Gather the News — Jewish News of the Week (2nd)

Do people still care about the Maccabeats?  I certainly don’t.  Let’s Gather the News…

  • Ok, maybe just a little.
  • Time Magazine names a Jewish 20-something its Person of the Year.  Meanwhile, I’m writing Gather the News.
  • A mysterious Stuxnet virus has apparently set back Iran’s nuclear program two years.  Israel is assumed to be responsible, but we can never rule out Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith.
  • Don’t know what “phylacteries” are?  Apparently, neither do New Zealander ferry passengers.
  • According to Winona Ryder Mel Gibson is not a fan of the Jews.  In other news, pigs remain grounded and Hell is enjoying a hot season.
  • Richard Nixon too.  Seriously though, Hell is still sweltering.
  • The House of Representatives unanimously opposes recognizing a “state” with two central governments and undefined borders.  Lame duck session?  Please.
  • Lauren Pierce Bush, granddaughter of George H.W, will wed the son of Jewish designer Ralph Lauren.  Now comes the choice of whether to be Lauren Lauren, or Lauren Lifshitz.  Lucky her.
  • The IDF shoots down a freakin’ UFO!  It was likely just a party balloon, but that’s not nearly as interesting.

Rochel’s Self-Sacrifice and the Woman’s Role in Judaism

Editor’s Note:  This article is the first in a series of commentaries that GTJ will publish on this week’s Torah portion.  Stay tuned for the others.  Will Gotkin is a recent graduate graduated of The George Washington University and now studies at a yeshiva in Jerusalem.  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Will.

If you travel to Israel and visit Machpela (the gravesite of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of Judaism) in Hebron, you would notice that Rochel’s grave is conspicuously missing.  Her gravesite is actually located in BeisLechem.  It might trouble you that she is not buried alongside Avraham, Sarah, Rivkah, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, but Rochel wanted it this way.

Early in Parshas Vayechi, Yaakov asks his son, Yosef to take his body back to the land of Canaan to be buried alongside his forefathers in Machpela.  But Rochel was buried where she was so that she could help her descendants who in later times would pass by her grave on their way into Babylonian imposed exile.  She would then emerge from her grave, pray, and shed tears for the Jewish nation.   The Jewish people would experience redemption in the merit of her actions.[1]

By choosing to be there for her troubled descendants over the spiritual contentment and blissful reward of being buried alongside the founders of Judaism, she demonstrated an extremely high level of self-sacrifice.  The Babylonian exile was Divine punishment to the Jewish nation for going away from the path of Torah and yet she still gave up her own reward to give them comfort in their time of need.[2] Rochel embodies the qualities the Torah ascribes to the ideal Jewish woman and her exemplary conduct enables her to serve as a role model for all Jewish women in their service of Hashem.

Men and women have different roles to play in how they each serve the Creator. Yaakov’s burial in Machpela is symbolic of the very external and public way by which men serve G-d.  Men are expected to daven three times a day, study Torah, and do many other mitzvahs from which women are exempt.  Women on the other hand serve Hashem by not only giving physical life to the Jewish nation and being in charge of the house (often in addition to having a career outside the home), but by being the spiritual bedrock of the home and instilling a faith in Hashem and Torah in children.  It is for this reason that the Jewish soul and Judaism passes through the mother, while tribal affiliation i.e. Levi, Yehuda etc. (a more publicly recognizable quality) passes through the man.  While her role may not seem on the outside to be as glamorous or worthwhile, the woman’s service is in many ways higher than that of the man, because her actions do not usually get the praise they deserve.  Rochel eschewed the kavod (honor) of being buried at Machpela so that she could be there for her children. In the same way, a good mother sacrifices much there for her children. Rochel’s ability to sacrifice some of her own spiritual reward is a lesson for all of us that we must take some time out from our own divine service in order to bring others closer to Hashem.


[1]Rashi on Bereishis 48:7

[2]LikkuteiSichos: Lamed

Gather the News — Jewish News of the Week (1st)

Chanukah wraps up (get it!), and I didn’t flip my latkes in the air once, much less sometimes.  Let’s Gather the News…

  • Everyone’s favorite modern orthodox college a capella group inspires a cute parody of its parody of the parody of the real thing.  And I don’t even know what to call this, except absolutely adorable.
  • Meanwhile, Matisyahu’s stellar new single gets only a fraction of the love.
  • An Egyptian official speculates that Israel is behind recent shark attacks in Sharm e-Sheikh.  This is ridiculous; everyone knows that Israeli sharks would at least have frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads.
  • A, um, friend, told me that Israel got a shout out on Glee.
  • Note to self: always carpool with Chabad yeshiva guys.
  • Leo may possibly become the best looking Jewish guy not on the GTJ staff.  Sadly, however, Bar Rafaeli may soon be off the market for good.
  • The only time you will ever see the following words together: kippah giveaway fail.
  • In what was surely a well-thought out and researched decision, three Latin American countries recognized a “state” with two central governments and undefined borders.
  • Peace talks breakdown.  The EU and UN blame Israel.  The sun also rose today.

Gather the News is a weekly feature by Scott Weinberg that showcases some of the best stories pertaining to Judaism and Israel.

There are multiple Chanukah stories. What would a feminist Chanukah Midrash look like?

There are multiple Chanukah stories.  There is the Hebrew School Chanukah, where the Macabees are guerrilla fighters who lead an uprising in the name of liberty (kind of like George Washington), and there is the other Chanukah, the civil war Chanukah, where Jews killed other Jews for religious and political reasons.  There is also the Rabbi’s Chanukah, where the oil  lasted for eight days.

Against the background of Chanukah-as-civil-war, there are stories of two women – Judith and Hannah.  Both women are extreme models of virtuous womanhood under the patriarchy.  Judith manages to get an important general to trust her; she gets him drunk, cuts of his head, and puts it on a stake at the city gates.  She is a harlot who uses her sexuality to save her people.  Hannah is far sadder.  She encourages her seven children, even the little ones, to die rather than violate Jewish law.  I continue to be terrified by her story – Hannah is the silent, suffering Martyr, she allows her sons to die for the ideas of powerful men.  She is the ancient narrative equivalent of a mother who encourages her sons to become a suicide bomber.

Talmudic Rabbis transformed Chanukah from a story of civil war into a miraculous re-dedication of the temple, where the oil for one day lasted for eight.  The very first Chanukah occurred on Sukkot that is why the holiday is eight days, not the “oil miracle.”

Tradition has allowed for the movement of this story from one of in-fighting to a temple miracle for people who wanted to experience a miraculous God, and now to the Hebrew school version of Chanukah as a story about the fight for religious freedom, a foundational belief we wish to teach our children.

Chanukah  can also be read as a holiday about the religious capacity for transformation – an ongoing re-dedication, where just as the Rabbi’s oil stretched the boundaries of physical law, our stories can stretch the boundaries of religious law and tradition.

When they tell the Chanukah story at some point in the future, there will likely be other women in it, women besides Judith and Hannah, women who are neither martyrs nor harlots.

Author’s Note:  Check out this Chanukah Dvar torah at Slate, which inspired my own.

Editor’s Note:  Anna Batler blogs about faith and feminism at  http://sotah.net/.  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anna Batler.

Which Is Better: Doing Something You Have To? Or Doing Something You Don’t Have To?

?Ayin Tove
September 29, 2010
Which Is Better: Doing Something You Have To? Or Doing Something You Don’t Have To?

I have a feeling that the modern answer to this question is that doing something you don’t have to do is better than doing something you have to do. You’re going above and beyond. But I also have a feeling that the rabbinic answer to this question is that it is better to do something you are already obligated to do. In other words, it is inherently good to fulfill an obligation.

You might object: If I’m obligated to do something, then aren’t I already doing it? The answer is not so simple. Forgetting about keeping kosher, religious obligations like “Honor Your Father and Mother” or “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself” can be difficult to interpret and to follow.

And now the contradiction: It’s a “mitzvah” to love your neighbor as yourself. “Mitzvah” has two meanings: to do a good deed and a commandment. To love your neighbor is both commanded and is a good deed.

So the things that we might think of as good deeds that you don’t have to do, may already be commanded. You have to do the things that you don’t have to do. How can this be?

We are commanded to do good deeds, mitzvahs, of various kinds, but the amount of them is left up to us. The Talmud teaches us that there is no prescribed measure for deeds of lovingkindness. Mishnah Peah 1:1.

Another word that covers these good deeds, especially the ones we are not obligated to do, is “tzedakah” which we think of as charity. And at the same time we are commanded to do “tzedek” or righteousness: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.” (“Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue.”) (Deut. 16:20).

We may not be obligated to do particular acts of lovingkindness, but we may be obligated to do some.

Ayin Tove is a contributing writer for Gather The Jews.

Proud Lion

Joshua Kaller
Proud Lion
June 15, 2010

Maimed Angel-Lion, whose ascension has ended.
Your roar settled and succumb, resting in the gilded tomb of your heart.
There the messiah quake sleeps ready to wake, and when it does you shall burst
And circle the sky, undulating your heavy wing of justice,
Creating a tornado of peace that shall carry us all.

Joshua Kaller is a co-founder of Gather The Jews and is currently living in Israel.

The Etymology of Passover

Stephen Richer
The Etymology of Passover
4/1/2010

Transcript of speech to be delivered at The George Washington University on 4/6/2010.

Passover is a time of questioning, and the most renowned of the established Passover questions are the four questions that ask why this night–the night of the Seder (be the it first or second)–is different from all others.

Question 1) Why is it that on all other nights during the year we eat either bread or matzoh, but on this night we eat only matzoh?

Question 2) Why is it that on all other nights we eat all kinds of herbs, but on this night we eat only bitter herbs?

Question 3) Why is it that on all other nights we do not dip our herbs even once, but on this night we dip them twice?

Question 4) Why is it that on all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining, but on this night we eat in a reclining position?

Useful as these questions are in initiating the retelling of the history of the Israelite’s Exodus from Egypt, their importance in my personal estimate is matched by the question:

Why is the holiday commemorating the Exodus story called Passover?

Owing to the popularity of Charlton Heston’s The Ten Commandments, most Americans can tell you that for his Tenth Plague, God invoked The Angel of Death which spirited from house to house killing the firstborn male child unless the door was marked with the blood of the pascal lamb–showing it to be the home of an Israelite–in which case the Angel of Death would simply pass over the house.

And for most, this phenomenon of the Angel of Death passing over is enough to justify the Passover name.

But the inquisitive Jew–which is to say nearly every Jew–should wonder why this plague should be namesake of the entire holiday.  After all, The Angle of Death is just one of ten plagues.  Why not call the holiday “jump” in reference to action of the frogs in the second plague, or “swarm” in reference to the flies, lice, or locusts in reference to plagues three, four, and eight?  Or else the Holiday could embrace a rotating system like the Chinese calendar and name the holiday after a different plague each year.

Two theories are commonly offered in response:

The first posits that the passing over of the Angel of Death was simply the last plague and therefore assumed the title.

But if it were the fact that the Jewish people were simply at a loss for a title for the holiday and merely reverted to the last major event, then Passover would not have been chosen.  After all, the Ten Plagues of Egypt does not conclude the Exodus story.  Something like “Red Sea” would have been chosen instead to commemorate the Israelites final step in freedom.

Furthermore, other examples suggest that when in doubt, titles are extracted from the beginning of a story rather than the end.  Homer’s Odyssey takes its title from the man referenced in the very first words, “Muse tell me of the man of many wiles, the man that wandered many paths of exile.”

Similarly, Christian songs like Jingle Bells and Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer bear the names of the songs’ respective opening lyrics.

This “opening phrase” precedent is so pervasive that it can even be seen in modern day electronics.  The default title in Microsoft Word documents is the first line of text.

It seems then, that the holiday is not named Passover simply because the Angel’s passing was the tenth and final plague.

A second hypothesis suggests that the Angel of Death’s passing merits recognition the Holiday’s name because it is the worst of the Ten Plagues of Egypt.

To be sure, the systematic destruction of first born children was devastating, but whether it deserves the superlative can be debated.

According to one scholarly article, titled “Women In The Ancient World,” “Pregnancy, childbirth, and infancy were the three most dangerous times in [Ancient Egypt].”

Most research substantiates that this quote–it is estimated that between 33% and 50% of children in Ancient Egypt died in the first weeks of their lives.

This high rate of infant mortality is not surprising.  It is nearly equivalent with other Ancient societies. Furthermore, owing to the absence of an Ancient Egyptian word for midwife, it is likely that Ancient Egyptians did not have midwives to help facilitate a more sanitary birthing process.

But even beyond infancy, the life of an Ancient Egyptian child was precarious.  Malnutrition and infection were endemic–not least of all because of the state of the Nile River–and the society’s high economic inequality meant that the majority of Ancient Egyptians worked as hard laborers–an activity not conducive to longevity.

As such, scholars consistently estimate that only 1 out of every 2 Ancient Egypt children survived past the age of 5.

It has also been establish to a high degree of certainty that Ancient Egyptians usually entered into relationships and started their own households during the early teen years.  These new households averaged more than six children, thereby ensuring that elderly parents would be ensured a “staff of old age.”

All of these factors limit the intensity of the Tenth Plague.  The Angel of Death took the first born male child of each household.  But if we consider that there already existed a 50 percent chance that the first born male child would die owing to natural causes, and knowing that once a child made it past the most dangerous years of his life he would only be a few years away from establishing his own household and thereby remove himself from the reaches of the Angel, we can safely estimate that the Angel’s devastation would not be as broad in scope as initially imagined.

The Tenth Plague seems especially forgiving when compared to other events chronicled in the story of Exodus.  For instance, the locusts of the fourth plague “devour[ed] what little you ha[d] left after the hail, including every tree that [was] growing in your fields.” (Exodus 10:3 — 10:6)  Without food, death would extend far beyond first born male children.

But perhaps the most deadly act of God throughout the book of Exodus was his final destruction of the Egypt armies in the Red Sea.  There, Egypt’s strongest and bravest were put to death–a more draconian punishment than that of the Tenth Plague.

And so we can safely conclude that the second hypothesis for the naming of the Holiday–that the Tenth Plague was the most severe–also fails upon inspection.

Fortunately, the sages (through the mediums of Rabbis Teitelbaum and Schwersenski) have offered us a third explanation as to the etymology of Passover.  Passover refers not to the Tenth Plague but to a period of spiritual ascendancy that occurs on a yearly basis in accordance with the historical escape from Egypt.  During this time (the first two nights–the Seder nights), Jews can make otherwise unmerited leaps in their spiritual journeys–they can “pass over” normal spiritual steps to move to higher planes.

The argument is nuanced, but unlike most academics, especially Fareed Zakaria, I recognize when I’m outside my area of expertise, and, accordingly, I will defer this discussion to Rabbis well-versed in the theory, and until then, I will continue to question the name of Passover in the spirit of Passover.

Happy Passover!

Note:  the sanctimonious tone in which this was written/delivered was assumed only because I thought it would make for a fun/humorous delivery.