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Purim…still the Reigning King of Holidays.

6 Mar

Purim is the one day a year that makes being yeshivish the rest of the time worth it. Ok, so we don’t have the warmth of chassidus or the normalcy of Modern Orthodoxy. We are stuck in a non-stop competition to out-Jew each other. But that’s what makes purim so awesome.

The pressure cooker is let up for one day where you get to party, dress up as whatever you want, drive around with your music blasting, dance in the street, give and take food from anyone you like, hand out money to anyone more unfortunate than you, drink until your frenemies turn back to just friends, and reconnect with the world.

I remember a halacha that says if you’re alone on purim, you do all the rituals by yourself. Read the megillah, give yourself a present, have a seudah (meal). That’s just horrible. Purim is about getting drunk enough to let your true self out in order to connect with other drunk people. There are no walls on purim; we’re all one. Man, I sound like a hippy chassid. But it’s true. People who waste their purim trying to score or burn themselves out giving shalach manos to a million people are missing everything.

Purim is the holiest day of the year. I really believe that. If you make the purim connection, you can live on those fumes the whole year. Every other holiday will tap into that connection and give you a little jolt, but it’s all dependent on you going deep inside to plug that cord into something real. All other holidays are between you and God. You have to make an effort to contemplate and meditate and think about it. Because of that, they’re all a little theoretical and removed. Purim is about the human element. You don’t need to think. Thinking just distances you from everyone. The megillah doesn’t mention God’s name once. Because that’s not the point of the story. That’s not how you survive a 2,000 year exile with your soul intact. You do so by getting plastered.

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The Tale Of The Two Angels

30 Nov

Have you ever heard the story of the two angels? As beautiful stories go, it’s actually quite scary.

The medrash brings the story of  two angels who complained to God about his unhealthy obsession with humanity. Why does He put up with us, with our faults, our corruption, our downright evil behavior? And not only that, but hold us in such high regard? Let him be contented with his malachim, his pure angels, who only do God’s will, and live in peace with each other.

At that, God commanded for them to live amongst us and see the point for themselves. So he sent the two angels down to Earth in human form, and both became corrupted and evil beyond anything the world had ever seen.

What is the point of the story? It’s easy to be good when you can sense God’s presence all around you. But it’s also hollow, because you are being controlled by fear, and haven’t changed at all internally. And if the bonds of fear would let up for an instant, you would revert to a corrupt, subhuman state. Only when you live life as a free person do you have the option of actually being good. If one ordinary person, struggling to survive in this competitive dark confusing jungle, manages to go beyond themselves one time and help another struggler out for no other reason than “it’s the right thing to do”, that shines brighter than anything else in the universe.

The two angels is a scary little tale, to be sure. As a kid, I was both fascinated and spooked by it. But you know, as scary stories go, it’s actually quite beautiful.

How Noach Got His Name

30 Oct

noah's ark old art

I have a dvar torah. Sorry, I do that every once in a while here. But don’t worry, it’s short, and I think you might like it. Okay.

The way Noach got his name according to Bereishis was that his father Lemech said “Ze YiNACHameinu…” Borrowed Mechon-mamre translation: “And he called his name Noah, saying: ‘This one shall comfort us from our work and from the toil of our hands, from the ground which the LORD hath cursed.'”

Pirkei d’rabbi eliezer and Abarbanel (and Artscroll, or I’d probably never know this) explain that there was a tradition at the time that the curse given to the ground because of Adam’s sin would end when Adam died.

About 10 verses later (6:6-7), after the Torah says that the world became eviler and eviler, it says:

6 And it repented (“VayeNACHem”)the LORD that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him to His heart.

7 And the LORD said: ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and creeping thing, and fowl of the air; for it repenteth (NECHamti) Me that I have made them.’

Nachem“, “comforted”, is a weird word to use for “regretted”. The commentaries have to explain what it’s used to mean here.

I think that this isn’t a coincidence. The people put too much stock in tradition, instead of learning from history. They said, ‘God cursed us, we’re stuck with whatever He wants, and there’s no way out until Adam’s gone and God stops being angry. Nothing to do but wait till it’s over and everything will be all better.’

That’s why God uses the same word- ironically. “Fools!” -that’s what God usually says at this point in divrei torah- “You’re in charge of the world! Adam sinned and got punished. Keep sinning, and you’ll continue to be punished. You want to change things? Stop having your powerful people oppress the weak, and rape the women (6:1-5). Fix yourselves and be good to each other, and I won’t punish you. Jesus H. Buddha Mohammed, is that so hard?”

While We’re At It…

11 Aug


I sent a piece into a new right wing “thinking magazine”. I didn’t really expect it to be published, but I figured what the hey, I’ll test the waters. The editor immediately thanked me for the submission and said he’d pass it around the “rabbinical board” for approval and get back to me within a week. He didn’t, so I emailed him again. He ignored my email.

That pissed me off. Fine, you don’t want to publish my piece, but have the decency to talk to me. There wasn’t anything wrong Apikursus-wise with it, see for yourself below. Ok, it may not be exactly party line, but the magazine explicitly says it’s goal is to discuss hot button Hashkafah issues openly. I’ll admit, I gave parts of it a bloggy tone, presented some points without sources, and wrote it under a pseudonym. But that could easily have been cleaned up.

The obvious, and only, answer is that the magazine is actually meant to champion existing Hashkafic stances- you know, a propaganda machine. The editors realize that they can’t tell me this straight out, but they also feel that they don’t have to make any excuses because they’re doing the Lord’s work. So they just cut off contact with me. I guess I should be thankful they didn’t give me the royal slifkin, but it’s messed up that even these self-proclaimed smart yeshivish people feel they have to turn off part of their brains to get into heaven. (I’ll have to do a while nother post on that.) Well, that wraps it up for this week. Take it easy, and I hope you have a good Shabbos.

Here’s the piece (I should warn you, it’s a few pages long, so find a couch and get comfortable):

Is Religion For Nerds?

The original title for this piece was going to be, “Is Religion For Women?”. Then I realized that I should change it because it’s unforgivably declasse to use the plight of a group of people who are beaten down as a joke. Thank God, making fun of beaten-down men is still perfectly acceptable, so I can keep my flashy title.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous argument that ‘God is dead’ rests on his observation that religion is popular when people are without power. Since they can’t compete with the masters in the real game of life, they invent slave values that allow them to be masters in their own domain. In the modern day, however, he argues that intelligent people will realize the farce and discard God. Is this true?

Well, support for this idea can come from the observable fact that women and old people, who cannot compete as well in the rat race, tend to be more religious. Also, men who compete badly can become ‘religion nerds’ as well.

These people have similar characteristics to others who have been forced out of the game. They generally excel in the physically non-threatening world of ideas, like academia, teaching, and other salaried positions, while generally avoiding risk-taking such as entrepreneurial ventures. In these sheltered positions, they resume the competition by exercising their power over others. Religion stresses the idea of another, invisible but higher, world with non-competitive goals. This would naturally attract these ‘weaker’ people.

Another fact that is often quoted is that in times of oppression and poverty, such as the dark ages, or slavery, religion is nearly universal. In times of wealth and possibility, religion is discarded. Similarly, in ancient times, people didn’t have technology to rely on and were therefore very fearful and God-fearing. They also didn’t understand how things worked and were superstitious and polytheistic. However, as technology makes people less fearful and superstitious, God is left behind as well.

I think that such an argument is very one-sided. For good reason, no doubt. These aspects of religion do resonate with disenfranchised people. Western society has been corrupt and disenfranchising for a long time. As such, Jewish (and Christian as well) theology has been morphed, by stressing certain aspects and de-stressing others, into being a refuge for the meek.

Such morphing is inevitable. The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim, 3rd Chelek, Perek 46 [*1], actually says that certain Mitzvos in the Torah were adapted specifically for the people at that time. What would happen later, when those specific concerns were not Noge’ah? Naturally, those mitzvos would still be followed, as per the Rambam’s own position in Yesodei Hatorah, Perek 9, among other places, that nothing in the Torah will ever be changed. However, with the original motivation gone, it logically follows that they will be de-stressed in importance. Similarly, the Gemara indicates that a shift occurred when the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed, “Since the day the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One has nothing in His world except the four Amos of Halachah” (Berachos 8a) And in our own time, we find that Torah learning for the masses is stressed more than in previous generations.

However, there is a Torah for the “Alpha male” as well. The Torah is meant for those living in this world. In fact, the spiritual world is merely hinted to in the Chumash. The rewards and punishments listed are all events that take place in this world. This world is our domain. This is what we are supposed to fix.

As we know, the Torah has two categories of commandments, Bein Adam Lamakom, and Bein Adam Lechavero. If we look at the BAL”C section of the Aseres Hadibros, which is usually the more rationally intelligible one, we find that we are not to covet anything our friend has. The Torah is setting the bar very high. Similarly, we are commanded (Vayikra 19:18) “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. I am Hashem”. Regarding the latter part, R’ Akiva famously said, “This is the great principle of the Torah”.What is the underlying message that the Torah is trying teach us? I understand it to be unity. Unity between ourselves, and unity between us and God. By incorporating this sense of unity into our minds, we can subjugate the competitive physical side to the spiritual one, and create a perfect society to welcome Moshiach [*2].

This idea seems to be against nature. Species compete. Those who succeed get resources and are allowed to mate. In fact, many human societies over the course of history have taken such an approach to gain an edge. Ironically, none of these societies advanced very far.

Societies that did advance, such as our own, allowed for co-operative competition. Antitrust laws, low interest rates, health insurance, all allow for mutual, communal progress. But is that the ultimate goal? Now that we figured that out, is Moshiach supposed to come? Have we reached the level of the pasuk in Yeshiyahu 11:9, “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea”?

No. We are still jealous. We still fight, and steal and kill. Why is that? For the same reason that societies always fail when they reach the high point of their civilization. There is nowhere to go from here. The alliance bringing us there was always utilitarian. It was Nationalism, or Communism, or War, or Technological Advancement, or The Tower of Babel that brought us together. But what is the endgame? Where is the fantastic happiness waiting for us at the end? It’s not there, because we are still playing the physical game, the object of which has always been survival. We can not envision a better world, except that it will be free of problems. The American dream, if advertisements are any indication, is to retire when we’re healthy, and then what? Play competitive sports for eternity?

The way out of this problem is a spiritual one. Judaism’s message is to give up on our idea of being separate people who’s only focus is self-preservation and advancement. How? By embracing our reality as all being part of one body, part of God Himself. We are all “Chelek elokah mima’al mamash”. The Tzaddik recognizes this already. He is happy doing Chesed all day long. He gives to others, because he understands that he is helping himself by helping others. He doesn’t have low self-esteem, and need approval, or see himself in the role of a lower, ‘helping’ member of society. He has a very healthy self-esteem by seeing himself as an individual, useful, cog in the larger body of humanity. He has no arguments with other people because it’s ridiculous to him to argue with, essentially, himself.

Well, this is all very nice, you’ll say. But what happens in this theoretical universe, when everybody helps everyone else out and Moshiach comes, and everybody understands this concept? When everything is fixed, what do we do then?

At that point, we just get closer and closer by understanding more and more of our true essence which is God himself. Then, the effects of our Torah and Mitzvos are realized in us through this bonding. Mekubalim call that understanding Toras Nistar, the hidden levels of Torah.

However, as the Rambam says, it is not important to concern ourselves with thoughts of what exactly will happen then. It is enough to know the destination and the vehicle of getting us there. That is living in this world.

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[*1]The Rambam says that our monotheistic sacrificial service is formulated as an antidote for idolatrous practices. I know many people will stop taking me seriously at this point because of the Ramban’s critique of this view in his Hakdamah to Sefer Vayikrah. I’ll therefore answer his questions now:

Q1: Karbanos exasperate the problem by allowing the specific polytheistic, idolatrous practices to continue.

A: Karbanos are reverse engineering the problem by bringing all the gods to bear before the One God (See Rambam’s history of the development of idolatry in Hilchos Avodas Kochavim). The carefully defined instructions in the Chumash make it clear that everything is going towards God. Entrenching the idea of monotheism while allowing the ritualistic practices is a very logical way of weaning idolaters off. Eventually the practices themselves would adopt the new meaning.

Q2: & Q3 Noach and Hevel brought Karbanos before there was Avodah Zarah. Bilaam brought Karbanos specifically to find favor with Hashem.

The pasuk says it is a “Rayach Nichoach Lashem”, it is pleasing to God. So it obviously isn’t merely a means to get rid of idolatrous thoughts from the ignorant folks.

A: The motivation for sacrifices is rooted in rational thought. Making a sacrifice to God is logical. It shows devotion, either fear or love of God. Why shouldn’t it apply to One God as well as many? Hashem picked specific practices that arose from pure thoughts of worship, and left off the perverted ones.

[*2] For the Rambam’s thoughts on the idea of preparing the world for Moshiach, see Kapach Rambam, Hilchos Melachim, Perek 11, Halachah 4.

Shabbos Chazon Dvar Torah: Jewish History Lesson Time

8 Aug

I don’t usually do Divrei Torah, but Heshy at Frumsatire needed one this week, so I wrote this. And since it’s about Tisha B’Av, I thought I’d put it up here too:

In Parshas Devarim, Moshe retells the story of the travels and tribulations of the Jews in the desert to the Jews before they enter the land. The Haftorah is a scathing rebuke of the hypocrisy of the Jews at the time of the destruction of the Temple by Isaiah. The connection to Tisha B’Av is obvious- that’s why it’s always read this week. But the Haftorah’s main purpose was to evoke the feeling of the Parshah when it wasn’t allowed to be read. So what’s the connection to this week’s Parshah?

I think that we can find it at the end of the Haftorah. After telling the Jews that God is sick of their empty rituals and wants them to act with justice and mercy, the prophet says (translation by Mechon Mamre):

21 How is the faithful city become a harlot! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers.

22 Thy silver is become dross, thy wine mixed with water.

23 Thy princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves; every one loveth bribes, and followeth after rewards; they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them.

24 Therefore saith the Lord, the LORD of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will ease Me of Mine adversaries, and avenge Me of Mine enemies;

25 And I will turn My hand upon thee, and purge away thy dross as with lye, and will take away all thine alloy;

26 And I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy counsellors as at the beginning; afterward thou shalt be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city.

27 Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness.

There is a point to the destruction. And that is because there is a point to Creation. God has a plan- to perfect the Jews, humanity, and the entirety of existence. He tells the Jews what to do:

Verse 16: Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes, cease to do evil; 17 Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

And he wants them to do it on their own, out of their own reason and desire, to be partners with Him:

18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

But ultimately, God knows what’s best and is in control of everything. So if they don’t want to listen, He will force them to:

19 If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land;

20 But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword; for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken.

Is this unfair? Is God taking away our freedom? No. We are never played like puppets. That would be pointless. The plan is for people to be partners in creation, through our ability to reason, just like Him. But God can make us see another way. He can show us, by “purging away the dross” of pride and hate, that another way of life exists. One of unity and giving. We can see both ways of living, and choose life. Moshe says later on, in Deut. chap. 30, v. 19: I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed.

Why is Moshe telling the Jews entering the Land of Israel all that happened in the desert? Because he wants them to understand the process they went through to get to this point. They went out of the slavery of Egypt through their faith in God, not through their own fighting or intelligence. They lacked that faith at Sinai with the Golden Calf, with the Spies, at Marah, with the Manna, and other places. Finally, they deserved to go in, but Moshe felt that the lesson needed to be hammered in: Don’t fear. Don’t hate. Don’t fight. Just have faith in God.

Because if you don’t, and you start hoarding your wealth and beating up on the poor, God has a very definite way of getting your attention focused back on Him. And He won’t hesitate to use it over and over and over and over.

Pinchas: This Shit Is Going Down

14 Jul

I think that many people today have trouble with Pinchas. The story is pretty gruesome, especially after you read Rashi about the genital shishkebobbery and all that. What did the guy do so bad after all? Get a little Midyani action on the side? Why is that anyone’s business besides for him and God?

But if you can visualize the characters and the scene, it makes more sense. Everyone starts worshiping the Midyanite Baal and sleeping with the Midyanite women. God says to Moshe something like: Excise this evil from your midst. Take all the leaders with you, round up the sinners, and string them up. For if you do not, verily I shall smite thee terribly. Forthwith.

Moshe: Forthwith?

God: Look it up. I’m not a dictionary.

So Moshe’s going around with the leaders separating the sinners from the congregation, when word gets out that one of the leaders is sleeping with the enemy.

Shevet Shimon: Uh, hey Zimri, what are you doing?

Zimri: Dude, let’s stop all this fighting. Let’s just make peace.

Shimon: Ok, um, I don’t know if you realized this, but idolatry’s a pretty big thing for God. He just, really like 5 minutes ago, he just told Moshe to go publicly hang all the people involved. So, uh, could you stop doing that?

Zimri: Trust me dude, it’s cool. I’m not worshiping Baal. Besides, I’m the leader of this whole tribe. Moshe can’t kill all of us. Everything’s fine. Go get some of this before it’s all gone.

Out of breath guy to Pinchas: …so then he said it’s ok because he’s not doing anything wrong. Whew. Where’s the water rock? I’m dying here.

Pinchas: Holy shit, are you serious? Get me a fuckin spear. Pronto.

(Cross-posted on FrumSatire)

Early Bloggers: Dasan and Aviram

29 Jun

It’s only been a few days and already I miss them. What can I say? Good ol’ D ‘n’ A are very likeable guys. In fact, the Medrash says that while Moshe and Aharon were chosen by God, Dasan and Aviram were chosen by the people.

First off, they’re the funniest people in the Torah. The humor really tanks after they go off-screen. Who can forget the classics like, “Were there no graves in Egypt, that you needed to bring us out to the desert to die?”* And after Moshe says, “Is it too small a thing that God has done for you, to do the service…that you also seek the priesthood?”, D&A answer, “Is it too small a thing that you have brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us, that you want to lord yourself over us as well?” Ah, those were some good lines. A little dark, but still pretty good for ad-libbing ex-slaves from 3000 years ago.

They get a bad rap of course, but I think they’re just misunderstood. Sure Moshe is the hero of the Torah, and he’s pretty hard not to like, but I think Dasan and Aviram are easier to relate to. They’re not bad guys, they’re just totally distrustful of authority and have enough guts to say it. When God is helping them, they trust Him- they make it out of Egypt, after all. But they don’t want to put all their cards in anyone else’s basket. When Hashem tells Moshe to make them into bait to trap Pharaoh, they complain. When God says they should trust in Him to give them food every day, they balk and leave over food*. They don’t want to rely on other people’s (or God’s) goodwill.

Apparently they tapped into something that many people were feeling to some extent. They were “Kriai Eidah”, elect members of the congregation and, as such, they became folk heroes, unafraid to stand up for the people. I think that Moshe, “the most humble of all men”, didn’t take offense at their behavior because he understood where they were coming from.

What went wrong? I think that Korach was a good politician and made them believe him. Korach saw that he was being cut out of the privileged caste, and decided he would make his own. But he needed the people on his side to overthrow Moshe. And which better running mates to get than Dasan and Aviram? His platform suddenly became “We’re all equal”. Of course, D&A were interested in that socialist platform. Unfortunately, they got eaten up by something bigger than themselves. That should be a good lesson to all bloggers who support Narcissistic politicians like Al Gore, and the causes they chew up and spit out.

I guess that ruined the mood for some of you. I’m sorry. I’m cynical and mistrustful as well, and I can’t seem to keep my opinions to myself either.

*People blame them for it, so I’ll give them the credit.