Mortal Etiquette vs. Immortal Truth

As you may have noticed, the first day of Shavuos falls on the fourth day of the week this year. Were any Tziddukim around today, they’d be unhappy. They held that Shavuos must always fall on a Sunday.

There are, however, no Tziddukim left. They, of course, were one of the camps of Jews during the Bayis Sheini period that rejected the Torah Sheb’al Peh, the “Oral Law,” the key to understanding the true meaning of the Torah Shebichsav – explaining, for example that “An eye for an eye” refers to monetary compensation, and that “totafos” refers to what we call tefillin (one of which is worn, moreover, not as the unelucidated passuk seems to state “between your eyes,” but rather above the hairline.)

The Perushim determinedly preserved the Torah Sheb’al Peh, and it is to them that we owe our own knowledge of the mesorah.

The Tziddukim’s insistence on a Sunday Shavuos, though, holds pertinence for the contemporary Jewish world.

Because the Tziddukim invoked support for their position from the Torah Shebichsav, accepting at face value the word “haShabbos” in the phrase “the day after the Shabbos” (when Sefiras Haomer was to commence). The mesorah teaches us that “Shabbos” in that passuk refers to the first day of Pesach.

But there was also an underlying human rationale to the Tziddukim’s stance. The Gemara explains that their real motivation was their sense of propriety. It would be so pleasing, so proper, they reasoned, at the end of the Omer-counting, to have two days in a row – Shabbos and a Sunday Shavuos – of festivity and prayer.

“Propriety,” in fact, was something of a Tziddukian theme. The group also advocated a change in the Yom Kippur avodah, at the very crescendo of the day, when the Kohein Gadol entered the Kodesh Kadashim. The mesorah prescribes that the ketores, the incense offered there, be set alight only after the Kohen Gadol entered the room. The Tziddukim contended that it be lit beforehand.

“Does one bring raw food to a mortal king,” they argued, “and only then cook it before him? No! One brings it in hot and steaming!”

(Daf Yomi adherents recently learned [115b] about a Tzidduki attempt to indirectly, and improperly, favor a daughter in an inheritance law.)

The placing of mortal etiquette – “what seems appropriate” – above the received truths of the mesorah is the antithesis of the central message of Shavuos itself, when we celebrate Mattan Torah. Our very peoplehood was forged by our forebears’ unanimous and unifying declaration there: “Naaseh v’nishma” — “We will do and we will hear!”

In other words, “We will accept the Torah’s laws even amid a lack of ‘hearing,’ or understanding. Even if it is not our own will. Even if it discomfits us. Even if we feel we have a better idea.”

It’s impossible not to see the relevance of “Naaseh v’nishma” to our current “you do you” world, to contemporary society’s fixation on not only having things but having them “our way,” to developments like a self-described “Orthodox” movement that hijacks the terminology of halachah to subvert it, in an effort to bring it “in line” with contemporary sensibilities.

But from Avraham Avinu’s “ten trials” to 21st century America, Yiddishkeit has never been about comfort, enjoyment or personal fulfillment (though, to be sure, the latter can surely emerge from a kedushah-centered life). It has been about Torah and mitzvos – about accepting them not only when they sit well with us but even – in fact, especially – when they don’t.

Shavuos is generally treated lightly, if at all, by most American Jews. But its central theme speaks pointedly to them. Mattan Torah’s Naaseh v’nishma reminds us all about the true engine of the Jewish faith and Jewish unity – namely, the realization that Judaism, with apologies to JFK speechwriter Ted Sorenson (mother’s maiden name: Annis Chaikin), is not about what we’d like Hakadosh Baruch Hu to do for us, but rather about what we are privileged to do for Him.

© 2017 Hamodia




Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, z”l: Recollections at his Shloshim

It was more than 30 years ago, in Providence, Rhode Island, that I received my first letter from Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, z”l. I still have it, and keep it in a safe place.

For a relatively young out-of-town high school rebbe /would-be writer having just made his first submission to the Jewish Observer, the flagship printed medium for the dissemination of Torah thought and perspectives, simply receiving an acceptance letter from the magazine was a wonderful surprise.

More wonderful still, though, was the warmth of the words in Rabbi Wolpin’s personal note, in which he expressed his appreciation for my offering and which was full of encouragement to keep writing. And over ensuing years, both before and after I joined the staff of Agudath Israel of America, each of the essays I wrote for the JO was acknowledged with new words of appreciation and encouragement from its editor. That was Rabbi Wolpin. He was rightly renowned as a top-notch writer and a top-notch editor. But he was a top-notch mensch, too, a top-notch nurturer, empathizer, partner and coach. And, although he was much my senior in both age and ability, he was a top-notch friend, too.

It was 1970 when Rabbi Wolpin assumed the editorship of the JO. Back then, as a high schooler myself in Baltimore’s “T.A.”, or Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim, I had a keen interest in hashkafah, and a literary bent. And so I read the Jewish Observer avidly and considered Rabbi Wolpin, whose keen insights and wonderful prose animated the magazine, an intellectual hero. So it’s no wonder that first acceptance note, years later, was, and remains, cherished to me.

As does the memory of the first time I met Rabbi Wolpin in person. It was in the mid-1980s and my wife and I decided to take a long-distance shopping trip from Providence to Brooklyn one Sunday with our two youngest children. I called Rabbi Wolpin to see if we might stop by his home to meet him, and he and his rebbetzin, tibadel l’chaim tovim, didn’t hesitate to answer in the affirmative.

I vividly recall how welcoming the Wolpins were to us when we arrived at their home. And I remember, too, how our two-year-old son, our first boy, ran around the room and repeatedly tossed off the yarmulke we had recently begun putting on his head. I was embarrassed by that behavior, even a little worried that it might herald more rebellious actions in the future. Rabbi Wolpin laughed and assured me that it was perfectly normal and that I had no reason to be concerned. I was greatly reassured. (The little boy is a respected talmid chacham and rosh chaburah in a large kollel today, with a family of his own – and he keeps his head properly covered.)

A decade after that visit, at the invitation of Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, we moved to New York and I was privileged to joined the staff of Agudath Israel. A large part of that privilege was being able to work with Rabbi Sherer, of course, and with Rabbi Wolpin.

Whenever I had the opportunity to interact with him, the experience was rewarding. Whether it was on a professional level, regarding articles in the JO or interaction with various media, or on a personal level, like when one of us happened to pass by the office of the other and stopped in to ask a question or offer an observation, I was impressed anew each time by his incredible knowledge, savvy and insight.

And then, as I came to realize what Rabbi Wolpin’s position as the JO’s editor actually entailed, I was much more than impressed.

Soliciting manuscripts, fielding submissions (including the surely difficult task of sending rejection letters that were nevertheless kind and encouraging), analyzing and editing copy, interacting with writers and editorial board members – not to mention penning his own perspectives and well-wrought commentaries – were all part of his portfolio. And I don’t remember ever seeing his face show any of the pressures under which he labored. Always a smile, always a happy greeting, almost always a good pun or humorous observation. Just thinking of him now makes me smile as I write.

Above all, perhaps, his respect for talmidei chachamim was a life-lesson in itself. He was, it seemed to me, in almost constant contact with not only the respected Rabbanim on his editorial board but with members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. He would consult them on “judgment call” issues and they would call him with concerns and guidance. And he was always appreciative, seeing himself as fortunate for the very fact of those interactions. He was a modest man, and, despite his important position in Klal Yisrael, kept as low a profile as he could manage. While he was a true and illustrious oseh, a “doer,” he saw himself more as a me’aseh, a facilitator of the work of others.

There can be little question that the world of intelligent, well-written and compelling Torah thoughts in English today derived directly from the toil of a Seattle-born, public school-attending melamed’s son, who was born in 1932 and, at 15, traveled to New York to study at Mesivta Torah Vodaath. There, the boy, who would become the Rabbi Nisson Wolpin the world of Torah would come to know and revere, absorbed the teachings and devotion to Klal Yisrael of Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zt”l, and became close to Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l and Rav Gedalia Schorr, zt”l. Several years later, he joined the yeshivah founded by Rav Simchah Wasserman, zt”l and then studies in Bais Medrash Elyon in Monsey.

After his, and the JO’s, retirement in 2008, Rabbi Wolpin effortlessly slipped back into the life of the beis medrash, which he had really never left. Two years later, he and, tbl”ct, Mrs. Wolpin moved to Eretz Yisrael.

Rabbi Wolpin’s nurturing (and skillful editing) of younger writers like my dear friend Yonasan Rosenblum and me, and his featuring of seasoned scribes like Rabbi Nosson Scherman, shlita, and Rabbi Moshe Eisemann, shlita, made the JO what it was – and in the case of the former group, helped us develop our critical thinking and writing skills.

Recently, I had the opportunity to leaf through scores of Jewish Observers. It was a bittersweet experience. I was enthralled anew at the quality of the writing, so much of it not only perceptive but prescient, and so much of it still timely even after the passage of many years. But I was anguished anew at the fact that the JO has long ceased publication. And, of course, well beyond that, anguished at the fact that Rav Wolpin, z”l, is no longer with us, at least not in person, here in this world.

Yehi zichro baruch.

© 2017 Hamodia




POTUS and the Piñata

“Fire this ignorant teacher for inciting violence against our POTUS,” read one of the many overheated comments to l’affaire piñata (forgive the language cholent). “More indoctrination from the filthy left,” contended another commenter. On the other side of the controversy was someone who wrote, “Um … This is genius. This teacher deserves a medal.”

In case you’re unfamiliar with the Colorado contretemps that birthed the above: A celebration of the Mexican cultural holiday of Cinco de Mayo at Roosevelt High School, in the Rocky Mountain state town of Johnstown, included an assault on the aforementioned POTUS, or President of The United States.

Well, the assault, while physical, wasn’t on Mr. Trump’s person but rather on his countenance, which graced a piñata, a papier-mâché figure traditionally filled with sweets, released by celebrants’ banging at the container with sticks until it breaks. Which it did here, leaving the president’s smiling, if deflated, image lying on the ground as the candies were liberated.

Whether the teacher who oversaw the celebration, who was quickly suspended, was guilty of any crime isn’t clear. The contention of some present that the other side of the piñata featured Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto certainly complicates any judgment.

The candy kerfuffle raises the issue of teachers’ conveying their personal political or social attitudes to their charges. That educators should not engage in overt politicking is entirely reasonable, of course; but entirely inevitable is that more subtle, and thereby more insidious, conveyances of their outlooks will take place.

I am reminded of my English class in 1970. Our teacher – I’ll call him Mr. Levin – was an unabashed liberal, an implacable foe of then-POTUS Richard Nixon, and a vociferous opponent of the Vietnam War, societal moral norms and all that stood in the way of what Mr. Levin considered progress. Teenage me, by contrast, was vocally contrarian whenever political or cultural matters came up in class readings, assignments and discussions; the teacher and I thus had many opportunities for what might politely be called dialectic. My grades in Mr. Levin’s class were not what I felt they deserved to be, but I attributed that to a persistent recurrence of the laziness with which I had been accurately diagnosed. I wondered, though, if there may have been more to my B’s and C’s than met the eyes.

And so, one day, when the members of the class were assigned to write a poem about any topic we chose, a devious idea dawned: I would write an entirely disingenuous anti-war sonnet, making no more of an effort than I ever did, just to see if it might affect my grade. I held my nose and did the deed. Sure enough, I received an A+, my first (and, I think, only) one. Mr. Levin even hailed my accomplishment in a glowing comment beneath the grade.

And people wonder why I can sometimes be cynical.

What I gleaned from that experience was the realization that grades sometimes reflect a grader’s biases rather than a gradee’s mastery of material or skill. And that teachers, being human, bring their personal attitudes and outlooks to their classrooms.

That truism escapes some public school parents, who delude themselves into thinking that their children’s minds are being filled with only facts and skills, not with the values of those into whose care they place their progeny. All classroom education, no matter the subject, involves a relationship between teacher and student. And so, the character and life-philosophy of a teacher is always – or always should be – an important consideration.

Including for those of us who entrust our children to Torah institutions. You won’t find anyone more dedicated than I to the view of secular education expressed by Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch. He rejected the valuation of secular studies as limited to their “practical utility,” an attitude, he maintained, that deprives young Jews from “the pure joy of acquiring knowledge for its own sake.” He asserted that secular learning can be “a road leading to the ultimate, more widespread dissemination of the truths of Judaism.”

But for that to be so, it must be transmitted by Jews who comprehend that purpose. If we dismiss “English,” the catch-all term for secular studies, as unimportant, and thus entrustable to teachers who have knowledge of facts but not the perspective for presenting them in a Torah context, we fail our children.

Creating a capable cadre of bnei Torah who can expertly teach writing, literature, science and history from an authentic Torah perspective requires the guidance of Gedolim. It is guidance, though, we do well to seek.

An edited version of this essay appears in Hamodia




What Worked for Us: Some Shidduch Advice

 “Past performance does not guarantee future results.”

I don’t own stocks, but am familiar with that disclaimer, required by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for ads peddling investment opportunities.

It’s cited here because I’m about to share some choices, borne out as wise ones, that my wife and I made over the past decade and a half of involvement in the shidduchim of our children, as of recently, b”H, all married.

Of course, we know that the bottom line wasn’t our wisdom, hence the SEC-style disclaimer. That we so delight in our children-in-law, all of whom we see as our own children, if shared with our wonderful mechutanim, is, in the end, the result of siyatta diShmaya. And part of our brachah  is who our children themselves are – which I attribute to the one of us who did most of the heavy lifting (literally and figuratively) in raising them. And both she and I have, as well, great zechus avos v’imahos.

So I can’t guarantee that doing what we did will yield the same results with which we’ve been blessed. I’m convinced, though, that those still “in the parashah” of shidduchim might find some of our choices to be worthy of consideration.

There are, of course, communities within Klal Yisrael that have formulated particular approaches to the various aspects of shidduchim. I don’t mean to speak to members of those communities, as they presumably follow the hadracha they have received. What follows here are simply the lessons gleaned by one pair of average parents, not authoritative pronouncements born of scientific analysis or nevuah.

 

We don’t run the show.

Although parents must make their proper hishtadlus in shidduchim, as in all things, we tried to avoid the trap of imagining that we can somehow know everything there is to know about a person or a family; or that we could, no matter the strength of our resolve and imagined wisdom, determine, or even imagine, the future. There are always myriad “unknown unknowns,” not only in the future but in the present. All one can, and must, do is try to do what is right. The ultimate success of any venture is always in Higher hands.

Corollary: Questions about any serious health issues are not improper. Questions about non-serious ones are. Ditto about the health histories of a prospective shidduch’s parents or grandparents.

Corollary: When it comes to researching a family’s reputation, dig, but don’t excavate. It’s a hishtadlus, not an FBI investigation.

 

Fretting is forbidden.

During “dry spells,” we didn’t engage in, or allow, handwringing. It serves no constructive purpose, and is in fact destructive in many ways. “Bishaah tovah” isn’t just a throwaway phrase, or even simply a brachah. It is a truth. There are auspicious times for things to happen, and we aren’t privy to knowing those times. And, as the chassidishe vort has it, all yiush (despair) is shelo midaas (without thought).

 

Look for the best match.

That is to say, not necessarily the most meyuchas young man or woman, the most high-community-status family, the wealthiest, or the one who is most like oneself… What is being sought is the best match for the person being matched. It’s a life-partner being looked for, after all, not a badge of honor, stock portfolio or carbon copy. When my wife and I had the luxury of choosing among several proposed possible shidduchim for one of our children, we always kept paramount in our minds that we were seeking the best complement for the particular son or daughter.

And never, after the fact of a successful shidduch, did we ever allow ourselves to think that “We could have done better.” There is no “better”; there is only what is right. And what’s right is better than better; it’s best.

Corollary: While a young person is wise to confide concerns to his or her parents, and the parents are wise to offer their feelings, the final judgment about continuing, discontinuing or becoming engaged must be the young person’s. And no pressure to make a particular decision should ever be brought to bear on him or her.

Corollary: Making a particular educational background or yeshiva gedolah (or type of one) a requirement for a young man is unwise. As is making cooking skills, appearance, or a particular vocation or income-potential a requirement for a young woman. Adjustments to “dream futures” can be – and usually are – made by married couples. All that really matter are the shared goals and the suitability of the individuals to each other.

Hint: Shidduchim suggested by siblings or friends of the single are particularly worth pursuing.

 

…And for the biggest mentch.

There are many maalos that may inhere in a young man or young woman being proposed as a shidduch. For men, it might be excellence in Torah-study or accomplishments in other realms; for women, it might be scholastic achievement or exemplary homemaker skills. The most important qualifying credential, in our experience, is mentchlichkeit. The personal character of a person, we believed and believe, stands well above and beyond all others on the roster of maalos. When “doing research” on a prospect, while we were certainly interested in accomplishments, reputations and skills, what really mattered to us were accounts of how the prospect interacted with others, and accounts of their personal good will and consideration of others. That might seem obvious, but it can’t be sufficiently stressed.

Parents of a young person seeking a spouse, and the young person, are not yeshivah administrators seeking a Rosh Yeshivah or a hotelier looking to hire a caterer. We’re talking marriage here – building a happy home and raising a Torah-centered family. Eyes must always be kept on the prize, and it’s not a sefer or a cooking award.

Hint: Ask someone who would know about how the prospective shidduch davens.

Corollary: Baalei teshuvah should be given the same consideration as anyone, if not greater.

Corollary: If asked for a photo, the ideal answer is a simple “no.”

 

Don’t promise what can’t be delivered.

While there are stories of parents who pledged financial assistance they simply didn’t have and who miraculously became beneficiaries of unforeseen windfalls, “ein somchin al hanes” is the operative principle in life. We considered it wrong to pretend or imply in any way that we had resources we did not. In fact, throughout our shidduch-making years, we were never in a position to pledge support – any support – to a potential marriage partner for our daughters (nor did we ever request support for our sons). Did that shrink the pool of prospects? Surely it did (at least in the case of daughters), but that wasn’t a bad thing. It narrowed down the “contenders,” making decisions less fraught.

As a result, our daughters married young men who either did not, to their credit, expect support, or who didn’t need it. Some of those chassanim, now all wonderful fathers, intended to learn for years, and did so. They and their wives were willing to live simply – in some cases very simply. Others pursued parnassah, either part-time or full-time. All, though, are bnei Torah who are koveia itim laTorah and dedicated to raising their own children to cherish Torah and Yiddishkeit. Does anything else really matter?

 

No “no”s after one meeting.

Unless a prospective partner is judged to be utterly, outlandishly, painfully “wrong” after a first meeting, a second one is always proper. Few people are zocheh to be able to perceive all that needs perceiving – or to project all that needs projecting – when meeting a stranger for the first time.

 

Chasunos are not marriages.

Chasunos last a few hours. Marriages, with determination and siyata diShmaya, last lifetimes. And there is zero correlation between, on the one hand, the number of hot dishes (or lack of them) at a reception, the number of courses at a seudah, the reputation of the photographer or the lavishness of a wedding hall and, on the other, the success of a marriage or the happiness of the couple. Even at the chasunah itself, the joy of the friends of the chassan and kallah and the others present, and the joining of two sets of parents in a shidduch are what beget the true simchah of the event. Nothing else makes any difference

The rule should be that when there is a choice, be it ring, gifts, hall, caterer, band, photographer, or any other element of an engagement and chasunah, the less expensive, more simple option should win out. It can’t be sufficiently stressed that Thoreau’s advice “simplify, simplify” could not be better placed than in the context of a chasunah.

I realize that bands, photographers and “high end” establishments all need to make their parnassos. But they’re not endangered; there will always be people who will dismiss the advice my wife and I offer here. If you’re smart, though, you won’t.

And may you have hatzlacha in all.

© 2017 Binah Magazine




Fear Itself

A navi I’m not, but, still, it was good timing. Several weeks back, at the height of the fears fomented by bomb threats against U.S. Jewish institutions, I wrote an article for an Israeli newspaper gingerly pointing out that, of the nearly 150 threats and building evacuations and searches, not a single bomb had been found.

All that is needed, I noted, to make an effective anonymous crank call, is an unlocked cellphone and a prepaid SIM card – and “using the internet to make an untraceable call is even easier.”

I pictured a shlub without much of a life making such calls, to wield “power” or get attention, “Maybe he is even capable of true violence,” I wrote, “but then again, maybe not.”

It turned out, of course, that many, if not most, of the threats were indeed baseless, although it wasn’t a shlub who made the calls (hey, I said I’m not a navi) but, apparently, an emotionally compromised individual in Israel.

Jew-hatred surely exists, even in the U.S. There are, as there have long been, bands of neo-Nazis, radical leftist “defenders of Palestine” and other assorted misfits with overheated imaginations preparing to wage war against an imagined Jewish menace.

I’m personally acquainted with anti-Semitism, too. When I was a youngster in Baltimore, during recess one day, a group of non-Jewish neighborhood boys asked my classmates and me if they could join our baseball game. Nice kids that we were, we said sure. Once at bat, though, the opposing team suddenly lost interest in the game and turned our own Louisville Slugger bats against us. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

And a few years later, as a teen, when my father and I would walk to shul, we’d regularly hear “Heil Hitler” shouted at us by kids. In fact, mere months ago, the same phrase was aimed at me by one of a group of boys on a city bus. (I regret not having calmly asked him his name and tried to turn the encounter into a “teaching moment.” Alas, I was so disgusted, all I could summon to say to him was a frustrated “What in the world is wrong with you?”)

But it must be admitted – and appreciated – that, unlike in some European countries, there is very little actual violence against Jews in America today. In 2015, the ADL cited fully seven cases of stones or eggs having been thrown, or bb-pellets shot, at Jews – nationwide, over the course of the year. The sort of serious anti-Jewish knifings, shootings and arsons that have occurred elsewhere are simply not part of the American scene.

And as far as mainstream America is concerned, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that Jews are the most warmly regarded religious group in the country. My personal experience, despite outliers like the boy on the bus, corroborates that.

More emblematic of America than name-callers or stone-throwers were the non-Jewish riders of the subway in New York City in February who, encountering anti-Semitic graffiti on a subway map, banded together to erase it. Or the Montana town that, faced with a planned anti-Jewish march nearby, issued a resolution “denouncing hate, bigotry, and intolerance, which today masquerade under euphemisms such as ‘white nationalism’ and the ‘alt-right.’”

We Jews, for good reason, live our lives against a subtle backdrop of fear, even in countries as wonderful as the one we American Jews are fortunate to call home at present. But keeping perspective is always proper. One of the k’lalos, after all, in the Tochachah in parshas Bechukosai (Vayikra 26:36) is that we will flee at “the sound of a rustling leaf,” that we’ll perceive enemies where there aren’t any. And that is a bane, not an ideal.

There are times for anxiety, to be sure. But there are also times, too, to feel deeply thankful for our security. The words many attribute to R’ Nachman miBreslov, that, on the narrow bridge that is the world, the main thing is “not to be afraid at all,” are not, in fact, his words. What he wrote (Likutei Tinyana, 48) was not “lo l’fached”—“[one should] not fear,” but, rather, “shelo yispached” – “[that one] not become fearful,” not, in other words, frighten himself.

I’m no Pollyanna when it comes to potential danger for Jews. I’m not in the “It can’t happen here” camp. Of course “it” can. Jewish fortunes have turned on dimes throughout history.

It just isn’t happening now, and it behooves us to reflect on that great brachah.

© Hamodia 2017




The Riddle of the Fours

Four questions. Four sons. Four expressions of geulah.

Four cups of wine. Dam (=44) was placed, in Mitzrayim, on the doorway (deles, “door,” being the technical spelling of what we call the letter daled, whose value is four).

Let us move fourward – please forgive (fourgive?) me! – on the question of… why.

The chachamim who formulated the Haggadah intended it to plant important concepts in the hearts and minds of its readers – especially its younger ones, toward whom the Seder, our mesorah teaches, is particularly aimed.

Which it why the Seder persists, not only in the memories of all who are reading this, but in those of countless Jews who have strayed far from our mesorah.  So many Jews who are, tragically, alienated from virtually every other Jewish observance still feel compelled to have at least some sort of Seder, to read a Haggadah, or even – if they have drifted too far from their heritage to comfortably confront the original – to compose their own “versions.”  (I once, long ago, joked before a group that a “Vegetarian Haggadah” would likely appear any year now, and someone in attendance later showed me precisely such a book – though it lacked the “Paschal Turnip” I had imagined.)

Part of the brilliance of the Haggadah is its employ of “child-friendly” elements.  Not just to entertain the young people at the Seder and keep them awake, but to subtly plant the seeds of important ideas in their minds and hearts.  Dayeinu and Chad Gadya and Echad Mi Yodea are not pointless; they are pedagogy – and of the most effective sort.

There are riddles, too, in the Haggadah.  Like the Puzzle of the Ubiquitous Fours.

The most basic and urgent concept the Seder experience is meant to impart to young Jews is that Yetzias Mitzrayim forged something vital: our peoplehood.  It, in other words, created Klal Yisrael.

Before the event that we celebrate on the Seder night took place, a multitude of Yaakov Avinu’s descendants were in Mitzrayim. Each individual rose or fell on his or her own merits.  And not all of them. Chazal teach us, merited to leave Mitzrayim.  Those who did, though, who emerged from their blood-adorned doorways and passed through the channel of the Yam Suf, were reborn as something new: a people.

And so, at the Seder, we seek to instill in our children the realization that they are not mere individuals but rather parts of an interwoven whole, members of a nation unconstrained by geographical boundaries but inexorably linked by history, destiny and Hashem’s love.  We impress our charges with the fact that they are links in a shimmering ethereal chain stretching back to when our people was divinely redeemed from mundane slavery in Egypt and then entered a sublime servitude of a very different sort – to HaKadosh Boruch Hu – at Har Sinai.

Thus, the role we adults play on Pesach night, vis a vis the younger Jews with whom we share the experience, is a very precise one.  We are teachers, to be sure, but it is not information that we are communicating; it is identity.  Although the father of the home may be conducting the Seder, he is acting not in his normative role as teacher of Torah but rather in something more akin to a maternal role, as a nurturer of the neshamos of the children present, an imparter of identity.  And thus, in a sense, he is acting in a maternal role.

Mothers, of course, are the parents who most effectively mold their children, who most make them who they are.  That, interestingly, parallels the halachic determinant of Jewish identity, which is dependent on mothers.  While a Jew’s shevet follows the paternal line, whether one is a member of Klal Yisrael or not depends entirely on maternal status.

The Haggadah may itself contain the solution to the riddle of the fours. It’s only speculation, but it has long struck me as having the ring of emes.  The recurrent numerical theme in our exquisite Haggadah, employed each year to instill Jewish identity might be reflective of that halachic status-determinant, and, at the same time, reminding us of the inestimable importance of mothers.

Because the Haggadah, after all, has its own number-decoder built right in, toward its end, where most good books’ resolutions take place.  We’re a little hazy once it’s reached, after four kosos and all, but it’s unmistakably there, in “Echad Mi Yodea” – the Seder-song that provides Jewish associations with numbers.

“Who knows four?…”

© 2017 Hamodia




Why I’m Not Bullish on Fearless Girl

For two decades, I’ve passed “Charging Bull,” the iconic bronze statue that stands near Wall Street, twice every workday when I walk from the Staten Island Ferry to my office in Manhattan. Now, I have to pass her too.

I was never particularly fond of the beast, which always struck me as a bronze descendant of the Golden Calf. Now ‘Fearless Girl,” a new statue of a young lady in high tops who leans in defiantly just a few feet from the bull’s horns, leaves me equally unimpressed.

Read more here.




Callousness or Conscientiousness?

The most incriminatory and unarguable allegation leveled by some Senate Judiciary Committee panelists against Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch was, apparently, that he isn’t Merrick Garland. Guilty as charged.

Mr. Garland, of course, for anyone blessedly short of political memory, was former President Barack Obama’s nominee for the seat left vacant since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February, 2016. Republican senators refused to schedule a hearing for that nominee since, they argued, a new president would be inaugurated a mere ten months later.

In this observer’s mind, and entirely unrelated to either my feelings about Mr. Obama or the fact that Judge Garland is Jewish, that refusal was a failure of congressional conscience. No matter how lame a presidential duck may be (and ten months is a substantial amount of time for a waterfowl to limp about), a sitting president has a right to nominate a candidate for a vacant Supreme Court seat; and the legislative branch, a responsibility to fairly consider him.

But the fact that something unconscionable was done cannot change reality. Bad things happen (or are wrought), but life must go on. Mr. Garland’s mistreatment does not implicate Mr. Gorsuch in any way. And the latter, as per his reputation and his thoughtful responses during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, is an individual eminently qualified to serve on the nation’s highest court.

Less incriminatory, and entirely arguable, were two other charges brought against the nominee: that he once made remarks disparaging to expectant mothers, and that he showed callous misjudgment in a fraught legal case, ruling for an employer against an employee.

In the first case, a former law student of Judge Gorsuch alleged that, in a course at the University of Colorado Law School last year, he told his class that employers, specifically law firms, should ask women seeking jobs about their plans for establishing a family, and implied that women routinely manipulate companies when they are interviewed, in order to extract maternity benefits.

Asked if the charge was true, Mr. Gorsuch replied, “No.”

“I would have never have said [such a thing],” he continued, “I’d be delighted to actually clear this up.”

In a letter to the committee, another student in the class disputed the account. And a former law clerk for Mr. Gorsuch, Janie Nitze, said that when she heard the allegations, “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.” She and 10 other female former clerks also sent a letter to the committee in support of the candidate. In it, the 11 women asserted that “The judge has spoken of the struggles of working attorneys to juggle family with work obligations; not once have we heard him intimate that those struggles are, or should be, shouldered by one gender alone.”

The second attempt to portray Mr. Gorsuch as an ogre involved the case of a truck driver who was fired for abandoning his cargo trailer when its brakes froze in sub-zero temperatures. The unfortunate man, after repeatedly being told by the company to stay put since help was on the way, decided – entirely understandably, considering the temperature and the malfunctioning of the heater in the truck cab – to detach the trailer from the cab and drive away.

The legal question in the case was whether a “whistleblower” provision that protects a driver when he “refuses to operate a vehicle” because of safety concerns covered the trucker who chose instead to operate his vehicle.

It may have been heartless for the employer to fire the trucker, in other words, but did it violate the letter of the statute? Judge Gorsuch, in a dissent to a 2016 ruling by his two colleagues on a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, contended that it did not.

For that stance, the nominee was painted as heartless himself, unconcerned with the “little guy.” But an American judge, of course, no less than, l’havdil, a posek in a monetary issue, must render his dispassionate judgment, devoid of sympathy or antipathy toward either litigant, “big company” or “little guy.” The Torah enjoins us to not “favor the face of the poor one” in court (Vayikra, 19:15).

In 97 percent of 2,700 cases, Mr. Gorsuch noted, his judgments were part of unanimous decisions; and he was in the majority 99 percent of the time.

No, he’s not Merrick Garland, it must be conceded. He is Neil Gorsuch.

And eminently qualified for a seat on the republic’s highest court.

© 2017 Hamodia




Mitzvos and “Making It”

In aveilus, I do not listen to music these days. But there is ambient music in many places that can’t be avoided, so I try at least not to enjoy it. Which doesn’t usually pose much of a problem.

Two places, though, where I have to spend a bit of time each weekday and where there is sometimes music – live, no less – are the ferry terminals in Staten Island and lower Manhattan.

There, too, the offerings are usually less than pleasurable to my ear. The strange lady who plays a saw hasn’t made an appearance in years; and the Mexican mariachi ensemble shows up only occasionally.

But there is an amazingly talented string quartet that sometimes shows up on the Staten Island side, and plays classical pieces for those waiting for morning ferries. It’s the kind of performance people willingly pay to see in a concert hall. And here it’s offered for free (though there’s a bucket for donations), and it is greatly appreciated by the crowd.

In the past, I would try to get up close to the music and to marvel at the dexterity of the musicians, their bows sailing slowly or swiftly, but always precisely, across the taut strings. These days, though, I stand back and try – it’s hard – to not find pleasure in the sounds. The onlookers stand there transfixed.

Until, that is, the doors to the ferry open. The spell is then broken and the mass of music aficionados suddenly morphs back into a bleary-eyed mob of commuters as the herd heads for, as P.T. Barnum would call it, the egress.

If the musicians are bothered by their rapidly dissipating audience, they don’t show it. They clearly are playing in the moment. The impromptu concert attendees, though, move quickly on, to something more important to them: their jobs.

Some are working stiffs, no doubt, low on the economic totem pole. Others, though, are headed to a particular place on the other side of the bay, a place called Wall Street. I overhear them sometimes talking about megamergers and stock options and bonuses; and the numbers they drop into their conversations drop my jaw as well. Maybe it’s just braggadocio, but if these guys make anything near the sort of money they claim, I can’t imagine what they do with it all. Okay, so they pay full tuition at their kids’ private schools; as we all know, that can amount to quite a pretty penny. But none of them, it would seem, have children in yeshivah or kollel. How may yachts, really, can one family use?

Financial “success” is something universally pursued, and no community is truly immune to the redifas hamammon virus. Jews, too, a noted baal mussar once noted, are easily infected; after all, he remarked, one of our ancestors was Lavan.

But, of course, not all yerushos are equal, and Lavan’s in this case is most properly shunned.

And improperly embraced, which embrace can lead to things like “cutting corners” in business dealings or taxes; or even to discussions of commercial matters or the stock market on Shabbos, something clearly forbidden by the halachah of v’daber davar.

To be sure, there’s nothing technically wrong with having prodigious economic goals. One can live a life of Torah and mitzvos and pursue financial achievement too. But the “too” is so very vital. Because only one of those things – mitzvos or “making it” – can in the end be one’s ultimate life goal. The other must be relegated, like the concert is by the ferry passengers, to second place – at best.

That point, I think, is made, obliquely but undeniably by the Tanna Rabi Yitzchak, who (Bava Basra, 25b) advised that, when davening, “One who wishes to become wise should face south; and [one who wishes] to become rich should face north.” That advice, the Tanna explains, is based on the fact that, in the Kodashim, the shulchan, which represents sustenance, is in the north, and the menorah, which represents wisdom, is in the south.

This is not the place to expound on the halachic ramifications of reconciling that advice with the Gemara in Brachos (30a) about facing Eretz Yisrael and the Makom Hamikdash. (Readers are pointed to the Tur and Shulchan Aruch on Orach Chayim 94; 1-3.)

But however one might endeavor to put Rabi Yitzchak’s advice into action, one thing is self-evident and certain: It is impossible to simultaneously face both north and south.

© 2017 Hamodia




Bursting Our Bubbles

Ever heard of Chartbeat? Assuming you answered no, well, neither had I, at least not until last week, when it was reported that the web analytics company released a new analysis of the reader preferences of 148 news organizations.

The apolitical company tracks what news stories are being read most at any given moment, along with where those readers came from and how long they spent on each story. Because so many news sources use the service, Chartbeat has abundant data that can be usefully crunched.

Which is precisely what two researchers at the firm did, first using readers’ political views to divide media into those tending to have more liberal readers and those with more conservative ones. The New York Times and the Washington Post are examples of the former; the Wall St. Journal and Forbes, of the latter.

The researchers then studied how many articles organizations in both groups published about a given news event, along with the amount of time their readers spent with the stories.

The Chartbeat analysis suggests that stories were generally covered equally by all the news sources, but that readers of particular political bent seemed to avoid certain stories: those challenging their pre-existent positions.

James Shepperd, a University of Florida professor of psychology, has written about that fact. “Generally,” he says, “people prefer information consistent with their beliefs, views and prior behaviors, and avoid information that’s inconsistent” with them.

That’s true not only in politics. One study of Belgian and Dutch soccer fans found that readers were significantly less interested in news about their favorite team after a loss. Losers tend, in the study’s neological nomenclature, to CORF, or “cut off reflected failure,” while winners prefer to BIRG, or “bask in reflected glory.”

That’s unfortunate. We lose out by not exposing ourselves to points of view diametric to those we currently hold. Whether those points of view end up helping us more finely hone our own different ones, or whether they make us reconsider our assumptions, they are exquisitely valuable.

By CORFing and BIRGing, as we are so often inclined to do, we deny ourselves the ability to truly objectively analyze happenings and topics. There are almost always two sides to any story, and an accurate conclusion can really only be reached by weighing them both.

As a certain ex-president said in his farewell address: “We [have increasingly] become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on [all] the evidence that is out there.” Perceptive guy.

There are, of course, certainties in life, convictions we rightly embrace without reservation. A committed Jew affirms that Creation has a purpose, and that the goals of his own life are defined by Hashem’s will as communicated through the Torah and its interpreters. Most people  also consider near-certain the consensuses in specific realms of people presumed wiser in those realms, be they doctors, lawyers or tax advisors.

But to proclaim, without examining all sides of a particular controversial policy, action, official or piece of legislation, that we just know without question that it or he or she is good or bad is, in the end, an exercise in overreaching.

And even when we have made our personal analyses and taken positions and made the cases for our opinions, it is always beneficial to have in the backs of our minds – or perhaps even their fronts – a recognition of the fact that, for all our intelligence and best laid logic, we might still … possibly… be… wrong.

That realization is of more than philosophical import. It has a vital and practical ramification in the realm of human interaction, along the lines of Chazal’s statements (Berachos 58a and Bamidbar Rabbah,  21:2) that just as people’s faces are different from one another, so do they see things differently. A quest for truth requires us to perceive those with different views as, well, people with different views, not as illogical, intractable, irredeemable enemies of all that is good and right.

Newsprint, airwaves and cyberspace are saturated these days with precisely that latter sort of demagoguery; our society suffers from a malnourishment of modesty, not only in the realm of dress and mores, but in attitudes and stances as well. There is so little that any of us can truly know; yet so many are so certain of so much.

Trumpeting opinions that haven’t been honestly subjected to the test of different ones does not promote healthy, productive disagreement and discussion; on the contrary, it suffocates them.

© 2017 Hamodia