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Friday, June 29, 2012

On the Essence of Prayer



On the Essence of Prayer


This week I respond to a shailah from a conscientious talmid concerned about the essence of his Tefilois.

David C. writes:

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I took special notice of the inclusion of the pussuk “Shehaim Mishtachavim LaHevel VaRik Umitpallelim El El Lo Yoshiyah” in the Alenu prayer. Apparently, some people include this verse in their daily prayers, while others do not. What should I do?

David C.

Reb Duvid,

First, let me complement you on such a wonderful and insightful shailah resulting from what is obviously a high level of attentiveness during tefillah. You have only been davening for how many years, and you first noticed that there are parentheses around this passuk?! Next thing, you’ll ask if it is common that people should stand silently like schmucks for five minutes during Shacharis, Mincha and Maiyriv, and you’ll wonder why everyone sits down towards the end of Shacharis and Mincha, grabs a hold of their jacket, and smells their underarms. Very observant. Shkoiyach.

With regard to your question, the passuk you refer to translates as “They bow to emptiness and pray to a diety that will bring no salvation.” There is indeed a great machloikess – rabbinic debate – about the passuk’s inclusion in contemporary prayer, as it was originally removed to allay friction with the Catholic Church. And indeed, the BACH holds that the pussuk is in fact an indictment of the worship of Yushka Pandra. However, the TAZ notes that the BACH probably made this statement as a reflection of his resentment towards Catholicism, a resentment brought on by the BACH’s hot shiksa secretary consistently refusing to, err..., play “hide the tzaylem” with him, Rachmana Letzlan.

However, the actual intent of the reference of the word “Shehaim”, “They,” is nisht azaiy pashoot, not so simple. Who does the pussuk refer to when it says that “their” prayers are for naught? Chazal expended much effort on this theme, used up a few reams of paper, and were even compelled to change an ink cartridge on their printers.

According to the RAMBAN, the word “they” refers to Muslims. Says the RAMBAN, anyone who can strap suicide bombs on their men and dress their women in burkas that cover up 98 percent of their luscious, hot Mediterranean bodies won’t be having their prayers listened to by Hakkadoshboruchhu anytime soon.

But according to the Hai Goyn, the term “Shahaim” actually refers to women. They spend all day talking about their clothing, their architectural plans for the house, and the latest romance novel they read, while at the same time complaining about all they have to do regarding taking care of the kids, managing the household, and pursuing their careers. And at the end of a long day, they insist that you come home to have a gefilte fish party, if you know what I mean, while they continue to have no interest in getting fleishig by snacking on the party weenies. If they only channeled some of their ceaseless energy to better use, they could take on a third job so you and I could work less and study more Toirah.

However, according to Reb Yoisaiph Cairo, the “they” refers to Ashkenazic Jews, with their matzoh balls, their pale skin and their big noses. They think they created Yiddishkeit, and hold up as fundamental tenets of their faith the notions that Moishe Rabbeinu was an accountant, Eliyahu Hanavi was a pediatric gynecologist, and Yankif Avinu spoke with a Lithuanian accent (Voos?!) Do you think that Hakkadoshboruchhu would ever want to listen to them? If their wives won’t, why the hell should He?

According to the RAMAH, the pussuk actually refers to Sephardim, with their swarthy looks, their hairy backs, and their siddur that the Aimishteh Himself couldn’t follow along in. Question: Why does a Sephardi eat rice and beans on Peysach instead of eating only Shmurah Matzoh like a real Jew? Answer: So he can save money in order to buy magic oil amulets from his turban-wearing-Rabbi. Says that RAMAH, Sephardim aren’t even Jews – between their ululations (Lululululululu!!!!) and their henna parties, they are either Shiite or Hindu, but they certainly aren’t Yiddin.

Finally, according to the Vilna Goyn, the work “Shehaim” refers to Chassidim. Why would the Reboinoisheloilum want to spend any time listening to men who wear fur hats in ninety degree weather anyway? And what’s with that gartel thing? Koolay almah lo pleegee -- everybody holds, Misnagdim and Chassidim alike – that the elastic waistband in a person’s underwear functions as an adequate separation between his upper body and lower body during prayer. So why do Chassidim wear a gartel at davening? Very simple – because they don’t wear underwear! And do you think that Hakadoshboruchhu will listen to someone with his schvantzlach hanging out?

So what does it all mean? What and who does the pussuk of “Shehaim Mishtachavim” refer to?

The Tefillah of Aleynu is considered to be quite old, and there is even the suggestion that the prayer goes back to the time of the Bais Hamikdash and was a central prayer in the Avoidah. So the Tefillah itself predates Christianity, Islam, the geographic splintering of Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and certainly the establishment of Chassidoos. The Tefilla doesn’t pre-date women, chass v’sholom, but given that women were not allowed into the Bais Hamikdash, the Koihain Gadol would not have wanted to mention them, lest he incur the wrath of the Aimishteh, who, we are told in Beraishis Rabbah, is a complete misogynist. So the pussuk cannot refer to any of the above-mentioned groups.

However, we may be able to detect a clue from the pussuk in question itself. The latter clause of the pussuk, “Umispallelim El El Lo Yoishiyah,” is a direct quote from a pussuk in Sefer Yishayahu, Perek Mem Hey, Pussuk Chuff (Isaiah, Chapter 45, Verse 20). If we look at the original context, Yishayahu HaNavi makes a prophecy addressed to the Persian King Koiresh. Now, how Yishayahu, who lived at the time of Chizkiyahu HaMelech during Bayis Rishoyn, can be speaking to a Persian king who lived two hundred years after him, I have no idea. Maylah, maybe he had a time machine. Or maybe Koiresh heard the prophecy in a podcast on his Royal I-Pod.

In any case, the original context of the Perek in Yishayahu upon which the pussuk in Aleynu is based is a contrast between the monotheistic faith of Klal Yisroel and the Pagan faiths of their neighbors (not including Persians, who, via Koiresh, are viewed as heroes). It is a rejection of pagan prayer vessels, e.g., idols, but also specifically rejects pagan beliefs and philosophies, such as creation of the world as “Chaos.” Consequently, the world described in the pussuk is not the world of today. It is a world of classical avoidah zorah, a world that no longer exists, at least outside of 770 Eastern Parkway.

I personally do not recite this pussuk, just in case the guy standing next to me in shul is secretly a devil worshipping pagan sent to spy on Klal Yisroel for the purposes of shmad, or is a Buddhist working for the IRS. So should people who choose to say the pussuk continue to do so?

I am reminded of a beautiful vort given by Rabbi Nachman MiBreslov. Rabbi Nachman was visiting Minsk one Shabbos. On of his followers, a short Jew names Shloimi came up to him and asked, “Rebbi Nachman, is it true that if I say the letters of your name over and over again, it will bring about the geulah?”

Rebbi Nachman smiled and put his arm around Shloimi. Then he hugged him. Them he started humming a tune, a special niggun usually sung before drinking shots of vodka on a Friday night.

After a few minutes, Shloimi looked up and asked, “so, Rebbe, what is the answer to my question.”

Rebbi Nachman let go of his follower and looked at him. “Reb Shloimi, you tell me: Does it make sense that saying my name, the name of a flesh and blood being, again and again, will bring about redemption?”

“No,” Shloimi responded.

“And you figured that one out all by yourself, you schmendrick?”

“Yes.” Shloimi’s voice cracked as he began to turn a bright shade of red.

“Then why ask such a question in the first place? Use a bit of common sense, for Chrissakes! I am your spiritual advisor, but if what you really need is someone to make every decision for you, go home to your mother. Toirah requires you to use your brain and is not a substitute for your mother’s teat!”

So, my beloved Reb Duvid, I must say the same thing to you. It seems rather obvious that this pussuk is not relevant to today, certainly as a contrast to the Christian and Muslim worlds, both of which have adopted forms of Monotheism rooted in our great tradition. Moreover, this pussuk denies the essence of the Neshama with which all human beings were created, Jews and non-Jews alike, and by which we are all linked to Hakadoshboruchhu. But if it makes you feel better to say the pussuk, gizunteh heit. After all, the Aimishteh probably isn’t listening to you anyway.

Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Parshas Koirach



Parshas Koirach

In this week's Parsha, Koirach, once again a portion of Klal Yisroel rebels against the Reboinoisheloilum's rule. A group led by Koirach challenges Moishe Rabbeinu's appointment as the Aimishteh's personal representative and business manager. After returning to their tents, Koirach and his minions are swallowed up whole into the ground.

How stupid are these Mishugayim anyway? How many times do they have to be told that they should shut up and study Toirah instead of asking for food and the right to return to Mitzrayim to visit the pyramids and eat Traifus? And how much abuse does Hakodoshboruchhu have to tolerate before he smites all the minuvals down like cockroaches with a strong hand, an outstretched arm, and a really big shoe?

I know you were asking these questions, you good-for-nothing Amhaaretz, but they are actually stupid questions. I mean, we read this same Parsha every year. It hasn't changed since the Redactor compiled the text in Babylon -- OOPS -- I mean since the Aimishteh dictated the Toirah to Moishe on Sinai.

No, the real question isn't why the people keep on rebelling. Rather, it is: Why do we, and our wise Rabbinical predecessors, continue to look back at the generation of the Exodus as the paradigm of Jewish virtue, when in truth they were a bunch of Vilda Chayas? Compared to them, a band of marauding rabid water buffalo are cooperative.

Indeed, this paradox is highlighted in the following Maiyseh Shehoyo: In the late 1950s, the Bobover Rebbe was sitting in first class on an airplane next to the famous playwright Arthur Miller. The playwright observed the care and reverence with which the Bobover Chassidim escorted their Rebbe through the airport, got him settled on the plane, and checked on his well-being periodically. Miller turned to the Rebbe and asked, "Rabbi, how come it is that when I lecture at a university, a pillar of secular knowledge, I am treated casually by the students, even with disrespect, while you, teaching an archaic tradition, are treated with respect, almost as a beloved surrogate parent, by your followers?"

The Rebbe smiled, and replied, "It is very simple -- you, a secular person, tell your students that they are descended from monkeys, so when they look at you, they see a person one generation closer to their primitive ape past. We tell our students that they are descended from the generation at Sinai, so when they see me, they see a person one generation closer to the face to face encounter with the Aimisheh."

Arthur Miller stroked his chin and thought for a moment. And then he responded, "That may be true, but I am sleeping with Marilyn Monroe, so who cares?"

The Bobover Rebbe, recognizing that he had lost the argument, never traveled by airplane again.

The Tanna Kamma alludes to this question in a Mishnah in Maseches Nidah, Perek Gimmul. He suggests that the reason the Aimishteh enacted restrictions on "relations" with one's wife during her natural cycle (Zman Nidasa) is so that 50% of Klal Yisroel will always be so frustrated they will be ready to go to war over a missing paper clip.

However, The Zoihar tells a tale of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai sitting around a campfire with his female students and giving them life advice. He said, "When your husband calls you an idiot, it is the best news you have had all day." This is understood as a reference to the Kabbalistic understanding of the relationship between the Aimishteh and Klal Yisroel. The Aimishteh is seen as the groom, and the Jews as the bride. And what what could be more natural, or even healthy, than occasional bickering, or even a good knock-down-drag-out argument over who takes out the garbage or whose turn it is to do the dishes. Or in the case of Klal Yisroel, dancing around the Eigel Hazahav while eating traifus. Rather than leading to divorce, this keeps the marriage vibrant and stimulates the senses.

I am reminded of my own wedding day to my Bashert, Feige Breinah. As I stood under the Chuppah waiting for her to join me, I wished that the earth would open underneath my feet, just as it had for Koirach. Would I be a good husband? Could I manage a strong Jewish household? Would I be able to consummate my marriage that night without the ritual twenty minutes of begging?

The moment of introspection was broken by my bride. As she walked down the aisle and circled me seven times, she softly whispered, "wipe that stupid look off your face; the video camera is running!!"

So a little tension between bride and groom is quite healthy. Klal Yisroel in the desert understood this, which is why they frequently rebelled, about leadership, about idols, about what to eat, and about leaving the comforts of Egypt.

In honor of the generation of the Exodus, we too must keep the vibrance and energy of the relationship with the Aimishteh alive. Consequently, we are compelled to eat the occasional Traifus and watch the occasional game on Shabbos. We are supposed to have unclean thoughts and covet the property of others. For if we do not, we will fail to live up to the heritage of our forefathers.

Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Parshas Shlach



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Before I deliver my weekly Drasha, I would like to respond to several comments sent my way over the last two weeks. "Why" people have asked, "have you not published in the last two weeks? Have you become a Meshumid, or even worse, a Reform Jew?"

Well, truth be told, there is a simple answer: I WORK FOR A LIVING!!

And do you know why? Because you, my beloved Talmidim, are a bunch of good-for-nothing Mamzerim! How many of my books have you bought? How much have you contributed to my Yeshivah? It breaks my heart, especially when I read about the great wealth accumulated by several charlatans... err... great Rabbanim in Eretz Yisroel.

Rebboinoisheloilumdammit! I expect you Talmidim to be buying my books and sending me checks left and right so can make this list next year!

Otherwise I will no longer pray to Hakkadoshboruchhu on your behalf, hand out magical amulets, or give out Red Bendeleh strings to wear around your Schvantzyls (or your wrists, if you are a woman, Chass V'Sholom). Instead, I will daven for you to have erectile dysfunction or sagging Tzitzim.



Parshas Shlach

This week's parsha, Shlach Lecha, is one of the most confusing Parshiyois in Kol Hatoirah Kooloh. Takkah, I had to read it three times to make sure it wasn't the latest issue of the National Enquirer. Or even worse, a Medrish.

Moishe Rabbeinu sends twelve spies into Eretz Yisroel to determine the fertility of the land, the vulnerability of the local populations, and the volatility of interest rates. The Meraglim come back and claim at first that the land is fertile, but the locals are too intimidating. They later change their story to say that the land itself does not provide adequate sustenance. Why can't they make up their minds, those mishagayim? Only Yehoshua and Culayv are optimistic about Klal Yisroel’s ability to conquer the land.

Confusing point #1: What could these people have been thinking? I mean, why would Yehoshua and Culayv be interested in Eretz Yisroel? How about Madagascar? Or Dubai? What about Miami Beach? Or Brooklyn?

Also, as the spies were surveying the Promised Land, why didn't the Meraglim note that the hotels are overpriced; the people are rude; it's hard to find a decent kosher meal in Tel Aviv; oh, and HALF THE POPULATION WANTS TO KILL YOU!!!!

Takkah, according to a Medrish in Divrei Hayamim Rabbah, the Meraglim never even made it into the heartland of Eretz Yisroel. Unbeknownst to Moishe Rabbeinu and the Bnei Yisroel, the spies secretly went down to Eilat and spent seven days on the beach ogling at the topless Scandinavian women.

Confusing point #2: When Klal Yisroel, those Behaimas, panick and long to return to Egypt, the Reboinoisheloilum decides to kill them all. Moishe Rabbeinu pleads for their lives by using a somewhat surprising argument: (Bamidbar, Perek Yud Daled, Possuk Tess Vuv-Tess Zayin) “... if you (the Aimishteh) shall destroy this People in a single instance, the nations (of the world) which have heard of you will say, 'The Aimishteh slaughtered this People in the desert because He was unable to bring them into the Land which he swore to them...'"

In other words, "What will the Goyim say?"

What will the Goyim say?!!! Who does Moishe think he is – Bibi Netanyahu or Simon Peres? Since when does Moishe Rabbeinu worry about the Goyim? Since when does any Jew worry about the opinions of the Goyim, those anti-Semites? Why, as is well known, in the world to come, the GOOD Goyim will walk around all day holding onto my tzitzis. And the BAD Goyim are going to be my "bitches", since, according to the Ari Zahl, when Moshiach comes there will no longer be a prohibition of Mishkav Zachar.

No wonder Moishe was never let into Eretz Yisroel! If he likes the Goyim so much, he should learn to play golf and shave with a blade.

The RAIVID, when looking at this episode, suggests that Moishe was secretly trying to anger Hakkadoshboruchhu in order to be released from his contract. The Mesopotamians were offering him 50% more per year to be their leader, six weeks of vacation, plus unlimited use of the corporate magic carpet.

However, the RAMBAN holds that Moisheh made the defensive argument in earnest. And, remarkably, the Aimishteh ultimately relented and did not destroy Klal Yisroel (although He did raise management fees by 50 basis points).

What is going on here? I am reminded of a famous story in Gemarrah Yevumois about Rabbi Tarfun. Once, at the end of a three day Yuntif, Rabbi Tarfun went to put out the last of his garbage bags. However, he found that all the garbage cans outside of his house were full. He was about to put the bags into the cans of his Gentile neighbors, when his wife stopped him, and insisted that he get permission first. "Why?" he asked her, as she painted the toe nails of their thirteen daughters.

She responded, "you never know when you are going to need a Gentile's help." And it came to pass that three weeks later, as he tried to assemble his children’s' new swing set, the Gentile next door was the only person in the entire neighborhood who knew how to change the head of a socket wrench.

This theme is also addressed in a famous story in the Zoihar. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was sitting in the cave where he hid from the Romans for 14 years. After spending an afternoon meditating, Rabbi Shimon fell asleep. Using his deep Kabbalistic knowledge and the pureness of his soul, he summoned the presence of the Reboinoisheloilum. "What do you want, Reb Shimon? I'm on another call," Hakkadoshboruchhu asked.

"Aimishteh," Rabbi Shimon responded, "I am getting tired of living in this filthy cave. Can you please take me away from all this suffering, and reward me with land and wealth and lots of spare time for Toirah and day trading? Why do the Goyim have it so good, while I, one of your chosen few, continue to struggle?"

The Reboinoisheloilum paused for a moment, and then responded in a low monotonous tone that was little above a whisper. "Reb Shimon, how many people in the world are there?" He asked.

"Why, about six billion" Rabbi Shimon slowly responded.

Hakkadoshboruchhu continued. "And how many Jews are there in the world?"

Again, Rabbi Shimon answered, this time quickly, and with more confidence in his voice. "I would guess about twenty million."

The Aimishteh then raised His voice. "So do you think that in a world of six billion people, all reality revolves around the actions and the fate of 20 million people, three tenths of one percent of the global population? What kind of reefer are you smoking in that cave, you michutziff??"

So the truth is, whether we like it or not, world opinion does matter. This may not make sense to you, you Am Haaretz, but neither does Shatnez or yeshiva tuition.

It also doesn't make sense that after witnessing all of the miracles of the exodus from Egypt, the ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, and receiving the Toirah, Klal Yisroel continues to rebel against the Reboinoisheloilum at every turn. But they should get over it already, and so should you.

Life doesn't make sense. And if you don't like it, you can always quit the religion and convert to Catholicism. There are a lot more of them.

Also I hear the tuition is cheaper. Plus you might make a little extra cash when the Church pays you off after your children are abused.

Ah Gutten Shabbos You Minuval


Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshiva Chipas Emmess