Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Sunday, September 25, 2011
We find ourselves at the beginning of the Days of Awe, The Ten Days of Repentance, and the start of a new year, Rosh Hashana. It is a time of reflection, of meditation on events and actions from the last twelve months. We all remember going through the same process last year, and we experienced similar struggles, perhaps even the same ones that have troubled our spirituality in years past. Often, we think of grandiose strategies that become more than we can realistically handle, and as a result we find ourselves disappointed that we have not succeeded in improving our character traits, our actions, and our interactions with others. Here we are again, crowning HaShem as our King and looking toward a new year and new possibilities for change and improvement. We must now think: What can we do to make things better for ourselves and those around us in a fashion that will bring us success and growth instead of stagnation and frustration?
As Jews, we turn to the truest and best resource available to us, the Torah itself. The Torah teaches us a very important lesson in Parshas Nitzavim, which we read last Shabbos, that we can use and incorporate into our own lives to provide us with the means to ascend in spirituality and observance. On the last day of his life, amidst many other significant words of rebuke and encouragement, Moshe tells the Jewish People,
For this mitzvah which I command you this day, it is not hidden from you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven that you should say, ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it.’ For the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it. (Devarim 30:11-14).
The Babylonian Talmud (Eruvin 55a) tells us that this passage refers to Torah study itself, informing us that the opportunity to learn Torah is not beyond us, but readily accessible – near and dear – to our hearts. Ramban, in his commentary on these verses, writes that the Torah is actually telling us that teshuva – repentance – is always close at hand, and we can always return from our erroneous ways to better serve HaShem.
I’d like to offer a different interpretation, thereby adding another level of meaning and significance to these famous words imparted by Moshe as explained by the Talmud and Ramban.
The literal reading of the verse refers to an unnamed mitzvah, which Moshe tells us is not too esoteric, distant, or spiritually lofty that we should feel as though we cannot have any sense of achievement in fulfilling it. The reason why Moshe did not specify what mitzvah he was referring to was because he was speaking to each and every Jew individually. We all know that there are certain mitzvos that we think – erroneously – are too hard for us, require too much effort, that seem to be reserved for other people who are more religiously observant or “frum” than we consider ourselves to be. And that, Moshe is informing us, is a mistake.
As imperfect, mortal humans, we have a tendency to self-deprecate far too much. We look at a particular mitzvah and say to ourselves, “Oh, I wish I could do that mitzvah, but I can’t because of X, Y or Z.” We think that if only we were more religious, or we had a better Jewish education growing up, or a myriad of other excuses that our minds can think of to justify our “inability” to fulfill G-d’s commandments. Moshe Rabbeinu is telling us that all these thoughts are entirely misguided. The mitzvos are all within reach, they are not across the ocean in Israel or anywhere else. The mitzvos can be performed by anyone, even people like ourselves with whatever background might be, not just for those we consider to be more religious than ourselves. The Torah is telling us that the reason why we don’t accomplish more in our mitzvah observance is because we put limitations on ourselves – we self-impose limits and barriers that prevent us from becoming more spiritually connected to G-d and His Torah and mitzvos. No one is twisting our arm, no one is telling us we aren’t good enough or smart enough – we do that to ourselves!
Now that Rosh Hashana is upon us once again, it behooves us to look within and figure out one mitzvah – just one mitzvah – that we have continually placed beyond our own reach. Once we find that one mitzvah, we should contemplate what we can do, what little changes need to be made in our lives, that will allow us to add this one extra mitzvah performance to our repertoire. We all know of people who may have said that a certain mitzvah, perhaps going to shul every day, keeping kosher or Shabbos, was beyond them. But, when circumstances changed and the opportunity presented itself, they seized the moment and were able to succeed, perhaps slowly but surely. Why should we view their success from afar, putting ourselves behind facades of excuses? If we put our minds to it, we can also increase our religious observance and improve our spirituality and connection to G-d. It is not beyond the sea or high above in heaven; that mitzvah is right here in front of us, ready and waiting to come into our lives.
However, one may say, “There are so many mitzvos! How can I possibly take them all upon myself right now? It’s far too much for me to handle!” The answer to that is we don’t have to do everything right away. We can take baby steps, learning a little more and a little more, slowing building our knowledge and observance. As Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl, the former Chief Rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem and senior Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh said,
“A person is not expected to immediately reach the top rung of the ladder… He is, however, required to improve himself slightly. For example, he can have that much more kavannah [concentration] in his davening [prayers]. Even in the way he honors his parents, he is not expected to immediately reach the highest level that the Torah demands, but he should at least talk nicely to his parents for the first ten minutes after he comes home. Perhaps the next day it will not be too difficult for him to increase the number of minutes.” (Tit’haru! P.101)
It is in this fashion, one of slight improvements, one day at a time, one mitzvah at a time, that we can realistically raise ourselves up into higher levels of mitzvah observance and service of HaShem. So let us forget New Year’s resolutions that we know are too much to take on right now, and focus on that one mitzvah that we struggle with, and figure out how we can incorporate it into our lives. Once we’ve mastered that mitzvah, let’s move on to another, and another. Slowly but surely, we can and will ascend in spirituality, and our lives will be that much richer and enjoyable because of our efforts.
May we all take this notion to heart and start off with that one mitzvah to take with us into the New Year, and as a result, may we all merit to be written and sealed in the Book of Life.
Thursday, September 22, 2011
The world is now up in arms over a the government instituted execution of a man purported to be innocent based on recent retractions and alternate claims that cropped up in the last few years after he was originally convicted. I honestly don't know which side to believe, since both seem to make good points, but I can say that I felt a chill race down my spine as I read his reported final words last night.
"(Davis) made a statement in which he said... 'Despite the situation you're in, (I) was not the one who did it.' He said he was not personally responsible for what happened that night, that he did not have a gun. He said to the family that he was sorry for their loss, but also said that he did not take their son, father, brother.
"He said to them to dig deeper into this case, to find out the truth. He asked his family and friends to keep praying, to keep working, to keep the faith. And then he said to the prison staff, the ones he said 'are going to take my life,'...'May G-d have mercy on your souls,' and his last words to them (were), 'May G-d bless your souls."
Scary, huh? At any rate, it certainly makes one wonder.
The world is outraged and many are calling for the abolishment of the death penalty. They say that no one deserves to suffer such cruel punishment, certainly not a potentially innocent man. But what about criminals who really do deserve to be permanently removed from society, such as this racist from Texas name Laurence Russel Brewer, who was also executed yesterday.
Note the huge disparity between the comments on the two pages about execution.
If execution is unfitting for everyone, then yes, it should be abolished. But if it serves a purpose, as a deterrent to potential violent and fatal crimes, then it should exist and continue to be applied as judicially appropriate. The question for Troy Davis was, did he actually commit the crime he was charged of? Had he been executed when he was originally convicted, I doubt the world would be as stirred up, if at all, as it is now. Would the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton have said "The abolition of that penalty is essential to protect human dignity" about Brewer? Almost all the comments on articles discussing his execution can be summed up as "why didn't this happen sooner?" and "he should have been killed like his victim, chained up and dragged behind a truck!"
As Jews, we can't ignore these sorts of things, since they can, and do affect us as well. Anyone remember the execution of Martin Grossman last February? The charedi response there was ridiculous - a chillul HaShem - as the sister of the ranger Grossman killed basically says in the video interview there. I couldn't find an article on CNN, but all the Jewish websites and blogs covered it quite extensively, and almost all were outraged at the idea of a Jew being killed by a secular government. I still don't understand why a convicted killer deserved such protest, even if he was Jewish and even if he did do teshuva, as some reported.
And what of poor Lieby Kletzky's vicious murderer, Levi Aron? The evidence is there. Should he be put to death? I tend to think he should - as should any other proven murderer. There is capital punishment in the Torah for a reason, as it says in several locations, to "remove evil from our midst." If we, as a world society, decided to abolish the enforcement of the death penalty, our already problematic laundry list of annual violent crimes would increase exponentially, and we'd all be in a lot of trouble.
If a person contemplating killing another person weighs out the options he has within his free will - to kill the person who wronged him, who he hates for whatever reason, or for the mere horrific 'thrill' of doing so, and thus be rid of that person forever, while ending up in a secure facility where he will be fed, clothed, and given TV etc for the rest of his life, all at the expense of the tax payers - or to live the life he does now, with the same person causing trouble or grief for him, a life that may already have other troubles from debt, relationships, unemployment, drugs, whatever (a lot of these things seem to go together) - what would he seriously choose?
If there is no deterrent to such heinous acts, what is there to stop such a person from exacting revenge, spilling blood, and going on to live the out his days in moderate comfort for free? If we decide that no one should die for their crimes, no matter how horrible they are, what reason will there be for anyone to ever not commit such atrocities when the opportunity arises? Throw serious consequences out the window, and let's see what happens...
I'm sure some readers are thinking, as I have, that even in the halachic system it was very hard to properly convict a murderer - which required two witnesses to the act who warned the killer beforehand, saw him acknowledge their warning, and carried out the killing anyway. In my limited experience (I haven't learned Shas after all) of learning Gemara, I've seen discussions where Chazal went out of their way to make sure a potentially innocent man wasn't put to death by intensive questioning of witnesses that often led them to trip up.
But there was also the concept of kipa, discussed on Sanhedrin 81B wherein Beis Din would punish a criminal they were convinced was guilty but lacked the required witnesses. They'd lock the person in a cell, starve him, then feed him barley bread until his stomach burst.
Clearly, Chazal knew that executing a violent criminal, or sinner deserving of capital punishment, was a worthy pursuit. So why does the world at large seem to forget this? Without the threat of punishment, why would anyone consider not committing a murder? With all the news coverage of cases where alleged killers are either exonerated, or at worst, sentenced to life in prison, what's to stop a young person watching the broadcast from getting inspired to attempt a similar act in the future, should the circumstances become valid in their eyes? There are far too many problems with today's youth (of all races) in underserved and overpopulated areas with drugs, pregnancies, theft and other crimes, many of which go unnoticed or unpunished, to provide yet another harmful outlet for their frustration and anger at their lot in life.
What the world needs is effective punishment where criminals do not enjoy the finer things in life, such as free housing, food, cable TV, workout rooms, etc in jail - for those who truly deserve the death penalty. We shouldn't be dragging out such cases for 20+ years before finally deciding to execute a criminal, because that distances the punishment from the crime, and gives people a chance to feel bad for someone who deserves to answer to justice for their wrongful actions.
With all the other negative things going on in this world, including such sad things as horrible conflict within our own people in our own land, and with morality quickly going down the drain in so many different and frightening ways, I hope humanity can get a grip on itself before we sink into moral anarchy.
I've had enough of all this...We need Moshiach now.
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Sunday, September 18, 2011
In short, there exists a custom to wear white on Rosh Hashana to symbolize:
1) Purity, like the posuk in Yeshaya 1:18, part of which reads "though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool." Though we know we have been sinful and transgressed HaShem's mitzvos, we are confident that He will purify us from our misdeeds, whitening our neshamos as it were.
2) Burial shrouds, which are also white and very similar to a kittel (for those who have not attended a tahara, I can vouch for the resemblance). The purpose of dressing in a garment that resembles the one that is placed on a corpse for burial is to keep us mindful of the awesome holiness and seriousness of the day - and help us ponder where we might be in the the near future if we are not judged with life for the coming year, lo aleinu.
Women wear white clothing. Some men will wear a white tie or yarmulka, but the prevalent custom for men is to wear a kittel as their white garment.
However, a chosson in his first year of marriage - that's me - does not wear the kittel on Rosh Hashana. I had heard this before, but not the reason my Rav presented: the Torah tells us in last week's parsha of Ki Seitzei that a newlywed man has a special mitzvah to gladden his wife during their first year of marriage, which is why he does not go to the army (Devarim 24:5). Instead, he stays home to be mesameach her.
This is the very reason why the chosson doesn't wear the kittel during shana rishona - because their resemblance to burial shrouds might make his wife start worrying about him too much, and he is under special command to make her happy, not cause her grief!
Sufficed to say, my kittel will be staying right in my closet until Pesach.
Thursday, September 15, 2011
From Aish, the Rosh Hashana Rock Anthem (is this really "rock" though?):
And from The Maccabeats' fiercest competition, The Fountainheads, there is "Dip Your Apple" (caveat: contains women singing and dancing).
I guess the big question is, with all the other Jewish music videos/parodies out there now, very obviously inspired by the Maccabeats, when will they make another video - and for which holiday?
Update: 3:05 PM - I turns out the Maccabeats are indeed coming out with a Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur video soon. Thanks to reader "leo" for the tip. I guess that's what I get for writing this post on Sunday and not checking Facebook yesterday...
Also, it turns out that the dancers in the Aish video are NOT Aish students at all. They are an Israeli dance crew called Lions of Zion. The link features a video of the dance crew performing elsewhere, and I'm not too surprised their female dancer isn't in the Aish video ;)
It seemed too good to be true, though I wouldn't have doubted the possibility that some ba'alei teshuva at Aish would have amazing dancing skills. When I saw the guys flipping with their yarmulka's falling off, after which they made no eff0rt to recover them, I thought something might be up... This revelation does take the cool factor of the video down a notch in my view, but it's still quite fun.
Update 3:47 PM - Rabbi Michael Tzadok commented on Bad For Shidduchim that some of the guys ARE Aish students... I can tell some of them definitely aren't from the previously cited link, but the guy in the glasses looks like he could be a yeshiva bochur.
Monday, September 12, 2011
As most (or all) of the readers have probably realized by now, I'm a guy who holds very strongly of the halachic, Torah observant form of Judaism, and don't generally tend to point out things I find in the Torah or elsewhere in Tanach to be objectionable or worth changing or whatever. I really don't identify with the people who categorize themselves as liberal Orthodox and rally for the change of halacha to fit our modern times, or modify things to be more in accordance with current philosophic trends. However, two mitzvos in this past week's parsha of Ki Setzei really, really bug me.
I don't want anyone to make the assumption that I've become a biblical critic, reducing the word of G-d to nothing more than yet another literary document that humans can examine and argue with at will. Far be it from me to challenge the authenticity of our mesorah. I just don't understand the greater functionality of these mitzvos (both are similar as you'll soon see), specifically from a woman's perspective.
Cue shriek of horror: Oh no! Shades of Grey has become a liberal feminist!
I will admit that I thought that the girls I would eventually date who attended Stern College for Women would be of the more pro-feminist sort, and in fact read a number of more modern Orthodox books on the subjects of women and halacha, such as several titles by Rabbi Yehuda Henkin (who isn't so left-wing anyway), but I never actually encountered anyone like that while I was dating. That topic probably deserves a post of its own, so I will simply attribute my inquiries on the parsha to insights developed from my pre-dating research.
Into my questions, both from chapter 22.
Mitzvah 1: In Devarim 22:13-21, the Torah tells us about a man who marries a woman, hates her and decides to besmirch her name by claiming he discovered she wasn't a virgin, implying she was unfaithful to him while they were betrothed via erusin (in which they are halachically married but unable to cohabit), and that his father-in-law tricked him into marrying an immoral woman.
There are two potential conclusions. If she's guilty, she's executed as an adulteress. If her parents prove her innocence, the man pays a fine of 100 silver shekels to her father, and has to remain married to her, unable to divorce his wife for the rest of his life.
Mitzvah 2: Devarim 22:28-29 - If a man grabs hold of and lies with a virgin, who is not betrothed, he pays her father 50 silver shekels as a fine. He must also marry her because he afflicted her, without the possibility of ever divorcing her for the rest of his life.
Now, granted that I can see, from my very lowly human perspective, that the Torah is perhaps teaching the man a lesson about his bad behavior, and he will hopefully do teshuva and become a proper husband, turning his lust/ill intents into true love and caring for his new wife. However, having had some experience with human nature and hearing/meeting individuals who are not by any means model men or husbands, I don't think that will always be the case.
If so, and the man remains the testosterone fueled jerk he was before he was hauled to beis din to answer for his impetuosity, does the woman have any say in this?
The answer I DON'T want to hear is that the Torah was written in a patriarchal society where woman never had any rights, and thus we see the man-made hand behind our holy scripture. I don't believe such things, especially after learning more in-depth about mitzvos such as onah, which is one of the 3 biggies I'm now responsible for as a husband. So please spare me any such diatribe of that nature in the comments section.
After explaining my questions to ASoG while we at Shalosh Seudos together, I asked her if she were hypothetically in such a position, would she have any desire to remain married to a man who either defamed her or forced himself on her. Her answer was an emphatic no. I don't think I'm crazy, and I definitely know ASoG's isn't a feminist of any sort.
I checked Rashi, who doesn't comment, and Artscroll's Stone Chumash commentary is completely silent on this section. I confess that such was the extent of my research, and have not looked into any further sources since I don't really have the time presently. As it goes, grad school and marriage will do that to a person.
I hope to find a source, or that someone will tell me where one is located, that says the woman has an option to refuse to marry this guy just like she does by yibbim if her brother-in-law is unappealing to her.
Any readers out there have any thoughts or sources they'd like to contribute?
Thursday, September 8, 2011
ASoG and I recently paid a shiva visit to her great-uncle who lives on the other side of Washington Heights (the Breur’s side) for the unfortunate loss of his younger brother. Both ASoG’s uncle (who I’ll now refer to as Uncle Shmuel) and his brother survived Auschwitz, the only two children of 12 that survived the war.
As I sat there, listening more than talking, I learned more and more about Uncle Shmuel and his brother, and I have to say I admire him now more than ever. I’ve always thought of him as an angel of sorts, just from barely knowing his personality, but now I’ve seen and heard more that convinces me how much of a tzadik he is.
Uncle Shmuel and his wife never had the merit of having children, while his younger brother did have several daughters who married and produced grandchildren. Instead, he and ASoG’s great-aunt Sara treated ASoG’s mother and siblings as their own children. Even now, in their advanced age, he continues to learn daily with great zeal, and she is very involved in baby-sitting and making bikur cholim visits.
One guest that came to be menachem avel while we were there, herself quite elderly, a bit bent over, and generally frail, sat down near Uncle Shmuel with some effort. He thanked her profusely for coming to visit, and she replied that she could never forget the chessed he performed with her husband of blessed memory – who was once a chazan and ba’al koreh in their shul – when he was quite ill and neared his own end. Uncle Shmuel would go downstairs (they live in the same building) and helped her husband put on his tefillin when he no longer had the strength to do so on his own.
Uncle Shmuel recounted a number of stories from his personal experience in the Holocaust, all of which were quite riveting and heart-breaking. When the entire family was deported, he managed to stay with his father while his younger brother (who he was sitting shiva for) was sent to another camp that ended up being slightly less harsh (if one can say that). He never saw his younger brother again during the 5 years they spent in Auschwitz, and his father died before liberation. Thankfully, through hashgacha pratis, he was reunited with his brother 10 days after the American soldiers liberated them, when he went back to his home in Yugoslavia, hoping to meet up with his older siblings. While he found his brother, they later discovered that they were all that was left from their immediate family. They later made their way to a DP camp, then to Belgium, Antwerp, Montreal and finally America.
One particularly striking story that he told us was a recurring dream he had throughout his duration at Auschwitz.
In the dream, which Uncle Shmuel explained became a form of prayer to HaShem, he found himself free from the horrors of the concentration camp and in a wide open field. There was food planted in the field which he would happily harvest and prepare himself, with no need to bother anyone else with the physical labor involved.
He also imagined/wished/requested that he could go learn Gemara like he used to back at his home. He wanted to just learn a Gemara, any Gemara, it didn’t need to be like the fancy Artscroll Gemaros that we have nowadays. He said all he wanted was a simple Gemara, and two little light bulbs, which would let him study day or night. Even the light bulbs didn’t need to be of the high quality variety we enjoy now in America, just two dim little bulbs that would produce enough light to let him see the words printed on the page.
I was blown away after I heard this dream. I sat back and thought about all the things I’ve ever wanted and dreamed about, some serious, most silly and extraneous, and none of it compares to the purity and Emes that Uncle Shmuel expressed.
Uncle Shmuel repeatedly told us that everyone who survived the Holocaust has their own story, but that for him (and others) it has become too difficult for them to properly tell over their experiences. When they were younger, after arriving in America, the survivors focused solely on getting by, they felt as though they were lower than ants, and merely struggled to make a living and exist in their new country. They didn’t think about trying to record their stories because they were so busy rebuilding. Now that they are old, it has become too emotionally draining for them. Aunt Sara can't even begin to relate her experiences without breaking down into tears. I tried to gently encourage him to tell us more, but in the end I respected his admission of how difficult it would be to relate events in more detail.
Uncle Shmuel spoke about how he found his wife, Sara. He was only 19 when he was liberated, and he waited several years until he was in his 20’s and already in America before he started looking to get married. He told us how all he wanted was an aidel Yiddeshe girl, not someone extremely beautiful, nor someone from a wealthy family. He repeated, with great emphasis, that he never wanted someone whose parents had money. For him, having wealthy in-laws was never a consideration. Uncle Shmuel just wanted a religiously observant girl who would build a proper Jewish home, and he certainly found that in his lifelong partner.
Aunt Sara greatly encourages Uncle Shmuel's learning, and is a perfect companion for living a life full of chessed and tzedaka. They regularly host young singles and other not-so-young residents of the Breur's side for Shabbos meals, and Aunt Sara dabbles in shidduchim when she isn't babysitting or visiting a local nursing home.
Uncle Shmuel is clearly a man who recognizes that everything he has is a matat Elokim, a gift from G-d, to quote Koheles. He has been through so much, yet he still appreciates the most minute things in life. How many of us would actually have the same dream he did while he was suffering in Auschwitz? How many of us would put ourselves in his mindset when we are looking for our zivug? Think about all the brachos we enjoy, and how spoiled many, or most of us are.
There are very few people I’ve ever met in my life that I would honestly describe as a malach (angel), but Uncle Shmuel is one of them. May we continue to learn from him and benefit from his experience, wisdom and humility – along with Aunt Sara’s – for many years to come.
Monday, September 5, 2011
This one is called Kamen Rider RIETS and seems to be about a YU-themed Power Ranger of sorts.
It looks pretty interesting - especially the costume design - and they chose to include one of my favorite songs, which seems to fit nicely. I wikipedia'ed "Kamen Rider" and it turns out it's very similar to Power Rangers, but with only one or two heroes instead of a team.
This preview video came out a while ago, so I'm not really sure when the finished product will be put online, but I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for it. The more fun YU videos the better, I say.
What do you guys think?