Perfidious Friends

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/noah-perfidious-friends/

Baal Haturim Genesis: Noach

Perfidious Friends

When being dishonest, people can still tell the truth. Be mindful of the treacherous that do not lie. -Eric Parslow

The generation that God decided to destroy by flooding the land was considered particularly evil. The Baal Haturim on Genesis 6:11 gives an example of their behavior: Ruben would ask his friend Simon to guard his money as well as a persimmon. Helpful Simon, wanting to take good care of Ruben’s belongings would dig up the hiding place of his own treasure and place Ruben’s money and persimmon together with his own hard-earned possessions.

Later that night, Ruben would explore the grounds around helpful Simon’s property. Ruben would then detect the faint but unmistakable smell of the persimmon. Ruben, with his handy shovel, proceeds to dig out his money as well as all of helpful Simon’s treasure.

Now Ruben did not do anything that was “illegal”. There is nothing wrong with asking his friend to guard his belongings. There is nothing wrong with going around digging in public property. If by digging one should incidentally discover something of value, strictly speaking, it is ownerless and free for the taking. There isn’t even anything “illegal” with arranging things to work out that way.

However, what is patently clear is that Ruben abused and took advantage of his friend’s kindness in a most horrible way. He might have done it legally; he might have never told a lie, or gone against any laws – but it is clearly, horribly wrong.

God looks beyond the letter of the law. God doesn’t care if we follow the laws perfectly if we corrupt the spirit. God wants the heart. God wants the soul. There is an innate morality and good that is beyond what is written in any book and He wants that as well.

May we have occasions to understand and reach the spirit of the law.

Shabat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all the volunteers, contributors, organizers and participants in the Uruguay Shabbos Project. It is already a huge success and I look forward to together enjoying the fruit of our labors. Yasher Koach!

 

 

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Female Pride

October 23, 2014

Female Pride

The Shabbos Project has started. We started it with The Great Challah Bake. Thousands upon thousands of women in over 300 communities around the world are participating in this historic event.

Getting to be a part of it here in Montevideo has been an extreme honor and joy. To see Tamara as the focal person of the event is a source of indescribable pride.

The ideas of months, the planning of weeks, the effort of days came to a feverish culmination today. The Yavne kitchen performed amazingly under the extreme pressure of regular school meals, daily sales, weekly challah baking for the community, the regular Shabbat kiddush, a Bar-Mitzvah meal, catering the youth dinner after the central prayer and a general luncheon for the community that is already overbooked past capacity, and probably a few other things that I’m not aware of.

The women of Chabad as well as all the shlichot (teachers from Israel) were active and busy setting up the hall, the tables, preparing the dough, the trays – getting everything ready hours before the start of the event.

jalaBake

Women from the entire spectrum of the community arrived – and of all ages. Over 300 women filled an area that was designed and prepared for less. We ran out of tables and chairs, however, luckily there were tables and chairs of the kindergarden available which the women put to comic yet practical use. The feeling of community was palpable. Mrs. Sylvia Acher was the master of ceremonies; and my boss, Kehila Director, Nurit Caplivschi addressed the crowd. We were also honored by the participation of the Israeli Ambassador, Nina Ben-Ami.

However, Tamara conducted the show and it was frankly amazing. For a person who didn’t speak a word of Spanish a little over a year ago, to now not only address but to enthrall an audience in a masterful Spanish was just breathtaking. The women listened to her every word as she gave a profound explanation of the special mitzvot (commandments) that women have and the symbolism of making and separating a part from the Challah.

Tjala

When she asked everyone to close their eyes and pray for someone in need, you could feel in the meaningful silence the spirituality in the room go up several notches. When everyone repeated the blessing after Tamara, I thought I would burst into tears from the power and force that the women put into it.

It was an amazingly successful event. Everyone was happy. The whole community was represented, together and interacting in a meaningful way. There were many women (and children) who had never made a Challah in their lives, let alone say the blessing when separating the prescribed part. I think that in the history of the community, there hasn’t been an event quite like this one.

After making the Challah, many of the women danced, with of course, the internationally renown dance-instructor, choreographer, doctor, rabanit and mind-boggingly talented, Tamara.

Shabbat Shalom!

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Existential Paradox by Design as Impetus in Spiritual Mechanics

October 15, 2014

Existential Paradox by Design as Impetus in Spiritual Mechanics

For the first time in memory we hosted a lot of people who had either not been in a Suka for decades or in some cases had never been in a Suka. To see and experience the Suka through their eyes was an insightful exercise.

We often talk the talk of the Suka. How we our leaving our homes, the comfort and security of sturdy walls and a solid roof for the flimsy hut and see-through covering of the Suka. How we are placing our faith in God. How we are leaving the material comforts for a simpler existence.

How many of us say and hear these ideas, but really feel it? I think that for many people, they are used to the Suka. They are accustomed to its wonder.

This Sukkot, as our guests walked in to our humble shack in the back of our resplendent home, I witnessed a transformation. I witnessed a metamorphosis of our guests from people concerned with their day-to-day cares, to people living a spiritual experience. It is hard to understand and harder to describe, but I will attempt nonetheless.

Technically, our Suka is a pitiful structure. A pieced-together rusted frame with wide strips of cloth that was attractive twenty years ago. A sagging bamboo mat roof with low-hanging paper-chain adornments that forced our taller guests to bend. Six naked light bulbs (energy efficient ones at least) with overhanging wires brightened the hastily built Suka and highlighted the color of the many Hamsas (Kabalistic hand symbol) that the handicapped kids from the Kehila contributed to the Suka. In the corner, was the artistic masterpiece for this year: An original hand-drawn representation of the 7 Ushpizin (Ancestral Guests), outlined by Tamara and colored by our kids. Besides the 7 Ushpizin, were 7 Ushpizot (7 female biblical characters) that Tamara introduced to Uruguay and spoke about each evening.

But despite the objectively dilapidated dwelling, our guests only saw and experienced beauty. The comments were unanimous “What a beautiful Suka!”

I tried to understand, what was the beauty they were experiencing? Why was there a spirituality in the air and in their eyes that wasn’t there before? What is it about a Suka that creates such an effect?

I think that part of it is visceral and is based on the laws of Suka construction. The prime rule is the composition of the roof. Vegetative based, creates more shade than sun, but allows enough space where one could see the stars at night. Also, it cannot be too high. It must remain within normal viewing range. You must always be able to see and therefore sense the naturally ethereal roof over your head. The roof itself cannot be covered or obstructed in anyway. It must have complete access to the heavens. You feel at the same moment two contradictory sensations – covered and exposed. It’s an unnatural and unusual sensation, which must engender some spiritual stimulus.

Then there are the walls. It’s a temporary structure meant to stand only a week. Few invest in anything significant. You leave your house to go outside and into the Suka. On one hand you are in a structure, on the other hand you are outside. Again, contradictory stimulus. Am I outside or inside? I imagine this stirs the soul as well.

Finally, and perhaps least legislative but most important are the decorations. The law does not prescribe dimensions, colors, content, minimum height or placement for decorations. By law, a Suka is Kosher without any decorations. But it is the part that in many homes is the most worked upon. We brought with us from Israel a two-meter wide painting on fabric of ancient Jerusalem that adorned one of the walls. Tamara reserves an entire day for the children to work on art projects to hang on the ceiling and walls. The investment of time, creativity and love is out of all proportion to the time actually spent in the Suka.

People sense that. And on some innate level are shocked. There is a dissonance. The effort that is more appropriate, more associated with something more permanent, placed in a very temporary setting. Are we here to stay or are we going already? That is the final push to awaken a soul.

All of this happens in a fraction of a second. All of this happens at the subconscious level of the senses. The designed impact of contradictory physical messages on our senses overrides our natural operating mode. Am I protected or am I exposed? Am I inside or am I outside? Am I staying or am I going? These very basic existential questions bring our spirit to life in a sudden and powerful way – and we may not even notice it. It can lead to a surprising joy.

That is the Existential Paradox by Design as Impetus in Spiritual Mechanics.

Chag Sameach.

Sabbath of Creation

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/bereshit-sabbath-of-creation/

Baal Haturim Genesis: Bereshit

Sabbath of Creation

What is without periods of rest will not endure.  -Ovid

The Zohar, the prime tome of Kaballah provides dozens of interpretations for the very first word and phrase of the Bible. Many of the interpretations involve wordplay, numerology and other tools of the esoteric world, combined with mystic philosophy, often building on Talmudic sources.

Many of the concepts presented seek to understand why the universe was created, what are the guiding principles, how man came into being and for what purpose.

The Baal Haturim on the very first line, Genesis 1:1 quotes several of these ideas. One of them is that the world was created because of the Sabbath.

Stating that the world was created because of a certain idea or concept places that concept in a central, fundamental role in our existence. The Sabbath is fundamental. Not only was the world created because of the Sabbath, but if we were to imagine a world without a Sabbath, we could imagine a world quickly disintegrating into chaos and anarchy. A world of non-stop work. A world lacking human contact and relationships. A world where families lose their cohesion and communities fall apart. A world filled with materialism and starved of spirituality. A world where we become pleasure-seeking and fulfilling automatons, not resting to consider who we are or why we are here. To live a life unexamined.

Next week, the global Jewish community has called on all of our people to celebrate and experience one Sabbath together. There is an ancient rabbinic statement that if the entire people of Israel were to observe one Sabbath, the redemption would immediately come.

It’s that close.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein of South Africa for his inspired initiative of The Shabbos Project and for the professional implementation of this historic effort.

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Asado Supreme

October 8, 2014

Asado Supreme

It started with an email (it always starts with an email). It was an invitation to a double birthday party for two of our companions. I ignored the picture of the immodest woman on the email and responded that I would participate.

The address was a mystery. I asked some friends if they knew at whose house the event was being hosted. Nobody knew. It was an unfamiliar address in an upscale area. As I am still carless (!), I got a ride with other guests, who also did not know the identity of the secret host.

Though nobody had drunk yet, we still had some confusion finding the building, but eventually we were successful. The doorman buzzed us in before our hands touched the gate. The unfamiliar man directed us to the elevator and the top floor without our having to introduce ourselves.

Now it must be a zoning law or something that every single building in Uruguay must have a communal place to make an Asado. This is typically either somewhere on the ground floor or on the roof. So I was not surprised to be heading up to the 11th floor. It was not surprising to step out of the elevator and take another short step up to what I assumed was the entrance to the roof. However, what greeted us on the other side of the door was indeed unexpected.

Uruguayans can be possessed at times of a single-mindedness that is indeed breathtaking. Take for example their fixation with drinking matte and their walking around in the street with the matte cup in hand and the thermos tucked under their armpit, while they shop, stroll, work, protest or do any other civilized activity. It is so common that there are even warnings on the buses advising riders specifically not to drink matte on the bus, as when the bus stops short the matte cup and metal straw can become deadly projectiles.

The roof of this building had been converted into a luxurious apartment with only one purpose in mind: Asado. The entire apartment was constructed for the hosting, preparation, serving and enjoyment of Asado. The mysterious owner was revealed as the generous uncle of one of the birthday boys who had set up this kosher parilla palace.

Half of the apartment was a long dinning room, with a long table and perhaps thirty chairs filling the white marble hall. The entire side was tall glass doors overlooking the golf club and the beach. The other side was elegant closets of white wood. At the end was a big screen TV that filled the wall, which was on, but everyone ignored (though I was a bit curious to see Tommy Lee Jones in what must have been a sequel of The Fugitive).

The other half of the roof was designed for the ultimate preparation of the Asado. Asado Master was there, as always. Tending the hot embers, preparing the meat. He moved with the fluidity and grace of a martial arts grand master. He wielded his massive butcher knife with skill and confidence, cutting into the innocent fowl and beef with loud thwacks upon the kitchen counter. Inch thick slabs of steak pilled up on the white counter.

But to call the counter merely a counter is to call the Taj Mahal merely a house. This was the Rolls-Royce of kitchen counters. It was as large as a dinning room table, with a silvery sink. It was at the perfect height, well lit, with its own hood overhead, independent of the massive, highly efficient hood over the blazing parilla. Where in our previous gathering I feared we would succumb to smoke inhalation, here, though we were just inches from the fire, we could barely smell any smoke – the only smell was of the tender meat cooking over fresh wooden embers.

We started the evening with 18 year-old Glenlivet Single Malt Scotch Whisky. Asado Master expertly balanced his Glenlivet with his butcher’s knife while at the same time greeting newcomers. As he raised his hand to greet someone, the large foot-long blade raised high, for a second I saw images of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho wielding his murderous blade on his showering victim. However, the embrace left both friends unscathed.

Toasted slices of baguette were placed on the counter. They were followed by slices of grilled chorizos. Though I was standing by the serving dishes, before I had a chance to blink, the platters were emptied by fast-moving Uruguayan hands – twice. The third time, a sensitive soul, noting my ineptitude in catching the savory delight instructed me in how to take a slice of bread and then when the meat comes out, to fold the bread over the hot chorizo. Third time is a charm, and with proper coaching and positioning myself in front of the oncoming platter, with bread in hand I managed to snatch the precious chorizo. As I sunk my teeth into the simple yet delectable combination I understood to the depths of my being the Talmudic dictum that there is no joy without bread and wine. My taste buds sang with pleasure and my stomach looked forward to more.

Now an expert in chorizo-snatching, I caught a few more, even faster than some of the veteran Uruguayan hands.

Then followed a kebab that one fellow swallowed almost whole. I feared the sharp tip of the wooden stake would impale the back of his throat, but I guess he knew what he was doing.

On the other side of the roof was a comfortable porch with an excellent view of the beautiful Punta Carretas Shopping Center, a refurbished former prison that has now become the center of a thriving neighborhood.

Finally, we were called for the main event. Asado Master ordered us to line up with plates and take our selection directly from the grill. We dutifully lined up, plates and utensils in hand. One companion of Rumanian origin suggested that due to my Rabbinic status, I should be allowed to advance to the front of the line (note that he was in the back of the line and had nothing to lose…). Our other companions promptly ignored him and took turns selecting their godly portions from the hot grill.

There were the large juicy steaks. There were the classic Asados – the ribs cut in that unique South American way. There were chickens and parts of chickens. Back in the dinning room there was a salad bar and Asado Master’s world-renown sauce that completes to perfection anything that comes off the grill.

We sat down in friendship and warmth and then one of the birthday boys broke out the wines, which went over wonderfully. I was asked to share some words of Torah. I discussed the biblical origins of birthday celebrations (Pharaoh, from the Joseph narrative) and the enjoinder to enjoy the permitted things in God’s world.

But now I have a fear. I have a fear for Asado Master. Here he was performing in all his glory. The perfect locale, equipment, tools, ingredients, assistance and company. Will he ever be able to perform his magic in more humble accommodations? How can one who has done his art at the height of achievement then descend to repeat the same actions in more mundane settings? Now that his soul has touched that perfection of Asado preparation, how can he try again, knowing that he is doomed to some imperfection? I truly fear for his destiny. Perhaps we just need remember that we are all human. Few in their lives live to reach the pinnacle of their art. We must ever struggle on for that elusive goal, getting solace from the memory of glory that has passed.

Stolen Inheritance

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/vezot-habracha-stolen-inheritance/

Netziv Deuteronomy: Vezot Habrachah

Stolen Inheritance

You may not be able to leave your children a great inheritance, but day by day, you may be weaving coats for them which they will wear for all eternity.  -Theodore L. Cuyler

Jewish education starts at the youngest possible age. We start by teaching children verses from the Bible, often with a melody. One of the first verses and perhaps one of the most important ones is from Deuteronomy 33:4:

“The Torah was commanded to us by Moses, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.”

There is something fundamental about the fact that Moses transmitted the words of God to us. And there is something equally important about the Torah being our inheritance.

The Netziv explains this verse further and states that not only is the Torah, Jewish law and tradition our inheritance, not only is it central to Jewish life and continuity, but whoever withholds the transmission of Jewish jurisprudence from their students is as if they are stealing their inheritance.

Parents have not only the responsibility, but the obligation to pass on the chain of tradition to their children. And if their own parents failed in that transmission, it does not absolve them of reclaiming that treasure and passing it on to future generations. It is woefully true that in many families the chain has been broken. Lip service is paid to our Jewish heritage. The most minimal, superficial, watered-down aspects of Judaism is sometimes all that remains. There is so much more!

Let us not be the generation that let the chain remain broken. Let us reforge the chain. Let us insure a Jewish tomorrow for our families. It starts with education.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Ronit Stolovas and Nadia Dzimalkowski who have taken upon themselves the coordination of meals for the Uruguayan Shabbos Project – the biggest communal education project of the year.

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Yom Kippur Redux

October 5, 2014

Yom Kippur Redux

Finally, the following afternoon, I’m beginning to recover from Yom Kippur. It was very successful. Some people apparently walked an hour in each direction to participate in our services. I was extremely humbled by this effort. We had record crowds for each of the three highlights (Kol Nidrei, Yizkor and Neila) – I estimate around 800 for the first two and perhaps close to one thousand for Neila, including about 100 children that joined me on stage for the end of Neila. The synagogue was full and stirring with energy.

More people stayed longer, and there seemed to be a significant number of younger people than the previous year. I spoke throughout the day. I interrupted the Hazan approximately every ten minutes with introductions and explanations as to where we were or what we were doing in the prayer or Torah reading. We also skipped a lot of the liturgy as I wrote about before. That was besides the three major sermons and conducting a 3-hour question and answer session during the break. I also had to read the Torah, Haftara, Sefer Yona and serve as Gabbai and page announcer. At some points during Minha and Neila I thought I would faint or collapse. Some divine spirit kept me going, gave my mind inspiration to address the congregation and my voice strength to reach the rafters.

I was happiest about involving the children in the recitation of the final verses before blowing the shofar. Second to that was having successfully gotten the Hazan and the choir to sing my favorite Yom Kippur song, Mare Kohen. Noise throughout the day was down to a bare minimum, I think mostly because of my interruptions and an extreme preoccupation to keep things moving and interesting. It probably didn’t hurt that I invited talkers to leave, and threatened to ask them personally if they persisted in talking. A few probably remembered that I kicked them out the previous year. Just eying them this year was enough. I announced the upcoming Shabbat Project before each sermon.

I have also been blessed with the friendship and presence of Bernardo Olesker, one of the great community leaders and the acknowledged “greatest orator of the community”. He sits in the front row and always gives me valuable feedback on my talks. When he compliments me, I know I’ve done well. When he asks for a repeat of something I’ve said, I know I’ve struck a chord. He particularly liked my Yizkor talk where I permitted people whose parents weren’t dead to stay in and to say liturgy for grandparents, martyrs and other loved ones. I asked not only what memory we had of our ancestors but what memories we would leave our descendants and to consider who would be saying Yizkor for us. That seemed to move a number of people.

Many more people were praying, focusing in the Machzor, turning the pages, beating their chest, responding when I waved my flag and in general participating and being a part of the service, as compared to last year. A cellphone did not ring once throughout the day – repeated warnings probably helped as well.

However, right after Yom Kippur, my brain synapses finally burnt out. I could no longer answer simple questions, contemplate any decisions or pronounce more than monosyllables (no Mom, don’t worry – it wasn’t a stroke or anything of that kind). In our cab ride from the hotel (which due to a last minute glich, we were upgraded to) to our wider Spitz family Break-Fast, I contemplated a career as a taxi driver as a suitable aspiration for my mental and decision-making capacities. I was feeling extreme Decision Fatigue.

However, overall, it was really good. Thank God.

Now I’m looking forward to my next big and totally different event. I’m giving a lecture to over 300 South American engineers on my thoughts on Reliability Engineering, featuring movie clips from Armageddon and I Love Lucy…