Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Parshas Vayetzei

וַיִּיקַץ יַעֲקֹב מִשְּׁנָתוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר אָכֵן יֵשׁ יְקֹוָק בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעְתִּי:
“Yaakov awoke from his sleep, and said, "In truth, Ad-noy is in this place, and I did not know it."(Sefer Bereishis, 28:16)

The gemara in Chulin (91:) discusses Yaakov’s travels from Beer Sheva to Charan, and details his dream. The gemara says a couple of things about the ladder that we know: it reached to heaven, angels went up and came down, etc etc. One part which isn’t commonly known is the part saying that the Angels went up to heaven and upon returning, they wanted to kill Yaakov. He was only saved because G-d stepped in on his behalf. What did the angels upstairs that they wanted to kill Yaakov?

Rav Hershel Schachter, saying over from R’ Chaim of Volozhin says that up in heaven, one is able to see the true potential of an individual. However, more often than not, this maximal potential isn’t reached. When the angels ascended to heaven, seemingly they saw a completely different side of Yaakov than he was expressing as his true character here on earth. It is for this reason that the angels wanted to kill Yaakov.

Rav Shimon Ostropoli says that this can be seen from the pasuk above. He starts out by explaining the pasuk in Yechezkel that says that each angel sitting around the Kisei haKavod has four faces. One face was that of a Cherub (little child); one was of a regular man; one was of a Nesher/eagle; and one was of an Aryeh (lion). Yaakov Avinu, when he says “Achein yeish Hashem b’makom ha zeh”, he was saying that he knew all long that Achein, Roshei Taivos ALEPH (Aryeh), CHUF (Cherub), NUN (Nesher) had a connection with haKadosh Baruch Hu. But concludes the pasuk, as R’ Shimshon explains, “But Anochi (Roshei Taivos same was Acheim, but with added Yud, symbolizing YAAKOV), I didn’t know”; meaning, he understood what 3 of 4 faces were in Shemayim, but what he failed to understand was that he himself was good enough to be the Adam; good enough to be the 4th face, and have a close relationship with G-d. Essentially, Yaakov was selling himself short; this was the difference in the potential which the angels saw in Shemayim, and the actual self that Yaakov was here on earth.

We can all think of way too many people that we know that sell themselves short. Whether it is because of poor self esteem, or merely out of laziness, I know too many people that have the potential to be amazing Jews, and amazing people, but for whatever reason, they're selling themselves short. The key to maximizing one’s potential is to take advantage of the opportunities that are laying directly in front of us. Too often do we not realize the amazing opportunities we have until after it is too late. Rashi and Ramban tell us that a perfect example of missing an opportunity is with Yaakov, when it says that he traveled from Beer Sheva to Charan, he passed by Yerushalayim, but didn’t stop to daven and take in the inherent holiness of the place where his father and grandfather had prayed. Upon reaching Charan he regretted this decision and turned to go back to Yerushalayim (Rashi implies that G-d brought Yerushalayim to him, in a metaphysical sense, while Ramban holds that he went all the way back). Yaakov Avinu was lucky enough, because of his stature, to be forgiven and to merit the blessings of the dream – we may not be so lucky. We should all be able to see the opportunities in front of us and strive to make the most of them, so that our character here on earth matches that of our potential seen by angels in heaven.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Yegshemesh!

Borat rocked. If you didn't find it funny, you don't have a sense of humor. Anyway, Charles Krauthammer (Washington Post, Time Magazine) has a piece in which he rips Sacha Baron Cohen for his humorous way of exposing anti-semetic underpinnings in American culture. (Hat Tip to ADDeRabbi, who lauds this column). I started to comment on ADDeRabbi's post, when I realized that it was long enough to be its own post. If you haven't read Krauthammer's article and the Rolling Stone interview, you won't get what I'm going to say.

I fundamentally disagree with everything that Krauthammer says. First of all, he doesn't read carefully. He claims that Sacha Baron Cohen is a "Sabbath Observing Jew", when the Rolling Stone article clearly stated that he only does so "when he can." Next of all, it wasn't his assertion that the path to Auschwitz was indifference; that was the assertion of a professor of his.

Iran and the holocaust cartoons; Palestinians and wanting to wipe Israel off the map; Europe and beatings and cemetery desecrations - these are all blatant expressions of anti-semitism. Nobody can deny this. What may be worse, IMHO, is the subtle anti-semetic undertones of the anti-semitism that exists in more people than we want to admit it does. I don't care who you are and who you align yourself with; I want nothing to do with a group of people that have no problem chanting "Throw the Jew Down the Well." Albeit a different situation, the crowd in the Kramer audience didn't turn around and start chanting "NIGGER!", did they? People still hate Jews, even in America.

And, so what if this is the best place for Jews in history? That doesn't make it perfect; it's still possible that even as the best in history for Jews, it too can have problems that need to be uncovered, as well.

Showing a Borat movie about anti-semitism in Europe or Israel wouldn't have had the same effect - everyone already knows that we're hated in those places. To bring out the anti-semetic undertones of college students, watering-hole patrons, etc., shows that even though this is arguably the best country in the world for Jews since its inception, it's not perfect and it has a long way to go.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Parshas Toldos

"And may G-d give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fatness [riches] of the land, and abundance of grain and wine." (Sefer Bereishis, 27:28)

Since this is the beginning of father Yitzchak's blessing to his son Yaakov, the fact that the verse starts off with the word "And", as if he has already said something to him. Rashi answers that the extra Vav/and comes to teach us that "Yitein, Yachzor, v'Yitein", that Hashem gives, and gives again. A simple reading of the Rashi tells us that Hashem gives us bracha in small increments, as opposed to in one large portion. But, what's the difference whether we get the bracha all at once, or intermittently?

The Be'er Mayim Chaim, in trying to answer this question, first asks a question about the punishment of the snake for enticing Chava. The punishment, as it is stated, was that the snake was to live without legs, eating dirt for all of eternity. For all of us, this would be a horrible punishment. But for a snake, an animal that can eat dirt, this doesn't sound like a bad deal - after all, it's an eternity of food! Answers the Be'er Mayim Chaim: this punishment was effectively ending the relationship between the snake and G-d. Sure, the snake was set for life; but it was given in one lump sum, thus allowing Hashem to withdrawal his influence in the snake's life. But us, who must constantly daven and ask for our sustenance, we are able to keep up our relationship with Hashem.

This is exactly the point in the bracha that Yitzchak gives Yaakov. He wants that his son should constantly have a relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. The lesson for all of us is an obvious one. Sure, G-d can give us everything we need in one fell swoop, but that would eliminate any relationship we have with G-d. If we fail to keep up this relationship with G-d, we're no better than the snake; and it was him who G-d decreed an eternity of G-dlessness.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

First Grade Gangstas

I guess this answers the question of how gang members are raised in their childhood. I'll admit, it started out being hilarious, but by the end was a bit disturbing.

DISCLAIMER: There is rampant use of the N word.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Kosher Scotch Radio

Apparently Yishai Fleisher read my posts on Kashrus and Scotch, and thought enough of them to have me as a guest on his radio show on Arutz 7. I was on yesterday to explain some of the different problems in the matter, and all in all, it was fun. It was my first time being interviewed on the radio, so I was pretty nervous, but I think I got the main points across.

If you're interested in listening, click here. It's the whole show, but my segment was from about 5:00-23:00. This link will work for about the next week, by which time I hope to have a more permanent link.

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Parshas Chayei Sara

“Sarah died in Kiryas Arba, which is Chevron, in the land of Canaan. Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to weep for her.”

In the Torah, the Hebrew word for weep (Livkosah) is spelled with a small Chuf. These things aren’t random and there is certainly something to be learned from the fact that it is small. Rashi tells us that the reason Sarah’s death was juxtaposed to the wholes story of Akeidas Yitzchak is to tell us that Sarah died upon hearing about the binding of her dear son. The Medrash Tanchuma tells us that the Satan came in the form of Yitzchak to his mother, and he explained to Sarah the process of the binding, and upon hearing such news, she passed out and died. It seems that if the Satan wouldn’t have come in the form and Yitzchak and told her the story, she would’ve lived. But the Or haChaim haKadosh says differently. He says that Sarah was really meant to live only 127 years, and if this wouldn’t have happened, she would’ve died by another means. The reason she died wasn’t because of the Satan, but rather because G-d wanted her to live 127 years, and orchestrated this as the way she was going to die. It’s very easy to think that often times people do the right thing (ie, the Akeidah), but less than favorable results sometimes happen as a result. The lesson of the Or haChaim is that they aren’t linked; G-d ordains people live X number of y ears, and if the person wouldn’t die from this reason, they would still die by another means.

The Koheles Yitzchak echoes this notion, but first brings a Gemara in Kiddushin as support. The gemara there is discussing a person that was a tzadik/righteous his whole life, but falls off the derech at the end of his life. First, the gemara suggests that the bad that the person does completely negates all of the good that a person does. This is tough to swallow, and the conclusion of the gemara is that this is only the case when one becomes so bad that they actually REGRET the good that they did previously. This is one of the two ways that the Satan works. Before one does a mitzvah, the Satan tries to prevent us from doing that mitzvah; but afterwards, the Satan tries to get us to REGRET that which we have just done. Some explain that this is what the words in the paragraph of Hashkiveinu are telling us when it says “V’hasair satan milfaneinu u’m’achamreinu”; remove both courses of action of the Satan, both before and after we do the mitzvah. Concludes the Koheles Yitzchak: this is why the Torah put a small Chuf in the word “to wail/cry/livkosah”, to teach us that Avraham cried, but only a little bit. And why did he only cry a little bit? So that those who saw him in mourning wouldn’t think that he was SO upset that he actually REGRETTED his actions – the Akeidah. Avraham was operating in a “L’sheim shamayim” fashion, and he therefore had nothing to regret.

We’re constantly faced with decisions before us. Shall we do that which we know is correct, or shall we do that which we know is not correct, but our Yetzer is telling us we want to do. When we choose the latter, it makes us feel good. However, the temporary euphoria is usually followed by regret for that which we have done. When one consistently chooses the former, and knows that he/she is fulfilling the ratzon Hashem, there will be nothing to regret.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Looking to Make Money?

Working at the National Institute of Mental Health, we run studies, many of which pay generously. We are currently recruitng for our "sibling study" which is looking at the genetic underpinnings of schizophrenia. Not only are we looking at schizophrenics, but we also bring in normal healthy controls to compare results with those of the affected patients.

Anyway, there is a 1-day study which takes place on Wednesday's ($180) and a 2-day study which is Mon/Tues or Thurs/Friday ($350). Testing takes place here in Bethesda, MD at the NIMH and testing days will last from 7:30-4:30, although there is some amount of down time. During the study, you will provide blood samples, MRI's, a clinical interview, and participate in neuropsychological testing (computer games, memory tasks, etc.).

Any of the following would disqualify you:
  • significant loss of consciousness at some point in your life
  • schizophrenia in your immediately family
  • significant drug abuse
  • having been adopted
  • not fluent in English by age 5
  • learning disability

If you're looking for something to do, and you're in the area, it's a great way to make $$, learn about psychiatric research, and contribute to the wide body of schizophrenia research. If you're interested shoot me an e-mail at AlanLaz AT gmail DOT com and I'll hook you up with the details. Of course, everything is COMPLETELY confidential.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

World's Dumbest Criminal

Hangover Resources

I'm blogging this mainly for myself, so the next time I experience symptoms of a hangover I won't have to spend time finding these resources online. Check out the following links to help cure/prevent a hangover. If you've ever experienced a REAL hangover (no, having a headache the next morning isn't a hangover; waking up the next morning swearing to never drink alcohol IS probably a real hangover), you'll appreciate this, and if you haven't then I highly recommending doing anything in your power to avoid ones.

The best links I found were here, here, and here.

B!@#$ Slap

While seemingly able to avoid negative press for a couple of years, it appears Bobby Knight, coach of the Texas Tech basketball team, is the center of attention in college basketball yet again. This is after slapping forward Michael Prince in the chin for avoiding eye contact. Knight is famous for his temper and antics, so it was inevitable that he was going to find the controversy spotlight yet again. In today's era, where seemingly the only people allowed to touch children are the parents themselves, this is against the rules. Perhaps in the early 20th century this was the norm, but it is what it is. I'm sure people have differening opinions on exactly how grave of an offense this was, and how severe the punishment should be.

All that being said, I am happy about one thing: the fact that Michael Prince is white. I don't have the patience for the liberal media running to attribute any action against an African American by a caucasian to race. Not everything is about the color of your skin. People are allowed to act against another person because that is their nature to do so and not necessarily because of the skin color of the other person. Plus, would it be a race thing if a black coach smacked a white player? It's just as much a race issue in that case (which, I agree, is minimal), but you won't hear anyone screaming chai v'kayam about that. You don't hear much about the fact that John Thompson, coach of Georgetown for over 26 years, rarely had a white kid on his team. Listen: racism is real, and it, unfortunately, still is present. That being said, I believe there is a tendency to assume that any negative interactions between a white and a black is due to the colors of their skin.

There's no question that what Bobby Knight did was out of line. The bottom line is that he's a schmuck. But, he's a equal opportunity schmuck, and I'm glad the kid was white so I don't need to rant about this stuff. Oh wait, I just did.

Monday, November 13, 2006

A Case of the Mondays

So the ladies in the office frequently bring in goodies for everyone to eat. Invariably it consists of food that is either not kosher, or chocolate, which I cannot consume for obvious reasons. So today there was a platter of cake which looked scrumptious; however, I figured it was non-kosher. Upon inspecting the label, I was pleased to see that the Orthodox Union had certified this cake. Alas, I could finally indulge. After eating a huge piece of cake (huge, to make up for the fact that I can never eat what they bring), one of the ladies said to me, "the cream cheese really adds something to the cake." CREAM CHEEESE!? Yes, after inspecting the label further, it turns out I had eaten Pumpkin Creme Cheese cake. Great, this could be a very long Monday.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Parshas Vayeira

Vayeira, 18:9:

.ויקח חמאה וחלב ובן הבקר אשר עשה ויתן לפניהם והוא עמד עליהם תחת העץ ויאכלו:

"He took butter, milk, and the calf he had prepared, and set it before them. He stood over them under the tree, and they ate."

The Kedushas Levi questions what exactly the Torah is teaching us by telling us that Avraham was "omed aleihem/stood over" them, who in this case were the angels that had come to visit Avraham. Explains the Berditchever: a person is considered a "mehaleich", or one who moves, by virtue of the fact that a person can move to a higher or lower madreiga/spiritual level based on his actions. Do mitzvos - higher madreiga; do aveiros, lower madreiga. However, a malach/angel, is called an "omed", or one who stands, by virtue of the fact that they are "standing still"; regardless of what they do, they are stuck on one spiritual level. They have a great job as messengers of G-d, but they have no opportunity to better or worsen their status.

Really, since Avraham is considered a "mehalaich", the pasuk should've said that he was "mehalaich aleihem", but by using the term "omed", he is using the term that should be used for an angel. Concludes the Kedushas Levi: Avraham Avinu, in order to make the Malachim feel at ease, lowered himself to their status. When doing this chesed for them, he is not viewed by the angels as superior; rather, he's just "one of the boys".

I think this is a tremendous mussar when doing Chesed, or when dealing with people in general. When doing chesed, it's only natural that the person receiving the chesed feels below the person giving; for instance, one who receives tzedaka obviously feels inferior to the person giving it. Or, just when dealing with people in general, when one is being spoken to, the person wants to feel at ease. This is certainly most likely possible when the giver brings himself to the level of the receiver. If one fails to heed this important lesson, they are prone to their Chesed being received with embarassment or their message received turned away at the doorstep.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The U

In a sad story, a starter on the University of Miami football team was shot and killed last evening shortly after having left practice. Bryan Pata, a 22 year old DE for the 'Canes, was expected to be drafted in the 2007 NFL Draft.

In the aftermath of this tragedy the team and the university must decide whether or not to play this Saturday against my #23 Maryland Terrapins. Perhaps they'll decide it's too much to play mere days after losing a teammate; or, perhaps they'll decide, for whatever reason, to go on with the game. But, for the love of G-d, don't tell me that you're playing because "it's what he would've wanted."

Monday, November 06, 2006

First New York Shabbos

Well, I survived. And, believe it or not, I throughly enjoyed my first Shabbos ever spent in NY/NJ, ever. That could be because I went in with extremely low expectations after hearing reports from friends about snobbiness of 5-towners; or, it may actually be because I enjoyed myself. I tend to think it was the latter.

We stayed in what is offically Cedarhurst, and ventured over to Woodmere to daven Friday night at Aish Kodesh, named after the Piaseczna rav's sefer. Not only was the shul aesthetically pleasing, the davening was truly amazing. At many shuls that sing Yedid Nefesh before Kabbalas Shabbos, the song seems to have become more of a chore than communal song. Anyway, it was evident by the intent by which this was said that davening there is taken very seriously. Of course, amazing words by the Rav, Rav Moshe Weinberger, and the wonderful smell of expensive cologne didn't hurt either.

Shabbos morning we davened at Young Israel Lawrence/Cedarhurst at a "Young Couples Minyan", which is basically a glorified youth minyan for marrieds. Nevertheless, the shul was also aesthetically pleasing and the crowd was very friendly; I even received an Aliyah. The short afternoon was spent reading and sleeping, and we ended off our trip with a Motzei Shabbos trip to Central Perk. We had originally planned to come home Sunday, but with the NYC causing traffic havoc, we opted to leave Saturday night.

And, while it appears I have not reached celebrity blogger status due to my going unnoticed in the 5 Towns, all may not be lost for me; I was mentioned in this article (titled "Blogging as Journalism"). Woo hoo!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

How Frednecks Tell Time...

I had to....

Parshas Lech Lecha

So I'll start out by saying that I'll be in Woodmere this Shabbos. To most, that wouldn't be a big deal. But, for someone that's never been to NJ or NY for Shabbos, it is a huge deal. It will be sad losing my title as the only frum Jew who's never spent a Shabbos in NJ/NY. Feel free to say hi if you see me; although, I don't think I've reached celebrity blogger status yet....one day. Anyway, back to regularly scheduled programming.

Sefer Bereishis, 12:1:

"Ad-noy said to Avram, "Go from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father's house, [and go] to the land that I will show you."

The Nesivos Shalom comments that this process of "leaving" is out of order. He explains that if one wants to leave home, first he must leave his (fathers) house, then his birthplace (a smaller locale), and then finally his "land". However, in our verse, the pasuk lists his "land first", followed by his birthplace, ending with his fathers house. Why is this out of order?

Explains the Nesivos: Avraham Avinu, in this journey to become the first Ba'al Teshuva (my term), was completely leaving everything he had known before. He was leaving not only the place where he had grown up, but also the person he was up until this point. He goes on to explain the order of the pasuk as each of the terms relate to different levels of bad traits, in ascending order. First in the pasuk is "m'artzecha"; this term is used to describe those bad traits that one learns from the people "of the land". These traits are the easiest to remove onesself from - usually, when one changes his surroundings, these traits wilt away. Next, the pasuk lists "m'moladat'cha"; this term is used to describe bad traits learned from ones family (ie, siblings). Often, isn't possible to move away from your family, so these traits often go with you whereever the family moves to. These traits, which have been engrained over years of living with family, are much harder to uproot. Finally, the Torah lists "mibais avicha"; this term is used to describe those bad traits which are taught directly from your parents. These are the hardest traits to get rid of, because we view our parents as teaching figures, and take what they say to heart much more than siblings or friends.

Thus, the pasuk is detailing the step-by-step process of removing bad traits from one's personality. Interestingly, it's also the hierarchy that many teenage BT's face when becoming frum. The easiest people to "come out" to are your friends (non-Jewish/Jewish alike). They're most likely to be understanding, and the reality is that they probably don't even know what it's like. In fact, most of my friends barely can tell a difference on the surface level between the person that I am now and the person I was in high school (ummm...is that bad?). Next, it's more difficult, but not the most difficult, to tell one's family that he/she wants to become frum. The BT is likely to face opposition, but probably mainly out of being "weirded out" that someone who comes from the same parents is becoming frum. And finally, the hardest people to tell about becoming frum are the parents. While a good number are understanding and embracing (B"H, like mine), there are a substantial number of parents who supply opposition; opposition not out of being "weirded out", but more so out of resentment. Parents are supposed to be superior to their children; they say something, the kids do it; they are the authority. However, when a child wants to become frum, a parent often sees this as being passed in the religious domain. They go from authority to a servility of sorts.

But BT's or FFB's alike, the Torah is teaching us that in the constant quest up the mountain that is Yiddishkeit, there has to be a process. G-d was mekarev Avraham through a detailed and precise process. It's a step-by-step process, whether one is becoming frum, or whether someone is already frum but wants to do more. Do too much, and you'll fall off. I see people around that were once SO frum and probably viewed my "refusing to be the typical BT" philosophy as heresy, but tried too much too quickly, and that I am now "frummer" than. A rabbi once told me that becoming frummer is like riding up a moutain on a bike. Most people learn from this that as long as you're pedaling, you'll continue to go up, but the moment you stop, you'll fall down. However, I think it's important, within the same mashel, to learn that one can't pedal too hard or else they'll tire themselves out. Slow and steady wins the race.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Westboro Baptist Church

In the past year or so I've seen a couple clips of a lady who is a member of the Westboro Baptist Church. In these clips (all on FoxNews), the lady gets rocked by the hosts and made out look like a psycho. However, I just saw a new video (below) of her and her two daughters on the Tyra Banks show. The fact that they were given more time to speak out their thoughts, combined with the fact that Tyra Banks is an absolute moron made me think: how anti-Jewish are these ideas, really?



They carry signs to protests saying "G-d hates fags", "Fag Troops", Thank G-d for Dead Miners", etc. Basically, they believe that these acts are a divine retribution for homosexuality, and since it is meant to be a wake-up call to all of us, these tragedies are to be lauded. Some people can't get past these offensive slogans, and that is completely understandable. But, perhaps their "crazy" ideas, aren't really so anti-Jewish afterall?

While I didn't read the enire Wiki article on the church, it is clear that, basically, they believe that anything bad that happens in the world is a result of homosexuality. They blame 9/11, dead soldiers, and the WV coal miner tragedy on homosexuals. Is it really so anti-Jewish to think that G-d exacts punishment for sins in the form of tragedies? I'm not sure why they choose homosexuality over any other sin, but I don't have a problem with saying that it's possible that G-d exacts punishment in this way.

Another main difference, obviously, between this group and Jews is the fact that they feel the need to "save" people. Perhaps we wouldn't find them so crazy if they were merely thinking these sentiments while sitting on their couches at home. Because they are not afraid to do things such as picketing a funeral, the inherent shock value is too much for many to see past.

I am in no way agreeing with their church, its beliefs, or the tactics they take to try to "save" people. Actually, they're doing a pretty poor job in this department, as the congregation consists for 180 people, the majority of which are related to one another. Anyway, I throw this out as more of a question than anything. If you can get past the fact that their tactics are reprehensible, exactly how Jewish or not are these beliefs?