25 June 2012

Life Imitates Art

The series of crossed-out words in 'Vacances' was meant to be stream-of-consciousness nonsense.

Much to my amusement, it became a fairly accurate description of how I spent the past two weeks.

Thanks for your indulgence, and a round of applause to Rabbi Mollot for picking up the slack.

We should be back on schedule now.

Back to the Wilderness!

We might be moving.
We don't know.
We might live in this apartment, where my daughter was born, for another year... or we might be overseas, with our books slowly following by ship like so many jolly right-to-left tars, by the end of the month.

I pick up the ironing pile and realize: it is futile to finish this. In another week it could all be balled up in a suitcase.
Or it might not.
I go to the grocery store and wonder: is it worth buying that much honey? We might not have time to use it.
Or we might.
I continue to recopy my address book, with all its little notes: S likes chocolate, Y likes popcorn, bring a story for the children, 11:00 is the middle of the evening, call us for anything, she won't bite your head off, and wonder: am I ever going to need these addresses, numbers, and notes again? Am I ever going to see any of these people again?
Should I be packing? Or not?

"How are you not short-circuiting?" my friend asked.
I think it's because we have no control over the situation. We don't have to make a decision. So there's really nothing I can do but daven and daydream about the possibilities.
"It's like a Choose Your Own Adventure book!" observed my neighbor.
"Right," I said, "but we don't get to choose!"

It's kind of exhilarating, actually.
It's Exile, but no one ever said we weren't still in Exile.

I am reminded of a dark joke I once heard from Rabbi B.
"You know why so many Jews are violinists, right?"
"No, why?"
"Because it's hard to run with a piano on your back."

We are running, but not from Russia to Poland.
We have it so easy.
I feel like... like we are going into Galus on the Atchison-Topeka & Santa Fe.

18 June 2012

Jealousy Incarnate

“All of the assembly in its entirety are holy and G-d is among them!” shouted Korach, poised at the head of the mob of rebels who had gathered to challenge Moses and Aaron. “Why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of G-d!” (Numbers 16:3).

The Talmud records that Korach’s attacks against Moses were not merely political, but far sharper and more personal. According the Talmudic account, among other criticisms, Korach actually accused Moses of the crime of adultery!

While attacking Moses on the basis of his position of authority seems understandable, to malign a man of Moses' inimitable character and reputation with intimations that he had committed adultery enters the realm of the ridiculous! What is the meaning of this strange Talmudic teaching?

The answer to this mystery, as with many mysteries of the Torah, lies at the core of the history of Man.

“Let Us make Man…” (Genesis 1:26). The Almighty consulted with his council of spiritual ministers before creating Mankind. Our tradition teaches that these heavenly ministers objected to the Almighty’s plan, explaining that Man, as a being with physical elements, may succumb to material temptation, polluting the universe with sin. Man, therefore, deserves not any place in the kingdom of the Almighty. G-d overrides the opinion of his ministers and proceeds with the creation of Adam. Thenceforth, throughout history, as mankind failed to live up to the course of holiness prescribed for them by the Almighty, the angels would continually remind the Lord of their initial objection and His failure to heed their counsel.

Subsequent to Adam’s fall from grace, the Torah describes how Adam’s sons Cain (Kayin) and Abel (Hevel) vie for the Almighty’s favor. While Abel brings an offering from the fattest of his flock, Cain offers only the cheapest of his crop. The Almighty favors Abel’s offering, and in a fit of jealousy, Cain murders his brother Abel.

“G-d said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel, your brother?’ [Cain] said, ‘I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’ [G-d] said, ‘What have you done! The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the earth! And now you are accursed from the earth that opened its mouth to take your brother’s blood from your hand!’” (ibid 4:9-11).

Our tradition further teaches that Cain’s jealousy of Abel stemmed not only from the Almighty’s reaction to their offerings, but from a number of other factors as well. Among them, Cain was born together with a twin sister who would become his wife, while Abel was born with two twin sisters who would become his wives. Cain thought, “Should the younger have two while the elder has but one?”

Subsequent to Abel’s murder, the Almighty’s heavenly ministers seize the opportunity to brag that they were right once again about mankind. “Look how this one murdered because of jealousy over such material desires!” G-d replies to them that so long as they, as spiritual beings, cannot be tempted by physical desire, they have no right to criticize those who suffer from such temptation. The Lord’s ministers, disgusted at the suggestion that something so lowly as the material could offer any allure to beings so pure as themselves, urge G-d to offer them the opportunity to prove themselves. The Almighty obliges, sending two of these spiritual beings to earth in physical form.

What follows? “The Sons of Eloh-im saw that the daughters of Man were good, and they took for themselves wives from whomever they chose” (ibid 6:2). According to Rashi, these “Sons of Eloh-im” were, “the ministers who act in the agency of the Lord,” i.e. G-d’s spiritual ministers who had been sent to the earthly realm. According to mystical tradition, the “daughters of Man,” here mean not merely women of the human persuasion, but the actual daughters of Adam, i.e. the two sisters of Abel. G-d tests those spiritual ministers who criticized Cain’s actions with the exact same stimulus that led Cain himself to commit his jealous murder. These spiritual beings too, now susceptible to material temptation, succumb to their newfound urge to take these woman as wives.

The visitors from the spiritual realm solicit the daughters of Adam for marriage. These holy women, not wanting to enter such an ill-conceived relationship, but knowing these beings hold the power to force the issue, concede, but on condition. The daughters of Adam stipulate that as these spiritual visitors hold the option to return to the heavenly realm at any time, they must teach these women the Name of G-d that would allow them to do the same in such an eventuality. The spiritual beings comply, teach them the Name, and immediately the daughters of Adam use the Name to ascend to the heavenly realm before any union can be realized. While the spiritual ministers remain below, wreaking the havoc that the Almighty predicted, these holy women remain above, seeking asylum from these destructive creatures.

According to mystical tradition, many generations later, during the ascendance of the Pharaohs of Egypt, these two women are brought back into the earthly realm, one as Bithyah, daughter of Pharoah, the other as Tziporah, daughter of Jethro. At that time as well, the souls of Cain and Abel are brought back into the world as Korach and Moses, respectively. The daughter of Pharoah, one of Abel’s former wives, rescues Abel, now Moses, from the Nile River, and raises him as a son. Moses later marries Tziporah, also his wife during his previous incarnation.

As Moses achieves ascendency over Israel, the soul of Cain, now Korach, undergoes the same trial of spirit to overcome his jealousy that he failed during his first incarnation. The Almighty has granted Korach the opportunity to achieve rectification for his tainted soul, yet Korach tragically allows his millennia-old jealousy to overwhelm him, mounting a rebellion against the man that G-d has favored once again.

But how does this help us understand Korach’s shocking accusation against the humblest of all men?

According to Torah law, if a man dies childless, his brother should marry the widow in order to grant continuity to the deceased brother’s legacy. In the case of Cain and Abel, since Abel died childless, the rights to marry Abel’s wives belonged to Cain. This was the substance of Korach’s accusation. As the reincarnation of Cain, these rights now belonged to him! Tziporah, then, formerly the wife of Abel, should be the rightful wife of Korach, not Moses. Ergo, Moses' marriage to Tziporah constituted an adulterous relationship!

Korach erred in his calculation, however, his raging jealousy blinding him to the elementary precept that, “one cannot fulfill a commandment through transgression of another commandment.” Since Cain’s obligation to marry Abel’s wives only came about through the murder of Abel, no such obligation actually took effect! In this case, Cain had no legitimate claim to Abel’s wives, nor did Korach have any legitimate right to marry Tziporah. Moses escapes any calumny laid upon him by Korach, while Korach must face the consequences of his missteps once again.

We can now gain a deeper appreciation of Korach’s bizarre demise. “The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them” (Numbers 16:32). Why was this the form of Korach’s destruction? Remember the words of the Almighty to Cain after the murder of Abel: “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the earth! And now you are accursed from the earth that opened its mouth to take your brother’s blood from your hand!” Just as the earth opened its mouth to absorb Cain’s original sin, so would the earth open its mouth again to claim the perpetrator of that sin. And indeed, according to mystical tradition, the place where the earth “opened its mouth” to swallow Korach was the same exact spot where Cain had murdered Abel millennia earlier.

The Torah instructs us not to be like Korach and his assembly. Korach’s character flaws plagued him not only through two lifetimes, but for all eternity. Our Sages teach us that Korach remains forever suspended in the endless chasm born of his reticence to accept reproof for his recalcitrance, eternally declaring his regret. Learning not from his errors, he doomed himself to repeat them. Let us not be like Korach. Let us assert ourselves in a genuine effort to perfect our character, and instead of the legacy of strife left behind by Korach, may we merit to bring a legacy of everlasting peace to our world, to our posterity, and to all Israel.

(more by Rafi Mollot at http://rafimollot.wordpress.com

13 June 2012

"I Believe with Perfect Faith..."

Question from a correspondent of mine:

"Would you say that all of Maimonides' Thirteen Principles of Faith are necessary for whatever you're practicing to be Judaism? I bet #12 (the Coming of the Messiah) and more so #13 (Resuscitation of the Dead) are probably pretty tough for a lot of people..."

Our answer:

The prophets predicted that certain exceedingly unlikely events would occur at some point in Jewish history (predicting likely events doesn't require a prophet), prophecies that remained unfulfilled for millennia. Imagine being a Jew living just a couple of centuries ago and trying to convince a non-believer of your faith. 

"We're going to return to our land from all of our exiles all over the world and the land that has been desolate all these centuries will sprout and become lush, fertile, productive! We will fly to Israel on the wings of eagles!" 

One would be laughed at! "There's no way for an ingathering of exiles of such proportion to occur! Give me break! That land is so desolate, nothing's going to take root there. And to fly there? You're crazy!"  

"Yeah, and the  nations of the world will unite to oppose us!" 

"Nations of the world unite? There is so much war in the world, no country can get along with its neighbor and you think nations will become united? How could this possibly happen?" 

"Yeah and the prophet says that an army of these united nations will besiege Jerusalem." 

"Why would anyone want to even go there? It's desolate! You think Jerusalem is going to somehow become important to the world?" 

"Yeah, and it says that this army will be destroyed with a fire that will burn them up in their tracks, melting them where they stand!" 

"What kind of science fiction is that? There are no weapons that can melt entire armies! You Jews are nuts! And my proof is that things have been this way for thousands of years. How can you possibly believe these constants will change? How utterly irrational!"

Yet just a couple of centuries later -- we are living messianic prophecy! The land of Israel has been greatly rebuilt, the Jewish people has returned en masse (Israel is projected to soon contain the MAJORITY of world Jewry over all worldwide communities combined). Israel produces some of the finest produce in the world, exported to many foreign markets, including prize-winning wines. We have airplanes today flying record numbers of people to Israel many times daily. There is today a United Nations that continually enacts resolutions against Israel (more than any other nation combined), and there is constant foreign pressure on Israel to give up its rights to its capital, Jerusalem, which the world community doesn't even recognize as the capital of Israel. (Two of my children were born in Israel and have American birth certificates that show their birthplace as Jerusalem, but without any country, because Jerusalem is still not officially recognized, even by the United States, as an Israeli city, let alone its capital.) Indeed, the only thing the nations seem united about is hatred for Israel. And now that weapons of mass destruction are a reality, it has become easy to imagine the horrid scenarios described by the prophets. 

Now, given that all these "impossible to believe" elements of Messianic prophecy have already come true before our eyes, is it such a leap of faith to trust the prophets on the rest? 

I believe, given this evidence, that it is irrational to consider all this a "coincidence" or "lucky guess." I'm certain the prophets were "on to something" and I'm hedging my bets with them. To do otherwise, to this mind, is simply unbelievable.


Rafi Mollot

(read more from Rafi Mollot at http://rafimollot.wordpress.com)

07 June 2012


The blog manager, who is responsible for putting up most of the contributed posts, asks leave to disappear for the next two weeks to pretend that she is in Novhardok praven galus freak out do stuff.

Maybe some of y'all writers will post your own posts... and maybe we should  just call it an Internet-free two weeks round here.

Have a lichtige two weeks... see you soon.

05 June 2012

Only in Israel

Only in Israel is it possible to buy an oil lamp from a man who throws in complimentary goodies and sends you round the block to have it fixed by his friend the solderer...
...who, after giving you his opinion on how to make the lamp look best, asks you where you buy your dry goods and reveals that the owner of your general store is his brother, asks you to send regards, and reminisces about growing up in your neighborhood...
...to which you return on foot, stopping en route to catch a cobbling lesson from the cobbler as he fixes your shoes...
...getting to your street just in time to catch a yarmulke as it flies off the head of a boy sailing down the road on a go-cart made of scrap wood, a length of twine, and discarded stroller wheels...
...as you pass the fruit store, whose owner pops out to give your toddler a banana.

Do I live in the 50's? No, I live in Jerusalem.

04 June 2012

Everything sounds better in Yiddish

The other line we heard from our friend over Shavuos was this:

Someone commented to Rav Baruch Ber, "Torah is oxygen!"
"No," said Rav Baruch Ber, "Torah is lebn alein!"

('Torah is life itself')

03 June 2012

Novhardok, Keep Portland Weird!, and Not Caring About Public Opinion

I'm going to go off on a tangent and tell you another Novhardok story, one that is common knowledge in these parts, just because this is basic Jewish history that everyone should know I love Novhardok.

If you're doing the right thing, it doesn't matter what other people think of you - but how do you practice not caring about public opinion?
The students of the Novhardok yeshiva used to practice by going into a store and asking for a product not sold there - e.g., they would enter a pharmacy, and ask to buy a hammer.

As the joke goes, if you try this in America, the pharmacist will ask you, "What size?" but in the specialized shops of pre-war Europe (Rav Elya Pruzhiner's family shop, for example, sold only yeast and salt) it was a truly ludicrous request.

How can this story be true? I asked one day, a few years after I heard it. Isn't it problematic to give the clerk the impression that Torah students are crazy?

"It is true," answered the rav at whom I threw the question. "I knew the daughter of an old Novhardoker, and she said that when her father came to America, he would try to pay for his groceries with Monopoly money. And when the clerk would say, 'Sir, you cannot pay with this,' he would assume a confused air, and ask, 'Why not?'"


I do not own this image

I was enthusiastically describing the unusual individualism of P-town's alternative culture (Keep Portland Weird!) to an elderly rebbetzin of Jerusalem, and she exclaimed, "That's not good! There's no normal to keep people on their toes."
Which is the flip side of not caring about public opinion.

Dostoevsky said, 'Where there is no God, everything is permitted', but where there is no objective definition of Good and also no normal, what, save fear of the government, is to prevent the selfish from committing any crime they want?
Keep Portland Weird and Idealistic!

Evidently you have to care even in a Torah society: the Netziv once chided his nephew for not caring whether the post office staff would laugh at him for including extra information in an address, saying that a person immune to public opinion has lost a useful motivation to behave properly (and to tell the truth, and so is disqualified from testifying in court).

You have to not care about public opinion... but you also have to care. It's probably one of those things that should be swung either way and eventually allowed to settle somewhere in the middle.

Anyway, wouldn't you just love to gather up all the self-conscious teenagers of the world, hand them a wad of Monopoly money, and send them shopping? Such a powerful lesson.

Shavuos Menu

I. Do. Not. Cook. Complicated.
I make whatever can be thrown together in five minutes based on what is cheap, seasonal, and unprocessed. And once a week I bake challah.

But when Shavuos comes around, I get out the recipe books and have an annual cooking spree.
The custom is to serve dairy at least once on Shavuos; most people make blintzes and cheesecake.

I'm still not sure why it is considered normal to post one's menus online, but someone told me I should. I guess it gives other people ideas... so here you are.
Last year for Shavuos I made challah, garlic naan, lasagna, saag paneer (served with yogurt), spanakopita, build-your-own Israeli salad, seven-toed bear-claws, and carrot cake.

This year there is a spinach shortage, so besides serving yogurt, I made challah, plain naan, lasagna (with mushrooms instead of spinach), vegetarian shepherd's pie, rice-and-cheese balls, vegetarian bean sausages, malai kofta sauce, mushroom sauce, build-your-own Israeli salad, gefilte fish with fixings, and seven-toed bear-claws with chocolate sauce.
I'm not crazy -- we had guests, and now I get a week off from having to cook anything :) .

The custom in Frankfurt was to serve a dairy "moulish" in the shape of a seven-runged ladder. I've never been able to identify what a "moulish" is or how you keep a filled ladder-shape from falling apart in the oven... hence the bear-claws.