Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

A Little Credit for the JNF

A few posts back I noted that the JNF may soon start giving land to Arabs and recommended people contact their local representatives about the matter. I know I did and he confirmed what I saw in this article in Haaretz today. Sure, it's mostly window dressing. Non-Jewish interests will still get land in Israel but at least it's not the JNF doing it. Small progress but some, nonetheless.

Did March of the Living sponser this?

In the olden days, Jews were required to visit our Temple three times a year to pay their respects. In the modern Jewish world, Auschwitz has become the new centre for Jewish religious pilgrimage. This article describes how the Israeli ambassador to Poland (that well-reknowned centre of Judophilia) visited the camp with his "Palestiniain" counterpart. Naturally, Khaled Ghazal said all the right things to avoid causing an inflammatory reaction to his presence there. No matter. We all know what he was thinking while he was mouthing those platitudes:
"Next year in Jerusalem, inshallah."

Monday, 29 October 2007

How to become a Ba'al Teshuvah the Right Way

My goodness, but aren't there a lot of blogs out there that are being run by people who were very interested in Torah Judaism at one point in their lives but were subsequently turned off by bad encounters with Jews who didn't walk their talk in the kiruv process.

So here, on my own, I'd like to share the lessons I've learned over the years in the hopes that people out there who may be disillusioned with Torah Judaism right now might take another look at it and give it a second chance.

I'll start up front that I do not work for any kiruv organizations although I attended services at an Aish HaTorah shul once in 1993 and I'm friends with the Chabad emissary in my town. I want to be absolutely clear: I'm committing the following to print because I believe that Torah Judaism has the potential to provide a wonderful life for its devoted adherents, if it's practised properly and the participant isn't under certain delusions regarding what it is and isn't.

(Also, I hate writing "him/her" so "him" will refer to both, okay?)

1) Recognize that the reason for someone to become a Baal Teshuvah is because Judaism believes that a person is in this world to perfect himself spiritually. The way to do this is through the performance of mitzvos and living life in the way God intended for us to. That is the reason a person should become a ba'al teshuvah. Not because frum Purim parties rock, or because one might be feeling lonely and wants to identify as part of a group, or because one is seeking out a religious group that might be all-moral and all-holy. Those are lousy reasons because the person will ultimately be disappointed and then wind up leaving Judaism. God is perfect, everyone else is flawed to a greater or lesser extent and understand that will prevent a lot of heartbreak.

2) Realize that frum people are, unfortunately, just like everyone else. Yes, a Torah lifestyle should lead to a higher level of morality. Yes, one should practice what one preaches. Yes, wearing the outfit of an observant Jew in public means one should behave in a manner befitting what that clothing implies. But in real life, it doesn't work that way. The same person who is medakdek to make sure he only eats mehadrin food and waits 6 1/2 hours after meat to eat milk (not like those meikels) may have no scruples about cheating another person in business, Jewish or not, fooling around on or beating his wife, or doing all manner of anti-social activities. Don't look at frum Jews and say "I want to be like them!" That's another straight road to heartbreak. A ba'al teshuvah shouldn't be going through the process to become like someone else. God made you an individual for a reason and to be a good Jew you don't have to give up your individuality for the sake of some mythical community standard no one holds to anyway.

3) Learn for yourself. Don't let others spoonfeed you information because everyone has a bias and will only tell you those things that they want you to know. Yes, lectures and shiurim are important sources of Jewish knowledge but they're not the Torah from Sinai, just part of the package. For example, Rav Dovid Gottleib has posted dozens of the lectures he gives to Ohr Samaeach students on the web. Rav Akiva Tatz has stuff at the same site. I've lost count of the times I've heard both these very intelligent men make statements about something in halachah or haskafah that isn't as black and white as they're making it out to be. Judaism is never simplistic and each person has an obligation to learn about that complexity for themselves. If the ba'al teshuvah is looking for a simple way, "do this and don't do that", then he will eventually be told to do something that his inner moral sense objects to and he'll be faced with a lousy choice - do something that feels wrong because somebody said so, or abandon the path with all the attendant bitterness it brings.

On that note, I have some specific recommendations(assuming minimal or basic Hebrew skills):
a) The basic foundation of Judaism is the Torah. Learning Mishnah, Gemara or other works is a waste of time without a basic knowledge of Chumash. Reading the Chumash straight without a decent commentary is also a waste of time and while Rashi is the de rigeur commentator that one must learn at some point, he might not be the best for the introductory level student. My recommendations include the Artscroll Stone Chumash because its commentary is general enough for the beginning and intermediate reader. Yes, the Chumash will insist on a version of history that doesn't fit the facts of archeology and geology but one shouldn't let that be a barrier. Everything our Sages said is true. We just don't understand their words and after misinterpreting them, we blame them for these "errors". After a couple of times through that, one can try the Metzudah Rashi Chumash. As opposed to Artscroll's, this one minimizes the supercommentary on Rashi so the reader can spend more time on what he picked up the set for in the first place.
b) My father always said that someone who learns Gemara gets an insight into the brains of Judaism but in order to see its soul, one must learn Tanach. Having done that, I can't agree with him more than I already do. Gemara will teach a student what is and isn't allowed and it does have its share of Aggadah and inspirational stories but Tanach is the history of our people, warts and all. For those who condemn Reform and Conservative as easily as they take in air, an exposure to Tanach will teach that our ancestors were, at times, much worse than anything the heterodx amongst us are like today. What we were meant to be, and what we were, is all laid bare within the pages of Tanach and it gives a learner a good reminder that the point of observing halachah isn't simply to see how many chumros and minhagim one can accumulate in one's lifetime but rather to bring a sense of Godliness to this world. Behaviour that does that is the right thing, and behaviour that doesn't is wrong, no matter what "the book" says.
c) Mishnah and then Gemara follow this. Well, come on. The Talmud is the foundation of Jewish life today and not learning it leaves a huge gap in one's knowledge base. In addition, being ignorant of Talmud allows unscrupulous individuals to take advantage of the new Baal Teshuvah. Yes, there are some statements in the Gemara that might be seen as problematic but with proper perspective and interpretation many of those problems can be reconciled. Not knowing what the issues are in the first place won't help the new Baal Teshuvah overcome those difficulties. The Artscroll Talmud is a great way to start. If one has a functional knowledge of Hebrew, bypass that and go to the Kehati Mishnayot and the Steinsaltz Talmud. They're easy to read, well laid out and full of god commentary.
d) Halachah - don't start with halacha digests like Artscroll's or Feldheim's. Remember these books are written by authors with an agenda and they'd never see the light of day if they brought a balanced approach between lenient and strict opinions. The primary sources are the best and with Feldheim's Mishnah Berurah translation you can learn a lot that later sources just might miss. Also it's a great way to pick up Hebrew. Hebrew is important because in the English books with Hebrew footnotes (eg. Rav Eider and Fuchs) one can often find leniencies and opinons that somehow didn't make it into the English section.

In short, you are responsible for your own education, not someone else.

4) Never EVER forget - a truly observant Jew does what he does because of his relationship with God. I had a friend who lived in a Chareidi neighbourhood and stopped going to shul for 2 years because he was sick of the hypocrisy he saw around him. I finally convinced him to try going back because the bottom line for him was that he wasn't supposed to go to shul for social purposes or to win the approval of his peers. He was supposed to go to shul because it's a place to daven. God, being all-mighty and omniscient, can form a 1-on-1 relationship with every Jew, no matter how crowded the room. Why not daven at home then? Because there's something special about answering to the kadish, Borchu, and kedushah. But going to shul wasn't for others, it was for him and his personal relationship alone.

5) One's ties to one's family (assuming they were close in the first place) and one's friends from before the Ba'al Teshuvah started "the process" are important. They are part of what defines a person. There are some within the kiruv world who will try to convince the new Ba'al Teshuvah to cut as many of those ties as possible as he heads into his new lifestyle. Unles one comes from a bad family, chalilah, like abusive parents, one should remember that the honouring of one's parents isn't limited to frum ones. True, the halachah is clear that if a parent asks a child to do something against the law, the child is obliged to refuse but the halachah is also clear that this refusal must be done as respectfully as possible with the child making clear that the only reason for it is that it is against Jewish law, not because of any questioning of respect for the parent. Those who maintain a good relationship with their parents will find that their parents will come to accept their decision to become more religious over time. I know of Ba'alei Teshuvah who simply keep their own set of dishes in their parent's home and eat certain foods when there to keep up their relationship.

What's more, I have found that keeping one's family and old friends close is a good barrier against fanaticism. If a Ba'al Teshuvah starts looking at his parents and friends and thinking "Tsk, such ignorance" or the like, there's a good warning right there that learning has ended and brainwashing has begun. Be self aware. Be yourself.

Have Ba'alei Teshuvah been hurt because they've been rejected by "frummies", or told their kids can't attend a certain yeshivah because of their past, or been cheated by a trusted figure in the religious communities? Unfortunately, this happens all the time but it is not because of the observance of Jewish law but rather its non-observance that this happens. Remembering that is so important so that one doesn't not reject God and his Torah simply because some of his self-proclaimed representatives are jerks.

May we all find peace and contentment in our relationship with God and not reject that which has the potential to give us Life Eternal.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Shoot the Messenger, Not the Message

A few years ago I was in Yerushalayim and had to take a minivan to Netivot. I got to the station where the van was supposed to leave from and boarded it. Now, this minivan had seats on both sides with a centre aisle. On one side, there were two seats, on the other side there were singles. The only empty seat was on the double side and a woman was in the seat next to it.

Without saying a word, the woman looked up and then over at a man sitting by himself on the single side. They got up and switched seats so that I wouldn’t wind up sitting next to a woman.

There was no yelling, screaming or fighting. I didn’t have to say a word; what had to be done was implicitly understood.

This is how Torah Judaism should work. People should willingly and happily participate in the rules and rituals of our faith, without coercion or force. And if they don’t want to, they should be convinced through quiet persuasion or positive example, never with negative means.

One of the big problems with the Torah world today is not the Torah. It is not the halachah, or our history as we understand it. It is not the message which remains as pure and perfect as it was when Moshe Rabeinu, a”h, received it from God on Mount Sinai.

The problem, rather, is the messenger, or messengers in this case. What passes for leadership in the Torah world has forgotten the overall message of Torah Judaism which is to create a society of decent, honest people who show that living by the Word of God can create a perfect place to live on Earth.

Perhaps it’s the fault of our long exile. Over the last 1935 years, Judaism has had to change and adapt to various environments, few of them positive and supportive. The first change was from a national faith to a religious one when our Temple was destroyed (may it be speedily rebuilt). Since then our conservative natures and the pressures of a world that hates us and has repeatedly tried to make an end of us has turned Judaism into an inward-looking religion.

We were exiled from our Land because of our sins and therefore we began to repent for them. And when our Moshiach did not appear, we decided we must have sinned even more than we realized and went looking for those transgressions. Generation after generation added to the details of the laws we were to observe. Precautions were built into our legal systems to prevent us from breaking rules that had been put in place in the first place to prevent us from breaking other rules. And still we weren’t redeemed.

Hated by all the societies around us, we developed a philosophy that hated them right back (often, for good reason). But again, our resistance to change meant that when some countries finally removed official barriers against our integration into their midst and accepted us as equal members of their societies, we continued to hate them, unable to change as we were.
Finally, we regained our Land in a process that revealed that the Hand of God still rules this world and that the Guardian of Israel neither sleeps nor slumbers (although He seems to have call waiting). And what was the result? All the self-protective tendencies that almost 2000 years of hard exile had created in our culture were now combined with power. Until then, authority figures could only dream of the ability to force the masses to follow their dictates. Now they had the ability to make it happen. In the past, they had to pray to Heaven that money to support their lifestyles and institutions could be acquired. Now it was handed to them.

And the result? Corruption, more hatred and a further radical shift in the culture. Instead of using the breathing space provided by God to recreate the living, working national religion we had once had, ghetto walls were once again built, this time voluntarily.

But the message, THE REAL MESSAGE, didn’t, hasn’t and won’t change!

We were not exiled from our Land because we didn’t wait six hours after eating meat to drink milk or because we had bus lines with mixed seating. We weren’t exiled from our land because our children learned math and proper grammer. We didn’t see our Temple destroyed because our married women wore denim skirts that didn’t cover their ankles. We were tossed out of our Land by God because of causeless hatred and until we eliminate that from our lives, we will not be redeemed.

The opposite message, however, now spreads across the Jewish world. The messengers are flawed and therefore, so is the message. Check out all the blogs run by those people who were once Torah observant and who had left the fold. Almost to the last, it was because someone or some group in the frum world treated them in a despicable fashion, misusing valid halachic sources or, in some cases, inventing illegitimate ones, to despite and degrade them. And the response was one of pain and heartbreak. Just like former spouses who cannot think of even one positive quality their ex may have, these people have had their hearts broken and now sit on the other side, sometimes wondering how they wound up there, sometimes, chas v’shalom, encouraging others to join them.

But a mass exodus from Torah is not the answer. The answer is to take the Torah back from those who would use it as a hammer to beat honest, God-fearing Jews over the head with.

We must remember that the Torah does not defy reality but rather, it defines it. If history, geology, archeology, seem to contradict the Torah, the traditional response has been to say that these sciences are in error. This is no longer possible as the evidence for the natural history of the world is too great to be ignored. To teach a child that the world is davka 5768 years old in the way we currently count years condemns the child either to live in a sheltered ghetto neighbourhood avoiding contact with the real world (see Rav Hirsch on Bereshis 20:1) or leaves him with a Judaism that will wither in its first confrontation with secular knowledge.

The answer to the contradiction must then be to change our understanding of Torah. Many Orthodox scientists had already started this process, showing how the story of the Creation of the world and the natural history of the universe can be understood together using an open approach to the text. If what the Torah tells us does not seem to match what natural historians say, then it isn’t because the Torah is wrong but because we don’t understand the Torah correctly and therefore, as God’s servants, we must strive to correct that.

We must never forget that loving our fellows as ourselves is the prime mitzvah of the Torah, that not doing to another what is hateful to you is the golden rule. Yes, there is incalculable importance in keeping kosher, Shabbos and all the other 613 mitzvos and I would not even suggest thinking of abandoning a single one, chas v’shalom. But we must remember why we are performing these mitzvos. Adam HaRishon was given one mitzvah and when he transgressed it, he was removed from Gan Eden. We have 613 and if we strive to perfect ourselves in all of them, we can return there. But that means putting as much emphasis on the ben adam l’chavero mitzvos as ben adam l’makom. In our many sins, the later are now emphasized to the point where transgressing the former is now considered a mitzvah in certain cases!

Remember that the Generation of the Flood was destroyed because of social anarchy, not because of idol worship. Remember that the Generation of the Dispersion was not destroyed despite idol worship because of society cohesion. The Torah did not include these narratives for no good reason but to teach us that the basis of a healthy society is mutual respect and decent treatment of one another.

The message is good, is perfect. Let us study it and retake it from those who would twist it into one of fanaticism and hate.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Orthodoxy vs. Orthopraxy

One of the major problems facing Modern Orthodoxy today is the invisible split within the movement. This division is hampering Modern Orthodoxy's development and causing it damage in its on-going PR troubles with the Chareidi world.

Roughly speaking, the Modern Orthodox world is divided into two groups - those who are intellectually Modern Orthodox and those whose attachment to Orthodoxy only extends as far as ritual behaviours. The former, called the behavioural group in papers on the subject, are what I like to call the Orthodox part of Modern Orthodoxy. The latter group are the Orthoprax: they practice but without much deep thought into the matter.

Why is this distinction important? Well, consider the corresponding groups in the Chareidi world. Without a doubt, a huge part of that community is just as Orthoprax as their counterparts in the Modern Orthodox world. The rest are intellectually and spiritually wrapped up in their version of Torah Judaism.

But the difference comes when one steps back and looks at them from a distance. From the outside, one sees the Orthodox component almost exclusively. Do they have teens at risk? Drug problems? Spousal abuse? People who don't hold the party line or a just going through the motions without any sense of deeper belief? Absolutely but because of the external badges of memebership (the hat, suit, etc.) and a dedicated public relations job, we have become convinced that the dissidents are a silent minority within the Chareidi world and not the average representatives of it.

Cast your glance over to the Modern Orthodox world and a different picture emerges. Now it's the dissidents who are front and centre. The guys who wear the micro-kippahs and no tzitzis, the ladies with uncovered hair and shorts, the rationalizers who will eat in vegetarian restaurants, they all seem to take the centre stage so that the Orthoprax become considered typical of the movement.

In other words, we generally believe that dissident Chareidim and intellectually observant Modern Orthodox are atypical for their respective movements.

This is one of the first things that Modern Orthodoxy, if it is to remain a competitive destination for Jews looking for an authentic Torah lifestyle, must acknowledge. Many of its members are barely towing the party line and more interested in freedoms than responsibilities. This attitude must be changed so that the movement can become stronger.

Stop it or God will send you to your rooms!

From a paper I don't generally agree with, a great article on the ongoing spats within the religious world.

My interest in this article stems from an incident several years back when Ariel Sharon formeda government with the Shinui and National Religious (Mafdal) Parties. At that time, an article in the Chareidi press noted that the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties had kicked the Mafdal out of the "religious lobby", noting that this showed Religious Zionism's true colours.

And now Shas has left the lobby because of a putatively racist cartoon. That leaves... well it leaves UTJ all alone, doesn't it. And if statements like this are true:

Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox journals, representing groups that are not part of the governing coalition, began a joint attack, unprecedented in its fervor, against Shas, which is part of the coalition

then we must all redouble our prayers for God to help us out of this mess we're digging ourselves into deeper every day.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

The Trials of Getting Published

All right, I've been good until now but it's time for the long overdue plug.

Those of you who are regular visitors to this humble blog have no doubt noticed the three books pictured to the right (--->). Now, as the advert goes, these are the best fantasy fiction books you've never read. How do I know that? Well, the indepedent reviewers who checked them out ( quite enjoyed them. And you've never heard of them because my publisher is a small time guy with no budget for aggressive public relations. He publishes and promotes locally once. If I want my book to become famous, I have to push it. The only problem is that I have a day job which is my priority and I'm not about to give it up to attend book signing and fantasy conventions across North America in the hope of selling a few dozen copies.

I will mention the strength of the books here. First of all, one thing I don't like about many current fantasy novels is their preoccupation with feminist revision. Although I am firmly of the belief that women are as intelligent and capable and men, one must remember that in a medieval setting where might makes right, the only way for a woman to advance in society is through cunning, natural intelligence or, in a fantasy setting, the use of magic. Thus fantasy novels showing societys dominated by queens and warrior princesses are nice to think about but put a certain strain on the credulity of the novel. It is not shameful to remember that these are societies where women were at a physical disadvantage and ignoring that adds nothing to the story.

Then there's the obessession with sex. I remember reading through the appendices of The Lord of Rings and coming across the story of Aragorn and Arwen's secret marriage. What does it say? "And there they plighted their troth and they were glad." That's it. A bit prudish and, for a young teenager who knew nothing of plighting and troths, incomprehensible. A more modern version might have read "And there they got it on, hot and nasty (followed by several paragraphs I'd rather not think about)."

So when I sat down to write my novels, I decided to avoid these new age cliches and I think that has added to the strength of the story as well as kept it appropriate for readers both young and old.

The other major strength of the trilogy is that it is character driven. When I am invited to speak in schools about the process of writing books, I often mention that there are no original stories left to tell in the world. Every story, when broken down to its essential elements, is a slight variation on another similar story. What makes a new novel stand out is not the story but the characters in it.

And I'm very proud of the characters in my story. As strange as it sounds (and I'm not the only author to think this), they seemed to come alive the longer I wrote until instead of writing, I felt I was merely chronicling their adventures and following them along to see what happened next. This gives the story a better flow, of course, and adds to the excitment of the events in it.

Enough for now! The links where you can buy these books is over on the right (your right, not mine). Go on, try them out. You will not regret taking the chance.

Getting the Sequence of Events Right

"And God said unto Avram: 'Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives and from your father's house to the land I will show you.'" "So Avram went has God had spoken to him, and Lot went with him, and Avram was seventy five years old when he left Haran." (Bereshis 12:1,4)

"And He said until Avram: 'Know for sure that your offspring will be foreigners in a land not their own and they will serve them, and they will oppress them for four hundred yeears." (Bereshis 15:13)

There is a well known principle in the Torah that events recorded within it occured in the ordered writen unless there is obvious evidence that they did. For example, the final parts of parshas Mishpatim (Shmos 23:20-24:18) are obviously out of place referring as they do to promises and events leading up to the giving of the Ten Commandments back in parshas Yisro. Other commentators dispute when the mutiny of Korach occured - soon after the Golden Calf or after the incident of the Spies where the story actually falls in the Torah.

What's interesting is that in this parashah an event falls out of place but unless one is paying attention, one misses it entirely. Consider the two verses at the beginning of this post. As read, Lech Lecha begins with God commanding Avraham Avinu to leave Haran. He then goes to the land of Canaan, Egypt and back to Canaan, separates from Lot and then winds up having to rescue him from four powerful warlords. After this battle, God promisees him a great future at the Bris ben HaB'sarim (Covenenant between the Pieces).

Except that's not how it happened if you look closely. The first clue is a verse not in Bereshis but in Shmos:
"The time of dwelling of the Children of Israel during which they lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years." (12:40)
Now, as Rashi easily proves in his commentary, our ancestors were not in Egypt for 430 years, but rather for 210 years (still a very long time to be slogging bricks around for no pay or drug plan!). Most commentators therefore refer this 430 back to the Bris ben HaB'sarim. But here's the problem. The number 400 is used during that disucssion. The commentators explain the 30 year difference by saying that it was 430 years from the Bris ben HaB'sarim until the Exodus from Egypt. So what's the 400 mean? They explain it to mean that this convenantal time line began when Yitzchak Avinu was born since he never enjoyed permanent resident status in Canaan like his father did.

But how old was Avraham when Yitzchak was born? Again, an easy answer: 100 years old.

So do the math: If Avraham was 75 when he went through the Bris ben HaB'sarim then Yitzchak was due to be born in 25 years which means that the verse in Shmos should have said 425 years. The only wayto reconcile this is to accept that Avraham was 70 years old at the Bris ben HaB'sarim which means this happened a full five years before the events recorded at the beginning of the parashah.

Why is it so important to know this? Look back at the beginning of Lech Lecha. What does God tell Avraham? Essentially to buy an open train ticket to... somewhere. Yet we don't read about how Avraham wandered across the face of the Earth checking out land after land and only choosing Canaan when God finally revealed Himself to him there. Neither do the words of Chazal suggest he did any such thing. He packed himself and his family up and went straight to Canaan. But how did he know to go there, of all place?

Our calculations give us the answer. His first choice of places to travel to was a land he had already been to five years earlier where he had already experienced a Divine revelation. Instead of trying to find God somewhere else he went with a place that had already revealed itself to be fitting for God to reveal Himself. And it was in Canaan that God wanted Avraham to settle and begin the process of creating our nation.

An interesting side thought occurs at this point. This may explain why Avraham knew to go to Canaan when he was 75 but what about when he was 70? A thought from the commentary of Rav Shimshom Rafael Hirsch may provide a clue. When Avraham arrives in the land, we are told "the Canaanite was then in the land" (Bereshis 4:6) which Rashi explains as their ongoing conquest of the area from the descendents of Shem. (Remember that Malchi-tzedek, the king of Shalem mentioned in 14:18 is generally held to be Shem and therefore the leader of all the monotheists in the world at the time) Could it be that five years earlier the invasion had not yet began and Canaan was the last place in the world where people who believed in and consulted God could still be found? This would make it the natural place for Avraham, who was searching for God, to go.

This leads to a final interesting point: Despite the fact that the land had been conquered by the Canaanites, Avraham still returned there five years later (at the beginning of our parashah) and still received a revelation from God. The presence of idol worshippers and their hegemony over the land did not change God's plans or His ability to carry out His plans to establish our people. How much more so in our own day can we look at the Land and State of Israel and see that despite the widespread abandonment of Torah and the many evils which infect our society there, there is still hope and potential for those who wish to spread the true word of God throughout the land. Most importantly, nothing in Israel now can prevent the revelation of God's will if we choose to seek Him out with all our hearts and souls. All the potential is before us. We need but see the opportunity and grasp it.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

The Right Frame of Mind

"The Magen Avraham writes: 'It appears to me that it is forbidden to urinate on clay on Shabbos because of the prohibition against kneading.' The Magen Avraham means that it is even prohibited according to the majority of Poskim who are of the opinion that in the case of article which is kneadable into a proper dough-like mixture, one is not culpable for the Shabbos labour of Lash until he actually nkneads the mixture, since even according to these Poskimn there is nevertheless a Rabbinical prohibition involved even if one merely adds liquid to such an article. The same ruling applies to urinating on loose eart or sand."
(Mishnah Beruruah, 321:14:(57)) (Feldheim translation)

As I was learning this today a thought occured to me. Does God really care where I go to the bathroom on Shabbos?

It's a serious question. Here above me is the Master of the Universe, the Creator of us all. It is His essence that gives existence to me and everything around me. He has to worry about the lives of billions of people, animals, insects, plants, the atmosphere and everything else. Does He really care where I relieve myself on Shabbos? Is He sitting up there in Heaven with a little book and waiting for me to micturate on some loose dirt somewhere while on my Shabbos walk so He can say "Hah! Another strike against that nebbish!"

And after all I've learned, I have to conclude that He isn't and He doesn't care where I empty my bladder on Shabbos (well, if i do it in shul or on the dining room table that might be another story...).

So then why do I care about this halacha? Why am I learning Mishnah Berurah every day to get an understanding of what my obligations are in so many different situations?

The answer for me comes from Antignos of Socho in Avos 1:2: "Don't be like servants serving their master on condition of receiving a reward. Rather, be like servants serving their master not on condition of receiving a reward and let the fear of Heaven be upon you."

It's a well known story that Antignos' two disciples, Tzadok and Baytus, misunderstood their master and decided that their was no reward in serving God. The Tzadokim (Sadducees) and Baytusim emerged from them. But they didn't really get what Antignos was trying to say.

Consider what the role of an ideal human father is supposed to be. A father is to love and support his child, nurture him, give of his life energies to help that child succeed. His success as a father is measured by how well his efforts turn out.

And what does the grateful child do? He returns that love and commitment with as much of his being as he can. He strives to win his father's approval for there is nothing in the world more important to have than that. He struggles to succeed not because his father will hand him a cash payout at the end of the day but because his success as a child is measured by how his father responds to his efforts.

God is our Father in Heaven. How much more so does He give to us each and every second of our lives? How much grace has He shown us in all the miracles that have occured to our people throughout the ages and especially the last 60 years? And all He asks of us as His children is to strive to be the best we can in His service.

And therefore we as His children must struggle and strive to excel in every way we can so that we can win our Father's approval. Not because we expect riches, a nice house in Tahiti or a great job with a corner office (however, I'm not turning any of those down should they happen my way). We do it because, knowing what God has given us, we feel an obligation through our love for Him to return that through our actions.

So no, God doesn't care where I pee. I care because if I can take a simple bodily function and, on one day a week, exercise a little more care because I want to show that I care about the gift of Shabbos that He has given me and don't want to treat it like another day of the week, then I will.

Too much of Judaism in the last several decades has become negative. There are 365 negative mitzvos and 248 positive ones but when you read about the latest chumrah-of-the-week or the latest public "Daas Torah" you get the impression there is nothing but 1 negative commandment out there: Thou shalt not!" Is it any wonder more and more Jews are being turned off by their religion? That more and more are striking out because they're tired of being told "No" all the time no matter what it is to do?

You can say things in a positive way and in a negative way. "Don't urinate on the sand because it's Shabbos!" Why? "Because it's Lash!" Right, like anyone's ever kneaded a dough with urine and sand. What part of that doesn't sound stupid?

Instead, say "Keep Shabbos holy and make an extra effort. You gotta go? There's a piece of hard ground over there. Use it without any extra effort and know you did something positive." how much more reinforcing could that be?

We must always remember: God gave us his Torah so that we could happily proclaim His Word to the nations of the world. That Word is not "No, no, no!" It is that one can live a fulfilling, positive life within the boundaries of halacha without compromise. All you have to do is see the good things and strive for them instead of running from the negative.

Shabbat Shalom.

And This is a Surprise How?

So Senator John McCain has gone and stated the obvious: The U.S. is a Christian nation. Well, I'll be. There's a shock. Pick my jaw up off the floor.

What I'd like to know is why his critics don't object just as vigorously when Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran et al announce that they are Muslim nations? Anyone think a white guy running for president in South Africa has a chance of winning?

The U.S. has become and remained the strongest nation in the world based on his perceived Christian values. If one compares the parts of America where those values are still practised with those where they have been abandoned, one finds huge difference in the level of quality of life, literacy and crime.

God bless America and keep their dollar lower than ours!

So Where Did You Think the Money Went

Jewish homes have some recognizable items: Menorahs, mezuzos, a Chumash or two, and a seder plate. Over the last century, another item has joined that venerable list: the little Blue Box that comes from the Keren Kayemet, the Jewish National Fund.

The JNF doesn't need me to introduce it. Active for what seems like forever, its mandate has always been to collect money from Jews around the world and use it to buy and develop land for Jews in our Israel.

For as long as I can remember, there has been a JNF box in my house. It usually sat up on the fridge when I was a child and when I first moved out on my own I made sure to take a spare one from home to put my change into at the end of the day. Even now I have two, sitting up there on my fridge and my children have all learned the value of putting coins into them when they can. This is real tzedakah, enabling Jews to buy land and build it up in Israel.

Or it is?

Ynet ran a story on September 24, 2007 about how the JNF, after being challenged by Arabs who want to buy land they own, has decided to change its policies. It will now sell land to Israeli citizens irregardless of ethnic origin as long as it is compensated by the Israeli government for doing so.

A few days ago at a Simchas Torah dinner at my shul I approached the local JNF rep to tell her what I thought about this change in policy: NOT WITH MY MONEY!!!

Have we so soon forgotten that the Arabs have countless hectares of land under their control from Iraq to Morocco? That they have billions in petro-dollars at their disposal to purchase land anywhere in the world? JNF land is bought by money donated by Jews for Jews to be given to Jews. The Arabs do not need our land. They have enough of their own.

Fortunately, I am not alone in this thinking. Ynet posted a follow-up to this story showing the results of a poll that reveals most Israelis (except the idiot Meretz-niks) are in favour of keeping JNF's policy the way it is.

May I be so bold: Call your JNF rep and tell them you put money in the box for one purpose and if they are going to change that purpose, you will stop donating. You have a right to support our people and you have a right to decide where your money goes. Demand your right!

Monday, 8 October 2007

Of Good and Evil

And the Lord God made every tree grow out of the soil, delightful to the sight and good for good, and the Tree of Life in the midst of the Garden and also the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil" (Bereshis 2:9)

"And the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was tempting to the sight and appealing to the understanding, she took of its fruit and did eat, and gave also to her husband with her and he did eat." (Bereshis 3:6)

Among the many mysteries of the story of Creation are the two trees sitting in the midst of Gan Eden. Of the Tree of Life only one thing is known: eat of its fruit and you live forever. However, the verse above reveals a few more details of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and it is that which I wish to focus on.

The Tree of Life was really the only negative commandment that Adam and Chavah were given, and in context, it doesn't seem like it can have been that hard. Here they werem, literally in paradise. Other than this Tree, they were free to eat any of the fruit or vegetable matter they chose. How could there have been a lust for the one thing?

What's more, if they weren't supposed to touch the Tree, why did God stick it in the middle of Gan Eden in the first place? Isn't that a little unfair?

Rav S.R. Hirsch, in his commentary on Chumash, brings a fascinating thought to bear on this subject. He notes that, from the beginning, Adam and Chavah had to have free will. That was what differentiated them from the rest of the living creatures in Creation. Therefore, the thought that before they ate from the Tree they were two innocents who didn't know how to do wrong, and that after they ate from it they learned what evil and wrongdoing were is wrong.

But if that's the case, a further question poses itself: What did the Tree do to them, because the Chumash tells us that before they ate from its fruit they were naked and weren't ashamed but that immediately after they ate they suddenly were and have to cover themselves up with leaves.

The answer Rav Hirsch gives is truly fascinating:

"Man was not set in the paradise on the Earth to satisfy his sensual nature on the delights and foot which it proffered; it was to the service of God and His world that he was called there. This service was his mission and for this service the delights of the paradisical fruits were permitted tohim... Man is there for God and the world, and is joyfully to sacrifice his personal nature to this higher calling. So that it is not out of his personal nature, but out of its relation to this higher calling of his than Man has to find out what is good and what is bad for him. For that purpose, the tree stood for him in all its glory, appealing to all his senses, his whole personal nature must say to him 'this is good', and God's Word had forbidden the eating of it as 'bad'. That was to be to him the model, the pattern and the rule for all good and bad for mankind, that was for him the tree of the knowledge of good and bad."

This is a test that we all go through regularily in our lives. The Tree of Knowledge of God and Evil stands before each of us repeatedly. Whenever we are tempted by something we know is forbidden by the Torah and try to justify it by saying something along the lines of "God wants me to be happy, this would make me happy, therefore it must be permitted", we are in danger of succumbing to eating the fruit of the Tree ourselves. Whenever we find there is something we're not allowed to do by halachah and we say "Oh those rabbis" or "Oh, the rules are outdated", we eat from the Tree.

And this, Rav Hirsch, goes on to explain, is why Adam and Chavah were suddenly ashamed of being naked after they ate the fruit. Before they did, they were pure in both mind and body. A pure mind does not look upon the covered areas of the opposite sex's body and think lustful thoughts because it knows such thoughts are wrong. But the impure mind does and the feeling they had when they first realize they were thinking improperly when they looked at each other brought out the feeling of shame. Sin is what brings shame to man because, deep inside, he knows he can be purer before his Maker but has failed to be.

At this time of year, with the holiday season (finally) behind us, let us all endeavour to continue to live our lives with the energy and spirit that got us through the past three weeks and let that carry us on until next Rosh HaShanah.