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December 9, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayigash

This week the Rav’s commentary on the Haftorah is actually more interesting than what he says about the Torah portion.

The Haftorah is from the Book of Ezekiel, who states that the tribes of Israel will be reunited, and that “My servant David will be king over them and they will all have one shepherd.” (37:24). The Rav adds that this refers to the Messiah who will “unify the people, one nation under one king.”

This phrase might sound familiar: it sounds a lot like the Nazi slogan “Ein Volk, Ein Fuhrer, Ein Reich” (one people, one leader, one state).

So what differentiates good nationalism (ours) from bad nationalism (fascism)? This is a pressing question at a time when anti-democratic nationalism seems on the march around the globe.

One obvious difference, of course, is that our Messiah will have Divine authorization. And if you don’t believe in democracy or national borders, maybe that’s the only difference: I’m sure there are Jews who see the Messiah as, if not a Jewish Hitler, a Jewish Mussolini.

But democratic nationalism includes a few other values- some consistent with traditional Jewish conceptions of the Messiah,others less so. In particular:

*Non-aggression. The Jewish Messiah is our Messiah; he seeks to unify one people, but not to wipe out other peoples. Anti-democratic nationalism often is imperialistic (though not always; there have been dictators who minded their own business).

*Freedom and democracy. American nationalism has historically favored the American consensus behind the values of the American Constitution. Jewish Messianism predated modern democracy, and so its relationship to these values is not so clear. Medieval commentators like Maimonides did not believe that a halachic Jewish state would have unlimited room for freedom of religion- but then again, the Middle Ages were not a religiously tolerant time.

December 3, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah – Miketz

This week’s Torah portion includes the Egyptian king’s dream of the seven fat cows and the seven lean cows (Gen. 41:4). He first dreams of seven fat, attractive cows and then dreams that seven ugly, lean cows eat the first set.

The Rav writes that this dream has a broader meaning- that civilization (the fat cows) always “contains destructive, satanic elements.” He adds, for example, that “Such phenomena as pollution of the environment increase the occurrence of degenerative disease… Nature is forced by man to bow to its will; but occasionally, when man is inattentive, the captive environment avenges itself on man.”

Climate change deniers and other anti-environmentalists believe as a matter of religion-like faith that the infallible Free Market could never, ever yield harmful results. The Rav clearly believes otherwise. Instead, he believes that civilization’s advance always has costs.

On another note, the Rav also notes that the dreams occurred two years after Joseph’s dreams in the last Torah portion (conveyed to two of the king’s servants). The Rav writes that Joseph’s evolution in Egypt “required him to spend many months in bondage and in prison”, after which Joseph is ready to be vizier of Egypt. This discussion was meaningful to me because this shabbos, Dec. 8, is the 19th anniversary of my liberation from the bondage of law practice, my last billable hour.

November 26, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayeishev

This week’s Torah portion includes the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph’s father gives him a coat of many colors, some sort of shirt or tunic. The Rav has an allegorical interpretation: the coat “symbolized his mulifaceted personality.. On the one hand, Joseph was a very practical man; he managed the Egyptian economy and ran the empire.. At the same time, he was a dreamer. he was fascinated by a world, purged, cleansed from evil, a humanity which reached the apex of moral ascent.”

Of course, the latter doesn’t really have much support in the plain text of the Torah. Joseph seems like a nice fellow with good morals, but not a great spiritual leader. I think the Rav is turning Joseph into himself, or more accurately what he would like to have been.

November 23, 2018 / conservadox

shabbos dinner

This week’s country is Brazil, and the national dish is feiojada, a kind of black bean stew. Normally it is made with pork but I am doing it with vegetarian bacon (minus some of the harder to get ingredients like manioc flour).

Also I’m having some pancakes made with sweetened condensed milk to see how that turns out. (And the parsha mentions Jacob having cattle, so there is something parsha related)

Also some cake made with sweetened condensed milk and hot chocolate mix, just to experiment.

Less food than usual this week because I am going to a late minyan tonight and they may have food afterwards.

November 22, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayishlach

This week’s portion ends with a list of Edomite kings. As to one of them, Magdiel (listed at Gen 36:43) the Rav notes that “Rashi comments that Magdiel is Rome”. The Rav adds that this statement was not meant to be taken literally, but merely a “symbol for the most powerful nation in the world.” He then adds that “Historically, the nation that opposed the Jews was always the most powerful nation in the world.”

Really? The US has arguably been the most powerful nation for the last half of the 20th century and much of the 21st, and was not particularly anti-Semitic (Russia, on the other hand, was worse- but still not “opposing the Jews” to the extent that Ancient Rome or Imperial Spain did). In the 19th century, England was the most powerful nation, and was less anti-Semitic than many other places.

I think the Rav’s statement may reflect post-Holocaust trauma more than objective reality. Even as we mourn the recent tragedy in Pittsburgh, we can be glad that the world’s major powers (Russia, China, and the United States) are all places where Jewish life exists and sometimes even prospers.

November 16, 2018 / conservadox

Shabbos dinner

As usual, I am combining the Torah portion and a country of the week.
The Torah portion is about Jacob’s adventures in sheep farming (see e.g. Gen.29:3)*, so I decided to get lamb ribs from Taam Tov (a Bukharan restaurant in Manhattan); I really didn’t feel like I had time to go shop in another neighborhood, so this was the easiest way to get lamb. Jacob also uses hazelnut trees to help his animals breed (30:37) so I got hazelnut milk to drink.

The country of the week is Botswana, so I am making two easy Botswanan recipes: stewed pumpkin (slightly altered to make it meat-compatible) and fat cakes (basically donuts).

*He also had goats but the only kosher goat available in NYC has a not-universally-accepted hecksher, so usually I just do dairy meals with goat cheese for goat.

November 10, 2018 / conservadox


Always makes me think of this guy.

By the way, since Esau is often identified with the color red*, its an interesting coincidence that Jews tend to vote against “red” parties in a lot of countries: in the United States against Republicans, in the U.K against Labour (whose party color is red), in Canada for the blue Conservatives instead of the also-red Liberals.

*Just google “Esau is red”

November 10, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah-Vayetzei

For this coming week, the Rav’s commentary to the Haftorah is actually more interesting than his writings on the Torah portion.

The Haftorah begins “Jacob fled to the land of Aram, and Israel served” (Hosea 12:13), referring to Jacob’s life with his father-in-law Laban. The Rav plays with this language to illustrate a point: “The name Israel has the connotation of a ruler, victor, conqueror, while the name Jacob was given to him because he held onto Esau’s heel, carrying a connotation of subservience. In Padan Aram, he was called upon to prove that he could be Jacob and Israel at the same time.”

This was meaningful for me because like Jacob, I have been in toxic job situations, and have had to be subservient while trying to be a victor. I’ve had a couple of jobs that I was simply not very good at, and one or two where I had issues getting along with bosses. My challenge was to obtain “victory” by getting a new job before I got fired. (If I had waited to job hunt until after getting fired, I suspect it would have been much more difficult to get my next job).

I am beginning to think my current job may be similar; we are suffering from industry-specific adverse economic conditions, which in turn is affecting how people behave.

November 9, 2018 / conservadox

shabbos dinner

This week’s theme is red lentils and red generally, because Esau says to Jacob “give me some of that red stuff” (Gen. 25:31) which is generally understood to mean lentils (25:34)

So I am having prepackaged red lentil curry, and raspberry rice cakes.

Also, Jacob wore goat hides (27:16) while trying to persuade his father he was really Esau so I am having goat cheese.

Also, this week’s country is Bosnia so I have having Bosnian djuvec rice(with tomato paste so also red).

Plus a little non-red pudding and chocolate, to have a nice dessert.

November 4, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Toldot

This week’s parsha contains the bizarre story of Jacob and the blessings: Jacob disguises himself as his brother Esau to get blessings from their father Isaac.

Why do I think this is strange? Because ultimately God determines one’s fate, not one’s father.

Rabbi Soloveitchik writes that Esau is “a man of the field” (Gen. 25:27)- that is, oriented towards the secular world, without much spirituality. If Jacob leaves the field to Esau, he “has no future.” But if Jacob fights for the secular world, what then? The Rav states: “Jacob,you can bring refinement to the field; you are able to hallow it. Through you, the field will be exalted.”

I think the Rav is trying to make an allegory here: the man of books and Torah (Jacob) should engage in the secular world (“the field”) otherwise he leaves that world to the Esaus of the world. And I also think the Rav is trying to say that Jacob’s quest for his father’s blessing is another way of saying that the man of Torah (Jacob) should compete in the secular world (the blessing).