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Showing posts from June, 2014

Thought for the Day: Coming of the Messiah and Resurrection of the Dead -- Intrinsic Fundamentals of Orthodox Judaism

I grew up as and into a secular scientist with a feeling there must be more.  That is, it certainly felt to me that there had to be more to being human than just being a smart, hairless ape.  After all, I felt no moral indignation toward apes beating each other up, or even being eaten by lions and tigers; that's just, after all, the ecosystem.  On the other hand, I do feel a deep moral indignation toward mugging in Central Park and murder.  And no, it's not just the practicality living together.  On the other hand, two things that seemed to me to be completely outside the scope of reality and iron clad proof that Christianity was anti-scientific and wrong was the idea of a messiah and also resurrection of the dead.  Sigh... live and, as they say, learn.

Becoming Orthodox Jewish meant, among other things, paying attention to what I was saying in the prayer.  Right there in the central prayer, known sometimes as the Amidah (standing prayer, a name from the Zohar HaKodesh) and so…

Thought for the Day: Twenty Three Dimensions to Each and Every Sin

I was struck by the following idea at n'ila a few years ago. Ashamnu, bagadnu, ...gazalnu? From global to specific? Rather, I think we can understand all 23 expressions of admission as applying to each an every sin that we commit. Even if this is not p'shat, it gives a perspective on the damage done by every sin, even the "little" ones.  This bears reconsideration as we enter the season of the three weeks leading to Tisha b'Av and then on to the Yamim Nora'im.

We start with a simple declaration; we are guilty.
We woke up in the morning and declared, "... raba emunasecha" -- great is your faith (in us); and we have betrayed that trust.
The whole world and everything in it belongs to HaShem. He and only He has a right to grant its use. By using the world for anything that is against His Will, we have stolen.
Dibarnu Dofi:
We say one thing and do another. More than that, however, we swore at Har Sinai to accept…

Thought for the Day: Four Dimensions of Stealing

Let's take it from the top.  There is one G-d who created and sustains the universe (actually each moment is a whole new creation, but we'll leave that alone for now); we refer to Him as HaShem.  (Kabbalistic sources often use the term "ein sof"/without boundaries/infinite.)  The is one nation that accepted the privilege and challenge of forging a loving relationship with Him and thus earning eternal existence; that nation is called Yisrael (aka, the Jews).  That relationship is mediated and defined by one entity, known as the Torah.  The Torah is realized in this world as a document (Torah sh'bichtav/Written Torah) with explanation and context (Torah sh'b'al peh/Oral Torah).

The Torah can be thought of as providing channels of opportunities for a Jew to connect with HaShem.  A very high level summary was provided as basically the wedding ring that sanctifies our relationship with HaShem and we given at the chuppah known as ma'amad har sinai (standing…

Thought for the Day: Hotel Shabbos Issues and Applied Biur Halacha

The Torah, of course, is eternal and unchanging.  Since HaShem created the Torah, time, and reality, the Torah is applicable to all times and situations; an advantage that man-made religion do not share.
A word about man-made religions: saying that Reform Judaism, Christianity, Mormonism, Islam and so forth are man-made is not at all controversial.  They all claim to be inspired by divine events, but they all freely admit that their religious practices are man-made.  You won't find anything about celebrating their god's birthday nor even his resurrection in the new testament.  You won't find  a word about oranges on the seder plate in the pentateuch.  Orthodox Judaism is unique in its claim that all aspects of observance are explicitly Divinely ordained.  It's also unique in that it can back that claim up with data; but that's for another time. Halacha (detailed Jewish law) also doesn't change.  However, when new situations occur, then the halacha needs to be d…

Thought for the Day: Not G'neivas Da'as

In the dark ages when I was young and foolish (I am now no longer so young) and watched network TV with enthusiasm, there was a commercial whose tag line was, "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature!"  (That statement was usually followed by lighting and thunder; search on YouTube, if you are so inclined.)  As it turns out, the Torah is not thrilled with you fooling any one.

First, of course, there is straight out lying.  The Torah not only forbids lying but actually exhorts us to keep distant: "Midvar sheker tirchak"/"Keep distant from a false matter." (Shemos 23:7).  More than that, however, the Torah also forbids us to use trickery to get what we want; which goes under the rubric of "g'neivas da'as" -- literally "stealing a mind/opinion".  Generally speaking, anything that creates a false impression with the intent to cheat is forbidden.  On the other hand, one is not obligated to open himself up to being cheated by being t…

Thought for the Day: K'dusha In Marriage Is Change, Admitting Mistakes, and Managing Details

I spoke at a sheva brachos to a group of people who were not all shomer Torah and mitzvos.  In fact, some of them may have never before seen an Orthodox Jew, let alone attended an Orthodox wedding or been to a sheva brachos.  I wanted to say something true and meaningful that they would not reject out of hand because it didn't fit their narrow view of acceptable reality.  The m'sader k'dushin had already posed the question under the chuppah: Why are you doing this?  (He assured all in attendance that the question was strictly rhetorical, of course.)  You already love each other, you have demonstrated compatibility, and are already playing house.  That last bit really surprised (ok, shocked) me -- not that they were living together, but that he chose to mention it; they took it in stride, though.  His answer was that we were adding k'dusha/holiness.  I decided to follow up with a prescription for what holiness means in a Jewish marriage.

I began with an interesting inci…

Thought for the Day: Entitlement vs Shleimus/Instant Gratification vs Constant Growth

One of the beauties of Shabbos is walking to shul together.  We are here in Denver for a wedding, and we are from "the other side".  That is, the kallah's side has a shomer shabbos contingent who made mini-shabbaton before the wedding on Sunday.  We are the only one's from the chasson's side who are shomer shabbos; and we were graciously invited to join the shabbaton.  Walking back and forth to shul (a bit over a mile each way), we got a chance to talk and get to know each other.  I mentioned that the chasson's brother told me that over the years he has come to appreciate how amazing and wonderful it is to have parents who are still married to each other.  The kallah's father related that he had been on a business trip a few years ago and took a window seat.  Two other men sat down and the started talking, during which they found they had all been married just about 25 years each.  From both in front and behind they heard people saying, "Wow!  Three …

Thought for the Day: Little Reminders That HaShem Is Running The World

There is a nice/inspirational mashal about a man meeting HaShem in the coming world.  He sees his life as footprints in the sand.  As he looks over his life, he see two pair of footprints along most of the journey; only one, though, in a few critical areas.  The man asks the meaning and is told by HaShem, "I was with you along your journey through life."  "But," asks the man with some sadness, "I see only one set of footprints in the most critical junctures of my life.  Why did you abandon me when I needed You so much?"  "You misunderstand, My son; that is where I was carrying you."

It's a nice thought to keep in mind and it's certainly true, but it's also very hard to appreciate that when you are "in the trenches", as it were.  I heard a beautiful and practical technique the help keep  one focus and avoid panic.  When Yosef haTzadik was sold into slavery by his brothers, he was transported down to Mitzrayim in a caravan of…

Thought for the Day: Giving the Benefit of the Doubt and Hurtful Speech

This happened in Eretz Yisrael.  I young father decided to give his wife the day off, so to speak, and take the kids on a day trip.  He bravely took his five children to the bus stop to embark on the three hour bus ride to their destination.  The ride there and day with the kids went splendidly.  On the way home, however, the kids were all cranky and the father was looking forward to the getting everyone home and to bed.  However, the bus was very crowded and there were no seats available.  After about a half hour, he had a brilliant idea.  He took out his cell phone and made like he was calling his wife.  "Shalom Chana... Sprintze and Yoeli don't look so good.  It looks like they did catch the swine flu, after all."  At the next stop about half of the bus cleared out.  They all got to sit comfortably together and had a great time.  Problem solved.

After a few days, though, the young man started having nagging thoughts that he may have done something wrong.  After all, t…

Thought for the Day: Honesty and Emuna -- A Jew's Highest Responsibility

Chazal tell us that the first question one will asked when being brought to judgement is whether he was honest in his business dealings (Shabbos 31a).  Second on the list is setting aside time for Torah study.  Shabbos didn't make the cut.  Neither did chalav yisrael nor glatt kosher.  Moreover, at the beginning of parshas Eikev (D'varim 7:12) HaShem promises (basically) that if you hearken to the basic logical laws (mishpatim) that things will be really, really good for you.  Rashi comments on the unusual word "eikiv"/since that it means the real reward will come from observing those easy/simple mitzvos that people tend to trample underfoot (dash b'eikeivav).  Again, not the big ticket items one might have expected.

As we have discussed, though, the issur of stealing extends much further than is usually thought.  Running into the bakery for three minutes without paying for parking, thus cheating the parking meter company out of 2.5 cents, for example.  Be that a…

Thought for the Day: Stealing Is Forbidden By The Torah; Even If People Don't Call It Stealing

In the summer of 2011 CE, R' Fuerst gave a series of shiurim on the details of the issur of stealing.  Nine shiurim.  Nine.  On stealing.  One of the 10 commandments [sic] says: "Thou shalt not steal."  Seems pretty clear right?  Just don't do it.  So why do I need nine shiurim?  Hah!  You only thought you knew what stealing was.

How about this one?  Suppose you have a grandson who is three but could pass for two (I wouldn't know, my grandsons tend to be tall and talkative, so we have enough trouble when they are two convincing people they are only two).  Or your son just turned 13 (Mazal Tov!), but still looks 12.  The place you are going has a different price for under three and under 13, so you figure you'll just lie about their ages and save a few bucks.  Sorry: gezel mi'di'oraisa -- straight out theft.  The Torah doesn't differentiate between grand and petty theft.  Gezel is gezel.  In fact, small thievery may even be worse that bank robbery.…

Thought for the Day: Safeik Brachos l'Hakeil, But Brachos On Safeik l'Chumra

There are two safety nets available for eiruv tavshilin.  The first is that the "gadol b'ir"/rav of the city includes in his declaration that his eiruv also permits anyone in the city who was unable to make an eiruv themselves to cook for Shabbos on the second day of Yom Tov.  It's not a great option, as it doesn't accomplish the purpose for which the takana of eiruv was created if it is overused.  In fact, it only works if one honestly was not able to make his own; if someone decides, "eh... the rabbi is making one, so I'll just have myself another beer and relax", then it does not work for him at all.

There is another safety net is one remembers on the first day of Yom Tov (except Rosh HaShana) that relies on the fact that we are celebrating two days of Yom Tov because of a doubt about which is the d'oraisa day (which is why it doesn't work for Rosh HaShana; the two days of Rosh HaShana are considered l'chumra in halacha as one long da…

Thought for the Day: How Avraham Avinu (and All the Avos, In Fact) Kept and Didn't Keep Shabbos

I listened to a shiur on Shavuos by R' Fuerst on my ride to work this mornig.  It was one of those shiurim that R' Fuerst himself introduced by saying, "This is going to be a really interesting shiur!"  There was palpable excitement in his delivery; he sounded like a kid in a candy shop.  It was one of those things where you start with a seemingly trivial question and it blows up into a titanic of fundamental questions.  The start was, "Since you know Shavous has to be on 6th of Sivan and that Shavous is 50 days after Pesach, then once you know rosh chodesh Nissan, you know exactly when both rosh chodesh Iyar and rosh chodesh Sivan; so why do you need testimony for those two months?  In the course of answering that question, we discovered that it is not so obvious that Shavous has to be on the 6th, nor even that Shavous and Matan Torah have to coincide.  I think you should listen to the shiur, if for no reason other than to hear R' Fuerst sounding like a ki…

Thought for the Day: Interesting Case of Kibud Av

There is a joke about a charedi Israeli kid who comes to America and sees a christmas tree for the first time.  He is curious and they explain to him that the goyim use it as part of their holiday celebration.  He is quiet a few moments, then asks, "How many needles does it need per branch?"

The point of the joke, of course, is to remind us that all the rules and structure we have around all aspects of our lives -- that we take for granted as natural -- would look quite odd indeed to an outside observer.  This is not, though, something unique to Orthodox Judaism (as the enemies of Torah would have you believe).  Rather, it is a feature of any system that has real rules that make precise definitions for terms that also have a colloquial use.  I was already familiar with strange sounding cases from mathematics and physics.  From math: the colloquial definition of a continuous function is one whose graph can be drawn without lifting up the pencil; the precise definition, howeve…

Thought for the Day: Kibud Av v'Em and Avodas HaShem

As is well known, the Aseres HaDibros are written on two tablets; five are bein adam la'makom (between man and his Creator), the other five are bein adam l'chaveiro (between man and his fellow man).  (I mean, of course, "man" in its classic sense of "human".  I resist the politically correct "person" because then one should -- following that nonsense ad absurdum -- change the term to "perchild" or "perprogeny".)  The mitzvah of kibud av v'em is (as is also well known) included in the bein adam la'makom group.  That is, honoring one's parents (and in-laws and spouse's of parents, and older brothers) are part and parcel of directly serving HaShem.  I say "directly", because it is more than just a polite request from your mom asking you to be nice to your annoying younger brother or sister; it's the real deal.Part of kibud av v'em is  not causing mental anguish to the parent.  That, of course, is …

Thought for the Day: Learning from the Avos In One's Daily Life

More on what I learned from/with R' Moshe Soloveitchik on Shavuos night this year.  As usual, mistakes are mine.

There are three Avos: Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.  Ignoring for the moment that the Avos lived (and died) long before the Torah was given, Chazal tell us that the Avos kept all the mitzvos -- even the d'rabanans (which shouldn't bother you so much, since we don't seem to even have d'oraisos yet).  Yet, with even a cursory reading of those beloved Bible stories, we see instances of the Avos violating the Torah.  (Not Yitzchak, by they way; he never violated the slightest detail.  We'll come back to that, b'ezras HaShem.)  Avraham did not perform the mitzvah of bris mila until he was 99 years old.  Yaakov married two sisters.  Heck, as long as we are going down this path, let's stop ignoring the fact that the Avos lived and died long before the Torah was given; what about that?!?

None of that is a question on Chazal; instead, they are questi…

Thought for the Day: The Avos and the Three Festivals

I got to my regular spot on Shavuos night and sat down to learn.  A shiur was just starting, but I sat away because I find it difficult to stay up all night unless I am fully engaged.  Sitting passively and listening is a recipe for nodding off to sleepy time.  However, as the magid shiur -- R' Moshe Soloveitchik -- started speaking, I found myself becoming engaged; turning to hear another bomb question, then turning back to my sefer, then back to the shiur... finally I just turned my chair to listen.  A good shiur not only poses good questions, but also evokes even more questions in the listener.  I was fully engaged and -- though I sat silently -- we were learning b'chavrusa.

Chazal tell us that each of the shalosh regalim/three festivals correspond to one of the Avos: Pesach to Avraham, Shavuos to Yitzchak, and Sukkos to Yaakov.  Both Pesach and Sukkos have symbols and fanfare.  Shavuos doesn't even have its own date on the calendar.  Correspondingly, there are epic sto…

Thought for the Day: HaShem Defines Good, Not the Other Way Around

"Climber Falls 70 Feet Into An Ice Crevasse", reads a recent headline.  He took "selfie" videos, so you can get a pretty good feel for his situation.  He fell the 70 feet and landed on a ledge.  Looking down he could see that had he not landed there, right beside him was another drop to which he could not see the bottom.  Looking up he could see the hole -- light at the top of the tunnel mamash -- through which he had fallen and was the only apparent way out.  His right arm was broken.  70 feet... basically on the ground floor of a 15 story building looking at a skylight in the roof.

If you want to know how Adam HaRishon felt after eating from the eitz ha'dahs tov v'rah, then imagine our climber feel on a moonless, cloudy night.  Pitch black and lost; all he knows is that he isn't falling anymore.  He knows which way is up, and he has a memory of what it looks like to be out.  Our situation?  We don't even have that memory.  We know nothing but our …

Thought for the Day: When It Is Permitted to Nullify a Forbidden Substance

I once had a boss who loved to poke fun at any religion.  He stopped trying with me after a few attempts, though, for a couple of reasons.  The first was because every time he tried to point out a logical inconsistency with my belief system, I was always able to show him the issue was his lack of knowledge and not my beliefs.  The turning point was when he thought we could not even a molecule of pork; he was very disappointed when I explained the concept of bitul to him.  The second was that he was an avid bird watcher and would sometimes show me pictures of some of the more exotic birds he had seen.  One had two, single, long feather straight back from its tail.  "Isn't that amazing?", he exclaimed.  "Yes!", I rejoined, "What's the evolutionary advantage it gets from extra weight and drag on his body that will make flight more difficult and therefore make him an easier target for predators?"  He didn't like me very much.

Usually, bitul is a b…

Thought for the Day: The Wonder of Creating Spirituality from Physicality

Have you every wondered how soap works?  I mean, you have grease on your hands and the water just beads up.  You add soap and -- presto! -- the grease rinses right off.   (If you never wondered about that, I can only wonder about your sense of wonder.)   Since I began my college career as a chemistry major, I can enlighten you and save you any more needless sleepless nights (worrying over this topic, at least).  The problem is that grease and water don't mix.  The soap is a long-ish and schizophrenic molecule; one end dissolves in grease, the other in water.  So the soap is essentially an annoying shadchan, it gets the water and grease together (two things that do not belong together), and then stays there in the middle keeping them glued together. ("No, really, it's mamash a perfect shidduch min ha'sha'mayim!")

(I left chemistry over soap, actually.  I got my soap answer marked wrong on an exam just because it wasn't possible to actually synthesize the c…