Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Make Way for the Light-Bearers

There's been a lot that's happened this past year that has confused me about my core beliefs. I've raged, been angry, felt deadened, numb, or like I would die of pain at alternate times. At the same time, I've also been deeply glad, deeply appreciative and deeply moved.

What I have realized is that I believe in the good.

I believe in the good. In the light. In fairy tales. Magic charms. Dancing, singing, beauty, music. Passion. Love. Sparkles and glitter and ennervating spirituality. Disco lights at the roller skating rink. Ice skating sleds. Tiaras. I believe in all these things very deeply. What is more, I believe that people are innately good. I believe that darkness obscures the goodness in people and causes them to act in ways that don't become them, ways that are not part of their true nature.

I know that such a belief is thought of as old-fashioned, out-dated, out-moded or naive. But I believe that I have the right to such a belief. Aviva Miretzky died on the basketball court when she was in 8th grade. Tanielle Miller died of meningitis. Chaya Mitchell died of a brain tumor. My grandfather died just a few days before my 14th birthday. This year, my grandmother died. I watched her chest rise and heave in the hospital as I wished her goodbye and a safe journey, not just from me but from all my family members. I have personally witnessed the cruelty of children toward one another. I have seen the ways in which adults, scared and paralyzed by fear, hide behind cowardly lies and accusations. I have watched their eyes slide away because they could not meet mine, and have seen others stare me down, daring me to do something about it. I have seen administrators in a panic, unsure of how to control a wayward child. One of the people I love best in the world was abused by her husband. As for emotional pain, try to conceive of what it means to be a transsexual in an Orthodox Jewish world, and then you'll have a handle on it. I've seen families where the parents scream at one another in front of the children. I've seen other families where they put on a facade. Every kind of suffering, the backdrop to humanity, has appeared in some form to me, as it does to all of us who walk through this life. And despite all this, I believe in the good. Or perhaps, what I truly believe is that those who inflict pain on others are alienated from their true selves.

This is not them. Their true selves are themselves in pain, wracked by guilt, fear, anger or hatred. They act out of cowardice as opposed to bravery. There is something inside them that begs to be discovered. There is a light, that untouched part of them that belongs to God. I may not always see it but I believe it is there. Sometimes it has been covered over so completely that only death may atone. But it exists. It remains.

I have learned a lot about forgiveness this year. There is a somewhat trite saying that you have to forgive in order to be happy yourself. That if you bear a grudge, it eats away at you rather than those you hate. I don't know if that is true for everyone. But I have discovered that as we are in need of forgiveness, as I am in need of forgiveness, so are others. Because people sometimes make mistakes. Sometimes they allow their goodness to be covered up by darkness for a little while. Or as our Sages put it, people do not sin except when a spirit of foolishness enters them. They regret it afterwards, but it is hard to come clean. It is a matter of losing face. Of being embarrassed. Of feeling lower than others. It is hard to do.

But oh, it's so worth it!

I know that I do not always react to others in a befitting manner. Sometimes I do things that I ought not. I say things I should not. Passion rules reason is Wizard's First Rule and it is very true by me. When I am ruled by emotion, I act in ways that I should not. So I apologize. I try to be better. And as I appreciate that I am forgiven, I learn that I can try to forgive as well. That's not an easy process. And it's not always going to work. But it is imperative to try.

Because I believe in the good. I believe people are good. I believe their wickedness is only ever a crust, a shell, a covering, behind which burns an enduring and all-consuming light. I want to find a way to discover the light, reveal it, allow it to shine through. I feel most frustrated when I fail in that task. But the fact remains that I believe. I believe in people. I believe in their goodness. I believe in hope, and that there is hope for everyone. Sometimes I do not think I am the right person to uncover that person's hidden light, but I believe that there is someone in the world who can do it.

I think it is a choice we make, whether to believe in magic or not. And I believe in magic. Despite our past, our history, and the darkness that veils many of us at one time or another, I still believe.

And I am not ashamed.

It is perceived as delusional, unrealistic, impossible, ridiculous and childish to hold to such a belief. The world does not like it. That is fine with me. Because the fact remains that I see the little flames burning in the hearts of all the people in the world, whereas those who doubt see nothing but charred coal, blackened to a crisp, and fail to notice the diamond's gleam.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Loaf and the Pebble

As we are approaching Pesach, I thought it would be nice to focus upon a beautiful Jewish tradition we possess: namely, of the few defeating the many, and the small defeating the great. Nowhere is this more poetically described than within the context of Tanakh, and specifically, I believe, within the context of the loaf and the pebble motif.

In Esther Rabbah 10: 4, we read of Haman's conversation with the students of Mordechai regarding the Omer:
    The Midrash tells us about an encounter between Mordechai and Haman when Mordechai was teaching his students. Haman inquired as to what they were learning and they responded that they were learning about the Omer. “What is this Omer made of?” he asked. “Is it made of gold? Or silver?” “No," they answered, “not of gold nor silver, not even wheat, but of barley and it costs merely ten small silver coins.” Upon hearing that, Haman replied, “In Hashem’s eyes your ten small silver coins have overpowered the 10,000 kikar of silver which I gave Achashveirosh for the right to destroy you.” (Source)
In Leviticus Rabbah 28:6, we continue to read of the various incidents and occasions upon which the Jews were saved by the Omer offering. One of these mentions Gideon, Judge of Israel.
    יג וַיָּבֹא גִדְעוֹן--וְהִנֵּה-
    אִישׁ, מְסַפֵּר לְרֵעֵהוּ חֲלוֹם; וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה חֲלוֹם חָלַמְתִּי, וְהִנֵּה צְלִיל לֶחֶם שְׂעֹרִים מִתְהַפֵּךְ בְּמַחֲנֵה מִדְיָן, וַיָּבֹא עַד-הָאֹהֶל וַיַּכֵּהוּ וַיִּפֹּל וַיַּהַפְכֵהוּ לְמַעְלָה, וְנָפַל הָאֹהֶל. 13
    And when Gideon was come, behold, there was a man telling a dream unto his follow, and saying: 'Behold, I dreamed a dream, and, lo, a cake of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian, and came unto the tent, and smote it that it fell, and turned it upside down, that the tent lay flat.'

    יד וַיַּעַן רֵעֵהוּ וַיֹּאמֶר, אֵין זֹאת, בִּלְתִּי אִם-חֶרֶב גִּדְעוֹן בֶּן-יוֹאָשׁ, אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל: נָתַן הָאֱלֹהִים בְּיָדוֹ, אֶת-מִדְיָן וְאֶת-כָּל-הַמַּחֲנֶה. {פ} 14 And his fellow answered and said: '
    This is nothing else save the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel: into his hand God hath delivered Midian, and all the host.' {P}

    ~Judges 7:13-14
A similar incident utilizing similar language occurs by David, except that he uses a pebble instead of barley bread:
    מט וַיִּשְׁלַח דָּוִד אֶת-יָדוֹ אֶל-הַכֶּלִי, וַיִּקַּח מִשָּׁם אֶבֶן וַיְקַלַּע, וַיַּךְ אֶת-הַפְּלִשְׁתִּי, אֶל-מִצְחוֹ; וַתִּטְבַּע הָאֶבֶן בְּמִצְחוֹ, וַיִּפֹּל עַל-פָּנָיו אָרְצָה

    And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slung it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead; and the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell upon his face to the earth.

    נ וַיֶּחֱזַק דָּוִד מִן-הַפְּלִשְׁתִּי בַּקֶּלַע וּבָאֶבֶן, וַיַּךְ אֶת-הַפְּלִשְׁתִּי וַיְמִתֵהוּ; וְחֶרֶב, אֵין בְּיַד-דָּוִד. 50 So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and smote the Philistine, and slew him; but there was no sword in the hand of David.

    נא וַיָּרָץ דָּוִד וַיַּעֲמֹד אֶל-הַפְּלִשְׁתִּי וַיִּקַּח אֶת-חַרְבּוֹ וַיִּשְׁלְפָהּ מִתַּעְרָהּ, וַיְמֹתְתֵהוּ, וַיִּכְרָת-בָּהּ, אֶת-רֹאשׁוֹ; וַיִּרְאוּ הַפְּלִשְׁתִּים כִּי-מֵת גִּבּוֹרָם, וַיָּנֻסוּ. 51

    And David ran, and stood over the Philistine, and took his sword, and drew it out of the sheath thereof, and slew him, and cut off his head therewith. And when the Philistines saw that their mighty man was dead, they fled.

    ~I Samuel 17: 49-51
The image reappears in yet another dream, although this time it is not that of a Midianite man, but rather that of Nebuchadnezzar. It is interpreted by Daniel to mean his downfall; the stone which destroys the statue representing the various monarchs represents Israel:
    מד וּבְיוֹמֵיהוֹן דִּי מַלְכַיָּא אִנּוּן, יְקִים אֱלָהּ שְׁמַיָּא מַלְכוּ דִּי לְעָלְמִין לָא תִתְחַבַּל, וּמַלְכוּתָה, לְעַם אָחֳרָן לָא תִשְׁתְּבִק; תַּדִּק וְתָסֵיף כָּל-אִלֵּין מַלְכְוָתָא, וְהִיא תְּקוּם לְעָלְמַיָּא. 44
    And in the days of those kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed; nor shall the kingdom be left to another people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, but it shall stand for ever.

    מה כָּל-קֳבֵל דִּי-חֲזַיְתָ דִּי מִטּוּרָא אִתְגְּזֶרֶת אֶבֶן דִּי-לָא בִידַיִן, וְהַדֵּקֶת פַּרְזְלָא נְחָשָׁא חַסְפָּא כַּסְפָּא וְדַהֲבָא--אֱלָהּ רַב הוֹדַע לְמַלְכָּא, מָה דִּי לֶהֱוֵא אַחֲרֵי דְנָה; וְיַצִּיב חֶלְמָא, וּמְהֵימַן פִּשְׁרֵהּ. {פ} 45

    Forasmuch as thou sawest that a stone was cut out of the mountain without hands, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the brass, the clay, the silver, and the gold; the great God hath made known to the king what shall come to pass hereafter; and the dream is certain, and the interpretation thereof sure.' {P}

    ~Daniel 2:44-45
In these latter three incidents, the same format is consistently used. A stone or loaf of bread smites something much larger than it: a tent, a giant of a man, or a large statue made of variant metals- and yet it triumphs over it; the Jews succeed in utterly destroying their enemies.

Since this is so, one might wonder: what precisely do the Loaf & Pebble symbolize?

Any child knows that the Torah is synonymous with bread. This comes from the verse in Proverbs 9:5 where Wisdom declares, "ה לְכוּ, לַחֲמוּ בְלַחֲמִי; וּשְׁתוּ, בְּיַיִן מָסָכְתִּי 'Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled." Thus, while the loaf is specifically the Omer offering in this scenario, it can also be understood as symbolically referring to the Torah.

God, of course, is synonymous with stone. See 2 Samuel 22: 2-3:
    ב וַיֹּאמַר: יְהוָה
    סַלְעִי וּמְצֻדָתִי, {ר} וּמְפַלְטִי-לִי. 2

    and he said: The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer;

    ג אֱלֹהֵי צוּרִי, אֶחֱסֶה-בּוֹ; {ס} מָגִנִּי וְקֶרֶן יִשְׁעִי, {ר} מִשְׂגַּבִּי וּמְנוּסִי, {ס} מֹשִׁעִי, מֵחָמָס תֹּשִׁעֵנִי. {ר} 3

    The God who is my rock, in Him I take refuge; my shield, and my horn of salvation, my high tower, and my refuge; my saviour, Thou savest me from violence.
Thus, while the Jewish nation and its people are symbolized by the loaf and the pebble, in truth these very symbols refer to the weapons the Jews have at their disposal: God and the Torah.

Now we can understand why it was that the Head Baker had to die when it came to Pharaoh, the Butler, the Baker and interpreting dreams. In Bereishis Rabbah 88, it states that a fly was found in the cup of wine that the butler served Pharaoh, whereas a pebble was found in the loaf of bread that the baker served him. Despite the fact that both of these officials had sinned, it was only the baker who was put to death. Why?

On the more superficial level, the fact is that the pebble in the bread could have actually harmed Pharaoh (he could have choked to death), whereas the fly was merely an annoyance and disrespectful to the king. However, on an exegetical level, this may be the first place that our motif of the loaf and the pebble occurs! When Pharaoh is served, as it were, the Jewish symbols of existence- the loaf and the pebble- he becomes upset and dismayed. He puts to death the man who dared to offer this meal to him. I am not suggesting that he knew what this meal symbolized. Indeed, the fact that he praises and later appoints Joseph demonstrates he did not. Ironically, however, he ends up appointing a Jew who gives out bread (the loaves we spoke of.) When all of Egypt is starving to death, Pharaoh orders them to go to Joseph who will disseminate bread.

This occurrence with the butler foreshadows the Pharaoh we know so well from the Passover story, the one who declares, "Who is Hashem? I know no Hashem." (Of course, I am making the assumption that it is the same Pharaoh, and that he did not actually die.) There is something deliciously ironic about God hardening Pharaoh's heart- like the stone that upset him so much and that symbolizes the Jewish people- if one understands the text this way.

Pharaoh thinks that he can destroy the Jews, those people who are symbolized by the loaf and the pebble, as symbolized by his destruction of the butler who dared to serve him this meal. That simple hanging foreshadows everything that he will eventually do to the Jews. However, God ensures that Pharaoh then appoints a Hebrew to give bread to the nations and eventually hardens Pharaoh's heart like stone. Pharaoh too must fall before the Jews, even as the other nations invariably do.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fallen Angel Seeking Grace

The adage "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" is a myth. Words are harmful and wound deeply. Many people carry emotional scars from careless and hurtful words that are as real as physical scars. Even when these painful words are uttered by people who love us- our spouses, parents, children, or friends- and are quickly followed by apologies, their effects may continue causing pain for years to come. Words intended to sting, delivered by mean people bent on leaving mayhem in their wake, are potentially even more hurtful and permanent. On the one hand, learning to cope with aggressive individuals, mean words, and hurt feelings is a skill that children need to learn. In fact, many former victims say that being bullied in childhood actually helped them to develop strengths they found advantageous later in life. Research confirms this belief: Several studies have shown that victims, in the long run, fare better than bullies. While many bullies end up in prison, victims learn to cope. However, the parent must effectively distinguish between the normal, day-to-day arguing, "stares," and verbal confrontations that characterize many childhood interactions, and actual bullying. In the case of normal childhood disagreements and arguments, the parents should teach the child how to cope. However, if the child is being bullied, other interventions may be necessary, along with the teaching of coping strategies. For example, telling a child to avoid or "stay out of the way" of a person with whom he/she is having difficulty getting along is a good coping strategy. However, with bullying, saying, "Just stay out of his way" is oversimplifying a difficult situation and doesn't work. Many victims, like me, have discovered that any attempt to stay out of the bully's way just makes the bully more determined to pursue the victim.

~Wounded Innocents and Fallen Angels: Child Abuse and Child Aggression by Gregory K. Moffatt, page 164

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Death of a Butterfly

Butterflies by the thousands fluttered maniacally before the headlights then exploded like tiny half-angels on the windshield leaving a scant yellow paint and the dust of broken wings as a final signature. The further into the journey Bull went, the harder it became for him to see through the windshield that was stained with the prints of so many inconsequential deaths.

~The Great Santini by Pat Conroy, page 36

Thursday, March 18, 2010

They Will Never Approve

"I thought that if my parents were able to help me, it might make them feel needed, a part of my life."

Bob just stared. He wasn't going to give me the answers. I had to find them myself. "I suppose the main reason would be to get their approval," I admitted.

Bingo! Bob's face lit up like a beacon. "Yes, that's right! But why is their approval so important to you?"

Suddenly, after so many years, I understood. "Because I've never had it."

We weren't finished. Bob asked, "Since you say you've never had your parents' approval and this appears to be a lifelong problem, what would make you believe that suddenly they would give it to you freely?"

Good question. I felt a sudden change in the pattern of my thoughts. It felt like a piece of cobweb had broken loose. There was an awareness that had not been there for 42 years! I could feel the wheels turning in my head.

I sat and stared at Bob while I thought. There were so many feelings flowing that I didn't even see his face. It was as though a movie was being played before my eyes of all the attempts and futile efforts performed by me to get two people to approve of my life and me.

"Oh my gosh, Bob! I never will have their approval. Even when my life was happy and great events were taking place, they didn't approve of me. It was almost like they wanted me to fail."

"So you're saying that, chances are, your parents will never approve?"

"That's right!"

Bob was as excited as I was. "Do you see now why it's so illogical to actively seek something that has never happened and probably never will?"

~Whose Face Is in the Mirror?: The Story of One Woman's Journey from the Nightmare of Domestic Abuse to True Healing by Dianne Schwartz, pages 67-68

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Norman Lamm Prize 2010: Presented to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

If you have the opportunity to listen to the recording or watch video of this speech and presentation, that would be far preferable to my poor attempt to transcribe it. I was not able to get down many of the words (every place you see ellipses in this document connotes skipped statements) and thus much of the beauty and eloquence is lost in the presentation I offer below. That is aside from all the great jokes! However, if for some reason you are unable to get ahold of the other forms of media, this, with all of its many mistakes, should at least give you the gist/ essence of what this historic evening was like.


President Joel: There are still three people that the Chief Rabbi has not greeted in this audience; we will allow him some time later to do that. Bruchim HaBaim; it is beyond wonderful to have this opportunity to be with you, students, rabbeim, members of our board of trustees, members of the Lamm family. A great special welcome to Rabbi Maurice Lamm, Mrs. Shirley Lamm who have taught here for many years who are both children of the yeshiva and guides of the yeshiva and should be here for many years.

Nearly 50 years ago Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm ascended the pulpit of the Jewish Center to deliver his drasha- his words remain vital today. Quote: “we can and will remain loyal Jews and progressive moderns at the same time …. We believe with fervent faith that it is possible to live in and combine both worlds…the one of satellites, the other of sugyot…” Dr. Lamm penned those words in 1962 as rabbi of the Jewish Center in Manhattan and has lived ever since by those words as president and now chancellor and rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva University. For his lifetime dedication to Torah U’Madda, exceptional devotion to advancement of YU in the greater Jewish world, for his always modeling the dignity of a nuanced life, for his always doing that with his eishes chayil at his side as his strong power, for investing his years insuring that ____ study, hope and dream together it is fitting that we the YU community, the community he helped forge and ____ honor Dr. Lamm tonight at this inaugural ceremony. Tonight we recognize Rabbi Jonathan Sacks as first recipient of the prize …. Also good that the first time we present an award, we present it to the Lord. (laughter) Yeshiva University is honored to confer this award for the first time on such an extraordinary recipient. The Lamm Prize is the capstone of the Lamm Heritage; an endowment made possible by the many ____ it includes Yad Lamm, a site on our campus, the Norman Lamm ___ kollel where our scholars delve into the depths of Jewish law and the Norman Lamm Online Archives where a treasury of his writings are accessible to all. It is my pleasure to call upon one of the grandsons of Rabbi Lamm, Ari Lamm, to introduce his grandfather. As of this week he is the first student at YU to be awarded the Fullbright Scholarship, an extraordinary achievement.

Ari Lamm: As I began to prepare my remarks this past week I was reminded of an observation made by one of my favorite comedians. Most common fear amongst contemporary Americans is fear of public speaking. Second common is fear of death. So most Americans would prefer to be in the casket than speaking at a funeral. …Even more frightening than that is having to provide a proper introduction to mori v’rabbi Norman Lamm…what could I possibly say about my grandfather that hasn’t already been said by many others much better and more eloquently than myself? Spent more time with him in an informal setting.

Several years ago privileged to accompany my grandfather on a flight overseas and as we sat down began to talk about everything from a passage I learned in shiur to a passage in Josephus, etc and after a while they dimmed the cabin lights and my fellow passengers including my grandfather began to doze off. I began to doodle. I have to inform you all- reveal you all- a longheld jealously guarded secret about my grandfather and that is that he is a phenomenal, phenomenal cartoonist. One of my favorite memories of my grandfather was receiving mail from my grandfather with funny people making funny faces. I asked my grandfather: Zeide, what do you think? What do you think of my drawings? He replied, “Eh.” Crestfallen, I turned to him and said what do I do wrong. And he said, “Every single one of your faces looks exactly the same. If you want to be a good cartoonist, you have to give them something different- melancholy expression, eyepatch, etc. Don’t be lazy and give each one a distinctive set of features.”

My grandfather’s response had not only a tremendous positive impact on my skills of a cartoonist but it also resonated because it also epitomized his greatest quality as a leader of our community. His ability to perceive with penetrating ____ the precise nature of each and every individual with whom he comes into contact. Boundless tolerance for others; especially those who consider him an intellectual and ideological opponent. And as I sat there I really understood the secret of his insightful sensitivity- when he draws a picture of a face, he’s so keenly aware of what distinguishes one drawing from another, one face from another and it’s that sense of nuance that … without prejudice that makes him such a role model to his grandchildren, and all ofklal yisrael.

Norman Lamm: I will speak for no more than 2 or 3 minutes and my words of greeting are divided into three parts. Number One, my grandson. I suppose most of you know that he just this week two days ago received good news that he won a Fullbright Scholarship. If anyone deserved it, I know it is he. Very proud of him and we hope you are ___ (laughter) Even if you had not won the Fullbright, we still cherish you, but had you not won it, I would have referred t o the prize as the Half-Bright.

Number Two, My heartfelt thanks to President Richard Joel and the board of trustees for granting me this wonderful compliment, Lamm Prize, Lamm Archives, Yadin Yadin. Mr. President, you have consistently overwhelmed me- constantly- with your very creative kindness and it’s a sheer pleasure to work with you. To admire your – the fact that your indefatigable in your- consummate loyalty, your ingenuity, which make you a great president. And may you continue to lead us with your fabulous ___, profound wisdom and _____. (applause)

I’m not going to introduce our guest of honor because then I’d be __ that privilege belongs to the President whose idea of this evening, whole idea of a Lamm Prize, etc is his. He is the one who thought of you. I merely gave it my enthusiastic consent. Frankly, he was not the guest of honor- the guest of honor was not my main choice this evening. He was an only choice. For he is the only person whose name occurred to me as the very first recipient of the Lamm Prize. Mr. President, it is with ____ reluctance and envy that I yield the podium to you of making a formal introduction of a great man, great rabbinic leader and a great man, both personally and institutionally. (Applause)

Dr. Hillel Davis, Vice President for University Life: I’m not President Joel. Mr. President, it is my honor to present to you Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks for the conferral of the inaugural Norman Lamm Prize.

President Joel: Jonathan Sacks is Chief Rabbi of the United Congregation of the Commonwealth since 1991 you have maximized your …went on to serve and educate British Jewry and Jewish people with dignity and distinction ,culminating with being united by ___. As Baron Sacks of Aldgate (are you Jewish?)- that’s your Lower East Side? (laughing)- as Baron Sacks of Aldgate in the City of London you took a seat in the House of Lords in 2009 together with your wonderful and gracious life partner Lady Elaine and wonderful children. The Sacks family in so many ways …prolific writing career, produced many original works but are also adept at improving a classic. Your English translation and commentary on the siddur has made our historic liturgy …and heightened the experience of those who have been davening for years. Promote a message of both hope and optimism wherein both Jews and non-Jews can …shown an incredible willingness for sharing your message and teachings with a vast population. While you live in London and serve the world, a particular piece of Jonathan Sacks is here at Yeshiva University. In your newest book, ‘Future Tense’ you wrote “Judaism is a … of details but we miss the point if we do not…greater picture. Every element of Jewish law is a protest against escapism, resignation at the blind acceptance of fate….world that is in the name of the world that could be, should be but is not yet. There is no more challenging vocation. Throughout …when human beings have sought hope, they have found it in the Jewish religion….” For spreading hope in a world desperately in need of it… for championing God and Torah with the whole world watching, it is my profound…to bestow upon you the Norman Lamm regard as a visible symbol of the high regard in which you are held.

(They take pictures of Chancellor Lamm, Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks and President Joel)

Jonathan Sacks: (Standing ovation before he can speak) President Joel, B’Kvod HaRav Rabbi Norman Lamm shlita, distinguished rabbanim, friends, thank you for this honor. President Joel, you did very well at ___, even better than Her Majesty, in case you are looking for a promotion. I am deeply touched and deeply moved by your words and have to remind myself of what great American Adlai Stevenson said that “Compliments are fine so long as you don’t inhale.” Friends, I want to say what a wonderful privilege it is to stand in this great hall in this great institution, yeshiva University, which is for me, and I say this carefully, the single most important educational institution in Chutz LaAretz and to do so in the presence of your President, President Joel, I want to say what a fine job you have done. The Yeshiva is lucky to have you and I wish you continued success. But tonight isn’t about me, President Joel, Yeshiva university but about the man who has won the affection of everyone in this room and thousands more. The real person we are here to honor is Rabbi Norman Lamm.

Friends, let me tell you a very simple story. It is said that 42 years ago in 1968 a young philosophy student came to America to search for Jewish faith …to alleviate his doubt. One of those thinkers was Rabbi Norman Lamm. The student, being a little farblungent, had not arranged a meeting in advance but instead, relying upon chutzpah and serendipity, asked to see him. No reason to see this student or spend time with him but that is what he did. He took this student into his office and spoke to him for more than an hour about Torah U’Madda, synthesis, Rav Kook, Yeshiva University where Torah was strong and Madda was strong but where in 1968 he wasn’t sure that the synthesis between them had actually happened. That was of course before Rabbi Lamm became president of Yeshiva University, before he launched the Orthodox Forum, etc. It explains why tonight has been so personally meaningful to me for that act of ...generosity ….friends, you don’t need me to tell you about the Norman Lamm who is the superlative writer, speaker, thinker, teacher, the man who unflinchingly carried the banner of Torah U’Madda sometimes in the face of attacks from light and right. As I said to … “If you are faithful to the principles you have learned in this institution, you will be attacked by the right and by the left and when that happens, that will be your honorary doctorate.” Friends, you know the public rabbi. I just want you to know the private rabbi whose kindness changed my life. Friends, please join me in standing and showing our appreciation to one of the great gedolei zemaneinu, Rabbi Norman Lamm.

In 1756, hero of the Enlightenment, Voltaire, published a virulently anti-Semitic essay about the Jews. They had, he said, attributed nothing significant to …no art, no philosophy, even their religion they had borrowed from others. Within the next ___ the Jewish people whom he condemned for having nothing new had produced an explosion of ____ the likes of which it is hard to find. (Here he gave an entire list- “except for the token gentile, Hume.” And then gave lots of statistics and percentages.) You name it, they did it. Even when it comes to apikorsim, let’s face it- they did well! Jews produced three of the four greatest apikorsim in the modern world: Marx, Freud, …. Except Darwin. Why Darwin wasn’t Jewish I have no idea; had the beard, the hat etc …it must have been a token genetic mutation.

Unspoken tragedy of the modern Jewish world. The Catholic historian Paul Johnson once called rabbinic Judaism an ancient and highly productive social machine for the production of ____ and yet for the past 200 years Judaism ahs lost its…Today, there are more Jews studying in university than ever before. There are more Jews studying in yeshiva than ever before- more than in the days of Mir, Ponevich, Sura U’Pumbadita, etc. There is a form of where the right and left hemispheres of the brain are both intact but they don’t connect. Today the Jewish people as a whole is suffering from a collective cerebral lesion. To say how wrong this situation is, how fundamentally wrong/ different from fundamental Jewish values, I want you to accompany me on an intellectual journey – structure shared neither by any figures in the mainstream of Western philosophical thought.

Let us begin at the beginning: Bereishit Bara Elokim. Assume that as we look and see something very odd instead. The theme of Chumash, the theme of Tanakh is clear- Bereishit says so. The Torah is about the Jewish people, in particular a unique people. But the Torah does not begin with the Jewish people. It begins instead with a series of archetypes about humanity as a whole: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, Babel and its builders. And not till then does it focus on one man, Abraham, one woman, Sarah who become a tribe and a collection of tribes. It begins with a universal and only then does it become particular.

Birkat HaMazon begins with the universal- hazan es ha’kol and then goes to the particular. Berachot of Kerias Shema begins with the universal and only then moves to the particular and what makes this unusual is that it is precise opposite to the mainstream tradition in Western philosophical thought. _____ called the whole of Western philosophy a series of footnotes to Plato. For Plato, knowledge begins with particularity but it culminates with the universal. Thus, the Torah is the West’s supreme example of a counter-Platonic narrative.

So you see the dual focus of the narrative. Then see the structure of Bereishit built around two different covenants. One, Noach and through him all humanity and number two, Abraham, and through him all the ____. First one with Noah, universal, second with Abraham, particular. We add to this, the third. The Torah functions based on two primary names of God- Elohim and Chazal. Elokim: Midat HaDin, Hashem, Midat RAchamim. Analysis given by Halevi in book 4 of the Kuzari are words of different philological type. Elokim is a collective noun- totality of all forces collected in the universe. The ancients personified all the forces of the universe- God is the totality of them. Hashem, says Yehuda HaLevi is not a noun, but is a proper name, the way the President of yeshiva University is Richard, etc. Now, we only give proper names to persons or sometimes by extension, things for which we have some affection: the car, etc- whatever we have. But if you use a proper name, it’s only for things for which we have intimacy/ affection. You can call the Queen ‘her majesty’ or ‘elizabeth’a nd you’ll still end up in the Tower. Elokim implies distance; Hashem is attached, not detached. What Yehuda HaLevi called the God ofAristotle and the God of Abraham.

Throughout Bereishit and throughout the Torah, God appears not just to Jews but to non-Jews as well. He appears to Avimelech, but as Elokim. It is always as Elokim. And the Torah assumes that non-Jews will understand the concept of Elokim. Joseph says to Potiphar’s wife, how can I yield to you against the law of Elokim. The Torah assumes that non-Jews relate to Elokim; what they don’t relate to is Hashem. Pharoah says about Joseph, ‘Asher Ruach Elokim bo’- but Moses, Pharoah says- ‘Mi Hashem? Lo Yadati Et Hashen.’ Hashem does not appear to non-Jews; Elokim does. Elokim is universal, understood by anyone. But Hashem is particular to the Jewish community.

Let us now take this analysis one stage further. What is the primary arena in which we encounter Elokim? Bereishit Bara Elokim; Elookim is God as manifest in Creation. Prime Mover, Source of All Being, God of Creation. However, immediately in Chapter 2, we begin to encounter Hashem Elokim, in Chapter 4, just Hashem. And when? When God enters into a personal relationship with someone, when he discloses himself, speaks, listens, commands- Hashem is the God of Revelation. So we are beginning to see a picture building up, a duality between the universal and particular, Noah and Abraham, covenant with humanity vs. covenant with one nation, God as he appears to Jew and non-Jew alike and God as he appears to Jew. Dual metaphysic generates a dual epistemology- two different forms of knowledge and they belong to this total worldview. Most famous expression of this is in Midrash- if they say to you that there is wisdom amont the nations, believe it; if they say there is Torah among the nations, do not believe it.

Chachma is a biblical category- there are three books of Bible in which the incidences of Chachma are overwhelmingly concentrated- Mishlei, Kohelet, Iyov where the word appears far more than any other book. (Lists times) And t hose three books are known generically as the Wisdom Literature. And if you look at all the occurrences of the word chachmah in tanakh you will see that it is always a reference to something universal just as wisdom literature of Judaism is close to wisdom literature of period of Ancient Egypt. So in Bereishis, period of chachmah appears exclusively in relation to Egypt. So Pharoah says to Joseph, ‘ain navon u’c___ kamocha’ and in Shmos, ___ so chachmah is a universal. So if we ask in what context, does the word chachmah appear? The context, of course, is creation. Mah Rabu Maasecha Hashem; kUlam b’chachma asisa. Torah is never spoken of as universal; it is contrary specific to the people of the convenant. Moshe Rabbeinu says specifically- Torah was given to Jews, not to anyone else. So we see now that this duality of two ways of knowing things is built in to the very structure of the universe, built into the structure of reality is Torah and understanding, built into realtiy and our ___ of the world.

So two modes of knowledge :Chachmah and Torah and they completely differ. Chachmah is the truth we discover, Torah is the truth we inherit. Chachma is the universal, heritage of humankind. Torah is the specific heritage of Israel. Chachma comes from being individual, which we all are- naaseh adam l’havin u’lhaskil. Every human being has the ability to acquire chachma. Chachmah is acquired by seeing and reason. Toarh is acquired by listening and responding. Chachmah tells us what it is; Torah tells us what ought to be. Chachma yields facts, Torah tells us commands. Chachmah is about creation; Torah is about revelation.

And now we can understand what otherwise would seem a flat contradiction- the Rambam famously says, “Accept the truth, no matter who says it.” The Gemara says, “Accept the word in the name of he who said it.” The Gemara says no, it matters who says it! Appears to be a contradition but Rambam was talking about chachmah and Gemara is talking about Torah. When it comes to the truth of revelation, we have to be sure of the chain of transmission; otherwise we cannot be… so what we have very quickly seen is that throughout a whole series of …the duality of the heart of Judaism as it is translated into biblical narrative, covenant, names of God- now, let us simply put the final piece in. Let us locate this on the map of Jewish faith.

Rambam famously established the idea and presented 13 principles of Jewish faith. Tashbetz divided the all into 3 categories of creation, revelation, redemption. Creation: God and the world. Revelation: God and us. When you apply revelation to creation, the result is redemption.

Now we come to the spiritual question of our time: Redemption means apply revelation to creation. Torah to the world. How can we apply Torah to the world if we don’t understand the world? Here is a moment: March 199_ - year before they said would give me the Chief Rabbinate- and so we went to Yerushalayim for a year to find peace before taking up Chief Rabbinate. 1991 Iran launched attacks on Israel- by a series of miracles there was only one casualty but there was another casualty. It turned out to be family stress. Apparently Israelis are not used to being in one small room with their whole family. Towards the end of the war, received a phone call from the mayor of Yerushalayim- saying they were doing a ___ on family stress and could I please be the rabbi on the working party. I said you have no rabbi in Yerushalyaim? And he said, we have rabbanim but none that understand the psychology of family stress. And I said, Ribbono Shel Olam, when it ahppesn that rabbanim do not understand psychology, etc ____ is there a single greater humiliation of Torah than when it becomes irrelevant to the problems of society, especially a Jewish society? When Torah ceases to become the foundation of society but becomes instead the possession of a sect or series of sects which have to defend themselves by erecting high walls against the world outside, then that is a fractured- Judaism can’t align. Judaism is a code of life. Chas Veshalom the Torah should have nothing to say to us about the structure of an economy, breakdown of family, principles of government. When Jews appear to the world, how do they appear nowadays? They appear to the world as a series of religious sects who keep their distance on one hand and …HaYitachen? Is that the image we are supposed to present to the world? Whatever happened to ‘hi chachmaschem?’ Whatever happened to ‘v’rabu kol chachmei ha’aretz ki shem hashem nikra alecha?” Whatever happened to the religion that so valued chachma, science, that it coined a blessing more than 2000 years ago on ‘ha’roeh chachmei __ olam’ – someone who sees a non-Jewish, a non-believer- they weren’t’ monotheists when Chazal coined that bracha- the bracha that I made on James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA when he and I received the Mallory Doctorate. Are we supposed to treat science the way that the Vatican related to Galileo, etc- us? We are afraid of thse challenges? We lose a sesnse of the supreme principle of faith, so supreme that we recite it 7 times at the climax, end of Neilah- Hashem Hu Ha’Elokim. The God of Revelation is also the God of the world. Now I’m aware that not all chachma is …. The sages were very clear in their distinction between chachmas as such and chachma yevanit- the culture of the cynics and epicureans. And I have no doubt today that we have our own Chachma Yevanit- Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Danny Dennin- what I call the intellectual’s equivalent of “road rage.” They may count as your chachma yevanit which is not science but scientism, myth masquerading as science. But without a compelling defense of faith, without a literate, informed, articulation of faith, we will continue to lose our best friends for the next 250 years as we have done for the past 250 years and we will fail in God’s mandate to the Jewish people by being a transformative presence in the midst of humanity by applying revelation to ____ and ___ redemption. Friends, all that we have to do without comprising one ___ of halakha and ____ so that we can speak to the world. I have discovered that when you speak Torah to the world, it speaks not only to the Jews but to the world.

Is it possible in America where your Jewish community is 20 times as big as ours- friends, we know that not everyone will choose this route. It is hard; it is intellectually demanding but let me assure you that there is not one challenge out there in the world today that we cannot face with total confidence. Moshe Emes v’Toraso Emes- our faith speaks with undiminished power to the formidable dilemmas of f20th century etc. Friends, we have to mend that cerebral lesion, that dissociation of sensibilities that splits Torah from Chachma, God’s world from the world in which we live. That is __ hashav- the imperative of our time. And I say this to you knowing that you start with the greatest advantage anyone could have- Yeshiva University itself, led and inspired for so many years by the man we honor tonight, Rabbi Norman Lamm. Man of Chachma and Torah- he led the way. Now let us continue. Thank you.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Deception of Jacob: Atonement for Pain Caused

While in Schenectady this past Shabbat, at a shul entitled Beth Israel, I chanced upon a book entitled Lying for Truth written by Nosson Slifkin. The book addresses the seemingly problematic actions of Jacob regarding his taking the blessings from Esau. Slifkin desires to prove that in fact all of these actions were permissible; I prefer R' Jonathan Sacks' rendering, where he claims that Jacob did sin and thus had to give back these blessings. However, I did find the following passage in Slifkin's book to be particularly interesting:



Considering that Yaakov was right to do as he did, it is somewhat perplexing to find that the deception led to severe consequences for the Jewish people:
    Rabbi Chanina said: "Anyone who says that Hashem overlooks matters will have his life 'overlooked.' Rather, He contains His anger and then collects His due. Yaakov caused Eisav to emit a single cry, as it says, 'When Eisav heard the words of his father [that Yaakov had taken the berachos], he cried out' (Bereishis 27:34), and where was he repaid for th is? In Shushan, as it says [when Mordechai heard about Haman's decree against the Jews], 'And he cried an exceedingly great and bitter cry.'"

    ~Bereishis Rabbah 67:4; Bava Kamma 50a
If Yaakov was right to do as he did, why did these consequences happen?

I heard from my rosh yeshivah, Rav Binyomin Moskovitz, shlita, that even if Yaakov had to do as he did, he still had to receive atonement for any pain caused in the process of reaching his goal. One must always feel some of the pain one causes others, even if there is no other way out. Everything has to be repaid.

One might ask, in that case, it does not seem very fair of Hashem to have arranged circumstances that way. This can be answered with a concept discussed by Rav Yosef Yehuda Leib Bloch, zt"l (Shiurei Da'as 2:3). He states that one might be punished for taking a particular course of action, even if, under the circumstances, it is the best course of action to take. For had one been on a higher spiritual level, Hashem would have arranged things differently. So, too, with Y aakov; though one may wonder how a person who reached such a high level that his face is displayed on the Divine Chariot as the epitome of the "ultimate human" could have been on a higher level, in truth there is no end to the levels that a person can reach.

The Netziv explains Yaakov's punishment differently (Herchav Davar - in chumash HaEmek Davar- Bereishis 27:34). The necessity of receiving the berachos allowed Yaakov to commit an aveirah liShmah (a sin for the sake of Heaven) and to deceive Yitzchak. However any personal pleasure received from such an act removes the liShmah aspect, leaving it a plain sin, to the extent that pleasure is received. Yaakov caused great worry to Yitzchak, but he received no pleasure from it and so was not held accountable. (Footnote: The Zohar, however, states that he did cause pain to Yitzchak and was punished for it. Nevertheless, the Zohar states that Hashem supported Yaakov's actions.) However, he did receive a minute amount of pleasure from Eisav's pain, which had to be paid for.

~Lying for Truth by Nosson Slifkin, pages 42-44


While doing some research today, I chanced upon a magnificent article (which happens to cite Lying for Truth) by Joel B. Wolowelsky entitled "Kibbud Av and Kibbud Avot: Moral Education and Patriarchal Critiques." I believe every student, teacher and parent should read it. It focuses upon how we can learn from the biblical narrative regarding our forefathers in order to be aware of how and how not to parent. To be aware of the mistakes made by our predecessors and to endeavor not to repeat them is a way of showing them honor.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

I Love My Murderer

A movement of Catherine's relieved me a little presently: she put up her hand to clasp his neck, and bring her cheek to his as he held her; while he, in return, covering her with frantic caresses, said wildly -

'You teach me now how cruel you've been - cruel and false. Why did you despise me? Why did you betray your own heart, Cathy? I have not one word of comfort. You deserve this. You have killed yourself. Yes, you may kiss me, and cry; and wring out my kisses and tears: they'll blight you - they'll damn you. You loved me - then what RIGHT had you to leave me? What right - answer me - for the poor fancy you felt for Linton? Because misery and degradation, and death, and nothing that God or Satan could inflict would have parted us, you, of your own will, did it. I have not broken your heart - You have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine. So much the worse for me that I am strong. Do I want to live? What kind of living will it be when you - oh, God! would you like to live with your soul in the grave?'

'Let me alone. Let me alone,' sobbed Catherine. 'If I've done wrong, I'm dying for it. It is enough! You left me too: but I won't upbraid you! I forgive you. Forgive me!'

'It is hard to forgive, and to look at those eyes, and feel those wasted hands,' he answered. 'Kiss me again; and don't let me see your eyes! I forgive what you have done to me. I love my murderer - but yours! How can I?'

They were silent-their faces hid against each other, and washed by each other's tears. At least, I suppose the weeping was on both sides; as it seemed Heathcliff could weep on a great occasion like this.

~Wuthering Heights by Emile Bronte, Chapter 15

Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman on Husbands, Wives & Lies

Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman was kind enough to write me a letter regarding my former post. In the interests of truth, allowing everyone access to the same sources/ ideas he offered me, and with his permission, here's the letter!


Dear Chana,

Thank you for taking the time to read my book, "The Right and the Good", and for giving the issues discussed serious consideration. I want to thank you as well for giving me an opportunity, with your post, to clarify the nature of what was represented in the section you were discussing. The issue being presented in that chapter is the Talmudic license/obligation to obscure the factual truth when doing so will preserve peace and harmony. The question of whether or not such a strategy will actually be productive in acheiving that goal is a completely separate discussion, and, as you pointed out, open to both serious question and a wide range of variables. It is incumbent upon one who would avail himself of this principle to carefully analyze if this is indeed the case, and nothing in the halachic discussion prejudges that conclusion or absolves one of the responsibility of that careful and responsible analysis. If the circumstances are such that it is clear that falsehood will be more productive than full disclosure, only then does the halachic question present itself: does the prohibition of midvar sheker tirchak nonetheless obligate one in said disclosure? It is from that point that the discussion in the Talmud, the rishonim and poskim begins.

As to the intial analysis as to what approach is more appropriate and beneficial, your discomfort is entirely valid and understandable; however, to dismiss the conclusion of the poskim in the discussed case is to assert that there is no circumstance whatsoever, and no couple in the world, for whom the decision is appropriate, and that such an assertion can be made with such complete confidence as to make all halakhic ruling on the matter irrelevant. It would take quite an all-encompassing wisdom to stake that position, and I for one cannot make such a claim. It is also crucial to understand that the issue of disclosure before marriage is not even under discussion here (a different issue; see Responsa Minchat Yitzchak VII,139; Responsa Maharsham VII,152; Responsa Iggerot Moshe OC II,118), but rather the possible approaches after that stage has passed.

I acknowledge that I should probably have made that distinction more clear in the original presentation; when I first wrote the book, I was in my twenties, and accordingly more inclined to allow the views of the poskim to speak for themselves and to maintain a respectful distance (although the book has been expanded more recently, for better or for worse, I have maintained a similar inclination). But the point is important and I thank you for provoking its clarification.

However, I must protest that your extrapolation to concealing medical information is, with all due respect, completely fallacious. The premise of the poskim, whether it is accepted or not, is that the incident would not have any bearing on the couple's present or future life together. To assume that it would be expanded to facts that may indeed impact on their shared life is without any basis in logic, and ignores a very significant body of literature on the topic (of medical conditions and marriage) - to start, I would refer you to Sefer Chasidim 388; Yalkut Yosef, Hilkhot Kibbud Av vi-Eim; Responsa Iggerot Moshe Even HaEzer III, 27 and IV 73:2; Responsa Birkat Reuven Shlomo IV, 69; Responsa Tzitz Eliezer XVI,4; Responsa Chelkat Ya'akov III,136; Responsa Chavatzelet HaSharon 63; Techumin vol XXV, pp. 47-58; Diverei Chayil, 23:2; Responsa Divrei Yatziv, Even HaEzer 15 ; Responsa Yashiv Yitzchak, XXV, 44; Mishpetei HaShalom ch. 20; Beit Chatanim, pp. 16-22; Kehilat Ya'akov, Yevamot 44; Responsa Divrei Malkiel, II. 89; Reponsa K'neh Bosem I, 121; and Mishnat Yisrael ch. 21.

If it is indeed the case that there are aspects of the issue that were not fully considered in your post, is it equally possible that your assessment of the view of great poskim as "skewed", particularly in a public forum, may have been premature? If so, I hope you will reconsider the language; while I would be happy to accept such judgement about my own writings, I would feel terrible being the cause of the writings of great poskim been understood in that way.

I thank you again for your time and consideration.

All the best,
Daniel Feldman

The Rosebud of Passion

Extreme Views

Throughout the ages two extreme views...have most frequently been voiced- one deifying desire, the other vilifying it. There were those who, overwhelmed by the dark power of passion, believed that they sensed in its raving a manifestation of the gods and celebrated its gratification as a sacred ritual. Dionysian orgies, fertility rites, sacred prostitution are extreme examples of a view that subconsciously has never died out.

The exponents of the other extreme, frightened by the destructive power of unbridled passion, have taught man to see ugliness in desire, Satan in the rapture of the flesh. Their advice was to repress the appetites, and their ideal, self-renunciation and asceticism. Some Greeks said: "Passion is a god, Eros"; Buddhists say: "Desire is evil."

To the Jewish mind, being neither enticed nor horrified by the powers of passion, desires are neither benign nor pernicious but, like fire, they do not agree with straw. They should be neither quenched nor supplied with fuel. Rather than worship fire and be consumed by it, we should let a light come out of the flames. Needs are spiritual opportunities.

~I Asked for Wonder by Abraham Joshua Heschel, pages 56-57

A Map of Time

A Map of Time

There are no words in the world more knowing,
more disclosing
and more indispensable,
words both stern and graceful,
heart-rending and healing.
A truth so universal: God is One.
A thought so consoling: He is with us in distress.
A responsibility so overwhelming:
his name can be desecrated.
A map of time: from creation to redemption.
Guideposts along the way: the Seventh Day.
An offering: contrition of the heart.
A utopia: would that all people were prophets.
The insight: man lives by his faithfulness;
his home is in time and his substance in deeds.
A standard so bold: ye shall be holy.
A commandment so daring: love thy neighbor as thyself.
A fact so sublime: human and divine pathos can be in accord.
And a gift so undeserved: the ability to repent.

~I Asked for Wonder by Abraham Joshua Heschel, pages 74-75

Attachment to the Utmost

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has his own drowned out by beauty quote. I thought I would put it up below:

Attachment to the Utmost

As a tree torn from the soil, as a river separated from its source, the human soul wanes when detached from what is greater than itself. Without the holy, the good turns chaotic; without the good, beauty becomes accidental. It is the pattern of the impeccable which makes the average possible. It is the attachment to what is spiritually superior: loyalty to a sacred person or idea, devotion to a noble friend or teacher, love for a people or for mankind, which holds our inner life together. But any ideal, human, social, or artistic, if it forms a roof over all of life, shuts us off from the light. Even the palm of one hand may bar the light of the entire sun. Indeed, we must be open to the remote in order to perceive the near. Unless we aspire to the utmost, we shrink to inferiority.

Prayer is our attachment to the utmost. Without God in sight, we are like the scattered rungs of a broken ladder. To pray is to become a ladder on which thoughts mount to God to join the movement toward Him which surges unnoticed throughout the entire universe.

~I Asked for Wonder by Abraham Joshua Heschel, pages 23-24

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Death in the Garden

He poisons him i' the garden for's estate. His name's Gonzago: the story is extant, and writ in choice Italian: you shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago's wife.

~"Hamlet" by William Shakespeare, Act 3, Scene 2


I recently discovered a fun motif that revolves around gardens. Gardens signify places of death in Tanakh; either people die upon entering gardens, the threat of death appears, or decisions of death are made whilst in the garden. Of course, the first significant mention of death in the garden occurs with the Garden of Eden and its denizens, Adam and Eve.
    טז וַיְצַו יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, עַל-הָאָדָם לֵאמֹר: מִכֹּל עֵץ-הַגָּן, אָכֹל תֹּאכֵל. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying: 'Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat;

    יז וּמֵעֵץ, הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע--לֹא תֹאכַל, מִמֶּנּוּ: כִּי, בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְךָ מִמֶּנּוּ--מוֹת תָּמוּת. 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.'

    ~Genesis 2:16-17
Through their transgressions in the garden, Adam and Eve in the end do proceed to bring the threat of death upon the world.

Lot perceives Sedom & Gemorah (in the future to be a place that is completely overturned and consumed by fire and brimstone, thus, a place of much death) as the 'garden of the Lord:'
    י וַיִּשָּׂא-לוֹט אֶת-עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא אֶת-כָּל-כִּכַּר הַיַּרְדֵּן, כִּי כֻלָּהּ, מַשְׁקֶה--לִפְנֵי שַׁחֵת יְהוָה, אֶת-סְדֹם וְאֶת-עֲמֹרָה, כְּגַן-יְהוָה כְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, בֹּאֲכָה צֹעַר. 10 And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of the Jordan, that it was well watered every where, before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, as thou goest unto Zoar.

    ~Genesis 13:10
King David dies upon having been lured into his garden:
    דף ל, ב גמרא כל יומא דשבתא הוה יתיב וגריס כולי יומא ההוא יומא דבעי למינח נפשיה קם מלאך המות קמיה ולא יכיל ליה דלא הוה פסק פומיה מגירסא אמר מאי אעביד ליה הוה ליה בוסתנא אחורי ביתיה אתא מלאך המות סליק ובחיש באילני נפק למיחזי הוה סליק בדרגא איפחית דרגא מתותיה אישתיק ונח נפשיה

    Now, every Sabbath day he would sit and study all day.1 On the day that his soul was to be at rest,2 the Angel of death stood before him but could not prevail against him, because learning did not cease from his mouth. 'What shall I do to him?' said he. Now, there was a garden before his house; so the Angel of death went, ascended and soughed in the trees. He [David] went out to see: as he was ascending the ladder, it broke under him. Thereupon he became silent [from his studies] and his soul had repose.

    ~BT Sabbath 30b
The death of Navos (whom Jezebel frames) occurs due to the fact that Ahab wants to use his property as a vegetable garden:
    ב וַיְדַבֵּר אַחְאָב אֶל-נָבוֹת לֵאמֹר תְּנָה-לִּי אֶת-כַּרְמְךָ וִיהִי-לִי לְגַן-יָרָק, כִּי הוּא קָרוֹב אֵצֶל בֵּיתִי, וְאֶתְּנָה לְךָ תַּחְתָּיו, כֶּרֶם טוֹב מִמֶּנּוּ; אִם טוֹב בְּעֵינֶיךָ, אֶתְּנָה-לְךָ כֶסֶף מְחִיר זֶה. 2

    And Ahab spoke unto Naboth, saying: 'Give me thy vineyard, that I may have it for a garden of herbs, because it is near unto my house; and I will give thee for it a better vineyard than it; or, if it seem good to thee, I will give thee the worth of it in money.'

    ~I Kings 21:2
King Menashe is buried in the palace garden:
    יח וַיִּשְׁכַּב מְנַשֶּׁה עִם-אֲבֹתָיו, וַיִּקָּבֵר בְּגַן-בֵּיתוֹ בְּגַן-עֻזָּא; וַיִּמְלֹךְ אָמוֹן בְּנוֹ, תַּחְתָּיו. {פ} 18 And Manasseh slept with his fathers, and was buried in the garden of his own house, in the garden of Uzza; and Amon his son reigned in his stead. {P}

    ~2 Kings 21:18
King Ahaseurus attends Esther's banquet with Haman and upon determining what to do with the unfortunate vizier, retreats into the garden. Haman is aware that the King is contemplating the death penalty because he falls upon Esther's couch in order to beg for his life:
    ז וְהַמֶּלֶךְ קָם בַּחֲמָתוֹ, מִמִּשְׁתֵּה הַיַּיִן, אֶל-גִּנַּת, הַבִּיתָן; וְהָמָן עָמַד, לְבַקֵּשׁ עַל-נַפְשׁוֹ מֵאֶסְתֵּר הַמַּלְכָּה--כִּי רָאָה, כִּי-כָלְתָה אֵלָיו הָרָעָה מֵאֵת הַמֶּלֶךְ. 7

    And the king arose in his wrath from the banquet of wine and went into the palace garden; but Haman remained to make request for his life to Esther the queen; for he saw that there was evil determined against him by the king.

    ח וְהַמֶּלֶךְ שָׁב מִגִּנַּת הַבִּיתָן אֶל-בֵּית מִשְׁתֵּה הַיַּיִן, וְהָמָן נֹפֵל עַל-הַמִּטָּה אֲשֶׁר אֶסְתֵּר עָלֶיהָ, וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ, הֲגַם לִכְבּוֹשׁ אֶת-הַמַּלְכָּה עִמִּי בַּבָּיִת; הַדָּבָר, יָצָא מִפִּי הַמֶּלֶךְ, וּפְנֵי הָמָן, חָפוּ. 8

    Then the king returned out of the palace garden into the place of the banquet of wine; and Haman was fallen upon the couch whereon Esther was. Then said the king: 'Will he even force the queen before me in the house?' As the word went out of the king's mouth, they covered Haman's face.

    ~Esther 7:7- 7:8
The only place where a garden seems to be used positively is in Song of Songs. (If people are not actually dying, making decisions about death or going to die with regard to gardens, they are trying to escape from death by way of the garden in all other verses.) Note that in Song of Songs 'garden' is generally used metaphorically, referring to the woman herself, as opposed to an actual place. Perhaps if one actually were to go into a garden, the death association I have discovered would still pan out.

As an aside, it also seems quite common in Tanakh for there to have been a special 'king's garden.' Plenty of kings- ranging from Menashe to Zedekiah to Ahaseurus- had them. I thought that was an interesting tidbit of knowledge.

Better Than Perfect

I followed Mystery Woman's post to her blog, where she writes about having to choose as to whether her son should go out with a girl who wears a size 8 as opposed to a girl who is somewhat thinner. To her mind, for reasons that utterly escape me, a size 8 means that a girl is less than perfect. Or as she writes in the comments,
    I think it's just that I want him to have 'perfect'. I know there's no such thing, but I'm his mom, and that's what my wish would be.
Aside from thinking Mystery Woman might do well to listen to "Beautiful" by Creed, I thought now would be a good time to cite from Aliza Stareshefsky's magnificent interview entitled, "Interview With An Orthodox Jewish Survivor of Anorexia and Bulimia:"
    The Observer: How do you think the shidduch system and dating affects the Orthodox world with regard to eating disorders?

    Aliza: Dating can get very, very difficult. For example, many times guys ask me the dress size of girls. But in reality, they don't even know what dress size means. I once did a test on a bunch of college age kids. They wrote down what size they thought a certain person was- they all thought she was a 2 or a 4 when actually she was an 8 or a 10. They would be perfectly comfortable with her body size; they just don't know what it means! It's very strange, because the questions are not even reality-based; they have no idea what they're talking about when they ask about sizes. They lack a frame of reference.
As a girl who ranges from a size 8-12 depending on the cut of the dress, I'm here to tell you that I happen to be beautiful, as are plenty of other girls I know who don't fit the 2-4 size range. Of course, there are girls who do fit that model who are also gorgeous. But I think it would behoove people to care about the personality, values, beliefs and attitudes of a person before determining whether their dress size ensures a happy marriage. Or in short: I agree, I'm not perfect- I'm better than perfect. Eminem would concur.

Let's Lie To Our Husbands And Wives Now, Shall We?

I was recently reading Daniel Z. Feldman's The Right and the Good: Halakhah and Human Relations (the expanded edition). While I applaud the idea of a book focusing upon how halakha holds value even if it's not referring to a shiur of matzah, I found the concept of lying for the sake of peace (or lying for shalom bayis) to be disturbing, as usual. I suppose that is because the scenarios presented would never evoke peace in my home, but rather anger at being deceived. Case in point:
    Ironically, it may be suggested that the more constricted understanding of this dispensation, that it is the lesser of two evils rather than a complete abrogation of the prohibition of falsehood, may recommend a more expansive application in some sense. If the pursuit of peace is powerful enough to overwhelm the injunction against lying, as expounded at length by the Rama in his responsum noted earlier, it may also be that it is likewise effective in overwhelming other precepts of the Torah when necessary. Alternatively, if the principle is enacted only because it utilizes a loophole in the laws of falsehood, there is no basis to extrapolate to other areas of Jewish law.

    R' Shimon Greenfield (Responsa Maharshag 3:65) considers the case of a woman who, in her youth, had given birth under circumstances less honorable than those in which she now chooses to live. Currently married, she has just borne her husband's first son. The husband, unaware of the more unsavory aspects of his wife's past, enthusiastically awaits performing the mitzvah of pidyon ha-ben. Is the husand to e informed that it is not necessary, irrespective of the substantial damage that will be incurred to marital harmony? Or, is a sham religious ceremony to be countenanced? R. Greenfeld, cognizant of the imperative to maintain peace looming large, allows the pseudo-ritual, while providing advice on the avoidance ofthe transgression of pronouncing an unwarranted blessing. R. Ovadiah Yosef (Responsa Yahbia Omer, vol. 8, Yoreh Deah 32), in a similar instance, goes as far as to allow the blessing. R. Yosef's eventual successor in the Israeli Sefardi Chief Rabbinate, R. Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, discusses yet another case in his Responsa Binyan Av 2:54. A similar issue concerns the unjustified insertion of the phrase betulta da, signifying a virgin, into the public reading of a ketubah at a wedding (Feldman 95).
Here is what I would like to know. How did this situation arise in the first place? Why did this woman marry this man without telling him about her past? Does she think a marriage founded upon lies is a good idea? And why do the rabbanim consider it lying for the sake of peace to let her pretend this is her first child- that's a major deception being practiced there! It's totally unethical and it's also wrong to the husband, who, if he knew, would doubtless proceed differently and may not even have married the woman in the first place. I don't see how it is protecting shalom bayis to conceal information of such drastic proportions. By this (to my mind skewed) logic, one would also not have to reveal any of one's medical information or other large, important pieces of information and claim shalom bayis immunity for these lies as well. As I don't think one can lie forever, eventually this will lead to a massive sense of betrayal and resultant anger; better to tell the truth in the first place.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Escape of the Fairy Queen

Olly & Votive Candles, Wheelchairs & Mini-Tanks

This Purim was perhaps one of the most fascinating ones I've ever had. This is because I scored an invitation to Boro Park to observe the festivities there. For those of you who are native Haredim, doubtless this isn't so exciting to you. But for those of us who live in the Modern Orthodox world, to be invited to see the inner workings of places like Lakewood or Boro Park is to be offered a glimpse of the hidden enclave, the sanctum sanctorum. In any case, I didn't go to Tisch or anything else that I was assured would be truly memorable, but even the everday in Boro Park is deeply intriguing to a Chicagoan like me. You see, this is how it works on Purim night:

Basically, lots of boys ranging in age (starting from middle school-post high school) get together in little shuttle buses or vans, having coordinated their costumes, and go collecting in groups. They have lists of the stops they need to make. Upon arrival at a house, they wheel their huge speaker out of their shuttle bus or limo (and if they are really fancy, get their other gear- disco balls, strobe lights and the like), then walk into the person's house as though they own it. They set up, start dancing for a good 15-20 minutes, then ask for their cheque. This behavior is repeated throughout the night, with other groups walking in to set up as the first ones are dying down. It can go on till 5AM. It's incredibly lively. The only down side is the air is thick with cigarette smoke and even little children (generally boys) are smoking.

I received some extremely creative Shalach Manos this Purim. One of them was in the shape of an artist's palette and should be immortalized for its sheer genius. The creator thereof ensured that her whole family was dressed up in colors in keeping with the theme.

I think the poem that came with it should also be recorded for posterity:

When we look at the world Hashem created
There is so much color to keep us sated
A rainbow full of colors in all of creation
Each element unique to fulfill its station
Just like an artist needs every color on his palette
To create a masterpiece worth his talent
Every Jew is distinctive in his purpose in this world
If he imitates others, he's like a flag unfurled
So let's take a hard look around us and then at ourselves
Have we become carbon copies, put our real souls on the shelves?
Are we all black and white to belong on the page
Forgetting our own roles on this earthly stage
In honor of Purim and V'Nahafochu, let's put on our colors
Get rid of the black and stop being like others
Let's paint the town red, blue, yellow and green
Fulfill our own missions and let our true selves be seen

The other particularly creative Shalach Manos came from a member of our very own Yeshiva University Medical Ethics Society! He dressed up as the Tin Man; his wife was the Cowardly Lion and his baby was the Scarecrow. They handed out Shalach Manos bags that looked like Scarecrows as well, explaining that their whole theme revolved around organ donation. The Tinman, you see, needed a heart to be donated to him. Inside of the Shalach Manos, my friend attached a HODS Organ Donation form, donuts that had been relabelled as 'DONATE,' and all sorts of other goodies cleverly renamed or changed to reflect this need.

Aside from Boro Park, as you know, I had a fabulous encounter with a votive candle that enabled me to learn what burning hair smells like. Not a necessary part of my education, in my opinion, except that it gives new meaning to the term, "stuck by lightning." God may not strike me with literal lightning, but apparently fire does the trick just as well. Huzzah.

It gets better, though. This weekend was spent in Schenectady at Regional Yarchei Kallah for Upstate NCSY. This Regional Yarchei Kallah was particularly memorable because a) they paired me with an excellent chavrusa for Daniel, and she came up with some brilliant ideas which made me super-happy b) the presence of a new person who is incredibly capable and resilient despite the fact that she happens to use a wheelchair. That last provided an education for me. I had not realized that there were specially-made wheelchairs for people aside from the kind that I've seen in hospitals or that elderly people use. These specially-made ones fold up, invert or otherwise perform all sorts of fancy tricks to make one's life easier. Probably the most fantastic moment of the Shabbaton was when this girl was able to go ice-skating! You see, all the rest of us could go ice-skating in skates, and we wondered whether there was a way that she would be able to go, too. Well, tada! This particular ice-skating rink was awesome and had a special sled that could be pulled/ pushed by the Ice Guards on which she could sit. You should have seen her face. Glowing, I tell you. Absolutely amazing.

The idea my brilliant chavrusa, Laura Weiss, came up with that made me start out of my seat with pleasure has to do with contrasting Daniel 3 and Daniel 6. In one, King Nebuchadnezzar punishes three men who refuse to bow to the image he has created by throwing them into a furnace. In the second, King Darius throws Daniel to the lions when he dares to pray. Laura and I were creating a list of the differences and similarities between these two chapters and the ways in which the kings are and are not the same. Laura pointed out that while King Nebuchadnezzar is an extremely powerful king- one who creates his own rules, edicts, laws, etc- King Darius is not. King Darius is tricked into potentially killing Daniel because he signs a decree not of his own making (similar to the Haman-Ahaseurus debacle.) Laura noted that even the method of punishment was a symbol of their autonomy or lack thereof. King Nebuchadnezzar, the powerful one, prefers a method he can be sure of. He is the one in charge of heating up the furnace; he can be certain that it will kill those who disobey him. In contrast, the punishment devised by Darius (or rather, his viziers, but which Darius approves) has to do with wild lions. A king cannot control wild animals. They will eat, gorge themselves or choose not to do so according to their own whims. Even the method of punishment thus characterizes the king in question.

It was such a brilliant and subtle point and I was thrilled when Laura taught it to me.

One of the other highlights of Shabbaton was learning a new game called Mini-Tanks. Basically, two groups of boys assemble pyramid structures (usually comprised of 5-8 people total) and face off. They start crawling toward one another on the floor with a deep rumbling mantra cry of, "Mini-Tanks! Mini-Tanks!" They then collide and struggle to press onward. The side which has the most people reaching the other end of the room intact wins. This may not sound particularly amusing, but when all your NCSYers are doing it, let me assure you that it is.

In other news, I have learned it is not the wisest of ideas to stand on top of plastic toilet seats in an effort to open your bathroom window:

Yes, I broke it. I also fell in and somehow managed to remain intact. God loves me. (And Dana, who is the installation queen, made sure that we have a new one, that it is awesome, etc.) Over Shabbaton, something similarly amusing occurred. You see, I had pulled over my chair to sit down and began to sit only to realize that the chair...somehow...was not there. So I fell backwards on the floor, a surprised expression on my face.

Overhead, Benny was laughing uncontrollably. He had moved away the chair but had expected me to say, "Dude, where's my chair?" not to attempt to sit on air and then fall, "very gracefully," he informed me, onto the floor.

So between Shalach Manos, votive candles, wheelchairs, mini-tanks, washrooms and falling, it has been a grand couple of days. Hurrah!

Friday, March 05, 2010

My Hair's On Fire!

I was out with a friend of mine tonight and there was a little votive candle on the table where we were sitting.

I leaned forward and unintentionally placed my hair in the fire. Suddenly half my head is on fire (voila) and I very calmly took my right hand, squeezed the fire out on the left side of my head, and then threw away the charred pieces of hair. It was amazing. I'm usually not even brave enough to put my finger through a candle flame, and here I was squeezing out a conflagaration on one side of my head. I didn't even burn my hand.

(How did I know what to do? All that I remembered was that a fire needs air to breathe and burn, and thus I decided to deprive the fire of oxygen by squeezing it out with my hand.)

"Well," said my friend, "if you can do that, you can certainly master putting contacts in your eyes."

And that's my happy story of this evening. It got better when the maitre'd type person came over to inquire as to what we were burning. He thought we had been throwing paper or something of that sort into the flame.

"Oh, just my hair," I replied nonchalantly. He did a double take.

(And don't worry- I'm not disfigured and you cannot even tell that any of my hair is missing.)

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Emotional Hemophilia

It's just a papercut, but if you're a hemophiliac, your blood does not clot correctly. And thus, it's not that you're bleeding with more intensity. It's just that you're bleeding for longer. Days. Weeks. Potentially, your cut might never heal. It depends what kind of hemophiliac you are.

Perhaps lesser known, but also true, is the fact that some people suffer from emotional hemophilia. They get cut. Maybe it's just a papercut. But they don't get over being cut. They hurt. They hurt badly. And the hurt continues on.

If you would go to a doctor to buy blood-clotting drugs so your papercut doesn't prove fatal, why wouldn't you go to a doctor to ensure that your emotional hemophilia doesn't hurt you, either?

That, my friends, is the million dollar question.