Thursday, August 21, 2008

זה סוף הקיץ, סוף הדרך -An end of Summer D'var Torah

(Translation of title: 'it is the end of the summer, the end of the path' - Lu Yehi, by Naomi Shemer)

After just attending a shiva minyan in the neighborhood the past few nights, I was inspired to offer some words of Torah on this Shabbat of Ekev, the second Shabbat of Consolation following Tisha B'av. As a number of relevant and inspirational quotes had come to mind, I will present each of them and explain its relevance for these concluding days of the summer, after camp has ended and before returning to school next week.
ב טוֹב לָלֶכֶת אֶל-בֵּית-אֵבֶל, מִלֶּכֶת אֶל-בֵּית מִשְׁתֶּה--בַּאֲשֶׁר, הוּא סוֹף כָּל-הָאָדָם; וְהַחַי, יִתֵּן אֶל-לִבּוֹ.
2 It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting; for that is the end of all men, and the living will lay it to his heart. (Kohelet Chapter 7)

While I do not believe it is at all healthy to have Kohelet's bleak world view all the time, it is important to take his words to heart once in a while. Although I did not know the woman for whom we were mourning, I always find Shiva Minyanim a time to step back and reflect on our relationships with those whom we care about and with our communities, as opposed to with the material world of our daily lives. These ideas are also reflected in the words of Psalm 49, recited on most days in a house of mourning:
But man abideth not in honour; he is like the beasts that perish.
14 This is the way of them that are foolish, and of those who after them approve their sayings. Selah
15 Like sheep they are appointed for the nether-world; death shall be their shepherd;
and the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning; and their form shall be for the nether-world to wear away, that there be no habitation for it.
16 But God will redeem my soul from the power of the nether-world; for He shall receive me. Selah
While these words of the psalmist may be quite overly bleak,I feel that they are appropriate for a house of mourning, when we should be steered to focus on the legacy that a person left, and not just on possessions.

Parashat Ekev is also about reflection, sitting in the middle of Moses's second discourse to the people of Israel as they are about to enter the land. Ekev sits between the majesty of V'etchanan, when we heard the Aseret Hadibrot (decalogue) and Sh'ma, and the legal code which begins in next weeks reading of Re'eh. But this week is Moshe's opportunity to remind the new generation which is poised to enter the land of where they have come from and their ultimate mission. Before Moshe reviews the sins of the generation of the wilderness, and especially of the Golden Calf, he reminds us and them of God's love that he had shown in the desert:
ג וַיְעַנְּךָ, וַיַּרְעִבֶךָ, וַיַּאֲכִלְךָ אֶת-הַמָּן אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַעְתָּ, וְלֹא יָדְעוּן אֲבֹתֶיךָ: לְמַעַן הוֹדִיעֲךָ, כִּי לֹא עַל-הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם--כִּי עַל-כָּל-מוֹצָא פִי-יְהוָה, יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם. 3 And He afflicted thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that He might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every thing that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.
ד שִׂמְלָתְךָ לֹא בָלְתָה, מֵעָלֶיךָ, וְרַגְלְךָ, לֹא בָצֵקָה--זֶה, אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה. 4 Your clothing did not get old upon you, neither did your foot swell, these forty years.
ה וְיָדַעְתָּ, עִם-לְבָבֶךָ: כִּי, כַּאֲשֶׁר יְיַסֵּר אִישׁ אֶת-בְּנוֹ, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, מְיַסְּרֶךָּ. 5 And thou shalt consider in thy heart, that, as a man chasteneth his son, so the LORD thy God chasteneth thee.

We learn a number of lessons from these poignant verses.
  • Man does not live by bread alone: As we get ready to return to our routines of school and work, we should also assess the Mitzvot that we perform and our other actions, in addition to the way we earn our physical bread
  • Your clothing did not get old upon you: A good reminder to be thankful, in addition to God, to those who raised us and made sure that our clothing never got too worn, in addition to nurturing us spiritually.
  • Just as a parent chastens their child: Disipline is only appropriate and effective when done out of love, but we often do not see the love in our discipline or rebuke until years later.
As the summer comes to a close and we return to a regulated routine, our traditions have a number of similar, but contrasting outlooks.

  1. Jeremiah: כ עָבַר קָצִיר, כָּלָה קָיִץ; וַאֲנַחְנוּ, לוֹא נוֹשָׁעְנוּ. 20 'The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.'(Chapter 8)
  2. Naomi Shemer:

    זה סוף הקיץ סוף הדרך

    תן להם לשוב הלום

    כל שנבקש לו יהי.

This is the end of summer, the end of the path
Allow them to return safely here
All that we seek, may it be

Both Jeremiah and Shemer served as 'national poets' for the Jewish people, during the destruction of the first Temple and the Rebirth of the State of Israel respectively, and they bring very different ideas out of this turning of the seasons. While Jeremiah seems to represent one who had goals for the long days of summer and now mourns over what he wished to accomplish and was unable to, Naomi Shemer sees this conclusion of a time of hope, concluding with the words made famous by The Beatles, 'Let it Be.' As the days get shorter and start to cool, We can choose to follow Jeremiah or Naomi Shemer; Although both are beautiful poets, I will try to live up to Shemer's lyrics, and in the spirit of the other words of our tradition, trying to use these days of Shabbat Ekev for reflection, and a resolve to keep improving our deeds and continue hoping that God will let it be

Ken Y'hi Ratzon. Amen.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

סליק מסכת בבא בתרא: The Tractate of Bava Batra is Completed

While the learning of this entire masechet was in memory of our heroic soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev z"l, I would like to give these words a different dedication, to two young people who were taken before their time, and whose Yahrzeits occur during this week surrounding Tisha B'av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar.
ה' נתן וה' לקח יהי שם ה' מבורך - God gave and God took, may the name of God be blessed (Job 2:21), is a beautiful but difficult verse to accept. These tragedies defy human explanation, but hopefully we can learn from them and make their memories a kiddush hashem, a sanctification of God's name.
Michael Levin, zecher gibor livracha (may the memory of a hero be for a blessing), died age 21, 8 Av 5766, who died in Lebanon defending the land and people of Israel. Michael, an alum of USY, Camp Ramah in the Poconos and Nativ set an example in his dedication to Am Yisrael by leaving his family while on vacation to return to fight with his unit in Lebanon.
Jared Ascher, died age 4, 12 Av 5753, my first cousin (and the closest in me to age, just two months younger than me), who died of an incurable brain tumor.
Each of these young souls had something special to give the world, and were taken from us before their time. Y'hi Zichram Baruch - may their memories serve as a blessing. I wish to end the dedication with the opening words of this week's haftarah: נחמו נחמו עמי יאמר אלוהיכם - comfort, comfort my people! Thus says your God. (Isaiah 40:1)

While many hold that 'just' completing a tractate of Mishnah, is not enough for a proper siyum, which requires a tractate of Gemara or a Seder (one of the six orders of Mishnah), I still feel that my completion of Bava Batra's ten chapters deserves some summarizing and reflection.
Many Masechtot, especuially those which are almost exclusively concerned with halachic material, end with a short passage of aggadah which provides a bit of flavor to the extended legal section. As a sort of virtual siyum (celebration of study), I would like to 'teach' the final mishnah of the masechet and provide some 'drash' on it.
Bava Batra 10:9
י,ט [ח] המלווה את חברו בשטר, גובה מנכסים משועבדין; על ידי עדים, גובה מנכסים בני חורין. הוציא עליו כתב ידו שהוא חייב לו, גובה מנכסים בני חורין. הערב שהוא יוצא לאחר חיתום שטרות, גובה מנכסים בני חורין. מעשה בא לפני רבי ישמעאל ואמר, גובה מנכסים בני חורין. אמר לו בן ננס, אינו גובה לא מנכסים משועבדין ולא מנכסים בני חורין. אמר לו, למה. אמר לו, הרי החונק את אחד בשוק. אמר לו הנח ואני נותן לך, פטור, שלא על אמנתו הלווהו. איזה הוא ערב שהוא חייב: אמר לו הלווהו, ואני נותן לך--חייב, שכן על אמנתו הלווהו. אמר רבי ישמעאל, הרוצה להחכים, יעסוק בדיני ממונות, שאין מקצוע בתורה גדול מהן, שהן כמעיין הנובע. והרוצה לעסוק בדיני ממונות, ישמש את שמעון בן ננס.

One who loans to his fellow through a written contract, he [the loaner] can collect from liened property (i.e., assets that can be seized to pay outstanding debts); a loan made though witnesses, payment can be collected with unliened property. If the loaner poroduces the loanee's handwriting that he is owed money, he may collect from unliened property.
If a guarantor is found after the loan has been granted, he may collect from unliened property. This case came before Rabbi Yishmael, who said that he may collect from uniened property. Ben Nanas said to him, he may not collect from liened or unliened property. Rabbi Yishmael responded, why? Ben Nanas replied, behold the case of a loaner who halts (lit. strangles) a creditor in the marketplace. A passerby said, leave him alone and I will give you [the money]. He (the passerby) is not liable to pay back the loan, because the loaner duid not loan to the creditor based on this person paying back the loan. however, in the caee that the guarantor said, loan to him money, ande I will repay you, he [the guarantor] is liable to repay because the loan was made based on his promise.
(and now, the message): Rabbi Yishmael says, one who wishes to become wise, should study the laws of commerce and property, because there is no greater pursuit than it in Torah, for it is like a flowing fountain. And one who wishes to learn these laws, should study under Shimon Ben Nanas.

Although pages could be written about the legal and philosophical implications of the legal portion of this mishnah, I would like to focus on Rabbi Yishmael's closing maxim. One might think it strange for a rabbi, especially one living quite soon after the destruction of the Temple, to tell his followers to focus on the intricacies of civil law- what about shabbat, kashrut and agricultural tithes?
I think that this statement, which echoes Rabbi Akiva's famous words ("Thus said Rabbi Akiva, this is the essence of Torah, love your neighbor as yourself") is indicative of the true goal of rabbinic Judaism: If one is only concerned with matters of ritual and their relationship with God is only fulfilling half of the mitzvot. Rabbi Yishmael is making a strong statement about the importance of interpersonal relationships, which are regulated through Mitzvot Bein Adam L'chaveiro (commandments between human beings) and codified in the tractates of Seder Nezikin.
Rabbi Yishmael's statement is all too necessary of a reminder today in the wake of the agriprocessers fiasco (in which the country's largest kosher meat plant has been accused of violating immgration laws, child labor and worker mistreatment. Although some rabbis such as representatives of the Orthodox Union and National Council of Young Israel have claimed that kashrut is only abut the minatae of those specific regulations (that would be found in masechet hullin), I, and I believe the rabbis of the mishnah, would strongly disagree.
In this time when we mourn so many different tragedies, some far beyond human understanding, we should resolve to work on our fulfillment of interpersonal mitzvot and our treatment of others, and thus we will be watered by the sweet spring of Torah and hopefully improve the world as well!

B'tzeiti M'imitzrayim/B'tzeitim M'irushalayim/ B'shuvi Lirushalayim

Al Eileh Ani Bochiya: For These I Cry - Thoughts on Tisha B'av 5768

Tisha B'av is a difficult day. While the aura of mourning may be difficult to grasp for those who may be unfamiliar with it, it is not easy even for someone like myself, who is fully immersed in the Jewish calendar.
It is an interesting idea to compare Pesach and Tisha B'av, both of which ask us, as 21st century Jews, to place ourselves in our ancestors shoes and imagine respecively, being redeemed from slavery in Egypt, and witnessing the destruction of two temples, as well as the other tragedies that have become associated with is day, inculding the Crusades, expulsion from Spain in 1492, Chelmincki pogroms in 1648-49, and the start of World War I in 1914, which eventually led to the Shoah.
Both Pesach and Tisha B'av are anticipated on the calendar. With Pesach, we are told to start preparing for the holiday 30 days prior to it [i.e., on Purim] (see Rashi to P'sachim 6a), which is pretty necessary for the cleaning and cooking to get done (or at least the planning for it). We also have 4 special shabbatot with their own maftir and haftarah readings, which anticipate this 'Season of our Freedom.'
Likewise, we begin to prepare for the somber nature of Tisha B'av three weeks prior with the fast of Shiva Asar B'tamuz, on which we mourn the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem in 70 CE, along with a number of other sad events. From that date, it is customary not to hold weddings, go to concerts, or have haircuts. Beginning on Rosh Chodesh Av, our joy is [further] decreased (Mishnah Ta'anit 4:6), and we customarily refrain from consuming meat and wine. However, despite this preparation, it is still difficult to go from a joyous shabbat to an intense 25 hours of mourning and reflection.
While I hope you appreciate the comparison which I described above between the most intense joy and intense sadness on our calendar, I really can't take credit for it. It is rather based on a stirring kinah (sad poem recited on Tisha B'av) whose refrain is the title of this post (When I left Egypt/When I Left Jerusalem/When I Return to Jerusalem) , written by Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra in 12th century Spain. I would like to provide the Hebrew text below (since the text is not as well known as it deserves to be), and then provide a bit of analysis and translation. [As a side note, this poem was known to me because it serves as one of the introductory pages to the Moss Haggadah, with each stanza framing a perpetual calendar for the first night of Pesach, which is always the same day of the week as the following Tisha B'av, thus another link between the two holidays.]

This stirring poem contains 22 couplets, each beginning with a letter of the Alef-Bet. What provides its beauty and haunting nature is that while the first line of each couplet begins with a joyous image of the Exodus from Egypt, it is immediately followed by a haunting image of the destruction and expulsion from Jerusalem both in 586 BC and 70 CE. May of the images in both categories are based on verses from the Tanach.
Here is translation of the first few stanzas:
A fire burned within me, as it rose in my heart - when I left Egypt.
And dirges I will raise up, so I will remember - when I left Jerusalem.
'And Moses sang,' an unforgotten song- When I left Egypt.
And Jeremiah lamented, and full of crying it was - when I left Jerusalem.
My house He established, and caused His presence to dwell within it - When I left Egypt.
And God's wrath came down upon me like a pillar of smoke - when I left Jerusalem.
One of the elements of this poem that I truly appreciate is Ibn Ezra's writing in first person. He attempts to embody the idea of B'chol Dor Vador -that in every generation one should see him or herself as if they left Egypt - and applies it to both the exodus and the destruction. The poet asks us to remember our highest point even when we are so low, part of the idea that we have at least some ability to control our national destiny. As well, it is stirring how such close comparidons werre found between the exodus and explusion, between songs of joy and songs of mourning, clouds of Divine protection and divine wrath.
Evoking another rabbinic custom, Ibn Ezra beautifully inserts a twist of hope at the end of the kinah, whose last stanza reads in the Ashkenazi tradition:
Torah and witnessing [at Sinai], and precious vessels - when I left Egypt.
Joy and gladness, and an end to tragedy and mourning - when I return to Jerusalem.

May we all merit to return to a Jerusalem of peace, whether to live or to visit, and may we be thanful for the rebuilding of Jerusalem that has occcured in our lifetime.


I wish to conclude with a short description of our Tisha B'av observance here at Ramah Nyack. After Seudah Shlisheet on Saturday night, which was augmented by a fuller menu of Lasanga and sweet potato pie, we moved in to the Beit Knesset, where the parochet (curtain) had already been removed from the Aron Kodesh. We had a short study session, folowed by the beginning of the maariv service recited without a tune. This section of the service was concluded with kaddish shalem and the blessing over the flame. We then walked outside and down a candlelit walkway to the grassy area, where we gatherd around low tables and read the book of eicha by candlelight. After the conclusion of maariv, we walked over to a blacktop area, where I sang as part of the 'tisha b'av choir' a series of sad songs as two Israels lit the word zachor (remember) on fire flanked by Israeli flags (a somewhat strange tradition, if you ask me). This was followed by a number of optional activities, from which I chose to attend a session led by my friend Michael on the midrashic compilation Eicha Rabbah.
This morning, we again davened outside on the grass, and I read the haftarah, recited in the melody of eicha except for the concluding verses.

Later this evening we will have a Mincha service, a movie and discussion, and Ma'ariv and Break-Fast.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Vihi Noam Nishbat...when Shabbat and Tisha B'av mourn

Every Saturday night, especially at camp, Havdalah is a very special time as we mark the conclusion of Shabbat through song and senses. Here at Ramah Nyack, we stand on the migrash (the central field) in a circle, surrounding a smaller circle containing the edah (division) designated to lead havdalah that week. Both the preliminary verses and b'rachot are done in song, and it's conclusion is marked by a sea of hugs, after which Amy, our director, wishes those present a shavua tov, and she and Mark, our business manager, make the relevant announcements.
This coming shabbat, none of these joyous images will occur (despite what I'm sure will be a lovely shabbat), as a result of it leading directly into Tisha B'av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. On one hand, public mourning is forbidden on Shabbat, which means that the consumption of meat and wine are permitted, as well as joyous singing during tefillot and meals. Yet, Tisha b'Av does inject itself into our shabbat experience, in the singing of L'cha Dodi to the mournful tune of Eli Tziyon, and the chanting of parts of the Torah and haftarah reading which are chanted to the melody of Eicha. As well, since Tisha b'av is a twenty five hour fast like Yom Kippur, it actually begins about fourty five minutes prior to the conclusion of shabbat.
But what happens to our beloved havdalah? The blessing over the flame is recited as we prepare to read the book of Eicha by candlelight, just like other years. While the havdalah candle usually represents the gift of fire to Adam, which the midrash says was given on Motzaei Shabbat, this week it also reminds of how fire can destroy. Not only did it destroy both Temples in Jerusalem, but throughout Jewish history, including burnings at stake during the inquisition and the tragedy of the shoah.
Besides for this small vestige of our normal ceremony, the liturgy causes us to quickly forget that Shabbat has just left us. In addition to the omission of havdalah, we do not recite the verses of Vihi Noam (Psalms 90:17 and 91), since they ask God to bless the work of our hands, thought to have originally referred to the Mishkan (tabernacle) when spoke by Moses. Instead, in the Ashkenazi tradition, a piyut (poem) called Vihi Noam Nishbat (Vihi Noam ('may our works be pleasant') is quieted), which instead describes the the unleashing of God's anger at his people.

Twenty-four hours later, a glimpse of havdalah returns. As we conclude the Arvit service that ends Tisha B'av, we recite the truncated form of havdalah as is recited at the conclusion of festivals on weekdays, containing just the b'racha over wine and the Hamavdil b'racha. Although this havdalah is distinct from that done at the end of a normal shabbat, it serves its own unique purpose. On Tisha B'av, we have spent a day mourning the saddest events in our history, including through the medium of kinot which expresses God's rejection of the Jewish people. The short havdalah blessing on Sunday night, with its praise for God "who distinguishes between holy and profane, light and darkness" reminds us that despite the destruction we have mourned, the Jewish people have a purpose to be a light unto the nations and bring holiness into the world. The sweetness of the wine, despite lacking the spices or singing of the usual havdalah reminds us of the light that Shabbat can bring to our week and the tragedy we have mourned, especially the coming shabbat known as shabbat nachamu, the shabbat of consolation.

May we all find comfort from the tragedies we mourn on Tisha B'av, from ancient times to our own day.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Open Orthodoxy shows off its best at Ramah Nyack

On Monday night, as part of our weekly 'Limud' (study session program), Ramah Nyack had the great honor of having Rabbi Shlomo Riskin as our teacher for the evening. Besides for being the founding rabbi of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan and the Chief Rabbi of Efrat in Israel, Rabbi Riskin is a strong voice in the Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist communities for openness, pluralism and alternatives to the (often oppressive) Israeli chief Rabbinate.
At Nyack, Rabbi Riskin gave an impassioned talk about the importance and significance of Israel and Aliyah, comparing life in Israel to the choices one recieves at a coffee shop: Botz (mud - turkish coffee), Nes (Miracle - Nescafe), and Hafuch (Topsy-turvy - a cappucino). He showed that Israeli life contains all of these elements, but it is important to look out for the nes, the miraculous things both large and snmall that make Israel so special.
Although I was dissapointed that Rabbi Riskin did not bring it up here at Nyack, one reason that I admire him is for his courage in speaking out against the recent crisis percipitated by the Israeli Rabinate, in which thousands of conversions performed by the National Conversion Instiutute under the chairmanship of Rabbi Haim Druckman have been retroactively invalidated.
I was very impressed by an article Rabbi Riskin wrote on this past shavuot on the issue, entitled 'My Torah is Crying.'

Why my Torah is crying

Jun. 15, 2008

My favorite night of the year has always been the night of Shavuot, when I go from hill to hill of the seven hills of my beloved city of Efrat, giving Torah study class after Torah study class until the early-morning daybreak service.

During my nocturnal walk I am constantly greeted by groups of Efratites of all ages - men, women and children - walking to the classes of their choice; often they excitedly stop me with a question engendered by a previous lecture.

On this one magical night of the year all of Efrat becomes miraculously transformed into one large and glorious beit midrash (House of Study), whose majestic message pulsates with the words of the Psalmist, "Arise and exultantly sing the song of Torah into the night…."

This year, however was different. Instead of joyous songs, I heard jarring sobs. Instead of the Torah scrolls in the arks and the Torah books on the shelves dancing with rapture and rejoicing, they reeled with dismay and disappointment. The very letters of black fire were weeping, the very parchment of white fire was wilting.

Yes, this Shavuot night, my beloved Torah was crying.

YOU SEE, my Torah has always rejoiced with song because "its paths are paths of pleasantness and all of its highways lead to peace." The Torah is the expression and will of the Divine Presence, who is a "God of unconditional and freely-given love, of compassion, long-suffering patience, truth and cleansing purity."

My Torah especially rejoices with song on Shavuot, when we read the Book of Ruth, the scroll of lovingkindness, the story of a forlorn and forsaken Moabite widow who is lovingly accepted into the Jewish homeland, faith and community as a righteous proselyte. Her loneliness is transformed into domestic peace and security in Efrat in the loving arms of a noble and proud son of Judah.

The lovingkindness of Boaz and Ruth toward each other as a couple - as well as toward Naomi - merit their being the grandparents of King David, the eventual redeemer of Israel and the world. The world will be rebuilt and redeemed only through the lovingkindness of a Torah and a nation which embraced the Moabitess Ruth as one of their own and provided a suffering widow with love and family.

WHAT HAS happened to our Torah of late? An entirely different narrative is being written, the very antithesis of the love and compassion of the Scroll of Ruth. My Torah has been stolen away, hijacked, by false and misguided interpreters. My Torah is crying because of rabbinical court judges who have forgotten that the major message of the Exodus from Egypt is for us to love the stranger and the proselyte.

They have forgotten the 11 prohibitions against insensitive words and actions toward converts - and the talmudic stricture that we are not to be too overbearing or exacting toward a would-be proselyte (Yebamot 47). They have forgotten Maimonides's ruling that even regarding a convert who merely went to the mikve (and became circumcised if male) - even if the conversion was for a personal romantic or venal reason, and even if the convert has returned to former idolatrous ways - he or she remains Jewish (albeit a Jewish renegade); her or his religious marriage remains intact, and lost objects must be restored to him or her. (Maimonides, Laws of Forbidden Relationships 13,14).

MY TORAH is crying because these judges have, in the name of Torah, disrupted and possibly destroyed hundreds if not thousands of families of converts, whose children and even children's children were brought up and accepted as Jews - only now to learn that their forbears' conversions have been retroactively nullified.

My Torah is crying because these judges have, in the name of Torah, disgraced and reviled an outstanding rabbinical leader, Rabbi Haim Druckman, a scholar who has dedicated his entire life to the Torah of Israel, the people of Israel and the land of Israel, and allowed an atmosphere to develop in which his name and personage have been dragged through the mud. They have forgotten that "an elder scholar must be treated with precious graciousness" and that "Torah scholars must advance peace in the world."

MY TORAH is crying because these same judges have made it impossible for countless women to find happiness in marriage; because they have caused wives to live as captive women to unscrupulous husbands who hold them up for ransom in the name of "purity of Israel." They forget the talmudic directive that "to free a grass widow, our sages invoked many leniencies." They forget the plea of the Maharsha at the conclusion of Tractate Yevamot: "God must grant courage to rabbinical judges so that God may bless lonely and suffering women with the peace that comes from domestic tranquility."

My Torah is crying because this Torah of peace and compassion has been perverted and hijacked by judges who, despite their erudition, have failed to learn the lesson of the Scroll of Ruth, failed to internalize the purpose for which Torah was given to the world.

And so the tears of converts and would-be converts, the tears of grass widows and women who are anxiously, frantically and hopelessly waiting for rabbinical courts to obligate their intransigent husbands to grant them their freedom merge with the tears of the Torah itself.

These tears of the Torah and outsiders looking in at "pure Israel" are preventing the redemption, a redemption which can come only on the basis of lovingkindness to the "other" - stranger and convert, widow and grass widow, those who are chained and long to be free.

Our Torah is crying because she is, tragically, now in chains.

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

The issue has taken the country and Jewish world by storm, and it is also worth reading Rabbi David Golinkin's thorough responsa on the issue ( In more recent news, Rabbi Avraham Sherman of the Rabbinate was slated to speak at the 70th anniversary of Mossad Harav Kook (a flagship institution of Religious Zionism, and the location of the bombing this past Rosh Chodesh Adar) earlier this week, and was basically booed off the stage. See the articles: English and Hebrew.

In these days leading up Tisha B'av, when we mourn destruction traditionally attributed to sensless hatred between Jews may we remember chaverim kol yisrael, ll israel are bethren, whether born Jewish or Jews by choice, so we can be Am Echad im Lev Echad : One Nation with one Heart!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Watch out for the Ketev!

I spent a few hours this evening studying the laws of Tisha B'av from the Shulchan Aruch with my friend and chevruta Yossi, and we came across a few amusing halachot. The highlight by far, is found in Orach Chaim Siman (section) 551: Se'if (subsection) 17.
שולחן ערוך אורח חיים סימן תקנא
צריך ליזהר מי"ז בתמוז עד ט' באב שלא לילך יחידי (קב) מה מד' שעות עד ט' שעות (משום שבהם קטב מרירי שולט); (קג) <יח> ולא יכו התלמידים בימים ההם.
One must be very careful from the 17th of Tamuz until Tisha B'av not to walk alone from the fourth to the ninth hour of the day (since [a demon known as] ketev m'riri abounds. And they should not hit their students during these days.
Here is the definition that we found in the Dictionary of Targumim, Talmud and Midrashic Literature
by Marcus Jastrow

Although one may laugh at this, as we both did, the author of the Shulchan Aruch (R' Yosef Caro, 16th Century Israel) did not pull this idea out of thin air, but based it on traditions dating back to the midrashim Bamidbar Rabbah and Eicha Rabbah, which were compiled in the latter part of the first millenium CE, at a time when there was a strong belief in demons in the region. From a modern perspective, we can interpret this strange law as a reflection of the rabbis' seeing this period between the two fast days, know as בין המצרים, between the straits, as a time of tragedy and bad luck.

May we merit to learn more Torah, may we not be plagued by demons, and may this period of sorrow for our people be turned into one of joy and consolation.

If you understand Hebrew, here's an article from Haaretz newspaper about the new Yeshiva in Uganda for the Abuyudaya tribe of Jews and others throughout Africa, funded by the Conservative mevement in the United States. It is particularly relevant, because our scholars in residence this shabbat at camp were Adam and Meital Baldachin, who just returned from a year of living with that community.

Torah Doesn't stop at the Kitchen Door: A D'var Halacha based on Masechet Bava Batra

This summer, I am working as the mashgiach at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, and as part of my responsibilities, I help unload all of the various deliveries we receive including groceries, dairy, meat, and Ice Cream.
At the same time, one of my leisure activities this summer is studying the Mishnah of Masechet (tractate) Bava Batra. While I was originally learning it for its own sake, in the past few weeks my learning has become part of a facebook-based project to make a siyum (completion) of the rntire midhnah in memory of the abducted Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev z"l.

Located in the order of Nezikin (damages), Bava Batra focuses mainly on issues of commercial and propery law, including the delineation of rights belonging to neighbors, buyers and sellers. I was inspired to write this d'var when I have noticed on a number of occasions strong connections between the laws and cases in the Mishnah, and real-life situations that have happened in this part of the job. Although I strongly believe that Judaism can and does permeate every facet of our lives, it is interesing that there is as much relevant material in halachic literature, if not more, dealing with the 'everyday' parts of my job as with dealing directly with kashrut.

Bava Batra 5:8 deals with the responsibilities of a buyer and seller if something goes wrong with a product at the time of purchase.
ה,ח המוכר יין ושמן לחברו, והוקרו או שהוזלו--עד שלא נתמלאת המידה, למוכר; משנתמלאת המידה, ללוקח. היה סרסור ביניהם, ונשברה החבית--נשברה לסרסור. וחייב להטיף שלוש טיפין; הרכינה ומיצת, הרי של מוכר. החנווני חייב להטיף לו שלוש טיפין; רבי יהודה אומר, ערב שבת עם חשיכה, פטור.
One who sells wine or oil to his fellow, and it rose or fell in value - until the order is filled, the loss or gain goes to the seller; after it is fulfilled, to the purchaser. If there was a middleman/courier in between, and the cask was broken, the middleman is liable for the damage. The shopkeeper is required to spill over 3 drops when filling a cask. If it caked on the sides of the measuring vessel, it belongs to the seller. 'And he is required to spill over 3 drops' - Rabbi Judah said, on Erev Shabbat close to sunset he is exempt.

A few weeks ago, I was checking in an ice cream delivery, which contained both ice cream bars and gallons of ice cream. Since the truck had been driving around the whole day, the gallons were melting and one of the opened up and spilled melted ice cream over the pavement. I was worried that camp would be upset over the loss of the ice cream. Before I could even get upset, the driver offered to take that gallon of ice cream off the bill, just like the directive in the mishnah. Although our wine (used only for cooking here at camp, in case you were wondering) and oil come in sealed containers today, my ice cream case is a great illustration of how the ancient rabbis compiled a legal code that still rings relevant for us today.

Another example of a Mishnah coming to life is the cases given in Bava Batra 6:2, which deals with what is considered acceptable damage when receiving a large order of goods, mostly fruit in both the mishnah and our day.

ו,ב המוכר פירות לחברו, הרי זה מקבל עליו רובע טינופת לסאה; תאנים, מקבל עליו עשר מתליעות למאה; מרתף של יין, מקבל עליו עשר קוססות למאה; קנקנים בשרון, מקבל עליו עשר פוטסות למאה.
One who sells fruit to their fellow, they accept upon themselves a quarter kab of waste with every seah; figs, ten that are worm-infested for every hundred. A cellar of wine, ten that are sour out ove one hundred; jars from the Sharon, they accept ten that are not fully dry.

While I and the management at camp do hold our distributor to a high standard in terms of sending correct and Kosher products, this job has given me a small lesson in accepting a small level of imperfection in some of the large shipments we receive, especially in terms of fruits and vegetables. Although we would request a refund if an entire case of fruit were damaged, the ruling of the mishnah teaches an important lesson still applicable today, that it is important to go about business with a readiness to give the seller the benefit of the doubt and allow for small imperfections while at the same time both parties must take responsibility to fulfill their side of the contract.

These mishnayot and the parallel cases given from my experiences are just a few examples of how our classical rabbinic texts, especially those dealing with civil law that might not seem as applicable on the surface as those dealing with Shabbat or holidays. I hope that these words of Torah have given a taste of some of the work I have done this summer, and an impetus to delve more into the text of masechet Bava Batra!