Thursday, September 24, 2020


Pet Peeve.
When rich people contribute a dollar amount and expect everyone else to contribute the same dollar amount without seeming to realize how math works.
For example, let's say a rich guy's nut is 10k per month, and thanks to his success and acumen he has an extra 10K per month lying around. That $500 donation is 5% of his disposable income for the month.
Now let's look at the normal guy. Say his nut is 7k per month, and he has 1k left over at the end of the month. The rich guy says "fair is fair, let's all give $500" but for the normal guy that's 50% of his disposable income.
Any thoughts on how to teach rich people computations?

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Why did God agree to banish Hagar?

On the first day of Rosh Hashana, we read about the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael. In the received text Sarah urges Abraham to do something unthinkable, and God co-signs the suggestion. 

As per always, the sages were alert to this problem. Let's examine the brilliant solution. 

In the Midrash (Pirkei de-R. Eliezer 29), Judah b. Tema states: "Sarah said to Abraham, 'Write a bill of divorce (get gerushin) for the handmaid, and send away this handmaid." In the Targum (Pseudo-Jonathan), "He sent her away" is rendered "He dismissed her with a bill (gitta)."

As a man of means in the ANE Abraham could have done basically anything he wanted. He could have kept Hagar around as a concubine. He could have added her to a harem. He could have sold her into slavery. But in this midrash, at least, Sarah is having none of that. She says, "Do this right, and by the book. Make sure she is free and clear. Don't make this sad situation worse. Release her fully, completely."

And God's response to this urging from Sarah? "Listen to your wife"

Trump downplayed Covid repeatedly

Here is a Tweet published by the President one month after he told Woodward he knew Covid was worse than the flu and very deadly. Right before Purim

Imagine he had told the truth, instead of putting his own interests first. Imagine this Tweet said "I've known for a month Covid is very deadly and more dangerous than the flu. Please wear masks and limit your social interactions"

Imagine he had behaved responsibly and presidentialy and unselfishly. 

Imagine the saved lives among his OJ admirers, of whom far too many contracted the disease a few days later and died during the first weeks of April.

Why aren't you shaking with anger?

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

A few thoughts about the radical, remarkable, audacious Seder Ha'Avoda, by Ishay Ribo.

I have a few things to say about Seder Ha'Avoda, an amazing reworking and reimagining of the Yom Kippur liturgy by Ishay Ribo. 

First a brief review for the uninitiated. Every Yom Kippur afternoon we recite a liturgy that recreates the High Priest's service. We recite the sacrifices he brought, the confessions he made, and the response of the crowd. It is the centerpiece of the service.

When the High Priest sacrifices, he splashes blood on the altar and counts:

One and one
One and two
One and three, etc

He's counting blood splashes, the splashes of blood that, for various reasons are believed and imagined to effectuate Atonement.

In Ribo's song, the Avoda is told over, but there is no sacrifice. The High Priest makes his confession with the same words that appear in the liturgy:

And thus he would say: “O Lord! Grant atonement for the sins, transgressions, and iniquities which I sinned before you – I and my household.

But when the time comes to count, there is no blood and no splashing. In a beautiful rhyme and rhythm that could only work in Hebrew, Ribo tells us what the crowd, or perhaps the priest himself, is counting:

And if one could recall the flaws, the deficiencies, all the sins and transgressions surely he would count thus: One, one and one, one and two, one and three, one and four, one and five…” and right away he would be ashamed, unable to bear the bitter taste of sin, the shame, the missed opportunity, the loss.

Instead of blood, the priest (or the people) are counting their failures, their sins, their shortcomings, their missed opportunities.

And the crowd responds with the words exactly as they appear in the liturgy:

Then the priests and the people standing in the courtyard, when they heard the name, the explicit Name come out from the mouth of the High Priest, would bow and prostrate themselves, falling on their face ‘Blessed be the name of the glory of his kingdom forever and ever!

Next, comes the second confession and the second count. And while the confession is again verbatim, the count is different yet again:

And if one could recall all the loving-kindness, the goodness, the compassion, and the salvations surely he would count thus: “One, one and one, one and two, one of a thousand, thousands of thousands and myriad myriads of wonderous miracles you have done for us day and night.

And again the people answer in the exact words of the liturgy:

Then the priests and the people standing in the courtyard, when they heard the name, the explicit Name come out from the mouth of the High Priest, would bow and prostrate themselves, falling on their face: ‘Blessed be the name of the glory of his kingdom forever and ever!

The idea here is that Atonement comes from within. We must recognize for ourselves what we have done wrong and recognize for ourselves all that has gone right and engage with both the good and the bad honestly, without vanity or depression, and through this exercise of introspection, a form of Atonement can begin.

This is a new idea, and not what the authors of the liturgy had in mind. They wanted us to remember the pageantry of the Avoda because for them it was witnessing the pageantry itself - the sacrifice and the confessions - that initiated Atonement.

But for Ribo, the idea is modern. We aren't made better by looking outward. We're made better by looking inward.

In the song, both counts are overwhelming. The count of failures is crushing, but the crowd comes to the rescue screaming ‘Blessed be the name of the glory of his kingdom forever and ever! The next count is equally shattering, but this count of blessings is a celebration and again the crowd provides the momentum screaming the same words ‘Blessed be the name of the glory of his kingdom forever and ever!'

For better or for worse. For good or for bad.

‘Blessed be the name of the glory of his kingdom forever and ever!'

Either way

‘Blessed be the name of the glory of his kingdom forever and ever!'

In sickness or in health, for richer or for poorer

‘Blessed be the name of the glory of his kingdom forever and ever!'

And that unconditional response is the beginning of love which is the beginning of Atonement. Loving yourself. Your sins. Your blessings.

To tie this radical idea to something so old, and so revered is nothing short of audacious. And in Ribo's audacity, we have a great gift, because by changing the idea of the Avoda he has given someone who is modern in his thinking a way to connect and find meaning in something old and foreign to contemporary sensibilities. And the miracle is this: his change feels more like a discovery, an uncovering of the essence of the service, rather than an audacious update. (when I think about what is good abut Hasidut, I think about how the great Hasidic masters worked the same trick of making radical changes and updates seem like the uncovering of the original idea.) 

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

The Uman Pilgrimage is Just Wrong: Here are 20 reasons

CHECK THIS OUT: Uman Rosh HaShanah: With the Real Tzaddik

1. It's wrong to go somewhere women aren't welcome.
2. It's wrong to split up your family during the holiday
3. It's wrong to force your sons to go to shul without you
4. It's wrong to leave your wife to handle the holiday alone
5. It's wrong to expect a ghost to intervene with God on your behalf
6. It's wrong to leave Israel for the holiday
7. It's wrong to lower your personal standard of behavior on Rosh Hashana
8. It's wrong to jeopardize your opportunity to say the long erev RH slichos because you were traveling
9. It's wrong to endanger your chances of praying with a minyan on erev Rosh Hashana because you were traveling
10. It's wrong to pray with a looser, less serious minyan that starts later and has a long kiddush davka on Rosh Hashana
11. It's wrong to pray to dead rabbis
12. It's wrong to ask a dead rabbi to act as your personal defense lawyer
13. It's wrong to have a mystical jamboree on someone's grave
14. It's wrong to spend Rosh Hashana drinking, weed-smoking and whoring
15. It's wrong to empower and enrich the crime bosses who control many of Uman's private plane and bus charters and the sale of marijuana.
16. It's wrong to go into debt to fund this trip to a carnival.
17. It's wrong to seek God through simple faith and joy.
18. It's wrong to imagine a trip to Uman will deliver a good living, answers to your questions, and a happy life.
19. It's wrong to replace the effort and the struggle that goes into character growth and repentance with a party trip to a grave
20. It's wrong to run to Uman to escape the hardships of life

CHECK THIS OUT: Uman Rosh HaShanah: With the Real Tzaddik

Monday, September 07, 2020

Why do Breslov Hasidim Slander their Rebbe?

As depicted by his fiercest followers,  Rabbi Nachman of Breslov does not seem like an especially nice man. 

He is said to posses the wonderous power to appear on our behalf before the Supreme judge, and the ability to persuade that Judge to change his mind regarding our fate, yet this lawyerly service is available only to those who travel to Uman? What kind of petty saint is this? Is he a chasidic master or Uman's minister of tourism? Why shouldn't he be able to lawyer for every Jew, indeed for every person, in the world, no matter where they are found? Why wouldn't he want to? Why would he be so stingy with his gift?

It seems a slander for his followers to present him this way and I invite you join me in rejecting the notion that he is actually as ungenerous as this.

Now of course dead tzadikim don't intercede for anyone. The idea violates common sense and clear principle of our faith 

But if you're going to make up a story about a corpse having magic powers at least don't make him stingy and selfish about using them!!

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

I married a Jew.

What does a rational and reasonable anti-Semite sound like? Now there is a question worth asking in the age of Trump! In this article from 1939 (!), a Hitler-sympathizing German American calmly and politely explains why her Jewish American husband is wrong about almost everything.

Wonder how this happy couple ended up, once Hitler's intentions became impossible to wink at?

Here's a taste:
Of course we eventually come to Hitler, Ben and I. In the eyes of Ben, as in the eyes of all his people, Hitler stands for the Jewish equivalent of the Antichrist—a little, strutting monster whose sole purpose and pleasure in life is to flog, imprison, impoverish, humiliate, and plague Israel. Few history books trace the path of persecutions against the Jews as they have occurred throughout the ages. They have occurred in ancient Rome, Poland, Russia, Spain, England, and France, usually whenever Jewry becomes too numerous and too powerful, whenever it becomes, in the eyes of Gentiles, a threat, potential or actual, to Gentile supremacy. I try to tell Ben that Hitler is merely writing another page in a history that will continue so long as the status quo between Jews and Gentiles remains—a status that only the willing shoulders of both protagonists can remove. 
But it is hard for Ben to take the long view. He looks upon Hitler as something malignantly unique, and it is no use trying to tell him that a hundred years hence the world will no more call Hitler a swine for expelling the Jews than it does Edward I of England, who did the same thing in the thirteenth century—an expulsion that remained in strict effect until the time of Cromwell, because a hundred years hence another country will be having its Jewish problem

"'Mother,' I said quietly, 'remember the greatest Man who ever lived was a Jew – Jesus.' That held her for a minute. 'Yes,' she murmured, 'it is the great paradox.'"

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