Showing posts from 2017

Outside the camp

This week's parsha is a double one, Tazria-Metzora. As the second name suggests, it deals with the rules of identification and treatment of a case of tzaraas. The person who is afflicted has to call in the priest to make the determination of whether or not it is tzaraas. If it is the person who has it has to leave the camp for a prescribed time during which he must warn people to keep away. The only person who must come to him is the priest who will determine when he is free of the affliction and can return to the community.

This made me think of the parallel but different case of a person who must leave the main community and whose sentence for exile is also determined by a priest in a different manner. One who unintentionally kills must flee to a city of refuge where he is joined by his family and even his rebbe for the duration of his stay. How long he must stay depends on the longevity of the High Priest. For that reason, the High Priest's mothers would visit those cities …

True leaders and demagogues

When I saw the title of this piece, If Humble People Make the Best Leaders, Why Do We Fall for Charismatic Narcissists? I instantly thought of Moshe Rabbeinu, the paradigmatic leader of a people who was the humblest of men. The Torah also provides contrasts to him. We have the demagogue figure in Korach, whose attempted coup was self-serving rather than a true struggle for fairness. Another foil for Moshe is the greatest prophet ever for the world-at-large, namely Bilam, whose attributes include not humility but an egotistical desire for honor and riches.

The “romance of leadership” hypothesis suggests that we generally have a biased tendency to understand social events in terms of leadership and people tend to romanticize the figure of the leader.
My own research shows that our psychological states can also bias our perceptions of charismatic leaders. High levels of anxiety make us hungry for charisma. As a result, crises increase not only the search for charismatic leaders, but also …

Questions and Actions: Why we make this night different from all other nights

Why do Jews always answer a question with a question?
Who told you that?

That's an old joke that reflects our emphasis on asking questions, something that is fundamental to Torah study and to the transmission of the mesorah that we enact every Pesach.

The seder centers around the number four and the famous four questions. But four is the minimum, and further questions are encouraged by deliberately doing things that strike people as being out of the normal routine.

So here's a question: why go through all the question when we already know the answers?  We can simply tell the story, with all the drama built into the story of rags to rich of avdus to cheirus or of benighted ovdey avoda zara to enlightened people who witness Divine revelations in the geula.

Why the questions? I'm so glad you asked.

In the book  Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade Robert Cialdini  (p. 254) defend the underlying idea "Let me ask you a question for your information&qu…

Before there were clickbait articles

I  usually resist clickbait, but I did fall for this on One Thing Happy People Do Every Day (It Takes Less Than 1 Minute)  because I wanted to ascertain if it would relay the conventional wisdom of smiling to feel happier. It did. The only other thing it added was a suggestion for what it badly names going first. That makes it sound like cutting in line, but the writer really means is approaching the other person first, saying "hello," and the like.

 Clearly, Chris Heivly here considers this a huge chidush. But that's because he likely was never exposed to Pirkei Avos. Those 6 chapters of Mishna that we read in the weeks between Pesach and Shavuos contain a great deal of wisdom that applies to social and business interactions. Among them are two that cover his advice. One is the advice of Rabbi Masya ben Charash (4:20) " Be the first to greet every individual." And in the first chapter (15) the last part of Shammai three-part exhortation is: הוי מקביל את כל …

Pesach desserts

One other thing about the store-bought cakes: nearly all of them have a potato starch base. Consequently, take the blessing of shehakol rather than the mezonos that we usually say on cakes based on flour. For that reason, many shuls skip their usual kiddushes because they have no mezonos to set out.  However, if you do not have the custom of avoiding gebrokts, that is a mixture of matzah and water, you can make your own mezonos cakes based on cake meal, which is finely ground matzah meal. The first two recipes are based on that. The second two are gluten-free. 
Passover apple cake 1 c. sugar
1 c. cake meal
1/2 c.oil
3 egg yolks, beaten
2 tbsp. lemon juice
4 egg whites, beaten to stiff, glossy peaks
5 lg. apples, sliced
1/3 to 1/2 c. chopped nuts
2 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease 8 inch square pan. Combine first 5 ingredients, stir until well blended. Fold in beaten egg whites; gently, but thoroughly. Pour 1/2 of batter into greased baking pan. Arrange s…

The cure for stagefright

I heard Shira Smiles speak this morning in Lawrence. (I'm sure the talk will be posted to Torah Anytime at some point if you want to find it). The theme was the connection of tefila to effect geula as in Pesach Mitzrayim. But she also veered a bit into a theme she addressed the last time I heard her speak there -- being in the moment. The story that applies to the latter them is the reason for the title of this blog post.

I'm not sure if the event was a siddur or chumash presentation event for children. She recounts that a child was very anxious about his upcoming role on stage until one morning he was completely calm about it. Asked what changed, he said he realized that the audience will be filled with moms who will be texting on their phones the whole time. As no one will really be watching him, there's no reason to be nervous!

Becoming Queen Esther

The eponymous heroine of Megillas Esther never sought attention for herself until she had to step up and act for the sake of her people. She certainly is one who had greatness thrust upon her, and she rose to the occasion. After preparing with fasting and prayer (5:3), she didn't merely don royal robes but royalty itself, when she came, unsummoned, to face the king. Her reward was adding a book to the canon of TaaNaCh named in her honor that is read twice every year. And we established the holiday of Purim. Thus the Jews established a celebration of a great woman's achievement 2,000 years before International Women's Day was a thing.

Purim posts from previous years:


It's All About the Fathers in Ancient Egyptian Thought

Today we popped into the Brooklyn Museum and made sure to stop into the new section set up in the Egyptian collection. It's called  A Woman’s Afterlife: Gender Transformation in Ancient Egypt. The exhibit is really small, consisting of fewer than 30 objects that don't really do much to explicate the theory of what Egyptians believed about the condition for a woman's rebirth stated thus:
The ancient Egyptians believed that to make rebirth possible for a deceased woman, she briefly had to turn into a man. Guided by new research inspired in part by feminist scholarship, the exhibition A Woman’s Afterlife: Gender Transformation in Ancient Egypt tells this remarkable story of gender transformation in the ancient world, exploring the differences between male and female access to the afterlife.
Egyptian medicine taught that a woman, once in her tomb, faced a biological barrier to rebirth. Because the ancient Egyptians believed that in human reproduction it was the man who created…

Your phone just doesn't understand you

This post was inspired by an event my husband related from this morning. At the minyan, someone's phone was, surprise, surprise, not off. Seeking to serve in some way, the voice activation component let the owner and everyone else know, "I didn't understand that."
Prayers were not meant to be understandable to electronic devices. They are the means of communication with the One who does understand you, the One who understands the import of the words better than you do yourself. No matter how responsive your phone may be and how advanced the predictive analytics that are built into its operating system grow, it will still not be capable of understanding what you truly are about.

We should be saying olive rather than apple

That is we should be saying "the olive doesn't fall far from the tree." That would reflect the halacha that says you can identify which tree an olive is from. The same does not hold true for apples or other fruit.  In the case of most fruit you'd find in the road, you can assume hefker status because it is considered impossible to determine which tree bore the fruit. In contrast, an olive can be identified as coming from a specific tree.

Rav Goldwicht stated this in a special Tu B'Shvat shiur he dleivered this Sunday in NYC on the occasion of the yahrzeit of Rabbi Copperman (see He connected that halacha to the blessing for a household expressed in Tehillim 128:3
Your wife will be as a fruitful vine in the innermost parts of your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.גאֶשְׁתְּךָ | כְּגֶפֶן פֹּרִיָּה בְּיַרְכְּתֵי בֵיתֶךָ בָּנֶיךָ כִּשְׁתִלֵי זֵיתִים סָבִיב לְשׁ…

The Lesson of Shmos: Don't Underestimate a Woman

This occurred to me today: a common theme in both the text and the Midrashim associated with this week's parsha is that women are the driving force that the powers that be fail to register.  The story recounts how the king of  Egypt put Yosef's accomplishments out of his mind and took a xenophobic view of the Israelites. He stirred up public opinion against them as he appointed tax collectors and then taskmasters over them, pushing them into the subjugation of slavery. Not content with that, though, he started a policy of genocide.

But the genocide was to be effected via the males only. Pharaoh ordered the midwives to only kill the baby boys, figuring the girls pose no threat and can be assimilated into Egyptian society. That is where he erred. The females were not the passive creatures he thought them to be. Even when the midwives gave some indication of that by not carrying out his order (though they claimed that the women managed to give birth on their own, denying them the…

Vayechi, a unique form of swearing

I heard Rav Goldwicht speak last night. Among the things he touched on was a bridge from Sukkos to Chanukah to Asara BeTeves in the parsha. He said that Yaakov died on Sukkoth (interesting, as that is the holiday associated with him) and was then carried out to Eretz Yisrael on Chanukah (due to the delay in the 40 day mummifying process followed by 30 days of mourning within Egypt) and then finally buried on Asar BeTeves because of the 7 days of mournig observed by the family prior to placing him in Maaras Hamachpela. It was soon after, following the death of the shvatim that the children of Israel came down spiritually, as they picked up on the culture and practices of their surroundings,  and then physically when they were enslaved.

My own thoughts on the parsha were this: Yaakov exacts a form of shvua from Yosef that we only see one other place in TaNaCh, and that is when Avraham exacts a shvua from Eliezer. They both request that oath be signified by the other person placing his h…

Yosef's wife's story

In Parshas Mikeitz Yosef has a complete turnabout of fortune when he interprets Pharaoh's dream and is made viceroy. Once he is established, he also marries. His bride is named Osnas and identified as the daughter of Potiphera, a priest of On. The Midrash (in Pireki D'Rabbi Eliezer quoted by Da'as Zekeinim)identifies him as the same Potiphar who purchased Yosef and say that she was his adopted daugter. Her biological parents were none other than Yosef's half-sister Dina and Schem.  How did she end up adopted in Egypt?

There are a few differences in detail in the accounts, though basically, the family of Yaakov did not want this child in their household and insisted on her being cast out. Yaakov fastened a necklace with  a kind of amulet that identified her family origins to protect her. That's what she had on her when all the women in Egypt set out to see the handsome young viceroy and threw over their jewels, so that's what she threw out to him. He read it and…