Personal and Group Judgment

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/nitzavim-personal-and-group-judgment/

Netziv Deuteronomy: Nitzavim

Personal and Group Judgment

There is a destiny that makes us brothers, No one goes his way alone; All that we send into the lives of others, Comes back into our own. -Edwin Markham

Jewish prayer consists of both personal pleas and communal orations. The liturgy itself also reflects this duality of seeking the welfare of the individual as well as of the group. The question however, for the High Holidays, is whether this dichotomy continues. Are we judged for our personal faults or are there also some accounting of group sins, and if so, how does that work?

The Netziv on Deuteronomy 29:9 digs into the issue and comes to the following conclusions. We are primarily judged as individuals, and not in comparison to others. We are judged based on our own personal potential, on what we could have achieved and didn’t, on what we could have avoided but instead gave in to temptation. Each person has their own unique scale of accomplishments and that is what God looks at.

However, just as a person has their own particular attributes and potential, groups likewise have attributes and potential and God judges the aggregate of the people that make up particular groups, whether it is a family unit, a company, a school, a synagogue, a community, a city, a country or a people. If groups live up to their potential they are duly rewarded – and if they don’t, then their raison d’être comes into question. Each group has its own unique mission that only they can achieve.

May we take the opportunity of the New Year, not only to evaluate ourselves, but also all the different groups we are a part of, and plan on a year where we live our unique potentials and missions both for ourselves and together with all those who we are connected to.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all the groups that I am a part of. I beg forgiveness of you for my errors, shortcomings and faults.

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Chivitos for Dinner (with apologies to my vegetarian friends…)

September 16, 2014

Chivitos for Dinner (with apologies to my vegetarian friends…)

It was a cold, but not unpleasant Monday night. I had been without a car for two months already, so I decided to trek the fifteen minutes to my destination. (The absence of a car is worthy of another tale that illustrates Uruguayan culture, institutional paranoia and governmental bureaucracy, but I prefer to wait until I cease being a full-time pedestrian.)

As I walk out the door I smell the sweet scent of a barbecue nearby. It is a quiet residential street, in a security-minded city, so the only hint of the meat-cooking is the smell. As I walk further along, I pass several eateries, each wafting the savory odors of burning meat, as patrons enjoy their dinner on cozy sidewalk tables, or inside warmer building with open-air grills (parillas).

By the time I reach my host’s apartment I have smelled the heavenly scents over half a dozen times, each one stronger and sweeter, awakening some ancient ancestral meat-lust and accurately foreshadowing the events of the evening.

My host was commemorating the anniversary of the passing of his mother. We learned some Mishnayot (selections from the Talmud). We recited a variety of blessings on distinct types of foods including a cheese-less pizza, kosher wines, seasoned olives, miniatures pickles and a delectable mushroom salad. And then we sat down for the serious business: chivitos.

According to our Asado Master, a man wise and knowledgeable in the lore of food-preparation, the chivito was first developed in the rugged hills of Galicia, Spain, untold years ago. Shepherds, knowing the best cuts of the animals in their care, would take the thinnest slices of meat, grill it lovingly, and eat it with a home-baked roll of fresh bread. The chivito was then imported early last century to Uruguay by a Spaniard who opened up the famous “Chivitos de Oro” locale by the city center. It was such a success that it was soon copied by dozens of establishments and eventually was considered a national dish.

As my readers will know, the parilla is akin to an altar, which can be found in almost every Uruguayan home. Here, the sacrificial animals are burned to anywhere between medium-rare to well done. The high priests, or in our case, the Asado Master, hovers attentively over the remains of the sacrifice, performing his holy work with utmost concentration, or perhaps with a cold beer in his hand. He also takes the opportunity to lightly toast the fresh buns (which are under our kosher supervision for the frozen, unbaked ones – they are really quite good when put on a grill).

But Asado Master was not content with merely the thin slices of excellent meat. He added a sunny-side down egg to each sandwich as well as a combination of grilled vegetables. The invention brought unbidden to my mind the Talmudic saying that there is no joy without meat and wine. I admitted to my fellow worshipers that it was worth staying longer in such a country for such fare. They smiled, nodded and kept on eating.

While the chivito was an impressive display of culinary talent, Asado Master followed it up with a brisket that had been prepared so masterfully that it cut like butter and tasted divine.

There is however, a price and a mixed blessing for participation in an asado. The smoke. At one point the smoke around us was so thick I feared that perhaps we were on the menu. After spending time next to a parilla, it becomes undeniable where one has been and what one has done. The odor is so strong that vegetarians are known to become sick from second-hand parilla smoke. Even after a shower I still feel some remnants of smoke in my eyes and in the pores of my skin.

Nonetheless, it is a price I gladly pay. I am sure that the enjoyment, the camaraderie, along with the Torah learning and the blessings will cause the spirit of our host’s mother to smile, to rise further in the heavenly realms and to solicit God for a healthy year, a happy year, an outstanding year, and perhaps a year with more chivitos for all of us.

Cosmetic Beauty

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ki-tavo-cosmetic-beauty/

Netziv Deuteronomy: Ki Tavo

Cosmetic Beauty

Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart.” -Kahlil Gibran

In the Western, Greek-inspired world youth has become synonymous with beauty. To look younger is to be beautiful. To that end, it has become growingly popular to alter ones appearance, even via surgery, to achieve the elusive façade of eternal youth.

Judaism has an opposite view regarding youth and beauty. Old age and hard-earned wrinkles are to be venerated. Outward beauty is often false, deceptive. The beauty of the soul is paramount.

In this week’s Torah reading instructions are provided as to the construction of the altar: only whole stones can be used. The Netziv on Deuteronomy 27:6 explains that the stones for the altar cannot be cut into more convenient or pleasing shapes. The natural stone must be used as is, without alterations or cosmetic surgery. The right stones need to be found and need to be used together with whatever blemishes or imperfections they have, without smoothing them, without cutting them. They are perfect and pleasing and wanted as they were created, in order to build the altar to God.

May we be comfortable with our own superficial blemishes and work instead on our inner beauty.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the five beautiful couples that married this week in one unforgettable night. May the beauty you find in each other only grow over time.

 

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: The Whimper and the Bang

September 10, 2014

The Whimper and the Bang

It’s been many, many months since I’ve posted. For a multiplicity of reasons. But the muse seems to be back.

For security reasons, most of my appointments are scheduled, with police checks done on anyone who is not familiar to the institution. However today, I had a walk-in, a mother and daughter who were in the building for other business.

The daughter is from a town in the interior of Uruguay. At first I assumed she was a teenager, but I was informed she was married and expecting their first child. She is the last Jew in her town. She is married to a non-Jew. She is confused as to how to educate her soon-to-be child. Her Judaism is that she respects Yom Kippur. The mother came in to our offices to look into moving the buried remains of an uncle from a Christian cemetery to our Jewish cemetery. His tombstone has a star of David next to his date of birth and a cross next to the date of his death.

I gave them some encouragement to explore Judaism further and empathized with the difficulty in experiencing Judaism when you are the last Jew in town (and she wasn’t the only example this week). They explained to me that whatever Jews had been in the town previously had converted ages ago to Christianity and their descendents proudly wear crosses around their neck. There is even a family called “Rabino” (literally “Rabbi”) that are active Christians. I looked at the expectant mother with such a tenuous connection to Judaism and I thought to myself: This is a town that the Jews vanished from with a silent whimper. It was a sad thought in a job where I witness people consciously, actively leaving the fold on a daily basis.

But it seems though the job exposes one to extreme sadness, I get to experience extreme joy as well.

Today was a historic day in the Jewish community of Uruguay.

We were visited on Monday by a bet din (a tribunal) of three Dayanim (judges) from the Rabbanut (Chief Rabbinate) of Israel. There has not been an active qualified Bet Din here of this level for a number of generations. They tested ten candidates who wanted to convert to Judaism. All ten were accepted. In their extensive experience, they never approve all the candidates. This is a credit to the selfless dedication of the teacher, Rabbi Oved Avrej. That was indeed a cause for celebration, however, the best was yet to come.

Tonight, under the supervision of these Dayanim, we performed five back-to-back wedding ceremonies. I have never seen, heard of, or experienced anything like it. Each ceremony was relatively quick. 20-30 minutes. But each one was full of joy. And the joy just seemed to increase and expand with every subsequent wedding. Each new couple that came into the House of Israel. Each new family that was born. Each new family that multiplied the strength and power of the community. I am sure God was smiling from above. I am sure His presence was there in the simple, humble ceremonies. I am sure He is pleased by the newest members of the Tribe.

If the morning showed me the last breaths of a dying community, the night showed the rebirth of a growing one. It is heartening. It is encouraging. It is inspiring. These are new stars in the cosmos whose light will shine for many years to come.

Foolish Friends

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ki-tetze-foolish-friends/

Netziv Deuteronomy: Ki Tetze

Foolish Friends

 “Don’t approach a goat from the front, a horse from the back, or a fool from any side.” -Yiddish Proverb

Human foolishness comes in all shapes and sizes. No person is completely immune from foolish acts, though most of us generally try to avoid doing or saying things we will later regret. Animals on the other hand function almost exclusively on instinct; there are rarely situations in the course of nature in which an animal would be called foolish.

However, in Jewish law, there is a term, typically used for bulls, called “muad”. Muad translates as either notorious or prone to do damage and is a label assigned to an animal that has proven itself to be dangerous, based on past attempts to gore. The owner of a Muad animal is liable for all damages, while a previously tranquil animal has a lower level of liability for the owner.

Men are in a completely different category. They are always considered dangerous. Man is always considered Muad. He is always prone and responsible for damages that he causes his fellow man. The Netziv on Deuteronomy 24:9 fine-tunes this concept even further and states that a person is Muad, even in sins that he commits against another unintentionally.

Meaning, a person is responsible for the damage caused by a completely innocent act or remark, even if there was no harm intended. This gives us a tremendous level of responsibility for what we do and say. We are still guilty of unintended consequences. We must know better. We must think ahead. We must realize the power we have as humans to affect those around us. It is a serious power.

May we use our human capacities well, with foresight and intelligence and avoid both fools and foolishness.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the conversion class of Montevideo. Good luck on your upcoming tests!

 

 

Jewish Lemonade

Jewish Lemonade

I have often been downcast, but never in despair; I regard our hiding as a dangerous adventure, romantic and interesting at the same time. In my diary I treat all the privations as amusing. I have made up my mind now to lead a different life from other girls and, later on, different from ordinary housewives. My start has been so very full of interest, and that is the sole reason why I have to laugh at the humorous side of the most dangerous moments.” -Anne Frank

At one point in my biblical studies, I came to the sad realization that the life of a biblical character was filled with pain and misery. The heroes from the holy pages rarely live happily ever after. Their lives are filled with struggle, hardship and disappointment. Adam, the first man to commune with God is exiled from the Garden of Eden, cursed, and lives to see one of his children murder the other. We see Noah, the new hope for mankind, drunk and cursing his disappointing son. Even the great patriarch Abraham goes from one trial to another and never lives to see the multiple promises of God fulfilled in his lifetime. The list goes on. Isaac and Jacob, similarly lead lives of fear, mourning and anguish. Moses, the great redeemer, leader and lawgiver, is subject to constant harassment and disappointment, the last being the prohibition of him entering the Promised Land, the land to which he so faithfully led the nation of Israel.

Nonetheless, or even perhaps because of their trials and how they faced them, we look up to these figures, to these ancestors. Their stories are filled with lessons and their personalities often serve as role models for how we should live our own lives.

One of the common threads that join the progenitors of the Jewish nation, from Abraham onwards, is how they continued, overcame and even triumphed in the face of adversity, as per the adage, “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

The lemonade phrase is a curious one and perhaps one that overly maligns the innocent yet highly useful lemon. In researching the sources of the phrase it becomes apparent that in the early uses of the citrus fruit, it was not thought of very well as a fruit. Its first use was strictly ornamental. Over the centuries it started to be used for its sharp flavoring, as on salads and fish, and then for medicinal purposes, including preventing scurvy amongst sailors. Lemons have also been used for their acid content as well as a cleaning agent. But lemons were always considered a second-rate fruit whose sourness made you pucker your lips and the term was administered to many second-rate, unpleasant items in life, and most specifically in later years to faulty cars. The phrase “He sold you a lemon,” would become ubiquitous with purchasing a defective automobile.

Only in recent history has the lemon triumphed as a major juice product thanks to the addition of copious amounts of sugar. Hence the even more popular cliché: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” (First credited to Elbert Hubbard in 1915, but also attributed to Dale Carnegie, who himself credited Julius Rosenwald). The phrase has come to represent an optimistic attitude of overcoming adversity, turning it somehow to your advantage and making the best of a bad situation.

In honor of yet another painting by the talented artist, Mrs. Nira Spitz, commissioned by noted art patron, Mr. Egbert Pijfers, of a picturesque lemon tree, the author thought it appropriate to explore the lemon/lemonade dichotomy in biblical and rabbinic sources.

lemon_large (1)

But first, as it has become our custom, a brief analysis of the famed painting itself.

One can immediately see why the lemon tree was sought and prized initially as an ornamental tree. The bright, lush, vibrant fruit is a colorful contrast to the multi-hued greens of the foliage. There is an appealing geometry and size to the tree that invites the viewer to reach out and pick its yellow/orange fruit. The asymmetry of the trunk to the geometrically full branches instinctively draws ones interest to the greco-roman bannister. It is clearly not an accident that the color and the lighting upon the human construction so nearly replicates the colors of the divinely-designed fruit. In the distance one can make out what is surely the Mediterranean coast within view of the veranda of this ancestral home. One can imagine the modern-day descendant of some Roman patrician or freed legionnaire, sitting on the porch, gazing upon the horizon, while the humidity of the summer air shimmers and rises in waves from the ground in a continuous mix of blues and whites until the eye reaches the gentle white clouds of the stratosphere. The tanned descendant lounges in shorts and a T-shirt, sipping on some cool lemonade, the ice tinkling in his tall glass.

But let us return to the symbolism of converting bitter lemons to sweet lemonade. Back in our biblical review, we noted the theme of suffering and even failure in our ancestral heroes. They struggled, they lived lives of trial and disappointment, rarely, if ever, living to see the hoped-for promise or salvation. Why do we venerate these people? Why are they models in the Jewish tradition? In the modern age of the ambitious drive to success and the diligent search for happiness, do these antiquated figures still have a role to play? Do we truly want to learn from these sad men and women? What about their lives do we wish to emulate? What deeper understanding of these personalities can provide lessons to modern man?

The answer is simple, yet profound, ties directly to our tree and its fruit, and its message is perhaps more important now than ever in the history of humanity. The lemon is a fruit that does not lend itself to instant gratification. One cannot bite into it as one would an apple and savor its delectable flavor. One cannot even squeeze it as one would an orange and expect to enjoy its sweet and rejuvenating juice. No. To enjoy a lemon is a relatively long and complicated process as far as fruit are concerned. It must be squeezed and then it must be sweetened. Only then is the lemon useful, meaningful, enjoyable.

So too with our ancestors. Nothing was handed to them easily. There was no instant gratification. In most cases they did not live to see the sweet fruit of their efforts. But that did not make it any less worthwhile. If anything, it teaches us a vital lesson. A lesson that needs to be shouted, repeated, reinforced and replayed so that cultures around the world will hear it. Ours is not the quick race. Ours is not the selfish, self-centered, self-indulgence that thinks of nothing else but oneself, of ones self-gratification, of ones personal glutenous happiness and material success to the exclusion of all else, of anything meaningful or important or lasting. Ours is an eternal march, passing the baton from one generation to the next, of making investments and sacrifices that will only be enjoyed by our descendants, of not only hoping for a better today, but planning and working for a better tomorrow, of constructing for our children the infrastructure and tools, the physical, intellectual and spiritual capacity to reach higher than we ever could. That is what we struggle for.

There is a famous story in the Talmud of a sage seeing a man planting a carob tree. This tree was attributed as giving fruit only after seventy years. The sage asks the man: “And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?”

The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”

Our ancestors who planted trees, who dug the land and sowed the seeds, knew what they were struggling for. They knew they wouldn’t live to see or enjoy the ultimate fruits. They more often than not lived lives of suffering and anguish. Such is the human condition. But it did not deter them. Against incredible odds, with tremendous dedication, they persevered. They retained the greater goals and ideals in the face of opposition and even rationale human hope. They carried faith as a precious ember that was passed from father to son, from mother to daughter, from teacher to pupil. That is an indomitable will. That is the significance of being part of an eternal chain of tradition. That is the patrimony our ancestors have left us. That is how we can look at a lemon and instinctively see the sweet and refreshing.

Search for the seed of good in every adversity. Master that principle and you will own a precious shield that will guard you well through all the darkest valleys you must traverse. Stars may be seen from the bottom of a deep well, when they cannot be discerned from the mountaintop. So will you learn things in adversity that you would never have discovered without trouble. There is always a seed of good. Find it and prosper.” -Og Mandino

Monarchical Vacillation

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/shoftim-monarchical-vacillation/

Netziv Deuteronomy: Shoftim

Monarchical Vacillation

“No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” -Sir Winston Churchill, Speech in the House of Commons, November 11, 1947

The Bible seems to be of two minds when it comes to the topic of Monarchy. On one hand it appears to be a command, that the people of Israel should appoint a king to rule them. On the other hand, both in God’s messages to the people, and as we have seen throughout history – a king is more often than not a greater curse for his subjects than a blessing.

When trying to imagine a Messianic future, there are some as well that picture the return of the Monarchy. It is prophesied that a descendant of King David will rule Israel, but will it be as King, as some benevolent tyrant, or will his powers be circumscribed by some other government institutions creating a balance of power?

The Netziv on Deuteronomy 17:14 explains that the commandment to appoint a king is an optional one. It is only if the people desire and demand a king. If there is a king in place, then the Torah provides certain guidelines, restrictions and privileges for the king. But it is not a necessity for Israel to have a monarch.  It is perfectly permissible for the people of Israel to choose some other form of government for self-rule. It can even be a democracy.

May we improve the governing institutions we have and be grateful that they are not worse.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our elected officials in all their functions and capacities. May God bless them, give them wisdom, compassion and good judgment.