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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Lessons from the Life of Rabbi Akiva

THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF RABBI PINKY SCHMECKELSTEIN

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Lessons from the Life of Rabbi Akiva

Rabboisai,

The Talmud tells us that the great Rabbi Akiva spent forty years as a poor shepherd, uneducated, an ignoramus just like you, you Minuval. But one day he happened upon a stone whose center had been washed away by steady droplets of water over a long period of time. And it was at that point when he said to himself, "Schmuck! Why am I chasing goats around when there is a fortune to be made in licensing fees, royalties, and residuals?!" So began the rabbinic career of one of the greatest rabbis in history, alongside the RAMBAM, Reb Yoisaiph Karo, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and Rabbi Shmuli Boiteach.

What were the essential accomplishments of Rabbi Akiva, and what are the key messages of relevance for us in our day?

For one thing, young Akiva engaged in manual, subsistence labor as a shepherd. The man had to work, to make a living. Wait a second! Didn't he ever hear of welfare and food stamps and Medicaid and Section 8? He must have been a Misnagid! Or even worse - a Litvak!

Upon his moment of epiphany, Akiva embarked on a career of Toirah scholarship. He sat and learned Yoimum V'Layla, day and night, with Rabbi Eliezer Ben Hyrkanos and Nachum Ish Gamzu. He also studied under Moishe Ben Fred and Shloimi Zukt Farkert. There is a Medrish that says that he also sold cell phones on the side, and made additional spending money by scalping tickets to the local Siyum HaShas.

At some point Akiva, probably Rabbi Akiva by then, decided that it was time for Tachlis - time to settle down. So he married the finest catch in all of Jerusalem, Rachel, the beautiful daughter of Kalba Savua. And he promptly asserted his commitment to his new wife by leaving her to go back to the Yeshiva in Lod for seven years, and made sure to tell all of the women that he met in bars in Lod that his name was Ben Hey Hey, and that he was from Cleveland.

Rabbi Akiva was a renowned scholar. He was a major force in the canonization of the Toirah - selecting which books, and presumably which textual variants, to include in the TANACH, and which to leave out. The Gemarrah tells us that he was a strong advocate of including Shir HaShirim and Megillas Esther in the TANACH, but opposed including Maccabees 1 and 2, The Wisdom Of Ben Sira and Huckleberry Finn.

But perhaps his most important textual legacy is his contribution to the structure of Halachic literature. Rabbi Akiva lived at a time when the Pharasaic/ Rabbinic approach was gaining dominance in the Jewish world, as the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash ended worship in the Temple as the central form of connecting to the Reboinoisheloilum, and also ended the source of authority of the Tziddukim, the Sadducees, who were by and large comprised of the landed Priestly elite. Halacha, the growing movement of practicing Jewish ritual in one's daily life, became the popular form of worship among the masses. And Rabbi Akiva is credited with organizing Halacha within the framework of the Shishah Sidrei Mishnah - the six basic categories under which all of Jewish Law is organized. Lesser known is his impact on the organization of the body of... ummm... marital positions, later detailed in the different chapters of Maseches Baba Kama Sutra.

As notoriety of his brilliance grew, Rabbi Akiva gained many followers from all over the Jewish world (not unlike me). His principal students included Rabbi Yehuda Bar Ilai, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Eliezer Ben Shamua, Rabbi Yossi Ben Halafta, and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. But he had many thousands of other rank and file student followers. He also had an extensive Twitter following, a large following on Facebook, and a magazine named after him, "Akiva!" -- filled with lifestyle articles, relationship tips, and featuring the latest men's fashions -- available at the checkout counters of all the supermarkets in Judea.

Rabbi Akiva was more than a religious leader; he was a global figure. The Talmud tells us of his travels to Rome and meetings with the Roman leaders of his time, accounts which are almost certainly historical. There is also a legend that Rabbi Akiva traveled to Ethiopia to settle a marital dispute between a king and his wife. However, reports of Rabbi Akiva traveling to the Playboy Mansion to spend time with Hugh Hefner and the Kardashians is almost certainly myth.

As is well known, Rabbi Akiva was a strong supporter of the Second Rebellion against Rome, and even declared Bar Kochba to be the Moshiach. The practice of engaging in mourning rituals during Sefirah out of respect for the deaths of Rabbi Akiva's students is, in fact, almost certainly a tribute to Rabbi Akiva's students, who in actuality died fighting alongside Bar Kochba at the urging of their religious leader. And the celebration of Lag B'Omer is likely a commemoration of their one night of military leave during the war, which is why it is a strong Minhag on Lag B'Omer to either get married or solicit a prostitute.

Of course, Rabbi Akiva ended his life as a Martyr of Zion. The Talmud tells us how Rabbi Akiva was tortured to death by the Romans, with the skin peeled off his face with hot metal combs. There is a famous Machloikess about what his final words were. According to Abaya, Rabbi Akiva's final words were, "I have done many Mitzvois in my life, but today I have the unique privilege of dying Altz Kiddush HaShem. My life is now complete." According to Rava, his last words were simply the traditional final declaration of faith, "Shema Yisroel Adoishem Eloikeinu Adoishem Echad." But according to Rabba, Rabbi Akiva's last words were, "Ouch! Shit! That fucking hurts!!!"

So what are the relevant lessons of Rabbi Akiva for us, in our generation?

For one thing, Rabbi Akiva was a man of action. He worked for a living, and later, after studying Toirah, supported by his father-in-law, led a great yeshiva, and drove intellectual innovation in Torah study, transforming the teachings of his predecessors into a more structured foundation upon which the Mishnah was built. He also innovated in deriving Jewish law from the words of the Torah, and we have inherited from him the Midrash Halacha. In addition, he is said to have invented the crossword puzzle and, according to Rav Pappa, Tic Tac Toe.

Rabbi Akiva was also very much involved in the outside world. Most scholars believe that he was a key liaison between Jewish communities, visiting Rome, Babylon and elsewhere to ensure communal connectivity. He may also have been involved in raising money to support the uprising against the Romans, and is believed to have encouraged his students to participate in the military rebellion. He was also a world famous poker player, and for six years running was the champion of the Roman Empire's annual Five Card Stud competition.

Rabbi Akiva was capable of change; he did not view his life or his circumstances as a trap. When he decided to study Toirah, he did not hide behind the excuse of being too old or incapable. When he saw intellectual models and ancient teachings that did not make sense, he did not shirk his responsibilities by declaring that "Toirah does not change", but enacted profound changes. He also, later in his life, attended a real estate "no money down" seminar he saw advertised on late night TV and began to build up a real estate portfolio. In addition, he took a six month course to become a "Life Coach", and also became a yoga instructor.

But Rabbi Akiva was also fallible. Needless to say, Bar Kochba was not the Moshiach, and he and his army were ultimately slaughtered by the Romans until, as the Gemarrah tells us, the City of Beitar flowed with blood. As a result of Rabbi Akiva’s actions, thousands of his students died in a failed rebellion, and many others, inspired by Rabbi Akiva, also went to their deaths. And, as a consequence of the war, the Jews were banned from living in or visiting Jerusalem, save for Tisha B’Av, when they were allowed to come to the ruins of the Bais HaMikdash to mourn. This is the actual historical truth; it is somewhat whitewashed by the Gemarrah, which tries to place the blame of the failed rebellion on Bar Koshba alone. But Rabbi Akiva shared responsibility for this cataclysmic national tragedy that we commemorate to this day.

Consequently, Rabbi Akiva’s legacy is mixed. He left a profound intellectual imprint on Jewish thought and Jewish practice, and the many generations that followed that followed built intellectual towers open the foundations shaped by Rabbi Akiva. But many in his generation and subsequent generations suffered because they followed in his errant tactical decisions. Perhaps they viewed him as infallible. But only the Reboinoisheloilum is infallible. NO human being in infallible, save for me, Rabbi Shmuli Boteach, Rush Limbaugh, and Noam Chomsky.

As we look around the challenges faced by our Jewish Community today, there are many lessons we can learn from Rabbi Akiva. For one: Rabbis make mistakes. Whole Jewish communities make mistakes. Let us not ignore the mistakes. Rather, let us acknowledge them and fix them. That includes some of the most basic failure in contemporary Jewish society – which are not purely Jewish issues, but basic human rights:

-- Sexual abuse: There is a plague of sexual abuse within Jewish society. This includes sexual abuse of children, which is often denied and/ or covered up, and therefore enabled. We should not have to worry about the safety of OUR children attending Shul, attending school, going away to summer camp, or going to the Mikvah

-- Lack of education: Many in the Ultra Orthodox world are denied a basic secular education. Consequently, their professional options – the ability to earn a living – are highly limited. This runs against my understanding of the Gemarrah and other sources, where, for example, the Gemarrah in Sotah, Daf 44 Amud Aleph, discusses the requirement of a man to learn a trade

-- The estrangement of family members that leave the fold. Expulsion from the community because of religious differences often results in people being forced to cope with a world they are unprepared for, at a very young age, without proper social or economic tools. This can lead to self destructive behavior including substance abuse and other counterproductive activities

-- Denial of access to children. Often, when a parent decides to move away from communal religious norms, the community bands together to deny access of the parent to his or her child. This is denial of a fundamental human right: If a parent is qualified to nurture a child, it is absolutely IMMORAL to deny that parent access simply because their religious beliefs and practices differ from those of the community. Compromises between spouses and former spouses should always be found to ensure a stable environment and collaboration around child care and education. Stealing of children is what the Romans did to our ancestors in the wake of the failed Bar Kochba rebellion; it should never be done within the Jewish community. ANY Jewish community. (Minuval, if you are not listening, I can repeat it for you in Yiddish.)

Rabboisai, Rabbi Akiva had the courage to change. He had the courage to lead. Yet he was fallible. Overall, he is regarded as one of the greatest figures in Jewish history – on par with Moishe Rabbeinu and the RAMBAM. Let us learn the lessons of his life and act as empowered individuals, and not as the dumb sheep that Rabbi Akiva once herded before he embraced his profound destiny.

A Chessiva V'Chasima Toivah, you Minuval.

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Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Rosheshiva
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess

Roish Hashanah Drasha

THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF RABBI PINKY SCHMECKELSTEIN

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Roish Hashanah Drasha

I have recently returned to the Bais Medrish in my Yeshiva, where our talmidim are studying twenty-two hours a day in preparation for the Yomim Noraim (High Holidays), as well as for their upcoming Real Estate license exams.

This week we will celebrate and embrace Roish Hashanah, the New Year, pray for forgiveness of our past sins, and moan about the need to pay extra for seats when we are already spending too much as it is on annual synagogue membership.

In a famous Mishnah in Masechta Roish Hashanah, Rabban Gamliel asks why synagogues charge for seats on the High Holidays -- shouldn't they embrace all who attend services and not put up any potential barriers to their participation? In the Gemarrah, Rav Pappa builds on this question, pointing out that Jewish communal responsibilities also include Yeshiva tuition, kosher food and paying off the annoying schnorrers who show up at our doors uninvited. So why must shuls engage in Lifnei Iver and chase away any returnees to the faith?

Toisfois offers a gevaldik answer to this question, based on lessons we learn from Yaakov and Eisav. As Eisav returns from a day of hunting empty handed and hungry, Yaakov tricks Eisav into surrendering his birthright by giving him a bowl of lentil soup in exchange. Says Toisfois, we must choose to be like one or the other -- either fiscally bankrupt like Eisav, or morally bankrupt like Yankif Avinu. And clearly most shuls in our day choose the latter.

This rabbinic shakuvetaria (discourse) very much helps to define and capture the essence of our existential quandary at this time of year. The question really is: why do we have one special point in the year for repentance and renewal; are we not always encouraged, and even invited, to improve ourselves, or to at least make a healthy donation? Indeed, what is the nature of the choice that confronts us? How does Roish Hashanah help us along a new path?

(And an additional key question is: why was I assigned THAT seat, next to that guy I can't stand, and so far from the aisle that I may as well pee in my pants during mussaf?)

The classical answer is that the sound of the shoifar-- the ram's horn -- is intended to awaken within us our innate desire to embrace the Aimishteh through repentance and the fulfilling of Kol HaToirah Kooloh. Clearly, whoever came up with this response never heard the shoifar blown in the Yeshiva where I received Smicha (rabbinical ordainment), where, to insure that each shofar note is 100% koisher, they repeat the blows again and again. And again. And again. It's enough to make the Rosheshiva himself pray to Yushka for salvation.

Reb Hai Gaon offers an alternate answer, suggesting that Roish Hashanah is like a woman getting a facial. Sure she can put on makeup every day, but the act of spending eighty-five dollars to get her pores cleansed makes the meeskeit at least FEEL prettier.

Rabbi Akiva Eigar points to the three central themes of the Roish Hashanah liturgy as providing the answer: Malchiyois, Zichroinois, and Shoifrois. Malchiyois represents the father, Zichroinois the son, and Shoifrois the holy ghost. Of course, Reb Akiva is known for his secret affinity for Catholicism and his attraction to hot nuns.

But the Chassam Soifer points to the same three themes. He says that Malchiyois, the theme of the Kingdom of heaven, is like your father, who, no matter how successful you have become, is always ready to tell you what a disappointment you are. Zichroinois, the theme of heavenly remembrance, is like your mother, who, no matter how old you are, will always remind you of how you used to wet your bed. And Shoifrois, the theme of the sound of the shofar, is like your mother-in-law, whose constant talking and picking and nagging and complaining leaves a mind-numbing, deafening ringing in your ears.

Of course, we set the pattern for the coming year on Roish Hashanah. My alter zeidey used to tell me not to sleep on Roish Hashanah because that would cause me to have a farshlufinah year. I have always taken that lesson to heart. Consequently, I have a personal minhag to ride my bashert, Feigah Breinah, like a shtender in the afternoon of Roish Hashanah, in order to guarantee a new year with LOTS OF HOT ADULT ACTION. All the while, the einiklach and kinderlach are out poisoning the fish with leftover challah from last week.

It is also critical that our Teshuvah be sincere and complete, not like your usual insincere prayers, you Vilda Chaya, when you anxiously await the guy who knows all the sports scores to show up at shul. We need to commit to renouncing sin in our everyday lives in order to be true Bnei and Bnois Toirah. A few suggestions for the coming year:

-- Stop buying from Macy's. Macy's sells shatnez, and if you continue to buy there, someone may mistakenly assume you are buying shatnez, and believe it is okay to buy shatnez too.

-- Start using your 500 dollar set of Shass more. If not for learning, at least for the benefit of lifting those heavy books. Reboinoisheloilum knows, you can stand to lose a few pounds.

-- Don't let your wife distract you from Toirah. You should seek every opportunity to go into the other room and pick up a Chumash, or go to your weekly shiur. Watching your twelve kids so your wife can have a ten minute break and go to the Bais HaKeesay is no excuse for Bittul Toirah!

-- Grow your payiss to be long enough to have monkeys swing from them. You never know when you'll be at a Chassanah at the zoo and you'll have the chance to be Mesamayach the Chussen and Kallah.

-- Next time you sneak out for a little traifus, remember to make a Shehakol on your pork. After all, the Aimishteh created it too.

-- When you are in the middle of being mezaneh with your wife, instead of delaying your passion by thinking of baseball players, think of famous Chassidic masters instead. Unless, of course, you get excited by bearded men with shaved heads. In which case, stick with the baseball players.

In taking these measures, we will greet the new year with a deeper commitment to making the world a better place and embracing all mankind, in order to maximize our tax deductions, improve interest rates in the coming year, and bring peace between the Eskimos and the Mongolians.

A Chessiva V'Chasima Toivah, you Minuval.

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Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Rosheshiva
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess

Friday, September 12, 2014

On Schar V'Oinesh (Reward and Punishment)

THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF RABBI PINKY SCHMECKELSTEIN

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On Schar V'Oinesh (Reward and Punishment)

Rabboisai,

I must begin this week’s drasha with a statement and a plea for forgiveness. Allow me to read a brief statement prepared by my attorney, Reb Gedalia Geltshtupper:

“Last Moitzee Shabbos Koidesh, in the hours before Aliyas HaShashachar, I irresponsibly left my home without completing my Neigel Vassar. This regrettable act caused me to crash my 1987 Chevy Impala into the support posts of the elevated subway station near my home in Borough Park. (In my defense, however, I did honk.) I regret any embarrassment this may have caused my family, and any inconvenience I may have caused the riders of the F Train.

“I would in particular like to thank my Bashert, Feigeh Breineh, for rescuing me from my vehicle by breaking through the back windshield with my prized leather-bound volume of Yoireh Dayah. My Bashert is my life partner, and she should not be distracted by any allegations or hearsay she may have read about me and the local Mikvah attendant Yankel in the Algemeiner Journal. Damned-Liberal-Yiddisheh-Media.”

Shoyn.

Rabboisai, we live in very trying times. The economic situation is not getting better. Healthcare costs are continuing to rise while millions remain without healthcare, and Democrats and Republicans have continued to fail to align on a comprehensive solution for solving this decades-old problem. ISIS/ ISIL has emerged as public enemy number one, with renewed involvement of US troops threatening to turn this struggle into another quagmire. (Incidentally, I do not know what this word means. What’s Pshat ‘Quagmire’? It is often used in the newspaper when referring to military involvements, or marriage. But it is has two syllables and a “q” and is worth more than 50 points in Scrabble under the right circumstances, so at least using it makes me look smart.)

Luckily, we are all members of Klal Yisroel. We are the Chosen People who have a special relationship with the Reboinoisheloilum. So none of these issues or concerns have any relevance to us. At all. We are immune to such Gashmiyistic Narishkeitin.

No. We need only concern ourselves with Toirah and Mitzvois, Chookim and Maaisim Toivim. Yes, we all have to make a Parnassah, but thanks to some very generous friends in the investment community and my Yeshiva’s tax deductible status. I am all set. You, however, may have some problems, but please don’t be selfish by ruining it for the rest of us.

No. We needn’t be distracted by Gashmiyus, materialism. We must always aspire to the higher spiritual plane of Ruchniyus. No matter where our physical bodies reside, even if in a four bedroom house that costs $1000 more a month than we should really be paying, we must aspire to raise our spiritual selves to the level of Hakadoshboruchhu. Because it is at that level that the Aimishteh monitors our actions, tracks our deeds, determines our rewards and punishment, and in general toys with our very existence as if we were small amphibians in the hands of a four year old child.

There is a famous machloikess in Mesechta Roish Hashashah that discusses the system whereby the Reboinoisheloilum tracks our every action and calculates Schar V’Oinesh, reward and punishment.

The Gemara cites a Braisah that states that according to Rabbi Akiva, Hakadoshboruchhu keeps track of individuals’ good deeds and sins in an Excel spreadsheet. Upon the commitment of a Mitzvah or an Aveirah, the Aimishteh, or His assistant Sally, enters a mark in a large spreadsheet. Says Rabbi Akiva, “the Reboinoisheloilum absolutely LOVES presenting a person’s Mitzvois in a pie chart because it reminds Him of the Lechem Hapanim.”

But, according to the Rabbi Yoise, Hakkadoshboruchhu uses an Access database. It is a simple tool that took Him just a few hours to learn, but now He loves to run reports on how Klal Yisroel is performing against the other Umois Ha’oilum.

However, Abaya quotes a different Braisah that quotes Rabbi Akiva as saying that the Aimishteh uses a robust open source SQL database. He used to use Access, but it crashed during the Mabul and He had to rebuild it from scratch. He is much more confident in His current system, which He and the Mal’achim can now access from any internet browser and any device, PC, tablet, or mobile phone.

So how is this possible? We have an unbelievable Steerah! How can Rabbi Akiva have held two such conflicting positions? Which is the database that Rabbi Akiva actually holds is used by the Reboinoisheloilum??!!

But, the Gemara answers, this is not a problem. According to Rava, Kooley Alma Loi Pleegey, everyone agrees, that Hakadoshboruchhu uses an open source SQL database to track Schar V’Oinesh. So what are they arguing about? Says Rava, they are arguing about the operating platfomr. According to Rabbi Akiva, Hakadoshboruchhu runs the Schar V’Oinesh Database (SVO db [TM]) on a servers in a datacenter. And, adds Rabbi Akiva, every once in a while He will pull data into Excel to do some custom graphical reporting.

But according to Rabbi Yoise, the Aimishteh actually uses a cloud based storage solution which features a complex backup system and ensures redundancy and 98% uptime.

And, by the way, this is the same system that He uses to ensure world peace. And it is doing a WONDERFUL job.

In such a beautiful Oilum, how can we think of anything besides Toirah? It is for this reason that we infuse Kiddushah into everything we do at any time and in any place. When we are at the Bais Medrish. When we are at work. And when we are at home. Because, as the Shulchan Aruch tells us, we have to remember that Hakadoshboruchhu is always in the room with us. He is always watching us. In short, He is a stalker. And the reason why the Shulchan Aruch tells us which shoe the Aimishteh wants us to put on first is because the Reboinoisheloilum also has a foot fetish.

However, children under the age of Bar or Bas Mitzvah are exempt from Schar V’Oinesh because the Hakadoshboruchhu does not stalk them. Dude – that’s really weird, even for Him.

I am reminded of a famous Maiseh Shehoya. The Vilna Goyn was once leading a rally against the Ba’al Shem Toiv, marching at the head of a crowd of hundreds of Misnagdim carrying torches, spears, and pitchforks. “Besht, you Minuval!” he called out in front of the castle where the Ba’al Shem Toiv was getting a makeover from three local homosexuals, “You are leading our people astray! If they follow your ways, they will become heretics!”

Suddenly, a small voice rang out from the middle of the mob. “But Reb Grah, what if the Besht’s ways lead members of Klal Yisroel to keep the mitzvois? Won’t that be better in eyes of the Reboinoisheloilum than if they become non-believers?”

The Goyn turned around to face the crowd. He called out, “Whoever made such a statement should step forward!” The crowd split and a very short young man stepped forward.” “What is your name, son?” the Goyn asked in a soft voice.
“Reuvain” the youth answered.

“Where are you from?”

“The town of Shklov.”

The Goyn suddenly raised his voice. “And is that where you learned that you should argue with the Gadol HaDor in front of an angry mob??!! Allow me to teach you a bit of Derech Eretz!” With that the Goyn thrust his pitchfork into the student’s body, impaling and disemboweling him in front of his hundreds of followers. “Score one point for our team!” he called out to the Misnagdisheh mob. “Now let’s go and find some Chassidic women and shave their heads!”

Rabboisai, we often feel like we are in a unique era of moral ambiguity. We often ask ourselves, “What should I do? What should I not do? What is the right thing to do in the eyes of the Aimishteh? How do I ensure my Schar in the Oilum Ha’Emes, or at least ensure that my Bashert doesn’t smash my head in with my SHAS while I am sleeping?”

When Klal Yisroel stood at Har Sinai and said “Na’aseh Va’Nishma” did it represent an eternal commitment, fixed in time and never changing? Some would say yes, but they would be disregarding the Eigel Ha’Zahav created by Aroin HaKoihain, the Minuval, when Moishe Rabbeinu hit a little traffic on the Cross Sinai Expressway. With that, Klal Yisroel’s eternal commitment was violated even before the ink could dry.

But Hakadoshboruchhu gave us another chance, and another chance, and another chance, over centuries and millennia. In between, he exiled us, and tortured us, and flayed the flesh of our faces, and burnt us in fire and sent us to the gas chamber. And yet we remain loyal to Him, and, we believe, He to us.

So it is clear that Klal Yisroel, and Yiddishkeit, are not chained to a single moment in time fixed at Sinai more than three thousand years ago that somehow becomes weaker and less relevant with the passing of each generation.

On the contrary. Yiddishkeit seeks to renew and redefine our relationship with the Reboinoisheloilum in each generation. It is a living philosophy. Eitz Chayim Hee.

However, many of Klal Yisroel choose to see the Toirah as a dry, withering Sefer gathering dust in the back of the Bais Medrish. They prefer to focus on the type of fur that is halachically acceptable on a Shreimel, the proper religion of the Shiksa whose hair is used in a Sheytel, or the optimum height of the hilltop on the outskirts of Shechem on which to put up a trailer home. Or the minimum Shiyur that a wife must swallow in order to be called an “Eishess Chayill”. Yes, Rabboisai, some of you Mamzerim see the Toirah as a handcuff, rather than as a living Mikvah of insight.

Rabboisai, I invite you, my beloved Talmidim, to join me in diving into that Mikvah, to seek new sources of Toirah Truth. It will be a rewarding experience, and for an extra five bucks, Yankel the Mikvah attendant is sure to provide you with a clean towel.

Ah Gutten Shabbos You Minuval.
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Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Rosheshiva
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess

Friday, September 05, 2014

Parshas Kee Saitzay

THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF RABBI PINKY SCHMECKELSTEIN

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Rabboisai,

A serious note before this week's Drasha.

This week, Steven Sotloff A"H was brutally murdered by ISIS. Following his death, we all learned that Steven was able to hide his Jewish religion and Israeli citizenship from his Islamic Fundamentalist kidnappers. He even secretly practiced his faith while being held hostage: He fasted on Yom Kippur while being held captive, telling his captors that he had no appetite on that day because he was unwell.

I am reminded of the famous legend of Rabbi Akiva, who, as he is being tortured to death, exclaims that he is finally able to complete one mitzvah he had never done before -- to die "Altz Kiddush Hashem", to die in an act of sanctifying the Divine.

No one knows whether the legend of Rabbi Akiva is historically true. But we need only look to Steven Sotloff, the many Israeli soldiers and civilians killed in the recent war, and the many American and other soldiers and civilians -- Jewish and Non Jewish -- who have lost their lives as the world quakes in the Kulturkamf of freedom versus tyranny and moderation versus extremism to understand this sentiment.

For those who believe in a Messianic era, may these be the last of the Chevlei Moshiach, the birth pangs of the Messiah.

For those who do not, may we see peace and coexistence across all of humanity -- all nationalities and religions. After all, we are all the children of God; we were all created in His image.

Pinky


---

Parshas Kee Saitzay

In this week's Parsha, Kee Saitzay, we are warned against cross-dressing: "The garment of a man should not adorn a woman, and a man shall not dress in the smock of a woman, for it is blasphemous to the Aimishteh..." (Devarim, Perek Chuff Bayz, Pasuk Hay).

The Bais Yoiseph asks an obvious question: Why is the Toirah so damned uptight? He answers that Moishe Rabbeinu was clearly a terrible homophobe. Referring to a famous Medrish, the Bais Yoiseph suggests that Moishe's homophobia was due to Moishe's famous lisp, which was always perceived by others as a gay characteristic and for which he was always mocked at the gym.

However, the RAIVID disagrees vehemently. He points out that not all cross dressers are homosexuals, and that most homosexuals are not cross dressers. Indeed, the RAIVID himself always wore a long black Bekesheh, a Shtreimel, and an extra long Gartel whenever he went cruisin' for Yeshivah Buchrim.

Rather, the RAIVID cites a Medrish about Moishe which reports that while in exile in Midyan, the very heterosexual Moishe Rabbeinu once went into a bar and hit on someone with nice round buttocks, but, alas, the person turned out to be a guy. Says the RAIVID, that left Moishe with life-long hard feelings.

However, the Pri Megadin holds farkhert: he interprets a line in the Zoihar as suggesting that in Midyan Moishe Rabbeinu dated a man for six months, but was left bitter after a harsh breakup.

The Klay Yukkur suggests that the RAIVID and the Pri Megadin spent far too much time in the Mikvah together. Rather, to clarify the Toirah's strong antipathy towards cross dressing, he points to the proximity of the banning of cross dressing to a subsequent commandment stated in the Toirah. He notes that the Mitzvah immediately following is Shiluach HaKan, the biblical injunction decreeing that a mother bird must be chased from a nest before its eggs or babies are confiscated for culinary purposes. Of course, Rabbinic literature has always equated this strange law with the commandment to honor one's father and mother, since the Biblically promised reward for both is the same -- long life.

Commenting on the juxtaposition, the Klay Yukkur suggests that the Toirah is trying to tell us that we are required to honor our father and mother, even if one of them is a cross dresser. However, the Chayay Adam disagrees, holding that if your mother is a cross dresser you should still honor her, but if your father is a cross dresser he should be chased away with great haste.

I would humbly like to offer my own interpretation. The injunction against cross dressing is consistent with many other commandments raised in this Parsha which all deal with issues of human sexuality:

-- Laws of marriage and divorce
-- Laws of suspected wifely infidelity
-- Laws of premarital relations
-- A warning against marrying the wife of one's father
-- The commandment that one recently married should not go out to war.

I would like to suggest that Moishe Rabbeinu, standing on the mountain addressing Klal Yisroel for many days, summing up the wisdom and accomplishments of his 40 or so years of leadership, was feeling a "little randy", if you know what I mean. It was hot; women in the crowd were dressed in highly suggestive flowing sheets, and Moishe had only one thing on his mind. Who knows when the last time was that he had done his "special mitzvah." He was ready, and his Taivah was all he could think about.

Indeed, in the same Parsha, Moishe Rabbeinu also mentions the laws of bondage. Though these commandments refer to slaves, in Moishe's anxious state this set of rules may also have been particularly pressing on his mind.

And as he looked down into the crowd, the further Moishe looked in the distance the harder it was to distinguish between the men and the women. This upset him so much, he made up the anti cross-dressing legislation on the spot, so that in the future it would be easier to "check out the talent."

Indeed, a Medrish in the Sifre notes that Aroin Hacoihain, the Minuval, shared this very concern. Prior to his death, Aroin decreed that all Mishkan and Temple practices be performed with men and women separated. This was intended to make it easier for Coihanim performing the service to spot a hotty in the crowd, and then later pick her up by asking if she would like to play "hide the Korban Toidah" with him.

I am reminded of the early days of marriage to my Bashert, Feige Breinah. We had just been married, and two weeks into our marriage, when I suggested to my Bashert that we try accomplishing a Mitzvah in the backseat of the car while parked outside St Patrick's Cathedral, I was sternly told that while the suggestion was admirable, the timing was quite bad, for it was not "hunting season." I pleaded. I argued. I threatened to tell her father that while in Bais Yankif, her nickname was "Feige The Sword Swallower." All to no avail.

I stormed upstairs to take matters into my own hands, if you know what I mean. As I thought about this incident, I focused on the Biblical and rabbinic injunctions that bar marital relations at given times of the month. Who do they serve? Are they harmful or healthy for the relationship long term? Why does the Aimishteh even care, what, with the economy economy the way it is.

But I believe that the Toirah is trying to teach us a harsh lesson in this Parsha: You may be tempted to try on your wife's clothing, because, my Rebboinoisheloilum, she spends so much damn money on her wardrobe. However, cross dressing is strictly forbidden. Rather, Hakadoshboruchhu prefers that you direct your energies towards more critical efforts, such as chasing mother birds from their nests, so you can ensure for yourself a long life of frustration...err, wisdom and fulfillment.

Ah Gutten Shabbos You Minuval.

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Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Rosheshiva
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess