On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Parsha Bo – Let’s do the math.

In verse 51 of the Torah portion, Bo, Moses leads the Jewish people out of Egypt. The Torah tells us that there were 600,000 men between the ages of 20 - 60. Presumably, there were at least that many women, plus children and the elderly. Most commentators estimate the total number of Jews that left Egypt to be roughly 3 million people.

The Torah also tells us that Jacob entered Egypt with a total of 70 people, not including the wives of Jacob’s sons. Our sages tell us that we were in Egypt a total of 210 years.

You may be thinking… wait a minute… 70 people grow to 3 million in 210 years? Well… it gets worse.

The Rabbis tell us that that there was a large portion of the Jewish people that didn’t want to leave Egypt. The great Torah commentator, Rashi, tells is that they were so assimilated into Egyptian culture that they didn’t deserve to be freed. This was one of the purposes of the 9th plague, darkness. During this plague, all of the assimilated Jews died and the other Jews buried them. G-d didn’t want the Egyptians to have the pleasure of watching Jews bury other Jews so he left them in darkness until it was complete. The Rabbis tell us that they buried 80% of the Jews during the plague of darkness. If that’s the case, then 3 million only represents 20% of the Jewish people, there were roughly 15 million Jews at the beginning of the plagues.

So, how did we grow from 70 or so to 15 million? Doesn’t seem possible. One may be tempted to think that the Torah was grossly exaggerating the number of Jews that left, but the Torah doesn’t grossly exaggerate. Let’s do the math and see what we come up with.

Jacob arrived in Egypt with 70 people.

Out of that 70, we’ll subtract him, his wives and his sons since they were done having kids. We’ll also subtract is daughters and granddaughters so we have a total of 51 grandsons of Jacob in Egypt. Rashi also tells us that the Jewish women in Egypt had “legions” of children. I don’t know how many a legion constitutes, but I’ve heard the figure 12 thrown around. Let’s assume that the average generation is 33 years.

So, by year 33 in Egypt, these 51 men had married 51 women and had a total of 612 children.

At year 66, these 612 people had 3,672 children.

Year 99 produced 22,032 children.

Year 132 produced 132,192 children.

Year 165 produced 793,152 children.

Year 198 produced 4,758,912 children.

The Jewish people left 12 years later. Assuming that the generation which left only produced 6 kids before they left, that would bring us to a figure of over 14 million people.

These are obviously estimates. It’s quite possible that some people had fewer kids, but I’m sure some people had more. Also, since people lives well past 100, several generations went out at the same time. The exact numbers aren’t so important. What is important is that the Torah is ultimate truth. If we ever reach a topic where we don’t think that mathematics or any science can coexist with what the Torah tells us, instead of casting a doubt on Torah, we should be patient and give science some time to get things right.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Beit Shemesh – The combination of insensitivity and intolerance.

The other day I was speaking with a friend about the incidents going on in Beit Shemesh between the ultra orthodox and others there. According to my friend, the attacks committed by some of the ultra orthodox on people that they deem dressed or acting immodestly are simply unforgivable and they and everyone like them should be held accountable. He went as far as saying that he didn’t consider these people Jews. With some exception, the greater Jewish world seems to have a similar reaction. A bunch of questions come to mind…

1. Should we be blaming the many for the actions of the few? Just because many of the ultra orthodox look alike to us, does that mean they are all the same and the entire community is guilty, because of the terrible actions of the few? What responsibility do we have for each other’s actions?

2. As Ba’al Teshuvas, we are particularly sensitive to words like “unforgivable.” While embarrassing someone, spitting on them or hitting them are crimes… not Jewish values, are they really unforgivable?

3. Even though no physical attack in the name of modesty is justified, should we, the greater Jewish people, be more sensitive to the beliefs of the ultra orthodox? Or, should we just say that they should be more tolerant of us? To take the previous question further, does freedom of expression ever go so far that it shouldn’t be tolerated?

I would hope that we all would agree that if one person sins, it’s their sin alone. They’re neighbor is not guilty. In my article “When is it OK to rebuke someone?” I discuss that one is only permitted to rebuke someone if they believe that their rebuke will be affective. If one believes that their rebuke will not have the desired effect, they are obligated to keep their mouth shut. Just because there are some ultra orthodox are guilty of attacking other Jews does not mean that the greater Jewish community is guilty. We need to try to inspire or educate anyone we see committing a sin to the best of their ability. We do have a responsibility, but it ends with doing the best that we can. Condemning all ultra orthodox Jews in Beit Shemesh would be no different then condemning all Jews of any town if some of their residence sinned.

Rabbi Berel Wein often says “Don’t judge Judaism by the actions of Jews.” There are Jews that sin. Some of the Jews have no kippahs or beards and some of them have very long beards and black hats. It would be nice to think that all Jews who look very religious always act in a kind and pious fashion. The reality is that we’re all people. We have weaknesses, faults, misguided beliefs and we often make mistakes. However we’re commanded to love every single Jew. That doesn’t mean that we have to love all of their actions, but we have to love them as brothers. Keeping in mind that the word Teshuva means “return”, we all should be doing teshuva no matter how long our beard is. Nobody is so far gone that they’re beyond teshuva.

There’s a balance between freedom of expression and taking it too far. The most common adage is that freedom of speech doesn’t give someone the right to scream “Fire” in a crowded theatre. I love America and hold our freedoms dear, but I’m going to ask the following questions….

Should a gay rights demonstration be held outside the Vatican?

Should a religious (Jewish or otherwise) denouncing homosexuality as an abomination demonstrate outside at a gay bar?

Should the KKK demonstrate outside a black church?

Should Nazi’s demonstrate outside your synagogue?

Should women in bikinis have a swim suit competition at the Western Wall?

These are all extreme examples, but I wanted to use them to illustrate the point that sometimes freedom of expression infringes upon the rights of others rights to the pursuit of happiness and peace of mind. Extreme examples are easy for us to identify… what’s harder is things like – Should immodestly dressed women go through certain neighborhood where the residents would be offended? Since I doubt that anyone reading this article will participate in any of these events we’ll leave it to the courts to decide what is acceptable and what is too far.

I do believe that we have a personal responsibility to be sensitive to all of those around us. The whole idea of Derech Eretz (way of the land) is exactly this point. Unfortunately, some of the incidents in Beit Shemesh have been the combination of insensitivity and violent intolerance. We should all strive to find ways to improve ourselves and our relationships with all of those around us until its contagiousness forms one people… Am Yisroal.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Torah Thought: Parsha Va’eira

This weeks Torah portion describes the first 7 of the 10 plagues that G-d inflicts upon the Egyptians to help persuade Pharaoh to release the Jewish people from their slavery so that they could worship G-d without restriction.

Throughout the first several plagues, the Torah tells us that Pharaoh strengthened his heart and would not let the Jews leave. As a reaction to this, G-d slowly increased the severity of the plagues as a punishment to Pharaoh. After the 6th plague, we see something changes. The Torah tells us in Chapter 9, verse 12 that “G-d strengthened the heart of Pharaoh” and he did not free the Jewish people.

This leads us to the question of why does G-d continue to punish Pharaoh if G-d is interfering with Pharaoh’s free choice to do the right thing? One could argue that Pharaoh and the Egyptians deserved to be punished for their treatment of the Jewish people in the past and their current choice to prolong the slavery has nothing to do with their punishments. That seems logical at first, but still doesn’t answer why G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart. If he deserved to be punished for previous transgressions, then G-d could have punished him no matter what choices he makes now.

Rabbi Schneur Zalmon tells us that if a righteous person works on themselves and prays enough, it’s possible that they can receive divine assistance to eliminate their desires to do evil. Even on a smaller scale, it seems that when people set out to do good, G-d grants them assistance. We’re taught in the Ethics of our Fathers that one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah. I had a similar experience when I first started dating my wife. She had moved into a new apartment in Philadelphia. Everything was fine until she quickly realized that whenever she left her building, at night, the neighbor’s motion detector set off an automatic light. This was helpful during the week, but posed a concern for Shabbas and holidays. We discussed all different options about what she could do… stay in her home every Friday night and early Saturday evening… stay at someone else’s home every Shabbas. Neither one was so convenient, but what options did she have to be able to live a normal life and still keep the Shabbas. We were racking our brains out when one night she discovered that if she walked a certain patter against the wall, she could get into and out of her apartment without setting off the light. It seemed as clear proof that G-d helps those that want to do good. *

If G-d helps people make the right choices and do mitzvahs when they want to, then presumable the opposite is also correct. As I observed many times, in my non religious days, when people set out to do things that aren’t holy, they seem to have no trouble finding it. If someone wants to go out and get into a fight, they’ll find someone to fight with. If someone wants to go out and have improper relations, they’ll also find a partner.

It would seem that the L-rd helps people accomplish whatever they set out to do. If someone sets out to do a mitzvah, G-d will give them an opportunity and even give them the strength to accomplish it. If someone sets out to do evil, G-d forbid, then the L-rd will present them with opportunities to get into trouble and remove any inspiration to do otherwise. The Rabbis tell us that ancient Egypt was the height of moral depravity. As it’s leader, we assume that Pharaoh was the worst one of them all. Since G-d created the world in 6 days, the number 6 represents the physical world. After Pharaoh hardened his own hear 6 times, it created a lasting effect, and G-d helped Pharaoh stay true to his own wicked intentions.

* I’ve said in many times on BThandbook.com that my goal is not to tell you what the Jewish laws are, but to help people incorporate them into their lives. I later learned that even if my wife (then girlfriend) didn’t find a way to enter and leave without setting off the exterior light, it may have been permissible to enter and leave anyway. The laws are complex so if you find yourself in a similar situation, please consult a competent orthodox Rabbi.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Dear Beth, Is there a dress code in Judaism?

Dear Beth, *

As a newly observant Jew, I find it hard to figure out what the dress code to observant Judaism is.

Aside from Kippahs for men and hats or wigs for married women, how do I need to dress to be considered a religious Jew?

Yours truly,
Closet full of clothes and nothing to wear

Dear Closet,

Like Most things, Judaism does have what to say about how we dress, but it’s very different than most of us think. Before I go through some of that, I thought it would be helpful to recap some of the statements that either I or my wife has heard observant Jews say over the years.

“Someone who wears jeans to shul on Shabbas should go home and change”

“I don’t see how a woman who wears pants can consider herself religious.”

A remark to me once when I was wearing sandals on a hot summer Sunday afternoon “Did you go off the derech?” (Derech means path or way. Basically, he was asking me if I am still an observant Jew)

“Unless you’re Israeli or Chassidish, a man should wear a tie at the Shabbas afternoon service. What is this? Casual Mincha?

“Get out of here and come back when you’re wearing a decent jacket” This was a story told to me by my mother about what a reformed Rabbi said to someone wearing a plaid suit jacket on Rosh Hashanah in the 1960s.

There are a lot of factors that dictate what a Jew should or shouldn’t wear on a regular basis. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

1. We should dress in moderate, clean clothing ** Dressing in dirty or ripped clothing is not appropriate. Obviously, if someone is a mechanic or a gardener, their work clothes are going to get dirty. This law doesn’t mean that they have to look like their going to the opera when they’re going to work in the mud. This also goes for clothing with colorful language on it. Use your judgment and you’ll be fine.

2. We should not imitate the styles and clothing of the non Jew *** ideally, we should stick to our own styles of clothing and not spend our time, energy or money on what the latest trends are.

3. We should not to wear extravagant or flashy clothing. **** We should dress nice, but we should also be modest in both dress and behavior. This is one of the reasons why so many observant Jews gravitate to black and white clothing. I don’t think that a little color in one’s wardrobe is a violation of Jewish law, but if your clothes are so flashy that when you walk into a room, everyone turns to stare, you may want to choose something else to wear. This doesn’t mean that one should go out looking ugly, but it does mean that we should make efforts to be the most looked at person in the room.

4. We should wear clothing the covers our body *****. There are a lot of opinions out there regarding to what extent this goes. I’m not going to deal with the specifics, but the idea is the same as modesty. If your clothing is such that it draws attention to features of your body that we ideally shouldn’t want, it may not be the best idea.

5. A man should wear clothes designed for men and a woman should wear clothes designed for women. The most common area of controversy in this area is whether a woman can wear pants or not. From what I read, it seems like if a woman wore pants that were designed for women, she would not be violating any Jewish law. However, it’s become the custom of Jewish women not to do so publicly. It’s less common for men to wear women’s clothing, but the same rules apply.

6. Especially when we pray, we should dress as if we were standing before a king. Keeping all this in mind, all Jews should try to dress appropriate to the best of their ability, but they should keep in mind wear they are spiritually and not push themselves into overload. For man, it would be great if I would wear a suit and tie every time I prayed, but if I happened to be at the beach when the time for prayer arrived, it would be much better to pray in a bathing suit then to not pray at the appointment time. Also, if you’re one of those people who hate wearing a tie, don’t push yourself too hard. Some people take this a step further and rightfully say that since G-d is with them all the time, they should always dress formally. This is very admirable, but not required by Jewish law. It’s slightly off topic, but its falls under the general category of dressing up. There’s an interesting phenomenon in our society, where a man or woman will get dressed up to go face the world, but when they come home to their spouses, they strip off the make up and change into clothes that are more comfortable and less faltering. While we should be comfortable in our own homes, we should also keep in mind that they most important person to look attractive to is one’s spouse.

7. Black hats, long coats and gartels (strings that Chassidic men wrap around their waste.) These are clearly in the realm of customs and stringencies. If your Rabbi or spiritual mentor wears things like this and you want to imitate him, great. If not, it’s no big deal. They are not necessary to be an observant Jew, but can be a stepping stone for someone who has already reached a stable level in his observance and wants to push themselves higher.
All of this being said, I believe the most important thing is this letter isn’t if we dress properly, but how we relate to people around us who we don’t believe are dressed properly. Dressing properly is extremely important, but always keep in mind that when we learn a new law or custom, we should focus on how we can improve ourselves, not how we can improve our neighbor. The best thing you can do to inspire your friend and neighbor is become and inspiration by leading by example.

* This is a fictional letter that discusses a real problem that BTs go through. There is a lot of confusion out there regarding what is or isn’t acceptable dress and not a lot of practical advice on it. If you have real questions, feel free to email me at AriMiller613@gmail.com.

** Kitzur Shulchen Aruch, Chapter 3
*** ibid.
**** ibid
***** Shulchen Aruch HaRav, Chapter 2

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Torah Thought: Parsha Shemos

The Rabbis ask an obvious question about this weeks Torah portion:

If the Jewish people were slaves, how could Moses and Aaron walk around freely?

To answer the question, we need to go back to the Torah portion of Mikeitz, which we read a couple weeks ago. The Rabbis tell us that during the years of famine in Egypt, Joseph, on behalf of Pharaoh, sold provisions to the entire world. When people ran out of money, Joseph took their livestock and land in exchange for food. Once the people no longer owned land, they became Pharaoh’s indentured servants which in those days wasn’t that much more than a slave. Joseph decreed this for everyone in Egypt except the priests. Joseph foresaw that the tribe of Levi needed to be free to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt so when he set up this decree several generations before, he ensured that Moses and Aaron, since they were from the tribe of Levi, would be able to travel and not subject to Egypt’s enslavement.

I’ve known this answer for several years, but it never sat well with me. Pharaoh was so morally depraved and wicked that he had babies killed on a regular basis. Am I really to believe that Pharaoh didn’t enslave the tribe of Levi, because he wanted to follow the law from several generations before? Does that really make sense? He was one of the worst people to ever walk the earth, why would he care about what the law is?

Several months ago, I was listing to a lecture from Rabbi Berel Wein and I heard something that clarified the point for me. We all know about the horrors of the holocaust. We’d be hard pressed to come up with a group of people that could better be described at the epitome of evil then the Nazis. There were stories about how when the Nazis first brought Jews to the death camps, they would ask any among the Jews who were veterans of the German army to people step forward. These Jews mistakenly thought that since they had fought on the side of Germany during World War 1, they would be spared. The Nazis “rewarded” these veterans by killing them first. Rabbi Wein tells the story of other Jewish veterans of the German army from World War 1 who came to America. Thank G-d that they had left Germany early enough to escape the terrors of the holocaust. As the story goes, since they were veterans, since the German government love rules, these Jews still received their military pension checks from the Germans.

The laws and justifications of wicked governments often don’t make sense and the world is certainly a strange place, but if Jewish veterans could still receive their pension checks during the Holocaust, it’s no stranger to believe that Pharaoh allowed the tribe of Levi to maintain their freedom during the Jews enslavement in Egypt.

The Rabbis tell us that we shouldn’t apply human characteristics to G-d. That being said, it sure does seem like the L-rd has an interesting sense of humor.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Torah Thought: Parsha Vayechi

Almost 10 years ago I was at a dinner for JNF and the speaker said something that I still remember as vividly as the day I heard it.

He told us all to close our eyes and picture a large coliseum filled with every Jew. Not just every Jew alive today, but every Jew that has ever lived. In the center was a relay race and it started out with our father Abraham, and he ran with tremendous speed, and then passed the baton to Isaac who also ran extremely fast and then passed the baton to Jacob and on and on through the generations the baton was passed. Through Moses. Through King David. Through Rashi, Rambam, Joseph Cairo, The Chofetz Chaim, on and on and now it was just passed to us… and what are we going to do with it? Is our generation ready to build on the successes of the past or are we going to fall backwards?

The Torah portion tells us of a monumental shift in Jewish history. Jacob, the last of our forefathers dies. The generation of the brothers are now the seniors. In next week’s parsha, they die too. After that we plunge into a period of slavery that almost decimated the Jewish people. What happened with the generation after the brothers that they didn’t merit us to exist as a free people? There were great people in that generation. Joseph’s two sons Menashe & Ephraim were so great that they were spiritually elevated to the status of their father’s generation. Serah, the daughter of Asher, was so great that she lived from the time we entered Egypt until the time we left. Dan’s son Hushim was such a fierce warrior that the Middrash tells us that he killed Esau. Given such people, what happened that they couldn’t protect the rest of the people? Did they fail as leaders?

If one views the Egyptian exile as an avoidable situation if we made the right choices, then perhaps they could have prevented. However, from everything that I’ve read, the Egyptian exile was a necessary process in the formation of the Jewish people. It was part of G-d’s divine plan and therefore had to happen. Given that, it would have been impossible for them to avoid the enslavement no matter how great they were. The only thing they could have done was to plant the proper seeds that when the time is right the leaders of a future generation can take us out of exile and to the divine presence at Mount Sinai. From Jacob’s grandchildren came the seeds for people like Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Nachshom, Caleb & Joshua. These were such a group that they brought us from the most horrific exile to receiving the Torah in such a short period of time.

Someone might mistakenly think that they were born to non-religious parents in a non-religious environment and there’s too much stacked against them to accomplish good in this world. We can see from this that even if this is correct, our parents and grandparents still planted the seeds of Jewish identity within us and they’re now ready to flourish. It’s our generation’s time to pick up the baton of Judaism and run at a pace to make our forefathers proud. Just like the generation that left Egypt, we have the ability to take our generation from the depths of spiritual apathy to the heights of redemption.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Dear Beth, I'm losing my son to Judaism. Please help me.

Dear Beth,

I’m writing you because I don’t know where else to turn.

It was about a year and a half ago that my 28 year old son told me that he met an orthodox Rabbi and started to learn Torah with him. At the time, I was happy about it. My son wasn’t married and constantly dated different girls. I thought that this would help him settle down and start a family.

We never kept kosher or anything like that, but I always taught him to believe in G-d, but we only went to synagogue a few times a year. He was a good boy. He always did well in school and I was proud of him.

About 6 months ago, things started to change. He told me that he wouldn’t come over for a family birthday party, because it was on Saturday. He didn’t come to our Passover dinner and he even told me that he wouldn’t eat at my house and more, because us wasn’t kosher. I couldn’t believe it. All of sudden, the food that I made for him his whole life wasn’t good enough. He would lecture us on how we should change… we should change while he was tearing the family apart.

No we don’t see each other so much and it’s all because of this Cult that he joined and this Rabbi that he’s talking to. When we talk on the phone, it’s usually tense. I tried to tell him what he’s doing to the family, but it didn’t help at all. I just don’t know what to do.

Please help me. I’m afraid that I’m losing my son.

Desperate Mother

Dear Desperate Mother,

There are so many laws that Rabbis teach young (or not so young) men and women when they return to Judaism. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough taught about how to maintain a healthy and loving relationship with ones family.

The first thing that we need to deal with is that your son isn’t reading any new fringe book that separates himself from the tradition of his family. He’s rediscovering something that his family did for generation after generation, but somehow became lost over the past 80 years or so.

I grew up in a house that was almost completely secular. After I was 13 years old, I don’t ever remember my parents going to synagogue. Besides for my Grandfather lighting the Chanukah menorah and a few other things, we had no Jewish customs. If I had to define our Jewish demonization (Orthodox, Conservative, etc.) I would have said that we were “Bagel and Lox” Jews. To the best of my knowledge, I thought that like me, my parents had no knowledge of traditional Judaism. I distinctly remember having my parents over for Shabbas dinner after I had became religious. When I started singing Shalom Aleichem (traditional Friday night song), I was shocked that they new the words. I had never heard them sing this growing up. When I asked how they knew the song, they told me that they remembered singing it when they grew up. Later I found out that my father still had his Bar Mitzvah tefillan (black boxes with straps that men start wearing after their Bar Mitzvah). I had never even seen a pair of tefillan, let alone owned one. There were many other memories that my parents had of Jewish laws and customs that were missing from my childhood. It even came out that my mother’s grandparents had been Orthodox. Even though my relationship with Judaism was different then my parents, it wasn’t that much different from their grandparents. Chances are that it’s probably the same with your family too. If not your grandparents, then maybe a generation or two before that was much more observant of Jewish laws than the average Jew in America.

If your son was a doctor and was on call every Saturday, how would you feel? Would you be mad at him for not coming to family parties? Chances are, you’d be proud of him and schedule get-togethers on Sunday. If developed an allergy to nuts later on in life, would you insist on feeding him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, because that’s what you fed him when he was kid? Of course not, you’d make the necessary accommodations to feed him what he could eat, because you love him. It’s not that much different now. Your son has developed a spiritual sensitivity that prohibits him from traveling on the Shabbat and Jewish holidays and prevents him from eating non-kosher food. I’m sure he’d be more than happy to see you on Sundays and go out to eat with you to a kosher restaurant. Maybe you can even get him to cook for you at his house. 

Your son loves you. Because it’s so important, I’m going to repeat it. YOUR SON LOVES YOU! It sounds like you’re both having difficulty finding the coexistence of both of your beliefs. The first step is acceptance. You need to accept your son for who he is and not try to change him. He needs to accept that you are and will always be his mother and you love him more than he’ll ever know. You also need to both find a way to spend time with each other and enjoy each others company at a time and place that you can both accept. He may not be able to come over on Shabbat, but there are 6 other days of the week that he can come over. You may also want to consider spending Shabbat with him to experience this part of his life. It may not change your view, but at least you may come closer to understand his.

The Rabbis teach us that one of the core principles of Torah is to love your fellow Jew. If this is true for a stranger, how much more true is it for a parent and child.

* This is a fictional letter that discusses a real problem that BTs and their families go through. There are so many articles and resources for those of us that have became religious, but very little for our loving and concerned families. If you have real questions, feel free to email me at AriMiller613@gmail.com.