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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Parshas Vayigash




Parshas Vayigash

In this week’s Parsha, Parshas Vayigash, we read of the culmination of the Yoisaiph Hatzadick story, where Yoisaiph Hatzadick exposes himself to his brothers, as well as to numerous underage bystanders.

Not long after, of course, Yankif Avinu is told that his beloved son Yoisaiph is indeed alive, ending his years of mourning. The Toirah is silent about how the wonderful news is told to Yankif. However, a famous Medrish tells us that the news was gently broken to Yankif by his granddaughter, Serach Bas Asher.

Serach Bas Asher was respected amongst her family as a talented singer and a musician. The Shfatim were concerned that breaking the news outright to Yankif would cause him to have a heart attack. So instead, they employed Serach to gently sing to her grandfather while playing the harp, and embed in her song the news that Yoisaiph was alive. The Medrish goes on to say that Serach’s reward for performing this great expression of Kibud Av VaAim was eternal life.

Unfortunately for Serach, her gift of eternal life was not accompanied by a matching gift of a trust fund or a professionally managed pension fund to support her financially. Consequently, she was dirt poor, and had to spend the next thousand years working as an exotic dancer in a Mesopotamian strip club.

Whatever became of Serach Bas Asher? There is a famous machloikess on this topic in a Gemarrah in Megillah.

-- According to Abaya, Serach prayed for the Reboinoisheloilum to end her life as she witnessed the destruction of the first Bais Hamikdash and the descent of Klal Yisroel into the Babylonian exile.

-- According to Rava, Serach lived though Golus Bavel, returned to Eretz Yisroel with Ezra and Nechemia, and lived for several hundred more years. But as Sinas Chinum overtook Klal Yisroel in the years before the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdash, Serach could no longer withstand her role as eyewitness to all of Jewish history, and prayed to the Aimishteh to be taken to the Oilum HaEmmes.

-- However, according to Rav Shayshess, Serach Bas Asher is indeed still alive, and is currently living in Wisconsin, running an online porn site, SerachWILD.Com.

-- Rav Puppa concurs that Serach is still alive, but he insists that she is neither engaging in pornography, Chass V’Sholom, nor living in obscurity. Farkhert, he holds that she is leveraging her years of wisdom and experience to make the Reboinoisheloilum’s world a better place by engaging in public service, and is none other than Hillary Clinton. In addition, Rav Puppa holds that Joe Biden is really Culaiv Ben Yefuneh, Barack Oibama is actually Shloimoi Hamelech, and John Boehner is in reality Yeruvum Ben Nevut.

A different Gemarrah in Shabbos focuses on Yankif Avinu’s response to the revelation of Yoisaiph’s whereabouts. According to Rav Chisda, upon hearing the news that Yoisaiph was alive, Yankif looked up to Shamayim and recited Hallel “at having lived to see the handiwork of the Etzbah Eloikim.” However, according to Rabba Bar Bar Channa, Yankif Avinu first looked down to the floor and took a moment to reflect on the enormity of the information. Then he turned around and bitch-slapped Yissaschar and Zevulun in the head, and then kicked Naftali in the Schvantzlach.

RASHI, however, is not at all troubled by the confusion raised by the total lack of any real information in theis story. He states in Perek Chuff Baiz, Passuk Yud Aleph that the entire Parsha of Vayigash should not be taken literally anyway, but should be read as a complete metaphor… for Parshas Miketz, which makes even less sense than Parshas Vayigash. Consequently, every year at this time, to coincide with Chanukah, RASHI would take a break from writing his commentary and travel abroad to sample the new wines being developed in Sonoma County. He would stay at a boutique hotel in downtown San Francisco and take day trips to the wineries where he would drink enough, he writes, “until I can no longer tell the difference between a Merlot and a Cabarnet, or between a woman names Chris and a cross-dresser named Christine.” Shoyn.

As we sit here in our modern world, how are we to relate to the entire Yoisaiph Hatzadick story, and, in fact, to the entire Yankif Avinu cycle? Did we even need the brave actions of Yoisaph Hatzadick to begin with? Would we not have been better off had Klal Yisroel not descended to Egypt? Why did Hakkadoshboruchhu have to put our ancestors through hundreds of years of suffering the stinging horrors and humiliations of slavery, only to return to Eretz Yisroel through bitter conquest? Could we not have just stayed there in the first place and survived the famine by taking government subsidies?

Indeed, this is a reflection of a broader existential quandary – linked to one of the ultimate questions facing Klal Yisroel: Why is our history so twisted and tinged with challenge and tragedy? If we are indeed the Aimishteh’s chosen people, could we not have had it a bit easier, like, say, the Norwegians? Who is at fault for our having such a convoluted and tortured fate?

According to Reb Yoisaiph Katski, this is indeed the fault of Hakadoshboruchhu Himself, Bichvoidoi UbiAtzmoi. He points to the Akeidah and notes that just as Yitzchak’s life is spared when a lost little lamb is sacrificed in his stead, the Reboinoisheloilum constantly looks at the world, is tempted to destroy it, remembers His oath to Noiach, and then uses Klal Yisroel as His punching bag to take out His frustrations.

Reb Shmiel Kalbasavuah holds farkhert. According to Reb Shmiel Kalbasavuah, the eternal fate of Klal Yisroel is of course not the Aimishteh’s fault! He loves us the same way a child lives his pet hamster. Rather, we should really blame all the ills of our lives on our parents: If they had only loved us a little more as we were children, and bought us that thing that we really wanted, and let us watch a little more TV, and helped us more with out homework, and not favored our younger brother, and had been less critical of our bisomim smoking friends, we would have been better adjusted and had all the needed confidence to succeed in our lives' endeavors. Yes, it is our parents who are at fault for the failure of our going down to Egypt, for us being exiled, and for all of our other failings. Indeed, the fact that we are 3,000 years old, still wet our beds, suck our thumbs, and are always looking for a handout proves that our parents never really cared about us!

However, according to the Reb Bezalel Kupkayk, our eternal fate is the fault of neither Hakadoshboruchhu nor of our parents. Rather, it is the fault of the liberal media. Case in point: Did we really have to know that Yoisaiph had actually been sold into slavery by his brothers, who then lied to Yankif Avinu and maintained the lie for the next two decades? Is it that big a deal? Every nation has its little internal arguments, and exposing this disagreement only plays into the hands of our enemies.

Similarly, we would never have been exiled from Eretz Yisroel if the liberal media was not always talking about how corrupt the kings of Israel were. They should really love the country, otherwise they should keep their mouths shut. Did the liberal media need to tell us that idolatry was introduced into the Bais Hamikdash by Shloimoi HaMelech and most of the other kings of Malchus Yehuda? These were a few isolated events, blown totally out of proportion. And so what if there were poor members of Klal Yisroel being ignored by their fellow man -- they were probably illegal immigrants anyway. And so what if there were widows and orphans -- they should have planned better for the future!

Yes, it was the liberal media that undermined the position of Malchis Bais David, the Malchus of the Chashmonaim, and later, the leadership of the Nasi in the post Temple period. Media vehicles such as CNN, ABC, National Public Radio, Kol Yisroel, Israel's Channel 10, Shmuel Aleph and Baiz, Melachim Aleph and Baiz, Yishayahu, Yirmiyahu and the other prophets, as well as the Associated Press and Al Jazeera. By the actions of the liberal media, our enemies have been strengthened and given constant reason to hate us and persecute us. Reboinoisheloilum-Damned-Liberal-Media!

I am reminded of a famous Machloikess in the medieval period. The RIF and the RAN got into a disagreement with the RALBAG and the RITVAH over who had the bigger shtender, Moishe Rabbeinu or Aaroin HaKoihain, the minuval. The RIF and the RAN insist that Moishe’s shtender was bigger, as we are told that Moishe was the greatest Navi that ever lived, and how can you imagine a Navi with an inferior shtender? The RALBAG and the RITVAH, however, refer to the fact that the descendents of Aharoin HaKoihain received the Kehunah as proof that Aharoin had a bigger shtender. After all, they argue, “only someone with a groisse shtender could have earned the right to appoint his descendants to the institutional leadership of future generations."

I would like to suggest a different approach. LeOilum, this debate isn’t really about the size of one's shtender. After all, size doesn’t matter, or so my Bashert, Feige Breineh, frequently reassures me. Rather, it is the scope of one’s influence that really counts. Moishe Rabbeinu was the greatest Navi, but his descendants were more interested in learning Toirah, and less focused on addressing the everyday needs of Klal Yisroel. By contrast, Aroin Hakoihain was indeed a minuval, what, with the designing of the Eigel and speaking Rechilus about Moishe. Yet his children were committed to serving Klal Yisroel, even if that meant giving of their private time, sacrificing commitments to their children, violating their marital vows, or taking of the collected wealth of Klal Yisroel. As a result, through their actions, they established the paradigm of the future religious leadership of Klal Yisroel.

Similarly, Yoisaiph Hatzadick and the cycle of stories that surround him do not represent some perfect era of Klal Yisroel’s history. On the contrary, they tell us that the nature of the relationship between Klal Yisroel and the Reboinoisheloilum is not at all clear. In fact, it is downright convoluted. Yet, what is crystal clear from the story of Yoisaiph is that the will of Hakkadoshboruchhu is best served when we hide our own identities, marry shiksas, work for the goyim, and abuse our brethren. Only then can we be in a strong position to help bring about the Geulah Shlaimah for all of Klal Yisroel. Bimayra BiYamainu. Umayn.

Ah Gutten Shabbos, you Minuval.

Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshiva Chipas Emmess

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Chanukah Drasha




Chanukah Drasha

This week we celebrate Chanukah, the Yuntif in which the Jews defeated the Greeks in a struggle to preserve Jewish heritage from the onslaught of creeping Hellinistic cultural imperialism. We commemorate this great event, of course, by reenacting the joy, the lights and the gift giving of Christmas, extended over an eight day period.

(When I was a young bocher, we were so poor that my tahti used to give me potatoes for Chanukah. And I was lucky. The children next door used to get egg shells. Nowadays, poor orphans, Rachmanah Letzlan, can only get Playstation Three games to play on their 25 inch LCD TVs. Uchinvei.)

RASHI asks a penetrating question: Why do we even bother celebrating Chanukah, given all the bad that came out of the Chashmonaim, the Hasmonians:

- They ignored the legacy of Malchus Bais Dovid, the Davidic dynasty, and replaced it with their own;

- They replaced the priestly leadership of the descendants of Tzaddok, in place since the time of Shlomo Hamelech, with a competing strand of the priesthood;

- After one generation in power, they became the most despotic regime in the history of Jewish sovereignty;

- And they sanctified gambling in the form of the dreidel, a game I cannot win no matter how much I cheat.

Indeed, Chazal had such ambivalent feelings about Chanukah, they never gave the holiday it's own masechta (tractate) in the Talmud. So why should we care?

The Rabbeinu Tam answers that had it not been for the Chashmonaim, we would now all be wearing dresses and having sex with young boys.

The Rabbeinu Mordechai responds farkhert, that hallevai we should all be wearing dresses and sleeping with young boys. That sure beats pogroms, terrorism, and having to pay yeshiva tuition. He suggests, instead, that we celebrate Chanukah out of respect for our parents' generation, who, quite frankly, didn't know any better.

The RAMBAN takes a totally different approach. He suggests that Chazal instituted Chanukah solely to satisfy the powerful olive oil lobby in ancient times. In reality, Chanukah was the compromise. The lobby was pushing for a "Let's rub olive oil all over each other and go to the mikvah together" Yuntif, but it sounded a bit too Greek.

On this topic, the Sifsey Chachomim brings down a beatiful gemmarah in Nidah, which tells the following maaiseh shehoyo: Rish Lakish went ot the mikveh one day with the Raish Gelusa. While he was being toivel-zeyn (immersing himself in the waters) someone stole his clothing. Rish Lakish turned to the Raish Gelusa, "Can you lend me your cloak so I can go out and get replacement clothing?"

"I cannot lend you my cloak, but I would gladly rent it to you for 100 zuzum," the Raish Gelusa answered. At that point, Rish Lakish hit the Raish Gelusa on the head with a rock and walked away with his cloak AND his wallet. (The Raish Gelusa was later found by Nachum Ish Gamzu, who brought him over to Ben Drusoy's house to be revived with a little snack.)

The Sifsey Chachomim points out that while assaulting the Raish Gelusa was wrong, Rish Lakish was only responding to the Raish Gelusa's unreasonable demands. So rather than fault Rish Lakish in the story, we should hold him in great esteem and emulate his every action, especially with Goyim and the Reformed.

So too with Chanukah. Whatever wrongs were later done by the Chashmonaim and their descendants, they were responding to such travesties as hogs in the Bais Hamikdash and men in designer skirts. That the Aimishteh chose to make these future despots the heros of the day reveals His dark sense of humor, as well as his faithful commitment to seeing the Jews oppressed, even at the hand of their own.

The ARI ZAHL compares Chanukah to a Bris Milah. Like a Bris, Chanukah is achieved over a period of eight days. Like with the birth of a son, gifts are exchanged. And like with a Bris, we end Chanukah with some portion of us stripped away, taken by the Moyhel or the Toys-R-Us clerk, whichever the case may be. The ARI ZAHL's mystical explanation is that the eight day cycle is linked to cosmic activities involved in rescuing the lost holy sparks from the Tehom, in a effort to restore mankind and creation to their original purity.

In other words, they both make about as much sense as men wearing designer skirts.

Ah Gutten Yuntif, you Minuval

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Extra Bonus Drasha: On the Blessed Event




On the Blessed Event


I was on my way to the Lower East Side last Sunday when I decided to take respite from my journey and stopped to engage a roadside Kedaishah. Under other circumstances, my Bashert, Feigeh Breineh, would have responded by carving her initials on my Bris Milah with a Challah knife. However, given that following my brief encounter (at which, I should note, I left behind neither my staff nor my signet ring, only my Gold Card) I successfully completed my errand, and all was forgiven. And what, you may ask, was my task? Well, I went to the Lower East Side to pick up the gold-lame-and-sequin-covered Bentchers for the Bar Mitzvah of my Einikel, little Feivel.

What is the source of the Mitzvah of the Bar Mitzvah, and what is the Ikkar Mitzvah upon which we are Metzuveh? I bet you have wondered this your whole life, you ignorant Shaygitz, but never made an effort to ask because it would have required you to get up from the television for five minutes.

Well, the source of the Bar Mitzvah is discussed explicitly in a Gemarrah in Kesuvois. According to Rav Ashi, the Bar Mitzvah is conducted to commemorate the bond between the Reboinoisheloilum and Klal Yisroel. And the reason why it requires a boy to celebrate at the age of thirteen is Zecher L’Yishmael, to commemorate the age at which Yishmael, that other son of Avraham Avinu, had his Bris Milah. And we emulate the removal of Yishmael’s foreskin by emasculating our sons in front of an audience of 400 Shul-goers.

But Rabbi Chiya holds Farkhert: Making a thirteen year old Leyn in front of family, friends, and strangers is not at all like a Bris Milah, since the scars of Bris Milah heal within a week. Rather, Rabbi Chiya argues, a Bar Mitzvah is more like Akeidas Yitzchak, the Binding of Isaac. The fear and loathing of reading the Parsha in Shul and being corrected by a handful of self-righteous perfectionist misanthropes can only be compared to sending your own son to slaughter, only this time with a sushi bar and a Viennese table. And the resulting emotional scars indeed echo the deep psychological trauma that undoubtedly plagued Yitzchak Avinu throughout his entire life.

How is one required to celebrate a Bar Mitzvah? A different Gemarrah in Eiruvin notes that Rish Lakish, when not learning for twenty six hours a day in the Bais Medrish, supported himself by working as a photographer at weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, divorces, and the occasional Baptism. The Gemarrah quotes Rish Lakish as saying, “Three is better than one, but six is better than three.” According to Reb Saadya Goyn, Rish Lakish was referring to Ma’aisei Biyuh on the weekend. But according to Reb Hai Goyn, Rish Lakish was referring to members of a band playing at a Bar Mitzvah, noting that “a one man band at a Bar Mitzvah is like a flat-chested woman. The equipment may work, but it’s never your preference.”

There is a Machloikess Reshoinim that emanates from this Gemarrah between RASHI, Toisfois, and the ROISH regarding how a thirteen year old boy should commemorate his Bar Mitzvah. Koolay Alma Loi Pligi, everyone agrees, that a Bar Mitzvah boy should mark his becoming a man by reading from the Toirah. So where do they argue? They debate regarding what should follow Kriyas HaToirah. According to RASHI, after successfully reading his Parsha, a Bar Mitzvah Bochur should go into the Bais Medrish to recite Hallel. According to Toisfois, a thirteen year old boy should follow up his reading of the Toirah by going to the kitchen to eat a hearty breakfast. But according to the Roish, after finishing his Maftir and Haftoirah, a Bar Mitzvah boy should be escorted from the main sanctuary by a group of his friends, singing and dancing, and should be led to the Yichud room for a half hour session with his Tahtee’s “special friend”, Bambi.

There is an interesting historical debate regarding another important Bar Mitzvah custom – the throwing of candy at the Bar Mitzvah boy. What is the source of this custom? According to the ARI ZAHL, the practice was established by the MAHARAM MiRothenburg during the persecutions of 1275 in order to beat away the dark Klipois from the body of the child, leaving only the Holy Sparks. However, according to Reb Moishe Cordovero, the custom of throwing candy was introduced by the RAMBAM during the recession of 1194 in order to drum up business by raising the level of diabetes in the community.

How much should one spend on a Bar Mitzvah? This question has been a source of deep Toirah discussion, Talmudic discourse, marital debate, and bankruptcy hearings for the past 700 years.

According to the Shulchan Aruch, a person should not spend more than would be required to feed guests “KeBaitzah”, about an egg’s volume of food. However, he believes that the Bar Mitzvah should be a celebratory event open to the entire community and neighboring communities, costing no less than two months of the average household income, as defined by the KY (Klal Yisroel) Index based on the average income of all Jews for the twelve months prior to the event.

The RAMAH, however, disagrees, referring to Reb Yoisaiph Karo, the Mechaber of the Shulkhan Aruch, as a “swarthy cheapskate”. The RAMAH holds that one is required to feed every guest “KeTarnegol”, a volume of food equivalent to the size of a chicken. In addition, the RAMAH points out, one must have at least one live band, or, at a minimum, a DJ accompanied by motivational dancers. As well, suggests the RAMAH, one is required to hand out Tchatchkees (“little toys from China” in English) to all of the children to bring home, so that their parents will be reminded to begin planning for their own blessed events by serving a one dollar box of pasta at every meal for the next year, except for Shabbos Koidesh, when they are permitted to serve Traif meat since it is a quarter of the price of Koisher. The cost of the Bar Mitzvah should be no less than six months of average household income according to the KY Index, or half of the family assets, whichever is the larger number.

Finally, the Mishnah Berurah holds that one must feed every guest “KeEigel”, a volume of food equivalent to a small cow. The food should be varied and should include no less than four courses, including fresh sushi served by a Mexican chef who sort-of looks Asian. Further, it is a Mitzvah to have a half hour of speeches and a video montage, so that the guests will have an opportunity to take a brief nap between courses. In addition to Tchatchkees, there is a requirement to have novelty photo booths and games for the children to play. There should also be adult activities for the parents and grandparents – a makeup artist for the women, so they can experiment with different eye shades and colors of nail polish, and lap dances for the men, preferably delivered by the hot Shiksa motivational dancers. The Mishnah Berurah also holds that it is a Hiddur Mitzvah, a preferred additional Mitzvah, to have jugglers, Chassidic guys who can dance with bottles on their heads, and elephants. The minimum cost is equivalent to half of the value of the family home or ten times Yeshivah tuition, whichever is the larger number.

I spent much time going through these Halachois with my own son, Reb Boruch Gedalia Pesachya Issur Simcha Schmeckelstein, regarding the planning of the Bar Mitzvah for my Einikel, Feivel Yisroel Shmuel Eliyahu Rabbah. My son, of course, is known by his Rabbinic acronym, the BIG PISS, while my grandson is known as the Little PISHER. After a detailed discussion of the religious laws, as well as a forensic review of our family finances, we determined to spend somewhere between the position of the Shulchan Aruch and the RAMAH. However, we agreed that the more important component of the Bar Mitzvah was the reading of the weekly Toirah portion.

To ensure that the Little PISHER would not feel excessive family pressure, we hired an outside Bar Mitzvah teacher. For $50 a lesson, he taught little Feivel the week’s Parsha. For an extra $25 a lesson, he taught him the Haftoirah. And for another $20 a lesson, he also taught Feivel the week’s New Testament reading, which is from Mark, Perek Chuff Baiz, where we read about how Jesus kills an abortion doctor, and how John The Baptist is reassigned by the Church to teach in a school for children that can neither speak nor write.

I am reminded of a famous Maiseh Shehoya. The Chernobler Rebbe, the Meor Einayim – Reb Menachem Nachum Twersky, was once delivering a Drasha on the Mitzvah of Shiluach HaKan, the chasing away of a mother bird before taking the baby birds to eat. The Toirah, of course, promises the same reward for this Mitzvah as the reward promised for honoring one’s parents. The Cherlobler suggested that the Mitzvois of Shiluah HaKan and Kahbaid Ess Avicha are comparable because they are two sides of the same coin: The purpose of a parent is to raise a child to become an adult, and we must respect that role, even once the children have left the nest. Suggested the Chernobler, “We make a Bar Mitzvah celebration to commemorate the children’s leaving the nest. This is a celebration for the benefit of the parents, for which they receive great joy.”

After Shul was over, a boy of thirteen came over to the Rebbe and asked, “Rebbe, why is the Bar Mitzvah a celebration for the parents when it is the son who does all the work?”

The Rebbe looked down at the boy, smiled warmly, and said, “Son, at your age, you have a lot of joy. You wake up in the morning, and you have joy. You are in front of your classroom, writing at the board, and you have joy, to your great embarrassment. You are riding in the school bus and feel a bit of a vibration, and you have joy, whether you want it or not. You even get a little joy when you look at the three hundred pound secretary in your Yeshiva. And when you are alone in your room and have a few minutes to yourself, you are overflowing with joy, I am sure. I know I was when I was your age – at least twice a day.”

The Chernobler continued. “But your parents don’t have all that much joy anymore. If they are lucky, they have joy maybe once a week. So if the Bar Mitzvah gives them a little more joy, it can only help the marriage. At least until their house is repossessed.” With that, the Rebbe went off to do vodka shots, fondle Mrs. Goldberg, and take a nap.

Finally, I would like to address one related Shailah that many of my Talmidim ask me. Whenever I discuss this topic, they ask, why do I only focus on the Bar Mitzvah of a boy, and never discuss a Bat Mitzvah? The answer is quite simple: Girls are not supposed to have big celebrations when they reach the age of Mitzvois. According to the RIF, the most a girl should have is a party when she gets her first… err… Oirach KaNashim. At that party the parents should serve hard boiled eggs and hand out feminine protection to all the girl’s friends as party favors. After all, if the Reboinoisheloilum wanted girls to have a big party, read from the Toirah, put on Tfillin, be counted in a Minyan, be required to Daven three times a day, get equal pay for equal work, have the right to vote, be allowed to drive, etc., He would have given them a penis.

Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval

Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshiva Chipas Emmess


Parshas Vayayshev



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Parshas Vayayshev

In this week’s Parsha, Parshas Vayayshev, we read characteristic tales that reflect the great moral fabric of our ancestors. These stories include:

-- Yoisaif Hatzadik has repeated dreams of future domination over his brothers and his parents. His brothers express displeasure at these dreams. And who can blame them? Believe me: If your brother boasted that you would one day bow down to him, you would want to kick him in the Bris Milah too.

-- Yehuda fathers the family line that will result in Malchus Bais David, the Davidic monarchy. Of course, along the way he did have to sleep with his daughter in law, Tamar, who disguised herself as a prostitute on the road in order to seduce him. Maylah, after reading this week’s Parsha, I feel a lot less guilty about buying that French maid’s costume and riding crop from Fredericks of Hollywood for my Bashert, Feyga Breinah.

-- The Shvatim, completely fed up with Yoisaif Hatzadik’s undermining of their positions with their father, decide to kill Yoisaif. At the last moment they cast him into a pit and take his Kesoines Passim, his Coat of Many Colors, cover it with goat’s blood and bring it to their father, to whom they report that their beloved sibling was eaten by a beast. Yankif is inconsolable -- to the point of ceasing day trading for a full six hours!

A gemarrah in Soitah brings down a Beraisah quoting a question from Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah: “Are we, Klal Yisroel, really descendants of these people? I mean, seriously, is it possible we could be adopted? Please?!” Rabbi Elazar goes on to point out that he never in his life tried to kill any of his brothers or sleep with his son’s wife, though he once did grope his sister-in-law during havdalah.

What follows is a famous machloikess in the gemarrah surrounding Rabbi Elazar’s comments:

Rish Lakish holds that Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah found the activities of the Avois and the Shvatim quite disturbing, and felt that we should try to emulate the more positive aspects of their lives, such as Yosaif Hatzadik’s nice hair style, the Shvatim’s bargaining skills with Ishmaelite merchants, and Yehuda’s giving of generous tips to even the lowliest of roadside prostitutes.

However, Rav Huna holds farkhert: In reality all of the stories brought down in the Toirah do indeed reflect positive elements of our ancestors’ behavior, if only you understood the Toirah properly, you worthless minuval. He explains:

-- Yoisaif was a gadol amongst his brothers, and had true visions of his future exile and eventual ascent to power in Egypt. And in his dreams, his family members were not bowing down to him – rather, they were all picking up pennies from the floor.

-- The Shvatim were afraid that Yoisaif’s perceived arrogance would be a bad influence on their children, and therefore determined to strengthen their own families by kidnapping their brother. And their persistent lying to their father about Yoisaif’s fate was an attempt to Practice the mitzvah of Shiluach Hakan.

-- And Yehuda never, ever, ever, EVER meant in his life to go to a prostitute, chass vesholom. Unfortunately, in his business travels he was exposed to television, and after watching Lady Gaga on MTV he had a tremendous taiyvah. And instead of committing a Dioraisa by himself, if you know what I mean, he chose to do a DeRabannan with Tamar. What a tzadik!

Rav Huna cites proof for his position on the high moral integrity of the Shvatim. He notes that Yoiseph Hatzadik, after he had risen to lead the household of Potiphar, rejected the advances of Mrs. Potiphar. Says Rav Huna: this is because Yoiseph knew Kol HaToirah Kooloh and didn’t want to commit an act of Gilui Arayois – adultery.

But Rish Lakish retorts, citing a medrish in Beraishis Rabbah that says that Mrs. Potiphar weighed 400 pounds and had facial hair that made her look like Yassir Arafat. Rish Lakish also cites a different medrish in the Mekhilta that suggests while living in Potiphar’s house, Yoiseph Hatzadik spent ALL of his time on the weekends going shopping with Potiphar’s younger brother, Merlot, and had no interest in Mrs. Potiphar whatsoever. Rish Lakish concludes, “Rav Huna should spend more time tying his tzitzis rather than trying to reinterpret the basic pshat of Beraishis." Shoyn.

The gemarrah never settles this machloikess and the Rishoinim do not really talk about it. However, this machloikess is most famously addressed in the Likutei HaRABAM and in the Igroiss Penthouse.

Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah’s comments, and Rish Lakish’s understanding of them, raise a broader question about Yiddishkeit. There are many Halachois and Biblical incidents that stand in contrast to our contemporary sensibilities -- and even any against rational logic itself. A few halachic examples include: the halachois of mikvah, where due to Rabbinic invasion of the marital bedroom two weeks out of every month, men have to take matters into their own hands, if you know what I mean; the notion of animal sacrifice: killing an innocent animal for our own self serving purposes; the killing of an animal that has been the forced subject of bestiality; and the laws of Cherem, the complete decimation of the indigenous population during Kibbush Eretz Yisroel, including women and children.

Other examples include: the promotion of Dovid HaMelech and Shlomo HaMelech as role models and as the paradigmatic rulers of Klal Yisroel, even though Dovid was a murderer and Shlomo was an idolater whose despotism towards the northern tribes resulted in the breakup of the united monarchy; and the promotion of Aroin HaKoihain’s descendants as the priestly caste despite Aroin’s guilt in the Maiseh Ha-Eygel. How are we to relate to a faith that is founded upon many values that we do not necessarily share?

I am reminded of a famous Maaseh Shehoya. Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavicher Rebbe, was once walking to shul on Shabbos morning. It was cold that day, and Reb Shneur struggled to keep his hands warm. As he was crossing the street he noticed Malkah Shprintza, the childless woman who lived across the street. “Come over here so I can give you a bracha!” he called over to her. She walked across the street, and he greeted her by rapidly grabbing her behind and cupping a naked buttock in each freezing hand.

“Rebbe!” she screamed, “what are you doing?”

He replied “I am giving you a bracha: The Reboinoisheloilum should make you favored like Ruchel, fertile like Leah and cunning like Rivka.”

“What happened to Sarah Imainu?” Malkah Shprintza asked, suddenly enchanted by the grand Rebbe’s bracha.

Reb Shneur Zalman looked at her and smiled. “Meideleh” he said, “trust me, you don’t want to be like Sarah Imainu. She was crazier than my mother in law during a hot flash on Yoim Kippur!” With that, Reb Schneur rushed into shul just in time to do vodka shots.

So, just as the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, we have to be intelligently selective about how we understand, and apply, the foundational elements of the Toirah. Should we abandon the faith? No. But that does not mean that we should behave like brainless automatons.

In many ways, we practice Yiddishkeit not because of many of these foundational elements, but despite them. We coexist uncomfortably with these Halachois, stories and role models. We can choose to ignore them, or to embrace them. Just so long as we understand that the main gift of Hakkadoshboruchhu is free will.

However, you minuval, you may choose to reject free will -- in which case you should feel free to partake of every roadside prostitute, just like our ancestor Yehuda. And if you do, just remember to bring cash. Always bear in mind the timeless lesson of Yehuda: if you leave a prostitute your cloak, your staff or other forms of ID as payment, it is likely to come back and bite you in the ass.

Ah Gutten Shabbos, you Minuval.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

On Forgiveness

On Forgiveness


I wrote the below words on a plane, returning from a trip to Germany during the Aseres Yemai Teshuvah. I did not send them at the time because, frankly, I was very disappointed with the behavior of my Talmidim on Roish Hashanah: Everyone was constantly talking. The men were Davening without Kavannah. The women had their Sheytlach on lopsided. And all in front of Hakkadoshboruchhu, on His birthday no less! You should all be ashamed of yourselves!

Well, now, two months later, I have forgiven you. The Reboinoisheloilum probably hasn’t, but He seems to have His hands full, what, with the European economic crisis, the various civil uprisings in the Middle East, the NBA lockout, and Herman Cain’s harem.


I had the good fortune of being designated the Chief Rabbi of this year’s Oktoberfest in Munich, a hearty celebration of creation: The men celebrate the creation of beer by consuming excessive amounts of overpriced lager while walking around in Lederhosen, leather Gatkis held up by suspenders, looking like overgrown little boys. (This was Michael Jackson’s favorite annual holiday, they say.) And the women celebrate creation by prominently displaying the excessive cleavage with which the Aimishteh generously endowed them. “Boruch Oiseh Maisei Beraishis!”

It is odd to visit Germany during Tishrei, the month that begins with Roish Hashanah, includes Yoim Kippur, and ends with Sukkois. According to Chazzal, the book of life is written on Roish Hashanah, it is signed and sealed on Yoim Kippur, but it is only picked up by FEDEX on Shmini Atzeres. So nearly the entire month is dedicated to contemplating the past and repenting, as well as spending many, many hours in Shul to avoid having to spend time with your mother-in-law.

When visiting Germany at this time of year one cannot help but think about the broader theme of repentance and forgiveness, not the Teshuvah of an individual, but the repentance of a collective, of a whole society. Can a society which committed such extreme crimes truly repent? And at what point does forgiveness become manifest?
I must say that today’s Germany is a beautiful country. The people are largely very nice. Some of the architecture is magnificent. Germany is clearly the economic engine of the whole of Europe, propping up the Continent in its moments of crisis. And, if we are honest, it is a country whose actual sinners are no more. Any remaining Nazis from World War II are infirm, are in hiding, or are institutionalized at Saint Adolf’s Home For Retired Nazis, whiling away their time playing checkers.

So, in day to day in Germany you are highly unlikely to meet a person who has Jewish or Russian or Polish or Gypsy or Communist or Homosexual blood on his hands. In that sense, a chapter of history is over.

And let’s face it: They may have killed my grandparents and my aunts and uncles, but any society that produces the greatest beer in the world and eats soft pretzels for breakfast cannot be all bad…

So the notion of individual sin in Germany is no longer relevant. But yet, there is a collective legacy .

Truth be told, Germany is a society which has struggled to come to terms with its legacy. Reparations were paid in the billions to individuals and to the State of Israel (and continue to be paid). Germany is an anchor of support for the State of Israel in many quiet ways that are not well know, such as serving as the conduit for negotiations for Israeli soldiers being held captive, including Gilad Shalit. And, indeed, Jewish life has undergone a renaissance in many cities throughout Germany, especially in Berlin. In Munich, the new Jewish Cultural Center is a museum that houses the city’s central synagogue and is broadly celebrated for its architecture. This in a city that is famous for its grand architectural tradition, as well as its Beer Hall Putsches.

Not all is perfect of course. There are Neo Nazis. There are extensive business dealings with Iran and other countries that are not our friends. But one can say the same about any Western country. And if you are looking for places where Jew hating is a daily sport, you need not look beyond Mea Shearim, Bnei Brak, Williamsburg, or Boro Park.

And one must certainly contrast the German approach with the Austrian approach, where denial of complicity in the Shoah continues to this day. So on the whole, guilt has been acknowledged and repentance has been manifested. Teshuvah has been performed.

But is there forgiveness?

I recall a recent e-mail debate about whether the Yeshivah’s Kiddush Committee should participate in a boycott of certain brands of scotch that are either manufactured or bottled in a specific region of Scotland that is boycotting Israeli products. I was a strong advocate of the scotch boycott, though one detractor argued that if one buys German products, why shouldn’t they also buy these specific brands of scotch. So a debate ensued in which discussion of a contemporary issue morphed into a discussion of how one should relate to historical crimes. Do all of the reparations, all of the political and social measures, compensate for all of the loss of life? Can you put a price on loss of life and human suffering?

Which brings us to the exchange of Gilad Shalit for over 1,000 Palestinians prisoners, many with “blood on their hands”, personally guilty for some of the most heinous acts of terror of the last 15 years. Does the release of the planners of the Sbarro bombing and other such acts signal forgiveness, especially when there has been no Teshuvah? And yet, a price was paid as ransom. But would any of us argue in our right minds that forgiveness of prison sentences in this instance is in any way equal to the forgiveness of crimes committed?

So forgiveness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

When we contemplate our own repentance, we tend to focus on Teshuvah as an individual act for individual sins. But we should not forget communal Teshuvah as well. How often have we looked the other way within our own community when we knew of people cheating the government in areas like taxes and social welfare programs? How often have we ignored the silent victims of sexual and child abuse, because to address the issues face on would be a “Shanda for the Goyim”? How often have we fallen into the trap of arrogance or self-righteousness? “They persecuted us.” “We are only doing what others do.” “I put on Tfillin, I am Chosen, therefore I am exempt.”

Teshuvah, you Minuval, is not a simple formula,. It is not that the Klopping on the chest and the recitation of endless Al Chayts naturally guarantee forgiveness. These are formulas designed to create a state of ,mind, a sense of humility, as well as countless black and blue marks. But insincere words and deeds do not constitute Teshuvah.

I am reminded of a Maiseh Shehoya. The Kotzker Rebbe was once suffering from a toothache, so he went to visit the dentist. After the dentist performed a tooth extraction, he asked for a payment of fifty zloties. “I will give something even better than zloties” the Kotzker responded. “I will give you words of Toirah.”

So the Kotzker delivered a Drasha on the power of Kavanah and the seven levels of heaven, culminating in the secret formula for reaching Oilam Habbah, being rewarded in the World to Come.

“But Rabbi” the dentist said, “I am a Roman Catholic. I don’t believe in a word you said.”

“That’s OK” the Kotzker replied. “Neither do I.”

Rabboisai, Klal Yisroel is scarred by our collective history. Many of us struggle with keeping our historical legacy of persecution in perspective: The Romans, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Poles, the Cossacks, the Nazis, etc. We retain grudges and prejudices against individuals over communal crimes, in many cases long in the past. It is a part of our own collective identity. I am persecuted, therefore I am. But while we need to retain the lessons of the past, we mustn’t be trapped in it. Your mother-in-law may have given birth to your spouse, but you certainly don’t want her to move in and sleep with you every night.

Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval.

Friday, December 02, 2011

On Current Events




On Current Events


Please excuse my mispellingz. I am writing this on my IPad as I sit here in Tahrir Square in Cairo, checking out all the hot Muslim Brotherhood meidlach wearing their hijabs. I am astounded at how they can believe that their drab cloth hair coverings are any more modest than the Sheytel of my Bashert, Feigeh Breinah, which is made out of the actual real hair of Adolph Hitler’s granddaughter, coiffed in the 1970s style of Farrah Fawcett Majors by my wife’s trusted Sheytelmacher, Schprintze Guttenschtupp.

I have been out here for two and a half weeks with my comrades in arms, standing here in the cold, and the heat, sipping mint tea and eating baklawa when not running from the secret police. I have made many new friends: Mustafa, who is a lawyer with the Egyptian law firm Hussein Hussein Hussein and Goldberg; Abdul, who is a teacher in a high school earning seventy dollars a month and all the chick peas he can eat; Kareem, who is unemployed, loves American movies, and would like to marry a nice Jewish girl and move to Florida; and Anwar, who is a shopkeeper and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who constantly thanks me effusively for supporting their cause, and then tells me how and his friends will celebrate the joy and freedom of the new Egypt by dancing on my grave when I am dead.

Rabboisai, there is a famous story about the Vilna Goyn. He once was sitting in his Bais Medrish learning Hilchois Tashmish HaBackSeatOfTheCar when two Talmidim of the Yeshiva broke into a loud argument, disrupting the studies of the entire Yeshiva. “Shah, you Minuvals!” the Goyn called out. But his students would not stop bickering, and he called them into his office. As they sat down on either side of him, sulking, he poured himself a double shot of single malt Shlivovitz.

“So you Vilde Chayas” the Goyn asked, “what is so important that you had to disturb my learning just when I was getting to the happy ending?”

Yechiel, his Talmid Muvhak, responded. “I found the jacket that I am holding.” With both hands he held onto a black wool coat trimmed with linen.

The other student, Oivadiah, held onto the other end of the coat and shouted “no, I found it!” Oivadiah was a new student in the Yeshivah whose tan complexion made him stand out from all the other pale students.

Yechiel argued, “No, it only belongs to me!”

“No, it only belongs to me!” Oivadiah replied.

The Vilna Goyn grabbed the coat out of both of their hands and declared “I will decide who this belongs to!” The students were immediately silent. An intense heat emanated from the Goyn’s eyes as he looked first at one and then the other. The few moments felt liked an uncomfortable abyss of solitude. Suddenly the Goyn spoke, in a soft but stern voice. “This coat belongs to Yechiel.”

“But Rebbe,” Oivadiah responded, “how can you declare that the coat belongs to that Mamzer? The Mishnah teaches us that in such a case, you have to divide the garment between the two of us.”

“That is true,” replied the Goyn. “But you are Sephardic, so I simply don’t like you. Now walk out of my office before I hand you over to the Cossacks!”

Rabboisai, this beautiful Maiseh Shehoya illustrates the conflicting emotions felt by all of us in these challenging days. On the one hand, the Goyn knew full well the prescription of the first Mishnah in Baba Metziah, that an object in dispute, with a shared claim of possession and no other external evidence, must be divided equally between the two parties. And this rule is a Halacha LeMoishe MiSinai, handed down to Moishe Rabbeinu by the Reboinoisheloilum Himself during a commercial break during an episode of Glee. On the other hand, the Goyn resented all Sephardim ever since a Yemenite girl would not let him get to third base on their first date.

Such is our dilemma. As we observe the happenings in Egypt over he last several weeks, we cannot help but be pulled in opposite emotional directions. We are a People with a legacy that favors self determination, freedom of expression, and emancipation from authoritarianism. The Toirah reminds us many times that we must never forget that we ourselves were slaves in Egypt, and that the Exodus to freedom represented the culmination of our establishment as a nation and our covenant with Hakadoshboruchhu. (“Ani Hashem Eloikaichem Asher Hoitzaisee Esschem MaEretz Mitzrayim Lihyois Lachem Lailoikim.”)

Having said that, the Jewish national enterprise has been blessed by thirty years without a true existential threat, thanks to the stability ensured by the Mubarak regime. There has been respect for the peace treaty and collaboration on many security related issues. We may be at odds internally and externally about the ultimate disposition of the West Bank and Gaza, but the sudden uncertainties with the one country that represents the nexus of an existential military challenge to Israel has us all suddenly declaring “Palestinians Schmalestinians. Now we have REAL problems.”

Moreover, as members of Western countries, whether in the US, Canada, Israel, the Western Europe nations, or the Republic of Togo, we have all benefited from the geopolitical stability contributed by the Egyptian government in the global struggle against Al Qaeda, the fight against the spread of radical Islamist extremism, and the worldwide front against Shmuley Boiteach.

So we are all conflicted by our core empathy for national liberty juxtaposed against the very rational fear of the long term implications for the West and for Israel, and for what may follow, which could under an extreme outcome become a truly despotic regime echoing the tyranny of modern Iran. Moreover, if Egypt becomes a country which is closed to us, where will American and British college and yeshiva students studying in Israel go to buy cheap hash from Bedouins? That would truly be a crisis indeed!

With all of these deep challenges, we can be grateful that we are the Chosen People! Other nations would have to figure such things out for themselves, but we can turn to the Toirah for guidance and inspiration, as well as for Divine reasons to pay 50% extra for a basic meal.

The Toirah tells us about Yankif Avinu’s flight from his twin brother Eisav, and discusses his trepidation about remeeting him later in life. When that meeting occurs, Yankif Avinu prepares by surrounding himself by an outer ring of his concubines and their sons, with his wives and favored sons protected in the center. In the end, Yankif’s worst fears never materialize, as his brother embraces him and steals his wallet.

Whatever our personal preferences, on either side of the equation, it was never our place to determine the outcome of the political struggle in Egypt. This is a historic movement operating under its own momentum. We must remember one key notion: This issue was never really about Israel. As much as Israel and Jews have been scapegoated by both sides whenever it is most convenient, this is a political phenomenon that is about the aspirations for greater self-determination by the Egyptian People.

It may hurt you to hear this, you Mechutziff, but most of what goes on in the world is not about Klal Yisroel. We complain when we are blamed for the ills of the world. And then we complain when we are not at the center of attention. We complain when we are the victims of anti-Semitism, and then we complain when we are treated like all the other nations of the world. The Toirah often calls us an “Am Kshey Oireph”, a “stiff necked people”. But we are also a tremendously narcissistic nation. The Jews are like a woman in a low cut dress who is upset when people stare at her cleavage, and is equally upset when no one tries to sneak a peek.

So the current events, which have the potential to have profound and dramatic impact upon us, were never really about us. There was never anything that we did or could do to impact the phenomenon that resulted in regime change in Egypt.

But what we can do is determine how we respond, how we prepare, and how we react. Unlike our ancestors of 70 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 1,000 years ago, we are a strong nation which has taken its fate into its own hands. We are not victims to the events of the world, but active players in the ongoing historical narrative.

Like the Egyptians in Tahrir Square, we too hold our fate in our own hands. We should not cower in fear, but stand proudly as we walk cautiously into the future.

Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval.