Friday, September 25, 2009

The Siyyum

Jaclyn Rubin shlit”a has officially read the entire Mishna (which she probably also knows by heart, but those rumors have received no official confirmation). Demonstrating that there is absolutely nothing the rabbis won’t discuss, Jaclyn read from some of the Mishnas she has learned, with topics ranging from the classification of a zav, (a man who has had a seminal emission) to the laws regarding a parah aduma (a red heifer whose ashes are used to purify those rendered impure by contact with dead bodies). She discussed the different approaches various rabbis took regarding halacha: whether they saw the halachic system as taking place within an ideal world, or the world as it is (an early expression of the tension surrounding what to do when, in the words of Rav Shai “the world as it is is not the world as it should be”).

And then we had cupcakes. Because learning Torah is sweet.

Yasher koyakh to Jaclyn! May this year be filled with more learning, understanding, and the fulfillment of all of your goals (particularly your davening ones)!

On another note: Elul Zman has officially ended for Yeshivat Hadar. G’mar chatima tovah! May you have an easy and meaningful fast.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Yeshivat Hadar Was On a Boat

It was a day of adventure for Yeshivat Hadar as we sailed the high seas, the wind in our hair, a red sky beckoning, and home just a faint memory. Contending with marauders, scurvy, and the compulsion to act out that scene from Titanic, when victory was at hand we drank in celebration from commemorative mugs. Then we gathered and told tales of our journeys to distant lands, halachic triumphs, the defeat of foes, and where not to go to buy a decent hot dog.

Apparently there is a world beyond the beit midrash, and it is good.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Tzom Gedaliah: My Unpopular Opinion

Even though this is one of the most overlooked and maligned days in the Jewish calendar, I have to confess that for years I’ve thought of this as one of the most important fasts. Maybe it’s because the philosophical reason (at least as I understood it) has always made the reason for the misery of the day more understandable than any of the fast days. As much as I try to make myself regret the process of losing the Temple, and its actual destruction, I have to admit that I’ve grown used to post-Temple Judaism; meanwhile the rebuilding of Jerusalem has always been a theoretical prospect. And Esther fasted so…why not. But setting aside a day to think about the ways in which we Jews can be our own worst enemy is extremely meaningful. Rav Eitan mentioned that there are Jews who use this day as a way to commemorate the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin, which I think is a powerful way to give this day meaning in the contemporary world. But rather than think of this day on a grand political scale, I’ve always stopped to consider the ways in which we show contempt for each other in a thousand ordinary ways, based on what denomination we do or don’t belong to, or how we practice Judaism. To force ourselves to suffer to some extent as we recognize these issues is a powerful statement.

I hope everyone had an easy fast.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Shana Tova! Complete With Sumo Wrestling!

On my morning walk to Hadar, I met Lief (Leaf?), one of the cast of characters I occasionally encounter in the morning. The first time I met Lief over the summer, we shared a series of jokes, and when I saw him again, I asked him if he had any new ones.

Here it is (I changed the priest to a rabbi because, you know…):

One night after Maariv, a rabbi gets into a cab to go home. Unfortunately, there is an accident, and both the rabbi and the cabdriver are killed. Nebuch. Luckily, however, both of them reach heaven, and are welcomed in by God, who shows the rabbi to a lovely little house in a great neighborhood, and with a full set of Shas on the bookshelf. The rabbi is feeling pretty happy, until he looks out of his window, and sees the cabdriver in a beautiful mansion. Confused and upset, he approaches God and says: “Dear God, I dedicated my life to you! Why do I get the small house, while the cabdriver gets a mansion?”

To which God replies: “You encouraged people to pray. When they were in his cab, they meant it.”

(This obviously takes place in Manhattan)

Warning: I’m about to ruin the joke by over-analyzing it. Feel free to leave now, while you’re still smiling.

For those of you still with me, I think this joke points to two important aspects of prayer, namely, that meaningful prayer is often easier to obtain in nontraditional settings, and that motivating someone to work on their relationship with God is easier when the impetus is fear, rather than love. On the one hand, as we go into Rosh HaShana, perhaps we should take to heart the question of “who will live and who will die” and see ourselves as if we are passengers in that cab, and really mean what we say when we pray for our lives, and the lives we hope to lead this coming year.

As we consider the joke, however, it is clear that meaningful prayer from fear is not depicted as something we should strive for. Nor is it portrayed particularly positively in more traditional sources; we just learned in Yoma, chapter 8, that sins are considered more leniently when the impetus for the teshuva is love, rather than fear. Perhaps what we should instead take from this joke is that it is not enough to know how to pray “properly” (the rabbi obviously did). The best type of prayer is not necessarily traditional, or the one that makes us feel great individually, but may be one that allows us to engage on a communal level, and induce powerful feeling in others. It’s not just about relating to God, but how others can relate to you while you are making a divine connection.

Shana tova.

And to start off the year right: Sumo Wrestling!

(HT: Friend of Hadar)

A Hadar Alumni First (I Think)!

Mazel tov to D.Z and Y. (Yeshivat Hadar Summer alums) on their engagement! With genes like that, I look forward to the day that their kids will be teaching me Talmud.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Bagels and Books

On Monday the yeshiva commemorated the five-year anniversary of the death of the father of one of the fellows. Even though none of us had ever met S.’s father, the way in which S. chose to pay tribute to her father generously allowed for us to connect to him in a way through which we, as a community, could mourn for him in a meaningful way.

After her final recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish, ending davening, S. spoke about her father, and described a man who fiercely believed in the value of education. Until his death, S.’s father collected books that he would never read, leaving a tangible legacy for his children, along with the less concrete values he imparted. For those of us at Hadar who have the privilege of studying with S., it is a legacy that we also benefit from, as we interact with, and learn from, S.

But S. did not just use words to convey her connection to her father, and honor his memory. Instead of cereal for breakfast, S. brought bagels, because her father loved them. That morning, eating and enjoying the same food as S.’s father was strangely moving. The pleasure of having something delicious and different for breakfast became a joy that was not about the food, but that her father had lived and loved bagels, and now we could do it too, and connect to the person he was.

Bagels and books—I can think of no greater Jewish legacy. May the family be comforted, and may S. continue to honor her father’s legacy as embarks on her religious journey this year.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Hashem Sfatai Tiftakh, Ufi Yagid Tehilatekha

If you recite Shemona Esreh as often as you should—three times a day, plus musaf every Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh, and holidays—you will recite this phrase more often that you might care to think about. Even I who has not (yet) reached these lofty heights has said it so often that this phrase has pretty much ceased to register, even on my best davening days. In fact, it seems completely redundant; we ask God to open our mouths so that we may pray, after we’ve spent a good deal of time on psukei d’zimra, yishtabach, and birchot kriat shema. Of all the struggles we may be having at that moment, the inability to speak or pray is not one of them.

And yet, this phrase is one of the most powerful that we utter. Often enough, one of the hardest things to do is simply to open our mouths and communicate what is important to us to those we love. The context of this phrase, Psalm 51, shows this clearly. Attributed to David, this psalm was written in response to his confrontation with the prophet Nathan, who condemns David for his relationship with Bathsheba. David bemoans the severity of his sin, beseeching God to forgive him. At this moment of anger and shame, David recognizes the difficulty he has communicating. Yet rather than retreat into his disgrace, he recognizes that he needs God, and asks God to help him communicate so that they can reestablish their relationship. When we recite the same plea as David, we both recognize how difficult the Amidah can be in its demands on us to communicate in a very personal way, yet also recognizing the importance of connecting at the moment that is most difficult for us.

Yesterday during the orientation inaugurating the yearlong learning program at Yeshivat Hadar, one of the recurring issues was communication. Whether it was the hope that we would learn the language of the Torah, or wondering how our past, present, and future selves could interact with each other as we grow throughout the year, the issue of how we can communicate with ourselves and others is one that is very much on the mind of fellows and faculty. It is my hope that this blog can serve as one of the tools through which we can connect with each other, and will open the doors of communication and relationship between Yeshivat Hadar and the world beyond the yeshiva.