Thursday, May 31, 2012

Rashi Questions for Nasso

According to Rashi...
1. What is the "service of a service" done in the mishkan? (4:47)
2. What two points are added to the passage about one who robs and swears falsely? (5:6)
3. What type of spirit motivates adulterers?  (5:12)
4. What sin does the Nazir have to atone for?  (6:11)
5. What role did the Nesiim play in Egypt?  (7:2)
6. Why were the Nesiim the first to contribute at the Mishkan dedication? (7:3)
7. Whose idea was it for the Nesiim to make these offerings? (7:18)

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Can there be Judaism without Kosher?

The Omaha Jewish Press recently printed a piece called "Can There Be Judaism Without God?"  The editor received positive feedback and asked me if I would write a similar piece tackling the question of whether there could be Judaism without Kosher.  It sounded like a good project so here is what I wrote:

Can There Be Judaism Without Kosher?

I sometimes imagine myself in a world where I do not have to keep kosher. In that world I weigh 700 lbs. and I am flat broke. Omaha has the distinction of having more restaurants per capita than any city in America and is probably the hardest city in the world to keep kosher in. Living here is like being confined to the fate of Tantalus of Greek mythology. (Big difference being that the Underworld didn't have a great kosher bagel place and a kosher deli on Fridays)

I must admit, there are days that I imagine what the world would be like if for just one day, from sunrise to sunset, the laws of kosher would be suspended like some alternate side of the street parking rule.

I see myself like Homer (not of Greek mythology) Simpson in his day dream about the land of chocolate, frolicking through the streets eating everything that stayed still long enough for him to take a bite.

In my mind I have already charted a map and a complete schedule of every non-kosher restaurant in Omaha that I would visit on non-kosher day accounting for time and distance (strangely I would still do dairy in the a.m. and meat in the p.m. Some habits are hard to break).

Does my attitude seem sacrilegious? Is my dreaming of a treif free pass somehow indicative of a spiritual deficiency? Not according to Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah.

He said that a person should not say, "Pork disgusts me" rather one should say, "if only I could eat pork, but alas, what can I do, my father in heaven forbade it to me!"

According to some commentators the Torah’s dietary laws were prescribed for reasons of physical health. Long before Phil Sokolof got us to make healthy food choices (look him up non-Omahans) his great great ancestors were already instructed by the Torah to watch what they ate. Kosher food was all about healthy eating.

But that cannot be the whole story. If it were Jews would be the most physically fit people on the planet. Further, things like schmaltz, bagels, cream cheese, knishes, blintzes, potato kugel, and just about every Jewish staple would be on the unapproved list.

So what is kosher?

Although we have come to generally associate the word kosher with food, the concept can be applied in a much broader sense. When Queen Esther pleaded with king Achashveirosh to spare the Jewish people from the decree of Haman she said, "Let it be 'kosher' in the eyes of the king." The targum translation translates the word 'kosher' with the Aramaic word 'takin' - the same root as 'tikun' - to make straight, firm, right.

Kosher means so much more than just fit for consumption. In modern parlance it implies that something is done properly, ethically, and with integrity. As in, “that business deal was totally kosher!” Or at times, “something here just doesn’t seem kosher.”

The reason for the dietary laws is explicit in the Torah. “To differentiate between the pure and the impure.”

When you think about it, isn’t that the reason for all mitzvot?

Isn’t that the reason for the entire Torah? To differentiate between the pure and impure. Between holy and profane. Between light and darkness. Between right and wrong. Between good and evil.

Every day we make countless choices; whether about what we choose to eat, how we choose to dress, how we choose to speak, and how we choose to act. In every one of those scenarios there are right choices and wrong choices.

When we eat, the Torah warns us that everything that goes into our mouths must be kosher. And when we speak the Torah instructs us that everything that comes out of our mouths must be kosher as well.

The kosher choice is often the harder choice, but with adversity always comes reward. Life would be easier if I could eat whatever I wanted. But what can I do, my father in Heaven has forbidden it to me.  Following the rules of the Torah is not always easy, but it nourishes my soul - a sensation substantially more rewarding then nourishing my taste buds.

At its very foundation Judaism stands on the principle that there is right and wrong. Kosher, in all of its manifestations, is emblematic of that basic ethical concept. Judaism may be able to exist somehow without it, but what use would such a Judaism be?

Whenever we eat kosher, speak kosher, or act kosher we nourish our souls.  Sometimes the price is high, but the payoff is always worth it.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Rashi Questions for Bamidbar

According to Rashi...
1. Why does Hashem count us all the time?  (1:1)
2. If your father was from one tribe and your mother is from another, which tribe are you from? (1:2)
3. How did drafted soldiers demonstrate which tribe they were from?  (1:18)
4. How were the colors of the tribal flags chosen?  (2:2)
5. Why are Aharon's sons listed as the sons of Aharon and Moshe?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Held Hostage at Shul

Today was an interesting experience. 
About a month ago an officer from the Omaha Sheriff's department approached me about the possibility of running a hostage negotiation training exercise at Beth Israel.  Our community is incredibly grateful for everything that our law enforcement agencies do to protect us so naturally I agreed. 

Today at 10:00am I am half a dozen of my congregants volunteered to be "hostages" for a staged scenario.  We gathered in the main sanctuary when a masked man with a machine gun came in and started yelling at us.

Everyone in the room knew that the man was an actor, but he was so good that I think everyone in the room was a bit scared.  I did not expect it to feel so real and it really brings home how terrifying a real incident would be.  He rounded us up and sat us in a row of seats and confiscated our cell phones.  He perched himself in the back of the sanctuary and continued to hold us at gunpoint in silence.

After about 10 minutes the actor got up and took off his mask and told us we were taking an intermission.  Every one of us breathed a sigh of relief.  He cracked a few jokes to lighten the mood and let us know that it would be more relaxed from then on.  I got to take some pictures and send out some tweets. 

The real purpose of the exercise was to prepare the response teams and the negotiators and the activity would be taking place outside the shul so we could act normally inside.  That was a great relief to all of us.  I cannot even imagine the fear that people in real hostage situations must experience, especially in long drawn out scenarios.

They held us there for an hour and then some of us were given parts to act out.  One lady was supposed to pretend to be a diabetic and that she needed insulin.  This was supposed to add some realism to the officers outside and some added stress.  One of my congregants is a county Sheriffs officer.  She was with us and part of the script was that the terrorist discovered that she was "one of them."  This also added some drama to the dynamic.

Meanwhile at the Sheriff's office... the police were only told that today was an exercise.  They were not given any details to what was going on.  The scenario allowed for certain clues.  For instance, one actor was the cab driver who brought the terrorist to the synagogue.  He worked for a fictional cab company and the police contacted them, tracked him down and got some info.  They were able to trace a call to the shul from our secretary who was able to "escape" before anything happened.  They were able to find out everything about the "terrorist" from these clues.  They tracked down my cell phone number and contacted me which put them in communication with the terrorist. 

This particular scenario was not supposed to be tactical.  It was meant to practice negotiations.  The Terrorist in the script did not have a fully laid out plan and his profile was not someone who would necessarily hurt others.  The hope was to talk him into giving up before he hurt us or himself. 

After a couple of hours (!!!) they wore the terrorist down through negotiations and he came out on his own.

I learned a great deal from my experience today.  First of all, I was honored to meet so many dedicated officers who take their jobs of protecting the citizens of Omaha so seriously. 

I also learned that our synagogue is actually a very safe place.  The windows, layout, and many exits make our sanctuary impossible to really hold us hostage and in real life we all would have been able to escape and the police would have been able to stop him with ease.

I also feel that even a simple scenario like this made the volunteer hostages and myself more mindful of potential situations.  I don't know how I would react if something actually happened, God forbid, but I feel a bit more prepared.  I see how these training exercises are beneficial for the police.

It was an honor to do our part in any small way to help keep Omaha safe, and I pray that a scenario like this is only academic and the officers never have to use the tactics that they learned for real.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Freedom to Choose Your Own Rabbi - Blessing or Curse?

In addition to my day job, I am privileged to be a part of a Nebraska based congregational consulting group called Noah's Dove Consulting. 

Founded Patrick McNamara, renowned expert in conflict resolution and mediation, Noah's Dove helps congregations get through difficult changes. 

Through Noah's Dove I have had the opportunity to meet and work with Clergy from a variety of religions and denominations.  Some of the Churches that we have worked with belong to structured systems that assign the clergy to congregations rather than allow congregations to hire their own pastor.  The congregation is consulted, but ultimately the final say belongs to the regional religious office.

This is very foreign from anything that I have ever encountered in my own professional experience.  The Rabbi business is a free market.  When I first started, almost 10 years ago, the market was very good for the Rabbis.  Today the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction and congregations now have the upper hand. 

Though the market shifts, the concept is always the same.  Supply and demand.  There are many obvious advantages to this. 
  • Congregations have total control over the hiring process
  • Congregations have total control over the firing process
The down side is
  • Congregations have control over the hiring process
  • Congregations have control over the firing process
If the congregation can hire their own rabbi it seems that they will be more likely to choose a candidate that will suit their needs.  On the other hand, sometimes it is hard to distinguish among candidates.  Some rabbis are able to present well on an interview but do not perform well once hired, alternatively there are others who may not interview well but will be great rabbis for that congregation.  Having a professional body with experience may be a useful resource to a congregation.

As for firing, many Rabbis have been subject to the whims of boards of directors made up of a few disgruntled individuals with a personal axe to grind. 
Other times, congregations have sought to rid themselves of an ill suited Rabbi but can not muster up the necessary gumption to fire a Rabbi.  In that case having a regional body from above to be the bad guy may be a good thing for the congregation.

In the end of the day, I think I am happy with the free market system and I think that ultimately it serves the best interest of Rabbis and congregations.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Rashi questions for Behar Bichukotai

According to Rashi...
1. What is Shmittah doing next to Har Sinai? (25:1)
2. What does the term dror, freedom, imply? (25:10)
3. What does the Torah mean by "don't harass one another?" (25:17)
4. What does Rashi compare someone who leaves Israel to? (25:38)
5. What is the "pride of your might" that Hashem will break? (26:19)
6. What is the Torah referred to in plural? (26:46)

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Second Dolhinov massacre part 2

This morning at minyan I showed Zelig the picture that I was given yesterday.
He immidiately identified himself, his father, and his sister in the picture.  He also told me the names of some of the other survivors. 

His wife, Mindel, also a survivor of Dolhinov, was not in the picture.  (their families knew each other before the war.  They met each other again and were married in a DP camp after the war)
Zelig did not know why she was not there.  In fact Zelig did not even remember the picture being taken.

I turned the picture over and before he read one word he exclaimed, "that is my father's writing!"
He skipped to the end of the card and saw his father's name.

I gave him the card to keep and he was very grateful.

Every day after davening I try and get Zelig to tell one of his stories and I record them on my iphone (thank you Steve Jobs!).  What a great privilege it is to be able to daven with him every morning!!! 

This morning he told an amazing story about how he saved a little girl when he was in the underground.  I have attached it here.

Once again, I strongly encourage any one who knows any survivors of the shoah to record as much as you can. You will never regret it,

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Second Dohinov Shechita and an amazing coincidence

Zelig Dimmishtein has Yaartzeit again tonight.  The 12th, 13th, and 14th of Iyar in 1942 was the second of the three shechitas, massacres, that lead to the destruction of the Jewish town of Dolhinov

But tonight an amazing thing happened.  Another member of my shul called me up earlier this afternoon and asked if he could meet with me for a few minutes before mincha. 

When I arrived at shul we went into my office.  He had recently moved and he and today he and his wife were going through some old boxes.  His wife found an old postcard with some Hebrew writing on the back.  He asked, "where did this come from?"  She remembered that in 1983 when he was on business in Turkey she went shopping in downtown Omaha.  She was browsing through a second hand store and saw a post card with Hebrew letters.  The postcard was written in yiddish which she did not understand, but she purchased it anyway so she could show it to her husband when he returned.  She put it away 29 years ago and forgot about it until today.

Here is a picture of what he showed me:.

The postcard is actually a picture taken in 1948 at the 6th yaartzeit of the second shechita, this very day 64 years ago!  The writing on the back was written by Zelig's father who also survived the war.  He wrote about the shechita, the dates, and the importance of always remembering the Yaartzeit. 

It so happens that there are a number of websites dedicated to the Dolhinov massacre (here and here).  And this very picture was posted by another survivor.  It is clear that the posted one is a different copy.

What are the chances of this showing up today?  I did not get a chance to show the picture to Zelig this evening.  He will be back tomorrow morning and I have to think tonight how to present this to him. 

When ever he talks about his family or the shechita he gets completely choked up and can barely talk.  He is almost 90 years old and although he is, even at his age, the toughest and strongest person I have ever known I don't know how I should show him this post card. 

May the memory of all those who perished in the shechita remain a blessing, and may they always be remembered, with all of those who were lost in the Shoah.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Quiz Questions for Acharei Mot Kidoshim

According to Rashi…
1.       Why did the Torah mention the death of Aharon’s sons?  (16:1)
2.       How one did the first beit hamikdash stand?  ((16:3)
3.       How does the yetzer harah react to certain decrees of the King?  (18:4)
4.       How do we learn that it is forbidden to curse anyone?  (19:14)
5.       How does Rashi define a tattoo?  (19:28)
6.       How are we required to respect an elder?  (19:32)
7.       What attitude does Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya say we should have towards mitzvoth?  (20:26)