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…

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Divine Shofar-Blasts

September 29, 2014

Divine Shofar-Blasts

Experience is the greatest teacher. 25 years ago, I worked as the youth director at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ) on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, under the leadership of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. Rabbi Lookstein, at the end of every major event would review our activities and asked what we could do better. He would write it down and then review it in time to make the following year’s event even better.

Last Rosh Hashana, morning prayers were called for 9am and we only had a minyan (a quorum of ten men necessary to start the prayers) after 10:30am. Last year, there was a large lag between the time when those called had to open the Ark and when they actually did it. While it had been considered a successful Rosh Hashana, I made notes to myself how to make it better. We needed a better page-turning announcement system. I needed a Gabai (someone to call people to the reading of the Torah). Perhaps the biggest fault was last year’s shofar-blower (me). I had never blown the shofar before, and while I did it correctly, it was a sometimes painful process for those listening.

This year I called morning prayers for 10am. By 10:05 we had a minyan and were moving through the prayer service. I had come up with a system to reduce to zero the wait before opening the Ark. The page-turning worked out better (still needs some work) and I got a Gabai. During my recent trip to Israel, I had the chance to sit with my Rabbi, Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon of Alon Shvut. He edited a special Machzor (the prayer book for the High Holidays) for Israeli soldiers and mothers staying at home with their children. He highlighted the bare minimum of prayers that needed to be said, what prayers can only be said with a minyan and which don’t need one. I explained to him that I had an entire congregation that was less than enthused with the quantity of prayers. We went through each page of the Machzor and determined what we should say and what we could skip. It was a significant amount.

Another innovation that we imported from Israel was to have a Kiddush (refreshments) to break up the long service.

Finally, and most importantly, we got someone new to blow the shofar.

We finished the first part of the prayer service at 11:30am and proceeded to the Kiddush as scheduled. The Kiddush was a great joy to the congregation and attracted many participants who socialized freely and unrestrained by an ongoing prayer service.

At 12 noon, we convened back in the synagogue, I gave my speech and then we heard the shofar. The shofar blower is a young man who hadn’t blown the shofar before for Rosh Hashana. He was concerned as to his spiritual suitability for the task. He studied the laws and consulted with multiple Rabbis. He went to the Mikveh (ritual bath). He prepared himself mentally and spiritually for the big responsibility of blowing the shofar for the congregation. I think he took the idea of Teshuva, of repentance, very seriously. He was completely focused. He didn’t talk or chit-chat with anyone before or after his part.

And then he blew the shofar. It was clear. It was strong. It was perfect. He didn’t need to repeat one note due to error. At the end of each series of blasts, there is the Tekia Gedola, a long continuous blast that seemed to last forever. The sound incredibly expanded with each passing second. One could feel the heavens opening up to hear the blast and our accompanying prayers. In all my years of attending Rosh Hashana services around the world, I cannot recall a more powerful, moving, spiritually charged shofar blowing act than what we just had in Montevideo.

Voodoo Judaism

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/haazinu-voodoo-judaism/

Netziv Deuteronomy: Haazinu

Voodoo Judaism

It is superstitious to put one’s hopes in formalities, but arrogant to refuse to submit to them. -Blaise Pascal

In Judaism, we have rituals and sacred objects. There is also a belief that performing these rituals and utilizing these objects can have a positive influence on our lives and world. However, if we limit ourselves to merely this method of operation, it is a shallow understanding of how the spiritual world interacts with our physical one.

It is not merely some sorcerous trick, that by putting the traditional mezuza by the door, that one’s home will be protected. It is not slight-of-hand that determines that a person who gives a tenth of his income to charity will see financial success. It is not magic that the reciting of Psalms is known to give solace as well as influence the world around us.

However, when a person deficient in multiple aspects of their lives, blames their ill-fortune on the quality of their mezuza, then there is something wrong with their concept of Judaism, commandments and a relationship with God.

The Netziv on Deuteronomy 32:2 explains that these simpler, ritual commandments are good and have a positive influence on smaller things. But he clarifies that the ultimate benefit comes from hard-earned knowledge of the Torah, of God’s laws and will in this world. That familiarity, when the Torah becomes a part of oneself, influences all other successes.

The little acts are good and important, but they are only the edges of a much vaster system of influences. At the heart of that system is the work and effort we put into understanding God’s directives to us. His Torah. A connection to God via his laws is the ultimate guarantor of eternal success.

May we strengthen ourselves in this New Year to reacquaint ourselves with the rulebook, with the expectations God has of us, which in the end guarantees a deeper, more meaningful and more successful existence.

Shabbat Shalom and Ktiva Ve’chatima Tova,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Misha Beshkin, creator of the “Is It Kosher?” app. He is facilitating the world’s familiarity with Kosher products and has helped bring our Uruguayan list to wider use.