Sunday, November 06, 2011

Blame ______

Alright - I need some help here. I don't understand what people are thinking lately. The entire world has gone nuts - maybe its something they're putting in the water? What with the various "Springs" and "Occupy Something" movements, it enough to make my head spin. (I think Israel should get on the bandwagon and stage an Occupy Territories protest, but that's another matter...)

At the moment, it's the Occupy folks that really bug me. Look, I own a small business, and am well aware of the vicissitudes of the market. For small businesses like mine, it can be feast or famine from week to week. And with the economy taking as big a hit as it has in recent years, I'm acutely aware that people are struggling. I'm also aware that the top 1% of the population of this country has a hugely disproportionate amount of its wealth. I'm even aware that sometimes - perhaps even often - big businesses use their personal wealth and business clout to unfairly skew things in their favor. For example, Apple's recent attempt to buy up the entire world-supply of "touch glass" (the glass used for touch-screen devices), in order to prevent their competitors from having any, was, at least in my opinion, dirty.

And so people have taken to the streets in cities across the U.S., disrupting many small businesses, and therefore livelihoods, in the process, in order to protest... something. It doesn't entirely seem clear. Some folks are protesting the government; some big business; some just seem to feel entitled to things, and want rich people to pay for them. Heck, there's even talk now of a "Robin Hood" tax, which just taxes rich people for... being rich.

But as I looked through the images of the various Occupy protests, you know what I noticed? There's no shortage of smart phones out there - everyone seems to have one. Laptops, digital cameras and video cams are plentiful as well. And Internet connectivity is ubiquitous. I see musical instruments that look like new, or at least in really good condition. There are people in designer clothing.

And I wonder where they got all that cool stuff. Didn't big corporations make those things?

We DO have a way to protest big corporations, if that's what we think is important. We DO have a way to make them listen to us. It's called Fiscal Responsibility. It's not buying things we don't really need, just because we WANT them. Do people REALLY NEED to line up for 3 blocks outside the Apple Store when a new model of iPhone or iPad comes out?! Do they REALLY NEED to keep up with the latest fashions?! Why do people care about Kim Kardashian at all - has she ever been an icon for an important social value? Why give her so much bandwidth in our hearts and minds? If there's anyone we should be mad at, it's the media and advertising agencies, who work to convince us that we need the next cool toy!

But no - we're going after the corporations for getting rich on stuff WE CHOSE TO BUY! The nerve of them...

You know whom I admire? People like Kristen Christian (nice Jewish name, don't you think?) who started Bank Transfer Day. She received a notice from BofA informing her that they were going to start charging a $5 monthly fee to use her debit card. And do you know what she did? She fought back with her money! She decided that on a specific date, she was going to transfer her accounts out of BofA, and into a credit union. And then she used Facebook to tell 500 of her friends about it, and recommend that they do the same. And they told their friends, etc. And now there are some 75,000 people planning to do it. BofA has since cancelled that obvious money grab over people they thought were powerless. Like that scene in Disney's A Bug's Life, where the ants finally realize their power, and stand up to the grasshoppers. Suddenly, the banks are on the defensive. BofA's new commercial campaigns focus on how easy they make making for the consumer. They're trying to tell us that they're still relevant; they still have what to offer us. They're begging people not to pull out their money. Now that's power!

Instead of boycotting Wall Street, what if everyone decided to put down their cell phones for a week? Even for a day? What would that do to revenues of the telecom giants? What if 100,000 people decided that they were NOT going to buy the latest smart phone this year? What if people decided not to buy into the next cool thing, but to spend some time focusing on their real NEEDS in life? What if they decided that good enough was, in fact, good enough? What effect would that have on the world?

Maybe we need to start teaching our children the meaning of the term Opportunity Cost, and teach them that they don't have a right to everything they want just because they want it.

Bottom line: Grow the hell up people. You make choices and then want someone else to blame when you figure out that you chose badly. But that's just not the way it works.

Or am I just misunderstanding something?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Sheva Brachot Speech

The following is the d'var torah portion of the speech, that I gave at my nephew's Sheva Brachot last night. It's based on one of Rabbi Yochanan Zweig's divrei torah for Parshat Balak, but I adapted it for this speech:

In the last bracha of the Sheva Brachot, we find a curious expression: “…Ahava v’achva v’shalom v’rei’ut.” – “Love and brotherhood and peace/harmony and friendship.” That’s what we’re wishing the chatan and kallah. Now it seems logical that there is a reason for the order in which this was phrased, and it seems further logical to presume that the order would be ascending.

But in Parshat Kedoshim, we find the commandment, “v’ahavta l’rei’acha ka’mocha” – “Love your friend as you love yourself.” Well, if you’re commanded to Love your Friend, then he/she had to have been a Friend already. And that implies that Love is greater than Friendship.

Well which is it? Is Friendship higher than Love, or vice-versa?

In his commentary to Pirkei Avot, the Rambam cites Aristotle who defines various levels of friendship: The most common are simple friends; friends with whom one shares experiences, and enjoys spending time. But even though we enjoy their company, we still maintain a façade with them. We are not willing to present our vulnerabilities to them, because we’re afraid that the information might somehow come back to bite us. Much rarer, and much more significant, are the friends with whom we place our complete trust, and for whom we are willing to let down our façade; to share our insecurities. This can only happen when we know that this friend is completely dedicated to our growth and success; that his/her motivations are guided only by his/her concern for our best interests.

Taking that into account, perhaps there is no contradiction between the verse in Kedoshim and the phrase in Sheva Brachot. They’re just talking about different types of “ray’im”. In Kedoshim, we’re commanded to love our simple friends as we love ourselves. But that’s axiomatic for a married couple. They’re already in love. In the Sheva Brachot, Chazal have us blessing them that their relationship should, BE”H, transcend Love and move right up the chain to Reyut – the second kind; the kind that involves complete trust in one another.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Thought on Parshat Balak

At the end of the parsha is the story of Zimri, Kozbi (not to be confused with Bill). Rashi describes the situation as follows (paraphrased): Zimri was... doing the deed with Kozbi... right in front of the Ohel Mo'ed, and asked Moshe, "Is this allowed, because if you say no, then who gave you permission to marry your wife? (She was a Midianite.)

In other words, this wasn't so much an act of inappropriate sexual congress (which it was as well), as an act of sedition against Moshe. It was an attempt to bring Moshe down a peg. A "What makes YOU so high-and-mighty?"

Now I find this to be curious, because according to Rashi in the story of Korach's rebellion, there was a similar attack. Rashi there says that Korach also attacked Moshe "intellectually". I'm not going to go into that attack - too complicated. (In fact, my personal thought has always been that his attack there was a bit silly, but be that as it may...)

So here's my question, and I don't yet have an adequate answer for it: Korach had a motive. He felt that Moshe was a nepotist, dealing out choice positions to his own family-line, because he could. Korach, who was Moshe's first-cousin, felt that he had just as much a claim as anyone else to positions of power and honor, and that he had seniority to boot. So right or wrong, Korach had a motive.

But what was Zimri's motive?

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Being Noticed

Last Shabbat, we held a Seudat Hoda'a - a "Meal of Thanksgiving" (not to be confused with the American tradition held in November, but of similar original intent) - for the bad car accident that happened last year. I could have sworn I wrote a piece on it here, but I can't seem to find it...

Alright - the brief version. Many of the boys of our Boy Scout troop (Troop 1299) went to Camp Broadcreek for a week of Summer Camp last year (as every year.) On the way back, at around 5:30 PM on Friday, July 2, they were in a bad accident. Thank God, everyone survived, and came away with no majorly persistent health issues (although the driver had to be flown to Shock Trauma).

So this year, our son asked us to make the Kiddush, in commemoration, and I had to find something to say. This is the main point of what I said:

In Parshat Chukat, we are told, (Numbers 20:1) "וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּל הָעֵדָה מִדְבַּר צִן בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן וַיֵּשֶׁב הָעָם בְּקָדֵשׁ וַתָּמָת שָׁם מִרְיָם וַתִּקָּבֵר שָׁם" - "And the entire congregation of the children of Israel arrived at the desert of Zin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh. And Miriam died there and was buried there." And then the very next verse says, "וְלֹא הָיָה מַיִם לָעֵדָה וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן" - "And the congregation had no water; so they assembled against Moses and Aaron."

So Miriam, Moshe's sister; the one who put him into the river in a basket, and watched over him; one of the leaders of K'lal Yisrael, died. And apparently, no one noticed. No one cared. We don't see any outpouring of grief for her passing, like we do see for Aaron and Moshe. Nothing. What do we see? We see that they were concerned they had no water. Rashi explains that the juxtaposition of the two verses is due to the causal nature of the first to the second. He says that the reason they had water for all those years in the desert was that there was a well that traveled with them, in Miriam's merit, that always provided water for the people. For 40 years in the desert, they had water - which is life - due to Miriam. Now she died, and the only concern of the people was that the well was gone. In fact there is at least one opinion that says that the reason the well dried up after her death is precisely because no one seemed to care that she died.

And so this is one of the messages of the parsha: Show Gratitude. Be grateful for the people in your life, who have helped you. Be grateful to God. Be grateful for the things that make your life more enjoyable - just turn off your A/C for a few hours, in the Summer, and see how grateful you can be for a "thing."

That's the gist of what I said. This morning, I found the following article, which just seemed to resonate with this whole idea: Woman Dies, No One Notices for 8 YEARS. Can you imagine dying, and no one even noticing?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Have We Learned Nothing?!

When I happened to see this particular headline on the Baltimore Jewish Times web site, I was stunned. Maybe I shouldn't have been, but I guess I believed that, at least publicly, we were already getting beyond this kind of nonsense. Guess again!

Here's the headline, and the link, and frankly, you should go read this piece before coming back to mine. I'll wait: Agudah Rabbis: Talk To Rabbi, Not Police About Molesters

As I sit here now, my mind is absolutely racing! I've got too many things going through my head at once, but ALL of them have an underlying theme: Are they out of their minds?!?!

Haven't we learned anything yet?! Haven't we yet learned that we can't just keep pushing these things under the carpet?! That they won't just go away?! That we have to expose them to the light, if we want them to die, instead of allowing them to hide away and fester?!

I'm sickened by this, to the point that I don't really think I'm writing coherently. If you haven't already read my last blog post, The Carpet, read it. Everything I said there, applies just the same here. We should be ashamed of the Agudah for this, because they don't seem to have enough sense to be ashamed of themselves.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

The Carpet

This past weekend, we went out of town for a friend's simcha (which was beautiful, but that's not the point here.) Over the course of Shabbat, we got to meet some of their friends, including a divorced woman who had been in what I'll politely describe as a very abusive marriage.

Now I'm not going to talk about the nasty things her husband did to her. My concern is actually not so much with him, specifically, as with the community: the community leaders who knew, and who not only allowed it to continue, but in at least one situation, actively made the problem worse; the community at large, which turns a blind-eye to it; and to us as individuals, and what we need to work on to prevent this sort of thing from even being conceivable.

At this point, the woman is living nowhere near her ex-husband, but in order to get her Get (Jewish divorce), she was forced to accept an agreement whereby she gave up her Ketuba (Marriage contract - meaning she gave up the money her husband had promised to pay, in the event of a divorce.) Otherwise, he wouldn't agree to give it to her at all, leaving her an Aguna - unable to remarry. She does not have access to most of her children, and her Ex has been poisoning them against her. They call her a whore. They tell her that she doesn't care about them; that all she cares about is money. In short, they mistreat her in some of the same ways her husband did.

But he is still respected; well-regarded in his community. Even though the rabbonim KNOW what he is.

About 17 years ago, there was a woman in the Los Angeles community, who was also beaten and mistreated by her husband. She went to her parents; they sent her back. She went to the rabbis; they sent her back. And then one day, he killed her. He strangled her with his bare hands, rolled her up in a tarp, and stuffed her in the garage. At the funeral, which was attended by thousands of people, rabbi after rabbi got up at the podium and said some version of "Forgive me. I knew, and I did nothing." At the time, I felt sad. But now? Now I feel sick! The 18th century statesman, Edmund Burke, once said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil, is that good men do nothing."

How is it that we allow this sort of thing in our communities? How is it that we allow people to behave this way, and get away with it? What is it that would allow a God-fearing, religious Jew to commit acts like this?! And finally, WHOM DOES HE THINK HE IS FOOLING?!?!

In the book, Vintage Wein, there's a story called Un vos zocht Gott? (What would God say?). In it, he describes how, when Rabbi Wein worked for the OU, the head of the Kashrut division would often be heard to say: Un vos zocht Gott? If there were some issue that had both technical/Halachic and moral implications, this was his guiding principle: What would God say? Yes, something might be technically permissible, but is it really the right thing to do? And if his Jewish Moral Compass wasn't alright with it, he wouldn't do it.

What happened to our Jewish Moral Compasses? Why aren't we outraged when something like this happens in our communities, instead of just hush-hushing it all up, and sweeping it under carpet as quickly as possible? Why don't we destroy this kind of thing? Why aren't there siruvim (Censure decrees, sort of) against people who do it?

Here's the real question: Do we still really believe in God? I'm beginning to wonder whether we do. Maybe, after all this time in Galut (Diaspora), we just... don't anymore. Because if we did, how could we do it?

Think about this for a minute: Regardless of the halachic status of any of this, does this woman's ex-husband really believe that he's going to get away with it? The things he's done; the things he's caused others to do - does he really believe that, come his Judgement Day, he's going to be able to fool God? He's going to say, "Um, well, technically I wasn't violating anything." You know what God's going to say? "How about 'Kedoshim Tihyu?'" (the commandment to "be holy") "How about 'Lifnai Iver Lo Titein Michshol'?" ("Do not put a stumbling-block in front a blind man") Do you think that maybe God will hold him at least partially responsible for a frum girl ceasing to be frum? That maybe He'll hold him responsible for his children's failure to follow the mitzvah of Kibud Av va'Eim ("Honoring your father AND mother")? That maybe he'll be judged for failing to comply with his halachic obligation to pay her Ketuba? And many more. Many (if not all) of these are Bein Adam l'Chaveiro - Between Man and his Fellow - which God doesn't forgive. Only a person can forgive for a sin against him/her. But I'm sure that he's quite confident that, when he stands before God on his ultimate Day of Judgement, he'll be judged as a Tzaddik.

Where does this come from? It comes from Ga'ava - Haughtiness. I guess you'd call it Ego. It comes from a narcissistic sense that "I" am right, and that "you" don't have the right to challenge my inherent rightness. And that, too, denotes a failure to believe in God. There are too many cases, today, of people trying to hold each other hostage with Gittin, and the only reason that's even conceivable as an option is because of a need for Control. When are we going to realize that we aren't in control. Our responsibility is to manage ourselves as best we can. And if a marriage doesn't work out, just move on...

I think we need to start moving back to Emunah P'shuta- Simple Faith. We need to believe in God, and to leave this kind of pathetic pettiness behind us. But hey - that's just me...

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Sad Day for YR; for Baltimore

The grave news was finally announced formally on Friday, but the rumors had already been circulating for a week. A local yeshiva day school - Yeshivat Rambam - is closing its high school at the end of this school year. The news was a bit of a shock, but not that much of a surprise, really. The school has been struggling mightily for several years now. Rocked by financial mismanagement, outright theft, administrative instability, and some generally poor decisions, it was almost inevitable. Nonetheless, we are saddened and incredibly disheartened by it. It's sad to see what has happened to our once-proud school; the only one in town flying the banner of Religious Zionism; of Torah u'Madah. Our kids are sad too, which is telling.

For me, though, the saddest part of this saga is the community aspect of it. Just a few weeks ago, in an article titled, Rambam Announces Potential New Site for School, there was an interesting, sad, and (thankfully) brief conversation that took place in the Comments section of the post. I'd like to quote two of the entries for you:

"Thank you to the committee for all of your hard work and difficult decisions. I recall about 18 years ago TA being in dire straits, the response at that time was for the Rabbis in town to all but require every family to donate $250 to TA whether or not you had children in the school. Clearly, the survival of this important institution is at stake, and the community needs to rally, the leaders needs to respond."

and then a follow-up post which read...

"$250? Who has that kind of money? We are paying full tuition to 3 different schools and didn't even have money to buy the teachers chanukah presents as all our money is going to tuition. Many in our community are having a very difficult time paying tuition, including ourselves, and we should find money for another school? Personally we do not give any tzedakah to any organizations in town as all our maaser goes to our kids schools in the form of full tuition. Also not everyone holds of Rambam's hashkafos. It may be right for some people but most of the gedoilei yisoel do not hold of the zionistic hashkafa and people do not want to donate to a cause they do not hold of."

Now, I'm not going to harp too much on the $250. Personally, I can understand why some would feel it's a sizable donation. I'm not going to tell someone else what they can or cannot afford. No, it's the last two sentences that bother me most. "The gedoilei yisoel (sic) do not hold of the zionistic hashkafa and people do not want to donate to a cause they do not hold of." That bothers me to no end for two reasons:
  1. T.A. had no problem making that same request of people in the community who didn't hold of their "hashkafos." And many of those people gave to T.A. in their time of need.
  2. Real "Gedoilim" are not quite so closed-minded; and those who are, are not real "Gedoilim."
Real "Gedoilim," and other real people, who are community-minded, understand that one size does not usually fit all, in just about anything.

Back in the mid-1980's, I attended yeshiva in Israel at Neveh Zion. Then, as now, Neveh dealt with boys who were... shall we say... not the fodder for the typical yeshiva. These boys were the progenitors of today's "At-Risk Teens," and Neveh excelled at handling them... us. For my 30th birthday, my wife sent me to Israel for a spiritual battery-recharge, and I spent much of my time at Neveh. During that time, the mashgiach - "The Mash," AKA Rav Yisroel Blumenfeld - and I had a conversation that I will never forget. He told me that things were rougher than they had been back in my time. That the boys were coming in with more serious issues than they had back then, and that he was concerned about the yeshiva. He said that he had gone to Rav Shach to discuss the issues with him. That he had suggested to Rav Shach that, perhaps it was time for Neveh to tighten up its entrance requirements a bit. Perhaps it was time for Neveh to also "move to the right." Now Rav Shach was hardly a liberal rabbi. He was the founder of the Haredi political party, Degel haTorah - and one of the strongest leaders of right-wing ultra-Orthodox Judaism to date. And this is what Rav Blumenfeld told me he replied:
"But then, where will all the Neveh boys go?"
He knew full-well, that Neveh boys didn't wear white shirts and black pants, and learn full time. But he also knew that these were important Jewish souls that needed to be built-up, lest they be lost entirely. And that's a measure of a real "Gadol haDor." A leader who understands that Jewish souls are what's at stake, and that those souls are more important than a particular theo-political perspective.

Once again, Baltimore's community has failed to support a critical institution. Once again, the Rabbis were silent when they should have spoken up in support of the students of Rambam, who will now have to find other schools, which may not fit their needs. Because let's face it: T.A. and B.Y. are not prepared for many of these kids, and many of the kids are not prepared for T.A. and B.Y. The real beneficiary here is going to be Beth T'filoh which, while an excellent school, is not (and doesn't really want to be) a Dati school. So thanks to people who, like the author of the second post quoted above, wouldn't help Y.R. because of their own warped sense of Frumkeit; thanks to rabbonim whose mere words could have made all the difference, there will be less Torah in the Baltimore community; fewer kids going to Israel for yeshiva and seminary. I hope you're satisfied. I wonder what God will say...