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December 4, 2016 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayetze

This coming week’s Torah portion is primarily about the interactions because Jacob and his rather difficult relative Laban, who offers him his daughters in marriage but cheats him (to oversimplify a bit).

After a 20-year difficult relationship, Jacob leaves Laban to return to Israel.  At the end of their relationship, Jacob builds a pile of stones (Gen. 31:46)  Laban says that this pile is a witness to their agreement that Yaakov may not mistreat Laban’s daughters (Gen. 31:48),and that the stones are a boundary (31:51).

Miller (the author of the Chumash I’m using this year, starting today) remarks that this pile “represents the boundary between the Jew (Jacob) and his non-Jewish surroundings (Laban)..  This boundary is not supposed to be a total barrier, where the Jew totally insulates himself from the world and wants nothing to do with his non-Jewish neighbors [or secular life generally].”  Obviously, Judaism needs some boundaries but not too many- too few boundaries and Judaism disappears, too many and Judaism becomes impractical.

Then Miller throws a curveball, writing that you “need to profit spiritually from each interaction with the world, by training your eye to perceive how its physical existence is being constantly renewed at every moment by God.”  Religion is an exercise in turning the secular into the sacred, and seeing how non-holy things are related to the sacred.




December 4, 2016 / conservadox

new Chumash

I finally got the Chumash I am planning to use this year: The Five Books of Moses by Chaim Miller, written from a Chabad perspective but a bit  more popular and psychologically oriented than Chabad’s Gutnik chumash.

This means no more Baal Hatrurim, at least for this year.  I think this is probably a good thing for me; after a while, its attempts to waterboard the words of the Torah until they yielded the right result got a little tiresome.

December 4, 2016 / conservadox

Why you should take Artscroll with a grain of salt

Saturday I was in shul and looking at the Stone Chumash during the Torah reading, and came across the claim that there is a “rabbinic consensus” that the Patriarchs followed halacha (in the modern sense – i.e. the Talmud as well as the Torah).

It is true that there are remarks in the Talmud about the patriarchs following the Torah- but in fact, medieval rabbis were quite divided as to the meaning of this statement.  Rambam, for example, believes that the patriarchs followed the Noahide laws and not much more. (For more details see this essay).

December 2, 2016 / conservadox

shabbos dinner

I am having shabbos dinner at home alone for the first time in a while; someone in my shul lives in my building and because I have more furniture than he does, we often have dinner together in my apartment (he and his girlfriend usually bringing the main course, while I supply minor stuff).

Because today’s parsha is Toldot, this means red lentils and red stuff generally (in honor of the red lentil stew or soup that Esau wanted from Jacob, and got in exchange for his birthright).  I feel not so great and I’m not in a mood for making something too elaborate, so my main dish is just red lentil penne pasta (very bland) with tomato sauce and lox.

Also: zucchini spread (made in Bulgaria)

kosher kimche

pan fried wontons with strawberry marshmallow fluff

lots of red soft drinks.


November 28, 2016 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Toldot

Although this should be an interesting Torah portion, Baal Haturim’s treatment of it isn’t exactly a diamond mine; its mostly manipulation of gematria and midrash to show that Esau deserved what he got.

However, there is one phrase (which I’m pretty sure I’ve heard elsewhere) that was of mild interest: he writes that Esau’s name came about “because he was asu, fully made and complete.”  Perhaps one could argue that “fully made” means one-dimensional, incapable of growth- unlike his brother Yaakov, whose life story is one of growth.  A tidy, neat story contained in one word.

On the other hand, there is at least some evidence that Esau in fact grows.  After he realizes that his mother hates his wife, he gets a new one (Gen. 28:9).  And eventually, he sort of reconciles with Yaakov (Gen. 33).   And he moves to a different land and creates  a people (Gen. 34), as opposed to being, say, eaten by lions after an unsuccessful hunt.

So maybe this language doesn’t mean as much as it appears to on first glance- an example of the perils of trying to read too much into a word.  (Though on the OTHER other  hand, some commentators minimize this evidence of growth).

November 28, 2016 / conservadox

Managing Thanksgiving and Shabbos

I had a houseguest over for the weekend, so I had a difficult quandry: on the one hand, I felt like I had to do something for Thanksgiving, but on the other hand I wanted to make shabbos my first priority.

So rather than following the secular tradition of a full turkey (which I thought was not a good idea for just two people) I had a few dishes with turkey in them: wontons with turkey pastrami, a little pack of Israeli turkey sausage, eggs with turkey bacon (kind of a blander version of shakshuka).  Then Friday a friend brought a full turkey breast and we had something more like a stereotypical Thanksgiving (though without the godawful things often associated with an American Thanksgiving, such as cranberry sauce).

November 22, 2016 / conservadox

final minyan count (56 I think)

I just said my last kaddish (until my father’s yahrzeit a month from now); I managed to miss only one day of minyan (due to stomach flu).  My last minyan was at Young Israel of Plainview in Long Island; I couldn’t get back to Manhattan in time for mincha and so got off at a train stop roughly halfway between there and my job 40 miles out.

I attended minyan in at least 56 shuls or other institutions, in 9 states (Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, California, Michigan, Maryland, DC although I realize it isn’t technically a state, Pennsylvania, and New York), and in all five boroughs of NYC.  I thank them all for hosting me.

Nashville (update oct 9)- Shearith Israel

Pittsburgh- Kesser Torah

Chabad (at least one of the minyans, the one that meets at Naamat – I know I’ve davened at the main Chabad at Wightman, not sure if after my dad died though)

Shaarey Torah

Beth Shalom

Poale Zedek

Young Israel

(other shuls? Maybe, can’t remember if after dad died in Jan. or before)

Jacksonville- Etz Chaim

Atlanta- Beth Tefillah

Ahavat Achim

Beth Jacob

Shearith Israel

Young Israel

New Toco Shul

Washington- Agudat Israel afternoon minyan

(OSTT maybe- can’t remember if after first of year)

Baltimore- Agudat Israel

Detroit- Young Israel of Oak Park

Kollel in Oak Park

Ann Arbor Orthodox Minyan

Beth Israel (Ann Arbor)

Long Island- Young Israel of Plainview

Queens- Briarwood Jewish Center

Bukharan Jewish Community Center (added Nov 2)

Young Israel of Queens Valley

Brooklyn- 770 Eastern Parkway (Chabad headquarters)

Prospect Heights shul

Ahavas Yisrael

Landau shul

Boro Park “minyan factory”

Young Israel-Beth El of Boro Park

Young Israel of Flatbush

Bronx- Hebrew Institute of Riverdale

Staten Island- Young Israel of Staten Island

Manhattan- Adereth El

Chabad of Midtown

Kehilat Jeshurun

West Side Jewish Center

Shearith Israel

Bialystoker Synagogue

Millinery Center Synagogue

Park East Synagogue

Mt. Sinai Jewish Center

Khol Adath Jeshurun

Orach Chaim (added 11-21)

Stanton Street Shul

Mechon Hadar (not really a shul, more of a beit midrash)

Jewish Center (added 11-20)

Los Angeles- Shaarey Zedek (Valley View)

Adat Yeshurun (Moroccan)

Valley Beth Shalom

Happy Minyan

Young Israel of Century City

Aish LA

Young Israel of Hancock Park

Anshe Emet

Sinai Temple

November 20, 2016 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Chayei Sarah

This parsha begins with Sarah’s death; it states that Abraham “came to eulogize Sarah and to cry over her.”(Gen. 23:2).  Baal Haturim points out that one letter in this sentence is smaller than the other letters, and suggests that this is because Abraham “bewailed her for only a short while… because she was old.”

My father was 92 when he died last year.  My mother said something like “you might think [mourning] gets easier because he had a long life, but its still hard.” So I’m not sure he is right.

November 13, 2016 / conservadox

Dvar Torah-Vaera

This week’s parsha begins: “God appeared to [Abraham] while he was sitting at the entrance to the tent in the heat of the day.”  (18:1).  The last sentence of last week’s parsha refers to Abraham’s household being “circumcised with him.”

Baal Haturim brings these concepts together, noting that the Talmud says that Abraham sits at the entrance to Gehinnom, because “the heat of the day” could be interpreted as a reference to Hell.  He adds that  according to this Midrashic legend,  Abraham”does not allow anyone who has been circumcised to enter, except one who has had relations with a gentile woman, for he has extended his foreskin [to hide circumcision] and therefore Abraham cannot recognized that he is circumcised.”

What’s interesting to me about this?  The suggestion that anyone “who has had relations with a gentile woman” must be hiding his circumcision- in other words, that a gentile woman would never have sex with someone she knew was circumcised, because in 1300 sex between Christians and Jews was simply unthinkable.  This tells us how separate they were in the Middle Ages- like two self-governing societies next to each other.

November 9, 2016 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Lech Lecha

I’m reading Baal Haturim again, and oddly he again has something to say.  This week’s parsha is about the adventures of Abraham.  Abraham parts from Lot due to a dispute between their herdsmen, and the portion says “thus they parted, one from his brother.” Baal Haturim points out that the final letters of the last few letters of this sentence (ish maal achiv ) and the first word of the next sentence (Avram), when turned into a sentence, say Shalom, or peace.

So what? He suggests that their parting was necessary to maintain peace.  And he also writes that the descendants of Avram (Hebrews) and the descendants of Lot (Moabites) kept peace many years later by keeping apart from each other, based on the Torah’s later statement that “You shall not distress Moab” (Deut. 12:9).

This statement is actually relevant to one of the issues in this year’s election: immigration. One point of view (in its most extreme form) is that open borders are great, and that if we just let the peoples of the world in our country they will all get along fine.  Another point of view is that some nationalities should just be kept apart from each other; for example, one might argue*Muslims’ proclivity for beating up Jews all over the world suggests that maybe we should be a little more skittish about inviting them here.  I think Baal Haturim’s interpretation tends a little towards the latter view – that some nationalities should be kept apart for the sake of peace.

*And I have to admit, I would argue it, even though I’m not sure if the Trump Administration can create a practical plan to limit Muslim immigration without running afoul of other foreign policy considerations.  I suspect not, given that Trump doesn’t know anything about government, and I suspect most of the people he hires will, like his Vice President, be more pro-immigration than he is.