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20
Jan
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Manti Te'o and the Plague of Darkness

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One of the most prominent stories of this past week here in the U.S. is the story of Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o.  He is at center of a bizarre story involving a woman that he met online, who supposedly died in the fall of Leukemia.  This past season, Te’o dedicated his games to her recovery, and then sadly, to her memory.

Some say that Te’o was the victim of an elaborate hoax, while others suggest that he fabricated this relationship and death as a way of evoking support from Heisman Trophy judges.  According to the official version of the story, supported by the Notre Dame administration, Te'o never met the woman, the relationship relegated to “Tweets” and phone conversations.

Texas Christian University Prof. Sage Elwell observed that "relationships that solely exist online often times allow someone to overlook red flags, or character flaws, that may only become evident in face-to-face interaction." Elwell added that, ".... if you don't meet face-to-face at some point, it's hard to know if the relationship is a healthy, or real, one."

!

With the Te’o debacle once again raising the issue of the "the Dark side" of social media.. other related incidents come to mind: Recently, a Connecticut man hijacked a woman's Facebook and e-mail accounts and demanded compromising photos of her as ransom.

Here’s another story from this fall’s devastating Hurricane Sandy:

Shashank Tripathi's resignation from Republican Christopher Wight's campaign will take effect immediately . Wight is running in New York's 12th congressional district for U.S. House.

Buzzfeed first identified Tripathi as the man behind the @ComfortablySmug twitter handle. He tweeted a number of false reports during Sandy, including that the New York Stock Exchange was flooded and that utility company ConEdison was preemptively shutting down power in all of Manhattan.

Tripathi later apologized to the people of New York, but the panic that he generated by his "tweets" had already done its damage.

The sinister side of social media.  (In Tripathi's case, the Conn Edison tweet even claimed that Manhattan would literally be plunged into total darkness!)

These stories got me thinking of a possible connection between the dark use of social media and the plague of חושך, of darkness, in this week's Perasha, Bo.

Bo features the last three plagues wrought on Egypt, including locusts, darkness, and the smiting of the Egyptian first-born.

Rav Ze`ev Friedman (cited in an article by Goldie Guy) suggests that the Egyptians' continued blindness to G-d's dominion over the world - exemplified by Pharaoh`s saying: “Who is G-d that I might heed his voice?” – lead to the physical blindness of the plague of darkness.  Mida k'neged Mida - Measure for measure: blindness begets blindness.

In one internet article dealing with anonymity in the use of social media, the author writes:

...use of social media can go over the proverbial line and become vicious attacks. This is especially true with anonymous or pseudonymous speakers. Identifying anonymous or pseudonymous social media users who act with malice or ill will is not easy.

In an article about the Te’o hoax, the Columbus Dispatch writes,

People can create fake personas fairly easily, said private investigator Dean Boerger of Boerger Investigative Services in Grandview Heights.

“There are ways, easy ways, to cloak yourself and be someone you’re not,” he said.

People can steal photos from another person’s legitimate Facebook page, take on a pseudonym and create a fake phone number on Google Voice, Boerger said.

The perpetrators of the Manti Te'o hoax, the facebook account highjacker, and the Congressional campaign manager whose secret tweets generated hysteria in Gotham City, thrive on the "cover" provided by their social media platforms.

Midrash Hagadol cites this verse in Sefer Yeshaya in reference to the Egyptians:

הוי המעמיקים מיהוה לסתר עצה והיה במחשׁך מעשׂיהם ויאמרו מי ראנו ומי יודענו

Woe is to them that seek to hide their counsel from Hashem, and all their actions are in the dark, saying ‘Who sees us and Who knows’?

This midrash makes the direct connection that we referred to above – the Egyptians’ perceived lack of accountability, the brushing aside of G-d as the watchful eye – in the language of Pirkei Avot – triggered the plague of darkness as more of a consequence than a punishment.

לפיכך לוקין בחושך שנאמר יהי דרכם חשך וחלקלקות

Therefore, they are smitten with darkness, as it says (Tehilim) “Let their paths be darkness and slipping”.

Back in Egypt, another midrash recounts how the Israelites, visiting their Egyptian neighbors during the plague of darkness,  were accompanied by light that would literally follow them into the Egyptian homes and leave with them upon their departure.

כשהיה ישראל בא אצל מצרי לשאול ממנו היה בא האור עמו וכשהיה יוצא היה האור יוצא עמו

The midrash goes on to say that the Israelites on the other hand, had light in their homes because they are involved in Torah and mitzvot, regarding which it says

כי נר מצוה ותורה אור

Because a mitzvah is a candle and the Torah is light.

Now, at that time – in Egypt – there were no overt mitzvoth being practiced by the Israelites, since the Egyptian exile of course preceded the giving of the Torah.

Instead, I would like to understand the midrash as referring to the character of our lives both at the time of the Egyptian exile and for generations to come. We Jews are preoccupied with light.  Rooted in our belief that there is no such thing as absolute anonymity – Hashem observes all of actions – we know that each of our actions is intrinsically significant , and that we are accountable for them.

As Jews living in the modern world, we do not believe that the Torah requires us to insulate ourselves from secular knowledge or modern technological developments.  Just the opposite, a Torah agenda for the world bids us to confront the latest developments and channel them in a kosher fashion, seeing them as tools to further the Torah agenda.  The Jew walks around carrying the enlightened perspective of accountability, of a sense that there is no ultimate anonymity. It is this firm belief that generates a consistent commitment to Torah and mitzvot, to a modern Jewish society that utilizes the latest technologies in ways that create meaningful connections and support causes that benefit the world.

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14
Jan
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Reviews of Art Benjamin

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ARTBWhat Others Say About Dr. Benjamin

"He talks like a performer, acts like a magician, and multiplies faster than a calculator."
--- The Los Angeles Times.

"Someone you can count on!"
--- People Magazine

"This is fun!"
--- Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report, Comedy Central, 2010

"Thanks again for presenting at the Amazon event. The feedback I received was amazing; everyone loved your show. It was *perfect* for the team there assembled. Now my big challenge is how do I even come close to something like that for next year?"
--- Colin Bodell, Senior Vice President, Amazon.com, 2010

"Your gift for mental calculation is truly astounding. The technology, risk management and compliance professionals who attended the Summit were completely captivated by your presentation, and we appreciate the excitement that you brought to our event. You had the complete attention of everyone in the room throughout your entire presentation, and your feats of mind were a major point of discussion for the remainder of the Summit. You inspired us all to use our brains a little bit more, and we will never forget your incredible show."
--- Alex Bender, Vice President of Marketing, Archer Technologies, 2008

"It was great. I only heard positive comments from everyone. Thanks!"
--- Mindy Harris, President, NAGDCA (National Association of Government Defined Contribution Administrators), 2008

"Doctor Benjamin's presentation ranks among the very best. He is able to entertain, motivate, stimulate, and educate simultaneously, a rare ability that helps to bring the joy of math and science into the lives of his audiences."
--- Dr. Steven Murov, Director, Modesto Area Partners in Science

"Parents, teachers, and children, with multiple layers of math phobia, related easily to your imaginative style of storytelling and theater that brings math to a 'Wow!' level."
--- Sarah Orleans, Director of Programs, The Franklin Institute Science Program

"Dr. Arthur Benjamin made two presentations at Millersville University as part of the 21st annual Brossman Science Lectureship. The audience for the afternoon presentation consisted of 5th through 9th graders. The audience for the evening performance consisted of children through adults including university students and faculty. There was standing room only for both presentations (750 each). These were the largest crowds to ever attend the Science Lectureship. Dr. Benjamin appealed to all ages. His presentations were energetic and humorous as well as being informative. He had people excited about mathematics. One teacher stated: 'Dr. Benjamin was a fantastic lecturer and truly inspiring to the students.'"
--- Dr. Lyman Rickard, Millersville University

"Your presentation at BMS was thoroughly enjoyed by both the students and the faculty. You were phenomenal! You have such a great way of getting kids thinking and enjoying math!! We look forward to having you back in the future."
--- Christy Romano, Enrichment Coordinator, Bow Memorial School

"Arthur Benjamin, the `mathemagician,' wowed the crowd with his demonstration of lightning calculation. It's hard to believe that watching someone do math would be entertaining, but Arthur is a knockout."
--- Magic Magazine, November 2007

"That was one of the most incredible finishing acts we've ever had!"
--- Carmie Henry, Vice President, Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, 2008

"Arthur Benjamin and his human calculator act is one of the most exciting, entertaining acts imaginable."
--- Academy of Magical Arts Newsletter, January 2010

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10
Jan
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Big Brothers and Sisters Donation Bin Now @ EB

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In keeping with our mission of Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Hasadim, as of today, EB is a drop-off point for donations of household items, you name it, for the Big Brothers and Sisters of Puget Sound. The Donation Bin will be located on the EB grounds, close to the corner of Wilson and Brandon Streets in Seward Park

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10
Jan
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HOW I TRAVELED TO ISRAEL AND HAD MY BATHROOM REMODELED

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EB congregant Fran Israel just returned from a harrowing, but inspiring trip to Israel. Here's her personal account - enjoy!                                                                     

     We often hear the saying: “ Three Mishaps In a Row And You Are Home Free.”  I was leaving on a long anticipated trip with my daughter, Marilyn and grandson, Adam to visit family in Switzerland, Joe & Becky Benardeti, and then fly to Israel.  We had three panic inducing episodes that seemed to cloud the future of our trip:  First, there was the missing cash from my purse, then the credit card left at a Lausanne restaurant, and finally, when we arrived in Israel a piece of luggage missing?? –stolen??  After a hectic two-hour search with Israeli security, a young Israeli policewoman found the bag—it had been left on the luggage carousel.

     We checked in to the lovely hotel by the sea and breathed a huge sigh of relief, as we firmly believed nothing further could happen to us—we were home free.

    The first week in Tel Aviv -was filled with sightseeing and visiting friends and family.  We visited Old Jaffa with its wonderful shops and ancient cobbled stones.  Adam was always at my side offering his strong arm for assistance.  We visited Dr. Scott and Karin Pollock in Netanya and had Shabbat dinner with my cousin, Daniel Beyar and his family in Kfar Sava.  Dan was a former Attorney General and is now a superior court judge.  Adam was busy nights teaching master dance classes and private dance lessons.  The swing dance community at Dance Tel Aviv had invited him to teach. Therefore, we coordinated our trip

so that he could travel with us. His students included physical therapists, occupational therapists, the director of medical tourism, and Esther B., a flamboyant ballroom dancer who edited medical journals.  Adam is a musical theater actor who dances like a Sephardic Gene Kelley.

      The culmination of that week was a guided all-day tour to Cesarea, the B’hai Temple, Haifa— past the beautiful and mystical landscapes, and the Sea of Galilee, that paved the way to Sefat, the seat of the Kabbalah, where I purchased lovely hand-woven tallit for my grandsons and delicate Havdallah candles.

     The last day in Tel Aviv was Tuesday, October 30, a day I shall never forget.  We had gone to the Carmel Shuk enjoying the splendid array of art, jewelry, food and other delights.  We were on our way back to the hotel to leave for Jerusalem.  Strolling on the sidewalk, I was suddenly hit by a bicycle riding at a furious pace.  The shoulder strap of my purse caught on to the handlebar of his bike and I was lifted up and slammed on to the cement.

     Lying on the cement, in excruciating pain, I heard Adam’s anguished cry:  “You have killed my Grandmother.”  And then, “Call 911.”  Miraculously, the ambulance came even though it was the wrong number.  The rider of the bike was 22 year-old young man who had been in a hurry to get to a meeting.  In spite of the fact that he was contacted twice and informed of the outcome of his carelessness, he never expressed any remorse, nor did he make any effort to apologize.

(A police report was filed; as of this writing I have not heard anything.

     At the hospital, the Sourasky Medical Center, I was wheeled to the emergency room with Adam at my side.  At the front desk, Marilyn who did not speak Hebrew was met with a barrage of questions—all in Hebrew.  This was not the hotel where everyone spoke English; this was a different system, the Israeli Health System, a different world.

    After the tortuous ex-rays, the doctor told me that my shoulder had been dislocated and fractured; my hip was also fractured and needed immediate hip replacement surgery. I was then wheeled into a small screen cubicle where the atmosphere was far from serene:  there was loud talking, noises, babies crying, and the man next to me who had broken his arm was wailing loud and piteously.  Marilyn and Adam were asked to leave but they stubbornly refused.

      I remained in this chaotic place for 11 hours before being admitted to the hospital. The next day, Dr. Pollock tried to find out the time for my surgery but was told we would know only 10 minutes before the operation.  And to my dismay the surgery was postponed even longer because I developed a high fever. They had not been monitoring my temperature and to prevent this from happening the next day and thus delaying surgery again, Adam ran down to the pharmacy to buy a thermometer.

     I awoke from the surgery in a large room blazing with yellow light.  I perceived other beds around me.  I felt a strange pulsating monitor under my arm that arose like a worm under my armpit.  It seemed as if I were in a den of fiends and that I had died.   Suddenly, this gloom was dispelled by a cheerful, matronly woman who introduced herself to me:  “Hello, I am Yehudit, your nurse, I am Jewish, I will take care of you.”  And when she saw tears in my eyes she sang to me with gestures:  “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.”

     There were other quirky characters that cared for me during my stay in the hospital:  There was Igor, the tall blond Russian with the gentle face.  He told me that I was his hero, but I never knew why.  Then there was Emile, a small dark-haired man who always wore orange clogs and looked like a detective in a B-grade movie.  There was also an extraordinary tall poker-faced man whose name we never knew but who moved like Lurch from the Adam’s Family.  They were all very kind people whose services were scarce.  It became clear to me that they were all seriously over-worked and that the main job of attending to my needs was to fall on Marilyn and Adam.   For example asking for pain meds required some dramatic feats: grimacing and groaning—until they said, “Ahh—Ahh, Pyeer- ko- set.

     Adam wheeled me around the hospital wherever I needed to go.  One day someone asked him  “Who are you?”  “I am Security, “ replied Adam.  “And this is a famous film celebrity who I am protecting.”  Other family members pushed their loved ones right in their hospital beds on to the terrace where they could smoke freely.  Sometimes Dr. Gilad would come to draw blood all the time complaining that I left my veins at home.  He finally took blood from an artery with Marilyn assisting.

     After 5 days in the hospital, I was ready for rehab.  The influential dance community, which included the occupational therapist at the PALACE, a private rehab facility, decreed that is where I needed to go.  From my hospital room, several blocks away, I could see a tall cream-colored building with the words PALACE emblazoned at the top.  Before we had time to ponder this decision, a smiling young woman with curly red hair appeared in my hospital room wearing a white fleece pantsuit with the PALACE insignia.  In my hospital gown, with a pillow between my legs, as prescribed for hip surgery, she wheeled me through the busy streets of Tel Aviv, horns honking, and Adam and Scott following behind us.  Marilyn and Karin had stayed behind to quickly gather up my clothes from the hospital room.

     The reception room at the PALACE was like the Four Seasons with gorgeous marble floors and crystal chandeliers.  A lovely woman received me all dressed in white.  I said to her, “If this is the PALACE, you must be the queen.  She nodded and smiled.  She did not understand a word I said.

     By this time Marilyn and Karin had caught up with us.  Marilyn was once again prepared for a lot of questions and forms to fill out and was amazed that there were none.  All that was needed was a credit card.

     Thus, my life at the PALACE began.  I was whisked up to the 11th floor to my beautiful private room complete with marble bath and shower.  In the morning a nurse appeared to take my vitals and then another nurse would appear and say, “Bath”?  I was showered and dressed, my shoulder was still immobilized and in a sling.  Then I was gently pushed into the elaborate dining room all covered with white tablecloths and given a menu—all in Hebrew.  The nurses were all very sweet and attentive but only spoke Hebrew and Russian that seemed like the language of most of the patients there who were from Moscow.  My life became one of signs and gestures and often seemed surreal.  I looked forward to the afternoon to visits from Marilyn and Adam who often ate with me as well as Karin & Scott, Dan & Ahouva, also Talya, my daughter-in-laws niece who had made aliyah several years, was another welcomed guest.

     I was fortunate in that all of the physical therapists at the PALACE spoke English.  They were very kind and inspired hope and confidence that I would fully recover.  On the first day of my therapy they had me climb stairs.  My therapy began each morning when a nurse would escort me to the lower level of the building to a large brightly lit room where physical therapy would take place.  The room led to a terrace and gardens where I often walked with my therapist.

     I spent 11 days at the PALACE and while they were pleasant enough, I longed to leave my gilded cage and go home.  I was excited when we finally heard from our travel insurance company that plans were being made to re-book our flights home.  First it was Tuesday, then Wednesday, and then the rockets began to fall.  At the PALACE, when the sirens went off, we were rushed to the “safe” room, a clatter of wheelchairs and walkers.

On the beach, with temperatures in the 80’s, Adam ran into the ocean for a last swim.  And then the sirens went off again.  He had to turn around and race back grabbing his mother, who had been on the beach admonishing him not to go in, and together race for a shelter.

     Finally our flight home was arranged.  The travel insurance ordered a rescue nurse to fly with us.  We dubbed him the Jewish Indiana Jones.  While all of us were anxious to go home, we were saddened to see the trouble that Israel once again had to endure.  We flew home on November 17th with the rockets still flying.

                                                      ************

     In the beginning of this whole catastrophe there were many frantic calls home to worried family members.  Now Sari, my youngest daughter called to talk:  “Mom, she said, “I know you like to bathe in your beautiful bathtub, but this is not going to work for you now.  Rick and I have contracted to have a walk-in-shower installed in the other bathroom.”  I felt tears move down my cheeks and for the hundredth time I thanked God for the wonderful, loving family He gave me.  At the same time, I was deeply grateful for the doctors, nurses, and physical therapists that helped restore my battered body.

     I also remember, with laughter, the pretty physical therapist that said:  “Come back next year.  Choose which leg you wish to break—and come back!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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07
Jan
0

This past week's theme song

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06
Jan
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"I got a name"

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igotanameMazal tov to Elana and Josh Zana on the birth of their new baby daughter, Miriam Hila.  We share the joy with the extended Zana, Behar and Okrent families on this great occasion.  This past week, our daughter Yosifa gave birth to a baby girl in Eretz Yisrael, and they named her several hours ago.  Only after Shabbat here in Seattle, will we find what name they gave her!

This occasion is very auspicious as this week's Perasha is called “Shemot” – also the name of the entire Book of Exodus.  In Hebrew, Sefer Shemot means the Book of Names

But this title, Shemot, seems somewhat problematic. How so? Each name that our sages assigned to the various books of the Chumash - fit the theme of the book.  Bereshit - Genesis - is so named because it does not just record the Genesis of the world, but of the Jewish people - as it traces the lives of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs and the foundations of our nationhood. Vayikra begins with Hashem calling to Moshe from the Tent of the Meeting, and focuses on the principles and laws of the proper worship of G-d in the midst of the  Israelite camp.  In Bamidbar, in the desert, we learn of the various events of the Israelites'  40 years of travel in the desert.  Lastly, Devarim is so-called as it includes Moshe Rabenu's final speech on the eve of Am Yisrael's entry into the Land of Israel.

But if we look at Sefer Shemot, while it is true that  the first few verses recall the names of the sons of Ya'akov, the Torah immediately tells us that these sons died along with the entire generation.  From that point on, there is almost no mention of "names." In fact, the Torah seems to deliberately avoid bestowing names on the various personalities in the narrative.

Here are some examples:

  • פרעה - מלך מצרים -Pharoah - the King of Egypt.  Both of these expressions reflect a role rather than a proper name.
  • המילדות העברית - the Hebrew midwives.  Even when the Torah declares that one of their names was Shifra, the other Puah, Rashi - following the lead of our sages - explains that these reflect roles and not actual names.  Shifra cleaned up the babies upon their birth, while Puah cooed and calmed the newborns.
  • איש מבית לוי אשה מבית לוי - a man from the house of Levi marries a woman from the House of Levi.  This reference to Moshe's parents sidesteps their actual names, later revealed to be Amram and Yocheved.
  • הילד, נער – The (young) boy, a reference to Moshe
  • בת פרעה - the daughter of Pharoah.  She also is only presented only relative to her father, Pharoah.
  • Even Moshe's sister, Miriam is referred to merely as אחותו, his sister, while Yocheved, his mother, is soon referred to as אם הילד.

Why does the Torah go out of its way to avoid naming these personalities? Why are they only described in terms of their roles and relationships and not their actual names?

I would like to try to answer this question by pointing to another pattern in the first chapters of Sefer Shemot. It seems that the narrative is saturated with the theme of "rebellion":

Here are some examples:

  • Pharoah shows ingratitude and rejection of the Israelites: “A new King arose over Egypt who did not know Yosef."
  • The midwives resist Pharoah's order to kill the Jewish baby boys at birth, choosing to feed him a farfetched story that the Jewish women gave birth well before the midwives could clandestinely kill the Jewish baby boys.
  • According to Rashi - following the Midrash - Amram had divorced his wife Yocheved, fearful that producing more babies would only lead to the babies' death; given his prominence, Amram is followed by men throughout the Israelite nation.  Miriam, inspired by a heavy dose of “Chutzpah", condemns her father for what she feels is a policy worse than Pharoah, who only decreed death to the Jewish boys; in contrast,  Amram, through divorcing Yocheved, had set an example that could ultimately sentence the entire nation to death.
  • We would have expected that if anyone would adhere to the official Egyptian policy to drown the Jewish boys, it would be Pharoah's child.  Instead, בת פרעה, Pharoah's daughter, comes to wash on the Nile; upon discovering a baby she identifies as Hebrew, בת פרעה saves the baby, and even returns him to a Jewish woman (his actual mother!) to nurse.
  • As an adult, Moshe rebels against his Egyptian upbringing by killing an Egyptian taskmaster attacking a Jew, only to eventually flee to Midian, where he rescues the daughters of the Priest of Midian from bullies at a local well.   Why are the daughters of the Priest of Midian being bullied? Rashi explains: Re'uel's family had been excommunicated once he abandoned idolatry for monotheism.

So whether it's the midwives, Miriam, Pharoah's daughter, Moshe, or Re'uel, Moshe's father-in -law, a strong current of resistance and rebellion runs through the early chapters of Sefer Shemot.  What is the connection between this resistance movement, if you will, and the absence of names at the start of Sefer Shemot?

When Adam HaRishon, the first man was assigned the task of giving names to all of the animals in the Garden of Eden, he wasn't simply asked to choose arbitrary labels for the different species.  A name represents the essence of something.  It follows that when Adam called a horse סוס - he had identified an aspect of the essence of a horse that warranted the name סוס. Our tradition prohibits calling another person by a derogatory nick-name.  Why? A person's name reflects his essence, and mocking that is an affront to the essence, the soul of a person.  This is a very inspiring idea.  In fact, when I was growing up, one of my favorite songs was Jim Croce’s “I got a name”.  I have a clear identity!

The characters at the start of Sefer Shemot are sadly in a state of chaos - their surrounding culture, their belief system, societal expectations - are all calling on them to act unethically, improperly.  The king bids the midwives  to act unethically, to murder innocent children.  The man and woman from the House of Levi feel the pressure to end their marriage due to futility and emotional drain presented by the campaign to drown Israelite boys in the Nile; Bat Pharoah is torn between her father's decree to drown Israelite boys and her humanity and sense of compassion.  The initial "anonymity" of these characters, I would like to suggest, reflects this tension, this pressure, inhibiting their strivings to connect to their essence, their "names".

It's only after Pharoah's daughter rescues the baby, and names him Moshe that actual names begin to appear in the narrative.

  • ויגדל משה - and Moshe grew (in stature)
  • וַתָּבֹאנָה, אֶל-רְעוּאֵל אֲבִיהֶן - and the (Midianite) girls came to their father Re'uel.  Moshe links up with Re'uel, also known as Yitro...In fact, our sages tell us, Yitro has no less than seven names!
  • וַיִּתֵּן אֶת-צִפֹּרָה בִתּוֹ, לְמֹשֶׁה - and he gave his daughter Tzippora to Moshe

Immediately afterwards, Moshe names his son,

  • וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן, וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ גֵּרְשֹׁם:  כִּי אָמַר--גֵּר הָיִיתִי, בְּאֶרֶץ נָכְרִיָּה. - She gave birth to a son and (Moshe) called his name Gershom, saying "I was a Ger (stranger) in a strange land."

With the pivotal event of Pharoah's daughter rescuing and naming Moshe - the verses begin their transition to reintroducing characters with names into the story.

Bringing the two themes together - the one of conscientious objection and rebellion together with the absence and reappearance of names, I would like to suggest the following: Before they resist the influences and pressures pressing them to make outright unethical decisions or holding them back from courageous statements of faith, the personalities in the first chapters of Shemot are "nameless" because they are unable to connect to their essence.  Once they display the courage to act on their ethical impulses, these same characters pave the way for a return to essence.  This return to essence expresses itself in the reintroduction of "names" into Sefer Shemot.

This message: the ongoing need to re-examine assumptions and influences that govern our lives --- is true on a communal, congregational, family and individual level. We must always strive to live lives consistent with our essence.

This is a Shabbat of names and we join together with the entire congregation wishing our best to the Zana family on the occasion of the naming Miriam Hila, whose name carries special meaning for members of her family.  May we continue to celebrate many s'machot together!

 

 

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02
Jan
0

Mazal Tov

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....to our family!  Our daughter Yosifa (Lehman) gave birth to a healthy baby girl this evening in Jerusalem.  Rubisa Miriam is headed to help her readjust to home life on Jan. 16th, for two weeks. May we only share good news!

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30
Dec
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Thoughts on "Don't Bury Me In Egypt"

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In this last perasha of Sefer Bereishit, Ya'akov Avinu asks his son, Yosef  to do חסד ואמת -- "Kindness and truth"

...אל נא תקברני במצרים

Please do not bury me in Egypt

Instead, transport my remains to the Land of Canaan, and bury me with my fathers in the Cave of the Machpelah.

Our sages understand the term חסד ואמת as an act of true kindness - not just חסד ואמת -kindness and truth - but חסד של אמת - a unique form of kindness: true kindness, with no strings attached: Preparation and burial of the dead will not be reciprocated by the deceased.

This foundational Jewish idea, though, falls somewhat short of being the simple meaning of the text.  Contextually, Yaakov seems to refer to חסד ואמת not simply as a request for burial per se - but as a specific request to be buried in Canaan.  To ensure compliance, Ya'akov even presses Yosef to swear that he will carry out this mission.

R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch has an original explanation of חסד ואמת: Ya'akov is asking Yosef to ensure that the Hesed, the kindness of burial, be done in Canaan, the true homeland of our people."  He understands that B'nai Yisrael had begun "to see the Jordan in the Nile", that the family was losing a sense of what it truly meant to be in Galut, in exile. Paradoxically, Yosef's successful integration of B'nai Yisrael into Egyptian culture threatened our intrinsic connection to our homeland. 

In response to his father's charge, Yosef says:

אנכי אעשה כדבריך

I will do as you say

Sforno explains:

 אנכי מצד עצמי אעשה כדברך בכל כחי

I will - on my own - do what you ask - with all of my power

The simplest understanding of Sforno is that Yosef is offering some push-back to the idea of an oath.  As if to say, "No need to formalize this, Abba, I will make sure that your wishes are fulfilled!"

But in the next verse, Ya'akov insists on the oath, and Yosef consents.

Ramban is puzzled by Ya'akov's hard-line stance: According to Ramban, Ya’akov was not suspicious of his beloved, righteous son – that he would not follow through on his father's commandment, after saying "I will do as you say".  Rather, Ya’akov did this in order to strengthen the matter in Pharoah’s eyes; otherwise, Pharoah may not have given Yosef permission to leave Egypt, preferring Yosef to send his brothers and servants to bury Ya'akov.  Another possibility: Pharoah would want the prophet, Ya'akov, to be buried in his land as an honor and merit to the Egyptian people. 

Ramban suggests yet another reason for the oath: “Yosef would now have to put in more effort because of the oath…."

In other words,  Ya’akov understands that in order to guarantee fulfillment of the mitzvah,  he must transform his commandment into an internal imperative for Yosef. 

A similar thought is echoed in the famous statement by the great Hillel in Pirkei Avot:  אם אין אני לי, מי לי? “If I am not for myself, who is for me?”  Rabbeinu Yonah explains that fundamentally,  receiving rebuke from another person is fraught with the limitation that the pressure to change one's behavior is external rather than internal. I, says Hillel, must engage myself in a “self-reproof”, critical self-evaluation – and inspire myself to make that change.  While external pressure to alter behavior has only temporary impact, one who engages in self-reproof is more likely to experience permanent change.

After writing these words, inspired by Rabbi Maury Grebenau, I was thinking: According to our sages, the forefathers fulfilled the entire Torah before it was given.  If so, Yosef presumably adhered to the mitzvah of honoring parents.  That means that Yosef would have felt the religious imperative to implement his father's request to be buried in Israel by virtue of Kibud Av V'em - honoring parents.  If so, how does Ya'akov's oath trigger a greater internal imperative for Yosef?

 

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28
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Shabbat "Fundamentals": PED from a Torah Perspective

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PEDAs many of you may (or may not!) know, despite my attempt to "kick the habit", I remain a fan of professional football, and of the Seahawks in particular. (Always root for the home team!) Today, the Hawks' Richard Sherman won his appeal against a four-game suspension for allegedly having used performance-enhancing drugs.  I thought that it would be a good opportunity to revisit the topic, from a Torah perspective, in the context of our weekly "Fundamentals" class.  Join us after Kiddush this week @ EB for what promises to be a lively discussion !

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26
Dec
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Rabbi Sack's Latest Piece - from the NY Times

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Special thanks to Dan and Barbara Melber for making me aware of this op-ed.

The Moral Animal—New York Times Op Ed—12/23/12

By JONATHAN SACKS  --  London

IT is the religious time of the year. Step into any city in America or Britain and you will see the night sky lit by religious symbols, Christmas decorations certainly and probably also a giant menorah. Religion in the West seems alive and well.

But is it really? Or have these symbols been emptied of content, no more than a glittering backdrop to the West’s newest faith, consumerism, and its secular cathedrals, shopping malls?

At first glance, religion is in decline. In Britain, the results of the 2011 national census have just been published. They show that a quarter of the population claims to have no religion, almost double the figure 10 years ago. And though the United States remains the most religious country in the West, 20 percent declare themselves without religious affiliation — double the number a generation ago.

Looked at another way, though, the figures tell a different story. Since the 18th century, many Western intellectuals have predicted religion’s imminent demise. Yet after a series of withering attacks, most recently by the new atheists, including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, still in Britain three in four people, and in America four in five, declare allegiance to a religious faith. That, in an age of science, is what is truly surprising.

The irony is that many of the new atheists are followers of Charles Darwin. We are what we are, they say, because it has allowed us to survive and pass on our genes to the next generation. Our biological and cultural makeup constitutes our “adaptive fitness.” Yet religion is the greatest survivor of them all. Superpowers tend to last a century; the great faiths last millenniums. The question is why.

Darwin himself suggested what is almost certainly the correct answer. He was puzzled by a phenomenon that seemed to contradict his most basic thesis, that natural selection should favor the ruthless. Altruists, who risk their lives for others, should therefore usually die before passing on their genes to the next generation. Yet all societies value altruism, and something similar can be found among social animals, from chimpanzees to dolphins to leafcutter ants.

Neuroscientists have shown how this works. We have mirror neurons that lead us to feel pain when we see others suffering. We are hard-wired for empathy. We are moral animals.

The precise implications of Darwin’s answer are still being debated by his disciples — Harvard’s E. O. Wilson in one corner, Oxford’s Richard Dawkins in the other. To put it at its simplest, we hand on our genes as individuals but we survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole. Our unique advantage is that we form larger and more complex groups than any other life-form.

A result is that we have two patterns of reaction in the brain, one focusing on potential danger to us as individuals, the other, located in the prefrontal cortex, taking a more considered view of the consequences of our actions for us and others. The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational. We are caught, in the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, between thinking fast and slow.

The fast track helps us survive, but it can also lead us to acts that are impulsive and destructive. The slow track leads us to more considered behavior, but it is often overridden in the heat of the moment. We are sinners and saints, egotists and altruists, exactly as the prophets and philosophers have long maintained.

If this is so, we are in a position to understand why religion helped us survive in the past — and why we will need it in the future. It strengthens and speeds up the slow track. It reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters.

No one has shown this more elegantly than the political scientist Robert D. Putnam. In the 1990s he became famous for the phrase “bowling alone”: more people were going bowling, but fewer were joining bowling teams. Individualism was slowly destroying our capacity to form groups. A decade later, in his book “American Grace,” he showed that there was one place where social capital could still be found: religious communities.

Mr. Putnam’s research showed that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help the homeless, donate blood, help a neighbor with housework, spend time with someone who was feeling depressed, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job. Religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance is, he found, a better predictor of altruism than education, age, income, gender or race.

Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology. This may go to show that God has a sense of humor. It certainly shows that the free societies of the West must never lose their sense of God.

Jonathan Sacks is the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and a member of the House of Lords

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24
Dec
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Order Your Mathemagics Tickets Online!

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Mathemagician Art Benjamin is coming to Seattle for one performance only at EB on Monday evening, Jan. 14th at 7 pm.  Tickets are only $5, and $7 at the door on the night of the show.  Starting today, you can order your tickets online.  Just go to http://ezrabessaroth.net/support-eb and under "Campaign" select "Mathemagics".  Payment is via Paypal.  In the comments section, let us know if you want to pick up your reserved tickets at the door or whether you would like to receive them in advance. For a brief preview of what's in store for you, see the following YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4vqr3_ROIk

See you at EB on January 14th!

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24
Dec
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Klal Perspectives

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I would like to warmly recommend check out a relatively new online (and hard copy) pubilcation; "Klal Perspectives" has many thoughtful articles dealing with the issue of outreach - and inreach - in the Jewish community. To see the online version, click on http://klalperspectives.org/

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14
Dec
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YU Statement on Allegations of Past Staff Sexual Misconduct

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The revelations of the past 24 hours of molestation at Yeshiva University during the 70's and 80's -- are truly horrifying and disturbing.  Just as I posted the RCA statement regarding the scandal in the Satmar community, I am posting the RCA response to the YU scandal.  Below that, the statement of President Richard Joel, whom I have the pleasure of meeting on several occasions - both here in Seattle and in New Jersey - immediately follows.  It is crucial that in these types of matters, we distance ourselves from institutional and philosophical allegiances - and openly condemn all such behavior and the Chilul Hashem (Desecration of G-d's name) that comes in its wake - RM

Dec 13, 2012 -- The Rabbinical Council of America is deeply troubled by the allegations made in the Jewish Forward regarding abuse at Yeshiva University's High School some twenty-five years ago. Abuse is an issue of concern to all denominations, institutions, and communities and cannot be condoned or excused. 

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, president of the RCA, stated, "Our sympathies and support are extended to all victims of abuse. It is especially hard to confront improprieties which may have occurred in our own house, yet that is where the responsibility lies. We are confident that Yeshiva is equal to the task."


The RCA commends President Richard Joel for his forthright response and statement of concern.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Statement from President Richard M. Joel in Response to Allegations of Past Abuse

Dear Yeshiva University Community,

The safety and well-being of our students is Yeshiva University’s highest priority. The inappropriate behavior and abuse alleged by The Forward to have taken place in the past, and described in statements attributed by The Forward to Dr. Lamm, are reprehensible. The actions described represent heinous and inexcusable acts that are antithetical both to Torah values and to everything that Yeshiva University stands for. They have no place here, in our community, or anywhere at all. The thought that such behavior could have occurred at our boys’ high school, or anywhere at this institution, at any time in its past, is more than sufficient reason to express on behalf of the University, my deepest, most profound apology.

At this institution we continually review and strengthen policies and practices addressing the safety of all members of the Yeshiva family. We are vigilant and responsible, and always will be. While we cannot change the past, I can say with absolute certainty that Yeshiva University has implemented, and will continue to maintain and enforce the policies and procedures necessary to assure a safe environment. Such policies and procedures, established in consultation with outside experts, include:

  • At each and every one of YU’s schools, including Yeshiva University High School for Boys, there is zero tolerance for abuse or sexual harassment of any sort, of students, faculty or staff. If, despite our best efforts, they should occur, procedures exist both to swiftly deal with the perpetrators and aid the victims. These policies are posted on our website and are communicated directly to all employees annually.
  • Members of our own faculty and staff, at every level, undergo training designed to increase sensitivity to these issues, including mandatory training for new hires concerning sexual harassment.
  • Students are encouraged to report any incidents of abuse to the University administration and should feel safe knowing that their security is our number one concern. A hotline exists to enable confidential reporting of such complaints. The hotline number is 866-447-5052.

Yeshiva University’s many programs in this area for rabbis, teachers, care providers, community leaders, parents and children widely impact the broader Jewish community:

  • The Comprehensive Abuse Response Education (CARE) program at YU’s Institute for University-School Partnership works with day schools around the country to keep children safe in their schools by addressing abuse issues with research, training and consultation.
  • YU’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration offers a NYS workshop and certification in preventing and identifying child abuse.
  • Members of our faculty advocate on behalf of victims of child abuse; consult and advise around the world, including with child protective service organizations, and in communities across the spectrum; and present educational programs designed to prevent abuse both to parents and children.
  • A curriculum developed at YU’s Center for the Jewish Future called “Life Values and Intimacy Education: Health Education for the Jewish School,” is now taught in grades 3-8 in many day schools around theUnited States.
  • CJF offers continuing educational programs to rabbis and rebbetzins, including a certificate program, to help them recognize and address all forms of abuse in their communities.
  • Before embarking on service learning and experiential education missions where they will work with children, students are taught to recognize warning signs of child abuse and to refer concerns to appropriate authorities.
  • All candidates for ordination at YU’s affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary are required to complete a course that addresses the role of rabbis in preventing and identifying child abuse. Additional related coursework, including simulation, is required for students planning to become congregational rabbis or chaplains.

Anyone who may have suffered harm is invited to contact us in confidence. By emailing  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , counseling resources of the University will be made available to you, and I welcome the opportunity to personally and confidentially discuss any issues with anyone who may have suffered harm. I can be reached at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. "  or (212) 960-5300.

Thank God, communities across the nation are well aware of these issues today, and hopefully address them appropriately. At Yeshiva University we are committed to our sacred obligation to ensure that best practices are set and followed on our own campuses, and to play a key role in the broader community in keeping our most precious resource, our children, safe from harm.

Sincerely,

Richard M. Joel

President and Bravmann Family University Professor

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05
Dec
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Rabbinical Council of America’s Statement Regarding JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality)

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A topic that has not received a lot of attention in observant circles is the question of the Torah position of therapy for same-sex attraction. Please read the following statement published by the RCA earlier this week.  Comments welcome!

Nov 29, 2012 -- In the years since the Rabbinical Council of America's first comment about JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality), "the only Jewish based organization dedicated to assisting individuals with unwanted same sex attractions move from gay to straight" in January, 2004, in which we suggested that rabbis might refer congregants to them for reparative therapy, many concerns about JONAH and reparative therapy have been raised.

As rabbis trained in Jewish law and values, we base our religious positions regarding medical matters on the best research and advice of experts and scholars in those areas, along with concern for the religious, emotional, and physical welfare of those impacted by our decisions. Our responsibility is to apply halakhic (Jewish legal) values to those opinions.

Based on consultation with a wide range of mental health experts and therapists who informed us of the lack of scientifically rigorous studies that support the effectiveness of therapies to change sexual orientation, a review of literature written by experts and major medical and mental health organizations, and based upon reports of the negative and, at times, deleterious consequences to clients of some of the interventions endorsed by JONAH, the Rabbinical Council of America decided in 2011, as part of an overall statement on the Jewish attitude towards homosexuality, to withdraw its original letter referencing JONAH. Despite numerous attempts by the RCA to have mention of that original letter removed from the JONAH website, our calls, letters, and emails remain unanswered. As Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, president of the RCA, stated in 2011, "We want it taken down. JONAH said it was a letter of support, but if you read the letter it is not. They took an informational statement and reprinted it, and the use of that as an endorsement is an error."

We believe that properly trained mental health professionals who abide by the values and ethics of their professions can and do make a difference in the lives of their patients and clients. The RCA believes that responsible therapists, in partnership with amenable clients, should be able to work on whatever issues those clients voluntarily bring to their session. Allegations made against JONAH lead us to question whether JONAH meets those standards.

Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Chancellor of Yeshiva University and author of the 1974 Encyclopedia Judaica Year Book article, "Judaism and the Modern Attitude to Homosexuality," the first contemporary article to address the issue from the perspective of Jewish law and philosophy, had originally commended the work of JONAH. In response to the negative reports about JONAH's activities and concerns expressed to him by respected mental health professionals, Dr. Lamm withdrew his endorsement of JONAH.

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20
Nov
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Seattle Solidarity Vigil

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19
Nov
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"Bomb Tel Aviv" with the Hamas Boys Choir

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19
Nov
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Hamas Human Shield Strategy

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16
Nov
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Mark Regev, Netanyahu Spokesman, on CNN

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15
Nov
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A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

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14
Nov
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IAF Liquidates Hamas Commander

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