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June 29, 2015 / conservadox

two weird dreams

1. I was on a airport shuttle to take a plane to Greece.  When I was getting off the shuttle, I discovered I could not find my shoes.  I started thinking about whether I needed shoes to fly.  Then I woke up.

2.  I was about to finish grading student exams and had the option of having someone mildly torture students (I don’t remember how but it wasn’t supposed to be life threatening).  The first student had suffered four of the six tortures, and then I stopped it and felt remorseful.  Then I woke up.

June 29, 2015 / conservadox

Dvar Torah – Balak

In this week’s portion, the pagan seer Balak is hired to curse the Jews, but blesses them instead.  One of his prophecies is that Israel will destry Edom (Num. 24:18-19).  Rashi interprets Edom not as a small nation next to the land of Israel (its biblical meaning) but as the Roman Empire, and claims that Rome will be destroyed by the Messiah.  Since the Roman Empire had been destroyed centuries before Rashi was writing, what did he mean?

Presumably Rashi meant European Christendom, which was headquartered in Rome since that is where the pope lived (and lives).

And why do rabbis think of Christendom as Edom? Jacob Neusner has explained that Jewish sources do not start to use Edom as a synonym for Rome until after the Christian takeover of the Roman Empire (i.e. in the Talmud as opposed to the Mishna, which was written when the Roman Empire was run by Christian-oppressing pagans).  He suggests that just as Edom is Jacob’s brother/rival, Christianity is Judaism’s brother/rival, insofar as both rabbinic Judaism and Christianity grew out of Second Temple Judaism.  So it might have seemed poetic to treat Edom as a symbol of Christianity.

And of course, the rabbis (and Rashi) want history to end happily- so they decide that eventually, the good guys (Judaism) will somehow triumph over Edom.

It certainly does seem to be the case that Christendom is losing vitality: declining birthrates and rampant secularism mean that European Christianity, much like paganism in the 200s and 300s, has lost its ability to inspire people or to sway politics (as shown for example by the rising tide of same sex marriage).  Unfortunately for Jews, its major rival seems to be not Judaism but Islam.

June 21, 2015 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Chukat

One advantage of using a different Chumash or commentary every year is that every year something different seems interesting: a verse or section that one commentary covers poorly or not at all is addressed well in another.

In particular, I’ve always glossed over Num. 20:14-21 (involving the Jews’ failed attempt to cross through Edom) without much thought: Jews want to go through Edom, Edomites say go to blazes, Jews avoid a flight and go elsewhere.  What I never thought about is: what’s wrong with those Edomites? Why are they so mean?

Rasham notices Moses’s statement that the Jews will not “drink of the water of the wells” (20:17). Why is that an issue?  Rashbam says that water was scarce in Edom, and so what the Edomites were afraid of is the Jews drinking all of their scarce water.

Moses goes on to water that “if we drink of they water, I and my cattle, then I will give the price thereof.” (20:19).  Edom still says no.  How come?  The Chumash doesn’t answer this question, but it seems to me that if you assume that Israel is hundreds of thousands of people and that Edom is dry (and thus rural and scarcely populated, since without modern technology it is pretty hard to support lots of people in a place without much water) maybe the Edomites didn’t feel like they could get the Israelites to abide by Moses’s promise.   So maybe if they bluffed and threatened Moses with a war, they would avoid that risk.

Is there any broader lesson for us out of this? I guess I would say that people are less generous when resources are scarce, which explains (for example) the post-recession rise of the Tea Party.  Economists sometimes treat growth and redistribution as opposites, but in a society where most people see themselves as taxpayers, you can’t have the second without the first.  Or to apply the lesson to a nonpolitical context, you can’t have a lot of charity without people who can afford to give it.

June 16, 2015 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Korah

In response to a rebellion, Moses states “I have not taken one ass from them.” (Num. 16:15)- which means, according to the Soncino Chumash, that “I have never taken from them even an ass for my public services.”  In other words, Moses is saying “I am not a crook.”

But this claim kind of misses the point.  Nobody is accusing Moses of being financially corrupt; rather, Korach and his supporters are accusing him of being power-hungry, perhaps a more insidious (and often more dangerous) type of corruption.

So why does the Torah even repeat Moses’s remarks.  Possibly to tell us that at a minimum, public officials should be most careful about financial corruption because it is easiest to detect and thus makes citizens the most easily enraged.   Or alternatively, maybe we should learn that Moses doesn’t quite understand why people are rebelling against him- that is, that he is beginning with lose touch with the people, which in turn foreshadows his continued decline in the next few Torah portions.

June 16, 2015 / conservadox

no need for challah

I was at shul in another state and the rabbi pointed out, in discussing the mitzvah of taking challah, that braided bread (what most Jews think of as challah) has zero halachic significance- in fact, it probably has only been common for a few hundred years, and Sephardic Jews didn’t do it until they learned about it from Ashkenazim.

June 16, 2015 / conservadox

shabbos dinner on the road

I was visiting a strange city and making my own shabbos dinner last weekend.  This is what I had:

dried figs (because last week’s portion mentions that the spies brought figs from Israel)

pomegranate/blueberry bar (because the spies also mentioned pomegranates) and pomegranate soda (ditto)

mackerel (no good reason, just finishing up what I bought during Pesach)

caramel truffles and nougat bar (because the portion mentions Jews going to a land of milk and honey and nougat has honey)

– a smaller than usual meal because I was a northwestern states where shabbos starts after 9 pm and I was more interested in sleep than food.

June 7, 2015 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Shelach

This week’s portion is primarily about the sin of the spies- Moses sends spies to the Promised Land, the spies say ‘we can’t win”, plague results (and ultimately, God telling Moses that the current generation has to die out before the Jews enter said Promised Land).  The typical Sunday-school explanation of this is: this is what happened when people don’t have faith.

I find this explanation troublesome for two reasons.  First, it makes God seem like a bit of a jerk.  Second, this is hardly the only time when the Jews complain about good reason.

An alternative explanation is hinted at at Numb. 14:35 in which God promises to kill off “all this evil congregation, that are gathered together against Me.” Ibn Ezra suggests that this refers to the mob’s plans to start stoning Joshua and Caleb (the two spies who support conquering the land). He is referring to Numb. 10:10, which states: “all the congregation bade stone them with stones, when the glory of God appeared in the tent of meeting”:.

In other words, this incident, like the Golden Calf incident in Exodus, involved the beginnings of a violent riot.  And when public order (and thus the survival of Moses’ regime) is at stake, extreme measures are necessary.  The Torah is a liberal document in some ways (in particular, issues related to wealth and poverty) but when it comes to public order, it is very conservative.

June 5, 2015 / conservadox

Shabbat dinner

This week’s Torah portion mentions Pesach Sheni (Numbers 9:11) so I decided to get matzoh instead of challah.

Also, in this portion the Jews complain about the absence of leeks, garlic, fish, onions and melons (Num. 11:5).

So for melons I found watermelon popsicles (my dessert, though I added a chocolate bar w/raspberry)

For garlic I found mashed potato mix with onion powder, vegan sloppy joe mix with garlic powder, and also diced tomatoes with garlic and onion. And then I made a kind of vegetarian Shepherd’s pie out of all of them.

For fish I still have canned mackerel from Pesach, and used that to create two salads: one with the tomatoes, and another with leeks.  I also made a third salad with leeks and cucumbers.

June 2, 2015 / conservadox

Dvar Torah – Behlotcha

Now that the Jews are done with Sinai, we have left the time of listings of rituals and sacrifices, and entered the long hot summer of action-packed Torah portions.  After the Hebrews complain about food Moses asks God, “Have I conceived all these people? Have I brought them forth…?” (Numbers 6:12).

Rashbam explains that Moses is comparing the people unfavorably to children: while children, despite their diverse views, follow their parents, the Hebrews have lost confidence in Moses.

Coping with diversity continues to be a challenge for today’s rabbis and other Jewish leaders.  This Shabbat I heard an example.  At a self-consciously modern Orthodox shul in my hometown, the rabbi spoke about how modern Orthodox Jews should be more passionate, and said that outside shul and during their summer vacations they should be more careful about pretty much everything (shabbat, kashrut, davening etc) in order to be role models for their children.  This speech was targeted like a laser beam at the median congregant (or maybe the slightly-less-observant than average median congregant): a 30-50 yr old family with children who takes family vacations in places with less Jewish life than my hometown (which has about 100k Jews)

I question whether being told “be as frum as I am” is a winning argument even with this median congregant.  But even if it was, I suspect it wouldn’t engage the not-so-median congregant.  I

Imagine two not-so-median congregants, a fully observant newcomer spending his first weekend in town and a not-so-observant one visiting an Orthodox shul for the first time. If I’m the observant congregant, I listen to this speech and see that  (1) the rabbi is displeased with his congregation and/or (2) the congregation isn’t observant enough for me.  If I’m the not-so-observant newcomer, I see that the rabbi expects every member of his congregation to be 100 percent religious and I feel incredibly uncomfortable and out of place.

So how should the rabbi speak?  I’ve always thought a good rule is: speak in a way that the person coming into an Orthodox synagogue (or Conservative or Reform, for non-Orthodox rabbis) for the first time will understand you.

May 31, 2015 / conservadox

weird dreams

I took a longer-than-usual shabbos nap and dreamt that my brother and sister in law had moved to Flatbush and it was about mincha time. First they weren’t sure what time it was.  I pointed out that there was a clock on the oven.  Then I said we maybe we should go to shul, and they asked where a shul was.  I said “In this neighborhood we can just walk around randomly and find a place.” I woke up and then went to mincha etc in real life. (but my brother stayed in bed).

This morning I had a much more bizarre dream but one that had nothing to do with religion.  I dreamed I bought a couple of guinea pigs but they wouldn’t stay in the cage.  Then a ferret came out of nowhere (this being a dream) and he wouldn’t either.  I discovered that there was a big hole at the bottom of the cage that they kept running out of.  Then the ferret started killing and eating a pigeon in a very gruesome way.   (PS I don’t have pets now but had guinea pigs in recent memory and once had a roommate with ferrets; I love them all).


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