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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

On Teshuvah

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On Teshuvah


Rabboisai,

In the interest of Tefillah, Teshivah, and KEEPING YOU SANE OVER THE THREE DAY YUNTIF, I am posting an extra bonus Drasha.

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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.

A Chessiva V'Chasima Toivah, you Minuval.

Roish Hashanah Drasha

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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. Reboinoisheloilum 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.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Parshas Nitzavim

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Parshas Nitzavim

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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.

When looking at this Parsha, Chazal posed many key questions that are still keeping 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 capable of standing, whether they are indeed standing or not. But the Toirah’s 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 famous 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 we consider him “as if” he has legs, and he is invited to return to the fold of Kehilas Yisroel in exchange for a large donation and a 20 percent restocking fee.

Rava holds Farkhert, suggesting that the requirement for legs must indeed be enforced quite literally. And he goes further: He cites a Braisah suggesting that Rabbi Akiva actually said that the Parsha excludes not only people who are missing a leg, but also 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.”

Reb Hai Goyn builds upon this theme, suggesting 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 Reb Hai Goyn, “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.”

Shoyn.

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 in the community. Rav Papa points to the end of the Passuk which refers to “the woodcutter and the one who draws your water.” Asks Rav Papa, “Can you possibly believe that this refers to a Jew?”

However, in the modern context, how are we relate to this notion of Gentiles living amongst us? In a situation of prolonged war and hostility, of distrust and the potential for violent acts, especially 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 Emmes 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 of Gentiles in Eretz Yisroel are exactly those conditions that are violated by the Ultra Orthodox of Israel 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, were also created by the Reboinoisheloilum. The details are not always easy – some people indeed are our enemies, as we once again were bitterly reminded this week in the area of Chevroin. But most people are not our enemies. Yes, it is not always easy to protect our interests and identify who our friends are. But as long as our Gentile neighbors are willing to live side-by-side in peace with us, are willing to pay retail, or are hot shiksas, then they are okay in the eyes of the Toirah, and they are ok by by me.

Ah Gutten Shabbos You Minuval.

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Parshas Kee Suhvoh

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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 Gemarrah in Baba Metzia cites a Braisa in which Rabbi Akiva asks: Why is Hakadoshboruchhu 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 Hakadoshboruchhu 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 accordions, as the human world recites this Parsha once a year, after each Passuk 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, Hakadoshboruchhu 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 RALBAG has a much simpler answer. LeOilum, he holds that the Rebboinoisheloilum did make all the threats mentioned in the Toichecha. And the reason that Hakadoshboruchhu 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 achieve 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 Hakadoshboruchhu 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 faithfulness. However, the VAST majority -- the next 54 Pesukim -- speak in awful 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 consider betting on a different horse.
Ah Gutten Shabbos, you Minuval

Thursday, September 08, 2011

On Communing With The Reboinoisheloilum

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THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF RABBI PINKY SCHMECKELSTEIN

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====================================================


On Communing With The Reboinoisheloilum


Rabboisai,

This week I respond to a shailah from a chazer-eating-minuval who wants to know what Kavvannah to have when he is Davening:

Lichvoid Harav Hagoyn Moreinu Harav Reb Pinky Schmeckelstein Shlitah:

I have a very disturbing dilemma concerning my new status. As you know everyday in Davening we Daven (pray) three times a day that all the Apikursim and their friends the Modernisheh Mentchen should go to Gehenoim Bo'Uilm Hazeh UBo'Uilom Haboh. Since I am now an Apikuiros Lechatchiluh Lechol Hadeios (even according to the Briskers, Men Ken Mechaven Zein Of Mir), I was wondering if I have to pray for my own demise.

I cannot give peace to myself without knowing the correct Daas Toiroh. In the meantime I thought that Shev V'al Taiseh Odif, and I haven't Davened any weekday Tefilois that have the aforementioned Brachah. I only Daven on Shabbos.

Please Harav Hagoyn let me know what the true Das Toiroh is in this matter so I should be able to Daven all 5 (or is it 3, sorry my mistake) times a day.

Your Talmid, Acher Hakotoyn
---

Dearest Acher H.,

I answer you with the greatest pride and joy in my heart that you should ask such a gevaldikkah shailah. After all, your mother and I have been worried that you would grow up to be a shtickel Vilde Chaya, but now we see that you are a COMPLETE MINUVAL.

Let me ask YOU a shailah: Do you really think that Hakadoshboruchhu, the Almighty Creator of the Universe, who rescued His people from Mitzrayim with a long hand, an outstretched arm, a terrific curveball, and a mighty change up, cares a bit about the Davening of an Apikoiress? He doesn’t have other things to worry about? What, with the economy the way it is! Do you know how many millions He lost with Madoff? Did you know that a significant portion of His retirement portfolio was in banking and automotive stocks? I’ll tell you this: I would not want to be His financial advisor right now…

So, what kind of Mechutziff are you anyway?

No. Your shailah is proof that everyone can learn Toiras Moishe… just that most people don’t understand it. Indeed, your question is in essence about the nature of the Reboinoisheloilum’s interaction with our world, and, frankly, would have been insightful if I had asked it. But you – you are an Apikoress who CANNOT possibly have any Toirah insight, because ONLY a Toirah true Jew can have wisdom. How can someone who turned away from the gift of Toirah have any valuable insights whatsoever? Einstein – He learned everything he knew from his boyhood Rebbe, and never had the decency to give credit. Sir Yitzchak Newton stole the Vilna Goyn’s notes without Reshuss and published them as his own. Mozart – He copied all of his music from the long forgotten Chassidic sect led by the Groisseschvantze Rebbe.

But before I answer your shailah, I must address a key underlying issue. You identify yourself as an “Apikoress.” What’s pshat Apikoiress? Do you not believe in the Aimishteh? Do you have fundamental doubts about the Toirah, about creation, or about our Mesoirah being handed down directly from Har Sinai in Moishe Rebbeinu’s time to ArtScroll (R) in our day?

Or is your Apikorsus more about your dietary habits? Do you eat non-kosher pizza, chass v’sholom? Do you eat chazer mamesh with shellfish on the side? Or do you go out to Peter Lugers on occasion, order the steak on the bone, very rare, dripping with Lugers’ own special steak sauce, and accompanied by the house potatoes and creamed spinach on the side? Who ever heard of such a thing?

Or do you engage in other offensive practices? Do you not put on Tefillin every morning? Or, farkhert, do you put on both RASHI and Rabbeinu Tam Tefillin, but embezzle money from old ladies? Do you satisfy your own needs, but deny your wife her Makkeh BaPatish, if you know what I mean? Do you spill your seed while thinking of Mel Gibson? Or are you Mezaneh with underage goats while reading the Daily Znuss?

Or, worst of all, do you use a tea bag on Shabbos Koidesh without using a Klee Shanee, or did you vote Democratic in the last election, chass v’sholom??!!

It kind of makes a difference.

With regard to the nature of prayer, your Shailah is Mechavayn to a four way Machloikess that has bored…errr…enriched the lives of Talmidim for centuries. Reb Hai Goyn asks in the introduction to his Musar Haskel, “What is the nature of the Reboinoisheloilum’s engagement in the world? Does He listen to our prayers, or is He too busy smoking a Hookah?”

This question was first addressed by Reb Moishe Ben Yankif of Coucy, better known as the SMAG. In his lesser known work Toisfois Yeshainim, he suggests, “There is no Hakkadoshoruchhu. Meileh, how can I believe in some old man in the sky? It’s like believing in Santa Clause or Aunt Jemima.” The SMAG of course was subsequently banished from Coucy and was exiled to Argentina.

Rabbi Meir MiRothenberg (the MAHARAM), however, believes wholeheartedly in the existence of the Reboinoisheloilum, and in fact believes in the Aimishteh’s direct involvement in the affairs of the world. The MAHARAM is best know in Jewish history for his refusal to be ransomed from his prison tower in Alsace. But in his own day, he was held in high regard by the men of Lorraine for his Talmudic scholarship and his knowledge of card tricks, and was lauded by the women of Lorraine for his “disappearing snake” magic act.

The ROSH, like his Rebbe, the MAHARAM, believes in the existence of Hakadoshboruchhu. However, he views the Reboinoisheloilum as aware of the world, but distant from its everyday workings. Says the ROISH, “Who can blame Him? If I could choose between engaging in all the world’s problems or surfing the Internet, I would choose porn every time.”

Finally, The ROISH’s son, the Baal HaTurim, believes in the existence of the Aimishteh, but views Him as not involved, or even aware, of world affairs. Referring to the Crusades, the Baal HaTurim once noted that “Hakadoshboruchhu is either not at all aware of the supreme suffering of His chosen people in this world, or he is one very sadistic dude with some serious freaking issues.” Shoyn.

Now, my beloved Talmid, if we look at these four positions, we can almost equate the position of the SMAG (no Reboinoisheloilum) and the position of the Baal HaTurim (yes Reboinoisheloilum, but unaware of our world or our existence). In either of these views, your prayers are not heard, and can never be heard, unless you are one of those guys who Davens really loud and makes it difficult for the rest of us to talk to each other. So it is only according to the positions of the ROISH and the MAHARAM where your shailah is even relevant.

I am reminded of a Maiseh Shehoya. The Chernobler Rebbe was once traveling in Poland on a trip to raise money for the local Museum of Jewish Fundraising. One Friday evening he settled in the village of Mogilov at an inn run by an old widow. Shabbos morning, after Shacharis, the Rebbe came down to the dining room. The old woman came out of the kitchen to serve him and asked him what he wanted. “I’ll take the creamed herring”, said the Rebbe.

“I’m sorry Rabbi, “ the woman responded. We are fresh out of creamed herring. But I can bring you shmaltz herring.”The Rebbe signaled that he would take the schmaltz herring instead. Moments later the old woman came out of the kitchen with a plate heaping with schmaltz herring.

Two hours later, the old lady came to the Rebbe’s room to clean. The Rebbe was sitting at a small table, reading the newspaper. Then the old lady noticed on the table that plate that she had given the Rebbe earlier, only now it was filled with creamed herring. “Rabbi,” she exclaimed, “it must be some kind of miracle!”

The Rebbe looked up from his paper. “No. It’s not a miracle. I creamed my own herring. And you would be amazed at what I can do with an ear of corn.”

So, my Talmid, you can choose to Daven for your own demise. Or not. The Reboinoisheloilum may or may not be listening. And if He is listening, He may not really care. However, by asking such a question, you reveal that you are not an Apikoress, but a Talmid Chacham who likes to eat chazer, which is about as conflicted as a Rebbe who creams his own herring.

Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

On and Off The Derech

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THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF RABBI PINKY SCHMECKELSTEIN

http://stores.lulu.com/rapas

====================================================


On and Off The Derech

Rabboisai,

I would like to share my great news with you as I bid farewell to my role as Rosheshiva of Yeshivas Chipass Emess. This will be my last Drasha, since I just made twenty million dollars on the stock market yesterday. Those shares I bought a couple of weeks ago have shot up, putting me on easy street. Yessirree! All the Mitzvois, I have been doing all these years, all those selfless acts designed to rescue the Holy Sparks from the Sitra Acha. My commitment to the Reboinoisheloilum has finally paid off, big time!

So no more wasting my time writing Toirah for ungrateful Schmucks like you in exchange for your meager pennies! Go get your Toirah from Aish, or Chabad, or Pat Robertson, or Joel Osteen or Glenn Beck for all I care... So long, suckers!

Oy Vey! My stock holdings just fell in value by twenty million dollars. Since I am totally without sin, it is as clear as day that Hakadoshboruchhu has decided to bring punishment on the innocent because of the Aveirois of you Mamzerim. Damn you all to Gehennim!

Ummm… needless to day, I was joking a minute ago when I called you Schmucks and Mamzerim. I was testing you, and you clearly passed the test. Congratulations, my beloved Talmidim!

Rabboisai, we live in a volatile world. Stocks go up, stocks go down. Regimes rise and fall. Yet Klal Yisroel is a constant. The Democrats hold the Presidency and the Senate, and the Republicans own the House and a majority in the Supreme Court, but Klal Yisroel is a constant. The Likud is in power today, and no one knows who will lead the next coalition. However, Klal Yisroel is a constant. Mubarak and Khaddafi are unchallenged autocratic rulers one day, and then sit in a cage, or in some hole somewhere hunted like an animal the next. Yet Klal Yisroel is a constant. The skies are sunny and clear one day, and we are pumping water from our basements and Bussay Medrish the next. But Klal Yisroel is a constant. My Bashert, Feigeh Breinah, on any given day may have a Taivah to be Mezaneh like a rhesus monkey, or, alternately, may have one of those combination locks from the Aron Koidesh on her Erva for the next week and a half. But Klal Yisroel is a constant.

What does it mean that Klal Yisroel is a constant? Is it because the Aimishteh has preserved us as His Chosen People? Yet, according to the Tzitz Eliezer, the Reboinoisheloilum tried his best to kill us in Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen, but simply failed because He ran out of quarters. And now He is trying to finish us off one bombing or missile or stabbing attack at a time.

Perhaps Hakadoshboruchhu preserved us as a form of public punishment and humiliation, as has been suggested over the centuries by numerous Christian theologians. Yet here we stand today as a people, strong economically relative to others, with our own State after two thousand years, with an outsized positive social and cultural influence well beyond our numbers. (And, you Minuval, can you PLEASE stop sending around those idiotic chain e-mails that proudly proclaim that Stalin, Khaddafi, Sarah Palin, and Shmuley Boiteach are all descendent of Jews. If these allegations are in fact true, it is a badge of shame, you moron!)

Many of us remain loyal to our heritage, yet only a fundamentalist buffoon refuses to recognize the human hand in the development of Yiddishkeit: From the formation of the Toirah from numerous texts written by multiple authors, to the gradual evolution of centralized monotheism at the end of Bayis Rishoyn and in Galus Bavel, to the emergence of Halacha through a long process of Biblical exegesis and philosophical debate, to the standardization of traditions and the creation of new practices and beliefs in the middle ages, to the adoption of the secret Kohanic handshake by the Planet Vulcan.

So, given the human role in the development of the faith, why do we even bother? Why don’t we just go after working out at the JCC on Saturday morning and eat some nice Traifus, perhaps some Chazer and overgrown cockroaches, washed down with some pig’s blood and a nice merlot? Maybe we should all marry hot Shiksas and worship that Sheygitz hanging from the Tzeylim in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, or the white bread and mayonnaise eating Goy worshiped by Michelle Bachmann? Or perhaps we should abandon religion altogether and believe in an eternity that is without meaning, save for survival of the fittest or simplistic feel-good humanistic mantras concocted by angry vegans on acid?

Schmuck, if you think it’s all complete bullshit, why are you even reading this?

I know you believe that you are the first Jew to ever ask such questions, and are enamored of your own brilliance. Shkoiyach! But, rest assured, you are a total ignoramus. From time immemorial Klal Yisroel has struggled with our faith, with our relationship to the Reboinoisheloilum, with the general nature of the Divine, and with our Jewish wives’ primal opposition to performing Metzitzah Bipeh once the glass has been broken under the Chupah.

So, the fundamental question is: Is Judaism worth preserving? Is there indeed some intrinsic value to Yiddishkeit that justifies our actions and sacrifices: economic, social, and – dare I say – historical? Or is our heritage simply the historical baggage of the Opiate Of The Masses, a theological and cultural handcuff that tells us what to eat, instructs us how to behave, and demands that we cut off the tips of our Schvantzyls? (Although in my case that still leaves nine and three quarters inches. No wonder Feigeh Breinah is always invoking the “gag reflex” defense.)

These were in fact fundamental questions raised by Chazal almost two thousand years ago. According to Rav, there is nothing worth preserving about Judaism, and we should walk away from it and let it die the deaths of the ancient religions of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Jebusites, etc.

But according to Shmuel, Yiddishkeit is indeed worth preserving, if only because without Judaism, hot Shiksas would lose their “specialness”.

So it really depends upon whom we hold by, Rav or Shmuel. But if we hold like Shmuel, and believe that there is something about Judaism that should be preserved, then we need a model that offers existential meaning to us and is able to sustain our heritage for future generations.

I am reminded of a Mashal, a parable. There was once a family with three children. One day, the parents decided to go out to shop for a new three thousand dollar Sheytel. Before leaving , the parents instructed the children not to leave the house. An hour after the parents left the house, there was a fire, Rachmana Letzlan. The first child panicked and ran far away, never to be seen again. The second child went out looking for help, but got lost, and did not bring help until it was too late. And the third child followed his parents’ instructions to the letter, did not leave the house, and perished in the fire.

To what is this compared? To the three mainstream Jewish movements.

The first child is the Reform movement, whose efforts to modernize and restructure have left the movement without an essential core. Without an established educational platform, or core set of fundamental tenets, the movement is gradually disappearing, despite a grand tradition of innovation and scholarship, as well as the hottest female Rabbinical students around.

The second child is the Conservative movement. The movement prides itself on its thoughtfulness towards synthesizing tradition and reason – preserving a core loyalty to the Rabbinic process while embracing key aspects of modern sensibilities and scholarship. Yet years of centralization and ideological meandering have left it a confusing mix of competing philosophies, leaving all but its die hard membership confused and ambivalent. And if you don’t believe me, go and attend an average Conservative service on a Friday night – you are likely to find more Jews at a Klan meeting or a Hamas fundraiser.

Finally, the third child is the Orthodox movement. What can I say? Nearly every family has a child with special needs. The following is an absolutely true story: I recall in the late 1970s debating a friend outside my black hat Shul about who was a better baseball team, the Yankees or the Mets. Of course, the Yankees were two-time World Champions at that time, and the Mets were consistently the worst team in baseball, and I was a Yankee fan. However, my friend, the son of a well respected rabbi, tried to argue through the use of convoluted Rabbinic logic how the Mets were a far superior team. That is the weakness of Orthodoxy: Most are incapable of balancing their passion and commitment with logic and rationalism. As such, they support a grand monument – a broad and rich tradition built over millennia by a diverse set of creative and occasionally brilliant thinkers, living in both ordinary and extraordinary times – with a foundation made of ice cubes: One warm wind, one obvious and completely logical question, one misuse of power, or one indefensible action by an authority figure, and the monument often comes crumbling down for the impacted individuals because of Orthodoxy’s tenuous foundation.

Rabboisai, many of our colleagues have chosen to go “Off The Derech”, but that in itself is a term that has a multitude of meanings. To those who have decided to reject faith and any form of Jewish identify completely, I offer only the best of wishes. But to those who struggle with their Jewish identities – with the nature of the Reboinoisheloilum, with the significance of Halachic practice, with the meaning of their heritage to them, I can only offer six words of wisdom: “Black and White” and “Shades of Gray”. What’s Pshat, you complete ignoramus?

In a digital world, the world of computers and other such Narishkeit, the underlying principle is the binary choice. Any individual data point is defined by either a one or a zero, a yes or a no. This is the true world of “Black and White”. In other words – There is a Reboinoisheloilum who dictated the Toirah to Moishe Rabbeinu on Sinai, who took notes using a full package of Bic ball point pens he bought at Staples (it was 40 days and 40 nights, you know). Hakadoshboruchhu sits in Shamayim wearing Tefillin all day, learning Toirah and reading the Jewish Press and the Algemeiner Dzournal while deciding who to reward and punish by measuring who said what Bracha, who went to Mikvah, who Davened with Kavannah (with no regard for whether or not he cheated on his taxes), etc. At the same time, the Aimishteh plots ways to give Klal Yisroel full control of all of Eretz Yisroel, so there may be an eventual return of all of Klal Yisroel to live in a Jewish theocracy led by Malchus Bais David and a Kehunnah descendent of Tzadok Ben Pinchas Ben Elazar Ben Aaroin HaKoihain, the Minuval, where we can all slaughter sheep and goats and doves when we are not busy learning Toirah 23 hours a day. Or there isn’t, and it’s all a bunch of bullshit.

Then there is the world defined by “Shades of Gray”. In this world we have a tradition, but this tradition encompasses a wide spectrum of ideas. The tradition has changed and evolved over time; it has sought to define the Divine and how we should relate to Him/Her/It. It has been a living tradition, an Aitz Chayim, that has had to respond to the often traumatic circumstances of our collective history, and has spawned revolutionary ideas that have impacted the world, as well as incorporated innovations and influences from other cultures. How one relates to this complex, nuanced world is a very personal calculus. There are rulebooks: The Toirah, the Talmud, the Shulkhan Aruch, but in truth, their relevance is subjective: Only you or I can decide what has meaning to each of us, and what we choose to do or not to do. You can go out and eat pork today—I guarantee you that you will not be struck down by lightening.

Similarly, you can decide to believe in a Diety that is All-Knowing and active in the affairs in the universe, or one that is somewhat constrained in Its ability to directly impact our world, as imagined by Lurianic Kabbalists (that is the circle of the ARI ZAHL, you ignoramus). Or you can believe in God as a force of nature, as envisioned by Einstein. Or in none at all. Or anywhere in between.

As well, it is within your power to decide what laws to subscribe to. If you believe that you relate to the All Knowing Reboinoisheloilum by wearing the hair of a hot Shiksa, Gezunteh Hait. But don’t do it because you are afraid of your husband or your father or your father-in-law or your brother or your sister or your children or your neighbors. Do it because it has relevance to you. The same goes for Tefillah, Shabbos Koidesh, Kashrus, and Shiluach Hakan.

Rabboisai, ours is a diverse tradition, defined in nuanced “Shades of Gray”. If Judaism offers no meaning to you, then absolutely walk away. Life is too short. But if there are elements that you personally find relevant, or which address a longing for spiritual fulfillment, then the heritage of your ancestors may offer answers, though not in the simplistic, binary, “Mickey Mouse” form in which many of us were raised.

I am reminded of a famous story about the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He was once planning his Messianic mission when one of his aides brought in a secular Jew for a one on one meeting. “How can I help you?” the Rebbe asked.

“I would like to ensure my reward in the world and the next” the Jew answered.

“Then you must pray three times a day and keep the Sabbath, your wife must light Shabbos candles and go to Mikvah, and you must drink a lot of chilled vodka” the Rebbe replied.

“But I am not prepared to alter my lifestyle” the man responded.

“Then you should make a sizeable donation to Lubavitch International” the Rebbe said. “And I will take care of everything else. Guaranteed.”

The man then took out a big wad of cash, and handed the Rebbe twenty thousand dollars in hundred dollar bills.

That night the Lubavitcher Rebbe took Rebbetzin Chaya Mushke and a few members of his inner circle out to celebrate. They all had the $9.95 all-you-can-eat special at the Red Lobster in Crown Heights, where the Rebbe passed around lobster claws as Shirayim. They then went back to 770 and topped off the night with vodka shots, as the Rebbe’s followers sang out “Yechi Moreinu VeRebbeinu Melech Hamashiach”, declaring him the Messiah King.

Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval.