur on

Click to play the Shiur (or right-click to download)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Tzuk Eitan Continues

I've uploaded a quick page for tefillot sent out by Rav Hillel Merzbach (our shul rabbi) that you can recite for the safety and health of our soldiers. You can download the page here.

A Quiet Shabbat
It was a relatively quiet Shabbat in Yad Binyamin - just one siren, right before we were about to begin davening Mussaf (after the chazzan had said the kaddish). We all filtered our way to the back of the shul (which is a covered area), and waiting about five minutes, before returning to our places. It's kind of surreal because in the quiet of Yad Binyamin, you can hear the booms quite often from the Iron Dome intercepting (or trying to) rockets fired from Gaza. All day long one could hear the soft thud of distant booms.

The Cost of the Iron Dome
During a talk over Shabbat, one of the rabbis spoke about what he called the "difficult and trying times" we are currently experiencing. I recognize that each person experiences events differently, so I went to a neighbor of mine and asked him: Really? Do you think it's so bad? Truthfully, rockets are dangerous, and have interrupted our lives. But thankfully (even miraculously), injuries and deaths from the rockets have been kept to a minimum. I was in Israel during the first Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein lobbed Scud missiles at Israel, and no one knew if he'd try to fire chemical weapons at us. The entire country walked around carrying gas masks, and we sealed our rooms with tape and wet towels. That was truly scary. The sirens today - much less so.
My neighbor - a very respected rabbi in our community, agreed with me, and suggested that the Iron Dome, as amazing as it is, has a cost. It was less than a month ago that tens of thousands of Jews gathered to pray for the safe return of our three (murdered) teens. Where's the outcry about rockets falling on our cities? Where's the public gatherings? There isn't really any. Because we feel safe (relatively), there's no public outcry to root out the terrorism in Gaza. It's muted. It's not so bad. Of course Tzahal went into Gaza. But will they stay for long enough to really do the job they need to do? I'm not so sure, if only because the public doesn't feel strong pressure to demand it, protected by the Iron Dome.

The Pictures of the Fallen
The same can be said for the release of the names and images of our fallen soldiers.
We value every life and cherish each and every soldier. But I wonder how long Israel will stand strong in the face of a funeral a day, combined with the shared Facebook posts, media bombardment, and publicity. I fear that this is exactly what Hamas is counting on. They don't care about the numbers: ten, a hundred, a thousand? The more deaths, the better for them to garner sympathy around the world.
But we do care. About every. Single. Soul. How long can a country maintain a war when it mourns every fallen soldier?
I'm not sure that there's an answer to this conundrum, other than to point out that we must not lose sight of the end goal, despite the high cost.

Hamas: Their Own Worst Enemy
The Arabs are their own worst enemies for many reasons, but Hamas, if you ask me, takes the cake. If their stated goal is truly to drive the Jews out of Israel, then they're really going about it the wrong way. The best way to do it, would be to leave Israel alone. We'd bicker, fight with one-another, and many Israelis would choose an easier life outside of Israel.
Yet, wars like the one we're experiencing now ask each of us to sacrifice. The fear that we feel is a sacrifice. The pain we're enduring is a sacrifice. And that sacrifice, rather than driving us away from the Land, brings us only closer to her. If you've ever sacrificed for something: a loved-one; a degree; a project - the greater the sacrifice, the more connected you feel to that thing.
Hamas, rather than driving us away, is only bringing us that much closer, and making the entire population of Israel, that much more connected to our Promised Land.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Two Faces of Israel - Thoughts for the Three Weeks and Parshat Pinchas

I recently wrote a piece that was published in Torah Mitzion's weekly newsletter, which I'm sharing here.

The past week has been truly trying for the Jewish people around the world, as we learned of the brutal murder of the three teens we had hoped and prayed for so fervently. I learned the news immediately after getting off flight from Israel in New York. It felt strange – wrong – to be in the United States, when I should be mourning back at home with my family, community and people. Yet, as the week I spent in Israel progressed, I came to recognize that the view of Israel from America is skewed. Sure, it was a hard week; a week of pain and anguish, tears and questions. But, in the United States, I missed the other side; the point of view that would have helped put things in the proper perspective.

Immediately after conducting yet another census, God tells Moshe to go up to the mountain and see the Land of Israel – עלה אל הר העברים הזה וראה את הארץ – “Climb up this Mount Avarim and see the Land.” (27:12) God tells Moshe, “Moshe -- you won’t make it into the Land of Israel, so I’m giving you a chance to see the Land before you die.” This is the end of the line for Moshe. Or is it? The Torah really isn’t clear.
At the end of Devarim in Parshat Ha’azinu, God again seems to instruct Moshe in a similar manner. There God tells Moshe, עלה אל הר העברים הזה הר נבו – “Go us to this Mount Avarim – Mount Nevo” (Devarim 32:49). Yet, the second time, God still calls the mountain Mount Avarim but also calls it Mount Nevo. Is it the same commandment and the same mountain, or a different instruction, in different places, at different times?
Malbim explains that God commands Moshe to climb two different mountains at two different times. Mount Nevo is not Mount Avarim. It’s a different place and a different time. Why does God ask Moshe to climb two different mountains? Why go up to see the land now and then go back up again to see it later at the end of his life? Malbim explains that when Moshe climbs the first mountain – Har Nevo – there’s still much to do: כי היה מוכן למלחמת מדין ולכמה דברים – “he was ready for the battle with Midyan and a number of other things.” When Moshe sees the land of Israel for the first time, he sees the land as a leader – a military leader, a national and political leader.
Each of us looks at things from our own personal perspective, depending upon our station in life. At this juncture in time, Moshe still leads the Children of Israel. So when he climbs up the mountain and looks down upon the valley and the Land, all he can see are objectives, issues, potential problems and crises. He looks down and sees military adversaries. He sees difficult agricultural terrain; economic challenge and security problems. That’s all he can allow himself to see, because he feels burdened by the weight of millions of people, looking to him for guidance and counsel.
But later, at the very end of his life, Moshe has already passed the mantle of leadership to his trusted student Yehoshua. When his knees no longer buckle under the sheer weight of worry for the nation, God, in an ultimate act of kindness tells Moshe, “go up and see the Land I’m going to give to the people.” When Moshe ascends the second mountain, Mount Nevo, and looks down upon the country, this time he looks down at the land not as a national leader, but as a private citizen; not as the commander-in-chief, but as a father and grandfather, whose children will soon inherit that land. This time he sees an entirely different land. Instead of seeing potential problems and challenges; treacherous terrain and security threats, Moshe sees the Land flowing with Milk and Honey, and it’s a wondrous, beautiful sight to see.
We will soon begin the three weeks, a period of tension and strain for the Jewish people. We will, and appropriately so – spend this time focusing on the most difficult periods of Jewish history – our greatest tragedies and disasters. And, hopefully, we try to correct some of the behaviors that brought about that suffering. Especially today, we think of the pain and suffering of the people in Israel, who continue to deal with the tragedy of the recent past, and the citizens of Israel’s south, cowering under a rain of rocket fire.
Sometimes I fear that Jews in the Diaspora (and perhaps in Israel as well) too often view the Holy Land Israel through darkened glasses, focusing too often on the pain and suffering. I realized, watching the news from the States, that the only exposure to Israel is what they show on Fox News and CNN, in the New York Times – or even the English-language Israeli websites (Never forget the news maxim: “If it bleeds, it leads”). We know about the bombings and terrorism, the security threats and economic issues. We’re all ambassadors and dignitaries, concerned and consumed with economy, military and security. But we also forget to take off those glasses and see things the way they truly are.

For all the difficulty and pain of the past week, after the funerals, life in Israel went on as well. Children went to camp. Businesses returned to work. The streets are packed with tourists, and are teeming with life, vitality, excitement and even joy. Even during those challenging eighteen days, when the fate of our boys wasn’t clear, life still continued. In my family we celebrated a simcha during those difficult days. We remembered the boys, but proceeded to celebrate nonetheless, determined to continue to build a fully Jewish life in the Holy Land.
We can never allow ourselves to forget that Moshe saw the Land of Israel twice. He didn’t only see the challenges and struggle. He also saw the beauty, the future, and the promise of the Land.
While we begin the three weeks and move into a somber, serious time in the Jewish year, we must also remember to sometimes step back and see the bigger picture. We must let ourselves see the beauty and majesty of Israel, and the tremendous Blessings that we as a people enjoy today.
And then, when we do see that good, we can look back at the tragedy of this past month, turn to the difficulties of the three weeks and Tisha B’av and ask ourselves: What do we need to do to make that good even better?