Monday, January 16, 2017

Staring in the Mirror: a birthday, a yahrzeit, a very good day

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Eight years is a long time.  

Eight doesn’t seem like a special number at first, unless you’re Chinese, and then, I’m told, it’s extremely lucky.  But even in Judaism, eight is a special number: it means one more than nature, as we see in connection with bris milah and the eight-day miracle of Chanukah. It’s also my shoe size, if you don’t count the half.

When it comes to a yahrzeit, eight feels like the first "big" number, the first time you can't honestly say "it's only been a few years..."

Today, we sat basically at the same bus stop where we sat across from the Merkazit (central station) in Yerushalayim eight years ago. 

Today, we were minus two kids in one way, but minus four kids in another, because the two who were babies then have magically been replaced by two who are quite a bit older and smarter (and GZ can walk now, which is a plus).

Today, we didn’t do anything we haven’t done before:

Monday, January 09, 2017

Six reasons I won’t sign online petitions… do you?

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Are you swamped with online petitions?  I am.

Through email, Facebook and other social media, it seems like I’m constantly being asked to click through and add my “signature” to one thing or another.  So when I got one this morning on WhatsApp, and a friend asked if it was worth signing, I leapt into the fray.

(This one was about a building project planned near the old Jewish cemetery in Vilnius, Lithuania.  So far, it has 2,712 supporters, so it’s fairly big as these things go.)

Another friend said it sure was, saying basically (I’ve paraphrased since I don’t have her permission):

…it’s up to us to speak up or stay silent. Signing the petition takes less than a minute; we should pray, too; who knows?

Now, because this was first thing in the morning or because I was feeling cranky or because I have just gotten too many of these things, I added my 2 cents’ worth:

I believe the opposite: I don't think petitions help; or rather, I don't think online petitions help. An actual piece of paper may still have some weight. Yes, I believe we need to share and publicize things that are happening. But most people tune out - and, I believe, with good reason - when they see an online petition. They may actually undermine the credibility of good causes. 'Nuff said.

Another person in the group – a researcher, of course! – asked if there was any research on this, so I poked around for a few minutes.  There is some, but it’s mostly about how petitions spread through social media and not on their effectiveness when it comes to policy.

So am I right?  Should we avoid online petitions?

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Fear of Family Reunions: Thoughts for Parshas Vayeshev

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My mother recently spent two Shabboses (Shabbatot) with us here in Israel.  In her honour, I actually put together an unprecedented TWO divrei Torah in a row.  This is the second one, which was not too fancy because I was just planning to say it over privately over lunch but then we ended up having guests, and I think it went over nicely.  Sorry it’s too late for this year – I was too busy visiting to post!

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Last week’s parsha, Vayeitzei, ended in sort of a cliff-hanger, as Yaakov set off to reunite with his brother Eisav. As this week’s parsha opens, we see that Yaakov is preparing for his meeting with Eisav – and he is very, very afraid.

This fear reminds us, as it should, of several parshiyos from now, when the shevatim go down to Mitzrayim and are afraid of Yosef when they realize who they have been dealing with there.

There are many similarities here anyway: parting on bad terms, a separation of decades, a reversal of fortunes (Yaakov, the mild-mannered son, has become the leader of a large family and a person of great wealth; Yosef, the wimpy little prognosticator, has become the ruler of Egypt.).

Here’s another similarity: When Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, וַיִּתֵּן אֶת-קֹלוֹ, בִּבְכִי, “he wept aloud.” And Eisav, too, the big bad Eisav, bursts out in tears, as it says, וַיִּבְכּֽוּ, - and they wept. Both of them. All of the other similarities between these stories suggest that Eisav, too, is sincere, at least in that moment (though a midrash goes on to say he bit Yaakov’s neck).

But an earlier question must be asked: why is Yaakov afraid when Hashem says not to be? Hashem has already said go back to eretz Yisrael וְאֵיטִ֥יבָה עִמָּֽךְ: / and I’ll make it good for you.

To understand this,

Motherhood, Broken Hearts, and Dreams: Thoughts for Parshas Vayeitzei

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My mother recently spent two Shabboses (Shabbatot) with us here in Israel.  In her honour, I actually put together two divrei Torah.  This is the first, which I said over at a kiddush we also made in her honour.  Sorry it’s too late for this year – I was too busy visiting to post!

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So my mother is here visiting Israel, and I actually felt more like talking about last week’s parsha instead of this week’s, because of a line we mentioned in our shiur that says so much about motherhood:

כח וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת עֵשָׂו כִּי צַיִד בְּפִיו וְרִבְקָה אֹהֶבֶת אֶת יַעֲקֹב:

"Isaac loved Esav because he ate his game; but Rebecca loved Jacob." (Genesis 25:28)

The actual Hebrew of this verse reads that Rebecca "loves" Jacob, in the present tense.

According to Rabbi Isaiah HaLevi Horowitz, we can understand this verse according to a teaching of our sages in Chapters of the Fathers (5:16). "Any love that is dependent on something will vanish when that thing vanishes. But a love that is not dependent on something will never cease."

Isaac's love for Esav is described as contingent on the food that Esav provided - that's why the love is spoken of using the past tense. But Rebecca's love for Jacob was not tied to anything, it was unconditional and therefore described in the present, ongoing sense.

Ha, so I guess I did talk about last week’s parsha after all. But when I looked, I realized that of course, this is the most appropriate parsha in which to honour my mother. After all, we have not one but FOUR mothers in this week’s parsha: Rachel, Leah, Bilha and Zilpa.

10 newest solutions for better sleep on buses and planes: a sleeeeeepy Mamaland guide…

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Know what this crazy world needs?  A better way to look dorky on airplanes.

Okay, actually, not planes, but buses.  I travel by bus more often than I like to admit, and it's tough getting comfy on those long hauls.  I've tried bunching up a sweater against the window, I've tried a standard-issue "travel" neck pillow (on planes, not buses), I've tried just grinning and bearing it.

And let's face it, sleeping while you're travelling is terrible.  And it is also one of the biggest missed opportunities I can think of.  Two hours with nobody needing me for anything?  No chance to do work, except for the occasional text or email?  (When I go by train, I usually use the whole time to get work done, but bus = sleepytime, as far as I’m concerned… sleepytime WASTED because I’m so uncomfortable!)

With so much serious stuff going on in the world, I felt that what was needed was a hard-hitting investigation into ten of the newest and most amazing ways I can make my head and neck cozy while I travel.  Science has been working on this problem for a while – or it ought to have been – so I wanted to see what they’ve come up with.

(If you have any suggestions for this list, I’d love to hear about them!)

And why now???  I’ve been keeping all these windows open on my browser for about 2 weeks waiting for the right time to post, and after spending an hour up with a sick kid last night, and then waking up much too early in the morning, I have decided – in the midst of my sleeeepy haze – that today is the day.

A number of these offerings come from Kickstarter, and some are not available for sale the regular way.  In fact, “things to help you sleep” seems to be one of the more popular Kickstarter genres.  And no wonder – sleep is so delicious.

So “without any further adieu,” as they say, here they are, in no particular order:

1. THE FACE CRADLE

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If that doesn’t look cozy enough, this successful Kickstarter project has an even dorkier-looking full-face mode:

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Their slogan is “upgrade to sleeping class.”  I agree!  Mmm… sleeep…

2.  THE NOD TRAVEL PILLOW

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Another successful Kickstarter project.  This one, however, looks less appealing, since essentially you are strapping your neck to the seat.  The product’s FAQ includes a claim of a “a saftey break away in the event of an emergency.”  Confidence-inspiring, but this one seems less likely to win my approval.

3. THE J-PILLOW

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You can’t really tell from the pictures, but a careful analysis of this product on Amazon suggests that this is basically a regular U-shaped travel pillow with a J-shaped extension sticking out perpendicular to the pillow.

However, Amazon reviews seem to suggest that this isn’t really “grippy” enough on its own to hold your head up if you’re sleeping in an upright position, like on a plane… or a bus.

4.  THE ZZZBAND

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Like the Nod Travel Pillow and a number of other offerings, this Amazon product straps your head to the seat behind you so you can’t shift while you’re sleeping.  Some of the reviews are kind of iffy, however, suggesting that it doesn’t hold firmly enough to the seat back, and (duh) it makes it tough to get up and go to the bathroom.  (Which I suppose wouldn’t be a problem on Israeli buses, because there’s no such thing as a bus bathroom in this country.)

Another strapping-in option

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Extreme Emunah, Extreme Chessed: Thoughts on Chayei Sarah 5777

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We learned in parshas Noach a few weeks ago that one of the condemnations of Noach comes about because he doesn’t leave the Teiva after the flood. He sits there, plays around with sending birds, it’s a very nice story but eventually Hashem has to intervene and tell him, “LEAVE ALREADY.”

(I’m paraphrasing.  And speaking of paraphrasing, most of this dvar Torah was heavily inspired by three divrei Torah of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  You can find links to them at the end.)

Noach didn’t want to leave the teiva. He had seen the world destroyed. He didn’t know how he could go on. And, looking backwards perhaps, he drowned his troubles rather than looking forward.

We have all met people who have been through something like that, I think. People who lived through the Shoah, who saw their world destroyed. And yet – most picked themselves up and went on with their lives.

Rabbi Sacks calls these people his “mentors in courage.” He spent time asking what allowed them to move on. Unlike Noach, to leap out of the boat and rebuild the world. To not descend into the depths.

My mother grew up in the generation when people didn’t talk about the Shoah. For better or worse, nobody could talk about it. It was told in whispers – and in silences. Eventually, they began to speak, but only when they realized that it was long past, and that the future was assured.

This is what Avraham does in this week’s parsha.