Friday, September 29, 2006

High Holidays in the Media

Something I forgot to mention is that CBS filmed at my shul on Erev Rosh Hashannah. The fact that my aunt and uncle live right next to the shul meant I could see the news trucks and therefore know to set the CBS news to TiVo. There was about a 20 second spot on Rosh Hashannah that followed the story about e coli tainted milk. Boy, what a great opening... Anyway, though I wasn't technically on the news, the camera man used my head and specifically my pure white kippah sruga I exclusively wear in the evenings of the High Holidays (I wear a huge white one with metalic gold and blue to match my tallis in the mornings) in order to white balance his camera. So, though I wasn't actually on the news, know that it was because of me that the color didn't look like crap.

In addition, I have been having problems with YouTube's blog posting feature recently, so I want to post these two links for things I found hilarious. (ED: I since have found a way around this that required a bit of html know-how)

One is from a Colbert Report from last week, Stephen Colbert's Teshuvah Hotline for Jews who have wronged him

A promotional video from Birthright. "I wish Yom Kippur was going to be this fun!" YEAH!

Shabbat Shalom,

DVAR TORAH: Haazinu/Shabbat Shuvah

My postings are gross. Yep, I've submitted 144 posts! For those who have no ideas what is going on, a gross means 12 dozen a.k.a. 144.

I would write about Teshuva, as this is Shabbat Shuvah, but I’m sick and I need my rest. So I leave you with scribal oddities this week for Parashat Haazinu, the last torah portion to get a Shabbat (outside of Israel, Simchat Torah, where we read V’Zot HaBracha, never falls on Shabbat).

A little bit of trivia, this torah portion contains the shortest word in the Bible. A one-letter word begins the sixth verse, "הַ". I have had this as a trivia question before. Can anyone tell me what is the longest word in the Bible?

I also want to bring up something fascinating I’ve noticed. Many piyyutim and songs in the Jewish liturgy contain within their lines a hidden signature. Lecha Dodi says “Shlomo”, Ezkera Elokim, the final selicha of Yom Kippur is identified “Amitai”, Akdamut has a signature at the end of the alphabetical acrostic, and many more. Haazinu is Moses’ Swan Song (take the term semi-literally). It also has his signature in the first six verses. But wait, משה is three letters! Ah, here in lies the further genius of Moshe Rabbeinu. He uses gematria. The first four verses begin with, ה, י, כ, ה (the gematria is 5+10+20+5, which equal 40, which is the letter מ), verses five and six begin with ש and ה. There you have it, the most humble person who ever lived signed the Torah which he wrote. It’s like having an autographed copy of a first edition, but better! Trés cool!

The ultimate scribal oddity? This Torah portion is written in two column form (two columns occupying the space of a single normal column, and read across as opposed to reading one complete column and than another). This is totally removed from the brick-layer pattern of Shirat Hayam. Both forms recur elsewhere in the Bible, but I believe these are the only instances in the Torah. So far, from the ones that I recall, the bricklayer ones are positive, and the ones in two-column form are full of rebuke.

Alright, there is something I should mention about Shabbat Shuvah itself. No, this is not going to be the Shabbat Shuvah Dvar Torah I should give. This week and the Shabbat before Passover (Shabbat HaGadol), one is supposed to expound at length on the laws of teshuva and cleaning for chumetz, respectively. Its triumvirate haftarah features three great prophets who I have always imagined to tag-team (even though some lived centuries apart). Something which is the theme of the Ata Hivdalta (possibly my favorite selicha) of Yom Kippur’s Neilah service is that God does not desire the death of the wicked, but rather repentance and saving. Yes, this is beautiful and all, but how about the most decent of people who end up dying. Can you really say to that "בראש השנה יכתיבין וביום צום כיפור יחתימון"? (If I do end up writing a Yom Kippur Dvar Torah, I plan on commenting on the UnTane Tokef, so I don’t want to delve into this now). Everyone dies; whether they have been wholly good or completely evil, they die. We are talking about the here and now, not about the afterlife, which we have discussed in a previous Dvar Torah as superior to the World to Come.

Cast away your sins, seek out your friends. From God you have been given a new chance for a new year. In the civil new year, everyone makes resolutions, to lose weight (mine), to not hit your siblings, to quit smoking, to be more motivated. Resolutions are inherent to the High Holiday season. The penultimate part of the silent amidah on the High Holidays (which has for some reason and to my chagrin (it’s so beautiful and poetic) been omitted in the Machzor we now use at VBS) it says "יהי רצון מלפניך... שלא אחטא עוד"
“may it be Your will, O Lord my God and the God of my fathers that I sin no more”. God awaits us, return to Him and you shall live. Whatever that means.

Shabbat Shalom, Shana Tova.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Daze of Repentance

(borrowing a line from Rabbi Hoffman, one of my spiritual leaders)

Rosh Hashannah has been very successful for me this year. Not to toot my own horn (ha! Shofar!) but Shacharit both days went great. I got a promotion this year and led first day in the main sanctuary and second day in the smaller Malkin-Burdorf Hall. I was not singing at full strength, my voice was gone. I still went strong and my savior (besides God, of course) was a water bottle which I snuck on the bimah in advance of the leader Psukei D’Zimra who was opening for me. Apparently I still did really well. I don’t know if this is true or not, but the officiating Rabbi on the first day talked to me at the conclusion of the First Service (which ended at 12:45) and told me that the cantor of that service (we have four) is not talking to him now because I showed him up. It’s like when I blew a longer Tekiah Gedolah than another of the rabbis in front of my students last week. But it wasn’t flawless. I didn’t actually sit through a whole service even though I had the opportunity for dozens of services. I ended up creating a Frankenstein’s Monster by jumping around from service to service, because I needed to read torah for the various kids services and teen services on Saturday, and blow shofar for the nursery school babysitting and kids services on Sunday. My Yemenite shofar, by the way, needs to be repaired. I need to saw the mouth piece and drill a bigger hole, it’s too high, and the shofar had game-day anxiety. Luckily I brought a backup shofar with me. But a sixth grader showed me up when it came to my shofar.

Yesterday was the Fast of Gedaliah. I am not going to go into why we fast; you can look up the account at the very end of II Kings in the bible. To put it this way, an adage, most recently told to me by Cantor Fox, asks “If I were assassinated, would Gedaliah fast for me?”. Anyway my voice was completely gone yesterday, but I decided to fast anyway. A fast in Judaism, for those who don’t know, involves complete abstention from all food and drink, including water for a certain period of time. A minor fast, of which there are at least four in the year (four and a half for firstborn males like me) (Fast of Gedaliah, 10th of Tevet, Fast of Esther, [Fast of the First Born], 17th of Tammuz) is no food or drink from dawn to dusk/nightfall). A major fast (which is Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av) is abstention from not only food or drink from before sunset to nightfall the next day, but also abstention from washing, ‘anointing’, leather footware, marital relations. In addition, Tisha B’Av has some further restrictions due to its mourning theme and Yom Kippur has the restrictions of Shabbat. I have always been a good faster. A fast has nothing to do with stored fats, so I don’t have an unfair advantage. I just follow a regiment of pre-fast preparation which has worked well. I prepare by eating very little, Usually just mashed potatoes or some other sort of starch and a little bit of bread or pasta. It is important not to eat too much because once it leaves your stomach, your stomach will be larger and emptier and you will crash faster. Water, on the other hand, I drink in excess immediately before the advent of the fast. My nickname at dinner of Tisha B’Av at camp is “The Camel” because I store a lot of water at once to last me a long time. You do have to go to the bathroom very often immediately after the Seudah Mafseket (final meal) but its worth drinking those 22 Styrofoam cups of water in the long run. Also, if you are addicted to caffeine, it might be a good idea to curb your coffee/soda/chocolate habit a couple of days before a fast or you may go through withdrawal. Caffeine stays in your system for about two weeks, and your body will crave more, so switch to decaf in advance. Anyway, usually a couple of hours before the end of the fast (as well as just for a couple of minutes after I wake up in the morning) my stomach hurts from lack of water. Yesterday I felt absolutely nothing and needed nothing, something which I attribute to sickness. I think today I will give my seventh graders advice on fasting on Yom Kippur because it is either their first year where they have to or, if they have not yet been Bar Mitzvahed, probably the first year that they are "testing the waters". The first one is always the hardest and, in at least my life, it gets easier with time and experience. My expertise could probably help them from making mistakes in this fast. It will still probably be easier for me than for them, but I feel it is beneficial if they know what they are doing.

When I post something to my Synagogue's listserv, I sometimes like to repost it on this blog when I feel that the subject matter would be beneficial for the Jewish world at large. This is one such posting and is a concurrance to someone angry at people leaving the synagogue early. Below my response, I have also included the original message I am replying to, censoring the name and e-mail of the person who sent it. Perhaps you would like to read the original message first... I have more to say on the topic than have posted, but this is what I sent originally. If I decide to add to it, my additions will be in bold.

You see this phenomenon at many synagogues during the Yizkor service. The population swells during the memorial service, even as most of those who who have not lost anyone exit, they are replaced by many more people who have. Afterwards, there are more seats empty than were full. I was at a Conservative Synagogue in Upstate New York last year for Yom Kippur, where most of these synagogues are large but not large enough to require an afternoon version of the morning service, and tend to have the shacharit, musaf, mincha, neilah, and maariv services run straight through from 8:30 AM to three stars. They have a 30 minute "intermission" at around 3-4 PM at the conclusion of Musaf where they have a second Yizkor service for people who couldn't make it in the morning.

I try to make every VBS minyan that I can. Usually 80-90% of the people in there (which frequently amounts to 8 or 9 people) are saying Kaddish. Is this the only motivation that can get one to come to daily services? It is not just a mitzvah to remember the dead, it is also a mitzvah for thrice-daily prayer, something I can proudly say I have gone over a year without missing a single one, whether praying alone in my study or with a minyan at my Hillel, school, or synagogue. Minyan refers to a quorum of the community.
The sampling of the community indicates that we are a nation of mourners.

Are we so busy or are our attention spans so short that we can't sit still for one or three days a year? It is also sad that for many, the only time they see the inside of the synagogue is on the High Holidays. I'm sure many avoid the synagogue because they may assume that all services are as long and winded as this. Cantor Fox once said to my uncle prior to Mincha-Neilah on Yom Kippur, "you know, we're open year round". I hope people realize that.

L'shana Tova Tikateyu v'Techateymu,

Quoting *************:

> For a good many years, my wife ***** and I attend the second service
> on the High Holidays. On the first day of Roch Hashonah we were
> privileged to hear Rabbi Feinstein's sermon during the Musaf portion
> of the service. We always appreciate Rabbi Feinstein's sermons but
> this one, following his return from Israel, was certainly to the point
> and most moving.
> But the value of this outstanding sermon is not the purpose of this
> communication. I was embarrassed, disgusted and angered by the
> behavior of the congregation. I have always assumed that people came
> to High Holiday services as a spiritual experience.
> Therefore I was stunned when about 60% of the congregation simply
> walked out after the sermon. No respect for the cantor, the choir and
> even the Rabbi who was finishing the service. What is the
> justification for leaving a service when there are only about 12-15
> minutes left? Perhaps we are "hard core Jews".
> Perhaps this happens every year and I forgot this action.. But,
> somehow, this discourteous behavior ,after a moving sermon, just
> struck a negative chord.
> ********

Matthew Rutta

I also wanted to include Erin’s Weird and Wonderful Word of the Day from the OED mailing list and see what you make of it

an adjective related to the (widespread) practice of giving opinions on topics beyond one's knowledge. The word comes from Latin words meaning 'beyond the sole' (of the shoe), an allusion to the story of Apelles and the cobbler, Apelles being the favorite painter of Alexander the Great. His shoemaker told him of a mistake Apelles had made in depicting a shoe, and Apelles corrected it. The shoemaker then presumed to criticize the painting of the leg as well, and Apelles said: "Don't criticize above the sole!"

Friday, September 22, 2006

DVAR TORAH: Rosh HaShannah 5767 ("The Chosen Jew, The Chosen You")

The Chosen Jew, The Chosen You

This week I submit to you a relatively brief (relative to other High Holiday sermons), particularly because I both begin to write it and post it a day-and-a-half before the New Year. Also, I am quite distracted by a 4 hour movie I’m watching as I write this so this may not be as collected as usual, maybe accurately called a collection. My intention is not a modern High Holiday sermon that speaks to us today, but an archaic firebrand that should speak to us today. This High Holiday sermon will suggest some sort of folly, or, to the contrary, glory in man, the fleetingness of life, and something that may cause paranoia. Perhaps this is disorganized, perhaps this is merely a collection of stories that inspire appropriate feelings for the awesomeness of this time of year. Perhaps this is because I am very distracted. To keep you distracted, I present funny pictures.

The Talmud suggests a person keep two inscriptions with them at all times. One of the inscriptions reads "בשבילי נברא העולם", “for me the world was created”. The world came into existence for you, because of you and you alone. Everyone is part of your dream. I whisper this in the ears of each of my students at camp and a smile crosses their faces.

However, the first phrase left unchecked can lead to brash arrogance. It has a fool, coined by Abraham, "ואנכי עפר ואפר" “I am only dust and earth”. When one whispers to ones students after handing them a piece of paper with this verse inscribed on it, in a calming tone “you’re gonna die” they’re not so happy. Being confronted by this mortality brings one crashing back down to the earth. At the same time we are both the sole purpose of creation and a limited-time edition. The value of this short life is therefore maximal. One hour in this physical world is better than eternity in The World To Come; the Jewish concept of Afterlife is paradise but pales in comparison to the here and now. Therefore one must make the most of the little time they have here. Carpe diem!

A famous parable about King Solomon who was the most intelligent man who ever lived: He had an equally clever, however uneducated, servant who perfectly served his master and got him whatever he wanted. His servant was perfect and because of this, the wise king was jealous. He decided to give the servant an impossible task: in a year’s time he must present the king with something that will make him sad when he is happy and happy when he is sad. The servant searched far and wide, throughout Solomon’s kingdom from The Lebanon to Eilat, from Philistia to Moab and beyond and could not find anything. Returning at the end of the year to the capital, Jerusalem, dejected, he came across a small shop in the market. He asked this same question that he had asked shopkeepers throughout the land for the last year. Instead of laughing the servant out of the shop as all of the others had done, the shopkeeper thought for a moment and presented a simple ring with an engraving. He couldn’t see what was special about this ring, but he had no choice, the deadline was tonight. He returned to the palace to find a banquet underway; the powerful king had decided to publicly humiliate him cementing a major level of difference between master and servant once-and-for-all. The smile was vast on the face of King Solomon as his servant nervously approached. The servant presented the king with the ring. The king, still smiling as he placed the trinket on his finger, gazed upon it and began to cry uncontrollably for many minutes. Calming down a little, he looked again and began to laugh. As it turns out, the ring contained the phrase "גם זה יעבור", “this too shall pass”. I mentioned for the last two weeks that in the choice of life, death, good, and evil, we are to choose life. There are bad times that will transition to good times and vice versa and are all part of life. There are times when we feel that the world was created especially for us and the times that we feel we are but the dust of the earth. The Yizkor Memorial service traditionally begins with a couple of lines

ה' מה אדם ותדעהו, בן-אנוש ותחשבהו
אדם להבל דמה, ימיו כצל עובר
מה-אנוש כי-תזכרנו ובן-אדם כי תפקדנו
ותחסרהו מעט מאלהים וכבוד והדר תעטרהו

The Silverman Machzor translates these four lines as the following:
“O Lord, what is man that Thou takest knowledge of him? Or the son of man that Thou doest regard him? Man is like unto a breath; His days are as a shadow that passes away. O Lord what is man that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man that Thou thinkest of him? Yet thou hast made him but little lower than the angels, And hast crowned him with glory and honor.”

So what does this all mean in being a member of the Chosen People. As Private Detective Adrian Monk would say “it’s a gift… and a curse”. We as Jews have a special relationship with God, as is, I’m sure many other religions do. However, we are Yisrael, named after a man whose new name is sort of an acronym meaning “he who fights with gods and men and is victorious”. We are not a submissive religion. Islam literally means submission to God. When Abraham says his aforementioned phrase, he is in the midst of an argument with God over the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham, like all people, has been endowed with a free will. Rabbi Akiba says in the third chapter of Pirkei Avot, the Lessons of our Sages: "הכל צפוי, והרשות נתונה", “though all is foretold, free will is given”. This allows for humanity to be as wonderful or indeed, as evil, as it wants to be without it being controlled by a higher power. However, there still is the matter of answering for our actions. Jews, as close as they are to God are constantly known as a stiffnecked people which has stubbornly gotten us into trouble for staying the course but has also kept us alive as a people.

Which is worse, a robber or a burglar? It may seem a redundant question, both steal, and the only difference is time. A robber steals during daylight, a burglar at night. From this we can infer that the robber is fearless of their fellow mortals, stealing right in front of people. The fact that the burglar steals at and into the night suggests that they are afraid of people and will therefore employ the stealth of night to get past then. But the burglar is worse because they fear man but not God. One of the most important characteristics of a “good Jew” is יראת שמים, awe of heaven, fear of God.
It is important to have that Almighty chip on your shoulder. A kippa sits on my head not out of any Biblical or Talmudic halacha that I know, but as a symbol, a hat which not only reminds me that I’m a Jew and a representative of the Chosen People, but it also tells everyone else that. I’m not about to walk into a pornography store or a McDonalds if I have my trusty yarmulke on my head. It would beמראת עין (maras ayin), as we would say in Yiddish, a shande for the goyim. The purpose of the tzitzit strings on the tallit are to act as reminders to do mitzvot. Indeed there is more expected from us than of other peoples. Talk of “disproportionate response” is disproportionately thrust upon Israel even though she shows disproportionate restraint. Judaism is prized for its morality and equity. Jews can’t be robbers (“what would the goyim think?!”) or burglars (and let God see us misbehaving?!”). Instead we must do right in the eyes of both God and man.

During these Ten Days of Repentance the word El (“God”) becomes Melech (“King”) in many of our prayers. We refer constantly to God as King. I’m Baal Shacharit, the leader of the morning service at my synagogue on the High Holidays and the first word in the service I chant is "המלך!" “The King!” Many assume that God becomes even more lofty during this time of the year sitting in judgment. I dissent and say that, au contraire, we ascend to greater heights. Like Rabbi Ishmael in the Yom Kippur Martyrology known as אלה אזכרה, we are able to ascend heavenward. The relationship with a god is ethereal and disconnected. A god answers to nobody and there are no consequences for the god’s whims. A king, by title, is a royal representative and even an absolute king is somewhat accountable to his people. We have the ability to show the King our “A-Game” this week and write ourselves in for a year of goodness, of health, of success, of sweetness, of redemption, of love, of peace. May we be inscribed in such a book.

לשנה טובה תכתיבו ותחתימו

PS: Anyone feeling lucky should consider joining my facebook group
People who already know they've been written in the Book of Life 5767

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Dodger Tallis Tales

I don't usually report on specific Dodger games and the glorious bums are poised to screw it up again as I write this, but the Dodgers had one of the most memorable and miraculous games in baseball history last night. Coming off a deficit of 5 to 9 against our main rivals, the San Diego Padres, the dodgers hit four straight home runs on their first four at bats of the final sanctioned inning of the game, tying the score. This is only the fourth time in Major League history that there have been four straight dingers They then had a walk-off home run making the final score 11-10.

Anyway the story here is that I had made for myself a Dodgers tallis last Thursday (out of a Dodger fleece blanket and the strings from an old ripped tallit katan) when I took my regular tallis for it's annual dry-cleaning. My joke had, until this morning, been that since I have worn this tallis, the Dodgers had gotten to first place in the wildcard. Unfortunately, this is the result of them dropping out of first place in the division. Before minyan this morning someone told me that my tallis was finally working. Having given up on the Dodger game when hope looked like it was lost, like most fans, I didn't know that they had won. Anyway, I TiVoed the replay of the game today and watched the 9th and 10th innings. Whoa!

This counterbalances the horrendous defeat we took last week from the last place in the league Chicago Cubs who somehow defeated us when we were up 7-nil (which they were somehow able to overcome). But San Diego won against the D'Backs tonight and it looks like we're gonna drop this one to the Pittsburg Pirates. Looks like they're going to be 0.5 back again and I'm going to have to turn my Tallit inside out. That's right: Rally Tallis!

Friday, September 15, 2006

DVAR TORAH: Nitzavim/Vayelech (It's not in heaven; choose life!)

As I helped my brother with his Talmud homework last week, the story from Baba Metzia 59a I realized that this all important sugya (short section unit in the Talmud) is coming up in the Portion of the Week. In a nutshell, the account of the argument over Achnai's oven It's Rabbi Eliezer versus the rest of the Sanhedrin on an issue of purity. Lonely Eliezer seem's to have God's backing as he causes many miracles to happen to back him up, a river defies gravity, walls bend, and a bat kol, a heavenly voice calls out and says "Rabbi Eliezer is right" to which the leader of the supposedly 70 people in the majority opinion says "we do not listen to heavenly voices, לא בשמים הוא Lo BaShamayim Hi, it is not in heaven". We find the context of this quote in Parashat Nitzavim.

11 For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say: 'Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?' 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say: 'Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?' 14 But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it. {S} 15 See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil, 16 in that I command thee this day to love the LORD thy God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His ordinances; then thou shalt live and multiply, and the LORD thy God shall bless thee in the land whither thou goest in to possess it. 17 But if thy heart turn away, and thou wilt not hear, but shalt be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them; 18 I declare unto you this day, that ye shall surely perish; ye shall not prolong your days upon the land, whither thou passest over the Jordan to go in to possess it. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed; 20 to love the LORD thy God, to hearken to His voice, and to cleave unto Him; for that is thy life, and the length of thy days; that thou mayest dwell in the land which the LORD swore unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them. {P}

The archaic nature of the 1917 JPS Bible aside, this little piece of Torah basically gives carte blanche to future rabbis to interpret the Torah as they will without threat of divine intervention in their interpretation. The Torah was given to us. Its secrets are ours to uncover, as we find in the first weird thing I ever found in a torah scroll: a great many revii dots over letters in the torah scroll (which I once actually mistook as revii trop and read each and every letter as a seperate revii). The final verse of chapter 29, this time my own translation: that which is hidden belongs to the Lord, but that which is revealed is for us and our children forever to perform all which the torah speaks (Hebrew term: Divrei Torah). This, I posit, is the source of my writing these each week. We are to reveal Torah through Dvar Torah, through speaking words of Torah from our own viewpoint, adding on to the 3500+ year old text with our own commentary and expertise. It is not in heaven, it's here for us to unravel. The name Israel in hebrew means "triumphing over God", and when Rabbi Joshua makes this statement to Rabbi Eliezer, God tells Elijah the Prophet, with a smile, "My children have triumphed over me".

I want to expand upon my conclusion to last week's Dvar Torah. Nitzavim ends with the four choices of life, death, good, and evil, and God implores us to choose life. I find this absolutely fascinating and so emblematic of what Judaism stands for. Life over good. Though we specificially wish for good life, we mainly ask for life itself at this time of year. Life brings both good and evil and has its ups and downs. If we only got good and there was no evil in the world, we would be at the same state as we were in the Garden of Eden. As I will, God willing, discuss in a couple of weeks, after the Holidays in regards to Parashat Bereishit, I don't think the Garden of Eden was such a good thing. They ate from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil and not from the tree of Life. We refer to the Torah as the Tree of Life. It has good moments and it has bad moments, triumphs for the Jewish people, and occasions, possibly more numerous than the triumphs, when we had done shameful acts. The Torah, regardless of where you think it came from, and I tend to have a conservative (little 'c') view on this, is meant for human consumption. There is no life wholly good. Life has its ups and has its downs and it requires this dichotomy. If everything was good, life would be boring. To paraphrase Dark Helmet from Spaceballs, "good is dumb". Too much of a good thing could be a bad thing, as we see with the story of Choni the Circle maker, too much blesséd rain can flood and kill you.

Oh yeah, Vayelech is where Moses transfers his powers to Joshua on his 120th birthday and clears his throat to begin his final song. Kind of a scrawny cow compared to Nitzavim, but important nonetheless.

I wish for you to be written not only in the book of life, but sealed in the book of good life. In the spirit of the season, if I have wronged you in any way with my words (or anything else), I apologize.

Shabbat Shalom, Shana Tova,

PS: As of press, my webcounter is currently at 3080. Neat.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

9/11 remembered

Five years ago today I was in Hebrew class when it happened. A couple of miles north of Ground Zero on New York City's isle of Manhattan I sat in the second row on the left side of a room on the fourth floor of the Unterberg building at the Jewish Theological Seminary struggling to keep awake during 8:20 AM Hebrew on a morning I negelected to bring coffee. It was my first week of college; I'd learn by exeperience to be caffinated for morning classes and late nights in Butler Library. I was roused by a loud noise, a sonic boom above and later the wailing many many strange-sounding sirens attached to emergency vehicles racing south on all the north-south avenues that they could manage. I thought nothing of either, I was too tired. Refreshed after our mid-class break (Hebrew classes were two hours long so the teacher would give us a 10-15 minute break in the middle) we returned to class, well, some of us anyway. A few tarried and brought back the report that a helicopter had hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center, apparently an accident. I was brand new to New York City and in my naïveté I thought maybe helicopters on occasion accidentially run into the tallest buildings in Manhattan. By this point I was awake, and now I was wide awake. I suddenly realized through chatting with my friends and classmates (because though the professor tried to continue teaching, she was unable to control the class this morning, this needed to be discussed) that maybe this doesn't happen so often; that area of Manhattan is a no-fly-zone. Yet another student came back even later and said that there was a burst from the second tower. I immediately cried foul and asked the teacher to be excused. I carried a portable radio with me every morning (to listen to Howard Stern) and tried to get the news, but ALL stations were completely out. I realized that because communications towers need to be as high as possible, in a place like New York City with so many tall buildings, they would need to be on the tallest. WTC. This was no accident, this was terrorism and I felt that JTS as the most prominent Jewish institution in the western hemisphere was a very good target so I hightailed it out of there. For the first time since I arrived in New York, I wanted to call home, to let them know I was okay, and as I didn't at that point own a cell phone, I headed to my dorm at Mathilde Schechter Residence Hall two blocks and one-and-a-half cross-towns away. I called from the basement/bomb shelter. I feared that I would have to use it as the latter. It was the first time I talked to my immediate family since I arrived in New York but it was not the last time they heard from me at 6:30 in the morning Pacific Time. Pretty soon everyone followed my lead as the Residence Director ordered everyone that was in the building at the time, the population of which was strangely large for that time on a Tuesday morning but was probably fueled by people having similar ideas that I did, as well as those who either didn't have, or, more likely, slept through 8:20 Hebrew. Everyone was evacuated from superterranean floors and sent to the basement where people joined me for NBC's coverage of the unfolding events in the TV lounge (Thank God we had a TV in there and it's not like the spooky crypt that is Goldsmith Hall's basement). I couldn't believe my eyes when the first tower fell. Only one Twin Tower? It looked so odd, so lonely. And then there were none. Just two nights before I was on the Staten Island Ferry, returning from a Celebrity Softball Game at the AA Yankee Stadium in Richmond and noting the beauty of the two towers bathing majestically in the moonlight and the two long reflections in the water. I was one of the last people on earth who would ever witness that beautiful sight. 30 hours later, it was gone.

This day I lost my freshman innocence and had to grow up very quickly to the realities of the world. I also was privy to a side of New York that is rarely seen. Manhattanites of all breeds took off their masks and their reservations. Amidst the papers and ash that were falling from the sky (and yes, the wind did bring them to us) people were congregating in the streets and hugging each other and asking of the welfare of perfect strangers. I could feel the warmth in people who are normally so cold. That very night we held a midnight candlelit vigil at Columbia and the megaphone was open for people to express their feelings. The person who spoke immediately before me was covered head-to-toe in soot. He had escaped the towering inferno and was caught in the advancing pillars of black smoke when the buildings came down. Because all streets were closed, he had walked all the way to Morningside Heights after helping others down there. I didn't know how to follow his comments but I still allowed myself to pour out my feelings.

The world has become a different place because of what happened five years ago today and even now we still feel the pain. Hatred caused those buildings to come down. May we rebuild and see peace.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

DVAR TORAH: Ki Tavo (Yo Papa was an Aramean!)

I don't have too much time to write this week, but I want to mention an important part of the portion: Arami Oved Avi

First is a very famous quote that you may recognize from the Passover Seder as the most passed over (hence the name of the holiday?) section of the Haggadah. The Haggadah analyzes, ad nauseam, the quote, "Arami Oved Avi", which can either translate as "A wandering Aramean was my father" or "A wandering Aramean sought to destroy my father". It leads us through a very quick account of what has happened from the middle of the book of Genesis to the future in Temple times. My father, your father, our father, Jacob was trying to flee Laban who wanted to kill him. He went down to Egypt with a small population when he found out his son Joseph was alive, they increased and multiplied to an extremely large number, we were enslaved and embittered by the Egyptians, wse got out through the mighty deeds of God. It then goes on to mention about the good land God gave to me and that the produce was good. Notice that the text is written in the first person singular. This is in striking contrast to the liturgy of the High Holidays which we enter where everything is written in the first person plural. In the case of the Days Of Awe, we acknowledge that we are all in this together. The script that we are given here, however, is quite personal and each and every one must take it as personal and written about them. God has made this story play out and brought you to the land and gave you these great things, it was all for you, and therefore you personally should thank God.

Although this text is within the Passover canon, it rightfully belongs in that of Shavuot, the Festival of the First Fruits, when the Jews of Israel would bring the first and best of their newly-harvested crop to the Temple as a sacrifice to God and Priest. This really is a script giving them stage directions and telling them exactly what to say. Last year at camp I had my fifth grade students bring the favorite thing they brought to camp with them, not telling them why. It turns out we were going to reinact this scene and find out what it felt like to part with the thing that was most important to you (kind of like the fourth Harry Potter, the second task). I obviously gave it all back to them, but we really got a sense of what was going through the mind of a farmer as he gave up his favorite sheep.

One of the beautiful parts of this section is that the priest is actually supposed to recite this with the petitioner following along. It doesn't matter if this pilgrim is the most well-trained sage or the simplest and most naïve peasant, everyone must follow along with the Priest. This has manifested itself in modern times with the Priestly Blessing and Sheva Brachot. When the Priests go up to bless the congregation, they repeat word-for-word the fifteen-word blessing after the Shaliach Tzibur, the prayer leader. Nobody should be embarassed they have not memorized these fifteen vital words. Remember, they have their hands raised and eyes unfocused and repeat each word that the Sha"tz is reading from the siddur. In the wedding ceremony, the celebrant recites all the blessings. These prayers should technically be recited by the groom. Obviously if someone is leading a prayer service in Judaism, they are supposed to be skilled in this art. Anyone, even the most untrained davener, can stand under the chupah to get married. Out of respect for the untrained and unskilled person, even the brightest Rabbi who gets married is not allowed to say his own blessings under the chupah. Judaism demands that we maintain the dignity of all people; embarrassment is akin to murder according to Jewish law, if you shame someone it is as if you have killed them. This teaches us a lot about human dignity and Judaism's beautiful decency.

Another quick thing I wanted to mention, and it is literally quick because it is the fastest (and quietest) thing read in the entire Torah. In Megilat Esther, there are certain phrases and clauses (I bring this particular scroll up because I have a lot of experience with it) that are read in a more raised voice which I also will read more slowly as sort of an exclamation point, these are glorious verses and we want to highlight them. On the other hand, we have something known as the Tochecha, "The Admonition" or "The Curses" which appear in this Torah portion. They comprise the longest aliyah in the entire Torah which weighs in at a whopping 62 verses. It takes a really skilled wizard... uh... Torah reader (sorry, still on the Harry Potter) to properly read this. You read it double-time and just loud enough that everyone hears it. Nobody really wants to hear God saying that "you will eat your children and then die, not necessarilly in that order" (or something like that) and we really don't want it to come to fruition. This is one of two sections of the Torah which are called the Tochecha, but the other, the final pasasha of Leviticus, Bechukotai, is only half the size. These two are gruesome though; after a small handful of verses of blessing (if you do right in God's Eyes) you have a huge chunk of punishment of evil. It's a lot harder to be good than to be bad, so it is interesting the unbalance of reward to punishment. As Dumbledore said to Harry in #4 (sorry, last Potter reference... for now...), "dangerous times are ahead. We must choose between what is right and what is easy." So true, Rabbi Dumbledore, so true...
In the coming Torah portions we will actually be confronted with the choice between life and death, good and evil. We are implored to choose life. And remember that Rosh Hashannah is looming, and we must listen to Rabbi Dumbledore's wonderful High Holiday sermon, choose right, choose life.

Shabbat Shalom, Shana Tova.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Death of Disengagement

Something I have been predicting since Hamas kidnapped an Israeli citizen from Israel-proper at the beginning of the summer, the Disengagement Plan, that is the second phase of expelling Israelis from their homes in the West Bank, has been cancelled. Hamas and Hizbullah screwed it up for the Palestinians. If you have read my blog before or have even seen the orange ribbon on my backpack, you know my position on this so at this point I am ecstatic. Hamas killed the disengagement. Something tells me the world will blame Israel for stopping her unilateral withdrawal. Once again I think Israel needs to stop appeasing the anti-semites because they will never be satisfied until Israel withdraws to her Pre-1948 borders, ie: no Israel.

The following is an article from Arutz Sheva, a right wing Israeli newspaper:

Olmert Announces Policy Shift: Withdrawal Plan is Off
By Yechiel Spira and Hillel Fendel

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says his Convergence Withdrawal Plan is “no longer relevant.” MK Aryeh Eldad: "He's trying to buy the right-wing."
In his first briefing to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee since the war in Lebanon, the prime minister spoke to committee members on Monday for three hours.

Olmert told the Committee that the withdrawal plan calling for the removal of most of the communities throughout Judea and Samaria is no longer relevant.

Two senior aides from the Prime Minister's office, Shalom Turjeman and Yoram Turbowitz, left for the US on Monday night, reportedly to inform Bush administration officials that the Realignment Plan is dead. However, officials in the Prime Minister’s Office deny the report saying that the two top aides are delivering a post-Lebanon War briefing to Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice, and not to bury the Realignment Plan.

MK Eldad (National Union) says, "Olmert is waving his burial of the plan as a way of buying off the right-wing, but even those in the nationalist camp who are dying to be ministers [and sit in the government] wouldn't buy a used chair from him."

The plan was at the heart of Olmert’s election campaign, but "what I saw a few months ago," he said, is no longer applicable.

Interior Minister Roni Bar-On, of Olmert's Kadima Party, made sure to put things into perspective. Speaking with Israel Radio on Tuesday afternoon, Bar-On said, "The withdrawal plan is not dead, though its implementation has been postponed. The plan is now on the shelf or in the freezer, but when the time comes it will be accessed."

In general, polls show dwindling support for the Prime Minister, together with a snowballing grassroots call for the establishment of an independent state commission of inquiry into the war in Lebanon. Olmert has turned down the idea, insisting the commissions he appointed to investigate the mishandling of the war will be sufficient. He says that an independent inquiry is unwarranted and will paralyze government functioning for months to come. Mounting calls for Olmert, and other members of his government, to resign from office have also been heard.

Other members of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Likud MKs Silvan Shalom and Danny Naveh, stated that the prime minister expressed his adamant opposition to an independent inquiry into the war, but that he did not adequately explain why he has taken this position.

Shalom told reporters earlier in the week that while the Likud Party does not rule out joining an emergency government, this would not be possible until the Kadima-led administration changes major policy positions concerning social-economic issues. Specifically, Shalom said, the government must officially announce the Realignment Plan is not on the agenda, and launch an independent state inquiry commission into the war in Lebanon.

Prime Minister Olmert announced on Monday night his intentions to continue to lead the country "for the next four years, and even more." He addressed a forum of municipality leaders and mayors, making it clear that he has no intention of stepping down, "not today and not in the future."

Olmert stated the nation must move ahead and prepare for the next war, adding,"We cannot know when it will break out." In recent days, the prime minister has warned of the threat from Iran, stating Israel must prepare for future conflicts and cannot be bogged down with state inquiries.

The prime minister told the forum that it is now clear to terror organizations “that Israel is willing to go to war for two soldiers,” indicating the military objective was a big boost to Israel’s deterrence power.

Seeking to stabilize his cabinet, Olmert has signaled his main coalition partner Labor Party leader Defense Minister Amir Peretz that if he and his colleagues do not support the 2007 budget, he will launch talks towards the formation of a new coalition.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

DVAR TORAH: Ki Tetze (Mamzer Edition)

I really like this Torah Portion and it is full of great things, like the Ben Sorer U'Moreh (the rebellious son) and the laws of crushed testicles, but I remembered I already had something written for this one that I had not yet posted, something IMHO is pretty gosh darn good.

I delivered the first Dvar Torah of the School Year last year at the school-wide Seudah Shlishit which happened to be on this Torah Portion, Ki Tetze. This Dvar Torah is frought with controversy and I still like it a lot. Here is, I believe, the draft I presented (When I write a spoken Dvar Torah I often write multiple drafts). Note that I often place a charge at the end of my public Divrei Torah and this particular one is directed toward the students at the Columbia/Barnard Hillel.:

Dvar Torah
Matt Rutta
Parashat Ki Tetze (9/17/05)
Seudah Shlishit

If any parasha full of laws and no narrative was considered the fun one, Ki Tetze would probably a top candidate. Talmudic commentary aside, on the surface it gives our parents the right and ability to put us to death if we do something they don't like and there are a couple of colorful laws on the issue of not castrating or gelding one’s self. There are also the laws of marrying one’s late brother’s wife, or otherwise spitting on his face and throwing his shoe. Cross-dressing, shooing mother birds, captive women, even parapets!! It’s all here! It is really a beautiful parsha full of chukim and mishpatim for us to unquestionably observe and merit a close examination of each and every one of them. However, since I have only been given a half hour, I would like to focus on two of them. The law of the Mamzer and the law of the Moabite.

Oh, don’t look so horrified! I’m just kidding.

A Mamzer, a bastard, is forbidden to enter the Congregation of the Lord, even unto the 10th generation. One such mamzer is Peretz, the product of a forbidden relationship of Judah and his betrothed daughter-in-law Tamar.

Another law that immediately follows is that a Moabite cannot enter the Congregation of the Lord even unto the 10th generation. What about Ruth, herself the descendent of the incestuous coitus of Abraham’s nephew Lot and one of his daughters; Ruth the Moabite who enters the fold of the Jewish people and marries Boaz?

Both Peretz and Ruth are the progenitors of King David, who himself is the progenitor of the eternal line of Jewish Kings and the Messiah. The final verses of the book of Ruth testify to the ten generations between Judah’s illegitimate son and the Anointed of Israel and the law of the mamzer found in this week’s parasha goes out of its way to point out specifically “also the tenth generation”.

King David has his own indiscretions. He commits adultery with Batsheva, the wife of one of his generals, Uriah. This parasha also forbids adultery, and he had blood on his hands in consigning Uriah to death in battle! However, the son that results from this relationship, Solomon, ends up as the heir to the throne and the line of the messiah.

A mamzer and a Moabite are not necessarily evil and it isn't even their fault. A mamzer is a mamzer due to the sins of their parents. A Moabite is a Moabite due to their lineage. But Judaism is hazy on the sins of the father unto the son. Wickedness will be repaid unto the third and fourth generations but righteousness will be rewarded even after thousands of generations. The fact that the destitute Peretz and Ruth are able to overcome adversity and taboos that they were inadvertently born into did not phase them; their ignoble beginnings turned into the ancestry of royalty. In fact, the penultimate stanza of the Lecha Dodi declares:

ימין ושמאל תפרוצי, ואת ה' תעריצי, על-יד איש בן פרצי, ונשמחה ונגילה
“Right and left you shall spread out, and you shall appreciate God through the man who is decended from Peretz, and we shall be happy and rejoice”.
Rabbi Alkabetz who composed this piyyut decided to honor the name of Peretz who is the ancestor of King David.

What is the history of the Jewish people? Do we say we started as kings or in some exalted position? No! "We were slaves to pharaoh in Egypt". "My father was a wandering Aramean." We don't start out in glory; we have to work for it. Our ancestors were shepherds and farmers. Deeds should speak louder than pedigree. Yerushalayim means something that is completely a heritage, something we have earned. Sure it was promised to our forefathers, but we ourselves have merited it.

The first High Priest, Aaron’s wife, Elisheva was also a descendent of Peretz. According to Torah Law, the Kohen Gadol’s wife must be of unblemished Israelite lineage and yet we see that the wife of the High Priest and the mother of all Kohanim is halachically a mamzeret, a bastardess.

Both the lines of anointed Kingship and holy and pure Priesthood are forever tainted with sexual indiscretion. Yet they were able to overcome the stigma of halachic defects and achieve perpetual greatness and an unceasing line of descendents of whom is demanded purity and closeness to God.

There is a beautiful story told by the great Yiddish author Yud Lamed Peretz, (no relation to the son of Judah and Tamar), of Bonshe Shveyg, Bonshe the Silent, who was kind of similar to Job. Bonshe was, as his name implied, unheard in his life. Like Job he never complained about his suffering, and yet he suffered nonetheless. Unlike Job who started out wealthy and was simply a product of a test by Satan, Bonshe was born into silent suffering, lived his short miserable life in silent suffering, and died a painful death alone and in silent suffering. He never felt the loss that Job had because he never had anything. He passed as a shadow from the earth and even his simple gravemarker was blown away from its weak foundation. However, he never uttered one disparaging word about his raw lot. He was given a hero’s welcome into Olam HaBa and announced by the great Shofar and greeted by Avraham Avinu. During his trial that one may go through when their eternity is decided, the Senegor, the angel Michael who acts as a defense attorney for all Jews, retells the pitiful short life of the silent man, and ironically, the Kategor, the prosecutor, also known as Satan himself, is silenced, not able to say a single condemning remark against the silent defendant. Bonshe wins his trial. God, who is the King of Judgment, tells Bonshe he can have anything he wants. What does Bonshe ask for his eternal reward? He politely requests a daily portion of warm bread and butter.
The defense-attorney angel hid his face in shame. The prosecuting-attorney angel smiled a bitterly mordant smile of triumph. And the Almighty G-d wept...

Unfortunately, Bonshe lacked initiative in his life and passed as a shadow, leaving no impression of himself, metaphorically and literally, upon the earth. My charge to you is to take initiative. If the House of Aaron and the House of David could overcome the adversity of being the outcasts of society and become the greatest leaders the Jewish people and the world have ever known, kal v’chomer, so much the moreso, you can!

Finally, in Pirkei Avot we read,

“Rabbi Shimon said, there are three crowns: The Crown of Torah, the Crown of Priesthood, and the Crown of Kingship. But the Crown of a good name trumps them all.”
If you’re not already, become a leader active in Hillel. Repair the world through Tzedek projects. Speak out and make yourself heard. Don’t be silent. Overcome adversity. Be excellent to each other. Do something worthwhile. You have the option of being a Bonshe or a David. If you make a good name for yourself, like the monarchy and the priesthood, you too will have an eternal legacy.

K’tiva V’Chatima Tova, May you all be inscribed for a good year! Shabbat Shalom!