Sunday, July 29, 2012

Rashi Questions for Vi'Etchanan

According to Rashi...
1. What did Moshe want to give in return to Hashem in return for letting him into Israel?  (3:23)
2. What is an example of adding to one of the mitzvot in the Torah?  (4:2)
3. What did Hashem command Moshe to teach the Bnei Yisrael at that time?  (4:14)
4. How many years were the Jews in Israel before they were exiled for the first time?  (4:25)
5. Why is it better to serve Hashem out of love rather than out of fear? (6:5)
6. What does the Torah mean when it says to love Hashem "bichol mi'odecha?" (6:5)
7.What day was Moshe talking about when he said, "that I command you today?" (6:6)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Jane Fonda. Jimmy Carter, and the Chafetz Chaim

Last night I was at a gala event for a local independent film theatre here in Omaha.  Miriam and I are friends with the owner / director Rachel Jacobson as well as with her extended family.
The event was a conversation with Jane Fonda, moderated by academy award winning director Alexander Payne.  Actress Laura Dern also made an appearance.

Payne is from Omaha originally and his movie, About Schmidt, took place in, and was filmed in Omaha.

I remember clearly a strange coincidence that occurred on my first trip to Omaha in 2001.  I was in a taxi leaving for the airport and an advertisement for the movie About Schmidt came on the radio and I heard Jack Nicholson's voice say the line, "How in the hell did I end up in Omaha?"

Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda's father, was also originally from Nebraska.  When she was little, Omaha's central location made it a convenient hub for airlines.  Planes would stop in Omaha and people would be laid over here for hours, sometimes an entire day.  While most people would wait at the airport, she would spend time with her Omaha relatives. 

At Beth Israel we continue to serve as a crossroads for Jews from all over the world and all walks of life.  That is one of the great things that makes Every Shabbat at Beth Israel a Shabbaton!
There is hardly a shabbat over the course of the year when our community is not hosting someone here on business, visiting family, or just passing through on a drive cross country.

In fact, Miriam and I met because her mother had a speaking engagement in Omaha and she needed a place for shabbat.  I put her up in the community and hosted her for a meal at my home.  She told me that she had an attractive daughter who lived in Phoenix - a warm climate that is a direct flight from Omaha.  Sold!  The rest is history.

Some weeks we are fortunate to host multiple guests at one time.  This past shabbat we had an amazing cast of characters!
  • In Western Nebraska there are a few companies that produce Kosher meat.  It is not uncommon for us to host some of the shochtim (ritual slaughterers) who work in those plants.  This week we had the pleasure of hosting one.
  • AJSS, American Jewish Society for Service, runs a program every year for teenagers.  Jewish teens from all over the country, of all affiliations and denominations, come to the Midwest and do service programs and participate in builds with Jimmy Carter's Habitat for Humanity.  This year they are also helping with clean up in Joplin, MO from the devastating tornado last year.  As we have in previous years, we had the pleasure of hosting them for Shabbat as well.
  • A group of four Yeshiva students from the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva in Queens, NY was driving cross country to Los Angeles.  They found us on the Internet and called and asked if we could host them for shabbat as well.  By coincidence I am related to two of them.  One is my mother's father's brother's son's wife's sister's son; and the other is my mother's father's brother's son's daughter's fiance (not exactly related yet, but as of late August he will be my second cousin.)
None of the kids on the AJSS trip were from Orthodox homes, most had never spent shabbat in an Orthodox community, and some had never really spent time with an Orthodox Jew.  Over shabbat they had the opportunity to meet with the other guests and with our community and they learned a great deal. 

At the kiddush after services on shabbat the AJSS kids got to hear from our member Sherry Taxman, an active board member of Omaha's habitat for humanity. 
After kiddush my new friend and colleague, Rabbi Josh Brown came to Beth Israel to speak to the kids. Rabbi Brown is the new assistant Rabbi at Temple Israel, Omaha's reform shul, and he spoke to them about Temple Israel's new tri-faith initiative

I usually give a class before mincha, but instead I asked our guests from the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva to speak about the life of a Yeshiva student.  My congregation and the AJSS kids were fascinated to learn about the Yeshiva world. 

The students described their intense daily learning schedule, they spoke about their personal backgrounds and plans for the future, and even things like the social life of a Yeshiva student.  They explained that all Yeshivas share certain core values, but each Yeshiva has its own particular values that it emphasizes and stresses. 

Chofetz Chaim greatly stresses physical health and all of the students are encouraged to allocate time every day to some type of physical activity and exercise.

Chofetz Chaim also emphasizes the spreading of Torah by living and working in communities outside of New York.  They have branches all over North America, and students are required to do stints of learning in branches outside of New York.  Maybe one day we will have a branch out here in Omaha.

And mostly, Chofetz Chaim stresses character development, just like the Chofetz Chaim for whom the Yeshiva was named.  The Yeshiva has worked hard to create a certain reputation about their students.  They want people to say, "that young man has good manners.  He must be a Chofetz Chaim guy."

They added some words about the recent death of Rabbi Elyashiv and how they personally and the Yeshiva world as a whole were influenced by his life and saddened by his death. 

Then they opened up for questions.

The big question that spurred the most discussion was - what do their female counterparts do while they are in Yeshiva?

The girls do have a post high school seminary experience, but it is only one or two years.  The girls in their world are generally looking for a husband who will learn in Yeshiva for the first few years of their marriage.  In anticipation of that they seek educational opportunities that will enable them to support their husbands for a few years. 
Chofetz Chaim encourages all of its students to enter the work force when they finish in yeshiva and allows for its students to attend night classes towards a college degree, a masters degree, or a law degree. 
But for the first few years of marriage, the women are the primary bread winners.  It was commented that, ironically, the Yeshiva culture is in someways and ultra feminist society where the women are the providers. 

We ended Shabbat with our usually musical Havdallah.  Right afterwards, one of the kids from AJSS came to thank me.  He told me he had never really met Orthodox people before and this Shabbat shattered all of his prejudices and preconceived notions.  When he first heard that he was going to be spending Shabbat with an Orthodox family, the first thing that went through his head was, "Oh my gosh, I hope they speak English!"  He somehow imagined that all Orthodox people speak only Yiddish. 

He, his fellow teens, and our entire community learned a great deal about each other, breaking stereotypes, building friendships, and reminding ourselves the entire Jewish people are one family. 
All in all, it was a great shabbat at Beth Israel!

Rashi Questions for Devarim

According to Rashi...
1. Why did Moshe gather all of Israel before his speech?  (1:1)
2. What kind of men was Moshe unable to find?  (1:15)
3.What is an example of a big case?  What is an example of a small case?  (1:17)
4. How is Israel different from Egypt?  (1:27)
5. How are Israel's enemies like bees?  (1:44)
6. What merit did king Og have?  (3:2)
7. What is the German word for 'snow?'

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Quiz Questions for Matos-Massei

According to Rashi...
1. Why did the Bnei Yisrael only seek vengeance on the Midianites and not the Moabites?  (31:2)
2. What talent did Bilaam add to the Midianite army?  What weapon helped the Bnei Yisrael contend against him?  (31:6)
3. What is the rule for purging non-kosher form pots used by non-Jews?  (31:23)
4. How did the tribes of Reuvein and Gad demonstrate that their priorities were out of order?  (32:16)
5. How did Aharon die?  (33:38)
6.Why did the east side of the Jordan have more cities of refuge per capita then the western side?
7. Why is the sentence to a city of refuge contingent on the death of the Kohein Gadol?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Rashi Questions for Pinchas

According to Rashi...
1. In what way did some people ridicule Pinchas?  (25:11)
2. What indication are we given as to the extent of Midian's hatred for Israel?  (25:15)
3. Why did Moshe hold a census at this time?  (26:1)
4. Why wasn't the Ozni family called by its proper name?  (26:16)
5. Why was Asher's daughter Serach mentioned here?  (26:46)
6. How did the women of Israel react to the sin of the spies?  (26:64)
7. How did Moshe convince Yehoshua to take the leadership position?  (27:22)
8. What holiday has the most animal offerings?  What do those offerings correspond to?  (29:12)

Friday, July 6, 2012

RCA Election Results are in!!

I posted previously that I was running for the Midwest VP of the Rabbinical Council of America.
The poles closed earlier this week and the results were posted today.

I did not win the election.

But I am not deterred.  I lost to the officially nominated candidate 260 - 156.  That means that 155 other Rabbis believed that I was the best man for the job. 

This election was a great victory for everyone in the RCA. 

  • This election brought out more than 40 percent of the membership, still not a stellar voter turnout, but obviously a great improvement over past elections that consisted of just a handful of people affirming the nominated slate.

  • There was a great deal of election reform.  In past elections, in the rare event that an officer seat was challenged there was absolutely no election oversight.  This year, for the first time, the elections were run pro bono by a law firm.  There is still a way to go in election reform in order to give petition candidates a fare chance, but this year was a groundbreaking first step in the right direction.

  • The current leadership had to work very hard to retain their seats.  That means that they are not going to take those seats for granted.  If they want to retain those seats in next year's election they will have to be a more active leadership that works hard on behalf of the people that elected them.  This will be good for everyone.

  • The RCA made front page news in some national Jewish papers.  The coverage was inaccurate and served the current leadership's cause by portraying the popular petition candidates as fanatic right wing insurgents.  But - the RCA made front page news in a national Jewish paper.  That means that people are interested in what is going on in our organization. 

  • Lest anyone ever say that the RCA is a monolithic organization, our election results clearly demonstrate that there are differences of opinions among the membership.  The press tried to portray our internal debate as a bad thing.  In fact, our internal debates demonstrate what a great organization the RCA is.  1,000 Rabbis, each with his own distinct set of views and opinions on every thinkable issue, and we all still manage to get along and belong to one group.  That is a testament to our commitment to the Jewish value of civil and passionate disagreement and I am proud to be a member of an organization whose by laws allow for dissension and disagreement. 
I have every intention of running again next year.  I have already compiled a petition of 25 members and will submit my name on Monday. 
In the meantime, I will continue my regular involvement with the RCA.  I am founder and head of the new RCA Social Media Affinity Group (see the website I started for it at and I hope to be able to get on the convention committee this year.

Though I was not elected, this year's election was a great victory for the RCA as an organization, for each of its 1,000 members, and for the ten of thousands of people in North America and around the world that are served by Modern Orthodox Rabbis.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Rashi Questions for Parshat Balak

According to Rashi...
1. What kal vachomer did Balak make? (22:2)
2. Why did Moav consult specifically with Midian?  (22:4)
3. How did Bilaam embarrass himself in the eyes of the officers that were with him?  (22:29)
4. In what way are the children of Israel like lions?  (23:24)
5. What three evil traits did Bilaam have?  (24:2)
6. What was so good about the tents of Israel?  (24:5)
7. How did the ancients worship the god known as Peor?  (25:3)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Steve Jobs, Brave, and the New Feminist Agenda

Brave, Pixar's latest animated film, has an overt feminist agenda.  Concept films created with the intention of indoctrinating young children with progressive ideas are nothing new, but over the years, the ideas that kids are indoctrinated have changed dramatically. 
This is particularly apparent when you compare Brave to Atalanta, a short film from the 1974 classic Free to be You and Me.

Synopsis of Brave:

The hero of the movie is a spoiled rebellious princess named Mereda (Mered is Hebrew for rebellion).  According to tradition, Mereda is expected to offer her hand in marriage to the winner of a tournament of strength - a gesture of good will that traditionally has brought peace between her clan and the neighboring clans.

To get out of this arrangement Mereda purchases a poison cake from a witch in the forest and feeds it to her mother.  To Mereda's delight, her mother gets violently ill from the poison.

The poison's final effects leave her mother transformed into a bear.  Mereda and her mother/bear are then sent on a journey to find the antidote before the spell becomes permanent.  As a bear Mereda's mother is unable to talk ("giggle giggle I don't speak bear mom!") granting Mereda her wish that her mother has to listen to her.

At the end, Mereda's bear/mother learns her lesson and gestures to Mereda in sign language that she should break tradition and do whatever she feels is right.

In a tearful final scene, right before the magic spell becomes permanent ***SPOILER ALERT*** Mereda's mother turns back into a person.

Synopsis of Atalanta:

Atalanta is a clever young princess whose father, the king, wants her to get married.  Atalanta, however, does not want to get married.  To settle their dispute the king arranges a foot race and the fastest runner wins Atalanta's hand in marriage.  Atalanta agrees, so long as she is allowed to compete, and if she wins she can choose not to marry.  The king agrees to her terms. 
In preparation of the race, Atalanta secretly practices every night until she feels that she can run the track faster than anyone has ever done before.  Unbeknown to Atalanta, every morning a determined young boy named John does the same thing.
Their hard work pays off and on the day of the race Atalanta and John tie for first place.  The king is pleased, but both John and Atlanta say that they are not sure if they are ready for marriage.  They go on a pleasant date together and part as friends.  They go off separately to see the world leaving the ending open to the possibility that one day they may get together and marry.

Brave is a shameless rip off of Atalanta

Both Brave and Atalanta seem to have anti marriage agendas but there are striking differences that demonstrate how warped the feminist agenda has become since the 1970s when Atalanta was made.
  • In Atalanta, while the king is overweight, he comes across as a reasonable person, albeit with some outmoded views.  In Brave, every male character without exception is an ugly, toothless, clumsy, and grotesque caricature.  All the men are foolish, arrogant, drunken, prone to violence, and easily manipulated by women. 

  • Atalanta has a reasoned and respectable disagreement with her father that is settled by a fair compromise.  Mereda is a spoiled brat who is disrespectful of her parents.  She is determined to get her way through temper tantrums, screaming arguments, running away, and ultimately hurting her mother. 

  • Although Atalanta's father is humbled at the end, Atalanta is also humbled by John.  Mereda is never humbled in any way.  Nobody in the film is as wise or as talented as Mereda.  She never takes responsibility for her actions and there are never any consequences to her reckless behavior. 

  • Atalanta leaves to see the world and presumably goes on to accomplish great things on her own.  The end of Brave shows Mereda moving back into her parents home and going back to carefree princes life of eating junk food and playing with her toys.  Mereda's future seems to be a perpetual childhood.

  • Atalanta goes off to see the world, but not before she learns that the possibility of love for her exists.  She enjoyed her time with John, and perhaps one day she will marry him, or another guy like him.  The worst part about Brave is that there is no possibility for love for Mereda.  Her world does not contain a single character, male or female, that Mereda can actually learn to love.  There is no compelling reason that Mereda should ever want to grow up and marry.
My wife and I saw Brave and as parents we were outraged by the way that Brave elevated mischief and disrespect to adults.  Mereda and her comic relief baby brothers torment the adults, particularly the hapless pathetic maid who is charged with pampering them.  It seems like there is nothing wrong with taunting the maid because she is fat and mute and not a real person.

But we were also profoundly saddened that this movie, with spectacular animation and with millions of dollars of marketing behind it, is going to be seen by millions of impressionable children in this country. 
Perhaps in the 1970s we needed Atalanta to teach us that not every woman is ready for marriage at 19 or 20.  Take some time first to get educated before you build a family. 
But in 2012 with divorce rates climbing ever higher and an increasing amount of kids growing up to be adult children who refuse to leave their parents' nest - do we really need a film that romanticizes selfishness, perpetual childhood, and a world without marriage? 

Right before Brave's closing credits we learn that the movie was dedicated to Steve Jobs.  Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs courageously challenged the values of the Steve Jobs i-culture.  Films like Brave are initiating kids into that culture at the youngest and most impressionable ages.

When my wife and I left the movie we passed a long line of young girls on line at the adjacent theatre.  They were waiting for the midnight opening of the new film, Magic Mike, a movie about a male stripper who teaches a younger performer how to party, pick up women, and make easy money.. 
"Thank Goodness" we thought.  "At least they are not going to see Brave."