Water, Water Everywhere

The connection between Sukkot and water is obvious, and everywhere. It begins with the second Mishna in Rosh Hashana, that the world is judged with regard to water on Sukkot. This designation is intuitive, given that Sukkot marks the start of the rainy season. Consequently, we begin praying for rain on Shemini Atzeret, after the solemn ‘prayer for rain’. Additionally, we collectively engage in a bit of sympathetic magic with the Simchat Beit Ha-Sho’eva, offering a bit of water to God in the hopes that it ‘primes the pump’ and influences Him to provide us with abundant water.

Water shows up in other places – odder places – as well: for example, in the context of the special requirement that the 4 species must be ‘hadar’. The quintessential lack of hiddur, listed at the beginning of the Mishna (3rd chapter of Sukkah), before getting into greater detail, is desiccation. A dried out lulav, devoid of moisture, is disqualified. It must contain some water. Even stranger is a discussion in the Gemara about how we know that the Biblical ‘pri etz hadar’ actually refers to the etrog. One of the Gemara’s suggestions is that the word ‘hadar’ is related to the Greek work ‘hydro’, meaning ‘water’. The etrog is an extremely water-intensive fruit. And of course, the arava, or willow branch, is called the ‘willow of the brook’ in the Torah.

The question is, does this connection indicate anything beyond the notion that we are initiating the rainy season and praying for rain?

The connection to the 4 species in general, and to hidur mitzvah specifically, indicate that there is something more to it. About 8 years ago, Rav Yehuda Brandes published this homiletic article about a Midrashic/mythic narrative which appears in several sources, including the Bavli and Yerushalmi, and discusses a potsherd which Kind David removed when he was digging the foundations of the Beit Ha-Mikdash. The watery abyss began to overflow and threaten the world, until King David, with the help of Ahitofel, succeeded in bringing the waters back to their proper levels. The Bavli (Sukkah 53a) mentions this story in the context of the Simchat Beit Ha-Sho’eva, explaining the reason for the 15 steps, corresponding to the 15 Sir Ha-ma’a lot Psalms, which served as the Levite bandstand during the celebration. The upshot of R. Brandes’ article (the whole thing is highly recommended) is that water represents id or primality. If it is completely suppressed, the world is deprived of creativity, growth, and, in a nutshell, life. If it is unfettered, it threatens to overwhelm everything and become a completely destructive force.

Hidur mitzvah serves a similar function. It allows us to inject a bit of personality into the potentially ‘dry’ performance of a mitzvah. It allows for a balance between a rote, impersonal attitude toward mitzvah-performance on one hand, and antinomianism or total flexibility on the other hand. Like water, which gives life when it can be integrated into an existing structure, hiddur mitzvah allows for individuation within the structure of mitzvah observance. Our challenge on Sukkot is to find a way to allow full expression but through the halakha – to be able to see the stars even though we sit inside a structure.


Will Tzohar Declare War on the Rabbanut?

The Tzohar Rabbinic Organization recently began publicizing an initiative to create a new kashrut organization, motivated by the fact that, in their words, “in the near future, the State of Israel will face a situation in which 2 million of its citizens will be living in cities where there is no Kashrut certification on its food establishments.” This situation developed because a number of municipal rabbis will not certify any establishment which sells ‘heter mechira’ produce as kosher.

There is no consensus within Tzohar about whether this new initiative is simply to restore balance to the Rabbanut’s behavior, or the first (or perhaps second or third) maneuver in Tzohar’s attempt to create an alternative rabbinate. In Tzohar’s eleven years of existence, they have had a problematic but oddly symbiotic relationship with the Rabbanut. They have walked a tightrope between playing by the Rabbanut’s rules and agitating for reform.

Tzohar’s issue with the Chief Rabbinate is in practice, not principle. They fight against particular examples of rabbinic corruption or misbehavior, but have no real interest in pushing for systemic change. Their basic line is that the institution itself is unproblematic, but the people who currently populate it are.

Ultimately, they suffer from no small amount of hubris; they feel that they have a better finger on the pulse of ‘the people’ than today’s local official rabbis. Indeed, there are segments of the population – the urban Religious-Zionists and religious kibbutzniks, for example, and perhaps even the pro-Jewish but anti-religious cosmopolitan secular Ashkenazim- that they understand better than today’s empowered rabbis. ‘The people’ also live in Afula, though, not just Ra’anana.

I think that Tzohar rabbis are also naïve if they think that if they ever attain power that they will be immune from the failures of the current system. Power corrupts, and rabbis in this country have power, holding the purse-strings of hundreds of millions of shekels, even when it is not a Shemittah year.

The real problem with the Rabbanut, of which the current ‘heter mechira’ issue is but a symptom (though a big symptom), and which Tzohar seems to be ignorant of, is lack of accountability, and, to a lesser degree, lack of transparency.

The Rabbanut is a government institution and runs like one. At the inception of the state, instead of becoming relevant to all areas of Israeli life and society, the Chief Rabbinate was chucked a few bones, but it became, and remains, the authority in Israel in those areas. The Rabbanut has the sole authority to recognize conversions and determine Jewish status, perform Jewish marriages and divorces in Israel, and recognize Jewish marriages performed abroad. Additionally, other areas of Jewish life – namely, kashrut, mikvaot, and eruvin – fall under the Rabbanut’s jurisdiction as well, and these ‘industries’ are multi-million shekel industries. This means that if an establishment in City A wants to be known as ‘kosher’, it must go under the supervision of the local Rabbanut. Once certified by the local Rabbinate, the establishment is free to become certified by additional certifying agencies.

Money for various religious projects is funneled through various agencies to the Rabbanut. Thus, if the Housing Ministry budgets a certain amount for the construction of an eruv, the Rabbanut will have de facto control over how that money is spent; after all, they are authorized to declare that eruv operational or disqualified. In a neighborhood near mine, an eruv was recently constructed. The cost of the eruv was put at 144,000 NIS. My estimation, having built eruvin before and having scrutinized the borders of the area and seen existing structures (basically, the neighborhood was already fully enclosed on two sides, one by an actual fence, and one by ‘tzurot ha-petach’), was that it should cost about 30,000 NIS. That’s a hefty differential. I have no idea how the money was spent, how the contractor who built the eruv was selected, or anything else. There is another scandal here in Modiin in which a mikvah ‘ran out of money’ during construction. Why did it go so far over budget? Who knows? There is no transparency.

Furthermore, the Rabbanut is not really a centralized organization, rather more like a franchise. A Rabbanut position is a lifetime appointment, and the appointment is not made by the Rabbi’s constituents. As I've written before, there needs to be a balance of power between the rabbi and his community. On one hand, the rabbi should have a degree of independence from his constituency, to be able to make hard decisions without being overly influenced by what the balabatim want to hear. On the other hand, the community must feel that the rabbi is addressing their needs, concerned with their concerns, sharing in their joys and sorrows. If he does not pass muster, he will lose his job.

In Israel, rabbis are not accountable to their constituents. The ramifications are manifold; it can mean that an official rabbi can invalidate a conversion 15 years after the fact, as was recently done, without having to bear any repercussions. Another ramification is that the rabbi serves as a de facto gatekeeper for who can get married, who can get divorced, and who is Jewish in his town. Rabbis can demand payment – on or off the books – for performing a wedding, and if he is refused, he has the power to simply refuse to perform or register the marriage. There are horror stories to this effect. The rabbi simply might just be a jerk, give politically incorrect divrei Torah, or show up two hours late to a wedding he must perform. He might insist on chumrot or deny kulot based on his own ideal version of what the halakha should be, ignoring other precedents and the sensibilities of his community. There are no real consequences.

In order to bring about systemic change and introduce elements of accountability and transparency, an organization would need, before anything else, the ambition and ability to do so. Tzohar may have the ability, but they do not have the ambition. They have not raised the issue of what an accountable, responsible Chief Rabbinate would look like, contenting themselves just to assert the unfalsifiable claim that they could do it better and nicer.

Can the system really change? Should it be fixed or simply annihilated? How would that happen? What can organizations like Tzohar really do?

These are the questions that Tzohar should be asking, and that I hope to address in upcoming posts.


Sukkah with a View

Here are some pics that I took from inside my sukkah (at sunset):

The window faces south, toward Emek Ayalon. Nof Ayalon is in the background on the right side of this first picture.

In the immediate background of this picture, you can see the new Modiin bypass road which has not yet opened because of politics. Further in the background, you can see the tracks that are being built for the high-speed train to Jerusalem. If is expected to be finished by 2011:

In the center is the Modiin-Latrun road, beyond which are more Shephelah foothills. Part of Nof Ayalon is visible on the right.

Kol ezrach mi-kem yeshvu ba-sukkot

Art Project

My older son (age 3) attends a Chabad preschool here in Modiin. In general, we’re fairly pleased with the place. He seems to be having a good time, making friends, and learning his davening and brachot.

Last week, however, he came home with the following art project:

This is a portrait of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe’s mother, whose yahrzeit, celebrated as a holiday in chabad, was on the 6th of Tishrei. The day before, he came home with a note asking that he be sent to school wearing festive clothing, with a coin for tzedakah, and with a candy for the hitvaadut (Hebrew for farbgrengen) that they would be holding in honor of the occasion. They refer to Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson as ‘the mother of the Rebbe, our generation’s prince’ and as ‘the mother of royalty’.

Finally, in honor of the occasion, they served cornflakes with milk for breakfast. I have no idea what they normally serve.


Happy Eruversary

This past Shabbat/Yom Kippur marked three years since the University of Maryland/College Park Eruv became operational. It was a great project. I still consider it the highlight of my rabbinic career. There are a few stories in particular from when we were building the eruv that stand out.

First of all, the whole project was, in my opinion, a major Kiddush Hashem. It was highly visible and got excellent publicity in various local media outlets.

We primarily worked at night because the technology we employed was really only visible at night. We used a self-leveling laser to make sure that the tips of our lechis, which were ½” ground wire molding strips affixed to electricity poles, were directly underneath the electrical wire (based on the principle of gud asik). This is a relatively new but highly effective technique used in eruv-building. Normally, the lechi would have been run all the way up to the wire. This device, which cost us $200, saved us thousands and made it easy to thoroughly check the eruv regularly. The inventor of this little gadget was truly mezakeh the rabbim. We had to work at night, however, because it’s really hard to notice a red dot on a black wire in broad daylight.

So imagine, if you will, a bunch of guys walking around at 2 a.m., holding flashlights, hammers, nails, metal brackets, plastic strips, and this laser thingy, which, before we realized it an covered the extraneous beams, would shoot off into drivers, living rooms, etc. Despite letters of encouragement from the city, county, and university, we had a hard time explaining to people exactly what we were doing, and why we were doing it at such ungodly hours. Then we started getting media coverage, and all of a sudden everyone understood – ‘Oh, you were those guys on the news…’

Part of the fun was translating the theoretical into practice. In theory, it’s easy to slap a piece of plastic on a pole. In practice, there’s no such thing as a straight telephone pole. We found out what type of plastic we’d need, and then figured we’d go to Lowe’s or Home Depot and just pick it up. Wrong. They don’t sell ground wire molding. So we did some research on the web and came up with 4 or 5 suppliers of the stuff, and started calling around. I called this place in Roanoke, VA called Virginia Plastics, and get on the phone with their warehouse manager. Yes, they have 300 yards of ½” black ground-wire molding in stock. The woman then asks me if I work for an electrical company – their main clients. I responded that, no, this was for a private initiative. So the woman says, “Oh, are y’all building an ee-ruv? Did I say that right?” I nearly fell off my chair.

There were some other moments as well. When placing the last lechis in a wooded area at the northern end of the boundary – at around 3am – we found that these woods were also home to rather large spiders in large webs. At least one of our party was an arachnophobe.
I heard from a former UMD student that she had been on the Eruv Committee 10 years earlier. I later found the minutes from those meetings. That eruv had been in the works for at least a decade, but it was about a month between the time we drove the first nail into wood and the time it became operational.
Our eruv dedication ceremony was attended by various notables, including University President C. D. Mote. In my speech, I made reference to some of the challenges of eruv building. Afterward, during the reception, President Mote came over with some technical questions about how eruvin work. I invited him to attend the shiur that I had started giving on the ins and outs of practical eruv building and checking, in order to train our bodkim, but he politely declined. Woulda been nice if it could have been accredited by, say, the engineering department. No such luck, though.

The Four Species of Shabbat Guest

There’s a well known Midrash which compares the four species that we take on Sukkot with four personality types. There are 2 variables – Torah and good deeds – which yield 4 possible combinations.

Having been in Israel for over a year now and having frequent Shabbat guests of the year-in-Israel type, and more precisely of the ‘seminary girl’ type, we can say with certitude that the same four categories apply to Shabbat guests. Sometimes, the guests are very engaging and participate in discussion and Divrei Torah at the Shabbat table. Sometimes, they are very helpful with set-up, clean-up, and taking care of the kids. Sometimes they are both. Sometimes they are neither.

We don’t really like having aravot for Shabbat. Any of the other three are fine.


Thoughts on Forgiveness

When it comes to Yom Kippur, we discuss the theme of the day by using terms like atonement. ‘Atonement’, and even ‘forgiveness’ to a degree, is not used meaningfully in our society. There are other words – like clemency, pardon, reprieve, excuse, and amnesty – which have much greater cultural currency. Three of these terms form a juridical progression. Clemency is a reduction of a sentence without minimizing the gravity of the crime. A pardon is when the crime is forgiven but where the guilt of the pardoned is implicitly recognized. Amnesty happens when an offender or group of offenders is treated as though the crime never took place at all.

And for all of them, O clement God, grant us clemency, pardon us, grant us amnesty

The term ‘forgive’ is more often used in the context of individuals, free agents. If I owe you money, you have the option of forgiving that debt. That idea can be transposed to insult and injury as well. I feel it is important to clarify terminology because otherwise we’re simply playing word games – with our selves, with our friends, and with God. Thus, I would like to take this opportunity to ask my readers to forgive any offense I may have committed against you this year.


The Ethical Dimension of Fasting

In Yeshayahu Chapter 58, which forms the main part of the Haftarah of Yom Kippur Morning, the navi contrasts the type of fast that God desires with the type of fast that He despises:

ישעיהו פרק נח

ג) למה צמנו ולא ראית ענינו נפשנו ולא תדע הן ביום צמכם תמצאו חפץ וכל עצביכם תנגשו: (ד) הן לריב ומצה תצומו ולהכות באגרף רשע לא תצומו כיום להשמיע במרום קולכם: (ה) הכזה יהיה צום אבחרהו יום ענות אדם נפשו הלכף כאגמן ראשו ושק ואפר יציע הלזה תקרא צום ויום רצון לידוד: (ו) הלוא זה צום אבחרהו פתח חרצבות רשע התר אגדות מוטה ושלח רצוצים חפשים וכל מוטה תנתקו: (ז) הלוא פרס לרעב לחמך ועניים מרודים תביא בית כי תראה ערם וכסיתו ומבשרך לא תתעלם: (ח) אז יבקע כשחר אורך וארכתך מהרה תצמח והלך לפניך צדקך כבוד ידוד יאספך: (ט) אז תקרא וידוד יענה תשוע ויאמר הנני אם תסיר מתוכך מוטה שלח אצבע ודבר און:

5 Is such the fast that I have chosen? the day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD? 6 Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? 7 Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? 8 Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy healing shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee, the glory of the LORD shall be thy rearward. 9 Then shalt thou call, and the LORD will answer; thou shalt cry, and He will say: 'Here I am.' If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking wickedness;

The contrast seems to be a refrain of the classic prophetic message that observance and worship are meaningless if the worshipper oppresses his fellow human being. This recurs throughout the Latter Prophets, quite literally from the first chapter in Yeshayahu until the last (actually, second to last) chapter in Malachi.

I was bothered, though, by the following question. Verse 6 begins by saying ‘This is the fast I desire’, and then goes on, for the next 2 verses, to beautifully describe a man’s duty to his fellow. There’s a progression from ‘sur me-ra’ in verse 6, where the prophet enjoins his audience to stop oppressing their fellows, to ‘aseh tov’ in verse 7, where the audience is encouraged to actively provide food, shelter, and clothing (in that order) to the needy. This description seems to have nothing to do with fasting, though.

There are two basic reasons given for why we fast: expiation and sobriety. Expiation means that my bodily suffering serves at retribution for bodily sin. I experience a little bit of pain or a little bit of death, and that cleanses me from the stigma of transgression. The pre-Yom Kippur ‘Tefilah Zakah’ prayer is an excellent example of this idea within the Jewish tradition. Line after line, the prayer expresses the hope that each element of suffering purges a corresponding area of sin: not wearing leather shoes atones for when my feet ran to do evil, not eating atones for forbidden foods I consumed, and so forth. The traditional ‘BeHa”B’ fasts are in this vein as well.

Sobriety means that I return to spirit by denying the body. By removing the distractions of the flesh I am able to turn back to the soul and nourish it with what it requires. This is the classic view of asceticism, that the body actually impedes the soul. One need not take an extreme ascetic view in order to see fasting as a manifestation of this idea; just as easily, fasting might be an attempt to restore balance between body and spirit. It is a temporary measure to create a certain atmosphere for a brief period of time, after which things return to normal. Perhaps the mitzvah to eat on the day before Yom Kippur echoes this view that asceticism has value, yet must be tempered.

This chapter seems to be advocating an entirely different dimension to fasting. The problem with the fasting that ‘God has not chosen’ is that I pound my chest with wicked fists. The same hand I beat my breast with is also around the throat of the oppressed. It’s not about the public display of piety, fools. Do you think that’s what God wants?

Rather, when you gather in the town square to call out to God, think of the people who sleep there at night because they have no home. When you feel the pangs of hunger after not eating for a day, think about those for whom this is a regular occurrence. When you don your sackcloth and ashes, remember that there are those who do not have what to wear.

I know that this sounds like a Camp Ramah D’var Torah, but it is precisely what the Navi is saying. This is the fast that God wants: feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, and clothe the naked. It means thinking twice before flippantly saying ‘I’m starving’, ‘I’m dying of thirst’, or ‘I have nothing to wear’, because there are people who are really starving, really dying of thirst, and really have nothing to wear.

I thought of this explanation on the bus in Jerusalem this morning, but now realize that it had been percolating for a few days. Each year, Magen David Adom organizes massive blood drives before Tishrei and before Pesach, in anticipation that supplies will begin to run low during the holidays. As I was giving blood last week, I though of the line in ‘Tefilah Zakah’ – ‘may the lessening of my blood and fat atone for all of my sins, iniquities, and transgressions.’ Indeed, there is an ethical dimension to fasting.

If God had a Facebook page…

…His relationship status would be ‘It’s complicated with The Jews’.


A Reading of Avoda Zara 17a: The Strange Case of Rabbi Elazar ben Dordaya, Part 2

Although Elazar has, at this point in the story, stepped away from the brink of eternal futility, he has not yet repented. He sits alone and searches for an intermediary. These lines are the most cryptic in the story: what exactly does he want from the sun, moon, stars, etc.? How can they beg for his mercy?

Elazar had just learned that he was leading a futile life. He had contributed nothing to the world of any redemptive value. Faced with that reality, he, as many would, looks for redemption that stems from mercy, not justice. It was not his fault. He was condemned from the outset to lead a life that way. Why?

Because of the material wealth (heaven and earth? see Bereishit 27:28) he had accumulated without earning. Because societal norms (mountains and valleys? See Yeshaya 40:4) conditioned him to value certain things. Because his parents (the sun and moon? see Bereishit 37:9) spoiled him and told him he could have whatever he wanted, and that the main thing is to be happy. Because he was, by nature (stars and constellations as proto-psychology?), through no fault of his own, predisposed toward certain types of behavior and craved certain types of attention and companionship. Thus he sought to place blame. Everything has conspired to make him like this, thus absolving him of his own responsibility.

Each thing, in turn, rejects his attempt to blame them by noting its own worthlessness. Once one begins to blame, it’s blame all the way down. There is no responsibility for anything, and everything becomes arbitrary. Each verse cited appears as a contrast between the world’s futility and God’s Eternity and responsibility. Human beings, and they alone, were invested with the ability to say ‘the buck stops here’. Only man can become responsible, and only by accepting responsibility can man be redeemed. It is certainly possible to place blame, but then of what significance is man?

Elazar ultimately does take responsibility. He curls up and cries until he dies. Did he achieve resolution? Did he become something other than a shattered remnant of a man? Is that teshuvah?

As is well known, there is a 12-step process for overcoming addiction. I once met an addict who described his experience with the steps, stating that at a certain point, after Step 5, I believe, he felt like a newborn baby, completely clean and innocent. I think that sense is borne out in the Gemara at this stage. Elazar places his head between his knees, curls up into the fetal position. As we saw earlier, the process of teshuvah is compared to a return to the source. Here, Elazar actualizes this process, cleansing himself and recovering his core identity.

At this point in the story, Elazar dies. The Gemara suggests that it had to be this way, that he could only truly atone through death. The Rambam cited earlier (Teshuva 2:1) seems to suggest that his death upon repentance was a form of grace. Had Elazar rejoined society, gone back home after his intense experience, what would have happened? Would his change have been made permanent? Was he still vulnerable to a relapse? None of that matters, because he died. He died innocent, like a newborn.

Alternatively, it really doesn’t matter what happened the next day. The Elazar ben Dordaya that we met at the beginning of the story died. Perhaps he left the valley, enrolled in night school, became an accountant, got married, had a bunch of kids, and learned daf yomi. It doesn’t really matter. The story ends with his total repentance. What happens next is Chapter 1 of a different story.

The omniscient narrator, privy to events seen and heard by nobody, now records a heavenly voice that issued forth upon Elazar’s death – he had achieved eternity. God had given his seal of approval. There can be no more room for speculation that perhaps Rabbi Elazar’s repentance was not complete or not sufficient.

Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi, known as just Rabbi, cried when he heard Rabbi Elazar’s story. Rabbi was a paragon of virtue, never even letting his hands slide below his navel despite the pain of having kidney stones. Jewish tradition knows him as ‘Our Holy Rabbi’. And he has just found out that in the heavenly academy, he will be sitting next to Mr. Hefner, who gained access at the very last minute. Moreover, he seems to have gotten a last minute semicha. Imagine that on sukkot you walk into a friend’s sukkah and see a poster of all of the gedolim on the wall. The Rav is there. Rav Kook is there. The Chazon Ish, Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Shlomo Zalman. And Hugh (OK, I’ve actually been in a sukkah which had a poster of R’ Kook next to a picture of Bob Marley, but I digress).

Rabbi’s sobs echo the criticisms of Eliyahu and Yonah; teshuva is not fair, especially for those who have remained clean throughout. The Kotzker’s quip – that tzadikim gemurim can’t stand in the place of ba’alei teshuva because ‘tze shtinkt dortn’ (it smells over there) – becomes Rabbi as well. And I sympathize. It really seems unfair sometimes.

Yet, there he is. Rabbi Elazar ben Dordaya. He earned the honorific ‘Rabbi’ (which was once an honorific) because he did what Rabbis do: he taught us something. He taught us about complete repentance, turning around at the top of your game, accepting responsibility, and returning to your clean, innocent self.

A Reading of Avoda Zara 17a: The Strange Case of Rabbi Elazar ben Dordaya, Part 1

תלמוד בבלי מסכת עבודה זרה דף יז עמוד א

תניא: אמרו עליו על ר"א בן דורדיא, שלא הניח זונה אחת בעולם שלא בא עליה. פעם אחת שמע שיש זונה אחת בכרכי הים והיתה נוטלת כיס דינרין בשכרה, נטל כיס דינרין והלך ועבר עליה שבעה נהרות. בשעת הרגל דבר הפיחה, אמרה: כשם שהפיחה זו אינה חוזרת למקומה, כך אלעזר בן דורדיא אין מקבלין אותו בתשובה. הלך וישב בין שני הרים וגבעות, אמר: הרים וגבעות בקשו עלי רחמים, אמרו לו: עד שאנו מבקשים עליך נבקש על עצמנו, שנאמר: +ישעיהו נד+ כי ההרים ימושו והגבעות תמוטינה. אמר: שמים וארץ בקשו עלי רחמים, אמרו: עד שאנו מבקשים עליך נבקש על עצמנו, שנאמר: +ישעיהו נא+ כי שמים כעשן נמלחו והארץ כבגד תבלה. אמר: חמה ולבנה בקשו עלי רחמים, אמרו לו: עד שאנו מבקשים עליך נבקש על עצמנו, שנאמר: +ישעיהו כד+ וחפרה הלבנה ובושה החמה. אמר: כוכבים ומזלות בקשו עלי רחמים, אמרו לו: עד שאנו מבקשים עליך נבקש על עצמנו, שנאמר: +ישעיהו לד+ ונמקו כל צבא השמים. אמר: אין הדבר תלוי אלא בי, הניח ראשו בין ברכיו וגעה בבכיה עד שיצתה נשמתו. יצתה בת קול ואמרה: ר"א בן דורדיא מזומן לחיי העולם הבא… בכה רבי ואמר: יש קונה עולמו בכמה שנים, ויש קונה עולמו בשעה אחת. ואמר רבי: לא דיין לבעלי תשובה שמקבלין אותן, אלא שקורין אותן רבי.

BT Avoda Zara 17a

It was taught: It was said about R. Elazar ben Dordaya that there was not as single whore that he did not have relations with. He once heard that there was a certain whore in one of the towns by the sea whose price was a wallet full of dinarim. He took a wallet of dinarim and crossed seven rivers to get to her. During foreplay, she passed gas and said, “Just as this wind will not return to its source, so, too, Elazar ben Dordaya’s repentance will never be accepted.

He then went and sat between two hills and mountains. He said: “Hills and mountains, plead for mercy for me!” They replied: “Before we pray for mercy for you, we must pray for ourselves, as it says ‘For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed’” (Yeshaya 54). He said: “Heaven and earth, plead for mercy for me!” They replied: “Before we pray for mercy for you, we must pray for ourselves, as it says, ‘For the heavens shall vanish like smoke, and the earth will become worn out like a garment’” (Yeshaya 51). He said: “Sun and moon, plead for mercy for me!” They replied: “Before we pray for mercy for you, we must pray for ourselves, as it says, ‘Then the moon shall be confounded and the sun ashamed’” (Yeshaya 24). He said: “Stars and constellations, plead for mercy for me!” They replied: “Before we pray for mercy for you, we must pray for ourselves, as it says, ‘And all the hosts of heaven shall rot away’” (Yeshaya 34). He said : “It all depends on me alone.” He placed his head between his knees and he wept aloud until he died. A heavenly voice issued forth and said: “Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordai is destined for eternal life.”…Rabbi [Judah Ha-Nasi] wept and said: “Some acquire eternal life over many years, and some in one hour!” Rabbi also said: “It is not sufficient for ba’alei teshuvah that they are accepted, but they are even called ‘Rabbi’!”

The story seems straightforward enough: there’s a beginning, where we meet a decrepit Elazar ben Dordaya and hear of his sexual adventures. There’s a middle, where he seeks mercy from various inanimate entities, and an end, where he achieves true repentance. There’s also an epilogue where Rabbi makes several points about the experience of repentance. The main thrust of the story is obviously Elazar’s transformation. Understanding this Gemara means getting to the bottom of his experience in all parts of the story.

First, a word about the main character’s name. Maharal points out that the name ‘Dordaya’ is related to ‘le-darder’ – ‘to degenerate’, and also to God’s curse of Original Man – ‘it will sprout thorns and thistles (dardar)’. Thus, the name ‘Elazar ben Dordaya’ means ‘God helped the degenerate son’ or something like that. God’s only appearance in this story is as a part of Elazar’s name/identity.

Elazar was no lowlife. When a guy sits around drinking cheap booze, he’s a wino, a drunkard. When a guy drinks an abundance of very good wines, he’s a connoisseur. He was not simply chasing after his desires, a creature overwhelmed by passion. He promoted it into a lifestyle. In Biblcal and Rabbinic symbolism, ‘crossing a river’ has a similar connotation to ‘going against the tide’. Elazar defied convention and overcame obstacles in his pursuit. Neither money nor distance was an obstacle. His goal was to experience it all simply because he could, like the first man who scaled Mt. Everest, “because it was there”.

The Gemara doesn’t tell us how Elazar could afford his luxurious and sensual lifestyle. One gets the impression (from his name, mainly) that his wealth was inherited. He was a rich kid with Daddy’s credit card and become famous for something fundamentally unproductive. He just as easily could have chosen to ride every roller coaster or smoke every brand of cigar. Sleeping with every prostitute is paradigmatic of this lifestyle choice. He is a millionaire playboy – nay – he’s THE millionaire playboy. Elazar ben Dordaya was the Hugh Heffner (intentionally misspelled to avoid automatic amazon links) of his generation.

Elazar travels far and is willing to spend a small fortune on a particular prostitute in a city by the sea. Perhaps this was to be his ‘crowning achievement’, his last and greatest experience. After this, what’s left? Indeed, while he was with this prostitute, she tells him that very thing. This is it. There’s no going back for you. You can never get back to your origins. You are a lost cause.

Perhaps if Elazar had finished what he started, there indeed would have been no going back, or at least not all the way back. Had Elazar slept with that whore, he might have woken up the next morning feeling totally empty. What’s left? The incredible meaninglessness of his life would have finally dawned on him, after the thrill of his pursuit had blinded him to it for so long. One often hears about entertainers, athletes, and celebrities who return to religion, Judaism included, once they are on the downside of their careers. Something which had occupied such a central place in their lives had been removed, leaving a gaping emptiness. Granted, the doors of repentance remain open, but, as Rambam writes (Laws of Repentance 2:1, where he ‘paskens’ this Gemara, and in the process strips away the narrative elements), full teshuvah occurs only before the onset of the downside.

Elazar’s ultimate teshuvah is complete specifically because he turned around before reaching his summit. The whore’s prediction proves untrue because he did not let the moment that it would become true – perhaps just minutes away – arrive. One may ask what this prostitute was doing giving mussar shmuessen. She is not in much of a position to issue rebuke to others, and from a purely pragmatic perspective, it’s probably bad for business (‘You naughty boy’ does not count as mussar). So what is she saying?

I would suggest that she did not need to say anything. Something, some gesture, called his own futility into relief. Something about the moment gave him pause. Perhaps he had glorified his actions and glorified this woman (as a ‘godess’, perhaps), but was called back to earth by the recognition that she, too, is just another human being who holds no keys to immortality. Indeed, the Gemara later suggests that Elazar’s devotion to his ‘cause’ was so strong that it actually became an avodah zarah. The very act of turning away, exhibiting strength of character similar to Joseph’s, enables his ultimate redemption.



Eli’s Misreading of Chana

After three posts about the story of Eli and Chana (here, here, and here), which is the haftarah of the first day of Rosh Hashana, I finally got a chance to look at the actual words of the Gr”a regarding Eli’s use of the Urim Ve-tumim. It’s from his work Kol Dodi, and is excerpted in a book called Divrei Eliyahu, which anthologizes various comments of the Gr”a from his different works according to the order of Tanach and Shas. The edition that I own was printed by the Lebovits-Kest Memorial B’nei Torah Library about 15 years ago.

I discovered two major details of the Gr”a’s explanation which are missed in most presentations of his opinion. Firstly, the Gr”a does not say that Eli used THE Urim Ve-tumim, but AN Urim ve-Tumim. Based on the Ramban in Tetzaveh, he says that there were Divinely inspired people who used private oracles similar to the Urim ve-Tumim. He says that to avoid the question that I raised about the impropriety of using the actual Urim ve-Tumim to find an answer to a private question.

The second, and most jarring, discovery I made when looking at the Gr”a ‘inside’ is that, ironically, almost everyone who quotes this idea misreads Eli’s misreading! I had always heard that Eli read ‘shikorah’ instead of ‘kesheirah’ – ‘drunk’ instead of ‘worthy’ (here’s an example from Rabbi Frand, here’s one from Ohr Somayach, here’s one from Chabad, and here’s another). The Gr”a actually says that Eli should have read it as ‘Ke-Sarah’ – ‘she is like Sarah’. It’s clear that this is the correct reading. I will translate the contexts in which he uses the word, leaving the word in question untranslated and unvocalized (KSRH): “I am a depressed and barren woman praying for children KSRH”, “You did not give me the benefit of the doubt that it meant ‘KSRH’ who was barren”, “In the Midrash this was explained further – KSRH, Rivka, Rachel”. Is there any doubt?


Shemittah and the Palestinian Economy

This article from the Jordan Times (hat tip: Rabbi Dr. Shalom Berger) provides some wonderful insight into the impact of shemittah on the Palestinian economy and also how they view internal Jewish debate regarding various issues. I was also amazed – and pleasantly surprised – at the balanced way that the article portrays this politically-charged halakhic issue. The issue of ‘supporting terrorism’ is a large part of the internal Israeli dialogue on the halakhic issue, and this could have been inverted to (perhaps justifiably, perhaps unjustifiably) suggest that Rabbis who promote heter mechirah do so because they wish to minimize benefits to ‘terrorist’ Palestinian homesteaders.

A Poor Example of Educational Storytelling

Someone recently quoted to me, in the context of a discussion of Hilkhot Shemittah, a story that apparently appears in one of the ‘Magid’ series by Rabbi Paysach Krohn. The story pertains to the rule that one is not allowed to feed a non-Jew produce which contains kedushat shevi’it. Although this rule seems to be in direct contravention to Vayikra 25:6, Our Sages have limited the scope of this passage to a case where the non-Jew is a long-term member of the Jew’s household (See Rambam, Laws of Shemittah and Yovel 5:13).

So this story begins with a husband returning home to find that his wife had given two kedushat sheviit fruits to the goyishe help for her ride home. Acting quickly, the husband tracked the Gentiless down on the bus after an apparently difficult chase. When she saw him, she immediately confessed and opened her bag, revealing the jewelry she had just stolen from the family.

I must admit, I found this story offensive. I believe that stories are the primary manner in which values are communicated (in fact, it’s an assumption which underlies a lot of what I write on this blog: some examples can be found here, here, here, and here), and that the values reflected in this story are problematic.

The central problem I find is in the All-for-the-Boss-esque reward of zeal with miracles. Miracle stories are problematic in general, and this problem is compounded when the miracle is a reward for behavior which is supererogatory at best, negative at worst. The prohibition against giving a non-Jew fruits with kedushat Shevi’it is based on the fact that one must treat these sanctified fruits with proper respect, and giving them to a non-Jew is disrespectful. The story’s ‘hero’ is justifiably concerned with the fact that this non-Jew would violate the sanctity of the produce, but at what expense? Public embarrassment of the Gentile? Embarrassing his wife? Furthermore, it seems clear from Tosefta Sheviit 5:20 that once the produce is in the possession of the non-Jew, there is no need to take it back (the Tosefta discusses, and permits, a similar scenario in the case of an animal, which is generally more stringent than a human when it comes to consumption of foods which have kedushat Shevi’it; I’m not ready to outright permit such a case, but there is certainly reason to pause and especially if there is counter-pressure).

I’m also not thrilled with way the story portrays the wife (as a half-wit) and the Gentiless (as a thief). I think it’s poor values-education.

I’d have been much happier with the following ending (leaving aside the man’s treatment of his wife or her apparent ignorance): the man quickly rushes to the local makolet (a word for which there’s no real English equivalent, unless you count bodega) and buys soda, chips, and cookies. He then hops into a taxi to chase down this gentile woman. Upon reaching her, he apologizes profusely that he actually can’t give her those fruits (without explaining the halakhic rationale) and offers her the bag of food instead.

That way, he can actually fulfill the Biblical mandate of shemitta in spirit as well as in the letter, for there is no doubt that the Torah, through the mitzvah of shemittah, wishes to instill concern about the plight of the wage-earner.

And if the story truly happened the way that Rabbi Krohn tells it, then just don’t tell that story in an educational setting. Better edifying fiction.


Rambam on Sexual Sin

[cross-posted to Reshimu]

Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 2:9

“Repentance and Yom Kippur only atone for sins between man and God, such as eating forbidden foods, engaging in forbidden sexual relations, and the like. Sins between man and his fellow, however, like if one injures, curses, steals, etc. from his friend, he is not forgiven until he pays his fellow what he owes him and appeases him…”

That Rambam includes prohibited sexual relations in the category of ‘Between Man and God’ is jarring. If one cheats on a spouse, is a pedophile, or commits rape it is only between man and God? There is no victimization in these cases? There are definitely cases, such as between consenting adults, where indeed there is no sin toward a fellow human being. On the contrary, the parties involved might even think that the other is ‘doing such a mitzvah!’ Perhaps Rambam takes his cue from King David who confesses his sexual sin with Batsheva by saying before God, “I have sinned against You alone, and have done what is evil in Your eyes (Tehillim 51:6)”. Yet, the parable that Natan the Prophets confronts David with sure seems to imply that the sin was against Uriah. I’m really not sure what to make of this Psalm; granted, there wasn’t much David could do for Uriah at that point, and granted that Chaza”l jumped through hoops to make David’s sin technically permissible although still morally reprehensible (as clearly evidenced by his confession!). In my opinion, however, these justifications do not sufficiently clear God’s Messiah from having done wrong by his fellow human being.

One might suggest that there are two aspects of sexual sin – one against God and one against man. Fair enough. It’s possible. I’m not satisfied with that answer because a) there are many prohibitions ‘between man and his fellow’ which could have fallen into both categories, and b) Rambam uses sexual sin as a paradigmatic example of ‘bein Adam la-makom’. Is there a shortage of prohibitions of the ‘between man and God’ type? Shouldn’t idolatry make that list?

To add a bit of fuel to the fire, Rambam makes a well-known distinction in the sixth chapter of ‘Shemoneh Prakim’, his introduction to his commentary on Tractate Avot. He notes, on one hand, that the philosophers say that it is better to do good because one is naturally inclined toward doing good than to do good because one forces himself to do good. On the other hand, Our Sages said that one need not reduce his appetite for sin. Rather one should refrain from sin because it is the decree of God. Rambam resolves this issue by saying that each refers to a different category of mitzvot: those which are ‘mefursamot’ (which I, not knowing the original Arabic and basing it on context, would translate as ‘conventional’) and would naturally be arrived at by every society and correspond to widespread definitions of good and evil, and those which are ‘shim’iyot’ and would not be considered evil had the Torah not prohibited them.

The list of ‘widespread’ mitzvot includes the prohibitions against stealing, murder, battery, and overcharging. The other list includes shaatnez, prohibited foods, and – you guessed it – prohibited sexual relations. Once again, the inclusion of sexual relations on this list seems very jarring. Here, though, he’s quoting from an earlier source (my edition doesn’t give the reference, but I found a variant in the Yalkut Shimoni on Kedoshim, 626). Once again, one can make the case that certain sexual sins are not forbidden because of a need to maintain society the same way that, say, theft must be prohibited. It’s somewhat chilling to think that Rambam would say that it’s ok to look around and think ‘efshi ve-efshi, but God said no’.

These two examples lead me to the conclusion that Rambam had a dramatically different sexual ethic than we do. He treats it very impersonally, like it’s a biological fact and need and not a function of erotic love. The problem with cheating on a spouse is that God said no – and it remains between man and God. For the Rambam, it’s not a significant en1ugh c1mponent of the human relationship for it to warrant categorization as ‘Between Man and Man’ or for it to be acknowledged as a norm that all societies recognize. The closest that I’ve seen the Rambam coming to a description of Eros is in Yesodei Ha-Torah 2:2, and there he talks about the love of God.

Talmudic Accounts of the Creation of Man: Part I

[This will be cross-posted to Reshimu, where I will now be a contributor]

The fourth chapter of Masechet Sanhedrin is a treasure-trove of Rabbinic contemplations regarding the creation and station of mankind. The discussion is launched as a result of Mishnaic account of the way in which witnesses in capital cases were impressed with the importance of human life. These Mishnayot themselves are the source of well-known Rabbinic statements such as “One who saves a single [Jewish/human, depending on MSS] life is as if he saved an entire world”, “The world was created for me”, and “Man was created unique”. The Talmud introduces a number of discussions and narratives which expand on this theme of mankind’s creation. I felt it appropriate to look into some of these passages in the days before Rosh Hashana, traditionally celebrated as man’s collective birthday.

We’ll start with a short one, but a good one:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין פרק ד - אחד דיני ממונות דף לח עמוד א-ב
תניא, היה רבי מאיר אומר: אדם הראשון מכל העולם כולו הוצבר עפרו, שנאמר +תהלים קל"ט+ גלמי ראו עיניך, (וכתיב +דברי הימים ב' ט"ז+ כי ה' עיניו משטטות בכל הארץ). אמר רב אושעיא משמיה דרב: אדם הראשון [דף לח עמוד ב] גופו מבבל וראשו מארץ ישראל, ואבריו משאר ארצות. עגבותיו - אמר רב אחא: מאקרא דאגמא.
We have learned that Rabbi Meir used to say: Original Man’s dirt was collected from over the entire world, as it says “Your eyes perceived my form” (Tehillim 139) and it says “The eyes of God scan the entire earth” (Divrei Hayamim II 16). Rav Oshaya says in the name of Rav: Original Man’s body was from Babylon, head was from the Land of Israel, and limbs were from the other lands. What about his buttocks? Rav Acha said: from Akra de-Agma.
There are three distinct statements in this little passage. They are clearly related by their subject matter, as each discusses the origin of Original Man’s dirt. I think it would be a mistake to assume, however, that these statements were said as part of a single discussion (which they clearly weren’t, since they are attributed to Sages who lived centuries and countries apart), or that they even have the same agenda. Thus, each should be evaluated independently.
Rabbi Meir’s statement is very different from the subsequent Amoraic statements. He does not mention particular lands and brings Biblical prooftexts for his assertion. He is saying that man was made from the entire world. What does that mean?

In his Talmudic readings, Levinas asserts, based on the teachings of his mentor, the enigmatic Mr. Shoshani, that whenever the Gemara cites a verse, that verse must be understood in context in order to fully understand the Talmudic passage. I generally like to avoid blanket ‘rules’ about how to learn Gemara – different methods are better for different scenarios – and I’ve come across particular cases where this Levinasian assertion quite clearly seems to fall short. However, in this instance, I believe it to be ‘spot on’. I submit that Chapter 139 of Tehillim would be a fantastic candidate to be the ‘Shir Shel Yom’ of Rosh Hashana. It describes God’s creation of Man and God’s intimate knowledge of Man’s innermost workings. The Psalmist describes his own transparency before God and how he comes to grips with it and even welcomes it, as his allegiance is to God alone. The whole Psalm is permeated with what Rudolf Otto might call “creature feeling”, the feeling of a created entity before its Master and Creator, that sense of absolute dependence, loss of identity, and lack of control.

Thus, on one level, Rabbi Meir is saying that Man is as much a part of Creation as the rest of the world – indeed, on the same page of Gemara, it is suggested that Man was created just before Shabbat so that he would not claim that he participated in Creation. Man is a creature, just like everything else. On the other hand, Rabbi Meir’s statement also suggests something very different. Man’s relationship with the world is not a marriage of distinct entities. Man is of the world. In a sense, the study of the world – physics, chemistry, geology, biology, and so forth – is part of Man’s effort to write his own autobiography. Additionally, this passage expresses a certain universality of Man. No land is preferred over another. All men belong to the whole Earth. This idea can lend itself to an environmentalist reading of this passage as well.

Rav Oshaya, speaking in Rav’s name, does not seem to be the logical conclusion of Rabbi Meir’s statement. Perhaps he works off of Rabbi Meir’s statement, and perhaps not; either way, he is saying something very different. He notices, as the Maharal points out, that different places have different ‘personalities’ just as different parts of the body serve different functions. He is making a statement about the correspondence between human characteristics and the characteristics of various places in the known world. Thus, man’s head, the seat of the spirit and intellect, originates in the Land of Israel, whose very air makes one wise according to Our Sages, who never met an Israeli politician. The supremacy of the Land of Israel in matters of spirit has always been acknowledged as the land of prophecy, as the place on Earth closest to God.
Babylonia, on the other hand, is distinguished by other features. As Maharal notes, the Torah knows Babylon as the cradle of civilization, where Man first built cities, and from where he began to extend his reach across the land. This metaphor of Bavel as the torso from which the appendages begin to reach out parallels the development of mankind as a whole. This passage sees the unfolding of human history as something that was built-in to man’s very creation.

Additionally, if Israel represents man’s spiritual side, then Babylon can lay a strong claim to his physical side. It is, after all, Mesopotamia, the most fertile region of the ancient world. In the Talmudic worldview, these two lands are the important places, and other lands are considered trivial. Perhaps they fulfill functional roles. The notion that the limbs are from the ‘rest of the world’ reflects this bias. Perhaps it can be compared to Israel and the United States in today’s Jewish world. There are other places, but the majority of World Jewry, living in those two places, finds it easy and convenient to ignore everything else.

The last line is by far the most jarring part of this passage. Is Rav Acha serious? Perhaps not. I wonder if he meant it as a joke. I remember my first time at Port Authority in Manhattan; I believe it was on the way to the Siyum Shas at Madison Square Garden almost 20 years ago. I remember that it was like nothing I had ever seen before in terms of the griminess and promiscuity of the place (before the city decided to clean it up). I remember my father quoting my uncle as saying that if God had to give the world an enema, He’d stick the nozzle in Port Authority. Is Rav Acha expressing a similar sentiment? The Sefer Ha-Aggadah understands that Akra de-Agma was indeed a promiscuous place.

Alternatively, maybe it’s not a joke. Every part of the human anatomy serves a function, however unpleasant. Perhaps the same can be said of the Earth. We need coal mines and peat bogs, too. Cities need dumps, sewage treatment plants, and all sorts of other industries which are essential but which I’d prefer not to live near. Perhaps Rav Acha is reminding us to appreciate these places, even if from a distance.


One Tale of Two Cities, and Two Tales of One

Kiryat Sefer, also known as Modiin Ilit is a completely Chareidi city of about 30,000. It has no basketball courts. In a lot of ways, it’s like a Bizzarro version of Modiin – both are called Modiin. One is called ‘The City of the Future’ and the other is called ‘The Chareidi City of the Future’. Both are populated mainly by young families. In Modiin, there are barely any chareidim. In Kiryat Sefer, pretty much everyone is chareidi. Both are teeming with kids. I've posted about Kiryat Sefer before - here, here, here, here, here, and here.

There are many Modiin residents who shop in Kiryat Sefer, which is about 12 minutes away by car. There are some products that are more available or cheaper there. There are even people (women, basically) who have special clothes for when they shop in Kiryat Sefer (skirts, shawls, head-coverings), so that they do not offend the locals.

This past Friday, we ran some errands in Kiryat Sefer. One was that we are trying to get a stroller which was damaged by El Al repaired. We also picked up some fruits and vegetables. The store which sells strollers would be called a basement business in the U.S. In Israel, it’s a living room business. The entire front part of the house is filled with products for newborns and toddlers. He took the stroller and estimated that it would cost about 100 NIS to get fixed. A new (inferior quality) stroller would be 160 NIS.

Another couple shopping there looked at us incredulously as we ordered the repair. El Al had told us that if we could not repair the stroller, then they would reimburse us for a new one. So why didn’t we just get the new one? My said that we can’t get a new one because the old one could be fixed. Yes, they countered, but El Al doesn’t have to know that. At this point, the store/homeowner added that he would be happy to write El Al a letter stating that he cannot fix the stroller. Yet, my wife insisted, that would be a lie.

Later, near the supermarket just a few blocks away, I noticed that there is a newsstand on the street. This was not a newsstand that looked like the ones that I am familiar with. There was a table with two piles – one with the Yated Ne’eman, the other with HaModia. Two slotted boxes (pushkes) were mounted on the wall above the papers, each labeled with the name of one of the papers. The papers were sold on the honor system, completely and totally.

These stories, having happened so close together both spatially and temporally, generated a bit of cognitive dissonance. How was it possible that one could assume such a degree of honesty that one could leave merchandise literally on the street and know that he would be adequately compensated, and at the same time it was all but assumed that one could tell a lie in order to gain a larger reimbursement check from a corporation that damaged his property?

We were baffled, but came up with a few working theories to explain the phenomenon, and also a few that don’t work. I’m not totally satisfied, so I’d be curious to hear more:

· ‘Us vs. Them’ – this is the most obvious explanation, but one which I don’t think is true. The theory would be that there’s more tolerance for theft from non-chareidi entities than there is for those who are ‘ana”sh’ or ‘fun unzere’. I don’t buy it. If the guy leaving the papers there was not Chareidi, and everybody knew it, he could still expect to find sufficient payment in the box. If it was a goy, it might be a different story (not that it’s justified), but I don’t think that the property of a fellow Jew would be treated so disrespectfully.

· Individual vs. Corporate – if I don’t pay for the paper, the guy who put it there loses money. A guy who sells newspapers on the street for a living is not a terribly wealthy guy. If we don’t pay him, he takes home less cash that week, his Shabbos table is a bit more bare, there’s a bit more stress in the house. Nebech. I’ve got to pay this guy; it’s his parnassah. On the other hand, El Al is a large corporation. Nobody goes hungry if they lose and extra 50 shekel here or there. The owners are so wealthy that they won’t even notice if it’s 5000 shekel.

· Pragmatic – if we screw the newspaper guy, he’ll stop selling papers here because he’s losing money on it. Our community is his entire clientele. Who will sell us papers, then? But if we screw El Al, what are they going to do, stop letting us fly with them? They tested those waters already, and found them to be quite uninhabitable. They need our business. Besides, we’re still a minority of their customers. Who says they would even notice that one sector claims higher damages than another sector? And who says that other sectors don’t claim damages that are just as high?

· Restoring Balance – I don’t know the guy who sells me the paper, but I have nothing to do with him otherwise. I’m paying him for this one service, and that’s the extent of our relationship. But El Al is different. Do you know how much they charge for flights? I have a family of seven! They jack up the prices during bein hazmanim because they know that’s when we travel! This 50 shekel is a pittance compared to all the money that I’ve flushed down the toilet with them. Besides, I’ve had delays which forced us to alter our plans and spend extra money, I had to make 25 phone calls, on my own dime, before they acknowledged that they damaged or lost my luggage – they owe me!

· Theft vs. Bargaining – I’m not actually ‘stealing’ from El Al. They are willing to pay for a new one anyway. They realize that they owe me money. If they really wanted to save, they could get it fixed themselves. When they send me that check, it will be wholehearted and without me pointing a gun at their heads. But to just grab something that it not yours? That’s burglary! That’s something a common house-thief would do! Chas ve-Shalom that I would just take something that doesn’t belong to me!

Any other thoughts?


Getting One’s Wires Crossed

Here’s a gem of a Devar Torah (the link will change within a week; it’s the DT for Ki Savo 5767). Especially the end, where the writer, shlit”a, defines an “Androginus” as “A ‘man’ who is bi’sexual”. I really hope that this issue is merely one of vocabulary.