Thursday, November 27, 2014

Parshat VaYeitzeh (Audio shiur) - Did Yaakov really dream about a ladder?

Parshat VaYeitzeh

In this week’s shiur, we examine Yaakov’s dream, which is commonly understood to be about a ladder. Through a careful reading of the pesukim and an examination of ancient Near-Eastern religions, we suggest a different meaning for the word “sulam”. This interpretation allows us to not only better understand Yaakov’s dream, but also helps us understand the story of Migdal Bavel.

If there is a problem opening the link, click here to listen.

Also available on Youtube
(Running Time 45 minutes)

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sisyphus? (poem)

Peel by peel,
one layer at a time.
Punch by punch,
painfully lands on me.
Push by push,
I slowly climb the hill.
Step by step,
I continue to move.
Hard to believe,
something that feels futile, 
is part of the plan.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Back to the Future- Thoughts from my first NCSY shabbton in nearly twenty years

It’s been nearly half a lifetime, and most of a head of hair, since I was at an NCSY shabbaton. More than twenty years ago, I started out as an advisor. I loved the kids, the attention, and doing kiruv. I also loved ebbing; the activity that combined slow singing and a moving story as Shabbos ebbed away as well as havdalah. Even as I learned that not all the stories were true, or at the very least, had happened exactly as told, I continued to be moved by the whole experience.

This past Shabbos, for the first time in almost twenty years, I spent Shabbos back in my old region, Central East, as an Israel rep for an Israeli yeshiva. No longer cool, or perhaps, more accurately, even less cool than I’d been back in college, and also no longer someone who is so into many aspects of the world of kiruv, I was still moved by the experience. Rabbi Tzali Freedman, is still the Regional Director due to the fact that he still has “it” and the strong convictions that help a person change lives. As much as my cynical side has only grown since my NCSY days, as twenty of us sat singing “Kah Ribon” to my favorite tune at a Friday night staff oneg, I was just as moved as I was back in my days as an advisor, and judging from how he looked, so was Tzali.

I’ve moved past the time when I could do kiruv, having developed instead a strong preference for chinuch. I’ve gone from being an advisor to “the only Orthodox teen in Charleston, West Virginia”, to her friend (she even happened to be in Cleveland this past Shabbos). I struggle to make my emunah feel real in a way that I did not back then. Despite all of these changes, when I sing and sway along to havdalah, I immediately enter a world where things seems more simple, true and real. Even as I wonder about my dreams and whether some will ever come true, I continue to enjoy watching high school students, on the verge of becoming adults, thinking about their dreams and fleshing them out. While it might be true that you can never go back to the past, it was good to revisit it. While I was hardly the target audience of the shabbaton, I was certainly brought closer by the experience.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Lulei Toratecha- Torah-learning as a type of prayer

לוּלֵי תוֹרָתְךָ שַׁעֲשֻׁעָי אָז אָבַדְתִּי בְעָנְיִי

Were it not for Your Torah my delight, I would be lost in my pain.
(Loose translation of Tehillim 119:92)

I’m struggling with tefillah and not for the first time. The words seem stale and I mostly mumble them thoughtlessly. I wonder about the efficacy of my prayers, and about their purpose. At the same time, I’m probably more engaged in my Torah-learning than I’ve ever been. It has not only given me a creative outlet and a connection to God at a challenging time in my life. In some ways, it has become a form of prayer.

This past Shabbos, my friend Rabbi Neil Fleischmann shared an understanding of the above-mentioned pasuk from Tehillim. He pointed out that Torah does not always offer comfort at times of difficulty. It only does so when it is “my delight”. This idea really resonated with me. Not all Torah-learning is the same. As with tefillah, there are times when it can feel uninspiring. If I am engaging in Torah to a greater degree than in the past, it is because I have found areas that interest me, showing the wisdom of the chachamim who said that one only truly learns that which they are interested in learning. As I struggle to find the meaning of a midrash, or make sense of a challenging concept, I am where I want to be, and I think that shows in the Torah that I am sharing.

There’s a second step however and here’s where my Torah-learning feels like a type of prayer. The Psalmist refers to it as “Your Torah”, seemingly emphasizing the point that the joy and comfort that can be found in Torah is discovered when the Torah is seen as God’s Torah. As I learn God’s Torah, and attempt to make it mine, I feel as if I transform what I am learning through my understanding, and return it to God as a prayer. It is at that moment when I feel as if I am most directly connecting with my Creator and expressing my trust and belief in Him.

Parshat Toledot- The Mysterious Cloak- From Adam to Eisav

Parshat Toledot- What was the mysterious cloak that God gave to Adam HaRishon and how did it end up in Eisav’s hands?

We examine a series of fascinating midrashim which talk of the Ketonet Ohr that God gave to Adam. Ultimately it ends up in the hands of Eisav, until Yaakov buries it in the ground. While recognizing that this midrash is not meant literally, we carefully examine the various pesukim which led to the formation of the midrash, as well as examining its meaning.

Click here to access the link. If that does not work use this link to listen to the shiur, or try listening on YouTube.

Running time 1:08

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Weighty Problem- My struggle to get back to where I was

The articles ( and here and now here) could not have come at a worse time. While I appreciated experiencing the 15 minutes of fame that Andy Warhol said we all receive, the timing of my weight-loss success story could not have come at a worse time. After five years of maintaining my weight and becoming a serious marathon runner, I have put on more than a little weight and am struggling to get back into running.

When I first learned that CNN wanted to do an online story about me back in April, I was excited. I enjoy sharing my story with others and through it have helped others others take up running and become more healthy. The writer, who is the sister-in-law of a friend, reached out to me and we spoke by phone and communicated through email. Although I was not running as frequently as I usually did at the time, I was not concerned, nor did the slight accompanying bump in weight worry me. I knew I’d be back. I knew I would never let go of the changes I’d made to my life.

Only I did. During an incredible seven weeks that I spent in Israel this past summer, as the head counselor for Sdei Chemed, I ran too infrequently and I ate things I shouldn’t have eaten. The combination of Israel’s summer heat, the exhaustion that came from a lot of amazing trips, and the lack of my usual running support network, kept me off the roads. As for the eating, let’s just say that Israel’s amazing food was too tempting for me. I told myself I’d get back on track when I got home, but a habit broken is not easily recovered.

The fact that CNN was not able to publish the article until recently, left me with mixed feelings when I got message from friends and strangers saying “Respect” and “Awesome”, and thanking me for the inspiration. I wondered how people would feel if they saw me. I hesitantly shared the first story, but felt no desire to do so with the latter ones (the last of which I did not know was coming).

So here I am, wondering whether I have it in me to get back to where I was. In the past, I only semi-jokingly said that I’d traded my eating addiction for a running one. Now as my drive and desire to run have faded, and I’ve lost some of the self-control I had with eating, I struggle to get back on track. I will resist the urge to end this with some sort of upbeat message along the lines of knowing that I’ll be back, because right now, I just don’t know.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

How Old was Rivkah when She Married Yitzchak? - Audio shiur for parshat Chayei Sarah

In this week’s shiur, we discuss the well known midrash, which is quoted in next week’s parsha, that Rivkah was three years old when she married Yitzchak, and that he was 37 years her senior. We look at a midrash which offers to be a more tenable approach as well as suggesting a number of figurative ways of understanding the message of the midrash that she was 3.

(Running Time- 50 minutes)

Friday, November 7, 2014

Malachim- What are they and can we see them? (Audio shiur for Parshat Vayera)

Link for shiur for Parshat Vayera

Our parsha contains one of the stories from the Torah where people seem to interact with physical malachim. In this shiur, we consider four different approaches to explain how such an interaction can take place, and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.

(Running time- 50 minutes)

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Words of Wisdom- Educating our children to the beauty of Torah

As a teacher and student, I’ve walked down more than my fair share of school hallways. I’ve seen hallways with pictures of great rabbis, educational posters, and photographs of beautiful scenes from nature. Last night, at a wedding, which took place at a yeshiva in Lakewood, I saw something in a school hallway that I’ve never seen before. On one side of a long hallway, opposite pictures of gedolim, there were framed facsimiles of old pashkvilim from Israel.

Anyone who has spent time in Israel has seen posters known as pashkvilim hanging in charedi neighborhoods. Pashkvilim are posters of a religious nature which generally are used to try and enforce appropriate religious behavior. They might discuss proper religious attire for the neighborhood, or mark certain activities or locations as off-limits.

As I looked over the various posters, I wondered who had decided that this was something to use to decorate a yeshiva. Sure, they were historically interesting, but what educational message was given when hanging posters that either banned so many activities, or forbade entry to so many places? Is the idea that Judaism is about assering things an educational message that our children need to hear?

There was one poster that caught my eye. It set a minimal price limit for eggs (six for a grush). An explanation was given that this limit was there to protect the poor people of Yerushalayim. Now this was a poster that had educational value. Imagine if the hallway showed in various ways, the message of deracheha darchei noam. Along with a poster like this showing gedolim using their power to help the poor, there could be other pictures and posters emphasizing the idea that Torah can and should be a driving force for kindness and goodness.

I didn’t recognize all of the gedolim whose pictures lined the other walls, but among those who I did know, were Rav Moshe, Rav Yaakov and Rav Shlomo Zalman, who were pictured with their characteristic smiles. If one indeed wants to hang posters with the words of chachamim in the yeshiva (leaving aside the educational question of whether this is a good idea), wouldn’t it be better to hang posters with the words of these and other chachamim that show the boys of the yeshiva the teshuvos and divrei Torah of Toras Chessed koach d’heteira adif  that these great men produced and represented? This is not to deny the fact that there are prohibitions in the Torah, and  some things that are off-limits. Still at a time when so much is banned and forbidden, it behooves us to show our children (and selves)  the beauty that Torah represents.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Meeting Our Partners in Peace

I know that I am not the only Zionist who has sometimes asked the question “Where are Israel’s partners for peace?”. Reading a steady stream of headlines and articles about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s easy to wonder where the Palestinians who are willing to talk and listen can be found. Still, I have always assumed that once you get past the Palestinian leadership, there are people on the street who want peace as much as Israeli citizens do. I must admit that I sometimes wonder whether all of those who ask the question, are really interested in meeting and hearing from those partners, or whether the question is just a way of seeing the Palestinians as a faceless other and deflecting the need to listen. In writing this, I hope to give people the chance to meet, hear from and talk with Palestinians who also believe in dialogue.

I recently wrote about the opportunity that I had to hear from Ali Abu Awwad, the co-founder of Roots, a West Bank based organization dedicated to peaceful dialogue,  at a local Reconstructionist temple. I wondered why it was that I had not had the opportunity to hear from those like Awaad in any Orthodox institutions. After the event, I discovered that my friend Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, who lives in Alon Shvut, was one of the co-founders of Roots. When I reached out to him, he told me that he had been unsuccessful in finding Orthodox institutions in the US and Canada that were willing to host a Roots event. I expressed my hope that this was just an aberration, and that I was interested in serving as a matchmaker of sorts, and helping to identify Orthodox shuls and schools that would host such an event.

In May 2015, Awwad and Schlesinger will be coming back to North America to speak about Roots and the real progress that they are making in creating meaningful dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. They will be in the States through early June. If you believe in dialogue and are interested in hearing from a legitimate partner for peace, please do not what you can to bring Awwad to speak in your community. Although my focus in this post is on the Orthodox community, I encourage people from all walks of Jewish life to take advantage of this special opportunity. There are real partners for peace who want to talk. Please join the conversation.