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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
Dec
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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
0

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
0

Seattle Solidarity Vigil

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19
Nov
0

"Bomb Tel Aviv" with the Hamas Boys Choir

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19
Nov
0

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
0

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

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14
Nov
0

IAF Liquidates Hamas Commander

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11
Nov
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Idol-Sniffing Camels

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Posted in memory of Yehudah Ben Moshe, Z'L, whose Bar Mitvah Perasha was Chaye Sarah 

On Shabbat, I wished, on behalf of the congregation, a hearty Mazal Tov to Yehuda Yegudayav, who celebrated his 75th birthday over the weekend.  The Bukharian Jewish members are a true institution at Ezra Bessaroth, and we are delighted to share in all of their joyous occasions.  

Hearing about Yehuda’s milestone got me thinking about family; in a couple of weeks’ time, I head once again to Canada to visit my Mom, who just turned 84 years old עד מאה ועשרים שנה.  A few months ago, the doctor told her that her new aortic valve should be good for 17 more years!

502As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not the world’s greatest traveler.  Especially intimidating to me are the bomb-sniffing dogs at the airport.  Speaking of trained dogs, this past week, the drug-sniffing dogs at Sea-Tac airport had their hours slashed with the passage of Initiative 502.  Following the vote, Reuters reported that “prosecutors in Washington state's two most populous counties plan to dismiss scores of misdemeanor marijuana possession cases following passage of a landmark voter initiative earlier this week to legalize pot for adult recreational use.”

Not only are there bomb and drug-sniffing dogs, the Torah recognizes the possibility of idol- sniffing camels! 

The evidence? In this past week’s Torah portion, Avraham’s servant Eliezer arrives at the home of Rivka and is warmly greeted by her brother Lavan, whose hospitality knows no bounds:

 וַיֹּאמֶר, בּוֹא בְּרוּךְ יְהוָה; לָמָּה תַעֲמֹד, בַּחוּץ, וְאָנֹכִי פִּנִּיתִי הַבַּיִת, וּמָקוֹם לַגְּמַלִּים.

And he said, come in, the blessed one of Hashem, why are you standing outside? I have cleaned out the home and a place for the camels.

At first blush, this is a pretty innocent verse: Lavan invites Eliezer in, assuring him that there is plenty of room in his home for both Avraham’s servant and his animals. 

On location, Rashi explains the term פניתי הבית I cleared out the house – as Lavan assuring Eliezer that all traces of idolatry have been removed from the house.  Avot D’Rebbe Natan takes this idea one step further: Lavan is also saying that he has cleared away the idols so that the camels would agree to enter the home.  “I cleared out the house – and a place for the camels – by removing the idols.”  According to Avot D’Rebbe Natan, the camels had previously “sniffed out” the idols and were refusing to enter….. 

So not only are there bomb and drug-sniffing dogs, but there are idol-sniffing camels!

This recalls a Gemara in Tractate Hulin, where we learn of the famous donkey of Rabbi Pinchas Benpinchas Ya’ir: R. Pinchas is on his way on a mission to redeem captives, when he stops at a lodge; the innkeepers place some barley in front of his donkey, but it refuses to eat.  They sift and clean the grain, to no avail; the beast remains recalcitrant!

R. Pinchas asks the innkeepers if they had purchased the barley from someone who may not have tithed the produce; they reply in the affirmative.  R. Pinchas’ response? He reprimands the innkeepers,

“This poor beast is on its way to do the will of its maker, and you are giving it untithed crops? “

The Gemara goes on to question the halachic problem referred to in the story – does one really need to tithe crops fed to animals? It brings a proof that only human food needs tithing.  The Gemara’s resolution? If the crops were initially designated for an animal, they need not be tithed; if they are initially designated for a person - and only later served to an animal - they need tithing. 

The ultimate message of this story?  G-d does not bring about misfortune and transgression through the animals of righteous people – how much moreso does He protect righteous people themselves! In other words, divine intervention prevented the beast from consuming the untithed produce. 

I would like to extract a slightly different point from this piece: When someone is on his way to do a mitzvah, all of his resources, his property: inanimate objects, animals….become subsumed within this mitzvah activity.  The property is viewed as an extension of him.  Just as Hashem wishes to facilitate the performance of mitzvot, He paves the way for all of their resources to aid in that effort.

If that’s the case, then it behooves us to begin to appreciate all of the financial and other resources at our disposal – and to utilize them for the purpose for which they were granted us.

This same concept appears in a Rashi in Perashat Vayishlach.  After Ya’akov crosses over the Nahal Yabok, he returns, and soon engages in the famous wrestling match with the angel.  Grappling with the idea of why Ya’akov would remain alone, Rashi explains that he returned to collect some small earthenware vessels.   At first blush, it seems that Ya’akov Avinu is quite petty!  The deeper understanding, though, is that Ya’akov was aware that every person has a purpose for which he was created; G-d therefore also gives everyone exactly what he needs to carry out his individual mission. These earthenware vessels, as minor as they may seem, Ya’akov saw as essential to fulfilling his life’s work.  Like the donkey of R. Pinchas ben Ya’ir, the vessels of Ya’akov were an extension of him.

This perspective reinforces a very refreshing and inspiring theme that we have developed on previous occasions.  Rambam quotes the verse בכל דרכיך דעהו Know Him in all of your ways…. Should someone, engaged in a mundane activity like shopping, have the intention to purchase and prepare healthy food that will energize him to do more mitzvot– the shopping trip itself becomes an extended mitzvah event! 

Eliezer is an extension of monotheist Avraham and the idol-sniffing camels are an extension of Eliezer; they therefore interact with their reality as would their owner.  

This is also hinted at in R. Pinchas Ben Ya’ir’s words in the Gemara in Tractate Hulin: “This poor beast is on its way to do the will of its maker, and you are giving it untithed crops?” R. Pinchas surely did not believe that this beast had the capacity to appreciate that it was on its way to do the mitzvah of redeeming captives!  Rather, R.  Pinchas was actually saying, “I am using this animal to carry out the will of my Maker…..” 

 

 

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04
Nov
0

Storms

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obamastormThe theme of this past week seems to have been “storms”: A political storm, in the form of a hotly-contested battle for the Presidency, as the polls show a virtual dead heat; the big storm on the east coast, Hurricane Sandy, that brought with it billions of dollars in damages and claimed dozens of lives; and finally, the storm in this week’s Perasha: the graphic description of the destruction of Sdom and Amora: “God made sulphur and fire rain down on Sodom and Gomorrah - it came from God, out of the sky.  He overturned these cities along with the entire plain, [destroying] everyone who lived in the cities and [all] that was growing from the ground.”

I would like to use this opportunity to reflect on the Torah response to the latter two types of storms.

We’ve mentioned it before, but it’s such a fundamental point, that it bears repeating:

The Netziv, Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, in his commentary on Sefer Bereishit, asks a basic question: Why would Avraham Avinu, ethicist, the champion of Ancient Near East Monotheism, petition G-d to spare the idolatrous, immoral cities of Sdom and Amora?  Does the survival of these people not run counter to everything that Avraham represents and seeks to accomplish?

Netziv’s answer: Our Avot, our forefathers, were “Yesharim”; they were people who were not just sdmamorahonest and ethical; they were invested in the קיום הבריאה – the maintenance and success of G-d’s creation.  Our forefathers played a key role in the Genesis, the building of the infrastructure of G-d’s world.  Abraham’s intervention on behalf of Sdom and Amora represents just that.

The Netziv’s approach appears in other classical Jewish sources, as well. In his commentary on Pirkei Avot, Rabbenu Yonah states:

שיש לאדם להתפלל על שלום כל העולם ולהצטער על צער של אחרים

A person must pray for the peace of the entire world and feel anguish at the pain of others

In a parallel comment, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook states

Love of People must be alive in our heart and soul – the love of every unique individual.  Also, love of all of the nations, and the desire to see their economic and spiritual well-being.  Hatred must be directed only at the wickedness and impurity of the world.

The thread of Netziv’s approach to Avraham’s prayer on behalf of Sdom and Amorah, then, runs through a variety of our classical sources.

A somewhat different approach is taken by Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch.  Sensitive to the nuances of language in the text,

אוּלַי יֵשׁ חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה וְלֹא תִשָּׂא לַמָּקוֹם לְמַעַן חֲמִשִּׁים הַצַּדִּיקִם אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבָּהּ:

Avraham asks if G-d will spare the city on behalf of fifty people “within” the city? G-d’s response utilizes the same language.

Rav Hirsch: A Tzaddik who is בתוך העיר – in the midst of city – rebuking and correcting the behavior of others –  is the type of person Avraham invests in during tefilah.  A smug and self-righteous person, satisfied with his own religious level, would have no interest in getting the locals on a proper moral track.  

My inference from Rav Hirsch is that Avraham’s intervention on behalf of Sdom and Amora did not flow solely from his concern for the קיום הבריאה – the maintenance and success of G-d’s creation; rather, Avraham Avinu seeks signs of life that there is a potential for moral improvement in Sdom.  If there are Tzaddikim who are בתוך העיר  - in the midst of the city, who care about the moral fabric of the town.

What the two approaches do have in common, though, is that they both focus on Avraham Avinu’s commitment to others.

Millions of people, including many members of the Jewish community, were harmed, physically and financially, during Hurricane Sandy.  Though we should have our eyes to the plight of all the victims, our first priority is of course to our fellow Jews.  Before Shabbat, I received two emails: one from the Young Israel synagogue movement, and one from the OU.  Both are reliable organizations, collecting funds to help members of the Jewish community.   Please donate to my discretionary fund and I will direct the funds to these fine organizations. 

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Oct
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Ezra Bessaroth Statement regarding the Desecration of the Rhodes Holocaust Memorial

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Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, founded by Sephardic immigrant families from the Greek island of Rhodes, is horrified and disgusted by this weekend’s defacing of the Rhodes Holocaust Memorial. Dedicated in 2002, the monument stands in the Jewish Martyrs Square with a replica in our congregation’s courtyard in Seattle.

It reads: “Do not ever forget the eternal memory of the 1604 Jews of Rhodes and Kos who perished in Nazi death camps”.

Israel Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, himself a survivor of the Shoah, visited Ezra Bessaroth this past summer. Upon hearing that our memorial is modeled on the original Rhodes monument, Rav Lau stood looking at it in silence, touched it and kissed his hand as if the monument was a mezuzah. "Ze Makom Kadosh" ("This is a holy place"), he said.

This weekend’s hate crime - a pitiful, cowardly attempt to blot out the memory of Kedoshim of Rhodes and Kos - simply serves to strengthen our resolve to perpetuate the profound values and rich way of life of those that perished.

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29
Oct
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Rhodes Memorial to Holocaust Victims Defaced

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A shocking incident in Rhodes:  
See Michael Behar's link at http://networkedblogs.com/E4ulj

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10
Oct
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Inheriting the Torah

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torahA Lonely Torah Portion

Perashat Ve'Zot HaBeracha is a lonely Torah portion - unlike the other Perashot Hashavua, it does not have a specific Shabbat; instead, it's read on Simhat Torah as we transition into Sefer Bereshit.  As a result, very few shiurim or sermons are dedicated to the content of Ve'Zot HaBeracha.

A verse familiar to many of us, that every Jewish child of school-age knows is

  תּוֹרָה צִוָּה-לָנוּ, מֹשֶׁה:  מוֹרָשָׁה, קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב

Moshe commanded us the Torah - it is an inheritance of the Congregation of Jacob

 A mishna in Pirkei Avot poses a seeming contradiction to the declaration that the Torah is "an inheritance of the Congregation of Jacob".  In Chapter Two, Mishna 17, we learn:

Rabbi Yosi said: ....Prepare yourself for the study of the Torah, for the knowledge of it is not yours by inheritance.

Is - or is not - Torah our inheritance? A simple solution: The verse is declaring that we are commanded to follow the mitzvot, such that the phrase מורשה קהילת יעקב simply rephrases the first half of the pasuk, "Moshe commanded us the Torah..." But what new information is conveyed through labeling the Torah as a "morasha" or inheritance?

Also, what does the term "Kehilla" connote?  Why did the Torah not say that the Torah is the inheritance of בית יעקב - the House of Jacob? That expression appears no less than 26 times throughout Tanach?

The Gemara in Tractate Makkot, 24a, approaches our verse from a "Gematria" perspective: The Hebrew word תורה has a numerical value of 611.  Says the Gemara: Moshe Rabeinu commanded us regarding 611 of the mitzvot.  Only the first two of the עשרת הדברות - the Ten Commandments - were conveyed to us by G-d Himself.

Although this is an interesting 'derasha' - we should always pursue a deeper understanding of our sages' intentions.   How does the Gematria calculation fit in with the plain meaning and context of our verse?

So we have three questions:

a) Is the Torah an inheritance or not? How do we reconcile the statement from Pirkei Avot with the verse in Ve'zot Haberacha?
b) What does the term "Kehillat Ya'akov" hope to convey?
c) How should we contextually understand the idea that Moshe commanded us 611 mitzvot, while Hashem conveyed only two?

Sukkot in Auschwitz, 1944

A number of years ago, Rabbi Binny Freedman met Ya'akov, a wealthy businessman from Caracas who was spending Pesach with his family at a hotel in Florida. At one point, Rabbi Freedman asked the man if there was anything in particular that stood out in his mind as the reason he had survived. Without hesitation, he responded: “It was one mitzvah; the sukkot I spent in Auschwitz.  When he was a young man, the Venezuelan Jew had been assigned the job of divvying up daily rations in Auschwitz.

One day, while preparing the rations in the dark winter night, he heard banging on the door of the shed, only to discover a man he recognized as a prominent Torah scholar standing in the snow.  His request? Sukkot started that evening, and the man needed two whole loaves of bread for "lechem mishne"; he promised to only eat a small amount, and to return the bulk of the bread to Ya'akov.

"Even more intriguing," Rabbi Freedman continues, "was how on earth this Rabbi had managed to build a sukkah in Auschwitz-Birkenau. As it turned out, that summer and fall of  1944 the Nazis were bringing hundreds of thousands of Jews in a last-ditch effort to complete the ‘final solution’ before the war would end. In the twisted organizational logic of the lager camps world, the Nazis needed to have additional barracks to hold the new prisoners for labor until they could be exterminated. As such, prisoners were dismantling tiers of bunks in the barracks while rows of bunks were being reconstructed in the central parade ground. Seeing the rows and rows of bunks outdoors and realizing the festival of Sukkot was coming, this rabbi had managed to secure some schach and place it atop some of the boards of the semi-constructed bunks beneath the open sky in such a way as to construct a minimally kosher sukkah (booth) for the festival."

Ya'akov consented to dispense the bread if the rabbi would allow him to join him in the sukkah for a couple of minutes. Despite the risk he would be taking, Ya'akov convinced the rabbi to accede to his request. “So together the two of them, and old Rabbi and a student, risked their lives and sat, for a few brief moments, in a sukkah in Auschwitz."

Both the rabbi and the youngster exhibited "Mesirat Nefesh" - a selfless dedication to their Jewishness - in the face of overwhelming danger, in an atmosphere that should have otherwise generated unbridled despair.

Ramban on Ve’zot Haberacha

This story recalls the commentary of Ramban on Ve'Zot Haberacha.  The verse prior to   תּוֹרָה צִוָּה-לָנוּ, מֹשֶׁה:  מוֹרָשָׁה, קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב reads:

ג ... כָּל-קְדֹשָׁיו בְּיָדֶךָ; וְהֵם תֻּכּוּ לְרַגְלֶךָ, יִשָּׂא מִדַּבְּרֹתֶיךָ 

3 .... all His holy ones--they are in Your hand; and they sit down at Your feet, receiving of Your words.

 

Ramban explains:

  יאמר שהם מוכים בכל מכה במדבר ללכת אחריך בכל אשר תלך, לא יחושו לרעב ולצמאון ומכת נחש ועקרב, רק יצאו לרגליך ואחריך ירוצו וזה כענין שנאמר (ירמיה ב ב) זכרתי לך חסד נעוריך אהבת כלולותיך לכתך אחרי במדבר בארץ לא זרועה

....this means that they were smitten with every kind of affliction in the desert to go after You wherever You go...they are unconcerned with famine, thirst, snakes and scorpions, but follow your lead and run after you, reminiscent of the verse in Jeremiah, "Thus says the LORD: I remember for you the affection of your youth, the love of your espousals; how you went after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown....."

This dedication and trust in Hashem generates a commitment that prompts the Jewish people to "carry" Hashem's words on their mouths, meditating on words of Torah at every turn.  This is יִשָּׂא מִדַּבְּרֹתֶיךָ - they will carry Your words.  According to Ramban, the next verse details the words that Israel will carry: "Moshe commanded us the Torah"   It is this "mantra' that will be an inheritance of the Congregation of Jacob, says Ramban, as subsequent generations remain forever dedicated to G-d's Torah and Mitzvot.

The juxtaposition of the pesukim teaches us that future commitment stems from bouts of Mesirat Nefesh during 40 years in the desert, and thousands of years later ... in Auschwitz.  Bitachon, trust in Hashem, is bequeathed by committed ancestors to their grandchildren and great grandchildren....

Ramban takes this idea a step further;

 ודרשו רבותינו (מדרש תהלים א), שלא אמר מורשה בית יעקב או זרע יעקב ואמר "קהלת יעקב" לרמז שיקהלו רבים עליהם ותהיה התורה לעולם מורשה ליעקב ולכל הנקהלים עליו, הם הגרים הנלוים על ה' לשרתו ונספחו על בית יעקב, ונקראו כלם קהלתו

Our sages taught: It does not say "the inheritance of the House of Jacob" or "the seed of Jacob", but the "congregation of Jacob" - to hint that many people will congregate and join them, such that the Torah will forever be an inheritance for Jacob and all those that "congregate to and join them" - these are the converts that come to serve Hashem and become part of the House of Jacob; they are called its "congregation"...

Ramban's citation of this midrash accentuates the power of the commitment and trust that fuels the eternal utterance of "Moshe commanded us the Torah.."  Although we do not, as a matter of course, proselytize, the pure power of our commitment has a magnetic quality that attracts others in the Jewish community...and beyond.  This is the concept of "Kehillat Ya'akov".

Returning to the Gematria and to R. Yosi

In addition to trust in Hashem, a healthy dose of humility perpetuates Torah and attracts others to Jewish practice and belief.  Perhaps this is the context of the Gemara which notes that Moshe commanded 611 of the 613 mitzvot.  Our level of prophecy at Matan Torah was not sufficiently developed to allow us to hear the mitzvot from Hashem directly; we begged Moshe to serve as an intermediary...

With this, maybe we can reconcile R. Yosi's comment in Pirkei Avot, "Prepare yourself for the study of the Torah, for the knowledge of it is not yours by inheritance." Rabbeinu Yonah understands R. Yosi as stressing the need to develop the kind of character traits that will facilitate the internalizing and retention of Torah.  Only  when we do that, can we inherit the Torah - and transmit it to subsequent generations.  This is the message of the "611 Gematria"; it's also the message of the Ramban and of the rabbi and his student on that fateful Sukkkot in Auschwitz.

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10
Oct
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Speechless on Shemini Atzeret !

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speechlessWhat more can be said? After the intense season of the Yamim Nora'im, I am speechless.

But that's very appropriate because today - Shemini Atzeret - is a Hag that is void of specific mitzvot and minhagim. Aside from the laws of Yom Tov - there is nothing particular that the Torah instructs us to do on Shemini Atzeret. In Eretz Yisrael, where there is only one day of Yom Tov at the conclusion of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret merges with Simhat Torah. So the hakafot, the dancing with the Torah, that we will be engaging in tomorrow evening, takes place on the night and during the day of Shemini Atzeret ; although the Torah does not offer specific mitzvot, the Israel version of Shemini Atzeret is filled with the customs we identify with Simhat Torah.

So I am speechless, because I stand before you to discuss a mitzvah-less and minhag-less holiday!

That said, I would like to share with you an approach that I think helps explain the seeming vacuum left by Shemini Atzeret. It starts with that classic Jewish text, "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People"!

In chapter seven, Steven Covey (alav Hashalom!) tells the story of writer Arthur Gordon.

In a story called “The Turn of the Tide,” Arthur Gordon describes a time when he found his sevenhabitsworld stale and flat. His enthusiasm for life waned, and he was getting worse daily.  A medical doctor found nothing physically wrong with him, but said he might be able to help if Gordon could follow his instructions for one day. He was to spend the next day in the place where he’d been happiest as a child. He was not to talk to anyone, nor to read, write, or listen to the radio. The doctor then wrote out four prescriptions and told him to open one at 9a.m., noon, 3 p.m., and 6 p.m.

The next morning, Gordon went to the beach. His first prescription said only this: “Listen carefully.” After some time, Gordon began to hear more and more sounds that weren’t obvious at first. He began to think of lessons he’d learned as a child from the sea: patience, respect for the interdependence of things. He felt a growing peace. The noon prescription read, “Try reaching back.” To what? He thought of the joyful times of his childhood, and felt a growing warmth inside.

The 3 p.m. message was “Examine your motives.” At first, he was defensive. Of course he wanted success, fame, security - he could justify them all. But then it occurred to him that these motives weren’t good enough, and that fact was making him stagnant. “It makes no difference,” he wrote later, “whether you are a mailman, a hairdresser, a housewife - whatever. As long as you feel you are serving others, you do the job well. When you are concerned only with helping yourself you do it less well .."  When 6 p.m. came, the final prescription didn’t take long to fill: “Write your worries on the sand.” He knelt and wrote several words with a piece of broken shell; then he turned and walked away. He didn’t look back; he knew the tide would come in.

The message of course, is that once you have reconnected to the attributes of patience and respect, have tuned in to the positive dimensions of your upbringing, recommited yourself to the value of serving others, many of the problems that preoccupy you can be put into perspective. Quality reflection helps a person appreciate the transitory nature of many of our challenges.


With this in mind, I would like to share with you an approach to the lack of mitzvot and minhagim on Shemini Atzeret. Onkelos understands the term "Atzeret" to mean a gathering. Quoted in an article by Rabbi Yosef Kalinsky, the great German-Jewish scholar Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch articulates what constitutes the unique "gathering" of this Hag:


“We accordingly think we are not wrong if we take azteret to designate a day which is not fixed to bring new lessons and new truths for us all to accept and assimilate, but which has the mission to keep us still before the Presence of God – with this the idea of עצירה ממלאכה would certainly apply – to strengthen and solidify the impressions and knowledge we have already gained, so that they remain with us permanently, and do not become lost in the hurly-burly of life….The purpose of azteret is accomplished by our realizing once again all that we have gained by the festival, and by the firm resolution not to allow ourselves to be robbed in the turmoil and struggle and work our lives of what we have won….Shmini Atzeret would come to tell us, once again to summarize and gather to ourselves all the thoughts and messages and resolutions which the moadim of the whole year have brought to us and to resolve to persevere and hold fast to them before God, To impress them so deeply in our hearts that they become an unassailable part of ourselves which cannot become lost in the course of the ordinary run of our yearly life on which we are now entering.."

Put another way, the absence of mitzvot and minhagim is deliberate - in order to provide us a time for reflection as we usher out the Yamim Nora'im, the High Holidays. What struck a chord with each of us? Was it the acceptance of Hashem's dominion over the world on Rosh Hashana, the cleansing power of Yom Kippur - or the sense of trust in G-d that we absorbed during Sukkot? Some blend of the themes and emotions of the Hagim?

There are no mitzvot or minhagim on Shemni Atzeret, and no rabbi can stand in front of you and tell you what to think or feel on this day - because, by definition, it is an intensely personal day, a time for each of us to gather in and assimilate our thoughts and feelings.

Once we have engaged in this contemplative process, we can then approach Simhat Torah. With a sense of renewal, we can now direct ourselves to finding our place under the broad umbrella of a commitment to Torah and Mitzvot.

The joy of Simhat Torah comes from a sense that: 

אחד המרבה
Whether you do a lot
ואחד הממעיט
...or a little
ובלבד שיכוין לבו לשמים
..as long as you direct your heart towards heaven..

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05
Oct
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Join Rabbi and Rubisa Meyers at StandWithUs on October 14th!

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