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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sukkois Drasha


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Sukkois Drasha

On this holiday, the yuntif of Sukkois, we wave fresh fruit at the sky for seven days, and eat in an open air beehive. We cap it off by dancing cheek to cheek with a bunch of bearded men. (I have a date with a talmid named Yerachmiel; I hope I get lucky!)

According to Chazzal, Sukkois is the time when Moshiach will come. And according to Reb Hai Goyn, it is the holiday when you are supposed to separate yourself from the secular world. He cites as proof the fact that you are forced to take off so many work days right before end of year reviews, you might as well start polishing up your resume.

The RI holds that Sukkois is actually a celebration of homosexuality. When Klal Yisroel were preparing for the long winter, planting in the fields by day and sleeping in huts at night, at the end of a long day they would sit down bichavrusa (in pairs) and study a little Talmud. One minute they are on daf yud baiz, amud alef, and the next minute they are on the floor, committing Mishkav Zachor. And who can blame them? I get excited by a gevaldik Toisfois myself!

The RI cites various Sukkois practices as proof for his position:

- We wave our phallic lulavim on the faces of all the other men, boasting about how ours is the biggest in the shul;

- Alongside our lulav is our esroig, where the gemarrah tells us that the more bulbous and full of veins, the better;

- We commit a sadomasochistic act with a handful of willow branches;

- We dance around the Toirah with other men, our fingers firmly entwined with others' hot, sweaty, hairy hands.

However, most Rishoinim disagree with the RI, referring to his rather abrupt departure from his position as director of the all boys Orthodox summer camp in Northern Lithuania (although they settled out of Baiz Din, so no one can prove a damn thing).

The RIF points to the beauty of the Sukkah celebration as a unique mitzvah within Yiddishkeit. Fresh fruit. The outdoors. Many Rishoinim hold that you should live in the Sukkah for eights days. It says in the Gemmarah that Rish Lakish would move into the Sukkah, and use it as an excuse for not having to deal with his mother in law all week. Rav Ashi, on the other hand, insisted that his mother in law sleep in the Sukkah, and take one or two of the kids with her.

The Sukkah offers many opportunities to be Hiddur Mitzvah, to go above and beyond the letter of the commandment. It is customary to decorate the Sukkah with pictures and other decorations. (Vooz iz givehn plastic fruit, anyway? I understand the Reform decorate their Sukkahs with shrimp.)

According to Rabbeinu Tam, it is actually a Mitzvah Dioraisa to buy Christmas decorations in January at fifty percent off, to be used in decorating the Sukkah the following year: Flashing lights. Ornaments. Candy canes. Indeed, one year the Vilna Goyn decorated his Sukkah with a nativity scene he bought for six dollars.

There are other things that one can do with a Sukkah. A Braisah brings down a story of Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah, who, as a teenager, had the roof removed from his family's minivan so that he could drive down to the beach and be mekayaim the mitzvois of pleasuring his girlfriend and eating in the sukkah at the same time. What a tzaddik!

Yet the most beautiful element of Sukkois, and the aspect most shrouded in mystery, is the mitzvah of esroig. I still can't figure it out. It looks like a lemon. It smells like a lemon. It even tastes like a lemon. But it costs as much as heroin. How come it is easier to buy fresh peaches from Antarctica than it is to buy an esroig at a reasonable price?

And how many times in your life have you heard of esroig jelly. I bet you have heard of it all your life, but have NEVER seen it. You know why? Imagine this boast to your friends and neighbors: "I took 100 esroigim that last week retailed for a total of $5,000, mixed them up with a little sugar and pectin, and now it's worth about $1.50." Really impressive.

For this reason, I have a personal minhag. Two days before Sukkois, I buy 5 pounds of lemons in the supermarket, take them home, and then take a baseball bat to them. After about ten minutes of beating the crap out of them, I have plenty esroigim for myself and the kinderlach, and sell the remainder in the shul. With the extra money I buy some cologne, so I can smell nice for my dancing partner on Simchas Toirah night.

Ah Gutten Yuntif, you Minuval.

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Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Rosheshiva
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess

Thursday, September 24, 2015

On Teshuvah


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On Teshuvah


Rabboisai,

There is a famous story in the Zoihar Hakadoish that describes the ritual in Shamayim whereby the Ain Soif delivers an annual report immediately prior to Roish Hashanah before a joint session of the Sefirois, the Malachim, the Tzaddikim, and the Neshsamois of the unborn. The Zoihar also reports that one year, during this annual gathering, Hakadoshboruchhu noted that the world was expected to have a peaceful year, without any additional persecution directed at Klal Yisroel. Suddenly, the spirit of Nosson HaNavi shouted out, “You lie!” towards the Aimishteh. Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon forcibly removed Nosson HaNavi from the room, and after numerous apologies to the Reboinoisheloilum and his Chief of Staff, the Buddha, he was banished to Eretz Yisroel, where he is fated to spend all of eternity as one of the guys who do random ticket inspections on Egged busses.

There is also a Medrish in Medrish Tanchuma that talks about the annual PYW (Pumbedisa Yeshiva World) Awards. One year Rava was honored with the “Chiddush of the Year” award for his “Yeyush Shehlo Mida’as Loi Havei Yeyush” insight. As he was standing at the Shtender to accept his award, Rav Huna burst onto the Bimah and screamed out to the crowd of Yeshivah-Yingeleit, “Sure, Rava, your Chiddush was okay. But Rav Ashi really deserved the award for his ‘Yoim Toiv Shaynee Shel Goliyois Does Not Apply In Antarctica’ Chiddush. No offense, Dude.” After being booed off the Bimah and having a sandal thrown at his head, Rav Huna apologized for his outburst and blamed his behavior on the Besomim-laced mead he had been drinking all day, and also on the fact that he had not been adequately molested by his Rebbe when he was a teenager.

Finally, there is a famous story in a Gemarrah in Gittin that describes the detailed ruling associated with the Bavel Open, the annual sporting contest where leading Rabbis would throw turbans at each other across the Bais Medrish in Sura. The Gemara notes how one year Rav Chisda was disqualified in the quarterfinals against Rav Pappa by the line judge, Mar Zutra, when he threatened to “ram his turban so far up Mar Zutra’s ‘Bor’ that Mar Zutra would have to make an Eirev Chatzayrois every time he needed to go to the bathroom on Shabbos-Koidesh.” He later explained that he had been misunderstood, and that he really meant that Mar Zutra would need to make an Erev Tavshilin before eating on a Shabbos following a Yoim Toiv. But Rav Chisda finally apologized to Mar Zutra after Rav Shayshess threatened to make him pay a fine of thirty thousand zuzim and three goats. Shoyn.

I share this collection of stories as we engage in the spiritual exercise known as Teshuvah – repentance. Every year, after a full twelve months of being Mezaneh with hot shiksas -- at least in your mind you Minuval, after eating pork or shrimp or lobster, or cottage cheese that’s not Cholov Yisroel, Chass V’Sholom, or after murdering your neighbor for 12 dollars in loose change, cutting up his body into little pieces, and burying the pieces in the backyard between the rose bushes and the apple tree, near where you once buried the bunny rabbit that your cat had killed just to shut your children up already, Reboinoisheloilumdammit…. Ummm…sorry. After a year of committing Aveirois, you get in front of Hakadoshboruchhu, and ask Him for forgiveness.

But, as in the famous stories in the Gemarrah and the cosmic history recorded in the Zoihar, you must ask yourself, “Is my Teshuvah sincere? Do you mean it when you say “Selach Lee Kee Pushahtee”, “Forgive me for I have sinned”, and by implication, you will never do it again? Are you in fact sincere in your Teshuvah, or are you simply reciting a medieval liturgical formula, simply biding your time until the Chazzan finishes reciting the sections where the Aron Koidesh is open, so you can finally sit down and rest your aching feet already?

RAMBAM addresses this question in Hilchois Teshuvah of Mishnah Toirah. He notes that sincerity is a prerequisite for real Teshuvah, and he advises all his followers “MiSpharad Ad Mitzrayim”, from Spain to Egypt, to engage in penitence through prayer and acts of mortification, such as fasting and self-flagellation. He states, however, that the Jews of Eastern Europe should, quote, “not bother doing Teshuvah, as Hakkadoshboruchhu can never grant forgiveness to people who have names like Yankel, Berrill, Shprintze and Chraindie, and sing songs with the lyrics ‘Ai Digi Digi Dai’”.

The RAMBAN, living in the golden age of Kabbalah, writes that Teshuvah can only be achieved when the Sefirois are aligned, with Kesser, Chochmah, Chessed, Netzach, and Yesoid on one side, and Binah, Da’as, Tiferess, Gevurah, and Malchus on the other. In that way, the cosmic aspects of the Aimishteh are in perfect balance and may collectively engage in the act of forgiveness in the human realm, as well as participate in a pick-up basketball game.

The MAHARAL, however, disagrees with the RAMBAN, and suggests that before writing his opinion, the RAMBAN must have popped some of the pain killers he always carried in his medical bag for house calls. He suggests that real Teshuvah emanates from purposeful introspection joined with concrete actions. He points to the liturgical reference in the Nesaneh Toikeff on Roish Hashanah and Yoim Kippur “Oo’Seshuva, Oo’Sefillah, Oo’Tzedakah Ma’Avirin Ess Roiyah Hagezeyrah”, “And repentance, and prayer and charity deter the evil decree.” The MAHARAL notes that the juxtaposition of the three words connected by the term “and” highlights the underlying belief that the actions cited must be combined – It is not enough to commit Teshuvah OR Tefilla OR Tzedakah. But to have real impact, they must be committed by a human being as complementary acts of repentance emanating from the soul, prayer emanating the heart, and charity emanating from the bank account (Ed. Note: Preferably in a check made out to “Yeshivas Chipas Emmess”).

The Abudraham argues farkhert, that repentance is an inner process, enabled by inward contemplation, prayer, and uniting with the Reboinoisheloilum through Hisboidedus. But he notes that Teshuvah is quite separate from Tzedakah, stating that “The act of giving Tzedakah is an outward gesture, absent the soul. Nu, Bernie Madoff gave lots of Tzedakah, and trust me, you don’t want to be where he is going.”

So when we examine the words of Chazal, we discover a range of ideas centered on the notion of exorcising sin from the soul, of sincere Teshuvah as inner commitment. Even prayer is not a substitute for inward change – at best it is a catalyst. This point is clear when we examine the actual words of the liturgy. On Yoim Kippur we spend hours in the Viduy, the Jewish form of “confession”. But do we say “I sinned, I committed Act Aleph, Act Baiz, or Act Gimmul?” No, you ignoramus! We frame our confession in the form of the plural collective: “Ashamnu”, “Al Chaiyt Shechatahu Lifanecha” – “We have sinned”, “(We repent) for the sins which we have committed before You.” The listed sins are formulaic, and include many sins that most of us would never commit, unless we got really lucky. So reciting the formulas cannot be equated with personal repentance. Rather, Viduy, listing and repeating these sins again and again and again, is itself an act intended to inspire a mood, to incite an action, to encourage a behavior. It is like porn, but for Yoim Kippur.

So how else can we ensure sincerity in our Teshuvah? I am reminded of a Maiseh Shehoya. Reb Issur Zalman Meltzer, the Even HaEzel, was once walking home from the Central Synagogue in Slutsk when he was accosted by a group of three Communist youths. “Rabbi”, they teased him, “Who were you just praying to – the boogieman?” They then held Reb Issur Zalman down and forced him to listen to the first two chapters of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. With every word he heard, Reb Issur Zalman became more incensed. When the brutes finally let him go and turned around to walk away, Reb Issur Zalman attacked them from behind. Using his Masechta Baba Kamma, he crushed the skull of one of his assailants, killing him instantly. He used his Yoireh Dayah to break the jaw and knock twelve teeth out of the mouth of the second assailant. And as the third assailant ran away, Reb Issur Zalman threw his Mikraois Gedoilois at him, hitting his spine, and crippling him for life.

That night the Reboinoisheloilum came to him in a dream. “Issur Zalman”, Hakadoshboruchhu called. “What do you have to say for yourself?!!”

Reb Issur Zalman replied, “Oy, Aimisteh, I am so sorry. I did not mean to really hurt those boys. But all that talk about the redistribution of wealth really upset me.”

“No, you schmendrick” the Reboinoisheloilum retorted. “I am not upset that you killed one of those thugs and mortally wounded the others. But you let my holy Toirah fall on the floor. And for that you will lose your Christmas bonus this year!”

“That’s ok,” Reb Issur Zalman said, his ears turning red with anger, “as long as you share it with the underprivileged Proletariat hordes, you Opiate of the Masses!”

Rabboisai, real Teshuvah is not easy. If it were, we would not have ten days dedicated to repentance, as well as many long hours in shul that perhaps could have been better been spent learning Toirah, doing Maiysim Toivim, or surfing porn. But our mission at this time of year is to become better human beings. But we cannot become better people simply through empty apologies, no matter how many times they are repeated, and wherever they are repeated – even in Shul or on Oprah. Or in smug press releases or internal reports that ring hollow.

When we talk about Teshuvah, we are talking about real change, which is ultimately a function of humility. We must realize that we are all fallible, especially you, you Michutziff. We are all simple grains of sand passing through the winds of time. As written by the Paytan, “Kee Heenay KeChoimer BeYad HaYoitzer”, “We are like clay in the hands of the potter.” And only when you realize your true insignificance will you be able to undergo real Teshuvah, real change, and perhaps become a bit more tolerable for the rest of us.

Ah Gutten Yuhr, You Minuval.

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Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Rosheshiva
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess

Friday, September 18, 2015

On Faith and Reason


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Rabboisai,

I am reposting the following Drasha in honor of the recent announcement by President Richard Joel of Yeshiva University that he will be stepping down from his role. And not a moment too soon. After the loss of over a billion dollars on his watch, the cover up of a decades old sexual scandal, and the humiliation of a dedicated staff of educators and other professionals, I can think of only one other person in recent years who has delivered the same degree of respect to Klal Yisroel: Ann Coulter.

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On Faith and Reason


Rabboisai,

I would like to begin this week’s Drasha with a beautiful Maiseh Shehoya. Reb Shlomo Kluger had a beloved Talmid named Beryl who was a brilliant student of the Gemarrah, an Iluy – a genius. Beryl was one of the close coterie of students with whom Reb Shlomo shared the inner secrets of the Kabbalah, and one of the 5 Talmidei Muvhak -- trusted principal students - who accompanied Reb Shlomo everywhere: To the Mikvah, to be Mevaker Choilim, and to the strip clubs of Brody, Galicia. Indeed, it was Beryl who was charged with carrying Reb Shlomo’s Talis, his towel, and a large wad of singles.

One day, Reb Shlomo was awoken in the middle of the night and was requested to come immediately to the local constabulary in Brody. Beryl, his beloved Talmid, had allegedly murdered his own wife and two children, put their flesh into a big pan, covered it with mashed potatoes, onions and eggs, and cooked and served them up as a human Yapchik. (The fleish-lined potato kugel was apparently very well received at the local Shalom Zachor the previous Friday night, and Beryl received many compliments.)

Shocked, Reb Shlomo asked the police to be left alone with his Talmid Muvhak. “Beryl”, Reb Shlomo asked, “What did you do?”

Beryl, sitting behind bars, in his cell, responded. “Rebbe, I was going for a walk, taking out the garbage, minding my own business. When all of the sudden the Reboinoisheloilum came to me in a vision and commanded that I show my love for Him by slaughtering my only son, just as Avraham Avinu had been prepared to do in Parshas Vayayra. And He also ordered that I show my gratitude to Him by slaughtering my only daughter, just as Yiftach had done in Sefer Shoiftim.”

“And what about your wife?” Reb Shlomo asked, focusing his deep, penetrating glare on his student.

“Oh, that was my idea. That bitch made a terrible cholent every week, and that really detracted from my Oineg Shabboskoidesh, forcing me to violate one of the Aseres HaDibrois.”

Reb Shlomo emerged from the prison, shaken. He immediately gathered his supporters in the conference room of his Yeshiva, and lowered the volume on the TV playing ESPN in the background. After sipping from his Gleizeleh of tea filled to the top with Shlivovitz, Reb Shlomo addressed the group. “Rabboisai – A great injustice has been committed. Reb Beryl sits behind bars for following the explicit words of Hakadoshboruchhu! He sits in the custody of the Goyim, Yimach Shmum. And, on top of that, he owes me money, which I will never see unless he gets out.”

“But Rebbe, Beryl admitted to killing his wife and two children!” one of the Talmidim declared. The statement was followed by a momentary hush of silence

“ADMITTED?!” Reb Shlomo screamed in a booming voice. “Do you think you can trust an Aimishteh-Damned word that Minuval says?!”

Rabboisai, I share this famous story because Yiddishkeit is under assault. It is not under assault by the Egyptians or the Persians or the Greeks. It is not under assault by the Romans or the Crusaders, or the Germans or the Arabs. Klal Yisroel is under assault by its own traditional leadership, the ophthalmologists….errr…..I mean, the rabbis.

It seems like at every turn a new travesty committed in the name of Yiddishkeit comes to light, is defended by our “Gedoilim” and tolerated by the mindless masses.

-- Three months ago, it was the guilty plea by Yosef Kolko on sexual abuse of a minor. Kolko, after admitting his guilt to therapists, had claimed innocence leading up to the trial, and had the full support of the rabbinic leadership of Beis Medrish HaGadol and the broader community of Lakewood. It was only when additional witnesses surfaced that he altered his plea.

-- This was followed by the continued insistence by Yisroel Belsky of Yosef Kolko’s innocence. Belsky is not an obscure figure – he is a Rosheshiva of Toirah Vodaas and is one of the three leading Poiskim of the OU, so his behavior is a model for many in the Orthodox community. His dug-in position sends a message: Sexual abuse of children is tolerated in the Jewish community, as long as you have the right friends.

-- And just last week, Yeshiva University issued its long awaited, long promised report on sexual allegations carried out and covered up by Yeshiva University Rebbes, teachers, and administrators. Instead of exceeding the frankness and openness of the Penn State internal investigation -- the aspiration set forth by the Yeshiva University administration months ago, Yeshiva University's report rivals similar reports of the Catholic Church -- it adds no new information, acknowledges wrongdoing without outlining any consequences, and urges the public to trust them to implement a new set of policies and procedures. (An old joke -- Question: How does a lawyer say "Fuck You?" Answer: "Trust Me...")

I am often approached by my Talmidim citing such examples of behaviors and attitudes that run counter to contemporary sensibilities as reasons for abandoning Yiddishkeit. Just this week I was party to the following exchange (this is true, by the way): “It was bad enough when I was arguing with the Ultra Orthodox. This is worse. It seems the "leaders" of Modern Orthodoxy are no better. My Charedi friend's advice that I should not let the Jews interfere with my Judaism, isn't helping.”

I would like to share with you, my beloved Talmidim, that as much as you believe you are the first to have such sentiments, you are not. Such ideas are echoed in the words of the Nevi’im, who quote the Reboinoisheloilum as rejecting religious piety without human decency as false behavior. Bain Adam LaMokoim without Bain Adam LeChaveiroih is like getting into a car that has no gas: It will go nowhere. It is like eating frosting without eating the underlying cake: It is empty calories. It is like being Mezaneh with an inflatable Bashert: It may feel good, but it is making love to air. It is an empty act. It has no meaning. At best, it is a falsely pious form of masturbation.

I am reminded of a famous Machloikess in a Gemarrah in Mesechta Shabbos. Dof Lamed Chess Amud Baiz cites a Braisah with a Machloikess between Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah and Rabbi Akiva. According to Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah, one may not masturbate on Shabbos because it is a Melachah MiDioraisa, an primary act of work directly banned by the Toirah. However, Rabbi Akiva holds that one is allowed to masturbate, as long has be does not use a Kli Rishoiyn.

The subsequent discussion in the Gemarrah tries to understand the two positions. According to Rav Pappa, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah holds that masturbation is a Melachah because it is an Issur of Lach, kneading. However, Rav Sheyshess holds that it is an issur of Memachek, smoothing. Finally, Rav Huna holds that masturbation is not any of the identified Lamud Tess – thirty-nine – Melachois banned by the Toirah because they mirror activity involved in building the Mishkan. He holds that masturbation is actually a fortieth Melachah associated with building the Mishkan, What does this mean, asks the Gemarrah? Very simple, says Rav Huna. When the Leviyim were engaged in every activity associated with building the Mishkan – Zoirayah, Choiraish, Koitzer, etc. – they worked very hard, often performing backbreaking labor. But Levite union rules required that they have a break every three hours. And what did the Leviyim do during their mandated breaks? Why, they masturbated, of course! And since break time is part of the work day, one must consider masturbation an Av Melachah, no less than Bishul, Melabain, and Makeh B’Patish! It’s Gevaldick!

And what of Rabbi Akiva, who holds that masturbation is permissible on Shabboskoidesh? This is the topic of a famous discussion amongst the Achroinim. According to Reb Shmuel Yehoishua MiSlovakia HaKoihain-Priest, the SHEIS-KUP, Rabbi Akiva allows masturbation because it is only a De’Rabbanan, a Toildah of Boineh, and since the act contributes to one’s Oineg Shabbos, masturbation on Shabbos is indeed permitted by Chazal!

And what of the act itself? The NewAge Chassid says a beautiful Vort. He suggests that the Toirah itself alludes to masturbating on Shabbos. The two versions of the Aseres HaDibrois use two different verbs when commanding the celebration of the Shabbos because Hakadoshboruchhu acknowledges two different approaches to masturbation. When the Toirah commands “Zachor”, the Aimishteh is alluding to masturbating while thinking about a past sexual encounter. But when the Toirah commands “Shamor”, Hakadoshboruchhu is also inviting one to masturbate while fixated on an imaginary situation – Your sister in law, your wife’s best friend, your mother-in-law Chass V’Sholom, or your neighbor’s three goats. As long as the image remains in your imagination and you do not act upon it outside of the privacy of your own bedroom or bathroom, they you are not only permitted to masturbate, but you are Mekayaim the Mitzvah of Oineg Shabbos. Shoyn!

----

Rabboisai – As long as we are discussing the Aseres HaDibrois, the Ten Commandments, there is one commandment which is critical to the underlying topic. In Sefer Shmois, Perek Chuff we read, “Loi Sa”Aseh Lechah Pessel, VeChol Temuna Asher Bashamayim MiMa’Al Ve’Asher Ba”Aretz MiTuchas, Va’Asher BaMayim MiTachas La”Aretz. Loi Sishtachaveh LaHem, VeLoi Su’Uvdaim...” “ Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down unto them, nor serve them…”

My beloved Talmidim – Many of our contemporary “Gedoilim”, leading rabbinic figures, would take offense at the above satirical Drasha and object to its off-color humor. Yet they will defend child molesters. They will cover up abuse. They will break up families, stealing children away from a parent because the parent does not fully subscribe to their philosophy of religious practice. They will use financial pressure, social pressure, and even violence to enforce their objectives. And they will continue to enclose Judaism, smothering out the new ideas and philosophies that give new life and new meaning to our beautiful tradition. Rather than open the doors and windows to new thoughts and ideas like Sa’adya Goyn and the RAMBAM and many of the greatest thinkers in Jewish history, they aspire to smother ideas and Truth, in order to retain control and to retain power (and often to ensure financial gain).

This is not Judaism. This is the worship of false gods. Many of the “Gedoilim” of today have indeed become the Psalim and Temunot – The graven images and likenesses that the Toirah warns us about. Blindly following their words is not Judaism, it is nothing less than Avoidas Alilim – Idol Worship.

We have been given a world and are inheritors of a grand tradition that seeks to understand and embrace the Divine, to attune our lives to the ultimate Truth. For some, that is done through strict adherence to the evolved rabbinic formulae; for others, it involves a different kind of quest, one of a more personal nature.

But when we disregard reason, when we disregard common sense, when we defend those guilty of abusing children, Yisroel Belsky, when we believe that our knowledge of the Gemarrah gives us the right to disregard the secular legal system and ignore heinous crimes, that is not Judaism. When we believe that our religious institution is "too big to fail" no matter what its crimes and moral responsibilities, Yeshiva University, that is not Toirah. That is idol worship.

So, my beloved Talmidim, do not be confused by the actions of certain so-called “Gedoilim” who function through threat and intimidation. That is not Judaism. Stand up to their idolatry. You are empowered to do so – The rabbis have no exclusive rights to Judaism or Toirah. Judaism and Toirah belong to us all. And we have the right, and, indeed, the moral and ethical responsibility, to take it back.

In the words of a famous very wise non-Jew, Mohandas Ghandi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world”.

A Chessiva V'Chasima Toivah, you Minuval.

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Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Rosheshiva
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Roish Hashanah Drasha


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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

Thursday, September 10, 2015

On Intellectual Consistency and the Moral Compass


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On Intellectual Consistency and the Moral Compass



Rabboisai,

I come to you in great humility, as I have been too distracted to prepare a proper Drasha this week because I have been busy raising money for the Hillary Clinton campaign. Yes, Hillary is fixated on her own sense of entitlement. Yes, she unilaterally decided to manage her own e-mail private e-mail server while Secretary of State, thereby bypassing the checks and balances of transparency that we all expect from a public servant. Yes, Hillary allowed her lawyers to unilaterally erase tens of thousands of said e-mails. Yes, Hillary disregarded the agreement she entered with the Obama administration about making transparent all foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation. Yes, the Clinton Foundation apparently did not accurately report all donations. Despite all of this, I am raising money for Hillary. That is because I am hoping that once Hillary becomes president I will be appointed Ambassador to Israel, so I can issue a formal protest over the efforts to force the Ultra Orthodox to serve in the military, instead of learning Toirah Yoimum V’Laylah, day and night.

This is indeed a burning issue for our community throughout history, and it has been the subject not only of debate, but of action as well.

In a Mishnah in Kesubois, Rabbi Meir points out the Passook from the Toirah that tells us that newly married husbands are exempt from military service. Rav Papa cites a Braisah that notes that Rabbi Meir, to avoid military service himself, would marry a different woman every two weeks, and that by the age of 30, he was the most successful pimp in all of the Gallilee. A Tosefta in Yevamois refers to Rabbi Meyer as having gold teeth and frequently pronouncing to the Sanhedrin, “I treat my bitches well”.

Rabbi Sheyshess discusses how in Babylon, rabbinical students were officially exempt from the local military draft. Consequently, several "Yeshivas" were created in Sura and Pumbedisa so that Buchrim could avoid serving in the army. In fact, many of the Buchrim even received Smicha, rabbinic ordination, even though they were not even capable of changing a light bulb by themselves.

However, there is a beautiful Medrish in Esther Rabbah that brings down the story of Reb Ari, who actually joined the military in order to avoid becoming a rabbi. He ultimately succeeded in assassinating Osama Bin Laden by arranging a meeting with him under the pretense of getting Bin Laden to autograph his military issued Bible, which he then used to bash Bin Ladin's skull in. Reb Ari ultimately received Smicha and the title "Rabbi", not because he studied for years in Yeshiva, but because there was a screw up in the Veterans' Administration benefits department that administered the GI bill. VeHameivin Yavin.

These stories go to the heart of the real life complexity facing many of us: How do we relate to people who demonstrate attitudes and behaviors that conflict with some of our principles, yet align with others of our principles? For example:

- How can a Democrat who believes in transparency and honest government possibly vote for Hillary Clinton?

- How can a Republican who believes in decreasing the role of government in our everyday lives favor policies that provide profitable companies with billions of dollars in government hand outs, advocate a constitutional amendment that institutionalizes prayer in schools, and propose various laws that seek to legislate which sexual positions are legal in the states south of the Mississippi River on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays?

- How can many Orthodox Jews favor a strong Israeli military, an expansionist territorial policy which includes the retention of the West Bank and the reconquering of Gaza, while at the same time be opposed to able bodied Ultra Orthodox young men serving in the army because they have to study the proper ways to slaughter a goat and sprinkle its blood in a building destroyed nearly two thousand years ago, or have to learn to calculate whether a full moon seen at dusk in Jerusalem on a Tuesday should impact the ingredients in Zchhhhhhug being made in Yemen two days later?

- How can many rabbis and lay leaders, who present themselves as paragons of morality, look the other way when reality becomes inconvenient, say... When a fellow rabbi or community stalwart is accused of sexually abusing a child? For example, how is it that Rabbi Yisroel Belsky remains the #2 Posayk in the Orthodox Union (the OU), even though he supported - and continues to support - the convicted child molester Yosef Kolko in Lakewood, even participating in the persecution of the victim and his family. Are we to assume that the OU itself tolerates sexual abuse of minors? If yes, is that information known to Drakes, Entenmanns, Kelloggs, General Mills, Coca Cola, Heinz and the myriad other manufacturers of food products targeted at children certified by the OU?

What's Pshat, you Menuval?

Rabboisai, such questions are the pondering of the pure-at-heart, people who see the world as we would like to see it, versus the world as it really is. The fact that you would even ask such questions shows that you have a moral compass. And if you do not ask such questions, I suggest you stop reading this Drasha right now and go perform an act of Metzitza BiPeh on yourself.

------

Rabboisai, one of the key lessons of the Toirah, not necessarily how it is written in Toirah SheBichsav – the Written Law, but how it is interpreted in Toirah SheBaal Peh – the Rabbinic Oral Tradition, is the purist approach to the great figures of the Toirah.

When we discuss Avraham Avinu, we do not think about the sadist who was prepared to slaughter his own son, or the heartless man who sent his other son and concubine to die in the hot desert. Farkert! We think of the “institutional founder” of the monotheistic tradition upon which Yiddishkeit is based. We think of the man who haggled with Hakadoshboruchhu to find even one worthy man in order to save a city from destruction. We think of the man who displayed his faithfulness to the Reboinoisheloilum through his willingness to sacrifice his own son. That’s right; we do not think of Avraham Avinu as a living, breathing, multi-faceted human being. Rather, we think of him as a naïve schmuck.

Similarly, when we think of Yankif Avinu, we do not think of him as a man who deceived his father and stole his birthright from his brother. We do not focus on the man conned by his father-in-law into marrying the colluding sister-wives, or the inept father who could neither see through the lies surrounding his son’s disappearance nor protect his daughter from being raped nor prevent the brutal revenge on an entire town of mostly innocents by his bloodthirsty sons. No. Through the lens of CHAZAL we picture Yankif as the ultimate Tzaddik, a righteous man, who spent fourteen years studying Toirah in the mythical Yeshivas Shaym V’Eyver and fathered the nation that is Israel. We picture him as the paradigmatic Chassidishe male, Kleinah Shmaaser and all. (Note: According to Beraishis Rabbah, Eisav HaRasha was a Litvak Misnagid, which means he was hung like Bilaam’s oversized donkey.)

We can say the same for Aroin HaKoihain, the Minuval, who initiated the Eigel HaZahav, yet is celebrated at the father of the priestly line of Israel. We can say the same about Duvid HaMelech, “Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King”(1), whose murderous and adulterous crimes are forgotten as he is presented as the founder of the Aimishteh’s chosen monarchy.

And so on.

What motivated CHAZAL to retell the stories, all of which are readily available for us to read, in a way that exaggerates the good and ignores the bad of these Biblical figures? Could it be that CHAZAL thought us stupid? Or could it be that CHAZAL themselves spent a bit too much time smoking Besomim out of a Babylonian Hookah?

I would like you to think about that for a while, you Mechutziff. I have to go make Mei Raglayim, and will return to my Drasha in a moment.

------

Ok. I just recited Asher Yatzer. Please say “Amein”.

------

Now, where were we? Oh, yes. Why did CHAZAL recast flawed, three dimensional, very human Biblical figures as two dimensional heroes?

I would like to suggest that CHAZAL were not simply driven by an urge to rewrite historical tradition. Rather, they were using familiar cultural figures to craft a vision of “the world as we would like to see it, versus the world as it really is.” They were trying to model for us optimal behaviors in dimensions such as leadership, religious observance, loyalty and faith, so that we would know that in a world of conflicting needs and desires, we must aspire to a set of moral principles that define our behavior. This was not specifically an effort to inspire Halachic observance; rather, this was an effort to instill Jewish society and culture with a moral compass.

So when we are troubled by inconsistencies in behaviors, the lying, the hypocrisies, and the cover ups, we should not view ourselves as naïve and doe eyed and unrealistic and unwilling to compromise. We are inspired by the teachings of CHAZAL, by the moral compass embedded in Jewish culture. Judaism is not simplistically defined by Halacha; Yisroel Belsky strictly follows Halacha, yet he defends a pedophile. On the contrary. Judaism is defined by its moral compass, that tells us,

“Bring no more vain oblations; it is an offering of abomination unto Me; New Moon and Sabbath, the holding of convocations--I cannot endure iniquity along with the solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hateth; they are a burden unto Me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood.

“Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes, cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.“ (Isaiah, Perek Aleph, Psookim Yud Gimmel – Yud Zayin)

So fret not, my Beloved Talmidim and Talmidois, when you are disturbed by the intellectual inconsistencies of politicians and other public figures, religious institutions, and simple, regular people. There is nothing wrong with you. They are the assholes.

You aspire to the loyalty and integrity envisioned by CHAZAL. You aspire to an ideal perfection. You aspire to be the Goy Kadosh, the Holy Nation, and to be the Ohr LaGoyim, the Light Unto The Nations.

As is well known, Hillel HaZakeyn was once approached by a Roman and was asked to summarize the teaching of the Toirah on one foot. Without hesitation, he replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to another: this is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary” (Maseches Shabbos, Daf 31, Amud Aleph, Talmud Babli). This fundamental teaching echoes the words of the Passook, “VeAhavta LeReyachah KaMoichah”, “Love thy neighbor as you would love yourself” (Sefer VaYikrah, Perek Yud Tess, Passook Yud Chess).

To put it is modern parlance, the clear message of the Toirah – both Toirah SheBichasav and ESPECIALLY Toirah SheBaal Peh, through the teaching of CHAZAL: “Thou Shalt Not Be An Asshole”.

The world is full of assholes, in politics, within the religious community, and in everyday life. But the essence of Judaism is to NOT be an asshole, to stand up to assholes, and to call out assholes when they are being assholes.

What would a world without assholes look like? Some would call it morally and intellectually consistent. Some would call it a time of peace. I would call it Yemei HaMashiach, the Messianic era.

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Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Menuval

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(1) A reference to a great work of Biblical scholarship, “David's Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King” by Baruch Halpern (Bible in Its World) Paperback – November 12, 2003

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Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Rosheshiva
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

On Tikkun Olam


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On Tikkun Olam


Rabboisai,

I am sorry if we are a little confused today while developing this Drasha. I just came out of a Colonoscopy and the anesthesia is still wearing off. The good news: They found no polyps, but they did find a few gold coins, my car keys and that remote control that has been missing for two years. The bad news: The gerbil is dead. Baruch Dayan Emmes.

While we are discussing a distasteful but real, and important, medical procedure, I cannot help but be reminded of a basic concept in Lurianic Kabbalah - the Kabbalah of the ARI ZAHL. The ARI envisions a cosmic accident that occurred in creation known as "Shviras HaKelim", the "Shattering of the Vessels", which left sparks of holiness scattered in the "dross", the filth that was meant to be expunged from the universe during the act of creation - or more specifically, the act of the Divine to create space for the universe within Itself, also known as Tzimtzum. And the role of Klal Yisroel, and humanity as a whole, is to rescue those holy sparks from the "dross" through good deeds and acts of kindness. That is referred to as "Tikkun Olam", the "Fixing of the World".

Rabboisai, if we were to assess how we are doing in this score, I am not sure whether we are finding holy sparks these days, or simply more "dross", more filth that threatens to encompass our fragile existence.

In the political realm, we are faced by many imperfect realities, whether we are discussing the Iran deal, the hundred-years-war that is the Arab-Israeli/ Israeli- Palestinian conflict, or the seemingly growing tide of anti-Semitism. Let's face it. Our existence as Jews is perpetually tenuous.

But let's look at it from a different angle: Jews are not at the center of the universe; I am sorry to break it to you - it is not all about YOU, you Menuval! (I hope you were sitting down for that one, you Mechutziff.)

There is a civil war in the Arab world - while its reverberations are felt by Israel, the United States, the U.K., Australia and other countries throughout the world, it has nothing to do with Israel. If anything, this is a Kulturkamph, an internal political, religious, and cultural struggle that has been simmering since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and its temporary colonial successors. Similarly, all of Sub Saharan Africa is a disaster. The Jewish community in South Africa and the small communities in Kenya and Zimbabwe are fundamentally irrelevant to the gangland and mercenary leadership of a continent left bleeding by post colonial anarchy. And I am not even going to talk about Russia and the Ukraine, China, or the drug wars of Mexico and Columbia, and the poverty and inequities elsewhere across the globe.

Let's face it: The world is Farfucked.

Our Jewish experience is just one fragment of a world that is quaking. So while our existence as Jews is perpetually tenuous, our existence is still far more secure and self determined than it was 100 years ago, or 1,000 years ago. Plus we have Facebook.

So while we MUST always vigilantly protect our National and Tribal Jewish interests, we should also occasionally Shut The Fuck Up and realize that we are but a tiny fraction of the imperfect reality that we call human existence.

In the social realm, the rich get richer - which is OK in my book, but the middle class and poor are being left behind. Such are the seeds of social upheaval. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are not surging in a vacuum. So the U.S. is either about to become Socialist or to be turned into one big Trump casino. In either case, we are headed for bankruptcy.

And, of course, the Jewish world is a reflection of the broader trends.

I, Baruch HaShem, make a nice living, though, selling crystal meth, which subsidizes many Buchrim in their efforts to become the next generation of communal leaders. This year, Kenayna Hurrah, we have the largest class of Talmidim entering our Yeshiva! Consequently, we have even added some new classes to fit the modern rabbinate: President Richard Joel of YU will be teaching a class on "The Art Of Losing A Billion Dollars But Still Keeping Your Job"; Yisroel Belsky of the OU and Torah V'Daas will be teaching a course on "The Intricacies Of Kashrusss Supervision And Cover Ups Of Child Sexual Abuse"; And Jonathan Rosenblatt will be teaching a course entitled "Personal Hygiene - Up Close and Personal".

There are of course many less privileged members of our community. However, they clearly have not Davened to Hakadoshboruchhu with the right Kavvanah, are secretly putting bacon in their Cholent, or are being punished because some so-called-Jews are designating some so-called-women as so-called-rabbis. As the Toirah tells us, the Reboinosheloilum is an angry Aimishteh. Do not mess with Him. Trust me on this one; a few decades ago He took one look at Reform Jews in Germany and killed six million Jews without breaking a sweat. And, believe me, you do NOT want to hear about the time that the dinosaurs rebelled...

----

Rabboisai,

I am reminded of one of the great philosophical debates in history: Tzaddik V'Ra Loi - Why do bad things happen to good people. This question is age old. The book of Iyoiv - Job, as the Episcopalians and the Open Orthodox call it - struggles with that question. The Talmud as well. And the later religious philosophers and theorists.

The classic explanation is that man is rewarded for his good deeds and punished for his bad deeds. But as the book of Iyoiv states, Dos Iz Nisht Azoy Pashut - it is not so simple.

Others try to create alternate rationales for evil and suffering in the world. The RAMBAM rejects the notion of the Reboinosheloilum's involvement in human affairs. According to the RAMBAM, the world was created with its own rules, and Hakkadoshboruchhu does not intercede, save for a special few Jews from Egypt - including a Rabbi Doctor Philosopher who lived a thousand years ago, and the Frum owner of a beer factory who invested in a race horse which went on to win the Triple Crown, and is now going to make millions selling the horse's Zerah.

However, the Kabbalists sought mystical explanations for the counterintuitive nature of the universe. According to some, the different elements that comprise the Godhead - the ten Sephirois - interact in different ways. The Sephira of Din, or Justice, is the source of evil - essentially, evil is Justice gone awry in response to stimulus from other Sephirois.

However, there is an alternate explanation. The Ain Soif - the incomprehensible Source Of All - in order to create space for our world, withdrew into Himself. As It created sacred space, It moved the negative energies of the world into the space. As It was transferring some pure divinity in clay vessels, the vessels fell to the ground and shattered, scattering the holy sparks mentioned in the Reisha of this Drasha.

---

So Rabboisai and Rebbetznoisai, are we doing all we can to rescue the holy sparks? Is Judaism a garment we wear that we take off when no one is around? Or it is a way of life? Do we only care about Mitzvois Bain Adam LaMakoim, or do we care about Mitzvois Bain Adam KeChaveiroi? Are we the gold coins? Or are we the shit that lies beneath?

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Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval

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Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Rosheshiva
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess