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December 13, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Miketz

In last week’s Torah portion, Joseph interprets a dream by the king’s butler to mean that the butler will be freed from prison (as indeed he was).  A couple of years later, the same butler hears about a dream of the king, and tells the king about Joseph.  he refers to Joseph as “a young man, a Hebrew, servant to the captain of the guard” (Gen. 41:18).  Sounds pretty neutral, right?

But Rashi interprets this language quite negatively.  A “young man” to him means ignorant, a “Hebrew” means a foreigner who does not understand Egyptian, and a “servant” means a slave who can never amount to anything.  Rashi’s interpretation sounds like it is right out of the headlines of the past decade or two.  Language that seems perfectly fine to the majority sometimes seems insensitive to a racial minority group; for example, sports names such as the Washington Redskins are pretty controversial among Native Americans.  Rashi is showing us a medieval example of political correctness, taking language that might have seemed perfectly fine to Egyptians and making it sound derogatory.  Would Joseph have thought it was derogatory, or is Rashi being overly sensitive?  Beats me, but kind of interesting to think about.

Another part of the Torah portion is also right out of the headlines of the past few years.  Joseph says that Egypt has headed for a famine, and he tells the king to “take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty.” (Gen. 41:34).  Rashbam says “that this was a proposal to double the usual corn tax.” In other words, Rashbam favors an early version of Keynesian economics, which tends to favor austerity in good times to reduce debt, and deficits in bad times in order to stimulate the economy.  Of course, American practice (except in 2009 when the recession began) has been the exact opposite- under the boom years of the early Bush Administration it was party time, and after the midterms of 2010 the political class focused on deficit reduction.

December 13, 2014 / conservadox

Shabbat dinner

In honor of the coat of many colors in last week’s Torah portion, a salad with

tomato (red), avocado (green), banana (yellow), herring (gray), lox (pink), apricots (orange) and some beans and potatoes.

Also vegan riblets for something substantial (Morningside Farms, so not very creative but good)

And for dessert Cool Whip and some cookies.

December 6, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah II

The Torah portion begins to tell the story of Jacob, mentioning that he was “still a lad.” (Gen. 37:2). The Soncino Chumash mentions a couple of commentaries on this, both of which relate to the nature of youth, but only one of which makes sense to me.

Rashi writes that he “acted childishly, trimming his hair and adorning his eyes to look handsome.” As is often the case, Rashi’s midrash makes no sense to me.  In my experience, children care less about their appearance than adults- I certainly did.  Was Rashi’s time different?

Sforno’s interpretation makes more sense; he writes that because of his youth, he “did wrong by telling tales about his brothers and could not foresee where it would lead.”  I certainly wasn’t careful about lashon hara when I was 17; since I was brought up in a not-very-religious household, I didn’t know it was wrong (except of course if it was a lie).

This is one area where I feel like traditional Judaism is a kind of ethical performance-enhancing drug: a nonreligious (or non-Jewish) person knows that lying and stealing are usually wrong- but Judaism goes the extra mile by teaching that even less obviously noxious conduct can still be distasteful enough to be avoided.

Speaking of distasteful people, Joseph gets sold into slavery after he is sent by his father to look for them, gets lost, and is told by “a certain man” (Gen. 37:15)  where they are.  The brothers (who are angry at him for a variety of reasons) throw him into a pit, causing slavery and other adventures.

Who is this “certain man”? The medieval commentators have a variety of answers – some say an angel, some say a random wayfarer.  Nachmandies states that the whole story “demonstrates that nothing can thwart God’s purpose [which is why the Talmudic] Rabbis asserted that the man was an angel, because by directing Joseph to his brothers, he took the necessary step to the ultimate fulfillment of God’s plan.”  All sorts of people can be “angels” in this sense- that is, they make a profound difference in the life of others, often without meaning to.

An example from my father’s life: in 1942, him and his parents were rounded up by the Gestapo.  At a processing center in Berlin, a Gestapo guy tells my father’s parents to go a train to Poland  (from which they did not come back) and tells him to go home (which perhaps is why he is still alive today).  The Gestapo guy was one of many “certain men” in my father’s life, quite inadvertently saving him from his fellow Nazis.

December 6, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayeshev

In this coming week’s Haftorah portion, Amos claims that Isarelite judges “turn aside the way of the humble”. (Amos 2:7).;  What does that mean? Ibn Ezra says (according to Soncino) “They turn the humble from the right path, until all shame is lost.”  This seems eerily prophetic after the events of the past week or two.

In two highly publicized cases, police have gotten away with killing civilians; in both cases (the Michael Brown case and the Eric Garner case) , a grand jury refused to indict them even though the victims were unarmed.*  These cases inspired widespread public outrage- I suspect because they seem to be part of a pattern of police misconduct.  (For a much more bizarre and seemingly indefensible example see this story).  The Brown decision led to some low-level rioting; no one died,** but there was some burned cars, buildings, etc.  It seems to me that this is a case of government misconduct (or at least the perception of same) turning people aside from the right path; if people don’t believe the representatives of the law are behaving respectably, why should they have any respect for the law?

And because the police officers were white and the suspects in both these cases and many other cases of police abuse of deadly force were black, race was of course an issue.  As a result,   the reaction of non-left-wing Jews to these verdicts (based on an extremely unscientific sample of Facebook and Twitter posts) was often pretty disappointing.  The dominant view seemed to be: black people kill each other (and members of other ethnic groups as well)  all the time, so who cares if police kill a few? I don’t think we apply this standard when other people are killed.  For example, about 14,000 Americans a year are murdered- but does that mean the murder of 3000 by al-Qaeda was no big deal?   Ironically, supporters of Israel complain all the time about Israel being held to different standards than the rest of the world- but when blacks are shot in situations where it seems hard to believe a white person would be shot, crickets.

*To be fair, there were seemingly plausible countervailing arguments in at least one of the cases.  In the Michael Brown case, the police officer claimed self-defense, and eyewitness testimony was divided.  On the other hand, a grand jury is supposed to indict someone whenever there is probable cause- which sounds to me like “when in doubt, have a trial.”

**I note that in the 1980s and 1990s, acquittals in police brutality cases sometimes led to riots where dozens of people died.  So Americans got off pretty easy this time.

December 2, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayishlach

This week’s Torah portion begins with the story of Jacob’s confrontation with Esau, who he has not seen for decades (and who wanted to kill him when they last lived together).  Nachmanides points out that Jacob makes a threefold preparation for the meeting: appeasement through gifts, prayer, and preparation for war.  He also suggests that Jews of his time should follow Jacob’s example in dealing with Esau’s spiritual descendants (i.e Christians).

Many American Jews (and for that matter, many Americans) seem to have lost touch with Nachmanides’s insights.  We have a far Left that believes in appeasement but is not willing to support war against anyone (and by the far Left, I do not mean mainstream Democrats like President Obama, but Chomsky-reading leftists).  We have a right wing that is always ready to support war, but is terrified of negotiation with the world’s bad guys, believing that any negotiation leads to surrender.   Perhaps the wiser course is to follow Jacob’s strategy with Esau, and the U.S. strategy during the Cold War- negotiation combined with a willingness to use force.

November 27, 2014 / conservadox

An uncomfortable question

I was in a city where I don’t live last Sunday, and popped into a shul (Orthodox, somewhat black-hattish) for mincha.  It was a small shul and someone spotted me as a newcomer and started a conversation.  He asked me “How did you become frum?”  I gave an answer that was as true as it could be for a sound bite.

More interesting to me is that I don’t really like the question.  First, I’m not sure that one should assume that anyone who davens in an Orthodox synagogue is “frum” (whatever that happens to mean).  Second, I suspect that if this man really knew me, he wouldn’t think I was frum at all! (I would guess that (a) being willing to set foot in a non-Orthodox synagogue and b) being willing to eat in my mother’s nonkosher home and even in nonkosher restaurants now and then, would pretty much put me outside the pale).  Personally, I think of myself more as “gradually evolving”, though usually in the direction of more observance.

November 27, 2014 / conservadox

The most interesting thing I’ve read about Ferguson

From a rabbi in Toronto: \

I certainly believe that Jews must speak up against injustice – but, to my mind, the Jewish reaction ought to be more sophisticated than this. First, because the facts of the case are murky enough that each side can present a legitimate argument. But more, because Jewish history as well as Torah put us on both sides of the situation.

Jewish history – Like Michael Brown’s family, we know what it is like to have our blood spilled by government or police, and often without even the fig leaf of an excuse, certainly without an investigation by a grand jury. But like Officer Darren Wilson, we also know what it is like to have underprivileged populations pre-judge us as the enemy, and assume the worst about our intentions and actions.  We have seen what happens when those who suffer at the bottom of society concoct theories about precisely who is responsible for their misery. Just look at recent centuries – from Chmielnicki’s 17th century Cossacks, to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the late 19th century, to Leo Frank in the American South in 1915, to Europe today, Jews have been, and continue to be, frequent targets of the worst socioeconomic prejudices.

Torah – Our Torah seems to instruct us to sympathize with both sides of this situation.

  • On the one hand, Devarim 10:19 says, “You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt.” Numerous mitzvot command us to take the side of the disadvantaged.
  • But on the other hand, Shemot 22:27 warns us not to curse the judge and the leader; as Sefer haChinuch explains, society needs its officials, and it needs respect for those officials.
In light of the Torah’s instructions, it seems to me that taking one side over the other is not a legitimate Torah-based approach, and turning our backs on both sides is also not a legitimate Torah-based approach. Rather, we are expected to sympathize with both sides – with the pain and helplessness of Michael Brown’s family, and with the beleaguered civil servants who make up the Ferguson police department.

I acknowledge the ring of naivete in my words here, but perhaps when more people look for the right in both sides, and are moved to assist both sides, then tragedies like these will become less frequent, as bridges between the communities will become stronger.

November 27, 2014 / conservadox

bizarro dating

I had the strangest date in Chicago (the nearest really major city to where I live).  At the end of the date, the woman asked me whether I wanted a second date- probably not a great idea, since it put me on the spot.  Unfortunately for her, I gave a negative answer.  Then she dug her grave even deeper by arguing with me about it.  Weird!

November 22, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayetse

In this coming week’s portion, yet another patriarch gets a Divine promise that “thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth” (Gen. 28:14).   This might be interpreted as another rosy promise, but Sforno has a different spin, one more faithful to Jewish history.  He writes that “Only after they seed has reached the lowest depths of misery and degradation and is treated like the very dust of the earth, will salvation come to them.”

But what sort of salvation is he talking about?  Jews have known degradation, but it is followed not by long-term salvation, but by a short-term fix followed by more degradation.

First there was the exile in Egypt (degradation) followed by the Jewish state(s) in Israel (short-term fix, with intervals of good and bad times throughout the 700 or so years of Jewish sovereignty) followed by…

the collapse of the Jewish states and First Temple (degradation) followed by the Second Temple (short-term fix) followed by…

the Second Temple collapse and related exile, as well as the mini-genocide after the Bar Kochba revolt (degradation) followed by a few centuries of peace here and there, but then followed by…

Christian and Muslim oppression, culminating in the ultimate degradation of the Holocaust.  This was followed by the state of Israel, which may have seemed to salvation to some for a few decades.  But the gift-wrapped package of Israel came with some nasty surprises inside, which seemed to have gotten worse in 2014: not just attacks by Arabs (each more outrageous than the last) but now attacks by the Arab diaspora against Jews in Europe.

Where’s the salvation?

November 22, 2014 / conservadox

Shabbos dinner

In last week’s Torah portion, Esau asks for “that red stuff” (26:30) which the Torah later explains includes lentils (26:34).  So naturally I decided to have red lentils (mixed with tomatos and pink salmon to make it a bit more red and less bland- though it still needed mustard to really work as far as that went).

Also lots of other red thingds:

red potatoes

strawberry Eggo waffles

frozen strawberries

strawberry ice cream


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