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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Something I heard.

Every day is Yom Kippur, we are each the Kohane Gadol, and every word we speak is the word of God.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Snapple Shekalim

Yesterday's parsha was V'Yakal/Shabbos Shekalim. In this parsha, we learn (among other things) about the giving of the Shekalim to the Beis HaMikdash [Temple] on the Shabbos before the beginning of the month of Adar. The Shekalim was used primarily to purchase sacrifices. It is also called "atonement money" because as soon as it is given the atonement is complete for the giver. Today, we substitute the reading of the parsha of shekalim with the separating of the shekalim, and our atonement is achieved through the reading of parsha. (p. 124 vol 2 sefer P'ri Tzaddik teachings of Rebbe Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin.)

Personal reflection: Whenever I think about the system of sacrifices vs. prayer, I think of how sacrifices and perhaps the temple itself are similar to the laws of kashrut. We were originally commanded to be vegetarians. It is not until after the Flood that meat is permitted -- as a recognition of our human weakness for meat. So, instead of being meat eating sinners, Hashem allows us our indulgence, but (with the help of the rabbis), places a set of requirements that focus our attention on His blessings every time we eat. A potential sin is turned into a mitzvoh and a daily opportunity to be present to the sacredness of time and life.

Similarly, the act of sacrifice was traditionally associated with pagan religions. And it was something the Israelites were used to doing. The golden calf incident highlights the weakness of the people and their yearning to engage in idoltarous behavior. Although on a very real level the people made the calf as a means of communicating with God. Hashem, perhaps recognizing the weakness of man, acknowledges that we had a tendancy to backslide into idolatarous behavior. And so, He puts into place a system of sacrifices that satisfy our need for physical communication and at the same time reinforce the idea that "God is one." He allowed us our sacrifices but only in a specific place, according to a specific system or law. What, when and where are highly regulated to enforce monotheism, and not idolatry. Thus, the potential sin of idolatry is turned into the mitzvah of worhshipping Hashem.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Snapple Pesach

The preferred bitter herb for Maror is Romaine Lettuce. It starts off sweet but the longer it remains in the ground the more bitter it becomes. The Talmud teaches that this symbolizes the oppression of Egypt, which was bearable in the beginning but which gradually became intolerable.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

A Basis for all mitzvot?

A few weeks ago Dini and I were continuing our study of Heschel’s book, Heavenly Torah. And
the question was asked, is there one general principle that all the mitzvot serve?
For example, Hillel’s famous statement that the enitre Torah is nothing but a commentary on the Leviticus 19:18 – "Love your neighbor as yourself" is in a sense an attempt to apply a general principle that all the mitzvoh serve.

Heschel comments on this by saying "That while such an example can be used as an general
principle underlying the mitzvot that deal with relationships between people, what about the
commandments between us and God?

For example, what about the commandments contained in the Shema, – teaching the words
to our children, keeping them on our gates and doorposts. Can we really look to "love your
neighbor" as a general underlying principle for these principle for their existence?
So I think there is a better candidate for the "meta reason" behind all the commandments.
Gen. 1:27. And God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

Why this is my candidate for the general principle upon which all mitzvot are based?
For openers, it is gender inclusive. There can be no question that men and women were equally
created in His image. The creation of "man" is in the "male and female" form. So I’m guessing
that the use of "man" here is the same as "human" or "mankind"

Beyond this, the knowledge that humans were created in God’s image results in a kind of double awareness.

First, the awareness that every person you deal with in any way is created in God’s image, and so what you do to them you do to God.

Just as you cannot harm a child without harming the parent, you cannot
harm your neighbor without harming God. Just as an act of kindness to
a child is an act of kindness to his or her parents, an act of kindness to your neighbor is an act of
kindness to God. This is similar to the jewish view, or at least a jewish view, of the hereafter.
We’ve discussed before the concept that our world and the hereafter are not two distinct worlds, but are rather directly linked and intertwined, so that what we do on earth has a direct impact on "heaven." From this viewpoint, we can say that each commandment exists to remind us that
all acts are sacred or at least have the potential to be sacred – to effect both earth and heaven.
So the awareness that comes from understanding that everyone is created in God’s image can, I
think, be a general principle for all the commandments that deal with interpersonal relationships.

There’s a second, "corallary awarness" that should flow from the understanding that we are
created in God’s image, that should be self evident but I think we often forget. It is not just the
the rest of the people in our world that are created in His image. It’s us. In a real sense, we’re
commanded to acknowledge that we ourselves are created in God’s image and, because of that,
that we are holy. Not just our neighbors. This type of awareness covers, I think, all
the other mitzvot that do not, on their face, deal with interpersonal relationships. Because as
creatures made in the image of God, each thing we do, every action, whether it is prayer, eating, work, waking up in the morning, etc., is done by a representative and as a representation of

One of the first things I learned when I started studying with Dini was that the mitzvot can be
viewed as religious speed bumps. Commandments that demand that, throughout the day one
pause from the mundane recognize and acknowledge the sacredness of each moment.
Constant reminders that there is something greater than ourselves and that we are part of
something greater than ourselves.

As a general principle being created in Hashem’s image demands
that kavanah be brought into all our actions. If the mitzvoh are "religious speedbumps" to remind us throughout the day of the sacredness of life, of existence, then being created in God’s image is the metaspeedbump to remind us to bring kavanah to all the mitzvoh.

In the 71st Pslam we read "Cast me not off in the time of old age." A plea to God not to let our
world grow old. Creation is an ongoing process. God renews all creation every day. We are not
just distantly created in God’s image. It is much more immediate. We are all Adams and Eves.
Shabbat Shalom.


is uwilling to be alone,
and man
cannot forever remain imprevious
to what He longs to show.
Those of us who cannot keep their striving back
find themselves at times
within the sight of the unseen
and become aglow with its rays
Some of us blush,
others wear a mask.
Faith is a blush
in the presence of God.
- A.J. Heschel.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

What's a Rabbi to do?

My uncle, R. Meir Berlin [Bar-Ilan], told me that once R. Hayyim of Brisk was asked what the function of a rabbi is. R. Hayyim replied: “To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor.” Neither ritual decisions nor political leadership constitute[s] the main task of halakhic man…. The actualization of the ideals of justice and righteousness is the pillar of fire which halakhic man follows…. (Halakhic Man, p. 91)

Snapple Religion for 2/22/06

A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.” - A.J. Heschel.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Yom Kippur 2004 Drash

Yom Kippur 2004 Drash

A Martyr is a person who endures persecution and, usually, death for the sake of their religious profession or position. It is a Greek word, meaning "witness."

On 9/11, I witnessed the more than 2,700 martyrs. I saw something in the span of minutes, than many live their entire lives without witnessing. I saw martyrs who choose to sacrifice their lives and their humanity, so that they could commit mass murder on a horrific scale. I saw martyrs choose to embrace their humanity and sacrifice their lives, trying to rescue people that could not be rescued. And I saw martyrs that choose to simply go to work and live their lives, but who died anyway.

When I came out of the Chambers street subway station that day, the first plane had already hit and the tower was on fire. There were about 70 people on the street corner with me watching. We were all trying to convince ourselves that it was a terrible accident and that most of the people would be ok. Then the second plane hit. It must have hit the other side of the tower because I didn’t see it. All I saw was the explosion and what looked like an engine turbine come flying out of the building. I later learned that the turbine had landed two blocks away on Murray Street. At that point we all just ran. I fell and was stepped on by a few people but almost immediately two people helped me up. I walked a block to my office. My window looked out at the towers at the time. I remember seeing people hanging out of the windows, waving sheets or curtains back and forth, amid thousands of pieces of paper fluttering in the sky. At the time I couldn’t process what I was seeing. I just kept thinking of a tickertape parade. Part of me thought that they these people were just "killing time" while waiting to be rescued. Waving to the world. Seeking attention the way some people always seem to do when the news cameras are on. And then people started jumping. And the illusion was shattered for me. I was no longer capable of narrating a story in my mind to explain what was happening. What was happening defied explanation.

Hearing hundreds of people gasp in disbelief as people fall from the sky defies explanation.
Watching the tower collapse in on itself, destroying in a moment the hope of thousands of spouses, children and parents, defies explanation.

Walking from City hall to the GW Bridge, with hundreds of people, many without shoes and covered in a shroud of gray dust, defies explanation.

I think under normal circumstances, we see things and our minds immediately begin making up stories to explain what we see. There is always a voice in our head, narrating reality, telling us how everything that happens affects us. We witness something and our mind invents a meaning that fits what we witness. Someone doesn’t call and we know that means they are forgetful, or it means that they are angry, or it means we were supposed to call them. There’s traffic on the bridge, so it means it is Rush Hour, or it means I’ll be late. We are always ready to impose meaning on our world. But that day, there was no rationalizing anything for me. There was no internal voice explaining anything to me. The city, especially the people from the downtown area, were on autopilot that day. We all shared an experience that day left no room for internal commentaries.

Last year during this time I talked about how the blowing of the Shofar calls us all back to Sinai, to the moment of revelation. And how we all stand at Mt. Sinai and to hear the revelation of Torah for the first time, again and again. The greatest of spiritual good. A time when an entire people turn as one to God and God as One turns to his people.
Whenever I hear someone speak of 9/11, or watch video of the towers, I hear a different Shofar. A blast that calls me back to that day, where I stand at the corner of Chambers and Church street to witness the instant infliction of pain, suffering, death, and mourning on a terrible scale. A time when an entire nation – a nation of martyrs – was murdered in God’s name.

After 9/11 our rabbi spoke of a new and fuller understanding of the need to eradicate all sources of hatred and evil in our world; and a new understanding of the preciousness of each an every life; a new appreciation of every night we’re able to kiss our loved ones. The reality is, of course, that after a short amount of time passes, we tend to ignore the infinite value each moment of life possesses and concentrate on just getting through the next moment, just waiting for the work day to end or for the kids to go to sleep.
And so what does this all mean? What have me learned? All of us here today were able to walk away from 9/11. How have our lives changed since that day? There has to be meaning in so many deaths. Something other than shock over the immense waste of life, or anger with people who would do such a terrible thing. Lately, I’ve been thinking about all those people who died and how the whole story of 9/11 has been laid out in great detail for us, like some great Midrash, demanding that find meaning, some truth, in the those terrible events.

So here is my midrash. On Yom Kippur we give up life affirming actions – procreation, showering, eating and drinking. It is a day when we cannot pretend that we’re immortal. That death is someone else’s problem. Today we come together as a community and we all rehearse our deaths. And while we are not martyrs, but only a group of people pretending that we can prepare for death, that is no small thing. It is no small thing to stand as witnesses for each other. It is no small thing to come together as one people and acknowledge the innate value and fragility of life. It is no small thing to acknowledge that our own lives are fleeting, grass in the wind, and at the same time, infinitely precious.

We know that he who saves one life it is as if he saved a universe. And we know that we are ashes and dust.

For me both 9/11 and Yom Kippur are reminders of all this. They are a shofar blast that ingrains this paradox in my bones and blood.

Three Quotes Worth Quoting

The Jewish nation is distinguished by three characteristics; they are merciful, they are modest, and they perform acts of loving-kindness. ‘ Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 79a.

When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.
- A. J. Heschel

Give of can always find something, even if it is only kindness.... No one has ever become poor from giving. - Anne Frank

A CALL TO PRAYER By Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Compassionate Father, Lord of Justice, Master of the Universe, have mercy and save Your children who dwell in Your land of Israel. Save them from the sword of their enemy, safeguard them from death, protect them from danger, and shelter them from fear. Send Your light to mend the broken spirits of bereft orphans, of bereaved parents, of weeping husbands and wives, of grieving siblings, and of anguished friends who have lost those who are dear to them. Grant complete recovery to the wounded and the stricken, and give courage and strength, hope and vision, to Your people and to Your land.

Lord of Justice, avenge us of the vile murderers: those who send them and those who incite them, those who lead them and those who help them. Punish our enemies all over the world, who afflict and disparage us, whose hate knows no reason. Undo their plans of destruction, so that the nations will know that You avenge the blood of Your faithful.
Master of the Universe, enable the nations of the world to remove the hardened hatred from their hearts. Shine the light of discernment on those who give credence to lies, and enlighten those who listen to libelous dogmas. Send the spirit of morality and justice into Your world. Help humanity to build and to plant, to support the merciful in righting the ways of the world.

Compassionate Father, Who is true to the Covenant, the time has arrived for You to send a message of salvation and redemption to Your world, to comfort all of Your children, and to bestow upon them an era of peace and blessing, light and joy.

Halacha & Aggadah

Halacha are the parts of Torah that are legal in nature. Aggadah are the parts that are narrative in nature. i.e., biography, theology, exhortation and folklore.
"Not a day passes that Hashem does not innovate some halakhah in the heavenly court. (Genesis Rabbah 49:2).

Halacha = power and might. Aggadah = grace and love. "Whoever possesses knowledge of midrash but not of Halakah has not tasted the flavor of wisdom; whoever possesses knowledgeof Halakhah but not of midrash has not tasted the flavor of fear of sin."

Halacha is the body of Torah. All songs, poetry, philosophy and theology are indebted to Halakhah for their endurance. Aggadah is like a flame who’s existence depends on the glowing coals of Halakhah