Friday, June 29, 2007

All Kollel People Are Nice....Apparently

A few weeks back our next door neighbors moved out. I received a call this morning from the mother of someone who was on the waitlist for our apartment complex and is interested in moving in next door. So, she had some questions for me about the building. She wanted to know who lived there, so I told her. She then asked everyone in the apartment did for a living. I paused, and she then interjected, "We want to know if there are any other Kollel couples in the building; they want to feel comfortable."

Ahh, where to begin. Wouldn't whether or not the people are friendly individuals be a better criterion to judge whether or not to move to a building? What if everyone in the building was in Kollel, and they moved in, only to find out that they are nasty individuals? But apparently that doesn't matter. Besides, what does it matter if people in your building, specifically, are in Kollel? Does it add Kedusha to the air of your apartment? Maybe it's just me, but I'd feel more "comfortable" in a building full of nice non-Jews than frum people who are nasty. But, maybe that's why I'm not in Kollel.

Parshas Balak 5767

וַיִּפְתַּח יְהוָה, אֶת-פִּי הָאָתוֹן; וַתּאמֶר לְבִלְעָם, מֶה-עָשִׂיתִי לְךָ, כִּי הִכִּיתַנִי, זֶה שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים.

" Ad-noy opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Bil'am: 'What have I done to you, that you have hit me these three times'?"

Rashi to verse 33 tells us that in the end, the donkey was killed. He reasons that Hashem killed the donkey lest the common observer say, "this is the one that drove away Bil'am with her admonishment, and he was unable to reply." This, says Rashi, would violate Billam's Kavod haBriyos/human dignity. However, R' Avraham Grodzinsky in his "Toras Avraham" asks why should we be so concerned with the Kavod haBriyos of Billam, this non-Jewish man that was on his way to curse the Jewish people? In fact, we see that not only did Kavod haBriyos trump "Tzaar Baalei Chaim"/not harming animals, but it even went as far as to trump the killing of the animal.

He answers that nevertheless, Billam, as wicked as he was, was created in the Image of G-d, just like every other creation. It isn't within our human grasp to know the amount of Kavod that should be given to each person. Rather, all we know is that everything that is here on earth is here because Hashem wants it to be here, and that in and of itself is reason enough to give every person a certain amount of Kavod. Thus, Jew or non-Jew, good or evil, every person deserves a proper amount of Kavod.

It happens too often where a good, G-d fearing Jew will act one way around Jews and in Jewish settings, but act so differently in public; almost as if one doesn't need to act with the same Middos and afford proper Kavod to non-Jews as well. At least as I see it, one needs to remember that "bein adam l'chaveiro" includes non-Jews as well. And if this isn't the case, not affording proper Kavod to non-Jews will inevitably lead to a Chillul Hashem; something that if people thought about their actions before doing them, would be minimized.

We see a similar idea in this weeks Parsha in the Medrash (to 22:9) that tells us that the difference between Jewish and non-Jewish prophets is that Jewish profits have mercy on both Jews and non-Jews alike; however, we see that Billam, the non-Jewish prophet, seeked to destroy an entire nation from the map. R' Yechezkel Levinstein in his "Ohr Yechezkel" notes that we see from this that Hashem wants Jews to be compassionate, even for non-Jews. He says that we, as Jews, are obligated to be connected to the terrible tragedies and problems of the world; not just to view them as "their" problems. He says that if the concept of "Tzaar Baalei Chaim" is D'oraisa, then all the more so should one be obligated to afford respect to all people, Jews and non-Jews alike.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Parshas Chukas 5767

Nothing new for this year. To read last year's Dvar, CLICK HERE.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Parshas Korach 5767

Korach's punishment was something that the world had not previously seen. Essentially, Hashem created a punishment for him, the likes of which hadn't been put upon anyone else. The sin of Korach, thus, needs explanation as to what made it so serious to arouse Hashem's anger to the point that he created a new phenomenon in the world. Not only were Korach and his followers swallowed up, but the Torah tells us that this punishment was exacted "K'rega/immediately." Furthermore, the Torah warns us about even touching or coming close to these evil people; a warning yet to be seen in the Torah. Finally, we learn in the Parsha that not only were Korach and his followers swallowed up, but even their little children were, as well. All of these anomalies surrounding Korach's sin are no coincidence, and deserve further explanation (with the help of the Nesivos Shalom).

We all know that the basic sin of Korach and his followers was their opposition to Moshe and Aharon's being heralded as the leaders of the Jewish people. The Medrash on this Parsha and the Gemara in Sanhedrin (110a) tells us that, "Anyone that argues on his Rabbi is like he is arguing on the Presence of Hashem (Shechinah); whoever expresses resentment against his teacher, it is as if he expressed it against the Shechinah; whoever imputes evil to his teacher, it is as though he imputed it to the Shechinah." Seemingly, this is an astonishing concept; can it really be than anyone who argues with his teacher is likened to one who argues with the Shechinah?

We are told in Devarim (10:20), that we are supposed to cleave to Hashem ("U'vo Tidbak). This is a tough concept to understand, however, being that the Shechinah is likened to an all-consuming fire that would do just that, if we were to get too close. Rather, Chazal tell us that the way that we cleave to Hashem is through cleaving and coming close to Talmidei Chachamim or our Rabbis. Thus, the advice given by Chazal to one who wants to become closer to Hashem is to become closer to his Chachamim. We can now understand the aforementioned Gemara likening arguing with your Rabbi to the Shechina: it isn't that they are equal, rather, by arguing with your Rabbi, you are damaging one of the key tools to "cleaving" to Hashem.

Unfortunately, the same claims made by Korach are hinted at by many today. There are blogs that exist to defame the the rabbinate is a whole, and certain rabbanim, specifically. But even more widespread than that is the belief that one can lead a good, frum lifestyle without any rabbinic direction. IMHO, living a life without any rabbinic direction is like living on a deserted island; you may last for a while, but you're bound to run out of resources eventually. And even worse yet is the fact that this attitude is being passed on to future generations. This is why we find the anomalies in this parsha of being punished "K'rega", and the warning against touching or coming near Korach and his followers: this mindset of contempt for rabbanus is a highly contagious one. When a child grows up in a household with this mindset, he/she will inevitably foster the same mindset. And this is precisely why the children of Korach and his followers were swallowed up as well; they were doomed by fact that their parents had the mindset.

We should realize, as Chazal advise, that Rabbis and Talmidei Chachamim are a vehicle to our cleaving to Hashem. While they may not all be perfect (as some would like to claim), they are a tool that should be utilized, not a group that we should be quick to disparage.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Kosher Whisky: Overly Machmir Caterers

Read my other posts on the production (link) and sherry-related issues (link) of Kashrus and whisky. You can also listen to an interview I did on Arutz 7 on the topic by CLICKING HERE.

Due to my access and knowledge of whisky, I've been asked to buy whisky for a few weddings for friends. Thus, I have dealt with many caterers and have learned about their knowledge of whisky. Since all of the Hashgachos locally have a machmir stance on the whole sherry cask issue, so do the caterers who are certified by them. Knowing this, I wouldn't buy a sherry aged/matured for a wedding, knowing that the caterer would scream chai v'kayam.

However, I've gotten a couple arguments with caterers regarding bottles that were neither aged nor finished exclusively in sherry casks, for the following reason. Most people assume that whisky is aged in a wooden cask, and when it's ready to be bottled they put a tap in the cask and begin the bottling process. This simply isn't the case; let's take for example, a bottle of Balvenie 10 year old. Whiskies of various ages and various types of casks, after maturing, are put into and mixed in a large vat (in a process called "vatting). The whisky is usually then diluted down to a normal ABV of 40-46%. The "10" in Balvenie 10 means that the youngest cask of whisky used in the vatting process is 10 years old. Thus, in your bottle of Balvenie 10 there is certainly whisky that is older than 10 years old. More importantly, though, is the fact that different types of CASKS are thrown into the vat. With only a few rare exceptions (Glenlivet 12, Ardbeg 10 to name a few), there is no whisky that does not have any sherry-aged liquid in it, due to the fact that distilleries use a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks to store their goods. To clarify, however: the hashgachos are only machmir on those that contain liquid that was 100% aged/matured in a sherry cask.

If you've ever read the back of a whisky bottle/tin, you'll know that the distilleries love to tell you all about their whisky. Often mentioned is the different smells, tastes, and aftertastes of the whiskies. It is not uncommon for the back to note either a taste/aftertaste of sherry, even if the whisky wasn't EXCLUSIVELY aged/matured in sherry casks. However, due to the caterers’ lack of knowledge about the product, they read sherry, and they say no. Again, the point is that whisky can have somewhat of a sherry taste (or so the distillery wants to claim) without being exclusively aged/matured in a sherry cask. Thus, whisky which, if the hashgachos had a full list of what whiskies were allowed/not allowed, would be permissible, has been nixed due to some overzealous explanation on the behalf of the distillery.

Perhaps it's asking too much of the caterers to have this kind of product knowledge about whisky. I think, though, that it's their job to put on a Simcha and make the guests as happy as possible; so it doesn't seem too far-fetched to me that they know this simple piece of information. I would suggest putting together a list of whiskies, by distillery, that are permitted/prohibited - that way, when someone brings a bottle to a wedding that the caterer has never heard of (most of these guys haven't heard of anything past Glenlivet), they won't nix it immediately. I'd volunteer my services to do it, but I don't think the idea would be received well.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Parshas Shelach 5767

To see last year's Dvar Torah, CLICK HERE.

אֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת הָאֲנָשִׁים, אֲשֶׁר-שָׁלַח משֶׁה לָתוּר אֶת-הָאָרֶץ; וַיִּקְרָא משֶׁה לְהוֹשֵׁעַ בִּן-נוּן, יְהוֹשֻׁעַ.

"These are the names of the men that Moses sent to spy out the land. And Moses called Hoshea the son of Nun Joshua." (Sefer Bamidbar, 13:16)

Rashi: "He prayed for him, 'may G-d save you from [joining] the counsel of the spies."

The Dubno Maggid questions why Moshe only prayed for Yehoshua; as the leader of the Jewish people, he should've worried about and prayed on behalf of all of the spies. What was it about Yehoshua that caused Moshe to worry about him, as opposed to the others?

To answer the queston, the Maggid distinguishes between two types of Aveiros/sins: 1) those that the person committing the sin knows that what he/she is doing is a sin, and 2) those that the person committing misconstrues and justifies as being a Mitzvah. One, obviously, needs to be more careful about the latter category, because when one has this mindset, we cannot expect that person's actions to change since they, themselves, view it as a Mitzvah.

This is what the Mishna in Avos refers to when it (ch. 3) says, "Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting." What does it mean "to the hands of transgression"? The Maggid suggests that those sins of which the transgressor is aware of are sins that "man grasps", while those sins that are rationalized as being Mitzvos are sins that "grasp man." The wording is similar, but their meanings are quite different. When one commits a sin, yet rationalizes it to be a Mitzvah, the person is completely "grasped" by sin.

With this, we can understand why Moshe saw it fit only to pray for Yehoshua. The fact that these spies were leaders of the people and Tzaddikim is well known. Because of this, Moshe didn't think that the fact that they believed that upon entering Eretz Yisrael that they would be replaced as leaders (Zohar) would stop them from completely a righteous mission. However, Yehoshua, who was to succeed Moshe, could've thought that if he brought back an evil report, this would delay their entrance to the land, which would therefore keep Moshe alive (as due to Moshe's sin, he was not to enter to land). This potential rationalization for sin by Yehoshua had the potential to be worse than the sin of any of the other spies, as it is classified in the latter category of sin discussed above. It was because of this that Moshe felt the need to pray for Yehoshua alone.

None of us are perfect; we all make mistakes. We should be careful that we're owning up to the mistakes that we make. We're playing with fire when we start rationalizing our improper behavior.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Swear Jar

Warning: May be offensive to some...but so worth it.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Parshas Behaaloscha 5767

To see last year's Dvar Torah, CLICK HERE.

By: JZ Spier

This week's parsha begins with Hashem commanding Moshe to instruct Aaron about lighting the Menorah. Right after these instructions the Torah informs us about the construction of the Menorah, and Chazal teach us how Moshe found it difficult to understand the building and the construction of the Menorah. We are all familiar with the question of Rashi in the beginning of the Parsha; Rashi asks what is the reason for the juxtaposition of the Menorah and the contributions of the Nissiim from last weeks Parsha? Rashi answers that when Aaron saw the dedications of the Nisiim, he felt bad because he and his tribe weren't involved in those contributions. To make Aaron feel better, Hashem told him that he would be the one to light the Menorah. This explains the juxtaposition between the topics of the Nisiim and the Menorah.

Rabbi Rudinsky in his Sefer Mishkan Bitzalel is bothered by the following three questions.
A) What was Aaron so upset about? He was the top leader of the top tribe, he was involved in Avodas HaKodesh on the highest of levels. How is it conceivable that Aaron was unhappy and not satisfied with his great role?
B) Why did Hashem make Aaron feel better by giving him Hadlakas HaMenorah? What is so special about lighting those candles?
C) After the instructions on how to light, why does the Torah repeat how to build it and the fact that Moshe had trouble understanding its structure? We were told this already back in the Parshiyos in Shemos that described the building of the Mishkan? Why repeat it here?

Rabbi Rudinsky answers beautifully based on a Gemara in Brachos (63:) that says "if one humiliates himself over the Torah, in the end he will rise to great heights". He explains that one should constanly be humiliating and humbling him/herself by the fact that no matter where one is holding, there's always a LONG way to go. The Gemara is teaching us that the most important part in Kinyan HaTorah is to be a Mivakeish; to constantly search for more, for greater understandings, for more knowledge, and for more ways to serve Hashem. The pasuk tells us "If you search for Hashem like you search for silver coins, then you will have found Yiras Hashem". The only way to make a kinyan on the Torah is to run after it, to never be satisfied with what you have already, but to constantly want more and to jump at those chances. He gives a Mashal that when you drop a piece of food into a fish tank, the fish swim up to the top instantly, in such a rush to get that food. The same should be of our desire for Torah, being a Mivakeish, always searching for more venues of Torah and Avodas Hashem. When a person truly desires something and does all he can to achieve it, there is no limit to what a person can accomplish. It all begins with that desire to strive for more.

With this in mind, we can now answer those three questions. As the dedication of the Mishkan came to a close with the donations of the Nisiim, Aaron realized that there was an opportunity of Avodas Hashem that he wasn't taking part in. Its not that Aaron wasn't satisfied with his role; rather he was the ultimate Mivakeish. He saw an opportunity to do something to get closer to Hashem, realized he was missing out, and jumped on the opportunity to get more involved. Aaron had the greatest job in all of Klal Yisrael, but he wanted to grow even more.

The lighting of the candles represents consistency in Avodas Hashem. The whole Avoda in the Beis haMikdash was done during the day except for two things that were done during the night; the burning of the fats and Hadlakas HeMenorah. The lighting of the Menorah represents that fact that the Kohanim spent all day working the Avoda, but because of the Menorah, their service of Hashem existed every second of the day, without even a small hefsek. Since Aaron showed Hashem that he was the ultimate Mivakeish, that he couldn't even miss one opportunity to serve Hashem and that he would do anything to jump on those chances, Hashem gave him an incredibly appropriate job in lighting the Menorah, because the Menorah also represents that constant desire and will to continuous service of Hashem and the determination to not let any of those chances pass.

Finally, this answers the third question as well. The Menorah also symbolizes the Torah; "Ki Ner Mitzvah ViTorah Ohr". Moshe understood the physical structure of the Menorah; but when the Torah tells us he couldn't understand the Menorah it means that his understanding of the Torah wasn't complete. As we've said, it is not enough to just have a basic understanding. There is no end to what a person can accomplish. We always have to strive for more, and this is exactly what Moshe was doing. He wasn't satisfied with his understanding, but rather was Mivakeish for more and for more. It now makes perfect sense why the Torah repeats this here, because right after we learn how Aaron was a great Mivakeish, the Torah reminds us that Moshe was on this high level as well.