This week’s portion urges a variety of charitable actions (Deut 15). But it also urges the extermination of idol worshippers and false prophets. As to the latter, Arama writes: “display of sympathy for the corrupt few is equivalent to subjecting the majority to their evil machinations.”
The presence of these sentiments in the same Torah portion illustrates a broader point: Judaism is about balance. The conservative idea that poor people deserve to be poor is anti-Torah. But so is the liberal idea that antisocial conduct must be excused or explained away. Love the stranger, but kill your enemy.*
*unless you can make him a nonenemy, but that’s another discussion.
This week’s Torah portion says “what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord.” (Deut. 10:12). The Talmud says that this is a minor matter for someone like Moses, but maybe not for the rest of us.
Arama sort of agrees and sort of doesn’t. He says fear can mean three things:
- Terror, which is pretty easy even for an animal.
- reverence – “that which recognizes superior moral or intellectual qualities in someone whom one confronts.” This is doable for the devout, less so for the rest of us. So this sort of fear is what the Talmud contemplates. Arama suggests that such reverence is “the ultimate demand that can be made of any human being.” Even though intellectual awareness of God’s superiority is easy, “constant awareness of this reverence seems more than can be reasonably expected from any individual.”
- An awareness of possible bad consequences if one fails to take precauations against known dangers- thus, fear of being punished for violating the Torah. This seems to me like a more intelligent version of (1).
In the morning I went to KAJ, the old German shul in Wash Hts which presumably started as modern Orthodox in the S.R. Hirsch tradition. Today it felt like a cross between black hat Yeshivish and Spanish/Portuguese.
Like the latter, felt very formal, a lot of slow singing.
Like the former, 2/3 of the guys wore black hats. Many of the rest wore light summer hats, which is common in the two Spanish/Portuguese shuls I know best (Shearith Israel in Manhattan, Mikveh Israel in Philly).
No sermon (rabbi out of town maybe?), no kiddush (first time I have ever seen THAT in Manhattan). Not friendly.
One guy asked if I had a place to eat, then said he was full but would look for someone. He told me to go to a little talk on the Torah portion in a nearby room, which I did. (I wonder if he expected someone in that room to offer me a meal). When the talk ended, the man had disappeared and no one asked me out. I wondered what to do. I decided to go home since (a) I had food at home (since I don’t really expect hospitality in Manhattan) and (b) I figured if I disappeared and the man reappeared, he would think that I had been offered a place and feel good that he had helped facilitate this.
There were about 30 guys, which didn’t seem like a lot for the size of the building.
By contrast, for mincha, Seudah Shlichit and havdalah I went to Mt. Sinai Jewish Center across the street. Much bigger (50 guys), much younger (about 80 percent seemed under 40), nice third meal if you like sugar (count me in!) . Surprisingly friendly, I got into some conversations of not much importance.
I wonder why KAJ seems to be doing so much worse than Mt. Sinai. Maybe Washington Heights just can’t compete with the outer boroughs for black hat types- not as safe, not much more convenient perhaps?
I have done a lot of traveling over the past few weeks so I thought I would list the places I have been:
Friday August 5- arrive in Los Angeles on vacation. Morning at Young Israel of Century City (which meets in restaurant because they are being renovated or something).
Saturday Aug. 6- morning and evening at Happy Minyan in Pico-Robertson area.
Sunday August 7- morning at Anshe Emet (fairly generic large shul, somewhat on MO/yeshivish border it seems like) in same area.
evening service at Shaare Tzedek in San Fernando Valley (pretty similar).
Monday August 8- morning at Moroccan shul in Valley. Someone talks in Hebrew at end of service (visiting rabbi?)
afternoon at Aish LA. Although Aish is supposed to be an outreach institution, I have difficulty finding a siddur that isn’t all Hebrew. Fortunately by now I have gotten used to bringing my Sacks siddur everywhere.
Tuesday August 9 – morning at Valley Beth Shalom (Conservative, Encino). Not much to say about it, perfectly normal.
afternoon at Young Israel of Hancock Park. Like Aish, kind of black-hattish.
Wed. August 10- morning at Shaare Tzedek.
Thursday August 11- arrive in NYC. Go to Young Israel of Queens Valley in Kew Gardens Hills from airport. Like many places in Queens mostly modern but black hat rabbi.
Friday August 12- am staying in Crown Heights, so go to 770 Eastern Parkway (Chabad HQ, see prior post I think).
Shabbos- For main service, went to Prospect Heights Shul- new, young, small (barely over 10 guys0, a bit disorganized, modern. (Rabbi not there so very short, no sermon- in and out in less than 2 hrs).
Since this means I have time to go to two shuls, I go to Chevra Ahavas Yisrael (CAY) for the end of their service, then a big kiddush, then an early mincha after kiddush. Kind of a cross between Carlebach and Chabad, kind of nice though still a bit right wing- men and women sat separately for kiddush. A real mix of people, kind of the modern Orthodox alternative by Crown Heights standards unless you want to go to Prospect Heights.
Then for eicha I went to 770 because it was too late to go anywhere else.
Sunday (Tisha’b’Av)- Bialystoker shul in Lower E Side in the morning since it was kind of on the way between Crown Hts and the Upper W Side. No kinot with English translation which I did not like one bit. Then to Drisha for learning, then back to West Side Jewish Center (WSJC) in midtown for mincha and maariv.
Monday August 15- shachrit at CAY, my last minyan in Crown Hts (though they couldn’t actually get a minyan so I went to 770 to say kaddish for Dad; kaddish period does not end till Thanksgiving).
Tuesday August 16 – staying in Briarwood so go to Briarwood Jewish Center (basically small Bukharan minyan). Not much to say, just get in and get out. Barely over 10.
Wed. August 17 – overslept Bukharans (who start 630 or so), so Young Israel of Queens Valley again.
Thursday and Friday- Bukharans in morning. Went to WSJC again for early mincha.
Saturday August 20- was in Washington Heights for weekend. Went to Khal Adat Jeshurun (KAJ) morning, Mt. Sinai Jewish Center (afternoon, also this morning). Will blog separately about this.
So that’s 17 shuls in 16 days!
This week’s Torah portion contains the Shema. Perhaps the most puzzling part of the Shema is its command to love God. How can one love something as mysterious and unseen as a deity?
Arama argues that although love relationships tend to be strongest among equals, there are two relevant exceptions. First, “the love that the recipient feels for the one who endows him”- thus, the love between children and parents. Since God is the great provider, love for God is natural. But I don’t find this argument quite so persuasive, because of the problem of theodicy- God may provide good, but God is also responsible (directly or indirectly) for horrific evil, if not by causing it at least by allowing it to happen.
But Arama’s more interesting argument is based on the uniqueness of God. He writes taht when one “owns a variety of artifacts, each similar in nature, it is difficult to love one of those artifacts especially, since it is not distinctive enough to evoke that special feeling of love. When, however, the object in question is absolutely unique, the affection one feels for it can be termed love.” In other words, we cherish God precisely because God is mysterious and unique, rather than because God is like a parent or other person.
I’ve had a very interesting and unusual couple of weeks.
First, a vacation in Los Angeles. Spent shabbos at the Happy Minyan, which lives up to its name (but even though it was pretty friendly, getting a lunch invite was pretty tough- I got one but only from the one of the last people to leave). Went to a different daily minyan almost every day.
Second, I spent Tisha’b’Av in Crown Heights. Shabbos at Chevra Ahavas Yisrael, kind of a cross between Chabad and Happy Minyan.
Went to 770 for a couple of daily minyans and heard Eicha (or some of it) as well. If you are male, go to the basement of 770 for an unusual experience-there are typically half a dozen minyans going on at any one time, and try to find one where the sheilah tibbur speaks loudly enough to be audible (not easy!). I am not quire sure where women daven there though, if anywhere. (upstairs maybe?).
It was especially useful if you are a little late for other minyans (for example, I was on the fringes of the neighborhood and so didn’t get to another shul until Eicha was done, so I heard it at 770) or if you went to a shul that couldn’t get a minyan (Ahavas Yisrael on Monday morning). Also, they have food in the morning (coffee, always something sugary too).
This week’s Torah portion almost coincides with Tisha’b’Av, and Arama sees a similarity between something in the portion and the destruction of the Temple (which the fast day commemorates).
Moses discusses the sin of the spies, and points out that most of the generation of the Exodus (or more precisely, almost all males over 20 at the time of the Exodus) died before they could enter the Land of Israel , as punishment for their unwillingness to conquer the Land at the time of that episode. Arama says this destruction of a generation is analogous to that of the Temple: in both situations a generation is being punished for their sins.
This illustrates a broader tendency in rabbinic literature: the idea that our forefathers’ issues foreshadow those of later generations. They sin, they are punished; later generations sin, they are punished. Of course, here the comparison is kind of a stretch, since different sins are involved and it seems to me that dying early (but with the knowledge that your children will meet your goals) is less severe than the humanitarian catastrophes involved in the destruction of the Temples.
In this week’s portion, two and a half tribes propose to build on the east bank of the Jordan (instead of further west where the other tribes are going). Moses flips out, and is only appeased after the tribes agree to fight with the other tribes for the rest of the land.
Why is Moses so ticked off? Arama notes that “the latter do not once mention the name of God… They attributed their future to their own physical efforts and capabilities.”
This is not consistent with the overall goal of the Hebrews’ mission. Arama writes that “the task of the Jewish nation is to engage only in those activities of a mundane nature that further achievement of its ultimate destiny… making worldly matters into an end in themselves  will not lead to the achievement of Israel’s purpose in taking possedsion of the holy land.”
In other words, even if the two tribes have not committed any specific sin, their mentality is not really what Moses wants out of the Jews, and seems (to Moses) likely to yield bad results in the future.
This week’s portion begins with God praising Pinchas for smiting a Midianite woman who has sex with a Jewish man. God tells Moses to smite the Midianites (Numbers 25:17). But in the prior Torah portion, most of the hanky-panky involves Moabites. Why the Midianites?
Arama has an interesting theory. He writes: “since their princess Kosbi*had been killed by Phineas, they had reason to plan revenge.” Admittedly a bit speculative, but certainly plausible- he is suggesting that this war was a preemptive strike. However, the argument would be more plausible if there was some reason to believe that the Midianites actually were planning revenge.
More broadly, this discussion illustrates how war can sometimes arise out of miscalculation. Side A thinks Side B is plotting a preemptive strike, and tries a preemptive strike of its own- obviously a dangerous policy.
*Not to be confused with the even more licentious Bill Cosby!
My last shabbos dinner in Pittsburgh is going to be pretty frugal, because I don’t want to leave any food behind and (because of the fast day Sunday) won’t have a lot of time to eat leftovers.
In the Torah portion, Balaam states that even if Balak gave him a palace filled with silver and gold, he could do nothing against God’s word (Numbers 22:18).
For silver I have herring salad. For gold I have blueberry blintzes and rugelach (though actually I’m not sure how golden they are). Maybe some bananas and dates as well (though I’m hoping to hold on to those so they can be my pre-fast meal).