Saturday, December 29, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Shemot (The Next Generation)

And now we arrive at the final central human character of the Bible: Moshe.

There is so much I could focus on. Let's start at the beginning. Boy meets girl, they have a son during times of persecution in which all the males are to be thrown, drowned in the sea. Moses is put into the very same body of water, but in a basket. He became a prince of egypt when adopted by the childless daughter of Pharaoh, who, due to her mercy for the infant, got the name Batya, (House of God). We then skip a number of years of Moses' life. What was his childhood like? I think it is really important to know that he even through his ordeal as the adopted son of pharaoh (and some maintain crown prince and heir apparent) he was not too mired in the evils of Egypt to try to prevent injustice against the helpless Israelites. The immediate next verse after he's drawn out of the water and given the name Moshe for that reason is that one day he saw an Egyptian beating up a Jewish slave and Moses, furious at the injustice, kills the Egyptian and buries him. Not as well known is the next story (omitted from most Moses related movies such as the Ten Commandments and Prince of Egypt): the next day moses chides two fighting Israelites, one of which says (in classical Jewish guilt-inspiring sarcasm), "are you going to kill us like you killed the egyptian?" It is at this point he flees. The moral here seems to be that killing the Egyptian taskmaster was not the ideal choice. As a prince it was within his legal right to kill anyone, but it is not ideal in Judaism. Note that in the future his brother Aaron will be noted as the person who handles situations peacefully and that Moses' temper will do him in. Careful, Moses...

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Sylvester.

DVAR TORAH S2: Vayechi (Password: Swordfish which has not yet shed its scales)

I missed out on writing last week because I had to finish papers and then went on vacation but now am back so I will attempt to write last week's and this week's in tandem.
I mentioned, in passing, last year about "pakod yifkod" (One translation "He [God] will surely remember you"). This is a phrase recited twice by Joseph to his brothers. Its meaning is shrouded in mystery, but it is considered, according to midrash, a password. Joseph leaves his brothers and the 70 Children of Israel assembled a cryptic message. He does not notify them that they will be enslaved in Egypt, but he does say that God will remember them (in the same word used that God remembered Sarah and the promise that he would grant her a child).

When Moses came some two hundred years later to free the people they didn't believe him. God spoke to him on the mountain saying "Pakod pakadti" ("I surely have remembered") and he forwards these words onto the elders of Israel. Serach, the daughter of Asher, the only survivor of the 70 named people who went down with Jacob to Egypt centuries later (and one of the few named women in genealogies in the Bible), who had heard Joseph in his original speech, confirmed that Moses was the destined deliverer.

Two words and the holiest man of all time was established among his people.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Vayigash/10th of Tevet (Oh my gosh, it's Vayigash!)

A little delayed, but I'm in finals

This past week we read of one of the most emotionally charged moments in history, what was intense fear turned to grief turned to immense anger and then to shock and disbelief and in a blast of emotion turned to blissful elation. I am referring to the standoff between Judah and Joseph. The Prince of Israel faces off against the Prince of Egypt and according to midrash, it ain't pretty. Oh, sorry... ai not pretty. Blood oozing from eyes-not pretty. It is quite graphic what Judah and Joseph do to intimidate one another. Judah almost tears heaven and earth asunder and Joseph is not destroyed because he holds on to the marble columns.

Or something. I really didn't research this week because I am, as mentioned, in finals. Everyone around me is standoffish this week. We are feeling all of the emotions that were felt in the palace that day in varying quantities and intensities. Maybe we can learn from the midrash on this portion when your teeth begin to shatter, blood oozes from your eyes, and you are knocking down marble columns with your bare hands then maybe it's time to take a break.

Speaking of breaking walls down, today begins a fast day (the first since Yom Kippur, exactly 3 months ago and the longest break between public fasts during the year... actually with the leap year, maybe not...), the 10th of Tevet, in which a number of horrible events happened in Jewish history most importantly for the biblical basis of the holiday: the beginning of the 3 year siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadrezzar in 588 BCE which led to the destruction of the First Temple. Another interesting reason tacked on is that it is the anniversary of the publication of the Septuagint, the first ever translation of the bible into another language, this time Greek, some time in the 300s BCE. Apparently this is seen as a blackletter day for the Hebrew Language and the Jewish people...

Anyway, back to studying. Best of luck to all those taking finals. An easy and meaningful fast to those taking up the fast.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Miketz/Shabbat Chanukkah (A mighty flame of one)

One of my favorite Hanukkah songs, Banu Choshech Legaresh, which was used by Israeli hip-hop group Subliminal in a song of the same name, there is a lyric: Kol echad hu ohr katan, Ve kulanu ohr eitan. Every individual is a tiny light but together we are a mighty light. Thus is true with a multiwicked candle versus a regular candle, while a Shabbat candle is a relatively tiny light, a Havdalah candle could be considered a medura, a bonfire, a very mighty light.

However we see that in the story of Hanukkah as well as this week's Torah portion that the ohr katan, the small tiny light can make just as much of a difference. Joseph single-handedly saved the world. The tiny group of Maccabees quelled the Hellenists and the Greek-Assyrians and ensured the survival of the Jewish way of life.

Maybe you're not a Joseph or a Judah (Joseph's brother) or a Judas Maccabeus, but I feel that everyone can make a difference. As a political scientist I know that there is a very real collective-action problem within society. "Can't someone else do it" becomes a rallying cry. Remember the 2000 presidential election. States were won with a handful of votes. Yet voting
rates are at an all-time low. Remember that 300 Spartans tried to defend themselves against millions of Persians. The point is that anyone really has the potential to do anything, and if not, has the prerogative to mobilize.

Additionally one can rally others and reinforce that tiny but powerful light and add wicks to become a mighty flame. Additionally, wildfires tend to start with a tiny spark. So don't feel that you are unable to make a difference in the world. You can be a mighty flame on your own.

Shabbat Shalom and a freilichin un a lichtikin Hanukkah.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2:Vayeshev (“Lost & Found” OR “Where’s Wool? D’oh!”)

DVAR TORAH S2: Vayeshev (“Lost & Found” OR “Where’s Wool? D’oh!”) (4’’ 04’’’)

As delivered before the AJU Hillel 11/30/07

This Dvar Torah is dedicated to anyone who has ever lost a sock in the midst of doing laundry.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev we shift to a new main character for the penultimate time in the entire Torah, to the story of Joseph. I love this time of year because I can keep singing songs from the greatest biblical broadway musical of all time.

I noticed something very interesting in this parasha. On three cases in Vayeshev clothing is illicitly taken from someone and used against them deceitfully, though it is all for the sake of heaven and actually benefits the future of the Jewish people. The first case is after Judah recommends they throw Joseph into the pit instead of killing him (that would have been an automatic “Game Over” for the Bible), instead he gets sold down to Egypt. His brothers tear his Amazing Technicolor DreamCoat™ and dip it in sheep’s blood. There is an interesting exchange between Judah and his father Jacob where he deceives him and asks him haker na! “identify please, whether or not this is the coat of your son”, to which Jacob believes he’s been killed. If it hadn’t been for this “proof”, Jacob might have not believed them and it was because of this coat of many colors that Joseph goes down to Egypt in the first place.

But in true biblical Curb Your Enthusiasm fashion, there is midah kneged midah, that if you do something wrong you are going to get punished for it in the exact same way. We have the famous story of Judah and Tamar. Tamar had been married to Judah’s son Er who died, and according to ancient Jewish law, yibbum, if a married man dies childless, his brother must marry his widow. Brother Onan married Tamar, angered God and died too, and so next in line was the infant Shelach. Judah didn’t want her to marry Shelach as his other two sons died on their wedding nights to her, leaving her an Agunah, so she took actions into her own hands as she badly wanted a child. She disguised herself as a kdeisha, a cult prostitute, and convinces him to patronize her. As the price is a sheep which he did not have at the time, he leaves her his signet ring, belt, and staff as collateral and this disguised woman conceives twins. When he finds his daughter-in-law pregnant, he demands her put to death. When she produces his three pieces of clothing, demanding of him the with the exact same words that he used to trick his father: “haker-na!”, Identify this ring, belt and staff. When he realizes that he is the father he marries her and one of the twins she gives birth to, Peretz, becomes the great great great great great great great grandfather of King David and the Messianic line. Ever heard of Peretz? We mentioned his name tonight in Lecha Dodi: The messianic redemption is coming Al Yad Ish Ben Partzi V’Nismecha V’Nagila” at the hand of a man of Peretz’s line, and we will be joyous and happy”. Not only this but the whole incident humbled the proud lion, Judah; vital for his stepping in to protect Benjamin in the final showdown with Joseph in Egypt.

Finally we have one more piece of clothing to lose: Mrs. Potiphar, the wife of the very influential Egyptian minister Mr. Potiphar is going to try to seduce her new slave Joseph. He resists her advances for a long time and one day she attacks him and grabs him by the shirt. He screams in shalshelet trop and runs away and the shirt tears in her hands. She takes the shirt to her husband and accuses Joseph of rape. If it weren’t for this he wouldn’t have been put in prison and wouldn’t have met the butler who would eventually lead him to become the Prince of Egypt.

We lose clothing all the time. How many times have we misplaced a sock when doing laundry? Who knows if that missing garment will ultimately bring the redemption. In fact a midrash says that Elijah is sitting at the gates of Rome disguised as a poor beggar. If only someone would offer him a garment to change his bandages he will immediately summon the messiah. If it weren’t for all of the pilfered clothing, Joseph wouldn’t have risen to power, Joseph’s brothers and father would have starved to death in the famine, as would have the entire world including Egypt, there would have been no exodus, no Torah, no Jewish people. The world was saved all because of three shmatas. So don’t sweat so much when you misplace that sock, it might change the world.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Vayishlach (Reality bites)

To my international readers, I apologize in advance to the esotericity of the comparison I'm about to make.

Estranged and uncomfortable family reunions, busy and annoying travel days, praying nothing is going to go horribly wrong, wrestling through the night, trying to impress/intimidate/appease relatives, a rush for gifts, your father pissed off at you for making him look bad/sleeping with his concubine/slaughtering the newly-circumcised citizens of Shechem for abducting and raping your sister/getting your tongue pierced, telling your sister she looks like a prostitute, and doubtful historical veracity; this can only mean two things: Vayishlach and Thanksgiving.

Tomorrow happens to be the all-American holiday of Thanksgiving, a holiday where we, today, celebrate reunion with family and, more likely, mere toleration of one another. Could we have hoped for anything more from Jacob and Esau?

Sure Esau tried to bite Jacob instead of kissing him as I mentioned in last year's Dvar Torah on this Parasha. When I delivered my senior sermon in high school on this very portion seven years ago (damn...), my research into Midrash also indicated that Esau was the one whom Jacob wrestled for the blessing.

Family fighting is synonymous with the holiday of Thanksgiving. One of my favorite comedians Lewis Black once ranted long ago on the Daily Show (way back in the Craig Kilborn era) about this holiday, its effect on diets and the fact that instead of killing your family you eat their weight in food. Thank God Esau was able to hold back, even though he did try and nibble on his twin brother a little bit...

In other news, An anagram I just discovered: Neilah = Inhale. I'm sure a great Dvar Torah can be made on the topic, but now is not the time...

May your Thanksgiving be peaceful and may you more than tolerate your family.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Vayetze (The Power of Love)

What have you done for love? What would be your upper limit for what you would do or attempt to do for love?

Perhaps the most ignored part of this Torah portion is an event at the well. A heavy rock was blocking the well that required a team of men to unseal. Jacob, once he lays first sight on his beshert, Rachel, summons superhuman strength and hurls off the boulder himself. Normal people don't do this; only people who are completely smitten would attempt such a backbreaking (literally) dare-devil like act. This is just the first of many things he does for love. Do I have to mention the fourteen years he works to have the opportunity to marry Rachel. The first seven years he toiled for his cousin Laban went by like a week (this according to the Torah Pshat!) The time flew for him when he knew the reward would be the unending love of Rachel. He took Laban's subsequent trick with stride and his second seven years lasted about half a verse. Even when Rachel was unable to bear children whereas Leah was a baby factory, Jacob still loved Rachel more.

We have all made sacrifices and done stupid things for love, but let Jacob be our patron saint, per se, for ultimate love.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Toldot (Trick For Treat)

First of all, this is awesome (from
Top Ten Mashgiach Pickup Lines
(in honor of KosherFest this Sunday/Monday at the Javits Center in NYC)

10. You've got all the kosher ingredients I need.

9. Put you near any pilot-light and you'll turn it on.

8. I'd be on your premises at all times.

7. This restaurant just lost its hashgacha, care to lose yours?

6. You are so hot - yad soledes bo!

5. You are 1 in a 60th.

4. Just like Basar v'Chalav (meat/milk), opposites attract.

You must have special powers? cause you give me extra super vision

2. You're a major Kashrut violation, everytime look at you, all i can think about is treifus

1. What's your hashgacha (sign)?

Last night I showed a movie from my Israeli DVD collection, Chagiga B'Snooker. It is considered by many to be the funniest movie ever produced in Israel (an interesting review can be found here). A major part of the plot involves pool-shark and con-artist Gavriel posing as his religious twin brother Azrael in order to trick a Rabbi so his brother will marry his daughter. In fact this motif (and many of the specific gags) is almost identical to another legendary Israeli comedy: Kuni Lemel b'Tel Aviv. I'm sure there are many other Israeli movies like this and there are a bunch of American movies too: The Parent Trap and her remakes and any movie with the Olsen Twins is certain to have mistaken identity with twins.

This is hardly a new storyline. The original writer of the archetype: God (or according to some J and E). Jacob and Esau (a different J & E, though I didn't think of this before I put in the previous line) are definitely not identical, but similar enough that Jacob can trick his father Isaac into blessing him in a case of mistaken identity and trickery. Apparently people find this funny because so many comedy movies have adapted the theme. Who said the Bible wasn't hip and couldn't speak to the youth of today? Who ever thought Lindsay Lohan would debut in a movie based on the Bible?

Candlelighting is about to begin so I will have to put this on hold until after Shabbos...

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Instant Replay in Baseball a possibility...

I've been advocating instant replay in baseball for years. Yeah, it might make gameplay longer and more tedious, but seeing as most bad calls tend to be against the Dodgers, I am all for a system to overturn the calls. I notice however that omitted is the "out-versus-safe" calls. This is the one that is most frequently messed up. Umpires aren't perfect. I should know; I've been one. You miss/screw-up calls. A game shouldn't hinge on a screwed-up call.

Baseball general managers recommend that instant replay be used

They vote to use it on boundary calls and home run calls but not on plays in the field or balls and strikes. Owners, players and umpires will need to approve the initiative.
From the Associated Press
11:30 AM PST, November 6, 2007
ORLANDO, Fla. -- For the first time, baseball general managers recommended today that instant replay be used to help umpires make difficult decisions.

The recommendation, by a 25-5 vote, was limited to boundary calls -- whether potential home runs are fair or foul, whether balls go over fences or hit the top and bounce back, and whether fans interfere with possible homers.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig opposes the use of replays but said last month he was willing to let GMs examine the issue.

"I don't like instant replay because I don't like all the delays. I think it sometimes creates as many problems or more than it solves," Selig said then.

But Jimmie Lee Solomon, an executive vice president in the commissioner's office, thinks Selig's stance has changed a bit recently.

"He seemed to be softer, at least on the consideration of the subject," Solomon said Tuesday.

He added it was unclear how the proposal will proceed and acknowledged there is "glacier-like movement in baseball" when it comes to innovation. Solomon said if Selig is willing, the commissioner probably would run the idea by owners. The plan needs approval from the players' association and umpires.

Solomon said GMs favored having a Major League Baseball official in a central place with access to all camera angles. If there is a disputed call, that official would be contacted and would view the television replay to make a decision.

"We have a very technologically savvy group of GMs," Solomon said. "I was surprised that we had five teams that said no."

Solomon also said that to speed up games, baseball was considering limiting the number of times a hitter could step out of the batter's box during an at-bat and the number of times any player could visit the mound.,1,7348280,print.story

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Internet is really really great... for Facebook!

From Time Magazine:

Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2007

Facebook: More Popular Than Porn

When I wrote last week's column comparing the social-networking sites MySpace and Facebook, I included a line after my signature stating that I had only 124 friends on Facebook, and urged readers to add me as their friends. As of today I have 261 new Facebook friends, the majority of which are Generation Y college students.

I turned to Hitwise data to find out more about them. By examining which websites social-network users visit after logging into their profiles, we can gain a bit of insight into how sites like Facebook fit into their members' daily online lives. The data showed that after other social networks, the most clicked-on category of sites was search engines, with 11.6% of all downstream visits. Web-based e-mail services were next with 8.5%. Blogs came in third in popularity at 6.1%, claiming more than four times the number of visits to traditional news sites, which logged 1.5% of downstream visits.

Perhaps a more interesting — and more accurate — way to figure out where college students are going online is to assess which of the 172 web categories tracked by Hitwise get the most hits from 18- to 24-year-olds. Here's a shocker: Porn is not No. 1. I've actually been puzzled by the decrease in visits to the Adult Entertainment category over the last two years. Visits to porn sites have dropped from 16.9% of all site visits in the U.S. in October 2005 to 11.9% as of last week, a 33% decline. Currently, for web users over the age of 25, Adult Entertainment still ranks high in popularity, coming in second, after search engines. Not so for 18- to 24-year-olds, for whom social networks rank first, followed by search engines, then web-based e-mail — with porn sites lagging behind in fourth. If you chart the rate of visits to social-networking sites against those to adult sites over the last two years, there appears to be a strong negative correlation (i.e., visits to social networks go up as visits to adult sites go down). It's a leap to say there's a real correlation there, but if there is one, then I'd bet it has everything to do with Gen Y's changing habits: they're too busy chatting with friends to look at online skin. Imagine.

This reshaped online landscape leaves me feeling old and out of the loop. It seems that social-networking sites have not only usurped porn in popularity, but they've also gobbled up time Gen Y-ers used to spend on traditional e-mail and IM. When you can reach all of your friends through Facebook or MySpace, there's little reason to spend time in your old-school inbox. So, if social networking is becoming e-mail 2.0, then perhaps Microsoft's recent $240 million dollar payout for such a small stake in Facebook isn't that ridiculous.

The reality is that Facebook isn't just for kids. Last week — and this was a highlight — my dad, who just turned 75, added me as a friend on Facebook. I considered sending him a virtual beer to celebrate the occasion, but I didn't think either of us would see the point. Back in my day, we drank beers out of bottles and cans — we didn't have these new-fangled virtual beers. But, then again, I think that's something I probably still have in common with the younger generation, something I don't need Hitwise data to back up: the love of a good old-fashioned beer.

Let the messages roll in.

Bill Tancer is general manger of global research at Hitwise

(can be found at,8599,1678586,00.html)

Saturday, November 03, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Chayei Sarah (Meester Eesaak! Meester Eesaak! Save the Isaac, save the world)

We now reach the transition between the stories of Abraham and Jacob. But wait, what about Isaac? Isaac gets very few verses that are about him and that do not either relate to his father or his son. Just to present an analogy as SAT season hits critical mass: Shavuot/Hanukkah:Talmudic mention of Festivals::Isaac:Patriarchs. The Talmud only has a page in a half about Hanukkah and practically nothing about Shavuot whereas Sukkot and Pesach have entire tractates dedicated to them.

In his biggest story he isn't even the main-character. Isaac is a key player, unwilling and unwitting though he is (debatable) in one of the most infamous stories in History: His sacrifice. I mentioned last week the Akedah, and Isaac's pseudonym in poetic literature as HaBen HaNe'ekad, The Bound Son. This is what people remember about Isaac, helpless and tied to an altar.

His other "major" story is when he is tricked by his son Jacob into giving him the greater blessing. Now Issac is the decrepit, blind, and gullible old coot.

This week mentions the only part of the narrative that is somewhat in his court, when Sarah dies and Abraham sends Eliezer his Damascan servant to find a wife for Isaac. In this story, however, Eliezer is the one with the active role in finding the wife, not Isaac (and Eliezer even gets his own Shalshelet trop; check it out!)

Maybe the Torah doesn't give Isaac enough credit. However, I realized that Isaac does not need additional storyline. His silence may be more powerful than any words he could have spoken. The Akedah can be regarded as the most important event in Jewish history prior to the Exodus from Egypt. The Paytanim, the medieval poets pick up on this and assign to him the saving of the Jewish people through the grace of God. The most important part of the Selichot services of the High Holidays center on the recitation of a penitential poem known as the Akedah which appeals to God to save us for the sake of the young lad, Isaac, who was bound on the altar. Many Orthodox Jews recite the Torah verses of the account of the Akedah at the very beginning of morning services daily. Isaac has also been unfortunately the paradigm of the slaughtering of Jews throughout history, and the aforementioned liturgical additions were very likely in response to the Crusades when Jews were murdered, when the survivors poured their hearts out to God to save them as He saved Isaac as he was on the verge of being slaughtered. Finally a mysterious acronym that might be from a more familiar prayer, the very beginning of the Shacharit service of Shabbat, Festivals, and the High Holidays:

בְּפִי יְשָׁרִים תִּתְהַלָּל,

וּבְדִבְרֵי צַדִּיקִים תִּתְבָּרַךְ,

וּבִלְשׁוֹן חֲסִידִים תִּתְרוֹמָם,

וּבְקֶֽרֶב קְדוֹשִׁים תִּתְקַדָּשׁ.

Notice the acronym of how God will be praised? Those that praise him, ישרים, צדיקים, חסדים, קדוֹשים is an acronym of יצחק. Still not convinced? On the High Holidays, when both the birth of Isaac and the Binding of Isaac are the central stories presented in the Torah service (the Annunciation of his impending conception reportedly made a year before his birth on Rosh Hashannah), we reorganize the ways in which God is praised

בְּפִי יְשָׁרִים תִּתְרוֹמָם,

וּבְדִבְרֵי צַדִּיקִים תִּתְבָּרַךְ,

וּבִלְשׁוֹן חֲסִידִים תִּתְקַדָּשׁ,

וּבְקֶֽרֶב קְדוֹשִׁים תִּתְהַלָּל.

The codifiers of the liturgy reorganize the arrangement of the words to form the acronym רבקה, Rebecca, the wife of Isaac, to always dwell by her husband. Isaac may not possess the nickname of his father Abraham, Eitan, the Mighty One, but rather is the Ben HaNe'ekad, but not only bound to the altar in Jerusalem, but is tied to each and every Jewish person who identifies with his plight as their own. Just as God saved Isaac, so may He save us.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Sound the foghorn!

If you live in the LA area, particularly the San Fernando Valley or Bel Air, you might have noticed the spooky fog we've had today. The Valley basin was covered with it this morning, I saw from my Bel Air vista. Around 5:15 PM the fog started coming in to Bel Air itself and has persisted ever since. It is a very strange fog, almost London-like. I don't remember seeing much evening fog in LA county in my 20 years I have spent in LA. Perhaps there is therefore symbolism in this fog

After all of these wildfires we finally get some beneficial weather. But perhaps there is another symbol being represented here. This fog, filled with precipitation, comes the very same day that the Dodgers picked up Joe Torre to be their manager. I'm sure you can come
"up with something about that, but I'm to tired to make the connection. I am both excited and slightly weirded out. Excited because... he's Joe Torre! Slightly weirded out because... he's Joe Torre! The former Yankees skipper is now a Dodger I think that the Dodgers are quickly turning into the All-Century team but with the players past their prime. At the same time, I tzAhink Joe Torre has a great chance to turn around a ball club that is used to having great win streaks followed by even greater lose streak. And If we get A-Rod, our menagerie of future hall-of-famers will be complete. I'm not complaining, I'm excited to have such an interesting collection of players on one team, my team. What would Nomar and A-Rod talk about, formerly on the Red Sox and Yankees respectively)? Would Joe Torre hold anything against Nomar who, though was off the Red Sox earlier in the year when the Curse of the Bambino was broken, represents the Bane of his existence? Maybe I'm reading much too into this. This is going to be a fun season...

Friday, October 26, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Vayera ("Damnit Abraham, I'm a doctor... and God!")

So my last year's post was nominated for a Jewish blogging award so I need to clear the high bar with this one. For comparison see last year's entry:
Rabbinic Rambling: DVAR TORAH: Vayera (Abraham's Dysfunctional Family)

I'll be very brief as candlelighting is approaching (it is 5ish now). I think Isaac died. You might misconstrue what I said and think "duh, Isaac died after Jacob's sojourn in Haran". What I mean is that I think Isaac died during the Akeidah, during his binding to the altar. I have thought this a possibility for a while. I am now also inclined to think that certain influential ancient rabbis agree with my view. I realized that the Haftarah this week is about death of a child and his resurrection. It is my belief that there is a strong possibility Abraham did in fact sacrifice Isaac on the altar and that God resurrected him. The Torah says "you have not withheld your son from me". If Abraham didn't go through with it, then why would God say this to him? (Post-Shabbos Edit: I realized as I was leyning the Torah reading for the Akeidah that it mentions that Abraham left the mountain and rejoined his traveling companions. It mentions him in the singular and doesn't allude to Isaac... maybe he was still dead at this point...)

I think my view would lend a very different perspective on God, Abraham, Isaac (Post-Shabbos Edit: the flip side is who was Isaac who, whatever his young age, was probably much stronger than his elderly father to easily overpower him. He was carrying a significant amount of firewood... did filial dedication override the need to survive? Did he willfully allow his father to bind him to an altar, to actually kill him?) as well as the underpinnings of this being the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah: Even if the righteous die, as does happen with everyone (thank you Kohelet for constantly reminding us of that) still there is resurrection both here and in the world to come.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Dumbledore is gay, says JK Rowling

Holy crap!

The rumours are true: Albus Dumbledore, master wizard and Headmaster of Hogwarts, is gay, Harry Potter author JK Rowling admitted.

Rowling, author of the mega-selling fantasy series that ended last summer, outed the beloved character while appearing before a full house at Carnegie Hall, New York.

After reading briefly from the final book, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, she took questions from audience members. She was asked by one young fan whether Dumbledore finds "true love". "Dumbledore is gay," the author responded to gasps and applause.

She then explained that Dumbledore was smitten with rival Gellert Grindelwald, whom he defeated long ago in a battle between good and bad wizards.

"Falling in love can blind us to an extent," Rowling said of Dumbledore's feelings, adding that Dumbledore was "horribly, terribly let down". Dumbledore's love, she observed, was his "great tragedy".

"Oh, my God," Rowling concluded with a laugh, "the fan fiction."

Potter readers on fan sites and elsewhere on the internet have speculated on the sexuality of Dumbledore, noting that he has no close relationship with women and a mysterious, troubled past. And explicit scenes with Dumbledore have already appeared in fan fiction.

Rowling told the audience that while working on the planned sixth Potter film, Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince, she spotted a reference in the script to a girl who once was of interest to Dumbledore. A note was duly passed to director David Yates, revealing the truth about her character.

Rowling, finishing a brief Open Book Tour of the US, her first tour there since 2000, also said that she regarded her Potter books as a "prolonged argument for tolerance" and urged her fans to "question authority".

Not everyone likes her work, Rowling said, probably referring to Christian groups that have alleged the books promoted witchcraft. Her news about Dumbledore, she said, would give them one more reason.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Lech Lecha (A Yoda like Yoda)

(translation: one who knows like Yoda)

This week's Torah portion should be very familiar... too familiar... to members of my Biblical Grammar class. We are taking apart chapters 12, 13, 15, 16, and on of Genesis and parsing each word for its grammatical construct, resulting in sever Yoda-like speech. Yoda was wise beyond his 900 some-odd years but spoke in sentences that didn't make sense in English. But Hebrew is not english.

"And afflicted He God Pharaoh affliction great and his house over the matter of Sarai wife of Abram. And he called, Pharaoh, to Abram and he said 'What is that you have done to me, why not did you tell me that your wife she is?'" (Genesis 12:17-18)

Fun stuff. "Lech lecha". "Go for yourself" Never thought you would translate it that way, did you?

Nothing much to say now in the limited time I have at this moment, but I will possibly update this later. Just a note that the facebook edition of this note will probably not reflect the potential updates so if you want to read it please click the link to the original post.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Noach ("Enkidu said to Utnapishtin there's gonna be a floody floody!")

So I was thinking about poor Noach this past week as it is his Torah portion and thinking what it was like to spend an entire solar year on a massive enclosed (and incredibly humid considering the precipitation outside) structure with two or seven of any animal (depending on which version of the story you believe) that has ever existed. Well, I had a better thought during Shabbat, but it has since left my mind. Imagine being cooped up on an ark with smelly animals for an entire year. Noah was a patient zookeeper at sea.

Many religions, cultures and mythologies have in common flood stories. If you want to see a sampling check out this article on Wikipedia. Possibly the most famous, besides the Biblical story of Noah's flood is the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh. I don't want to get too into it as you can read it on your own, but I just want to point out the major difference in which these two societies, the Hebrew and the Mesopotamian, valued most. The Epic of Gilgamesh reads like a precursor to the Odyssey, the Lord of the Rings or something in between. Gilgamesh was chosen because he was the most powerful king of his age. Power seems to be the ultimate thing, and as for his goodness? Well, one of the things he tried to do was sleep with the bride at her wedding... to another person.
Noah, however, is described as finding favor in the eyes of God due to the fact that he was righteous in his generation. He may not have been the strongest, but he was in a generation of ultimate corruption and he himself was unable to be corrupted by them (I assume, but he also got completely hammered after he got off the boat and madness ensued so I'm not so sure). The point is, I would actually compare Gilgamesh to another character mentioned in this Torah portion and developed massively in Midrash: Nimrod, founding king of Babylon. He is known as the mightiest warrior of all time and the builder of the Tower of Babel. He also constantly oppresses a little boy named Abram, but perhaps we will get to that one next week... Just note that in modern slang, nimrod means a moron so take out of that what you will...

Sunday, October 07, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah/Bereishit

My eyes have been opened! During the end of the Torah service today I realized something.

In today's Torah portion, the Torah of which we restarted yesterday, we read the account of Creation. God created humanity, in the form of Adam and Eve which he put in the Garden of Eden to till and to guard. He also placed within the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (read: not so good) and the Tree of Life, these being known as the Etz HaDaat Tov V'Ra and the Etz Chayim in the biblical Hebrew. After Adam and Eve sampled of the first tree, God expelled them from Eden lest they eat of the Tree of Life and live forever. Now why would God allow such dangerous items into His Garden? God Forbid that God was not able to foresee this happening! However what are these trees? I mentioned that I realized something at the end of the Torah service. We have something else we call the Etz Chayim, the Tree of Life, and that is Torah, that which we so recently celebrated by dancing, food, and Oh Lord, so many drinks. Prior to this we spent seven days feasting in huts, little gardens of earthly and heavenly delights before we replaced our sticks and lemons with Torah Scrolls for the next holiday.

Why would God place fiery chruvim there with fiery ever-turning swords to guard the path to the Tree of Life? I think that indeed the Torah is the Tree of Life there, something that indeed grants immortality, to both those sealed within its tomes and those that have held fast to it for over 3300 years. Adam and Eve gained knowledge, or the ability to learn, the easy way but were not ready to receive Torah. No, it took the experience of our forefathers and the centuries in Egyptian slavery for our ancestors to take claim of it. Back to the fiery angels, the angels tried to kill Moses, says a Midrash, when he ascended to heaven to retrieve the Torah, but God commanded Moses to cling to His Throne while Moses rebuffed the murderous angels and secured the Holy Torah to deliver to Israel.

My Rabbi said when he announced an Adult Bar Mitzvah class a few weeks back that the Torah means nothing and possesses no gifts if you are unable to read it and appreciate reading it. Israel, which treasures knowledge above most else was able to take possession of the Torah and forever expound upon it. Holding fast to it and never giving it up, that is our immortality.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Ahmadinejad is a Sukkah!

(Should be pronounced in the Mr. T pronounciation, not the impending holiday, though that's the reason I used said title)

So I have received maybe 200 e-mails in the past week and a half about Mahmud Ahmadinejad (first spellcheck suggestion in Firefox, BTW: "Shadiness"; how appropriate...). He came, on Monday, to my Alma Mater, Columbia University. Why does columbia continually do this? Anyway, I sent a number of e-mails to the VBS listserv this week and I want to share them with you. Note that I have not included other peoples' e-mails to protect their privacy so they might be out of context:

Sep 21, 2007 9:36 AM

Re: Ahmadinejad

As an alumnus and as a member of LionPAC, Columbia's AIPAC arm, I want you to be assured that he's going to have a little welcoming committee when he comes. He was supposed to come speak last year but cancelled at the last minute. Perhaps he will rethink once again speaking on a campus on which a third of the students are Jewish and a good portion are Israelis.

Gmar Tov and a meaningful fast,

Sep 23, 2007 10:27 PM

Re: Ahmadinejad

It's funny, in the last week I have gotten over 100 e-mails regarding the Ahmadinejad situation; the last 11 consecutive e-mails have had the word Ahmadinejad in the header. I have been invited to protests through the Columbia Political Union, Columbia/Barnard Hillel, AIPAC, IsraelCampusBeat, StandWithUsCampus, a chevruta (study partners) program I used to be affiliated with, and various students of Columbia, Barnard, and the Jewish Theological Seminary, as well as invitations to seminars about Iran and Ahmadinejad, and a friendly reminder from the Columbia Democrats to protest nicely.

I turned on FOX News this morning and it was the top story. Sure, Columbia is no stranger to controversy. On IsraelCampusBeat, which reports on Israel and Jewish-related "issues" on universities worldwide, there are usually at least two articles with the little blue Roary The Lion icon, signifying that there is yet another example of Israel getting somehow disparaged in a Columbia classroom/Anti-Iraq War protest, so it comes as no surprise to me that a campus which two years ago rejected the obvious academic intimidation perpetrated by anti-Israel and anti-Semitic (and when I say Semitic, I mean anti-Jewish, nobody ever refers to the other descendants of Shem by this moniker, so please don't counter with the semantics as Professor Hamid Dabashi did when he called a Jewish student with blue eyes "not Semitic") professors not allowing any pro-Israeli opinions within their classrooms. Indeed, nothing surprises me anymore about some of the enterprising (read: incredibly idiotic and embarrassing) programs which my fair Alma Mater and President Lee Bollinger comes up with.

So, yes it was stupid to invite the President of Iran, but at the same time it the opportunity of a lifetime to hear the Hitler of our times on our own home turf. I would not want to be the Jew in the crowd at a Nazi Rally in 1935 Berlin, but the fact is that Ahmadinijad is going to "Columbia JEWniversity of JEW York City" (as we so belovedly call it), where he will be preaching to a whole bunch of Jews. He's not going to win anyone over with his ranting propaganda. He's not in Tehran where they eat up his every anti-Semitic word, but in a room filled with headstrong intellectuals who won't take any of his crap. I just fear that he will be heckled as my fellow students heckled John Ashcroft a couple of years ago... that was just embarrassing.

Count on this not to end pretty. I cringe in advance.

Shana Tova,

Sep 24, 2007 6:11 PM

Re: Fw: Columbia President's Statement About President Ahmadinejad's Appearance

Yes indeed, I am proud of President Bollinger who couldn't have handled it any better. As for the statement, it is actually much longer and much juicier. The transcript of his introduction can be found at

One of the best lines: "Let's, then, be clear at the beginning, Mr. President you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator."

I found these other lines in an article on Breitbart:

"Why are you so afraid of Iranian citizens expressing their opinions for change?" he asked, challenging the leader of the Islamic republic to explain his comments downplaying the Holocaust.

"Frankly, in all candor Mr President, I doubt you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions," he added.

"When you come to a place like this, this makes you quite simply ridiculous. You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated," he said.

The truth is that the Holocaust is the most documented event in human history." (as found on a Fox News Article,2933,297823,00.html)

As for President Ahmadinejad, he once again proved himself a fool. "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country. We don't have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who has told you that we have it." He was evasive on the simplest of questions regarding his basest policies.

I am yet to watch the speech but I am currently instant messaging friends who saw it live so I will update you when I hear more. As of now, I feel good that my worst fears weren't realized -- that Columbians didn't make fools of the United States by heckling and not hearing him out, however stupid he sounds. And as for President Bollinger, I am proud of his ability to not sugarcoat (which I feared he would) but instead attacked where it hurts, even if Ahmadinejad was completely evasive or ridiculous at points. I don't think Iran's president expected it to go like this at all, broadsided as he was, and I think he will rethink how he talks to outside media in the future.


As of press I am both proud of and ashamed of Columbia. I am proud that President Bollinger broadsided the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran and made him look like a complete fool and liar. I am proud of the Hillel, LionPAC, and other groups and decent individuals who peacefully protested against the Hitler of today from the actual Aryan country (Aryan people originally migrated from Iran. However, I am ashamed and horrified that students cheered when Ahmadinejad called for the destruction of the State of Israel. Having attended Columbia for four and a half years I know that there is a lot of Israel-hating that goes on there. But cheering a murderous terrorist who calls on it's destruction?! I don't separate Anti-Israel and Anti-Semitism. Also self-hating Jews can also be anti-Semites. I consider members of the Jewish sect of Netueri Karta to be anti-Semites. I also consider former acquaintances who have fallen in with the socialist crowd and have become anti-Israel... well you can see why they are not current friends... The great irony in the socialist crowd is that the socialists seem to support the dictator-run countries while denouncing Israel, the only country in the world where socialism has remotely worked. The country was formed by socialists and social Zionism and the Kibbutz system is the best example of social communism at work. Not that I support communism or socialism, but I just find it funny that most of these socialists seem to support fascism over socialism.

Yom Tov is coming, but I don't think I'm done with this one. Gut Yontif and as we celebrate the festival in which we traditionally advocate for all of the other nations of the world, may I advocate that the residents of nations that are forcibly suppressed by evil dictators overthrow their captors. As it is written in the Uvchen prayers of the High Holidays which have just passed, "ki taavir mimshelet zadon min haaretz", "for You shall cause to be removed wicked governments from the world".

Gut Yontif.

DVAR TORAH S2: Sukkot (Jewish Thanksgiving)

On Win Ben Stein's Money, a show which I hugely loved a decade ago (during the Jimmy Kimmel era) a question was asked to the contestants (one of which I think was a redheaded Rabbi with a kippa) of "What is the Jewish Thanksgiving?" Even the Rabbi didn't get the answer: "Sukkot". The truth is that most of our holidays are of thanksgiving. Hallel is said on many of these occasions, sacrifices in the temple are designated as Thanksgiving Offerings, Al HaNisim is even said on the minor festivals, we have three Pilgrimage Festivals, any of which could be legitimately designated "Jewish Thanksgiving".

Yet I further pondered this and realized that Thanksgiving, viewed in the sense of American Thanksgiving, does most strongly parallel the Festival of Booths. For one, both are Harvest festivals. Yes, both Pesach and Shavuot are also Harvest festivals as well, but Sukkot is the only Fall Harvest holiday in Judaism, and therefore the produce is comparable. Both holidays celebrate survival in difficult conditions, the Pilgrim survival in harsh New England cold and the Israelite survival in the unbearable steppes of Sinai, and yet both claim divine providence. Both are celebrated by inviting guests to partake in a feast (and even if the Jews don't have physical guests, we invite seven biblical characters and invoke God's name in prayer; likewise traditional Thanksgiving observance includes opening prayers with biblical references). Both are holidays of selflessness. In the Holy Temple, 70 bulls were sacrificed on behalf of the 70 nations of the world. People are increasingly charitable leading up to Thanksgiving, and food drives are the order of the day. Centerpieces and decorations celebrating God's bountiful gifts further increase the beauty of the holiday tables, in the form of cornucopias and lulav/etrog, both also symbols of fertility, as well as hanging fruit usually of the plastic variety for both holidays.

Well, I'm convinced. Moadim L'Simcha and Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

F'n Dodgers! (AKA 19th Annual Dem Bums)

Well, the Bums have done it again, and the Dodgers have once again turned a first place in the Major Leagues season into total crap, ending up in 4th place in NL West. My one consolation is at least we beat the San Francisco Giants. Well, better luck next year for the 20th annual jubilee without a World Series ring or even advancing in the playoffs to pennant contention (as last year: Chas V'Shalom)...

I guess is still in business...

Friday, September 21, 2007

DVAR TORAH: High Holidays 5768 (Teshuva: Phoning it in)

At least since last year there has been a unique way to gain forgiveness prior to Yom Kippur, a teshuva hotline operated by Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report. The phone number has been variously given as 1 800-KLI-TZEDEK and 1-888-OOPS-JEW. I called the latter and left a message on the hotline, asking for forgiveness for missing the 11:30 PM (8:30 PM on East Coast Feed as I so often watch) show sometimes in attempts to be social; how selfish of me...

If only it were this easy, a one-ended confessional. With no offense to Mr. Colbert (whom I wish not to offend as I now have a clean slate with him). Teshuva is difficult. One really must lower and degrade themselves to ask forgiveness of another person. Ultimately it matters on our scorecard in a certain Book, but on earth it can be a serious blow to one's self-esteem and others' esteem of them to ask forgiveness of someone they may have wronged.

And yet, saying we are sorry is one of the ways the world doesn't devolve into utter primordeal chaos.

I just thought of a comparison to something which we do on the opposite side of the year, when we search for the Chometz, the bread crumbs which have filled our houses for the past year, as well as the rest of the Kashering procedures for Passover. It is an intense process that involves scalding, burning, dunking, feathering, and other strange gerunds (participles?) I could liken sin to bread crumbs. After a sin is committed/a piece of bread is eaten, they quickly spread and proliferate and at the appropriate time of the year we search and destroy, seeking out those sins and bread crumbs and resolving that in the future to be more careful to avoid offending another/to be more careful when eating bread. A note about the bread crumb thing -- apparently the Jews of medieval Europe widely avoided the Black Plague because they had clean homes and not the dirty and rat-infested homes and water-systems of the Christians, mainly because they annually fully cleaned their communities whereas for others the centuries of filth piled up. So getting on your hands and knees to clean the nooks and crannies of those damn bread crumbs or getting on your hands and knees to beg forgiveness of your fellow, are, yes, degrading, but can also save your very life.

May we be sealed in the Book of Life for a year of goodness, health, prosperity, merits, blessing and peace.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Rooster's Revenge

Alright, so now for the trauma, as I have promised. Disclaimer that this is not for the faint of heart. You have been warned.

Today I have performed a number of acts that should pretty much secure me in the Book of Life Category. I properly fasted the Fast of Gedaliah, not even experiencing hunger or thirst at its conclusion. I recited the selichot of aforementioned fast as well as that of the Ten Days of Repentence. I ascended Mount Sinai (the cemetery, not the mountain) to visit the graves of my grandparents, aleyhem ha'shalom, braving the two mile freeway backup (no joke) to get into the cemetery today (I guess people are dying to get in... (joke)) . I went to Lake Balboa and performed Tashlich, throwing my sins in the form of breadcrumbs into the living, albeit man-made waters. I had a chicken swung around my head.

Wait, what was that last one?!

I newly have Persian in-laws and it is considered a method of great mazel to the family to perform the ancient ritual of Kapparot, or as we Yiddishists prefer to refer to it, shluggin kapporus. This is probably the closest thing in modern Judaism to the Holy Temple, quite literally a sacrifice. This is also why I am mildly traumatized. I have never performed the ritual, at least never with a living creature, but always with money that I would then donate to charity. But I decided to tag along and so we went to Ohel Moshe in Pico-Robertson this morning and the Rabbi there elevated a rooster by under its wings (so as to not hurt it) over our heads, reciting a formula to transfer our sins onto the rooster. Something like "Though this rooster goes to its death may these people live long lives free of sin". Following this the guy turns aside, massages the neck of the bird, lulling it into a restful state, and takes a special rectangular knife and severed the juggular vein. This is also the first time I have ever experienced shechita. A messy business but that is the only way to have kosher food. The birds will be given, by the way, to poor families as food, thus killing two birds with one stone (pardon the pun), not only somehow ridding us of our sins, but as tzedekah so poor people can have a proper feast on the eve of Yom Kippur.

I must say, as traumatized as this will probably make me, It is also incredibly humbling. This rooster was put to death so that we could somehow be cleansed of our sins. Kinda makes you want to avoid sin at all costs. I finally have an appreciation for the Hebrew term "Yirat Chet" "Fear of Sin". Short of going to a mikvah (something I have yet to do in my life) and being sprinkled by the ashes of the red heifer (something anyone is yet to do in their life in the past 2000 years), I am squeaky clean as I can get. Still, the rooster may get his revenge in my psyche, a la Aornis Hades in the Thursday Next series. I'm not soon going to forget it...

All the same, I think I'll stick to tzedekah next year.

DVAR TORAH S2: Haazinu/Shabat Shuvah

This past week (yeah, I keep releasing these things ex post facto, sorry...) we read the short poetic Parasha known as Haazinu. This is a little disturbing, filled with Israel's impending rejection of God and God's subsequent justified hiding from the people. This has been pretty standard in the Torah but it is rarely written in this poetic a form. Why is it written as a poem? My rabbi and congregants brought up various ideas (which I don't remember due to severe exhaustion from Rosh Hashannah), but I think that it is that a poem is easier to remember than prose, something especially important in a society that is based on oral tradition rather than written histories. Moses probably felt that a poem would hit closer to home and would be more memorable with the dire warnings it gives to Israel, lest they fulfill the conditions leading to their abandonment by God. This Torah portion, and even moreso with the special Haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah, exhort us to do teshuvah, to turn from wicked paths and return to the Lord.

I'm still trying to process what happened today so will end here. I will write about this event in the near future.

G'mar Chatima Tova

Sunday, September 09, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Nitzavim-Vayelech (lotsa dots)

This Shabbos we read the feel-good Torah portion of the summer, Nitzavim-Vayelech. It contains all the lines essential to make people feel all warm and fuzzy, that the Torah is in our hands, that which is revealed belongs to us, that those that disobey will be blotted out. Well, not so much that last one... but in this week's parasha we have a scribal oddity. Dots appear above key words in a sentence that basically translates (I'm not actually looking up the verse as I'm le tired) "the hidden things are for the Lord our God but that which is revealed is for us and our children forever". Lanu U'lvaneinu Ad Olam (bolded is the letters with dots). What can this possibly mean? I think it could be the method in which one sins: I pose the question of which is worse: a robber or a burglar. A robber steals in broad daylight and therefore shows no fear of other people. A burglar breaks in in the dead of night, fearing people but showing no fear of God. In this example the burglar is worse. The case of a sin is that God only concerns Himself with it if it is bottled inside but the truth shall set you free. In this time of Selichot (which is the reason I am exhausted as I just finished leading it) we are to confess our sins collectively with a formula. But to actually admit to people you have wrong you have sinned, that might help. It could also have serious repercussions but perhaps God ceases to hold it against you.

Conversely perhaps this line is about acquiring knowledge. Whether Torah or cures to diseases the potential is always there, waiting for discovery. Now it is in God's realm but, matter-of-factly, it enters our world once "discovered", leaving the other elements in God's Big Repository of Knowledge. This plays into the section that it is not in Heaven. The Torah has been given to us and now it is ours.

Like Moses I am going to take two tablets but will hit a rock Jacob-style (no, I'm not taking sleeping pills... the former is not true, though the latter meaning is that I'm going to sleep)

If I have wronged anyone in anyway I wholeheartedly apologize. I know that a blog entry doesn't sound sincere for something like that, but in the thousands of unique hits I have received in the last year I can't contact anybody. Well, the sins are out in the open through this confession, right?

Shana Tova,


Sunday, September 02, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Ki Tavo (10% Off!)

Ki Tavo contains some of the least famous words of the most observed holiday: Arami Oved Avi. It also contains the laws of tithing. Let's take a look for a moment at the Jewish calendaring system. One way years are grouped are in cycles of seven, that every seventh year is the Sabbatical year. On the other six years we are commanded to give certain tithes, tithe meaning one-tenth of our produce. On years 1, 2, 4, and 5 we are commanded to give to the Levite, our brothers who have not been assigned a portion in the land of Israel and are dependent on our kindness, an obligatory act known as Maaser Rishon. This is in addition to Trumah, the giving of our produce to a Kohen. On the third and sixth years, the latter of which is the year we are currently ending, we are commanded to give Maaser Sheni, also known as Maaser Oni, Tithe to the Poor. Ten percent of all we make is to go t0 the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger. Even the poorest person had to give ten percent. How does this work today?

This week in Rabbinical School orientation we studied the social contract an ancient king had with his subjects. The king is described as "great", "awesome" "mighty" "powerful". The king would then follow this with "therefore he has absolute power of life and death over you". This is true of God, the King of kings of kings, but God's description continues instead with "defender of orphans, champion of widows, maker of justice and righteousness". The wealthy must not be satiated just by his wealth, but must literally share the wealth. For so as long as there are hungry people in Israel we cannot stand idly by the blood of our neighbors. Give a hoot, give tzedekah.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Ki Tetze (The Lighter Side of ... God)

Mad Magazine Reference...

If last week's Parasha is filled with laws of vigilante justice, this week's is filled with mercy and compassion (besides the case of the Ben Sorer U'Moreh which I have discussed for the past two years so I will not cover this year).

One is to show compassion for one's enemy. Even in ancient military victory where the spoils went to the victor, In Judaism had to be compassionate for the captives they took. If one wanted to take a wife from a defeated heathen they must first allow her to mourn for her life that she lost and take safeguards prevent her from entering into a loveless marriage where the only consideration would have been her beauty. One must return stray livestock to one's enemy as well. It is possibly from here where the shock and disdain at the events of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa emerge.

Respect for the dead, even those who were executed at the hands of the court, forbade the indignity of anything but immediate burial. Further, if a married man died childless, then his brother is supposed to marry his widow and have a child to perpetuate the name of the dead. We see example of this in the case of Ruth

Respect for one's body and for procreation. One who causes themselves to be unable to procreate, such as "crushed testicles" in the words of the Torah, is forbidden to enter the Congregation of the Lord. If another person purposefully causes him to become impotent, they will be punished (the example given is if two men are fighting and the wife of one grabs the testicles of the other her hand gets cut off).

Respect for family's, even of non-humans. Shooing a mother bird so she doesn't have to witness you taking her eggs would bring length of days, a mitzvah on par with "Honor thy mother and father".

Further kindness to animals, animals of different strengths and speeds, say an ox and a donkey are never to be forced to pull the same plow. When any animal is worked in the field, one may not muzzle it, it must be allowed to graze and water freely.

Kidnap and rape would be dealt with capitally. They are absolutely abhorrent to God and the perpetrators would be put to death.

Business practices must be fair and honest. Charging interest to another Jew taking a loan is forbidden. Taking something they need to survive or make a livelihood as collateral is similarly forbidden. One must pay a laborer no later than the promised paydate. Doctoring weights on scales will also be dealt with harshly.

Escaped slaves will not be returned to their masters.

God is merciful to the destitute. The widow, the stranger, the orphan, animals, slaves, poor, children (except for exceptionally rebellious ones), enemies, the condemned, the dead -- all are subject to the mercies of God.

Finally we have a commandment which above all else must be heard at least once a year: to remember what Amalek did to you. Amalek wasn't kind to women, children, weak, and elderly when they attacked from behind and murdered the defenseless stragglers. We must remember this abhorrent injustice always and do our best to eradicate it.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Shoftim (The one with the violent rules of justice)

Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof "Justice Justice Shalt Thou Pursue", probably the most famous line of this Torah Portion, introduces a series of laws that could best be described as tough justice. For the next few weeks we will hear of laws that are so reprehensible, the rabbis decreed they could never be carried out, such as the Wayward and Rebellious Son (Ben Sorer U'Moreh). They are also laws that offend our modern sensibilities. How do we, as Jews, defend the law of proscription, especially in a post-Holocaust age? The truth of the matter there is that the nation of Amalek at which this is especially directed attacked us from behind, preying on the women, children, elderly, and weak of Israel. The other nations, if Moabites and Amorites can serve as an example, even with peace offers and requests to merely walk through the land they sought to destroy us. It says in the talmud "if your enemy awakens early in the morning to kill you, you must wake up earlier than him to kill him first". This is based on self-defense. There can be no real comparison to the genocides of the 20th century here.

Lest we think there is only vigilante justice, let us examine briefly the other Attribute of God that is commanded onto us: mercy. There really are morals here to protect both the individual and the army. Those with things left to do that will otherwise distract them from the war are excused from duty. For the sake of themselves and others whom they might lead to stray from their tasks in the holy wars of which they are commanded, they must go home, though they will have a part in the booty. The standing army must remain strong.

Pretty good for a couple days late and currently completely distracted...

Friday, August 10, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Re'eh (Death Eaters need not apply)

In this week's Torah portion, among many other things, we get the source for the taboo on tattoos. You shall not make a gash in your body for the dead. There seems to be an ancient pagan mourning practice to injure yourself when someone dies. Our Rabbis have expanded this to forbid tattoos and excessive piercings.

In a few weeks (next week for Sephardic Jews) we will begin to recite Selichot, the penitential prayers for the Days of Awe. We recite "the soul is yours and the body your handiwork... the soul is yours and the body is yours..." Our bodies are on loan to us from God, a temporary housing for our souls. We therefore need to treat this gift from God with respect. We mustn't mutilate it by tattooing it or piercing it excessively, nor abusing it with too much (or too little) food, alcohol, drugs or other detrimental things. Instead we must try and keep healthy. Remember that everyone's bodies eventually return to God, and you're going to want to get your security deposit back...

Monday, August 06, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Ekev ("Evil will always triumph because good is dumb")

A point to the first person who comments with the source of this quote without having to google it.

In this past week's Torah portion, Ekev, we have the much maligned middle paragraph of the Shema, the quintessential source for reward for following mitzvot and punishment for shirking them, all in the form of the most essential boon for members of an agrarian society: rain, whether sent in abundance or withheld in drought, rain marks the difference between life and death. Even today, though I live in a city, I would be ultimately affected by drought. It could be much worse than a whopping $24 for a case of cantaloupe as a result of this year's drought...

But it would be foolish to say that drought and starvation is a direct result of evil. I cringed when a famous yet infamous rabbi said that Hurricane Katrina was a result of lack of Torah study in New Orleans. This very need to justify everything with a reason for divine retribution kept the Rabbis of the Talmud up at night. A famous example in the Talmud involves a son climbing a tree to fetch some eggs, in doing so fulfilling the two mitzvot that carry with them a reward of long life, that is honoring his father (#1) and shooing the mother bird (#2) to fetch the eggs. The kid, in doing these two things fell from the ladder and died. The rabbis tried to reason this: the kid wasn't intending to fulfill the mitzvot, he was going to grow up to be a murderer, and so forth. Finally a rabbi steps in and says two words: Sulam Rakua, a faulty ladder. If you step on a broken ladder, don't expect a miracle. It's going to break. Rain will fall even if you are evil. Drought will happen even if you are good.

The reason we say this second paragraph silently, I said, is so that the common person does not question the fact that the content is patently false. The wise, however, will examine it and come to the conclusion that there is free will given to the universe, and that goodness will result in human goodness in turn and evil will be repaid in human evil. Don't look for the salvation of God in the face of the deluge, as we find in a famous joke. Rather look for God in the rescuers he sent with the two boats and the helicopter.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Attending the Asterisk? Ah, no...

Last night I attended the second game of a three game Dodgers home series in which they faced their archrivals the San Francisco Giants. Now, this would normally be a ticket I would especially love to get my hands on, but this series in particular, when Barry Bonds is one home run shy of tying Hank Aaron's most important record in sports history, the lifetime homerun count, that would lead one to kill to attend. I went so far as to get bleacher tickets in the All You Can Eat section, at $45 a waste for me as I keep kosher, but I could buy millions of kosher dogs if I caught that home run ball...

This is the first time in the hundreds of games I have attended at Dodger Stadium that I sat in the bleachers. In fact, I have sat in every section but the bleachers.

The fact that Bonds is a lefty and I had seats in the final row (Section 310, row Z, seat 10 to be exact) of the Right Field Bleachers made it a prime target -- er -- spot to try and catch number 755* or 756*. Unfortunately, no such chance came as Barry Bonds sucks. At least that is what the fans around me yelled. You see, the Bleachers bring out the worst in a person. I know this from attending a Yankee game, the only other time in my life I sat in a MLB game in the bleacher section. People threw beer at my friend who was rooting for the other team, a team which doesn't even have an existing rivalry with the Yanks (Like the Rabbis in the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa, I kept my silence lest I get murdered by the rabid fans as well). This Dodger Game was especially nuts because of the team we were facing, our archrivals, the San Francisco Giants. Anyone who walked by wearing the halloween colors of the Giants was immediately booed. Some people even had things thrown at them, such as peanuts, and at one point, a baseball glove. The man in the orange in the third picture, obviously a dedicated fan of the Giants, pictured was kicked out of the game by ushers, security guards, and armed officers of the LAPD, fans of my section chanting "Kick him out! Kick him out!". On the other hand, Dodger fans who were kicked out (and there were many) were cheered "Let them stay! Let them stay!". Due to the possibility of homicide or riots resulting in someone catching the home run ball, there were dozens of cops packing heat in our section.

I was cheered on two separate occasions, both for tripping for climbing on slippery objects, the first time some wet steps, the second time on wet seats. Gevald, I'm such a klutz and my shins really hurt.

Notwithstanding my idiotic injuries, I would have to declare this the best Dodger game I ever attended. Not just because of the amazing back to back comeback we made in the 8th inning, indeed I have been to Dodger games where historic things have happened: Shawn Green getting four home runs in a single game in a three game streak of seven. Hee Seop Choi hitting three home runs (three more than he usually hits in a game), two of the only rain-outs in Dodger Stadium history, and yet I declare this the greatest game because of the electricity in the air. I spent most of the game on my feet because of the excitement in the section. True, lashon hara abounded, particularly against the center-fielder a couple of feet away (you could also tell when Bonds was up to bat as a loud roar of boos filled the stadium, everyone got to their feet, and everyone in the sold-out capacity crowd was blinded by tens of thousands of flashbulbs). So maybe he gets his asterisk tonight. I don't think it honorable to recognize the record of someone who uses performance enhancing drugs. No, I think we need to revert to the record of the Great Bambino; Babe Ruth's anti-drug was hot-dogs, beer, and women. The Sultan of Sw(e)at never needed to run because he kept hitting them out of the park; the big guy could just amble at a leisurely pace around the diamond.

I wouldn't mind catching that 755th ball, though. I told the woman sitting next to me that should I need to defenestrate myself (I was in the last row and there was no backstop preventing me from falling out of the stadium a la Maude Flanders or the bad guy in Naked Gun). I could always replace my bones with the millions of dollars I would get for catching that ball... I would want to stay if I caught the record-tying 755 so perhaps I could also catch the record-breaking 756, but a police officer told me that they'd escort you out of the stadium so quickly once you caught that ball, lest you be murdered.

And on that cheerful note, goodbye.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Vaetchanan/Tu B'Av (Show some love)

This past week we read Parashat Vaetchanan, one of the most liturgically important sections of the Torah. In addition to the Ten Commandments being restated, we also have the first paragraph of the Shema. Though this is probably the most well known passage in the entire Bible, the mitzvot described may be some of the most difficult to accomplish. Traditionally we number 613 mitzvot in the Torah. Very few mitzvot require special kavanah, a strict focus upon only the commandment which you are fulfilling. The Mitzvah here, not only requires kavanah but it asks for a feeling which is almost impossible to give freely. Let me illustrate with the lyrics to "What the world needs now" by Burt Bacharach

What the world needs now is love, sweet loveIt's the only thing that there'sjust
too little ofWhat the world needs now is love, sweet love,No, not just forsome
but for everyone.Lord, we don't need another mountain,There are mountainsand
hillsides enough to climbThere are oceans and rivers enough to cross,Enoughto
last till the end of time.What the world needs now is love, sweet loveNo,
notjust for some but for everyone.

The mitzvah here is the command to love the Lord your God with all yourheart(s), all your soul, and all your might. We recite this officially twice daily (We even recite in the liturgy "twice daily with love we recite the Shema"). Do we have to always love God as we say these words? If I am,God-forbid, sitting shiva, will I really be happy with God? If I had a bad day and I'm going to bed, is the last thing I say before I close my eyes to sleep going to be a lie? I don't have the answer to this question and it is one each of us have to come up with for ourselves.

However, there is another season of love, one which is celebrated in the most minor and unknown (but happiest) of festivals: Today's holiday of Tu B'Av. The full moon of Av, after getting out of the horrible Three Weeks season, we approach the High Holiday season of purity with celebrations of virility and fertility. Love and family are stressed on this holiday and was the happiest of days in the existence of the Temple, even if today it is only celebrated by omitting of Tachanun and all the Jewish Singles groups holding mixers.

Well, happy Love Day...

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Tisha B'Av (The day the world was destroyed)

In Judaism we have a tradition called yahrzeit, that we commemorate the anniversary of a relative's death on the Hebrew calendar. Had we commemorated the all the bad things that have happened to the Jewish people on their proper yahrzeit, the entire year would be spent in mourning. Therefore, One day in 354 (or 353, 355, 383, 384, or 385 depending on the year) we aggregate all of the horrible things that have befallen the Jewish people (and there have been quite a few of them...) into a single 25 hour period. So many catastrophes beyond measure occured on this day itself: the sin of the 10 spies and the 40 years of the dying out of the slave generation, the destruction of the first and second temples, the destruction of Beitar and the proscription on the burial of the martyrs, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the Spanish Inquisition, the dawn of World War I (events which led to the Holocaust), the expulsion from Gush Katif, and more.

On Rosh Hashannah we declare "Hayom Harat Olam", "Today the world was created". On Tisha B'Av we should say "Today the world was destroyed". Today was the day when the world lost its innocence, where the world lost the central place of worship, where the world lost its access to the Divine Presence of the Shechinah and the ability to bask in holiness and purity. Our happiest of occasions are diminished: On Pesach we are unable to observe the main mitzvah: to eat the Pesach lamb. We don't get the Avodah on Yom Kippur, we mourn Jerusalem even at the moment of highest joy at weddings.

But we may not mourn excessively! During the Nine Days we are forbidden to eat meat or imbibe wine. Soon after the Destruction, a group of people vowed not to eat meat or drink wine everyday until the Third Temple was built. The rabbis asked them why they vowed this and they responded that meat was offered and wine was libated in the Temple so why should they enjoy these things without a Temple in which to offer them. The rabbis then informed them that they shouldn't eat bread or drink water as these were waved and libated in the Temple. The people saw the point of the rabbis, that mourning excessively would cause them to starve to death, and they decided not to abstain from meat or wine year round.

But today we concentrate our mourning. We mourn for "the compassionate women who boiled their children and ate them at the destruction of the daughter of my people" (Lamentations 4:10). for this and all of the horrible things our people have been reduced to throughout history. "Pour out your heart like water before the Face of God" (2:19). Though the gates of heaven are closed shut, they soon burst open and the promise of redmption is strong. God who took us from slavery to freedom, from hopelessness to redemption, from grief to joy, from mourning to festivity. The last line was: meevel lYom Tov. Our Rabbis say that this day of mourning will be transformed into a Yom Tov when the Temple is rebuilt and that it may be that the Messiah will be born on this very day of Tisha B'Av. Scattered throughout the depravity of Eicha, there is scattered some hope (3:21, 3:56-66, 5:19-21). Today we mourn. Tomorrow may we be redeemed.

Friday, July 20, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Devarim (Actually about Harry Potter)

A blanket disclaimer of lehavdil between Judaism and Harry Potter lest I be suspected of blasphemy.

This week's Torah Portion is Devarim. "Devarim" and "Kedavra" (In "Avada Kedavra") come from the same root in Hebrew and Aramaic respectively. The sabbath before Tisha B'Av, it is also Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of the Vision. Harry Potter has been having visions. That having been said, let's proceed into nonsense.

I find many insane parallels between Judaism and Harry Potter. In the middle three books of the Torah we have our own trio: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

As the only male infant to survive the genocide wrought by the Pharaoh, Moses was The Boy Who Lived. Pharaoh marked him as his equal when he became a Prince of Egypt. Pharaoh (Voldemort) faced a power that he knew not, the Power of God ("I know not your God, nor will I let your people go"). Moses also was known as The Chosen One, he who would lead the Jews out of bondage. Moses and Harry can both control snakes, but find out that their enemies (Pharaoh/Voldemort) also can control snakes.

AaRON was of a line of purebloods. That's all I got, but notice that Ron's name is in Aaron's... (see how ridiculous of a Dvar Torah this is shaping up to be...)

HerMiriam (Victor Krum might have pronounced it that way...) is the wise one. Known in the Bible as an Isha Nevona, a woman of great wisdom and Neviah, prophetess. Though she is wise, she also speaks the uncomfortable Truth and gets in trouble for it, such as when she points out that Moses' wife is a Kushite (possibly noting that elsewhere in the Torah it is forbidden to marry a Midianite), while Hermione is constantly pointing out that Harry and Ron are breaking the rules...

There are many occasions when Moses is not believed by his own people, as is Harry. It so frequently happens that society rebels against Moses and God and (noting the blanket l'havdil) Harry and Dumbledore, yet in the end they do believe them.

In this week's Torah portion, Moses asks "How can I do this alone?" Such a burden he has to shoulder, his brother and sister now gone. All of Harry's earthly guides and advisors are also gone. His parents, his godfather, and his teacher are all dead and the final duel might have to be alone. Harry, like Moses, leaves his relationship to keep her out of danger and to focus on the massive task ahead (According to Midrash, Moses wanted to be so close to God that he stopped seeing his wife, something which was not considered a wise move).

And as for the Haftarah, the Temple and Jerusalem were destroyed through hate and injustice but will be redeemed through love, justice, and righteousness. Maybe love will destroy evil as has been hinted in Harry Potter.