Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for March, 2009|Monthly archive page

What’s in a Miracle? Posts for Pesach

In Uncategorized on March 25, 2009 at 10:34 am

The single most important component of a miracle is that it happens when you need it. It was true at the Red Sea, and it’s true now. No one controls timing. Click here

An annoyance becomes a treasure

In Uncategorized on March 23, 2009 at 10:59 pm

For months now, I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with this piece of display furniture which had found its way into my office. It was a cabinet with a glass top that contained a Torah scroll, the handles of which were on the outside of the cabinet and could be used to roll the scroll. It was an odd thing because it was not fit for ritual use, and as often happens, my school office had once again become the dumping ground for Judaic curiosities.

Because it was a Torah scroll, however, I was reluctant to store it anywhere else, and so it has kind of become part of my breezy decor. Last week, I took a closer look at the Hebrew inscription written on the handle.

“A gift from Batsheva Bratt and Rochel Kaufman (her sister) in memory of their brother Dovid Aharon who perished in the Holocaust.”

It had been donated by my grandmother and my aunt, and unbeknownst to anyone it just “happened” to be dumped in my office.

All of the sudden, an annoyance has become an heirloom.


Grandmothers of a nearly forgotten time

In Uncategorized on March 23, 2009 at 10:54 pm

This Sunday, amid much of the Pesach preparations we went to a Zeved Bat for friends of ours. It was an occasion to remember the grandmothers Yaira Rivka was named after. These were stories of unimaginable challenges, all too common, sixty years ago. One came to America alone at the age of twelve, leaving eight siblings behind who perished in the Holocaust while the other, the youngest of thirteen went to work as a seamstress at the age of eight. When the Czar’s army came to plunder her town, she was saved by a Russian soldier who happened to be Jewish, and later became her husband.

These were strong women, undaunted by grim poverty, tough unsentimental women who protected and nurtured their families with single minded zeal.

Two weeks ago, someone sitting next to me, asked if I was related to Batsheva Bratt, to which I replied, “She was my grandmother!” “What a sweet woman. One time, I was playing softball and I broke a window in her apartment building. I was scared to death when she came out to see what happened! She took one look at my face, and said, “Gevalt, his face is white as a sheet! Honey, it’s only a vindow—come in for something to yeat.” The man who related this story is over sixty years old, and yet, he remembered this story with such present emotion, I couldn’t help but be moved.

She came to the U. S. when she was only sixteen with no English and ended up in Kansas City, married and made a life in the New World. She was an old time Matriarch who ruled the clan with a stern voice and a gentle hand. It would never have occurred to her to be a feminist, for no man she felt was her equal. One might ask, why does it seem that the Mothers loom so much larger than the Fathers? Why do their strength, their courage, and their tenacity occupy such a large part of our collective narratives?

In last week’s Parsha, Rashi comments on some mirrors that were used in the Tabernacle which were oddly named “the mirrors of legions”. (the marot tzovot). He recounts the following story:

During the time when the Jews were slaves in Egypt, the men would come home exhausted from working in the fields. A wife would sidle up to her husband, hold up a mirror and tease him. Who do you think is prettier, me or you? This would excite her husband and a new generation of Jews was born.

These mirrors were used by women to entice their beleaguered, depressed, and enslaved husbands to create the next generation of Jews. From the bleak background of slavery, the men had given up, and if it wasn’t for the idealism of the women, there would have been no generation to redeem. Those mirrors created legions.

Fast forward to turn of the century pale of settlement with widespread poverty, persecution and powerlessness. Beleaguered and beaten day to day, how did these Jewish families spiritually sustain themselves? Many were anchored in the strength of these women who knew not only how to manage a household on very little, but also knew how to nurture one.

It is not only the generation of Egypt that benefits from the tenacious zeal of Jewish women, it is every generation.

Palestinian Hip Hop and Defense of Israel

In Bibi, Gaza, Hip Hop, Lieberman, Palestinian on March 22, 2009 at 12:05 pm

I happened on a documentary on the Sundance channel describing the emerging hip hop scene on the West Bank, Gaza, and Nazareth. Describing the art form as a healthy outlet for venting the frustrations of occupation, the film describes the frustration of ordinary Palestinians trying in vain to get from place to place. The point of view did not acknowledge any of the reasons for these restrictions–it wasn’t the film’s job.

What I found amazing, was the fact that someone in Gaza heard Tupac Shakur, and even though he didn’t understand English, he felt an immediate connection to the music and to what he imagined was somehow a parallel experience. The film did its job, you felt bad for these innocent rappers, and you wondered why letting these Gazan hip hoppers travel for a joint concert in the West Bank was so threatening? Of course, we know why. If they transport suicide bombers with ambulances, why take a chance on a concert?

Things have gotten nastier because for the first time in Jewish history, Jewish hatred is so great that people are willing to kill themselves just to make sure that there are a few less Jews walking around the planet.

I don’t think there is an Israeli who thinks there is such a thing as a benign occupation, but now they know what life would be like for the Jewish Island in a sea of Arab discontent. It is only walls and checkpoints that make day to day life possible.

These eye witness accounts of Israeli soldiers is a distraction. The root causes of which have already been articulated by both sides ad nauseum. There is a clash of civilizations here, and it’s the reason that Bibi is PM again, and it’s the reason that Lieberman is a power broker. In Middle East politics, it always has been a zero sum game. I can only be a winner, if you have suffered significant losses.

There is no win-win.

The Great Jewish Army

In Uncategorized on March 20, 2009 at 10:16 pm

I guess I am not shocked, or even surprised by the disclosures in the NYT and the Israeli Press. I am saddened by them. Bialik got what he wished for, a nation like all others. This is the stuff of all citizens armies and having been a soldier in this one, I can tell you that there are all kinds of folks who don an Israeli uniform–and some of them, believe me, you would rather not know.

The moral code for killing by definition is a dubious one, but necessary. Remaining sensitive in battle is probably not the best recipe for survival, so things happen. It doesn’t make it right, but we are talking about an enemy who has declared that no Israeli–man, woman or child is an innocent. So, it may not be for them, that we should have mercy, but for ourselves, to prevent us from becoming someone we would rather not recognize.

I do believe that this type of carnage follows us home.

Prostates are More Important than Israel or Gaza

In Gaza, Israel, Kassam, Peace, Tom Segev on March 19, 2009 at 4:54 pm

Look at the most popularly searched items on the New York Times, and you will see that the most popular story has to do with the PSA test doing more harm than good. Even though Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner have been given prominent space, the readership is yawning. Everyone’s had enough of the Jews and Israel. I am sure that Israelis are aware of this, and take heart in the fact that they are not presently a big fish to fry.

The President has his hands full with a domestic agenda, closing Guantanamo, leaving Iraq, and there’s always Afghanistan. This means that Israel will do absolutely nothing on the Palestinian front which will cause some to celebrate and others to mourn.

I mourn the fact that we have given up on having a long term future that approaches some semblance of normality. I mourn that the next generation of westernized bourgeois Israelis who would rather not be associated with an occupation, also do not want to cede territory so that their families don’t become ducks in a Kassam shooting gallery. There is a resignation that deep down nothing other than the surrender of the Jewish State will ultimately be enough for our Palestinian cousins.

I remember Tom Segev saying in a lecture last year that peace is not something the next generation considers anymore. If peace is not attainable then it does not matter whether there is a Palestinian state or there isn’t. The fatalism that comes with the obscenely modest goals of “buying a few more years of quiet” has a nihilistic nuance of resignation. Resignation, and fatigue accompanied with the awareness that the United States is yawning and AIPAC is still lobbying.

It’s not that nobody has the big picture, but rather there doesn’t seem to be one.

Betrayal is worse than murder????? For Dante yes, for Rambam, maybe not!

In Uncategorized on March 18, 2009 at 10:16 am

Dante thinks so, but Rambam sees it a little differently. Betrayal is particularly insidious because it can lead (my emphasis) to many deaths. He then offers Doag Ha’Adumi’s betrayal of David as an example.

The opposite of betrayal is loyalty. Tom Friedman points out that teachers in his and my county voted for a 5% pay cut from their 65k salaries so that programs would not be cut and teachers not be terminated. This is, I understand, not an isolated event, but one that is being repeated all over the country. I believe it is happening because the County has demonstrated good faith toward its employees and the employees trust that the county doesn’t have the money to honor their contracts. The employees also don’t want their constituents-their children–to suffer.

When polled about burnout teachers rarely put compensation at the top of their list of complaints. It’s usually the lack of opportunity for growth and development that is their primary concern.

I believe it is this behavior that will make the rains come. The Government should keep their promise to AIG and kick themselves for not reading the fine print, but the bonusees should show some loyalty and fidelity to their fellow citizens and give them up. Otherwise, who is going to have faith in anyone?

My mother is fond of saying, “You make your own luck.” The theological twist is that God will not (and from a Kabbalistic perspective, cannot) do His part until we do ours. We’re off to a really crappy start.

What Makes The Rains Come

In Uncategorized on March 18, 2009 at 10:06 am

The Gemara in the Tractate of Ta’anit expresses the following sentiment:

The rains only come because of those who keep their promises.

The foundation of ethics is trust. The financial crisis boils down to nobody trusting the value of billions of dollars of assets, and, guess what, the rain is not coming.

As the Psalmist said:

Truth will flourish from the earth and righteousness will look over from the heavens.

The Talmud understands this as an “if then” clause. If truth flourishes from the earth then we will be looked after by the heavens. The metaphorical rains will fall.

It’s going to be a long season without rain. It’ll be scorchin’

The Loveliest Of All was the Unicorn

In Uncategorized on March 17, 2009 at 7:18 pm

As we distance ourselves from the sin of the Golden Calf, we are once again engaged in building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle that will be the focal point for all Divine encounters.

The fabrics, gems and precious metals are of many kinds and Israel has been astoundingly generous.Amid the myriad of materials donated are skins of a certain animal, in Hebrew it is called a “Tachash.” The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation of this portion hazards a guess and translates these skins as those of a dolphin with a disclaimer saying that the Hebrew is “uncertain.” In Hillel’s Bronfman Edition of the Five Books of Moses, Everett Fox translates Tachash as “tanned” skins. Others have offered “sealskins.”

The earliest Aramaic translation, the Targum Onkelos, translates the word Tachash with an equally cryptic Aramaic word, sas-gavna which later Talmudists endeavor to unpack. Here are some sources for you to ponder.

Synagogues and Newspapers

In Uncategorized on March 17, 2009 at 6:08 pm

Edgar M. Bronfman recently had an op ed piece that was posted on JTA. Never a fan of synagogues, he has created his own prayer experiences for the High Holidays to which he has invited friends and fellow travelers. He praises the emerging signs of Jewish culture and religious life and encourages people to support them even during these austere times.

“The fact that young Jews are not affiliating in the“traditional” way indicates there is something wrong with our institutions,not that there is something wrong with our youth. We have to let go of the old ways of defining what it means to be an “involved Jew” and begin to look to the kind of involvement that today’s Jews are seeking.”

Well, that does seem to be an issue, but Judaism is not a service industry. It is a vehicle for service. Even these exciting new projects attract mostly engaged Jews who are disaffected from existing institutions. The synagogue may be going the way of the newspaper, (as Clay Shirky would have us believe) but just as journalism is a necessary component for a democracy and therefore will not die, Torah is the central and essential component of Judaism and any innovation that does not somehow reflect its values will not be sustained. Historically, this seems to be an accurate statement. Make no mistake, for these purposes Torah is not narrowly defined, but encompasses many pathways. These pathways share one thing though, and that is commitment.

The more these innovations come from substance and meaning, and not from a consumer’s perspective, the more successful they will be.