Skip to main content


Showing posts from 2006

Derech Eretz min haTorah; its the Law, not just a good idea

In the parsha of "trumas hadeshen" (removing the ashes from the altar), the kohein is told to change his clothes before continuing with the rest of his daily duties (Vayikra 6:4). Rashi comments, "This is not an obligation, rather it is derech eretz; that he shouldn't wear his normal working clothes and get them dirty while taking out the ashes. The clothing in which one cooks the food for his master is not the same clothing one wears when serving wine to his master." Rashi's comment is difficult for at least two reasons. First, if it is not an obligation, then why does the Torah command it? Second, if the the reasoning is as clear as the example, then why would Torah need to mention something so obvious?

The first question we can answer from a Rashi in Eruvin, 104b. The mishna there says that a cohein is allowed to put a bandage on a wound on his hand while working in the mikdash on shabbos. This is another example of "ein shvus b'mikdash …
Attitude of the Giver and Attitude of the Receiver

The Sifsei Chaim notes that the Chovos ha'l'Lavos seems to have contradictory statements regarding his impression of both givers and receivers of chesed. "I am amazed", says the Chovos ha'l'Lavos, "by those who expect gratitude for doing a chesed for someone." The Chovos ha'l'Lavos has explained that no one can damage or benefit another by even a mustard seed worth of value, for "hakol bidei shamayim" -- everything is in the hands of heaven. So that means that that the receiver is not really obligated to be grateful to someone who only carried out the Will of the Creator and brought His decree to fruition, right? Continues the Chovos ha'l'Lavos, "I am amazed by those people who do not have hakaras hatov for others who try to benefit them, even if they are not able to carry out their good intentions." Hmmm... and to make matters even worse, the Chovos ha'l&…

Learning more and living Jewish

Life after that first conversion was not much different quantitatively, but there had been a shift in direction. I had been forced to choose to be Jewish, and I would never again take my Jewishness for granted. I wouldn't say that it was constantly on my mind, but it was certainly always at the back of my mind.

A lot happened in our personal lives over those next few years. We had to find a level of observance that was comfortable and livable. Comfortable regarding how are personal level of commitment jived with our actions. Livable regarding balancing both our level of commitment as individuals and our commitment as a couple. There was also the commitment to each other. I think last component is not always given the attention is needs. We tried to make everything we did a mutual decision. For exmple, for a long time we kept kosher in the house but ate out in restaurants.

At this point I want to stress that I am not making any recommendations; I am simply recording what we …

Our Second Wedding -- a short postscript.

Our second wedding was really a very small affair. On the other hand, it had the fanciest k'suva (you are welcome to see it if you like). Besides being fancy, it has two cute deficiencies. First, one of the witnesses is a woman; which renders it pusul. Even better though... it has the wrong date on it! In the Rabbi's office I mentioned that Debbie and I would probably always be arguing about which anniversary to celebrate, the first wedding or this one. "No problem", said one of the authorities present, "we'll just date it Aug 7; it doesn't really matter anyway." How right he was; I should have realized something was wrong at that point. Oh well...
Modeh -- Saying thank you and admitting the truth.

More from The Sifsei Chaim in Midos v'Avodas HaShem, as filtered by me. The word "modeh" in lashon hakodesh can mean either "gratitude" or "admission". In fact, it really expresses a concept that means both. The midrash, in fact, makes a seemingly strange connection: Leah was a ba'alas ho'da'ah and produced children who were ba'alei ho'da'ah. Leah expressed ho'da'ah when her fourth son was born and so named him Yehuda, Yehuda expressed ho'da'ah when he admitted (was modeh) that Tamar was innocent and he was guilty. The midrash is comparing the ho'da'ah which was thanks and praise, to the ho'da'ah of Yehudah which was an admission of guilt -- a very public and embarrassing admission of guilt, in fact. What relation is there between those feelings of love and enthusiasm for being blessed with a fourth son have to do with the the feelings of a t…

My First Conversion

I never really did convince the Rabbi that I needed a real conversion, but I did have the support of the (Conservative Jewish) cantor, a few other friends, and my wife. So now all I needed was to "do the deed", so to speak. A real conversion requires three things for a man (two, as will be obvious, of a woman).

Acceptance of the mitzvos in front of a Bais Din (Jewish Tribunal)
Mikveh (Ritual Immersion)
Bris Mila (circumcision for the sake of being Jewish) or (if one is already circumcised) Hatafas Dam (literally, "a drop of blood"

We all decided that the acceptance of mitvos part was taken care of my by Bar Mitzvah. We only needed mikveh and hatafas dam. In case it wasn't obvious, by the way, not any drop of blood would do; it had to be blood from the same place it would come in case of a full circumcision. Of course, being as this was Salt Lake City we had neither mohel nor mikveh. But we did have a Jewish urologist who did all the circumcisions for bris mil…

Gadol Shalom Bayis -- the Greatness of Shalom Bayis

In the parasha, "Va'yeitei", when Rochel Imeinu finally becomes pregnant and gives birth, the Torah quotes her as declaring, "Elokim has removed my shame." (B'reishis 30:23). Rashi quoting chazal explains her to be referring to the following idea:
As long as a women does not have a son, she has no one on whom to blame her mistakes. One she has a son, she can blame him. "Who broke this dish?" "Your son." "Who ate the figs?" "Your son."
Is it possible not to be shocked by these words?  Rashi says that the simple, plain meaning of these words and the revealed reason that Rochel Imeinu -- who has waited years to have a child, constantly davening and working on her midos -- is to have someone to blame?!?  And she even names her first son as a memorial to that idea!

"Sichos Mussar" (R' Chaim Shmulevitz), explains that this showed the great importance that the Avos haK'doshim gave to Shalom Bayis. Can…
Hakaras haTov -- How far?

Another interesting ha'ara from the Sifsei Chaim, Midos v'Avodas haShem. After the burning bush incident, where Moshe Rabbeinu was told in a direct navu'a from haShem to go to Mitzrayim to bring out Klal Yisrael (and all the back and forth there), we have pasuk 4:18: Moshe left and returned to Yeser his father-in-law, etc. Rashi brings the M'chilta on that verse that says that Moshe was asking to leave because he had promised his father-in-law not leave Midian without permission. The medrash explains that Moshe had made the promise because of his hakaras hatov to Yisro.

Now wait a minute... the entire klal yisrael is languishing in Mitzrayim, it is time for them to be redeemed, and Moshe is the chosen redeemer. Yet Moshe Rabbeinu needs his father-in-law's permission? And just what was the chesed that Yisro had done for Moshe? Yisro had invited Moshe in for a meal. And why did Yisro invite Moshe in for a meal? Because Moshe had just s…
In z'chus of a r'fu'ah shleima for Rafael Ze'ev ben Miriam.

Yeshivas Chafetz Chaim is asking people to commit to at least 10 minutes of mussar per day to add to the many merits of Rafael Ze'ev ben Miriam to bring him a r'fu'ah shleima min haShamayim, r'fuas haNefesh u'r'fu'as haGuf. I will be happy to forward the form to anyone who wants to officially participate. The official request is from now till January 20. I decided as part of my own acceptance to learn that I would also accept to, bli neder, publish something I have learned from my mussar seder to this blog at least three times per week. Saying over what I have learned should make the lesson more ingrained in me and thus a better limud.

Here goes...

It says in Avos 1:15: "Shamai omer:... hevei m'kabel es kol ha'adam b'seiver panim yafos." I heard from R' Avigdor Miller, z'tzl, that one should analyze each word:
panim: from "lifnos", to turn (t…

A bump in the road.

In Salt Lake City we made a lot of friends and had a very positive experience with the Jewish community. I started teaching sunday school (7th grade; and found out I am not good with middle-schoolers). My wife became a "kosher cop" of sorts. She would go to various establishments and verify that they used only kosher ingredients and therefore could be used at the synagogue. We went to adult education classes in making Shabbat. We helped organize events for Jewish students at the university. We went to services every Friday night and Saturday morning. I also went most Sundays, Mondays, and Thursdays; and I bought my first pair of t'fillin. Basically, we were enjoying being active members of our synagogue and the Jewish community.

We also learned how to make a Jewish home by spending times with Jews in their homes... especially Shabbos and holidays. One of those Friday nights out (we drove on Shabbos in those days) while discussing our family history, I mentioned t…

This is the place!

There is a memorial just outside of Salt Lake City called the "This is the Place" Monument. I thought, "Cool! They have a sense of humor about their religion." Thus began my education about living in Utah. They were serious. Brigham Young had woken up from a fever long enough to say the very deeply inspiring and wise words (note sarcasm), "This is the place"... and they had memorialized! They didn't even try to make it sound better. Good grief. Thus began my education about religion outside of California. Namely, some people honestly took their religious beliefs seriously! I was shocked. I'd grown up in California... you could be different religions and it was no more important that wearing different styles or enjoying different cuisine. But here, in Salt Lake City, people actually took their beliefs seriously. In fact, everyone took their beliefs and/or non-beliefs seriously. Religion was so "in your face" that no one coul…

Moving at different rates.

Since you have just seen one example and because you'll see a lot more, I wanted to emphasize that my wife, our children, our friends, and I did not progress at the same rate. While reading the last entry, my wife was pleased with the way our differences were portrayed and emphasized to me that the differences need to continue to be portrayed. That is also part of the journey.

It is very common for a married couple to move at different rates in their acceptance and embracing of new ideas and behaviors. Part of any good marriage is personal and mutual growth. I am sure that is obvious. What may be less obvious is the special challenge of religious growth -- especially in modern western civilization where everything *except* religion has value. All the more so "organized" religion. Moreover, Orthodox/Torah Judaism has a world view which is totally at odds with the prevailing culture.

So I will do my best to present how we handled those difference; both as encouragemen…

"I thought you were kidding."

This goes into the hall of fame for famous last words. This was when my wife first realized that what she thought of as my weird sense of humor might have a darker side. Here's what led up to that statement: We had just arrived in Salt Lake City and were moving into our apartment in married student housing. I was emptying out our ice chest to the refrigerator... and tossing out the cold cuts we had brought for our two day drive across Nevada and Utah from South Lake Tahoe. "What are you doing?", she asked me; a bit incredulous. "We decided to start keeping kosher when we got to Salt Lake City, remember?" "I thought you were kidding."

Ok... let me fill in a few details of how we went from that first seder to Salt Lake City. (Salt Lake City?!? UTAH??? Uh.... yes.)

After that seder I knew I was not Reform, but I didn't know what I yes was. I figured I must be Conservative. Truth be told, I had leanings in that direction anyway. The synagogu…

"There were plagues! I know there were plagues!"

Our first seder after getting married. One bedroom apartment in married student housing, us and four guests: a Catholic friend from grad school and his fiance (also Catholic, of course), and a Jewish friend with his "significant other" (not Jewish, of course). We got the good hard-cover Union haggadas and had just finished the whole thing. Said all the text, sang all the songs (as best as we could...), and gotten all the way to the back hard cover. No plagues. No allusion to plagues. We had a JPS bible that my wife had gotten for her Bat Mitzvah. I found my way to the book of Exodus, then to the the Moses meeting with Pharoh. "Yes! Look! Plagues. I knew there were plagues."

In retrospect, I realize that that was the beginning for me; the first step on the journey that let to where I am today.

I'd grown up nominally reform. That is, at home we lit chanuka candles, didn't have a christmas tree. At my (paternal) grandparents house we had a passover s…

All beginnings are difficult.

So say our sages. What is the difference between this and "the longest journey starts with a single step"? The problem with that statement is that small journeys, even accidental journeys also start with a single step. When our sages tell us that "all beginnings are difficult"... they also mean to tell us that if it is not difficult, then it is not a beginning. This should not be disheartening... rather encouraging; for when you want to really start something there are always road blocks. Road blocks should not, therefore, make you feel like "this is a sign that I shouldn't be doing this." Exactly the opposite, those road blocks may indeed be a sign... a sign that you are embarking on something important and real.

It is with this in mind that I am beginning to write how I went from agnostic/atheist scientist to ultra-orthodox (jewish) scientist. It didn't happen over night.... more like 30 years and counting. There were times of big changes…

A boy here in Chicago a few days ago, a boy in Silver Spring yesterday. Crossing the street. It has to happen thousands and thousands of times a day. But these two boys didn't make it. They are in serious condition, and we all hope for a complete recovery. Regardless of the outcome, however, how will those drivers face themselves? Can they really be blamed? Busy streets, big cars... it is a recipe for disaster and we should really be thankful whenever we *do* make it across in one piece. But events of this type do and should remind us that ultimately, we are not in charge. There are thousands of factors that are not in our control. HaShem runs the world.

What about, though, when someone intends to damage us? Our attitude, says the Chovos Levavos, should really be the same. The Chovos Levavos says in Sha'ar haBitachon (The Gate of Trust) that we need to know that nothing, no person and no thing, can hurt us or help us even the smallest amount unless with …
Two are better than one, Koheles style.

קהלת פרק ד

(ט) טוֹבִים הַשְּׁנַיִם מִן הָאֶחָד אֲשֶׁר יֵשׁ לָהֶם שָׂכָר טוֹב בַּעֲמָלָם:
(י) כִּי אִם יִפֹּלוּ הָאֶחָד יָקִים אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ וְאִילוֹ הָאֶחָד שֶׁיִּפּוֹל וְאֵין שֵׁנִי לַהֲקִימוֹ:

Two are better than one, who share the reward of their labor. For if they fall, each can raise his chaver/friend; but if one falls, no second can raise him.
-- Koheles 4:9,10)

If two people are falling, how can being togther help? Now you have twice the clumsiness to deal with! But look more closely at the choice of word that we translate as "friend" -- chaver. The root of this word denotes a connection that permits flow or sharing between the two connected entities. The end is also curious, if one falls, why can't any other second raise him?

Now... why does anything fall? Falling comes only from one thing... lack of balance. These two, when connected, are balanced and therefore can support the falling and failing of the other. When they a…
The rasha asks, "What is this service to you?"; "to you" and not "to him".

The ba'al hagada continues by telling us that by removing himself from the community, he has denied the fundmental principle. At first glance that seems a bit extreme. Ok, he is not interested in participating; or at least he wants to know what he gets out of it before particiating -- but "kafar ba'ikar" (denies the fundamental principle)?!?

I would like to suggest that the ba'al hagada is not, in fact, darshening the words of the rasha with "to you" and not "to him". Rather, the ba'al hagada is telling us the question of the rasha. The rasha is looking at the whole service is something to get something out of. The difference between him and the chacham is that the chacham understands the fundamental principle of hakaras hatov -- of course there is some service/work to be done -- the chacham simply wants the details. The rasha denie…

Thought for the Day: Dayeinu -- It Would Have Been Enough for Us.

One of the highlights of the seder is "dayeinu"; one amazing chesed after another, each followed by the declaration, "Dayeinu!". However, at least one line begs explanation: "If You had split the sea for us, but not brought us through on dry land; Dayeinu!" How could it possibly have been enough to split the sea and then let it come crashing down on us? If the purpose was to get us out of Mitzrayim and into Eretz Yisrael, this would be a counter-productive move; to say the least. Moreover, the very next paragraph goes through the same list; this time without the dayeinus. So this back to back recitation can't just be announce that we are thankful for each and every chesed.

Rather, I believe, that dayeinu is coming to tell us precisely "k'p'shuto"... it really would have been enough for us to experience k'rias yam suf, and nothing more. Every moment in this world is worthwhile just for itself. In p'sukei d'zimra …
Thank you, the living and enduring King. Who has, in His great mercy, returned my soul to me. You have a lot of faith in me.

That is how a Jew start his waking hours. Making a declaration that waking up was a gift and we have gratitude for another day of life. But that is not the end of the declaration; we also acknowledge that we have things to do, and G-d has faith in us.

I awoke earlier than usual this morning -- 3:00AM. I usually get up early. I try the get up before 4:00AM and I have a series of alarms to prod me. My poor wife... I almost always catch the first alarm at 3:45AM on my watch, and remember to disable the 4:00AM alarm on my alarm clock, and and downstairs before the 4:10AM alarm on my palm pilot starts beeping. But some mornings I don't...

In any case, this morning I awoke at 3:00AM and tried to turn over to sleep another 45 minutes or so. No use; so I finally got up around 3:30, figuring I might as well use the extra time (since I wasn't getting any mor…
Almost a week.

It has been nearly a week. The surreality (is that a word?) of being is stating to wear off. I am very glad I started this writing. I couldn't write for a day or so after my mother's passing. The next day my wife encouraged (so to speak) me to stay home. I spent a lot of time writing that day. As I felt the tears well up, my natural reaction was to stifle it; but I forced myself to let the tears and weeping come. When I talked to others -- on the phone or in person -- I was able (with effort) to maintain myself. Alone I could let the feelings come, and the writing seemed to open doors. I am not cried out... but I think I can now allow myself that luxury when I need it.

At the same time I am planning a wedding. Well, to be honest, I am consutling occaisionally on the planning of my daughter's upcoming wedding. And, oh yes, Pesach is also coming. Trying to keep my head on work is verging on impossible. I am choosing tasks that are more mechanical...…
Please no more, "well, the main thing is to make her comfortable".

This post is very politically incorrect; you have been warned. I really didn't want to hear one more time, "the main thing is to keep her comfortable". Comfort in this world is *not* the main thing; it is not even a goal. Comfort is sometimes a means to a desired goal, but sometimes being uncomfortable is the appropriate means. In fact, sometimes the discomfort itself *is* the only way to get where you want to go. When is that? When you want to grow, become better, stronger, more than you were before. That effort can never be anything but uncomfortable.

Therefore, my conclusion is that the drive for comfort is motivated by an underlying hypothesis that this particular life is no longer worth living. I reject that hypothesis without reservation. No moment of life, not breath, is ever a waste; it is always worth it. Life is not always comfortable; in fact, it rarely is. How dare hospice …
Life after death.

My sister grabbed my mother's lifeless body. I told her it was time to go. She wouldn't let go; "If I let go, it's going to be real!" I had told her earlier that the body nourishes the soul in this world like the placenta nourishes the baby in the womb. "It's a placenta... Mom let it go, now you need to." She reluctantly let go. "But she is still warm!" "We need to go." "But..."

My sister-in-law asked if my sister and I wanted a few minutes alone. We looked at her and said, "She is your mother just as much as ours; you are our sister." My brother had been called away, but he was with us on the phone. "I thought I was prepared.", he said, "I thought I had said my good-byes." We cried together on the phone. We had all thought we were prepared. But there is, apparently, no preparation for this. What we would give for her to take even one more labored breath. The…
My Mother's Death

You may want to skip this; it is intentionally graphic. I am writing this because I think it would have helped me when we were going through that last few days and hours of my mother's life to have known what others had experienced and what to expect.

My mother had been difficult to get along with for years. It now turns out that a lot of the problems were caused by the many pain and psychiatric drugs she was taking. Several different doctors who were not talking to each other were all prescribing medicine/drugs for her. My brother and his wife (to whom I owe a debt of gratitude I can never hope to repay for the care they gave our mother the last few years) finally got her into a geriatric psychiatric hospital, Senior Bridges. After spending almost two weeks there (a place she referred to as "prison") she came out with her medications cut in half and was a new person. I wish people wouldn't be so squeamish about the title and just get the ne…
Faith and a sense of humor, that is what you need to make it in this world -- R' Henoch Leibowitz, shlita.

We put on some music for my mother... Country Western via internet radio. All of the sudden we heard:
I can't quote the book
The chapter or the verse
You can't tell me it all ends
In a slow ride in a hearse
You know I'm more and more convinced
The longer that i live
Yeah, this can't be
No, this can't be
No, this can't be all there is

from "Believe", by Brooks and Dunn. And that was followed by, "send me an angel and show me the way".

Whew... some times that sense of humor is a bit sharp.

One breath at a time...

כֹּל הַנְּשָׁמָה תְּהַלֵּל יָהּ הַלְלוּ יָהּ: (תהלים פרק קנ פסוק ו)
King David chose to end his opus to the gamut of human emotion, the Book of Psalms, by declaring, "Every living thing shall praise G-d; Praise G-d!" King David chose to use the unusual word "neshama" to mean "living thing"; and our Rabbis of Blessed Memory tell us that King David's intent in using this word was to also express the message "with every breath (n'shima) I will praise G-d".

I am sitting in front of my mother. The skin on her face drawn and sunken. To be honest I have never seen live person look like this. Hospice tells us that she has hours, not days. The little blue pamphlet they gave us told us her breathing would become more irregular as time goes on. I hold my breath every time Mom hesitates... then I breathe when she does; and I thank G-d for that breath (mine and hers).

She seems to be past the pain now. She seems to not even like the medicine …

Saying good-bye to Mom.

I really thought I could wait till Sunday. I talked to Mom on the phone on Thursday... she was a little confused, but lucid. Our very close friend had lost her father the day before. She pushed me... offered all of her airline miles to me... just go. My wife was scheduled for a procedure on Friday... Shabbos away from home is never fun. In the end I was convinced... American has a compassion fare... new problem: no compassion seats for a return trip... ok, come back later, fly back overnight. My wife and kids ran around getting my packed, buying food for me, making arrangements.

I arrived Friday morning and was met by my brother, his wife, and my Dad. We spent a couple of hours visiting and letting my brother get a little work done at his Reno store. One the way to see Mom, I got a quite unexpected phone call. "Mr. Allen? This is ....; I want to ask your daughter to marry me and I would like your blessing."

We arrived at my Mom's room. She recognized me and I wa…
Parshas Vayikra
When a person (אָדָם) shall bring an offering.

ויקרא פרק א פסוק ב
אָדָם כִּי יַקְרִיב...

Parshas v'yikra begins, "when a person will bring a korban...". The Torah could just as well have left out the word "person", and even if it did want a word there, the usual word would be "ish". The uncharacteristic use of the word "adam" prompts Rashi to comment:

רש"י ויקרא פרק א פסוק ב
למה נאמר, מה אדם הראשון לא הקריב מן הגזל, שהכל היה שלו, אף אתם לא תקריבו מן הגזל

"Just as the first person did not offer a korban from stolen property, because everything was 'shelo', so too you shall not bring an offering from stolen property." The word "shelo", of course, means "his"..... or "His"; that is "belongs to HaShem". If we translate "shelo" as "His", then we can understand the pasuk is telling us that just as Adam HaRishon had absolute clarity that everything was fr…
Siyum on Masechta Shabbos -- 11 years in the making!
On Rosh Chodesh Nissan 5766, my chavrusa (really much more of a rebbi than a chavrusa) and I were zoche to be m'sayim masechta shabbos; a schedule we half jokingly call our "daf chodshi" (one page a month). The specific date was chosen because it is also R' Mannes's father's yahrtzeit, but the fact is we really did finish at that time. Hosting a siyum two weeks before Pesach is not easy; but my family has always celebrated siyumim together and we all worked hard to get everything together.

A year ago or so, someone commented to me, "11 years? wow... you have a lot of patience". But that is a mistake. For, (as pointed out to me by R' Mannes) in the hadran we say, "our minds are on you, and your mind is on us." The masechate is a living entity with which we have an eternal relationship. Eleven years is not a long time to spend developing that relationship.

I was honored to have R&…
I am starting this blog in response to the last few days of my life. This many jarringly different and powerful events in such a short period of time demands a response. Since last Wednesday, I have experienced (in order):
The celebration of the completion of a major tractate of the Talmud -- 11 years in the making.The death of a dear friend's father, preparing his body for burial, and laying him to rest.My mother slipping away from this world; and traveling to spend her last few days together with her and my brother and sister.The engagement of my oldest daughter to a wonderful young man whom we welcome into our family with open arms.The conflicting emotions have left me literally stunned... not knowing which way to turn or how to feel.

I do know that I cannot possibly hope to understand the entire meaning of anything that happens in my life. Of one thing, however, I am certain. The events do have meaning. The least I can do is acknowledge that fact and put the effort into dra…