Thursday, December 11, 2008

Parashat Vayishlach: Financial Advice From the Midrash

In this week's parasha, Yaakov, fearful for the safety of his "camp" - his servants and livestock - decides to divide them into two different groups. He said: "If Esav attacks one camp, the other will escape."

The Rabbis in Midrash Rabba applied this to the most elementary piece of financial advice, namely a diversified portfolio!


בראשית רבה פרשה עו ד"ה ג ויחץ את

ויחץ את העם, לימדך תורה דרך ארץ שלא יהא אדם נותן כל ממונו בזוית אחד ממי אתה למד מיעקב, שנאמר ויחץ את העם וגו'

The Torah has taught you about worldly matters: A person should not place all his money in one corner (of his house). From who do we learn this if not from Jacob, as it says "He split his camp etc."

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


I just love the things that people will do to make a Jewish festival relevant and to link it to causes which they care about. This is a great one... a friend of mine directed me to the group on Facebook. It is by
Read here from their Facebook page:

Let's celebrate Hannukah 5769 by
1) cleaning up the world!
2) sharing Jewish environmental teachings
(והשנה גם בעברית )!
3) ...and lighting the Hannuka candles!

On the 1st day of Hannukah, pick up 1 piece of litter and put it in the trash can / recycling container.

On the 2nd day of Hannukah, pick up 2 pieces of litter and place them in the trash can / recycling container.

On the 3rd day of Hannukah, pick up 3 items of litter and ...well, you get the idea.

In the spirit of Limud U'Maaseh, every day of Hannukah, Eco Lights participants will receive a daily Jewish Environmental teaching from incredible guest writers!

If you pick up one more item each day, then by the end of Hannukah's 8 days, you will have picked up 36 items of litter and helped make our world a better place to live (If you live in Israel, you get extra points for beautifying Israel - Mitzvat Yishuv Eretz Yisrael :) )

And I love the important caveat at the end!

** Please do not pick up the garbage while your Hannuka candles are burning. Use this time to reflect on how even a small flame (or act) can light up the darkness.**

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Thundering Silence

Last week, a house in Hebron was evacuated amidst extreme protest and violence. (link) I am aware that the legal status of that house is under discussion and contention. And yet, whatever the circumstances, the violence was shocking and more than troubling.

What we are seeing is a new violent streak in the Religious Zionist community, and new in two ways:
1. That it delegitimises the government , police and army. Since the Disengagement it has decided that the legal representatives of the State are undermining our Jewish presence in Israel and are thus illegitimate.
2. They now feel it is perfectly OK to smash Arab graves, set their homes on fire and to frighten and intimidate the Arab people around them

Just read this story from Hebron (from Jpost - link) and that is BEFORE all this mess.

So let's get this straight.
There is NO WAY that this violence by the Hebron settlers against soldiers, and Arab neighbours can be legitimised. Olmert called it a pogrom. That is what it looks like to me! It is violent. It is lawless. It involves awful crimes of abuse, intimidation, violence and destruction of property. I am embarrassed as a Jew to see Jews act in this way. Their Judaism has little in common with mine!

So where are the leaders?
Where are the Rabbis?

Where are the Rabbi Riskins, the Avi Gissers, the Tzohar Rabbis, the heads of the Yeshiva High schools, the Rav Aviners? The Yesha Council, The Yesha Mayors? Why is there absolute silence?

Today in the newspapers quite incredulously, there were two pieces lending support to these hooligans! (here and Here)

I'll tell you - these leaders and Rabbis are scared that if the talk out, they will be branded as leftists and enemies of eretz Yisrael etc. Well, they must not be intimidated! They must stand up and represent the Right Wing, and at the same time, reject violence and lawlessness. If the settler movement act with restraint, morality, dignity and legality, they will achieve far more. They will also control the moral high-ground. They might even be a Kiddush Hashem.

This violence needs to be decried in the most absolute fashion, or else, we are really dealing with a most dangerous momentum that will end in tragedy. Once it is legitimate to shoot at Palestinians and burn their homes, Jews will be next. Once it is legitimiate to intimidate and riot, there are no boundaries.

The time to act is NOW. It is already late. Leaders - speak out!

UPDATE (Wed Dec 10): Thank God, some leaders are speaking out. Here is a piece from Ynet about a letter from (Mori VeRabbi) Rav Lichtenstein expressing the Hillul Hashem of last week's events in Hevron and calling upon parents to direct and guide their children. - LINK. The article also talks about a conference tomorrow at Kehillat Yedidya. Unfortunately it is being sponsored only by far left-wing religious-zionist groups and hence it is likely that they will be preaching to the converted.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Can we Create a Tolerant Society in Israel?

Here is a topic that has been troubling me for a number of weeks. It started with this video.

It is pretty gruesome watching. It shows Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint taunting a kneeling bound and blindfolded Palestinian. They are doing it for fun. I watch the video and I am embarrassed. How can our soldiers humiliate and torture a fellow human being. These people have crossed a dangerous line.

So, I was watching this video and I showed it to my wife. I remarked, "look what happens when you have absolute power over another individual!" To which she replied: "It's not about power. These kids are just plain rascist."

My feeling was that when you put 19 yr olds in that powerful situation, there is bound to be abuse."The Occupation Corrupts!" - so goes the slogan, and I believe that it has great potential to do so. I know that i will be talking to my son as he nears enlistment age as to the respect to be given to any human being.

But my wife had a point. Is it just plain old Racism?

which brings me to the next point. Obama! I, like many others, was delighted when Obama won. I won't go into all the reasons but we all realised that this was Historic. After slavery, after seperate busses and park benches, a black man would be the President of the United States. what a victory for tolerance and equal rights. what a success for the civil rights movement! But it took years! It took over 100 years to get that process happening. It took marches and protests and legislation and lobbying, and positive discrimination and television to create black heroes (and presidents - see 24 for example which I imagine DID influence people that a black man could be president.)

Now, lets get back to Israel. we know that Israel is not an equal society. Arab schools are horribly underfunded. Some villages don't have running water. Arabs are not represented in government ministries and offices. It is certainly true that in Hospitals, Arab doctors and nurses are well represented and Arab patients get exactly the same treatment as Jews. We ARE an equal society! And yet, it is clear that Arabs have a way to go before we treat them on equal ground.

And now I am conflicted. Because on the one hand, I do have to be honest that I do NOT want to see the Arabs gaining absolute equality here. See this piece from Daniel Gordis in this week's Jpost (article link):

"...while Israel must absolutely strive to make race a non-issue (even among Jews, as with Ethiopians, for example) and to accord Israeli Arabs a significantly greater piece of the pie, we ought to be honest: If Israel one day were to have a Knesset in which a majority of the members were Arab, Israel will have failed in its purpose. ISRAEL WAS established as the sole country in which the Jews could flourish as only a majority culture..."

I will add more. If Israeli Arabs do make it to equality , the intermarriage rate will shoot up here. Is that what we want? Do we want a country in which Arab culture is absolutely equal to Jewish culture?

So can we really do both? Can we try to give genuine opportunity and equality to Arabs, stamp out Racism and bigotry and separation? Or, if we wish to remain a Jewish society will we only go so far? After all, the American model created genuine equality, embraced multi-ethnic marriage, dreamed of an American president. Do we? I think not! The American model took 100 years. (Did you hear Obama as he spoke in his victory speech about Ann Nixon-Cooper, the 106 yr old lady?) Do we have 50 years?

But if we don't do that, are we destined to a future of soldiers taunting Arabs?

How does an Israeli-Arab feel when we talk about the Arab birthrate as a "demographic threat" to the existence of the Jewish state. Would they be wrong to imply that we effectively resent every arab baby born! Is that Racism? - even left wing MK's talk that way.

Neither extremes are acceptable. Is the middle ground a possibility? A Jewish state which is still Jewish but absolutely tolerant?

Even European countries after 9/11 and after the bombings in London began to examine whether their Islamic minorities were a threat to the hegemony and tradition of their cultural heritages. On the one hand is equality, tolerance and multiculturalism. On the other hand is the right of a country to continue to exist - culturally - as its majority population wish it to exist. In many European countries, the very raising of the question was so controversial that it simply could not be discussed. But I feel that this is what we are facing.

The calls are growing to giving Arabs full representation in Israel, calls for equality and full acceptance; co-existence, it is called.

Can the Jewish State afford that?

But if we don't are we condemned to a continuation of ugly Racism?


I would just like to add a comment here. after I posted this, I realised that despite giving this much thought, there may be some naieve thinking here. after all, I imagine that despite Obama's election, there are still many rascist pockets of American society. Likewise, many Israelis ARE respectful and tolerant, and isolated incidents cannot be brought to prove the rule. And yet despite that, there is a feeling here that Arabs sometimes get the thin end of the wedge.

Much of this has to do with the "conflict". Some say that Israeli arabs will never be able to feel part of Israel nor us Israelis trust them until there is a resolution of the Palestinian conflict. In the meantime we are torn between seeing them as full citizens and seeing them as a fifth column of sorts. They are torn between Israel where they want to live and their Palestinian cousins, and certainly, there is evidencxe of radicalisation amongst Israeli Arabs.

I am not looking to be simplistic here. Once again I reiterate... coming from a Western culture and mindset that celebrates tolerance and equality, the question of how to instill these values and actualise them here in Israel seems far more complex and fraught with difficulty. Sometimes its difficult to even know precisely what we wish to achieve.

Parashat Vayetze: Yaakov Stoned!

Our parsha would appear to have something of a fascination with stones. Yes! You heard correctly! Stones!

Look at the evidence:
1. Yaakov, in response to his night-time epiphany turns the stone from under his head into a monument.
2. Yaakov proceeds to Aram, where there is an entire drama with the stone that covers the well. Yaakov exhibits unusual strength as he removes the weighty stone with ease “like a cork from a bottle.” (Rashi).
3. And then, at the close of our parsha (31:45-6) as Yaakov and Lavan part ways, Yaakov establishes another monument (matzeva.)
4. Yaakov then instigates the collection of stones, more stones to create a pile so large that he and Lavan can eat upon this artificial “hill!” This mound becomes a monumental symbol, a sign of their eternal separation.

Later in the Yaakov story, we hear of more stones:

5. The stone that he establishes on his return to Beit El (35:14) which would appear to have some sacrificial relevance.
6. and, the Matzeva on Rachel’s grave (35:20) … again mentioned three times in a single passuk. (We have never seen a monument or column/pillar on a person’s burial-place up to this point in the Torah.)

Rabbi Dr. Josh Berman wrote an article many years ago connecting the significance of Jacob’s FOUR matzevot. He suggested that the original Matzeva replicates or animates the dream: The ladder mutzav artza – placed firmly in the ground – with its head “rosha” reaching heaven. Hence Yaakov sets up (VaYatzev) a vertical column and pours oil “Al Rosha” on its head.

The ingredients of the dream are:
1. Yaakov's covenantal status
2. God will protect him
3. God will return him to Eretz Yisrael.

1. At separation from Lavan, he sets up a Matzeva to recognise God's protection
2. At Beit El, he has been returned to the land.
3. Rachel's death marks the birth of his 12th son which he marks with a matzeva recognising God's granting him offspring and his covenantal status.

And even if this is correct (it is a pretty good theory!) it does not explain the other stones.

What is it with Yaakov and stones?

Ideas in the comments please?

Sunday, November 30, 2008


More Torah cartoons at

I think that cartoons are an incredible medium for education. This video is full of Midrashim and I am unsure that I buy the precise message, and yet, I love the feel, the mood, the energy. A welcome addition to the weekly parashat Hashavua

I'm Speechless! Golan For Nothing!

I have already voiced my thoughts (link) on talks with syria. But I was speechless as I read this article in today's Haaretz (link):

WASHINGTON - U.S. President George Bush believes that Israel is offering Syria the Golan Heights without getting anything in exchange, according to sources briefed on his White House meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week.

After Olmert updated Bush on Israel's indirect talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad, the U.S. president demanded, "Why do you want to give Assad the Golan for nothing?" the sources said. "It's not for nothing,"
Olmert insisted. "It's in exchange for a change in the region's strategic alignment."
Bush persisted: "Why should you believe him?"

And to that, Olmert did not reply.

... If Bush can see it, then how can the Israeli Govt. not see the stupidity of this offer?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Hidden Miracles, Arks and Israel

According to Sefer Bereshit, Noah's Ark was a vessel that managed to hold all the animal kingdom for virtually a year! The logistics are mind-boggling. Never mind the fact that animals need room to move, that rabbits breed like ... rabbits (maybe male and female animals were seperated?) and the food that would be needed to feed them (and how about the carnivores... what did they eat?)... never mind all that (!) ... How did they all fit into a box that was:

300 cubits x 50 cubits (3 floors!) in other words 150 metre (450ft.) by 25 metre (75ft) on THREE floors.

Not very big. (Just visit your local zoo!)

Ramban asks the question (6:19) and he has this to say:

"It was a miracle that a small space contained a large volume. And if you will then say, well he could have constructed a smaller one and relied upon this miracle! (i.e. if the Ark can contain everything by basis of miracles, then just make a smaller Ark and by miracle, it will all fit in.)
God saw fit to make it large so that the people of that era would see it and be amazed by its size and it would be a conversation point... maybe they would repent.
Moreover, they made it large in order to minimise the miracle for that is the manner of all miracles in the Torah and Neviim that man does what he can..."

In other words, the 2nd explanation says that EVEN when God makes a miracle, he tries to make it look natural. Moreover, man has to do his part and God will make the miraculous appear natural.

This of course has many applications, but recently we were talking about Medinat Yisrael and mashiach and the fact that the RAmbam sees Mashiach politically and that for Rambam (Hil. Melachim ch.12) the Messianic Era is defined by Jewish Independence. Have we experienced miracle in our generations, miracles in the guise of natural, military, political events? Have we failed to understand that man HAs to do his part and then even God's miracle will not slap us in the face, but will be clothed in the natural human order?

Global Financial Crisi and Our Values

Everyone is talking about the Global Financial Crisis. But it didn't come from nowhere. It comes from a consumer credit culture, a materialistic have-it-all culture. But is anyone talking about that? After the bailout plan, and after the new regulatory system, we will go back to supersized executive slaries and the traders will get back into their Porsches on the way to the gold course! Is anyone looking to examine the core values here?

Well I found someone who is! This is in todays Times - a little preachy, but nonetheless good to hear a moral voice in the madness. (link)

Here is the article:

From The Times. October 30, 2008 .
Ben Okri

The crisis affecting the economy is a crisis of our civilisation. The values that we hold dear are the very same that got us to this point. The meltdown in the economy is a harsh metaphor of the meltdown of some of our value systems. A house is on fire; we see flames coming through the windows on the second floor and we think that that is where the fire is raging. In fact it is raging elsewhere.

For decades poets and artists have been crying in the wilderness about the wasteland, the debacle, the apocalypse. But apparent economic triumph has deafened us to these warnings. Now it is necessary to look at this crisis as a symptom of things gone wrong in our culture.

Individualism has been raised almost to a religion, appearance made more important than substance. Success justifies greed, and greed justifies indifference to fellow human beings. We thought that our actions affected only our own sphere but the way that appalling decisions made in America have set off a domino effect makes it necessary to bring new ideas to the forefront of our civilisation. The most important is that we are more connected than we suspected. A visible and invisible mesh links economies and cultures around the globe to the great military and economic centres.

The only hope lies in a fundamental re-examination of the values that we have lived by in the past 30 years. It wouldn't do just to improve the banking system - we need to redesign the whole edifice.

There ought to be great cries in the land, great anger. But there is a strange silence. Why? Because we are all implicated. We have drifted to this dark unacceptable place together. We took the success of our economy as proof of the rightness of its underlying philosophy. We are now at a crossroad. Our future depends not on whether we get through this, but on how deeply and truthfully we examine its causes.

I strayed into the oldest church in Cheltenham not long ago and, with no intention in mind, opened the Bible. The passage that met my eyes was from Genesis, about Joseph and the seven lean years of famine. Something struck me in that passage. It was the tranquillity of its writing, the absence of hysteria.

They got through because someone had a vision before the event. What we need now more than ever is a vision beyond the event, a vision of renewal.

As one looks over the landscape of contemporary events, one thing becomes very striking. The people to whom we have delegated decision-making in economic matters cannot be unaware of the consequences. Those whose decisions have led to the economic collapse reveal to us how profoundly lacking in vision they were. This is not surprising. These were never people of vision. They are capable of making decisions in the economic sphere, but how these decisions relate to the wider world was never part of their mental make-up. This is a great flaw of our world.

To whom do we turn for guidance in our modern world? Teachers have had their scope limited by the prevailing fashions of education. Artists have become more appreciated for scandal than for important revelations about our lives. Writers are entertainers, provocateurs or- if truly serious - more or less ignored. The Church speaks with a broken voice. Politicians are more guided by polls than by vision. We have disembowelled our oracles. Anybody who claims to have something to say is immediately suspect.

So now that we have taken a blowtorch to the idea of sages, guides, bards, holy fools, seers, what is left in our cultural landscape? Scientific rationality has proved inadequate to the unpredictabilities of the times. It is enlightening that the Pharoah would not have saved Egypt from its seven lean years with the best economic advisers to hand.

This is where we step out into a new space. What is most missing in the landscape of our times is the sustaining power of myths that we can live by.

If we need a new vision for our times, what might it be? A vision that arises from necessity or one that orientates us towards a new future? I favour the latter. It is too late to react only from necessity. One of our much neglected qualities is our creative ability to reshape our world. Our planet is under threat. We need a new one-planet thinking.

We must bring back into society a deeper sense of the purpose of living. The unhappiness in so many lives ought to tell us that success alone is not enough. Material success has brought us to a strange spiritual and moral bankruptcy.

If we look at alcoholism rates, suicide rates and our sensation addiction, we must conclude that this banishment of higher things from the garden has not been a success. The more the society has succeeded, the more its heart has failed.

Everywhere parents are puzzled as to what to do with their children. Everywhere the children are puzzled as to what to do with themselves. The question everywhere is, you get your success and then what?

We need a new social consciousness. The poor and the hungry need to be the focus of our economic and social responsibility.

Every society has a legend about a treasure that is lost. The message of the Fisher King is as true now as ever. Find the grail that was lost. Find the values that were so crucial to the birth of our civilisation, but were lost in the intoxication of its triumphs.

We can enter a new future only by reconnecting what is best in us, and adapting it to our times. Education ought to be more global; we need to restore the pre-eminence of character over show, and wisdom over cleverness. We need to be more a people of the world.

All great cultures renew themselves by accepting the challenges of their times, and, like the biblical David, forge their vision and courage in the secret laboratory of the wild, wrestling with their demons, and perfecting their character. We must transform ourselves or perish.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Of Park Britania and Batei Galicia!

So Chol Hamoed is drawing to a close. Of course, being good Israelis, we have spent our Chol Hamoed time on Tiyulim and travelling the country.

I had an interesting thought as we were driving into Park Brittania the other day on our way to a great hike. Park Brittania is a huge nature area, a National Park near Beit Shemesh. It is called by the name of Brittania a.k.a. Britain as its upkeep and development were funded by British JNF. Similarly there is the Canada Park and American Park etc. Each of these National Parks are funded by a different community abroad.

and I was suddenly struck as to how ironic this was.

In the era before modern Zionism, the community in Eretz Yisrael, certainly the Ashkenazic community, subsisted primarily from the Chalukka. This meant that Jewish communities in Europe each donated money to support Talmidei Chacchamim studying in the Holy City of Jerusalem. Money was collected for the kollel/community/Beit Midrash and it was named after that European community. The community in Jerusalem fulfilled their responsibility by learning Torah, not working, and thereby gave special zechut to their funders around the world. The people frequently lived in abject poverty only receiivng a meagre stipend from the funds that were raised in Europe. Hence in Jerusalem, we may find Batei Galicia, Batei Ungarin (Hungary,) and so forth.

The "Zionists" looked at this practice with great disdain as they viewed the Jewish existence in which one experienced poverty, reliance on funds of others , without any productive national enterprise other than Limmud Torah as a pathetic, sick, parasitic mode of living.

And yet, in a hugely ironic twist, we have a similar Challuka going on. Only now, the funders do not fund Torah study! They fund planting forests and building recreation areas and the creation of National Parks as they "redeem" the landscape of Israel. Now instead of Batei Ungarin, we have Park Brittania!

This is simply a secularisation of the entire Challukah concept! Is it more worthy, more honorable? Do diaspora Jews have such a desire to give that this is a good thing connecting people to Israel? Should Israel be more self-reliant? Is this a national indignity or a wonderful tool to keep Jews around the world connected to Eretz Yisrael?

But it is interesting how the Zionist movement simply poached the idea!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Controversial Hakhel

Hakhel should be a mass gathering of the entire nation. Unfortunately, in yet another example of the current tension between Haredi and Zionist elements in the Rabbanut, it appears that there will be TWO ceremonies this year.

see here

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Being Thankful

After taking a summer break, I am back. Thanks to all of you who said they missed the blog. Blogging is quite a burden when you commit yourself to posting multiple times a week. I have decided to go for a monthly post. And if something comes up in the middle, maybe I'll post about that too :-)

This month, I want to talk about being thankful. If a can use a cue from the Parsha, it is this week that we read the verse:

ואכלת ושבעת וברכת את ה' אלוקיך על הארץ הטובה אשר נתן לך

This is the passuk that tells us to say Birkhat Hamazon. But look at the context in Devarim ch.8! - It is all about taking nothing for granted. It is about realising that our good fortune is a blessing and that we shouldn't just live our lives forgetting to reflect upon the goodness that we have - our homes, our livelihood, even our food and clothing. No! We should activate our brains to connect those things to the Source of everything i.e. God.

I have always connected deeply to the notion of blessings. I have always felt taht brachot - made on food, new acquisitions, smell, scenery, lightning, thunder, the sea, the Queen, and what have you - they bring God into our lives in a very tangible way. A blessing is an opportunity to recognise God in the small things and to spiritualise even the most mundane moments.

But actually many of those moments are not mundane. Thunder and lightening are an awe inspiring experience. Experiencing new fruits when you watch them grow, is a real exciting feeling of renewal and the force of nature. Brachot allow us to capture emotions.

For example when the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch tell us that when we see a special friend, we accompany our delight at seeing them with a Birkhat Shehecheyanu. The intense emotion of friendship is channeled and heightened by the recital of the bracha.

I guess I am saying a few things:
1. That brachot help us stop and appreciate life
2. That they allow us to see God in the mundane physical world
3. That they are frequently (esp. Birkhot Hashevach) a way of giving expression to a heightened emotional experience.

And Birkhat Hamazon daily should help us appreciate our lives, our livelihood, our food and our country.

I once read a beautiful "Vort" by one of the Chassidishe Rebbes. (It was in a small book - Way of Man(?)- by Buber.) When Avraham feeds the 3 "men" who visit him - we know they were angels - it writes:
והוא עומד עליהם תחת העץ ויאכלו
And the question is, how can Abraham - a mere human - stand "above" the angels?

The answer is that in eating we stand above the angels. Angels are spiritual an disconnected with physical living. But with a bracha, with kashrut, with netilat yadayim, we can spiritualise the physical act of eating. But it is more than that.

When you think of a bracha, it is a very simple formulation. It essentially is a recognistion, a tribute that the goodness (or bad) of my life is from God. That is powerful.

First we have to see goodness. Then we have to know where it is from. Then we have to say thank you.
and when we say thank you and express appreciation, we become richer people. Berachot force us into this excercise.

My Rabbi (Rav Rimon) once spoke about an exercise that he recommended for families. He had noticed that his kids were arguing and acting a little selfish. He decided that before they each went to bed, they would say something nice that each family member had done to them that day. Very oson they were more appreciative and less accusatory.
(Now of course, when I tried this at home, it totally failed. The first kid refused to acknowledge that any of his siblings had been nice in any way that day! A total failure!)

My point is that when we acknowledge that there is good in our lives, and we appreciate it and express that, then we train our mind to be appreciative. We appreciate rather than accuse. We focus on the good rather than the annoying and bad. We live in a world which pursues more, which convinces us that we don't have enough, that others have more, that we are miserable because we lack so much. Advertising convinces us about all the things taht we "need" - that we don't need. And the feeling that we are needy makes us depressed. But in truth our society has so much. We are so fortunate. When we list our blessings, we begin to realise how much we do have. And then we become happier as we count our blessings and our good fortune for every little luxury and necessity that we benefit from.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Taking a Break

To all my happy readers.

I'm taking a break from blogging at the moment. Lots of reasons....
I'm busy with many other projects (Thank God) with little time to blog.
In addition, after two years of this project, it may just be time to move along.
I also have my Melachim Blog to complete (link).
I am also planning to put up a website with all my parsha shiurim (at long last!)

Anyhow, I am taking a summer break, and will decide in the Fall, whether to resume the blog. Please be in touch, and check back around the Chagim/ mid-September for an update.


Monday, June 09, 2008

Flags - Jerusalem / Tel Aviv

Two Parades took place this week. On Monday, Yom Yerushalayim. On Friday, the Gay Pride Parade in Tel Aviv!

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Why We Stay Awake on Shavuot.

I love this piece from Michael Rosenak (from his article, "The Mitzvot, The Messiah and The Territories", Tradition Spring 1969.)

The Torah is both a yoke and a joy. Shavuot is the day of the giving, more than of the accepting of the Torah, and we celebrate this festival with a wearying all-night vigil of study. Mount Sinai was raised over our heads and we were offered the choice of death or submission. For the Jewish people there is thus no life without it, but our history records how difficult we found it to live with the Torah. From the days in the desert when our forefathers nostalgically recalled the fish that they ate free in Egypt “free of mitzvot,” explains the Sifre, until the various movements of assimilation of our day, we encounter, again and again, the desire of Jews to be freed from the burden of their Jewish tasks. For the Torah is an ever-present task; it makes immediate demands at every moment of our lives, never relaxing its hold — and we are often sorely tempted to seek meaning in nostalgic romanticisms of the past or in future utopias (such as those of our revolutionary assimilationists) rather than in the present situation which demands, first and foremost, not the dream but the halakhah.

And yet, even while it is a burden, the Torah is a joy and a light. Once we bind ourselves to it wholly, it brings the eternal and Divine into our everyday existence. Through the Torah, we find the spiritual stamina to perform prosaic tasks unprosaically. In the knowledge that God is to be found and obeyed in the everyday, the routine becomes sacred. When we live by the mitzvot, we realize that we have been blessed with a Torah of truth, through which everlasting life has been planted in our midst. This is the Torah that was given as though today, to give meaning and a redemptive quality to today’s act. And then we recall that the Torah was not only imposed upon but also freely accepted by our forefathers and that the covenant was made not with our fathers alone but with each of us who is alive this day. And having realized this, we make God’s Torah our own, never tiring of constant repetition, rejoicing on Simkhat Torah that we are privileged to begin it anew at the moment we have completed it.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Podcasts on Bamidbar

I am currently recording a weekly parsha Podcast for the VBM's KMTT. I will be teaching Sefer Bamidbar.

You can access the weekly shiur here (link).

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Whose Torah is it Anyway?

Yesterday at Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi, I taught the following Midrash to my Jewish Philosophy class. I thought it would be interesting to share it on the blog especially in the lead-up to Shavuot. It is quite an incredible story as found in Vayikra Rabba 9:3:

"Rabbi Yannai
was on a walk and met a man who looked very elegant. Yannai said, "Would you
please accept my hospitality and come to my house?" The man replied, "Yes," and Yannai brought him
into his home and gave him food and drink.

As they were eating
and drinking together, Yannai tested the man in his knowledge of Talmud, and
found that he had none. He tested him in Aggada, in Mishnah and Bible, and in all these areas the man
knew nothing.

Then Rabbi Yannai asked the man to
recite grace after the meal, and the man answered, "Let Yannai recite grace in his
own home."

Seeing that the man could not even recite a
blessing, Yannai
asked him, "Can you repeat what I say to you?" "Yes" answered the man. And Yannai said, "Repeat these
words: 'A dog has eaten of Yannai's bread.' "

Offended, the
man stood up, grabbed Rabbi Yannai andexclaimed: "You have my inheritance, which you
are withholding from me!"

Puzzled, Yannai asked, "What inheritance of yours do I have?"

The man replied, "Once I passed by a school, and heard
the voices of the schoolchildren saying, 'Torah Tziva Lanu Moshe - Moses gave us the Torah, Morasha Kehillath Yaakov - the inheritance
of the congregation of Jacob' (Deuteronomy 33:4). - It is not written 'the
inheritance of the congregation of Yannai,' but the 'congregation of Jacob' -- which
means all the Jewish people."
To this, Yannai said, "And what is your merit?" The man
answered, "I have never in my life repeated gossip, nor have I ever seen two
persons quarrelling without making peace between them."

And Rabbi Yannai said, "Woe is
me, that I should have called you dog, when you are such an ethical person!"

Yannai is one of the early Amoraim, a Talmid of Rabbi Yehuda Hanaasi and an aristocrat. He was a man who was apparently on the lookout for fellow scholars and seeing an honourably dressed gentleman in the street, he assumed that he was a Talmid Chacham. He probably wanted to discover a new perspective from a scholar who had a different tradition than his own. Sitting around the table engaging in scholarly conversation, Yannai discovers to his dismay that the man is absolutely ignorant. It would appear that his dinner guest is not really a partner in conversation at all!

However the man proves to be more than a match for Yannai. Not only would he seem to be quite a Tzaddik in matters "bein Adam Lechavero," he teaches Yannai a vital lesson. This focuses back upon a reading of a passuk. After the man has been insulted and rejected by Yannai, he insists that Yannai has his "inheritance." After all , Yannai, the Talmid Chacham , has Torah, which rightfully "belongs" to every Jew. "How dare you" the man tells Yannai, "look down at me! You have a duty to restore my inheritance to me! If I am ignorant, then you should be teaching me, not distancing yourself from me nor mocking me!"

In the perspective presented by this Midrash, there is a sense that the Talmid Chacham is in some manner beholden to share his Torah, obligated to pass it on to others; certainly never to withhold it from another Jew. The focus then of "Morasha" is the sense of ownership of Torah, by ALL Jews – Kehillat Yaakov - of all walks of life and all backgrounds and abilities.

And certainly, this is a challenge in the contemporary Orthodox world. How much are we caught up in our own enclaves, our institutions with "enough problems of our own"? Do people who are less observant of Torah and Mitzvot feel comfortable in our shuls and Batei Midrash? To what degree do we welcome people who are outside the fold, the unaffiliated, the people with whom we disagree with ideologically? If our Torah is Emet, true, enriching, compelling, then what attempts are we making to restore the inheritance to other Jews? Or are we too insecure, too complacent, too lazy, to happy with our cosy communities where pretty much, everyone is like me?

I say all this because it is on my mind. I have recently started a new job at Pardes. Pardes describes itself as non-denominational. And yet it is a place that exemplifies Ahavat Torah and Ahavat Yisrael, serious learning and deep tolerance and respect for all. The students you find there would be unlikely to walk into a standard Yeshiva, Midrasha or Orthodox Beit Midrash. Some do not share the assumptions or lifestyle of the standard Orthodox community. I may not agree with their life choices. But when I teach Torah - which I teach there as in any other place - I am teaching Jews who could otherwise be excluded from serious Torah learning. Jews meet there with a sense that they are not being spoken down to, that they are fully respected. and only because they are truly respected, are they happy to engage rigorously in Limmud Torah, reclaiming their inheritance. Sometimes a feel that Pardes takes me out of my cosy safety homogeneous zone and brings into an encounter, over Tanach and Gemara - with other Jews. And sometimes it is unnerving because they take the Torah that I teach and absorb it, digest it, from their perspective, from their set of values. But it is exhilarating too, because after all, it is their inheritance, and how can I not share it with them.

But only too often I delight to find that, just as in this story, my students have much to give me. Their middot tovot, many virtues and insights, acts of kindness, their Jewish activism, their deep love for Israel, can always contribute a page to my thinking, my Torah U'Mitzvot.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Jordan Valley Canal

See this interesting video (link)

Shimon Peres has been touting this project for a while. Now billionaire Yitzhak Tshuva is supporting it. What do you think of it?

Some believe that it will solve the erosion of the Dead Sea.

Others believe that it will destroy the Dead Sea.

It will most certainly open up the Arava area and the Negev in general to any new options.

I know that some ecologists are opposed but is there a better way to solve the Dead Sea and to develop new areas for Israelis to live in. We desperately need to attract people to the Negev. Maybe this will help?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Peace With Syria? Are You Crazy?

So the news broke today that we are in Peace Talks with Syria. Let's assume that this is NOT a scam to draw attention from Olmert's criminal investigation. I still find this idea totally hallucinatory.

Why is Israel doing this? It is quite obvious. Israel is worried about Iran. Lebanon have - today - become a Hizbolla state. The new PM is a Hizbolla sympathiser, and Hizbolla have a govt. veto. So now we are surrounded by Gaza, Lebanon and Syria who are all Iran allies and militant to Israel.

That is bad to say the least.

So Olmert plans to draw Syria away from Iran. In truth by doing this, he is also trying to draw Syria towards the U.S. and away from the "axis of evil". If Syria make Peace with us then they will get all sorts of aid just like Egypt after Camp David and be rewelcomed in the world community. THAT is the Syrian interest here.

So there is the logic.

Why is this bad?

1. Syria cannot be trusted. A country who house Mashal (head of Hamas) and arm Hizbolla, and who are building a nuclear reactor to attack Israel are hardly a Peace partner. Assad is a cruel dictator. A Peace partner?

2. When will we realise that we cannot manipulate the Arabs internal politics. We tried to manipulate the PA and we got Hamas, to manipulate Lebanon and we got Hizbolla. Every time we say that "they will become moderate," it backfires. Syria sees eye to eye with Iran. we will not be able to break that bond of friendship and shared vision. Even a Peace agreement will not break the Syrian-Iran alliance. If they are not moderate, they will not change for us.

3. The Arabs see us as on the retreat. As Ben Gurion said, we can only make Peace from a position of strength. We cannot be seen as desperate and therefore withdrawing further. We did that in Lebanon and then in Gaza. It just invites more attacks. If we do this now, they will see that we are terrified of Iran. They will view the Golan as yet another victory, a 3rd feather in their hat after Lebanon and Gaza, and it is more of the slippery slope. Bad News.

We must not retreat or show fear. Now is NOT the time to offer concessions. Now is the time to show our resolve and strength.

I reiterate... Peace with the Arabs can only be from a position of strength and strategic superiority. If I can be crude, only when we beat them will it be a real Peace.

4. Government?- What Government!
Last of all, and this is very important... a question of procedure. Senior Government ministers had no idea that the talks were happening. Eli Yishai is a dep. PM and a cabinet member. Israel is NOT a Presidential system. The Government's official line is against this. How can Olmert go against his govt. behind their backs and negotiate against his own Governments position?

I hate to say this but I really feel that Olmert is a liability. The sooner he is ejected from the PM seat the safer I will feel.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Drama of Recognition

I was moved by this piece in NYTimes.

May 18, 2008
Op-Ed Contributor
The Birth of a Nation, 1948
IT was Friday, May 14, 1948. I was sitting in the press section of the United Nations General Assembly in its temporary quarters at Flushing Meadow in Queens. I felt my heart thumping. We journalists were waiting impatiently to see who would win a tug of war taking place in Washington.
On one side was President Harry S. Truman, who had told his aides that, with the last British troops leaving Palestine that day, he believed the Jews had a right to declare their own nation, and that he would make sure that the United States would be the first country to recognize it.
On the other side was the State Department, which wanted the land placed in a trusteeship under the United Nations. Secretary of State George Marshall was so passionate in his opposition to a Jewish state that he threatened to vote against the president in the November election. For Truman, who had come to office with the death of Franklin Roosevelt three years earlier, this was to be one of his first true tests of power.
As I sat waiting for the announcement of the decision in Washington, my mind wandered back to the spring and summer of the year before, which I had spent reporting for The New York Herald Tribune. I had traveled in Germany and Austria with the 11 members of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine. There had been many such committees studying the problems of the Holy Land since the Arab riots of the 1920s; this one was distinguished by having no representatives from Britain, which had been universally hostile to the Zionist cause.
With the members, I visited the camps for displaced persons in Germany and Austria and listened, dumbfounded, as the refugees described the horrors of the war. In particular, I remember visiting the Rothschild Hospital camp in Vienna. Some 100 refugees had just arrived from Romania, many of them children covered with sores and dirt. There was no place to put them but the street; they lay, exhausted, on the paving stones.
A young man approached us, his eyes bloodshot. “In Romania, they killed 30,000 Jews in two hours,” he said, his voice sounding as if it came straight from his guts. “They took Jews to the slaughterhouse and hung them alive the way they hang cows, and they put knives to their throats and split them. Underneath them, they put a sign: Kosher Beef.”
In camp after camp, the committee members asked, “Why do you want to go to Palestine? It’s such a poor country. The Arabs and Jews are always fighting. They don’t have enough food, they don’t have enough water. What is it about Palestine?”
A 16-year-old orphan — actually, we never used the word “orphan” because the term couldn’t convey the horrors these children had been through — gave the most poignant answer. “Everybody has a home,” he said. “The Americans. The British. The French. The Russians. Only we don’t have a home. Don’t ask us. Ask the world.”
A woman tugged the sleeve of my jacket. “You are the only woman with all these men,” she implored. “You will understand me. I saw my husband burned. I don’t want to burn. I want to go home — to Eretz Israel.” The Land of Israel.
“That’s why we’re here,” I told her. “To help solve the problem. But if, Heaven forbid, we fail to find a solution, where would you like to go?”
Her reply: “Back to the crematory.”
It was this committee’s report that led directly to the General Assembly vote of Nov. 29, 1947, to partition Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab entities. The Jews accepted this proposal, but the Arabs stormed out and threatened war.

My mind was drawn immediately back to the present of May 1948 as I noticed an American representative to the United Nations, Philip Jessup, hurrying toward the podium. I knew, after talking to his aides, that in his hand he had a speech supporting trusteeship, not statehood, for Israel. The State Department was about to betray the president.
Jessup was halfway up the stairs when an Associated Press reporter handed him a dispatch. Jessup read it, grew white-faced, descended the stairs and then disappeared. The reporter next to me said, “He’s gone to the bathroom.”
I shook my head. “He’s gone home.”
Then we were handed the A.P. report. In Tel Aviv, David Ben-Gurion had just read the world’s latest proclamation of independence. Eleven minutes later, Harry Truman had recognized Ben-Gurion’s government as the “de facto authority” of the new state.
Israel was born.
Ruth Gruber is the author of “Exodus 1947” and “Witness.”

Monday, May 12, 2008

Bribery, Finance and the Electoral System

The recent suspicions regarding Ehud Olmert raise an issue that has been bugging me for a while regarding the political system. I don't want to discuss Olmert's integrity. The courts can decide upon that. But it would appear to me that democratic electoral systems in an age of hyper-marketing and enormous media coverage are exceptionally problematic. Let me explain.

1. A politician or candidate must not take bribes. In other words, he cannot sell his decisions for money or have his judgment guided/clouded by money donations.

2. It is exceptionally expensive to run a campaign and to fund all the staff and commercials and the entire election machine. The average candidate does not have that money.

3. Politicians fund election campaigns from donations … from wealthy donors.

4. "There is no such thing as a free lunch" – in other words, not every donor is altruistic. They do expect a payback, a favour at times.

5. To be elected, candidates need to hobnob with the rich an famous, with market leaders and top business people, all of whom have multi million dollar interests

So to my point… we now see our 4th PM in Israel suspected of election fraud. Is it possible to get elected today without private money? And if private money doesn't come "for free", then where is the line between bribery and political support? The line is certainly fine indeed. I don't like it that leaders hang out with the rich and famous, but do they have a choice? I used to read how the Clinton's hosted celebs and business people all the time at the White House. Is that bribery or networking?

So does our modern electoral system support soft bribery? I suspect it does.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Israel @ 60 - Thoughts

So Israel is Sixty. My 3 yr old asked me today, "Is that big?" So of course, on the one hand, thinking about the fragile,fledgling State fighting for its life in 1948, the young country attacked in 1973, a country that has done so much in so short a time, sixty is really old. On the other hand in the span of time, we're just beginning!

What is there to say at this time? So much has been written on the topic. I would like to make two points.

1. There are always the pessimists and the optimists (see my last post!). I am sorry but I have to count myself in the latter group. I always see the cup half full when it comes to Israel.

Last week, both Galei Tzahal and Channel 1 did contests to find the song that epitomised sixty years of Israel. With Galei Tzahal the top song was Shir HaReut - a beautiful song about loss and friendship in war (written by Haim Guri in 1948.) Second came Yerushalayim Shel Zahav. In fact Yerushalayim Shel Zahav was the top song on Channel 1. (The second was "Children of '73 which we can discuss in a minute.)

Israelis did not choose some wild pop song. Israelis are rooted in Jerusalem, in their past and in their heritage. Despite a great amount of desperation with our leadership which is seen as corrupt or lacking vision and depth, Israelis know that there is much to celebrate at 60. They also appreciate what the true values are, and why we are here.

Today the Guardian (link) has an interesting article about the eclipse of the promise of Peace. The song that came in second - Children of '73 - is precisely about that idea (link). But as opposed to one other blogger (link) I would like to suggest that that song is actually very much where Israel is at present.

The song expresses the reality that at one point in time Israelis felt that peace would be around the corner. Nowadays, we realise it is much more complicated, far more elusive. (Even Peres said today that he never expected Kasaams from Gaza after the Hitnatkut! (link)) And yet the kids in the song still serve in the Army and still live in Israel and still build their future here! To my mind the song expresses the frustrations of reality and the complexities of living here. (The song isn't perfect... it has much arrogance, but that is for another time.)

So what do we do when Peace seems elusive? What do we do when a woman sees her father, and then her husband, and now her son, go to war?

Here is the point I think needs making. In fact Olmert made this point at the Yom Hazikaron ceremony today (Give credit where it is due!). We will succeed here ONLY if we know WHY we are here. We cannot succeed if we fail to believe that we belong here. We cannot become an ordinary country. This is a place that for the foreseeable future we shall have to fight over. If you are looking for a comfortable calm ride, this is not happening so soon. (Although, we are, many of us, living at very comfortable living standards!)

But this is the best place in the world for a Jew. Why? Because it is ours. Because here we all care about each other. Because here we fight over OUR issues. Because here we live in our holy land, promised to us by God, because here I tread in the footsteps of my History, because here we turn on the radio and hear Hebrew... Because we belong here! It is right.

Every Israeli needs to know this. Every Israeli must be imbued with Jewish Pride and Zionism. Israel needs to invest heavily in education, Judaism and Zionism to fight against cynicism and PostZionism, to revive some of that old-school Zionism, so that every Israeli believes that this is the correct place to be and understands why it is worthy to be here. To reconnect with Judaism, to love the country. And then BeEzrat Hashem, we will be OK for another 60. This is paramount.

we have so much good. But the National Spirit is crucial, critical.

2. But here is a second point. I wrote about it also in last years post here.

Israel at 60. Wow! We have so much to thank God for. So much to be appreciative! For simply our survival! For the pleasure of over 6 million Jews who can live in their land, for a booming economy, for Israel being able to be a refuge for Russian Jews and Ethiopian Jews. For Israel being the education centre for World Jewry, whether in Mir or Ponovezh or Brisk, Gush or Shaalvim, Hebrew University or Hartman Institute, or Schechter - they are all here! For Israel giving pride and confidence to the Jewish People around the world. For the Kotel, and the Golan and the Negev and the Kinneret.

Hodu Lashem ki Tov, Ki LeOlam Hasdo!

Yom Atzmaut Sameach!

Posters at Sixty

Different organisations have been busy designing posters for the sixtieth anniversary. The news reported of Michlelet Ort in Kfar Saba with their very pessimistic portraits of Israel:

These highlight either Israel as a littering nation or as wishing to erase our victory of the Six Day War as if it were a mistake, or as a nation who have so many poor people surviving on Welfare. Other posters spoke about the fatalities of road accidents or even suggesting Israel as a rascist country. ALL the posters were negative!

But then along comes the Religious Michlelet Emuna with more positive portraits like this:

The common factor with these portraits is that they emphasise Israel as a plant to be nurtured, as a work in progress, as still growing and unfinished. They are more Zionist and hopeful.

Which image do you prefer?

Does one represent a secular Kfar Saba mentality and the others, a Religious Jerusalem perspective?

Monday, May 05, 2008

Parashat Emor - Displaced Persons

"The son of an Israelite woman, being also the son of an Egyptian man, went out among Benei Yisrael. And the son of the Israelite woman quarreled with an Israelite man in the camp. The son of the Israelite woman pronounced God's Name, and cursed. They brought him to Moshe. His mother's name was Shlomit, daughter of Divri, from the tribe of Dan." (24:10-11)

An argument in the camp; The name of God being publicly blasphemed. What was the cause of this rage on the part of the Blasphemer? Was it a deliberate provocation or a desperate outburst? What leads this man to curse God's name?

The text itself indicates a series of details that give us clues as to the source of the distress of the blasphemer leading to his outrageous act:
1. His problematic lineage, being of a mixed marriage (as opposed to the "Israelite man" with whom he quarrels.)
2. They quarrel "in the Camp."
3. The mention of the fact that his mother was from the Tribe of Dan.

Rashi puts it together for us.

"He (the blasphemer) had come to pitch his tent in the midst of the tribe of Dan. They asked him, 'What right have you to be here?' He said to them: 'I am of the descendants of Dan.' They said to him, 'Each man (shall camp) by his own flag, (that bears) the signs of their father's house.'"

Here we have a young man who wishes to find a place to pitch his tent in the Israelite camp. He goes to his mother's tribe - Dan - and is ejected. According to the Midrash, the case is taken to (moses') Court. The law is pronounced that Tribal lineage follows the father rather than the mother. And hence he has to go elsewhere. He is evicted. But he has nowhere to go! In his rage, or frustration, he curses God.

This parsha brings a problem into focus. I have thought about this for a while and failed to find an answer. Let me explain.

What should the Mekallel have done? Where should he pitch his tent? Where does a man from a mixed marriage live? Or is he doomed to wander between the tribes homeless, displaced?

And let us expand the question. The verse in Shemot 12:38 tells us that a "mixed multitude" - a collection of different ethnic populations - Erev Rav - tagged along with Bnei Yisrael as they left Egypt. What ever happened to these people? Where did they live? Did they have a place in the Israelite camp? Did they go their own way and depart from Bnei Yisrael [1]? Traditional sources insist that they remained with Am Yisrael, however they became a major problem as the developed as an insurgent group, instigating rebellion and sin. [2]

And so, I return to the problem. Where did the "Erev Rav" encamp?

In Sefer Bamidbar ch.1 the Israelite camp is organised into 12 marching divisions, twelve army units. There is no mention of the Erev Rav! Now it is possible that until Sefer Bamidbar, encampment arrangements were informal and random. But from the second year in the wilderness, the camp was certainly ordered.

Did the Erev Rav encamp at the outskirts of the camp? When I think about the notion of a different ethnic group, a minority grouping amongst Israel being ejected from the mainstream, relegated to the fringes of the camp, I cannot see this but as a recipe for problems. We should not be at all surprised when this group cause trouble.

In Israel today there are ongoing discussions about the center as opposed to the "periphery", the outlying regional areas in Israel. The periphery is remote, lacking access to services, and frequently weaker economically. The common wisdom is that special attention must be paid to weaker groups so that they not fester in the periphery but rather to draw them to the center, strengthened, reinforced in their sense of belonging , their identity, their education. If immigrants from problematic backgrounds are placed at the periphery, they remain apart, alienated, and then become delinquent, disgruntled, and the problems escalate.

In today's world if you had a kid from a problematic home situation, a complicated ethnic background (it could not have been simple for an Egyptian and Jew to parent a child... See the Midrashim who suggest fascinating scenarios here) and who could not even find a home, a place to pitch his tent - just like the mekallel -we would seek to include him, to embrace him. we would send the social workers out and help this guy! We could certainly see the writing on the wall simply by reading this kid's file! One can palpably sense the alienation and potential displacement in this person's mind.

(And ask Educators... A kid's rejection of Judaism is more often than not a product of his home environment and whether his Jewish-religious peers and the community welcome him and make him feel respected and as if he belongs. Frequently the social factor seriously outweighs any theological factor!)

Now of course, other readings are possible. Possibly the mekallel instigated all this and was looking for trouble, bent upon rebellion against God. Other readings in this parsha are certainly viable. And yet, beyond the story of the Blasphemer, the "Erev Rav" question still niggles me. How can we let this group, who are anyhow unintegrated into Israelite culture and society, how can we allow them to reside apart, alienated, at the outskirts of the camp? It certainly seems to be inviting serious problems.

I think that somebody once suggested that Moshe Rabbeinu himself took the Erev Rav under his wing [3] and that they encamped with him in the epicenter of the camp. I have such a vague recollection of this idea that I think I might have invented it (!). Anyhow, I have never found a source for this.

Any ideas on this topic are more than welcome!

{1} See Ramban on Shemot 19:1 and Bamidbar 1:18 in which theer is an impression that Bnei Yisrael are deliberately seperated from teh Erev Rav. Was this an attempt to eject them??

{2} See Rashi Shemot 32:4; Rashi Bamidbar 11:1,4

{3} See Rashi to Shemot 32:7 and 34:1. Here Moshe is connected personally with the Erev Rav as if they are his responsibility. According to Rashi, Moshe personally accepted them and converted them and he is seen a their patron in some way. (See also Shemot Rabba 42:6)

Friday, May 02, 2008

Parashat Kedoshim: The Ramban, Kilayim and Genetic Engineering

The Torah in this week's parsha forbids the mixing of species - Kilayim. This applies to mixing wool and linen in clothes, to crossbreeding livestock, or even to growing many types of crop in the same field.

In a celebrated passage, the Ramban explains the mitzva in the following manner:

And the reason for kilayim is that God created the different species in the world for all the different kinds of souls, in plants and in those that have the animative soul, and he gave them the power of reproduction, that the species should exist for eternity, for as long as He should desire the existence of the world, and He ordered that that power should reproduce the species and never ever change, as is written (in Bereishit) concerning each (species), "l'mineihu" (for its species). And this is the reason that we breed animals in order to preserve the species, just as men come unto women for (the purpose of) reproduction. But one who intermixes two species changes and negates the act of creation, as though he thinks that God did not complete His world sufficiently, and he wishes to assist creation by adding creatures to it.

Amongst animals, different species do not reproduce when mixed, and even those that are naturally close, when they do reproduce, the offspring are unable to reproduce and hence, that line of animals is lost, destroyed. And for these two reasons, the act of mixing species is loathsome and nullified. And plants as well, when they are interbred, their fruit does not grow afterwards, and these two reasons explain their prohibition. (19,19)

It sounds like the Ramban is telling us that creating new combinations and species is, in some manner, destroying God's creation. Our role is to preserve God's creation and teh kinds contained therein. We are not to create new hybrids, new species.

This Ramban has always bothered me. How should we relate to this regarding technological advances? Should we abandon genetic engineering of plants? What about grapefruits, nectarines etc.? Are they not a product of crossbreeding? If we leave creation as it is, then where does it end? Where are the limits of human ingenuity? We know that the Torah allows human involvement i.e. healing or even the manufacture process of food, textiles, household items. But as for Kilayim, do these hybrids not enrich contemporary man?! Or is the Torah warning us that our genetic engineering might undermine and tamper with the very fabric of our world, altering nature to the point of endangering the very foundations of our civilisation?

In today's world we have heard how sometimes, by engineering a plant to become more robust and sturdy to certain bugs or weather conditions, that same crop then dominates over other crops thereby altering and destroying existing ecosystems. Is the Torah already warning us of this problem? The spectre of cloning, of human engineering that is become more and more real in today's scientific landscape is frightening. The warning lights of Huxley's Brave New World and the moral questions of life and death, of man as Creator, these questions go to the very roots of our humanity, our morality.

(In this post, I am of course ignoring the Ramban's Kabbalistic and spiritual overtones regarding the "soul" of plants ... see his comments later in the passge.)

So is new DNA research legitimate development, or is it a reckless foray into the unknown? In this manner, this Ramban raises precisely the conservationist vs. technology debate.

Where is room for growth and change, and where is the room for stability, constancy?

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Sefer Torah From Auschwitz

For Yom Hashoah

NYTimes has a great story (link) about a Sefer Torah from Auschwitz.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Essential Rav Soloveitchik - Online

I was very excited to see that Tradition (link) Journal has made the classic essays of Rav Soloveitchik available (in pdf format) online.

The articles (Catharsis, The Community, Redemption Prayer and Talmud Torah, Rebbetzin of Talne, Majesty and Humility) are all compelling reading and, to my mind, essential reading for any thinking modern Jew. The link is here. In addition, there is online access to Lonely Man of Faith. All excellent.

This is part of a a new policy of modernisation and accessibility to articles online, that Tradition has been undergoing over the past year or so. Their website constatnly has interesting links and information. Worth checking regularly. Kudos to the editor Rabbi Carmy and his online editor Rabbi Shlomo Brody. Keep 'em coming!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Thoughts on a Plane

Two reflections from aeroplanes - one positive, one negative - from my recent travels.

The first is reflected by this piece (link) regarding Pesach. One can really never know people from the outside. Sometimes, one finds such impressive characters in the most unsuspecting packages.

On the way to the U.S. I was sitting next to a chiloni family, going away for a month to the States as a "batmitzva trip" for their daughter. Dressed in sweats, they appeared as a well to do typical secular Israeli family - two kids - buying volumes of Duty Free etc. I was wondering in my mind as to whether they would even have a Seder and (rather cruelly) imagined that they were "escaping" Pesach and probably would not even see a Matza for the 7 days of Pesach.

Anyhow, they aroused my curiosity when as we took off, the mother read Tefillat Haderech with the daughter. But then, a few hours into the flight, the mother pulled out a Sefer Tehillim and read the entire section (about 20 perakim!) for that day! So I asked her whether she said Tehillim every day and why she does it.

She told me that she does try to say the Tehillim every day, and that "Zeh Tov LaNeshama!" But she added that it all started one Friday evening when her husband returned home after she had lit Shabbat candles. She asked him how he could have broken Shabbat! Anyhow, she said, since that day, they decided "lehitchazek" - to renew their Jewish intensity. Now, her husband goes to shul every Friday night and she recites Tehillim on a daily basis.

I was blown away! They slipped up once and look at the response! Look at the sense of Teshuva, self-change, of introspection and renewed commitment. How many "frum" people engage in such Cheshbon Nefesh?! It was a true example to me. And I cannot imagine that this family will NOT be celebrating Pesach. So, we have to be more generous, less judgmental, more humble, less critical.

And a second thought. I wrote once before about my thoughts about Kashruth on planes (link). This time, I would like to reflect upon minyanim on planes.

On this trip, there were an enormous number of frum (male) passengers. I would estimate maybe 80 people who wanted to daven with a minyan. It was crazy. It inconveniences other passengers significantly. All the time , people are walking back and forwards through the aisles. It irritates the flight attendants. At the initial level, I don't get, when a flight leaves at 2:30 p.m., why people cannot daven Mincha before they get on the plane. Do they have to make a minyan davka in the air? (Is that closer to God?) But I davened with a minyan for Maariv. I saw the looks on people around us. We disturbed people trying to sleep, we irritated them by going up and down the aisle, we pushed them and crowded them. we annoyed the flight attendants because there were too may of us. all in all, it was wrong. and if you think I had any kavanna pressed into a tiny space and being aware of how many people I was upsetting, then you have to be kidding.

So shacharit, I davened in my seat. I am now convinced that it should be assur to daven betzibbur on the plane. It is a Hillul Hashem. It is stealing from peoples space and convenience and quiet; they have paid a great deal of money for a flight and want the little quiet, space etc. that they have. Gatherings of 20 men just don't have a place on a little plane. I really don't think that the value of Tefilla Betzibur outweighs Gezel, Onaah, Veahahvta Lereyacha Kamocha, etc.

(I am not used to long U.S. flights so I guess I haven't encountered this so much in the past!)

I have also been lead to understand that Rav Lichtenstein, and in the Haredi world, Rav Wosner both rule that one should simply daven in their seat. (This is also the upshot of the Mishnayot in Berachot that talk about davening on a boat or a donkey!!)
Anyway, from now on, I will be davening in my seat!

Moadim Lesimcha!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Reading During Pesach - Israel@60

I am currently composing a post for Israel@60. So much of what I have read has been quite morose or pessimistic. I am sure that many of you have been aware of the discussion about how much money to spend on the celebrations and indeed the sense is that Israelis are reluctant to celebrate. Well - with Kassam rockets falling daily and the failure of the war last year, it IS understandable!

So here is some reading to get you in the thick of the discussion! We can take these as our starting point, and hopefully after Pesach, I will write something on the topic. In the meantime, this is good reading for during Pesach!

NYTimes article (link) / The Atlantic Monthly (link) / Jewish Action - the OU magazine (link) ... Rav Blau and Prof. Kellner both have good pieces there.

On an upbeat note, the Chief Rabbi (R. Sacks) has a new CD out in honour of Israel's 60th. It is truly excellent. It goes through the history of Israel in song and text and explains just why Israel IS so remarkable and historic. The Chief Rabbi's Office in London has been inundated with praise for the CD. Many have said it has restored their confidence and faith in Israel!

Hear the CD online here!