Category Archives: 5774

Voodoo Judaism

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

Netziv Deuteronomy: Haazinu

Voodoo Judaism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom and Ktiva Ve’chatima Tova,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

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

The Holidays, Again

The Holidays, Again

There is both something boring yet something comforting about the Holidays. Thanks to yearly repetition, we know more or less what to expect. There are particular things about the Holidays that each of us likes, and there are probably more that we can do without, but we put up with it, out of respect for our parents, family, friends, community and tradition.

This predictability is both a great strength and a fatal weakness. There is a tremendous value in repetition. Studies have shown that repetition of any act is not a cumulative effect but an exponential force at reinforcing that act as part of our psyche. However, that same, sometimes mind-numbing repetition of anything, is what often causes us to miss out entirely the deeper meaning, potential and force that each Holiday has contained within it.

I will divide each of the Holidays of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, the first month in the Jewish calendar, namely, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah, into three different aspects:

  1. Symbolic commandments, acts and traditions of the day.
  2. Liturgy
  3. Spiritual essence of the day.

Perhaps by taking a closer look and analysis, someone will uncover a personal connection point to find greater meaning in what it is we’re doing, or supposed to be doing on that day.

A. Rosh Hashana (September 25, 26) [The numbers in parenthesis are the Gregorian dates of the holidays for 2014. The holiday begins from sunset of the day before and ends at nightfall of that day. Every year it falls on different dates]

  1. Commandments: Rosh Hashana, the two-day holiday celebrating the New Jewish Year has two biblical commands: Not to work on those days and to hear the blasts of the Shofar. During the evening meals of Rosh Hashana, many have the tradition to eat from a variety of foods that symbolize either blessings for us or curses upon our enemies.
  1. Liturgy: The day-time prayers of Rosh Hashana are longer than usual with the highlight being the Shofar blasts and the Musaf service where we refer to God’s Kingship, His Memory of our Ancestors, and the Shofar.
  2. Essence: Rosh Hashana is an ideal time for introspection, for review of our acts, accomplishments and misdeeds during the past year and to chart a new, better course for the following year. The liturgy and the Shofar is meant to awaken in us feelings of repentance while acknowledging and crowning God as King over us, His loyal subjects.

B. Yom Kippur (October 4)

  1. Commandments: Yom Kippur likewise has two commandments: Not to do any work and to fast (which includes no eating, drinking, bathing, using ointments, wearing leather shoes, or having intimate relations). The restrictions of Yom Kippur are considered to be extremely serious and Jewish tradition frowns strongly upon those who violate Yom Kippur.
  1. Liturgy: The prayers of Yom Kippur are the longest of the year (can’t do anything else anyway, so might as well stay in the synagogue) and provide the congregant with long lists of possible sins that we may have committed and gives us the opportunity to ask forgiveness of God for those sins. This is an essential aspect of repentance. We must acknowledge our sins, whether they are sins we’ve committed against our friends and fellow man, or if they are ritual matters, that according to Rabbinic understanding, God is disappointed if we take his commandments lightly. After we acknowledge the sins, and that they are indeed sins, we need to regret having done them and then resolve ourselves to avoiding them in the future. Repetition, as mentioned above, helps a lot with this process.
  1. Essence: According to Jewish tradition, the process of fasting and praying on Yom Kippur has the effect of bringing us closer to the level of angels that day. There is a power in the day of Yom Kippur itself to cleanse us of our sins, of our mistakes, of our regrets. But we need to want it. The Jewish way, for more than 3,000 years has been to fast, pray, become spiritual beings for a day, reach to God and connect with him in a fashion that is not possible all the other days of the year. Perhaps for this reason Yom Kippur retains a special place in Jewish consciousness above all other Holidays.

C. Sukkot (October 9 – 15)

  1. Commandments: There are several:
    1. To use booths (Sukkot) primarily for eating, for one week.
    2. To take the Four Species (Lulav, Etrog, Hadas, Arava) and shake them during the appointed times each day of Sukkot.
    3. Not to work the first two days (October 9, 10) of Sukkot.
    4. To be happy.
  2. Liturgy: The prayers of Sukkot are much more joyous. We sing the Hallel. We shake and march with the Four Species. It is a special sight to see a congregation with their green Lulavs all held straight, circling within the synagogue.
  3. Essence: We have finished with the more serious and somber holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and now it’s time to celebrate! God apparently wants us to celebrate with many commandments and to be actively happy. We do this by gathering in the unique Sukkot which takes us out of the routine of our homes, allows us to bond with friends and neighbors that we wouldn’t have otherwise and gets us off to the start of the new year on the right foot.

D. Simchat Torah (October 16, 17)

  1. Commandments: Two: Not to work and to be happy. Note: There is absolutely no commandment to drink or get drunk on Simchat Torah (see my article about drinking on Purim) – whoever gets drunk on Simchat Torah (or any other day of the year) is making a grave mistake and has little to no support or basis for this from Jewish sources.
  2. Liturgy: Very similar to the liturgy of Sukkot, plus there is the added traditions of the completion of the cycle of reading the Torah and the celebration of that event.
  3. Essence: The essence of the day of Simchat Torah is the incredible love God has for the Jewish people. He doesn’t want to be separated from the closeness that has been engendered by these weeks of holidays and being close to Him. In addition we have both the completion and the immediate restart of the cycle of reading the Torah – God’s instruction guide for living and succeeding in His world. We should cherish this last day of His close embrace, until the next encounter.

Other comments:

“Not to work”. You may have noticed that this is a recurring theme/commandment. It is something that many people take lightly in our day and age. I will address two aspects of this prohibition. One is the restriction on what we’ll call creative actions, which include the direct manipulation of electricity. I won’t get into further details of this aspect of the prohibition of what we call “work”.

The other aspect of “work” is what is more commonly understood as work for gain, whether it is as an employee or a company or a store owner. This type of work is likewise prohibited on the Sabbath and Holidays. Furthermore, traditional belief is that whoever works on these days will see no blessing in that work.

Whoever believes that whatever financial gains he receives is completely due to his direct efforts is a person of limited faith in God. We need to make reasonable efforts to make a living. However, if we believe that ultimately God is the one who is providing us with our sustenance and success, then it makes no sense to go against the rules and wishes of the ultimate Boss. This may be difficult for many people to either believe or understand, especially if they, and their parents before them, spent a lifetime ignoring such directives – and saw material success.

I promise you this, however. Those people who find ways to abstain from working on the Sabbath and the Holidays, will find blessings in their lives, their families and their work. Those who ignore our ancient directives on so important a matter will reap what they sow.

For anyone wanting advice, strategies, solutions on how to reduce and cut out work on the Sabbath and Holidays, please feel free to contact me.

In closing, I hope that each of you individually, your families, our entire community and the entire Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora will be inscribed in the Book of Life, in the Book of Good Health, in the Book of Good Livelihood, in the Book of Great Success and in the Book of Great Joy. Amen!

Personal and Group Judgment

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/nitzavim-personal-and-group-judgment/

Netziv Deuteronomy: Nitzavim

Personal and Group Judgment

There is a destiny that makes us brothers, No one goes his way alone; All that we send into the lives of others, Comes back into our own. -Edwin Markham

Jewish prayer consists of both personal pleas and communal orations. The liturgy itself also reflects this duality of seeking the welfare of the individual as well as of the group. The question however, for the High Holidays, is whether this dichotomy continues. Are we judged for our personal faults or are there also some accounting of group sins, and if so, how does that work?

The Netziv on Deuteronomy 29:9 digs into the issue and comes to the following conclusions. We are primarily judged as individuals, and not in comparison to others. We are judged based on our own personal potential, on what we could have achieved and didn’t, on what we could have avoided but instead gave in to temptation. Each person has their own unique scale of accomplishments and that is what God looks at.

However, just as a person has their own particular attributes and potential, groups likewise have attributes and potential and God judges the aggregate of the people that make up particular groups, whether it is a family unit, a company, a school, a synagogue, a community, a city, a country or a people. If groups live up to their potential they are duly rewarded – and if they don’t, then their raison d’être comes into question. Each group has its own unique mission that only they can achieve.

May we take the opportunity of the New Year, not only to evaluate ourselves, but also all the different groups we are a part of, and plan on a year where we live our unique potentials and missions both for ourselves and together with all those who we are connected to.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all the groups that I am a part of. I beg forgiveness of you for my errors, shortcomings and faults.

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Chivitos for Dinner (with apologies to my vegetarian friends…)

September 16, 2014

Chivitos for Dinner (with apologies to my vegetarian friends…)

It was a cold, but not unpleasant Monday night. I had been without a car for two months already, so I decided to trek the fifteen minutes to my destination. (The absence of a car is worthy of another tale that illustrates Uruguayan culture, institutional paranoia and governmental bureaucracy, but I prefer to wait until I cease being a full-time pedestrian.)

As I walk out the door I smell the sweet scent of a barbecue nearby. It is a quiet residential street, in a security-minded city, so the only hint of the meat-cooking is the smell. As I walk further along, I pass several eateries, each wafting the savory odors of burning meat, as patrons enjoy their dinner on cozy sidewalk tables, or inside warmer building with open-air grills (parillas).

By the time I reach my host’s apartment I have smelled the heavenly scents over half a dozen times, each one stronger and sweeter, awakening some ancient ancestral meat-lust and accurately foreshadowing the events of the evening.

My host was commemorating the anniversary of the passing of his mother. We learned some Mishnayot (selections from the Talmud). We recited a variety of blessings on distinct types of foods including a cheese-less pizza, kosher wines, seasoned olives, miniatures pickles and a delectable mushroom salad. And then we sat down for the serious business: chivitos.

According to our Asado Master, a man wise and knowledgeable in the lore of food-preparation, the chivito was first developed in the rugged hills of Galicia, Spain, untold years ago. Shepherds, knowing the best cuts of the animals in their care, would take the thinnest slices of meat, grill it lovingly, and eat it with a home-baked roll of fresh bread. The chivito was then imported early last century to Uruguay by a Spaniard who opened up the famous “Chivitos de Oro” locale by the city center. It was such a success that it was soon copied by dozens of establishments and eventually was considered a national dish.

As my readers will know, the parilla is akin to an altar, which can be found in almost every Uruguayan home. Here, the sacrificial animals are burned to anywhere between medium-rare to well done. The high priests, or in our case, the Asado Master, hovers attentively over the remains of the sacrifice, performing his holy work with utmost concentration, or perhaps with a cold beer in his hand. He also takes the opportunity to lightly toast the fresh buns (which are under our kosher supervision for the frozen, unbaked ones – they are really quite good when put on a grill).

But Asado Master was not content with merely the thin slices of excellent meat. He added a sunny-side down egg to each sandwich as well as a combination of grilled vegetables. The invention brought unbidden to my mind the Talmudic saying that there is no joy without meat and wine. I admitted to my fellow worshipers that it was worth staying longer in such a country for such fare. They smiled, nodded and kept on eating.

While the chivito was an impressive display of culinary talent, Asado Master followed it up with a brisket that had been prepared so masterfully that it cut like butter and tasted divine.

There is however, a price and a mixed blessing for participation in an asado. The smoke. At one point the smoke around us was so thick I feared that perhaps we were on the menu. After spending time next to a parilla, it becomes undeniable where one has been and what one has done. The odor is so strong that vegetarians are known to become sick from second-hand parilla smoke. Even after a shower I still feel some remnants of smoke in my eyes and in the pores of my skin.

Nonetheless, it is a price I gladly pay. I am sure that the enjoyment, the camaraderie, along with the Torah learning and the blessings will cause the spirit of our host’s mother to smile, to rise further in the heavenly realms and to solicit God for a healthy year, a happy year, an outstanding year, and perhaps a year with more chivitos for all of us.

Cosmetic Beauty

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ki-tavo-cosmetic-beauty/

Netziv Deuteronomy: Ki Tavo

Cosmetic Beauty

Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart.” -Kahlil Gibran

In the Western, Greek-inspired world youth has become synonymous with beauty. To look younger is to be beautiful. To that end, it has become growingly popular to alter ones appearance, even via surgery, to achieve the elusive façade of eternal youth.

Judaism has an opposite view regarding youth and beauty. Old age and hard-earned wrinkles are to be venerated. Outward beauty is often false, deceptive. The beauty of the soul is paramount.

In this week’s Torah reading instructions are provided as to the construction of the altar: only whole stones can be used. The Netziv on Deuteronomy 27:6 explains that the stones for the altar cannot be cut into more convenient or pleasing shapes. The natural stone must be used as is, without alterations or cosmetic surgery. The right stones need to be found and need to be used together with whatever blemishes or imperfections they have, without smoothing them, without cutting them. They are perfect and pleasing and wanted as they were created, in order to build the altar to God.

May we be comfortable with our own superficial blemishes and work instead on our inner beauty.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the five beautiful couples that married this week in one unforgettable night. May the beauty you find in each other only grow over time.

 

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: The Whimper and the Bang

September 10, 2014

The Whimper and the Bang

It’s been many, many months since I’ve posted. For a multiplicity of reasons. But the muse seems to be back.

For security reasons, most of my appointments are scheduled, with police checks done on anyone who is not familiar to the institution. However today, I had a walk-in, a mother and daughter who were in the building for other business.

The daughter is from a town in the interior of Uruguay. At first I assumed she was a teenager, but I was informed she was married and expecting their first child. She is the last Jew in her town. She is married to a non-Jew. She is confused as to how to educate her soon-to-be child. Her Judaism is that she respects Yom Kippur. The mother came in to our offices to look into moving the buried remains of an uncle from a Christian cemetery to our Jewish cemetery. His tombstone has a star of David next to his date of birth and a cross next to the date of his death.

I gave them some encouragement to explore Judaism further and empathized with the difficulty in experiencing Judaism when you are the last Jew in town (and she wasn’t the only example this week). They explained to me that whatever Jews had been in the town previously had converted ages ago to Christianity and their descendents proudly wear crosses around their neck. There is even a family called “Rabino” (literally “Rabbi”) that are active Christians. I looked at the expectant mother with such a tenuous connection to Judaism and I thought to myself: This is a town that the Jews vanished from with a silent whimper. It was a sad thought in a job where I witness people consciously, actively leaving the fold on a daily basis.

But it seems though the job exposes one to extreme sadness, I get to experience extreme joy as well.

Today was a historic day in the Jewish community of Uruguay.

We were visited on Monday by a bet din (a tribunal) of three Dayanim (judges) from the Rabbanut (Chief Rabbinate) of Israel. There has not been an active qualified Bet Din here of this level for a number of generations. They tested ten candidates who wanted to convert to Judaism. All ten were accepted. In their extensive experience, they never approve all the candidates. This is a credit to the selfless dedication of the teacher, Rabbi Oved Avrej. That was indeed a cause for celebration, however, the best was yet to come.

Tonight, under the supervision of these Dayanim, we performed five back-to-back wedding ceremonies. I have never seen, heard of, or experienced anything like it. Each ceremony was relatively quick. 20-30 minutes. But each one was full of joy. And the joy just seemed to increase and expand with every subsequent wedding. Each new couple that came into the House of Israel. Each new family that was born. Each new family that multiplied the strength and power of the community. I am sure God was smiling from above. I am sure His presence was there in the simple, humble ceremonies. I am sure He is pleased by the newest members of the Tribe.

If the morning showed me the last breaths of a dying community, the night showed the rebirth of a growing one. It is heartening. It is encouraging. It is inspiring. These are new stars in the cosmos whose light will shine for many years to come.

Foolish Friends

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ki-tetze-foolish-friends/

Netziv Deuteronomy: Ki Tetze

Foolish Friends

 “Don’t approach a goat from the front, a horse from the back, or a fool from any side.” -Yiddish Proverb

Human foolishness comes in all shapes and sizes. No person is completely immune from foolish acts, though most of us generally try to avoid doing or saying things we will later regret. Animals on the other hand function almost exclusively on instinct; there are rarely situations in the course of nature in which an animal would be called foolish.

However, in Jewish law, there is a term, typically used for bulls, called “muad”. Muad translates as either notorious or prone to do damage and is a label assigned to an animal that has proven itself to be dangerous, based on past attempts to gore. The owner of a Muad animal is liable for all damages, while a previously tranquil animal has a lower level of liability for the owner.

Men are in a completely different category. They are always considered dangerous. Man is always considered Muad. He is always prone and responsible for damages that he causes his fellow man. The Netziv on Deuteronomy 24:9 fine-tunes this concept even further and states that a person is Muad, even in sins that he commits against another unintentionally.

Meaning, a person is responsible for the damage caused by a completely innocent act or remark, even if there was no harm intended. This gives us a tremendous level of responsibility for what we do and say. We are still guilty of unintended consequences. We must know better. We must think ahead. We must realize the power we have as humans to affect those around us. It is a serious power.

May we use our human capacities well, with foresight and intelligence and avoid both fools and foolishness.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the conversion class of Montevideo. Good luck on your upcoming tests!