A Spring of Strength

Ayin Tove
A Spring of Strength
June 9, 2010

We began our Talmud study with the idea that a person who studies torah for its own sake is like a spring that increases in strength. Avot 6:1. The strength of the spring increases from its own force (The Hebrew verb plays on this reflexive concept). The spring that flows up from itself and overflows reminds me of King David’s Psalm in which he said,

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil for you are with me . . . You stand up for me a table in the midst of my enemies. . . My cup overflows.” Psalm 23:4-5.

The cup that overflows may be like the spring that increases in strength. This Psalm also contains a verse traditionally translated as “He leads me to beside the still waters,” but may also be translated as “He leads me to the waters of the gift.” (“al mei menuchot”). Psalm 23:2.

So what is the gift? David continues with a line traditionally translated as “He restores my soul,” but which may also be translated as “He strengthens my soul.” Psalm 23:3 (“nafshi y’shovav”). We learn this from Isaiah 57:17 and Jeremiah 3:14 where the same word “shovav” is used to mean “stubborn” or “rebellious.” In other words, G-d strengthens us in a way that gives us independence and spunkiness. We are like a spring that overflows–“still” and maybe with something more.

Ayin Tove is a contributing writer for GTJ and an attorney for the federal government.

Roasted Curry Chicken

Jill Aronovitz
Roasted Curry Chicken
June 8, 2010

By mid-week I usually start thinking of what food I’ll make for Shabbat. On a normal week, I’ll plan an entire menu with at least three side dishes. This Shabbos was different. I didn’t expect any guests; I was just cooking for family, so I didn’t fuss too much over the menu. But before I knew it, it was late Friday morning, and I still had no idea what to cook. I looked in the fridge and found a whole chicken. Roasting it in the oven seemed simple enough. I looked through the cupboards to see what I could season the chickens with: paprika, garlic powder, and all the other normal stuff you put on a roasted chicken. But after some digging around, I found what I was looking for, curry powder! I’d made a few dishes in the past with curry powder, and I always loved the flavor, so I figured I’d try it with the chicken.

1 Chicken (Kosher preferred)
2 Tbsp Curry Powder (If you like the flavor add more)
4 Garlic Cloves (Finely chopped)
1/2- 1 White Onion (Use as much or as little as you like)
¼ Olive Oil (Some extra for greasing the pan)

I took it out a roasting pan and drizzled the bottom with extra virgin olive oil. Then I cut the onion into large chunks and placed them at the bottom of the pan. Next, I finely chopped four garlic cloves (first smash each clove under the knife with the palm of your hand so that it’s easier to chop). I then placed the garlic, olive oil, and curry powder in a bowl and mixed together (it should come together almost like a paste).

I took the chicken out of its packaging and placed it under cold running water, cut the excess fat off, and dried it by patting it down with a paper towel. To get the most flavors out of the seasoning, I found that the seasoning should be both above and below the skin. This is where it got kind of messy—it’s hard to separate the skin from the flesh without tearing the skin, but by doing this I could season both above and below.

Then I placed the chicken in the roasting pan and took the already made paste and rubbed it all around the chicken—both the skin and the flesh part. After cleaning that mess off my hands, I put the oven on and set the temperature to 400. I let it cook for 1 hr and 45 minutes, but depending on the size of the chicken, and how well done you like your meat, it can cook between 1 ½ -2 hours.

My family and I enjoyed this dish and I hope you do too!

-Jill

Jill Aronovitz is a staff writer for Gather The Jews.

Confidence Is A Must; Cockiness Is A Plus — Shelach

Stephen Richer
Confidence Is A Must; Cockiness Is A Plus
Shelach
Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
June 7, 2010

This dvar torah was originally given as a speech to Sixth Street Minyan on June 4, 2010.

According to one of the greatest sources of Jewish wisdom, “Jewish women are most attracted to men who are highly confident, but not so confident that they are perceived as being arrogant.”

JDate goes on to define confidence as “a man who knows his ability and moves forward without fear.”

This week’s Torah portion places a similarly high level of importance on confidence.

Chapter 13 in the book of Numbers—which is where we are in this week’s Torah portion—begins with God’s commandment that Moses send twelve men—one from each of the twelve tribes—to spy on the inhabitants of the holy land in preparation for its conquest.

Unfortunately, this espionage mission doesn’t involve any devious bad guys, any special gadgets, or any enticing women as modern day spy stories would have it. The Israelites do, however, bring back a cluster of grapes, and some pomegranates and figs.

These objects—the grapes, pomegranates, and figs—are the first subject of conversation when the spies return to the Israelite camp. The scouts then rave about the beauty of the land and the milk and honey.

But then things take a turn for the worse and the spies offer the following report:

“We came to the land to which you sent us, and it is flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are extremely huge and fortified, and there we saw even the offspring of the giant. We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we.” (Num 13:27 – 13:28)

This report doesn’t go down too well with the Israelites, most of who become too depressed to move forward. They make mutinous complaints and even entertain the possibility of returning to slavery in Egypt.

As chapter 14, verse 2 says:

“All the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron, and the entire congregation said, ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this desert. Why does the Lord bring us to this land to fall by the sword; our wives and children will be as spoils. Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?’”

This in turn angers God, who punishes all of the Israelites who lose faith, especially those of the scouts who brought back such discouraging news.

The only people who escape punishment are people like Caleb, who, even after hearing the report, confident announces that the Israelites can defeat the giants. Bring it on.

So what does this Portion teach us?

The Portion instructs us that often time the critical factor in a battle (be it a baseball game or, as suggested earlier, a date) is that you know what skills you have and that you have confidence in them.

With God on their side, the Israelites should have never questioned their ability to conquer the holy land, it shouldn’t have matter whether the land was filled pneumatic teenagers or “giants” as it supposedly was.

But having already thrown in the towel, the Israelites were bound to lose no matter who the opponent.

The sages use this passage to teach us a greater lesson. The world, they say, is a mirror. It reflects us. Simply put, if we are unconfident, faithless, and shy, then we will look into a mirror and see something—like giant warriors—that will confirm our lack of confidence. The men in the holy land weren’t giants, and the walls and towers weren’t insurmountable; they were absolutely normal. The scouts simply created a vision of something that confirmed their lack of confidence and faith. Similarly, the sages teach us that if we are cynical and always think that people are bad and deceitful, then when we look into the mirror, we will see only people who are bad and deceitful.

So in the end, the wisdom produced by the Portion is similar to wisdom we’ve hear before (this isn’t terribly surprising given that the Torah is at the heart of Western Civilization). The world is what we make of it. If we’re happy and optimistic, then we will see things that confirm our optimism and happiness. If we’re confident and full of faith, then our scouts will see a competing army that can be easily crushed.

So be happy and be confident in yourself and your people. In the words of one my favorite Torah scholars, in the song “Radar,” Britney Spears says “Confidence is a must, cockiness is a plus.”

The Company It Keeps, Part II

Ayin Tove
The Company It Keeps, Part II
June 3, 2010

The sixth mishnah in Avot (Make yourself a rabbi (“rav”), create/acquire for yourself friends, and give each person the benefit of the doubt when you judge (lit. let your judgment of each man be for the side of merit)) can be read so that the first clause is given meaning by the second, which is given meaning by the last. “Rav” can be rabbi but also great. So it may be saying, find a spiritual guide, but it may also be saying make yourself great. How? By making a lot of friendships. How? By thinking the best of other people, by giving them the benefit of the doubt, by interpreting their words/actions as being well-intentioned (or benign) rather than ill-intentioned (or malignant). And it says literally make yourself great, which means, in addition to treating other people well (which comes from judging them favorably), judge yourself favorably and treat yourself well.

Ayin Tove is an attorney for the government and is a contributing writer for Gather The Jews.

Behaalotecha — Challenging Authority

Stephen Richer
Challenging Authority
Behaalotecha
Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
June 1, 2010

In the book Start-Up Nation, Dan Senor and Saul Singer try to explain how Israel, “a country of 7.1 million, only 60 years old, surrounded by enemies, in a constant state of war since its founding, with no natural resources—produces more start-up companies than large, peaceful, and stable nations like Japan, China, India, Korea, Canada, and the UK”

One possible factor is Israeli’s irreverent attitude toward authority.  Instead of uncompromisingly accepting orders, Israelis are known to challenge and question, promoting a “come-up-with-your-own-way / do-it-yourself” culture that leads to entrepreneurialism.  Senor and Singer point to the Israeli military as a case in point—lower level Israeli officers often challenge and reconfigure the orders of their superior officers.  But the attitude extends as far back as Moses.

In this week’s Torah Portion, the Israeli people “were looking to complain … began to cry … and said, ‘Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.  But now, our bodies are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna to look at.’” (Numbers 11:1 – 11:5)

This displeases God—“The Lord heard and His anger flared” (Num. 11:1)—and when God is displeased with the Israelites, a conversation with Moses usually ensues.

But instead of apologizing to God on behalf of the Israelites, Moses challenges God.  “‘Why have You treated Your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in Your eyes that You place the burden of this entire people upon me?’” (Num. 11:11)

Challenging a figure of infinite power who had just seconds ago produced a fire that “consum[ed] the extremes of the [Israelite’s] camp” might not have seemed like the best idea, but Moses’ effort proves successful and lessens God’s anger.

This passage reads as an endorsement of the same type of irreverent attitude embodied in so many modern day Israeli soldiers.  Moses challenges the ultimate authority figure, and he is rewarded.  To further sanction such insubordination, God publicly praises Moses at the end of the Portion, “Not so is My servant Moses; he is faithful throughout My house.  With him I speak mouth to mouth; in a vision and not in idles, and he beholds the image of the Lord” (Num 12:7 – 12:8). Challenging authority, it would seem, is a good thing.

But how do we reconcile this with the rest of the Torah?  The five books generally read as prescriptions for rules and order.  Figures of authority, be they a parent or God, are to be respected and obeyed.

This is because the idea of challenging authority, like most concepts in the Torah, is a double-edged sword—the time, situation, place, and manner serve to divide challenges into positive challenges and negative challenges.  I’ve created a couple rules to begin distinguishing positive challenges:

1) Positive challenges are reasoned challenges, not mere complaints. As suggested in the beginning of the Portion, God does not look fondly on those who moan and groan without any suggestions for ways forward.  If a challenge to authority is presented, an alternative (presumably better) method should be proposed.

2) Positive challenges are made directly to the figure of authority. The portion also punishes the Israelites for squabbling amongst themselves, quietly undermining God’s authority.  If a challenge needs to be made, it should be made immediately, and it should be discussed directly with the authority figure.

3) Positive challenges are made with respect. When Moses challenges God, he does so in a deferent manner that still respects God’s authority—he doesn’t sit at the bottom of Sinai passive-aggressively creating idols; nor does he snivel in a “grass is always greener” manner about the food in Egypt versus God’s manna.  Similarly, the Fifth Commandment—“honor thy father and mother”—does not preclude us from occasionally challenging our parents, but issues can be raised in a respectful way that does not include, “I hate you Mom and Dad, and I hate all of your stupid rules.”

4) Positive challenges consider unintended consequences. Before a challenge is made, the positive challenger considers potential ramifications beyond the scope of the particular argument.  For instance, if a soldier were to make a meritorious challenge to a commander, it would be a negative challenge if the challenge provoked loss-of-faith or order that then jeopardized the larger mission.

This list isn’t exhaustive—it’s merely my attempt to acknowledge that there are right ways and wrong ways to challenge authority.  By establishing this, the Torah’s dichotomous nature—being a religion of respect for authority, but presenting Moses as one that occasionally challenged God—can be reconciled.

Hungry for Challah?

During the fall semester of my junior year at GW, I studied abroad in London. I tried to immerse myself in the Jewish community, and by doing so, I met many wonderful people with whom I still keep in touch–including an amazing cook. She prepared the most delicious meals and made it all look so easy. Dancing in the kitchen with grace and ease, she would make gourmet Shabbat meals that always pleased her guests. I was inspired! When I returned to school the following semester I started cooking more often, especially for friends on Shabbat. I often use family recipes passed on from great grandmothers, and everyone knows you cannot go wrong with recipes like that. Also, as cheesy as it may sound, I get some of my best dishes from Martha Stewart. But wherever I get the recipes from, I love to entertain and see the joy in peoples faces as they sit together eating good food and enjoying the company of others.

My goal for this blog is to post a recipe every week that is simple and tastes good. I am open to suggestions and I hope you will share some of your favorite dishes with everyone. I learned to cook through trial and error. If you’re not afraid to make some mistakes in the kitchen, cooking could be your new favorite hobby.

Challah

• 4 ½ cups flour (I mix between wheat (2 cups) and white (2 ½ cups)
• ¾ oz packet of rapid rise yeast
• ¼ cup of sugar (I use splenda for baking)
• ½ tablespoon cinnamon
• 1 tablespoon salt
• 3 tablespoons honey
• ¼ cup vegetable oil
• 1 cup water (room temperature)
• 8 eggs (I use only the egg whites, but if you want the classic yellow challah then use only the yolks)

It’s so easy! Preheat oven to 365. In one large bowl combine all the ingredients together. If the dough is too sticky, add more flour; if it’s too tough, add more water. Take dough out of the bowl and begin to knead. Form the dough into large ball and place it back into the bowl. Spray paper towel with oil and cover the dough. Let rise for one hour. Take the dough out of the bowl and knead once more. This recipe makes 2 challahs so cut the dough into two halves. Cut each half into 3 pieces. Once you have six pieces roll each piece so its about one foot in length. Pinch 3 pieces together at the top and begin to braid down. Pinch at the bottom and you have a challah! Repeat with the other 3 rolls. Place the challahs on a greased baking sheet. In a separate bowl whisk an egg with some water and brush the challahs with the egg wash. Place in an oven and cook for approximately a half hour to 40 minutes. Check the challahs occasionally, and you should know by touch if it is done.

– If you want to add anything to the challahs like raisins, chocolate chips, or other candies, do so the second time the dough is kneaded, after it has risen.

The Company It Keeps

Ayin Tove
The Company It Keeps
5/27/2010

The second mishnah in Avot states “on three things the world stands: on torah, on service, and on acts of lovingkindness. We can use one of the classic rabbinic methods of analysis (a “gezarah shava”) to say that “torah,” “service,” and “lovingkindness” are defined for us by the rest of the sentence. In other words, service is a form of torah, acts of lovingkindness are a form of torah, and service is a act of lovingkindness. This hearkens back to the debate as to which is greater: study or action, and the talmudic answer that study leads to action. I would say that we learn from action, such that action is a form of study. So I would say that they are equal. Aside from the role of rabbis, the privilege of study over action is that it ensures that action is the right kind of action. And that is why both are necessary.

We learn the above (i.e., what the world stands on) from Simon the righteous (“hatzadik”). This is consistent with the idea that the world exists because of the righteous (as G-d explained to Abraham the importance of 10 righteous men). It’s not turtles all the way down. And it’s not Anteus or Icarus and Dedalus who must have their feet planted on the earth to survive. No, the world exists/draws its strength from the word of its Creator and the actions of men.

We return to the idea of Ecclesiastes that for everything there is a season (including study, service, and action). We are taught that the blessing at the holidays ends with “Blessed is G-d who blesses Israel and the seasons” (m’kadesh yisrael v’hazmanim) because Israel determines the seasons by recognizing them (really by recognizing the new moon which is the beginning of the calendar month). The Earth depends upon us to recognize it and keep it. And even at the darkest periods it is our ultimate task to spot the first hopeful glint of the new moon and to spread the word. The seasons depend upon it. This requires study, service, and action. It’s all tikkun olam.

All Israel Has a Share

Will Gotkin
All Israel Has a Share
May 25, 2010

Since Gaonic times, Jews have had the custom of studying the Mishna of Pirkei Avos, also known as Ethics of the Fathers, during the long Shabbos afternoons between Pesach and Shavuos. Many others continue to study it throughout the summer months until Rosh Hashanah. It is interesting to note that each of the six chapters of Avos begins with the statement: “All Israel has a share in the World to Come.” This is an important message that each Jew need understand and internalize. Let’s probe its meaning a little more deeply.

What are the ramifications of saying that every Jew has a share in the World to Come? According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), every Jew that hasn’t “utterly divorced” themselves from the “lofty spiritual and ethical destiny” of Judaism will get a portion in the World to Come. However, one’s portion will vary according to one’s merit.

Growing up in a predominantly Christian country, this came as a surprise to me. It often seems that the singular focus of many religions is to attain the goal of Heaven. Here, an authoritative Jewish text tells us that just by being born Jewish (and for men, undergoing a circumcision) we have a parking space reserved for us in the next world – whatever that means. I’m not going to get into the Jewish view of the afterlife. Rather, I want to explore what we as Jews should do with this information.

First we must recognize that while we are guaranteed a portion in the World to Come, the size (anthropomorphically speaking) of that portion depends on our actions in this world. I think an easy way to look at it is to compare this world to the stock market. In the beginning, Hashem created Wall Street…and it was eh, let’s not get into it. Every path one may go down in life can be viewed as a stock in which one may invest. Hashem brings us onto the trading floor amidst all the confusion of people yelling at us to buy or sell. We go through life with people trying to pull us this way and that way, but ultimately each of us invests in something.

However, not to accuse the Almighty of unethical business practices (G-d forbid!), in a Divine act of spiritual insider trading, Hashem offered all of the nations of the world to invest in Torah with the guarantee that its shares would pay off in large returns.To potential investors he promised eternal life – Not bad! Remarkably, the Jews, known for their keen business savvy, were the only ones to take Hashem up on this offer of a lifetime (no pun intended). Perhaps this is why Jews have often been accused of controlling the world’s finances.

Now that we know the returns on our investments are guaranteed, all that is left to be done is to invest as much as we can in Torah. Perhaps the most beautiful thing about it is we don’t even have to wait until the World to Come to see a pay-off on our investments. Mind you, our returns will be modest, but they will be steady. Torah is kind of a Blue Chip—the more we invest, the greater our share in Torah in this world and the next. There are many suited, shiny haired, smooth talkers who constantly ask us to invest in other things – things that may give us a quicker and lucrative return on our investments. “Come on!” they urge. “Being Jewish is great and all, but why do all of these mitzvos?” All we have to do is laugh at them. We know our ability to experience the rewards of Torah is limited only by how much we wish to invest.

When compared to financial matters, this is an easy concept to understand. Spiritual rewards are much harder to grasp than material, but are infinitely greater. We experience a sample taste of them in this world, but in the next we get to eternally savor their sweetness. We never have to worry about them dipping in value. Our shares in Torah only appreciate. Other stocks have to be sold quickly before they crash painfully into the ground leaving us with nothing. By contrast, the gains on our shares in Torah are eternal.

Will Gotkin is a contributing writer for Gather The Jews.

Naso — You Must Be Ready And Set Before You Go

Stephen Richer
You Must Be Ready And Set Before You Go
Naso
Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
5/21/2010

Arthur Brooks, the president of The American Enterprise Institute, once told me that for gifted students, the real challenge lies not in accomplishing objectives, but in defining these objectives with confidence—once their minds are set, gifted students can move forward with relative ease.

This principle—the importance of a resolute mind—is the focus of the fourth Aliya of Parshas Naso. The section explicitly addresses concerns of female infidelity: it outlines the initial suspicions of the man; how the infidelity is to be proven, and the punishment should the woman be found guilty.

“Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: Should any man’s wife go astray and deal treacherously with him…” (Num 5:12)

But it doesn’t require too much syntactical flexibility to transcend the literal meaning and read the passage as a need for a clear mind.

When thoughts of infidelity first plague the husband—“But a spirit of jealousy had come upon him and he became jealous of his wife” (Num 5:14)—the husband is told to bring his wife to the kohen in the very next verse. Both the immediacy of the action and the involvement of the kohanim suggest that the problem of misgiving, of doubt, is very important. If the husband continues to wonder, continues to question, the relationship cannot be successful.

But not only should the problem be addressed; it should be resolved. The Portion offers a foolproof way for clearing any doubt of the woman’s infidelity:

“Then the kohen shall stand the woman up before the Lord and expose the [hair on the] head of the woman; he shall place into her hands the remembrance meal offering, which is a meal offering of jealousies, while the bitter curse bearing waters are in the kohen’s hand.” (Num 5:18)

In a sense, part of this Aliya boils down to the maxim “fish or cut bait” or, more simply, “make up your mind.” Productivity and happiness are impossible without a committed mind. To return to the statement from Arthur Brooks, it’s very difficult to successfully move forward in law school if simultaneously longing for, or preferring, a doctorate in political science. Similarly, many college freshmen learn that it’s challenging to develop a new life on campus when both heart and brain are fixated on a high school sweetheart more than 500 miles away. And perhaps most commonly, it’s difficult to function at a high capacity in the workplace if uncommitted the job—specifically, in the think tank world to which I belong, it’s hard to raise money if uncommitted to the cause.

But more plainly, the Portion speaks to relationships. Without trust, a marriage/relationship can’t be successful. So if there are issues of trust, issues of mental unease, they need to be resolved immediately.

God has confidence in the skills and ability of the Jewish people to accomplish great things. But before greatness can be achieved, we must remove doubt from our minds and move forward with confidence.