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

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Parsha Tetzaveh – Driving on Shabbas

The last time that I drove in a car on Shabbas was just under 3 years ago.  I still remember the day.  It was March 23rd/ the 25th of the Hebrew month of Adar.  It was a nice Saturday morning in early spring when my wife and I got into the car and drove into the city for the day.

You may be thinking… “Wait a minute.  You’ve been a Shomer Shabbas for roughly 10 years.  Are you confessing to a religious relapse?”  Not really. 

That was the day that my wife went into labor and my daughter was born. 

Jewish law allows one to drive in a car, or the like, on Shabbas when there is a danger to someone’s life.  Labor falls into this category.   There is an important question regarding such activity…

Is it that…
  1. it’s permissible to break the Shabbas when a danger to life occurs or
  2. the Shabbas is suspended in regards to that activity and one is not breaking the Shabbas at all

At first glance one would think that it’s permissible to break Shabbas in order to save a life.  After all, the Shabbas isn’t really suspended when you’re driving to the hospital.  You can’t start blasting the radio or make telephone calls that don’t relate to the trip.  The Shabbas and its rules clearly still exist.

There’s a hint the answer in this weeks parsha.  The Torah tells us about the High Priests (Kohen Gadol) wardrobe.  Among the many special garments is The Ephod which can probably best be described as an apron.  The Torah clearly states that it’s made from a mixture of wool and linen. 

For those of us familiar with the prohibition of shatness (mixture of wool and linen in the same garment), this should throw up a big red flag.  After all, when we buy new suits or clothing, it’s recommended to bring them to a shatness checker and make sure the clothes don’t contain a forbidden mixture.  If they contain both wool and linen in the same garment, it would be forbidden to wear it. 

One would think that the classical Torah commentators would have in depth explanations about how the Kohen Gadol can wear a garment with such a mixture, but they seem to be totally silent on the issue.  I would imagine they’re silent, because the answer is obvious. 

The prohibition of Shatness simply doesn’t extend to the Kohen Gadol’s Ephod.  It simply doesn’t apply to this situation.

By the same logic, the prohibitions of Shabbas that inhibit saving someone’s life simply don’t apply when their life is in danger.  I drove to the hospital without hesitation.  In fact, the Mishneh Berura has very harsh things to say about someone if they would hesitate in such a situation.  We shouldn’t try to be more stringent then the Torah expects of us. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Scarecrow and the Tinman

In this past weeks Jewish Press there was an excellent article by Carl Guzman about the importance of saying “Good Shabbas” which was taught to him by his late father.

When I first started becoming observant, I was living in center city Philadelphia.  I lived about a mile or so from the closest orthodox synagogue.  On my long walks to shul on Shabbas, I hardly ever ran into another Sabbath observer.  There just weren’t that many religious Jews in the city at the time.  When I did spot someone, whether it was a friend or a out of town visitor, I was excited.  I gave them a big smile and a nice “Good Shabbas” and usually got the same in return.

As I started exploring other communities, I came to a realization, the larger community and the more frum from birth (FFB) people there, the smaller the chance of getting a “Good Shabbas” greeting in return.  And even if you got one, it typically didn’t have much feeling behind it.  If you travel to places packed with observant Jews like Israel or Brooklyn, it’s almost a guarantee to be ignored.  The exact opposite was true in smaller and more Baal Teshuvah dominated communities.  I always found this strange, but never thought that much about it.

About 3 years ago, my family and I went to the Philadelphia Zoo with some friends over Chol HaMoed Pesach.  I’m not sure if the Zoo officials knew it in advance, but it was clearly Jew at the Zoo day.  There were frummies every where.  Typically when there was a frum out of town visitor to Philly, they would always be happy to return a d Good Shabbas or a Gut Moed.  I guess that was because there weren’t so many Jews around.  In their same neighborhood, they may have been less friendly, but when they were on the road, they’d turn the smiles on.

As my friend and I walked around, we would say Gut Moed, or Chag Sameach to the Jews that we passed and most gave us a blank look or a very under their breath return greeting.  After a several rejections, I started to not say anything.  After sometime, I started reconsidering.  Is not greeting a fellow Jew the proper thing to do? 

Ethics of Our Fathers teaches us that it’s commendable to greet everyone warmly.  When it comes to Shabbas, saying “Good Shabbas” isn’t just a nice greeting.  It’s remembering the Shabbas which is not only a Torah commandment, it’s laid out as part of the 10 statements in the Torah portion, Yisro, Zachar es yom HaShabbas. (Remember the Sabbath Day.)  Should we blindly walk through our Judaism and not engage our fellow man with love and affection?

Among, FFB circles, Baal Teshuvas are often stereo typed as not being knowledgeable enough about the Torah, but passionately following what we don’t understand… bumbling around like the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz.  There is probably some truth to every stereo type, but if BT’s are the scarecrow, then FFBs could be characterized as the Tinman whose knowledge is sound, but whose heart and emotions aren’t always behind their actions.  BTs should continuously try to learn to our knowledge catches up with our desire to cleave the G-d, but we should all be inspired enough to desire G-d even when things supersede our level of understanding.

After thinking this through, to my wife’s embarrassment, I started to give even more direct “Chag Sameachs” or “Gut Yuntufs” to my frum looking out of town guests.  While most gave be cold return greetings, some started to warm up.  As we loaded the kids into the car, I saw a very frum looking couple unload a few spaces down in the parking lot.  I gave him by biggest “Gut Yuntuf” yet.  He turned to me, gave me a huge smile and gave me and even bigger one back.  We spoke for a few minutes before I got into by car.  My wife said something like, are you happy that a frum person gave you such a greeting.  I replied that I was pretty sure that he wasn’t a Baal Teshuva, but to give a greeting like that, he must have been Lubavitch.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Parsha Terumah – Too many details…

As I was reading the Torah portion of Terumah this year, a thought occurred to me…

Too many details… There are many places where the Torah leaves out a lot of the background story and allows the Talmud and the Middrash to fill in the blanks. Tefillan are a great example. All the Torah tells us is that we should wear them. The oral tradition tells us what they are. In Terumah, it seems to give a lot of details that aren’t so inspiring or interesting. If I would have been on the Torah writing committee, I would have probably opted to spend more time with Abraham, Isaac & Jacob and less time on the exact details of the Tabernacle.

The parsha give us a plethora of details about the construction of the following the Ark, Table, Menorah & Tabernacle. This might have been very important for them to know how to build, but what relevance does it have to us? Let’s give a brief overview in no particular order…

1. Aron (Ark) as in "Raiders of the Lost…" This is where the 10 commandments and the Torah were kept.
2. Shulchan (Table). This is wear the showbreads were placed.
3. Menorah (Menorah?)  The Menorah is the Menorah.  There is a difference between the Menorah in the Temple and the one we use on Chanuhah.  The Menorah in the Temple had 6 branches plus the Shamash making a total of 7 where the ones we use today have 8 branches plus the Shamash making a total of 9.
4. Mizbe'ach (Alter) The Alter is the place where the Kohanim (Preists) offered sacrifices.
5. Mishkan (Tabernacle). The Mishkan was the early portable version of the Beis Ha Mikdash (Holy Temple.) It was used until King Soloman built the first Temple in Jerusalem. That lasted about 400 years until it was destroyed by the Babylonians. The second Temple was built 70 or so years later by Ezra and rebuild by Herod the Great. That also lasted about 400 years until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. When the Moshiach (Messiah) comes, we will have a Third and final Temple.

One of the many questions that’s asked about the 3rd Temple is how is it going to happen? Since it will exist at the site of the Temple Mount where the Dome of the Rock currently resided, how will the transition take place?
Do we have to take over the Temple Mount, knock down what’s there and build the Temple?
Will our cousins be so inspired by the truth of the Moshiach that they will voluntarily take down the Dome of the Rock.
Where will we get the supplies from the build it?
Where will we get the expertise to build it?

There seem to be a ton of questions about the details of how this will work.

The great Torah commentator, Rashi, gives us a clue on how to understand this in his commentary to chapter 25, verse 31. After all the details of how the Menorah should be built were given, Rashi says that Moses was still confused about how to build it. So G-d told him to throw a kikar of fold into the fire and G-d formed the Menorah himself.

One of my favorite answers to how the 3rd Temple will be come about is that G-d will build it in heaven and place it on the Temple Mount himself. The key for us is to try not to get too overwhelmed with the details. If we do what we’re supposed to do, learn Torah and perform G-d’s commandments, he’ll take care of the details.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Inter Marriage Wedding Invitation

Nothing can send the cause more friction than a wedding invitation from a close friend or family member who’s marrying a non Jew.

The percentage of Jews marrying non Jews is probably the worst that it’s ever been in our history.  In America, the statistics are well over 50%.  If you take out orthodox Jews from the equation, it probably reaches over 80%.  There are very few families who have not seen inter marriage.  Even if one’s immediately family happen to all marry Jews, it’s an almost guarantee that our cousins wont be so fortunate.

This topic was much harder for me to write about then others.  Thankfully, my brothers and I all married Jews, so it wasn’t a personal issue that made it so difficult.  Since it’s a newer problem, there is very little written about the subject in the usual sources for Jewish law (Talmud, Mishnah Torah, Shulchen Aruch, Mishnah Berura, etc.)

Before we go too far into what one should or should not do, I’d like to define several different cases. 

  1. Jewish friend or relative marrying a non Jew – This is clearly the most common situation out there.  In the same category is a non Jewish friend or relative marrying a Jew.  While less common, this is still a real life situation.  Before I became religious, one of my roommates and best friends was a Non Jew.  He married a Jewish girl.  While these wedding invitations can cause a lot of stress, it appears to be a prohibition to attend the wedding ceremony or reception.  Attending a inter marriage wedding would be a prohibition of Chillul Hashem or desecration of G-ds name.  The source comes from Leviticus (Vayikra) chapter 22, verse 32.   
  2. Jewish friend or relative marrying a non Jew who went through a non-orthodox conversion. -  This is a little different then case 1 and 2.  When marrying a non Jew, most Jews no that this is a violation of Jewish law and do it anyway.  When marrying a non-orthodox convert, the Jew may not know they’re doing anything wrong according to Jewish law.  Needless to say, an orthodox convert is treated as a natural born Jew in every regard.  In fact, we have to be more sensitive to their background.  One should never verbalize a doubt as to the sincerity of an orthodox convert.  While traditional Judaism doesn’t recognize the validity of the conversion, there may be some room here to attend the wedding since the participants are not knowingly transgressing the word of G-d.
  3. Marriage between two non Jews – Since it’s a mitzvah for non Jews to marry each other, there is no problem in attending their wedding as long as the celebration doesn’t take place somewhere where there are statues or paintings of things that they consider divine.  In simpler English, stay out of catholic churches.  Mosques and quaker meeting houses are probably OK since they don’t create any physical symbols of G-d.

It’s not a case, but it seems like a good point to talk about inter racial marriage.  In Judaism, a Jew is a Jew.  According to Jewish law, there is no difference between Jews of different skin colors.  That being said, there is no room for racism against fellow Jews within Judaism.  In fact, discrimination against any fellow Jew would be a violation of the Torah commandment to love your fellow Jew like yourself.

One may have a hard time finding a way to express their disapproval without destroying the relationship. This is a very slippery slope.  The Talmud tells us that we are required to rebuke someone when they’re doing something against Jewish law if we believe that they will listen to us and change their actions.  However… and this is just as important… it also tells us that it is as equally important to NOT rebuke someone if we don’t believe that they will listen to us and change their actions.  You can express their disapproval briefly or simply by not attending.  If you don’t believe that your rebuke will result in them calling off the engagement, its best not to make your expression of disapproval any longer then it has to be.

Now that we’ve discussed what you can’t do, let’s talk about what you can do.

You can spend time with your friend or relative and tell them while you’re not happy with their choice to marry a non Jew, you love and care for them very much.

You can visit them before the wedding and tell them how much you love them.

You can visit them after the wedding, as long as your visit as no connection to the wedding itself.  For example, if the wedding was on a Saturday night and they were having lunch for the wedding party on Sunday, it would probably be best not to attend the Sunday lunch.  It would be OK to visit Sunday night and spend time with them.

While we can’t celebrate with them, we can and should still treat them as our friends and loved ones.  If the Jew is a woman, their children will be Jewish, which means all the more reason to keep a strong loving relationship.

The key to navigating through this is the same as most areas in life.  If your relationship with the person is on solid footing and built on a respect of the choices that each of us make, it will survive.  It’s our job to nurture those relationships so they can get through challenges no matter what they are.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Parsha Mishpatim – I get by with a little help from my friends

Several years ago I was visiting a community for Shabbas.  It happened to be a Shalom Zachor (Friday night gathering after the birth of a baby boy) that Shabbas and my host and I went.  It was pretty late at night.  All of the Rabbis and older people had left and only the younger crowd remained. 

I was called upon to say some words of Torah when I explained the concept of a city of refuge.  The Torah alludes to it in Parsha Mishpatim and spells it out in several occasions.  When a man accidentally murders his fellow, he can escape punishment by going to certain cities inhabited by members of the tribe of Levi where he can safely spend the rest of his days. 

What’s interesting about the city of refuge is that it is the exact opposite of our penal system.  In modern day countries criminals are housed with other criminals.  First time offenders are often housed with violent inmates and they learn how to become better criminals and exit prison, often, worse then when they arrived.

In the Torah system, these offenders are sent to cities inhabited by the Levites, our holiest tribe.  Presumably they follow the excellent example of their new friends & neighbors and improve themselves why their there. 

As I concluded the Dvar Torah, I remarked that it was very comforting to be in the company of my new friends and I was hoping that their influence would elevate me.  When I finished, the guy to my left said that there were other people to be friends with in the cities of refuge besides just the Levites.  When I asked who, he responded, the other accidental murderers implying that my present company did not see themselves as so holy.

It was a cute statement, but it brings up an interesting question… who do we choose to be our friends and what impact do they have on our life?

Ethics of our fathers warns us to distance ourselves from a bad neighbor and cautions us not to become friends with a wicked person.  I would imagine that most of us wouldn’t define our friends as wicked, but we also generally don’t think about what impact our friends are having on us.  Ideally, we should think about who we choose to spend time with and why.

Ideally, surrounding us with positive and avoiding negative role models is something we can all do.  This isn’t to say that we should break off relationships that we have with people just because they aren’t perfect.  However, if someone is influencing us negatively, we should minimize the amount of time we spend with them and try to avoid areas where they’re bringing us down.  We should also think about the people we spend time with and what qualities they do have.  I venture to say that we can find traits that we’d like to emulate in the people we’re closest with.  We should also think about the areas that we want to improve in our own lives and spend time with role models.

The more we do that, the less we’ll have to rely upon the cities of refuge.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Parsha Yisro - Is Judaism Sexist?

Since before the women's lib movement, people have been asking if traditional Judaism considers one sex on a higher spiritual level than the other. We’ll explore the facts and myths to finally answer the question… Is Judaism Sexist?

It’s not hard to see why someone may think that traditional Judaism could be sexist. After all, women don’t…wear Tefillan, wear a tallis or tzitzit, count when forming a minyan. The list goes on and on…
 Lead the Grace after meals
 Become Rabbis
 Become a Cantor or Chazzan
 Wear a kippah or Yarmulke

Before we get too caught up in why women don’t do these things, let’s explore the reason why men do these things.

The commandment of Tefillan was given with the rest of the Torah after Moses spent 2 sets of 40 days on Mount Sinai. He spent 2 sets of days there, because he was begging for forgiveness of the Jewish people after the Jewish people made the golden calf. The true story is that not every Jew participated in the making and worshiped the golden calf. In fact, one of the sexes did not participate at all in the golden calf. One to take a guess which sex was totally innocent? If you guessed, women, you are correct.

We were commanded to wear tzitzit on the corners of our garment in the Torah portion Shelach after someone was caught gathering sticks on Shabbas. This was a crime punishable by death. The Rabbis tell us that Moses pleaded on behalf of the sinner using the argument that, since we don’t wear our tefillan on Shabbas, the sinner didn’t have a reminder that he shouldn’t sin. What sex was the sinner??? A man.

We derive what a minyan is from the incident of the spies in the Torah portion, Shelach. The Torah tells us that Moses sent a group of 12 representatives to spy out the land of Israel before they entered it. Out of the 12, 10 of them came back with an evil report and slandered the land of Israel describing how strong it’s inhabitants are and that the we wouldn’t be able to overcome them. They convinced a portion of the people and complained to Moses that they didn’t want to enter the land. This started the 40 years of wondering in the desert. The 10 evil spies were described as a congregation and this is a source that we need 10 people for a minyan. Just like the incident with the golden calf, all of the evil spies and their followers were men. In regards to prayer, one may ask why we need to pray with a minyan at all. Shouldn’t our sincere prayers count? The answer is that, sincere prayers do count. The Rabbis tell us that because of our sins, the gates of heaven are closed to prayer except for those who pray sincerely or for those that pray with a minyan. The fact that women are not counted in a minyan, what does it tell you about the sincerity of their prayer?

In the Torah portion of Yisro, G-d commands Moses to give the teach the commandments of the Torah to “to the house of Jacob and relate to the Children of Israel.” The great Torah commentator Rashi explains this, seemingly, repetitive statement. He tells us that the House of Jacob was referring to the women and the Children of Israel was referring to the men. The Midrash Rabbah explains that when G-d gave the first commandment to Adam first and then to Eve, they transgressed and the world was almost ruined. To rectify that, G-d gave the Torah to the women first and then the men. It also explains that the Torah was given to the women first because they are prompt in fulfilling commandments. Men were given certain specific commandments because they needed special methods to perform G-d’s will.
After looking at several of the commandments and the reason for them, I think that it’s safe to say that the Torah does consider one of the sexes to be on a higher spiritual level then the other one. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out which one.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Just Get Married!

About 8 years ago I was at a Shabbaton and I was talking to a friend of mine and a local outreach Rabbi that we both know. The friend that I was with had been involved with orthodox Judaism for several years longer that I was, but his commitment to mitzvah observance was slow. Also, where I was engaged, this friend was having a hard time meeting the right person.

After trying to convince my friend why he should be more observant and how doing so would help him find the right wife, the Rabbi, in a moment of slight frustration said something like “Just get married, move to Israel & Frum-Out.”

I found it odd that there’s so much pressure put on single Ba’al Teshuvas to get married. The statements don’t seem to focus that much on finding the right person for you or becoming a person that’s capable of being in a successful marriage. It seems like getting married is the most important thing and having a successful marriage will somehow automatically come later. At one point, divorce was extremely rare among observant Jews, but over the past couple decades, our numbers have risen dramatically.

Around the same time that I got engaged, a friend of mine started dating someone. He was introduced to someone by a mutual friend and after a very short dating period, they announced their engagement. He was telling me about his new bride and he said something like “I’m frum and she’s frum and we have the same goals because we want to both live a frum lifestyle.” I remember thinking that this poor guy had no clue what he was in for. After a year or so of marriage, they separated. It took some time, but they eventually worked things out. I know another guy who was engaged to a girl that he didn’t know so well and he and his fiancĂ© both had cold feet. Their Rabbis reassured them that they would be fine and they shouldn’t delay the wedding. They continued and she quickly became pregnant, but unfortunately, they didn’t get along so well and separated before their baby was even born.

I understand why there’s so much pressure for people to get married. As time goes on, and people get older, they are more likely to marry non-Jews. Needless to say, the intermarriage problem in America is of catastrophic proportions affecting well over half of Jews and almost every family. I also agree that Jews should feel a sense of urgency and want to get married, but I don’t think they should move so fast that they marry someone who isn’t right for them or they marry before they’re mature enough to handle it. It’s not enough to both be Jewish and frum. There are other basic essentials that need to be in place. It’s also crucial that individually, people are in a place where they’re ready to give fully to another in order to make the marriage work. Marriage isn’t a 50-50. It’s a 100-100. Both people need to give 100% of themselves to the other.

When I was single, the pressure that I felt from my mentors and some of the Rabbis around me was enormous. I was 28 years old when I started exploring my Judaism. Up until that point, I never felt an impeding urge to get married. All of a sudden, it seemed like people were saying that I needed to get married ASAP or I would be in trouble. Considering that it took my wife a year and a half of convincing before she’d agree to marry me, I suffered through many comments from people that we were wasting our time and I just needed to get married already. The truth is that my wife was very wise. Her parents were divorced when she was a child and it left scars that she had no intention of repeating with her children. In order to ensure this, my wife forced us to learn as much as possible about marriage and its potential pitfalls, talk to Rabbis and councilors and talk about the myriads of issues that could come up before she would agree to get engaged. Because of her insistence, we educated ourselves and formed both an intellectual and emotional bond before we formed the physical bond of marriage. It enabled us to deal with the challenges that marriage and children bring upon a couple much more affectively. Right before we got married, we met with a Rabbi whom I’m very close with and his wife for advice. He said something to me that’s as clear today as the day he said it. He said “You’re going to get married and have a big party, dance and celebrate, be among friends and loved ones and after everyone’s gone, you’re going to be alone in a room together with each others dirty underwear.” It’s a funny statement, but the point it home quickly. Marriage isn’t about the party or taking something off your “To do” list. It’s a bond. It’s rejoining your soul with its long lost counterpart, taking on your help-mate, which can and will be against you at appropriate times. It’s joining together the good and the bad of both of you.

A year after I got married, one of my best friends got married. On the night that I was supposed to host a sheva bracha for him and his new bride, he called me and told me that both of them have caught a stomach virus and they couldn’t make it. As he apologized, I told him how lucky he was. He and his new wife were getting a very quick lesson on the practicalities of marriage and having to take care of each other in not the most pleasant circumstance. No matter what came their way after this, it would be a step up from a new chassan and kallah both needing to use the bathroom in a 1 bathroom house. It’s been several years and they’re one of the happiest couples that I know.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Parsha Beshalach - Does G-d care?

This past week I was discussing the frustrating bureaucracy of certain government offices with a co-worker. Since the Presidential election is on the mind of most Americans, I started to tell her to make sure she votes. I remembered from past years that this woman does not vote for religious reasons. The form of christianity that she believes in states that the only leader is G-d and that to vote would be anti G-d some how. As this came to mind, I told her to pray to the L-rd that he reforms are government.

As she was walking away she said “I’m pretty sure that G-d doesn’t care about the bureaucracy of our government.”

Her statement really had an impact on me. If she believes that something is “to trivial” for G-d to deal with, she’s saying, in other words, that G-d has a limited amount of focus or energy and only concerns himself with the big stuff, G-d forbid. She’s also saying that G-d only concerns himself with our “big prayers” and doesn’t care about our prayers for things that he deems minor.

Both of these things are the complete opposite of Jewish ideas and basic common sense. An infinite being has an infinite amount of focus and energy. For G-d, splitting the Red Sea takes no more energy then making sure that I have peanut butter sandwich for lunch.

By suggesting that G-d doesn’t want us to pray for the small stuff, she was also implying that our trivial prayers bother the L-rd and essentially, he’s too busy to deal with us. The truth is that G-d wants to hear our prayers and constructed a world in which we not only would pray, but our commanded to pray. Along with praise, our prayers are constructed to deal with the every day topics of health & prosperity. When we encounter situations that are troubling, our reaction should be to pray to G-d for help, no matter how big or small the problem may be.

One could question why G-d waited for the Jewish people to ask for water and food when they entered the desert. The L-rd knows that we were going to get thirsty & hungry. The truth is that G-d wanted to hear our prayers. After we cried out to G-d sincerely, even though we didn’t do it in the best possible manner, he fulfilled our requests.