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Friday, May 23, 2014

NEW -- Lessons from the Life of Rabbi Akiva



Lessons from the Life of Rabbi Akiva


The Talmud tells us that the great Rabbi Akiva spent forty years as a poor shepherd, uneducated, an ignoramus just like you, you Minuval. But one day he happened upon a stone whose center had been washed away by steady droplets of water over a long period of time. And it was at that point when he said to himself, "Schmuck! Why am I chasing goats around when there is a fortune to be made in licensing fees, royalties, and residuals?!" So began the rabbinic career of one of the greatest rabbis in history, alongside the RAMBAM, Reb Yoisaiph Karo, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and Rabbi Shmuli Boiteach.

What were the essential accomplishments of Rabbi Akiva, and what are the key messages of relevance for us in our day?

For one thing, young Akiva engaged in manual, subsistence labor as a shepherd. The man had to work, to make a living. Wait a second! Didn't he ever hear of welfare and food stamps and Medicaid and Section 8? He must have been a Misnagid! Or even worse - a Litvak!

Upon his moment of epiphany, Akiva embarked on a career of Toirah scholarship. He sat and learned Yoimum V'Layla, day and night, with Rabbi Eliezer Ben Hyrkanos and Nachum Ish Gamzu. He also studied under Moishe Ben Fred and Shloimi Zukt Farkert. There is a Medrish that says that he also sold cell phones on the side, and made additional spending money by scalping tickets to the local Siyum HaShas.

At some point Akiva, probably Rabbi Akiva by then, decided that it was time for Tachlis - time to settle down. So he married the finest catch in all of Jerusalem, Rachel, the beautiful daughter of Kalba Savua. And he promptly asserted his commitment to his new wife by leaving her to go back to the Yeshiva in Lod for seven years, and made sure to tell all of the women that he met in bars in Lod that his name was Ben Hey Hey, and that he was from Cleveland.

Rabbi Akiva was a renowned scholar. He was a major force in the canonization of the Toirah - selecting which books, and presumably which textual variants, to include in the TANACH, and which to leave out. The Gemarrah tells us that he was a strong advocate of including Shir HaShirim and Megillas Esther in the TANACH, but opposed including Maccabees 1 and 2, The Wisdom Of Ben Sira and Huckleberry Finn.

But perhaps his most important textual legacy is his contribution to the structure of Halachic literature. Rabbi Akiva lived at a time when the Pharasaic/ Rabbinic approach was gaining dominance in the Jewish world, as the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash ended worship in the Temple as the central form of connecting to the Reboinoisheloilum, and also ended the source of authority of the Tziddukim, the Sadducees, who were by and large comprised of the landed Priestly elite. Halacha, the growing movement of practicing Jewish ritual in one's daily life, became the popular form of worship among the masses. And Rabbi Akiva is credited with organizing Halacha within the framework of the Shishah Sidrei Mishnah - the six basic categories under which all of Jewish Law is organized. Lesser known is his impact on the organization of the body of... ummm... marital positions, later detailed in the different chapters of Maseches Baba Kama Sutra.

As notoriety of his brilliance grew, Rabbi Akiva gained many followers from all over the Jewish world (not unlike me). His principal students included Rabbi Yehuda Bar Ilai, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Eliezer Ben Shamua, Rabbi Yossi Ben Halafta, and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. But he had many thousands of other rank and file student followers. He also had an extensive Twitter following, a large following on Facebook, and a magazine named after him, "Akiva!" -- filled with lifestyle articles, relationship tips, and featuring the latest men's fashions -- available at the checkout counters of all the supermarkets in Judea.

Rabbi Akiva was more than a religious leader; he was a global figure. The Talmud tells us of his travels to Rome and meetings with the Roman leaders of his time, accounts which are almost certainly historical. There is also a legend that Rabbi Akiva traveled to Ethiopia to settle a marital dispute between a king and his wife. However, reports of Rabbi Akiva traveling to the Playboy Mansion to spend time with Hugh Hefner and the Kardashians is almost certainly myth.

As is well known, Rabbi Akiva was a strong supporter of the Second Rebellion against Rome, and even declared Bar Kochba to be the Moshiach. The practice of engaging in mourning rituals during Sefirah out of respect for the deaths of Rabbi Akiva's students is, in fact, almost certainly a tribute to Rabbi Akiva's students, who in actuality died fighting alongside Bar Kochba at the urging of their religious leader. And the celebration of Lag B'Omer is likely a commemoration of their one night of military leave during the war, which is why it is a strong Minhag on Lag B'Omer to either get married or solicit a prostitute.

Of course, Rabbi Akiva ended his life as a Martyr of Zion. The Talmud tells us how Rabbi Akiva was tortured to death by the Romans, with the skin peeled off his face with hot metal combs. There is a famous Machloikess about what his final words were. According to Abaya, Rabbi Akiva's final words were, "I have done many Mitzvois in my life, but today I have the unique privilege of dying Altz Kiddush HaShem. My life is now complete." According to Rava, his last words were simply the traditional final declaration of faith, "Shema Yisroel Adoishem Eloikeinu Adoishem Echad." But according to Rabba, Rabbi Akiva's last words were, "Ouch! Shit! That fucking hurts!!!"

So what are the relevant lessons of Rabbi Akiva for us, in our generation?

For one thing, Rabbi Akiva was a man of action. He worked for a living, and later, after studying Toirah, supported by his father-in-law, led a great yeshiva, and drove intellectual innovation in Torah study, transforming the teachings of his predecessors into a more structured foundation upon which the Mishnah was built. He also innovated in deriving Jewish law from the words of the Torah, and we have inherited from him the Midrash Halacha. In addition, he is said to have invented the crossword puzzle and, according to Rav Pappa, Tic Tac Toe.

Rabbi Akiva was also very much involved in the outside world. Most scholars believe that he was a key liaison between Jewish communities, visiting Rome, Babylon and elsewhere to ensure communal connectivity. He may also have been involved in raising money to support the uprising against the Romans, and is believed to have encouraged his students to participate in the military rebellion. He was also a world famous poker player, and for six years running was the champion of the Roman Empire's annual Five Card Stud competition.

Rabbi Akiva was capable of change; he did not view his life or his circumstances as a trap. When he decided to study Toirah, he did not hide behind the excuse of being too old or incapable. When he saw intellectual models and ancient teachings that did not make sense, he did not shirk his responsibilities by declaring that "Toirah does not change", but enacted profound changes. He also, later in his life, attended a real estate "no money down" seminar he saw advertised on late night TV and began to build up a real estate portfolio. In addition, he took a six month course to become a "Life Coach", and also became a yoga instructor.

But Rabbi Akiva was also fallible. Needless to say, Bar Kochba was not the Moshiach, and he and his army were ultimately slaughtered by the Romans until, as the Gemarrah tells us, the City of Beitar flowed with blood. As a result of Rabbi Akiva’s actions, thousands of his students died in a failed rebellion, and many others, inspired by Rabbi Akiva, also went to their deaths. And, as a consequence of the war, the Jews were banned from living in or visiting Jerusalem, save for Tisha B’Av, when they were allowed to come to the ruins of the Bais HaMikdash to mourn. This is the actual historical truth; it is somewhat whitewashed by the Gemarrah, which tries to place the blame of the failed rebellion on Bar Koshba alone. But Rabbi Akiva shared responsibility for this cataclysmic national tragedy that we commemorate to this day.

Consequently, Rabbi Akiva’s legacy is mixed. He left a profound intellectual imprint on Jewish thought and Jewish practice, and the many generations that followed that followed built intellectual towers open the foundations shaped by Rabbi Akiva. But many in his generation and subsequent generations suffered because they followed in his errant tactical decisions. Perhaps they viewed him as infallible. But only the Reboinoisheloilum is infallible. NO human being in infallible, save for me, Rabbi Shmuli Boteach, Rush Limbaugh, and Noam Chomsky.

As we look around the challenges faced by our Jewish Community today, there are many lessons we can learn from Rabbi Akiva. For one: Rabbis make mistakes. Whole Jewish communities make mistakes. Let us not ignore the mistakes. Rather, let us acknowledge them and fix them. That includes some of the most basic failure in contemporary Jewish society – which are not purely Jewish issues, but basic human rights:

-- Sexual abuse: There is a plague of sexual abuse within Jewish society. This includes sexual abuse of children, which is often denied and/ or covered up, and therefore enabled. We should not have to worry about the safety of OUR children attending Shul, attending school, going away to summer camp, or going to the Mikvah

-- Lack of education: Many in the Ultra Orthodox world are denied a basic secular education. Consequently, their professional options – the ability to earn a living – are highly limited. This runs against my understanding of the Gemarrah and other sources, where, for example, the Gemarrah in Sotah, Daf 44 Amud Aleph, discusses the requirement of a man to learn a trade

-- The estrangement of family members that leave the fold. Expulsion from the community because of religious differences often results in people being forced to cope with a world they are unprepared for, at a very young age, without proper social or economic tools. This can lead to self destructive behavior including substance abuse and other counterproductive activities

-- Denial of access to children. Often, when a parent decides to move away from communal religious norms, the community bands together to deny access of the parent to his or her child. This is denial of a fundamental human right: If a parent is qualified to nurture a child, it is absolutely IMMORAL to deny that parent access simply because their religious beliefs and practices differ from those of the community. Compromises between spouses and former spouses should always be found to ensure a stable environment and collaboration around child care and education. Stealing of children is what the Romans did to our ancestors in the wake of the failed Bar Kochba rebellion; it should never be done within the Jewish community. ANY Jewish community. (Minuval, if you are not listening, I can repeat it for you in Yiddish.)

Rabboisai, Rabbi Akiva had the courage to change. He had the courage to lead. Yet he was fallible. Overall, he is regarded as one of the greatest figures in Jewish history – on par with Moishe Rabbeinu and the RAMBAM. Let us learn the lessons of his life and act as empowered individuals, and not as the dumb sheep that Rabbi Akiva once herded before he embraced his profound destiny.

Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval.


Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess

Friday, May 16, 2014

Parshas Bechukoisai



Parshas Bechukoisai

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Bechukoisai, we read about the reward and punishment promised us by the Reboinoisheloilum for fulfilling, or violating, His commandments. RASHI asks a pertinent question: Why does the Aimishteh offer us only ten quick Pesukim (verses) of promised reward, while He gives us three times that -- over thirty graphic Pesukim -- warning of harsh consequences? Aren’t we under enough pressure? What’s pshat, for Hakadoshboruchhu’s sake?

According to the Rabenu Tam, on the morning when this parsha was written, the Reboinoisheloilum was having a bad day. As the Medrish Rabbah tells us, when He was not busy studying Toirah, the Aimishteh kept Himself busy doing day trading. And on that morning, He had taken a strong position on a networking stock based on a rumor of a takeover, only to find out that there were serious accounting and reporting errors by the auditing firm of Goldberg, Aronowitz and Schwartz. So He wasn’t feeling that sympathetic to Klal Yisroel. And who can blame Him? Believe me, He lost more money that day than you earn in a whole year, you Minuval!

However, according to the RASHBAM, Hakadoshboruchhu had no ill will for Am Yisroel that day – or any day for that matter. No, says the RASHBAM, on the contrary -- the Reboinoisheloilum loves us! We are His beloved nation, His chosen, His betrothed. However, we learn from this Parsha that the Aimishteh is really into S&M. “I will smite you sevenfold for your sins” (Perek Chuff-Vuv, Pasuk Chuff Daled) is the Toirah's equivalent of Hakadoshboruchhu handcuffing us to the bed and whipping us with His tfillin.

As proof, the RASHBAM points out that the end of the section includes the Reboinoisheloilum telling us ,”Even with all this, with you dwelling in the land of your enemies, I will not despise you… to nullify my covenant with you… I will recall my covenant with your forebears … to be your Lord…” (Perek Chuff-Vuv, Pasukim Mem Daled – Mem Hey). According to the RASHBAM, the Aimishteh is telling us ‘stop crying, you little bitches – you know you like it rough. Let me rub the pain away with my velvet yarmulke.’

The Toisfois Yuntif, however, disagrees with the RASHBAM, who he refers to as a “groisse pervert”, pointing out that upon moving to Lithuania, the RASHBAM was compelled to register as a sex offender. Rather, says the Toisfois Yuntif, the Parsha teaches us that it is hard to be a Jew. If we look at all the Mitzvois Asey and Loi Sa’asey, they are hard to keep. Which comes more naturally to you on a Saturday morning? Turning on the TV and opening a beer, or getting into a suit, putting on a tie, and walking twelve blocks up a hill with your screaming kids only to sit next to some guy in shul who is shukkeling so much you would think he was going to drill a hole through the floor, when all the while his dandruff is the only thing coming between you and his unbrushed shabbos morning breath? Ich vais, how many of us can stand up to that challenge? Of course, we are all three times as likely to violate the commandment!

With this in mind, chazzal has over the years developed a series of strategies to increase the odds of our success, guaranteeing happiness in this life and in Oilum Habah, the World To Come. According to a famous Mishna in Perke Zayin of Pirkei Avois:

-- Rabbi Gamliel use to always carry extra money with him, so that whenever a beggar would come his way, we would always be able to be mekayaim the mitzvah of tezedakah

-- Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah always kept a fully stocked bar, so that he was always ready to perform the mitzvah of Hachnosas Orchim

-- Rabbi Akiva was concerned that he would be too distracted to kiss the mezuzah every time he went into a room. So, after trying mezuzahs made of silver, gold, Jerusalem stone, pottery, and glass, he had one custom built that looked like his wife’s Erva, which he was always sure to kiss as he went into the room. Indeed, a Braisah in Nezikin tells us, after he put on a lot of weight in his later years, Rabbi Akiva discovered that if he spent a little extra time kissing the mezuzah, it made it much easier for him to get through the door.

However, the Baal Shem Toiv vehemently disagrees with this approach. According to the BESHT, “the Toirah is here to inspire us and guide our thinking, not to be taken literally.” Consequently, he points out, the mitvois in the Toirah should be viewed as “voluntary guidelines,” rather than laws, and the threats of punishment should be read as poetry for “spiritual contemplation purposes only”. He adds that to enhance one’s meditation on the text and Hisboidadus with the Shchina, his Chassidic followers should drink a minimum of five shots of vodka, while Mis-Nagdim should drink the same quantity of single malt scotch.

But the Vilna Goyn vehemently disagrees. He insists that you MUST take EVERY WORD in KOL HATOIRAH KOOLOH literally. In discussing Parshas Bechukoisai specifically, he notes that the Toichacha, the Rebuke and warnings of punishment, should be taken quite literally.

But the Goyn doesn’t stop there. He notes the references in the early Pesukim to Klal Yisroel’s divinely driven success on the battlefield: “And you shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall beside you by the Cherev. And five of you shall chase one hundred, and one hundred of you shall chase ten thousand, and your enemies shall fall beside you by the Cherev” (Perek Chuff-Vuv, Pasukim Zayin – Khess). Pointing at the Pasuk, he insists that the use of the term “Cherev”, sword, MUST be taken literally. Consequently, says the Goyn, for AM Yisroel to maintain the favor of Hakadoshboruchhu, the Israeli army should follow Parshas Bechukoisai, set aside all of its advanced weapons, and arm its soldiers with swords ONLY. Any reliance on more modern weapons reflects a complete lack of faith, for which we should be banished “and sent back to Miami Beach” says the Goyn. Shoyn.

I am reminded of a Maiseh Shehoya. The Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, Shloimo Amor, was once in New York, attending an important business meeting at a Korean massage parlor. As he walked into his special “meeting room,” who should he bump into but the Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi of Israel, Yoina Metzger. After their respective happy endings, they sat down for coffee. They began to engage in a machloikess as to whether or not someone in New York may drink the tap water due to the risk of ingesting microscopic crustaceans. They both cited Toirah sources, Rabbinic teachings, and the broad body of Halachic tradition. It became clear that Rabbi Amor had the better constructed teshuvah. At that point Rabbi Metzger blurted out, “ you may be better at reaching a Psak Halacha, but I am a much more accomplished felon!” He went on to cite his indictment for illegally accepting free hotel stays.

Rabbi Amor responded sharply, “no, you michutziff, I am the more accomplished felon. Just because my wife and son have been indicted for arranging the beating of my daughter’s boyfriend, it doesn’t mean I am innocent! I instigated the whole thing!”

At that, Rabbi Metzger stroked his beard slowly, and then exclaimed, “at least I don’t eat rice on Pesach, you shaygitz!”

So we should certainly take the Toirah literally. I know I do. In fact, after Shabbos this week, I plan to go home and emulate the Parsha by handcuffing my bashert to the bed and whipping her with my gartel.

Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval.


Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Parshas B-Har


Parshas B-Har

In this week's parsha we learn of various laws regarding Shmita and Yovel, the Sabbatical and Jubillee years. At the root is the issue of property ownership. All property ownership is temporary -- land in Eretz HaKoidesh may only be sold temporarily; it can never be truly owned. As well, slaves are never truly owned -- they go free at Yovel. You cannot charge interest when lending money. Etc.

RASHI asks: Is this really Toras Moishe? What's pshat you can't charge interest? Next thing you know, we won't be able to use fresh gentile baby's blood in our matzoh!

According to the RAMBAN, all these laws prove that the Reboinoishelolum is really a Communist. To illustrate his point, he interprets Yetzias Mitzrayim as the first instance in the history of the world where the proletariat masses overthrow the bougious minority ruling class in legitimate political struggle of class vs. class.

But the Bais Yoiseph scoffs at the suggestion. He says that, farkhert, the Aimishteh's business model requires that property keeps on reverting to its original owner in order to encourage turnover of real estate and a constant cash flow stream from brokers fees. And He discourages interest simply because He favors equity over debt instruments.

Ironically, as the Toirah discusses Shmita, it uses the term "Shabbos Shabbosoin" -- a term used elsewhere in the Toirah only in reference to Yoim Kippur. According to the Zohar, in the realm of the Ayn Sof, the Kabbalistic term for the unknowable aspects of the Aimishteh, one year in the human realm culminating in Aseres Yemai Teshuvah equals the seven year cycle of the earth ending in Shmita.

This was erroniously intepreted by the false messiah Shabtai Zvi as equating earth years and dog years, and the reason he insisted that his followers eat Alpo immediately following Kol Nidrei. However, the true accepted interpretation was offered by the MAHARAL, who suggested that just as we walk around starving on Yoim Kippur and pray for a good year, during Shmita we should walk around starving and pray for reasonable prices on imported produce.

On a simpler level, we practice our own form of Shmita every week with our celebrating Shabbos Koidesh on the seventh day. The common theme, of course, is the commandment to refrain from any sort of commerce. Once a week we commit not to participate in commercial activity, or even activity which APPEARS to be commerce, such as giving gifts. And, as is well known, when all of Klal Yisroel celebrates one Shabbos completely, Moshiach will come.

Yet according to the Ari Zahl, the Moshiach has not yet come for one reason and one reason alone: The violation of commerce on Shabbos is transgressed in every shul in the world by one person who is single-handedly responsible for keeping us all in the golus -- the shul candy man.

Note the sins and temptations he brings on all Klal Yisroel:

- He insults the very authority of the Reboinoisheloilum. What child wouldn't rather have a sucking candy than listen to a crackly-voiced bar-mitvah bochur or self-absorbed amateur Chazzan? And when did you ever see one of those rotten kids make a bracha?

- He entices children to worship idols. Indeed, lollipops become their own form of Avoidah Zarah, especially when they bear the pictures of Disney characters. And Gummi Bears? The are the modern equivalent of the Eigel!

- He entices children to participate in multiple violations on Shabbos: He engages them in commerce-like activity on Shabbos. He causes children to seperate good candy from bad, an issur Diyoraisa of borer. He causes children to tear candy wrappers. Etc.

- He causes children to disrespect their parents, since they never observe the candy consumption limits put before them.

- Children often steal to get more candy. They lie. They covet ("I don't want my blue lollipop, I want her red lollipop")

In short -- with his devious, seemingly benign presence, the candyman causes children to violate five of the Ten Commandments every Shabbos.

What is the source of this evil incarnate? First of all, in 96% of all shuls, the candyman is older than the Aimishteh himself. On a visit to the Shtetl in Detroit, I once met a shul candyman named Junior -- he was 72 years old. Second of all, what does he want from these little boys and girls anyway? He is likely a pervert. Or even worse, a fundraiser.

The Ari proved through Kabbalistic sources that the candyman is actually the agent the Sutun. This is implied by the other principle sin he causes the children to commit: eating traifus. Ask yourself: Is the candy really kosher? How do you know? According to a medrish in Bubba Basra, Acher, before completely abandoning the faith, started out by eating Skittles.

And just like Acher, the candy man sees his actions as the opportunity to plant the seeds of evil in the neshamas of unsuspecting children. He knows that thirty years in the future, those children, all grown up, won't remember the Rabbi's speech or the Chazzan's davening. They'll fondly recall that Charms lollipop they once ate in shul, as they drive up on Friday night to the takeout window at the drive-through McDonalds to pick up Shabbos dinner.

Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval.


Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess