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February 20, 2019 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Ki Tisa

“In the morning you shall ascend Mt. Sinai” (Exodus 34:2).

The Rav writes regarding this verse that “ascent and descent are Biblical metaphors for mitzvah and sin.” Even today, we use ascent as a synonym for good things- for example if you are called to the Torah you get an “aliyah” (ascent). And moving to Israel is “making aliyah.”

Why? The Rav writes that ascent is overcoming the force of gravity, while descent is letting yourself be pulled by gravity. In other words, ascent means overcoming intertia to do (presumably good) things, while descent is mediocrity, letting yourself be pulled by events.

February 17, 2019 / conservadox

shabbos dinner

Burkina faso riz gras (good but bland because I didn’t put in enough garlic, itched the peppers, and put in too much tomato)

Because this week’s portion mentions sacrifices I had a small portion of lamb ribs.

And because it mentions the colors of the priestly garb (blue, purple, red, gold) I had purple potatoes with mustard (gold) ketchup (red) and blue sugar (blue)

And because it mentions fine flour mixed with oil, and some commentators interpret “fine flour” as seminola I made seminola pancakes with blueberry preserves (OK)

February 10, 2019 / conservadox

Shul website updated

With a profile of the Torah Center at 393 5th Avenue.

February 9, 2019 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Tetzaveh

This week’s Torah portion includes the laws governing the garments of the High Priest. One of the Rav’s mini-commentaries strikes me as off-base yet interesting.

An edited version of his statement in the Neuwirth Chumash states: “People appointed by the public, such as government officials, have always worn uniforms… Even an absolute monarch wears a uniform to distinguish himself from the ordinary citizen. Leadership and distinction express themselves in distinctive garments…”

This statement strikes me as outdated by roughly 200 years. In the United States, the President has never worn a uniform- nor has any Prime Minister I have seen. Monarchs wore royal robes in the 18th and early 19th centuries, but most pictures I’ve seen of early 20th century kings show them either wearing military uniforms or ordinary business attire (plus occasionally a crown). Certain public officials wear uniforms, but these are often not the most distinguished ones- the military and police and postal service wear uniforms, but the Secretary of Defense and the head of the Postal Service do not.

Maybe the Rav was engaged in wishful thinking here; maybe he believes that certain leaders should wear dignified clothing (whatever that means). He says something a few paragraphs later that supports this conclusion, asserting that “When he wore his ‘uniform’ the Kohen Gadol recognize that he filled his role not due to his own merits.” In other words, he thinks that special garments remind the leader of his high role, and that he got this authority from without.

Certainly in the U.S., the trend has been in the opposite direction- many politicians try to dress down to show that they are men of the people or something. Even Putin, a more despotic ruler, does the same (though I do not know if President Xi of China does so). President Trump, who I generally find personally abhorrent, is an exception; he does at least get clothing right by wearing a suit instead of dressing like an ordinary American on vacation.

The Rav goes on to talk about dignity generally, stating that “lack of dignity is noticed, and a rule that exhibits it is punished by the people.” I certainly think that President Trump exhibits a lack of dignity through his frequent use of personal insults, but many other Americans seem not to notice this or to mind. The Rav seems unaware of the power of mass media (in particular, Fox News and right-wing talk radio, which exerts a hypnotic power on the minds of Republican primary voters) to create an illusion of dignity where there is none.

Of course, the Rav is dead and cannot defend himself. I suspect that if he were writing a Chumash together, he would have revised these remarks to fit current-day realities.

February 8, 2019 / conservadox

shabbos dinner- my first at home in 2 months

Why so long between dinners? I spent winter break in my home town, and did not come back to NYC until mid-January. And then I had a couple of shabboses at the house of my girlfriend in New Jersey.

This is primarily a “Torah portion” shabbos. The portion discusses the Mishkan which includes goat skins and textiles etc of all kinds of colors (blue, purple, red, silver, gold). (The eggplant is Bulgarian jarred fried eggplant since this week’s nation is Bulgaria).

So for silver and gold I have halibut (with silvery skin) and a mustard-eggplant sauce. I added a little goat cheese for the goat skin.

Also for purple, red, and gold, I am combining purple herring with Terra chips of many colors.

And for blue I have blue cotton candy and blueberries.

February 6, 2019 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Terumah

It is a well known Jewish cliche that God contracts Godself in some sense- a point relevant to this Torah portion, according to the Rav, because the building of the Tabernacle is an example of an infinite God contracting Godself to connect with man.

In the course of this discussion, the Rav writes: “man must also engage in tzimtzum [contraction]. Man express tzimtzum first and foremost by observing the principles of the halakhah. Fealty to Jewish law is unenforceable: there is no police, no executive branch of government, no jails,no punishment for violators. By following halakhah despite the lack of an external control mechanism, we engage in tzimtzum.”

This is true today. But it wasn’t always true historically: the Mishnah and the Talmud is full of discussion of lashes and other criminal-type penalties. So I am not sure where the Rav is going here.

At any rate, it does seem to me that even where halakhah is not legally enforceable, the relationship between Jewish law and secular law is worth thinking about. For example, Jewish law, as interpreted by Orthodox poskim, generally forbids abortion (although it is somewhat more permissive than Catholic law). Should this fact affect how we view abortion as voters? Or should we emphasize the importance of separating church and state, and keep halakhah separate from secular law?

January 29, 2019 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Mishpatim

One of the laws in Mishpatim is that a husband “shall not diminish her sustenance, her clothing, or her martial relations.” (Exodus 21:10)

The Rav points out that the Talmud similarly requires married people to satisfy each other’s desire for sex. The Rav thus reasons that in Judaism, unlike some branches of Christianity, sex is valuable even without procreation because it is “committed to fostering and promoting love-sentiments to making two free individuals depend upon and help each other.” He adds that the fact that sexual desire “is aroused continually and not confined to certain periods [unlike for some animals] proves that sexual life is legitimate even when it is divorced from other goals.”

This passage is meaningful to me because for the first time in my life, I am starting to talk about marrying a woman, which means I will have to provide sex for the first time in my life (and she wants it more than I do!). And because she is over 50, my sex will be unrelated to procreation.

On a related issue, after Moses read the Torah, the people proclaim “we will observe and we will heed” (24:7). The Rav states that this seems like a rash decision, but human nature is to make the most important decisions based on will rather than intellect. He believes “Decisions of faith, of marriage [etc] … are reached intuitively, without addressing any inquiries to the intellect.” I think there is an element of truth to this: my interest in my likely fiance, and my feeling that I am ready to propose, is a “gut call.”

January 22, 2019 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Yitro

“Moses sat down to judge the people…” (Exodus 18:13). In context, this seems to refer to judging in the common English sense of the word: to resolve disputes.

But the Rav points out that the term “shofat” (the Hebrew word used here) may have different meanings.

For example, one psalm in the daily liturgy states: “the field and everything in it will exult, then all of the trees of the forest will sing for joy- before God, for He will have arrived, He will have arrived to judge the earth.” (Psalm 96:11-13). Why should the trees care if God is judging the earth?

The Rav responds that God isn’t judging at all. Rather, God is coming “to be closer to the world, to establish contact with the world… Nearness of the creator to His creation, closeness of man to God, inspires not fear but joy and rapture.”

Similarly,, the Book of Judges state that Deborah “judged Israel” (Judges 4:4-5). Since nothing in the narrative suggests that she did any judging in the dispute-resolution sense, the Rav writes that she really showed “devotion to the people” and led the people politically. Just as Psalm 96 suggests that God is close to all life, Deborah was close to Barak at the filed of battle, and “was teacher and friend of the people.”

The Rav’s interpretation helps us understand some difficult parts of Tanach- and also, it reminds us of the hopelessness of literalism, because sometimes words don’t mean in Hebrew what they mean in the King James version of the Bible.

Of course, Orthodox Jews generally aren’t all that fond of Biblical literalism. When they say dumb things, that dumbness usually arises from Midrashic literalism: the desire to take every statement in the Talmud literally, even if it says the opposite of what the Torah says. In his commentary on Exodus 19:17 the Rav criticizes one example of this. There is a statement in the Talmud that God “overturned the mountain upon [the Jews]” implying that Jews were coerced into accepting the Torah. The Rav points out that this statement cannot be taken literally, since “no scholar has ever questioned the validity of the Sinai covenant.” Instead, he suggests that “covenantal man feels overpowered and defeated by God”- that is, that the normal response to an overwhelming spiritual experience is to accept God and his commandments. He also suggests that without the Torah, we live an “involuntarily, fate-laden existence that might be compared to having a mountain overturned upon one.” In other words, with revelation we might feel overwhelmed by God; without it, we are merely overwhelmed by events.

January 14, 2019 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Beschalach

In this week’s Torah portion, the Jews cross the Sea of Reeds (or maybe the Red Sea, depending on how you interpret it) and Moses sings to celebrate.

Then Miriam sings as well (Exodus 15:23). The Rav asks: why does Miriam sing separately? He explains: “Moses had not experienced the suffering in Egypt. He lived in Pharoah’s home, ran away to Midian, and returned as leader of the Jewish people. It was Miriam and her brother Aaron who led the people through the drowning of the children and the years of slavery. Because she suffered with the Israelites, she responded to Moses with her own song.”

In other events, because Miriam and Moses had led very different lives, they saw events differently. In our own lives, we see that people who see the world differently from us often have different experiences. To give a non-Torah example, I have noticed that people who work for themselves tend to be more economically right-wing than people who have jobs. And this makes sense to me: for example, if you don’t have a boss you are less likely to see why workers need protection against despotic bosses, and if your taxes aren’t withheld from a steady paycheck you are likely to see taxes as more painful.

January 5, 2019 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Bo

This week’s portion includes the death of the Egyptian first born. Regarding it, Moses said “So said the Lord, around midnight.” (Exodus 11:4). The Rav uses this statement (and midrashic gloss that this happened exactly at midnight) to discuss Jews’ relationship to time.

He notes that because of the times for halachic requirements (for example, set times for prayer, Shabbos etc) observant Jews “have a unique sensitivity for time that no one else has, for the exactitude of time and the passing of time”. By contrast, a slave is “insensitive to time” because no matter what he does “he will not reap the harvest of his work.”

The unique Jewish relationship to time is both attractive and irritating. On the one hand, the succession of Shabboses, new months, holidays etc keeps variety in my life; I don’t have to worry about every day feeling like its exactly the same. But of course, life is not so much fun when I realize that I haven’t said Shema on time because I forgot to check, or if I got stuck in traffic till after sunset Friday afternoon (both of which has happened in the last year or two or three).