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

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Pesach: The BT Family Seder

Over the past generation or so unaffiliated Jews have moved more and more away from Jewish customs and traditions.  A generation or two ago, the most secular Jews still went to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, didn’t eat pork and shellfish and intermarriage was almost non existent. 

A lot has changed in our generation.  Now, unaffiliated Jews do very little in terms of Jewish holidays and laws, but virtually everyone still observes the mitzvah of circumcision and attends at least one of the Passover Seders.  There’s something about the Seder that keeps us connected.  Maybe it’s the unique food or that on some level we still identify with leaving slavery. 

Whatever the reason is, since non religious Jews still want to go to a Pesach Seder, Passover becomes the most difficult holiday for Ba’al Teshuvas.  The issues that come up are numerous and cross some very difficult waters.

Unlike Shavuot and Sukkas, which most secular Jews don’t care so much about, most families want/insist to get together for a Seder.  My goal is to always find the balance between maintaining my commitment to Torah values and having a healthy relationship with my non-religious family.  This isn’t such an easy balance.  For fans of the TV show Seinfeld, you may remember an episode where George Costanza’s fiancĂ©e, Susan, started spending time with George’s friends Elaine and Jerry.  Since George saw himself as having two sides, “Relationship George” and “Independent George”, he had a very hard time holding things together when is fiancĂ© and friends where all together.

This isn’t so different then a BT managing his commitment to the Seder without causing a family feud.

Here are the top 4 issues that most of us face…

  1. Where’s it going to be – In many families, there’s a tradition of having a Seder at a certain family member’s home.  There are two major problems that come up… Kosher food and traveling.  When I first became religious, my Seder host agreed to get me kosher food for the Seder.  This was a big help, but I recognize that not everyone’s family is so open and giving.  Travel was more of an issue.  My first Passover after I became religious, I asked to sleep over for two nights at my brothers house so I could be with the family for a Seder.  The problem was that my family only had one Seder.  For the second night, my brother’s family drove to his in laws.  I ended up walking 6 miles to a Rabbis house to have the second Seder.
Solution: If possible, offer to have the Seders at your house.  This will solve both the problem of kosher food and travel for you.

  1. Sleepover party? – Having the Seder at your home solves the travel problem for you, but doesn’t help solve the travel problem for your guests.  Most secular Jews aren’t going to be so keen on your insistence on a 48 hour sleepover party.
Solution: I’ve heard different opinions on this matter, but the one that I go by is that one can invite guests for Shabbas or Yuntuf as long as the host is prepared for the guests to sleep over as opposed to driving home.  You should consult your local orthodox Rabbi to see what’s right for you. 

  1. Can we eat yet? – The Seders can be very long and some of your guests can grow hungry and impatient along the way.
Solution: Serve some food before the Seder.  This should be done before sunset.  This way you’ll be able to hold your guests attention for longer.  For the kids, have snacks to give out during the Seder.

  1. Boring – For you the Seder may be very interesting, but we need to keep our guests in mind.  If we don’t keep it interesting, we’re going to lose them.  Also, some of the text is more relatable then others.
    1. Solution: My wife and I came up with a system where, during certain less inspiring paragraphs, I will read them silently to myself while she leads everyone in a game.  The paragraphs I usually read silently are 1. It happened that Rabbi Eliezer… until the 4 sons.  2. One might think that the obligation to discuss the Exodus commences… through Blessed is He Who keeps his pledge.  3. Rabbi Yose the Galiliean said… until Dayenu.  For the games, we’ve done Passover-Jeopardy, Name that song, Passover-Who wants to be a millionaire?, etc.  We’ll prepare a variety of questions in different decrees of difficulty and ask them according to our guests.  You might ask someone without a strong Jewish education to name Moses’s sister.  You may ask someone with a stronger Jewish education to name Aaron’s two brothers in law that we know of.  (Feel free to post the answer to question 2.)  My wife does a great job on this and it keeps it interesting for all.  I usually try to prepare some other commentary as we go along that I feel is particularly interesting. 

Good luck and keep in mind that one of the most important things we can do at the Seder is to educate and inspire our guests.  If we work hard to do both then it will truly be a Shana Habah B’Yerushalayim… Next year in Jerusalem!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Toulouse Murders: How can we understand such tragedies?

Whenever a tragedy happens, we search for answers as to why.  There’s something in our nature that we have a hard time accepting meaningless destruction.  If something happened for a purpose greater than ourselves, we have a much easier time accepting it.

Only G-d knows why he does what he does, but we can come up with a list of potential answers as to why such things occur.  We won’t be able to come up with a clear understanding, but maybe we can derive some comfort through the process.

These answers has as much to do with the 4 Jewish souls and 3 French policemen that were taken from this world by a madman as much as they have to do with any similar event.

  1. Pre-ordained – I once heard a Rabbi ask the question; can someone die before their time?  Dealing with it from a hypothetical scenario, it’s an interesting debate.  I’ve heard knowledgeable Rabbis debate both sides of the issue.  There doesn’t seem to be a consensus, but the possibility does exist that someone can’t die before their time.  I once heard a story of a childless couple ask their Rebbe for a blessing that they should have children, but he refused to give it.  Time went on and they kept asking and he kept refusing.  Eventually, the Rebbe gave in and the couple had a child.  After some time, the child got sick and died.  They came distraught to the Rebbe and he explained that he understood that the soul of their child had completed almost everything it needed to complete in a previous life and it just needed a few months more in this world.  The ramifications to this opinion are clear.  The victims of this or any other tragedy has simply reached their allotted time on this earth.  This, by no way, absolves the murderer.  Each of us as free will and a killer has no justification.  G-d deal with things the way he wants to.  He doesn’t need our help to fulfill his will.

  1. Atonement for Past Lives – Since we do have the concept of reincarnation in Judaism, any punishment that we receive in this world could be a punishment or atonement for since in our past lives.

  1. Atonement for this life – When G-d created humans, he gave us free will and temptation.  We also contain an evil inclination and animalistic desires.  With all this in mind, we all make mistakes.  Since the righteous among us are judged more severely, their minor sins are treated as willful transgressions.  It could be that victims of atrocities are going through their respective atonement for their actions.  This answer falls apart when it comes to children who are not responsible for their actions and require no atonement.

  1. The effect on us – It always struck me as odd that when Christians are persecuted somewhere in the world, by Christian friends don’t seem to be bothered so much.  Maybe because it’s a direct opposite of the feelings that we feel.  A Jew maybe in a country I’ve never been to, a different color then me and speak a language that I don’t understand, but if he is suffering, we feel it.  If he needs help, I want to do whatever I can to help him.  If he has been kidnapped or in danger, we’ll pay whatever price we need to save him.  With that in mind, when a Jew is murdered, G-d forbid, it’s not just their family and friends who feel the loss.  We all feel it.  When I hear that a father and his two children are savagely murdered in front of a Jewish day school, I think of how many times I brought my two children to their day school.  We mourn and we feel the loss. 

I can’t begin to clarify why this tragedy happened, but I do know that if we are grieving, there’s a reason for it.  We need to take the suffering that we feel and strengthen ourselves to dedicate even more of our lives to G-d. 

It’s not enough that we just go about our lives.

It’s not even enough if we make up for the mitzvahs that Rabbi Yonatan, Aryeh & Gavriel Sandler along with Miriam Montenago would have done.

In their merit and in the merit of all Jews who have been taken from this world by our enemies, we must learn enough Torah and perform enough mitzvahs until the time that we can be reunited with all of our brothers and sisters with the coming of the moshiach may he come immediately.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Parsha Vayikra – Animal sacrifice… gross!

For the past 10 or so years, I’ve been a quasi vegetarian.  My reasons for not eating so much meat are the same as the “quasi” part of my quasi vegetarianism.  I didn’t stop eating meat, because of health or moral reasons.  I did so, because meat, or the idea that meat comes for an animal grosses me out.

I’ll eat chicken, fish or even beef in the right circumstances.  The right circumstances don’t always happen.  If I see bone, fat, feathers, skin, or anything similar anywhere near my plate, I get squeamish and stick with the vegetables.  After 7 years of marriage, my wife, who’s a dietician, knows what to do if she wants to cook me any of the above.  She prepares my dish in the kitchen or at the other end of the table and brings me a plate that has no reminders that the food used to be alive.  Though this is a pain in the neck for her, she does it without complaint.

Even though most people don’t share my views on eating meat, there are few of us who can spend a lot of time at a slaughter house and not be a little nauseous. 

All the more so, the thought of animal sacrifice, as outlined in this weeks Torah portion, can make us feel a bit uneasy.  Vayikra goes into many graphic details about how animals were slaughtered in the Mishkan (Temporary Tabernacle) and in the Beis Hamikdash (Holy Temple.)  What many people don’t talk about is that when the Moshiach (Messiah or Savior) comes and builds the third and final Beis Hamikdash, we will start performing regular animal sacrifices again. 

On the surface, slaughtering animals as offerings seems not so nice and barbaric at best. 

Does G-d really need our sacrifices?  Do we really think that we can make up for a sin by sending a nice piece of steak up to G-d?  Both of these answers seem to clearly be no.  We know the G-d is totally self sufficient and doesn’t need anything from us.  Following that logic, if he doesn’t need to receive the animal offering, it must be that there’s something about us where we, spiritually, need to give the offering.

There are many possible explanations.  I’m going to try to focus on a few that best answer the question for me.  An animal offering not only represents a monetary gift, it also represents a dedication towards the fulfillment of Hashem’s will.  Imagine planting a new fruit tree and waiting patiently for it to produce fruit.  Those of us with backyard gardens can tell you that the first fruit or vegetable is always the best, because it’s the first product of your hard work.  Torah law demands that we give those first fruits to G-d.  If it was just a monetary gift, then it wouldn’t make a difference whether it be the first, second or third.  The first is only worth more to the owner, not to general buyers.  By giving it to G-d, we are acknowledging that he is the true source for all that we have.

Another explanation is that Chassidic sources explain that our soul is made up of several parts.  There is a G-dly soul that wants to perform the commandments set forth in the Torah.  Then there is an animal soul that wants to fulfill its basic wants and desires, even if the contradict the Torah.  By sacrificing an animal, we are in a sense, diminishing the power of our animal soul and strengthening the power of our G-dly soul.  If we can perfect this process then by the time the Third Beis Hamikdash gets here, which should be very soon, we’ll have a complete understanding of animal offerings.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Parsha Vayakhel – Pekudei – You got to have faith…

As we come to the end of the book of Exodus (Shemos), the Torah portion of Vayakhel, among other things, discusses the construction of the Mishkan (temporary tabernacle) and all of the vessels and items that it needed to operate.

In the Jewish people’s first building campaign, they gave with such generosity that Moses actually had to tell them to stop giving.  This was probably the first and last time that a Rabbi told his congregants to stop giving money.  J

Chapter 25, verse 27 tells us that “the princes brought shoham stones...”  The great Torah commentator, Rashi, asks why the Princes did not contribute anything when the Mishkan was first constructed and only contributed at the inauguration of the alter (Mizbeach)?

He answers that the Princes lacked faith in the generosity of the Jewish people.  They said to themselves that the Jewish people should contribute first to the Mishkan and we’ll contribute whatever is missing.  When they saw that the Jewish people were contributing with an open hand, they got nervous and scrambled.  They ran to donate whatever was left before the Jewish people donated everything and they lost the opportunity to have contributed.

Thankfully for them, they got in the shoham stones for the High Priests breast plate.

There are several lessons that we can draw from this story.

Lesson 1... Alacrity

In the great work of  Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, the Path of the Just, he explains to us that doing a mitzvah is only the first step towards greatness.  We must strive to do it with alacrity.  We shouldn’t passively sit back and wait until we feel like doing the mitzvah.  We should get up and run towards it.  Every time that we’re faced with the opportunity to do a mitzvah to a kindness for our fellow, it’s literally an opportunity to accomplish the will of G-d.  If someone saw a winning lottery ticket on the ground, they wouldn’t stand around and pick it up when they felt like it.  They’d jump on top of it with all of their speed and might.  If we would behave that way for a finite reward, how much more so should we behave that way for the infinite reward of following G-d properly.

Lesson 2… Faith

It always surprises me when naysayers doubt the potential of a Jew trying to accomplish something great.  Whenever someone sets out a bold goal, there always seem to be people around who, not only don’t want to participate, they want to tell the person that their goal is impossible.  If a Jew is fulfilling the will of G-d with all of their being, what could be impossible?  For years I’ve been involved with many different Jewish organizations and I can tell you with complete faith that when a Jew acts for the sake of Heaven, mountains can be moved. 

As the leaders of the people of Israel, the Princes should have not only acted with alacrity for the sake of their own mitzvah, they should have understood that there was no way the Jewish people wouldn’t deliver everything in their power at such a momentous occasion.

As the future leaders of Israel (yes I’m talking to you who’s reading this article) we must strengthen ourselves to attach on to mitzvah opportunities and not only believe that our fellow can accomplish them, but to run right along side him to help get it done.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Parsha Ki Sisa – The Golden Calf… what the heck is going on here?!

The incident of the golden calf in the Torah portion of Ki Sisa is one of the most troubling things in all of Chumash. 

It’s hard for us to understand that a nation that stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and heard the words of the G-d directly could possibly sink so low in a short 39 days later. 

To better understand the situation, let’s first go over the words of the Torah translated from the Sapirstein Edition Artscroll Rashi Chumash.  I’m going to highlight some key words that we’ll focus on after the text.

Chapter 32, Verses 1-5: The people saw that Moses delayed in descending the mountain and the people gathered around Aaron and said to him “Rise up, make for us g-ds who will go before us, for this Moses, the man who brought us up from Egypt – we do not know what became of him!”  Aaron said to them, “Remove the golden rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them to me.”  The entire people unburdened themselves of the golden rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.  He took it from their hands and he bound it in a scarf, and made it into a molten calf; then they said, “These are your g-ds” O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”  Aaron saw and built an alter before him; Aaron called out and said, “A festival to Hashem tomorrow!”

Verse 25-28: Moses stood at the gateway of the camp and said, “Whoever is for Hashem, the me!” and all the Levites gathered unto him.  He said to them, “So said Hashem the G-d of Israel, ‘Let them place every man his sword on his thigh, and pass back and forth from gate to gate in the camp; and let them kill every man his brother, every man his fellow and every man his relative’”  The Levites did according to the word of Moses, and there fell from the people about three thousand men on that day.”

Verse 35: Hashem smote the people with a plague, because they made the calf that Aaron had made.

Let’s delve a little deeper into some of the back round stories (Midrashim) and commentaries. 

1.      Let’s start with the word “g-ds” in the second line of my text.  As we know, the Torah has many names for G-d.  Some of those names can also be used for other things.  In our verse, the Torah uses the name Elokim which can mean G-d, but can also mean leader.
2.      To back up the “leader” explanation, we only need to go to the next line where the Torah uses the word “man.”  If the people really wanted to make an idol or another G-d, why would the purpose of its creation be because Moses was missing?  Moses was clearly a man and their leader.  The creation of the golden calf was clearly a poor attempt and trying to create a middle entity between them and G-d.  Why did they think that needed something in between them and G-d?  For that we can go back to the 10 commandments in the Torah portion Yisro where the commentators tell us that after hearing the first 2 commandments directly from G-d, it was too much for the people and they asked that Moses say the remaining commandments instead of G-d.
3.      In line 5, Rashi tells us that Aaron told the men to get the jewelry from their wives as a delay tactic.  He expected their wives to give them a hard time.  In fact, he was correct.  None of their wives gave up their gold or participated in the incident with the golden calf in any way.
4.      In line 8 it says that, “They said” “O Israel.”  Clearly it seems like some people who are not Jews are speaking to the Jewish people.  Rashi tells us that when the Jewish people left Egypt, a great conglomeration of different people followed them and it was in fact these people who incited the incident with the golden calf.  This also explains who “the people” were that gathered around Aaron in the first place.
5.      Once the calf was complete, Aaron states that there will be a festival to Hashem tomorrow.  In doing this, he was saying two things.  The first is that he was trying to delay them a day, because he knew that Moses would be back tomorrow.  The second was that he was telling them that there is only one G-d, using the proper, undisputable name of Hashem.
6.      Popular misconception is that the golden calf was worshiped by the entire nation or at least close to it.  The Torah tells us that only 3,000 men committed the most grievous of sins.  I can’t find a reliable source for how many people died in the plague, but I’ve heard the number 30,000 thrown around.  There were roughly 3 million people that left Egypt.  30,000 represent 1% of that.  3,000 represents .01% of that… a rather minuscule number compared to the people at large.

The crime that the rest of the people were guilty of was not stopping it.  We are truly one people and we share in each others joys and sorrows.  If our fellow sins and we have the ability to stop it and we don’t, we bare some of the responsibility.  We should try to keep this shared responsibility in mind in our daily lives

I originally wanted to also write about Aaron’s role in the incident and how someone of his greatness could have participated and then get elevated to become High priest just a few Torah portions later, but since the article is long enough already you’ll have to wait until next year.