Monday, December 17, 2007

Problematic Texts I

The stories of the Torah do not always end up so pleasant. And as much as I like to emphasize the fact that Yaakov and Esav seem to reconcile at the end of their lives in burying their father, there exists within Judaism (thank you Max Sparber for that language) the idea that they remained bitter until the end of their lives. After implying that he would follow his brother and live near him, he manages to have Esav go one way first, enabling him to go another.

According to Midrash Rabbah, at the end of his life, when Yaakov was carried up to the cave of Machpelah, his right to be buried there was disputed. Naphtali had to run back to Egypt for the deed to show that he (ahem) indeed was entitled to be buried there.

When Hushim, son of Dan, saw Esau restraining them from burying Jacob, he killed him. The violence that takes place while legal remedies are being sought..... The sad addendum to this needless violence is that the Midrash suggests that Jacob was pleased to see his brother killed. And that this fulfilled a prophecy of Rifka, that they would both die on the same day.

Here is the text:

בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) פרשה צז ד"ה (כא) נפתלי אילה

(כא) נפתלי אילה שלוחה מלמד שקפץ למצרים כאייל והביא שטר המערה לקבור את אביו, עד שהוא הולך בא חושים בן דן והיה חרש, וכשראה עשו מונען מלקבור את אבינו יעקב, דקרו בידו על צוארו, והתיז את ראשו, ונפלו שתי עיניו על מיטתו שליעקב אבינו, ופתח עיניו וראה נקמה ושמח שנ' ישמח צדיק כי חזה נקם (תהלים נח יא), ונתקיימה נבואת רבקה שאמ' למה אשכל גם שניכם יום אחד (בראשית 45:27

Bereshit Rabbah 98:17-

NAPHTALI IS A HIND (a female stag) LET LOOSE (XLIX, 21). This teaches that he sped to Egypt like a hind and brought the title-deeds of the cave [of Machpelah], so that his father could be buried. While he was gone there came Hushim the son of Dan, who was deaf. When he saw Esau restraining them from burying our father Jacob, he stabbed him with his hand through the neck and struck off his head. His [Esau's] two eyes fell upon the bier of our father Jacob, whereupon he [Jacob] opened his eyes, saw vengeance, and rejoiced, as it says, The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance (Ps. LVIII, 11). Thus was fulfilled Rebekah's prophecy when she said, Why should I be bereaved of you both in one day (Gen. XXVII, 45)?

Would anyone like to offer ideas about how to approach these problematic texts?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Rabbi, is there a blessing for a cheeseburger?

The first source in the gemara deals with making blessings on things that are not acquired properly. The second source deals more directly with the question of cheeseburgers.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף ו עמוד ב

רבי אליעזר אומר: הרי שגזל סאה של חטים וטחנה ואפאה והפריש ממנה חלה, כיצד מברך? אין זה מברך אלא מנאץ, ועל זה נאמר: ובוצע ברך נאץ ה'

R. Eliezer says: If one stole a se'ah [a measure] of wheat, ground and baked it and set apart the Hallah, what benediction can he pronounce? This man would not be blessing, but contemning, and of him it is written, The robber [bozea’] who blesseth, contemns the Lord. (Psalms 10:3)

הלכות ברכות לריטב"א פרק ה אות יב

יב. מי שאכל או שתה דברים האסורים מן התורה או מדבריהם אינו מברך לפניהם ולא לאחריהם כלל שאין זה הנאה, ועל המברך נאמר (תהלים י') ובוצע ברך נאץ ה', ואין צריך לומר כשאכלם באיסור אלא אפילו אכלם בהיתר מפני חליו שהיה מסוכן אינו חשוב נהנה ואינו מברך עליו כלל, שכל הנאה שתחילתה באונס וסופה ברצון אינה הנאה'

One who ate or drank something that is forbidden either in the Torah or by the rabbis should not make a blessing after or before it at all, for one does not derive benefit from it. And about the person who does bless it is said, “The robber who blesses expresses contempt for God (Psalm 10:3),” It is not necessary to say that one does not bless only when one eats in that is forbidden (and does so willlingly), rather even when one eats (something that is forbidden) with permission because he is sick or in danger, since it is not considered “benefit,” you don’t need to bless on it at all. For any “benefit” that at the beginning is because of force at the end is out of will is still not considered benefit. (See also Ketubot 51b.)

(What I take this to mean is that if someone has to eat something that is forbidden in order to derive a later benefit from it -- that is, it will have curative affects, even though that cure would be seen as a benefit, it is not considered as such because initially, upon ingestion, one was performing the act because of dire need.)

So, the answer is no.

Is posting a picture of a cheeseburger on a blog deriving benefit from it even if it's purpose is to teach one about the impermissibility of making a bracha on one? Hmmm.....

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Channukah Irony

One of the nice things you can do on Channukah is put more candles burning in the Channukia after the first set burns down, so you can be near the Channukah candles for longer. (Just don't say the bracha again.)

The problem with this is that because most boxes come with only slightly more candles for the holiday, using part of another box may have you end up the next year with a box of candles left over with only a couple candles in it. Then when you look at your Channukah supplies you may think that you don't need to go out and get candles because you will see the box and assume it's full.

This happened to us this year and we didn't know it until tonight when (lo and behold!) there had only been candles for the first two nights.

How odd it was to realize that indeed the box was empty.....

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

More Jewish Birds (?)

This is a strange gemara about temptation, vanity and the evil eye.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף כ עמוד א

רב גידל הוה רגיל דהוה קא אזיל ויתיב אשערי דטבילה אמר להו הכי טבילו והכי טבילו אמרי ליה רבנן לא קא מסתפי מר מיצר הרע אמר להו דמיין באפאי כי קאקי חיורי רבי יוחנן הוה רגיל דהוה קא אזיל ויתיב אשערי דטבילה אמר כי סלקן בנות ישראל ואתיין מטבילה מסתכלן בי ונהוי להו זרעא דשפירי כוותי אמרי ליה רבנן לא קא מסתפי מר מעינא בישא אמר להו אנא מזרעא דיוסף קא אתינא דלא שלטא ביה עינא בישא דכתיב +בראשית מ"ט+ בן פורת יוסף בן פורת עלי עין ואמר רבי אבהו אל תקרי עלי עין אלא עולי עין רבי יוסי ברבי חנינא אמר מהכא +בראשית מ"ח+ וידגו לרב בקרב הארץ מה דגים שבים מים מכסין עליהם ואין עין הרע שולטת בהם אף זרעו של יוסף אין עין הרע שולטת בהם ואי בעית אימא עין שלא רצתה לזון ממה שאינו שלו אין עין הרע שולטת בו 

Brachot 20a

Rav. Gidel would go and sit at the entrance of the (women's) mikveh. He would say to them, "Immerse this way. Immerse this way." The rabbis said to them, "Don't you worry about your yetzer hara?"  He said to them, "They seem to me like white geese."

R. Yochanan would go and sit at the entrance to the Mikveh.  He said, "When the daughters of Israel would come out of the mikveh, they would look at me and they will have children as beautiful as I am.  They said to him, "Aren't you worried about incurring the evil eye?"  He said to them, "I come from the line of Joseph over whom the evil eye has no power as it is written, 'A charming son is Jospeh, a charming son to the eye (alei ayin).'"  R. Abahu said, "Don't read it alei ayin (to the eye) rather olei ayin (over the eye)."

R. Yossi bar Chaninah said that you can derive that Yosef was immune to the evil eye from a different verse:  "And may they grow in the land as abundantly as the fish in the sea."  Just as the fish in the sea has water that covers them, so too regarding the progeny of Yosef, that the evil eye has no power over them. 
Or if you want you can say that an eye that does not want to enjoy that which is not its own (like Yosef resisted the temptation of Potifar), the evil eye has no power over it.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Thanksgiving Address for the Interfaith Service

This is Psalm 65, and in the spirit of the evening I would suggest imagining this being written by a farmer, finished with the days work, sitting under the stars, in the quiet with the crickets, wanting somehow to express gratitude and awe, but feeling dwarfed nonetheless by his own shortcomings.

Psalm 65, translated by Robert Alter (a fantastic new translation, completely worth acquiring for one's library and studying):

For the lead player, a psalm; for David, a song.
To you, silence is praise, God in Zion,
And to You a vow will be paid.

O listener to prayer, unto You all flesh shall come.
My deeds of mischief are too much for me.
Our crimes but you atone.

Happy whom you choose to draw close,
He will dwell in Your courts.
May we be sated with Your house’s bounty,
The holiness of Your temple.

With awesome acts justly You answer us,
Our rescuing God,
Refuge of all the earth’s ends and the far flung sea,
Who sets mountains firm in His power,
-- He is girded in might—
Who quiets the roar of the seas,
The roar of their waves and the tumult of nations.
And those who dwell at earth’s ends will fear Your signs.

The portals of morning and evening You gladden.
You pay mind to the earth and soak it.
You greatly enrich it.
God’s stream is filled with water.
You ready their grain, for so You ready it.
Quench the thirst of its furrows, smooth out its hillhocks,
Melt it with showers, it’s growth you will bless.
You crown Your bountiful year,
And Your pathways drip ripeness.
The wilderness meadows do drip,
And with joy the hills are girded.

The pastures are clothed with flocks
And the valleys are mantled with grain.
They shout for joy, they even sing.

Growing up in the city, I have never really connected to the Harvest ideas in Judaism. My understanding of religion has always had more to do with individual responsibility for the collective and the way that study can become enlightening and a creative act akin to God’s creating the world. These are ideas consistent with close urban living. Finding the magesty in texts rather than in nature. Like the psalmist here, my way into the universal, only gets edged forward bit by bit, after a recognition of my own smallness. In the way that he looks up and beyond, eventually, he probably does it quite a bit better than I.

Sukkot, Shavuot and Pesach were Harvest festivals where we connect with the agriculture of the land and bring offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. On sukkot, the ritual was totalizing and the Israelites would live out in booths in the fields and thank God for the fruits, vegetables and grains that we were fortunate to be able to cultivate. In the city, our sukkot are on cement and wedged between buildings. We try. On Shavuot, the city of Jerusalem was decorated with all of the colors of the produce. We eat cheesecake and study.

For along with these ancient agricultural festivals in Judaism, the rabbis attached literary and historical-theological events, so that we could connect to the stories of the Torah as we appreciated the bounty of the land. They would become entwined, the God of History and the God who stands outside of time, renewing the land again and again, independent of the year and the events that are going on to determine the course of history.

As a city dweller, someone who has become less and less attached to the land as the years go on, the idea of sitting back and being thankful for agricultural sustenance seems a bit inaccessible. I try to imagine what a months worth of days with my hands in the soil would do to my skin. And the feeling I would have to know that all my meals for the next eight months and the meals of my family were taken care of—at least in part to the time that I spend engaging in God’s natural world. I know that I still owe my life to the fact that food grows from the earth, especially as a vegetarian, and I still know that there are many whose livelihood depends on the fact that the earth will continue to yield its produce. But it is hard for me to approach a concept such as the Harvest. When I imagine Avraham, it is easier for me to imagine him scurrying to get home before shabbas, checking his suit for loose strings, than it is for me to imagine him taking a walk on shabbas afternoon among the corn rows. The rabbis have not helped counter this feeling of urbanized Judaism. When speaking of Yaakov being a yoshev ohalim (someone who sits in tents), they turned this from what it could have meant-- that he appreciated the outdoors in a serene way (as opposed to his brother Esav, who hunted) to meaning that he liked to stay indoors and study in the yeshivas.

Since living in Israel on Kibbutz, harvesting dates from the tops of trees overlooking the mountains in Jordan , or picking scallions for 8 hours a day, I have dwelt more indoors than out. New York, I think can do that to you.

In order to continually recognize the source of our blessings. And consequently it continue to recognize the daily connection that we have to the land, Jews say brachot every time we put something into our mouths. The blessings vary based on what one is eating.

For the apples we put in pies—one says:
Blessed are you God, ruler of the universe, creator of the fruit of the trees.

For barley, one says: Blessed are you God, ruler of the universe, who creates different kinds of grains.

For bread one says: Blessed are you God, ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

For sweet potatoes and cranberries (which grow in swamps) one says: Blessed are you God, ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the ground.

For turkey one says: Blessed are you God, ruler of the universe, by whose word the whole world was created.

Perhaps another reason, besides for the fact that I exist in an urban setting, that the ability to connect to the Harvest is hard to come by is that the notion of a harvest feels so satisfied and for better or worse, satisfaction is hard to come by as a Jew. Planting is easier to stomach. It feels like a mission. It is about making the world better.

In the area of Harvest, we still have rules that remind us that the local harvest may be complete, but the grand harvest, or the project of making plenty in the world is far from it. In the Harvest, a jew does not have free reign over the experience. He or she may not harvest, for example, on the 7th year of a cycle. He can not harvest the crops that fall to the ground. He may not take certain small clusters of grapes, or go back for forgotten clusters, and he cannot plow to the edge of the field – all of these must be left for the poor.

So even in the harvest there is a notion of planting. Planting for a better world.

All the same, we need to sit back to remember the necessity of appreciating the land and appreciating that which has been given us. God has created a system that allows food to spring from the ground and has make us partners in bringing that food to our tables and to the mouths of our children. It is a system that allows us to recognize the dependence that we have on God, but it also continually empowers us, rewarding us for the efforts that we expend.

If we do not sit back and appreciate what we have, then we may likely lose sight of the ultimate project of making sure that everyone is provided for and that a continual harvest happens on earth. To feel thankful is at the same time to motivate. To continue to remember the goal of all our work.

A story, Peninah Shram's version of Honi Ha-Ma'agal:

Honi the Wise One was also known as Honi the Circle Maker. By drawing a circle and stepping inside of it, he would recite special prayers for rain, sometimes even argue with God during a drought, and the rains would come. He was, indeed, a miracle maker. As wise as he was, Honi sometimes saw something that puzzled him. Then he would ask questions so he could unravel the mystery.

One day, Honi the Circle Maker was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, "How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?"

The man replied, "Seventy years."

Honi then asked the man, "And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?"

The man answered, "Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees."

On Thanksgiving, as those who are enjoying the carob of those who came before us, we should be thankful for their foresight. After the shouts for joy, the songs of praise uttered, we will continue to do what we can to make sure the valleys are mantled with grain.

And break silences both in praise of God and in service of planting because we know we must.

(The picture is from

Sunday, November 18, 2007

comic name tbd page four

click on the left side for pages 1-3 of the comic.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Mazal Tov!

So as most of you know, I was gone this week celebrating my sister's wedding. It was at the art museum in Milwaukee, designed by Santiago Calatrava. In addition to how moving it was to seeing my sister get married, I loved the blend of modern and ancient which you can see here. (Picture by Richard A. Chapman). Tam and Brian seem very happy.

Weddings are so complicated and interesting because, as my friend David Koffman says, there are so many emotions in the room besides for joy. And they never get acknowledged. Sometimes there is also sadness and regret and longing over past marriages and marriages that never happened, or happened yet. Perhaps that is why it is a commandment to mesameiach hechatan v'hakallah-- rejoice with the bride and the groom-- because without it being a mitzvah, people may not be able to get past their own situations and emotions. Fortunately most people rose to the occasion.

I was also proud that during my talk, I did not utter anything about that oppressive concept called beshert (that statement may get me in trouble, were anyone reading this besides for my mother. Speaking of which, I am thinking about renaming this blog: "Blog for my mother" because she visits it more than anyone else!).

My sister looked beautiful and the transformation from fiance to husband Brian wore well. I think he was truly moved by everything that happened. It was nice to see so many people dancing and laughing at the wedding. They did a fantastic job planning everything, making it all look so regal-- the red against the white. And my grandmother who is nearing ninety seemed elated.

Tomorrow, back to work....

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Kisui Rosh (covering one's head)

hebrew class cancelled today

Hello everyone,

Just wanted to let you know that the adult introduction to hebrew class (Thursday evenings) has been cancelled again today because the teacher is tending to a family emergency out of state.

If you email us your contact information, we will be able to inform you of the status of the class directly.

Please email:

kol tuv (all the best).

Monday, November 5, 2007

“I told them: put away your phones, put away your phones, put away your phones,” he said. They ignored him.

Below is an article from the Times about using electronic jamming devices to silence cellphones. On Shabbas, this would be particularly handy, if it could be left on (and if it were legal). I am not sure how many times I have asked people not to bring their cell phones to shul on Shabbas. There are also signs all over the walls on the way up to the sanctuary. It has been amazing to me that when they go off (which let's admit, has happened to everyone in some context where they shouldn't have had them on), people actually answer them in the sanctuary. Unbelievable. I wonder if people answer them in church or in a reform synagogue where propriety is stressed.

Part of the problem is that the only enforcer in our shul is the rabbi. If the community at large would help in putting a stop to this instead of looking the other way and waiting for the rabbi to notice, the problem may begin to be solved. But when the rabbi is the only enforcer, it seems to create a dynamic similar to that of a two year old, which is that if the rabbi can't see it, then it is okay.

The boulder pushed up the hill won't stay there unless there are people at the top to keep it there.

Devices Enforce Silence of Cellphones, Illegally

SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 2 — One afternoon in early September, an architect boarded his commuter train and became a cellphone vigilante. He sat down next to a 20-something woman who he said was “blabbing away” into her phone.

“She was using the word ‘like’ all the time. She sounded like a Valley Girl,” said the architect, Andrew, who declined to give his last name because what he did next was illegal.

Andrew reached into his shirt pocket and pushed a button on a black device the size of a cigarette pack. It sent out a powerful radio signal that cut off the chatterer’s cellphone transmission — and any others in a 30-foot radius.

“She kept talking into her phone for about 30 seconds before she realized there was no one listening on the other end,” he said. His reaction when he first discovered he could wield such power? “Oh, holy moly! Deliverance.”

As cellphone use has skyrocketed, making it hard to avoid hearing half a conversation in many public places, a small but growing band of rebels is turning to a blunt countermeasure: the cellphone jammer, a gadget that renders nearby mobile devices impotent.

The technology is not new, but overseas exporters of jammers say demand is rising and they are sending hundreds of them a month into the United States — prompting scrutiny from federal regulators and new concern last week from the cellphone industry. The buyers include owners of cafes and hair salons, hoteliers, public speakers, theater operators, bus drivers and, increasingly, commuters on public transportation.

The development is creating a battle for control of the airspace within earshot. And the damage is collateral. Insensitive talkers impose their racket on the defenseless, while jammers punish not just the offender, but also more discreet chatterers.

“If anything characterizes the 21st century, it’s our inability to restrain ourselves for the benefit of other people,” said James Katz, director of the Center for Mobile Communication Studies at Rutgers University. “The cellphone talker thinks his rights go above that of people around him, and the jammer thinks his are the more important rights.”

The jamming technology works by sending out a radio signal so powerful that phones are overwhelmed and cannot communicate with cell towers. The range varies from several feet to several yards, and the devices cost from $50 to several hundred dollars. Larger models can be left on to create a no-call zone.

Using the jammers is illegal in the United States. The radio frequencies used by cellphone carriers are protected, just like those used by television and radio broadcasters.

The Federal Communication Commission says people who use cellphone jammers could be fined up to $11,000 for a first offense. Its enforcement bureau has prosecuted a handful of American companies for distributing the gadgets — and it also pursues their users.

Investigators from the F.C.C. and Verizon Wireless visited an upscale restaurant in Maryland over the last year, the restaurant owner said. The owner, who declined to be named, said he bought a powerful jammer for $1,000 because he was tired of his employees focusing on their phones rather than customers.

“I told them: put away your phones, put away your phones, put away your phones,” he said. They ignored him.

The owner said the F.C.C. investigator hung around for a week, using special equipment designed to detect jammers. But the owner had turned his off.

The Verizon investigator was similarly unsuccessful. “He went to everyone in town and gave them his number and said if they were having trouble, they should call him right away,” the owner said. He said he has since stopped using the jammer.

Of course, it would be harder to detect the use of smaller battery-operated jammers like those used by disgruntled commuters.

An F.C.C. spokesman, Clyde Ensslin, declined to comment on the issue or the case in Maryland.

Cellphone carriers pay tens of billions of dollars to lease frequencies from the government with an understanding that others will not interfere with their signals. And there are other costs on top of that. Verizon Wireless, for example, spends $6.5 billion a year to build and maintain its network.

“It’s counterintuitive that when the demand is clear and strong from wireless consumers for improved cell coverage, that these kinds of devices are finding a market,” said Jeffrey Nelson, a Verizon spokesman. The carriers also raise a public safety issue: jammers could be used by criminals to stop people from communicating in an emergency.

In evidence of the intensifying debate over the devices, CTIA, the main cellular phone industry association, asked the F.C.C. on Friday to maintain the illegality of jamming and to continue to pursue violators. It said the move was a response to requests by two companies for permission to use jammers in specific situations, like in jails.

Individuals using jammers express some guilt about their sabotage, but some clearly have a prankster side, along with some mean-spirited cellphone schadenfreude. “Just watching those dumb teens at the mall get their calls dropped is worth it. Can you hear me now? NO! Good,” the purchaser of a jammer wrote last month in a review on a Web site called DealExtreme.

Gary, a therapist in Ohio who also declined to give his last name, citing the illegality of the devices, says jamming is necessary to do his job effectively. He runs group therapy sessions for sufferers of eating disorders. In one session, a woman’s confession was rudely interrupted.

“She was talking about sexual abuse,” Gary said. “Someone’s cellphone went off and they carried on a conversation.”

“There’s no etiquette,” he said. “It’s a pandemic.”

Gary said phone calls interrupted therapy all the time, despite a no-phones policy. Four months ago, he paid $200 for a jammer, which he placed surreptitiously on one side of the room. He tells patients that if they are expecting an emergency call, they should give out the front desk’s number. He has not told them about the jammer.

Gary bought his jammer from a Web site based in London called Victor McCormack, the site’s operator, says he ships roughly 400 jammers a month into the United States, up from 300 a year ago. Orders for holiday gifts, he said, have exceeded 2,000.

Kumaar Thakkar, who lives in Mumbai, India, and sells jammers online, said he exported 20 a month to the United States, twice as many as a year ago. Clients, he said, include owners of cafes and hair salons, and a New York school bus driver named Dan.

“The kids think they are sneaky by hiding low in the seats and using their phones,” Dan wrote in an e-mail message to Mr. Thakkar thanking him for selling the jammer. “Now the kids can’t figure out why their phones don’t work, but can’t ask because they will get in trouble! It’s fun to watch them try to get a signal.”

Andrew, the San Francisco-area architect, said using his jammer was initially fun, and then became a practical way to get some quiet on the train. Now he uses it more judiciously.

“At this point, just knowing I have the power to cut somebody off is satisfaction enough,” he said.

Friday, November 2, 2007

The Blessing of Not Having a Daughter?!

In the Gemara in Bava Batra, the rabbis take up the question of whether God blessing Avraham "bakol" in everything, meant that he also had a daughter. R. Meir says that quite the opposite, he was blessed in the fact that he did not have a daughter and R. Yehudah disagrees and says that he must have had a daughter. The opinion of R. Meir, jarring and troubling as it is, is flushed out in the comment of the Ramban -- why not having a daughter for Avraham could have been considered a blessing.

רמב"ן בראשית פרק כד פסוק א

ולרבותינו בזה ענין נפלא. אמרו (ב"ב טז ב) וה' ברך את אברהם בכל, רבי מאיר אומר שלא היתה לו בת, רבי יהודה אומר בת היתה לו, אחרים אומרים בת היתה לו ובכל שמה. דרש רבי מאיר שלא היתה לו בת לאברהם, וזו לו לברכה כי לא היה יכול להשיאה רק לבני כנען הארורים, ואם ישלחנה לארצו גם כן תעבוד שם עבודה זרה כמותם, כי האשה ברשות בעלה, ואברהם לא יחפוץ שיצא זרעו הכשר משרה אשתו חוצה לארץ, ואף כי יעבוד עבודה זרה. ורבי יהודה דרש כי בת היתה לו, דאפילו ברתא לא חסריה רחמנא (שם קמא א), והיא הברכה בכל, כי היה לו כל אשר יחמדו האנשים לא חסר דבר. ובאו אחרים והזכירו שם הבת


And for the rabbis this was an wonderful/interesting idea.-- They said, (BT Bava Batra 16b), And God blessed Avraham in everything. Rabbi Meir said that he would not have a daughter. Rabbi Yehudah said that he did have a daughter. Others say that he had a daughter and her name was “bakol.” Rabbi Meir explained that he did not have a daughter and this was a blessing, for he would only have been able to mary her off to a cursed Canannite and if he would have sent her to his land, she also would have committed idolatry like them, for a woman did according to the wishes of the husband. And Avraham did not want that his proper seed from Sarah, his wife, be outside of the land and commit idolatry. And Rabbi Yehudah, on the other hand, explained that he did have a daughter. That God even granted him a daughter (BT 141a), and she was “the blessing of everything” for Avraham had everything that people found dear, he did not lack anything. And the others mentioned the name of the daughter.

If you read this before sundown you will have a head start on our study session this shabbas--

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

comic name tbd page three

If you haven't read pages 1-2, scroll down to them and then read up.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

comic name tbd page 1

(click on page for larger view)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Raven

"At the end of forty days, Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made-- And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth." (Gen. 8:6-7)

Given that the choices a person makes are often reflections of his or herself, even more-so when resources are unlimited (and within the context of the story Noah had animals of every kind in his ark), Noah's choice of sending the raven can be considered an an entry into Noah's immediate post-flood psyche.

The Midrash (Gen. Rabbah 33:5) confirms the semiotic significance of the raven quoting psalms, "He sent darkness, and it was dark." (Ps. 105:28) As an extension of himself, Noah chose a bird that would be at home in the scenes of horrific catastrophe. It is not hard to imagine the depression that being in a coffin of a boat with the world collapsing around him would create or the nightmares that he would have been continually facing. In fact, Yalkut Shemoni reports that upon being sent out, the raven found a carcass on one of the mountains and never returned to the boat (diverging from the text of the Torah). This symbolically presents a possible route for Noah, or one that he indeed psychologically followed. Coming out of the ark, his mind resting on all of the death around him made him unable to go on in the world. In fact, given his ignominious ending in the story, we wonder if the psychological state represented by the raven completely won out.

This psychological state can be further understood through the conversation that Noah had with the raven in the Midrash (Gen. Rabbah 33:5)-- the raven playing the darker part of Noah's psychology. We can imagine Noah having both sides of this conversation, a madman blurring the lines of his own consciousness and the world around him.

R. Yudan said in the name of R. Yehudah bar. R. Simon, "It (the raven) began to argue with him: ' Of all the birds that you have here You send none but me!’
And Noah replies, "What need then has the world of you? ' he retorted; 'For food? For a sacrifice?’ (Gen. Rabbah 33:5) implying of course, that he is fit for neither.

True, God saved him, but why did God send him into the unknown? What good was he? Did a God who valued his righteousness and pureness of heart expect him to fashion a world of righteousness and pureness of heart but a world also willing to accept all of this death as his God just did? Would he get any guidance how to balance all this?

Noah eventually moves away from the darkness and moves to the more pleasant symbol of the tranquil dove, sending it out not once, but twice-- persistence sometimes being necessary when trying to make lightness and goodness dominate your motivations. In the Midrash, the dove also reminds Noah of another side of his psyche (again, from the Yalkut Sheomi Noach) that his will and preferences are worth less than the will and preferences of God. The dove or the other part of his psyche says, "I would rather have this olive branch, that which is bitter, from the hand of God than something sweet from your hand."

The raven is not forever doomed to the negative images that are associated with it-- and in the Talmud there are Cassandra-ish associations (Gittin 45a), predicting doom, being ignored (but being right). The Midrash also talks about the awful way that the raven feeds it's children (from its own refuse) (Vayikra Rabba 19:1). But the ravens eventually textually emerge in I Kings 17:6 to become the feeders of Elijah, as he hides from Ahav, after Elijah pronounces a drought on the land. This future forces Noah in the midrash to have to rescind his "What good are you?" condemnation of ravens as reported in Gen. Rabbah 33:5. From this we can learn the Midrashic perspective that our purpose on earth is not always immediately apparent and furthermore that darkness can help to nourish.

My cousin Danielle suggested an entirely different possibility, one that I had not imagined: That Noah sent out a raven because the raven had a shrill call, as opposed to other birds. The raven would be best to alert survivors of the flood that other life still existed, like a fog horn or a shout in a mine.

Picture of Raven from:

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

What one can get on Ebay: Jacob Sonderling and the German Jews in WWI

This picture was brought in by Joel Silberstein, a collector, historian, congregational secretary and Cohen at the BRJC. Joel, who was born in Germany and got out before World War II, often speaks of how the Jews were courteously treated in Germany and the corresponding positive Jewish attitude towards Germany during WWI and after the war. Joel's private collection of curiousities contains post cards and other print material that show Jews proud of their German heritage and demonstrate how the Germans, at that time, treated the Jews fairly as equals. Of course, Joel would insist, some of that was just surface pleasantry and that deep down there was resentment and antipathy; but at times, such as that which is depicted here, certain German institutions seemed to accommodate Jews.

This is a picture of a Jewish prayer service out in the field. One of the amazing things about, of course, is that this occurred during World War 1, in Germany. This service took place, as stated here, by order of the Army of His Magesty the German Emperor on 29/30 September 1914 which corresponds to the 10 of Tishre, 5675-- Yom Kippur. The field Rabbi was Dr. Sonderling, in Hamburg.

I am not sure what the formal arrangement was here. I am not sure if the man standing in front of Dr. Sonderling (who I assume is the man in front) was reading Torah or davenning or giving a dvar Torah. Perhaps this formation is some kind of military ritual? If anyone knows, it would be interesting to hear. If he was reading Torah, its curious that there is no one else next to him (gabbaim) and if he is davenning, perhaps he is doing so in the German Reform style instead of as many do today, facing the same way as the congregation.

Looking for more information about Dr. Sonderling, I began to learn what a remarkable life he led and what kind of impact he had in the Jewish world. I was particularly interested in how broadly he approached his Jewish life, becoming involved in scholarship, communal affairs, and even in cultural patronage.

While still in Germany, he had a synagogue in Hamburg, serving in the New Dammtor Synagogue with Dr. David Leimdorfer. He had originally worked in the Neustadt district of Hamburg starting in 1908.

According to one site (see citations below): "He was army rabbi during the First World War and after the war described the horror. He emigrated to the USA in 1921. A synagogue attender later related that the sermons of both preachers were well structured and were masterpieces of oratory. Many members of the Synagogue Society also attended the New Dammtor Synagogue to experience these sermons."

He eventually made his way to America and served as the Rabbi at Temple Beth Israel, in Rhode Island, installed around Oct. 3rd, 1929. He seemed to have been loved and revered in the Reform movement. Sometime after Rhode Island, he made his way to Los Angeles where he served at the Temple of Fairfax. There, he commissioned music to be written by Ernst Toch (the rabbi wrote the libretto), which resulted in the Cantata of the Bitter Herb. He also wrote the text for Schoenberg's Kol Nidre. (see links below if you would like to hear some of this)

Sonderling was mentioned in a commencement speech in 2004 by Alfred Gottschalk at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles:

Sondering had "a small congregation of German refugees in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles.... He died on Simchas Torah and was born on Simchas Torah some 93 years apart, hardly a coincidence..... One day, (towards the end of his career as Rabbi of Fairfax Temple, which eventually was sold with the proceeds coming to support the fledgling new campus of the Hebrew Union College going up at the University of Southern Calimfornia) Sonderling arrived at the Appian way campus, huffing and puffing his way up our sole staircase. He had in his arms a thin tall scroll wrapped in an antique frayed Torah cover. I met him as he reached the top of the stairs and he said, "This scroll it was in my ark for over forty years. Take it! Now it is yours! I give it to the college to preserve."

It was a parchment scroll of the prophets. A rarity. In the first world war Rabbi Sonderling served in Kaiser Wilhelm's army on the eastern front. He was a Jewish Chaplain and moved with the troops, one night as the army was pushing eastward, Sonderling realized he was in a shtetl. There was a light on in the small synagogue he was passing in his vehicle. He ordered hsi driver to stop. Sonderling entered the synagogue. In a corner in the dim light he saw a man cowering. Sonderling approached him and said, "Ich bin oycha yid was tust du hier is a sakanah nfashot."

The man replied, "Ich bin der shames von der shiel und wir hoben a sefer im open hakodsh."
Sonderling said, "Ich bin a rav und ich will sein shomer for seder" I am a rabbi and will become guardian of the scroll in your stead.

The Shames handed it to him carefully. Sonderling took the scroll and said to the shammes, "Yetzt loif." Run, it's dangerous here.

He once remarked, "The seminary made me a rabbi. The university made me a doctor. But my experience in Eastern Europe made me a Jew."

On Sonderling and music:

If you want to hear the Schoenberg Kol Nidre, the Schoenberg Center has made some original recordings, with Schoenberg's voice available here:

Gottschalk's commencement speech:
On Sonderling in Hamburg:
( documents old German synagogues

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Who we are: Simon Gleyzerman

These are notes from a conversation that I had with one of our gabbaiim, Simon Gleyzerman. Simon is known for his dependability and his wonderful smile. He comes Shabbas mornings to open the doors and set up the Torahs. Even when it is raining and his knee is sore, Simon makes his way to shul and then leads the congregation in Psuke d'zimra. Sometimes you can see him coming, walking decidedly from blocks away because of his distinct gray suit and hat. Simon didn't know Hebrew when he came to America in 1990, but now he davens with incredible spirit.

He said, "It was a hard life, we didn't know about the religion. They (the Russians) said that it is not right to believe in Him (he points to the sky). Everything there was athiestic. And they wanted to bring us to communism. But their philosophy was only talk. In theory, it might have been okay, but in practice it was difficult. It seemed that they only wanted us to work for nothing. Doing for nothing, that's what it was like. True, education was free. Anything that I would do, it had to be done for the collective. If I was a communist, I have to be first a communist-- not a Jew. The head of the community kept everything away so you couldn't be rich-- they tried to make everyone equal.

But if you were a Jew they would remind you that you were a Jew. Back then, they meant this as a bad thing, but now I thank them for reminding me.

I was the same people as the other people around. If they hear that I am a Jew they would say, 'You are a Jew, but you're a good man.'

I always though that Jews were smart. They have education. They are patient, polite and intelligent. Jews try and do the right thing.

I was born in Yampol Vinetzia, near the river Dnester on the border of the Ukraine and Moldova. I came to America when I was 53, in 1990. Without language, without any English. No Hebrew. For my grandson, we did a bris. He was 9 or 10 years old. It was one of the best days of my life.

Why did I come to America? My wife has a sister here who came in 1979.

Why I leave Russia? Because at this time everything was perestroika. There used to be incredible planted grapes everywhere and during perestroika, they cut the grapes. All the good things, they broke. Perestroika was breaking my heart.

I learned Hebrew when I came to Boro Park. They educated me at the center to learn English and there was also lessons on Jewish culture. The teacher started to teach us the aleph beis and the brachot of Shabbas. He did Shema Yisrael. He translated into Russian, but it would go in one ear and out the other.

So finally, my wife had a teacher from Russian who knew Hebrew from Leningrad and she had a teacher that would explain Alef Beis to the end. Then I would do birkat hamazon, the whole thing, and that really helped.

I was born in 1937. It was very bad time in Ukraine. A lot of people died. Stalin killed a lot of people. 10,000,000 died. The Ukraine had been the best place to grow up. There was everything good about it. Everything was going good. But Stalin made it so that there was nothing to eat.

I was 4 years old when my parents were killed and my sister was 13. My father and my brother went away when the war started, because they were in the military. My mom and my sister and me tried to go away from the war. The Germans came, they picked up all the Jews that were around-- this was 40 kilometers of my town. We couldn't go away. They put all the people together. 300 or more people, I don't know. They caught us in the middle of the town. They took all the Jews from all the houses. They took us out and my mom pushed us and told us to run away. They started to go to the cemetery. She pushed us and nobody caught us. We were in Tomashpol. She said go away, I go to work. But they killed her. There is a memory stone where my mom was killed. My sister took me to the town I was born, to Yampol, to my aunt. They had 5 children.

My aunt had a smaller one years boy, then me, he was three, and her daughter was-- she was a kamsamol, they said-- and they killed her. She had been married and she had child, but they didn't kill the child. She stayed with my aunt. She had one foot longer than the other. She was eventually married, she had two sons. The sons and her husband are here in Brooklyn, but I don't have contact with them. Riya Brenner, maybe, I don't know. They were Golger family. The father's name was Malamud.

My cousin used to take water from the mountains and he would bring the water. That was how he would make a living. People would pay him for the water. But the anti-semites used to take it.

When I was four, I was with my sister and she would go and work for people for food. She needed more money. I cried for 6 months. And after that I set to work. I would look in the garbage on the sidewalk and I would go and look for food with other kids. They would make potatoes and they would take off the potatoes and I bring the covers (peels) of the potatoes and my aunt she would make soup. Mostly people would throw away everything that is bitter and I would find it, but it was no good.

There were Italian soliders and Romanian soliders in this town where we stayed. The Germans went away. When the Italian soliders would eat, after what was left they would give for the chidlren. We have cans, we make handles and we go and they give us the soup or macaroni.

The soliders would throw cigartte butts and they would teach me to smoke when I was 5 years old. When my daughter was married, I stopped.

Two years, in 1944 the war was away from our town and the schools started working again. I started going to the school from September until when it got cold, when there was the frost from the cold. I didn't go to school, because I didn't have any shoes.

I remember that every once in a while, I would go out without my shoes and skate.

Simon's message for Yom Kippur--

Be patient to each other, forgiving each other and we have to keep in life our Temple. We have to raise the children the right way. And it is hard to bring them to that. I want to see our Temple in life. This is the way. You have to be full with laughing, with happiness and bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah with children. We have to raise a good community.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

An early High Holiday message

Shalom l’chulam,

How tempting it is to feel comfortable at this time, with the year drawing to a close and familiar rituals inching forward—the buying of new notebooks for school, the rushing to get one more day in at a windy beach, the negotiations of where to spend the holidays this year. Even the echo of the shofar from last year reminds us of what is familiar, what brings comfort and order.

But it ought not be entirely that way. Of course, if you do find coming back to shul and hearing Avinu Malkeinu enriching, you have cultivated a religious sensibility that awakens your spiritual self and you should dwell in what you have achieved at this time; but the holidays and these rituals are supposed to also jar you into a kind of self reflection that should be a little uncomfortable—a cheshbon nefesh, a taking account of who you are.

The melody of Avinu Malkeinu is lulling and uplifting, but the words are difficult—Our father our king, have mercy on us and answer us, for we have little merit. In order to be honest about all this and to deserve that tzedakah v’chesed (justice and mercy) you have to take account of what you did this year and realize that as much as you may have improved this year, there is still room for more. Doing so will make singing the words in shul that much more meaningful—like singing God bless America after undergoing a national crisis, or a love song to a new spouse, or a lullaby to a newborn child.

The context and work that needs to be done to understand and feel the tefillot in the holidays is: Were you kind? Were you consistent, or at least coherently inconsistent? Did you keep your word? Did you go out of your way? Were you part of the community? Were you honest? Did you risk?

So this High Holiday season, I wish you a warm, pleasant and productive time with your discomfort and jarring. I hope that it proves invigorating not as a day at a windy beach, but as climbing a mountain and seeing the place from which you came.

Shanah Tova,
Image of mountain taken from:

Friday, August 24, 2007

More Jewish Birds

Look at this fascinating gemara from Brachot 7a (below). Fascinating because of the power given (or admitted to) regarding Bilaam, the non-Israelite priest. In Midrash Rabbah, it is suggested that he has skills that even Moshe does not have.

The other reason I like this gemara is because it hints at something oddly mystical about the rabbis life with regard to their observable environment-- roosters. And Yehoshua b. Levi trying to use what he knows about the world, as learned from the rabbis, to his advantage proves not to work at all because God protects all creatures (even the heretic that RYBL is trying to curse).

Incidentally, I once had an disagreement with a rabbi at Or Samayach about whether God gets angry. I wish I would have known this gemara and wonder why he did not bring it up preemtively.

Brachot 7a:

R. Yohanan further said in the name of R. Yosi: How do you know that we must not try to placate a man in the time of his anger? For it is written: My face will go and I will give thee rest. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: Wait till My countenance of wrath shall have passed away and then I shall give thee rest.

But is anger then a mood of the Holy One, blessed be He? — Yes. For it has been taught: A God that hath indignation every day.

And how long does this indignation last? One moment. And how long is one moment? One fifty-eight thousand eight hundred and eighty-eighth part of an hour.

And no creature has ever been able to fix precisely this moment except the wicked Balaam, of whom it is written: He knows the knowledge of the Most High.

Now, he did not even know the mind of his animal; how then could he know the mind of the Most High? The meaning is, therefore, only that he knew how to fix precisely this moment in which the Holy One, blessed be He, is angry.

And this is just what the prophet said to Israel: O my people, remember now what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him . . . that ye may know the righteous acts of the Lord. What means ‘That ye may know the righteous acts of the Lord’? — R. Eleazar says: The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: See now, how many righteous acts I performed for you in not being angry in the days of the wicked Balaam. For had I been angry, not one remnant would have been left of the enemies of Israel. And this too is the meaning of what Balaam said to Balak: How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? And how shall I execrate, whom the Lord hath not execrated? This teaches us that He was not angry all these days.

And how long does His anger last? One moment. And how long is one moment? R. Abin (some say R. Abina) says: As long as it takes to say Rega’ (which means "moment"). And how do you know that He is angry one moment? For it is said: For His anger is but for a moment [rega’], His favor is for a lifetime. Or if you prefer you may infer it from the following verse: Hide thyself for a little moment until the indignation be overpast.

And when is He angry? — Abaye says: In [one moment of] those first three hours of the day, when the comb of the rooster is white and it stands on one foot. Why, in each hour it stands thus [on one foot]? — In each other hour it has red streaks, but in this moment it has no red streaks at all.

In the neighbourhood of R. Joshua b. Levi there was a Sadducee who used to annoy him very much with [his interpretations of] texts. One day the Rabbi took a rooster, placed it between the legs of his bed and watched it. He thought: When this moment arrives I shall curse him. When the moment arrived he was dozing [On waking up] he said: We learn from this that it is not proper to act in such a way. It is written: And His tender mercies are over all His works. And it is further written: Neither is it good for the righteous to punish.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Something Light- the Dukifat

Deut. 14:18 And the stork, and the heron after its kind and the dukifat and the bat. (You shal not eat from verse 12: These are they of which you shall not eat....)

Yaron Seri, a professor at Bar Ilan, identifies the Dukifat as the Upapa epos. Instead of just laughing at the name of it this year, above is a picture. I always think that searching these things out and seeing what they look like brings the Torah more to life.

Professor Seri says that the bird has a bad odor and that Moslems also are forbidden to eat it. He writes that the Karaites misidentified this bird, according to the tradition and that Saadia seemed to have taken them to task for it. If you would like to read more about the Dukifat (and let's be honest, who doesn't?) you can go to:

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Shema and Acting

A common frustration in prayer is a feeling that one is not really being oneself, that one is expressing things that one does not believe-- or that the prayers that one is saying do not really come from the heart. They are being recited by rote. One often feels like when one prays that one is only acting.

So with regards to the feeling that one is acting when one prays take a look at this:

Midrash Rabbah in Devarim 2:31
begins its discussion of the Shema by asking when it was that Israel merited first to say the Shema. R. Pinchas b. Hama says that the Shema was actually a conversation. It was God that said, "Shema Yisrael...Ani Hashem" and it was the people who answered "Adoshem elokeinu Adoshem echad." And then it was Moshe that said, "Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuto L?olam va-ed."

In short, R. Pinchas b. Hama reads the Shema as a script, spoken between three different actors. What a novel way to say the Shema, not as yourself through one voice, but by speaking through three different voices, or better-- with three different intentions in mind.

God: Shema Yisrael
B'nai Yisrael: Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem echad
Moshe: Baruch shem kavod malchuto l'olam va-ed.

Now here, might be a place that I would suggest what some of those intentions might be, but in reading something about the technique of acting I am beginning to understand the necessity of leaving intention to those who deliver the lines, instead of setting them through direction.

To say that praying you are only acting when you pray is to denigrate this amazing craft. For, what if we took the idea that instead of it being merely acting, embrace the notion of acting and consider how you could truly act-- in a professional way-- when we say the shema. Acting is a craft, a skill and those who study it say that in addition to learning much about drama, you really have to learn to master who you are. For how can you become someone else-- or how can you bring yourself to a character-- without knowing who that YOU is?

The getting to know oneself in order to create a better performance tack is not the one I want to take here, but it is an obvious parallel between acting and praying that should be explored later, what I am most interested in here is the techniques that one can use to bring a truer performance to one's prayer, or if "technique" at all would be helpful.

(Please note: I am not a beki (expert) on acting whatsoever. In fact, my only performance of the Man in Shaw's Arms in the Man was just this side of painful for everyone. But what I have read and learned from friends who are actors is that acting takes an amazing amount of practice and control in order to fully be on the stage and bring something fresh to each performance.)

Acting is less about the words on the page and more about what happens on the stage. When one is doing a scene one often needs to react and think about given what the other said, what is the feeling or objective to line that is to be delivered. If one were to bring this technique to the Shema-- have it not be about the words only-- the Shema would immediately become elevated beyond the words of the script. Why is it that you are saying your line in the way that you do? What is your objective? What are you feeling right at the moment when you are about to say it? What sorts of things have you been experiencing that might change how you say it, how you mean it?

In addition to this thinking about acting depending on motivation and objective is this notion that Sanford Meisner developed that suggests that people must be responsive to their scene partner-- that they have to be careful to notice the things that their partner is doing at that performance and then react to how that person is performing. One must have the lines down cold, but one must NOT have a reading of that line down cold. In the Meisner technique, one memorizes the lines without inflection so that when it comes time to perform those lines, one can be in the moment and say them as they are presenting themselves to the actor during that performance.

If this is the case, then one can imagine that when davenning their scene partner is God and that one must be attuned to the kinds of things that God is presenting in order to deliver one's lines in the most authentic and immediate way. There is much to learning this technique of acting, but what one must remember is that it above all a technique that one must practice over and over.

The reason that we teach our children the Shema is not because it is so basic or simple. It is because it is the most fundamental and by allowing them the time to learn the line correctly, we give them the chance to one day deliver it with the spontaneity and improvisational honesty that true prayer requires.

There is some difficulty in the way that we are required to say all of the lines of the Shema instead of just one of them and the way that one would have to switch from character to character if one was thinking in this way. But what if one-- in the moment-- chose which character they most identified with at that moment. Said everything, but brought something extra to the line that they were feeling.

I am tempted to show how this method helped my recitation of the Shema last week, but am going to refrain for fear that this will even in some minor way influence a reading of or set a reading of a particular line (not like so many people (any?) read this, but just in case.)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The connection between the Kohen Gadol and the Manslayer

(you can order your kohen gadol cake at:

What is the connection between the manslayer and the death of the Kohen Gadol?

(This study session is based on "The reason for refuge cities" by Menachem Ben Yashar 1998.)

Here are the sources for our discussion last week-- For some reason, the blog isn't taking the hebrew font from Davka writer. If you want the Hebrew sources, and don't feel like looking into them yourself, just come into the office and I will give them to you.

The most compelling connection between the manslayer and the kohen gadol is that which is understood by Ibn Ezra. See if you can figure out why according to Ibn Ezra the manslayer goes free when he dies. It has nothing to do with protection, because presumably the family would still be upset with him even after the Kohen Gadol died.

Also take note of how amazing the connection is, according to the Mishnah in Makkot, between the manslayer and the mother of the Kohen Gadol.

July 14, 2007

Numbers 35: 9-34

And the Lord spoke to Moses saying; 10. Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them; When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11. Then you shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you; that the man slayer who kills any person unawares may flee there. 12. And they shall be to you cities for refuge from the avenger; that the man slayer should not die, until he stands before the congregation in judgement. 13. And the cities which you shall give shall be six cities for refuge. 14. You shall give three cities in this side of the Jordan, and three cities you shall give in the land of Canaan. They shall be cities of refuge. 15. These six cities shall be a refuge, both for the people of Israel, and for the stranger, and for the sojourner among them, that everyone who kills any person without intent may flee there. 16. But if he hits him with an instrument of iron, so that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. 17. And if he hits him by hand with a stone, whereby he may die, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death.18. Or if he hits him with a weapon of wood in his hand, whereby he may die, and he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death.19. The avenger of blood shall himself slay the murderer; when he meets him, he shall slay him. 20. And if he stabbed him out of hatred, or hurled something at him while lying in wait, that he died; 21. Or if in enmity he hits him with his hand, so that he dies; he who hit him shall surely be put to death, for he is a murderer. The avenger of blood shall slay the murderer when he meets him. 22. But if he stabbed him suddenly without enmity, or hurled upon him anything without lying in wait; 23. Or with any stone, whereby a man may die, without seeing him, and cast upon him, that he died, and he was not his enemy, nor sought his harm;

Then the congregation shall judge between the man slayer and the avenger of blood, according to these judgments. 25. And the congregation shall deliver the slayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge, where he had fled; and he shall live there until the death of the high priest, who was anointed with the holy oil. 26. But if the man slayer shall at any time go outside the border of the city of his refuge, where he had fled. 27. And the avenger of blood finds him outside the borders of the city of his refuge, and the avenger of blood kills the slayer, he shall not be guilty of blood. 28. Because he must remain in his city of refuge, until the death of the high priest; but after the death of the high priest the man slayer may return to the land of his possession. 29. And these things shall be for a statute of judgement to you throughout your generations in all your dwellings. 30. Whoever kills any person, the murderer shall be put to death by the evidence of witnesses, but one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die. 31. Moreover, you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death. 32. And you shall take no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he should come back to live in the land, until the death of the priest. 33. So you shall not pollute the land in which you are, for blood pollutes the land; and the land can not be cleansed of the blood that is shed there, but by the blood of him who shed it. 34. And you shall not defile the land which you shall inhabit, in which I dwell; for I the Lord dwell among the people of Israel.

Rashi (a) Bamidbar 35:25-

Until the death of the Kohen - for he comes to cause the divine presence to abide in Israel and to prolong their days, while the manslayer comes to remove the divine presence from Israel and shortens the days of the living.

Mishnah 2:6(b)

Therefore the mothers of the Kohanim would provide for them (the manslayers) food and clothing, so that they would not pray that their sons would die....

Makkot 11a
THEREFORE MOTHERS OF HIGH PRIESTS [WERE WONT TO PROVIDE FOOD AND RAIMENT FOR THEM THAT THEY MIGHT NOT PRAY FOR THEIR SON'S DEATH]. The reason [given] is that the banished might not pray [for the high priest's death]; but what if they should pray, [think you] he would die? [Surely the saying is,] As the flitting bird as the flying swallow, so the curse that is causeless shall [not] follow! Said a venerable old scholar: I heard an explanation at one of the sessional lectures of Raba, that [the high priests were not without blame, as] they should have implored Divine grace for [averting the sorrows of] their generation, which they failed to do. Others read in the Mishnah thus: THAT THEY MIGHT PRAY FOR THEIR SONS THAT THEY DIE NOT. The reason [given then] is that the banished should pray [for the high priest]; but, what if they did not pray [for him; think you] he would die?

Rashi (b) Bamidbar 35:25-

Another reason: Because the High Priest should have prayed that there should not occur such a calamity in Israel -- (This comes from the gemarah above. ed.)

Seforno 35:25-
Until the death of the Kohen Gadol. It has laready been explained that Galut (exile to a refuge city) is the punishment for one who kills in error. Now being that there are different kinds of unintentional sins shogeg, which are disparate because some a closer to being considered accidental while others are closer to being considered intentional, therefore there are varying periods of exile for one who kills unintentionally. For some, the unintentional act (of killing) is (punished by exile) for a brief period before the Kohen dies, while some murderers die in exile before the death of the Kohen. This occurs according to the judgment of God, blessed be he, the one who knows and is a witness, who punishes the unintentional sinner according to the degree of error, as it says, but God caused it to come to his hand (Ex. 21.13).

This is the source that is needed to understand the connection that Ibn Ezra sees between the KG and the manslayer:

Genesis 4:10-12

"Hark, your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground... If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth" (Gen. 4:10,12).

Ibn Ezra Num.35:25

There are some who say, “until death, witness his freedom” and with you dies wisdom (Job. 12:2) But this is not right because “with you dies wisdom” is as it says (in its context). But similarly, “Until the death of the Kohen Gadol”-- because he makes atonement for Israel and this is what occurs in his days.

Lev. 21. And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of an appointed man into the wilderness; 22. And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities to a land not inhabited; and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.

N.B. that the Refugee cities were places that were not farmed and not blessed-- therefore it did not matter that the manslayer who was in this quasi status of having shed blood but having not been a murderer would not affect the land. The blood was still on the land, but it could not be purified by the blood of the manslayer. Therefore, he had to be in a place where he would not affect the crops.

Menachem Ben Yashar's claim was that the Kohen Gadol would make atonement for all the sins of the community, intentional and unintentional and this would happen every Yom Kippur. However, we would not know when the land would return to its normal state having had blood in it. The manslayer could have been forgiven, but we do not have an "index" of when the land would return. His claim is that by the time that the Kohen Gadol died we would know that the land would have returned to its producing state. Therefore, the manslayer could come out of the city because the affect of his presence would no longer impede the land.

This was all alluded to by the ibn Ezra who pointed out the connection between the manslayer and the kohen gadol and the last verses of that chapter which highlight the agricultural warnings of having the refuge cities.

I think the weakest part of the argument is that the land would not return to its producing state after Yom Kippur when the sins were forgiven. What do you think?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

State of the Shul Address

Shalom congregants. I thought that since we are all together, I might give a sketch of the state of the shul from my perspective and having worked here for two years. I am sure that I will forget much, but it is not for a lack of being appreciative—its because of how much has gone on here.

The Hebrew school is a good place to start. This year we had a wonderful year with two great teachers: Deganit Shemy and Joshua Millstein. The students, 12 kids divided into two groups, spent Shabbas mornings and Wednesday afternoons studying Hebrew and culture. Although they were hampered by the different skill levels of the kids, the teachers were able to get them to think in deep and serious ways; the younger kids learning not just the stories of Moshe and Yosef, but also of Ruth and of the creation of the state of Israel. The older kids were able to engage with Josh over complicated stories and poems. Their behavior needs to improve, but so does the structure of the school that insists upon it. I am particularly proud of the fact that they are learning about Judaism in a modern world. They do not see Judaism as something that some other people do, but understand or are beginning to understand that Judaism is a heritage that they get to experience and that is theirs. The education committee has been run this year by Felicia Geiger and it has been a pleasure working with her. She wants the best for our students and does whatever she can to try and make their educational experiences here compelling and safe and enlightening.

In the past two years we had three Bar Mitzvahs: Charles Newman, Matthew Talia, and Adam Krushkow. Each did a wonderful job and brought their own skills and personalities to the ceremonies. Our B’nai Mitzvah standards have been growing up with the children—created by the education committee, we now try to teach our children that the centerpiece of the b’nai mitzvah is not the party, or the family celebration. The centerpiece is also not the service that they perform for everyone on that day. But the centerpiece of a b’nai mitzvah is learning how to live and then living a Jewish life. This includes study, being part of a community and trying to figure out how to be part of the world in a Jewish way. By having standards for our children, we do not make Judaism something that we engage in tangentially and we give them the gift that they deserve—a training worthy of the inheritance of the torah.

We also had one adult bat mitzvah, Diane Felsen-Sokol, who modeled for us all that Judaism does not stop when one turns 13. One has to continue to live it and to study. Diane also continues to read the Torah, which if you would like to see, you can come this week on Shabbas. I would like to expand the Torah readers in the shul, there is very little that is as amazing as reading Torah to our community, so if anyone would like to learn, or re-learn, I would be happy to teach you.

The state of the shul is also enhanced by the groups of people who congegrate in the shul. Our semiweekly minyan, led by Solomon Greenberg allows for a full expression of what it means to live a daily Jewish life. Sometimes, being Jewish seems to be something that happens on Shabbat; but when we build things into our lives, like the group who regularly attends daily minyan, we live those days as Jews as well.

As long as we are talking about davenning, I think that our shabbas davenning is going strong as well. There may be a little too much talking to each other and not enough talking to God, but for the most part we draw between 60-40 people on a regular basis, and of those at least half seem to know what is going on. The system of me giving a sermon every three weeks, teaching every three weeks and having a congregant give a sermon every three weeks has not really worked due to the lack of congregational participation, but I imagine that as the years progress you may see the merit of this approach and something you may want to go back to.

Our monthly potlucks and our weekly Torah studies are well attended and they help to make our community a community that does Judaism together. Our Torah study group has been going strong for almost the whole two years, only missing on occasion when I am out of town. But even in the summer and during vacations we have met to continue to engage and ask our questions. I am proud to say that even on two occasions when I was not in town, the group met and had spirited discussions.

Our congregation has added 15 family member units in the last two years, which if I have the numbers correct, represents a growth of at least 10 percent. Adding more families to our community is crucial for the health of the shul. Financially, we are not able to do everything that we would like to do and adding members will certainly help with that. To that end, we have a pretty good rate of people paying their dues, but many still do not take seriously the need the shul has for money—to hire more teachers, to fix lights and plumbing. For anyone here who has outstanding balances, please make sure you make good on what you owe. Treat us as you would a health club, or your cable bill but know that what you give here goes beyond being able to walk on your treadmill or watch Entourage—it helps to give a little bit more holiness to our community.

I don’t know how we can get those to join the shul who don’t belong but continue to use the shul when they want. It is hard not to use guilt and let people know the real fear that exists of us not being able to sustain Jewish life here in Bay Ridge. I think, at the very least, we need to all continue to be here happily with smiles and enthusiasm and hope that people will see that belonging to the Bay Ridge Jewish Center is something valuable and good. We should not be resentful or angry but try and be positive about the good that we do by supporting the community by joining. We enable there to be baby namings and bar mitzvahs, holidays and funerals. You should know that every year we put the sukkah up and every year we blow the shofar, we are able to do so because you have contributed. It would be easy to join one of these split-off minyanim and daven with people who are more knowledgeable or more spirited, but that would close off an outpost, where those people go when they are coming through town, or where those people stop into when they are walking by and see our sign and remember that the question that they asked their rabbi when they were 11 was still unanswered.

The physical state of the shul is not very good. People who come into the school building or chapel are surprised by its Kafka-esque bleakness. It is hard to attract new members with this liability. Whereas we know that what matters is the people and not the place, in today’s marketplace, place matters and people want to know what they are going to get for their membership. Will it be a place that they will feel good about being? It is hard to ask them to judge the shul based on the friendliness of the people and not on whether the rubber mats in the hallway smell like a psychiatric institution. This is one of the very serious things that the new building, if there will be one, will address for you.

There is no one doing preventative maintenance in the shul which enables us to see what is going to break down and what needs repairing. That was not part of my training at JTS, so I would urge you to figure out a system to put that in place. We shouldn’t wait for the next emergency or disaster to make sure that all the checks have been made.

To that end, it has been hard to get some things off the ground. We have had our failures: Shabbat Sing did not exactly sing, and the Teen Club met a couple times, but fizzled like submerged pop rocks. Our family programming and singles programming could each use a volunteer to spearhead those groups—Someone energetic and who would be willing to work with me to give those groups something that they will latch onto. We need to make sure that those populations are taken care of, just as every population’s needs should be considered and attended to as best we can. Singles often feel alienated in Judaism because we are so family centered. In the world to come, a dedicated family ed programmer would be a wonderful thing to have.

Back to the happy stuff—our occasional programs are usually fondly attended. We have upcoming events the halacha of hefeweizen and a community mishna study. And both are advertised in the bulletin which will be going out with tremendous thanks to Julie Greenberg, Ruth Masyr, and Susan Altman. They worked on it for a long time and I hope that it will help people see how much goes on here at the shul. For that information, you can also go to our website calendar or the blog, both of which were created in the last two years. Other technologies that we have added to our community here are two state of the art boilers and a fantastic outgoing message machine donated in memory of one of our members Leo Kramer.

Other wonderful events that happened this year were the congregational trip to the botanical gardens, the Purim Bang! where many of us learned how to Tango while drinking a flute of champagne. The Lag b’Omer Bonfires, the wonderful plays that Herb and Ruth have produced. The Hannukah parties, complete both years with the “I’ll never eat another donut Olympics”, The study series on Angels. Lectures on each one of the Holidays. Karl Hron’s classical music series. The shul exchange with the group that we lend our Torah to. Our wonderful book club, specializing in Redemptive books and drinking beer. Our once and future challah baking club. The Russian/English exchange.

There are some halachic things that need to be addressed and changed, if possible—and we have seen that our community can undergo halachic change as we have by including women fully in our community—reading Torah and davenning as well as the previously established counting them in the minyan. We have also stopped counting the Torah in the minyan when need be, as its practice was explicitly forbidden by Halacha because these is not an emergency situation (defined by Halacha as permanent and dire). We need to figure out a way to stop using electricity on Shabbas with the security codes. I am not sure how this can be addressed. We have made inroads into not turning off the lights on shabbas and turning them on the day before.

Our Torahs have been assessed and some are in good condition and others not so good, but sellable for a very small price—Rabbi Shmuel Shchori came in and gave us an estimate that he would give us close to 2 grand for the Torahs that we don’t use, but that only figures to be about 300 per torah including the silver, and we may be able to get a better price for them. He suggested though that the rooms where we keep them are not environmentally sound and that they really should be kept somewhere where the weather does not fluctuate so much. To that end, Julie and Audrey have been working on the Torah project and I believe that the promotional materials are about to be complete. When they are we will need all of your help to spread the word that we are giving people an opportunity to perform one of the loveliest mitzvahs and that is repairing a Torah scroll. For a small donation, you will be able to sponsor a letter, a word, a sentence or a parasha, and the result of the project will be a beautiful usable sefer Torah, one that you can come and hear be read from every week knowing that without you, it would have been buried in the ground for decomposition.

I wish that we would have done better at this year that is Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbas dinners. I still do not believe that very many people in the shul eat together on Friday night and we struggle for a minyan Friday night. The tunes that we use are quite spirited but so much more so if there are many voices participating in them. I would urge you all, if you can, to try and come to a Friday (or better 2) to celebrate the end of the week with us. It is a great way to wind down and a great way to get your mind into the spirit of resting for the rest of Shabbas. The rabbis say that if every Jew celebrates two shabbases in a row, then the Mashiach would come. A great way to get inspired to do so is to light your shabbas candles at home, throw on your white shirt or at least your shabbas clothes and come to the shul to welcome the Sabbath bride.

My hope is that one day, here at the shul, there will not have to be a public yizkor appeal at Yom Kippur. I know that as it is we need it to keep going, and people like to be able and should in fact give money in honor or memory of a loved one. But there is something about dealing in money in such a public way on Yom Kippur that to me seems very wrong. So please, in order to shorten it, at the very least, send in your pledges ahead of time.

I have benefited greatly from working here these past two years. I have learned a lot of Torah and a lot about people. One of the things that I look forward to every week is to see how the Torah sustains people, the strength and smiles that Henry brings to his Haftarah. I enjoy seeing Joel greet people as they come up the stairs filling in for people who miss their turn at ushering—something else we need to work on. But he doesn’t seem to mind because it is the mix of people and holiness that he, along with Herb, has taken to be their mission in their presidencies. They have endured late night and early morning calls from me and from many others and have done the little things in the shul that have made it float. It is an honor to be the president of a shul, something that you will never forget and that others should take as an example of the level of which one can get involved in making this place special.

There are many things that go one here and in my rabbinate that are not seen. Just as there are many things that you all do for the shul that go unseen. One example is that we have a member who goes every week to play scrabble with another member that she had never met, because he needed someone to keep his mind active as it does its battle with Alzheimers. Another member quietly contributes to the cost of religious services for those he knows need a little help with their bills. Another sneaks in here late at night to try and sort out our books, another never passes a bit of garbage without bending down to get it, even though righting himself again seems like such a task; another calls the rabbi to make sure that he is okay after long meetings, another cleans the tallisim before the chagim without being asked. One member does so much, donates large sums of money, and never in his own name, often in the name of Elijah; one member drives back and forth to Jetro in order to make sure that our candy supplies are stocked. Another member picks up people to come and study Torah, another member donates books for the children, another member stitches up little girls heads when they fall on the stairs. I tell you all this because you should know that the people who sit around you today and in shul are people that care about you and this place.

These are those who ask not what this shul can do for them….

If you feel like a remnant of Judaism, being here on this outpost, this frontier, remember that it is the remnant for which you are named, Sh’erit Yisrael, and it is the remnant, a shoot, that grows into that which sustains Judaism.

So thank you, to all of you who have made these two years very special and interesting. It has not always been easy by any means, but it has been an enduring project on how to make God dwell amongst us. When we come into this place, we should try and check our egos at the door and remember that a synagogue is a place where we try and bring our holiest selves. It is not a place for grudges or resentments. It is a place of honor and respect. It is a place of kindness and compassion. It is a place of opportunity, but not for ME, but for US. The lot of the Jewish people is in our hands which can seem like too great a burden, but behold God has given us a good map—God’s Torah. Do not forsake it. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.