Monday, June 30, 2008

A lesson in art, observation, history, and minhag

You can engage in an exercise we had at a tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a sample of how works of art are shown to policemen to sharpen their powers of observation. The picture below was not used in that tour, but I select it deliberately as one of the things policemen have to do is note objective rather than subjective facts. So think of what you see in this portrait. You can jot it down. Now, let me guess. You took this to be a representation of a family. And you would be correct. This portrait by Renoir is titled Madame Georges Charpentier (née Marguérite-Louise Lemonnier, 1848–1904) and Her Children.

Now, during the tour for policemen, we were instructed not to read any of the information posted next to the paintings. But I did give something away here. Now think about the title and what it gives away that you may not have thought of just from observing the picture itself. Would your title for the painting use a different word? If you know a bit about the time period you may have guessed what I am driving at.

Did you get it?

The portrait is of a mother and her children, not of a mother and her daughters. The two children are a daughter and son. Georgette-Berthe (1872–1945) and Paul-Émile-Charles (1875–1895). Given the years, you should be able to conclude that the smaller child is Paul. Indeed, the gallery label reads: "Wearing an elegant Worth gown, Marguérite Charpentier sits beside her three-year-old son, Paul. Following the fashion of the time, his hair has not yet been cut and his clothes match those of his sister, Georgette, who perches on the family dog." You can check that out for yourself at the museum or online at http://www.metmuseum.org/Works_of_Art/collection_database/Madame_Georges_Charpentier_nee_Marguerite-Louise_Lemonnier_1848_1904_and_Her_Children_Georgette-Berthe_1872_1945_and_Paul-emile-Charles_1875_1895__Auguste_Renoir/ViewObject.aspx?OID=110003528&pgSz=1

And why do I bring up this point? It is proof that the practice of delaying a boy's first haircut was not uniquely Jewish at all, though the age at which a boy was"breeched" [taken out of dresses and put into pants along with getting a short haircut] was sometimes 5 rather than 3, as I believe it was for FDR. But the idea of marking the difference between boys and girls at a particular age seems quite similar to me. Just the rest of the world dropped it soon after entering the 20th century.

Admittedly, my ancestors were not Hungarian, so the upsherin practice is not one of my own. The Yekkes actually have a different ceremony to mark a boy's maturity involving a wipple to be used in shul. That is tied to a child's ability either to walk to shul on his own (no eruv in Yekke land) or to his having mastered the skills that usually precede getting tzitzis. But I don't think my brothers did that, no did they have their sons do it. In fact, my brother who lives in Israel does the upsherin because that is what is expected in his circles.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Ordering a Miracle or Just a Shidduch

In my blog that got zapped, I had several posts about segulas that keep popping up, many innocuous, but some more of a "magical" mindset, like the women who follow a pregnant woman into the mikvah in the hopes of getting pregnant. As mentioned in the last post, you can see Josh's concerns about the rituals that many women participate in today like Shir Hashirim groups (I posted an invitation to join a new such group in the 5 Towns that illustrates his point in the comments) Read
http://parsha.blogspot.com/2008/06/my-thoughts-on-megirot-pt-ii.html

Let me preface my essay on the issue with this caveat. I know that I may be perceived as a heretic (I do blog after all and, obviously, have been tainted by education in the secular environment of a university). But the views expressed here were also expressed by Rabbi Greenberg with no less than Lakewood credentials. In his Shabbos HaGadol drasha he expressed dismay at the ads he sees that promise whatever one wishes will be fulfilled if only they send money to this particular organization. Furthermore, he says he refuses to believe that the rabbi's name that appears on it actually endorses the idea expressed. It wasn't the attempt to raise funds that he was objecting to but the assurance that this will get people their heart's desire, as if they could then will the highway to be totally clear as a result of their participation.

I saw one of those type letters -- this one ascribed to a rebbetzin rather than a rabbi -- in the latest issue of Choices. This one doesn't ask for money but states absolutesly, based on a quote attribtured bto Rabbi Segal from Manchester: "'Never did I see a person who learned 2 Halachot of Shemirat Halashon every day and didn't see savlation from above, whether in children, in shidduch, good health, paranassa or bringing up the children.'" The rest of the letter offers examples of woman who finally got their "aging daughters" married after doing this and a a woman who had a baby after being childless for 20 years, and the woman whose mother's tumor disappeared.

This made me think of some people in TaNaCh. So, why didn't Chana just think of this instead of pouring her heart out to Hashem in the mishkan and rashly promising to give her first-born up to His service. She should have just been learning the halachos to have a child. And were the Matriarchs remiss all those years they were barren in learning these halachos? What of Michal who remained childless? She just didn't know the secret to the solution? And why would the Ish Shunamis need the blessing of a navi, no less, if she could have learned these halachos herself to merit having a child. And why bother to call him when the child is at death's door when learning these halachos solve every single problem?

Learning TaNaCh should give one an appreciation of the fact that there is no single panacea. Hashem has His plan, and miracles are not to be simply had for the asking. Chana's overturning her barren state was considered a major turn in the Divine plan according to Michtav M'Eliyahu. Her role was originally defined by her childlessness, and her tefillos were immensely powerful in turning around nothing less than her destiny. But she did not go in thinking this is a magical formula and promised to sacrifice no less than the very child she prayed for. So this proved her heart's desire was completely selfless, and so her prayers were answered. And that was back in the days of prophecy! Yet today people think that miracles or whatever wishes they have are to be had if only they find the magic formula.

In Pirkei Avos 1:3 Antignus Ish Socho states: "Do not be like servants who serve their masters for the sake of receiving a reward; instead be like servants who serve their master not for the sake of receiving a reward. and let the fear of Heaven be upon you." But all these segulas and rituals that are popularized today are based on the premise of quid pro quo. Their selling point is the "satisfaction guarantee." Say Shir Hashirim in a group on erev Shabbos, and you (or the one you have in mind) will merit meeting your bashert. Gather 40 women to do have in mind that their hafrashas challah is for the sake of someone who wishes to conceive or get well or get married. Or just buy these silver rings imprinted with kabbalistic signs to get whatever you wish. I'm just surprised no one has formed a specific ritual around lighting Shabbos candles yet.

These all make me think of a kid who, say mows the lawn. It is one thing if he really wants to help and the parent may decide to reward this behavior. But if the kid does it with the expectation that he will be rewarded, it really is not as impressive an act. Of course, it is perfectly normal for a child to think that way. But a more mature person should develop an understanding that there is more to a relationship than "I did this for you, now you do this for me." So all these "satisfaction guaranteed" gimmicks are really an infantile form of avodas Hashem. But what is worse is that, in reality, there is not such guarantee at all. So it is a false promise that is being sold to those who seek such panaceas.

According to the Chazon Ish, bitachon does not mean that you believe f you really pray with all your heart, you will get what you ask for. It means that you accept that whatever happens is for the good even if it doesn't match what you had envisioned. It is like the story in which someone attempted to test a little girl's faith by telling her to go ahead and pray for what she wanted to see if G-d listens to her. But the girls was wise and said, G-d listened, and he said, "no." Hashem is not bound to alter the Divine plan because someone just followed the halacha by taking off challah.

Then there is another issue in "cashing in." I referred to Michtav M'Eliyahu, which I was citing from memory. But I just started learning the sefer again with my son. It opens with the point made by R' Yaakov in Pirkei Avos 4:22 that just an hour inhaling the aroma, so to speak, that emanates from the figurative feast that is at the center of Olam Haba offers more pleasure than all the pleasure not only in one's own lifetime but of all the pleasure of everyone's lifetime in the whole world from the first through last generation. That is why the reward for mitzvos is ascribed to the next world, for any reward in this world simply cannot compare to what can be there.

Given the statement of the academy of Eliiyahu in Megillah 28b that "He who studies Torah laws each day is assured of a place in the World to Come" why would one wish to trade down, wouldn't it be trading down, in effect, to "cash" in the merit of learning halachos for something of this world? Even if these are fine things to want, like children, shidduchim, refuah, etc., they are, ultimately, of this world not the next.

I know what someone can say here: the real reason my blog got zapped was it was lacking a segula for protection. Time to market red strings to tie around computers.




Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Follow up on "wife"

Josh follows up: http://parsha.blogspot.com/2008/06/my-thoughts-on-megirot-pt-i.html
http://parsha.blogspot.com/2008/06/my-thoughts-on-megirot-pt-ii.html
where he raises the issues of segulah-centered rituals in which women participate today, excerpt here:
But since this has developed into woman's work, and she is the one who does hafrashat challah, this has been changed into a ritual for a coven of women. They get together in groups made up of specific (in-)signicant numbers of people, have names of people who need a shidduch or a refuah sheleima, and have them in mind when they perform their ritual. And they come up with silly "fluff" about the mystical significance of the ingredients of challah, and so on.

Women's prayer groups are the efforts of feminists to practice rituals usually reserved just for men. But the "frum" variant is more problematic, in my opinion. They consider Amen to be a word of power, and they meet at the new moon.







Monday, June 23, 2008

Well, who wouldn't want a wife, I mean a Yiddeshe mother

Interesting that following my posting on quotes on successful marriages, I find the following. Josh allowed his blog to be used as a forum for one husband's defense of megirot. excerpt here:
My Chardei wife has been involved in megeriot for 4 years. It has absolutely changed her life and mine. She couldn't take care of our household of 8. I was washing dishes. I was doing alot of the cooking and I almost couldn't take anymore the non stop arguments between me and my wife. It was gehinnom. when I saw my wife changing, little by little, each month it was amazing. She became a Yiddeshe mother. No more anger. Her strength came back, and she does EVERYTHING in the house.


For the full post see:
http://parsha.blogspot.com/2008/06/another-take-on-megirot.html
Thanks to Mother in Israel for directing readers to this.

and to fully appreciate my title, see an essay included in many anthologies I used when teaching college composition and rhetoric:
http://inst.santafe.cc.fl.us/~mwehr/HumanRel/14WifeW.html

Friday, June 20, 2008

Making the right choice for marriage

The equivalent to the advice for successful stock trading to "buy low and sell high" for marriage is Remember that a successful marriage depends on two things: (1) finding the right person and (2) being the right person” This seems to be a variation on Success in marriage does not come merely through finding the right mate, but through being the right mate.” and then there is the Neitzsche quote I was searching for when I found the ones above:When entering into a marriage one ought to ask oneself: do you believe you are going to enjoy talking with this woman up into your old age? Everything else in marriage is transitory, but most of the time you are together will be devoted to conversation.”and I just have to add this one: Only choose in marriage a woman whom you would choose as a friend if she were a man” from Joseph Joubert quotes (French Essayist and moralist, 1754-1824)
You notice the last two address men in making the choice while the first two are universal.


See the rebbetzin's advice to a kallah posted by Sephardi Lady, here:
http://orthonomics.blogspot.com/2008/06/id-rather-hear-from-kallah-in-5-10.html











Sounds like a joke, but I think they're serious

After all, good taste is not part of the equation of "reality" TV, or most TV today (another reason to get rid of it -- not just the sake of the kids). Anway here's the post:

Want to be on TV looking for an authentic New York/Long Island moth

Posted by: "lmechanick@aol.com" lmechanick@aol.com lmechanick

Thu Jun 19, 2008 1:55 pm (PDT)


Want to be on TV?

We have been asked to help find the ideal candidates for
a new reality show executive produced by
Ryan Seacrest that will air on NBC!

If you fit the profile below, contact me or the producer directly.

Are you a single guy looking for love?
Is your mother helping with the search?

If you have a no-nonsense Yenta for a mom who is
always trying to fix you up, give us a call. We are
looking for an authentic New York/Long Island
mother and son pair.

This is your chance to be on a dating show where moms
will try to find nice girls for their sons.

If interested, call the producer NOW at 310-270-7791.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Who's the fairest of them all?

Oh don't look to mirrors for answers! Consider yichus and the benefit to children. No, marry for the sake of Heaven and forget about vain beauty or connections. . . but do be sure to adorn the bride in jewelry.

These come from two variants on the Tu B'Av and Yom Kippur dance in vineyard solution to the shidduch problem (apparently not a crisis at the time except for the tribe of Binyamin at one point in history). Stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

What justifies a yeshiva bachur's study at university?

I am certain that I posted this story at some point on the WordPress blog I had. But as that has been obliterated, I will beg the indulgence of those who remember it and repeat it here. My grandfather, Rabbi Dov Yehudah Schochet a"h, was a talmid in Telz in Lithuania. He wished to attend university and asked permission from the Rosh Yeshiva to do so. The Rosh Yeshiva granted his permission on the condition that he would leave as soon as he called upon him to do so. When my grandfather got to the end of his studies but was yet short of achieving the degree, the Rosh Yeshiva took him up on his promise. My grandfather asked why he was asked to break off at just that point. The Rosh Yeshiva answered that his permission was for the sake of learning the university subjects -- not the degree. Today, of course, we reverse this completely with numerous places offering frum people short cuts to degrees, as instanced by the program I mentioned in http://kallahmagazine.blogspot.com/2008/05/quick-is-not-right-in-context.html

Now I do have a theory that there was a change in attitude toward secular subjects post-Holocaust. I think that the subjects of literature and other aspects of culture were regarded as enhancing in a way they are usually not today. However, the notion that education is only justified because it will lead to great income potential is not symptomatic only of the frum world but of modern American attitudes. Hakesef ya'aneh es hakol.

No mere tarrifs but an outright ban for NY

I find it astounding that in a world known for a global economy, New York state can impose a ban on advertising products just from out of state. You can read about the law that went into effect this month here: http://www.tax.state.ny.us/pdf/memos/sales/m08_3s.p The restrictions apply not only to print forms of advertising but even websites. It seems online ads are acceptable but commissions paid on sales to the website owner who is based in NY would render the ads a form of direct solicitation that is prohibited to vendors that will not collect NY state sales tax.

Of course, many online vendors, such as Lands End, Barnes and Noble, and others add on the sales tax based on where you live. So I paid no sales tax on the clothes ordered when I lived in NJ but do have to pay the Nassau imposed tax now (see that explanation below). But if you order high ticket items from stores that are not registered as vendors in NY, your savings on sales tax, which runs close to 9% for New Yorkers (there is some variation for residents of Nassau County and the 5 boroughs) can be substantial.

The fact of the matter is that there are sales tax variations even within states. For example, NJ has a number of "urban enterprise zone" that offer just 3% sales tax rather than 6. Clothing, in any case, is free of tax. And in NY itself, you may recall the "tax free week," for clothes, then no tax and clothes, then back to tax on clothes, and now limited tax on clothes. As it stands now, for clothing under $110 you pay no sales tax at all -- but only in NYC. If you buy the identical $50 skirt in Nassau county that incurs no tax in Brooklyn, you will have to pay the portion that Nassau county collect, which just tops 4%. So should Nassau now prevent its residents from access to information about stores just over the county border so that the tax revenue would not be lost?

It is true that sales tax does bring in a significant amount of revenue, and retailers have a legal obligation to collect the appropriate sales tax for their region. Nevertheless, a capitalist system thrives on free market conditions with open access and competition. Eliminating the competition through strong arm tactics --whether by a large company obtaining a monopoly or by government impositions -- are not considered favorable to the economic system, and, certainly, not to the consumer who is denied access to all the options available on the market.

Monday, June 16, 2008

I am not making this up

(as Dave Barry is wont to say) The following is lifted directly from the area email list 00 just the phone number has been eliminated.

"Hi I am looking to buy a house and I need to boost my credit.Can you
please put me on your citicard or at&t card as an additional user? You
don't have to give me the card just add me to it. If you are willing
to do this please call me @ 718 -------- or email me.Thank you"

The same person has another email asking for loans for a down payment, so you are looking at an individual who is lacking both credit and resources asking to be made a partner in your own credit.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Happy Fathers' Day!

to all the dads who deserve credit as great parents -- particularly to the very best dad I know, AKA the Divrei Chaim.

Miriam and Aharon

P' Beahalothcha includes the episode of Miriam that is included among the 6 zechiros some people say daily. As Miriam is the one who instigated the discussion with Aharon about Moshe's relationship with his wife, she is the one blamed for wrongdoing and is afflicted with tzara'as as punishment. So why did she bring this up to her brother? From Rashi's take on the text, it is because she knew that all three of them were prophets, yet only Moshe left off regular family life. But it occurred to me that it was logical to bring this up to Aharon, who not only was Moshe's elder brother, but also loved and respected by all as the one who restored harmony to married couples. It is for that reason that the mourning was even more extensive for Aharaon than it was for Moshe. Who better to turn to than the one recognized as successful marriage counselor? As Rashi quotes the Midrash of Tzipporah bemoaning the fate of the wives of the newly minted prophets, one can imagine how very shocked and sorry for her Miriam felt. I would think that Miriam really intended for Aharon to fix the problem of Moshe's marriage. Her error, though, remains that Moshe's situation was so uniquely spiritual that the conventional understanding and approach did not apply to him at all.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Seeing is not believing

I came across an ad for a site that shows how pictures can be made to show you 20, 30, even 50 pounds lighter. I found the photo enhancement very unimpressive. Really heavy people still looked heavy even with the photo lightening of 20 or more pounds. For others, it just smoothed out a tiny bit of bulge but didn't really make them look markedly more attractive. Apparently, this is marketed as a weight-loss motivational tool. But given where I found it, I would think some may use it to deliberate represent themselves as slimmer than they are. So much for demanding full length photos before agreeing to a date.

Signs of Bread

Yesterday in my travels through Boro Park I was struck by 2 different signs regarding bread. One was in a subs eatery. It said: "All bread is now Hamotzi." Well, the fact of the matter is that bread is alway Hamotzi by definition. That is why mezonos rolls and bagels are misnamed and lead astray the halachically ignorant. Another sign that surprised me was one in a takeout place that informed buyers that all the challahs sold there were baked in a meat oven. Now, among the halachos associated with bread is an edict to keep it parve. That is so no one should stumble by making a deli sandwich on dairy bread, for example. The meat bread is a more unusual situation, though I would imagine it should also not be considered permissible. The only way it is considered acceptable to have non-parve bread is if the bread is marked in some way. So butter croissant could be acceptable as they are distinctive in appearance and would not likely be mistaken for regular rolls. But if a challah just looks like a challah, I can't see how it is OK to make it anything but parve.

What every BY girl knows. . .

From about the time they are kindergarten, BY girls are taught the midrash about Ruth's exemplary tznius. The source is Shabbos 113b. But it is actually only the second suggestion. The first one points out Ruth's outstanding midda as chochma. Here's the Talmudic analysis on Boaz's aking about the young girl he sees: "Is is it the manner of Boaz to ask about a young girl? [the pas nisht is implicit here] R' Elazar explains that he saw a "davar chochma" in her, two stalk she would gather, but three she would leave [in compliance with the laws of leket]. In a collection (of teachings) is was taught – He saw "davar tznius" in her. She picked standing stalks in an upright posture but she sat down to pick up the fallen ones [she did not bend down to take on a position that may be seen as lacking in modesty].
Of course this is the source for Rashi's comment on that verse of Ruth 2: 5
, but, intersetingly, he reverse the order and mentions tznius before chochma. And in the further simplified commentary offered to young girls, the chochma seems to get lost altogether. Knowledge is not stressed in the lessons to little girls about heroine-like behavior, though it should be, as it really refers to knowledge of halacha. And ignorance of halacha leads to violation of halacha. In fact, what Naomi was supposed to have taught Ruth along the way to Israel was halacha.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Taking the Spiritual Advantage Rather than the Material -- Lesson from Megilas Ruth

"Business is business"is the saying incurred, usually when people are acting in a manner that does not quite measure up to to standards other than "business" ones. So considerations kindness, and sometimes even basic decency, go out the window if such would appear advantageous to the business. That is the way many think, as we see illustrated by the Everyman of the Megillah, Ploni Almoni (who was actually named Tov, according to some commentators, but failed to live up to his name). When Boaz presented a business proposition -- the purchase of a field -- Ploni Almoni was ready to deal. But when Boaz added that Ruth was part of the deal, Ploni Almoni backed out. "Business is business," he was in effect saying when declining on the basis of "pen ashchit es nachalasi." Ploni Almoni's only object was securing his material advantage; all he could see in the deal was a risk to his estate. Boaz, on the other hand, saw the opportunity to gain a spiritual advantage in contracting to acquire the field and take Ruth as a wife.


Ruth, of course, was also someone who opted for spiritual over material advantage. Yes, what Ruth did is called chesed, but it is far more than the conventional use of the term. Some schools impose programs of chesed to devote a number of hours to free babysitting or hospital visits. That is all fine and good, but such acts of chessed are not tantamount to the complete devotion exhibited by Ruth. She was not just giving up some hours of her time; she devoted her entire life -- up to the point of accepting the death penalties, according to the Midrash -- to an existence defined by Torah above all else. Ruth clung to Naomi with only poverty and deprivation before her. She could have returned to her family and enjoyed a more secure position (she could have just sat back and had her nails done while servants cleaned and cooked for her). From the perspective of "business is business," who could blame her for abandoning the poor prospect offered by Naomi?

But Ruth sought the life of truth rather than material comfort. She came into a land strange to her and worked all day to glean just a small measure of grain to sustain herself and her mother-in-law. Then she went even beyond this level of sacrifice to offer herself altogether for the sake of perpetuating the line of Naomi's family. She risked a great deal in putting herself into the situation in which she approached Boaz. One wrong move, and she may have been outcast from society as a woman of loose morals. So it didn't make sense from the calculated risk perspective adopted in business. But Ruth saw it from the perspective of spiritual advantage and seized the opportunity Naomi directed her to take. Each year we pay tribute to the courage of the hero and heroine of this megillah who did not take the conventional route of "business is business."

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Expectations and Actions

Here's my approach to paying bills. Yesterday, the appliance repairman came while I was not home. I had told my son to let him in. (He's a frum man, BTW). So he fixed the problem and left the bill. When I got home that evening, I called him immediately to ask if he was going to be in the area to pick up payment or if I should get it to him. He opted for the latter. So first thing this morning, I brought the check right to his house.

That is why I rally do not appreciate being given the runaround by people who owe me money. I do not enjoy calling, emailing, and faxing countless reminder - 2 weeks later, then 30 days later, then even 60, 90, and over 120 days later. It is just wrong to delay payment from someone who doesn't have the means to tack on fees like your mortgage company does or interest like your credit card company does; or shut your utilities like the phone, gas, and electric companies do for tardy payment. That is really a violation of halacha even if "everybody does it."

But things are so ridiculously distorted that we begin to anticipate being given the runaround. I found myself delightfully surprised when a new advertiser -- Sleeptight Bedding paid promptly with no reminders.

Isn't that one of the things money is for?

Today I put out copies of the summer issue of Kallah Magazine in Flatbush. One of the places I stopped in was a store for frames and paintings. The propieter said he almost never pays for advertising but would consider a barter. I pointed out that, aside from not being in great need, or any need for that matter, of frames and paitings, the prices on his wares likely exceed my own by far. He did not deny that and pointed out a huge picture that sold for $18,000. [that is not a typo]. So he proceeded to tell me about an innovative idea -- three way bartering.

Back in primitve times it would probably work as follows: if the chicken farmer wants flour, but the miller wants milk rather than eggs, they would find someone with milk who wants eggs to make the exchange work. In this situation, he wants the ad, and I don't want the picture frames, so we find a third person who offers something I could possibly use who wants the frame. But you see, already thousands of years ago already, people realized that it is not always convenient to find someone who will form the third to complete the barter triangle, and even if you do, that person may ascribe greater value to the milk than to the eggs or flour.

That is why money was invented. Its three functions (sanother economics lesson here) are: a medium of exchange, a measure of value, and a store of value. The first one is there to eliminate the need for bartering goods with a universal currency with a set measure of value. So why this overwhelming desire to revert to a bartering system and a complex one at that? I could only guess that the motive here is to keep the exchange of value off the books, for if no money changed hands, they can say there was no income to be entered for the IRS. But what they fail to realize is that advertising is a fully tax deductible business expense, so it is not something one pay with "after tax" dollars, so to speak.

kollel experience translated into resume jargon

Any thoughts on this? http://rygb.blogspot.com/2008/06/depicting-your-yeshiva-years-on-resume.html

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Positional Gift Wrap

One of the concepts I recall from economics is that of a "positional good." The value of such an item is not intrinsic but based on its exclusivity -- the fact that there aren't too many others around with the same. That is the appeal of limited editions and a slot in the "in" group, whether it is a school, neighborhood, or country club. The concept also applies to a quality that marks something as more desirable. Consequently, I would apply it to a type of gift wrap that has become popular in recent years -- the type that does not conceal the gift within colored paper but puts it on display with clear plastic and artificial flowers as trim. I first encountered this style of gift wrap at a particular Brooklyn store, which made it a type of signature of theirs. Gift buyers opted for this type of wrapping because it made their gifts so conspicuous when on display at vorts and such where people have reverted to the tradition of publicly exhibiting their gifts. But the thing about a positional good is that it loses its value when others take on the same aspect. Thus if everyone is giving glasses or silverware artistically arranged with some pink or red fabric roses and ribbon, your particular set no longer stands out. In fact, I have noted that many stores now are using the exact same style of gift wrap. In fact one store on Central Avenue has just such a display in its window. So for those in pursuit of positional advantage with respect to gift wrap will find that this style of gift wrap will no longer do the trick. I wonder what could be next? Perhaps the gifts will have to announce themselves audibly with digital recordings built into the flowers.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Secrets of the Mishkan (Un)Revealed

I once brought up the popular use of titles with the word "secret" in them to create the illusion of giving some special insight. But what I have in mind here is literally keeping secret in the sense of concealed. The Kohanim were enjoined to cover the keylim of the kodesh kedashim. Even though the Leviim were responsible for packing up the rest of the Mishkan, they were not supposed to carry the aron, menorah, etc. until they had been packed up by the kohanim. The Abarbanel brings up the point of kavod Elokim haster davar [the honor of G-d, keep concealed] in connection to this directive. Obviously, there is a practical consideration, as the Torah warns, that the Leviim should not come in danger of their lives by contact with these holy objects while uncovered. However, I believe there is another lesson in this. Just as we learn of tznius from the inclusion of pants among the priestly garments so that there should be no erva shown to the mute stones, likewise the coverings on keylim show the value of hester. It is the opposite of the notion of conspicuous consumption, or "if you got it, flaunt it" that permeates modern society.

Chezkiyahu, one of the righteous kings of Yehudah erred in flaunting his wealth when the messengers of the king of Bavel came to see him after his (literally) miraculous recovery (Melachim [Kings] II 20: 12-19 and Divrei Hayamim [Chronicles] II 32:27-31). The consequences, he was told of, were dire indeed. As the wealth was inappropriately used by the king to reflect on his own honor, the prophet foretells that they will be removed and the future kings stripped on their honor. He accepted the decree with gratitude that the decree was averted for his lifetime. The episode is more detailed in the account of Melachim, in which Yeshayahu comes to the king and asks about who came and what they saw. Rashi identifies the parallels between this and G-d's similar line of questioning to Kayin and Bilam. So it should have dawned on Chizkiyahu that he was in very deep trouble even before hearing of the decree. Now what was he in trouble for?

Most commentators explain based on what it says in Divrei Hayamim that he gave into geius [arrogance or setting oneself above what is proper] in showing off he impressive wealth when what the visitors came to be impressed with the miracle of his recovery, which was to be credited to G-d. The grand tour of the treasure houses, which reflects worth in terms of monetary value, was inappropriate in this instance.

In modern society, people are even more likely to attempt to bolster their status by flaunting their wealth or boasting of their importance in public ways. The house has to look impressive, the car must be a luxury model, and the clothes from recognized designers. Yes, one should dress according to his/her means, but the aim of impressing others by one's possessions is a fault of geius. That is not to say that one cannot make use of riches. Hashem had granted Chizkiyau great wealth, which was his to use -- but not to flaunt. The holiest keylim were used, but when concealed, they also served a divine purpose.