Friday, July 25, 2014

A new blog

For the near future, at least, I've decided to start a new blog. I'm not sure how long I will keep at it, but it's at least an outlet for frustration and at best a constructive way to disseminate useful material. You can find it at Feel free to email me your thoughts.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Easier not to write

I thank those who have been emailing me to check in. Thank Gd, all is well. I am actually making progress on a sefer, finally!

Yes, I still think about blogging, pretty much daily. I have had many topics on my mind.

Israel, of course.

The rabbinate: The economics that drive the low salaries of shul rabbis. The problem of the well-meaning shul rabbi. Different models for an assistant rabbi position.

General: The fear of mediocrity. The difference between being a non-conformist and being original. Lebron James.

Personal: I've bought a house in Toronto instead of Israel, and that has upset my internal equilibrium; I'm having a hard time accepting the mazal tovs.

And so on.

But I have broken the habit of blogging, and now the fear of writing something that doesn't really capture my thoughts, or that doesn't impress me as good writing, is greater than my fear of leaving the page blank. These days, I find it easier not to write than to write, and I reach for the keyboard and then fall back, to work on something else.

I don't know what this means for the future of this blog, but that's where things are right now.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Helping a parent with dementia

Two weeks ago, I presented a shiur on halachic issues involved in caring for a patient who is experiencing a level of dementia. Along the way, I cited responsa addressed to people who felt they could manage their parents' physical needs, but who were concerned that they would violate the mitzvot of honouring and revering their parents by losing their temper with them.

One of the attendees asked me: What if one's mother has advanced dementia, and she asks for her deceased husband? Clearly, one should not upset her by telling her the truth - but even if the falsehood is appropriate, isn't it still a violation of the mitzvot of honouring and/or revering one's parents?

I wasn't sure how to respond to this. I suspect that there would be no violation of kavod (honour), but one could contend that this violated mora, reverence, a category of behaviours which includes not sitting in a parent's place or contradicting him/her. So I put the question to a group of rabbis, and received an interesting response from a veteran chaplain.

The chaplain stated that in his work, they tell facility staff to practice "validation therapy". When a resident asks after a particular relative, or says something like, "I need to be here, my children are coming home from school soon," she is clearly interested in turning the conversation in a particular direction. This direction may be good for her, especially since her long-term memory will be far more reliable than her short-term memory. So others who are present should not shut down the conversation; rather, they should embrace it, expressing interest in the subject and so validating her interest in it, and helping her to continue the thread to the extent she can. Asking appropriate questions - questions which won't frustrate her in her dementia, presumably - is a positive way to go.

I hadn't thought of this at all, but once I heard it, it made so much sense! And, it solved the halachic problem.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Tehillim Fatigue

I've been thinking a lot about Tehillim Fatigue - the way that our prayers for our kidnapped boys, Gilad, Eyal and Naftali, lose their strength and intensity over time. It's not out of a lack of feeling for them and their families, Gd forbid; it's just a product of emotional overload, of a creeping feeling of hopelessness due to the lack of positive news, and perhaps of the general doubt as to whether Gd listens to our prayers.

Last week, in a different forum, I wrote about visualizing the joy of their return, but after a week of numbing updates about arrests and searches that have not yielded visible fruit, that joy is becoming harder to imagine. As we approach this coming Shabbat, though, I am reminded of two important points regarding light and hope.

This Shabbat is Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon. The Moon has a special resonance for Jews; our tradition compares our nation to the Moon, with its waxing and waning, and it compares Gd to the Sun, the provider of our light. Here are two relevant lessons of the New Moon, in particular:

1. As illustrated well in the series of pictures above (courtesy of Wikipedia), at the New Moon's time of apparent darkness, the Moon actually is experiencing its most direct, fullest sunlight! The Moon is positioned between the Earth and the Sun, so that the side of the Moon facing away from Earth is maximally lit up - we just can't see it, because of where we are. Often, when things look darkest, the light is full and strong. It's just behind the scenes.

2. The source of the Moon's light is still there at the New Moon; the side of the Moon that faces us is dark only because the Moon has moved, leaving us looking at its shaded side. Once the alignment of Moon and Earth shifts a little bit, the Moon's visible illumination will be restored. The same is true for us: Sometimes we can't see light, but it's because we have let ourselves get out of the proper alignment. Some people might say, then, that all they need to do is wait, and the universe will shift and the alignment will change. But perhaps at a New Moon we ought to ask ourselves: what do I need to do to shift the alignment myself, in order to enter the light?

Let us shift the alignment, and enter the light. Let us continue to give a few minutes of our time, each day, for Tehillim with concentration. Let us continue to add an extra act of kindness for another, or an extra dollar for tzedakah. Let us dedicate a few minutes of extra Torah study. Let us send the families of Gilad, Eyal and Naftali letters of support. And may we celebrate the light of their return very soon!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

'Tis More Honourable to Give (Parshat Korach)

A thought I've written up for Toronto Torah, on Parshat Korach:

After the collapse of Korach's rebellion, G-d presents Moshe with three instructions that counter elements of that misguided mutiny:
  • First, the tribe of Levi is charged with protecting the Beit haMikdash from future incursions by those who are ineligible to enter. (Bamidar 18:1-7)
  • Second, the nation is instructed to give special gifts to the Kohanim, explicitly recognizing that Korach was wrong for challenging their right to their positions. (ibid. 18:8-20, as understood by Rashi 18:8)
  • Third, the nation is instructed to give a tenth of their produce – maaser rishon - to the Levites, enabling their service. (ibid. 18:21-32)

Within that last segment, though, an eight-verse passage describes the mitzvah of terumat maaser. When a Levite receives maaser rishon, he must separate one-tenth of that donation and give it to a Kohen; until he does so, he is prohibited from eating the maaser rishon he has received. How does terumat maaser respond to Korach's rebellion?

Three approaches are put forth by classic commentators; each stems from a different view of Korach's moment on the biblical stage. More broadly, each stems from a different perspective on the nature of human generosity:

1: Display Respect
One may read Korach's rebellion as a protest against the elevated position of the Kohanim; Korach, a Levite, wants the power of the Kohen for himself. Opposite this arrogance, the Divine command to give a gift mandates a display of respect. The requirement to give terumat maaser – a tithe paid by the Levite to the Kohen – reinforces the Kohen's dominance.

Taking this approach, Rabbeinu Bachya, in his 13th century Kad haKemach (Rashut 8), explained that just as the Jew's one-tenth gift to the Levite marks the Levite's leadership position, so "the Levite is obligated to give the Kohen a tenth from their tenth. Just as Israel is bound to the Levite, so the Levite is bound to the Kohen."

2: Recognize G-d
On a deeper level, Korach's rebellion may be read as a rejection of Divine control. The selection of Kohen and Levite comes at the Divine word, and so Korach is actually challenging G-d's architectural design for the Jewish people. Giving a gift on Divine command, on the other hand, demonstrates a recognition that G-d is the true owner of my property. The requirement to separate terumat maaser provides a constant reminder that there is an Authority above all, who establishes the rights and roles of every citizen.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Horeb 304) put forth this position, writing of the terumah given by every Jew to the Kohen, as well as the terumat maaser contributed by the Levite, "You should not use that portion for personal purposes but dedicate it to G-d, declaring thereby that G-d is Lord of the earth  and that only through Him have you any right to the earth and to the fruit it yields."

Similarly, Sefer haChinuch wrote (mitzvah 396), paraphrasing Kohelet 5:7, "Thus they will put into their hearts that there are higher-ups above them, and that higher than all of them is the exalted Guardian of all."

3: Take Honour from Giving
A third approach reads Korach's rebellion as a misunderstanding of Honour; Korach believes that holding an elevated position and receiving a gift is the height of human dignity. Thus Korach does not seek the right to serve as Kohanim do, but only to hold their position of authority. (Bamidbar 16:3) Giving a gift inverts Korach's initiative, displaying an understanding that there is great honour in giving. The requirement to give terumat maaser teaches the Levite the stature to be found in generosity.

Sefer haChinuch (ibid.) saw this as a clear benefit of terumat maaser; he wrote, "There is also merit and honour and stature for the Levites, lest their name be eliminated from the mitzvah of tithing when they receive their portion of produce. Lest the children [of the Jews] say to the children [of the Levites], 'You receive the produce, we receive the mitzvah,' there will now be a response: We have Torah, and we have flour [to give]." Of course, the Levites already give, with their service in the Beit haMikdash and in their role as teachers of Torah, but sharing material resources with others is a unique and honoured form of generosity. [For more on this from a secular perspective, see Tamara Brown, Raising Brooklyn: Nannies, Childcare and Caribbeans Creating Community, Chapter Four.]

Taken together, these approaches provide three lessons in generosity: Giving gift shows respect, giving a gift mandated by G-d demonstrates recognition of Divine authority, and giving a gift earns true honour. As explained by these commentators, Korach did not grasp these three points, but the mitzvah of terumat maaser ensured that his descendants, and all readers of the Torah, would absorb these lessons for themselves.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Yetziv Pisgam

A friend needed the tune for Yetziv Pisgam (a.k.a. Yatziv Pisgam), so I searched on-line to find a recording for him. Surprisingly, it wasn't anywhere that I looked; it might be out there somewhere, but I couldn't find it in a quick search. So I recorded it for him.

Of course, it's always possible that the tune (okay, "chant") I grew up with is not really the traditional tune, but I recorded the one I've always heard and the one I've always used.

Then I realized that other people impressed into service to lein the haftorah on the second day of Shavuos might also need this tune, so if anyone wants it, you can download it here.

Note: I was not particularly careful about accent/emphasis; my point was only to provide the tune.

And while I'm here - you might also be interested in an article by Dr. Lawrence Schiffman, "Yatziv Pitgam, One of Our Last Aramaic Piyyutim".

[Update: Thanks to a reader, who sent me a link to his own recording of the tune, available here.]

Friday, May 30, 2014

Shiur Theatre: 21st Century Tefillah, Part 3

And here is the concluding act, in which we note that the Community of "Community Prayer" is not only the current generation, but inter-generational, across time. As far as the overall debate between the importance of personalization and the importance of community, it is recognized that both must be honoured, but that personalization on an individual level can be achieved without sacrificing community.

Standing at the shulchan

NARRATOR (standing): Act Three takes place at another meeting, two weeks later.

SARA: Okay. Next up on our agenda is the Contemporary Minyan and the Alternative Contemporary Minyan – and a third version that might be starting up soon.

All at once, incredulously:
ADAM: What?
RABBI: A third Contemporary minyan?
JOSH: Why?!

SARA: Well, the idea started because the girls were fed up that the boys weren't showing up on time to their minyan, so things were starting late.

ADAM: But I've been at that minyan - the girls don't show up on time either!

SARA: Yes, but when they do show up at 11:00, they want the minyan to be in musaf already.

JOSH (rolls his eyes): Just like their parents.

SARA: So they're bothered by the lateness, and they also want to make more changes to the minyan, and the boys don't like their ideas.

ADAM: Changes like what?

SARA (serious about the idea): Well, the Beiber berachah was their idea, and the boys rejected it, so they want that included. And they want a berachah for success on their exams, which the boys think is juvenile. And they think the berachah that the boys created for their NCAA March Madness pool is juvenile. So the girls want to create what they are calling the Female Alternative Contemporary Minyan.

MOSHE RABBEINU walks into shul at this point, from the doors in the back. The participants don't see him yet, as he walks to them slowly, grandly.

ADAM (upset): So now we're supposed to have a (counting on his fingers) Main Minyan, a Hashkamah Minyan, a Contemporary Minyan, an Alternative Contemporary Minyan, and an Alternative Female Contemporary Minyan?

RABBI (agitated): And the whole ברב עם הדרת מלך idea of davening in a large group is toast! Not to mention לא תתגודדו, the prohibition against splitting ourselves into micro-groups.

JOSH (even more agitated): And I want to know: What's coming next?

Moshe is now at the table

MOSHE (firmly): Ahem.

RABBI (eyeing the desert robe) : Umm… who are you?

MOSHE (matter-of-factly): I believe you usually call me Moshe Rabbeinu, but Moshe is fine.

Everyone stands back quickly

RABBI: No beard?!

MOSHE: Shaved for Lag ba'Omer.

RABBI: Oh. Um. Yeah. Um. Uhhh… What are you doing here? Are you here to solve this situation?

MOSHE: Do you really think there's a solution to this problem? This is one of those timeless challenges that Judaism presents.

RABBI: So what will you add to this "timeless challenge"?

Everyone relaxes a bit, back into meeting mode

MOSHE: I believe in personally crafting prayer to suit a particular situation – When my sister Miriam was sick, I drafted a short, five-word prayer for her. When the Jews made the Golden Calf, I prayed for forty days. It's like that boy, Jason, who you’ve been worried about; different situations call for different things.

RABBI (shocked): So you believe in the Alternative Female Contemporary Minyan?

MOSHE (pained expression): Please don't oversimplify; your point about the communal emphasis of communal prayer is right. And I want to add, from my own experience, that the goal of communal prayer is to bind Jews together across time, spanning the generations, as a single community, in a single covenant.

ADAM: Across time? What does that mean?

MOSHE: In the beginning, Gd made a pact with Avraham regarding the fate of his descendants. The covenant into which we entered on the banks of the Jordan River was for all Jews, in all generations. לנו ולבנינו עד עולם, for us and for our children, eternally.[1] We are one unit.

SARA: But Moshe – sir - how does being one nation affect our choice of davening, so long as we daven to HaShem?

MOSHE: Because HaShem wishes to view us as one nation when we daven. Just read the book of Shemot;[2] He heard our cries in Egypt, and He remembered Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. HaShem told us to use the Name, "The Gd of Avraham, the Gd of Yitzchak, the Gd of Yaakov," to invoke that crossing of the generations when we daven.

RABBI (excited): And you did that, too! That was your own experience - When you davened for the Jews after the Eigel, you asked Gd to remember Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov![3]

MOSHE: Precisely; to me, it is most important that each generation not view itself as isolated, adrift in time, but part of a chain of generations. So it is that your minhagim and text remain the same as that which your ancient ancestors used.

SARA (catching on): Right; and that's why we have midrashim about Jews of later generations coming to Rachel, or Yirmiyahu, or – or you – to daven for us. That's why some Jews will go to a grave to daven, to ask for help. Davening is about more than just making myself more connected to Gd.

MOSHE: Now you're getting it. And it's important to feel the bond with those ancestors. Don't you feel it when you daven, that link with your ancestors who said the same words, bowed the same way? Individual Jews have always recited words that conflicted with their personal emotions or experience in some way, just to be part of that group.[4]

ADAM: So it's about connecting with each other and with our ancestors.

MOSHE: Very much so. And at a time like this, a time of all those grand movements and schisms you mentioned earlier – now, more than ever, we need something that will hold us together, that all of us will have in common. Community Tefillah does that.

JOSH: So I'm confused; you endorse personalizing prayer, but you are adamant about preserving community. So what are you recommending? What would you tell our camper, Jason?

MOSHE: That I value both sides. And compromise is difficult. King Solomon's wife, daughter of the Pharaoh, tried to introduce music that she favoured into the service of the Beit haMikdash; that didn't go over well.[5] Innovations can easily lead to division, and as the Chatam Sofer noted,[6] based on a Mishnah,[7] "Unity, togetherness, benefits the righteous and those around them." Not to mention, the trust that comes from communal prayer is lost when people will not daven together.

RABBI (dejected): So then nothing we do will be right?

MOSHE: Nothing will be right, perhaps, but there is plenty that we can do. We should try to satisfy individualism, and the needs of a new generation of Jasons, to help them draw closer to Gd. And we should try to keep the community together, not innovating to the point that we defeat the Community aspect of Community Prayer. But most of all, we need to have the humility to recognize that we may never get it entirely right, and that those with whom we disagree will never be entirely wrong.

SARA: But – can you give us some practical direction?

MOSHE: First, I'd suggest learning. From what I have seen, davening isn't  treated as a serious subject for study, not at home and not at school. I don't mean the rules of davening, but the text. We can hardly expect people – children or adults – to find themselves and their needs and their emotions in the davening, unless they devote energy to the task.

JOSH: Understood.

MOSHE: And second: Jews have always specialized in mitzvot that resonated with their personality and talents, as the Netziv[8] and Rav Kook[9] discussed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Or like the Chatam Sofer said,[10] "No two people have the same style, because no two people love HaShem in the same way." So I favour encouraging people to add personal requests. In mitzvos, beautify them in your own style.[11] In minhag, choose songs that your family will sing at your Shabbos table. The more it can be kept to the personal level, the better.

JOSH: So that we won't alienate each other.

SARA: And so that we won't alienate ourselves from our predecessors.

MOSHE: Precisely. It won't satisfy all of the Jasons, but perhaps it will give them the tools to find themselves in their own davening, and over time they might come to appreciate finding themselves in community, too. (turns to go) And now, I must go.

RABBI: Wait, Moshe! Just one second. (reaches for his phone) Could we – would you mind – could I take a selfie with you?

MOSHE: A selfie? Seriously? Haven't you heard what I've been saying? The point isn't Selfies – the point is Community.

[1] Devarim 29:28
[2] Shemot 2:24
[3] Shemot 32:13
[4] See an interesting article by Professor David Flusser
[5] Shabbos 56b; and see Rif 281, Darchei Moshe Orach Chaim 53:10, Radvaz 2:890, Kaf haChaim 13:6, Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah 2:77, and see Yabia Omer 6:Orach Chaim 7:3.
[6] Chatam Sofer 5:Choshen Mishpat 12:3
[7] Sanhedrin 8:5
[8] Netziv to Bamidbar 24:6
[9] Poem – אל חכי שופר
[10] Chatam Sofer 1:197
[11] Shabbos 133b