Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Rashi Questions for Bishalach

There are so many great Rashis in this week's parsha, it is so hard to choose only 8 questions!

According to Rashi...
1.Yosef's bones were taken to Israel.  What happened to the remains of the rest of the brothers? (13:19)
2. Where did the Bnei Yisrael learn to cry out to Hashem? (14:10)
3. How did the cloud and the fire stop the Egyptians? (14:24)
4. How does Rashi reconcile that the Torah says the Egyptians sunk like stones, led, and straw? (15:5)
5. What prophesy did Miriam have? (15:20)
6. Which mitzvot did the Bnei Yisrael receive at Marrah? (15:25)
7. What herb was the maan like?
8. Why is the word "chair" spelt differently when referring to God's throne? (17:16)

Christopher Hitchens, Iraq, and Amalek

In his many debates with Rabbis, Christopher Hitchens was often challenged that Judaism charges people to be kind to others.  To which Hitchens would answer, "Not if you have the misfortune of being a Midyanite or an Amalekite to whom Jews are charged with genocide."

As I watched these debates I was always bothered that nobody ever took him up on the context.
As for the Midyanites, Hitchens is correct that the Torah says, "Harass the midyanites..."  But he failed to read the next verse which says, "for they are harassing you."

Hitchens of all people should appreciate this.  He, after all, supported America's war with Iraq because he believed in the Jewish principle when someone comes to slay you, slay them first!

Amalek is a different story.  Unlike Midyan and other nations whom there is a particular context to when they must be battled, the Torah tells us in this week's parsha, Bishalach, that we must wage an eternal war against Amalek.  But once again, Hitchens demonstrates his ignorance, arrogance, and antipathy towards Judaism and reports only half of a story in order to make his point.

1. Hitchens'vulgar and ignorant understanding of the Torah was that any person can act on any impulse if it is written in the Torah.  Therefore, the Torah says that an adulterer is stoned, so if you think you know someone is committing adultery then you have a religious obligation to kill him.  But he fails to understand that the Torah is a law book that was predicated on a system of courts and a government.  Adultery is against the law but so is killing a person without due process.  Israel was a nation and civilization before it became a religion.  Adultery is illegal and it is a serious crime.  But that does not mean that the people, or even the courts, regularly carried out the death penalty for adultery.  Hitchens should have known better then to judge a legal system before studying the history of the people that lived by that system.
If a Jewish individual would act on his own and kill another person because he believed that person was a descendant of Amalek, that Jew would be tried and likely convicted for murder in a Jewish court.
If he would argue that there are Jews today in Israel that are stoning people for immodest dress, the fact that the entire Jewish world from left to right has condemn these fanatics actually demonstrates that over all Judaism and its adherence are outraged by such behavior.  That outrage is founded in the Torah.

2. The Mitzvah of wiping out Amalek is only in affect when Israel is a sovereign nation in its land with a Jewish king.  The king is then commanded to go after Amalek.  However, "No war can be waged on any person in the world without first calling out to them in peace. If they make peace and accept the seven noachide laws then it is forbidden to kill even one single soul."
I would hope that Hitchens would have been against establishing peace with any nation that on principle rejects laws that prohibit murder, theft, rule of law, and humane treatment of animals (I imagine he would not have a problem with them rejecting laws against blasphemy, idolatry, and sexual immorality).

3. An interesting fact about Amalek that makes them unique from every other nation is that Amalek seems to dwell all over the place in the ancient world.  Other nations generally inhabited one specific region.  Amalek appears between Egypt and Israel, in Southern Israel, in the territory of Seir, and in the territory of the tribe of Ephraim.  This has led many to believe that Amalek was a nomadic tribe that wondered from place to place where ever conditions suited them or where ever other nations would harbor them.
Others believe, however, that Amalek does not represent a particular nation as much as it represents a particular evil philosophy.
Other nations attacked when they felt threatened by the Jews.  Amalek attacks with no so interest or apparent reason other than pure hatred.  They attacked us when we were weak, tired, and unprepared.  They did not use conventional warfare, but rather they attacked the women children, and elderly.
When the Torah commands us to wage war on Amalek, it is telling us to stomp out this type of evil where ever it exists.  
This idea is supported by the fact that the Tanach reports at least twice that the Jews succeeded in completely eradicating Amalek (once by the hands of Shaul and Shmuel and once in Chronicles 4:43) and yet Jewish tradition insists that Haman, who came many years later, was a descendant of Amalek.
The war against Amalek is a war against evil where ever it is found, and this lesson is as relevant today as it ever was.

Once again, Hitchens either deliberately, or through gross ignorance, used the Bible out of context to bring calumny upon the Jewish people.  He portrays the people who were the target of attempted genocide as a people who promote genocide.

And yet, I must admit, when I finished writing this post I realized that I had to edit and change all present tense Hitchen verbs to past tense.  While I disagree with him so often, and even find his methods of argument at best unfair and at worst reprehensible, I can't help but lament his passing because he made us think, and for that I am grateful.

 Go to Hell Christopher Hitchens, you earned it!

Daily Business Ethics Halachah #7

We are learning from Case Studies in Business Ethics by the late Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine z"l professor of economics at Yeshiva University.


Question: if an unexpected visitor comes by without an appointment is it permissible to lie and say you are busy or have someone say you are not present?

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurbach (Israel 1910-1995) dealt with this question.  The gemara cites a story of a particular town taht held an unusually high standard of integrity.  Rav Tavut moved to the town but was eventually banished for excactly this case.  An unannaunced woman came to see Rav Tavut's wife and Rav Tavut.  She was busy with personal matters so rav Tavut lied and said she was not home.  When the lie was eventually discovered the people banished Rav Tavut.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbauch ruled that the standards of that town were beyond the letter and not required in general society.  The conduct of Rav Tavut would have normally been regarded as permissible. 

If K knocks on D's door without an appointment, D is under no obligation to see him.  Moreover, D's right to privacy puts him under no duty to inform K what he is doing at that time or why he does not wish to see him. 
With the aim of avoiding friction with K, it is permissible for D to inform K through another person that he is not home.  This is considered a permissible lie and is an application of the principle of darkei shalom - fostering peace.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Daily Business Ethics Halachah #6

We are learning from Case Studies in Business Ethics by the late Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine z"l professor of economics at Yeshiva University.

There are copious Jewish sources that condemn the trait of envy.  However, the Talmud on Bava Batra 22a says that a certain type of envy, referred to as kinat soferim - the envy of scholars - is not only allowed but encouraged.

Rabbi Levine writes that effective moral training must include an understanding of proper jealousy.

Jealousy is an inevitable fact of life and therefore the trait must be acknowledged, harnessed, and channeled in productive ways otherwise it will manifest in destructive ways.

"To successfully reduce envy int he material realm, a proper incentive-disincentive system must be set up to foster competition in the spiritual realm."

Envy in the material realm is the envy of the procession of others.  By contrast, kinat soferim is a jealousy of the attained attributes and positive achievements of role models.  Things like education, scholarship, and character developments should be made objects of envy.  These are things that cannot be stolen or misappropriated and there are no short cuts to achieving them.  The envy of these things is meant to inspire us to work harder and ethically towards a positive goal.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Daily Business Ethics Halachah #5

We are learning from Case Studies in Business Ethics by the late Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine z"l professor of economics at Yeshiva University.

"Moral training against selfishness begins with the notion that denying one's fellow a benefit when it costs one nothing constitutes obnoxious conduct.  The sages identified such conduct with the sin of Sodom."

Case: A meets his neighbor B at an affair many miles from their respective homes.  A drove with his own car while B hired a car service.  Neither knew that the other would be attending.  A offers B a ride home.
A had originally planned to drive both ways by himself and incur all costs of gas and tolls.  It is ethical for A to now ask B to share the expenses with him?

Rabbi Levine writes that demanding B to pay for his ride in this case would be an example of the attitude of Sodom.

If the common practice is for B to offer to pay then dropping a hint to B that he should pay would not be "obnoxious" but merely unsociable and ungracious conduct.

However, it is the "gentlemanly" or even expected for B to offer to pay.  But he is certainly not legally required to.  He is not even ethically required to.  For him to offer to pay would conducting himself above the letter of the law.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Shmuley Christian Zionism and the Rebbe

Shmuley, Christian Zionists and the Rebbe

Guest post by Daniel Friedman

Rabbi of Beth Israel Edmonton and Christian Zionism Scholar at the University of Alberta

Can Christianity and Judaism re-embrace after two millennia? Rabbi Shmuley certainly thinks so. His newest product, Kosher Jesus, aims to revive the historical Jewish Jesus, in an effort to build bridges between the Jewish and Christian religions. And in an age when Israel’s entire legitimacy is under attack, shouldn’t we do everything in our power to stand united with Evangelical Christians, who unconditionally support Israel? This book is the result of the perfect storm – the Hollywood Rabbi, combined with the unprecedented Christian support for Israel over the last decade, combined with the ideological confusion of Chabad since the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1994.

The first factor – Rabbi Shmuley’s status as rabbi to the stars is something that’s obvious to everyone. You start with Kosher Sex, which projects you to stardom, you follow that up with Kosher Adultery and before you know it, you’re up to Kosher Jesus. What next? That’s anyone’s guess, but as long as we have Rabbi Shmuley – we can rest assured that he will continue to push the envelope and at the very least, keep us entertained. Don’t get me wrong, personally, I think Shmuley’s a great guy and he must be commended for the amount of good he has done in the world, but first and foremost, he’s a celebrity.

The second factor – Evangelical Christians. Here’s where he is absolutely wrong. Shmuley writes in a Jewish Week op-ed, “At so many public Christian events in support of Israel, pastors refer to Jesus haltingly if at all, afraid to offend Jewish sensibilities, while the Jews likewise are on guard to ensure that they are not accused of being used as props for a covert Christian evangelizing effort. If Jesus can never be mentioned we risk the relationship becoming a fraudulent one, with mutual suspicion growing on both sides.” As a scholar of Christian Zionism, I too am a huge believer that Evangelicals are the best friends we have and we must do everything we can, to encourage their support. But the fact that they do not dare mention the word ‘Jesus’ at a rally in support of Israel is of the utmost significance. You walk into one of these rallies – Shmuley’s right, you can stab a knife through the tension in the room over the Jesus issue. But it’s that tension that is driving the relationship. The fact that every time they get up, they need to convince us that they are our friends, that they love us unconditionally, that they are remorseful for Christian past misdeeds, that they are not trying to convert us – that is what is makes us so powerful in their eyes and in reality. Drop the Jesus tension and we’re done – game over. What’s more, the reason we need the State of Israel is in order to eternally perpetuate our Jewish identity. Once that identity is called into question, because we all can be friends of Jesus, the borders have come down between us and them. Where does that leave the future of the Jewish people? Yes, we need their support, but we need to make those lines of demarcation between Judaism and Christianity abundantly clear, otherwise it will be the beginning of our downfall.

The third factor – Chabad. Following the Rebbe’s death, the Lubavitch movement was in crisis. After years of believing he was the Messiah, what now? What followed was a process of rationalizing how the Messiah could in fact rise from the dead and therefore that the Rebbe could keep his Messianic status. Now, while it may be true that there are traditional Jewish sources to account for such a belief, the problem is that up until now that was not normative Jewish belief. Rather, that was the line that demarcated Judaism from Christianity. Jews believe in a Messiah who comes from the living, Christians believe in a Messiah who comes from the dead. But due to the emotional and psychological crisis that engulfed Chabad, they were able to use the traditional interpretive process to find sources that justified their ongoing belief in the now-deceased Rebbe as Messiah, and it was irrelevant to them that they had crossed over the demarcation line between the two religions. That was all fine for many years and Chabad has gone on to grow and continue to do the wonderful work they do in outreach.

Fast forward eighteen years and enter Rabbi Shmuley in 2012, who says, well if we can employ that investigative and interpretive process vis-à-vis the Rebbe, let me take a look at Jesus and see who he really was. And all hell breaks loose. Now I’m not saying that this was how Shmuley came up with the idea. I believe that he sincerely wanted to build bridges with the Christian community. But the previous taboo for traditional Jews of engaging with Jesus had effectively been removed in Lubavitch. And while he presumably made no conscious connection, there is no doubt that due to his affiliation with Chabad, he saw no objection to the discussion. And that’s why Chabad has gone ballistic over Shmuley’s latest book, with pronouncements of heresy and excommunication from prominent Chabad rabbis. For years, they paid scant regard to his antics, simply dismissing him as an individual, no longer connected to the movement. But now they realize what their eighteen year old silence has wrought. If Shmuley can’t distinguish between Kosher and Jesus, then where does that leave the rest of Chabad?

Daily Business Ethics Halachah #4

We are learning from Case Studies in Business Ethics by the late Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine z"l professor of economics at Yeshiva University.

Fully recognizing that bias may be created by means other than the acceptance of money, Jewish law prohibits the judge from submitting to a bribe of words.  This is called Shochad devarim.

The parameters of Shochad devarim are very strict.  If person A does not usually say 'good morning' to judge B, and before the trial A says 'good morning' to B this is considered shochad devarim an judge B would be disqualified from hearing the case.

Question: it seems that if A wants to create a mistrial it would be very easy to do so.  All he has to do is find the judge before the trial and say hello.  he can continue to do this ad infinitum.  How does Jewish law deal with this possibility?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Who Needs the Children?

After the plague of hail, Pharaoh and Egypt were broken.  They were prepared to let the Bnei Yisrael leave - at least temporarily.  Pharaoh calls Moshe to his royal chamber and asks Moshe, "Who needs to go with you?"
Moshe told Pharaoh that everyone needs to go.  "Our young and our old...because it is a festival to God for all of us."
Pharaoh then has a sudden change of heart.  "No!" he says.   "Take the men and go worship God if that iswhat you really want!."
Rashi explains Pharaoh's reply:
Pharaoh thought he caught Moshe in a lie.  "You said you are just going to worship.  If that were true, why do you need the children?  It is not normal for kids to participate in services!"

Obviously Pharaoh had never been to Beth Israel!

That was the way that Pharaoh thought.  In his mind, prayer was something that was the duty of only one segment of his society.  But Moshe was not lying.  Then and now, for the Jewish people our prayers and celebrations are not complete without the participation of the entire community.  

This Shabbat is new members Shabbat at Beth Israel.  We are welcoming all the people who have decided to join our wonderful congregation in the past year.  Some members are also members of other synagogues in Omaha.  Some have moved here from other cities.  And some are joining a Synagogue for the first time in their lives.
Whoever you are, and where ever you come from, welcome to our Beth Israel community.  With your presence and participation, our prayers and celebrations are enhanced.
May we have many Shabbats, festivals, and happy occasions to celebrate together as a community, and may we all merit to see the day when all Jews, where ever they are in the world, are joined together in prayer and thanksgiving to Hashem!
Shabbat Shalom.

Daily Business Ethics Halacha #3

We are learning from Case Studies in Business Ethics by the late Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine z"l professor of economics at Yeshiva University.

Questions: Is a judge permitted to take a payment from a litigant with the stipulation that the judge be as fair as he possibly can?

The Torah prohibits bribes of any kind because it will ultimately have an affect on the way that the judge views the case.  
It is even forbidden to give a bribe that comes with the stipulation that the judge should conduct a fair trial.
The Gemara in Ketubot says that a bribe is forbidden because it makes the judge empathize with the litigant and feel somehow that they are connected to one another.  

As soon as a man receives a gift from another he sees the giver as an extension of himself and nobody can see himself as guilty.

The Hebrew word for bribe is shochad.   according to the Gemara it means shehu chad - he is one with you.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Omaha or Akko?

I just met for coffee with Emily.  Emily goes to Beth Israel - at least she used to go to Beth Israel.  Now Emily is a student at the University of Haifa.  She is back in Omaha on break, but when she returns to Israel she will officially make aliya and make Israel her permanent home.

At our meeting Emily reminded me that it was less than one year ago that I met with her for coffee and tried to convince her to go on a birthright trip to Israel.  Now, a year later she is a passionate Zionist and will start her new life in the Jewish State!

Nothing could make a Rabbi prouder than hearing something like that.

At the same time, I have to admit that I am a bit jealous of Emily.  When I was her age I also wanted to move to Israel.  I had all sorts of plans to make it possible but in the end the uncertainty of learning a new language, a new culture, making a living, and being far from family were too much for me.

I took a different path with my life.  When I look back, I have no regrets.  I have a beautiful family and a meaningful job that I wake up every morning excited to do.

When I was first introduced to Akko a few years ago, I must admit that I dreamed every day of leaving the wonderful community in Omaha and helping to build the wonderful community in Akko.  I still dream of that periodically, but the reality is that the older I get the more impractical that dream becomes.

I love what I am doing here and in many ways I feel that I am contributing to the Jewish people more than I would if I lived in Israel.  Emily is not the first student that I have encouraged to visit Israel and she will not be the last.  Most will probably not stay in Israel, but many will grow to love and support the Jewish State.

And more important than the land of Israel is the Torah, and believe it or not, there are still a few Jews left in Nebraska that have become estranged from the Torah and I hope to reintroduce it to as many of them as possible and inspire them to rekindle the love that their ancestors had with our heritage.

All in all I am happy and fulfilled here.

But I suffer from a bug that is common to most Rabbis and Jewish educators in the Diaspora.  We want to be in Israel but we feel we have work to do here.  There is no cure.  i will continue to send students to encounter Israel and I will continue to partner with our friends in Akko who are building a Jewish community in a Jewish city in the Jewish State, and maybe one day I will myself merit to live in Akko, or Hebron, or Shilo.

But today I have to get back to work.  Judah Halevi wrote, "My heart is in the East while I am in the West."  That does not apply to me.  I love Israel and will continue to work to support it any way that I can.  But my heart is right here in Omaha with the Jewish community.

Daily Business Ethics Halachah #2

We are learning from Case Studies in Business Ethics by the late Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine z"l professor of economics at Yeshiva University.

Question: Which is worse: a lie that the liar benefits from or a lie that brings no benefit to the liar?

Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (Israel, 1915-2006) posits that a lie which the liar derives no benefit from is actually worse because it demonstrates that the liar has a love of falsehood for its own sake.

Rabbi Elazer says in Gemara Sanhedrin 92a that deceiving someone through words is akin to idolatry.

Rabbi Levine explains:

The key to understanding the connection between deceptive speech and idolatry according to Rabbi Judah Lowe ben Bezalel is that the seal of the almighty is truth.  He who possesses the attribute of truthfulness fulfills the verse of "cling to the Almighty."  To engage in deceptive speech however amounts to embracing something that has no existence at all.  What idolatry and deceptive speech share is that both are vanities - that is, they have no real existence.  Hence, whoever engages in deceptive speech is as though he engaged in idolatry.

Rashi Questions for Bo

According to Rashi...
1. What was Pharoah's rational for not letting the children leave Egypt? (10:11)
2. Why was plague of locust in the time of Yoel worse than the one in the time of Moshe? (10:14)
3. Why did Hashem bring the plague of darkness? (10:22)
4. Why did Moshe have to say "please" when instructing the Jews to ask the Egyptian for their processions?
5. What time did Moshe say the plague of the first born would come? (11:4)
6. How many years were the Jews in Egypt? (12:40)
7.Why did Hashem choose the fifteenth of Nissan as the date of the redemption? (12:41)
8. How much is required to redeem a first born son? (13:13)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

C'mon Shmuley, Really???

I just finished Kosher Jesus and I am really disappointed with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.  In all of his articles about the book he promised us something new and original and provocative.

What we got instead was rehashed Jewish understandings of who Jesus was and then a slopped together compilation of every anti missionary polemic we heard in high school.

I was really excited about reading the book and it was a big disappointment.  I honestly don't have anything interesting to say about it.

I am more convinced then ever that the Rabbi who banned this book was completely in cahoots with Shmuley Boteach.  It was a marketing tactic to get the book some publicity.  In fact, the Rabbi who banned the book was actually quoted in the book.

One thing about Shmuley, he is the savviest Rabbi in the business.  I am sure he will sell a lot of books!

First Half of Kosher Jesus -It's Good to Be Banned

I am half way through Shmuley Boteach's new book, "Kosher Jesus" and so far there is not much to report.

Basically the book says:
1. Jesus was a religious Jew
2. His original teachings were very Jewish
3. His teachings were perverted to appeal to Romans
4. The people who perverted them didn't like Jews very much

Rabbi Shmuley is upfront at the beginning of the book and throughout by reminding the reader that all of his "scholarship" is summaries of previous scholars who studied the origins of Christianity.

He quotes from Haym Maccoby so much that one might say that "Kosher Jesus" is an extensive review of Haym Maccoby's books.

The subject of Christianity is not one that I have spent much time studying, however, aside from the details, there is virtually nothing that I have read so far that I differs with my elementary school Yeshiva understanding of Christianity.

The big mystery so far is why the Rabbis who banned the book did so.  First of all, I thought everyone knew that the best way to get people to buy a book is to ban it.  Is it really possible that these Rabbis could be so foolish?

I am going to give them the benefit of the doubt.  It must be that they are friends of Shmuley Boteach and they are helping him market the book.  That is the only possible explanation that I can think of as to why they would ban the book.

They helped the book more then if they actually went out and bought a thousand copies themselves!

Daily Business ethics Halacha #1

We are learning from Case Studies in Business Ethics by the late Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine z"l professor of economics at Yeshiva University.

His first chapter is on moral education.  Rabbi Levine points out when people are schooled at a young age to take veiled misconduct in stride, and even to regard its practice as a challenging game of sorts,, by the time they enter the workforce their morals are so shaky that are set up to be dihonest in business.

The gemara mentions moral education of children in massechet Sukkah on page 46b.  The gemara says:
Rabbi Zeira ruled that one should not promise to give a child something and then not give it to him because one will thereby teach him lying, as it says in scripture They have taught their tongues to speak lies (Jeremiah 9:4)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Kosher Jesus?!

With today's mail I received my pre ordered copy of Kosher Jesus by Rabbi Shuley Boteach.

I hope to read it this week and it will be the topic of my Twitter Topics class this Shabbat at 4:00pm.

According to the book jacket:
Kosher Jesus sets the stage for Jews and Christians to bridge their differences and come together for the first time through the personality of Jesus himself - the hero, martyr, and teacher that they both share.
I have read a number of reviews on the book, mostly negative, but I am going to reserve my opinion until I have read it myself. 

So far all I have read is the "praise for Kosher Jesus" found on the first page and I already have a comment.

He has an endorsement from Dr. Michael Brown, the president of Fire School Ministry and author of Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus:
While finding myself in profound disagreement with point after point in this book, most particularly Shmuley's reconstruction of the New Testament and his passionate rejection of Jesus as our Mesiah, I am thrilled to see an Orthodox Rabbi embracing Jesus as a fellow Rabbi, not to mention as an important figure in Jewish history.  In fact, this book might be described as, "America's must famous Rabbi meets the most famous Rabbi of all time."
A note about Dr. Brown.  On his website he refers to himself as the foremost Jewish Messianic apologist.
Shmuley Boteach boasts that he is a close friend with Dr Brown and the two of them engaged in live polemic debates.  Among the audios that Dr. Brown has for sale is the debate with Shmuley Boteach.  Apparently he feels that the debate is a good way to bring people to Christianity.  That does not say much for Rabbi Shmuley's performance.  While I have not heard any of his debates, I can say that I almost became an atheist after his debate with Christopher Hitchens.

Two points about Dr. Brown's endorsement:

1. I have read Rabbi Shuley's defense of his book in the media.  He claims that it is a scholarly work on New Testament sources.  But Dr. Brown seems to say clearly that Rabbi Shmuley's understanding is inaccurate.  If  Dr. Brown wrote a commentary on the Torah and Rabbi Shmuley rejected it, I would take Rabbi Shmuley's word for it.  But regarding an understanding of the New Testament, I would sooner turn to a practicing and devout Christian scholar then to a Rabbi.  I believe Dr. Brown's "endorsement" is not positive in this regard.

2. The criticism that Rabbi Shmuley has been facing is that his book will mislead Jews into adopting Christianity.  Rabbi Shmuley has vigorously opposed this notion, saying that it will do the opposite.  It will educate Jews so they will not fall prey to missionaries.  But an actual missionary seems to like the book.  I think that should say it all.

I can;t wait to read it myself and form my own opinion.  I hope to see you at my class this Shabbat at Beth Israel at 4:00pm when we discuss it.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Favorite Rashi

I was going over the parshah with Rashi before shabbat and I had to share with my readers what I think is one of the most beautiful Rashis in the entire Torah.

This week we read about the first seven plagues.  The last plague in this week's parshah is the plague of hail.  This was a terrifying plague and the Torah describes it in detail.
There was hail, and fire blazing inside the hail - very heavy such as never been in the entire land of Egypt from the time it became a nation.  (9:25)
Rashi comments:
"Blazing inside the hail" this was a miracle within a miracle.  The fire and hail intermingled and although the hail is made of water [and fire and water cannot coexist] to perform the will of their Creator they made peace between themselves.
What a beautiful idea.  I heard once in the name of the Hazon Ish a beautiful commentary on perhaps the most famous of all Jewish liturgical lines: Oseh Shalom Bimromav - Let He Who makes peace in the heavens make peace among us and on all of Israel.

What is meant by "He Who makes peace in the heavens?"

Look up at the heavens.  There are clouds made of water and stars made of fire and gas.  All of these different elements floating in the heavens and somehow Hashem is able to orchestrate the world so that they all work together and make our magnificent and beautiful world operate.
If Hashem can do that, then please let him also make peace among mankind, all of whom share common ancestry and are brothers and sisters in the eyes of God.

Let it be His will - vi'imru, Amen!
Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, January 19, 2012

From years of famine to years of planty

Parshat Vaeira is a familiar story.  Moshe and Aharon stand before Pharaoh and say, "Let my people go!"  They turn sticks to snakes, water to blood, and unleash the fury of God's creations on the land of Egypt.

But someone planted a family tree smack in the middle of the Parshah!  In the second aliya, seemingly out of nowhere, the Torah decides to record Moshe's and Aharon's genealogy.

Why do we have Moshe's family tree listed in the Torah, and why here?

The Torah does not just give us a direct genealogy of Moshe and Aharon.  We read about their uncles and cousins, great uncles, and second cousins.  In the words of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsh:
We are shown the relationship of their tribe with the preceding ones, of their family and house in connection with the families and houses that went before them, and that were contemporary with them.  Further we are told the great age which their father and their grandfather reached so that these could not have been very long dead when Moshe and Aharon took their stand.
And pointing to these two in the midst of this whole circle of cousins and relations, the Torah repeatedly says: "these, these were Moshe and Aharon on the day that they took their stand!"
In the last seven years Beth Israel has had only seven bar and bat mitzvahs.  This week we have a bar mitzvah that is the first of a series of six bar and bat mitzvahs coming up in the next year!  After a seven year famine we are entering the years of plenty.

A bar or bat mitzvah is a celebration for the boy or girl and their family, but it is also an achievement for the shul.  Moshe did not stand alone before Pharaoh.  He stood with his brother and with his community.  And they stood on the shoulders of those who had come before them.

Our bar mitzvah boy also does not stand alone.  Each one of us at Beth Israel stands together proudly watching as he reads his entire parshah and leads the entire service.  And each of us will stand here next week and the week after as he continues to be a leader amongst the youth and a role model that the younger children will aspire to emulate.

In the last few years our shul has accomplished a great deal, but by far our greatest accomplishment is the generation of active, educated, and proud Jewish kids.  Our entire community has contributed to their growth and development.  Those kids will ensure the future of the Jewish community of Omaha and in the world.  For this we should be proud and celebrate!  Mazal Tov!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Omaha Eruv makes page 1!

Check it out everyone!  Page 1 of the Omaha World Herald!


Monday, January 16, 2012

Why Frogs?

Of all the things that Hashem could punish the Egyptians with, why would he choose frogs?  
Here are a few reasons given by the classical commentaries:

1. Rashi cites a midrash that the plague of frogs began with one giant frog emerging from the Nile.  The Egyptians ran out to kill it, but as they hit it, the giant frog multiplied.  This could have been to teach the Egyptians and all those who came after to oppress the Jews that the more they oppress the Jews, the stronger they will become.
2. Saadya Gaon suggests that the frogs were actually crocodiles.  Presumably because the Egyptians worshipped crocodiles and Hashem was demonstrating that He was in control of everything.
3. Midrash Rabbah: because the Egyptians would afflict the Jews with gratuitous repulsive tasks such as making them fetch slimy creatures.
4. Lekach Tov says that the Egyptians would come into the Jews' houses at all hours of the night and scream at them to get out of bed and get to work.  The frogs did that to the Egyptians.
5. The Zohar says that the Bnei Yisrael are the nation that calls out to Hashem at all times of the day in prayer.  So Hashem brought the creatures that also call out at all times of day.
6. Similarly, the Siftei Kohen says that it was punishment because the Egyptians prevented the Jews from reciting Shma in the morning and in the evening.
7. The Siftei Kohen also says that the Egyptians made the Jews eat their bread with slimy hands.  The frogs jumped into bread and punished them for that.
8. The Abravanel says that the screaming croaks of the frogs coming form the Nile river were meant to haunt the Egyptians as if the screams of the murdered children were coming from the Nile.
9. The Me'Am Loez says that during the decree to throw children into the Nile Jewish women gave birth in hiding and were forced to hold in their screams which caused them extra pain.  The screaming of the frogs was punishment for that.
10. Rav Shimshon Rephael Hirsh says the frog represents a lowly creature which usually runs from man.  During the plague the frogs hopped all over the Egyptians with impunity teaching them, "how even the lowers and smallest of animals had lost all respect for them, in order to heal them from their overbearing arrogance."

(answers 4,5,6, and 7 were found in Sharei Aharon.  Great sefer, I highly recommend it.)

Rashi Questions for Va'eira

According to Rashi...

1. What is a kal vachomer?  What kal vachomer is used in this week's parshah?  How many kal vachomers are found in the Torah? (6:12)
2. What does this week's parshah teach us about making a shiduch? (6:23)
3. Why did Pharoah go to the Nile in the morning? (7:15)
4. Why did Hashem bring the plague of blood first? (7:17)
5. Why did Moshe tell Aharon to perform the plagues of blood and frogs? (7:19)
6.  Why did Aharon perform the plague of lice? (8:12)
7. Why couldn't the magicians perform the plague of lice? (8:14)
8. Which plague was equal to all the others combined? (9:14)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Building an eruv has been on my agenda since I arrived in Omaha seven years ago. I knew that if Omaha was to ever become a serious Jewish community that would attract young Jewish families it needed to have an eruv.

But an eruv is an expensive endeavor and would require me to allocate a great deal of time, and required a critical mass to get the project started.

Our community always had a sizeable community of shomer Shabbat families, but when I arrived there were only two young families with young children. It was not worth building an eruv so people could carry a house key to shul. You could install a lock box for that. Eruvs are primarily so that mothers can push babies to shul. For the time being, I instructed families that it was permissible to employ a baby sitter to push a stroller to and from shul. This ruling is relied upon by many communities without an eruv. (Interestingly, a young member of our congregation was at work and was approached by a man in his 70’s. He noticed her head covering and asked if she was an Orthodox Jew. He said that when he was a teenager he was hired y shomer Shabbat families every Shabbat to push their strollers to shul. Apparently this was always the accepted halachah in Omaha.)

Over the years the community grew. Today we have 19 shomer Shabbat families living in the neighborhood and frequently get calls from people considering jobs in Omaha and they want to see the community. One of the first questions that they ask after day school and before kosher restaurant is whether or not there is an eruv. It was time to build an eruv.

In Semicha we learn the laws of eruv, but there is still a great deal that needs to be learned to make this practical.

My first step was to find a qualified rabbinic authority who would ultimately give the eruv his approval. Even though I am the chief Orthodox Rabbi of the state of Nebraska, I did not feel that my young shoulders were broad enough to rule on an eruv that and make the eruv universally accepted.

I chose Rabbi Mendel Senderovic. He is a regional posek based in Milwaukee. He is a short flight from Omaha. He frequently comes in to Omaha to administer Jewish divorces and he is the posek that my predecessor used when building a new mikvah in the late 1990’s. I also had employed Rabbi Senderovic to give a regular advanced halacha shiur via skype to myself, my assistant Rabbi, and a number of other members who were interested in a higher level of learning than was otherwise available. Rabbi Senderovic has always been helpful and encouraging and he was very excited about the prospect of being involved in building the first Eruv in Omaha.

Next step was to find a route for the eruv. I was looking for a continuous span of existing wires. That would minimize the amount of building we would need and make the eruv more affordable. This was a huge problem for us. The northern border of our neighborhood is a highway that for a number of years was under construction. After consulting with many people from other communities, it was concluded that as long as the major construction project was in progress I should hold off on building the eruv as anything that I would build could possibly be destroyed.

The construction finally finished in 2007 and the search for an eruv route began. I took this on as a personal project. I ran around the neighborhood countless times. I ran so much I actually trained for the 2008 Miami marathon while searching.

There were a number of problems. I had minimized the route to a continuous perimeter with only two large gaps. One gap would require as many as 10 wires, and the other required as many as 20. At this point, I had absolutely no idea how much stringing a wire would cost me, or even if it was allowed. To make matters worse, one of the gaps was partially on the property of the local public school. I inquired of knowledgeable people in the Omaha community and was told that gaining permission from a school board is a feat that is next to impossible for anyone. I employed the help of my congregation to try and find an alternate route. We had field trips where we would walk and drive around the neighborhood trying to find a better way.

Rabbi Senderovic told me that some eruvs employ the use of steep hills in certain areas to complete the perimeter. So I constructed a giant wooden protractor and started measuring hills to see if they fit the requirements. I wondered what all the people who drove by and saw the guy in his running clothes with a giant wooden triangle thought I was doing.

Unfortunately we continued to come up empty handed. After spending countless hours on this quest, I have to admit that I was ready to give up. Maybe Nebraska was just not meant to have an eruv. There were two congregants in particular who refused to give up. One was Danita Shrago. She and her husband are empty nesters, but firmly believed that our community needed an eruv to attract young families. The other was Josh Gurock. He and his wife Amanda, both Yeshiva University graduates, both young professionals, have a family of four young children. Josh and Danita never gave up. One day Josh called me up and told me he found the solution. When we met he showed me a continuous wire that was perfect in every regard with one small problem. It cut through our neighborhood one street south of the school and the highway that would have been our Northern border. With this wire as our northern border, the perimeter of the eruv would include about 90% of the intended area and every one of the young families – except for the Gurocks! This route never would have occurred to me. How could we have an eruv without the Gurocks? Especially since Josh had been so instrumental in the project. Never the less, Josh insisted, explaining that we can always expand it later. Right now this community needs an eruv.

We had our route. The next step was to get the community on board. There have been communities that made it through most of the eruv hurdles only get embroiled in bitter controversy with non-Orthodox Jews over whether or not there should be an eruv. I did not anticipate a problem, but I thought it would be wise to stay ahead of any possibilities. Fortunately, I have a wonderful relationship with both the Reform and Conservative Rabbis in town. Both Rabbis offered me 100% support in the project and pledged to stand behind me if any issues arose. In fact, the assistant Rabbi at the Conservative Shul even asked if the eruv would cover the neighborhood surrounding his shul. (I had initially looked into the possibility of that but the wires in that neighborhood are all underground. If they ever decide to build an eruv they will have a big challenge.) I also approached the director of our regional office of the Anti-Defamation League who was also incredibly supportive.

Next, I had to contact the power company. I had always dreaded this part of the process. How was I supposed to do that without sounding crazy? “Hello power company? My name is Rabbi Gross and I need you to allow me to string wires and affix pieces of wood to some of your poles so we can carry objects on Saturday. Is that alright?” I could not imagine a scenario where that would not end with the power company hanging up immediately. I knew the only way to do this was to have an influential member of our community speak to someone high up in the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) and ask for a special favor.

I did my homework and all roads to OPPD seemed to point to a man in our community named Howard Kooper. Howard is a leader in the Omaha Jewish community, who is unfortunately not yet a member of Beth Israel, however Howard is a great philanthropist, as well as an incredible fundraiser for all Jewish causes. It was under his leadership that Omaha recently remodeled the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home, a $20 million project that created one of the finest nursing home facilities anywhere in this country.

Howard is very influential in the general community, and everyone seemed to indicate that if anyone could get me in with OPPD, it was Howard Kooper.

In addition to being a passionate Jew, Howard is a practical man. When the community was planning the remodeling of the Blumkin Home, Howard suggested that the home no longer be a kosher facility. Kosher food and operating separate kitchens for meat and dairy is obviously more expensive. A lot of research was done on the issue and it was found that a number of other Jewish homes around the country have stopped being kosher. Howard did not feel that there was enough of a kosher clientele to merit the expense. The decision was ultimately made to stay kosher, but I completely understood Howard’s position. He was doing his job as a responsible community leader and was taking a hard position on an issue that he thought was important for the long term viability of the community. Howard did his job in investigating ways that the community could be more efficient with its funds. My job as a Rabbi is to educate and to demonstrate leaders like Howard as to why things like eruv and kosher food are the very things that make us a Jewish community and ensure our future viability.

I had recently built a relationship with Howard because I was the mohel at the bris for his grandson. When I went to meet with Howard about the eruv I was optimistic. Howard was not a member of Beth Israel synagogue, yet he was one of the major contributors to our building campaign when we built our new building in 2003. I was confident that Howard was a smart and practical man. His soul objective is to make Omaha the best Jewish community in America. If he was convinced that an eruv would help us achieve that goal, he would be in full support.

My feelings turned out to be correct. I prepared a small pamphlet succinctly explaining what an eruv was and included a list of over 100 cities around the world that have eruvs. Howard listened to my presentation, looked at me and said, “Rabbi Gross, will this eruv attract young Jewish families to Omaha?” With confidence I told him it would. “Then I will see what I can do.” He told me.

Two days later I received a call from a project manager from OPPD. He was instructed by his superior to meet with me and find out what I wanted and if OPPD could accommodate us.

While it seemed that we were done, the journey had only just begun. There was still another year of logistics that needed to be worked out and, of course, fundraising. The fundraising was easy. The members of our shul were all eager to contribute to this monumental project.

OPPD was beyond accommodating. They were genuinely interested in the project and went out of their way to help. For lechis, they provided us the same materials that they use to cover wires and they gave us permission to attach them to their poles. They did the work required to string the wires where there were gaps which saved us the trouble of finding an approved contractor, choosing approved materials, and renting the proper vehicle.

There was one interesting hitch. One wire had to be strung across a very busy intersection and OPPD said we needed the approval of the city traffic engineer. I met with the traffic engineer with some of my lay people and after our presentation he said that it should not be a problem and he would just check back with his office and let us know for sure.

A few days later I received an e-mail from him. He said that this would not be allowed as it would be a huge liability for the city.

This was a devastating setback for us. Where did he get the impression that an eruv wire would constitute a liability?

Although I will never know for sure, a few days later I received an e-mail from a congregant that posited an interesting theory. The e-mail contained a link to an episode of the television show The Good Wife, a court room drama show. This episode which had coincidentally aired that very week after my meeting with the traffic engineer was about an Orthodox Jewish couple that was being sued by someone who had tripped on a fallen eruv wire outside their house on Shabbat!

The episode was interesting as the Orthodox woman claimed that she could not have violated the Shabbat to have the wire removed. The prosecution then presented phone records from the woman’s cell phone. Apparently this woman had only become shomer Shabbat in the last few years and she was secretly calling her estranged non-religious father on Shabbat so her husband wouldn’t know. Despite the scandal of her breaking Shabbat, it turned out that the plaintiff was a fraud. She hired someone to cut the wire for her and faked her fall in order to sue for damages. While the Good Wife won her case, it did not bode well for eruvs in Omaha.

I will never know for sure but I suspect that someone at the office had seen the episode (or at least part of the episode) and decided that it was not worth getting involved.

It was OPPD who came to the rescue. One of their employees found a way to connect to an existing wire not far from the intersection. It cost a few more dollars as OPPD had to now put in a new pole and move an existing pole, but it would get the job done.

After OPPD did their job, we hired a member of the community who is an electrician and the two of us set out to install all the lechis around the perimeter. The job took longer than expected, but the Nebraska winter was on our side, and we had beautiful sunny days through December and into January.

The last piece of the puzzle was to meet with the mayor. As the head of the city the halacha is that we must get his permission to use the area for carrying on Shabbat. A congregant of mine, Gary Javitch, has a personal relationship with Mayor Jim Suttle and was able to easily set up an appointment for me. The mayor was very accommodating as always and I can’t thank him enough for all of his support.

For over 100 years, Omaha did not have an eruv. Today all the stars have aligned for our Omaha Jewish community. We have a beautiful new shul. The day school is stronger than ever, we have a kosher bagel store and the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home operates a deli every Friday for lunch and a few times a month in the evenings.

Because of low unemployment and low cost of living people are moving here. Our shul has 75 children under the age of 18. The eruv was the missing piece. Now things are coming into place. This is another milestone on the path of Omaha reestablishing itself as a major Jewish community.

I can’t give enough thanks to all of those who made this possible. Hashem should continue to bless our wonderful community, and we should have many happy occasions to celebrate together at Beth Israel, where every Shabbat is a shabbaton!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Rashi Questions for Shmot

According to Rashi...
1. Why did the Torah list the names of Yaakov's sons again? (1:1)
2. What happened to the Pharaoh who knew Yosef? (1:8)
3. Who were the two Jewish men who were fighting? (2:13)
4. How did Moshe kill the Egyptian who was beating the Jew? (2:14)
5. Why was Moshe tending his sheep in the desert when he saw the burning bush? (3:1)
6. Why did Hashem make Moshe's staff turn into a snake? (4:3)
7. Who did Moshe feel was more appropriate to be sent to Pharaoh? (4:13)
8. What did Pharoah mean when he told Moshe and Aharon to do back to "their" work? (5:4)

Monday, January 9, 2012

Teens 4 Israel met with Congressman Terry

There are few things that make a Rabbi as proud as seeing a group of kids take an idea and with hard work and follow through start something great.

A number of teenagers at Beth Israel felt that there should be more Israel advocacy training available to them in Omaha.  I offered my assistance, but I suggested that if they really wanted to make things happen they will be most successful if they build it themselves.  

The kids took my advice seriously and started a group called Teens 4 Israel.
They have already had a few meetings where they met amongst themselves and discussed issues facing Israel.  With my help they connected with the regional AIPAC staff and had a meeting about what resources are available to them.  This Friday night they are having a Shabbat dinner with AIPAC to discuss further possibilities for programs.  

Today they met with Congressman Lee Terry.  Congressman Terry said that meeting with youth groups is a priority of his office and he will always make time in his schedule.  Congressman Terry is a strong supporter of Israel.

In preparation for the meeting, someone in the community donated a professional press banner with the Teens 4 Israel logo.  
The kids did their homework on the Congressman and he was impressed.  They expressed their appreciation for his support of Israel in the past and encouraged him to continue in the future.  

They presented him with an idea that they formed from searching Congressman Terry's committee involvement and AIPAC's online resources.  They learned Congressman Terry is on the Committee for Energy and Commerce.  They saw on AIPAC's website that Israel partners with a number of states to promote trade.  Nebraska has done quite a bit of trade with Israel, but we rank 37th in the country.  

The State of Ohio opened an office in Tel Aviv and through it has brought commerce to the state and created jobs.  They discussed what it would take for Nebraska to open such an office.  The Congressman said he wasn't sure and he encouraged the kids to do some research and call him if they think there is a compelling reason for Nebraska to look into it.

The Congressman asked the kids about how they came to be passionate about Israel and the kids told him about their own personal Israel experiences. 
Then the Congressman shocked the group by telling them how he has a personal connection to the Jewish State.  Congressman Terry's mother's mother was a Russian Jewish immigrant.  Although he was raised Catholic, he found out when he was older that the grandmother that he never knew was Jewish.  So technically speaking, Lee Terry is Jewish - although I do not think that he is included in the number of Jewish Congressmen.

The Congressman was great with the kids.  The learned a great deal and had a really meaningful experience.  
Many thanks to Congressman Terry for all of his support for Israel and for taking time out of his schedule to meet with us.
I am so proud of my Beth Israel kids and I can't wait for the next Teens 4 Israel event.
Good work guys!!!

Why Support Moshe Feiglin?

Many Israelis are watching the American primaries with great interest because the outcome will affect them. 

In Israel the Likud party is holding primaries of its own.  On January 31st Moshe Feiglin will be running against Bibi Netanyahu for the chairmanship of the Likud party.  If Feiglin wins he could be the next prime minister of Israel. 

Just as the American president can affect Israel, the prime minister of Israel affects Americans, particularly Jewish Americans.  Here is a list of 10 reasons why I think Americans will benefit from a victory for Moshe Feiglin.
  1. Moshe Feiglin wants to cut off American Foreign aid to Israel.
  2. Moshe Feiglin will support the Israeli troops in fighting terror which will make Israel a safer country to visit (or one day to live).
  3. Feiglin will be harsher on convicted terrorists.  Longer prison sentences, no more prisoner exchanges, and the possibility of the death penalty.  This will not only make Israel safer, but it will act as a deterrence for global terrorism that has reached the shores of America.
  4. Feiglin will go after rogue nations like Iran that threaten Israel and the world.
  5. Feiglin views Jews everywhere as the responsibility of Israel.  If Jews anywhere are in trouble he will make it Israel's priority to help them.
  6. Feilgin wants to separate "religion" from politics.  He opposes "religious" parties with narrow agendas.  I believe that a Feilgin administration would remove governmental stumbling blocks from Reform, Conservative, and other brands of American Judaism, and allow the Israeli public to decide what kind of Judaism it wants.
  7. Feiglin is committed to building more houses throughout Israel which will bring housing prices down making housing more affordable for Israelis and for Americans who want to buy 2nd (or if they make aliyah primary) homes in Israel.
  8. Feiglin will make sure that Jewish historic and religious places like Maarat Hamachpela are always open to Jews and people of all faiths.
  9. Feiglin wants Jewish education for every child.  More Jewish education means more Jewish educators, many of whom may come to the United states and help improve our Jewish educational system.
  10. Feiglin wants to make the Temple Mount into a place of worship for Jews and all the nations and not just for Muslims.
 If Feiglin is elected I plan to bring a group from Omaha to Israel for pesach for our first real seder in Jerusalem.  May it be God's will.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Rashi questions for Vayechi

According to Rashi...
1. What mitzvah is called a "kindness of truth?"  Why is it called that? (47:29)
2. What reasons does Yaakov give for not wanting to be burried in Israel? (47:29)
3. What did Yaakov mean when he said that Ephraim would be greater than Menashe? (48:19)
4. What weapons did Yaakov use to conquer the city of Shechem? (48:21)
5. Who was Yaakov refering to when he called Yehuda a lion? (49:9)
6. Why was Yissachar called a donkey? (49:14)
7. Who was Yaakov hinting to when he called Dan a snake? (49:17)