Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Jar is One Eighth Full: The Case for Jewish Optimism

I’m an Orthodox Rabbi, and I’m an optimist.

Optimism is out of place in the Jewish community. Every year, Jews are chronologically further removed from the events that founded the Jewish tradition, and there’s a foreboding sense that as time goes on, Jews are becoming progressively removed from their spiritual traditions as well. Indeed, one could say that contemporary assimilation is predicted by the theological concept of “Yeridat Hadorot”, “The Decline of Generations”, which affirms that every generation is spiritually inferior to the previous one. Jewish law assumes that contemporary Jews cannot understand religious texts as profoundly as previous generations, and even the ability to concentrate during prayer has been lost. Yeridat Hadorot can leave Orthodox Jews in particular with the melancholy feeling that we have missed the boat historically, that the golden age of Judaism occurred generations ago.

Historically, the 20th century was a challenging time for Jews. The enormous destruction caused by the Holocaust has left many Jews feeling like orphans in history, torn away from a culture that embodied authentic Jewish practice. And the unprecedented tranquility that Jews have experienced in the last 60 years has ironically had an unexpected negative impact. Jews were always prepared for the challenges of discrimination and anti-Semitism; but we have been woefully unprepared for the challenges of prosperity. Affluence has brought with it a soul numbing materialism that leaves many people uninterested in religious values and spiritual depth. Acceptance into mainstream society has enabled Jews to comfortably work with, live with, and marry with non-Jews. Jews are well accepted into all strata of American society, to the point that the engagement of President Clinton’s daughter to a Jew went unremarked in the national press. Considering the powerful forces for assimilation, it’s easy to imagine the gradual disappearance of the Jewish people. Indeed, in one lecture, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik related that worries about assimilation literally kept him up at night. Jewish optimism seems impossible; there are just too many things for a Jew to worry about.

But Jewish pessimism is costly; worrying too much leads to anger, distrust and paranoia. Paranoia makes it impossible to see the world clearly; concerns about anti-Semitism become inflated, and a President who is less supportive of Israel than his predecessor is immediately branded an anti-Zionist, and his Jewish aides branded self-hating Jews. In this culture of pessimism, disagreements between Jews become exaggerated, and political and ideological rivals are no longer opponents, but rather enemies. (Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination is the prime example of this, but the needless hatred that led to his assassination can still be found today in many groups on both the left and the right). In the religious realm, every choice is endowed with excessive significance, to the point that Jews who agree 98 percent of the time with each other consider each other irreconcilable foes, all because of an ideological nuance. Rav Naftali Tzvi Berlin astutely predicted that healthy criticism can morph into unhealthy condemnation, and create a paranoid atmosphere where anyone to one’s right or left is hated for their fanaticism or heterodoxy.

What we all need to remember is that the most critical message of Chanukah is optimism. The iconic ritual of the Menorah reminds us that we must consider the possibilities even one measly jar of oil holds; miracles are possible, if you make the effort. And we light the Menorah on the darkest, coldest nights of the year to show that even one candle can shine bright with the spirit of redemption, and to symbolize that even a few ill prepared people can take on a powerful army and change the course of Jewish history.

There many areas that Jews can be optimistic about today. The State of Israel remains a miracle 61 years later, and some of her most devoted supporters are non-Jews. Young Jews still exhibit remarkable idealism and devotion to higher ideals; and many Jewish communities are thriving, and filled with passion. And today, Jews have remarkable economic resources, and Jewish philanthropies raise billions of dollars a year. The Jewish people have come a long way in the last sixty years.

On Chanukah, it’s time for some Jewish optimism. It’s time for Jews to stop looking for the worst in their fellow Jews. And it’s time to celebrate the possibilities of the Jewish future, because when it comes to Jewish destiny, the jar is never seven eighths empty, it’s always one eighth full.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Everyday Angels
What is an angel? Mentioned throughout Jewish literature from the Bible onward, the existence of angels is both universally accepted and vaguely understood. Lurking in the netherworld between heaven and earth, the precise nature of angels is the subject of a fair amount of controversy. Are they independent beings, or manifestations of God? Do they have a physical image? Can they choose their actions, and perhaps even sin? Are they jealous of human beings? Is it acceptable to pray to angels?

Many of these questions are thrashed out in debates between mystics and rationalists, debates that are familiar territory to anyone who has studied medieval Jewish philosophy. On one side, there are philosophers who reduce the nature of angels to the philosophical minimum, because a more robust depiction of angels would be a threat to pure monotheism. To rationalists, angels, as beings that can be prayed to and can intercede for man, contradict the idea that the Bible emphasizes that “the LORD is God in heaven above, and upon the earth beneath: there is none else.” (Deut. 4:40). On the other hand, mystics see angels as an element within a varied and complex spiritual world that inhabits the space between God above and man below; angels are but one of a host of spiritual creatures in the four worlds that span from God to the physical world. The specific nature of angels is vague, a topic that is debated and debatable.

The very Hebrew word for angel is ambiguous. The word employed for angel, “Malach”, literally means “messenger”; the word “malach” can refer equally well to the young man carrying a package by bicycle from one downtown office to another, or the winged spirit carrying a message from God to man. Indeed, at several points in the biblical narrative, commentaries are unsure if the word “malach” refers to an angel, or just a flesh and blood messenger! I would argue that this ambiguity is no coincidence; the Torah intentionally chose to leave the identity of angels murky, to impart an important lesson. The Torah wants us to shift our gaze, and instead of searching for winged angels above, open our eyes to the everyday angels below.

In order to find “everyday angels”, one must appreciate the fact that God winks at man from time to time. “God has many messengers”, and sometimes the message is for us. Indeed, some of the Rabbis of the Talmud would listen to schoolchildren memorizing the Bible, certain that the verse the child was reciting contained a hidden message. And in everyday life, there are everyday angels, on a divine mission to make us stronger by encouraging us, protecting us, and even wrestling with us.

Sometimes, even rationalists like me can feel the presence of angels. My wife Lisa and I had struggled to have children into the third year of our marriage. One Friday night, after a long week, we chose to have dinner at home alone. As we were making Kiddush, we heard a knock on the door. Outside was a young Chassidic man with his very pregnant wife. They had been driving from Crown Heights to Monsey, but got stuck in traffic and had to get off the highway before Shabbat began. After finding their way to the Reform Synagogue, they ran into the Conservative Rabbi, who wisely directed them to our home, the house of the Orthodox Rabbi, over a mile away. (I guess the Mitzvah of welcoming guests brings all Jews together.). We had not prepared for guests, but managed to make them feel comfortable, and we shared our home and our food with our unexpected visitors. Lisa and I felt as if taking in guests that week was our special obligation; after all, that Shabbat was the Parsha of Vayera, where Abraham and Sarah show exceptional hospitality to three strangers who come by their tent.

Now it turns out that the three strangers who visit Abraham and Sarah are actually angels. It also turns out that they are coming to tell the old couple that they will finally have a child.

Abraham and Sarah have a son one year later. And, as it turns out, after inviting in our unexpected pregnant guests, Lisa and I had twin boys ten months later.

This young husband and wife weren’t angels; but there’s no doubt in our minds that they were malachim, messengers from God. They came bearing good tidings, and the message that it’s important not just to fill our homes with children, but also to open our homes to guests.

They were everyday angels carrying an extraordinary message.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

After You Get Punched in the Face

Super Bowl XLIII certainly ranks as one of the greatest sports upsets of all time, with the New York Giants defeating the undefeated and seemingly invincible New England Patriots. In a postgame interview, Giant star Michael Strahan explained that his team had won by throwing the Patriots off with unrelenting pressure, which worked because “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

While this short quote is meant to describe football and boxing, it is also an excellent description of life. Many people have brilliant futures until an unforeseen event derails their lives, their grand plans undone by an unexpected punch in the face. Families are shattered by divorce and discord, careers ruined by bad luck, and lives disabled by illness and injury. The punch in the face leaves many a person down for the count.

After getting punched in the face, there’s a great deal of pain accompanied by humiliation. For those accustomed to success, the bitter taste of failure is sometimes too difficult to swallow. After major losses in the financial markets, German Billionaire Adolf Merckle threw himself in front of a train; after losing hundreds of millions of dollars in clients money to Bernie Madoff’s scheme, French banker René-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet took his own life. The anguish and embarrassment of defeat can be a knockout punch.

However, there are people who have been beaten and humiliated, but refused to throw in the towel. These determined losers seem absurd, continuing to fight on after the battle seems lost.

This quixotic determination is evident throughout the history of the Jewish people. Until the establishment of the State of Israel, Jewish history was a long string of defeats, with the Jews hanging on from one beating to another. Why did we do this? Why keep getting up off the canvas, just to be knocked down another time?

Joseph provides the answer. Joseph antagonizes his brothers with his dreams and his status as Jacob’s favourite son; but one day, on a mission of peace, Jacob sends Joseph to the city of Shechem to check on the welfare of his brothers. Instead of giving Joseph a chance, the brothers seize him and sell him into slavery. For the rest of his days, Joseph struggles mightily to rebuild his life and family.

Yet at the end of his life, The Midrash tells us that Joseph makes a strange request: to be buried in Shechem, the very city he traveled to on the day he was sold into slavery. What could possess Joseph to choose the location of his humiliating “punch in the face” as his final resting place?

The answer is simple: Joseph had a mission. That day, he had set out to Shechem in hope of attaining peace with his brothers; and even though he had been kidnapped, enslaved and exiled to another country, Joseph never let go of this dream. And in the end, he chooses a final resting place that reflects his determination to fulfill his mission.

"He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how." This pithy quote from Nietzsche best describes Joseph’s return to Shechem, and Jewish people’s return to Israel; and it also reminds us that if you’re on a mission, the game plan remains the same, both before and after the punch in the face.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The One Blessing We Forget to Pray For

We thank Malca and Louis Drazin of Montreal for sponsoring this video.



Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping this video, and to Lorne Lieberman for his support of the video project.You can sponsor these weekly videos with a 54$ donation to TBDJ! Please e-mail office@tbdj.org if you are interested.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Joke of a Name




Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping this video, and to Lorne Lieberman for his support of the video project.You can sponsor these weekly videos with a 54$ donation to TBDJ! Please e-mail office@tbdj.org if you are interested.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Everybody Has a Gameplan Until You Punch Them in the Face




Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping this video, and to Lorne Lieberman for his support of the video project.You can sponsor these weekly videos with a 54$ donation to TBDJ! Please e-mail office@tbdj.org if you are interested.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Continuation:
The Power of Now, Part III


We thank Rima and Eliezer Brodt of Toronto for sponsoring this video, in honour of the recent birth of their son, Noah Joseph Brodt.



Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping this video, and to Lorne Lieberman for his support of the video project.You can sponsor these weekly videos with a 54$ donation to TBDJ! Please e-mail office@tbdj.org if you are interested.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Power of Now, Part II

We thank Rima and Eliezer Brodt of Toronto for sponsoring this video, in honour of the recent birth of their son, Noah Joseph Brodt.



Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping this video, and to Lorne Lieberman for his support of the video project.You can sponsor these weekly videos with a 54$ donation to TBDJ! Please e-mail office@tbdj.org if you are interested.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Power of Now

Tomorrow is too late.

Every year, as I ready myself for Neilah, the final prayer of Yom Kippur, I reread a paragraph written by the sainted Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan. In it he reminds us that the Neilah prayer is the last prayer of the High Holiday season, the last few precious moments available to us to change our ways and our destiny. Rabbi Kagan reminds us of Hillel’s famous saying “if not now, when”. Neilah is a spiritual “bottom of the ninth”, and we better be ready for our turn at bat. We need to wake up and grasp the power of now.

But in many ways, every day is Yom Kippur. The power of now applies every day. Unfortunately, we usually overlook this.

Procrastination is based on the illusion of immortality. It’s easy to put things off for later when you expect to have time later. For a procrastinator, the answer to “if not now, when?” is: tomorrow, or the day after. Hillel, however, wants to remind us of a tragic fact: there might not be a tomorrow.

Too often we let things fester, for no reason at all. I remember a grudge I held in 11th grade against a roommate. We had had a trivial falling out in September, a falling out that festered to the point that we didn’t speak for the entire school year. Only in June, after having spent the entire year in the shackles of a speechless resentment, did we finally make up, having virtually forgotten why we fighting in the first place.

My adolescent grudge is a familiar experience for many, and not just for adolescents either. Too many mature adults hold grudges, breaking off communication with those closest to them. Usually, in the back of their minds they figure they’ll make up in the future. But as time goes on, it gets harder and harder to reconcile. And sometimes, it really is too late. Every Rabbi has seen the tears of guilt at funerals, when mourners realize they have left too much unsaid; they figured they still had time. In reality, when a grudge is disrupting a relationship, every day is Yom Kippur. We have to seize the power of now, because tomorrow may be too late.

When I was younger, I was troubled by the enormous emphasis we place during the high holidays on “who will live and who will die”. All of this talk about death seemed to be morose and pessimistic. But in actuality, this emphasis is deeply life affirming; we need to recognize that now is the time, that we must live deeply and completely, today; we cannot wait until tomorrow. Our inevitable deaths remind us not to procrastinate away precious opportunities.

These precious opportunities can be mundane, like calling your mother. There’s an anecdote told about a South Central Bell commercial featuring the legendary college football coach Bear Bryant. It was meant to be a humorous commercial, and the gruff football coach was supposed to look at the camera and say: “have you called your mama today?”. Coach Bryant, whose mother had passed away many years earlier, instead said: “Have you called your mama today? I sure wish I could call mine.” This ad libbed ad touched everyone.

Coach Bryant and Rabbi Kagan are both teaching us the same lesson; the importance of the power of now. And on Yom Kippur, and every other day of the year, tomorrow may just be too late.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Flying Rabbis and Building Fences: The Right Way to Respond to H1N1

It was the perfect newspaper picture: fifty Rabbis sitting on a plane, sounding the shofar. They were on a special charter flight flying over Israel, hoping to use special prayers to ward off an onslaught of H1N1.

Now, I love prayer; without it, Judaism is unthinkable. And I appreciate how these Rabbis want to protect the entire community. But even so, I wasn’t happy with this flight. By emphasizing an exotic form of prayer, these Rabbis seem to have forgotten that in Judaism, using purel is also a religious act.

Safety is a religious obligation. The Bible requires that a roof be properly gated to prevent people from falling off it. The late chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Benzion Uziel, included in this commandment the employer's responsibility to ensure occupational safety, and the late leader of the Edah Hacharedit, Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Weiss, saw this commandment as an injunction against reckless driving. So why are Rabbis flying around in planes instead of handing out purel dispensers?

Regrettably, this can be traced to a false dichotomy between the ethical and the ritual. Some mistakenly see ritual requirements, such as the kosher laws and the Sabbath, as “true” Judaism, and underemphasize Judaism’s ethical requirements. This is why it’s not unusual for Orthodox Jews to be extremely punctilious about ritual commandments, and at the same time smoke like chimneys and drive like maniacs. In particular, we ignore the responsibility of committed Jews to take responsibility for the world politically, ethically, economically.

In contemporary society, there is a new phenomenon behind this false dichotomy. Orthodox Jews are often seen as exotic figures straight out of the movies. We look different, eat different foods, and have different holidays. To the mass media, Judaism is primarily about rituals that make Jews mysterious and different.

Unfortunately, Jews have internalized this view of Judaism, and we now imagine the primary purpose of Judaism is simply to be different. This is why mundane topics like safety and ethics are neglected; after all, being ethical isn’t all that exotic.

Of course, as both Rabbi Akiva and Hillel emphasize, ethics are the foundation of Judaism. Yet this emphasis does not devalue the Torah’s rituals. On the contrary, combined with ethics, these rituals become part of a powerful, meaningful whole. Judaism is not about being exotic, it's about being holy. Defining Judaism solely by being different puts us in danger of becoming caricatures of ourselves.

Indeed, many great Rabbis hold a much broader view of Judaism. Rabbi Yehuda Amital, the former Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, was once asked what position he would seek if he was asked to join the Israeli cabinet. He explained he would want to be minister of Health, because Halacha demands one be more stringent about health than any other religious requirement. The late Klausenberger Rebbe, Rabbi Yekusiel Halberstam, saw treating other human beings with great compassion as his legacy, and made it his life’s work to open a hospital in the city of Netanya. To these Rabbis, safety and ethics were not at all secular concerns.

Safety is a religious issue, and health measures are the authentic Jewish response to H1N1. Thinking otherwise produces a movie set Judaism that is both narrow minded and empty.

(much of this is recycled from an old post of mine)

Friday, August 28, 2009

H1N1, Flying Rabbis, and Building Fences - Parshat Ki Teitze

We thank Lessy and Earl Kimmel of Montreal for sponsoring this video.



Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping this video, and to Lorne Lieberman for his support of the video project.You can sponsor these weekly videos with a 54$ donation to TBDJ! Please e-mail office@tbdj.org if you are interested.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

A Test Too Easy To Pass: The Problems of Wealth and Security

We thank Anna and Joe Mendel of Montreal for sponsoring this video.




Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping this video, and to Lorne Lieberman for his support of the video project.

You can sponsor these weekly videos with a 54$ donation to TBDJ! Please e-mail
office@tbdj.org if you are interested.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Why Jews Fight, Why Your Kindly Uncle is a Racist, and Why Your Cousin is Volunteering in Senegal: The Mysteries of Love Explained, in 1000 Words

Montreal’s Orthodox Jewish community is situated alongside a five mile stretch of Van Horne Avenue-Fleet Road. On this road, ranging from west to east, is every philosophy of Orthodoxy from left to right. In the west is the “modern” Orthodox area; traveling east, you pass through the neighborhood of the Lubavitch Chassidim. Further east are the neighborhoods for “Litvishe”, and then “Chassidishe” Jews.

In June, communities in the west and east gathered for the sake of “pidyon shevuyim”, releasing captives who have been unjustly incarcerated. In the east, a communal meeting was held on behalf of Yaakov Grunwald, Yoel Goldstein and Yossi Bandau, three young Chassidic boys who were caught smuggling drugs and imprisoned in Japan. In the west, synagogues gathered to pray for Gilad Shalit, the 23 year old Israeli soldier who was kidnapped by Hamas on June 25th three years ago.

Of course, I worry about all of these young men. I worry for the prisoners in Japan, who naively thought they were making a delivery for a member of their community. I worry for Gilad Shalit, who is being held by violent, hate filled terrorists who want to torture and murder him. But I worry most about our community. How is it that on one side of Decarie barely a word is mentioned about Grunwald, Goldstein and Bandau, and on the other side, all are silent about Shalit? Each community seems to pursuing narrow interests, working to release the captives that are one of their “own”. It seems that despite physical proximity, the world of the “modern” Orthodox community in the west and the ultra-Orthodox community in the east couldn’t be further apart. And the divide within the Orthodox community in Montreal is a common one, found in communities around the world from Brooklyn to Beit Shemesh. And as disappointing as this inter-Orthodox divide is, it pales in comparison with the battles between secular and religious in Israel, and the split between Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews around the world. And of course, if we consider the divisions between Jew, Christian and Muslim, Black and White, ethnic rivalries, political rivalries, etc, etc., you begin to realize that the world can be a pretty divided place. Loving one’s fellow man is a challenging task indeed.

What makes love so difficult? There are two primary challenges. One is xenophobia, the fear of the stranger. Human nature is such that we meet people who are different than us with condescension and concern. The stranger is viewed as a threat or an inferior, either as someone who we fear may abuse us, or someone whom we desire to abuse. In some instances, both xenophobic images are combined. The biblical Egyptians, frightened at the increasing strength of the local Jewish population, decide to enslave the despicable, insect-like Jews. Later, the Nazis would also present a contradictory picture of the Jews, as both manipulative, omnipotent creatures, and as dirty and despicable vermin. The incoherence of this picture is irrelevant; xenophobia stirs up the irrational.

Ironically, xenophobia doesn’t discriminate in its pursuit of discrimination. Any difference, including skin color, religion, and even gender can inspire xenophobia. And xenophobia is a two way street; Christians can hate Jews because of their religion, but Jews can hate Christians just as intensely. The subtlest of differences can feed the paranoia xenophobia depends on.

The second challenge to love comes from closeness. Freud used the phrase “the narcissism of small differences” to describe the work of British anthropologist Ernest Crawley. Crawley discovered that groups with greater degrees of similarity would often treat each other with greater degrees of enmity and aggression than strangers. Indeed, the people most similar to us upset us the most, because we expect them to be exactly like us, and are disappointed when they aren’t. (Which is why it shouldn’t be a surprise that in the Book of Genesis, sibling conflict is the virulent and frequent. Siblings are the ones most like ourselves, and therefore the people most capable of inspiring the narcissism of small differences).

The narcissism of small differences is why many Orthodox Jews spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the material and size of their kippot, and why the minutiae of Shabbat laws can inspire a synagogue battle royale over the use of frosted greetings on birthday cakes. Despite being only .02 percent of the world’s population, even Orthodox Jews find it hard to get along with each other.

Everyone wants to love someone, and so many choose to love some people and ignore others. Some people love those closest to them so intensely, they immediately disdain those who are different; xenophobia gets in the way of universal love. Others desire to embrace the exotic, and find it difficult to care for their boring and unenlightened kinfolk; here, the narcissism of small differences gets in the way truly universal love. This is why your uncle, who is deeply devoted to community, says the most despicably racist things at the dinner table; and this is why your cousin volunteers summers in Senegal, but completely ignores the people of Sderot.

The Torah requires that we open our hearts to both kinds of love. It commands us to love the neighbor, the people closest, and most annoying, to us; it also requires that we learn to love the stranger, the person who is suspiciously different. The genius of these two parallel commandments is that for some it is a challenge to love the stranger, while for others, it’s loving our neighbors that gets complicated.

God demands of us to love his children, all 6.6 Billion of them. That includes your irritating second cousin and the strange looking foreigner on the subway; and believe it or not, it even includes the Jews five miles down the road.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Why Do Some Religious People Act Unethically?

Some Thoughts On The Arrests of Rabbis, Last Week and Last Year.

Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping this video, and to Lorne Lieberman for his support of the video project.



You can sponsor these weekly videos with a 54$ donation to TBDJ!Please e-mail office@tbdj.org if you are interested.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Michael Vick’s Reinstatement: One Rabbi’s Thoughts

I’m a serious football fan. (Football has contributed to my spiritual development by teaching me the virtue of patience; I’m a Jets fan). So I paid a great deal of attention to the NFL’s reinstatement of Michael Vick.

Michael Vick is a talented quarterback (drafted first overall in 2001), who by 2004 was one of the highest paid athletes in the world. In 2007 it was discovered that Vick was running an illegal dogfighting ring on a property he owned in Virginia. (This was just one incident in a pattern of troubling behavior that Vick had shown in his six years in the NFL). He was convicted of Federal and State charges, and served nearly a year and a half of jail time. He was suspended from the NFL, and had to declare personal bankruptcy.

On July 27th, Vick was reinstated to play in the NFL. This reinstatement is conditional, provided that Vick follows a set of conditions to ensure he improves his personal behavior.

Vick’s reinstatement is extremely controversial, as many feel that Vick should banned for life because of his crimes. Personally, I don’t agree. Let me explain.

No question, animal cruelty is a serious crime. Rules against animal cruelty are included in the Noahide laws, Judaism’s universal laws for humanity. There is no way to diminish the crime of animal cruelty by claiming “it’s just dogs”.

And without question, punishment must be meted out for crimes. This is true even in cases where the person has changed their ways. As I have pointed out elsewhere, human justice cannot constantly adjust to the spiritual status of the criminal. There needs to be consistent penalties for the justice system to function as a deterrent.

But Vick has been punished for his crimes. There is no need for the NFL to punish Vick a second time for his crimes.

However, the real question facing the NFL is this: does Michael Vick deserve forgiveness? The Talmud is clear that punishment alone doesn’t rehabilitate the criminal. The criminal must commit to act differently in the future, and regret his past actions; in short, the criminal must repent. There’s no reason for the NFL to treat Vick as a citizen in good standing, just because he was released from jail.

To offer Vick an unconditional reinstatement would have been a mistake, because a criminal remains a criminal until he has changed his ways. That is why the current conditional reinstatement is the right way to do things. Vick is not being given a free pass; he must commit to be a good citizen in the future. But if Vick is willing to change his ways, to repent, he should be given a second chance. The prophet Ezekiel (18:21-23) declares that God wants to offer second chances to those who repent: "Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? Says the Lord, God; and not rather that he should return from his ways and live?".

If God is ready to offer Michael Vick a second chance, we should offer him one as well.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

CNN and Michael Jackson’s Death: A Real Tragedy

The death of a 50 year old father is a tragedy, no matter where it occurs. And Michael Jackson’s death was tragic; his unfortunate overdose deprived three small children of a father, a family of a son and brother, and friends and fans of a superstar they loved. Of course, whenever a public figure passes away, many others will join in the sadness.

But the tragedy of Michael Jackson’s death is no excuse for the media coverage that ensued. Multiple media outlets examined in depth every element of the Jackson saga. The media provided careful analysis of Propofol use and trustees and wills, and made sure we could tour Michael’s ranch, and view footage of his last concert rehearsals. CNN adopted an “all Michael” format, following this story with a thoroughness that rivaled coverage of 9-11. CNN and her media colleagues inflated the death of one celebrity into a blockbuster news story.

And this is a tragedy as well: CNN et. al no longer cover the news. Instead of informing people about what is essential and significant, the news media is far more interested in “infotainment”. Stories about Uigher unrest, the Taliban conflict, the Sri Lankan reconstruction and the Iranian election are ignored in favor of yet another learned analysis on the life of a popular singer. In the last two weeks, we have seen the decline and fall of the news media.

News outlets like CNN are addicted to fluff stories. Since the rise of the celebrity media, beginning with the birth of People Magazine, the mainstream media has been integrating more and more celebrity news. Indeed, Larry King Live, CNN’s primetime interview show, is nearly indistinguishable from entertainment shows like Jay Leno and David Letterman. Sometimes, it seems that a comedy show like Jon Stewart’s is the only place you’ll get serious news coverage.

A lack of interest in hard news augurs poorly for the Western World. Ignorance is not a individual matter or a comic flaw; it has an enormous impact on personal growth. The Rabbis of the Mishna tell us that a boorish person cannot achieve piety. This lesson is a reminder that narrow horizons produce people who are spiritually stunted. Without a true thirst for knowledge, a society will become increasingly corrupt, entranced with cheap bread and charming circuses.

Even more troubling is our obsession with celebrity. There are loads of celebrities aside from Michael Jackson; there’s Brad and Angelina and Jennifer and even John and Kate. Celebrities are trendsetters. Young girls dress in the style of their favorite pop divas, while their parents dream of a flashy and fancy Hollywood lifestyle. For many, celebrities are role models.

Role models are important because they represent our highest aspirations. The Mishna tells us that everyone should have a teacher, a person they look up to as a role model of knowledge and character. You can tell a person’s character by who their heroes are.

Heroes aren’t what they used to be. Old fashioned heroes like the fireman, the soldier and the cop, people who risk their lives for the general good, now live anonymous and humble lives, forgotten by everyone else. Today’s hero wears sunglasses, drives a Ferrari, and is talking on a cellphone with his agent.

Celebrities, our new heroes, are poor role models. Many are often “in and out”; in and out of rehab, in and out of marriage, in and out of court. However, their sins are quickly dismissed by pliant doctors, judges, and therapists, all in time for them to return to their adoring fans. Honest redemption and sacrifice are for the movies; in real life, celebrity fame and fortune is all that matters.

A society follows its role models. If our heroes are shallow and superficial, then it won’t be long before the rest of are wearing designer shades, searching for a new car, a new look and a new spouse.

And that’s the real tragedy.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Question of The Week: Zealotry

Parshat Pinchas begins with the end of a story of enormous zealotry - Pinchas killing a wayward prince, Zimri, who was cohabiting with a Midianite princess.

Most contemporary discussions of this event focus on apologetics; explaining why zealotry cannot, and should not, be pursued today. Tolerance is the order of the day.

The Question Of The Week is this: Is there a use for zealotry in contemporary times? Is there anything that deserves a more "zealous" response? When is tolerance misplaced?

Join the discussion here.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Michael Jackson, Heroism, and CNN

Thank yo to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping this video, and to Lorne Lieberman for his support of the video project.



You can sponsor these weekly videos with a 54$ donation to TBDJ!

Please e-mail
office@tbdj.org if you are interested.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Holocaust Museum Murder, Anti-Semitism and Chutzpah

Once again, thank you to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping, and to Lorne Lieberman for supporting this project.



You can sponsor these weekly videos with a 54$ donation to TBDJ!

Please e-mail
office@tbdj.org if you are interested.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Obama's Cairo Speech: Is Israel a Lifeboat, or a Lifeline?

Thank you once again to Abigail Hirsch for filming and editing the video. And thank you to Lorne Lieberman for his continued support of this project.



You can sponsor these weekly videos with a 54$ donation to TBDJ!

Please e-mail
office@tbdj.org if you are interested.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Prepare Your Heart Before You Plan Your Actions
(and why the beginning of Bamidbar is a farce)

Many thanks to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping this segment, and to Lorne Lieberman for encouraging the project.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Where Are The Jewish Susan Boyles?

On April 11th, a star was born.

On that day, a frumpy looking 47 year old woman named Susan Boyle, (who was single and unemployed), auditioned for the TV show “Britain’s Got Talent”. She took the stage to condescending glances and derisive smirks; however, by the time she finished singing, she got a standing ovation. Within hours Susan was a YouTube sensation, with the video of her performance totaling a hundred million hits in just a few days. This unknown Scottish woman was actually an exceptional singer whose talent had been overlooked for decades.

The Susan Boyle story reminds us how often we let talent get wasted. All too often, jobs and opportunities are awarded to people based on appearances, connections and relationships. A Harvard degree is now valued not for it’s superior education, but rather because it allows students to comfortably network with the corporate and political elite. All too often talented outsiders find it difficult to pursue their dreams, and the Susan Boyle’s of the world are often left in the cold.

The question the Jewish community has to ask itself is this: where are the Jewish Susan Boyles? How many Jews have been frozen out of our community because they have neither the connections nor resources to be welcomed in?

The culture of Torah scholarship was once profoundly anti-elitist; indeed, the Mishnah exhorts Rabbis to “raise up many students”. The Talmud is filled with tales of outsiders who become significant Rabbis. Shemaya and Avtalyon, the teachers of Hillel and Shamai, were converts. Rabbi Akiva was an ignorant shepherd. Most dramatically, Reish Lakish was a common criminal who got invited into the world of Torah study by the greatest Rabbi of his time, Rabbi Yochanan. The rabbis of the Talmud saw enormous potential in every human being, and insisted on opening the door to “non-traditional students”.

In one passage in the Talmud there is a cautionary tale about the dangers of elitism. The great scholar Hillel was a poor woodchopper who would save his last pennies to pay admission into the study hall. One cold winter day, he simply didn’t have the money to pay the admission fee, and Hillel was turned away by the guard at the door. Hillel decided to listen to the lecture though a window, and in the process nearly froze to death. Luckily, the Rabbis inside spied his image through the window, and saved his life.

This passage has a simple message: if you barricade the doors to the study hall, you’ll leave great Rabbis like Hillel out in the cold. Hillel, a poor, unknown woodchopper, ended up being the leader of the Jewish people.

Today unknown Jews without status or connections are often left out in the cold as well. They remain at the periphery, alienated by a country club atmosphere that pervades the Jewish community. Some are excluded because of money, finding it difficult to pay for day school tuitions and synagogue memberships while struggling to pay mortgages. Others feel excluded by Jewish institutions that are insular and unwelcoming. When an outsider wanders in, they are made to feel like an intruder, as both the layman and professionals show little interest in greeting new faces.

Sadly, our community pays dearly. Years ago, a friend (“Donna”) told me of an experience she had in a synagogue. “Donna” had gotten curious about Judaism, and decided one day to enter her local synagogue. There, she was completely ignored by the congregants, as if she were invisible. “Donna” left the synagogue alienated, and refused to go back to synagogue for years.

It’s important that we take Donna’s experience to heart. “Donna” is an outsider, a Jewish Susan Boyle. And as task force after task force ponders how to fix the problems of Jewish continuity, we need to think about the Jewish Susan Boyles. Oftentimes, these task forces issue exotic and expensive recommendations. In actuality, a critical element in solving the problem of Jewish continuity is free: we simply need to make our institutions more welcoming. We need to say hello to visitors, and include them in our community. We need to invite in the Susan Boyles of our community, and make them feel at home. Who know? Maybe we’ll be welcoming in the next generation’s Hillel.

If we want to find the Jewish Susan Boyles, the answer is simple: they are at the entrance of every Jewish institution, waiting for someone to smile and open the door.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Difference Between Seeking and Seeing - Shavuot 2009

Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for the wonderful camera work, and to Lorne Lieberman for inspiring this project.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Thursday, May 14, 2009




Divine Eyeglasses

Last Saturday, I started to see for the first time. Without realizing it, I had spent the first 45 years of my life blinded to the full extent of human potential.

On Saturday morning, my synagogue held a Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebration. Generally, Jewish boys celebrate their Bar Mitzvahs at age thirteen, and the girls celebrate their Bat Mitzvahs at age twelve. Technically, at Bar and Bat Mitzvah age, children are no longer children, and are mandated with adult responsibilities. However, in a larger sense, the public celebration of a Bar and Bat Mitzvah is a way of recognizing young men and women as full members of the community.

But this particular Bar and Bat Mitzvah was very different. The participants from this past Saturday were all adults, some well into their 50’s. They were celebrating their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs now because they had never had one in their youth. Our six special participants are all intellectually disabled; when they were of Bar Mitzvah age 30-40 years ago, they were pushed to the periphery and their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs were overlooked. Because of their intellectual disabilities, they were deprived of the chance to stand in the spotlight and be affirmed as members of the community.

Throughout history, multiple societies have stigmatized, mistreated and even murdered the disabled. In ancient Sparta, babies deemed “deformed” were tossed into a place called “the apothetae”, a chasm near Mount Taygetus. Martin Luther believed children with severe disabilities were actually “changelings”, demonic beings that took on the form of a human child. He advocated legalizing throwing the “changelings” into the river and drowning them. And the Nazis, even before the start of the Holocaust, initiated “Aktion T4”, a program to kill the physically and mentally disabled. This program may have killed as many as 200,000 disabled people.

Sadly, these negative attitudes continued to have a powerful impact until recently. Due to social pressure, people with intellectually disabilities were often hidden away, their very existence treated as a secret. Up to just a few years ago there was little possibility for an intellectually disabled child to have a large, well attended, public Bar Mitzvah. The developmentally disabled were often viewed as blemished and flawed, the sum total of their disabilities. The general public simply couldn’t see the person beyond the disability.

It is that view of the intellectually disabled that changed on Saturday morning. Human vision is clouded by the superficial and the subjective. There is a powerful passage in the Book of Samuel that says that “man sees only with his eyes, but God sees into the heart.”. Humanity’s perspective is shallow, limited by what our eyes can see. But this past Saturday, our congregants were fitted with a pair of divine eyeglasses. During the ceremony we saw exactly what God sees, the beauty of the human soul.

We saw into the hearts of the participants, who were waiting for this Bar- Bat Mitzvah ceremony their entire lives. In front of us were six people whose hearts were full of joy and pride. In their shy demeanor and gentle words, we could see the long road they had taken in search of dignity, and all the struggles they had faced. And most of all, their faces radiated love; you could immediately feel the sense of connection between the participants and everyone in the room.

There was another group in the synagogue whose lives were transformed by this celebration, perhaps even more than the participants themselves: the participant’s families. These families had experienced the sting of exclusion, as their brothers and sisters were isolated without any friends in the neighborhood, and their sons and daughters bounced from one program to the next. These families were waiting all these years for the day that their sons, daughters, brothers and sisters would take their rightful place in the community.

But by far, the people most affected by this celebration were the congregants. The very people whom the community excluded years ago were now taking center stage; and in standing ovation after standing ovation, the community opened their hearts to the six Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrants. It was truly a family reunion; we, the community, were welcoming back the men and women we had long forgotten.

On Saturday morning, all of us in the congregation were able to see past superficial disabilities, and appreciate the gifts of love, friendship and community. And for a few short moments, we were all wearing divine eyeglasses.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

"A Bar Mitzvah For the Community" - The Miriam Home Bar-Bat Mitzvah

Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for sponsoring the video


Wednesday, May 06, 2009

What Do You Stand For? - Kiddush Hashem - Parshat Emor

Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping!!


Monday, April 27, 2009

The Sin of "Getting Back to Normal" -Yom Haatzamut

Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for sponsoring this video

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


You Are What You Dream

“You are what you eat” is a well traveled but powerful cliché. We construct our identities out of the littlest bits of quotidian life; from our culinary style, fashion sense, and literary interests, and from the company we keep and neighborhoods we choose. In a sense, we are what we eat, wear, befriend and read.

We pay less attention to our dreams. Dreams and visions are considered too ephemeral, too intangible to warrant serious thought. Indeed, the word “daydream” connotes an entertaining but meaningless diversion. But in actuality, dreams are the single largest force in determining our identities.

You are what you dream. This may seem trite, but it’s true. Our dreams shape our identities in subtle ways. High school students with dreams of playing basketball or starring in movies will concentrate less on their grades, comparatively, than students dreaming of careers in astrophysics. While there are always exceptions, in all likelihood the aspiring athlete will focus on sports, the aspiring actress will focus on drama, and the aspiring scientist on academics. Dreams may be about the future, but they can affect the here and now.

That is why the power of dreams is the basis of repentance. One of the key elements of repentance is to resolve to improve one’s behavior in the future. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik notes that several philosophers have questioned the value of resolutions. They argue that either the person will improve in the future, or they will not; what difference does making a resolution make?

Soloveitchik explains that our vision of the future is critical to our present. A sincere resolution changes our attitude immediately; a powerful dream can transform immediately.

Dreams have transformed individual lives, and have transformed Jewish history. In exile, the Jews were a stranger in a strange land, a people despised and oppressed. Despite being second class citizens, Jews dreamt of redemption and return to the land of Israel. Jews wherever they were exiled prayed facing Jerusalem, and during each prayer service, large sections of the service were devoted to praying for the return to Israel.

One would imagine that it would be ridiculous for a member of an abject minority to have any sense of optimism. However, to the poor Jew living in a hovel inside a ghetto, the dreams of redemption offered a lifeline. Even if everyone treated him as a cursed subhuman and a landless alien, the poor Jew could straighten his back and dream that he was only a few short steps from returning to his beloved land of milk and honey. And these dreams not only maintained the Jewish connection to Israel; the dreams of redemption transformed the lives of every Jew. By looking forward to the redemption, the Jew could maintain his dignity in the face of discrimination and hatred.

Throughout history, it was a challenge for Jews to hold on to their dreams, and at times, it was downright dangerous. In 1968, Boris Kochubievsky wrote an open letter to the leadership of the Soviet Union stating:

"I want to live in Israel.

This is my dream. This is the goal not only of my life, but also of the lives of hundreds of generations preceding me that were expelled from the land of their ancestors.As long as I live, as long as I am capable of feeling, I will do all I can to be able to leave for Israel……..I will be prepared to go to the homeland of my ancestors, even if it means going by foot."

Kochubievsky was immediately thrown in jail. But Kochubievsky went to jail with his dreams intact and his head held high. Today, forty years later, the situation has changed. The Soviet Union can only be found in history books, but Boris Kochubievsky can be found in Israel.

Boris’ dreams changed world history. We all need to learn how to dream like Boris, because in the end, you are what you dream.





Monday, April 13, 2009

Judaism and Time: Beyond Bridges and Pendulums

(a short recap of my Pesach sermon)

How does Judaism look at time? Well, like a lot of subjects, in a complex and conflicted way. An excellent example of this can be found in contrasting some of the Jewish holidays.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are holidays that see time as a bridge. These holidays bridge between one year and the next, prodding man to judge himself and improve his behavior. Yom Kippur, the holiday of repentance, is an austere day in which man resolves to transform his nature. These holidays present time as a bridge which allows man to cross his limitations and discover new spiritual horizons.

Time as a bridge is most often associated with personal growth, seeing man as dynamic and ever changing. The famed narratives of Rabbi Akiva and Reish Lakish, in which ignorant and dissolute men become great Rabbis and spiritual giants, reflect the dynamic nature time has, and how it allows everybody to transform and change. (This perspective is less common regarding history; however, some thinkers such as Rav Kook, do accept a dynamic, ever changing view of history.)

On the other hand, Pesach, (as well as the other pilgrimage festivals), view time as a pendulum. These holidays present time as ever recurring; the Exodus, the Revelation at Sinai, the wandering in the desert, happen over and over again and again, year after year. Time constantly swings back to where it once was, producing the same seasons and the same moods repeatedly.

Time as a pendulum is on prominent display at the Seder. The Hagaddah tells us to view ourselves as if we had personally left Egypt, and we declare that “in every generation they come to destroy us”, that anti-Semitism is an iron law of history.

Time as pendulum is reflected in many Jewish sources. A well known passage is the famed Midrashic comment, championed by Nachmanides, “that everything that occurred to the patriarchs is a sign of what will occur to their children”. This seems to say that history is a recurring narrative, and yes indeed, history will repeat itself.

One passage in the Talmud says that even specific months have historical tendencies:

“..in the month of Av, we reduce joy (due to the destruction of the Temple, which occurred in that month) and in the month of Adar, we increase joy (due to the redemption related to the holiday of Purim).

Rabbi Pappa said: therefore, if one has a court case, he should avoid the month of Av, which is bad luck, and try to schedule it during Adar, which is good luck”.

In other words, to Rav Pappa, the calendar itself is a pendulum, moving between dates that are “good for the Jews” and dates that are not.

Pesach and Yom Kippur have very different views of time, indeed. What is fascinating is what they share. On both days, we declare at the very end of the service, “next year in Jerusalem”. In other words on each of these holidays, we say that the holiday itself is a springboard for redemption.

There are bridges one must cross on the road to redemption, and on Yom Kippur, we are expressing our hope that our repentance is finally sufficiently good to be worthy of the Messiah. However, on Pesach, we believe, as the Talmud puts it, “in Nissan we were redeemed (from Egypt), and in Nissan we will be redeemed (with the messiah).” We open the door for Elijah, expecting the pendulum of redemption to finally swing our way.

In actuality, Pesach and Yom Kippur reflect two sides of a famed Talmudic debate. Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer debate the circumstances of the Messiah’s arrival. Rabbi Eleizer says the Messiah arrives due to repentance, period. Rabbi Yehoshua says that the Messiah will arrive at an appointed time, and that the arrival is a law of history. In a sense, the declaration of “next year in Jerusalem” on Yom Kippur reflects R. Eliezer’s view, while the declaration of “next year in Jerusalem” on Pesach reflects Rabbi Yehoshua’s view.

Is there any possibility of finding a connection between these two conflicting views of time? Perhaps. There is one other similarity between Yom Kippur and the Seder. There is a strange custom among Ashkenazim of wearing a kittel, a white coat, both on Yom Kippur and the Seder. On Yom Kippur, the Kittel is worn because it is a garment that inspires repentance due to its similarity to angelic white and burial shrouds. But why do we wear a kittel on Pesach? Angels and shrouds seem quite foreign on the night of divine redemption. This question confounds the Taz and others.

I think perhaps a simple solution can be found. Being that Pesach and Yom Kippur have such different dimensions, with Yom Kippur viewing time as a bridge, while Pesach sees it as a pendulum, we want to remind everyone at the Seder that in truth, we must marry both visions of time together. Even if we see history returning to the same themes, we must be certain that it not be experienced as a thoughtless pendulum, something that keeps going back and forth without change. In reality, time should neither be a pendulum nor a bridge, but rather a tower, where the lessons of the past are cherished, and we grow and relive at the very same time.

In actuality then, we don the kittel at the Seder to remind us of Yom Kippur. It reminds us that the spirit of the Seder must be merged with the spirit of Yom Kippur, and at the Seder, we should not forget all the spiritual bridges we have to cross. We should not think of redemption as a birthright that we can wait passively for; even as we wait for the pendulum to swing, we hope to raise ourselves to new and greater heights, climbing the tower of spiritual growth.

Chag Sameach!!

Monday, April 06, 2009

The Energy of 11:59

Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for sponsoring this video!!

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Power of Sacrifice

Each year, when the weekly Torah reading approaches the Book of Leviticus (Vayikra), I struggle with Vayikra’s focus on animal sacrifice. Vayikra seems foreign to contemporary sensibilities. We buy our meat in groceries and shoes in boutiques, never witnessing the actual slaughter of the animals we consume, and as a consequence, the sight of any animal blood makes us queasy. The thought that this gory act is to be done in a sacred place with sacred clergy and sacred goals seems too peculiar a ritual to inspire our 21st century hearts. Many who are uncertain about their understanding of Vayikra take solace in Maimonides’ fascinating (and controversial) remarks considering animal sacrifice to be a less than perfect form of worship, allowed only as a concession to the cultural norms of the biblical period. If sacrifices were somewhat deprecated by Maimonides, we think, it’s not so bad if we can’t understand sacrifices either.

But contemporary discomfort with Vayikra goes beyond PETA-style concerns; there’s something deeper at play here. The Biblical ideal of sacrifice demands absolute dedication, with the animal standing as a proxy for our very selves; each sacrifice is a miniature replay of the grand drama of the akeidah, (the binding of Isaac), with the owner playing Isaac’s role. And this type of selfless devotion is foreign to a zeitgeist built around personal identity.

Identity is critical to contemporary man. Our designer made possessions are intended to reflect our personal style, and we focus on building self esteem and self confidence. In marketing, one must work diligently on a “personal brand”, and develop a unique persona. And intertwined with our deep self absorption is a culture of materialism that is bonus built, consumption driven, and consumer oriented. This is not a culture that is sacrifice friendly.

However, sacrifice is an idea whose time has come. The outrage over AIG executive bonuses and auto executive private jets reflect a deep seated anger at the destructive sense of entitlement that has pervaded the corporate world. There is a growing realization that the global economic crisis was not just a failure of the financial system, but also a failure of character, a crisis brought on by the arrogance and greed of traders and bankers. Humility and selflessness, the core virtues of sacrifice, is the very stuff our culture is so desperately lacking.

The Midrash says that the lesson of sacrifice is that there is nothing as perfect for the service of God as the humble, broken heart. A humble soul, empty of pretense, has remarkable spiritual powers. Its vision of the world is not clouded by ego, and its sense of generosity isn’t smothered by greed. Seen this way, sacrifice is not about destruction; on the contrary, sacrifice allows us to release the power of a humble heart.

While the past year has produced more than its share of villains, from Shearson Lehman Brothers to Bernie Madoff, there are quiet heroes as well. One of them, Chesley Sullenberger, successfully piloted US Air flight 1549 into the Hudson River after both of the airplanes engines were disabled, saving the lives of everyone on board. Beyond Sullenberger’s flying skills was a deep-seated sense of dedication. He didn’t leave the sinking plane until he had walked the entire cabin twice to verify that there was no one else was on board, and insisted that he be the last one to leave the life raft he was in.

Sullenberger’s heroism reminds us of forgotten virtues. As we observe how greed and grift have ravaged our economy, perhaps it’s time to give respect to those who live lives of dedication and devotion; perhaps it’s time to remember those old fashioned virtues of humility and generosity.

Perhaps it’s time to remember the power of sacrifice.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Holy Housekeeping

Carpool, Maimonides, chicken soup, Parshat Tzav and ivory towers.

Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for filming, staging and editing.



Thursday, March 26, 2009

First Things First

Thank you to Jacob Aspler for the camera work.

Let me know what you think of the sound quality - we shot this one with a mic!

Touched on children's education, sacrifices, bernie madoff, vayikra, humility, AIG and A-Rod... all in 3 minutes!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Can Something You Love Ever Be Boring? - Vayakhel - Parsha Insights

A big thank you to Abigail Hirsch for the videotaping, staging and editing

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Notes to afternoon class on Pesach Seder 3-14-09

(I was asked to post some short notes from today's class for those who couldn't take notes. This has most of the ideas we discussed)

1. The Poem “Kaddesh, Urchatz, Karpas..”

a. Many other medeieval poems with similar purpose. Rabbi Menachem Kasher brings 14 examples of similar poems about the structure of the Seder.

b. These poems give in short verse the structure of the “Seder”. The term “Seder” not used in Talmud – medieval term.

c. several authors note the need for these poems – as a mnemonic device - because there are so many details in the Seder.

d. Rav Soloveitchik – concept of Seder – all elements integrated. Teshuvot HaRosh – telling the story of Passover an outgrowth of eating the food.

e. Idea of Seder – order – profoundly meaningful on evening of Passover. Redemption the opposite of believing that everything is happenstance – that there is no guarantee of a happy ending.

2. Ha Lachma Anya

a. Written in Aramaic – perhaps to be understandable to children. Probably, because it was the contemporary vernacular, Aramaic the language understandable to guests.

b. Intended as an invitation to guests. Otzar Hageonim cites custom to open door before Ha Lacham Anya.

c. What does the words “poor man’s bread” mean? A. most opinions – a bread poorly baked, eaten on the evening the Jews rushed out of Egypt. B. our preferred opinion – Ramban on the Torah – Jews in Egypt, harried, little time to bake. Matzah (probably originally similar to laffa) quick food (Similar evidence – Lot bakes Matzah when the angels appear as last minute guests – because it’s fast bread). C. Avudraham – tells story about Ibn Ezra, that when incarcerated in India, was served matzah – it is a more filling bread, and the slaveowner has to bake less. (but who fed the Jews at the end of the day?)

d. according to Ramban – it turns out there’s an exceptional connection between phrase of “this is the poor man’s bread our ancestors ate” and the invitation to the Seder – a way of making every guest feel comfortable – so we say, “don’t worry about your poverty – all Jews were once poor slaves”.

e. “this year we slaves.. next year in Jerusalem” – remembering the bread of slavery (as per Ramban) reminds us that we have overcome slavery in the past.

f. emphasis on slavery in Hagadah. Here are two lessons of why that is emphasized – sensitivity to those in need, a reminder that even in bleak times, there can be another redemption, there was one in the past.

3. Mah Nishtana

a. Idea of asking questions. For the child to parent (which is why we do several strange things, like remove seder plate, so the children ask questions.) and for any Seder – even when alone, Seder must be in question and answer form.

b. Rav Chaim Soloveitchik: What’s the difference between the nightly mention of leaving Egypt, and the special mitzvah to tell the Exodus story on the evening Seder? Several elements. This is one – the need to tell the story in question answer form.

c. Idea behind this – Seder meant to encourage engagement – people to relive the story of leaving Egypt – and to intellectually challenge us – so we explore the themes of the Seder ever more deeply on a yearly basis.

d. An additional idea – questioning an act of freedom – slaves cannot ask questions.