Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Why Do We Fast?

Alright, so it's now smack-in-the-middle of Sukkot, and here I am writing about fasting... which would certainly have been more appropriate two weeks ago. Hey, such is life. Deal with it.

This actually does stem from a conversation I had with one of my sons immediately prior to Yom Kippur, though. He asked me why we fast. Obviously, he had Yom Kippur on his mind, as well he might - he doesn't fast well - but it's a good question.

Well I thought about the question for a minute or so, and came up with something I thought I should write down.

We fast because we can.

Alright, so it's a little simplistic, but not very much so.

See, it occurred to me that we are probably the only creatures on the planet that can fast, and that somehow that's connected with the reason we do it. (Animals can refrain from eating, but that's not the same as fasting. They do it because their bodies don't require food at certain times, because there is no food available, or because they are sick.)

Think about it. How do we really differ from the rest of the animal kingdom? Monkeys make tools. There are some dolphins, whales and maybe even gastropods and apes that are smarter than we are. Yet, none of them has dominated the planet as we humans have. Naturists will tell you that there are a number of animals that have developed complex family structures. But not one of them has developed an actual civilization. None of them have notions of commerce, religion, written language, property rights, laws... (Hmm... Sounds like John Lennon's Imagine, actually... )

In short, nothing but Man seems able to think, and act, based on things beyond immediate self-preservation; the here and now. Perhaps the key distinction between man and the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to act based on our beliefs, in ways that are not evidently in concert with our physical needs.

So if we wanted to demonstrate our Humanity; If we wanted to show God that we are His special creation, and therefore deserving of some slack when we don't always do what He wants of us, how should we do that? By doing an act which is clearly not to our evident benefit, out of choice, not necessity. (We don't fast because we're not hungry; we fast despite our being hungry.) So fasting becomes, in a real sense, a simple yet profound statement about what we really are.

In other words, we fast because we can.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Jewish Policemen

Sometimes I just scan through the stations while driving, to see whether there's something interesting, beyond the stations I have "preset". Today, I happened to come across our former Chief of Police, Ed Norris, on his regular talk-show on WHFS (105.7 FM). Happened to be that the topic they were discussing at the time was (as described on www.ednorris.com):

"A Towson University police officer is in a battle with the school over his off time. He became an Orthodox Jew in 2000 and has asked for the Sabbath off. The school at first said ok, and no is saying no citing unfairness to other officers and unneeded overtime costs and more. Are his religious rights being violated? Why should and employer be forced to allow employees time off for religious functions?" [sic]
I listened to this for awhile, until I got to my meeting and had to get out of the car. Now, I've heard his show before, and often agree with what he says - he's no dummy - and I guess I can concede that this could be a somewhat complicated issue. But Ed drew an analogy with which I have a big problem.

He said that this is akin to any other situation where someone is simply not capable of meeting the requirements of the job. His position was that if the guy can't do the job - for whatever reason - then he needs to find a different job. He compared it to someone who can't lift 50 lbs. wanting to be in a job where he needs to be able to lift 50 lbs, and that political correctness has robbed our country of good sense.

The problem is that, according to this line of reasoning, just about anyone should be allowed to discriminate against Jews (or Muslims, or others for that matter) on religious grounds, for just about any job. Let's explore some possible jobs that could be affected:

Stock Boy: Now surely an orthodox stock-boy wouldn't have a problem, right? Well let's see... What if, once a quarter, all the store employees are required to work over the weekend to check inventory. But this poor guy can't work on Friday night and Saturday... What would Ed say? "Oh well... I guess he's just not able to do the job. He'll have to find something else to do."

Lawyer: Now there are lots of Jewish lawyers out there, so this shouldn't be a problem at all. Some even work for large firms! They're working on a big case, and this one particular Orthodox Jewish lawyer is the one of the leads. The judge decides to hear arguments this Monday (Oct. 2, 2006) - Yom Kippur. Hey - Monday's a work day, right? And they need him on the case, but the judge isn't hearing any of it. He says, "You have other attorneys who are familiar with the case. Put one of them on it." Now, his boss says he needs him to be ready for trial because this is a big case for the firm. Look, the judge is a jerk, but that's the job. And what would Ed say? "Oh well... I guess he's just not able to do the job. He'll need to find something else to do."

This same logic can apply to just about any job where he's not the boss. From the staff-doctor at the hospital to the guy who sweeps the elephant dung at the zoo. If his religious beliefs don't adhere to those of the Christian Majority in this country, Ed seems to believe that he (or she, of course) can be discriminated against. To hell with religious freedom! To hell with the Constitution! This country was created by Christians, damnit, and if you don't like it, git back to where you came from... right, Ed?

The problem is, I also understand where Ed's coming from. There are terrible abuses of the system. There was the wheel-chair bound college kid who sued his school because he wanted to take dance, for example. (Don't ask me when or where - it's been so long, I don't remember.) And there are countless examples of things like that. People suing companies for jobs they really can't do, because "they're being discriminated against."

I don't know the answer to this problem. I'm not even sure that this Jewish policeman should get to keep his job. Ed might be right, in this case... or he might not. What I am sure of is that Ed's reasoning is shortsighted.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Fighting for Peace

Greetings from beautiful, sunny San Diego, where my wife and I have come so she can take a business seminar. Alas, I am doomed to wander San Diego by my lonesome for two days. Whatever shall I do... first?

'Nuff said about that.

Years ago, ironically in Israel, I saw a t-shirt that read, "Fighting for peace is like f***ing for virginity." (Stars are mine.) I thought it was a cute slogan, but dead wrong... but I never really considered exactly why.

I think that last week's parsha - Pinchas - and the current situation in the Middle East can give us some insight to that.

The parsha begins by describing Pinchas as the grandson of Aharon. R. Yissachar Frand asks the following question:
Why did tracing Pinchas' genealogy to Aharon satisfy anyone? Everyone realized that Pinchas had two grandfathers. What does it help that he was the grandson of Aharon? No one disputed that. This would not seem to mollify anyone's complaint - that in this instance he undertook an action which reflected on his descent from a Priest of Avodah Zarah [ForeignWorship, i.e. - idolatry].

He then quotes R. Meir Bergman to explain the answer. He says that, of course everyone knew that Pinchas was the grandson of Aharon. Their assumption, however, was that Pinchas' behavior could not possibly have been from the Aharon-side of the family. After all, Aharon was known to be the man of peace. Clearly, this must have been from the Yitro-side.

Not so, says God. This was from the Aharon-side of the family! This is what Aharon himself would have done in that situation!

And that is why Pinchas is not referred to as the Ohev Shalom, but rather the Rodef Shalom - and this is the main point. Rodef Shalom literally means, "Chaser of Peace". The Chasam Sofer explains that a rodef is one who chases something, and that in this case, it means that Pinchas was one who was willing to chase away peace - in order for there to be peace.

Sometimes, in order for there to be peace, one must chase peace away - in other words, make conflict; even war. There is evidently something that can be considered a bad peace, that must be removed in order to bring out a good peace.

Looking at the current situation in Israel, I think one can understand this as the difference between a sort of cold war, and real peace. For years, Israel and Hezbollah have been engaged in a cold war; a war of open hostility, but little actual fighting, per se. Terrorist attacks, and retaliatory strikes... but no open war. This was a bad peace; a status-quo peace; a peace of uncertainty.

Now Israel has become a rodef shalom. They are actively pursuing peace, at the necessary expense of those determined to allow none. They are determined to rid their borders of those who have never made any bones about their intention to kill us all. All Hezbollah has to do is lay down their arms and commit to ending aggression against Israel, and the fighting will stop. In short, all they have to do is the one thing they will never do... until forced to.

Will Israel be successful in their endeavor? Not without God's help. There is simply too much to do, in my opinion.

But it's a start.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Death and Tehillim

My cousin died this afternoon. She'd been battling cancer and she lost... so did her family... so did the rest of us. The world is a poorer place without her.

Last night, my brother called me to let me know that she'd been taken into the hospital with fluid in her lungs, and that things were very bad. He told me her Jewish name - the one I've been inserting into my tefillot for some 6+ months already - and said that we should daven for her and say some Tehillim.

It occurred to me to wonder why.

It seems that we're very often asked to daven for someone whom God has seen fit to give a life-threatening illness... and that God doesn't usually change his mind. There is no, "Well... I was gonna kill 'em... but then all these people started asking me not too... so I decided, what the heck!" My personal assumption is that He knew what He was doing when He gave them the disease in the first place.

Now I'm all for it when there's a realistic possibility that the person can recover. But at a certain point, I think it's sort of wasted effort to pray for their recovery. At those times, I think it would be more useful to daven for them not to be in pain, or for their families, or in their z'chut so that their n'shamot will have an aliya when the time comes. But for their recovery? God has already decided that they weren't going to.

Now, I know... I know... "But God can do anything. He could make them recover if He wanted to." Yes, yes... that's true. But first of all, we're taught al tismach al ha'ness - we don't rely on miracles. If someone has a disease like pancreatic cancer or something. If the prognosis is just bad, then maybe we ought to focus on what comes next.

In fact, I think that's alluded to by the Medrash when discussing the illness of Yitzchak. If I recall it correctly, the Medrash says that, until his time, people would just drop dead. When your time was up, it was up. Yitzchak prayed, asking that people be given time to get their affairs in order. And God responded by saying, "That's a good idea. I'll start with you."

Maybe, if we looked at terminal illness as the mechanism for preparing for our imminent departure, we'd be better off. We'd, at least, not be so frustrated when we've davened and the person dies anyway.

Please pray for the freed soul of Rena Tamar bat Ester.

Monday, April 10, 2006

We should meet only in... life?

Recently, I got to thinking about that thing people say to each other, especially if they haven't seen each other in a long time (or aren't likely to), or if they are seeing each other on an unpleasant occasion: "May we meet only at simchot".

It occurred to me that I don't agree with this notion.

Simchot are times when, by definition, the heart is light. Things are good. The clouds have parted. The angels are singing. So it's very easy to meet at simchot; very comfortable. Unhappy events are not when we are at our best. Crying does not do much for one's appearance.

On the other hand, somehow it's often when there is an unhappy event, that we become bound together. Relationships become solidified. The slag is removed and people's true essences (good or bad) shine through.

So when someone says, "May we meet only at simchot", they could be saying, "I really don't want a relationship with you with any depth. Let's just keep things at the nice and comfy surface, okay?"

On the other, other hand, pain sucks. It's necessary, and part of life, but no one likes it very much. (Except those people who are just unhappy unless they're unhappy - and we all know people like that!) So we hardly want to be saying, "May our next meeting be in sorrow." It's just too intense.

So what should we say? Or at least, what should we mean, regardless of what we say?

I think both poles are necessary for a good relationship, and everything in between as well. So what we really should mean is something along the lines of "May we have other occasions in which to share each others' company," or "May we see each other again soon," or even just, "See ya'!"

The thing is, we also always want to end things on a "better" note. We're just wired that way. We're uncomfortable with bad stuff, which makes sense since it's necessarily uncomfortable.

So I guess I'm stuck with "May we meet in simchot" or "May we meet in happier times" or some such claptrap... but when I say it, you'll know that's not entirely what I mean.

Chag kasher v'sameach to all...

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Learning from the Goyim - A Rant

Bumper Stickers
You're driving down the road, and pull up behind a black woman waiting for a light. There's a bumper sticker - at least one - on her car. It says, "I brake for rapture!" or "God said it. I believe it. That settles it." or "Know Jesus, know peace. No Jesus, no peace." Maybe she's got all three on there!

Normally I don't think about it. This past week I did. I thought about the Christian community - particularly the Black Christian community, and it occurred to me that they've got something we've lost, for the most part. They're enthusiastic about their religion and their beliefs. And we, well we so often just do mitzvot because we have to; because it's ingrained. We all know, "Ivdu et Hashem b'Simcha", but yet we so often seem to forget that last word there. No wonder we have trouble inspiring our kids! We're not inspired ourselves!! Moreover, when we see someone who is inspired - you know, like new Ba'alei Teshuva - we think of it as just a little weird.

Prayer Mats
I remember walking in Manhattan - something I do very infrequently because I live in Baltimore, and because frankly, I hate NY - and seeing a Muslim taxi driver pull his cab over, take out his prayer mat, and start bowing toward Mecca, right in the middle of the sidewalk. No one bothered him, although he did get a few looks from the passers-by. Now maybe this was an unusal occurrence... but I've seen similar things in other places. Muslims, particularly Arab Muslims, have no qualms about their religious beliefs either. When it's time to pray, they just do.

And us, we try to dress so as not to stand out. We stand in phone booths when we're trying to daven Mincha (unless we're in a minyan), and pretend we're having phone conversations. We're embarrassed by our religious requirements, because they make us different - and we so don't want to be different.

But maybe
...just maybe... (alright, more than just maybe) we're wrong. Maybe this is something we should be making concerted efforts in our communities to address. Why should we be embarrassed by the trappings of our beliefs? Do we feel God is an imposition on our lives? (Maybe we do...) Why aren't we happy about God and our relationship with Him? What is our relationship with Him?

We taught Monotheism to the World. Now we need to study from our talmidim.

Lying to Pharoah

In the past few weeks, the parshiot have discussed the Exodus from Egypt, and the preceding plagues. Something that's been bothering me about them is this:

Exo. 8:23
"What we must do is make a three day journey into the desert. There we will be able to sacrifice to God, our Lord, just as He told us."

He then further tells Pharoah that he's going to take all the women, children and animals when he goes. Pharoah doesn't like it, but eventually (after Makat B'Chorot) relents and sends them out. But it's clear that Pharoah has been given reason to believe that we were not leaving, we were going out for a few days to serve God.

Then we see the following:

Exo. 14:5
Meanwhile, the king of Egypt received the news that the people were escaping. Pharoah and his officials changed their minds regarding the people, and said, "What have we done? How could we have released Israel from doing our work?"

Now that first phrase there - he "received the news that the people were escaping." Clearly, Pharoah had not been under the impression that this was to be a permanent thing.

In other words, we left under false pretenses. At best, we allowed Pharoah to be fooled. At worst, we lied outright. Neither of these is acceptable, in my view, for the "Ohr la'goyim". The Torah tells us, "Mi'd'var sheker tirchak" - stay away from falseness. Yet we didn't exactly exemplify this here.

I haven't come up with a good answer for this yet, btw. Feel free to share your thoughts.


This morning I received an email regarding a program in Israel called Meled (Mercaz L'mida Dati), in Jerusalem, which I think is very important. Meled takes disaffected youth from religious homes, and helps then reorient themselves. These are kids with problems, living in a world in which their problems may seem small to everyone else.

For all the wonderful things about Israel, it is also well known that Israelis can be hard people. If you have a problem, you are expected to just deal with it. I suppose you can't blame them, really, but there are kids for whom that approach doesn't work. Meled is working with them.

On our recent trip to Israel, we saw a number of these kids in Chashmona'im. Troubled kids from nearby Kiryat Sefer. My friend, Arie, told me that on Shavuot, he passed by a group of them, hanging out in the playground near the batei knesiot. One of them called out to him, "Learn with us." He did, and they enjoyed it.

These aren't dumb kids. They aren't bad kids. They're lost kids. Meled is helping them find their way home. Please take a look at their site, and their program, and help out where you can.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Parshat ha'Man and Humanity

In the mornings, when I have time, I like to say some of the extra stuff at the end of davening. I try to say the 6 Zichronot, the Ani Ma'amins (more on that another time, I think) and the tefilot for parnasa, including Parshat ha'Man.

Now, for those of you who don't know what this is, it's a prayer for sustenance along with a selected Torah reading about the giving of the Manna - which is sort of the fundamental notion of God's provision of sustenance to His people.

There were a couple of things that struck me this morning... well, one of them struck me quite some time ago, but I've never written about it before.

One of the important things to know about it, if you haven't read it, is that it chronicles the People's failure to comply with God's orders... twice:

  1. They were told to take only a measure for each person in their household, to last the day. They were not to take extra, and they were not to leave any over. The Torah records that they did, in fact, take extra, and that it became wormy and dried out. Moshe gets mad at them and yells at them.

  2. On Friday, they went out and found double the amount they had found on the other days. They went and told Moshe, who told them that this is the way it was going to be. On Fridays they would collect double portions for everyone in the household, and prepare it for Shabbat. They would eat one day's portion on Friday, and the remainder they would hold over until Shabbat morning. They should by no means go out on Shabbat morning to collect Manna, because it wouldn't be there.

    The Torah then records that the Manna they held over until morning did not become wormy and dried out, and that they did go out to collect, but found nothing. This time God Himself gets mad at them, asking Moshe, "Until when will they listen to me?" (or something like that - I don't have Chumash in front of me at the moment.)
Now, sidestepping the question about who got mad when and why, my question is basically, why get mad at them at all?

Now I have an answer to this, which is compelling, but not at all satisfying. Simply, God commanded them not to leave it overnight during the week, and not to collect it on Shabbat. These were, therefore, commandments for them. They don't directly apply to us today, but they were very serious Issurei D'Oreita for them.

There is no problem with this answer, but I guess it doesn't really address the underlying question which is, why get mad at them at all?

Here's how I'm looking at it: God said don't do it. They wanted to see what would happen if they did, so they tried it. It became dried out and wormy. End of discussion. God said don't collect it on Shabbat. They wanted to see what would happen if they did, so they tried it. There was nothing there. End of discussion.

This, to me, sounds like Science. Hypothesis, experiment, conclusion. What's wrong with that?

"But this is God," you'll say to me. "Where was their bitachon?"

Furthermore, I will acknowledge that it's unreasonable to hold that as an appropriate way to regard all mitzvot. In general, we don't believe in immediate, causal consequences. We don't believe, for example, that if you break Shabbat a lightning bolt will come down from the skies and cook you like a turkey, so that sort of experimentation wouldn't work with everything.

But in this case, it did. It was like testing Gravity or Air Pressure. "I wonder what happens if..."

And there's another thing... This is how God created us. He gave us an innate curiousity about the world. He made us want to experiment and to find out how things work. He's why we have Science; why we've developed the methodologies we use to learn about our world.

Not only that, but you can see this in us, His creation, since our beginnings. This is exactly what Chava was doing with the Tree of Knowledge. This is especially true according to the opinions that hold that the whole conversation between Chava and the snake were really taking place in her head. She saw the snake on the tree and wondered why it didn't die - after all, Adam said, "Don't touch the tree, lest you die". But the snake was all over the tree, and fine. So she touched the tree... and didn't die. Hypothesis, experiment, conclusion. Then she hypothesized again... maybe you could actually eat the fruit...

Alright, so we're imperfect beings, but at least we come by it honestly... and God knew that because he created us this way. So why get so mad about the Manna?

I guess that's the personal responsibilty thing. Yes, it's in our nature to be curious, and to want to experiment. But we are expected to overcome our instincts and natural curiousities, if it means transgressing the Torah. The Rambam, for example, makes it very clear that we do not refrain from eating non-kosher food because the food is bad. We do it because God said so, and that's that.