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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Yoim Kippur Drasha



Yoim Kippur Drasha

You good for nothing minuval, you have sinned all year long, and now you are going to pay for it!

From Kol Nidrei at sundown until the blowing of the shofar, you will be cramped into an overcrowded room surrounded by unshowered, unshaven men whose empty stomachs are growling louder than the chazzan. But look at the bright side: at least you get your exercise. Between the frequent and incessant beating of your chest and the four instances of full kneeling, you have become a Moslem Tarzan. Shkoiyach.

Chazzal spent many, many hours contemplating the true meaning of Yoim Kippur, while awaiting the horses to reach the finish line. There is a famous machloikess (rabbinic debate) in Yuma on the subject between Bais Shammai and Bais Hillel. Bais Shammai holds that the true commandment of the Toirah is that you should sin all year long, and then repent on Yoim Kippur. Bais Hillel, on the other hand, holds that you should strictly avoid sin all year long, and then enjoy a nice honey glazed ham right after Kol Nidrei. Of course, this is one of the fourteen instances when we hold like Bais Shammai (along with such critical issues as not using toilet paper on Shabbos and the infield fly rule.)

The Reshoinim struggled to define the metaphor by which we can understand how the Jewish People should look upon a single day in which they can redeem themselves for past mistakes and plan for the next year without the aid of a good tax advisor or financial planner.

According to the Rabbeinu Tam, Yoim Kippur is like an all day telethon, where the Aimishteh is raising funds and support for the coming year, and you are asked to contribute of your soul. The ROISH disagrees, using the same metaphor, but reversing it. Says the ROISH, YOU are hosting the telethon, and are appealing to the Rebboinoisheloilum for his support, and you refuse to go off the air until He is ready to write you a check. (And if He pledges 75 dollars or more, you'll send Him an autographed CD of Luciano Pavoratti in concert.)

The RIF holds that the true metaphor for Yoim Kippur is that of the annual performance review. Hakkodoshboruchhu is your manager, and at review time, He reaches out to your colleagues, your superiors, your subordinates, and your clients, soliciting feedback on your performance. He looks at your numbers. He checks how often you have been absent or late to shul. He then synthesizes the information and decides your fate. Will you be terminated? Will you get a raise? Will you get a better bonus? Will you get a hot new secretary?

But how can you protect yourself as the Aimishteh's employee? How can you best ensure a positive year? According to the Pas Akum, this metaphor explains one of the age old questions, which is: Why does Sukkois so closely follow Yoim Kippur? Say the Aimishteh decides to terminate you. What can you do? Can you prove wrongful dismissal? Says the Pas Akum, we stand before Hakkodoshboruchhu four days after Yoim Kippur and wave our phallic looking palm branches at heaven as if to say, "if you terminate me, I'll sue you for sexual harassment!" And in the current politically correct environment, even He has to be careful.

We prepare for this holiest day of days with the greatest degree of sobriety. We set aside Ten Days Of Atonement for spiritual introspection. We say Selichois, special prayers beseeching the Aimishteh for forgiveness. We blow the shoifar, which is intended to strike an internal chord of repentance. And we wave a live chicken over our heads.

In the time of the Second Temple, there was a great debate over this strange practice. The Prushim (Pharasees) held that before Yoim Kippur, every Jewish male should take a chicken by the legs, wave it over the heads of his loved ones, as if to absorb their sins, and then send the chicken off to slaughter. We have recently learned from the Dead Sea Scrolls that the Essenes, on the other hand, held that before Yoim Kippur every Jewish male should choke the chicken, if you know what I mean. Given that the Essenes are not doing too well these days, I guess that was the wrong approach.

There is a famous story of Rabbi Chaim MiVerlozhin. Reb Chaim was traveling from town to town in Inner Mongolia, trying to raise money for his Yeshiva's IPO. When Yoim Kippur came, Reb Chaim went to the only shul in town just in time for Kol Nidrei. "We're sorry," he was told, "but you can't get in without a ticket." Not having purchased a ticket in advance, Reb Chaim was sent away, denied the opportunity to daven on Yoim Kippur in a minyan.

The next morning, as Reb Chaim went downstairs in the small hotel in which he was staying, the host greeted him saying, "Rabbi, please join us. The missus just made up a huge breakfast, including a fresh batch of muffins." Reflecting on his experience the night before, on his rejection at the shul and at the prospect of having to daven for the next sixteen hours by himself, Reb Chaim took off his yarmulke, sat down at the table, and began to serve himself.

That night, the Aimishteh came to him. "Reb Chaim," the Aimishteh said, "why did you sin today?"

"I'm sorry, Aimishteh. I was so drained by the ticket thing I just had to grab a bite to eat," Reb Chaim responded.

"No, you fool," the Aimishteh replied. "Why did you let all that nice bacon go to waste?"

Repentance, and sin, are somewhat in the eye of the beholder. So when you are standing before the Melech Malchei Hamelachim at Neilah, don't just mouth the words; picture it as a conversation, one on one. Before you beg for forgiveness, establish rapport. Tell a couple of jokes. Ask the Aimishteh how He's doing. Ask about the wife and kids. Sure He's busy, but a little brown-nosing never hurts.

Gmar Chassima Toivah, You Minuval.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On Teshuvah



On Teshuvah


There is a famous story in the Zoihar Hakadoish that describes the ritual in Shamayim whereby the Ain Soif delivers an annual report immediately prior to Roish Hashanah before a joint session of the Sefirois, the Malachim, the Tzaddikim, and the Neshsamois of the unborn. The Zoihar also reports that one year, during this annual gathering, Hakadoshboruchhu noted that the world was expected to have a peaceful year, without any additional persecution directed at Klal Yisroel. Suddenly, the spirit of Nosson HaNavi shouted out, “You lie!” towards the Aimishteh. Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon forcibly removed Nosson HaNavi from the room, and after numerous apologies to the Reboinoisheloilum and his Chief of Staff, the Buddha, he was banished to Eretz Yisroel, where he is fated to spend all of eternity as one of the guys who do random ticket inspections on Egged busses.

There is also a Medrish in Medrish Tanchuma that talks about the annual PYW (Pumbedisa Yeshiva World) Awards. One year Rava was honored with the “Chiddush of the Year” award for his “Yeyush Shehlo Mida’as Loi Havei Yeyush” insight. As he was standing at the Shtender to accept his award, Rav Huna burst onto the Bimah and screamed out to the crowd of Yeshivah-Yingeleit, “Sure, Rava, your Chiddush was okay. But Rav Ashi really deserved the award for his ‘Yoim Toiv Shaynee Shel Goliyois Does Not Apply In Antarctica’ Chiddush. No offense, Dude.” After being booed off the Bimah and having a sandal thrown at his head, Rav Huna apologized for his outburst and blamed his behavior on the Besomim-laced mead he had been drinking all day, and also on the fact that he had not been adequately molested by his Rebbe when he was a teenager.

Finally, there is a famous story in a Gemarrah in Gittin that describes the detailed ruling associated with the Bavel Open, the annual sporting contest where leading Rabbis would throw turbans at each other across the Bais Medrish in Sura. The Gemara notes how one year Rav Chisda was disqualified in the quarterfinals against Rav Pappa by the line judge, Mar Zutra, when he threatened to “ram his turban so far up Mar Zutra’s ‘Bor’ that Mar Zutra would have to make an Eirev Chatzayrois every time he needed to go to the bathroom on Shabbos-Koidesh.” He later explained that he had been misunderstood, and that he really meant that Mar Zutra would need to make an Erev Tavshilin before eating on a Shabbos following a Yoim Toiv. But Rav Chisda finally apologized to Mar Zutra after Rav Shayshess threatened to make him pay a fine of thirty thousand zuzim and three goats. Shoyn.

I share this collection of stories as we engage in the spiritual exercise known as Teshuvah – repentance. Every year, after a full twelve months of being Mezaneh with hot shiksas -- at least in your mind you Minuval, after eating pork or shrimp or lobster, or cottage cheese that’s not Cholov Yisroel, Chass V’Sholom, or after murdering your neighbor for 12 dollars in loose change, cutting up his body into little pieces, and burying the pieces in the backyard between the rose bushes and the apple tree, near where you once buried the bunny rabbit that your cat had killed just to shut your children up already, Reboinoisheloilumdammit…. Ummm…sorry. After a year of committing Aveirois, you get in front of Hakadoshboruchhu, and ask Him for forgiveness.

But, as in the famous stories in the Gemarrah and the cosmic history recorded in the Zoihar, you must ask yourself, “Is my Teshuvah sincere? Do you mean it when you say “Selach Lee Kee Pushahtee”, “Forgive me for I have sinned”, and by implication, you will never do it again? Are you in fact sincere in your Teshuvah, or are you simply reciting a medieval liturgical formula, simply biding your time until the Chazzan finishes reciting the sections where the Aron Koidesh is open, so you can finally sit down and rest your aching feet already?

RAMBAM addresses this question in Hilchois Teshuvah of Mishnah Toirah. He notes that sincerity is a prerequisite for real Teshuvah, and he advises all his followers “MiSpharad Ad Mitzrayim”, from Spain to Egypt, to engage in penitence through prayer and acts of mortification, such as fasting and self-flagellation. He states, however, that the Jews of Eastern Europe should, quote, “not bother doing Teshuvah, as Hakkadoshboruchhu can never grant forgiveness to people who have names like Yankel, Berrill, Shprintze and Chraindie, and sing songs with the lyrics ‘Ai Digi Digi Dai’”.

The RAMBAN, living in the golden age of Kabbalah, writes that Teshuvah can only be achieved when the Sefirois are aligned, with Kesser, Chochmah, Chessed, Netzach, and Yesoid on one side, and Binah, Da’as, Tiferess, Gevurah, and Malchus on the other. In that way, the cosmic aspects of the Aimishteh are in perfect balance and may collectively engage in the act of forgiveness in the human realm, as well as participate in a pick-up basketball game.

The MAHARAL, however, disagrees with the RAMBAN, and suggests that before writing his opinion, the RAMBAN must have popped some of the pain killers he always carried in his medical bag for house calls. He suggests that real Teshuvah emanates from purposeful introspection joined with concrete actions. He points to the liturgical reference in the Nesaneh Toikeff on Roish Hashanah and Yoim Kippur “Oo’Seshuva, Oo’Sefillah, Oo’Tzedakah Ma’Avirin Ess Roiyah Hagezeyrah”, “And repentance, and prayer and charity deter the evil decree.” The MAHARAL notes that the juxtaposition of the three words connected by the term “and” highlights the underlying belief that the actions cited must be combined – It is not enough to commit Teshuvah OR Tefilla OR Tzedakah. But to have real impact, they must be committed by a human being as complementary acts of repentance emanating from the soul, prayer emanating the heart, and charity emanating from the bank account (Ed. Note: Preferably in a check made out to “Yeshivas Chipas Emmess”).

The Abudraham argues farkhert, that repentance is an inner process, enabled by inward contemplation, prayer, and uniting with the Reboinoisheloilum through Hisboidedus. But he notes that Teshuvah is quite separate from Tzedakah, stating that “The act of giving Tzedakah is an outward gesture, absent the soul. Nu, Bernie Madoff gave lots of Tzedakah, and trust me, you don’t want to be where he is going.”

So when we examine the words of Chazal, we discover a range of ideas centered on the notion of exorcizing sin from the soul, of sincere Teshuvah as inner commitment. Even prayer is not a substitute for inward change – at best it is a catalyst. This point is clear when we examine the actual words of the liturgy. On Yoim Kippur we spend hours in the Viduy, the Jewish form of “confession”. But do we say “I sinned, I committed Act Aleph, Act Baiz, or Act Gimmul?” No, you ignoramus! We frame our confession in the form of the plural collective: “Ashamnu”, “Al Chaiyt Shechatahu Lifanecha” – “We have sinned”, “(We repent) for the sins which we have committed before You.” The listed sins are formulaic, and include many sins that most of us would never commit, unless we got really lucky. So reciting the formulas cannot be equated with personal repentance. Rather, Viduy, listing and repeating these sins again and again and again, is itself an act intended to inspire a mood, to incite an action, to encourage a behavior. It is like porn, but for Yoim Kippur.

So how else can we ensure sincerity in our Teshuvah? I am reminded of a Maiseh Shehoya. Reb Issur Zalman Meltzer, the Even HaEzel, was once walking home from the Central Synagogue in Slutsk when he was accosted by a group of three Communist youths. “Rabbi”, they teased him, “Who were you just praying to – the boogieman?” They then held Reb Issur Zalman down and forced him to listen to the first two chapters of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. With every word he heard, Reb Issur Zalman became more incensed. When the brutes finally let him go and turned around to walk away, Reb Issur Zalman attacked them from behind. Using his Masechta Baba Kamma, he crushed the skull of one of his assailants, killing him instantly. He used his Yoireh Dayah to break the jaw and knock twelve teeth out of the mouth of the second assailant. And as the third assailant ran away, Reb Issur Zalman threw his Mikraois Gedoilois at him, hitting his spine, and crippling him for life.

That night the Reboinoisheloilum came to him in a dream. “Issur Zalman”, Hakadoshboruchhu called. “What do you have to say for yourself?!!”

Reb Issur Zalman replied, “Oy, Aimisteh, I am so sorry. I did not mean to really hurt those boys. But all that talk about the redistribution of wealth really upset me.”

“No, you schmendrick” the Reboinoisheloilum retorted. “I am not upset that you killed one of those thugs and mortally wounded the others. But you let my holy Toirah fall on the floor. And for that you will lose your Christmas bonus this year!”

“That’s ok,” Reb Issur Zalman said, his ears turning red with anger, “as long as you share it with the underprivileged Proletariat hordes, you Opiate of the Masses!”

Rabboisai, real Teshuvah is not easy. If it were, we would not have ten days dedicated to repentance, as well as many long hours in shul that perhaps could have been better been spent learning Toirah, doing Maiysim Toivim, or surfing porn. But our mission at this time of year is to become better human beings. But we cannot become better people simply through empty apologies, no matter how many times they are repeated, and wherever they are repeated – even in Shul or on Oprah.

When we talk about Teshuvah, we are talking about real change, which is ultimately a function of humility. We must realize that we are all fallible, especially you, you Michutziff. We are all simple grains of sand passing through the winds of time. As written by the Paytan, “Kee Heenay KeChoimer BeYad HaYoitzer”, “We are like clay in the hands of the potter.” And only when you realize your true insignificance will you be able to undergo real Teshuvah, real change, and perhaps become a bit more tolerable for the rest of us.

Gmar Chassima Toivah, You Minuval.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Ask Rabbi Pinky: On Birchas Hachama and Roish Hashanah




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Before starting the drasha, I want to give a shout-out to the Yeshiva members in Toronto who found time in their busy to stand up for Israel this week against the anti-Israel activities at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Wherever one is on the broad Israeli political spectrum (I personally support the Agudas Yisroel and Felons For Toirah parties, and favor returning Montreal to the Palestinians), the organized protests against Israel at the Film Festival were the actions of a group that includes elements who are at best naive and at worst opposed to the very existence of the State. So I appreciate the pro-Israel activities of my Talmidim in Toronto, though I would never eat in their homes, Chass V'Sholom.




Ask Rabbi Pinky: On Birchas Hachama and Roish Hashanah


This week I respond to a shailah from a Minuval who did not even have the courtesy to reach out to me directly, but rather sent a random e-mail to a bunch of Shkutzim from his shul, in the hopes that either I or the Reboinoisheloilum would somehow answer his plea. Clearly he never heard of Wikipedia. But luckily for him, one Sheygitz in his crew knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who once received Metzitzah Bipeh from my Shviger's Sheytelmacher. So, like the Urim V'Tumim, I am able to answer his ignorant question.

Josh S. asks:

"Birchat Hachama commemorates the return of the sun to the exact location that it was in when the world was created. Since we are celebrating this next week, it seems that the world was created in the Spring. So why is Rosh Hashanah in the fall? Doesn't Rosh Hashanah mark the number of years since creation? Was the world created in the fall or spring.?

"Ideally, I'd like a serious answer but those of you who know Rav Pinky, I'll take his response as well. Thanks."

First of all Yehoishua, you Minuval, who are you to decide what a "serious" answer is? Do you have Smicha from a fine Rabbinic institution like I do? Have you spent years learning Toirah and doing Mitzvois, preparing yourself for a lifetime of serving Klal Yisroel, like I have? Or have you spent the best years of your life watching television, with your hand at the ready on your "special" fleisch remote control, if you know what I mean, with the hope that someday, somehow, there will be another "wardrobe malfunction" so you can spill your seed and delay Moshiach's arrival for the rest of us?

With regard to the essence of your question, I must first challenge your underlying assumption. Where, exactly, does it say that Roish Hashanah is the day that celebrates the creation of the world? There is absolutely no – that is ZERO – notion in the Toirah SheBichsav that identifies the festival that we celebrate as Roish Hashanah to be a commemoration of the creation of the world. Farkhert! The Toirah tells us, "U'Bachoidesh Hashviyi Be'Echad La'Choidesh Mikrah Koidesh Yihyeh Lachem, Kol Milechess Avoidah Loi Sa'Asu, Yoim Teruah Yihyeh Lachem" (Bamidbar, Chuff Tess, Pasuk Aleph). "And on the first day of the seventh month you shall have a holy day; you shall do no work; it shall be a day of Teruah (Shoifar blowing)." There is nothing about the creation of the world! On the contrary, the Toirah speaks of the seventh month!" And if you lookelsewhere throughout the entire Toirah SheBichsav you will find no other reference to such a commemoration, I promise you -- Not in the Chamishei Chumshei Toirah, not in Neviyim, not in Kesuvim, and not in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Further, we are all familiar with the first Mishnah in Maseches Roish Hashanah that says, "Arba'ah Roishay Shanah Haym…Be'Echad Be'Tishrey Roish Hashana La'Shanim." "There are four New Years… On the first of Tishrei is the New Year for counting the years." Some may be familiar with the second Mishnah in Roish Hashanah as well: "Be'Arba'ah Perakim Haoilum Nidoyn…Be'Roish Hashanah Kol Boyay Haoilum Oivrin Lifunuv Kivnei Maroin." "At four junctures the world is judged…On Roish Hashanah all who walk the earth pass before Him like members of a flock." Do you, Professor Genius, see any reference to the creation of the universe in these words?

So, it is clear from our Mishnah that the festival we call Roish Hashanah, perceived as the "New Year", is a late Bayis Shaynee "Rabbinic" understanding. And it is not even clear when the notion of the commemoration of the creation of the universe even came into being. So why does the Mishnah give such emphasis to Roish Hashanah in the first place? Well…we all know that...ummm…Reb Yehudah HaNasi was prone to creating the occasional religious holiday so he could get an extra day off from work to play golf without having to take another vacation day.

However, it is certainly clear in the Gemarrah that many of the Amoraim shared the Mesoirah from Moishe on Sinai that there is great cosmic significance to the Yuntif that we all celebrate as Roish Hashanah. Indeed, according to a Medrish in Vayikra Rabbah, Rabbi Chiya held that Roish Hashanah does indeed commemorate the original date of the creation of the world. And while everyone in his neighborhood spent both days of Roish Hashanah in shul doing Teshuva and davening for Kapparah, Rabbi Chiya spent both days going through the papers in his office, the garage, and the attic trying to find the warrantee so that he could renew it, just in case the world stopped functioning properly over the course of the coming year.

Rabbi Zayrah, however, held farkhert. According to the Medrish, Rabbi Zayrah believed that the notion of Roish Hashanah marking the creation of the world, is, in Western Aramaic dialect, "Narishkeit", unquote. For, his logic goes, "no one was around to see the creation of the world. So how can we know when it was created? Tell me that, huh?" Rabbi Zayrah was of course considered one of the more arrogant of the Amoraim, along with Rabbah, and that stuck up schvantzel Reb Chisda.

So what does Roish Hashanah commemorate? Says Rabbi Zayrah, Roish Hashanah does indeed commemorate an event of enormous significance – It celebrates the birth of the Reboinoisheloilum. And, the Medrish tells us, to celebrate Hakadoshboruchhu's birthday, Rabbi Zayrah would always bring a Carvel cake to shul to make Kiddush on right after the Haftoirah. According to Reb Hai Goyn, it was a standard Carvel ten inch party cake. However, according to Reb Sherirah Goyn, it was a Fudgie The Whale cake. He cites as proof the fact that Rabbi Zayrah was the Assistant Rabbi at the only gay synagogue in all of Pumbedisa.

Rav Puppa, in a Gemarrah in Makois, offers more detail on the Aimishteh's birth and upbringing. He cites a Braisah that notes that the Reboinoisheloilum was born in Scarsdale to parents named Jeff and Susan. And, Rav Puppa notes, Jeff wasn't even Jewish, though Hakadoshboruchhu was raised according to His mother's religion, went to Sunday school, and was even Bar Mitzvahed at the local Reform Temple.

So the notion of Roish Hashanah as marking the creation of the world is Nisht Azoy Pashut.

With regard to Birchas HaChama, the blessing over the alignment of the sun, let me first make a complete disclosure: I LOVE THIS MITZVAH! This is my favorite of all the 613 Mitzvois, even ahead of Pru Urva on Friday night with my Bashert, Feigeh Breinah, her twin sister, and a young goat. Why do I love this Mitzvah so much? Because to me, it is very similar to Kiddush Levanah, just instead of looking like an idiot and howling at the moon once a month, you only have to do this once every twenty-eight years or so. And if you do it really well by, according to the Mechaber of the Shulchan Aruch, staring into the sun, you never have to worry about doing it again, since you will go blind as a bat.

So what does Birchas HaChama commemorate? Is it the creation of the world? Of course not – it is the creation of the sun! And when was the sun created? Well, according to my reading of Beraishis – perhaps you have a different Girsah – the sun was created on the fourth day of creation. But unless you are a literalist like Reb Yoiseph Elyashiv, Reb Pinchas Sheinberg, or Rev Pat Robertson, you cannot take the notion of days literally, so we have no idea when, exactly, in the history of the universe by our current measurement of time the sun was created. So Chazzal, in their wisdom, their commitment to finding every opportunity to celebrate the partnership between Klal Yisroel and the Aimishteh, and their desire to make a killing on knock-off sun glasses imported from China, fixed a time and set a tradition to recognize a return to the original alignment of the earth with the sun, the planets, the stars, and the colony on New Caprica prior to the Cylon invasion.

Rabboisai, this leads us to a far more important question than when to be Mevoirach the Chama or whether to charter a plane if it is a cloudy day and you cannot see the sun. This brings us to an essential question of philosophy. (Please note: Stupid people are now dismissed from my shiur, as you might hurt yourself on the next few paragraphs.) What is Halacha? Is it fixed in time? Or does it evolve as we gain new scientific and philosophical understandings of the world?

This is the core of a famous Machloikess between the RAMBAN and the RAMBAM:

According to the RAMBAN, all of Toirah was given to Moishe Rabbeinu on Sinai. This included Toirah SheBichsav, Toirah SheBaalPeh, and Dianetics By L. Ron Hubbard. This included not only the Mitzvois as they are written in Tanach, but also the Mesoirah that follows. In essence, Halacha both begins, and in some way, ends at Sinai. And all of the Halachois cited in the Mishnah and the Gemarrah, all of the Machloikoisim and Halachic debates of the last 2000 years reflect an effort to remember and preserve the Laws which were given over, in their entirety, to Moishe Rabbeinu by the Reboinoisheloilum Himself. How do we define the notion of "work" which we are not supposed to do on Shabbos Koidesh? Hakadoshboruchhu told Moishe. What is the minimum size of a Lulav? The Aimishteh already answered that one. Can I use a remote control on Yuntif for my new 52 inch LCD HDTV? Moishe learned the answer, too. We just have to tease it out of the body of Toirah which captures all that he received from the Melech Malchei Hamelachim.

The RAMBAM, on the other hand, holds that Halacha only begins at Sinai. Moishe Rabbeinu was given the Toirah by the Aimishteh, but that only represented a base set of tools. Over time Klal Yisroel developed new understandings and traditions, as times changed and circumstances changed. They were exiled to Bavel from Eretz Yisroel and had to develop a new interpretation of the first half of Yishayahu, who vowed that Yerushalayim would never be destroyed. They were exposed to Persian notions of theology, and that changed how they understood the nature of the Reboinoisheloilum. They learned Greek philosophy and science, and that further evolved their understanding of the world. They were exposed to mystical notions, and that further refined their perception of the relationship between the Reboinoisheloilum, Klal Yisroel, and the universe. They had new inventions and new questions, for which they employed their best efforts to answer, based on the Toirah, their historical traditions and their evolving world view. They were also introduced to the Indian Kamma Sutra, and boy! did they try out all those new positions!

And as we have evolved our understandings, our Halacha and our practices changed and evolved, sometimes through conscious decisions, sometime as a result of changing dynamics, such as socio-economic factors and community circumstances. Many of us live in wonderful Yiddisheh communities, Boruch Hashem, and would never think of eating Gevinas Noitzrim, non-Kosher cheese. But it is well known that Rav Soleveichik, not too many years ago, used to eat Kraft. Mamesh. We all force ourselves to eat a Kazayis of horseradish at the Seder. But many peopleare aware that Rav Aroin Kutler, a generation ago, used to eat iceberg lettuce for Marror. This is the Emmess. We diligently check all of our Shabbos snack foods for an OU heckser, an OK, a CRC, or, ChassV'Sholom, for a Chuff-K. But, as some are aware, Reb Moishe Feinstein used to sit at his table every Friday night after Benching, and read the Algemeiner Journal while eating Rolets Pork Rinds. This is a Maiseh Shehoya, really.

So, according to the RAMBAM, Halacha and our relationship with the Aimishteh are not just what has been handed down to us, but they are also what we make of them. Every generation is a partner to this relationship, as is every member of Klal Yisroel. Even you, Yehoshua, even if you are groisseh Mechutziff.

So, as you go outside to make Birchas HaChama, do it because you are linking with your brethren and sisteren to celebrate the Reboinoisheloilum's creation of the sun, whether or not we have the exact date and time right. After all, the Tanaim and Amoraim had a much more primitive understanding of the universe than us. We, on the other hand, are enlightened and liberated. We have science and technology. We have modern medicine. We have advanced forms of art. And we have a refined and developed economic system that, because of our financial and social progress and deep understanding of the behavior of markets could never possibly fail under own ignorance, stupidity, and greed.

A Chessiva V'Chasima Toivah, you Minuval.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Roish Hashanah Drasha



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I have recently received criticism for rerunning some of my Drashois. Only a total Minuval would lodge such a complaint. All of my Toirah is timeless --"Vihigisah Boi Yoimum VeLaiyla". Do you think I can create new Drashsas every week, what with my busy schedule, sitting at the nexus of the beginning of the Yeshiva's school year, the Yoimum Noiraim, the last month of baseball season, the start of the NFL season, and the US Oipen?

Why, this year I have been extraordinarily busy. Yeshivas Chipas Emmess just opened our first girls school, a post high school center for Jewish learning for women ages 18 to 22, who are between 5 foot 4 and 6 foot 2, weigh between 98 and 130 pounds, and are at least a Baiz cup. In addition to hiring staff and recruiting talmidois, we have also been renovating the facilities. You should know: it takes a long time to manually install video cameras in all of the dorm and locker rooms.

So if someone has a complaint, you can always go to the Aish HaToirah site. I hear they have recently introduced words with more than two syllables.



Roish Hashanah Drasha

I have recently returned to the Bais Medrish in my Yeshiva, where our talmidim are studying twenty-two hours a day in preparation for the Yomim Noraim (High Holidays), as well as for their upcoming Real Estate license exams.

This week we will celebrate and embrace Roish Hashanah, the New Year, pray for forgiveness of our past sins, and moan about the need to pay extra for seats when we are already spending too much as it is on annual synagogue membership.

In a famous Mishnah in Masechta Roish Hashanah, Rabban Gamliel asks why synagogues charge for seats on the High Holidays -- shouldn't they embrace all who attend services and not put up any potential barriers to their participation? In the Gemarrah, Rav Pappa builds on this question, pointing out that Jewish communal responsibilities also include Yeshiva tuition, kosher food and paying off the annoying schnorrers who show up at our doors uninvited. So why must shuls engage in Lifnei Iver and chase away any returnees to the faith?

Toisfois offers a gevaldik answer to this question, based on lessons we learn from Yaakov and Eisav. As Eisav returns from a day of hunting empty handed and hungry, Yaakov tricks Eisav into surrendering his birthright by giving him a bowl of lentil soup in exchange. Says Toisfois, we must choose to be like one or the other -- either fiscally bankrupt like Eisav, or morally bankrupt like Yankif Avinu. And clearly most shuls in our day choose the latter.

This rabbinic shakuvetaria (discourse) very much helps to define and capture the essence of our existential quandary at this time of year. The question really is: why do we have one special point in the year for repentance and renewal; are we not always encouraged, and even invited, to improve ourselves, or to at least make a healthy donation? Indeed, what is the nature of the choice that confronts us? How does Roish Hashanah help us along a new path?

(And an additional key question is: why was I assigned THAT seat, next to that guy I can't stand, and so far from the aisle that I may as well pee in my pants during mussaf?)

The classical answer is that the sound of the shoifar-- the ram's horn -- is intended to awaken within us our innate desire to embrace the Aimishteh through repentance and the fulfilling of Kol HaToirah Kooloh. Clearly, whoever came up with this response never heard the shoifar blown in the Yeshiva where I received Smicha (rabbinical ordainment), where, to insure that each shofar note is 100% koisher, they repeat the blows again and again. And again. And again. It's enough to make the Rosheshiva himself pray to Yushka for salvation.

Reb Hai Gaon offers an alternate answer, suggesting that Roish Hashanah is like a woman getting a facial. Sure she can put on makeup every day, but the act of spending eighty-five dollars to get her pores cleansed makes the meeskeit at least FEEL prettier.

Rabbi Akiva Eigar points to the three central themes of the Roish Hashanah liturgy as providing the answer: Malchiyois, Zichroinois, and Shoifrois. Malchiyois represents the father, Zichroinois the son, and Shoifrois the holy ghost. Of course, Reb Akiva is known for his secret affinity for Catholicism and his attraction to hot nuns.

But the Chassam Soifer points to the same three themes. He says that Malchiyois, the theme of the Kingdom of heaven, is like your father, who, no matter how successful you have become, is always ready to tell you what a disappointment you are. Zichroinois, the theme of heavenly remembrance, is like your mother, who, no matter how old you are, will always remind you of how you used to wet your bed. And Shoifrois, the theme of the sound of the shofar, is like your mother-in-law, whose constant talking and picking and nagging and complaining leaves a mind-numbing, deafening ringing in your ears.

Of course, we set the pattern for the coming year on Roish Hashanah. My alter zeidey used to tell me not to sleep on Roish Hashanah because that would cause me to have a farshlufinah year. I have always taken that lesson to heart. Consequently, I have a personal minhag to ride my bashert, Feigah Breinah, like a shtender in the afternoon of Roish Hashanah, in order to guarantee a new year with LOTS OF HOT ADULT ACTION. All the while, the einiklach and kinderlach are out poisoning the fish with leftover challah from last week.

It is also critical that our Teshuvah be sincere and complete, not like your usual insincere prayers, you Vilda Chaya, when you anxiously await the guy who knows all the sports scores to show up at shul. We need to commit to renouncing sin in our everyday lives in order to be true Bnei and Bnois Toirah. A few suggestions for the coming year:

-- Stop buying from Macy's. Macy's sells shatnez, and if you continue to buy there, someone may mistakenly assume you are buying shatnez, and believe it is okay to buy shatnez too.

-- Start using your 500 dollar set of Shass more. If not for learning, at least for the benefit of lifting those heavy books. Reboinoishelloilum knows, you can stand to lose a few pounds.

-- Don't let your wife distract you from Toirah. You should seek every opportunity to go into the other room and pick up a Chumash, or go to your weekly shiur. Watching your twelve kids so your wife can have a ten minute break and go to the Bais HaKeesay is no excuse for Bittul Toirah!

-- Grow your payiss to be long enough to have monkeys swing from them. You never know when you'll be at a Chassanah at the zoo and you'll have the chance to be Mesamayach the Chussen and Kallah.

-- Next time you sneak out for a little traifus, remember to make a Shehakol on your pork. After all, the Aimishteh created it too.

-- When you are in the middle of being mezaneh with your wife, instead of delaying your passion by thinking of baseball players, think of famous Chassidic masters instead. Unless, of course, you get excited by bearded men with shaved heads. In which case, stick with the baseball players.

In taking these measures, we will greet the new year with a deeper commitment to making the world a better place and embracing all mankind, in order to maximize our tax deductions, improve interest rates in the coming year, and bring peace between the Eskimos and the Mongolians.

A Chessiva V'Chasima Toivah, you Minuval.

Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshiva Chipas Emmess


Friday, September 11, 2009

Parshas Nitzavim



Parshas Nitzavim

“Atem Nitzavim Hayoim Koolchem Lifnei Hashem Eloikaychem, Roishaychem, Shivteichem, Zikneichem, Veshoitreichem, Kol Ish Yisroel. Topchem, Neshaychem, Vegerchah Asher Bekerev Machanechah, Mechoitayv Aytzim Ad Shoiyayv Maymechah.” “Behold you are standing here before Hashem your Deity, your leaders, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel. Your children, your women, and the stranger which is amongst your camp, from the woodcutter to the one who draws your water.”

So begins this week’s Parsha, as we rapidly approach the end of Sefer Bamidbar, and mentally prepare ourselves for the many hours spent in Shul over the coming holidays, praying to the Reboinoisheloilum for a positive future, asking Hakadoshboruchhu for forgiveness for our past sins, and pleading with the Aimishteh to help us survive the many hours of amateur Chazanus, self righteous speeches, high pressure financial appeals, and poorly ventilated body odor emanating from multiple congregants sittings within a radius of ten seats away.

When looking at this Parsha, Chazal posed many key questions that are still keeping the rest of us awake at night:

Rabbi Akiva asks in a famous Medrish: Why does the Toirah refer to Klal Yisroel as “standing”? He answers that the Parsha actually refers to anyone who has legs and is able to stand, whether they are indeed standing or not. And the terminology comes to exclude people who have less than two legs and cannot stand on their own. Such people are either to be expelled from the Jewish People for ten generations, or traded to the Mariners for $50,000 in cash, a utility infielder in Double A ball, and a player to be named later.

A Gemarrah in Baitzah features a machloikess between Abaya and Rava on this very Medrish. According to Abaya, the Medrish does not automatically exclude a member of Klal Yisroel who has no legs. Says Abaya, we are first required MiDioraisa to examine his assets, and if he is wealthy, he is invited to return to Kehilas Yisroel, in exchange for a large donation and a 20 percent restocking fee.

Rava cites a Braisah suggesting that Rabbi Akiva actually said that the Parsha not only excludes people who are missing a leg, but even excludes people who are missing toes. According to Rava, “Afilu Etzbah Achass”, “even the lack of a single toe, disqualifies someone from Klal Yisroel. It also makes wearing Roman sandals or other open toed shoes a bit embarrassing.”

Rav Ashi counters that while Rabbi Akiva’s use of the term ‘Etzbah” may indeed be interpreted as referring to toes, the word also refers to the more common use of the term, meaning fingers. Hence, the lack of any digit, be it on the hand or foot, can disqualify someone from Klal Yisroel. Says Rav Ashi, “the Reboinoisheloilum blessed Klal Yisroel with generous noses. If a Jew is missing a finger and therefore cannot pick his sizeable proboscis, it is an insult to Aimishteh, as it is equivalent to a rejection of Ol Malchus Shamayim.”


A more critical question is the reference in the Passuk to “Vegerchah Asher Bekerev Machanechah,” “the stranger which is amongst your camp”. Rav Huna asks in Masechess Baba Metzitza, “Maiy Taimah”, “what is the reason that the Toirah talks about a ‘stranger’”? What’s pshat a “stranger”, which is universally understood to refer to a Gentile who lives amongst the Jews? Why would Moishe Rabbeinu include local Gentiles as he delivers his final address to Klal Yisroel? Is he some sort of self hating Jew?

According to Rav Papa, Moishe Rabbeinu was of course not a self hating Jew! He loved all Jews, especially hot divorcees. However, for tax purposes, Moshe also wanted to include the foreign workers who did all of the physical labor. Rav Papa points to the end of the Passuk which refers to “the woodcutter and the one who draws your water.” Asks Rav Papa, “Do you possibly think that this refers to a Jew?”

However, in the modern context, how are we relate to this notion of Gentiles living among us? In a situation of prolonged war and hostility, of distrust and the potential for violent acts, even terrorism, how should we relate to the question of Goyim living in Eretz Yisroel? Was the Toirah wrong, in its assumption that there would be “Vegerchah Asher Bekerev Machanechah”? Is the Toirah “out of touch”? It the Toirah an anachronism that is not suited to the currently realities in which we all live, Chass V’Sholom? How can you suggest such a thing, you ignorant Minuval?

No. We are fortunate to be the chosen people, who can always turn to the eternal Toirah as our guide on contemporary questions of law, morality, ethics, medicine, business, science, and great dinner locations that cost less than $20 a person.

The RAMBAM addresses the particular topic of “Vegerchah Asher Bekerev Machanechah in detail in his Mishnah Toirah. According to the RAMBAM, Moishe’s inclusion of non-Jews in his speech indeed reflects a general assumption that Gentiles will always live alongside Jews in Eretz Yisroel. However, their residence is predicated on four conditions:
1) That they pledge loyalty to the chosen government, and not act in a hostile manner towards it, even if they are not always in agreement with it;
2) That they contribute to the security of the country by serving in its armed forces;
3) That they contribute to the finances of the country, without cheating on their taxes;
4) That they participate in the broader social fabric of their communities by having their children engage in public educational institutions.
In short, the provisions for their continued presence in Eretz Yisroel are exactly those conditions that are violated by the Orthodox Jews of America every single day.

Rabboisai, I am reminded of a famous story about the Menachem Mendel of Cracow, who survived Europe and moved his Chassidic sect to Alabama in 1947. Menachem Mendel and his family survived the war by being hidden by their neighbor, Piotr Christianowics, underneath the floorboards in the Christianowics home, at great personal risk to Piotr Christianowics and his family.

One day, after the Nazis conducted a routine search of the area and had gone, Piotr whispered down to the floor, “Menachem Mendel, I am so sorry that all of this is happening to your people. I look forward to the day when you and I and our families can sit together and eat as free men.”

There was a pause. Then Menachem Mender quietly responded through the floorboards, “Don’t kid yourself, Piotr. I would never break bread with a Shaygitz.”

Rabboisai, like Klal Yisroel on that very day, many millennia ago, we too are standing before the Reboinoisheloilum at a critical juncture in our nationhood. We can either retreat into our shell of Jewish isolationism, or we can come to terms with the reality that we are fated to coexist with others, Gentiles, members of all other faiths and creeds, who were also created by the Reboinoisheloilum. The details are not always easy – some people are our enemies, but many people are our friends. Yes, it is not always easy to protect our interests and identify who our friends are. But as long as they are willing to live side-by-side in peace with us, are willing to pay retail, or are hot shiksas, then they are okay by me.

Ah Gutten Shabbos You Minuval.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Parshas Kee Suhvoh



Parshas Kee Suhvoh

This week's Parsha, Parshas Kee Suhvoh, features the most acidic chapter in the entire Toiras Moishe: the Toichecha, or Rebuke, in which Moishe Rabbeinu lays out the negative consequences of Klal Yisroel disobeying the Rebboinoisheloilum. The punishments include death, insanity, poverty, exile, children taken away from parents, and significantly higher taxes.

Let's be perfectly frank -- You do not want to go to shul this week to hear the parsha! Stay home, put your feet up, watch a pay-per-view, do a little mitzvah with your wife, do a little work in the garage, unstop the toilets, change the cat litter, clean for Pesach eight months early -- anything to not have to listen to this Parsha. And if you do you go to shul, bring plenty of reading material.

Why, the stuff in this Parsha is so harsh, it can even get my mother-in-law to stop talking for a few minutes, Imirtza Hashem.

A gemarra in Baba Metzia cites a Braisa in which Rabbi Akiva asks: Why is Hakkadoshboruchhu so damn angry at Klal Yisroel all the time? Rav Huna answers that when we were young, the Aimishteh once sent us to the store to buy eggs, but we never gave Him back all the change, and he has held a grudge ever since.

However, Rabbi Abba suggests that the Rebboinoisheloilum's anger is linked to the definition of the Jews being the "Chosen People." Rabbi Abba cites the traditional view of Shir HaShirim in which the male Hakkadoshboruchhu sees Klal Yisroel as the nation chosen to be His wife. And when a Jew is unfaithful and does something against a direct command, such as worshiping idols or eating fish and meat with the same plastic fork at a kiddush, He gives in to His uncontrollable jealous temper and smacks us around a bit. Rabbi Abba goes on to say that we really did deserve it, and promise not to tell the neighbors how we got our black eye, just He should please not do it ever again.

Rabbi Abba quotes a beautiful medrish that says that in the heavenly realm of the Aimishteh, where He sits on His throne of fire surrounded by angels playing harps, violins, flutes and accordians, as the human world recites this Parsha once a year, after each passuk (verse) the Rebboinoisheloilum responds "One of these days Alice, one of these days! POW, right in the kisser!"

Rava disagrees. He suggests that indeed Klal Yisroel was chosen, but not as a wife. Rather, we were chosen to be a pet dog. And just like a pet dog, we require discipline whenever we go on the carpet. And we shouldn't complain, because if He ever really tires of us we might get dropped off at the local pound.

Abaye agrees that we are like pets. However, he suggests that we are more like a pet goldfish. We are surrounded by other fish, some larger and some smaller. We get fed once a day if we're lucky. We have little or no real interaction with our benefactor. Other fish are constantly nipping at out tailfins. There is poop on the bottom of the tank and algae building up on the walls. The filter breaks down once in a while. And the best we can hope for is that at the end of 120 years we will die a natural death and be flushed down the toilet. Says Abaye, this Parsha is the best reason yet to convert to Catholicism. The only reason he doesn't is because he would rather have someone nipping at his tails than fondling his fins, if you know what I mean.

Commenting on this Gemarra, Reb Saadya Goyn offers a completely different interpretation. He suggests that the Rebboinoisheloilum would never threaten Klal Yisroel with such hostility as we read in this Parsha. And neither would Moishe. Rather, it was the fault of one of Moishe's speechwriters. Moishe told him, "hey, I gotta make a speech, and make it dark." Moshe was referring to adding in some elements that would appeal to his constituency in the olive skinned tribe of Naphtali. But the speechwriter thought he meant thematically dark, and the rest is history. (Meyla, this is the same writer who, years earlier, when told by Moishe that he had seen a burning bush in the desert, thought that Moishe was telling him that he had spotted a hot red head skinny dipping at an oasis.)

The RAMBAM takes a completely separate approach. He suggests that indeed Hakkadoshboruch did mean to make the threats as written. And the reason He takes such a tough stand is that he is obviously a Republican. Look at the facts: He is tough on Law and Order, He takes a no-compromising stand against the Babylonians, and He favors using the death penalty as frequently as possible. Sums up the RAMBAM: the Aimishteh wants us to stop behaving like "stiff-necked Israelite Girly-men."

The RASHBAM disagrees, suggesting that the RAMBAN had probably taken to sampling items in his medicine bag when no one was looking. The RASHBAM holds farkert -- the Rebboinoisheloilum is actually a card carrying Democratic. As proof he points to the key social legislation mentioned elsewhere in this week's Parsha: The insistence that we care for orphans and widows, that we set aside a portion of our Maiser, our tithing, for their benefit (Welfare? In the Toirah? Am I reading this correctly?); The concern for the integrity of the legal system (What's pshat you can't give a bribe?); The recognition and care that we grant to the Gair, the non-Israelite/ non-Jewish resident who lives among us. The RASHBAM concludes that the harsh words of the Toichecha simply point out once again that, at the end of the day, Hakkadoshboruchhu is a "pessimistic flip-flopper." To back up his point, the RASHBAM cites a medrish which says that the Aimishteh didn't even split the sea during the exodus from Egypt -- It split through natural causes, but He has tried to claim credit ever since.

However, the Moireh Nevuchim has a much simpler answer. LeOilum, he holds that the Rebboinoisheloilum did make all the threats mentioned in the Toichecha. And the reason that Hakkadoshboruchhu speaks so harshly is simply because He is an anti-Semite. Let's examine the facts: He asks us to do the impossible and complains when we cannot acheive it; He treats us differently than He treats others; He singles us out for persecution; He casts us into exile and then gets angry when we assimilate; He gives us a geopolitical conundrum and places obstacles at every potential solution.

In short, the Aimishteh is an anti-Semite. He doesn't like Jews with our hook noses and penny counting, the horns on our heads, our control of the media, or our aspiration for setting up a world government. He in particular is angry at us for rejecting Christ, Mohammed, the Buddha, the Hindu Pantheon, and L. Ron Hubbard.

I am reminded of a famous story about the Dubner Maggid. One Shabbos afternoon he sat in shul surrounded by both children and adults as he regaled them for three hours with inspirational stories of the great sages, and shared wise parables that explained the cosmic, loving relationship between the Rebboinoisheloilum and Klal Yisroel. At one point a five year old boy asked him, "But mister Maggid, if Hakkadoshboruchhu loves the Jews so much, why must we spend our lives in exile?"

At that, the Dubner Maggid stopped speaking. After a long, uncomfortable pause, he replied in a very low voice that was almost a whisper, "Oh shit. I never thought of that one." The very next day he shaved his long beard and opened up a shoe store.

Indeed, this week's Parsha highlights the complexity of religion and the price of faith. While some view their faith, and its rewards, with the cup half full, other view them as half empty. However, I think that they are both wrong. If you look at the chapter of the Toichecha, Perek Chuff Chess in Devarim, only the first 14 (of 68) Pesukim talk about the potential rewards of faithfullness. However, the VAST majority -- the next 54 Pesukim -- speak in aweful detail of the potential punishments. So, rounding out the numbers, one should either see the cup at one fifth full, or four fifths empty. I personally don't like 5 to 1 odds against, so I suggest we look at betting on a different horse.

Ah gutten Shabbos, you Minuval