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Showing posts from 2017

Thought for the Day: You Can Ignore Kedusha, But You Cannot Destroy Kedusha

I love expressions like "there nothing cooler than..."  Really?  You are willing to categorically state that whatever follows that ellipsis is not only the coolest thing you have ever experienced, but is actually cooler than anything that has been or could ever been or even can in the future experienced by anyone in the world?  Really?  I would say that tells you more about the one make that wild assertion than the coolness of the experience itself.

There are few things cooler than randomly opening a sefer before davening on Shabbos morning and seeing a reference to that week's parsha completely out of the blue.  There is an extra dimension of coolness when the reference itself is only tangential.  It feels like a whisper in your ear from the Creator saying, "Just wanted to say hi, dude."  (He talks to me in language I can understand; what can I say.)  Not only did that happen, but it corrected an important detail in a story I had heard.  Not only do I now have…

Thought for the Day: The Question Is -- How Can You *Not* Make Brachos!?

Among the first words we teach our children are "please" and "thank you".  Usually by the time they are three we are no longer honoring requests that are not preceded by "please"; and "thank you" is expected upon delivery.

The Pele Yoeitz, in his chapter on eating and drinking, spends significant time on that idea.  First of all, he notes, it's common decency to say please and thank you.  Automatically, then, it should just be common decency to say a bracha.  At this point -- and please don't take this the wrong way -- he begins to sound like something from the home shopping network.  When you eat or drink something, you have just received the most incredible gift; quite literally life saving.  Of course you are going to want to say please and thank you.

But there's more!  You get extra credit -- i.e., a mitzvah -- for exercising that normal, decent behavior.

But there's more!  The Creator of the world lets you use His holy and i…

Thought for the Day: Want to Learn Chumash? Help a 4th Grader with Homework

I had the wonderful opportunity to help my granddaughter study for her chumash test last night.  25 verses and about seven Rashi's.  Let's see... I do שניים מקרא ואחד תרגום/Hebrew text twice followed by Targum Onkelos once and all the Rashi's every week.  I can do that in an hour or a bit more.  So let's do the math.  Assume an average of 150 verses in a parasha =>  450 verses per a bit more than an hour => 25 verses in 3.5 minutes.  I am also doing 150 Rashi's in that same bit more than an hour => seven Rashi's adds another three minutes.  She might need help with a word or two in Rashi, so a generous estimate puts this at a 10 minute commitment; maybe 15 because she's so cute and I'll want to tell her that a few times.

At this point, you are probably either thinking, "seems reasonable" or "boy oh boy... did this guy ever do homework with his kids?!"  I did, actually, do some homework with my children; but you forget, ya…

Thought for the Day: Science is Just Fine; Please Be an Educated Consumer of Information

Here is a real pet peeve of mine.  When people ask: Was is suppose to rain today?  My usual answer is along the lines of, "Given that it is raining, I am going to go with -- yes."  Their question is really "did my weather app predict this rain?"  If the answer is no, it is a question on the app, *not* on the rain.  (Yes, I am fully cognizant that this is the reason I don't have many friends.  Your point?)

What prompted this little mini-rant was a link to an article sent to me the other day.
Science (from Latin scientia, meaning "knowledge") is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.People with a religious bent are wont to complain about how science is wrong about Creation and evolution.  I respectfully -- albeit vehemently -- disagree; see here for a more correct approach.  Or here for an explanation that evolution is bad science... it's relationship to reli…

Thought for the Day: The World Always Needs Healing and Each Remedy is Unique

Three angels "dressed", as it were, as human beings visited Avraham Avinu on the third day after he circumcised himself at 99 years of age.  When they finished their "visit" and went to S'dom, we only find that only two angels actually made that trek.  Rashi explains that every angel can perform only a single mission, and that each mission is executed entirely by a single angel.  Therefore, three angels were needed for the visit to Avraham Avinu; one to heal Avraham Avinu, one to deliver the good news that Sara Imeinu would be bearing a son the next year, and one to destroy S'dom.  Only two were needed in S'dom; one to destroy the S'dom and one to save Lot.

Why the angel whose mission it was to destroy S'dom needed to also visit Avraham Avinu is beyond the scope of this TftD (grist for a future TftD).  There was one angel who both visited Avraham Avinu and also went to S'dom: Rafael.  I was careful not to write "and continued on to S…

Thought for the Day: Higher Perspective Brings Broader Understanding

As you may know, I have a new grandson.  (To be precise, he was quite new when I wrote this; I have no idea how old he is now that you are reading this, as blogs in the cloud go on and on and on....)  In any case, you can learn more about his birth in another blog post (hint: follow this link).

His two oldest siblings were just a bit disappointed (until they met him, or course; then their hearts melted).  His oldest sibling was disappointed because she was hoping for another sister.  His next oldest sibling was disappointed because he had noticed a pattern -- girl, boy, girl, boy -- and thought it obvious that the pattern should continue.  They both learned big lessons from this experience.  She learned that you don't always get what you want.  He learned that thinking something is obviously true doesn't make it true.  Truthfully, all I can say is that they had those lessons presented to them.  Did they learn?  Only time will tell.

I, of course, was not disappointed at all.  F…

Thought for the Day: Coming Into This World for Torah, Avodah, and Acts of Loving Kindness

This TftD is so self-serving that I should be embarrassed.  But I am not... talking about grandchildren is always off budget.  I have, bli ayin hara, a beautiful new grandson; born at 6:11 PM CDT last Friday night.  The secular (aka -- by me, anyway -- slave) date is October 20, 2017 CE.  The Hebrew (aka Real) date is certainly Rosh Chodesh חשון/Cheshvan and certainly in the year 5778 since Creation.  The date, you ask... good question!

Sundown on Friday night was 6:01 PM CDT, which means he was born either at the end of the last day of תשרי or the beginning of the first day of Cheshvan; a period know as בין השמשות/twilight.  What's the big deal, you ask... I am so glad you asked.  We all deal quite handily with בין השמשות every week and every holiday; we're just stringent.  We start Shabbos and the first day of Yom Tov before בין השמשות; that is, before sundown.  Likewise, we end Shabbos and the first day of Yom Tov after בין השמשות; some 42, 50, 60, or 72 minutes after sundo…

Thought for the Day: Repairing the Damage We Incurred with That First Mistake; Dying to Live

I noticed odd wording in HaShem's decision to banish Adam and Chava from Eden.  The verse says that they were banished and the entryway blocked lest they now eat from the Tree of Life.  "Lest"?!?  I would have expected "before" or "so they couldn't".  The word "lest" implies that they likely wouldn't eat from the Tree of Life, but Let's just make sure they don't.

Strange, no?  After all, if someone had just discovered that they had ingested poison, wouldn't they run to get the antidote?  Especially if the antidote was just to eat a piece of fruit from a tree in their yard.  I asked a few people; they admitted it was odd, but then just shrugged it off.  They had better things to do with their time then worry about odd wording in the minor part of the story from last week's Torah portion.  I (apparently) did not have anything better to do with my time; so I did some research.

Rabbeinu Bachya makes an observation that wa…

Thought for the Day: Darkness/Light, Body/Soul, T'shuvah/Shabbos

This world is tailor made for one purpose: to enable the triumph of good over evil.  I know... drama, drama, drama; but sometimes reality really is drama, drama, drama.  If you prefer -- and, in fact, the traditional kabbalistic writings do prefer -- we can change the wording to "light infusing -- and thereby illuminating -- the darkness."

One may ask, "If HaShem wanted a world of good/light, why not just create that?"  The question (usually asked by those who want to demonstrate how silly and naive it is to believe in a Creator) really has a very simple answer.  HaShem didn't/doesn't want a world of good/light.  What He wants (and what He has created) is a unique and purpose built world for each and every human being to wage his own uniquely crafted battle against evil, triumph, and thereby achieve immortality via his own bond with the Creator.  Drama, drama, drama... and true.

We are critters (that is, a created being) and therefore cannot really understa…

Thought for the Day: Why The Torah Should *NOT* Begin with Creation Narrative

Opening lines are certainly important.  Case in point, I always spend way too much time working out how to begin a TftD.  Typically I have a thought I want to convey; that's the body.  I try to end with a nice tag line that summarized the main point in a memorable way (with varying success).  The first line/paragraph is really meant to pique the reader's interest in reading more.  I typically do that with either a cute story (often involving my grandchildren), or an interesting fact (often drawn from my physics background), or a straight up question on a Chazal (often based on a Rashi).  The cute stories and interesting facts are meant to seem irrelevant, but they always exemplify some dimension of the topic expressed in the TftD.

Walking around pregnant in one's ninth month, they say, is like carrying a 16 lb bowling ball with you every place you go.  (Having never been pregnant, I can neither confirm nor deny that statement.)  Try this: When said pregnant women comes hom…

Thought for the Day: תשובה Is Making New Mistakes

For all that Rosh HaShanah is and represents, the blast of the shofar is its spokesman.  Women with small children who don't have the luxury to daven, those small children who can't even talk/let alone daven, and the sick and elderly who are exempt from davening all want to hear the shofar blast; and we accommodate all of them.  Times, places, and messengers are scheduled, assigned, publicized, and eagerly anticipated.

And why not?  After all, the shofar blast represents our acceptance of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  That sound that pierces to the core of our soul harkens back to that day of awe when all of Creation stopped to wait for Klal Yisrael to answer נעשה ונשמע/We will do whatever it takes to have an eternal bond with our Creator and we will make deepening that bond our only priority!  It celebrates the marriage, as Chazal describe it, between the Creator and His beloved Klal Yisrael.  Wow!

There is also the daily shofar blasts the entire month of Elul leading up to Rosh H…

Thought for the Day: Battling the Evil Inclination on all Fronts

Yom Kippur.  When I was growing up, there were three annual events that marked the Jewish calendar: eating matzos on Passover, lighting candles on Chanuka, and  fasting on Yom Kippur.  Major news organizations around the world report on the "surreal" and "eerie" quiet of the streets in even the most secular neighborhoods of Israel.  Yom Kippur.

As you know, I am observant of Jewish law.  Some have even called me "ultra orthodox" (not in a kind way).  Given that, I have a question.  How likely do you think that I would be tempted to eat on Yom Kippur, that most holy day of the year?  Let's make the scale zero to ten, where zero is "as likely as driving through McDonald's on Shabbos and ordering a Big Mac with extra cheese." and ten is "as likely as breathing regularly".  Take your time.  If you answered "zero"; thank you, but -- sadly and penitently -- no.  The answer is more like nine; I'd like to say lower, but i…

Thought for the Day: Wishing for and Work towards a Year Sweet Like *Bee* Honey

Yes, I know that we are already past ראש השנה for 5778.  So why talk about lessons regarding ראש השנה now; just to get a head start on 5779?!  Nope.  Nothing we doin Torah Judaism is without meaning.  Even the name of our holidays and commemorations are chosen with precision.  The name for the holiday that commemorates the beginning of a new year is ראש השנה/Head of the year.  Just as the head is connected to, directs, and takes feedback from the body, so too ראש השנה is connected to, directs, and takes feedback from the year.  I discovered a deeper level to one of our most iconic customs -- the apple dipped in honey as a סימן (often translated "sign" or "omen", but that is wrong) for the new year's greetings.

As we all know, ראש השנה is a quite solemn day.  It is also known as The Day of Judgement, when every aspect of Creation comes under scrutiny.  Every person, animal, and object -- down to the smallest grain of sand (sub-atomic particle is more accurate, b…

Thought for the Day: Two Learn Better Than One and Engender Objectivity

Confluence is both a cool word and and interesting concept.  I particularly like it when HaShem arranges a practicum for me to get a better understanding of what I am learning.

I have been listening to shiurim on Sanhedrin from the Business Halacha Institute during my commute.  These shiurim cover interesting halacha that comes out of the daf; the format is either a story or simple halacha that relates to the daf.  I like them because I find I can't pay attention to the road and listen to a complex shiur at the same time.  Last night I heard an interesting halacha about how a beis din operates.

Of course, a beis din needs to have an odd number of members in order to arrive at a decision by majority vote.  The minimum for that is three, and that is the general procedure nowadays.  Suppose one dayan can't come to a conclusion... he is left saying, "I just don't know."  In that case, a new dayan is chosen to join.  The expression used by the gemara is that a dayan w…

Thought for the Day: The Depth of Self-Deception About Objectivity

My son has started back to college and it's really bringing back memories for me.  One class is Intro to Psych.  Same as when I took it several decades ago... lecture is in huge auditorium with 100s (and 100s and 100s) of students.  Reading assignments add up to 100s (and 100s and 100s) of pages.  I actually never read any assignments in college, relying on picking things up from the lecture and working the homework problems.  I discovered to my shock (and, given my immaturity) disdain, that the tests mostly drawn from the reading assignments, only a tiny fraction of which would actually be covered in lectures.  I immediately -- filled with righteous indignation -- withdrew; after all, physics majors didn't need that class.  My son is neither not so lucky (his major requires psych to graduate) nor so immature (he is willing to do the reading if that's that is required).

As I have mentioned many times, R' Henoch Leibowitz, zt"l, was wont to say, you need two things…

Thought for the Day: Why I Do Not Wear a Blue Strand Among My ציצית

The issue of whether one had fulfilled his obligation for mishloach manos on Purim could be fulfilled even of the recipient refused the gift was once being discussed in beis medrash.  I, having moved to Chicago and by then having sat in R' Fuerst's Monday night shiur for a few weeks and having actually read the Mishna Brura on mishloach manos once , felt well prepared to offer an expert opinion.  (I hope you are catching the sarcasm; I was so arrogant in my ignorance!)  I stated quite matter-of-factly that of course one had fulfilled his obligation.  Someone who actually knew what he was talking about looked at me and said, "Oh... hiding behind a Rema, are you?"

To say the least, I was taken aback.  What do you mean, "hiding behind a Rema"?!?  We Ashkenazim follow the Rema, right?  "Did you look at the Mishna Brura on that Rema?"  Well... I had certainly read it... learn it?  Well... ahem... ummm.  Like a dog with his tail between his legs, I slin…

Thought for the Day: HaShem Runs the World; No, I Mean Really

If you ever get to the bottom of one of my emails, you'll see a quote from M'silas Yesharim:
כל ענייני העולם -- בין לטוב בין למוטב -- ניסיונות הם לאדם/All worldly affairs - whether good or beneficiary - are trials for a person It seems to me that is a crucial idea on how we look at life.  I thought I had learned that lesson and life that lesson pretty well.  Apparently HaShem felt I needed more training.

If you ask me about my recent trip to Nashville, you'll hear a few things.  I'll tell you about the great time I had spending time with my wife celebrating our 40th anniversary.  I'll tell you about the wonderful live music spilling onto the street.  I'll even tell you about the distillery tours we took.  You might be surprised that I don't talk more about the total solar eclipse -- first in 99 years in the continental US -- that provided the impetus to travel to Nashville in the first place.  I mean, you can't get much more cosmic and far out than that…

Thought for the Day: Appeasement is the Angel's Share of Repentance

To make bourbon you have to lose a good fraction to evaporation -- the so-called "angel's share".  That's inevitable... it's just the way the world is.  I, however, have proposed that the process of making bourbon is a pretty good analogy to making a Jew.  That is, fresh soul is breathed into physical body, allowed to age for several seasons -- with inevitable losses/suffering -- and finally you get that beautiful, perfected fusion of body and soul that lives forever in exquisite joy.  One may very well ask... if the goal is that perfect being, why didn't HaShem create that straight on, instead of creating the ingredients and environment and making us go through all this suffering first?

Before you jump all over me and tell me to just bag my analogy, let me push back on the statement that it's just inevitable that bourbon takes so long... that's the way it is.  When HaShem first created the world, though, that is most certainly not the way it was.  Ho…

Thought for the Day: Life Lessons from the Bourbon Trail

I almost never buy a coffee cup; I have a very nice one that my son bought for me several years ago.  I certainly never buy one just for the cute saying; how lame is that?  Well... I broke that rule and purchased a new coffee cup from one of the bourbon distilleries I recently toured just of the saying:
Give me the coffee to change the things I can, and Bourbon to accept the things I can't. Lame or not, I bought it and brought it to work. I showed it to a coworker, who remarked, "Oh... so spiritual..."  I replied, "Well, they do call it spirits."

In point of fact, I found that the bourbon process is actually a reasonable parable for our life in this world.  Alcohol (and other stuff, not important for now) is produced when yeast digests carbohydrates.  That process is known as fermentation; take a source of carbs, add the right yeast(s), you get a fermented gruel known as "mash".  Whiskey (or whisky, depending on its country of origin) means an alcoholi…

Thought for the Day: Baseless Hatred and Demanding Strict Justice -- Two Destructive Behaviours

My research advisor used to start his introductory lecture to freshman physics with a warning: "Some people say there is no such thing as a stupid question.  They are wrong."  I know without doubt that R' Fuerst has heard his share of stupid questions.  In fact, I can testify (with some shame, to be sure) that I have added to that genre.  I can also testify that R' Fuerst has always handled the questions with grace and patience with nary a trace of exasperation.  (R' Fuerst has, in fact, only hung up on a caller once.  He told us about it, so I know how far things have to go before the rabbi labels a queestion as stupid.)

Here's one very cool story that I heard from R' Schmelzer of Telshe, when he spent part of a summer at Camp Nageela Midwest some years ago along with R' Fuerst.  Camp Nageela provides an Orthodox Jewish experience for Jewish kids who do not come from an Orthodox home.  R' Schmelzer and R' Fuerst were walking to the lunchroom …

Thought for the Day: What a Great Stroke of Luck to Experience a Total Solar Eclipse

I get my news largely from NPR.  "But... but... sputter... sputter... it's so biased!", you declaim.  Precisely why I like it.  Everyone is biased; people who claim to be unbiased (and often strive to hide their bias) are, therefore completely unreliable.  If I know your bias, then I can account for it and extract out the true bits from your rhetoric.

Before I tell you about the news story I heard this morning, you need to know some facts.  (I know, I know... I am always being told how boring it is to first clarify the facts before discussing something.  I strive to be boring.)  Around the main disc of the sun is a aura of plasma that extends millions of miles (millions of kilometers, if you prefer) into the surrounding space, known as the corona.  Since it is so much less dense than the body of the sun, it is much less bright.  In fact, the corona is all but invisible unless you actually block the light of the globe of the sun.  How do we even know about it, you might a…

Thought for the Day: When You Don't Have to Pick Up a Lost Object to Return

If ever there was mitzvah that seems absolutely logical, returning lost objects seems to exemplify that genre to perfection.  And yet, a good fraction of Bava Metzia discusses its intricacies.  In fact, though, one finds that most of the discussion is when the mitzvah to return lost objects does not, in fact, apply.  That tactic is often used by Chazal when mapping the applicability of this or that mitzvah.  By delineating the borders -- even if there is some small uncertainty (machlokes), we achieve clarity on what is definitely inside and what is definitely excluded.

Here are the primary exclusions to the obligation to even pick up a lost object.

First and foremost, you need to be sure it is a lost object you are retrieving.  As obvious as that sounds, it has quite practical implications.  First, an object that is lying in a protected area is not lost.  It may have been sitting there for months or years, as evidenced by the thick layer of dust and confirmed by carbon dating.  No mat…

Thought for the Day: Preparation for Tisha b'Av -- Improve Interpersonal Relationships Now

I had a rough time at the end of the day on Tisha b'Av this year.  In fact, I had to end my fast early (based on p'sak from a rav, of course).  When my granddaughter saw me eating and heard that the rav has told me I needed to eat, her comment was, "Oh.  Yes, I have heard that old people have trouble fasting."

Me?!  Old?!  Yes... me; old.  I didn't prepare any differently this year than previous years.  That was a mistake, because there is a big difference between this year and previous years; namely, the intervening years.  My first "take away" is that I need to start now preparing for Yom Kippur.  Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

My second take away is that I should really start now preparing for next Tisha b'Av.  As noted, the current observance of the Tisha b'Av season is lamenting our deficiency in our interpersonal relationships.  But we also know that the messiah is born (that is, the ultimate redemption begins) on …

Thought for the Day: Why Aveilus on Tisha b'Av? Fixing Our Relationship with HaShem by Fixing Our Relationship with Fellow Jews

I did not ride my bike to work today.  It is erev Tisha b'Av, 5777; though it is certainly permissible during the nine days to shower enough to not offend my coworkers, I felt that on erev Tisha b'Av itself there was no reason to bring myself to a situation of relying on a leniency that was easy to avoid.  I did, though, ride many of the nine days and certainly several days during the three weeks.  Since the whole period is one of increased danger, I listened to fewer shiurim than usual in order to pay more attention to the traffic.  Having that extra time (even with heightened vigilance, my mind had a chance to wander here and there), I was struck by two questions on the way we conduct ourselves during the three weeks, nine days, and week during which Tisha b'Av falls.

The Orach Chaim section of Shulchan Aruch is the section on laws of daily living.  The organization is basically chronological by most frequent.  You will therefore first find laws of waking, getting dresse…