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January 18, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Shemot

This week’s Torah portion begins with the story of Egyptian oppression.  The Egyptians first enslave the Hebrews, and then try to kill their baby boys.  Two midwives, Shifra and Puah, ignore these orders; the Torah states that “because the midwives feared God… He made them houses.” (1:21).

What does this mean?  Rashi suggests that Shifra and Puah were Moses’s mother and sister, and were rewarded with great descendants.  Miller doesn’t reject this fanciful* midrash, but he prefers a more theoretical interpretation.

He writes that “when you fear God, you become a ‘house’: mentally organized, settled, and structured.”  In my life, religious observance has helped to structure my life, even if I am not always as settled as I would like.  Each part of the day has its different obligations, and each part of the year as well.

*Why fanciful?  Because I find it hard to imagine the Egyptians trusting Hebrews to kill each other.  I suspect that Shifra and Puah were really Egyptians- but that’s another discussion.

January 11, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayhi

In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob blesses his children- but he doesn’t really bless Simeon and Levi, instead rebuking their anger.

Miller writes that “Jacob did not bless Simeon and Levi because they were from the side of gevurah (severity) and if these forces would be intensified the world could not endure them… What parts of your personality come from Gevurah?  Can your world endure them?”

After watching lots of aggressive political arguments on Twitter and Facebook (and in the broader media) over the past year, it seems to me that argumentativeness in these matters can certainly be severe.   I have tried to be a little less severe than I would have been a few years ago.

Interestingly, I noticed one politician who seemed to have worked on this characteristic.  Gov. Kasich, who I voted for, had a reputation as being, to put it charitably, a bit aggressive. (I can’t seem to copy and paste to this computer, but just google “kasic state trooper” for an example).  But he ran a very l0w-key, positive campaign; perhaps he sensed that gevurah was an issue for him (though I’m sure he’s never heard of the word).

January 1, 2017 / conservadox

Rabbis gone wild

I have seen a lot of furious hyperpartisan (expletive deleted) about the U.S.’s failure to veto a U.N. resolution condemning Israel for its settlement policy etc.

But a congregational rabbi in my hometown went a little further.  He said that the nations of the Security Council were challenging Israel’s right to the Western Wall.  Here’s the text of the resolution.  Is he right?

It mostly refers to “East Jerusalem” in a general way.  However,  it does say that “it will not recognize any changes to the 4 June 1967 lines, including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties through negotiations.”  So if you read it literally, I think you could say that it endorses trapping Israel within its pre-1967 borders.

On the other hand, if you read about the political controversy surrounding this non-binding resolution, it seems to me that this isn’t really what the nations voting on it (at least not the more pro-Israel nations such as the UK) intended.  Most of the actual controversy seems to be about settlement construction- that is, creating Jewish neighborhoods all over the place on disputed land.  (I’m not really persuaded by the left-wing view that the settlements are the primary obstacle to peace, nor did I think the U.S. decision to veto this resolution was a good idea- but that’s another discussion entirely).  And since the resolution has zero legal force, I don’t think you can expect the level of precision that you would for a treaty.


January 1, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayigash

In this week’s portion, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, who then settle in Egypt.  Along the way, Joseph “fell on his brother Benjamin’s neck and cried, and Benjamin cried on his neck.” (Gen. 45: 14).

What’s up with all the crying?  Miller cites a legend discussed by Rashi, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s interpretation of that legend.

Rashi wrote that Joseph was weeping for the Temples that were destroyed thousands of years later on Benjamin’s territory, while Benjamin was weeping for the Tabernacle at Shiloh, which was destroyed on Joseph’s territory almost as many years in the future.

Literally, this seems like another silly midrash.  The Rebbe tries to make sense of it, pointing out that that they were weeping onlyh over each other’s misfortune rather than their own.  Why? “Eliminating other people’s problems ultimately depends on the other person’s own free will… the person himself must take the necessary action.”  In other words, only you (if anyone) can solve your own problems, while you can only be sympathetic to other people’s problems.  This is a fine example of how to take a useful real-life lesson from a fanciful midrash.

December 27, 2016 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Miketz

In this week’s portion, Joseph becomes a major official in Egypt, and his brothers go there to buy grain, eventually meeting him and getting into trouble.  After Joseph (who hasn’t told them of his identity yet) accuses them of being spies, they agree that this is somehow because of their mistreatment of Joseph (Gen. 42:21-22).

The brothers as a group say “we are guilty for our brother… That’s why this distress has come upon us.”  Reuben then says, in so many words, “I told you so.”

Why does the Torah mention Reuben’s reaction separately?  Miller writes that the brothers only “repent because they find themselves in dire straits.” By contrast, Reuben’s repentance is deeper; rather than focusing on their misfortune, he is focused “on the sin itself… it was incorrect to repent as a result of the misfortune which had befallen them.  They should have striven to feel genuine remorse for what they had done because the act itself was evil.”(emphasis in original).

In other words, feel sorry for your bad actions, not just because you got caught.  This seems perfectly reasonable when you think you really did do something bad.

But life is not that simple.  What if you offended someone but feel like its sort of the other person’s fault, or at least that it isn’t entirely your fault?  An example from my life: I told someone that we’d meet at “five-ish”, not specifying where (my apartment, hers or neutral site).  Given the amorphousness of the plans, I didn’t think I needed to be anywhere in particular at 5:00 sharp.  But what I meant as “somewhere in late afternoon”, my friend read as “5:00 sharp at her apartment.”  So when I arrived at 5:40 at her apartment, she was offended.   I said I was sorry and listened to her, and didn’t try to defend myself (because I could tell she was not in the mood for excuses).  But I didn’t feel like Reuben, especially since we hadn’t always been very specific about meeting times in the past.




December 25, 2016 / conservadox

strange dream

I was in a hotel lobby watching a TV program about a small town in California.  The program suggested that the town was so dependent on illegal immigration that shutting it down would destroy the local economy.

Then a family from rural Mississippi came over and sat near me.  I thought to myself: “This whole argument is totally irrelevant to them.  I bet every single one of their ancestors was in this country before 1865, and probably everyone in their town.” Then I woke up.

December 17, 2016 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayeshev

This week’s Torah portion begins the story of Joseph.  Joseph’s brothers hate him for a variety of reasons.  Why don’t they realize how great he is?

Miller, citing Rashi, writes: “Just as Abraham had produced the errant Ishmael, and Isaac, the deviant Esau, the brothers judged Joseph to be the impure offspring of Jacob.”

A few days ago, I heard an interesting talk (though not about this parsha) related to this theme.   The speaker (a YCT rabbi in training I think) asked: why didn’t Joseph contact Jacob when he was a big shot in Egypt some years later, rather than waiting for his brothers to come to Egypt?  One possible answer: Joseph too thought that like Esau and Ishmael, he had been in some sense cast off, and was no longer part of the Abraham-Isaac-Joseph clan.  But now that the clan has become a people, he was of course wrong- now, all brothers matter.

December 13, 2016 / conservadox

The story of Hanukah

I heard an interesting dvar Torah about Chanukah at Drisha yesterday.  There is a book called Megillat Taanit, written around the time of Hillel and Shammai, that lists fast days and days when fasting is prohibited.  Chanukah is one of dozens of such days; however, most of these days have been long forgotten.  Why has Chanukah survived? It is barely mentioned in the Mishnah, though gets much more coverage in the Talmud. And why is candle lighting such a big deal?  And why does the Talmud create a miracle related to candles, which seems to be not known in earlier sources?

Shai Secunda spoke about this issue, and had an interesting theory: for Zoroastarians (who ran Mesopotamia in the Talmudic era, and occasionally persecuted the Jews), fire was holy.   So the Jewish emphasis on fire during Chanukah is somehow related to this- perhaps as an explanation of why Chanukah was important to Jews and should not be suppressed, perhaps as a way of saying “fire is sacred to us too.”

December 11, 2016 / conservadox

Dvar Torah-Vayishlach

This coming week’s Parsha begins “Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau” (Gen. 32:4) and adds that the messengers returned to Jacob with the news that his brother is heading towards him with 400 men- news that makes Jacob a bit worried to say the least.

Miller, citing Rashi and an 18th c. Hasidic sage, writes that the messengers were angels, states that the “angels failed in their mission to appease Esau.  From here we can learn that all attempts to reconcile a dispute in person need to be made in person, not through messengers or representatives.”

I’ve had some interpersonal conflicts recently, mostly due to my own carelessness.  In dealing with friends and family, messengers are obviously impractical.  But I have struggled with how direct my attempt should be.  If I can’t meet the other person to discuss the problem, do I need the phone?  Or is an email or even a text message appropriate?

There is no all-purposes right answer.  The telephone is the most personal form of contact; on the other hand, it is harder to be precise orally than in writing, and I sometimes find that I have difficulty paying attention or understanding other people’s words during a phone call.  Writing allows you to compose your thoughts and state your position more clearly, thus reducing the possibility of misunderstanding.  On the other hand, it does seem more impersonal.

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.