Sunday, January 31, 2016

523, but not 524

I sent the following post to my Beit Midrash email list last week, and received enough positive feedback that I've decided to post it here. (I hope my non-Canadian readers will excuse the Canadianisms):

A friend of mine in university once commented to me that if he could change just one Jewish law, it would be the requirement of reciting Shema in the first quarter of each day, every day. Observers of this rule can never sleep in, and he just wanted a day to sleep late, on occasion.

My friend was right: Jewish law emphasizes an intense consistency, a "No Days Off" mentality. But while this can be difficult to maintain, every once in a while I come across good reminders of why "No Days Off" is an important commitment. This week's reminder came from an American football player named Stephen Gostkowski.

A little background: In American football, scoring a touchdown is worth 6 points, and a team that scores a touchdown may then kick a ball between posts about 28 meters away and more than 3 meters in the air, earning one "extra point".

Stephen Gostkowski is a kicker of remarkable consistency; he plays for the New England Patriots. Between the last regular season game of the 2006 season, and the last playoff game of this year's season, Gostkowski set a record by kicking 523 extra points in a row. (The next-best streak was by Matt Stover, with 422 extra points in a row.)

This past Sunday, Gostkowski finally missed. With the Patriots playing against the Denver Broncos, and a berth in the Super Bowl at stake, Gostkowski finally missed an extra point. To make a long football explanation short: Had he made #524, the Patriots would likely have gone into overtime against the Broncos, with the momentum in favour of the Patriots. Instead, the Patriots lost.

Gostkowski was 52 for 52 in kicking extra points in the regular season, as the team won 12 of their 16 games - but in only one of those victories did the extra point make a difference. Most of those kicks did not change the result of a game. The one that Gostkowski missed, though, made a large difference in ending the Patriots' season.

My point is not to discuss football, or who should have won. Rather, my point is that the "No Days Off" mentality matters because, as Pirkei Avot (2:1) says, we don't know which mitzvah is going to matter in an extraordinary way.

Stephen Gostkowski kicked 523 in a row, but the one that got away was the one that could have helped carry his team to the Super Bowl. That kind of pressure can be positive, if we embrace it not out of anxiety or drudgery, but out of excitement, as we ask ourselves: We say Shema every morning and evening; we give tzedakah and perform acts of chesed (generosity) for every needy person we meet; we learn Torah daily. Which mitzvah will be the one that changes the game?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The World's Second Fastest Chazan, Part 2 of 2


(See the previous post for Part 1)

Finally, the day of the competition arrived. Ami rose before first light, so that he could down a breakfast of raw eggs without violating the prohibition against eating before davening. Nervous, he put on his tallis and tefillin at home just to use up the time before the showdown. Finally, accompanied by an entourage of family, friends and neighbours, he walked into the door of the Minyan Factory. Ami looked at the chart on the coatroom door, found the minyan with his name, and went to the assigned room. His male allies filled the benches around him; the females had to wait outside, as there was no Women’s Section.

The rules of the competition allowed the competitors to choose their chazan for Pesukei d’Zimra. Ami had his brother, Simcha, for the task. Simcha’s job was to serve as a pacesetter, helping Ami to warm up and build up speed. After the first two years of failure, Ami had thought about replacing Simcha, but at the moment he didn’t know of anyone better. Simcha was a good boy, Ami reflected; he knew how to get the rhythm going, and he had even changed his own pronunciation to match Ami’s newly adopted customs.

Berachos. Ashrei. Hallelukah 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. Baruch HaShem l’Olam. Az Yashir. And then, there it was, the amud was open. Ami stood up; somewhere in the back of his head, he heard “The Eye of the Tiger” playing. He marched to the front, breathed, and launched into Yishtabach. Kaddish. Borchu. As always, Ami was careful to maintain optimal kavvanah – an awareness of what each paragraph was about, but not so much awareness that he would be distracted from the business at hand.

First berachah. Ahavah rabbah. Shema. After completing Shema, while waiting for the Rabbi to finish, Ami glanced at his friends; they were smiling. The rhythm was there today. His lips were dry enough that there would be no salivary distraction, but not so dry as to be a nuisance. And the pages were turning well; score one for Koren. If he won, Ami would never use Artscroll again.

The Rabbi said "Emes", and Ami was off and running. He used the minyan’s silent Shemoneh Esreih as one final preparation run for chazaras hashatz, just like the gemara (Rosh HaShanah 34b) said he should. Then he watched for the signal – and there it was! Ami sped through the words like he had never sped through them before. Avos. Gevuros. Kedushah. Refaeinu – with a moment’s thought about his sick mother, who couldn’t be here this morning because she was recovering from a heart attack yesterday. Teka b’Shofar. Modim. Birchas Kohanim – and his chevra knew how to respond Kein Yehi Ratzon quietly enough that they wouldn’t distract him. Sim Shalom. And he was done. Ami was out of breath, but he knew it had been a good race; now he just needed to wait for the results from the other minyanim.

The minyan skipped tachanun – the Minyan Factory imported chasanim daily to ensure they wouldn't need to recite this wordy apology for their sins. Ami recited kaddish, took out the Torah, and then he was done. Someone else would mop up, while he waited nervously for the scores.

Ami took off his tefillin, waited for Aleinu and the Yom to end, and then went downstairs to the breakfast room, joining the contestants from the other minyanim. They all grinned at each other, with the camaraderie of men who shared a fierce but fair rivalry. The Yekkie was there; he clapped Ami on the back and said, “I’ve heard you were good!” Ami tried to parse what those words might mean, but dropped it as the Chief Gabbai made the announcement –

- declaring Ami the winner! He had done it! Ami was the World’s Fastest Chazan!

Oh, the joy and jubilation! Later, Ami would face the nervousness that would come with needing to defend his title, but for now, he was the Champion! He hugged his wife and children, called his mother in the hospital, did a prizefighter pose with the golden gartel for the photographers, and sat down for a bagel with cream cheese. Later, he would watch these moments on YouTube and relish the joy all over again.

On the following Sunday, while getting ready to go to shul, Ami overheard his nine year old son David  davening in his room. Or it seemed like he was davening, but he didn’t seem to be saying all of the words. Ami listened outside for a while, and then entered the room and asked, “David, what’s going on? Why are you skipping words?”

David blushed. “I’m not as fast as you yet, Abba. I’m only the world’s second fastest chazan, Ima says. So I need to skip some words in order to keep up. But when I’m older, I’ll be as fast as you, and then I’ll be able to say all of them.” And he gave his father an admiring hug, and went back to his Koren siddur.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The World's Second Fastest Chazan, Part 1 of 2


The contest ad was released on the listservs of dozens of shuls at 10:00 PM EST after Shabbos Shirah. By 10:02 PM, Ami had texted his wife, married son and five closest friends, “Game On!” He would have Tweeted it, but as a fifty-something who hadn’t noticed Twitter for its first few years he always had the feeling he was missing something about how the platform worked, and he didn’t want everyone laughing at him for some silly error. Better to focus on the competition instead.

And focus is what Ami did; he posted the flyer for the Third Annual World’s Fastest Chazan competition in his cubicle at work and over their desktop computer at home. He put a copy in his tallis bag, and a mini-version in his siddur. Game On, indeed; Ami was going to finish first this year, he could feel it.

In truth, Ami had felt this certain before; he was perennially sure no one could match his strategies at the Minyan Factory showdown. For the first year, he had switched to Sephardic pronunciation in order to take advantage of the split-second benefit of Tav over Sav. (The rules allowed chazanim to compete in their declared mivta; Ami hoped his ancestors wouldn’t mind this switch.) He had lost anyway, by a handful of seconds, to a Yekki from Washington Heights.

For the second annual competition, Ami had tried another change: From now on, he would pronounce every sh'va as a sh’va nach instead of a sh’va na. He was definitely faster, but it still wasn’t enough; his Yekkish nemesis was faster again, apparently without effort.

But after the second year’s race Ami had noticed something – examining slowed-down video footage for clues, he had realized that his all-Hebrew Artscroll included more words per line than his chief competitor’s Koren. What if there was something psychological or neurological about seeing more words on a line? It was counterintuitive – after all, fewer words on a line meant more possibilities for distraction when going from one line to the next – but what if...? And he also wondered about those thin Koren pages; might they turn faster than the softer Artscroll pages? So he would switch to Koren this year, and see if that would help.

Ami spent a great deal of time searching for minute advantages, but he knew that the main thing would be to practice – and did he ever practice. The contest’s setting would be a bona fide Monday morning minyan of Minyan Factory commuters trying to catch a train, and the timed contest would be chazaras hashatz (the chazan’s repetition of Shemoneh Esreih), and so Ami took every opportunity available to recite those words of the liturgy. Sitting in traffic on his morning and evening commutes, riding in elevators, running on the treadmill at the gym, standing in the shower (without stating G-d’s Name or complete pesukim, of course)… his wife Rivkah reported he was even mumbling kedushah in his sleep.

Ami’s regular morning minyan joined the effort; it would be a point of pride, as well as a marketing advantage in the neighbourhood, if their chazan would hold aloft the golden gartel of the World’s Fastest Chazan. Their shul did not have money or a very large membership, but who wouldn’t appreciate the chance to walk, rather than run, to the train after davening? So when Ami began chazaras hashatz each morning, the members of the minyan all looked at the clock, aware of what was at stake. When he finished they all noted the time. But no one mentioned times to Ami; it wouldn’t do to rattle him if the news was bad, or jinx him if it was good.

A month before the competition, one of the regulars lost his father; the minyannaires felt for him, but they also wanted Ami to have his shot, and so they established a breakaway minyan for the avel, where he could also daven for the amud. They all had Ami's back, even the avel. Ami felt like Rocky Balboa running the streets of Philadelphia, trailing a parade of admirers and supporters.

One week before the showdown, Ami asked Rabbi Schwartz for special dispensation to perform extra recitations of the complete repetition of Shemoneh Esreih, with G-d's Name, during his day. “Couldn’t it be like a tefillas nedavah (voluntary prayer)?” he pleaded. “I would have total kavvanah, I always do!” But Rabbi Schwartz explained that this was not a valid halachic option. Ami suspected that he was not a fan of the competition, but it was hard to tell for sure; whenever Ami looked at Rabbi Schwartz during chazaras hashatz, the Rabbi was always reading from a sefer or looking at his phone.

Continued here...

Thursday, January 14, 2016

From house to House (Bo 5776)

In 19th century Germany, Karl Graf and Julius Wellhausen argued that most of the book of Devarim was published in the era of King Yoshiyahu in the first Beit haMikdash, and that the “Priestly Code” (parts of the first four chumashim, the end of Devarim, and part of Yehoshua) was published centuries later. As the theory went, one of the central goals of this “Priestly Code” was to centralize service of G-d around the Beit haMikdash.

In 1903, Rabbi Dovid Zvi Hoffmann published a lengthy challenge, noting inconsistencies in the theory. His first note addressed the Korban Pesach.

In our parshah (Shemot 12), Moshe tells the Jews to sacrifice the Korban Pesach at home. On the other hand, Devarim 16:5 instructs, “You may not slaughter the Pesach at one of your gates,” but rather at the communal Sanctuary. If a goal of Shemot 12 and the “Priestly Code” was to centralize korbanot, why would the alleged editors of the Torah take our founding ritual, already decreed to be performed at the site of the Beit haMikdash (Devarim 16:5), and already performed there (Melachim II 23), and provide reason to celebrate it at home? (Carla Sulzbach, “David Zvi Hoffmann’s Die Wichtigsten Instanzen gegen die Graf-Wellhausensche Hypothese, 1903” (MA Thesis, McGill University, 1996))

Graf-Wellhausen aside, we need to consider a problem within our own, traditional read of the Torah’s text. Parshat Bo clearly places the Korban Pesach in the home. Why, then, did the Torah move the Korban Pesach to the Sanctuary?

Private or Public Korban?
Indeed, the Korban Pesach is ambiguous; Rambam described the Korban Pesach as “a private korban which is like a public korban”. (Introduction to Seder Zevachim) The Korban Pesach is brought by private groups. However, it overrides Shabbat and ritual impurity, like a communal korban! (Yoma 50a-51a) The transition of the Korban Pesach from the private home to the public Sanctuary seems to be part of a greater picture, in which the Korban Pesach, naturally private, displays elements of public ceremony. Understanding why the Korban moved from house to House may help us understand this mixed celebration.

1: Grandeur
Sefer haChinuch (#487) justifies use of a national site, stating, “The honour and publicity of the mitzvah is greater when it is performed in a designated location, with everyone together...” In other words, the Korban Pesach is fundamentally private, but adorned with the trappings of a communal korban in order to elevate its status.

2: National identity
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Commentary to Devarim 16:5) offers an opposite perspective. He writes, “Each person must include himself and his household in the communal structure of a national network… Only afterward can one joyfully recognize the value of his own home.” Per Rabbi Hirsch, the Korban Pesach is fundamentally communal. The home celebration in Egypt was an anomaly, in which “the doorposts and lintel filled the place of the [communal] altar.”

3: Private and Public
We might suggest a third possibility: the Korban Pesach of Egypt was private, but afterward it gained a dual identity.

The initial Korban Pesach inhabited a Jewish world which was not covenantal nation, but prolific clan. Therefore, each family celebrated at home. Soon after, though, our nation’s shared history began with the brit at Sinai. In the second year, as evidenced by Bamidbar 9:10’s concern for being too far from the Mishkan, the Korban Pesach could be celebrated only as part of our national community. The personal identity remained, as each group brought its own korban, but the national identity became dominant, overriding Shabbat and ritual impurity, and setting the Sanctuary as the site for this ritual.

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein wrote that Jewish identity entails both a personal relationship with G-d and a national experience of “the vertical historical axis, bonding with the full range of Jewish existence, across the millenia, from our incipient national cradle to the epiphany of our metahistorical vision.” So it is that conversion to Judaism, for example, includes acceptance of both personal religious obligations and membership in the Jewish nation. (Brother Daniel and the Jewish Fraternity (1968); Diaspora Religious Zionism: Some Current Reflections (2007)) These two themes are present in the Korban Pesach.

When we bring the Korban Pesach – as we will in just a few months, G-d-willing – we will mark our personal relationship with G-d, as we did in that first year. However, we will also recognize “the full range of Jewish existence”, our national identity, and so we will leave our homes and bring our private korbanot to the site of the Beit haMikdash, in Jerusalem.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Donald Trump in the Torah

Pirkei Avot (5:22) says of the Torah, "Turn it over and turn it over, for all is in it." As an American living in Canada, who is regularly asked [or mocked, or harangued] about Donald Trump, I have been wondering: Is Pirkei Avot serious? Is Donald Trump to be found in the Torah?

And I think the answer is Yes; Donald Trump's ancestor was named Avimelech. This is not the Avimelech of Bereishit; rather, it is Avimelech of the book of Shoftim (Chapter 9).

In the period when the Jews were led by Judges, between the death of Joshua and the start of Jewish monarchy, Avimelech rose to power in the region of Mount Ephraim as an anti-government outsider. He rabble-roused against the leaders in power. (9:1-3) He spent a fortune to attract supporters who are biblically described as "empty and senseless", who helped him overthrow those in power. (9:4-5) And, yes, he appeared misogynist - he died after a woman dropped a millstone on his head, and his dying request was for a youth to kill him, "lest they say of me that a woman killed him." (9:53-54)

Of course, the analogy to Avimelech is imperfect - for starters, Avimelech actually succeeded in gaining public office - but I mention it because of an important lesson within Avimelech's story. After Avimelech's rise, his half-brother Yotam ascended Mount Gerizim and proclaimed a scathing rebuke against those who had selected Avimelech.

Yotam described the trees trying to anoint a leader from among themselves.
First they approached the olive, but the olive refused, lest the job diminish its important oil.
Then they approached the fig, but the fig refused, lest the job diminish its sweet fruit.
Then they approached the grape, but the grape refused, lest the job diminish its joy-inducing wine.
Finally, they approached the thorn, which produces nothing useful. The thorn agreed to take on the role. (9:7-15)

Society runs a grave risk when those who are qualified shy away from leadership, for then only thorns are left to lead. May we not be stuck with the thorns; may those who are qualified - our olives, figs, and grapes - always step up, to guide our community and world forward.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Preparing for Shabbos

A simple question, but it matters to me; I've been thinking about it for the past few weeks. I'd be happy to hear responses from the few people who are kind enough to visit my largely defunct blog:

What is your favourite part of preparing for Shabbos?

I ask because there is so much that is challenging and stressful about getting ready for Shabbos, and it can make the experience miserable. Perhaps looking for favourite parts might help?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

We Are Bnei Rivkah (Derashah, Chayei Sarah 5776)

(This isn't actually a derashah; it's more of a nugget, which could be developed into a derashah.)

Next week's Torah portion, Toldot, will begin with Rivkah pregnant with twins. Her children will "race about" in her womb, and she will react with a question: אם כן, למה זה אנכי? (Bereishit 25:22)

Rivkah's language is odd. Commentators generally explain that Rivkah asked, "This is so painful, why did I want it?" (Rashi) Or, "This is so painful, why should I continue to live?" (Ramban) But Dr. Yael Tzohar, of Bar Ilan University (Hebrew here), notes that this doesn't fit Rivkah's words, which translate literally to, "If so, why me?" Further, would a woman who prayed for children for twenty years respond to pain with this level of rejection? [Yes, I am not qualified to answer that question, but perhaps Dr. Tzohar has more familiarity with pregnancy than I do...] And how does G-d's response, predicting the rivalry between her two fetuses, answer either version of Rivkah's question?

Dr. Tzohar suggests that we consider Rivkah's background, from our Torah portion of Chayei Sarah. Rivkah lived with her pagan family until her monotheistic cousin's servant came to visit. That servant declared that Rivkah was special, by dint of her generous conduct at the well. (ibid. 24:14-20)  The servant announced that a Divine miracle had identified her as special. (ibid. 24:40-48)  When the family hesitated, the servant reiterated that G-d had selected her. (ibid. 24:56)  Her family then blessed her - "You shall produce myriads." (ibid. 24:60) This is the woman who will mother the next generation of the family promised to Avraham and Sarah.

Against this backdrop, Dr. Tzohar says that Rivkah interpreted the pains of pregnancy as a message that something was wrong, and she was ineligible. And she turned to G-d and asked, "If so, then why ME?" If there is something wrong with my pagan lineage, if I am not worthy, then why did You bring me here and set me up for this?

To this ancient question - which echoes our own question today as we face knife attacks, demonization in the media, and diplomatic ostracism - G-d answers, "There are two nations in your uterus. Two nations will separate from your womb." (ibid. 25:23) Yes, Rivkah - you are the one I have selected, you are the one who is suited for this task. There is pain now, and there will be pain in the future, and I need you to fill this role.

Rivkah remembered G-d's answer. Many years later, when the birthright and the family's future was at stake, and Yaakov suggested that his mother's shockingly brazen plan might cause him to be cursed, Rivkah told him with the superlative confidence of G-d's official delegate, "Any curse of yours is on me." I was destined for this position because G-d wanted me to make this decision. (ibid. 27:13)

There are many answers to the "Why us?" question, but this answer inspires me. The Divine plan requires that a nation accept G-d's Torah, live in Israel and stand apart from the world, and it may well be fundamental to human nature and Free Will that this will bring with it great animosity from others. It hurts terribly, and we must do what we can to minimize the pain, whether diplomatically or militarily - but at the end of the day, we are here because G-d knows that Rivkah's descendants are uniquely suited to stand up to the task.

We have stood up to the challenge for thousands of years, with remarkable success, producing a rich culture and a sustained tradition of intellectual depth and moral heights. The light at the end of the tunnel is in view, with our return to national life in Zion. G-d's bet on Rivkah was a good one, and I believe the same is true for G-d's bet on her descendants.