Thursday, October 29, 2009

Torah in Brief: Lech L'cha.

by Yehoshua Jason Bedrick

Our weekly Torah portion opens with G-d's command to Abram (Abraham's original name) to leave his homeland, and His promise that He will bless him and make of him a great nation:

"Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you, I will curse." (Gen. 12:1-3)

Abram takes his wife, Sarai, and nephew, Lot, to the land of Canaan. They also travel with "the souls they made in Haran" which is often interpreted as their slaves, though some sages say it refers to the converts they made.

Even in Canaan, Abram lives a nomadic life, constantly pitching his tent further and further south in the land. At one point, there's a famine in the land, so Abram briefly descends to Egypt. Fearful that the immoral Egyptians will kill him and take his wife, they pretend that they are siblings. Pharaoh treats Abram well on account of his "sister", whom he takes into his own home. G-d then afflicts Pharaoh's household with a severe plague, which tips off Pharaoh that something is amiss. He discovers that Sarai is already married, and he sends the couple away.

Abram returns to Canaan and flourishes, but his shepherds quarrel with Lot's shepherds. Abram offers to part ways to make room for each other, so Lot moves to Sodom. Once again, G-d promises the childless Abram that He will make a great nation of him in this land, as innumerable as the dust of the earth. Abram then builds an altar in Hebron. Though the Jewish people was never so large at any given time, their incredible longevity fulfills this promise. The Midrash notes that just as dust outlives all who tread upon it, so G-d promised Abraham that his offspring would outlive all the nations that would persecute them.

At one point, five local kings go to war with four other kings. Caught in the crossfire, Lot and his family are taken captive. A fugitive informs Abram, who immediately springs into action and rescues his kinsman and many others with a small force of a few hundred men. After Abram's success, Malchizedek, King of Salem (a.k.a. - Jerusalem), a priest of G-d, greets Abram and gives him bread and wine, an allusion to the sacrificial offerings Abram's descendants would offer there. Abram then tithes to Malchizedek. The king of Sodom offers Abram all of the loot, but Abram refuses, taking only supplies for his servants. Abram did not want anyone to mistakenly conclude that the wicked king of Sodom had made him wealthy; his good fortune was entirely a divine blessing.

After these events, G-d reiterates his promise to Abram. Abram protests that he remains childless, and G-d responds with a specific promise that he will bear children. G-d sent Abram outside and tells him to gaze into the heavens, promising that his descendants will be as innumerable as the stars. Rashi comments that G-d was also telling Abram to ignore the astrology by which he had determined that he was destined to remain childless.

They then seal a covenant with an animal sacrifice. Afterward, Abram falls into a deep sleep, and G-d continues to speak to him. G-d reveals to Abram that his descendants will live in exile for 400 years, that they will be oppressed by a foreign nation, but that they will be redeemed and leave with great wealth. (See: Book of Exodus. G-d, however, showed mercy in calculating the exile from the time of Isaac's birth -- the exile in Egypt was commuted to 210 years.)

Sarai, frustrated at her barrenness, asks her husband to bear a child through her maidservant, Hagar. Hagar conceived and began acting haughtily to her mistress. Sarai complains bitterly to Abram, who grants her permission to treat Hagar as she sees fit. Sarai disciplines Hagar, who then flees. An angel appears to Hagar and directs her to return to submit herself to Sarai. He also reveals to her that she will bear a son, Ishmael. There is a concept in Torah study that everything written about our ancestors applies to us as well. Of Ishmael, ancestor of the Arabs, the angel tells Hagar: "He shall be a wild ass of a man; his hand against everyone, and everyone's hand against him."

Abram was 86 when Hagar bore Ishmael. When Abram was 99, G-d sealed another covenant with Abram. G-d changed his name, Abram ("father of Aram") to Abraham ("father of a multitude"). G-d seals this "everlasting covenant" in Abraham's very flesh, commanding him to circumcise himself, and commanding that all his male descendants be circumcised at the age of eight days.

The circumcision is called both "My covenant" and "the sign of the covenant." According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, this expresses a fundamental principle. The Artscroll Chumash summarizes his view: "A commandment consists of two parts: the physical act and its underlying moral or spiritual teaching -- and neither is complete without the other."

G-d also changes Sarai's name -- "my princess" -- to Sarah, signifying "princess over all nations". Previously, her greatness was only attached to her husband's, but now her limitations were removed. G-d informs Abraham that he will bear a child with Sarah named Isaac, and that the covenant would pass through him, though Ishmael would also become a vast nation.

Abraham then circumcises himself, his 13-year-old son Ishmael, and his entire household.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Torah in Brief: Bereishis

By Yehoshua Jason Bedrick

I'm going to try to write a short synopsis of each week's Torah portion, with a little bit of commentary along the way (in addition to a more in-depth analysis of one concept). Your questions or comments are welcome and appreciated.

Last week's Torah portion, Bereishis, is the first portion of the Torah (Gen. 1:1-6:8). Genesis famously begins "In the beginning, when G-d created the heavens and the earth..." The first chapter details the six days of Creation and ends with the seventh day, upon which G-d "rested".* In his commentary, Rashi wonders why the Bible opens with the creation of the world (as opposed to a commandment, which would be expected since the Torah is not primarily a history book, but an "instruction manual"). Rashi then explains that this is because people would one day accuse the Israelites of stealing the land from the Canaanites, but Genesis allows them to retort that G-d created the world and therefore He may give it to whomever He sees fit. (There are echoes of this ancient accusation in the modern claim that the Israelis are "settlers" on native Palestinian land -- despite thousands of years of Jewish residence in the Holy Land.)

The second chapter details G-d's creation of Adam and Eve. The Talmud explains that G-d created only one man at first so that we should know that if we save one life, it is as though we saved the entire world. Noting that "it is not good for Man to be alone," G-d created an "ezer k'negdo" for Adam -- literally, "a helper opposite him." Rashi comments that if the man is worthy, his wife will be a "helper" but if he is unworthy, she will be "opposite him". After Adam finds Eve pleasing in his eyes, the narrative concludes: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife and they shall become one flesh."

The third chapter depicts their subsequent fall after eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. G-d punishes them and expels them from the Garden of Eden, but He makes them warm clothes before He sends them away, a sign that He still loves humanity.

The fourth chapter opens with the birth of Cain and Abel. Cain becomes a farmer and Abel a shepherd, but G-d accepts Abel's sacrifices while rejecting Cain's. In a fit of jealous anger, Cain murders his brother. When G-d inquires about Abel, Cain infamously asks: "Am I my brother's keeper?" G-d curses Cain, but allows him to live seven generations, albeit with the "mark of Cain". The chapter concludes with details about Cain's descendants and the birth of Adam and Eve's third son, Seth.

The fifth chapter is the list of Adam's descendants through Noah. While many people prefer to skip over the "begot" sections ("And Enoch begot Methuselah..."), these sections are filled with meaning. Here's an example I learned from Rabbi Daniel Lapin: Keinan begot Mehallalel, who begot Jared (Yered). Their names mean, "acquired", "praised gods", and "descent" respectively. Each represents the trend of their generation: an acquisitive and materialistic generation (Keinan) is followed by a generation which seeks spirituality in all the wrong places (Mehallalel) which is then followed by a generation of decline.**

Parshas Bereishis concludes with the first part of chapter six, which describes the descent of humanity into depravity. G-d decides to destroy all of humanity, but the Torah portion ends on a positive note: "But Noah found grace in the eyes of G-d."

With G-d's help, we'll continue with Noah and Parshas Noach later this week!

*The chapters commonly used are of Christian origin and include the seventh day at the beginning of the 2nd chapter, but it is included as a part of the first "aliyah" in the Jewish reckoning.

**For greater depth on this point (and a whole lot more), pick up a copy of Rabbi Lapin's "The Gathering Storm: Decoding the Secrets of Noah".

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Got God? In New York City?

God in New York City
They gave out these newspapers in New York City yesterday and there I was to pick one up and read it. They are putting ads in the subway systems which claim that one million new yorkers are okay with out God. The paper says that they take their numbers from a survey done a few years back in which 15% of people answered not affiliated to some sort of religious serve. Now I haven't seen the survey but I don't think that a person who checked unaffiliated necessarily means he doesn't believe in God. It could just mean that he is not affiliated with any formal religion but he does believe in the One, Transcended God, which would probably make him a Noahide of some sort. Well whatever the story is I love the picture and headline.

Btw, its parshas Noah! All is by Divine providence all the time.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Hidden messages are found in NYC parking signs

by Yosef Aaronsohn

An administrative law judge found last month in a ruling on September 11, 2009 that there is a hidden message in one of the parking signs posted on many of the New York City streets. Even more curious is that all drivers are supposed to know what that message means. The mysterious sign in question has a blue background with white lettering that states: "NYC Parking Cards Available". There is a picture of three choices of parking cards to choose from. At the bottom of the sign it says: "For information visit or call 311".

So, what is the hidden message in that sign?

I had no idea what the message was when I parked by it. I've shown the picture of the sign to several people since and no one fully got what the sign was about.

People who are familiar with NYC parking believed that the sign means that you need to pay something if you want to park there. People who are unfamiliar with parking in NYC only read that some kind of a parking card is available and you can visit a website or call a number if you want more information about acquiring it. None of those questioned had ever heard of a parking card. Maybe part of what the city is trying to do by posting it is to inform people that these cards are available.

The hidden message according to the young administrative law judge that heard my case is that you need to pay at a muni-meter for the right to park in the area of that sign.

He stated in his decision:

"Claim signs were not clear as the sign in front of Respondent's vehicle stated NYC parking card available, however further down the block there was a clearer sign stating pay at muni meter with arrow showing such and photo displayed as well is not a valid defense that sign was not clear, since as long as there is 1 legible sign on the block that is sufficient restriction in effect on the entire block. Guilty."

I was expecting the judge to recognize that there was no mention of a muni-meter on the sign by my car and since there would be no way for me to know about a muni-meter he would reverse the decision and remove the $65 fine. What I didn't consider is that a ruling in my favor would be admitting that the city inadvertantly left out an important piece of information on one of their signs. This could turn out to be an expensive ruling for the city. It was easier to pass the responsibility on to someone else instead of jeopardizing his name being attached to such an unnecessary expense to the City of New York.

The sign further down the block did state clearly to Pay at Muni-Meter but that was not the sign closest to my car. The sign closest to my car had a sign indicating that you can park on the street for up to one hour from 9 AM to 7 PM except Sunday. Which I did. I parked between 4 PM to 5 PM on a monday.

The blue sign was found just below the one-hour parking sign. The city actually wants you to make the connection between the blue sign and the muni-meter supposedly in place to govern the block. These were the only two signs posted on that particular signpost.

I contested the $65 penalty for failing to display a proper muni-meter receipt on my dashboard. The judge applied a well known rule called the one-sign-in-a-block rule. Enough people have been found guilty based on this one-sign-in-a-block rule that it has become a commonly known rule among drivers. I think this rule was incorrectly applied to my situation.

The one-sign-in-a-block rule basically states that if there is an unreadable sign near where a car is to be parked (and obviously if there is no sign at all) then it is the driver's responsibility to check the entire block for a more readable sign before assuming that it is okay to park there. This makes sense for governing the roads. One sign is enough to rule the whole block and nobody has to go past the end of the block in order to figure out what the restrictions are for parking.

But after you see a readable sign on a block and it aparantly applies to the area where you are parking, it's not the responsibility of the driver to check for more restrictive or conflicting signs all the way up and down the block (or at least it shouldn't be). The one-sign-in-a-block rule is only if you are faced with an unreadable or missing sign. Then you need to look further. And as long as there is one authorized regulatory sign describing what the parking situation is, you cannot later claim to a judge that the signs were not clear.

In the case of the mysterious blue sign that mentions nothing about a muni-meter, directly under a sign saying when it is acceptable to park, there is no reason to check further. When I parked by this sign I was glad there was no cost for parking at this location but was bothered that I could only stay for one hour. I looked up and down the block and saw cars parked in every space. There were no parking meters at all on the block and there was no fire hydrant within 15 feet of my spot. When I checked for a hydrant I noticed that just ahead of my spot were two short poles protecting a large box. This looked like an electrical box or the kind of box that Cablevision uses so I didn't concern myself with it. I assumed the poles were there to protect the box from a veering car. As long as there was no meter by my spot and no fire hydrant close by I parked according to what the sign said. I parked for an hour.

The City is assuming that people understand the blue sign to mean "Pay at Muni-Meter" (that is the hidden message). The other two signs on the block say this explicitly. I happened to park right at the one sign that did not say "Pay at Muni-Meter". The city probably left it out because it was so close to a muni-meter that they didn't know how to point to it. Instead of leaving out the arrows they left out the whole phrase. Since I never had the occasion to use a muni-meter before I would not have known what it looked like. It could have been right next to my car and it would have gone unnoticed because there is no obvious marking on the side that faces the road to indicate that it is any different from other utility boxes often seen by the curb. You have to already be looking for a muni-meter before you find it. And there's no reason to look for it unless the sign governing the parking spot says to look for it.

This logic was missed by the young administrative law judge who heard my case. He stuck his hand out when I plead not guilty and said, "Do you have a receipt?"

I said, "No" and handed him a picture of the sign. "But the sign that I saw didn't say anything about a muni-meter. There was no way for me to know from this sign that I needed to pay money at a muni-meter."

He went ahead and typed up the rather unclear statement of his decision: "Claim signs were not clear..."

I have to wonder if the judges are instructed to write everything they want to say about the decision in one long run-on sentence. Or was it just the style of this judge. I was amazed at his use of the two fingered method of typing. I was very impressed with the speed of his two fingered typing. But unimpressed with his last sentence: Guilty. I was disappointed that he justified his decision of guilty with the one-sign-in-a-block rule. It seemed to make his day to be able to pull this rule out the hat and apply it to this case. Guilty.

As I got up to leave I asked him how I was supposed to know about the other signs. He said, "That would be a good thing to mention in an appeal."

I followed up with an appeal. The two or three minutes spent with this judge seemed long compared with the length of time the two judges must have spent on scribbling out the notice upholding the judges decision on appeal. The form letter sent back to me had a mark next to the line saying: Upon review of the entire record before us, we find no error of fact or law. The Judge's decision is upheld.

There was wavy line passed through the other choice which reads: Upon review of the entire record before us, we find error. The decision is reversed and the prior payment will be returned. I get the feeling that this line gets crossed out most of the time.

So now I have three judges that signed on board agreeing that the decision to charge me $65 was not in error.

The New York City government would like drivers to simply know that a muni-meter is in effect whenever they post the blue sign with the parking card information on it. They evidently don't care that it doesn't explicitly say that a fee is required. The most disturbing part of this is how submissive New Yorkers have become when they are presented with a half a story. They have become trained to accept an incomplete sign and take for granted what the city wants them to believe about it. Even when it makes no logical sense.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Moses looking out over Eretz Yisroel.

Video of google earth showing Moshe Rabbeinu looking out over the land of Israel.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Philosophy vs. Chasidus

In the summer of 5688 my father was in Marienbad. One of the elders of the "Enlightenment" was staying there s well and he came to visit my father. Hes asked my father about some profound subject and my father replied with an explanation according to chasidic doctrine.

The elder was pleased with answer and explanation and he said, "This is Chasidus?! It seems like a deep philosophical concept. What, then, is the difference between the logic of philosophy and that of Chasidus?"

My father replied: "My brother, Rabbis Zalman Aaron , once gave the following answer too that question. 'When a person studies philosophy, he ultimately sheds his tallis kattan and hat. And when a person studies Chasidus, he ultimately puts on a gartel and a yarmulke'.

"This is the truth.. Everything depends on the introduction and preparation for study. Philosophy is generally studied in a spirit of cynicism born of a desire to cast off the yoke of heaven. But Chasidus is studied in a spirit of warmth born of belief and acceptance of the yoke of Heaven and an awe of Heaven.

"This," my father concluded, "its the fruit of the devotion of the early chasidim to Chasidus. they bequeathed to their children and their children's children some spiritual lachuchis (moisture)(referring to an intuitive sense and warm regard for Chasidus.) so that a chasidic concept stick to them. A chasidic axiom is absorbed well by them and places them on the path of truth."

Taken from The Chasidic Heritage Series The four Wolds a letter by Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn of Lubavitch. Kehot Publication Society.