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07
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A View from Israel

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This summer, I've had the unique opportunity of spending a little over three weeks in Eretz Yisrael. As I approach my final Shabbat here (the family returns to Seattle a week later), I wanted to share with you some of my observations.

The trip began with an intensive 10 day rabbinic "Metivta" seminar at the home of the Sephardic Educational Center in the Old City. We were privileged to learn with (amongst others) one of the brightest young minds in the Sephardic rabbinic world, Rav Yitzhak Chouraqui. Rav Chouraqui, originally from France, serves as a community Rabbi, Rosh Beit Midrash of Mimizrach Shemesh in downtown Jerusalem, and will be leading the new Sha'arei Uziel Beit Midrash program at the SEC. His classes were both challenging and inspiring. The gathering of Sephardic rabbis from around the Jewish world proved to be a most fruitful context within which to discuss both halachic and philosophical issues as presented by classical Sephardic sources.

Most mornings, Shahrit was at the Kotel; at the Wall, one finds a cross-section of Jewish society. It's really heartwarming seeing Jews, men and women respectively, from the various streams of Jewish society, pray together in the same minyanim. Israelis and tourists, often only loosely connected to Jewish tradition, approach the Wall to pour out their hearts to their Father in Heaven. Non-Jewish visitors from all over the world standing in awe of this landmark, are living proof of the verse כי ביתי בית תפילה יקרא לכל העמים - "because My House is a House of Tefilah for all of the nations..." (Yeshaya Ch. 56) Tisha Be'av was truly something to behold, and gave me confidence that Jewish unity, crucial for the rebuilding of the Bet Hamikdash, may not be so unattainable after all...

One of the most astounding aspects of my trip directly connects to this week's Torah portion, Perashat Ekev. Birkat Hamazon, the mitzvah of Grace after Meals, is derived from the verse, "...and when you eat and are satisfied, you should bless Hashem your G-d for the good land that He has given you." In the text of Birkat Hamazon, we attribute the following qualities to the Land of Israel: "Eretz Hemda Tova U'rehava" - "a beautiful, good and wide land.."

Now, Eretz Yisrael is certainly beautiful. This past week we drove north to Haifa and then eastward to Karmiel. The weather was truly delightful, the Carmel mountains and Galil foliage a sight to behold. It's a good land; many natural resources previously unknown are being discovered and harnassed. But a "wide land"? Security experts often stress the narrowness of the Land of Israel and the security implications that flow from this issue!

Being here for several weeks offered me new insights into the concept of Israel as a "wide land."

When I first studied here back in 1983, driving to the north took 3 1/4 hours by car and close to four hours by bus. With the advent of Route 6, traveling from the Jerusalem area to Haifa takes about an hour and 50 minutes. The new multi-lane divided highway has revolutionized intercity travel. All through the ingenuity of the Israel Department of Infrastructures which has found space where none seemed to exist. Nowhere is this more evident than between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and within Jerusalem proper. The narrow highway that used to link the two cities has been expanded to a divided six-lane expressway! For the determined Israeli mind, the rocky hills of Jerusalem, once a formidable impediment to travel, CAN and WILL be overcome! The amazing Menachem Begin Expressway, searing through the hills of Jerusalem with overpasses and tunnels, has turned the once congested capital into a fast-moving, bustling tourist, commercial and religious center. These developments have not only made life far more convenient, but have fostered a unity between the disparate neighborhoods of Yerushalayim.

This, I think, is what our sages may have foreseen when they classified Eretz Yisrael as "a beautiful, good and WIDE land." It's the broad perspective of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael that's the hidden potential of Eretz Hakodesh, Eretz Yisrael.

Shabbat Shalom!

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22
Mar
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Guest Devar Torah by Dr. Michael Varon

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B’’H
I would like to dedicate this devar Torah in memory of my mother, Simcha bat Victoria Varon
I would like to thank Chabad.org, Torah.org, and 70 Faces .com
Today is Rosh Chodesh Nissan, not only the first day of the month, but also the first month of the year. As Jews we take the concept of time very seriously, our Torah begins with the words “In the beginning…” and while studying the Talmud one traditionally starts with the question: “From what time may one recite the evening Shema?” So it perhaps should not be surprising that the first commandment given to the Nation of Israel was to create a calendar based on the cycles of the moon, and to sanctify the moon “And G-d said to Moses… in the land of Egypt… this month is for you, the head of the months. First it is for you among the months of the year (Shemot 12:1-2)
The process of sanctifying the new moon was a complicated one. Only a Beit Din composed of judges who are linked, student to teacher, directly to Moshe are permitted to sanctify the month. Those who have witnessed the new moon and come to the court to share their knowledge have to endure a thorough examination by the judges. The laws are complex and detailed, so why is this so important?
Sefer HaChinuch states that if it were not for the fact that we are assured that the months of the year occur at their proper time, the calendar would be in a constant state of flux. This would create many problems. For example we know that Passover is supposed to be in the spring and Sukkot is to be in the fall. If the months were not carefully calculated and an extra month not added when needed, the holidays would not occur in their proper time, and therein lies the importance of this commandment.
The Rambam echoes this reasoning. He explains that the sanctification of the new month is the foundation for all the holy days of the year. As I mentioned, if not for the proper reckoning of the months, all of the holidays would fall out in the improper seasons. We would then not have the holidays, their holiness, and their accompanying commandments, which would be a huge loss for Beni Israel. Therefore, in order to maintain the integrity of the calendar, and in some respects, our “religion”, we were given this commandment, the sanctifying of the new month, before any other commandment.
The Medrash, when speaking about this commandment, tells us that all who bless the new month in its proper time, it is as if they have seen the Holy Countenance of G-d. The Medrash learns this from a connection between the distinctive use of the word “this” in two places: the commandment about the sanctification of the new moon “THIS is to you…” and the praise of Hashem by the nation of Israel after the splitting of the Red Sea- “THIS is my G-d and I will glorify Him”. The Ksav Sofer explains why the blessing of the new moon is analogous to “seeing” Hashem. He explains that there are those who deny the divine providence of G-d by saying that the only time that G-d had input into the world was when he created the world, and that since then, it has been running on “cruise control” and continues to exist only according to “nature” without any divine direction. We believe that Hashem’s providence is with us daily and see Hashem’s hand in all we do and see around us. And what event in history is the most striking proof, and made it clear to all who witnessed it that indeed Hashem controls all aspects of the physical world, but the splitting of the Red Sea. By blessing the new month, we are acknowledging that it is because He is the one who causes the renewal of the new month and that all is under Hashem’s control. The meaning of the Medrash is now clearer. All who bless the new moon, and therefore indicate that they believe in the providence of G-d, and stand before Him always as if they were pointing and saying “This is my G-d!,” because of the closeness of the relationship that exist between G-d and man, it is as if they have seen the holy countenance of G-d.

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02
Jan
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"Each According to His Blessing"

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כח כָּל-אֵלֶּה שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר; וְזֹאת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר לָהֶם אֲבִיהֶם, וַיְבָרֶךְ אוֹתָם--אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר כְּבִרְכָתוֹ, בֵּרַךְ אֹתָם
49:28 All these are the tribes of Israel, twelve in all, and this is what their father said to them when he blessed them. He gave each one his own blessing.

Sefer Bereishit concludes with Ya’akov’s blessings to his sons. The expression אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר כְּבִרְכָתוֹ, בֵּרַךְ אֹתָם, loosely translated as “He gave each one his own blessing” seems redundant; after all, the Torah had just exhaustively recorded the details of each of the blessings. What new information are we to garner by the additional words?

The Ohr HaHayim HaKadosh explains:

אשר כברכתו. פי' הראוי לו כפי בחינת נשמתו וכפי מעשיו, כי יש לך לדעת כי הנפשות כל אחת יש לה בחינת המעלה יש שמעלתה כהונה ויש מלכות ויש כתר תורה ויש גבורה ויש עושר ויש הצלחה, ונתכוין יעקב בנבואה לברך כל אחד כפי ברכתו הראוי לה המלך במלכות והכהן בכהונה וכן על זה הדרך ולא הפך המסילות

Each according to his blessing: That is, the blessing that was fit for him according to his specific spiritual make-up and his actions. You should know that souls each have their own special quality: there are some whose level is Kehuna/priesthood, others who are characterized by Malchut/kingship; those with Keter Torah/Torah knowledge…those oriented towards courage, wealth…Ya’akov had in mind in his prophetic state to bless each one according to the blessing fit for him…and not according to an opposite path…All too often, we commit ourselves to a sweeping vision of what our children must achieve. Though it comes from a good place – there are certain behaviors, academic and religious standards which, as parents and grandparents, we feel it’s our obligation to transmit to our kids….. In our zeal to be role models and educate those entrusted to us, we sometimes overlook the unique qualities of each child. We end up trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and thereby unwittingly deny the child the opportunity to reach his or her full potential. In the words of the Ohr HaHayim, we should make it possible for a child to tap into the blessing that was fit for him according to his specific spiritual make-up.

The same is true of community. The verse in Tehilm 136 says, “He sliced Yam Suf into segments, His kindness endures forever.”The midrash explains that Hashem carved out twelve unique paths in the sea through which the Jewish people were to travel on their way to their redemption from Egyptian slavery. The message is clear: to be redeemed as a collective, it would have been sufficient to forge one path in the midst of the sea; after all, isn’t this narrative all about being saved from the clutches of Pharoah and his army- from being killed or relegated to continued slavery? Apparently, though, such a plan would not have engendered a complete liberation from Mizraim. The root word for Egypt in Hebrew is the word מצר, connoting restriction and limitation. Geula, redemption, to be ultimately meaningful and sustainable, had to address both the needs of the collective and the needs of the specific tribes that together form our people. Traversing Yam Suf had to both be physically and spiritually redemptive.


The same midrash continues: though “sea-walls” separated the respective paths, those walls were transparent; each tribe saw that his fellow tribe, too, had a legitimate path through the sea on the road to redemption.
Over the last several years, it’s clear that our community is moving in a similar direction. Within the larger framework of a Torah-based life, various initiatives have begun that give expression to the orientation of respective members of our community. It’s our duty to respect these differences and not, G-d forbid, feel threatened by them. Lest anyone think that encouraging others to follow their own spiritual path within Torah is a threat to the כלל, to the community, the Ohr HaHayim’s closing words provide guidance:ברך אותם וגו'. אמר "אותם" לשון רבים להיות כי ברכת כל אחד ואחד תועיל לעצמו ולכל אחיו - He blessed THEM…it says “them” in the plural, because the blessing to each one will benefit not only himself, but also his brothers….

 

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21
Nov
0

Erev Shabbat Toledot 5775

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(Published in this week's Vaad newsletter)

This has been a very tough week for the Jewish people. With the images and reports that came to us almost instantaneously from across the world, we experienced the horrific events in Har Nof in "real time." Many of us here in Seattle even have close personal connections with the victims and their families....Unfathomable, the barbarism - the cruelty!

No doubt, serious questions arise in the minds of many of us. Yitzhak, unable to see, is confused:
הַקֹּל קוֹל יַעֲקֹב וְהַיָּדַיִם יְדֵי עֵשָׂו

The voice is the voice of Ya'akov and the hands are the hands of Esav.
Our sages declare: "When the voice (of the Jewish people) is the voice of Ya'akov in the synagogues and Batei Midrash, then the hands are not the hands of Esav."Seemingly, a promise that the more we Jews commit ourselves to Torah and Tefilah, we will not fall victim to the violent actions of our enemies…..

And yet Rabbi Moshe Twersky, Rabbi Kalman Levine, Rabbi Aryeh Kopinsky, and Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Goldberg -- devout Jews, true Torah scholars -- engaged in those very activities of Torah study and fervent prayer, enwrapped in their tefilin and talitot, the sweet song of Jacob on their lips – are butchered by loathsome terrorists!No words can do justice to the deep sadness we feel for the families left behind , and the victims, who died al Kiddush Hashem.

At a time when it would be natural and fully understandable to become self-absorbed, the widows and their families sent the following message to Jews around the world. It reads, in part:

"Our hearts are broken and melting amidst tears over the spilling of the blood of the martyred heads of our families…..
"We turn to you, our fellow Jewish brethren wherever you may be! Let us all unite in order that we receive Hashem's mercy. Let us take upon ourselves to increase love and brotherhood between people, communities, and diverse groups.
"We implore each person to take upon himself at the onset of Shabbat, to sanctify this Holy Shabbat, Parshat Toldot (the eve of the Rosh Chodesh Kislev), to make this Shabbat a day of unconditional love - a day of refraining from divisiveness and arguments, gossip and tale-bearing. This act will bring about a great elevation of our husbands' souls, slaughtered in sanctification of God's Name, may He be blessed.
Signed with a broken and crushed heart:
Chayah Levine and family
Breina Goldberg and family
Yaakovah Kupinsky and family
Bashi Twersky and family

Disbelief, denial, fury, calls for unbridled revenge?
Just the opposite: these families radiate deep faith, acceptance of their harsh personal reality...and immediately issue a call for Jewish unity!

Their piety recalls the words of Rachel Frenkel, mother of Naftali, who declared before Rosh Hashanah, "We went out searching for the boys and we discovered ourselves…We had days and days of lightning. . . . [W]e saw about ourselves that we are part of something huge, a people, a true family. That’s for real.”

As Jews living outside of Israel, we continue to unconditionally support the Israeli government's efforts to tighten security, foil terrorist plots, and prevent atrocities.

But equally important as our show of political support is that we derive lessons from the faith and inner strength of the victims' families. We owe it to them, and we owe it to ourselves - to heed their call for a recommitment to Jewish unity and all that entails, here in Seattle and beyond.

Shabbat Shalom!

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13
Oct
0

Meriting Many Years....with Sukkot as the model

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Members of the Sephardic community greet one another with the expression תזכו לשנים רבות - "may you merit many years" from Rosh Hashana to Yom Hakippurim.


Rav Hayim David HaLevy, late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, was asked to identify the original source of this greeting. In the course of his response in his book, "Aseh Leha Rav", Rav HaLevy cites Rav Hayim Palagi, who identifies the source as the verse in Devarim 16:13
ז,יג חַ֧ג הַסֻּכֹּ֛ת תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים בְּאָ֨סְפְּךָ֔ מִֽגָּרְנְךָ֖ וּמִיִּקְבֶֽךָ׃
When you bring in the products of your threshing floor and wine vat, you shall celebrate the festival of Sukkot for seven days.


The verse uses the future tense, "you shall celebrate"; and so we wish our fellow Jews, "If you celebrated Sukkot this year, may you merit doing so for many years to come…."


This source is perplexing: Even if we see the hint in the language, what is there about Sukkot that makes it fit to be the basis of this greeting? And why did Sephardic custom develop along different lines, namely, to greet others with תזכו לשנים רבות until the end of Yom Kippur, but "Moadim Lesimcha" –on Sukkot?


I would like to propose an answer based on an excerpt from Rav Shlomo Aviner's book, עם כלביא. Rav Aviner notes the odd phenomenon of two opposite themes during the month of Tishri: both the High Holydays, the "Days of Awe", and Sukkot, "Zeman Simhatenu - the time of our joy"! The Rishonim also note that there seems to be no intrinsic connection between Sukkot and the month of Tishri; after all, Sukkot recalls the divine protection afforded the Children of Israel the entire stretch of 40 years in the desert!


Rav Aviner quotes Peleh Yo'etz, who explains: "[Sukkot is right after the Days of Awe] to cause us to rejoice from our anguish and sadness of the days of repentance." Sefat Emet notes: "…After the Days of Awe, there is a special need for joy, because a person is not complete if he is only exposed to awe and fear."


In other words, we need to be emotionally "healed" from the impact of the High Holydays. During Elul, we gradually detach more and more from this world, and turn our attention to spiritual pursuits – with the climax – Yom Kippur. Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook says that, of necessity, this process triggers a "disconnect" with the sanctity of this world. "But, in truth, this world and the next hug each other; they are intertwined, and the cultivation of one serves as the basis for elevation in the next. True, during the days of repentance, we need to intensify our spiritual pursuits; that is why the days of joy arrive – to return ourselves to (normative) life."


Unfortunately, many American Jews, including our own congregations, make the most concerted effort to attend services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Often, their last Jewish religious experience for the year is the exhausting 25-hour Yom Kippur fast.


With this in mind, let us return to the source of תזכו לשנים רבות – may you merit many years, the verse in Devarim Ch. 16 mandating the observance of Sukkot:
ז,יג חַ֧ג הַסֻּכֹּ֛ת תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים בְּאָ֨סְפְּךָ֔ מִֽגָּרְנְךָ֖ וּמִיִּקְבֶֽךָ׃
When you bring in the products of your threshing floor and wine vat, you shall celebrate the festival of Sukkot for seven days


When we wish someone תזכו לשנים רבות, we are not just wishing him a long life; quality of life is also important! We want our fellow Jews to live long, happy, fulfilled lives. As Sefat Emet notes, one whose relationship with G-d is built only on awe and fear, does not become spiritually whole. With the verse in Devarim as the backdrop, we can be understood as wishing another a long, quality life of joy and closeness to the Creator!
True, the custom is to issue תזכו לשנים רבות as a greeting between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, because that is when our lives are literally hanging in the balance; embedded in our good wishes is a beracha for a joyous fulfilling life, the kind of life we begin to taste from with the arrival of Sukkot, זמן שמחתינו.

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03
Oct
0

Close Encounters of the First Kind

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(originally published in the Vaad of Seattle newsletter)

A few decades ago, Tradition Magazine published a wonderful article by Prof. Yehuda Gellman entitled “Teshuva and Authenticity”. Whenever I have the opportunity, I enjoy giving a class using this article as a springboard for discussion.

Essentially, Prof. Gellman argues that doing “teshuva” is especially complex in our day and age. If a person were to be lost on a desert island, it would be challenging to respond authentically to the predicament – because of the many movies and books we have all read about people getting shipwrecked on desert islands. As human beings, we naturally refer to the models we’ve seen or read about – as we respond to our own personal predicaments.

Back in the 1980’s, at the height of the Ba’al Teshuva movement in Israel, it became suddenly possible for someone with little or no background in Torah learning to attend a yeshiva or seminary. No longer only the domain of great scholars, yeshivot opened up with the goal of teaching the religious novice the depths of Torah in an authentic and inspiring way. This had major impact on Jews the world over; in fact, many of us greatly benefited from this watershed development!

That said, it also became a greater challenge to forge one’s own religious personality. Having a role model is essential for religious growth; after all, who does one learn from if not from one’s rebbe and one’s peers? At the same time, we all have a tendency to cut corners, to adopt the form and approach of others – “copying and pasting” their experience and approach, and applying it to ourselves. This tendency can often lead to unintentionally negative results. For, since we are all individuals, each of us must confront, head-on, our own personal deficiencies. Although a religious framework – including Rambam’s laws of Teshuva – is helpful in that process, it cannot replace an honest reflection on one’s own particular challenges.

Prof. Gellman beautifully illustrates this in his closing passage:

“Several years ago, when I was in graduate school, the calendar of studies allowed a month's vacation to study at a famous yeshivah in the greater New York area. The intensity of the learning contributed to a mounting sense of the seriousness of the day of judgment. By the time Rosh Hashanah came this feeling was very strong. The experience of Rosh Hashanah increased it to the point where at Yom Kippur I was completely gripped by the awesomeness of the day of judgment. My davening on that day expanded the experience of being judged more and more; until I got to the words Yodea mahashavot be-yom din, "He knows my very thoughts on this day of judgment. " At that moment the utter simplicity of those words aroused within me the absolute conviction of their truth. For the first time in my life I actually believed that He knows my thoughts. As a result I couldn't continue to daven. I was paralyzed. All about me people were throwing themselves around, waving their hands in remorse and pleading. I couldn't go on. Since He knows my thoughts, He knows that what I am doing is a fake. He knows my true feelings, what I really believe and what really is important to me. The external signs mean nothing to Him. He knows the truth. It's no use. I sat down, paralyzed. Finally, I went out for a walk in the neighborhood. Gradually the feeling wore off. The absolute conviction that He sees through me faded away. Then, when I no longer believed it, only then was I able to return to the beit midrash and daven, shaking, waving my hands, contorting my face, with the rest of them. I had returned, from the “I” to the “they”. The disorientation of being torn out of context was replaced by the feeling of the beauty and the pleasure of castigating oneself in fellowship. The fear of being alone gave way to the strength of community.”

In other words, community is both a beautiful and helpful component in the teshuva process – but it cannot replace personal reflection and an internal “accounting.”

Let us all use the upcoming fast to experience a profound re-encounter with our true selves.

Gemar Hatima Tova & Tizku Leshanim Rabbot!

 

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01
Oct
0

Purchasing Kosher Fish: The Do's and Don'ts

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I hope everyone had a meaningful Rosh Hashana and I want to wish you all a Gemar Hatima Tova this Yom Kippur.

It has come to my attention that not everyone is clear on the proper, halachic way to purchase fish. I am writing this brief blog post to clarify the halacha.

As you know, a kosher fish must have fins and kaskeset, ie kosher scales. The test for kosher scales is if they can be removed without damaging the flesh of the fish.

Some may think that purchasing a fish fillet marked “cod” or “whitefish”, for example, from a grocery store is permissible, since the store has labelled the fish with a name that you know to be a kosher species. This is incorrect! The non-Jewish person in the fish department cannot be relied upon halachically to identify the species. The exception is salmon, which is identifiable as salmon even without a skin tab.

The other issue involved in purchasing fish involves the use of non-kosher knives and cutting boards. In such a case, residue from non-kosher species cut with the same knife and on the same cutting boards is problematic.

At our local stores under Va’ad hashgacha, the words of the hechsher are clear:
• Customer must verify at time of cutting that the fish is of a kosher species by seeing fish raw with skin on. Pre-cut fillets with a skin tab and salmon may be purchased without further supervision. A Vaad mashgiach is available upon request for supervision of cutting.
• Customer should request that fish cut to order be processed with kosher knives on the kosher boards.
• Fish should be weighed on clean paper (not touching the scale).
• Ground Fish: Ground fish is only available in Va’ad sealed packaging (each package must have two seals with the Va’ad symbol, or through special arrangement with the Va’ad.)

If you have any questions about fish issues, feel free to contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

If you would like to read a helpful F & Q’s on this issue, see http://www.kashrut.com/articles/fishfaq/

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21
Jul
0

Why Such Hostility Toward Midian?

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Rabbi Benjy Owen delivered the following Derasha at Ezra Bessaroth last week, Perashat Pinchas; I want to thank him very much for his thoughtful and pertinent words:

This past week our community's children returned from Sephardic Adventure Camp – over 50 teenagers and children were led by an extraordinary cadre of counselors, directors, volunteer lay leaders and rabbis.

This past week war has broken out in Israel. The situation is the culmination of over one month of tension and anguish for the Jewish People and specifically our brothers and sisters on the front line in Eretz Yisrael. Earlier this week, I was on the phone with an Israeli who was in Gush Etzion. We were speaking and all of a sudden he said that the siren had gone off and that he had to go to take shelter. He later told me that the rocket that had been fired from Gaza had been intercepted by the Iron Dome system.

Many of us check the internet multiple times daily. We see pictures of Israeli children reading in bomb shelters. We read about layers upon layers of expensive technology to safeguard the Israeli citizens including our children. Israel’s concern for civilians extends to Gaza. As we know, Israel sends notification of upcoming attacks and takes extraordinary care to avoid civilian casualties. But I have been so disturbed to read reports from Gaza, in some cases, civilians, including children, have run to the rooftops as human shields.

This week’s perasha recounts the incident of Zimri – a leader of the tribe of Shimon – and Cosbi – the daughter of a Midianite prince. Pinchas sees Zimri and Cosbi in flagrante delicto – in an immoral act in public – and executes them both on the spot. For his zealotry in defense of the integrity of the Torah community, Hashem rewards Pinchas with a covenant of peace and the Priesthood.

The Torah then outlines a Mitzvah that only relates to the nation of Midian.

צרור את המדינים והכיתם אותם – Be hostile to the Midianites and strike them.

Normally, the Torah demands Bnei Yisrael to offer peace to an enemy that you are about to go to war with. Midian – no. Be hostile to the Midianim.

Normally, when besieging an enemy, allow an escape path. Midian – no. Besiege them on all four sides. Strike all of them.

Why Midian? What did they do to deserve this hostile treatment?

Malbim explains that the answer emerges from a close reading of this and last week’s Perasha. Cosbi, princess of Midian, was caught with Zimri the Shimonite leader. How did they get themselves into this situation? Malbim explains that there was a context to this entire episode. Bilam had unsuccessfully tried to curse the Jewish people. He knew that the Jewish people could only be cursed if they strayed from Hashem. He tried to convince Moav to entice the Jewish people to stray from Hashem. Moav was not interested in this plan. Bilam returned home. On his way home he travelled through Midian and shared with them his idea of how to successfully curse the Jewish people. With this knowledge, the leader of Midian hatched a plan. Use his daughter, Cosbi, to lure Zimri, the leader of Shimon, into an immoral act and bring down the Jewish People through the spreading of immorality.

Returning to the question: Why Midian? What did they do to deserve this hostile treatment?

One measure of a society is its philosophy. At the core of America’s philosophy is the primacy of the individual and his rights. The Jewish People are at a permanent state of war with Amalek because it glorifies a human-centered and violent philosophy. Canaan and the other six nations exemplified the philosophy of idolatry.

Another measure of a society is the value that it places in its children and in the diligence that it exercises in securing their well-being. The Torah commands us to educate our children to become Jewish adults. In most cases, we even prioritize our children’s learning over our own learning. We are responsible for our children like a lender is responsible to safeguard a pledged object. Sephardic Camp is so inspiring because through the camp we exercise this responsibility. At this unique camp, where, for two and a half weeks, a mini-Seattle Sephardic Community is created, we transmit our community’s minhagim and we foster relationships between campers, counselors and leaders that will last forever. The campers have fun together boating, swimming, being creative and playing sports all while praying three times a day, learning Torah and making berachot. We are ensuring a Jewish future for our community.

In Midian, children were possessions. The leader of Midian viewed his daughter as a pawn – an object through which to destroy the Jewish People, he offered his daughter as a tool to entrap the Jewish People. In this type of society, all tactics will be used. The society will even destroy its most prized possessions to beat the object of its hatred. Dealing with this type of society requires a high level of hostility. Therefore, the Torah commands us to be hostile to Midian and to strike them.

Needless to say, the situation in Israel is complicated and highly nuanced. The story of Midian teaches us that in going to war our leaders must first make a vital calculation about the enemy – how much value does that society place on its children? That calculation should guide the strategy that our leaders adopt. If the hatred of Israel is so deep as to contort the society’s responsibility to its children, it must be treated with great hostility. Prime Minister Golda Meir made the calculation in her generation. She said, “Peace will come when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us”. Our leaders must make this vital calculation for our generation.

May Hashem grant wise counsel to our leaders and true peace to Israel.

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A Rededication is in Order

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For some time now, I have been outspoken about my aversion to the whole concept of "denominations" within the Jewish world. Opposition to the labels "Orthodox, Conservative and Reform" does not imply a monolithic view of the Jewish world. Far from it: Not only do differences in custom exist between Asheknazim and Sephardim, but the Jewish world is replete with different levels of observance, personal stringencies, and the like.

Perashat Hukat dwells at length on the mitzvah of the Red Heifer. Of all the laws of the Torah, the Red Heifer is the one that Shelomo Hamelech, King Solomon, could not totally wrap his mind around:"I said I will become wise, but it is beyond me." (Kohelet 7:23)

Para Aduma is a Hok, a law whose rational basis is unclear.

Rav Yosef Levinson writes that when a person observes a mitzva that he understands, as sincerely dedicated as that person is, the observance itself does not necessarily indicate that he has become an "Oved Hashem" - one who serves G-d. The litmus test of whether one is performing mitzvot as part of service of Hashem - is the Hok. When a practice lacks a degree of rational appeal, and we nevertheless commit ourselves to its observance, we exhibit faith in a source of wisdom beyond our understanding.

One of the first formal breeches in the Jewish people's national acceptance of Torah and mitzvot was the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885. Its drafters recognized "in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine." In other words, the Torah's laws had some value at the time. "....and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization."

So the rule to determine what would remain binding Jewish practice was, "the views and habits of modern civilization."

The implications were clear: Kashrut - a classic Hok - was summarily erased with the fourth clause of the Platform, as were all laws governing the status of Kohanim: "We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation."

In 1999, a sequel to the original Platform was drafted. It was less radical, and represented a turn towards tradition, expressing more openness to learning: "We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community."

The message was less direct than in 1885, but it clearly implied: We will learn all the mitzvot, but we will not fulfill those mitzvot that fail to fully "speak to us."

Instead of dwelling on the perasha of the Red Heifer and accepting the challenge of becoming an "Oved Hashem" - much of the Jewish world sadly bought into a new system in which mitzvah fulfillment became conditional upon the mitzvah's ability to strike either a spiritual or logical chord in the heart and mind of the Jew.

It is from this change of course that we have never fully recovered, and from which we plummeted into the fallacy of "denominations".

Let us all use Perashat Hukat 5774 as an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the concept of a Hok, of a lofty Divine Mind that transcends our own.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Jun
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In Praise of our Land

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Perashat Shelach is our annual opportunity to somehow rectify the transgression of the spies. Only Calev and Yehoshua resisted the peer pressure and refused to speak disparagingly about the land of Israel. Until we successfully rebuild the Bet Hamikdash, Tisha Be'av, the evening of the spies' sin, will remain a day of mourning.

On Shabbat, I suggested that we do our part in addressing the sin by speaking positively of the Land of Israel.

At the conclusion of Tractate Ketubot of the Talmud Bavli (112a-b), the Gemara records activites of various sages aimed at evoking a love and respect for Eretz Yisrael.

ר' אבא מנשק כיפי דעכו. ר' חנינא מתקן מתקליה. ר' אמי ורבי אסי

קיימי משמשא לטולא ומטולא לשמשא

R. Abba kissed the stones of Acco. R. Hanina fixed damaged roads. R. Ami and R. Asi moved (during their learning) from the sun to the shade and from the shade to the sun.

Rashi explains that R. Haninah had such love of the Land that he did not want any possible rumors to spread about the state of disrepair of its roads. R. Ami and R. Asi wanted to avoid complaining about uncomfortable weather in Eretz Yisrael, so they always moved their hevruta learning to a more comfortable venue.

Another example cited by the Gemara R. Hiyah Bar Gamda rolling in the dust of Eretz Yisrael, similarly conveys an intense love of the Land. So powerful is this value in our tradition, that Rambam in Hilchot Melachim 5:10 actually "codifies" these behaviors as exemplifying how the average Jew should relate to the Jewish homeland.

On Shabbat morning, Tosafot's commentary on this Gemara caught my eye.

Tosafot writes:

רבי חנינא הוה מתקל מתקליה - פירוש שוקל אבנים ומוצאן קלות אמר עדיין לא נכנסתי לארץ ישראל כיון ששקלן ומצאן כבידות אמר כבר נכנסתי לארץ ישראל

R. Haninah used to weigh rocks and, when he would find them to be light, he would say, "I have not yet entered Eretz Yisrael."Once he weighed them and found them heavy, he would say, "I have entered Eretz Yisrael!"

Tosafot goes on to support his interpretation by citing a Midrash Tanhuma to this effect.We should first note that what prompts this interpretation is difference in the edition of Tosafot's text of the Talmud: our edition uses the expression מתקן מתקליה. Rashi, as do others, understands R. Haninah as engaging himself in repairs, as תקן, the root of מתקן indicates. Hence, Rashi's explanation that R. Haninah fixed the roads. Tosafot, in contrast, has an edition that uses a ל at the end of the first word of that phrase, such that it reads מתקל מתקליה. For Tosafot, the word מתקל is the Aramaic equivalent of שוקל, he weighed. What did he weigh? Rocks and stones, to determine if he had yet entered Israel.

At first blush, this understanding has little in common with the others cited by the Gemara; the others either display a sage's desire to praise Eretz Yisrael or to prevent its being disparaged; how does R. Haninah's rock-weighing fit in? How is it, too, a way of praising Eretz Yisrael?

Rocks are heavy; they provide a solid foundation on which to build. It was only recently that some Israelis have begun to tile their floors with ceramic tiles; the vast majority still use "Balatot" - heavy square stone slabs.

The mishna in Berachot (fifth chapter) says אין עומדים להתפלל אלא מתוך כובד ראש - one should not begin his Amida until he has achieved כובד ראש, a serious attitude. The word כבד is associated with something important, serious.

Honoring parents is called כיבוד אב ואם. Your parents played a significant, "heavy" role in your life, and you should give weight to their contribution. When R. Haninah wished to determine whether he had arrived in Eretz Yisrael, he tested the rocks. Once he sensed that he was entering a land of great significance, he knew he had reached the Land of Israel. When one declares that he is entering a land in which everything has inherent signficance, is the greatest "praise" that Eretz Yisrael could ever hope to receive. It's this appreciation of Eretz's Yisrael's foundational role in Jewish identity that prompted R. Haninah in the Midrash Tanchuma's version of the story to kiss those stones.

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18
Apr
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Dayenu?

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One of the more perplexing sections of the Haggadah, is the “Dayenu,” A favorite of Jewish kids the world over (perhaps second only to “Ma Nishtana”) Dayenu traces the kindnesses bestowed upon us by Hashem from the early part of the Exodus until our entry into Eretz Yisrael.  At one point we say,

 

אִלוּ נָתַן לָנוּ אֶת מָמונָם וְלא קָרַע לָנוּ אֶת הַיָּם, דַּיֵינוּ.

 

“If he had only given us their riches and not split the sea for us, it would have been enough for us.”

 

Now, whereas the previous stages of the Dayenu could be understood as a graduated “thank you”, this latest stage is somewhat difficult to grasp. After all, Had G-d not imposed such severe plagues on the Egyptians, their gods, nor kill their first born sons, or give us their money, we could have still exited Egypt. But had he given us their money and not split the sea…..we would never have escaped!

 

Can you imagine the following: A single inmate, with no heirs, on Death Row, wins the Mega Millions jackpot.  What good is it to him? Had the Jews “hit the jackpot” but died at the sea, the gift of the Egyptian riches would have been pointless.

 

In fact, in the first display of sarcasm in the Torah, the Israelites, pinned in at the Sea by the Egyptians, say to Moshe:

יא  …. הֲמִבְּלִי אֵין-קְבָרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם, לְקַחְתָּנוּ לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר:  מַה-זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לָּנוּ, לְהוֹצִיאָנוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם.

11 'Weren't there enough graves in Egypt? Why did you have to bring us out here to die in the desert? How could you do such a thing to us, bringing us out of Egypt?

 

If I were to ask you which of the following three Hagim from the Torah is the most difficult, how would you rate them: Succot, Pesach, Shavuot?

 

Most people answer that the easiest Hag to observe is Shavuot. What’s involved? It’s a regular Yom Tov, but aside from staying up all night studying Torah (a custom and not an obligation per se), there are no specific mitzvot of the day!  Succot is usually rated as #2: A significant amount of preparation is necessary for the holiday, building a Succah, and carefully selecting your four species. But once the Hag arrives, all one must do is have his meals (and sleep if possible!) in this makeshift house, and shake a few branches and a citrus fruit once a day.  And you’re good to go!

 

Pesach, in contrast, is a very challenging holiday: Prior to Passover, we must launch a complete overhaul of our kitchen, purchase only (expensive!) Kosher for Passover products, stay up all night speaking about the Exodus (twice outside of Israel!) and consume vast quantities of somewhat tasteless wafers and Romaine Lettuce or horseradish…

 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of England, reports on how he once asked a mixed group of observant and non-observant Jews this very question.  In a terrific article in YU’s latest “Pesach-to-Go” journal, Rav Sacks adds: “I then asked, which festivals are kept by the greatest number of Jews. Again, everyone agreed: Pesach was kept by most, Shavuot by the least, with Sukkot in between. There was a pause as the group slowly realised what it had just said. It was counterintuitive but undeniable: the harder a festival is, the more people will keep it.

 

Rabbi Sacks notes that the same phenomenon exists outside of the Jewish world. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely invited a group of people to make origami shapes: “Their work was then demonstrated and participants and bystanders were asked how much they would pay for them. On average, the people who made the models were willing to pay five times as much as were the bystanders.”

 

Reflecting on the very troubling results of last fall’s Pew Report on American Jewry, the former Chief Rabbi continues:

 

 “Throughout a century of reflection on how to sustain Jewish identity in an open, secular society, the case has often been made that we need to make Judaism easier. Why make the barriers so high, the demands so steep, the laws so rigorous and demanding? So, one by one, the demands were lowered. Shabbat, kashrut and conversion were all made easier. As for the laws of taharat ha-mishpacha, in many circles outside Orthodoxy they fell into abeyance altogether. The assumption was that the less demanding Judaism is to keep, the more Jews will stay Jewish.”

 

Of course, the fact that the more people are invested in a project, the more dedication, self-sacrifice and even love they have for the project, shows the fallacy of the assumption Rav Sacks cites above.  

 

In my earlier post, “The Fruit Aisle Got Me Thinking” – I discussed the threat to Torah and mitzvot posed by Biblical Criticism and the ongoing need for an articulate “renewal” of our commitment to Torah.  It is no secret that the handmaiden of reduced observance is the attack on the authority of Torah and the accompanying oral tradition, including both Torah and rabbinic law. 

 

This all dovetails beautifully with Daniel Gordis’ fall essay in which he bemoans the decline of the Conservative movement in the United States. In a response to the Gordis piece, Torah scholar and historian Rabbi Berel Wein writes:  

 

“Gordis rightly puts the blame for this failure on the spiritual leadership of the movement, which made few demands on its congregants and succumbed to every societal whim of the time. A religion, which in essence stands for nothing and allows everything, cannot in the long run remain viable and alive.

 

“Gordis emphasizes how the (in)famous decision of the Conservative movement in 1950 to allow its congregants to drive to the synagogue on Shabbat not only helped destroy the Shabbat but also contributed to the destruction of the movement itself. People instinctively saw through the sham and realized that if it was permissible to drive to the synagogue than it must also somehow be permissible on Shabbat to drive to the golf course.

 

“People have the ability to do as they please but nevertheless a religious movement must always remain an arbiter of right and wrong, of what is permissible and what should not be done. By blurring that line the Conservative movement lost its identity and its reason for existence.

 

“There are many Orthodox Jews who are not really halachicly observant in all forms of technical requirements. Nevertheless they realize that Orthodoxy stands for basic principles and historical beliefs that remain valid and uncompromising in its demands on its adherents. The Jew who drives his automobile to attend Shabbat services at an Orthodox synagogue is aware that he or she is not observing the Shabbat as it should be observed.

 

“One is entitled to behave as one wishes but the requiem for the Conservative movement was pretty much self-inflicted by its dumbing down of the core principles of Judaism and severing itself from the ideas of Jewish spirituality and historical continuity.


Now, here is where the Sephardic synagogues of Seattle can take a leadership role, by articulating the above to its membership: Sephardic Jews have generally not suffered from the same “denominationalization” (is that a word?) that has characterized the Ashkenazic Jewish community; there are obvious historical and sociological reasons for this.  Sephardic congregations such as EB and SBH seek to serve the Sephardic community as a whole

 

Observant Jews sit along less observant Jews in the same sanctuary and share Shabbatot and Hagim together.  This all takes place within a scrupulously-observant atmosphere where Shabbat, Kashrut and appropriate separate seating with a Mehitza are the hallmarks of the synagogue.  The synagogue as an institution is the beacon, the ideal of Jewish life.  Congregants find their place along the continuum. This is an authentic Torah position; instead of “dumbing down” our standards, we maintain them and educate others to appreciate the depth and profundity of Torah.

 

At the sea, the Israelites were beneficiaries of the promise made to Avraham Avinu. It was Avraham who was initially told that his nation would be enslaved, but it would leave with great riches. At the moment of truth, however, we stood in front of a closed sea, before of a G-d implored by Egypt’s ministering angel: “These (Egyptians) are idolaters, and these (Israelites) are idolaters! Why save one group over the other?”

 

We are the beneficiaries of deposits into our spiritual bank accounts made by earlier generations.  In the Dayenu, the message is not that it would have been enough had G-d awarded us the riches, but not split the sea.  That is of course preposterous!

 

Instead, the Dayenu is a narrative that traces the graduated development of the nation. The turning point, and the justification of our continued existence as a people, hinges on how we, standing alone in this generation, answer the fateful questions of our own commitment to the Torah.

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Apr
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The Fruit Aisle Got Me Thinking

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Here's my new blog entry, a version of which I delivered on the second day of Pesach:

Earlier this week, I am sure many of us were busy up until the last second making our final preparations for Pesach.  Our own family was no exception; at about 5:30 pm on Monday afternoon, I found myself in the fruit department of the Ranier Valley Safeway store. A man in his late thirties looks me straight in the eye, and in a booming voice declares: "Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ehad!! This is how you say it, right?" 

 

"Yes, I guess it is how we say it...who are you?... Are you... Jewish?"

 

Apparently, the Shema-reciter is a descendant of Spanish Jews; according to him, his great grandmother was Jewish, as was his grandmother, and apparently - his mother...

 

"Do you belong to one of the congregations in town?" I asked.

 

"Beth Shofar...In Tukwila.... We're a messianic congregation."

 

Now, I did not know if he was in fact Jewish, as he claimed.. I figured that the most I could (and should) do (!) was to explain that Judaism and Christianity are fundamentally different religions.

 

He politely smiled, but was not particularly receptive to my words. I could see that he believed that being Jewish was consistent with a commitment to JC.

 

I posed the following question: "If you believe that the Torah is binding, will you be eating Matzah tonight?"

 

"No, I will not ...."

 

"Why not?"

 

At this point, things become a bit of a blur; I didn't exactly understand what he said; something about JC eating the matzah for us, being our Paschal Lamb...You get the idea.....

 

As our mini-debate reached a crescendo, he assured me that I, along with the entire Jewish people, would ultimately “see the light” and embrace his belief in JC. 

 

Incidentally, after the Hag, I checked and it seems that Beth Shofar had a Passover Seder. Not a lot of matzah or maror in this video, but a lot of bongos....Perhaps an echo of Miriam taking a drum in her hands after the sea split (!)  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVHA3HfiHTo#t=10 

 

As my mentor and I we were about to declare a truce, a young woman with a bright cheery smile and pure wonderment in her eyes approached me and asked, "Are you Rabbi Meyers?"

 

I nodded. "How do you know who I am?" 

 

"I saw your picture on the website."

 

To make a long story short, this woman had contacted me several weeks earlier inquiring about conversion. We had a brief exchange and agreed to be in touch following Pesach.

 

The scene was somewhat surreal: a man of Jewish lineage urging me to accept the Christian messiah and an inspired non-Jewish woman seeking to become part of the Seattle Jewish community. Both on Erev Pesach 5774.

 

On Seder night, prior to the main mitzvot of Matzah and Maror, we recite a Hallel.  In the Sephardic Hagadah shel Pesach edited by Hazzan Azose, the Hallel is introduced by the words ונאמר לפניו הללויה - "...and we will recite before him, Hallelu-yah". In other editions, ונאמר לפניו שירה חדשה הללויה, " "...and we will recite before him a new song, Hallelu-yah". According to both versions, though, before the blessing of גאל ישראל - He who redeemed Israel - we say וְנודֶה לְךָ שִׁיר חָדָש עַל גְּאֻלָּתֵנוּ ועַל פְּדוּת נַפְשֵׁנוּ and we shall thank You with a new song for our redemption and for the deliverance of our souls.

 

Now what is the new song we are referring to here in the Haggadah? It seems to be the same old Hallel: the verses from Tehilim, from Psalms, that we say every holiday, and customarily recite on Rosh Hodesh! According to the text that introduces the Hallel with the phrase שירה חדשה, we do hear an echo of the daily blessing following the Shema שירה חדשה שבחו גאולים לשמך הגדול על שפת הים the  redeemed ones praised Your great name with a new song at the edge of the sea…. And in keeping with the theme that in every generation – and especially on the seder night – each Jew must see himself as if he personally left Egypt, the שירה חדשה – the “new song” terminology strikes a familiar chord.  The Hallel of the Seder becomes our “Song at the Sea”……

 

But the term שיר חדש does not recall that blessing….Maybe the song is a “new song” because on the night of the Seder, the Hallel is split in half, one portion read before the main mitzvot of the evening, the other after Birkat Hamazon….?

 

I would like to suggest an alternate explanation of the concept of a “new song” on Pesach. 

 

Back in 1965, Rabbi Norman Lamm delivered a sermon to his congregation, the Jewish Center in New York City. His words are as relevant today as they were then.  Rabbi Lamm distinguishes between two concepts: novelty and renewal. Novelty, he explains, “is the misuse of the inclination for newness for things, for gadgets…” Renewal, in contrast,  “comes about when we apply the desire for newness to man himself, to achieve new insights which result in the transformation of his soul and his spirit.” Whereas novelty is extrinsic, a question of packaging,’ Rabbi Lamm notes, “renewal is intrinsic; it is a matter of content. Novelty is the seeking of thrills; renewal is the thrill of seeking.”

 

We Jews seem to have an inner sense, a drive, towards renewal.  Only, quite often we misdirect it. Take the Jewish world over the last two hundred years.  With the advent of the Age of Reason and scientific inquiry, we Jews succeeded in unraveling three thousand years of Jewish tradition: Many of us bought into an approach, championed most notably by Wellhausen, that exchanged the awesome Sinaitic revelation recorded in the Torah for the four-editor theory. Modern Bible critics declared that the Torah does not record an immutable, Divinely-given Torah, but rather four different editors – the J, E, D and P editors, were responsible for the work’s final content and form. Many Jews subsequently traded in תורה צוה לנו משה מורשה קהלת יעקב- Moses commanded us the Torah, an inheritance of the House of Jacob - for a convoluted hodge-podge pastiche of sometimes redundant and contradictory passages. Instead of the profound depth and harmonizing approach of our trusted oral tradition - through our beloved Rishonim and Acharonim – we uncritically ingested the legal and moral anarchy of sundry academics for whom our tradition was never a Living Torah…..

 

To be sure, the numerous challenges raised by academic approaches to the Bible are serious and each deserves a thoughtful response.  Great Torah luminaries such as R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samson_Raphael_Hirsch provided such responses. In our modern day, Rav Mordechai Breuer developed an innovative response to the Bible critics, although some Torah personalities, like R. Shlomo Aviner, have issues with his assumptions and methodology http://www.ravaviner.com/2012/09/what-would-rabbi-mordechai-breuer-have.html In an unconventional use of modern media to illustrate the depth of the Torah to a new generation, Rabbi David Fohrman has launched http://alephbeta.org/ These are all examples of renewal; they are models of what can transpire “when we apply the desire for newness to man himself, to achieve new insights which result in the transformation of his soul and his spirit.”

 

The theme of renewal permeates our classical sources.  Rabbi Lamm cites the prophet Yehezkel, (Ezekiel) who “properly pleads for lev hadash ve-ruah hadashah (Ez. 36:26), ‘a new heart and a new spirit,’ not merely for new techniques and new objects. The halakhah declares that ger she-nitgayyer ke-katan she-nolad dami, ‘a proselyte has the status of a newborn child’ (Yevamot 22a). And, in the same spirit, Maimonides declares that the repentant person must experience the feeling of spiritual

rebirth; religiously he is a new individual (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 7:7).”

 

The “new song” of the Leil HaSeder is really the text of the “same old Hallel” that we have come to know and love. On the Seder night, and for that matter, throughout Pesach, each Jew is being challenged to discover new purpose in his or her life as a Jew; on the eve of the Exodus, “Why be Jewish?” warrants new consideration.  Our task is to make the same old song …… a שיר חדש.

 

Congregation Ezra Bessaroth is in a unique position. Founded by Sephardic Jews from the island of Rhodes, EB provides the structure, the rootedness, the tradition. 


In recent years, EB has welcomed in Jews from various backgrounds: Ashkenazic Jews, Ba’alei Teshuva/recently religious Jews, and Gerim, converts. The call of the day? Cross-fertilization!  What does this practically mean? That newcomers should respect the Rhodesli synagogue customs, including the text of the Tefilot and the proper pronunciation of those Tefilot, to name just a couple of examples. On the flip-side, long-standing members should both admire and revel in the pure inspiration and idealism of our new additions. Together, this Pesach, we can generate a Hallel that is truly a
שיר חדש, a new song. 

 

While some seek novelty, we must pursue renewal.

 

http://shiurcentral.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/the-fruit-aisle-got-me-thinking1.pdf

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02
Apr
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If The Seder Plate Could Speak…

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The great sage Rabban Gamliel declares that one who has not mentioned three themes on the night of the Seder has not fulfilled his obligation. They are: Pesach, Matzah and Maror.  Minimally, on the first and second nights of Passover, we must highlight the Korban Pesach – the Paschal sacrifice; secondly, we are mandated to discuss the origins of the mitzvah to consume Matzah; thirdly, we should reflect on the bitterness of the hundreds of years of Jewish enslavement in Egypt.

Question: How are we to inspire our children, grandchildren, families and friends with these themes?

In a nutshell, the evening’s foods remind us of how G-d killed their first-born, saved ours, how disorganized we were, how we left in hurry, and how rotten life was back in Egypt!

One would think that the most “educable moment” of the year – the Seder night – would be utilized to convey some lofty ideals, some sort of eternal message that would resonate for the 21st century Jew, young and old! What ultimate impact does Rabban Gamliel’s declaration make on us at a moment of heightened spiritual sensitivity, Leil HaSeder?

I would like to suggest re-examining Rabban Gamliel’s statement as a reflection of three core themes:
a) The Jew as a member of Klal Yisrael, the community of Israel;
b) The Jew as a model of frugality and simplicity;
c) The Jew as one who sees the value in all of life’s experiences

The Jew as a member of Klal Yisrael

Rabban Gamliel first focuses on the Korban Pesach, the Paschal sacrifice. Let’s examine some of the laws associated with the sacrifice: The lamb is to be selected “according to their fathers’ houses”; if there are not enough people in one family to consume an entire lamb, “then he and his neighbor should take one….”; the meat must be roasted, and not boiled or cooked in another liquid; the lamb must be roasted whole and no bones should be broken; none of the meat must be taken outside the home in which it is being eaten.

Now, what one theme runs through the various halachot/laws of the Korban Pesach? I would like to suggest that it is the theme of family and community unity.   Why else is there an insistence that the Pesach meat be consumed within the family or neighborhood, and that the meat not taken outside of the home in the course of the meal? The theme of unity is also evident in the requirement to roast the lamb whole. Commentaries have noted that roasted meat also retains the shape and form of the original animal, while boiling causes the meat to fragment and disperse within a given pot.  The message: Jewish unity.

Let’s take this theme to the next level: On the night of the Exodus, G-d gave the Jewish people a directive to begin to view itself as a nation, and not as a mere collective of individuals.  We are also not the tiny family that descended, seventy souls strong, into Egypt hundreds of years before. We have crystallized into a nation with all of the responsibility this entails.  This idea is brought out best by the following verse:  and you should keep it unto the fourteenth day of the same month; and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall slaughter [the Pesach] at dusk.”

The Talmud states: “R. Nathan said: How do we know that all Israel can discharge [their obligation] with one Passover-offering? Because it is said, and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at dusk: does then the whole assembly slaughter the lamb? Surely only one does! But it teaches that all Israel can discharge [their duty] with one Passover-offering.”

In other words, it is not necessary that each one of us actually consumes the meat. It is sufficient that one lamb is taken for the entire nation.  The Korban Pesach is an offering that unifies and defines our nation.

I think that this template, in which every Jew lives a life of responsibility for his fellow Jew, as a member of a unified nation – is reflected beautifully in an article by Rabbi Ilan Feldman of Atlanta. Rabbi Feldman writes of the need to create a “model community” rather than an “observant community”; in such a model community, Jewish law/halacha “is observed rigorously, and is seen as the means to fulfill the mission to reflect G-d in the world. Communities are models of the human capacity to connect to the Divine; the goal of observance is to give expression to that glorious spiritual nature of man. Torah is powerful, and secularism and materialism, while capable of attraction and spiritual destruction, are no match for the expressed neshama of man. The vocabulary of such a community is one of connection, of inspiration, of inclusion, of confidence. Its language is that of purpose and mission. There is a sense of custodial responsibility for the Torah, and for other Jews. Non-observant Jews are essentially divine, even if masked by superficial secularism. In looking at other Jews, the goal is not to see how they measure up, but to discover their innate greatness.”

The Jew as a Model of Frugality and Simplicity

The great sage, Maharal, offers a fresh understanding of Matzah, referred to by the Torah as “lechem oni”.  One interpretation of this concept is “Bread of Affliction”; another “The Poor Man’s Bread”.  Maharal disagrees: Matzah is truly a bread of redemption simply because it is “poor” in terms of its ingredients: just flour and water. A poor person has little aside from himself and his body, the basic minimum for existence. His being is independent of anything outside of himself and his essence. Matzah, too, has nothing besides the basic minimum for making up the dough, flour and water. Matzah Ashira/egg matzah has additives that remove it from the category of “lechem oni.”

Redemption, Maharal explains, means to leave the state of being controlled by others, independent of any external attachments. Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky explains: “A slave is not independent, since he is attached to and controlled by his master. A wealthy person, too, is not independent, since his identity is the result of his attachment to his money and possessions, and can he be controlled by them... But a poor person, having nothing but himself, stands completely separate and independent from anything outside of himself, and he portrays redemption and freedom. Matzah doesn't represent a poor person. Rather it represents the process of going free from slavery, which is accomplished by removing any bonds or dependencies on things outside of oneself. Severing those bonds is exactly the process of redemption.”

Dr. Dale Archer recently wrote in “Psychology Today”: “With every passing day, technology is overtaking our daily lives. Regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, career or economic status, you're probably packing a smartphone right now. In fact, 56% of all Americans own one. The phone, computer, tablet and other high tech devices have become not just an object, but for many a best friend. Many suffer from anxiety if they lose their phone, even if only for a few minutes. We rely on it to do everything from saying I love you to breaking up, from checking bank balances to investing…”

Man’s technological prowess, then, has created a greater degree of dependency on forces outside of himself. 

When we decide to purchase a home or a car, or plan a wedding, what percentage of our decisions are governed by that which is absolutely necessary vs. what is expected of us by our peers?

Matzah calls on the Jew to confront his inherent freedom and release himself from the bondage of excessive dependencies!

The Jew as one who sees the value in all of life’s experiences

Traditionally, Maror, the bitter herbs, are cited as the symbol of our embittered lives while slaves in Egypt. A comment by Rambam, Maimonedes, however, sheds new light on the nature of Maror: Rambam writes that whereas the mitzvot of the Pesach sacrifice and Matzah are stand-alone obligations, Maror is not.  The verse that mandates the consumption of the bitter herbs, Rambam notes, views Maror as peripheral to the meat and Matzah. Rambam asserts: “If you ate Maror without the meat, you did not do anything halachically relevant, and we don’t say that you’ve fulfilled the mitzvah of Maror.”

What is the symbolic message here?

Rabbi Arye Stern suggests that we are bidden never to view our lives as presenting anything “purely bitter”. We could easily look at the story of the Exodus as featuring two separate elements: the torturous years in Egypt followed by the sweetness of redemption. We could say that the enslavement was truly bitter.

The mitzvot of the Seder night (in their Torah formulation) are encouraging us to transcend this view: The Maror is only relevant to a Jew when consumed within a “wrap” of Matzah and the Pesach meat. Both the Matzah and the meat are symbolic of redemption; similarly, there are elements of our bitter years that are also redemptive.

In fact, any traumatic emotional, financial or health event in one’s personal, family or communal life, can be looked at as either as purely bitter or ultimately beneficial. Personal crises can often be the springboard for a reassessment of one’s values and a new direction in life; the necessities associated with financial hardship can help bring to the surface certain latent talents and inner strength.

Even the bitter herbs can be sweet: This is the message of the Maror!

A Jew who internalizes this message can begin to see the ultimate goodness and the value in ALL of life’s experiences.

Pesach Alegre!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Nov
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A Mirror Image

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Perashat Vayeshev is a very surprising Torah portion on many levels: How could hatred escalate to such an extent amongst brothers all raised in the house of Ya'akov Avinu? Why does Yosef insist on taunting his brothers with his prophetic dreams, all the while knowing the impact of this behavior on them? Why does Ya'akov, who surely understood the depth of the animosity, still send Yosef on a mission alone -to Shechem to see how the brothers and their sheep are doing? This epic story of providence, of the divine Hand that guides the children of Israel into Egyptian exile- has many perplexing twists and turns.

Early on in the story , the Torah introduces us to the relationship between Ya'akov and his son Yosef.

וישראל אהב את יוסף מכל בניו כי בן זקנים הוא לו
Israel loved Yosef the most of all of his sons, because he was the son of his old age

The preferential treatment given Joseph served to inflame the brother's jealousy and hatred of him.

Now, aside from the plain meaning of the text - that Ya'akov Avinu's emotional tie to Yosef stemmed from the fact that he bore Yosef in his later years, Rashi offers two other approaches:

ואונקלוס תרגם בר חכים הוא ליה כל מה שלמד משם ועבר מסר לו

דבר אחר

שהיה זיו איקונין שלו דומה לו


Onkelos translated it as "the son of his wisdom" - everything that he learned from Shem and Ever, he gave to him.

Another explanation:
(It's an acronym indicating that) Yosef's facial appearance was similar to that of Ya'akov.


These two approaches paint seemingly diametrically opposed pictures of what drew Ya'akov to his son Yosef. According to one view, it was the depth of the learning relationship that he forged with his son that drew Ya'akov to Yosef. Whatever the content of the Torah of Shem and Ever consisted of at the time, what bonded them was a deep spiritual connection generated through the Talmid-Rebbe relationship. The second view seems relatively rather superficial: Ya'akov was drawn to Yosef because Yosef looked like him?

I would like to suggest that these ideas are actually two sides of the same coin: A Torah teacher invests his intellectual, emotional, and spiritual energy in his student. The payoff of this investment is the degree to which the rebbe sees his talmid transformed by the Torah taught by the rebbe. A rebbe not only conveys the content of the section of Torah being taught, but educates his talmid on how to think in a logical, disciplined manner. The Torah teacher hopes that well into the future, the student can approach new questions with the system of thinking that he learned in his youth. He hopes to fill the student with the tools to grapple with new circumstances with logic and a sensitivity to the question: What does G-d want of me?

With this in mind, perhaps Rashi's second explanation means just this: that Ya'akov began to see in Yosef a true reflection of himself; Yosef had internalized his father's knowledge and his values. "His face was similar to his."

This could also be the key to understanding one of Rashi's later comments: What held Yosef back from engaging in illicit relations with Potiphar's wife? It was the "image of his father" that appeared to him, pre-empting the sin.

Given what we've said above, Rashi may not literally mean that Yosef had a vision of his father. Rather, the standards and values that his father had taught him had succeeded in becoming part of him. Instead of a mystical vision of his father warning him not to indulge- Yosef dug deep into his own moral fabric, and experienced the imprint of his father's teachings. When Yosef saw a vision of Ya'akov, he was essentially peering into his own face.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Seeing G-d, The Jewish Way

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drshahmsuccotThe Yalkut Shimoni records the following conversation between R. Yehoshua and “Adrinus Ceasar”, most probably the Emperor Hadrian.

Adrinus asks R. Yehoshua:
“Is there a master to the Universe?”
Rabbi Yehoshua’s response: “What? Is the world Hefker (without direction, chaotic)?”
Adrinus: “And who created Heavens and Earth?
R. Yehoshua: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, as it says, ‘In the Beginning G-d created Heaven and Earth.”
Adrinus: “Why, then, does He not reveal Himself twice a year so that people can see Him and His fear would be upon them?”
R. Yehoshua: “Because the world would not be able to withstand (the intensity of this vision) as it says, ‘Because no man has seen Me and lived..’”
Adrinus: “If you don’t show Him to me, I won’t believe you.”

At noon the next day, R. Yehoshua takes Adrinus outside and faces him towards the sun; andby staring into the sun, Adrinus would purportedly be able to see G-d.  Hadrian refuses, noting that it’s impossible to stare into the sun.

R. Yehoshua: ’The sun is but one minor fraction of all of the entities that serve G-d.  Let your ears hear what your mouth is saying…..” 

How, then, does the Emperor hope to actually view the Almighty Himself?
After all, G-d Himself declares to Moshe: “No Man has seen Me and lived!”

What’s fascinating about this midrash is not so much its rich dialogue, but the context in which it finds itself - in the same chapter of Yalkut Shimoni that records the dialogue between Moshe and G-d  after the sin of the Golden Calf in today's Torah reading.   

In the dialogue recorded in the Torah, Moshe requests from Hashem הראני נא את כבודך; “Show me your Glory”. 

G-d subsequently places him in the cleft of a cliff and passes by so that Moshe only sees G-d’s back. But the midrash, along with the parallel Gemara in Berachot – understands that Moshe did not literally ask to see G-d in the physical sense, but to understand him in the philosophical sense. The perennial question of Tzaddik v’Ra lo/Rasha V’tov lo – Why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper- preoccupies Moshe.  In contrast to a literal vision of G-d, along the lines of Adrinus’ demand, our teacher Moshe is interested in truth.

In a follow- up to Moshe’s question and G-d’s response, G-d shows Moshe the treasure houses of all of the merit set aside for the righteous.

Moshe asks, “Master of the Universe, this treasure-house – to whom does it belong?”
“For those who do Tzedaka.”  

Now, this could refer to either those who directly contribute directly to charities or people who encourage and motivate others to give Tzedaka.  Alternatively, it could refer to those who pursue justice. 

“And to whom does this treasure-house belong?” 
“ To those who support and nurture orphans.”

To understand G-d is to appreciate the very real-world values and mitzvah performance that characterize an authentic Torah lifestyle. Unlike Emperor Hadrian, we Jews “see G-d” by understanding His ways, which we access through philosophical inquiry, Torah learning and mitzvah performance.

The Jewish approach to “seeing G-d” appears in another context that has immediate application to our Perasha.  During the times of the Bet Hamikdash, it is a special obligation for male Jews to perform עליה לרגל – to trek to Jerusalem for the three Torah pilgrimage festivals. The sacrifice offered on these occasions is called an עולת ראיה – literally, the burnt offering “of the seeing”.

The first Mishna in Tractate Hagiga , based on the pasuk that says יראה כל זכורך את פני ה' – says that in order to be obligated in the mitzvah of Olat Re’iya – one cannot even be blind in one eye.  Rashi explains that just as Hashem sees us with His “two eyes” we have to come to be seen with two working eyes.  The concept of “seeing” is so embedded in the terminology and concept of the pilgrimage festivals, that it has an impact on the halacha and disqualifies someone who is blind in one eye.

Now, what kind of seeing is going on here? Certainly, the intention is not that the Jew actually “sees” Hashem upon his arrival on the Temple Mount! The “seeing” referred to involves the trek to Jerusalem and service of G-d in the form of the Olat Re’iyah – the holiday sacrifice.  Far from focusing on a mystical vision of G-d Himself, the seeing of Hashem is identified with serving Him. 

A Postscript

There is a fascinating dispute between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai on the topic of the age at which one is obligated in the mitzvah of Aliyah L’regel, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. According to Bet Shammai, a child old enough to ride on his father’s shoulders is obligated מדין חינוך – as part of his education - towards mitzvah performance; in this case: to accompany his father to the Bet Hamikdash.  Bet Hillel disagrees: Only once a child is old enough to grasp on to his father’s hand and ascend the Temple Mount, is he obligated to be educated in the mitzvah.

Two observations:

Bet Hillel is laying the foundations for the Jewish perspective on education: Many authorities note that the mitzvah of chinuch – of educating  one’s child in a given mitzvah – involves giving that child the full mitzvah experience; i.e. exact same opportunity to do a mitzvah in a way that if he were to be an adult, he would fulfill the mitzvah. Translated: one must provide his son with a fully kosher set of the four species with which to perform the mitzvah on Sukkot, a Kosher tallet to don in Kahal.  In the context of the mishna in Hagiga, the mitzvah is for the male Jew to walk to the Mikdash; only if the child can himself go up by foot – by “regel” -- does the father have an obligation to educate him in this mitzvah.

But there’s another more profound lesson here about the Jewish view of education: Certainly, as we educate our children, we must, for a period of time, support them as they negotiate their entry into a full Torah life; we will sometimes have to “carry them on our shoulders” as does the father in Bet Shammai’s approach.   That said, the ultimate goal of Jewish education is to raise a child whose hand we may still hold: a child who is not only able to independently live according to the Torah, but a child who is independently motivated to do so.  A child who will ascend the Temple Mount on his own steam, both physically and spiritually.

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19
Sep
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Sukkah: A State of Mind

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An article I wrote some years ago for Yeshivat Darche Noam:

“Mitz’ta’er”: A Definition
The Talmud in Tractate Sukkah 25a cites the Amora, Rav, as declaring that a mourner is fully obligated in all of the mitzvot of the Torah (with the exception of one, based on a special verse.) Next, Rav states that a mourner must dwell in the Sukkah during the Festival of Sukkot. This second halacha prompts the Gemara to exclaim: “That’s obvious!” In other words – after Rav’s initial statement – obligating a mourner in all the mitzvot – why would we have thought that he would be exempt from the mitzvah of Sukkah?

Had Rav not stated this second halacha, answers the Gemara, we may have actually thought that a mourner is exempt from Sukkah. Why? A fundamental principle in Hilchot Sukkah is that one who is suffering from being in the Sukkah – a “mitz’ta’er” – is exempt from the mitzvah; we may have thus thought that a mourner, in his grief, falls into this category. According to the Gemara, Rav’s special stress on the mourner’s obligation to dwell in the Sukkah clarifies that the exemption of mitz’ta’er only applies to suffering that develops ” on its own”. The discomfort of the mourner in the Sukkah does not develop “on its own”; rather, the mourner, says the Gemara, “is bringing the suffering on himself, and he therefore has the obligation to place his mind at ease and calm down [to allow himself to live in the Sukkah.]”

Rashi explains that suffering that “develops on its own” relates to discomfort stemming from the Sukkah itself. Typical examples include: discomfort from the heat of the sun beating down on the Sukkah, the cold temperature in the Sukkah, or a bad odor emitted by the structure’s leafy “schach” roof. Since a mourner’s sensitivity is not directly related to the Sukkah’s temperature or odor, he must put himself at ease so that he can perform the mitzvah.

Why should a mourner find the Sukkah so difficult to tolerate? Rabbeinu Asher (“Rosh”) explains that such a person prefers the dark, secluded atmosphere of a house rather than the pleasant-open air atmosphere of the Sukkah. Far from being objectively unpleasant – the Sukkah is “too pleasant” an environment for the mourner! In other words, it’s the mourner’s delicate and unique emotional state that transforms the Sukkah into a troubling place.

Comparing Sukkah to Tefilin
Sukkah is not the only mitzvah in which the halacha stresses the mental/emotional situation of the Jew. The Gemara in Menachot (36b) rules that a person donning Tefilin must not take his mind off the mitzvah, and proves this by learning a “Kal V’chomer” from the requirement of the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) to mentally focus on his “Tzitz” headdress. Rambam codifies this ruling in his Mishna Torah, stating that a person in discomfort, or one whose mind is not at ease, is exempt from the mitzvah of Tefilin – since it is forbidden to become distracted from the Tefilin while donning them.

In response to the above halacha, Rabbeinu Manoach (cited by Kesef Mishna) states: Even though with all other mitzvot, we require a person to put his mind at ease and perform the mitzvah, Tefilin are different: it’s forbidden to wear them while mentally distracted. Kesef Mishna understands this comment as an implicit challenge on the Rambam: How can Rambam exempt a “mitz’ta’er” from Tefilin, if, after all, the Gemara in Sukkah states that such a person must calm down with the aim of fulfilling the mitzvah of Sukkah?!

To this challenge, Rabbeinu Manoach responds: The mitzvah of Tefilin is different: Since it is characterized by a special “distraction” prohibition, we don’t insist that he put his mind at ease. Why? As much as he calms himself down, he won’t escape the fact that there is a special prohibition of being distracted while donning Tefilin.

In other words, we cannot simply say in the case of Tefilin: “Let him calm down and perform the mitzvah.” Once a Jew has become preoccupied and distracted, the halacha is wary of permitting him to don the Tefilin ; the very real possibility exists that he will again lose his concentration. No such halachic prohibition – and therefore no such cautious approach – exists in the law of Sukkah.

A Second Approach
Another prominent scholar – R. Joel Sirkes in his work “Bayit Chadash” (Bach) – also grapples with the apparent contradiction in the halacha. In contrast to Rabbeinu Manoach’s approach, Bach understands the person in Rambam’s Tefilin scenario as being in a different mental state than the one in the Sukkah scenario: Rambam, notes Bach, is dealing with a person who is simply unable to put his mind at ease. Even if he succeeds at doing so for a moment, he quickly reverts to being a “mitz’ta’er”. He therefore never escapes the status of someone who is distracted and therefore exempt from Tefilin. In contrast, the “mitz’ta’er” of the Gemara in Sukkah is someone – whom – with sufficient effort, can calm down.

Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (Responsa “Tzitz Eliezer”) notes that according to Bach – were the person in Rambam’s Tefilin scenario to ask whether he is obligated in Sukkah – we would tell him that he is not. This would be our answer to him, despite the fact that his discomfort does not stem from the heat of the Sukkah, nor the odor emitted by the schach.

At first glance, Bach’s approach seems to contradict the Gemara Sukkah (27a): “You must dwell in Sukkot for seven days” says the Torah. Given the principle that we must treat the Sukkah like our home for a week, we need only live in it as long as the it allows us similar conditions we are accustomed to in our homes. Since we would not live in a house that has a leaky roof, or an apartment that is uncomfortably cold – we are not expected to live in a Sukkah under cold or rainy conditions. A person whose discomfort stems mainly from his own mental or emotional state, and not from the Sukkah, however, is not exempt from the mitzvah to dwell in the Sukkah. (The Gemara quoted earlier, as explained by Rashi reinforces this.) How could Bach, then, suggest that a person unable to put his mind at ease – is exempt from both Tefilin and Sukkah? It is not the Sukkah, but his own mental state, that is standing in the way!

Tying it All Together
In order to understand Bach’s ruling, Rabbi Waldenberg notes that the question of what exempts a “mitz’ta’er” from Sukkah is a major disagreement between the Rishonim. Rashi, Rosh, and Mordechai all rule that a person is exempt from Sukkah only when the discomfort stems from the Sukkah itself. This is the view accepted by Remah in the Shulchan Aruch. The Maharik, in contrast, states that a “mitz’ta’er” is exempt from Sukkah even if the discomfort is mainly a product of his emotional state. Maharik cites our Gemara Sukkah (25a) – and notes that it was prepared to exempt the mourner as a “mitz’ta’er” – but required him instead to put his mind at ease and dwell in the Sukkah.

In other words, Maharik reads that Gemara differently than we suggested earlier: That “sugyah” did not intend to definitively rule out a mourner’s state of mind as a relevant factor in defining “mitz’ta’er”: It simply concluded that when the discomfort derives from the Sukkah itself, there’s not much the halacha can demand of the Jew: if the Sukkah is too hot or wet, then the conditions do not allow for the mitzvah of dwelling in the Sukkah to be fulfilled. If however, the mourner’s state of mind is the issue, the halacha asks him to try to “get a hold of himself” before availing himself of the exemption of “mitz’ta’er.” It follows, therefore, that both Maharik and Bach – confronted with a person who is unable to relax, would rule that that he is exempt from Sukkah in the same way as such a person is exempt from – and even forbidden to wear – Tefilin.

Rabbi Waldenberg suggests that underlying the contrasting approaches towards the Gemara – are two contrasting views of the source of the exemption of “mitz’ta’er”. The mainstream view – Rashi, Rosh, Mordechai, Remah – understands the verse “You must dwell in Sukkot for seven days” as the basis of the exemption; we must treat the Sukkah like our home for a week, we need only live in the Sukkah as long as it allows us similar conditions as a regular home. As noted earlier, one whose discomfort stems mainly from his own mental or emotional state, and not from the Sukkah, is not exempt from the mitzvah to dwell in the Sukkah.

The opposing view – that of Bach and Maharik – bases itself on the verse in Vayikra Chapter 23, which states that we must dwell in Sukkot “So that your generations [after you] know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in Sukkot when I took them out of the Land of Egypt.” This, says Bach explicitly – indicates that the Torah wants us to experience a special religious/historical awareness while dwelling in the Sukkah. A severe “mitz’ta’er” simply cannot attain this consciousness, and is therefore exempt. It’s irrelevant, according to this view, whether the unsettled state of mind is a result of the heat of the Sukkah, etc, or a personal state of anxiety not rooted in the Sukkah. This explanation helps explain, as well, why Bach equated between the two issues of Sukkah and of Tefilin. In Shmot Ch. 13, the Torah states that we must wear Tefilin “so that the Torah of God should remain on your lips.” Here, as in the mitzvah of Sukkah, a special awareness is required while performing the mitzvah. It is this special state of mind that exempts the “mitz’ta’er.”

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15
Sep
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A Purposeful Yom Kippur

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(My sermon at EB on Yom Kippur owed much to the ideas and words of both Rabbi Barry Kornblau and Rabbi Benjamin Blech.  Here is a written version of what I said on Yom Kippur)


questionmark"…It’s bad news. There are some very bad men on the plane. The men have a bomb and they have a knife. We've had no contact with the pilots, but the men have taken over the plane and have moved everyone to the back of the plane and left us here….I need to know something. One of the other passengers has talked to their spouse, and he said that they were crashing other planes into the World Trade Center. Is that true?…..Now, I need some advice - what to do? Should we, you know, we’re talking about attacking these men, what should I do?... OK, The others and myself have voted to attack the terrorists. I have my butter knife from breakfast.. I’m going to leave the phone here. Stay on the line, I’ll be back."

It is Yom Kippur today, but it is also three days after the 12th anniversary of 9-11.  This conversation I just read to you originated on an airplane on Sept. 11, 2001.  The plane was United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark, bound for San Francisco.

The man on the plane, on the phone with his wife ---  was a 31 year old Jewish man from New Jersey  by the name of Jeremy Glick. Along with three other people, Mark Bingham, Todd Beamer and Tom Burnett, Glick took on a leadership role in his decision to rush the hijackers. Their goal: To prevent an even greater tragedy. For their efforts, these passengers were given numerous posthumous awards.

The more I think about 9-11, the more I appreciate it as a Yom Hadin – as a Day of Judgment. It was a day of judgment for the American people, a day of judgment for all decent people – and certainly, a day of judgment for the passengers of those flights, including Flight 93.  

If you were to be asked, who, from the Torah's perspective, is the star of Yom Kippur?  In the days of the Bet Hamikdash, it was clearly the Kohen Gadol, High Priest.  He trains for seven days; He runs from task to task.  He immerses in the mikveh 5 times. He enters the Holy of Holies. He prays and confesses on behalf of the entire Jewish people.

But the Torah tells us of another co-star.  He escorts the Scapegoat from the Temple to the desert, where, mysteriously, his role is equally as important in helping the Jewish people atone for their sins.

The name the Torah gives to this person is איש עיתי- the “Ish Iti”.

The Talmud explains this term to mean, “the pre-designated man” - the man with an appointed purpose.  There’s another translation of his name, too: he was a “timely man”.   For him, every second counted: Back in the Temple Courtyard, the Kohen Gadol – the High Priest and everyone assembled took a break of about 4 hours in the middle of the day as they waited for him to complete his appointed task.

To make sure that he completed his task, he was even allowed to break the fast!  In fact, Sukkot came a little bit early for him: The mishna records how there were Sukkot throughout the miles and miles of desert, manned by volunteers, offering him OU- approved Oreo cookies and Gatorade to snack on.  According to the Gemara, not once in Jewish history did the “Ish Iti” ever take advantage of the Sukkot pit-stops, but the very knowledge that he could eat and drink if he wanted to was enough to calm him and energize him while he continued his mission.

Most Jews, when asked to sum up Yom Kippur, would naturally say that it’s the ultimate fast day.  As if the fast is the essence of the day.  Now, don’t get me wrong - fasting is central to Yom Kippur, and a person should not break the fast barring a life-threatening reason to do so.  But it’s fascinating that the Ish Iti – the co-star on whom much of the Atonement depended upon – himself – had the option of eating and drinking. 

Here we are, obligated to fast – and the person who is helping atone for our sins – gets to eat??!

I may be going out on a limb, but I am going to say it anyhow – the essence of Yom Kippur is NOT the fast.  The heart of Yom Kippur is the obligation to cultivate a sense of purpose in our lives. The goal, the agenda of the fast is to trigger us to reflect on and rethink our lives and reframe our purpose for being here.

On Flight 93, Jeremy Glick was the Jewish people’s representative, the Ish Iti of that moment. At the same time as he was filled with horror, he was infused with a sense of purpose; fate beckoned him to act. And, like the Ish Iti of the Torah, he did what he did to save the lives of others.

Rabbi Blech:

There was a study published last month in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers from UCLA and the University of North Carolina had volunteers fill out a questionnaire asking them if they felt satisfied with their lives, whether they considered themselves happy, and, if so, to identify the cause of their greatest joy. They follwed this up by looking at the underlying cellular mechanisms that affect mood and health or, more specifically, the gene-expression profiles for the volunteers’ white blood cells.

Genes direct the production of proteins which jump-start other processes that control much of the body’s immune response. And here was the shocker: Different forms of happiness were associated with very different gene expression profiles.

Researchers recognized  a distinct difference physiologically between two kinds of joy.

One is what we would call hedonistic. It’s the result of eating a great meal, enjoying a fine scotch, (drinking Fig Raki (!))... or experiencing physical intimacy. It’s the body’s reaction to self- gratification.

But there is different category of happiness for which we have the term "eudaemonic". It is rooted not in getting but in giving. It is the happiness that comes from the sense of fulfillment that accompanies living a life of higher purpose and service to others. It makes demands on the body and often stands in the way of physical enjoyment, but it succeeds on a higher level.

It is the joy felt by a surgeon physically drained after a grueling but successful 12-hour operation. It is the joy felt by the rescuer of a drowning child, weary to the point of exhaustion by his efforts but overwhelmed by the knowledge that he was instrumental in saving a life.

As the rabbi of this congregation I am going to add on: It is the joy felt by the Ladies Auxiliary after donating $30,000 to put new lights and paint in our sanctuary; by an EB member known for his expertise in building and construction for implementing the plan; the joy of one of illustrious co-Presidents in leading the reupholstering of our sanctuary. It is the joy of those who responded to his “ask”  It’s the joy of those members who bring in renowned speakers, sponsor Shabbatonim and Kiddushim on behalf of the congregation. It’s the joy of those who participate day in and day out, on Shabbat and Festivals in the Minyan and Torah learning at our Kehilla.  It’s also the joy of the founders of this congregation, who, though they have passed away from the physical world, are with us always – and who  labored tirelessly to create this very community. 

The researchers from the University of California and University of North Carolina determined which of the volunteers were happy as a result of hedonistic or eudaemonic reasons. To their amazement, those whose happiness was primarily based on consuming things and physical gratification “had surprisingly unhealthy profiles, with relatively high levels of biological markers known to promote increased inflammation throughout the body. Such inflammation has been linked to the development of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They also had relatively low levels of other markers that increase antibody production, to better fight off infections.”

And those whose happiness stemmed from acts of kindness, communal service, or commitment to a higher cause? They had profiles “that displayed augmented levels of anti-body- producing gene expression and lower levels of the pro-inflammatory expression.”

Stephen Cole, a professor of medicine at UCLA and senior author of the study, concluded that “our genes can tell the difference between a purpose-driven life and a life limited solely to the goal of self-indulgence, and goes so far as to reward the former and biologically express its disapproval for the latter."

Over the past few days, I had some conversations with some people who noted the parallel between the “afflictions” of Yom Kippur and the laws of Tisha Be’av.  On the surface of things – the days seem to have the same character, as expressed in the shared laws.  The difference is that Tisha Be’av is a day of mourning, and the restraints are geared to trigger mournful contemplation.  Yom Kippur, on the other hand, is a festival.  So how do we explain the imperative of refraining from food, drink and other pleasures? In line with the study we’ve been discussing, we Jews are withdrawing from self-indulgence to make the statement that we are people driven by a higher purpose! 

In fact, Rabbi Blech suggests that we reframe the Day of Atonement as the“Day of At-Onement”, the day in which we become one with God, “by heeding the still small voice of the pure soul that God has implanted within us, we achieve the greatest blessing of all-At-Onement with the deepest recesses of ourselves and the spark of Godliness within us.”

Each one of us can transform him or herself into an Ish Iti – a person with a purpose. As we continue our communal Tefilah on this Yom Kippur day, let each of us meditate on we are going to implement this imperative in our personal lives.

Tizku Leshanim Rabbot and Shabbat Shalom!

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Pre-Yom Kippur Notes

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Just a reminder that the Seudah Hamafseket - the final meal before the fast - should start in plenty of time to have a meal before the fast.  Candlelighting in Seattle Friday night is 7:06 pm and Kal Nidre begins a 6:45 pm.  

Unlike the Seudah Hamafseket before Tisha Be'av - which is a mournful meal - eggs and lentils and sitting on the ground - the meal prior to Yom Kippur is a festive one. One should wear Shabbat/Hag clothing at the meal; the meal should feature rich foods typical of Shabbat and Festival meals. 

Since it is not Shabbat at the time of the meal, there is of course no Kiddush and no need for Lechem Mishne/(specifically) two loaves of bread.

See you at EB for Kal Nidre!

The Five "Afflictions" of Yom Kippur 

  • No eating/drinking
  • No washing past the knuckles
  • No perfumes/colognes
  • No leather shoes
  • No marital relations

 

 

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Halacha: Taking Care of One's Health

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By special request, here is a link to the first in a series of articles about the halachic obligation to take care of your health.  It's by Rabbi Asher Bush and was published by the RCA in 2006:

http://www.rabbis.org/pdfs/Prohibition_Smoking.pdf

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Can One Refute the Bible Critics?

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In preparation for the Shabbat Fundamentals class, it would be a great idea to do some background reading on modern responses to Biblical criticism, from a Torah perspective. In yesterday's blog post, I noted the work of the team of scholars at Yeshivat Har Etzion, whose work is influenced heavily by the approach of Rav Mordechai Breuer. To understand Rav Breuer's perspective - and how we can maintain a complete faith in the Divine origin of Torah while not ignoring the issues raised by Bible critics, take some time to read the article below by Rabbi Chaim Navon of Yeshivat Har Etzion....RM

Biblical Criticism - by Rav Chaim Navon

Biblical criticism is a critical-scientific approach to the study of the Bible that clashes with some of the fundamental tenets of traditional believing Jews. Its foundations were laid in the nineteenth century by German Protestant biblical scholars. It is based on the assumption that Scripture is not a homogenous work, but rather a collection of diverse documents that were compiled into a single book by a later editor. As for the works of the Prophets and the Hagiographa, the clash between biblical criticism and our approach is relatively mild: even the claim that the book of Yeshaya was composed by not one, but two prophets does not critically undermine the foundations of our faith. The sharpest clash involves the five books of the Torah.

According to the proponents of biblical criticism, the five books of the Torah are a compilation of four documents – J, E, P, and D. The diverse documents can most easily be distinguished on the basis of the various Divine names found in Scripture; proponents of this approach attribute each different name to a different document. They also speak of repetitions and redundancies, stylistic changes, and contradictions between different sources. The classic example put forward by the biblical scholars is the redundancy found in chapters 1 and 2 of the book of Bereishit. In these chapters, Scripture refers to God by different names: "E-lokim" and "Hashem E-lokim." Moreover, the creation of the world is described twice with significant discrepancies between the two descriptions. We shall list the most prominent differences between the two accounts of creation:

1. In chap. 1, the creation is planned and executed in an orderly and structured manner, from the simple to the complex. In chap. 2, such order is missing, and at each step along the way there is renewed "deliberation" regarding what seems necessary at that particular point.

2. In chap. 1, man is created last. In chap. 2, he is created first.

3. In chap. 1, man and woman are created together. In chap. 2, woman is created only after both man and God feel her absence.

3. In chap. 1, man is blessed that he should "be fruitful and multiply." In chap. 2, he is charged with a moral mission ("to till it and to keep it") and bound by a prohibition (not to eat from the tree of knowledge).[1]

4. In chap. 1, man is created in the image of God; in chap. 2, emphasis is placed on the two contradictory elements of which he is composed – spirit and matter.

As was stated above, the proponents of biblical criticism viewed all these differences as proof for their heretical approach that Scripture is composed of diverse sources that were joined together by a later redactor.

How are we to deal with biblical criticism? Should we ignore it or wrestle with its proofs? Can we perhaps reinterpret some of its arguments so that they can fit into our spiritual world?

In our discussion of this topic we shall extensively cite from contemporary authorities who have debated these questions.

IGNORING BIBLICAL CRITICISM

Some Jewish authorities have argued that there is no need whatsoever to wrestle with the Documentary Hypothesis. Biblical criticism is nonsense, as well as heresy, and the only fitting way to deal with it is to ignore it. This is the way the vast majority of the charedi world has dealt with the issue. Let us open with the words of Rabbi Zvi Tau, who finely summarizes this approach:

One who does not believe in the Divine origin and sublimity of the words, that they all flow from Divine truth that is infinite, absolute and eternal – one who lacks this faith will not understand the holy Scriptures whatsoever. All of his analyses, all of his investigations, all of his theories, and all of his "discoveries" fall into the category of nonsense…

When all these ideas are missing, when humility and self-effacement are lacking, when these elements are absent, come the scholars – Jews or gentiles, it makes no difference - and search through the holy Scriptures. They raise objections, they erase, they distort, and they emend; they suggest theories, they demonstrate creativity, they present novel ideas – what is all this to us? How are we connected to them? We occupy ourselves in the truth of the Torah, we engage ourselves in the holiness of the Torah. One who lacks both the beginning and the end – there is no point in talking to him at all! (Rabbi Zvi Tau, Tzadik Be-emunato Yichye, pp. 10, 19)

There are, however, many who criticize this approach. My friend, Rabbi Amnon Bazak, has raised two weighty arguments against this mode of thinking. Firstly, even people who lack all fear of God, and even gentiles, may have the capacity to propose meaningful interpretations of the Torah. God Himself testifies in the Torah: "For this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, who shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nations is a wise and understanding people" (Devarim 4:6). Rambam, in his introduction to chapter "Chelek," objects to a certain position, arguing that it contradicts reason, and will therefore not bring the gentiles to recognize the greatness of the Torah, but rather to scorn it. Hence, that position cannot possibly be correct. If gentiles have no understanding whatsoever when it comes to the Torah, why should we consider their opinions? We see then that we cannot simply reject what the gentiles have to say, without hearing them out and giving their words serious consideration. And furthermore, even if we categorically assume that gentiles are totally void of wisdom and understanding when it comes to understanding Scripture, how are we to relate to the problems that they raise? How are we to answer the questions that they ask? Rabbi Bazak argues that it is wrong to assume that a non-believer cannot suggest persuasive interpretations of the Torah; hence, he cannot be disregarded. He further argues that in any event, over and beyond the metaphysical questions, we must deal with the difficulties raised by the proponents of biblical criticism in and of themselves.[2]

Many others raise educational considerations: the refusal to recognize the arguments of biblical criticism is liable to be interpreted by certain students as evasion and cowardice. Students who will become exposed to biblical criticism at some later point in their lives may feel that their teachers had been afraid to deal with it because they lacked convincing answers.

LOCALIZED REJECTION

Some have attempted to confront biblical criticism by rejecting its specific arguments one by one. Prominent representatives of this approach include the German Rabbis, like Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann, who went through the Torah, section by section, trying to prove the mistakes of biblical criticism. Professor Umberto Cassuto adopted this approach as well. We shall cite a characteristic selection from his work, in which he attacks the foundations of biblical criticism:

Permit me to illustrate my argument with a story. Let us imagine that a certain author writes a biography of his father, who was a notable savant, an academician. We shall assume that in this book the writer gives us a multi-faceted picture of his father, describing his private life at home, his relations with his students at college and his scientific work…. Doubtless when the author proceeds to write his work, in the passages describing his father's life within the family circle, he refers to him as "Father"… In the sections that portray him in the circle of his students at the university, he uses the designation by which he was generally known in that circle, "the professor."… Let us now picture to ourselves that centuries or millennia later a scholar will declare: Since I observe that the hero of the work is called in some places "Father" and in others "the professor," it follows that we have here fragments culled from different writers, and the dissimilarity between the narrative and scientific sections corroborates this. (U. Cassuto, The Documentary Hypothesis, pp.57-58)

Cassuto argues that the differences between different sections of the Torah, with respect to the divine names, style, and content, stem from the fact that they describe different aspects of the relationship between God and man and the world. Obviously, a general assertion like this does not suffice, and Cassuto wrestles in each section with biblical criticism's arguments regarding redundancies and contradictions. Traditional Jews may not find all of Cassuto's ideas acceptable, but he has done a great service in demonstrating how flimsy are the foundations upon which biblical criticism sometimes rests.

THE THEORY OF MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES

Rabbi Mordechai Breuer has approached the problem in an entirely different spirit. Rabbi Breuer has argued that we can accept the exegetical conclusions of biblical criticism, without accepting their theological corollaries. His approach, the approach of "multiple perspectives," has had a profound effect on Torah study in our generation:

That simple exegesis, which sees the Torah as one consecutive structure, without contradictions and uniform in style, has been irretrievably contradicted and rejected. The Torah's division into "sources" to which "were added" "interpretive comments" and "editorial supplements," is an irrefutable truth, which jumps out at the student, against his will, according to all linguistic standards and "the plain interpretations of Scripture that present themselves anew each day." All the forced harmonistic resolutions cannot stand up to the inner truth of the ingenious work of Wellhausen[3] and his colleagues. As midgets before a giant, as collectors of crumbs beneath the table of a wealthy man, so stand Cassuto and his colleagues, when they disagree with the school of biblical criticism…

Come and see the glorious wreath of the Torah, go and ponder the glory and splendor of its pages: they go and slowly spread out, page by page, each in its unique channel – and you find before you living expressions of that Divine quality that crosses generations: the trait of the Tetragrammaton, the trait of the name ofE-lokim, and the trait of the name of E-l Shad-dai – hidden traits that embrace all the worlds and bestow their bounty on high and below… So too the contradictions in the Torah are but imaginary contradictions regarding the ways of God's providence!

Now, then, is it any wonder that the pages of the Torah clash, and the human intellect finds it difficult to reconcile the contradictions? Does not God's providence in the world – the visible expression of God's traits and holy names – does it not, as it were, clash with and contradict itself, God forbid, in the eyes of man and according to his human understanding? If the Holy One, blessed be He, embraces both justice and mercy, both lovingkindness and might, if He appears to Israel as an old man in a yeshiva and also as a young man at war, as merciful and gracious, and also as zealous and vindictive – how then can it be imagined that His Torah – all the letters of which constitute His holy names – will go forward in peace and calm, as a single continuum that settles in the heart of all?…

Were all the sages of the east and the west to assemble and seek a solution to the contradictions between the first two chapters of the book of Bereishit, they would not come up with even a broken shard. (Rabbi M. Breuer, "Emuna u-Mada Befarshanut ha-Mikra," De'ot 11)

Rabbi Breuer argues that the Torah's accounts of certain events and mitzvot are indeed repetitious or even contradictory. But we are dealing here not with different "sources," but with different "perspectives." God intentionally wrote the Torah in such a manner that every event and mitzva is described from multiple perspectives. This is because the world is complex and complicated; in order to correctly describe it, different aspects must be emphasized. Rabbi Breuer accepts many of the interpretive analyses of modern biblical scholarship, but he rejects its historical assumptions, arguing that this type of exegesis is fully reconcilable with the belief in the revelation of the Torah to Moshe at Sinai.

Rabbi Breuer appreciates the special value of the Torah having been written from multiple perspectives:

Had He given us a homogenous book that could also have been written by a single person, such a book would have been appropriate for children who on any given issue are capable of seeing only a single truth. This, however, was not the intention of the Lawgiver. He wanted to give us a book appropriate for adults, who understand that every issue has multiple perspectives, and also contradictory truths, each one constituting truth, though only partial and one-sided truth. It is only the combination of such truths that gives expression to the absolute truth. (Rabbi M. Breuer, "Bikoret ha-Mikra veha-Emuna Betorah min ha-Shamayim," Daf Kesher #864)

Rabbi Breuer summarizes his approach as follows:

There is only one way to confront the heresy of biblical criticism. Neither ignoring it nor fighting against it will work. Rather, we must follow the path outlined by the author of Or ha-Chayyim: We must "set our eyes" on the kernel of truth that is mixed into the falsehoods of the biblical critics… We must remove the slander from their mouths and restore the truth to its borders. For all their words are absolute truth, according to their assumptions. And therefore, with a change of form, they could become true even according to our assumptions. (Rabbi M. Breuer, "Torat ha-Te'udot shel Ba'al Sha'agat Arye," Megadim II, pp. 21-22)

To illustrate the approach, let us examine the manner in which Rabbi Breuer explains the differences between the two stories of creation, chapters one and two of the book ofBereishit:

The world that was created with the name E-lokim was given over to the rule of the laws of nature… For that reason the plant world preceded the creation of the animal kingdom, and the creation of the animals preceded the creation of man. For this would have had to be the order of the fashioning of these creatures had they developed on their own according to the laws of nature. Similarly, it is understandable that man and woman were created as one, for nature concerns itself exclusively with the preservation of species, and the preservation of the human species depends upon the partnership of man and woman.

In contrast, the world that was created with the Tetragrammaton is the world in which God reveals Himself, and which God Himself conducts in accordance with His will. This is a world that has meaning; it was created so that God would rejoice in it and in His creations. For this reason it was never absolutely handed over to the laws of blind nature. Accordingly, the creation of man preceded the creation of the plants and animals; for God has no desire in any of His other creations, but in man alone. Similarly, it is understandable that man was created before woman. For woman did not come to this world solely to ensure the preservation of the human species; woman was created so that man would rejoice in her, love her as he does himself, and find in her a help-mate in life. This could only be achieved, if he first suffered from solitude. (Rabbi M. Breuer, Pirkei Bereishit, p. 13)

Rabbi Breuer argues that the two accounts of creation give expression to the two aspects of God's providence in the world: the aspect of E-lokim and the aspect of the Tetragrammaton. The one emphasizes nature, while the second stresses God's direct revelation. It is interesting to note that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik proposed a similar explanation of the differences between the first and second chapters of Bereishit:

We all know that the Bible offers two accounts of the creation of man. We are also aware of the theory suggested by Bible critics attributing these two accounts to two different traditions and sources. Of course, since we do unreservedly accept the unity and integrity of the Scriptures and their divine character, we reject this hypothesis which is based, like many other Biblico-critical theories, on literary categories invented by modern man, ignoring completely the eidetic-noetic content of the biblical story. It is, of course, true, that the two accounts of the creation of man differ considerably. This incongruity was not discovered by the bible critics. Our sages of old were aware of it. However, the answer lies not in an alleged dual tradition but in dual man, not in an imaginary contradiction between two versions but in a real contradiction in the nature of man. The two accounts deal with two Adams, two men, two fathers of mankind, two types, two representatives of humanity, and it is no wonder that they are not identical. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, "The Lonely Man of Faith," Tradition VII [1964], no. 1, p. 10)[4]

Rabbi Soloveitchik does not present his position as a systematic refutation of biblical criticism. On the previous page, he declares that he had never been troubled by the theories of biblical criticism. He presents his explanation as an interpretation of Scripture that will increase understanding, and not as part of a systematic confrontation of biblical criticism. In any event, his approach is very similar to that of Rabbi Breuer on this specific point. This is how Rabbi Soloveitchik explains the two descriptions of creation:

Chapter 1 describes the world of nature, led by E-lokim ("the master of cosmic forces"), the pinnacle of which is man. Here man is a creature with a developed natural awareness, one who was created "in the image of God" (which Rabbi Soloveitchik identifies with conquest, dominion and creativity). However, he lives an external and superficial life (and presumably does not see himself as separate from nature that surrounds him).

Chapter two describes a spiritual-moral world: here man is created first, because from a spiritual perspective the entire world was created for him. He is conscious of his existence and his uniqueness: he is lonely, without a wife, aware of the possibility of death ("for on the day that you eat of it you shall surely die"), though he is not necessarily going to die (before the sin). He is given missions and commands. This man is self-aware and utterly lonely. God tries to provide him with a helpmate from the animal world. But man does not find a mate from among the animals, and so God creates woman from a rib taken from man. This is the creation story of chapter two. The account is organized thematically, and not according to scientific-natural classification; hence, it is also structurally less ordered. It is upon these differences that Rabbi Soloveitchik builds a grand philosophical structure, which we cannot present here in greater detail.

Many have criticized Rabbi Breuer and his approach. I shall cite here the words of my dear friend, Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein, who has noted the weak points in Rabbi Breuer's approach, without resorting to name calling or demagoguery.[5] First, Rabbi M. Lichtenstein raises doubts about Rabbi Breuer's argument that biblical criticism's conclusions are irrefutable scientific facts. Scientific findings should not be accepted blindly, for science often changes its basic conceptions. Moreover, a distinction must be made between the natural sciences and the humanities. In the natural sciences, we sometimes find absolute proofs; if a rocket ship is sent to the moon, and it reaches its objective, it is reasonable to assume that the technological principles on which the development of the rocket ship was based are in fact correct. But how can one prove a theory in the humanities? We must be careful not to adopt theories that in another hundred years will be proven to be false.

Rabbi M. Lichtenstein argues further that we are not concerned here merely with scientific imprecision, but with fundamental presumptions that have lead biblical scholars to erroneous conclusions. Every theory is based on a certain world outlook. For example, biblical critics rely on the assumption that if a prophet describes an event that took place not during his lifetime, but in the future, we must be dealing with a later source. It for this reason, for example, that the biblical critics attribute the book of Yeshaya to two different authors. If, on the other hand, we believe that the spirit of God rested upon the prophets, we should not be surprised that it was in their power to see into the future.

In addition to the doubts that may be raised regarding the validity of biblical criticism, we must analyze the exegetical and spiritual implications of the theory of perspectives. Rabbi M. Lichtenstein points out that the world presented according to Rabbi Breuer's approach is a world of sharp contrasts and contradictions, requiring the discovery of some factor that can reconcile the differences. It is not by chance that in his introduction to "Pirkei Mo'adot," Rabbi Breuer resorts to concepts borrowed from the world of Kabbala in order to find a basis and support for an outlook built on such sharp tensions and such dramatic balance between them. It should be noted that many of Rabbi Breuer's followers argue that there is no need to make use of a kabbalistic model.[6] An additional criticism is that Rabbi Breuer's approach entirely abandons the traditional commentaries to the Torah, inventing a totally new exegetical approach. Besides this, the very assumption that God would present Scripture in such a manner that conceals such a basic principle is problematic. Did God want to fool us? Why was Scripture composed in such a confusing and misleading manner?

As Rabbi M. Lichtenstein has noted, the theory of perspectives may be accepted in certain cases, where it is clear that a particular story is being told twice, as in the creation accounts, regarding which even Rabbi Soloveitchik took a similar approach. Rabbi Breuer, however, argues that his approach should be applied in all cases. He even attributes different parts of the same verse to different perspectives, in a manner that is not at all self-evident to the simple reader.

In conclusion, many have noted the educational dangers posed by the very confrontation with biblical criticism. Most of Rabbi Breuer's critics have emphasized this point. It should, however, be pointed out here that an educational danger may also be found at the other extreme – the total ignoring of and refusal to confront biblical criticism. It may, perhaps, be unnecessary to adopt one systematic approach. There are places where we should ignore certain arguments posed by the biblical critics; elsewhere, we should confront them on the local level; and in other places, we should adopt the theory of perspectives proposed by Rabbi Breuer. We are not required to obligate ourselves from the outset to any one particular approach.

FOOTNOTES

[1] The prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge is not at all similar to the restriction imposed upon man to partake only of the vegetable world, appearing in chapter 1. That instruction is not formulated as a prohibition ("You shall not eat meat"), but as a positive directive ("I have given you every herb bearing seed"). It stands to reason that man of chapter 1 did not relate to this command as an externally imposed prohibition, in the way that we relate to cannibalism. We seem to be dealing here with an ordering of the ecological system, and nothing more.

[2] Rabbi A. Bazak, "Yesharim Darkhei Hashem," Daf Kesher Letalmidei Yeshivat Har Etzion, #845, archived at:

http://www.etzion.org.il/dk/1to899/845mamar.htm.

[3] One of the most important biblical critics.

[4] See also Rabbi Soloveitchik's book "Family Redeemed," chapter 1.

[5] Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein, "Achat Diber E-lokim," Daf Kesher #851, http://www.etzion.org.il/dk/1to899/851mamar.htm. Rabbi Breuer's response can be found at:

http://www.etzion.org.il/dk/1to899/864mamar.htm.

[6] See, for example, Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, "Achat Diber E-lokim," Daf Kesher #863,

http://www.etzion.org.il/dk/1to899/863mamar.htm.

(Translated by David Strauss)

 

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