Return on Investment

by Yaakov Menken on April 11, 2014 at 5:03 pm


In the Haggadah, we recount the Ten Plagues that G-d inflicted upon the Egyptians. The Toldos Adam quotes the Medrash which says that these plagues, like all of G-d’s rewards and punishments, were done “measure for measure.”

  1. The Egyptians made the Israelites carry water, and did not give them time to bathe themselves, so the water turned to blood.
  2. The Egyptians shouted and yelled at them and did not give them rest, day or night, so they were afflicted with frogs that kept them up day and night.
  3. They made them clean the markets and streets, and animal excrement is a fertile breeding ground for lice, so they were struck with lice.
  4. They made them capture dangerous animals for them, risking their lives, so there was a plague of wild animals.
  5. They made them labor alongside their animals and shepherd their animals, so their animals died.
  6. They struck them until their bodies were covered by bruises, welts, and boils, so they were afflicted with boils.
  7. They hit them with stones, so they were struck with hail — stones of ice (he adds that they are called “stones” in the Book of Joshua).
  8. They made them farm the fields, growing their grain and planting trees, so their crops were afflicted
  9. They made the eyes of Israel dark with exhaustion and sadness, so they were afflicted with darkness.
  10. Finally, they struck Israel, who G-d calls “my child, my firstborn,” so their firstborn were killed.

We also read in the Haggadah that no matter how much we already know, it is a Mitzvah to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt at the Pesach Seder, and the more one goes on and speaks about it, “behold, this is praiseworthy.” This translation, while accurate, is incomplete. Because the word we translate as “praiseworthy,” “meshubach,” comes from the word “shevach,” which refers to the increase and improvement in a field, vineyard or orchard, or even on top of a financial investment. The “shevach” is the profit.

Behold, this is “meshubach:” The Haggadah is telling us that if we spend extra time talking about the Exodus, describing it to our children, bringing to life for ourselves and others what it means to go from slavery to freedom, to become His Nation — this will pay dividends. There will be a profit. We and our families will be inspired not only during Passover, but throughout the year.

Our Sages also tell us that G-d’s rewards are greater than His punishments — everything is “measure for measure,” but there’s a stingy measure and a generous measure, and the latter is used for blessings. So if the plagues meted out on the Egyptians seem harsh, G-d’s blessings are much greater. When we talk “extra” about the Exodus at the Seder, says the Haggadah, we will be richly rewarded!

More on the Charedi Draft

by Yaakov Menken on April 11, 2014 at 4:00 pm

I had this as a comment to Rabbi Landesman’s post, but Rabbi Adlerstein encouraged me to elevate it to a post unto itself. He did say that Rabbi Landesman may go “a second round” as well — so let me say now that much as I might wish to continue, it is already known in the Menken house that my study, which is the one room that is my sole responsibility to clean, is also the last to be ready for bedikas chametz. Should Rabbi Landesman wish to have it, I’ll have to surrender the last word.

Nonetheless, what Rabbi Landesman appears to have overlooked is that the problem of the day is neither motzi dibat ha’Aretz nor motzi dibat ha-medinah, but rather, motzi dibat ha-haredim l’dvar HaShem, the bad-mouthing of the Charedim who, on advice of their Gedolim, continue not to go into the Army. Rabbi Landesman seems to level no criticism against those who reside outside our world yet critique it (often in the most bizarre fashion) at every occasion, including the present one — on the contrary, he only seems to find fault with those of us in Chutz L’Aretz who presume to defend the position of the Gedolim (and the members of the Moetzos in question, at last count, do all reside in Eretz Yisrael).

Based on interaction between Rabbi Landesman and myself, I believe it reasonable to conclude that, in both appearance and in fact, I was one of those criticized for playing armchair quarterback — residing in Chutz L’Aretz (a decision made due to the needs of my Kiruv work) yet commenting upon situations in Israel based upon “hearsay evidence, isolated incidents or the agenda driven reporting of the chareidi and non-chareidi press.”

I’m sure Rabbi Landesman recalls that he and I disagreed on the situation in Emanuel — up until the government sent a Yemenite Rabbi to jail for racism and the farce of the entire enterprise was revealed. By that time, the sources for my research and the first-person accounts were well known. In this case, let me just say that Rabbi Landesman does not know my sources, what I know, or how I know it — but none of “hearsay,” “isolated incidents” or “agenda-driven reporting” apply.

Rabbi Landesman writes that he is “deeply troubled by the total self-denial characteristic of many elements in the yeshiva world that we – the chareidi world of which I consider myself a member in good standing – may well be at least partially at fault for the success of Yair Lapid and his cohorts.” I’m going to return to something I wrote in reply to Rabbi Landesman almost precisely four years ago:

One thing I can tell you with certainty: we are not viewed with antipathy because of our failures; we are viewed with antipathy because of our successes. How do I know? Simple: 25 years ago, today’s problems were barely on the radar, yet the antipathy was much the same. If anything has changed, it is that the Chinuch Atzmai schools are blossoming, attracting ever more non-religious Israeli families to “abandon” the secular system. It is that the Rabbi of the Western Wall is now able to preserve Jewish practice at our holiest site. It is that the number of those serving the Jewish people in the halls of a yeshiva rather than on a military base increases every year, rather than dying on the vine as the Zionists expected (Despite the Charedi Nachal units, with their apparently very positive history of discipline and performance).

The supporters of Lapid are not a new breed. His father, Shulamit Aloni, and others were decrying charedi parasites a generation ago. And people of good will in both the IDF and the charedi community were trying to find a mutually-acceptable solution — thus the start of Nahal Charedi, despite all its problems and rough patches.

We seem to agree that Nachal was designed with “young men who did not find their place in the olam hayeshivot” in mind. A close relative (whose son contemplated joining Nachal) put it that the program attracts the same sort of yeshiva dropouts being supported by yeshiva-work and other study programs in America which help yeshiva boys to not drop out completely. This matches closely an article in Times of Israel which appeared after several MKs invited a cluster of reporters to observe the “largest-yet draft of ultra-Orthodox soldiers.” The reporter dryly observed that “those glimpsed entering the base… did not appear to have left a very observant yeshiva in the recent past” [the accompanying photo explains nicely], and quoted another as having told the MKs that “The army is running a program that brings (wayward ultra-Orthodox) back into a fold, and that’s very nice, but there were no ultra-Orthodox drafted today.”

I know where I’ve done my research, and where I haven’t. But it is my understanding that the past draft to which Rabbi Landesman refers, “wherein Netzach was forced to create a second battalion,” preceded the current draft law, which only passed a month ago. But even so, we seem to be in agreement that due to rough language and other influences, even the Nachal Charedi program is not a great environment for “good” yeshiva boys.

Has there been another Kol Isha incident, of the kind that caused the Chief Rabbi of the IAF, Lt. Moshe Ravad, to resign from the Shachar IAF program due to its broken promises? Perhaps not. But Tzippy Diskind Yarom has documented thirteen recent incidents which, in her words, indicate that “the Army is not prepared for Charedim, does not want Charedim, and does not want them [to be] Charedim.” The list has been translated by Israel Matzav, and I suggest a careful perusal by anyone who believes I was relying upon hearsay or isolated incidents. Soldiers of Nachal Charedi were taken to observe a baptism and an all-day “educational seminar” in a church, placed in courses with women, and required to choose between making a kitchen kosher on their own time or eating treif. And in a throw-back to the good old days, several had their payos shaven off. Would Rabbi Landesman honestly have us believe that these are merely “problems” opposite “a great deal of good will and desire to remove all of the obstacles?”

All of the above explains the position of the Gedolim that, as HaRav Aharon Feldman shlit”a stated, IDF service is at present a situation of spiritual pikuach nefesh. I suppose his words, as well, could be set aside as those of a “chutz-nik,” as he is now the Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel and member of the American Moetzes following some 5 decades in Israel — but I don’t think his words should be so cavalierly dismissed.

There were, and remain, many opportunities for measured and intelligent change — all of which cannot happen while under fire. There was agreement from the Gedolim that they could understand the State reducing financial support of yeshivos, but not criminalization of students. Shaked herself did not want the criminalization clause, outside experts on our community warned it would be counter-productive, and Lapid quite deliberately declared war against the idea of students sitting in yeshiva. Let’s agree that is what he did. Before you have a treaty, you have to have a cease-fire, and right now Lapid is up on the ramparts with guns blazing.

I’d like to polish this further, but Shabbos is also too close at hand!

A Letter to a Troubled Charedi Father

by Yaakov Menken on April 8, 2014 at 5:27 pm

I received an email from a Charedi man with two sons in learning (one in Lakewood), who is very troubled by the current rejection of the draft. It is obvious that he does not count himself among those who do not understand that learning Torah all day requires extreme dedication and personal sacrifice, and is providing a profound service to the Jewish people — including by helping protect it. In other words, his problem is not with those who are successful in learning, but with those who are not. Why are they not in the Army, and why are the Gedolim, at present, making no effort to send them where they belong? This is a point addressed briefly by Rabbi Doron Beckerman in his larger post on the draft issue, but deserves greater elaboration.

This is my reply:

In an ideal world, it is obvious that any charedi boy who is not successful in his studies, and is prepared to go out to work, ought to be doing military service in any situation where everyone else is subject to conscription. That is indeed simple fairness; the IDF is preserving the security of Israel, and those who do not protect Israel by learning should certainly participate.

But, and this is a particularly large but, in order to respect the religious liberty of all people, a civilized nation has to provide the opportunity for a soldier to preserve his own religious values to the maximum extent possible — in our case, Torah and Mitzvos. If we expect Brazil and Denmark to respect the rights of religious soldiers or exempt them from mandatory service, we can and should expect the same of Israel.

In other words, the State of Israel should be expected, at a bare minimum, to provide a proper and kosher environment where a person can remain observant while serving in the Army. The problem is that it has thus far failed to achieve this quite basic goal. We know about the Hesder officers who were disciplined for excusing themselves from hearing a woman sing. A friend of mine in Hesder (Yeshivat HaKotel) told me that because he wasn’t fit for a combat unit, he spent a year in an office with a young woman who found it uncomfortable to keep her pants closed. And besides the two officers who resigned from involvement with Nachal Charedi because the IDF wasn’t keeping its promises, Rabbi Akiva Path described in detail his son’s horrible experience. He had nothing but tuna fish and corn for weeks, there was insufficient time for the most basic davening, he was challenged to violate Shabbos and Yom Tov repeatedly, and he would have had to go AWOL to perform the Mitzvah of hearing the Megillah on Purim — not because of any military need, but because of the arbitrary decision of the base commander.

What the US Army was anxious to provide to soldiers in Iraq was denied a charedi soldier on a base next to a community with religious residents — for no reason whatsoever. Participating in Nachal Charedi directly impeded his ability to perform Mitzvos. No one who values the Mitzvos of the Torah can declare that acceptable under any circumstances whatsoever. It’s a deal-breaker — and this is why there is, at present, no “deal.” It’s why the next Path boy got an exemption.

What is an appropriate solution? The IDF must revise Nachal Charedi to make it a truly acceptable framework for an observant Jew. Israel is not a Third World country. It is not Tzarist Russia. It claims to respect freedom of religion. Anything that is a “right” is, by definition, something that we must honor and respect 100% of the time. Not “most of the time.” Not “at the discretion of the commander” when there isn’t the least military need. If you respect the rights of another only until you don’t, you’re not respecting their rights at all.

If the IDF creates a solid Nachal Charedi program, then the government can expand the financial benefits, call it the route into the working world, and guess what? There will be a “deal”, and the program will expand naturally. That is, in fact, the road that was quietly being traveled to address the problem — before this government came in and bulldozed that roadway.

The current government is making no positive changes to Nachal Charedi to address its problems — rather, it is saying we are going to take charedim out of yeshiva, whether or not they are truly not learning and ready to go out to work, and put them in an unacceptable environment more consonant with the values of the secular Israeli. And to put a cherry on top, the Army declares it has no need for the additional manpower — but no matter, the government will compel young men to compromise their religious values to “share” a burden that is, in actuality, “shared” by a dwindling number of front-line troops.

At some point, it becomes obvious that since the Army doesn’t need the manpower, and religious values are being trampled rather than respected, that there is another agenda: social engineering. It’s about changing the Charedi world into something it isn’t (and some have been quite blatant about this). The wolf is wearing sheep’s clothing, bejeweled with platitudes about “sharing the burden” and “participation” and “valuing the IDF.” Don’t be fooled. It’s the value of Torah that is at stake, not that of the Army.

The (Not So) Subtle Racism of the Draft Bill

by Yaakov Menken on April 6, 2014 at 5:35 pm

In describing the effects of the new draft bill one month ago, I considered only the response of what we would call the “core” charedi community — families in which both parents and children consider themselves bound to follow the directives of the Gedolei HaDor. An article in Ami Magazine about Rav Ovadiah Yosef zt”l, considered the leading authority of Sephardic Jewry until his passing in October of last year, alerted me that I had not considered the disproportionate impact that the law will have on the Sephardic community.

What I described was accurate, and is already coming to pass. That could almost be a pun, as my statement that “the budding Torah scholars will very happily choose jail, and be fêted as heroes for doing so,” was proven in the person of Yaakov Yisrael Paz, who was arrested for following the directive of HaRav Shmuel Auerbach shlit”a not to report to an induction center. He was released after ten days, and promptly escorted to an audience with Rav Auerbach himself, carried by a crowd of singing and dancing bochurim happy that one of their friends had sanctified G-d’s name by going to jail for his religious beliefs.

Galei Tzahal tried to get Paz to discuss the disagreement between Rav Auerbach and the consensus of Gedolim, or to admit that he didn’t enjoy being in jail. Both times, Paz brushed them off. His final response to the latter question is worth printing in its entirety:

You don’t get it! It isn’t slogans but my belief, our belief. We were 22 in my room and I earned the respect of all. They admired me for sticking with my beliefs. Actually the jail time was uplifting and inspiring. We davened every day and we had a minyan too.

You just do not understand, you will not break us. We are stronger than you and them. We have rabbonim and Torah on our side. We will not serve. We will not fold and we will continue adhering to the words of our gedolim, not the IDF.

Much as I’d like to pat myself on the back for my prescient insight, the only ones surprised by this are those who thought financial or even criminal sanction could measure up to the words of leading Gedolim. Yet as I said, that only pertains to the “core” of the charedi community, which skews Ashkenazic. Thus Rav Moshe Yosef quoted his father, Rav Ovadiah zt”l, as saying that this law is a much bigger problem for Sephardim than Ashekenazim: “The Ashekenazim are strong. They know how to fight against [the government] and they do. But the Sephardim we brought to Torah and to yeshivot can be snatched back more easily. It could bring down the whole level of the Sephardic community.”

For all the attention that we give to American, Russian, and Israeli Ashkenazi Baalei Teshuvah, we could overlook the fact that the Ma’ayan HaChinuch HaTorani, the network of over 130 Sephardic Torah schools in Israel, is having the most transformative impact upon its community. It explains in part why the Sha”s political party is supported by hundreds of thousands of Sephardic Jews who are not traditionally observant themselves. The Sephardic outreach effort is aided by two things: the level of education and overall atmosphere provided by Ma’ayan stands head and shoulders above that of secular Israeli schools, and Sephardim, for the most part, never left Judaism for ideological reasons in the first place.

Why did Sephardim leave observance? Because the Jewish Agency sent children ahead of their parents and planted them on secular kibbutzim, surrounded by Ashkenazi adults committed to rescuing them from themselves (which sounds familiar only because it actually is). In those days, their techniques included offering delicacies for consumption uniquely on Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur, holding down boys and shaving off their peyos (which Yemenites call Simanim, signs), and confiscating modest clothing from girls to the point that former MK Rabbi Yitchak Peretz, a Moroccan immigrant, reported that his sister slept in her sole remaining skirt for months so that she would wake when they tried to steal it. And let’s not forget the Yemenite Baby Affair.

It is thus unsurprising that so many Sephardic parents are willing to send their children to Torah schools, where those boys who excel naturally wish to continue their studies in senior Yeshivot. At the same time, of course, children from less observant homes who spent more time on secular studies will naturally lag a bit behind for the first year, which makes them perfect targets for Dov Lipman’s infamous skills test. In their case, such a test has all the fairness of poll taxes in the deep South, and would have similar results.

And as Rav Yosef zt”l pointed out, these boys are naturally much more vulnerable to this newest round of inducements and threats from Israel’s enlightened elite, now represented by Yesh Atid. Receiving PM Netanyahu during the shiva of his son Rav Yaakov zt”l, Rav Ovadiah told the Prime Minister that “what is planned for yeshiva students hurts me even more” than losing his son. So it is not merely true that the law deliberately crossed the red lines which both Charedi leaders and thirty “leading experts and analysts of the haredi community” warned would provoke open conflict. The law not merely set back all current efforts to integrate charedim into job training and the work force, coercing them to join an Army that denies any need. The law also singles out an ethnic group that has suffered greatly from Israel’s elite in the past for further degradation.

This is not the first time something like this has happened in Jewish history, and efforts to single out the weakest among us are not recalled favorably: “vayezanev b’cha kol hanechshalim acharecha, v’ata ayef v’yagea,” “and he attacked the weakest among you, those stumbling in the rear, when you were tired and weak” [Deut. 25:18].

Yes, I am quite aware that this is a reference to Amalek, the greatest enemy of the Jews. It is not my fault that the disproportionate, race-based impact of this law makes the shoe such a perfect fit.

We Can Choose Our Direction

by Yaakov Menken on March 28, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Having discussed whether animals are pure or impure, whether they are kosher to eat or not, the Torah now turns to discuss the purity and impurity of human beings.

up-or-downYet there is a fundamental difference between the purity or impurity of man vs. animal. An animal is either kosher, or not — its state is determined from birth. And when it dies, a kosher animal becomes impure if it was not slaughtered correctly — meaning that only human intervention prevents it from becoming impure. In both life and death, an animal does not change its own state. A human being, on the other hand, can become pure or impure repeatedly throughout his or her lifetime.

This distinction between the purity of animals versus human beings is parallel to the fundamental difference in our natures. An animal is a creature of instinct; it performs the mission that G-d gave it without conscious thought. Only human beings get to choose how to behave, which is both a blessing and a curse.

A human being combines a physical body and a Divine soul, and repeatedly chooses which nature to follow. We can attach ourselves to the Divine, or (ch”v) pursue our base instincts. In death the body and soul separate — the purity of the soul leaves the impurity of the body. As a result, the corpse reflects the deepest level of impurity. Not only physical contact, but even traveling over a grave or sharing a room with a body is sufficient to make a person impure.

Throughout our lives, we, unlike the animals, can choose to make ourselves more G-dly and pure. May we always make the right choices!

The Sign Has It Wrong

by Yaakov Menken on March 21, 2014 at 11:25 am

A friend took the attached photo at the enclosure for the collared peccary, a species native to Central and South America (as you can see on the map), in the Jerusalem Zoo. In red letters and in three languages, the sign declares: the peccary is not a pig!!

not_a_pigThere’s only one problem: the sign is wrong.

Biological taxonomy distinguishes between the Sus domesticus (domestic pig) and Pecari tajacu (collared peccary), as it does between Sus domisticus and Sus barbatus (the bearded pig) — but from a Biblical perspective, all three are certainly the “chazir,” the pig mentioned in this week’s Torah reading [Lev. 11:7]. It’s quite understandable why people make the “mistake” of thinking a peccary is a pig, because the domestic pig and peccary appear much more similar to each other than to the bearded pig, and all three look far more similar than assorted varieties of dogs (for example).

The same is true of the camel family. We might think of the camel as an animal with a hump, but all four species of the Camelid family found in the New World (llamas, alpacas, guanacos and vicuñas) have none. When you look at their faces, one would have a very hard time telling any of the four apart from dromedaries and bactrian camels.

In these cases, appearances are not deceiving. What we see with our eyes is what the Torah tells us to expect: that regardless of where you travel, you won’t be able to confuse Kosher animals with anything else. All the animals that look like camels actually are — and they all ruminate but do not have a cloven hoof [11:4]. They are, as the Torah tells us, the only domestic livestock that have this pair of characteristics. [The Torah also identifies two wild animals which ruminate but do not have cloven hooves; there is some debate about what they are.] All varieties of pig, including the peccaries, have the opposite pattern: they have cloven hooves but do not ruminate. In this, they are even more unique, as no animals, domestic or wild, share this combination.

The Talmud (Chulin 59a) takes this even a step further, from the Oral Law: you can check the mouth of an animal whose hooves have been cut off: if it has no upper front teeth and you know it isn’t a camel, it’s a Kosher animal. And of course, if you know what a pig looks like, you needn’t check the mouth: anything else that has cloven hooves is Kosher.

This is true all over the world — even on continents unknown to Eurasians until hundreds of years ago. The Torah boldly proclaimed that no other livestock have one characteristic and not the other except these two animals, which no tribe wandering the Middle East at the time could possibly have known. The Torah even knew that the peccary, a family of animals found only in the New World, is indeed a pig!

Purim Torah

by Yaakov Menken on March 16, 2014 at 10:57 am

If one were trying to prove to the Chareidi community that the new draft bill is not an attempt at coercive social engineering, that it is not motivated by a desire to change Chareidi life, or that there is a real effort to develop understanding and to work for mutual benefit, then one could scarcely imagine a more counterproductive effort than recent pieces attempting to “prove” from Torah sources that the unanimous position of the Gedolim is, in a word, wrong.

The Teshuvah of Reb Moshe zt”l referenced by R’ Yair Hoffman is clear and unambiguous. To claim that R’ Moshe was referring only to “scholars” or “metzuyanim” makes a pretzel from the straight words of his Teshuvah. R’ Moshe says that his words apply to “מי שלומד בישיבה גדולה ועוסק בתורה,” “whomever sits in yeshiva gedolah and involves himself with Torah.” According to R’ Moshe, the Gemara makes no distinction between Zekeinim and Tzurbah MiRabanon, between elders and the young — all are Rabanon, and “רבנן לא צריכי נטירותא” (they need no defense nor to participate in defense) applies to them all. It is his position that one who has a desire to learn Torah and become great in Torah should attend yeshiva, not go to the Army. That’s what the Teshuvah says in black and white, all the efforts to obscure its words to the contrary. Chazal say “אין דבר עומד בפני הרצון,” “nothing stands before the will” — the sole criterion that determines who should be allowed to sit in yeshiva is the desire to learn.

But that’s not even the point. How any of us understand R’ Moshe — or, for that matter, the Rambam, Rashi, or Rav Kook — is completely irrelevant. R’ Moshe’s leading disciples have their opinion, and it is unanimous. The very idea that one can “debate” halacha with the current Gedolei Torah, people to whose toenails none of us reach in understanding of Torah, demonstrates understanding of neither what it takes to become a Torah scholar of that stature, nor what it means to be Chareidi.

To be Chareidi means to recognize the authority of Gedolei Torah in all Torah matters, to accept the position expressed so clearly by Rav Herschel Schachter (among others) that basic life decisions are Torah matters and subject to Rabbinic guidance, and thus to subscribe to the guidance of Gedolei Torah, period, full stop. And frankly, to be Chareidi requires a degree of humility. It requires that a person accept his own limitations, rather than try to explain why neurosurgeons don’t understand neurosurgery, why mathematicians don’t know math, or (l’havdil) the Gedolei Torah don’t understand Torah.

For many observant Jews to disagree with our Gedolim is hardly a new phenomenon. The majority of the Jews chose to ignore the directive of the Rabbanon that one should not go to the party held by King Achashverosh, although the food offered to Jews was at the highest standards of kashrus. The majority of Jews thought they knew better, felt they had to participate to honor the King and participate in state matters, and went to the party. Later, most Jews thought that Mordechai was being needlessly obstinate about bowing to Haman. One who subscribed to that position would conclude that it was not attendance at the party, but Mordechai’s refusal to bow, which nearly led to the annihilation of the Jewish people. The celebration of Purim centers around the notion that the Torah leaders of each generation see clearly what the rest of us do not.

The problem is that the rest of the “case” for conscription of yeshiva students is no more logical. The Army does not need more soldiers. It has enough discipline problems without attempting to control battalions of Chareidi soldiers who will disobey orders every Shacharis, Mincha and Maariv, to say nothing of Shabbos and Yom Tov. [I heard recently from a father whose son contemplated joining Nachal Chareidi that many/most of the boys in the program are similar to the American teens at risk who are helped by mixed yeshiva-work programs. These are boys who were less likely to adhere to Rabbinic standards; the Army has no experience whatsoever with a battalion of regular bochurim.] Yair Lapid spent his time in the Army writing newspaper articles, yet no one questions why he did not serve in a combat unit; that is reserved for those writing Chidushei Torah instead. So they’re left with no choice but to attempt to delegitimize the unanimous opinion of all Chareidi leaders, our Gedolim, that Torah study is service to the Jewish nation at a more profound level, and that all those who choose to remain in yeshiva should be permitted to do so.

This attempt to argue that the current Eynei Ha’Eydah (“Eyes of the Congregation”) have been reading it wrong demonstrates not only disrespect for their tremendous knowledge of Torah, but “al korchach,” as an obvious and necessary consequence, attempts to change the chareidi lifestyle — which begins and ends with following their guidance — exactly the thing proponents of the draft bill are claiming not to want to do. It is no more sensible or rational than the “gay rights” activists who would like us to believe that we have been reading the Book of Leviticus incorrectly for the last few thousand years.

And as Purim Torah goes, it’s not even particularly funny.

Challenging the Obvious

by Yaakov Menken on March 14, 2014 at 10:59 am

Purim_graggerOne of the recurring themes of the Book of Esther is that what we see, what we may believe to be obvious, may be quite the opposite of reality. The very name “Esther” (whose original name was Hadassah) means “hidden” — similar to the verse we find in the Torah, when G-d says “Hasther Astir es panai” — “I will surely hide My face” [Deut 31:18] when the Jews turn away from G-d. The very presence of G-d is hidden throughout the story of Purim, and His name is never mentioned in the Megillah. Instead, when reference is made to “the King” rather than “King Achashverosh,” the commentaries often explain that there is a double meaning: both Achashvesrosh, and the King of Kings.

When we read the Book of Esther, what reason do we see for the King’s decree authorizing the annihilation of the Jewish people? The obvious blame falls upon Mordechai, the scholar. Haman, the King’s closest advisor, walked through the streets and expected everyone to bow before him. Mordechai alone refused to bow, because Haman wore an idol around his neck. How foolish! How extremist! Isn’t it obvious that Haman wanted people to bow to him, not the idol? And because of his obstinate behavior, Mordechai got Haman so angry that Haman planned to kill off not just Mordechai, but all the Jews.

But that, say our Sages, is the opposite of the true cause. It was not Mordechai’s actions that nearly brought about a catastrophe still greater than the Holocaust (for there were no Jews who were not under Achashverosh’s rule), but the behavior of those who did not listen to him!

The Megillah begins with the great party thrown by Achashverosh. This is included not simply because it precipitated the death of Queen Vashti, and thus set the stage for Esther to become Queen. Rather, this party was to celebrate Ashashverosh’s power, and the fact that G-d had abandoned the Jews. Our prophets had foretold a seventy year exile, and Achashverosh miscalculated at what point the seventy years began. By his calculation, the time had elapsed and the Jews had not been redeemed. This is why he showed up wearing the holy vestments of the Kohen Gadol, the high priest, and used the vessels taken from the Holy Temple as the serving utensils at the party!

Mordechai said that no one could go to this party, that it would indicate disloyalty to G-d and lack of faith that He would fulfill his promise. But most of the Jews said, how can we express disloyalty to the king? He promised kosher food, and that no one would have to eat or drink anything they didn’t want to consume — so not going would be ungrateful as well. And so they went. And this, the Sages say, is what actually set the stage for their destruction. What saved them was when they admitted their error, even missing the Passover Seder to fast, as Esther commanded Mordechai to tell them to do.

Sometimes things can appear to be very obvious, yet the truth is just the opposite. Without looking deeper and turning to wise counsel, we could make a terrible mistake. “Venehapech Hu,” “it was all reversed,” doesn’t just refer to Haman’s decree — it means reality may be the opposite of what we perceive!

Megillas Lester

by Yaakov Menken on March 10, 2014 at 3:53 pm

“It’s the best Jewish movie I’ve ever seen, and it has no competition” — such was my daughter’s trenchant review of the awesome Megillas Lester. While that isn’t strictly true, of course (there have been children’s movies like “Agent Emes” around for a while, and I’m sure she has seen them), the claims that this movie is “raising the bar” on quality frum entertainment are, for once, no exaggeration at all.

I’m sure this was a major gamble. As much as Emes Productions (who provided financial backing) may claim to specialize in “low budget” films, the acting, animation and production costs were probably far above anything done for our community thus far. I hope it pays off financially, because the result is a very high quality product — keyn yirbu, our community will undoubtedly demand more on this level.

Chananya (CJ) Kramer of Kol Rom Multimedia has been a creative and comedic genius for a long time. When, as a camp counselor, he was assigned the job of waking campers each morning, he put together a brilliant series of mock radio interviews (with himself as all characters) to be played over the camp loudspeakers. And everyone woke up quickly, because they all wanted to listen!

Here he has written (and directed) a production with an intricate and creative plot, quick pace, and even a particularly catchy song (“Upside Down“) performed by several of the main characters. It is true family entertainment — little kids love the animation and visual effects, teenagers like the plot and music, and their parents enjoy the references to everything from Medrash to modern culture. King Achashveirosh (Yanky Schorr) has a riotously authentic Persian accent, there’s a particularly bad pun involving one of the reasons behind the mitzvos of Purim (which I won’t spoil for you), and who would have expected Alan Rickman’s Severus Snape to show up to play the part of Haman? [Adam Leventhal does an impression so uncanny, you'd be forgiven thinking it was Rickman himself.] The plot uses upon a gimmick first employed by the Wizard of Oz, 75 years ago, but we’ll forgive that — the rest of the film is completely modern and brilliantly original.

At the same time, it follows a rigorously authentic understanding of the Purim story based upon the Megillah, medrash, and even the archaeology of ancient Shushan. CJ even provided a video for those interested in learning what they made up, and what they drew from Chazal, our sages.

I tried to think about how well I would follow the film if I had no Jewish background… once in a while, if you don’t know the Hebrew words, you won’t know what they were saying, but that’s infrequent. It’s clearly targeted at the frum market, but I suspect everyone will enjoy the film, regardless.

As the first Jewish movie of its kind, Megillas Lester ranks at least 4 if not 5 stars — so it’s going to be a very tough act to follow. In fact, there are few people in our community who could pull this off — CJ, you’d better get writing! In the meantime, go see this film, buy it on DVD, download it… you’ll have a great time.

The “Building” of the Children, Destroys

by Yaakov Menken on March 3, 2014 at 2:22 pm

Reading the news of the “Million Man Atzeres,” that was the statement of our Sages that came to mind. “The ‘destruction’ of elders builds, [while] the ‘building’ of children destroys” [Megillah 31b].

The Yesh Atid [There is a Future] party has no future, because it does not understand our past. This is why the other quote that came to mind is from a more proletarian source — reading that Deputy Finance Minister Mickey Levy (of Yesh Atid) said that “thousands of chareidim will be inducted into the IDF and begin doing their part,” the line that came unbidden to my mind was “Oh Mickey, what a pity, you don’t understand!”

It really is a pity. Levy does not understand how the Jewish people managed to survive for 2000 years without a land to call our own, something no other nation in history has done. This was only due to our following the Torah, and the voice of Torah sages in each generation. If they think there is a substitute, they should read the Pew Report and ponder the imminent collapse of heterodox Judaism in America and worldwide. Do they really think that simply by assembling Jews in Israel, so that their children’s friends are Jewish, that’s a sufficient long-term model? Why is Brooklyn the fourth largest Israeli city?

They don’t understand what it means to cling to core values. This is the same foolishness that leads people to believe that if you give Palestinian Muslims a few dollars and a university or two, they will discard their belief that any land conquered by Islam must remain in the hands of Islam, and thus the Jews must be pushed out of Israel. With that same lack of insight, they believe that they will be able to draft charedim with threats of jail sentences. Really?

The budding Torah scholars will very happily choose jail, and be fêted as heroes for doing so. Have the great minds of Yesh Atid so soon forgotten what happened when the courts falsely accused schools in Emmanuel of racist discrimination against Sephardim, which culminated in the jailing of several rabbis, one of whom was Yemenite? People danced in the streets as they escorted those rabbis to jail, because the rabbis refused to compromise our values. Everyone recognized that the result would not be an end to discrimination, but interference by the courts in Torah education, and that was not up for discussion. These boys will be honored for the rest of their lives by their home communities.

Nor does the government understand how we won our wars. They have forgotten that in 1967 there was a shortage of Tfillin after the war — because of the soldiers who wanted them after what they had seen with their own eyes. They have forgotten that in 1973, we should have lost, r”l. They have forgotten that in 1991, thirty-nine missiles fell, primarily on Shabbos, corresponding to the thirty-nine categories of forbidden labor. They have forgotten the number of open miracles we saw at that time as well, and the lack of anticipated casualties. An academic study of the impact of Scud attacks (39 in high-density Israel, 2 deaths; 42 against low-density Saudi Arabia, 28 deaths) stated that “there is considerable anecdotal evidence that good fortune may have played a role,” and concluded, with considerable understatement, that “Israel’s fortunes appear to have been relatively good.” And they have forgotten, if they ever recognized, why things happened that way.

We can empathize with their lack of understanding, but we cannot endanger their lives and our own in order to cater to their foolishness. The Jewish people cannot abandon the Beis Medrash, the primary source of our protection, because they stupidly believe that learning Torah isn’t “doing their part,” rather than the most crucial.

Their “building” has destroyed. If their goal was to get those boys who are truly not cut out for continued learning out of the Beis Medrash and into Nachal Charedi, the specially-designed charedi IDF battalion, they have accomplished the opposite. The united Yeshivish, Chassidish, and Sephardi Gedolei Torah have now declared that no one should enter the IDF, because of the war now being waged against Torah scholarship. What sort of “charedi” person doesn’t listen to the unified position of all Gedolei Torah?

And the “destruction” of the elders, builds. Everyone knows that the IDF does not need all of the inductees it currently drafts, which is why the standards for exemption have become ever more lax in every other situation. It certainly does not need battalions worth of charedim who will unquestionably fail to follow military discipline, because the Army doesn’t follow the same standards as their rabbis. Many within and beyond the government have quite openly said it is an attempt to change our lifestyle, and the rabbis have responded to their declaration of war. They have unified the Torah community; even the Rosh Yeshiva of Merkaz HaRav and leading Dati Leumi rabbonim came to stand for Torah learning.

I am neither a prophet nor a visionary. But I do know that Yesh Atid will be removed from the government without meeting its goals. The Torah of the Jewish people trumps politics, every time.