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July 15, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Devarim

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses reviews the post-Exodus history of the Israelites, focusing on stuff that went wrong. In particular, he discusses the “sin of the spies” (Deut. 1:23-39). In particular, Moses focuses on one question that the discussion in Numbers is a bit ambiguous about: why are the people so eager to believe the spies’ negative talk?

According to Moses, the Israelites said “It is because the Lord hates us that He brought us out of the land of Egypt to hand us over to the Amorites to destroy us.” (Deut. 1:27). And why did they believe God hates them?

Drazin and Wagner dig up the commentary of Sforno on this point; he explains that the Israelites “mistakenly believed that God hated them for their worship of Egyptian gods and was using the Amorites as an instrument of His revenge.”

This interpretation illustrates the crippling effects of too much guilt: if we believe that we are sufficiently unworthy, we may in turn come to believe that others hate us, which in turn leads to other mistakes. (On the other hand, a narrower interpretation would be that the Israelites’ view was only a mistake because God had told them to enter the Land, and that otherwise their fears would have been perfectly reasonable).

July 13, 2018 / conservadox

shabbos dinner

For this week’s dinner I had three constraints:
1) Since this week’s country is Bangladesh, I wanted something Bangladeshi (or more precisely, Indo/Pakistani/Bangladeshi since that part of the world seems to pretty much have a lot in common culinarily)
2) Something involving sheep because in this week’s Torah portion the tribes of Gad and Reuben want fertile grazing land for their sheep
3) a dairy/nonmeat deal because during the Nine Days before Tisha’b’Av I don’t eat meat. (Yes, I realize shabbos is an exception to that but I don’t want to have to waste a ton of meat leftovers in case I overcook).
So: salmon tikka masala (satisfies 1 and 3).
sheep cheese pizza (satisfies 2 and 3)
also- quinoa with black beans and avocado just because I had quinoa lying around
semolina pancakes with date honey or blueberry because I had semolina flour lying around from last week- also, the pizza is with semolina crust which might or might not work.

July 9, 2018 / conservadox

Happy religion?

While commenting on the parsha (in particular something about women vowing to afflict themselves and husbands’ veto power over same) Drazin and Wagner ask whether Judaism is a happy religion. They kind of suggest that it is, noting that there are more feast days etc than fast days.

However, I think we’ve kind of evolved. Biblical Judaism is more joyous; the only fast day is Yom Kippur, and even that is sort of joyous because we got purified of our sins.

But after the destruction of the Temples, the pendulum gradually swung in the other direction. Rabbinic Judaism piled fast day upon fast day, AND added two periods of mourning (sefirah and the Three Weeks) onto the fast days. Plus, in the middle ages and early modern period, rabbis imposed fasts as penance for all kinds of things.

I think the pendulum has swung a bit in favour of joyousness over the past century or so- more so in non-Orthodox Judaism (as minor fasts have gradually died) but even somewhat in Orthodox Judaism. (See here for an essay wondering whether this is so great). But I’m not sure how to prove or disprove that conjecture.

July 9, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Mattot

One argument I have heard for the perfection and Divinity of the Torah is as follows: the Torah commands all Jewish men to go to the Temple in Jerusalem three times a year (Exodus 23:17). If everyone did this, obviously the women would be defenseless and foreign powers would invade. Since this command seems obviously suicidal, it wouldn’t be in the Torah unless God commanded it.

Drazin and Wagner make a point which is relevant to this argument. In this week’s Torah portion, the Reubenites and Gadites ask for land on the east side of the Jordan rather than in Eretz Yisrael with the rest of the Jews, because that land was better for cattle. When Moses responds by suggesting that they should fight for Eretz Yisrael rather than staying behind, these two tribes respond that “all” of them would cross over to join in the fight, and would return only after the war was over (Numb. 32:27).

Drazin and Wagner comment that the term “all”, if taken literally, “would mean that the tribes left their families unprotected for several years.” They reject this literal interpretation, because in the Bible “all” often means “a large number” rather than literally “all.” For example, in I Chronicles 10:6 the Tanach says that all of Saul’s household died with him- yet we know from other portions of Tanach that half a dozen of his sons survived (including Ish-Boshet, who was king over part of Israel for a few years).

It logically follows that when Exodus 23 tells all Jewish men to go to the Temple, it also does not literally mean “all” just many. So this particular argument may not be a correct interpretation of the Torah.*

*Of course, it has other flaws too (such as the idea that the sillier the command the more obviously Divine it is), but that’s a can of worms I don’t feel like going into right now.

July 8, 2018 / conservadox

shul website updated

Updated Manhattan shul website for entry on Brotherhood Synagogue. (

July 6, 2018 / conservadox

Shabbos dinner

Ideally, as readers of this blog know, I like to (1) prepare dinner responsive to the Torah portion and (2) go through the list of the world’s nations in alphabetical order and make something that is either made in or a recipe from the next nation on the list.

This week I was able to kill two birds with one stone. The Torah mentions sacrifices with lamb and with fine flour (Numbers 28). And the next nation on the list is Bahrain, an Arab nation with lots of lamb dishes and which also has semolina dishes. So I made machboos (a lamb/rice/spices dish) and khabeesa (a kind of semolina pudding).

The latter is normally supposed to be dairy, so by using parve rice milk instead I made it a bit less solid and sweet. To make up for this I added date honey as a sweetener and fried them as pancakes for a bit more solidity.

July 2, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Pinchas

This week’s portion includes the saga of the daughters of Zelophedad (Numbers 27). Under Torah law, normally sons get top priority- but their father died without any sons. So they asked Moses whether they should inherit, and Moses in turn asked God (Answer: yes).

Drazin and Wagner ask: why didn’t Moses know this? Why did he have to ask God?
They cite Rashi’s suggestion that God caused Moses not to know as punishment for his statement that “Any matter that is too difficult for you, you shall bring to me and I will hear it.”

What’s wrong with that statement? What’s Rashi’s point? I think he is trying to say that we should try to avoid pride, bragging etc.

This point struck me as interesting because it seems to contradict our society’s high valuation of pride. For example, a leading patriotic song begins “I’m Proud to be an American” and someone once said I should wear a yarmulke to work to show I’m a “proud frum Jew.” (Admittedly I’m cherry picking examples here- but when I googled “proud to be Jewish” I found over 60,000 results and I found 8 times that many for “proud to be American”).

Rashi would probably say that such pride is misguided. I would go further and say that such pride is especially misguided when it relates to something you don’t have much control over, like your nationality or (to some extent) Jewishness. (Admittedly, you can change both, but it takes a lot more effort than, say, changing your job).

June 25, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Balak

This week’s Torah portion is all about the attempt of Balak (king of Moab) to persuade Balaam (a pagan seer) to curse the Jews. The Hebrews had not attacked Balak at this point, so why is Balak so obsessed with this?

The Torah writes that “this multitude will destroy everything around us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.” (Numbers 22:4). Drazin and Wagner suggest a variety of explanations: Rashbam writes that Balak fears conflicts over food supply, an early midrash writes vaguely that “no blessing follows where a cow pastures.”

This sort of vague fear of another powerful nation (or even not-very-powerful) sounds very familiar to me. The war against Iraq is an excellent example: Iraq was not plotting to attack the USA of course- yet the USA feared Sadaam Hussein’s regime for a variety of reasons that now might seem pretty trivial: that it possessed “weapons of mass destruction” (which, even if true, is hardly a ground for invasion, since plenty of other nations have much more destructive arsenals than the Bush Administration believed Iraq had), that it had invaded Kuwait a dozen years before, etc.

For the past decade, America’s hawks (a group that seem to be disproportionately represented among frum Jews) have called for similar wars in Iran and Syria.

Is this similar to the behavior of Balak? Actually, no- Balak was smart enough not to actually go to war with the Hebrews. By contrast, American hawks still believe that, with just a little more money and a little more death, they can win any war, any place, any time. Sooner or later this will not work out so well.

In fact, this mentality did not work out well for our ancestors. Soon we begin the Three Weeks of mourning for the lost Temples. Both Temples were destroyed in part because of the Jewish hawks. The First Temple was destroyed because our hawks wanted to rebel against the Babylonian Empire; the Second Temple was destroyed because our hawks rebelled against the Roman Empire. One possible lesson of these tragedies is: be careful who you fight.

Of course, most frum Jews will say: Jews only lost these wars becuase of their sins. But the book of Jeremiah rebuts this argument. If our rebellion against Babylon was irrelevant to Hebrew suffering, Jeremiah would not have bothered to counsel against the war. But in fact, Jeremiah did exactly that. (See e.g. Jeremiah 21).

June 21, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Chukat

This week’s Torah portion begins with the laws of the “red heifer”. One who touches the dead shall be ritually impure for seven days, and at the end of this period he/she shall be sprinkled with water mixed with the ashes of the cremated red cow.

The most unusual part of this is that someone who prepares this “holy water” himself becomes ritually impure- in other words, the purifier becomes impure (and thus must wash up to end the impurity). All too many commentators have suggested that this particular rule has no reason, and is thus an example of why we should use blind faith in obeying the Torah’s rules.

But in fact, this decree may not be irrational. According to Drazin and Wagner, Joseph Bechor Shor (a medieval French rabbi) believed that since the ashes of the heifer are “considered holy and since it is impossible to perform these acts without getting the ashes on their bodies and clothes, and since they may go with these holy ashes to an unholy place, they must wash the ashes from their bodies and clothes.” In other words, once you accept the premise that holy objects (here, the ashes) exist, it makes sense to say that people shouldn’t drag the ashes with them to the supermarket.

June 11, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar torah- Korach

This week’s Torah portion is named after Korach, who tells Moses he has elevated himself inappropriately and attracts considerable popular support. Korach and his supporters get struck down by God as a result.

After all the miracles in the Torah why would anyone be foolish enough to fight Moses?

Drazin and Wagner cite Nachmanides’ explanation that this episode occurred after the episode of the spies in last week’s parsha, and that the “Israelites were disgruntled after their harsh capital punishment.” In other words,when people are traumatized they exercise poor judgment.

I can relate. I had some difficulties at work in recent weeks, and my vacation in Europe has led to considerable jet lag. So over the last few days i haven’t been as self disciplined as usual and have made some mistakes that got on people’s nerves- fortunately nothing as bad as Korah’s mistakes!