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17
Aug
0

Dr. Levine's Efforts

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waWhile I was in Israel, I was contacted by Dr. David Levine.  He is a Seattlelite who has been working selflessly in West Africa for some years now. His request? A young mother of three needs heart surgery and he is collecting money to make that a reality.  I responded by sending a contribution from my discretionary fund; the sages teach us that we should give Tzedaka to members of the broader world community alongside our own community's needy people.  To the left is a picture of the young mother, Aram with her kids.  Anyone wishing to learn more about David Levine's work should feel free to write him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .  His website is www.westafricamedicine.org 

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05
Aug
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Adding and Subtracting: Paving the Way for Ba'al Pe'or

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Each year on Perashat Va'etchanan, I am reminded of a profound article penned by the students oftaryag Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz of blessed memory. Last year, I delivered an afternoon class on the topic, but did not have the opportunity to relay the ideas in print.

No Addition or Subtraction
There is a Torah concept called "Bal Tosif/Bal Tigra". Broadly speaking, the Torah prohibits adding or detracting mitzvot - or details of mitzvot - from the Torah. So, for example, I cannot claim that there is a 614th mitzvah in the Torah, or suggest that there are only 612 mitzvot. Another violation would involve inserting an additional species to, or removing a species from the Lulav, Willow, myrtle and Etrog.

What is surprising about the passage in Va'etchanan is that, after introducing this law, Moshe Rabenu adds,

ג עֵינֵיכֶם, הָרֹאוֹת, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה יְהוָה, בְּבַעַל פְּעוֹר:
כִּי כָל-הָאִישׁ, אֲשֶׁר הָלַךְ אַחֲרֵי בַעַל-פְּעוֹר--הִשְׁמִידוֹ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, מִקִּרְבֶּךָ

Your eyes have seen what the LORD did in Baal-peor;
for all the men that followed the Baal of Peor, the LORD thy God hath destroyed them from the midst of thee.

What's the Connection?
Rabbi Shmulevitz asks the obvious question: What is the connection between these two passages?  How does caution not to add or detract from the Torah relate to the idolatrous worship of Ba'al Pe'or that claimed so many Jewish lives?

The answer lies in the nature of the worship of Ba'al Pe'or. The Talmud (Sanhedrin) records that even the most devout idolaters of other cultures were revolted by the cult: Worshippers of Ba'al Pe'or consumed whiskey and fruit, then defacated in front of their statue!

Question: Certainly, religions the world over worship their gods by showing reverence to them, not disgracing them. What, then, is the secret message of the Peoritic cult? 

Answer: For Ba'al Pe'or, nothing is sacred! Ba'al Pe'or is the epitome of religious and moral anarchy! This stands in sharp contrast to the Torah lifestyle, which defines parameters of acceptable and unacceptable behavior and belief. 

Rav Shmulevitz then cites several examples of how the Torah makes every effort to keep each Jew within the framework: At times, the Torah seems to capitulate to man's frailities by permitting behaviors that should most reasonably be forbidden.

Wartime Pressures
In the case of the "Eshat Yifat To'ar"; the Torah permits the Jewish soldier - in the heat of war - to take a woman he finds there, convert her, and marry her. The acceptance of human fraility, and the codification of this element in halacha is known as דברה תורה כנגד יצר הרע - the Torah spoke in response to man's evil inclination. Says Rav Shmulevitz: The Torah is intent on keeping the Jew within its framework; instead of forbidding such behavior as illicit, the Torah instead created a halachic framework to permit it.

Cities of Refuge
The phenomenon of Cities of Refuge - into which a manslaughterer runs for his life from the vengeful relative - is yet another instance of the same concept: In it, the Torah recognizes the passionate desire for revenge of a person whose relative was killed through negligence. Instead of requring him to suppress this natural inclination, the Torah gives it expression, within limits. Once again, a halachic framework is initiated to keep Jews "in the fold".

Back to Bal Tosif
Returning now to "Bal Tosif and Bal Tigra" - adding or detracting from the Torah:

Jewish tradition recognizes 613 mitzvot. Although the classical commentators debate just what mitzvot comprise the 613, the number is not disputed. One who adds or detracts a mitzvah has shattered this framework, blemishing the integrity of the system.

What links Bal Tosif and the cult of Ba'al Pe'or is disregard for boundaries. The difference between them is a matter of degree, and not of kind. Moshe therefore follows his warning not to add or detract from the Torah with a review of the punishment for those who worshipped Ba'al Pe'or; the ultimate result of adding or detracting from the Torah - is moral anarchy.

As I mentioned during our shiur last year, the Torah's stretching of its framework to keep Jews in the fold has crucial ramifications for child-rearing: For many years, we have allowed our children to sip wine and other spirits at the Shabbat table under our supervision and guidance. We don't want a situation in which our kids, because of the "mystique" of alcohol, find themselves in a bar at a young age! Similarly, one could argue (though I know many in the Orthodox Jewish world disagree with me) that moderate, structured usage of the internet and other technologies is a good recipe for avoiding clandestine abuse of those same technologies.

For a continuation of the discussion of the Torah "giving in" to man's inclinations, see Rabbi Michael Rosensweig's article: http://www.torahweb.org/torah/2007/parsha/rros_kiteitsei.html%20

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27
Jul
0

2012 Guide to the Three Weeks PT II: Laws of Tisha Be'av

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1. The Shabbat prior to Tisha Be'av is called "Shabbat Hazon" - the Shabbat of foretelling - as we read the Haftara portion from the prophecy of Isaiah (1:1-27), as the final of the "three of affliction," readings.   Isaiah does not lament because the Bet HaMikdash (The Temple) was destroyed; rather he laments over the underlying causes of that destruction. It's not enough to bemoan the great loss suffered by our people with the destruction of our Land, Jerusalem and the Mikdash. We must use our mourning as a way of initiating an examination of our present-day feelings, thoughts and deeds.  What have we done to eliminate the attitudes and practices that thousands of years ago sent our ancestors into exile - not once, but twice? (courtesy of ou.org) tishabeav

  1. Even those who have refrained from meat and wine since the beginning of Av, are permitted to eat meat and drink wine and grape juice on Shabbat Hazon.  In fact, it is a mitzvah to eat meat on Shabbat for those who enjoy it.   Wine is required for Kiddush.   We set aside any public displays of mourning on Shabbat.  Consumption of meat and wine is permitted even during Seuda Shelishit, on Shabbat afternoon.
  2. We stop eating prior to Shekiya/sunset. The seudah cannot be consumed past 8:47 pm.   The customs of a "Seuda Mafseket" –sitting on the floor, eating hard boiled eggs and bread, etc – are set aside this year since Erev Tisha Be'av is Shabbat.  Your Seuda should be eaten as a regular Shabbat meal.  Once Shabbat has concluded @ 9:33 pm, recite "Baruch Hamavdil Ben Kodesh L'chol" – Blessed is He who distinguishes between the holy and mundane – and you can now do melacha that was forbidden on Shabbat.  This is to be followed by the "Boreh Me'orei Ha'esh" blessing on the Havdala candle.   The Havdala blessing is to be recited on a cup of wine or grape juice Sunday  night following the fast. (see #11) 
  3. Once the fast begins, one should not eat, drink, wash, anoint oneself, wear leather shoes, or have marital relations.
  4. Washing in both cold and hot water is forbidden on Tisha Be'av.  It is of course permitted to "spot clean" dirt that has adhered to your hands or another part of your body in the course of Tisha Be'av.   Ritual washing of the hands, such as the morning Netilat Yadayim, cannot extend beyond one's knuckles.
  5. It is also forbidden to learn Torah "as usual" on Tisha Be'av, since Torah study is joyful.  Sources that deal with the destruction of the Temple, such as the accounts of the Destruction in the Talmud, commentaries on "Eicha" - the book of Lamentations, and the like, can be learned on Tisha Be'av. 
  6. Even pregnant and nursing women, who generally do not fast on the rabbinic fast days, do fast on Tisha Be'av.  
  7. Elderly people who feel too weak to fast, and whose doctor advises that they eat, are permitted to eat on Tisha Be'av.   Children are not required to fast until they are Bnai or Bnot Mitzvah (13 for boys and 12 for girls).  However, to educate them about the nature of the day, we do not give children treats like ice cream, chocolate, etc.
  8. One is not allowed to sit in a regular chair/couch on Tisha Be'av until midday Sunday (1:15 pm).
  9. We do not greet each other on Tisha Be'av, in the same manner that one does not greet a mourner.
  10. Once the fast is over @ 9:28 on Sunday night we say Havdala over a cup of wine, but with no besamim (spices) or candle.  Meat and wine can be consumed as of Sunday night; laundry, hot showers, shaving, are all permitted as soon as the fast is out.
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16
Jul
0

"Vacation Destination"

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School's out for summer
School's out forever
School's been blown to pieces

Alice Cooper's classic, "School's Out!" You may remember it from your childhood, if you grew up in the 70's.  I understand that it's still quite popular today.

 

Or how about this one?

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the class room
Teachers leave those kids alone

Pink Floyd!

These songs influenced a generation, me included.  It was challenging to develop a positive attitude towards learning when these were the overt and subliminal messages coming at us from the broader culture.

I recall one evening as I was saying the bedtime "Shema" with our first son - he was about two at the time.  As we were reciting ושננתם לבניך ודברת בם - "...and you should teach them to your children and speak about them...", an upstairs neighbor was playing "The Wall" at full blast.

Each year, I find it challenging to reconcile the western concept of summer vacation with Jewish values.

How does our tradition view leisure time?

This past Shabbat, I quoted from a sermon given by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm nearly five decades ago at the Jewish Center in Manhattan. It later made its way with significant changes, into the book, "Faith and Doubt":

Saadia Gaon....speaks of the excessive striving for "rest" . Granting that leisure is necessary for physical and mental recovery... it nevertheless is a vain and empty goal if taken by and for itself. It has meaning only as the aftermath of strenuous exertion, and hence is ancillary to work, but can never replace it. Taken without work, it is mere laziness......

... the authentic Jewish view is not that the Sabbath was created for the six days, thus reducing menucha to the character of a vacation, but that the six days were created for the sake of the Sabbath; that, as indicated, the menucha was itself the apex of the order of creation.

In fact, Dr. Lamm notes, the first full day of life of Adam was the seventh day - Shabbat!

What are our priorities on Shabbat and Yom Tov? Dr. Lamm:

By simply removing the distractions and the obsession with work which chokes off creativity during the week, man's innate propensity for self-creativity may come to express itself quite naturally....

Second, and more important, Judaism provides its classical answer to the ideal utilization of leisure time. It is the intellectual way: the study of Torah."The Sabbaths were given to Israel in order that they might study Torah." The Sabbath, both as a specific day and as the model for an ethic of leisure, is the occasion for study.

This message dovetails nicely with a profound observation by the great Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein:  The mishna records five tragic events that took place on the 17th of Tamuz:

  1. Moses broke the tablets at Mount Sinai – in response to the sin of the Golden Calf.
  2. The daily korbanot (offerings) in the First Temple were suspended during the siege of Jerusalem
  3. Jerusalem's walls were breached, prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
  4. Prior to the Great Revolt, the Roman general Apostamos burned a Torah scroll
  5. An idol was placed in the Sanctuary of the Holy Temple.

RCA colleague Moshe Stavsky paraphrases Rav Lichtenstein's query:  The negation of the daily korbanot doesn’t seem as devastating as the other 4 events; it was merely the absence of the daily offering;  the Temple was still around and the situation could have been reversed.  What’s the big deal?  

A similar question emanates from a midrash, in which three prominent Tannaim debate the verse that expresses the most all-encompassing principle of the Torah:

  • Ben Zoma: Shema Yisrael
  • Ben Nannas: Love your fellow as yourself
  • Ben Pazi: One lamb should be brought in the morning, the other in the afternoon. 

The first two views are simple to understand: Ben Zoma focuses on a Jew's commitment to the One G-d of history, while Ben Nannas highlights the oneness of the Jewish people.  But Ben Pazi's view is cryptic! How all-inclusive is the concept of a twice daily offering?

Answer: Judaism is built on consistency. Those two little lambs represented the consistency required in religious life.  This explains why, when the daily sacrifice ended, we mourn.  It signaled the end of normal religious life.  The absence of these korbanot, starting on the 17th of Tamuz, broke our consistency, it broke our expression of commitment to The One who dwelled in the Temple.  Dedication and commitment to Hashem is THE all-encompassing principle of Jewish life - hence, Ben Pazi!

How many of us - especially in the environment of the American summer - carve out sufficient time for ourselves for matters of the spirit?  It's wonderful to come to synagogue on a weekly basis and to engage in both Torah and Tefilah, but how do we fare outside of the environment of the Kehilla?  How can we create a daily island in time to pursue the matters of the spirit ?  What is our personal "vacation destination?"

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10
Jul
0

2012 Guide to the Three Weeks Pt I

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sittingatkotelThe following brief guide relates to customs of Sephardic Jews. Jews of Ashkenazic background have significantly different practices for this three week period. Anyone with questions should feel free to write me at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  

We have just begun the period of בין המצרים, initiated this past Sunday with the fast of the seventeenth of Tamuz.

From the start of the three weeks until after Tisha Be'av , the night of July 29, we avoid eating new fruits or purchasing the type of clothing on which we would be obliged to recite the beracha of שהחיינו – "Shehehiyanu".  The reason for this custom is that the full text of the beracha thanks G-d for sustaining us and bringing us to "this time." Since the three week period preceding Tisha Be'av is an unfortunate time for our people, the text of the blessing is inappropriate to recite. 

The laws of the three weeks intensify as we move towards the month of Av. This year, Rosh Hodesh Av falls out on Thursday night July 19th, and Friday, July 20th.  

Although the letter of the law only prohibits the consumption of meat and wine (grape juice included!) during the Seudah Hamafseket – the last meal prior to Tisha Be'av – a widespread post-Talmudic custom developed not to consume these products earlier in the three-week period.  For Sephardim, there are two main customs regarding the consumption of meat and wine:

a) One view is that the custom only applies during the week of Tisha Be'av. This year, Tisha Be'av falls on Sunday, and so practically, there would be no prohibition of eating meat or drinking wine this year prior to Tisha Be'av. 

b) Another view is to refrain from these products following Rosh Hodesh Av. Upon further reflection, I am recommending following this latter custom. One who needs to consume meat   for health reasons should rely on the lenient view mentioned in section (a)

How does custom (b) play itself out practically this year?

  • Rosh Hodesh Av is Friday, July 20th, and one may have wine and meat on that day
  • In honor of Shabbat, there is no public mourning, and we consume meat and wine, including Seudah on Shabbat afternoon, if we wish. We say Hagefen on the Havdala wine and drink it.

Therefore, this restriction begins Saturday night, July 21st, and continues until the next Friday nightShabbat Hazon, July 28th, when once again we may eat meat and drink wine in honor of Shabbat.

So the schedule looks like this:

Friday, July 20th

Permitted to eat meat and drink wine

Friday night and all of Shabbat, July 21st

Permitted to eat meat and drink wine

Saturday night, July 21st until Friday afternoon, July 27th

Custom not to eat meat and drink wine. One may consume the wine of Havdala

Saturday night July 28 until Sunday night, July 29th

Tisha Be'av – Fast Day

Sunday night, July 29th

Permitted to eat meat and drink wine

 

As we mentioned earlier, this year, Tisha Be'av is pushed off until Saturday night, July 28th-Sunday 29th;  there is no formal "week of Tisha Be'av" in which restrictions regarding shaving, laundering, washing in warm water, swimming, etc apply. We will reserve our discussion on those halachot for next year!

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09
Jul
0

Talking Animals ?

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edThis past Shabbat, I began my derasha with a TV trivia question: How did the director of the old "Mr. Ed" show get the horse to move its lips?

Before the computer wizardry of Forrest Gump, how did they manipulate the lips of the talking horse?

A confession: Until now, I had believed that the placement of peanut butter in Ed's mouth was the secret; this was the explanation I presented to the congregation on Shabbat. But as I prepared to write  this blog post, I investigated further, and found that the peanut butter story was fabricated by Director Alan Young. Recently, he changed his tune, explaining that it was in fact a nylon thread in Mr. Ed's mouth that got the horse talking . Eventually, Mr. Ed apparently learned to move his lips on cue when the trainer touched his hoof!

When you mention Perashat Balak to the average person, they fondly recall it as the Torah portion in which a donkey talks. At first blush, the story of Bilaam and the donkey has a Disney-like, cartoonish quality to it. Now, although the Torah's narratives even appeal to children, the profound depth of the episode has long been the subject of our classic commentaries.

In his "Tal Hermon", Rabbi Shlomo Aviner recalls some early psychological experiments involving monkeys. Specifically, he refers us to the work of Masserman and Wechkin: In a 1964 study,15 rhesus monkeys were trained to get food by pulling chains. The monkeys quickly learned that one chain delivered twice as much food than the other. But then the rules changed. If a monkey pulled the chain associated with the bigger reward, another “bystander” monkey received an electric shock. After seeing this occur, ten of the monkeys switched their preferences to the chain associated with the lesser food reward. Two other monkeys stopped pulling either chain—preferring to starve rather than see another monkey in pain.

Rav Aviner points to this as evidence of a very basic "mussar" or ethical element within animals. This quality is elucidated by the prophet Yeshaya (Isaiah 1:3) as he bemoans the ingratitude of the Jewish people: "Even an ox knows its owner, and a donkey recognizes its master's care--but Israel doesn't know its master."

As Bilaam sets out on his journey to curse the Israelites, his donkey seems disobedient. First, she turns off course, then she presses Bilaam's leg against a fence; finally, she crouches down under Bilaam and refuses to budge. Each step of the way, the beast is responding to her vision of Hashem's angel obstructing the path. In response to each act of disobedience, Bilaam strikes the animal. At this point, Hashem "opens the donkey's mouth" – and it delivers a full-fledged "Mussar lesson" to Bilaam:

"What have I done to you, that justifies you having hit me three times?"
"Am not I your donkey, upon which you have ridden your whole life until today? Did I ever let you down?"

The two questions are related: "Maybe there was a specific reason that prompted me to to behave this way? Why did you strike me without taking that into consideration? Secondly, given my faithfulness to you to this point, you should have given me the benefit of the doubt!"

The animal exhibits a higher sense of basic ethics than Bilaam. It sees the angel - which represents the Divine force of ethics and mussar in the world - which Bilaam, for all of his talent and sophistication, can simply not perceive. Once Bilaam admits that the donkey had in fact, never 'done him wrong', he is able to "see the angel"; he begins to have an elementary grasp of the lesson communicated by his donkey. This is followed by a harsh rebuke of Bilaam by the angel, and Bilaam finally admits חטאתי - "I have sinned...."

Rav Aviner's approach dovetails nicely with a puzzling comment by Rashi. The donkey refers to Bilaam's three beatings as שלש רגלים. Rashi, based on the midrash, explains that the donkey is critiquing Bilaam for attempting to eradicate the Jewish people, who observe the three pilgrimage festivals. The word "regalim" in Hebrew can simply mean "times" (Bilaam strikes the animal three times); alternatively, it can be a veiled reference to the Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, when the Jewish people traditionally travel en masse to Jerusalem.

What's the connection between the three festivals and Bilaam's behavior?

The Jewish trek to Jerusalem is an expression of appreciation for the Exodus from Egypt, the receiving of the Torah, and the Divine protection in the desert during our 40 years of wandering. Jewish families thronged to the holy city to remind themselves of their dependence on G-d and His involvement in their lives.

Basic gratitude!

The beleaugered beast of the Bilaam narrative tells her master that he has no hope of vanquishing a people whose "specialty" is the ongoing refinement of their individual and national character.

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, in his introduction to Sefer Bereshit, notes that an intrustion of baseless hatred and a crisis of character led to the destruction of the Second Temple. If ethical refinement is the Jewish specialty, failing to live up to our potential is a true crisis. 

Today is the 17th of Tamuz, a time for each of us to reflect on how we can work to refine those qaulities and bring about our long-awaited redemption....

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14
Jun
0

Eulogy for Daniel Ben

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Today, family and friends are gathering to reflect on the life of Mr. Daniel Ben. Daniel is survived by his wife, Jeanne Ben; brother, Albert Benaltabe; son, Steve Ben; and his daughters, Claire Dingle, Maurene Wardell, Ricka Leeser, Cindy Meyer, and Tari Brown - 12 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

Daniel was born Jan 2, 1925, in Seattle, WA, to Isaac and Clara Benaltabe. After graduation from Garfield High School, Daniel enlisted in the United States Navy and served during World War II on the Pacific Fleet from 1942-1945.

He returned to Seattle and opened a flowers, fruits, and vegetables stand in the University District. He loved flowers, sports, friends and family. He loved to travel with the extended family to warm places to soak up the sun and just people watch whether it be Palm Springs in the winter or Chelan in the summer. He was always up for shopping as long as there was a bench where he could sit.

Daniel was preceded in death by his parents; sister, Victoria Mayo Hodges; brother, Vic Ben; daughter, Esther Lee Ben; and of course, Lucy Ben.

Yesterday, I had an opportunity to get together with Daniel's family to survey the life of this very unique man.

How many of us in Daniel's difficult situation would have exerted themselves to hand-write a thank you note to our nurses? How many of us would have spent a moment thinking how we were going to tip our caregivers?

But this is the kind of man that Daniel Ben was. He was an appreciative and giving person. He spent his life providing for others while, in return, demanding very little for himself. Through University Fruit and Produce, many young kids of the Seattle community worked thanks to Danny.

For Daniel Ben, enduring, close relationships - triggered by his giving - were the priority. That's what provided him with life's joys and sense of satisfaction. Becky says that when her husband, Daniel's brother Albert, had surgery in back in 1993, Daniel came every day to see his brother. Daniel would always make sure that the kids were fed before him. His love for his children spilled over into his appreciation of their friends. Claire recalls that as a child, when she took the initiative of inviting friends home, her father, upon discovering the invitation after the fact, would always give the official okay…

The warmth that he bestowed on Claire and Steve carried over to all of Jeanne's daughters and their families; He was a true father to Jeannie's girls, and his generosity both in terms of his time and resources, they reciprocated most intensely in the last few weeks, when the tables turned, and he became someone in real need. Those beneficiaries of his giving, on the receiving end of his warmth and kindness, naturally wanted and needed to give back to him.

Alongside this gentle personality, Daniel had his share of idiosyncracies. Steve says that Daniel didn't trust banks too much, and at one point ensured the security of his personal wealth under the lettuce in the refrigerator. Another interesting quirk, stemming as much from his concern for safety as it did from his love of order, was his ritual of turning off appliances when he would leave home for a day in the park with the family. Halfway to the park, if there was not absolute certainty that the stove was completely turned off, he would turn around the car and go home just to make sure...

And if he did not care for what was being served for dinner on a particular night, he would cordon off the area by surrounding his place setting with cereal boxes!

Happy is the man whose life story is summarized by these kinds of reflections, a person about whom we can only critique a few quirks! Happy is the man whose personal qualities mimic those of our Creator. Chesed Olam Yibane….It was through kindness and giving that G-d created the world. Chesed Olam Yibane. And it was through kindness and giving that Daniel Ben created his world.

מנוחתו בגן עדן
May his resting place be in the Garden of Eden


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30
May
0
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Click on the following link to see my article in the recent JT News.  You have to scroll down three pages or so - the article is called "From Crackers to Cheesecake..."

http://www.scribd.com/doc/94616037/JTNews-May-25-2012

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30
May
0

The Art of Investing....and of Letting Go

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As if we did not hear enough about Aharon's sons, Nadav and Avihu - and their sad demise, Perashat Bemidbar makes yet another mention of them. We are told once again how they died for bringing a "strange fire" to G-d, but this time, the Torah tacks on "And they did not have any sons".

Ostensibly, this unit, which aims at tracing the geneology of each tribe, is simply telling us that Nadav and Avihu fathered no children prior to their death. If the Torah had intended to continue discussing this family line, though, then why, when mentioning Aharon's two remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, did the Torah not discuss their children? 

Rabbi Avraham Sofer ("the Ketav Sofer") offers a unique explanation of this passage: He suggests that not having sons itself is the unacceptable offering, the "strange fire" brought by the two: In their religious zeal, their desire for a pristine, hassle-free life, they chose not to have children. Fearing that their children may well go "off the Derech" - and not live a life faithful to the ideals of Torah, they both decide not to bring children into the world. G-d's rejection of this approach is signalled by the premature, joint death, of Nadav and Avihu.

In his commentary, Ketav Sofer cross-references the Talmud, Tractate Berachot 10a: There, Yeshaya Hanavi (the prophet Yeshaya) comes to reprimand Hizkiyahu Hamelech (King Hezekiah) and informs him that not only will the latter die in this world, but is not destined for life in the World-to-Come. The reason? Like Nadav and Avihu, Hizkiyahu refrained from engaging in the mitzvah of procreation. The King's defense, "I saw in my Ruach Hakodesh (Divine Inspiration) that any son I produced would be evil" - does not impress the prophet.

Yeshaya, instead, rebukes him: "What business do you have engaging in calculations of Divine secrets? You do what you have to do!"

In other words, adhere to the mitzvot, and the let the proverbial chips fall where they may!

Hizkiyahu counters: "Why don't you offer your daughter's hand to me in marriage - and the merit of both of us will produce righteous children!"

According to various manuscripts of the Talmud, and recorded in Eyn Ya'akov, Yeshaya responds by marrying off his daughter to Hizkiyahu.

One day, the King is carrying his two young sons, Menashe and Ravshaka, to the Bet Midrash, (House of study). Perched atop their father's shoulders, one remarks to the other, "Father's head is perfect to fry fish on!" The other son disagrees, "No, I think it's better as the surface of an altar to bring a sacrifice to Avoda Zara (idolatry)!"

Infuriated, Hizkiyahu hurls both boys to the ground; killing Ravshaka. Menashe lives.

What a bizarre story! What are we supposed to learn from it?

As parents, we understand the importance of a solid education for our children. As committed Jews, we invest our whole selves in ensuring that our kids receive an intensive and meaningful Jewish education. Its role in fostering meaningful individual and communal lives cannot be understated.

Hizkiyahu was hoping that the combined merit of himself and Yeshaya, along with his strategy of exposing the boys to the Bet Hamidrash at an early age, would secure their fidelity to Jewish values and Jewish life. He was exasperated to discover that all his efforts were in vain: One son chooses a life of physical indulgence, while the other abandons Jewish values in favor of another system. Hizkiyahu's "head" in the story represents the thoughts, the strategy of a devoted father.

The verse says:

רבות מחשבות בלב איש

Man has many thoughts and plans

ועצת ה' היא תקום

But G-d's counsel is that which will prevail in the end.

We certainly must do our part, but it is only G-d who decides whether our efforts will be rewarded. At a certain point, even devoted parents have to "let go" and understand that, however essential, we are only part of the process; ultimately, our success is ensured only by a Divine blessing, a nod from above.

This theme paves the way for Sefer Bemidbar: the Jewish people travel through the wilderness, and it's only their trust in G-d's benevolence that spurs them on.

לכתך אחרי במדבר בארץ לא זרועה

You followed me in the desert, in a land that was not sown.....

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May
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Vida Behar's Bat Mitzvah Derasha

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This past Sunday at EB, I had the pleasure of participating in a celebration in honor of Vida Behar's Bat Mitzvah. She showed great dedication and poise in delivering her Dvar Torah, which you can read by clicking on the link below:  

http://ravron.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/vida-behars-dvar-torah1.pdf

Congratulations to Vida, her parents Dana and Rena Behar and the entire family for putting together such a meaningful and thoughtful event!

 

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21
May
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The Sound of a Summer Shofar

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This past Shabbat, we completed Sefer Vayikra with the first of two of the double Torah portions, Behar. (not to be confused with the family of the same name!) In the fiftieth year of the Shemitta cycle (seven rounds of leaving the land fallow in the seventh year) Jewish servants are released from their masters.  Triggering the event is a shofar blast - announcing the release of the slaves. 

Rabbi Frand cites the Sefer Hahinuch who offers a creative explanation for this ritual: A master who, although he must take care of room and board, has access to years of free labor - was surely hesitant to free his servant.   It involved taking a tremendous (thought expected) financial hit!  In order to encourage Jewish masters to carry out their obligation to free their slaves, the shofar was sounded throughout the land - as if to say, "We know it's difficult - but everyone is in the same boat!"    

Misery loves company!

All of us are subject to "peer pressure" as teenagers.  The dynamic of this social pressure may change over the years, but even as we age, we, too, look to our community for cues for the proper way to behave, to respond. The Torah, here, is bidding us to respond to the positive social pressure that comes with the fiftieth year. Knowing that everyone else is being called upon by the halacha to forgo the financial benefits of free labor - makes it easier for us to part with these same benefits. 

Rabbi Frand notes that the shofar blasts we sound during the Jubillee year mirror the format of those sounded on Rosh Hashanah, a mere ten days earlier. On the New Year, we relive the "Akedat Yitzhak" - the binding of Isaac.  Avraham and Yitzhak, father and son, were ready to pay the ultimate price in response to a Divine command.  The Torah says we must love G-d with all of hearts and souls, and they were ready to do so.  But there is one more way we are bidden to love
G-d: בכל מאדך - with all of your "might".  This phrase is understood in the Talmud as "with all of your wealth."

This recalls the character developed by the late great Jack Benny:

In an episode that was broadcast March 28, 1948, Benny borrowed neighbor Ronald Coleman's Oscar, and was returning home when he was accosted by a mugger.... After asking for a match to light a cigarette, the mugger demands, "Don't make a move, this is a stickup. Now, come on. Your money or your life." Benny paused, and the studio audience—knowing his skinflint character—laughed. The robber then repeated his demand: "Look, bud! I said your money or your life!" Benny snapped back, without a break, "I'm thinking it over!" 

Our Holy Torah recognizes that some people, however preposterous it seems, value their money sometimes more than life itself!  This is why the Torah bids us to love G-d with all of our wealth. Jewish masters in the Jubilee year were asked not to "think it over", but to respond promptly to the sound of the Shofar....

This past Shabbat, I made a plea for broader and more consistent attendance at Kahal.  Our daily minyan has had some challenges in the past month, as people take vacations, have other family responsibilities and the like. For modern man, time is money - and leisure time is greatly valued, too. It's much easier to pray Minha in midday or before dinner, and settle in for the night.  It's not always so convenient to pick up and come to Kahal for Tefila.  But as I noted on Shabbat, the value of Tefila B'Tzibur, communal prayer, is great.  It's not that "we need a minyan, so will you please come?" We as a community have to experience a paradigm shift, and appreciate the value of communal prayer as the means by which we approach Hashem as a single community, offsetting each other's individual foibles.

Let the shofar of Tefila B'tzibur be sounded!

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