Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Joys of Mishulachim

I'm sure most people sympathize with the mishulachim (poor people) that come collecting in town, but posts I have seen in the Jewish Blogosphere could be misconstrued as disparaging towards them. While the posts deal with the issues involving collection, and not the mishulachim themselves, it is important to state that distinction outright.

Since the press on local mishulachim is generally negative, I thought I would elaborate on exactly why I generally like mishulachim and why the make me happy (that sounds so dorky). Just as a disclaimer: I have never had a bad encounter with a mishulach (ie, asking for more money, etc), and I would imagine that doing so would put a sour taste in my mouth - perhaps the same sour taste that others seem to have for them. Furthermore, I have always been overly sympathetic towards the poor - even from a young age - regardless of whether the person was a crackhead on the streets of inner-city Baltimore, or a frum guy that can't afford to feed his family. Sure, if I would look at the different life choices that the crackhead made to put him in that situation, I would probably be far less sympathetic. However, I am unable to do that and I can't get past the fact that for whatever reason, they ARE poor NOW, and need help. Finally, living in an apartment, I receive about 1 mishulach a week. It is highly plausible that if I were to receive 2-3 a day, as some locals report, I would be more perturbed. Anyway, I have elaborated on a couple reasons why I enjoy seeing/helping mishulachim.

  • They put life in perspective - I often receive mishulachim between the 5-7 o'clock hour, which is not too long after I have come home from a 2.5 hour round-trip commute, which I complain about daily. It is usually at that point where I lament the fact that I must drag my tooshie to the gym to work out, followed by a chavrusa, followed by some interaction with my wife, followed by bed; all to wake up the next morning to the whole thing again. Life is draining. But when a guy comes to me can't afford to pay for food for his children, wedding for his daughter, salaries for his teachers, it makes me realize that the schedule that I have is just one luxury after another.
  • Nothing greater than making a poor person happy - Again, I have never had an interaction with a meshulach where he wasn't grateful. I usually sit the guy down, shmooze with him for 2-3 minutes before I even get to the details of what he is collecting for. I try to make the meshulach feel like a person, not a poor person. When giving a person $$ whole-heartedly, and not just wipping out your checkbook, giving the standard $10, giving it to them with no eye contact, etc, it is something that is most appreciated. Offering scotch (offer has never been accepted - maybe they're "chosheish" for sherry casks), a piece of fruit, or a drink only gladdens the person more. And don't think they don't notice when someone is being sincere - I recently asked a mishulach where he liked collecting more: in New York or in Baltimore, to which he responded, Baltimore. He explained the in Baltimore, people may not necessarily be able to give as much, but at least here they give whole-heartedly and sincerely.
  • I get to practice Hebrew - I am somewhat proud of the fact that I managed to master the Hebrew language to a somewhat-proficient level while taking 24 credits (yes, that's almost 1/4 of a degree) of the language in college. I am used to having to speak hours of Hebrew a week in my courses - but now that I have graduated I have far less opportunity to speak Hebrew. I feel as if many who feel negatively towards these collectors may do so, partly because of a language barrier. And they can usually appreciate a good spoken Hebrew.

I am more than willing to give generously from a bank account that wouldn't be used for other purposes anyway. I would highly recommend setting up a special maiser checking account that you can write checks from directly. This way, it won't seem as if you're spending your food $$ on the meshulachim.

Sure, there are problems with every system to dealing with these individuals. Sure, some are going to be rude. Sure, some are going to be greedy and ask for more. However, my dealings with mishulachim have only been positive - perhaps this is because I talk to each one of them expecting my interactions to be positive. Maybe if I approached each one as a burden and just "one more thing" to add to my busy day, my outlook would be different.

Friday, June 23, 2006

New Lows

My Gosh, the Orioles are a pathetic franchise. Todd Williams deserves to be shot for this...

Parshas Shelach

This Parshas Shelach we have the ever-so-famous story of the Miraglim, the Jewish spies. Essentially, 12 men, 1 from each tribe, are sent into the land of Israel to scope out the scene before the Jewish peoples’ entrance into the land. At the end of 40 days they come back with their famous report, with most of the spies reporting going something like this: “they’re too many of them, they’re too strong, Amelek is in town, and we’ll lose in a fight to them.” Calev interjects goes on to argue with them, basically saying, “don’t worry – we’ll be fine, Israel will be ours.”

Asks the Piaczezna Rav (who wrote Aish Kodesh and was the Rav of the Warsaw Ghetto), who hid his manuscripts from drashos given in the ghetto: If we look at Calev’s response, he doesn’t deal with any of the issues. The miraglim say that they’re too strong, and because of that, we won’t be able to conquer the land and have it for our own. But Calev’s response doesn’t deal with the fact that they’re too many of them, that they’re too strong, etc., - he’s only dealing with the end result – that they will be able to conquer the land. Says the Piaczezna Rav: by not refuting the original arguments of the miraglim, he must’ve admitted that they were, in fact, true. These were not slanderous lies they were reporting, but the truth.

If that’s the case – why do we look upon the spies mission as being a disaster, if, after all, they reported the truth? Answers the Piaczezna Rav: they lacked emunah (faith). There are certain times in life when you think all is lost, all is in despair, and all of the chips are stacked against you. There are times when there doesn’t seem like a plausible way to overcome the burdens that lie ahead – and it’s at this time that Hashem really can help us out. It would be enough to just end the d’var here by saying that we should learn from the case of the miraglim that even at times of extreme need we can turn to Hashem – but, if we stopped there, I think the point would be weak.

Let’s remember who said these words, and where. It was the Piaczezna Rav, who was risking death to give Shabbos morning drashos in the Warsaw Ghetto. The Piaczezna Rav was no idiot: he knew that Jews were being killed for being Jewish, and he surely knew of Hitler’s plan to wipe the Jews off the face of the earth. But, he chose this drasha to give that Shabbos in 1941 to liken their situation to that of the miraglim. Sure, there was a plan; yes, Jews had been killed and yeshivos uprooted. What the Piaczezna Rav was telling his congregation was that the easy thing to do would be to say like the spies did – that they couldn’t overcome the inhabitants of Israel or the Nazi’s. But that isn’t how a Jew thinks: even when up against tremendous odds and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, a Jew keeps his faith. Unfortunately, help came too late to save the Piaczezna Rav.

It’s nice to say that we believe in hashgacha of Hashem – but for how many of us is it really more than lip service? If the Piaczezna Rav was able to hold on to this faith through, perhaps, the worst period in the history of the Jews, we can certainly have faith in our time of prosperity. Do we really know that Hashem is our “go to guy”, or would we give up in times of despair?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Kosher Whisky, Part II: Sherry

This is the second of a 2-part series on whisky, its production, and potential Kashrus issues. If you haven't read the first post, I would highly recommend doing so before reading this post - everything will just make more sense. Again, read Part I first.

Aging and Maturation: Part II

All scotch whisky is stored in oak casks. It is the only type of wood that can withstand the years of having a liquid inside of it. On top of that is the fact that oak plays an important part in the flavor of that whisky that you and I drink. It is generally thought that 60-70% of the flavor of any expression can be attributed to the oak in which it is matured. As previously mentioned, whisky is matured in oak casks that have previously held another beverage. About 90% of scotch is matured casks that previously held bourbon (which can be either American Oak or European Oak), and a number of the remaining 10% are aged in casks that previously held sherry. To give you a frame of reference, about 300,000-400,00 ex-bourbon casks are acquired every year for maturation purposed, with about only 18,000 sherry casks. The truth is, using bourbon casks is a fairly recent concept and has sharply increased in use over the last century due to the declining production of sherry, and something to do with the Spanish civil war in the 1930's - I'm not clear on the details).

OK - this next point is very important to understand. Most distilleries use a combination of bourbon and whisky casks, but, as the numbers show, the majority are likely to be bourbon casks. Let's take an example: Glenfiddich 12. X number of casks are produced and aged for a good number of years, and then all of the casks that they wish to you use for Glenfiddich 12 are poured into a vat (the youngest casks will be 12 years old - many will be older). The whisky in the vat is then diluted and chill-filtered and then bottled. But, let's not forget: an overwhelming majority of all expressions (different scotches) from all distilleries use a combination of bourbon and sherry casks. Therefore, in an overwhelming majority of scotch that you drink (and which the Star-K approves!), there is some sherry casking involved. Notable exceptions to this rule (that there is at least a minimal amount of sherry involved) are distilleries that exclusively caskry caks (ie, Glendronach and Macallan - although Macallan recently came out with a Fine Oak line which is a combination of sherry and bourbon casks, in response to the increase in price to attain sherry casks) and distilleries and specific bottlings that use only bourbon casks (ie, all Laphroaig, Glenmorangie 10, Ardbeg 10, Glenlivet 12).

Finishing

There is a recent trend in whisky called finishing. Finishing is a process whereby the whisky is removed from the original cask in which it was matured, and transferred and finished (for a period of 6 months-2 years) in a new cask that previously held another spirit (ie, sherry, rum, cognac, port, Madeira, Burgundy, etc.). Obviously, any kashrus issue one has with being matured in sherry casks would have to be addressed regarding finishing as well. Scotches that are good examples of being finished are the Balvenie Doublewood 12 (one of my favorites) which starts off in American Oak and is subsequently transferred to Sherry oak; and Glenmorangie 12 (Madeira, Port, Burgundy, sherry).

Species of Oak used for Wine and Whisky making:

Quercus Alba, White American Oak (this is what 90% of whiskies are stored in)

Quercus Petraea, Sesille Oak - Europe (found most notably in France, but is not used extensively for whisky - the most notable exception is the Glenlivet 15 French Oak, which is aged in this type of wood)

Quercus Robur - AKA Spanish Oak (what sherry is aged in) - It should noted here that it is widely known that Spanish oak has a larger influence on the whisky than the actual sherry that it previously held

Kashrus and Sherry Casks

Rabbi Pinchas Teitz first reported that there may be sherry wine in some blended whiskies (he claimed up to 2.5% - which would be a problem if you hold like batel b'shshim) and that the distilleries and the bottles fail to report this information. Furthermore, he reported that in some instances glycerine was used as a smoothing agent in whisky. R' Yitzchak Yaakov Weisz notes these issues in his Minchas Yitzchak (II, no. 28). Note that R' Teitz first reported a potential issue with blended whisky (which, remember, is a blend of whiskies from different distilleries). It would then follow that single malt scotch that is finished in sherry (or other non-kosher spirits) or aged exclusively in sherry would pose a larger problem, because by blended scotch, only a percentage of the casks are sherry casks (of which he heard reports of 2.5% being sherry wine); but by these certain single malts, all of the scotch involved has been infused with sherry (whether on the maturing level, or just the finishing level). To review thus far: we have issues to deal with regarding blended scotch (which, at 2.5% is not batel b'shishim) and definitely with those single malts matured or finished in sherry.

R' Teitz posed his question to R' Moshe Feinstein, and R' Moshe has 3 teshuvos on the topic (Yoreh Deah 1: 62-64). Below are the issues that R' Moshe deals with and I have added any distinctions that can be made between single malts and blends (although, R' Moshe was asked specifically about blends). I do not plan to go through the lamdus of his positions; just the conclusions.

Batel B'Shishim vs. Sheish

We know that as a general rule liquids are batel (nullified) b'shishim. However, the gemara tell us that wine loses its status of wine not b'shishim, but rather, b'sheish (6). Some say that while this is true that is loses the status of wine b'sheish (and you would therefore make a she'hakol), that doesn't mean the wine goes through the batel process making the whisky permissible to drink. R' Moshe said different, and at the end of the day, he said that this wine is batel b'sheish. Regarding the particular single malts vs. blends, we established before that there would be more of an issue with the single malts. That being said, since R' Moshe said that the wine is batel b'sheish, that would require there being more than 16% wine in the whisky, which, even for single malts, is definitely not a problem.

Errors of Omission

R' Moshe was asked if we need to be worried whether we have to worry that distilleries are using sherry casks even if they do not explicitly say so (as they are not required to do so by law). R' Moshe responded that we do not need to assume that there is sherry involved in the process, and this makes sense when looking at the sheer lack of sherry casks used today. He does go on to say, however, that if you know for a fact that they use sherry, this heter does not apply, but that you could still rely on the 1st heter of batel b'sheish. No differences between single malt and blends.

Ein M'vatlin Issur L'Chatchila

By the rules of Bitul, the thing being nullified actually changes status from being 100% prohibited to 100% non-prohibited. However, there is a catch - that one cannot do this on purpose. If a little milk spills in my chulent, it is batul - but it is forbidden for me to do this on purpose. R' Moshe was asked to comment on the fact that this is exactly what the distilleries are doing - being m'vatel an issur l'chatchila. R' Moshe answers that that is only a law by Jews and that as long as the factory (he spells out factory in Yiddish) owner isn't Jewish, there is no problem. Again, no difference between single malts and blends.

Glycerine

R' Moshe says that the Glycerine involved has no flavor and that the Rabbonim "B'Medinah" aren't machmir on this and he sees no reason to forbid it. In conversations with Kevin Erskine, author of http://www.thescotchblog.com/, glycercine may be used, although he was not aware of which distilleries use it, and if this information is even public. Others in the industry have told me that glycerine is no longer used.

Imparting Taste

We know that the rules of bitul do not apply when one can taste the forbidden substance. In the chulent scenario, if I could taste the milk in the chulent, even if by numbers it would be batul, it is forbidden to eat. R' Moshe address the question in responsa 63 by giving a mashul: many times people may add a drop of wine/grape juice to their water to sweeten it up - certainly you can taste the difference in the water, but this doesn't necessarily mean that you taste WINE - you taste something, but not wine. Therefore, by whisky, while sherried whiskies certainly have a unique taste to them, R' Moshe permits the sherry due to the fact that, although you taste something, it isn't the taste of sherry. Also, as mentioned before (and verified with Kevin Erskine who has spoken with people at length on this issue), in reality very little sherry ever ends up making its way into the whisky - the unique taste of the whisky is largely due to the Spanish Oak, and not the sherry which the cask previously held.

Nowadays

The Star-K (Baltimore) and the CRC (Chicago) are machmir and say that any scotch exclusively matured or finished in sherry (or port, etc.) is "not recommended" It seems to me that the issue they are most caught up with is the batel b'sheish vs. batel b'shishim matter. In their defense, while R' Moshe permits drinking this sherry whisky (and said that he, himself, even had had it when offered to him by a ba'al habayis), a "Ba'al Nefesh" should be machmir due to the large number of issues that do exist. Personally, I think R' Moshe says this just out of anivus and reverence to those that argue on his position, but that's just me. I'm no Rabbi, but it seems that which ever way you want to chop it, you have who to rely on. IMHO, those who want to be machmir and refrain need not do so unless they know for sure that a whisky is aged/finished in a sherry cask. If you truly want to be a ba'al nefesh and be machmir, you would need to refrain from all whisky except Laphroaig, Glenmorangie 10, Ardbeg 10, Glenlivet 12, as these are the only whiskies that guarantee they use 0 sherry casks in maturing/finishing.

Sources


Finally, I highly recommend you all check out The Scotch Blog, it's good stuff. Also, I have left out many technical details that may bore you. But, if you have further questions about the process, let me know, and I'll answer you if I know the answer, or find out from someone that does.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Kosher Whisky, Part I: Production

Over the past year or so I’ve become interested in Single Malt Scotch Whisky. The truth is, I’m far more interested in learning/reading about SMSW than drinking it, but who likes to learn halacha without making it lemaisa? Anyway, considering the fact I spend the majority of my free time reading about halacha and SMSW, I will post about the process of making SMSW and other details regarding the spirit, while mentioning pertinent halachic factors in each step of the whisky making process….well, the truth is, there aren’t halachic factors in each step of the process – but understanding the process will help you grasp the issues that are pertinent.

Background

Whisky is the name of the drink. The 3 ingredients of whisky are water, yeast, and barley. (On the surface, it would seem as if there are no kashrus issues with scotch, since these are the only ingredients used.)There are grain and rye whiskies that substitute grain or rye instead of barley – although these tend to be thought of as inferior. Scotch is whisky made in Scotland. In Scotland, however, they don’t refer to it as Scotch – rather, they simply call it “whisky”. Bourbon is whiskey made in America.

Notice above a discrepancy in how I spelled the name of the drink. Whisky produced in Scotland is ALWAYS spelled without an E. However, typically, when referring to whiskey made in America and Ireland is spelled with an E.

The term “Single Malt” actually refers to two separate aspects of the whisky. The “single” of single malt refers to whisky that is produced by one distillery (ie, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, etc.). “Malt” refers to the fact that the whisky is produced with malted barley (read on for definition of “malted barley”).

This can be contrasted with the term “Blended Whisky”, which consists of whiskies from more than one distillery (ie, Johnnie Walker; JW). Basically, what blended brands like JW do is buy whisky from different single malt distilleries and mix that with other, cheaper, grain whiskies. So what makes one blend a better quality blend than another? Easy: the more malt whisky (as opposed to grain whisky) that is used, the higher the quality. Therefore, JW Red Label is going to have MUCH more grain whisky than JW Blue Label.

There are some whiskies that claim to be “Pure Malt”, like JW Green Label. This means that, while the whisky is a blend of other single malts, there is no grain whisky used.

The Production Process

Malting (as in single MALT)

The barley used is soaked in water for a number of days and then it is spread out on a special floor (the malting floor), where it is left to germinate. The malting process is complete when the barley begins to sprout at which point it is taken to a smoke room where the barley is dried, effectively ending the germination process. Often used as a fuel for this smoke is a substance called, “peat”, which is really nothing more than decomposed moss and other organic matter. This peat is what helps give a whisky its “smoky” flavor. Not all distilleries use peat, and those that do use it in varying amounts, leading to a continuum of smoky scotches.

Mashing/Fermentation

The resulting malted barley is crushed into a floury substance, which is than mixed with water to produces a sugary water. It should also be noted that depending on which region of Scotland the water source is from, the water used will taste VERY different due to the fact that there will be varying amounts of different minerals, as well as the types of rocks that the water in its natural source consists of. The fermentation process beings when yeast is added to the barley, converting the sugars into alcohol. This process takes a couple of days, and we are left with a liquid with an alcohol content of 8-10%.

Distillation

Most single malts are between 40-46% alcohol (except for Cask Strength whiskies), and the distillation process is what takes the liquid from about 8% up to this 40-46% number. It should be noted that up until this point, we have essentially made beer. Distilling beer makes whisky, just as distilling wine gives us brandy. Distillation is basically a process that takes place in a pear-shaped copper kettle with a long neck. The 8% liquid is put into the kettle (called a “still") and heated up to ~170 degrees F. Heating the liquid to this temperature causes the alcohol to vaporize, and subsequently rise up the long neck of the still. The vapors reach a condenser, which has been cooled, this turning the vapors back into a liquid form. The resulting liquid is about 25% alcohol, and that liquid goes through the exact same process to produce another liquid that is ~70% alcohol (which we can finally call “whisky”). All scotch is double-distilled, with the exception of Auchentoshan, the only scotch that is triple-distilled.

Aging/Maturation

This is where we finally have major kashrus issues, so I will therefore expand this section with relevant issues after I run through a couple more steps of the production process. Basically, the whisky is matured in oak casks (only oak is used) that have previously held some sort of beverage previously (ie, bourbon, sherry, port, etc. – read further). It is imperative that the cask previously held another beverage, for if not, the taste of the oak would totally overpower the whisky, resulting in a totally different taste. The whisky is matured for X number of years (the minimum, by law, is 3 years to be called “whisky”) before it is poured into a large vat and mixed with other barrels of the same brand. Most people think that they pop a tap into the cask and bottle directly (and this is sometimes done, although rarely). Most people don’t realize that this scotch is vatted with other barrels. This is done to produce a consistent product; each cask is bound to have slight irregularities and differences than other, so by combining them, these differences should cancel each other out. Since scotches of different ages are combined into the vat, what does the bottle “Glenlivet 12” mean? The answer is simple: the age on the bottle is the YOUNGEST cask that was poured into the vat. Therefore, it is feasible that there are much older whiskies mixed in with your bottle of Glenlivet 12 – but they must call it a 12 due to the fact that the youngest cask was that age. The resulting spirit is diluted with water to a percentage of 40-46%.

OK – I’ve decided to post this as part I of a 2-part series in hopes that it will be easier for you to digest in two parts. Part II will consist of a more in depth explanation of aging/maturation as well as a detailed look into what R’ Moshe Feinstein says on the matter. So you’re not held in too much suspense, problems arise due to the fact that the whisky is sometimes stored in casks that previously held sherry, which presumably, is not kosher.

Holocaust Jews and Israel Jews

I was recently in a situation where some frum and non-frum Jews were together (this is not the blogworthy part of the story). Everyone, in this case, is fairly comfortable with one another and jokes are cracked all the time. At some point during this get-together, one of the frum guys made an obviously joking comment towards one of the non-frum guys - something about how he's not really that Jewish. I'm not here to lambast or condone the comments; rather, just to comment on the reaction. The two parties involved had known each other for a couple years and had become comfortable with each other, so when the non-frum party involved freaked out and starting ranting and raving about himself that his ancestors were in the Holocaust and now look at him - he doesn't do anything Jewish, etc etc, I was taken aback. Yes, he had just pulled out the Holocaust card - but why?

Being Jewish, we feel an obvious connection to the events that took place in the Holocaust. This should obviously be something that we never forget, and it should affect our lives on some level. On a seemingly unrelated side note: all Jews try to make a connection to their Yiddishkeit in some way. For some, it's through song; for others, through learning; some others, through Tikkun Olam, and onward. I would say that frum Jews have a built in connection with their Yiddishkeit; namely, Torah and mitzvos. Reform and Conservative Jews also seek out a connection with their Yiddiskeit. But since they don't have the built in connection in Torah and Mitzvos, I believe a lot of non-frum Jews make their connection the Holocaust (hence part of the title: Holocaust Jews). While these Jews may not have a day-to-day connection as non-practicing Jews, the Holocaust is something so fundamentally Jewish that even non-practicing Jews associate themselves with it.

It makes a lot of sense that in the aforementioned situation the guy pulled the "Holocaust card". The person making the joke was not even getting close to anything related to the Holocaust, yet, because this is his only connection with Yiddishkeit, he applied it in a situation where it wasn't warranted. I would imagine Judaism would be a pretty depressing religion if my only connection was the Holocaust.

On a similar vein, it is interesting to note that most Reform and Conservative Jews are pro-Israel. While this may be a generalization, I think that, for the most part, it is true. Same thinking: because they don't seek out a connection through Torah and Mitzvos, they look other places for this connection - and for a lot of them, Israel is their connection to Judaism. I, in no way, want to say that being pro-Israel is anti-orthodox; but it is interesting to note that the largest divide between pro-Israel and anti-Israel within one denomination is by orthodoxy. For some, being orthodox and being Tzioni go hand-in-hand; for others, however, their connection by means of Torah and mitzvos suffices.

In my opinion, remembering the Holocaust and being pro-Israel (I am not here to argue this point) are integral parts of my connection to Judaism. Of course everyone has to find their niche within Judaism and connect to it however they can. The problem is when people make the Holocaust and Israel their ONLY connection to their Judaism.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Parshas Beha'aloscha

In this week's parsha, parshas Beha'aloscha (man, that's a bear to type), we encounter Bnei Yisrael's travels through the wilderness. There is an interesting Ramban that says that the pattern in which the Jewish people traveled in the desert mimicked the movement of the holy cloud that accompanied them. Certain times, the Jewish people would arrive at a horrible, barren place in the desert and the cloud would stay there for long periods of time. Other times, the Jewish people would arrive at a lush, beautiful place, yet only stay there for a day or two before the clould moved on. Constantly packing, unpacking, repacking, etc.

But an obvious question can be asked: Hashem doesn't just bounce us around from place to place like puppets for fun. What is the point in making the travels in the wilderness so burdensome and arbitrary? Obviously, this fact is coming to teach us something.

R' Dessler explains in his Michtav M'Eliyahu something that may seem obvious and something that is a common theme in a lot of my divrei torah - but something that shouldn't be forgotten. Hashem was teaching us that we are just like the nation that was led through the desert. Their travels, and our lives aren't always a smooth ride. Life throws us curveballs in the form of work, children, etc., just as Bnei Yisrael were thrown the curveball of being nomadic. But, that's life, and we see that no matter where the cloud took the Jewish people, they followed and continued their service of Hashem.

It's so easy for us to say, "Man, I'd really daven if I had some free time" or, "If there was only a little more time in the day I could learn." Hey, but that's life. You gotta ask yourself what exactly is important, and whether or not your knees are going to buckle like a 9-year old seeing a curveball for the first time, or are you going to adjust, sit back, wait for the curveball, and go with the pitch. Just as the cloud didn't stop wherever Bnei Yisrael wanted it to and just as a pitcher doesn't always groove us fastballs over the plate, life isn't always a smooth ride - it's all about adapting to the changes thrown at you, and still being able to serve Hashem and do mitzvos.

Bean Ball

The hot story in baseball right now surrounds the Chicago White Sox and the rumor that they sent a pitcher down to the minors for failing to hit a batter when instructed to do so. To make a long story short, A.J. Pierzynski (of the White Sox) was hit twice in the same game by Texas right-hander Vincente Padilla. The story goes that White Sox manger Ozzie Guillen brought in rookie pitcher Sean Tracey with specific instructions to hit Texas batter Hank Blalock. After pitching inside a couple of times, Tracey apparently abandoned the order and got Blalock to ground out. Guillen took Tracey out immediately, and curiously, Tracey was sent down to the minors that night. I’ve never seen someone get in so much trouble for getting a guy to ground out.

Many people dislike Ozzie Guillen and his antics, and many will say that its ridiculous for him to order a pitcher to bean an opposing player. Personally, I think he should’ve chosen someone with a little more experience to get the job done to ensure that the job got done, and not to rattle the young pitcher. Aside from that, however, many people are viewing Tracey’s decision to hit or not hit Blalock as a moral dilemma.

Well friends, I disagree. Beaning people is part of the game; an important part of the game. Baseball is a game of respect. When respect isn’t given, the opposing team/player needs to be reminded of this fact. For instance, the respectful thing to do after hitting a home run is to run around the bases and a nice pace. Every once in a while a player will stand in the batters’ box for a second longer and admire his homerun, and sometimes trot around the bases at a slow pace – this is disrespectful. The baseball thing to do in response to this is to, at the next at bat, send that guy a message from either hitting him or giving him some chin music. I’m sorry if you’re used to cutsie Yiddle League rules where we should care about people’s feelings – that’s not part of baseball – hasn’t been for a over a hundred years, and shouldn’t be today. Disputes in baseball have been, and should continue to be settled on the field. It’s gotten to the point where pitchers are being suspended (ie, Randy Johnson) for upholding the unwritten rules of baseball – rules which, in my opinion, are just a big a part of the game as the written rules.

I was lucky enough from the age of 13 on to be coached by “old schoolers”. These coaches taught me to treat the game with respect: we were always to be tucked in on the field; hats never on backwards. In college, if someone disrespected a player on our team, or the team itself, they were sent a message. Unfortunately, today teenagers aren’t being taught these unwritten rules and more worried about them looking like a schmuck if they bean a guy. Sure, you might get ejected if you hit a guy on purpose…but if you have an good old-school coach like Ozzie Guillen, that’s better than getting sent to the minors.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

$$$

Money can buy a lot of things. While most would say it can't buy happiness, money certainly can buy political power, institutional power, and unfortunately in some cases, even friends. Think about politicians - ever met a poor one? While there may be exceptions, those with political power are the ones with the money. Think about executive boards; from day camps to day schools, those with the power are often the ones giving the most amount of money to that institution. After my experiences this past Shabbos, I would like to point out, however, that having money does not entitle one to:
  • Save seats at a Kiddush that isn't even yours
  • Be blatantly rude to those not in your crowd
  • Walk around bumping into people to get where you need to go

I'll judge "l'chaf zechus" and assume you don't realize what you're doing. But if you do realize and actually believe you are entitled to these aforementioned things, you're a disgrace to yourself and a disgrace to the community.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Adventures in AlanLaz's Haircuts

After a minor debacle at the Hair Cuttery earlier this week where the overly feminine hairstylist forgot to cut part of my head (don't worry, it's all fixed now), it got me thinking about a classic haircutting story of mine.

So back in my yeshiva days there was a guy at Yeshiva who was known to give great haircuts. It cost something like 15 shek (4 bucks) - an amazing deal. For whatever reason, I didn't go to him because I was afraid I was going to look like a freak. Now, it's not that my hair requires Jonathan Anton to cut it; it was more my irrational fear of looking like a moron. So, I didn't go to him.

Finally, one day, I really really needed a haircut, only had a couple of minutes, and was short on $$$, so I decided to go to him. So, he cuts my hair. No big deal. Shows it to me in the mirror, looks fine, and I was on my way with a new head of hair and only 15 shek poorer. However, I failed to realize something which I have since learned: you can never tell right away if they screwed up on your head. When I went earlier this week, it took me a couple of hours to realize that the dude had missed a part of my head. Anyway, I didn't realize right away that my hair was messed up.

I wake up the following morning and look in the mirror at my head: beautifully trimmed in the sides and back, but way too long up top. I'm not sure if you've paid attention to what Adolf Hitler's hair looked like, but yeah, I looked like him.

I bet I'm the only one that, when looking back on the yeshiva days, has a vivid memory of Hitler.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Parshas Naso

Usually I post the weekly d'var torah on Thursday or Friday, but being that this is my favorite d'var of the year, I'm posting it a bit early in hopes that more people will be able to read it.

In this week's Parsha, Parshas Naso, we learn about a couple of the most fascinating topics in the Torah; Sotah and Nazir. Essentially, a Sotah is a women that is accused of being a wayward wife and she goes through a process at the Beis haMikdash where she drinks a mixture of water and earth from the floor of the Mishkan. If she is innocent, the waters do not effect her, but if she is guilty of cheating on her husband, the waters make her stomach swell to the point of death.

A nazir is someone who takes an oath to abstain from drinking wine or any grape products, as well as refraining from shaving or taking a haircut. The common explanation for Nazirus is that it is recommended for someone that is having trouble on the "middle path". This person, for example, could be someone that is completely caught up in the material aspects of life, with no sense of spirituality. A period of nazirus would forbid him to drink wine or take a haircut - things that the person was probably too caught up with beforehand. By previously being on one end of the continuum, but now moving to the complete opposite end of the continuum, the Torah hopes that this person will, from then on, lead a life in the "middle path".

Interestingly, these two concepts are juxtaposed in the Torah. Quoting the famous Rashi:

"למה נסמכה פרשת נזיר לפרשת סוטה, לומר לך שכל הרואה סוטה בקלקולה יזיר עצמו מן היין "
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Asks and answers Rashi, "Why are the ideas of nazir and sotah juxtaposed? To say that anyone that sees a sotah at the time of her decadence should go ahead and become a Nazir and abstain from wine."
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Think about it: you see one of your fellow Jews going through the terrible punishment of playing Russian roulette with the Sotah waters - why then does this person need to go ahead and become a Nazir? You would think that this person, who sees this women at the time of her demise, would be the last person that would need to go ahead and become a Nazir! The fright of seeing the Sotah process should be enough to prevent this person from doing anything wrong (ie, drinking too much wine, obsessing over material things, etc.). Seeing this profound "religious" event should make a mark on this person. Or, think about it another way: you and your buddy are criminals - you sell drugs, kill the occasional person, etc. During one of your slayings, your buddy gets caught but you're let off the hook. Your buddy gets the electric chair and you watch him die. Wouldn't this experience be enough to prevent you from murdering further?
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I think the Torah is teaching us a lesson - a lesson that is one of my favorites and important for anyone that is interested in growing religiously. We often, in different situations, get rushes of spirituality, much like a person watching a Sotah does. We've all had these intense moments where we feel so strongly about our Judaism. But what does the Torah recommend we do when we get one of these rushes? Does it recommend we let that feeling rest and sit idle? No, the Torah tells us to put it into motion immediately. Sure, the person seeing the Sotah gets a wave of spirituality, something that tells him that doing sins is wrong, but it isn't that feeling alone that is good enough - it's putting that feeling into action and becoming a nazir. It's only when we take those feelings of fear and/or elation about our Yiddishkeit and put them into action that we truly maximize our potential.
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Think about how many people you've seen crying at an NCSY Kumsitz saying that they want to become more religious, go to a Jewish school, etc. How many of them actually do? Sure, some do, but I'd say the percentage is minimal. They get the initial spark of religiosity, but they fail to put it into action. For some people, they get into their Yiddishkeit when they're drunk - and they say the same things about becoming more religious, etc. How many actually go ahead and end up doing anything? Again, failure to use that spark as a catapult to frumkeit. Whatever gives you the wave of spirituality, so be it. But if you just let the wave go, you'll just be that person who always claims they want to do more (which I am not claiming is a bad thing), but never does.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Men's Tehillim Groups - Anyone In?

So I receive the following E-mail:

"A two year-old boy in our community, Moshe Yitzchok ben Devora Malka (Moshe Yitzchok Langer), is scheduled for a kidney transplant this upcoming Wednesday, 11 Sivan, June 7. The donor is his father, Yehuda Aryeh ben Laya (Aryeh Langer).Women will be gathering tonight (Monday evening, June 5,) to say Tehillim at 9:00 PM at Congregation Shomrei Emunah, and on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings (June 6 and 7) at 8:30 PM at Bais Haknesses of Baltimore (Rabbi Weiss's Shul). Any women who can are encouraged to attend..."

First of all, I wish both parties involved well. But, what if I wanted to say Tehillim for these people? I would understand if the e-mail went out telling everyone to have these people in their prayers. But clearly, since they are calling for a group to get together, there must be some intrinsic value to actually getting a group together for prayer. Assuming this is a big deal, which it clearly is - why can't men get together for a Tehillim group? Why are women the only one's allowed to get together for the Tehillim group?

It sounds like they're saying "sure, this is a big deal - but only big deal enough to get the women together, but not big deal enough to stop the men from the Gemara chavruasas." Maybe the men should have them in mind while learning? But, if learning is the best way to help the people out, then let's suggest the women get together and shtaig! If these Tehillim have the ability to help the parties involved, wouldn't the Tehillim take precendent over the Gemara?

The truth is, I wouldn't be interested in a male Tehillim group - because I would be doing it only because the women are and not for 100% pure intentions. However, the point is that by only organizing these groups for men, we are placing a level of importance on the Tehillim - important enough for women to say, but not important enough for men. Presumably, the women are at home taking care of the house and kids, so what's a half hour for a Tehillim group? What if the woman has a chavrusa - should we recommend to the women that she forget the chavrusa and go to the group - or do we say, like by men, that learning is a best path to take?

Just some food for thought....

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Barry Bonds and Infidelity

Whenever anyone at work finds out that I'm a sports fan, the inevitable question is, "So what do you think of Barry Bonds?" I should have a firm position on this matter, but the truth is, I don't. There's no doubt he's a great baseball player; one of the best ever. There's also no doubt, however, that he cheated. That being said, his numbers before he cheated were hall-of-fame worthy, so who knows what to make of it? I really just don't know...I think I am part of a small minority of sports fans that do not have a firm position on this.

After hearing an ad this morning on the radio having something to do with infidelity, I did develop a stance; not on Barry Bonds himself, but rather, on those who judge Barry Bonds. According to various websites, anywhere from 22-37% of men have admitted to cheating on their wives...about 1/3-1/5 men. My conclusion based on these statistics: 1/3-1/5 men have no business judging Barry Bonds. How can a man with obvious moral and character (ie cheating on wife) flaws judge another man's moral status? Sounds a bit hypocritical to me...

Also, a side note - regarding Dolphins (and now the Argonauts) running back Ricky Williams. Ricky is currently serving a 1 year suspension for being a 3-time offender of the league's substance abuse policy. There are people that believe that he should be punished more harshly than he is; there are people calling for his permanent removal from the league. All for what?: Marijuana! Sure, it's against the rules and he deserves to be punished, but who says smoking marijuana makes you a bad guy? Is smoking marijuana just as bad as smoking crack, as the league's substance abuse policy implies? Do you not know that there are players in the league that have raised their hand to their girlfriend/wives? Accused murderers?! You don't see them facing harsh penalties from the league.

I do believe that, one day, marijuana will become legal. What then? It will then be no worse by law to smoke weed than smoke marijuana. People view marijuana use as a cardinal sin, and it's ridiculous. In my opinion, anyone that has ever raised his hand to his wife deserves a harsher penalty than Ricky Williams - all for a little dope.