A Moderate Life

Prior to Shavuos, our family went to a Sunday brunch celebrating the Bat Mitzvah of a cousin. At some point, I found myself in conversation with the uncle of the honoree, also a cousin and, of course, of my own generation. One of us got a text message, I believe, which turned the conversation to smartphones and the next technologies on the way. Although we’ve known each other essentially all his life (I have about five years on him), he eventually commented that he had to adjust mentally to the idea of talking about high-tech with someone looking like a yeshiva (traditional Rabbinic school) alumnus.

To those not familiar, I suppose it’s rather easy to confuse Orthodox Jews with the Amish, or the ascetics of other communities who shun technology, marriage, and other pleasures. But that is not what the Torah asks of us. As Maimonides advises us, the Torah looks for moderation in most every area.

In our reading this week, the head of each Jewish tribe brings an inaugural offering upon the completion of the Tabernacle. Each of those offerings was precisely the same. Yet the Torah, concerning which we are taught that every letter is holy and none is wasted, describes each offering in full detail, allocating the same six verses to repeat, practically word for word, what each Nasi brought on each day. Achira ben Einan of Naftali’s offering on day twelve is described with all the details of Nachshon ben Amminadav of Yehudah’s on day one. What’s the point of all that repetition?

Rabbi Shmuel Greinemann explains that it was no accident that Nesanel ben Tzuar of Yissachar chose, on the second day, to bring precisely what Nachshon ben Amminadav brought the day earlier. He knew that each of the tribes could engage in one-upmanship, compensating for and taking advantage of going later in line to bring something greater than the other Nesi’im had brought so far. Instead, Nesanel ben Tzuar chose a path designed to avoid any hint of jealousy, and to generate feelings of love and brotherhood. And every Nasi followed suit. That was what was so precious about each and every offering, warranting that it, too, be described with the same level of detail in the Torah itself as all the others.

We live at a time where keeping up with (and outdoing) our neighbors is a fine American (and even global) pastime. That is what the Torah asks us to avoid: to engage in moderation, live within our means, and encourage brotherhood rather than jealousy. And if we want to know how precious that is to G-d, we merely need to contemplate how much space He allocated in His Torah to ensuring that each Nasi was recognized for his personal contribution in this area.

I look forward to reading your comments!

Good Shabbos,
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Director, Project Genesis – Torah.org

Peter Menkin interviews Yaakov Menken

No, no relation! Peter Menkin is an Episcopal writer, and this article appeared in the San Francisco Examiner and the Church of England Newspaper. Interesting style and all, you do learn a lot about Project Genesis via this article — so with his permission I’ve reprinted it here.

Interview: Internet Rabbi Yaakov Menken speaks about his Religious Education work with www.Torah.org

In an interview on Religious Education, Orthodox Rabbi Yaakov Menken talks of his work with the successful teaching website www.Torah.org and tells readers all about what to expect as students

by Peter Menkin

Founder and Director of www.Torah.org,
Rabbi Yaakov Menken of Baltimore, Maryland, USA

This is the second interview in three that constitute the final article-interview on Religious Education. The unique aspect of this interview has to do with the success of internet education and its use in the teaching of Torah and Jewish learning purposes, as well, of Orthodox Jewish adult education. In this interview with Religion Writer Peter Menkin, Director of www.torah.org spoke with the writer over a period of a few months, from December, 2011, through the 20th of March, 2012. Rabbi Yaakov Menken (no relation to the Religion Writer), speaks with an authority born of education, training, and experience. He shows a love of learning, and like the other three Rabbis who are part of this interview series of three about the internet learning site, with its 78,000 subscribers, Rabbi Yaakov has a warmth for the reality of the work and their experience in reaching out to both Jews and non-Jews in many parts of the world–in fact, worldwide as well as the United States. The phone conversations held from Peter Menkin’s home office in Mill Valley, California to Rabbi Yaakov’s office at www. Torah.org and his own home in Baltimore, went well.

1. Peter Menkin: There is little doubt in my mind that your work as Director, www.Torah.org is an internet success with 78,000 subscribers. In a conversation by phone, you talked some about advantages and such of internet learning—calling Torah.org a place for ongoing education (lifelong learning). To paraphrase your remark regarding continuing education –as this writer knows it as once known in California, USA — and your school purpose, continuing education is…much closer to our model, not because (the student is) going to get a credit. Lifelong education known to us as… religious study…a more fundamental obligation. It is one of the things we are expected to do. Tell us about this lifelong, fundamental obligation. Give us some about the, “Why,” and “What for…”

Continue reading “Peter Menkin interviews Yaakov Menken”

Life Beyond Internet

On Monday, Paul Miller, a Senior Editor at a “technology-focused news publication” called The Verge, announced that he was quitting the Internet for a year. He’s switched to a “dumb” phone, and has pledged to neither use the Internet nor ask others to use it for him, if he can.

His reasons for this drastic move are informative. He hopes that “leaving the internet will make me better with my time, vastly more creative, a better friend, a better son and brother… a better Paul.” He said that he was spending an average of over twelve hours each day using some sort of device with an Internet connection, not even including his smartphone.

By separating myself from the constant connectivity, I can see which aspects are truly valuable, which are distractions for me, and which parts are corrupting my very soul. What I worry is that I’m so “adept” at the internet that I’ve found ways to fill every crevice of my life with it, and I’m pretty sure the internet has invaded some places where it doesn’t belong.

This is a profound statement for a person who makes his living as a technology writer, a job that will be far more difficult without the ability to research new devices online, see what others have written, and even exchange e-mail to share ideas. His previous weekly column was entitled “The Verge at work: sync your text everywhere, never lose an idea again” — which, of course, requires the Internet.

Yet after his first day, he described the experience in glowing terms. “The moment I reached down and unplugged the ethernet cable from my computer, I felt like school was out for the summer, and the simultaneous relief and boredom that last bell brings. I stood up, and I realized that I’d been anticipating this moment for ages.” The rest of his day was relaxing — including hours spent playing local multiplayer video games with colleagues.

At home I listened to records with my roommate and the peaceful boredom continued. I found myself really engaging in the moment, asking questions and listening closely, even more than if I’d just closed my computer or locked my phone, because I knew neither of those things could demand anything of me.

What I suspect he will discover is that Day 31 isn’t nearly as enjoyable as Day 1, especially given his career. But he has clearly recognized that it takes a complete disconnect in order to avoid distractions, and that other areas of our lives suffer when buried under a flurry of text messages, interesting articles and more.

It is possible, though, to take a less extreme approach and enjoy the same benefits: a weekly disconnect. It is as if the Laws of the Sabbath, which G-d called a special gift thousands of years ago, were expressly designed for our era. Now, more than ever, we need to turn off these devices in order to tune in to what really matters.

In our world, that doesn’t mean spending hours playing video games with colleagues, but devoting that time to family, friends, and spiritual growth. You, too, can experience Day One of “Life without the Internet” — each and every week.

Published as the Project Genesis Lifeline.

The Powers That Be

This week, I cannot refer to “this week’s reading” and be universally accurate. The Torah portion read this week in Israel is “out of sync” with the rest of the world, a phenomenon that will continue for another month. This is because while Israel celebrates the holy days of the three festivals on one day each, those living outside Israel celebrate them for two. Since the last day of Passover was on Friday this year, in Israel they read Parshas Shemini on Shabbos, while outside Israel, we read the special reading for the eighth day of Passover, and will read Shemini this week.

This causes a minor inconvenience for many people. Many apps and webpages written in Israel, for instance, refer to a different Torah reading than those written outside it. This week, many who are about to travel to Israel will walk to places where they can listen to Israel’s reading in order to “catch up.”

Now of course, you can find some people today who say that we really should only have one Passover Seder. This usually comes from the same sources that claim that Ashkenazic Jews shouldn’t care about eating kitniyos (legumes, rice, etc.) on Passover anymore — and that oh, by the way, the traditionalists are so monolithic! As I have written before, we should celebrate the diversity of customs that have developed over thousands of years of Jewish history, all surrounding a common core of Torah and Rabbinic legislation designed to encourage us to come closer to G-d.

For the record, I recently saw a webpage which explained accurately that the reason why Jews outside Israel observed two days of the holidays was because the community in Babylon could not receive timely word from Jerusalem concerning which of two possible days was consecrated as the new month, because this was done only based upon eyewitness testimony before the Sanhedrin, the supreme religious court. The same page, however, also asserts that this practice “continued even after mathematical models made it possible to calculate the date of the new moon.”

This latter statement is inaccurate: the mathematical models were in Jewish hands from the time that the Torah was given, to a degree of accuracy that required NASA to replicate. That is why we can still rely upon the calendar established by Hillel Sheni (the second Rabbi Hillel), although it is nearing two millenia since his lifetime. He created a set calendar not because he had developed a mathematical model, but because he recognized that there would soon not be a Sanhedrin to receive witnesses! The festivals still carry with them the message that the Jewish people has the ability to affect the entire world, spiritually, by affecting the time when the spiritual powers encapsulated within the festivals come into the world once again.

One day soon, we should hope to see the day when everyone returns to Israel, observes one day of all holidays, and a cloudy evening might affect when they are!

Brother, Can You Share a Smile?

The blessing Jacob gives Judah concludes with the words: “his eyes will redden from wine, and his teeth white from milk.” Rabbi Yochanan says homiletically (Kesubos 111b) that you can read it as “teeth whiter than milk” — to give a smile to a friend is even greater than giving him nourishment.

When someone comes collecting charity, it is a difficult and often thankless job. Rejection can break a person’s spirits and keep him or her from continuing, no matter how important the cause. So, as it happens, a smile may be one of the most important things you can give — you can brighten that person’s spirits and enable him or her to persevere.

Closer to home, there is no one who doesn’t have a “hard day” now and then. There are great people who have tremendous internal reserves of happiness, so that no matter what, it seems like they are always happy. Even people like that need an encouraging word now and then — much less the rest of us, who sometimes just want to crawl back into bed and start over tomorrow, if not next week!

To be generous of spirit is at least as important as being generous with money — and when it comes to smiles, the more you give, the more you have!

Blogging

I decided that it was time for me to take advantage of this space to start a discussion. My posts here will be short notes of interest — in contrast to my participation in Cross-Currents, for example, as well as a brand-new blog from my Internet work.

But I thought it worth keeping the site more lively — primarily so that readers out there (does that mean you?) should feel free to comment and know that I’m reading!

First Round

I just asked those who bought through Project Genesis to email me their comments… here are a few.

I enjoyed the book very much……..I’m reading it a second time….probably a third and fourth too! So much to learn! Thank you for taking the time to write it.

B’Shalom,
Lisa

I think this book is so wonderful that I recommended it to my sister (61 yrs old) who was asking me about Kabbalah.

It is easy to read, informative and interesting. Since for me a good experience is one where I learn something new or have a little fun/enjoyment, the “Everything Torah” book fulfils both of my requirements. I couldn’t put it down once I started it, enjoyed it and learned many new things. What else could I ask for?

Sincerely

Solette

I started to read your book the day I received it and enjoyed the book. I have passed it on to my wife, who is presently reading it

Cordially,

David

Evolution

The “Cutting Room” is for sections of the manuscript that didn’t make it into the published book. The first item I published came in response to a question in the discussion forum — from a perceptive reader, Andrea, who noticed that my entry on evolution was curiously devoid of an explanation. I responded in the forum, so you can read the missing passage there.

As a footnote, you should also see Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein’s article, “Inherit an Ill Wind, and Other Musings About Science,” on Cross-Currents.

Rabbi Zerachyah HaLevi

Moshe did it again — he found a significant error on pp. 135-136.

The author of the Sefer HaMaor was not named Zecharyah (like the Prophet), but rather Zerachyah. Since the acronym “Razah” fits both names — Rabbi {Zerachyah, Zecharyah} Halevi — I misread the more common name in my research. The more significant mistake, though, is that Nachmanides’ Milchamos HaShem attempts to prove R’ Zerachyah was in error, rather than the Ra’avad as I wrote on p. 136.

That was, in fact, how I had understood the debates between them previously. The passage that I misread, resulting in the error in the book, comes from the entry on Rabbi Zerachyah found on p. 164 of The Rishonim, by Rabbi Hersh Goldwurm with Rabbi Shmuel Teich. He writes, “Ravad [or, in my book, Ra’avad] III attacked his colleague, Razah, in very sharp language… Ramban… attempts to prove that Razah, not Rif, is in error.” Somehow I misread the double negative (“not Rif… in error”) and had Ramban defending the Razah, when the opposite is true.

Here is the relevant passage from The Rishonim in its entirety:

Despite his disclaimers and apologetics, Razah was sharply attacked for presenting a work which implies that Rif sometimes erred in his halachic decisions. In his Hasagos, Ravad III attacked his colleague, Razah, in very sharp language. The similarly youthful Ramban, who calls R’ Zerachyah “the princely cedar,” compiled the extensive work Milchamos HaShem in which he attempts to prove that Razah, not Rif, is in error. Sefer HaMaor, together with the Hasagos and Milchamos HaShem, are printed in all current editions of Sefer HaHalachos.

Very Good…

Congratulations to Moshe for catching the error I meant, and to Andrea for catching two more.

1) I’ve never heard of Chafalashim either, but the stack of books on the lower left hand corner of the front cover has a book of their prayers at both the top and bottom of the stack. The book on top reads “Seder Tefilot Chafalashim“, which means “The Order of Prayers of the Chafalashim,” followed by “Daily Prayer Book” in English.

The Falashim, “HaFalashim” with a hey rather than ches, refers to the Ethiopian immigrants who have come to Israel since the 1980s. However, it is my understanding that this term, Anglicized as “Falashas,” is somewhat derogatory — there are other self-descriptive terms, and they wouldn’t put “Falashim” on their own prayer book. And further, they lost much of their connection with Jewish prayer, and to the best of my knowledge have adopted one of the traditional orders of prayer, either that of the Sephardic communities (Morocco, Syria, Iraq etc.) or that of the Ashkenazim of Europe.

2) As Andrea mentioned, it’s incongruous for the term “Old Testament” to appear on the cover of a Jewish book, and the Jewish Bible comprises more than five books (twenty-four, by our count, which groups the Twelve Prophets (Hoshea-Malachi) into one).

As mentioned before, I didn’t do the cover — I even sent them some scans of genuine Jewish book covers, like Maimonides’ Mishnah Torah (his legal code). In most English-speaking countries, everyone recognizes “Old Testament” so I left that alone — but I myself missed the reference to the Five Books!