Monday, September 09, 2013

Yom Kippur: New Shiur on the Book of Jonah

Please see my new shiur on Jonah here (also link to podcast.)

Here is an excerpt:

"God proves to Jonah that if man is judged by the measure of strict justice, none of us will prevail. We try to do Teshuva, just like the people of Nineveh, but at times it is merely superficial, or short lived. And yet, God is merciful and renounces punishment. He forgives readily, even though the changes are neither thorough nor permanent. Mercy trumps Truth."

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Rosh Hashanna Playlist - My Top Ten

Just to get you in the mood for Rosh Hashanna, here are the tunes I have been listening to as I was cooking for Chag. (Not all are the best rendition but I love these songs.)

Enjoy! - and wishing you all a כתיבה וחתימה טובה a year of goodness ברוחניות ובגשמיות!



Avinu Malkeinu (song is great ... not sure about the video)

Ochila Le-El

 זכרינו לחיים

Machnisei Rachamim

Meloch as kol Haolam kulo

Ein Kizva with Rav Amital z"l

Chamol (Pirchei London)

Hanesham Lach

OK one last one ...
Hinneni (Reminds me of my Grandpa z"l) -

Monday, August 12, 2013

My New Website!

I am delighted to announce my new website: where you can access my parsha shiurim and also articles on the chagim. There is also information about my upcoming book. Enjoy!

Monday, July 29, 2013

A Mishna a Day ...

I would like to share with you a project that I started over 17 years ago. It has most definitely made a huge difference to my life and to my learning. I am referring to my daily study of Mishna.

It all begins with a story that someone told me many years back. (I really wish I could remember who told me this story ... I am so indebted to him, but alas, I have no idea who it was!) When his daughter was born, the proud parents made a kiddush to celebrate her birth. Their Rabbi approached the father of the newborn and said: "Do you know that if you study a mishna a day starting now, you will complete Shas (the 6 orders that make up the Mishna) by the time your daughter will become bat-mitzvah."

And so it was: Every evening, the father sat down to study a mishna. When his daughter was six or seven, she asked her father: "Dad, what is that book that you read every evening in the armchair?" He replied, "It's a mishna , and I started when you were born, and I'll finish at your Bat-mitzvah." This young girl asked her father if she could learn with him; after all, it was "her" mishna. Somehow, she managed to "catch up" and they made a siyum (celebration of completion of a unit of Torah study) on the entire Shas at her Bat-Mitzvah - no small achievement.

I heard this story and it impressed me. I was single at the time I heard it, but when my time came, and my wife was about to give birth to our firstborn, I packed a mishna Berachot into the hospital bag. And after my son was born and the pandemonium of the birth was over, mother and baby calm and settled, I took out my mishna and studied the first mishna in Shas.

I must say that completeing the entire mishna had seemed a "Mission Impossible" up to that point. In my 2nd year at Yeshiva, a young guy who had studied at a Yeshiva in Denver made a siym on Shas Mishna - I think it was his 2nd or 3rd time round - and I was astounded to think that he had the discipline to complete such a voluminous work.

But somehow, the fact that this was connected to my son gave it added impetus, and I kept at it. In truth I accelerated the pace; one-a-day was too slow and I kept losing the momentum of the mishna. But I completed the Shas on his 6th birthday. And then I started again. I now learn at a faster pace and am currently in the middle of my sixth time around!

So - why am I sharing this? I know that people find it difficult to so some daily learning. I love mishna.
  • It is short, in bite-size chunks. Even a small section has a coherence, and can be understood independently (unlike a talmudic passage) Due to its brevity, one has to have a good excuse not to have time to study one mishna/day. 
  • The Kahati commentary is accessible and really useful. Other shorter commentaries exist as well.
  • It covers every sphere of Jewish law. Some days you are studying about Peah and social justice, other days about 2nd Temple court procedure. You may experience the festive Bikkurim procession, or the sublime service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur. It could be gory depictions of ancient executions, the mathematics of laws of the Eruv, complicated family patterns in Yevamot, gruesome decaying body-parts in Ohalot, the daily rituals of the sacrifices, or what have you. This is part of our commitment to Torah study. We don't always study the exciting or inspirational. We study Torah because it is our law and lore. This daily rigour, independent of the subject matter offers a deep expression of "kinyan haTorah" - our almost contractual relationship with Talmud Torah (Torah study.)
  • Sometimes, I cannot wait to complete a massechet (tractate) because it is overly technical or boring; other times, I greet a new massechet like an old friend, and I rush through it, enjoying its familiarity. 
  • But I love the discipline of it as I plough through again and again. It is the marathon run rather than the short sprint, but it is hugely gratifying. 
  • It is beneficial as well - I have found that it has offered me an excellent grounding for Talmud study as so many concepts, and mishnaic formulations are familiar to me.

So to friends, students and other readers, its a project worth doing. It takes time, but you will be proud at the end and gain a tremendous amount of knowledge on the way.

If you are seeking a regular Torah learning project, I highly recommend daily Mishna study.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Beware! Abuse!! Parashat Behar-Bechukotai

Our Torah-reading this Shabbat is the source for one of the most neglected of all mitzvot de'oraita (Laws with Biblical legal status). I am talking about the mitzvah of Ona'ah, and particularly Ona'at Devarim.

Mitzva 1 of Ona'ah is אונאת ממון (Vayikra 25:14) – in simple English, overcharging, or making an unreasonable mark-up on a sale - the Rabbis allowed no more than an 18% mark-up. At times, when there is full transparency of a high mark-up on the part of both the buyer and seller, then no law is contravened. And yet, I think the Torah is warning us of the economic abuses that can take place in a market economy, and that sometimes, just because we can get away with it does not make inflated profits ethical. Furthermore, I sense there is little transparency as to the profits our stores are making on our food, clothing, appliances and services.

Mitzva 2 of Ona'ah is (Vayikra אונאת דברים (25:17 otherwise described as verbal abuse. Any language that shames, embarrasses, or intimidates another person is part of this law. Put-downs, discriminatory speech, racist language, derogatory comments, and even insults, practical jokes, anger or aggressive criticism may come under this mitzvah. The Rambam describes the mitzvah in the following way:

 "If a person has repented, don't say: "Remember how you used to act." If a person is a child of converts, one shouldn't remark: "Remember how your ancestors lived." If a convert comes to study the Torah, one should not tell him: "Should a mouth that ate meat from animals that were not ritually slaughtered and that were trefah come and study the Torah that was given by the Almighty?"
If a person was afflicted by illness and suffering or he is forced to bury his children, one should not speak to him in the manner that Job's friends addressed him Job 4:6-7: "Your fear of God was for your own security.... Can you recall anyone who was innocent who perished?" " (Rambam, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Mekhira 14:13-15)

Particular attention is paid by Maimonides to articulating embarrassing aspects or episodes of a person's past. He also specifies the prohibition of restricting a convert from fully participating in religious life on the basis of his past, and maybe more important, drawing attention to his status as a convert. Note the last example – someone is sick, and you suggest that in some manner they are personally spiritually at fault – THAT is abusive speech. We do not know God's ways. How dare we propose to blame the victim?

We have so many people in our world who walk around with scars received from careless words spoken by authority figures, teachers and Rabbis. Our language is so powerful. It can build people and destroy them. We would do well to heed our mode of speaking.

A 3rd type of Ona'ah (Ex. 22:20) is directed to the Ger – the convert to Judaism, or maybe even the non-Jew who lives in as a resident in a Jewish country (Ibn Ezra says it is a Ger Toshav). We have an extra instruction to treat outsiders, non-Jews or Jewish converts, with respect, and not to abuse or take advantage of them, financially or verbally. These people lack the societal confidence or family contacts that afford other people personal stature,. We must "remember that you were salves in Egypt."

How many people are aware that these are three Torah laws? How often these are disregarded. How relevant and crucial these laws of Ona'ah are in our contemporary reality!

Sit at your Shabbat table, read the Rambam with your family, and discuss how we can work harder on these laws, how to include people rather than exclude them. Let's work to be more compassionate

Shabbat shalom!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Can We Celebrate An Imperfect Israel?

It's Yom HaAtzmaut! Let's celebrate the reestablishment of Jewish independence after 2000 years. Hmmmm! What? Not so fast? Why not? 

It is incredible that despite the momentous achievement of statehood for the Jewish people, we constantly hear discordant voices suggesting that the Jewish State isn't quite the fulfillment of our dreams and aspirations, that it fails to live up to the vision of the prophets. On the religious right, the argument goes that the state is secular, and as such, cannot accord with the redemptive vision, rooted in the Bible and articulated by Rabbis and mystics through the ages, that it betrays the traditional "Hope" which pulsated in the Jewish soul throughout the Exile. For the liberal left, the Occupation, religious coercion, and Israel's other warts and blemishes, eclipse Israel's considerable achievements, replacing pride with shame, celebration with criticism. And so, we find that the very instinct to rejoice on our independence day becomes a matter of heated debate, damping the outburst of jubilation that this historic day should engender.  


How shall we respond to the nay-sayers? Here are some thoughts that have run through my mind to put this topic in context.

The Haftara (II Kings ch.6-7) we read last Shabbat tells a miraculous story. The Aramean army had besieged Samaria. Food was scarce, people were dying, and the living were horrifically resorted to eating the dead just to survive. And then, suddenly, surprisingly God frightened Aram, and the enemy deserted its positions and fled. Four lepers discovered the abandoned enemy camp and swiftly announce the end of the siege to the desperate people in the city. Samaria was saved.

The famous Hebrew poet of the 1920's, Rachel, wrote a powerful poem commenting on this Biblical story:

בשכבר הימים האויב הנורא
את שומרון הביא במצור
ארבעה מצורעים לה בשרו בשורה.

כשומרון במצור - כל הארץ כולה
וכבד הרעב מנשוא;
אך אני לא אובה בשורת גאולה
אם מפי מצורע היא תבוא.

הטהור יבשר, יגאל הטהור
אם ידו לא תמצא לגאול –
אז נבחר לי לנפול ממצוקת המצור
אור ליום בשורה הגדול".

For a long while the dreadful enemy
Brought Samaria to siege;
Four lepers to her brought tidings.
To her brought the tidings of freedom.

A Samaria under siege - the entire land,
The famine is too hard to bear.
But I will not want news of freedom,
If it comes from the mouth of a leper.

The pure will bring news and the pure will redeem,
And if his hand won’t be there to redeem,
Then I will choose to die from the suffering of the siege,
On the eve of the day of the great tidings.

We don't know the circumstances in which Rachel writes this poem, but its message is clear. Rachel balks at this story. She would prefer to choose to die from the suffering of the siege rather than accept the tidings of salvation from one who is a leper, an unworthy person. Rachel wants the gift of redemption in the purest of ways; she is a perfectionist, and if the path to redemption is not absolutely pristine, then she would prefer no redemption whatsoever.

Clearly, Sefer Melakhim, which relates the story of the lepers, thinks otherwise. And not only the Tanakh; the Gemara in one aggadic passage [Sanhedrin 98] suggests that the Messiah is a leper!


The question of a pure vs. an impure redemption leads me to two very different sources which I will contrast. The first is one of Israel's most iconic poems. It is called "The Silver Platter" by Natan Alterman. It is truly part of the secular Zionist “canon.”

The poem imagines the nation, in the aftermath of the violence of the war of independence, in festive dress, awaiting "to receive the miracle, the one and only." Then a young man and a young woman approach silently. The wear heavy boots, and their clothing is bloodstained, even as they are endowed with the beauty of Hebrew youth, They are exhausted to the point of collapse. When the nation asks them: "Who are you?" They respond: "We are the silver platter on which the Jewish State has been given to you."

Alterman is saying that a Jewish State comes at a price. If we want a state, we will have to fight. Our young men and women will have sacrifice their youth in battle, and people will lose their innocent lives.

Here is a second source, a different image, which other people may prefer. Zechariah chapter 3:

Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of God and Satan stood at his right side to accuse him. God said to Satan, “God rebukes you, Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebukes you! Is not this man a burned stick snatched from the fire?” Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” Then he said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you.” (3:1-6)

Joshua is the High Priest as the second Temple is being rebuilt. From the text, we understand that, much like the young man and woman in Alterman’s poem, the High Priest somehow embodies all Israel. The Satan wishes to accuse him; after all, the High Priest bears Israel's sins before God (Shemot 28:12,30,38) and Israel's spiritual pedigree at this point in time is not remarkably impressive. However God silences Satan; God says that Israel is "snatched from the fire," in other words, at this point in time, Israel is a nation of survivors and has suffered enough. And thus, God removes the dirty clothes of the High Priest and replaces them. This image indicates how God will remove Israel's sin, to purify Israel and facilitate the reconstruction of the Temple.

For Zecharia. The reconstitution of the nation after the tragedy of exile, requires purity, and if the nation cannot achieve that purity independently, God will instigate a process to absolve the people and to purify themselves.

Two visions. For Alterman, it is the youth of the nation who enact the miracle of statehood, and those representatives are bloodstained and dirty, unwashed form the sweat and grime of battle; there is no other way to have a state. But they are the "Silver Platter." For Zecharia, God does all the work. He purifies a sullied nation, and gives the national representative – the High Priest – fresh, white clothing.


So we have an disagreement here. If we are rebuilding our State, we may think, along with Rachel, that the basis of it all must be "clean clothes"; flawless and pure.

But I think that Zecharia may well represent a Messianic ideal. In this world, we are faced with choices: To run the economy, someone must bear the brunt of taxes, and pay a heavier price. To protect ourselves, our children must be drafted, and may at times have to engage in violence becoming warriors and fighters, to protect their nation and land. Statehood means confronting a myriad of difficult decisions about every topic: Racism, education, international relations, religion and state. Sometimes it is impossible to win;  Illegal migration workers, for example: Should Israel treat them like refugees, asylum seekers, practicing equality, embracing every human being, just because he is human, or will that encourage further migration, as well as admitting a huge, non-Jewish population, that will exacerbate domestic frictions, assimilation? How should Israel deal with non-Jewish Russian immigrants? Israeli Arabs? The peace process? The questions are complex and there is always a sense that we cannot fulfill the entire palette of values

Ever since Bar Kochba, Jews withdrew from meddling in history. The Rabbis made that decision consciously. They abandoned self-governance and allowed themselves only the "four cubits of halakha." Some proposed that the redemption would come only by dint of God's intervention – the Temple being brought from heaven in fire; the Messiah would be the harbinger of the influx of the Exiles; not Tzahal, El Al, nor even the absorption ministry. Possibly, that is the deep source of the Haredi aversion to the draft. Fundamentally, they believe that Jewish history is best left to God. We should worry about our personal service of God. History and redemption is best left to God! Zionism came and shattered that belief. Zionism declared that Jews must take their history into their own hands and that we would reconstitute ourselves as a nation, with an economy, an army, a government etc.

But the business of statehood is never a pure, clean, pristine business. National administration involves compromises and mistakes, hard dilemmas in which no solution is the perfectly moral one. Alterman wished to say that if we desire a state, we must get our hands dirty. Governance will thrust us into harsh compromises and impossible choices, and at times, whatever we choose will sully our hands and our moral conscience.


So, back to Yom Ha’tzmaut. I embrace Israel with all our flaws. There is no other way to have a state. One cannot govern without making errors. And we face huge challenges, so sometimes we make big mistakes.

But who can deny the miracle of Israel? Who can deny that the Jewish people are flourishing here? Who can not witness the fulfilment of the dream of Jewish return from the four corners of the world, a prophetic miracle? The return to our land, the revival of our history, the protection of our people, the restoration of our language, our national pride, the explosion of our culture, the renewal of our Torah, the revival of our broken torn nation after the Holocaust; the absorption of millions of immigrants, the resurrection of our language - All these are miracles, historic phenomena, which defy the imagination.

This is a day to rejoice. If there are problems, thank God that these are our problems! These are our challenges because we have the amazing gift of self-governance.

זה היום עשה ה' נגילה ונשמחה בו