In Praise of Our Land

Parashat Shelach is our annual opportunity to somehow rectify the transgression of the spies. Only Calev and Yehoshua resisted the peer pressure and refused to speak disparagingly about the land of Israel. Until we successfully rebuild the Bet Hamikdash, Tisha Be’av, the evening of the spies’ sin, will remain a day of mourning.

On Shabbat, I suggested that we do our part in addressing the sin by speaking positively of the Land of Israel.

At the conclusion of Tractate Ketubot of the Talmud Bavli (112a-b), the Gemara records activites of various sages aimed at evoking a love and respect for Eretz Yisrael.

ר’ אבא מנשק כיפי דעכו. ר’ חנינא מתקן מתקליה. ר’ אמי ורבי אסי

קיימי משמשא לטולא ומטולא לשמשא

R. Abba kissed the stones of Acco. R. Hanina fixed damaged roads. R. Ami and R. Asi moved (during their learning) from the sun to the shade and from the shade to the sun.

Rashi explains that R. Haninah had such love of the Land that he did not want any possible rumors to spread about the state of disrepair of its roads. R. Ami and R. Asi wanted to avoid complaining about uncomfortable weather in Eretz Yisrael, so they always moved their hevruta learning to a more comfortable venue.

Another example cited by the Gemara R. Hiyah Bar Gamda rolling in the dust of Eretz Yisrael, similarly conveys an intense love of the Land. So powerful is this value in our tradition, that Rambam in Hilchot Melachim 5:10 actually “codifies” these behaviors as exemplifying how the average Jew should relate to the Jewish homeland.

On Shabbat morning, Tosafot’s commentary on this Gemara caught my eye.

Tosafot writes:

רבי חנינא הוה מתקל מתקליה – פירוש שוקל אבנים ומוצאן קלות אמר עדיין לא נכנסתי לארץ ישראל כיון ששקלן ומצאן כבידות אמר כבר נכנסתי לארץ ישראל

R. Haninah used to weigh rocks and, when he would find them to be light, he would say, “I have not yet entered Eretz Yisrael.”Once he weighed them and found them heavy, he would say, “I have entered Eretz Yisrael!”

Tosafot goes on to support his interpretation by citing a Midrash Tanhuma to this effect.We should first note that what prompts this interpretation is difference in the edition of Tosafot’s text of the Talmud: our edition uses the expression מתקן מתקליה. Rashi, as do others, understands R. Haninah as engaging himself in repairs, as תקן, the root of מתקן indicates. Hence, Rashi’s explanation that R. Haninah fixed the roads. Tosafot, in contrast, has an edition that uses a ל at the end of the first word of that phrase, such that it reads מתקל מתקליה. For Tosafot, the word מתקל is the Aramaic equivalent of שוקל, he weighed. What did he weigh? Rocks and stones, to determine if he had yet entered Israel.

At first blush, this understanding has little in common with the others cited by the Gemara; the others either display a sage’s desire to praise Eretz Yisrael or to prevent its being disparaged; how does R. Haninah’s rock-weighing fit in? How is it, too, a way of praising Eretz Yisrael?

Rocks are heavy; they provide a solid foundation on which to build. It was only recently that some Israelis have begun to tile their floors with ceramic tiles; the vast majority still use “Balatot” – heavy square stone slabs.

The mishna in Berachot (fifth chapter) says אין עומדים להתפלל אלא מתוך כובד ראש – one should not begin his Amida until he has achieved כובד ראש, a serious attitude. The word כבד is associated with something important, serious.

Honoring parents is called כיבוד אב ואם. Your parents played a significant, “heavy” role in your life, and you should give weight to their contribution. When R. Haninah wished to determine whether he had arrived in Eretz Yisrael, he tested the rocks. Once he sensed that he was entering a land of great significance, he knew he had reached the Land of Israel. When one declares that he is entering a land in which everything has inherent signficance, is the greatest “praise” that Eretz Yisrael could ever hope to receive. It’s this appreciation of Eretz’s Yisrael’s foundational role in Jewish identity that prompted R. Haninah in the Midrash Tanchuma’s version of the story to kiss those stones.

The Fruit Aisle Got Me Thinking

I haven’t blogged in quite some time, but I plan to start again…Anyhow, here is a blog piece I wrote for my community here in Seattle in honor of the second day of Pesach:

Earlier this week, I am sure many of us were busy up until the last second making our final preparations for Pesach.  Our own family was no exception; at about 5:30 pm on Monday afternoon, I found myself in the fruit department of the Ranier Valley Safeway store. A man in his late thirties looks me straight in the eye, and in a booming voice declares: “Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ehad!! This is how you say it, right?”

“Yes, I guess it is how we say it…who are you?… Are you… Jewish?”

Apparently, the Shema-reciter is a descendant of Spanish Jews; according to him, his great grandmother was Jewish, as was his grandmother, and apparently – his mother…

“Do you belong to one of the congregations in town?” I asked.

“Beth Shofar…In Tukwila…. We’re a messianic congregation.”

Now, I did not know if he was in fact Jewish, as he claimed.. I figured that the most I could (and should) do (!) was to explain that Judaism and Christianity are fundamentally different religions.

He politely smiled, but was not particularly receptive to my words. I could see that he believed that being Jewish was consistent with a commitment to JC.

I posed the following question: “If you believe that the Torah is binding, will you be eating Matzah tonight?”

“No, I will not ….”

“Why not?”

At this point, things become a bit of a blur; I didn’t exactly understand what he said; something about JC eating the matzah for us, being our Paschal Lamb…You get the idea…..

As our mini-debate reached a crescendo, he assured me that I, along with the entire Jewish people, would ultimately “see the light” and embrace his belief in JC.

Incidentally, after the Hag, I checked and it seems that Beth Shofar had a Passover Seder. Not a lot of matzah or maror in this video, but a lot of bongos….Perhaps an echo of Miriam taking a drum in her hands after the sea split (!)

As my mentor and I we were about to declare a truce, a young woman with a bright cheery smile and pure wonderment in her eyes approached me and asked, “Are you Rabbi Meyers?”

I nodded. “How do you know who I am?”

“I saw your picture on the website.”

To make a long story short, this woman had contacted me several weeks earlier inquiring about conversion. We had a brief exchange and agreed to be in touch following Pesach.

The scene was somewhat surreal: a man of Jewish lineage urging me to accept the Christian messiah and an inspired non-Jewish woman seeking to become part of the Seattle Jewish community. Both on Erev Pesach 5774.

On Seder night, prior to the main mitzvot of Matzah and Maror, we recite a Hallel.  In the Sephardic Hagadah shel Pesach edited by Hazzan Azose, the Hallel is introduced by the words ונאמר לפניו הללויה – “…and we will recite before him, Hallelu-yah”. In other editions, ונאמר לפניו שירה חדשה הללויה, ” “…and we will recite before him a new song, Hallelu-yah”. According to both versions, though, before the blessing of גאל ישראל – He who redeemed Israel – we say וְנודֶה לְךָ שִׁיר חָדָש עַל גְּאֻלָּתֵנוּ ועַל פְּדוּת נַפְשֵׁנוּ– and we shall thank You with a new song for our redemption and for the deliverance of our souls.

Now what is the new song we are referring to here in the Haggadah? It seems to be the same old Hallel: the verses from Tehilim, from Psalms, that we say every holiday, and customarily recite on Rosh Hodesh! According to the text that introduces the Hallel with the phrase שירה חדשה, we do hear an echo of the daily blessing following the Shema שירה חדשה שבחו גאולים לשמך הגדול על שפת הים– the  redeemed ones praised Your great name with a new song at the edge of the sea…. And in keeping with the theme that in every generation – and especially on the seder night – each Jew must see himself as if he personally left Egypt, the שירה חדשה– the “new song” terminology strikes a familiar chord.  The Hallel of the Seder becomes our “Song at the Sea”……

But the term שיר חדשdoes not recall that blessing….Maybe the song is a “new song” because on the night of the Seder, the Hallel is split in half, one portion read before the main mitzvot of the evening, the other after Birkat Hamazon….?

I would like to suggest an alternate explanation of the concept of a “new song” on Pesach.

Back in 1965, Rabbi Norman Lamm delivered a sermon to his congregation, the Jewish Center in New York City. His words are as relevant today as they were then.  Rabbi Lamm distinguishes between two concepts: novelty and renewal. Novelty, he explains, “is the misuse of the inclination for newness for things, for gadgets…” Renewal, in contrast,  “comes about when we apply the desire for newness to man himself, to achieve new insights which result in the transformation of his soul and his spirit.” Whereas novelty is extrinsic, a question of packaging,’ Rabbi Lamm notes, “renewal is intrinsic; it is a matter of content. Novelty is the seeking of thrills; renewal is the thrill of seeking.”

We Jews seem to have an inner sense, a drive, towards renewal.  Only, quite often we misdirect it. Take the Jewish world over the last two hundred years.  With the advent of the Age of Reason and scientific inquiry, we Jews succeeded in unraveling three thousand years of Jewish tradition: Many of us bought into an approach, championed most notably by Wellhausen, that exchanged the awesome Sinaitic revelation recorded in the Torah for the four-editor theory. Modern Bible critics declared that the Torah does not record an immutable, Divinely-given Torah, but rather four different editors – the J, E, D and P editors, were responsible for the work’s final content and form. Many Jews subsequently traded in תורה צוה לנו משה מורשה קהלת יעקב- Moses commanded us the Torah, an inheritance of the House of Jacob – for a convoluted hodge-podge pastiche of sometimes redundant and contradictory passages. Instead of the profound depth and harmonizing approach of our trusted oral tradition – through our beloved Rishonim and Acharonim – we uncritically ingested the legal and moral anarchy of sundry academics for whom our tradition was never a Living Torah…..

To be sure, the numerous challenges raised by academic approaches to the Bible are serious and each deserves a thoughtful response.  Great Torah luminaries such as R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch provided such responses. In our modern day, Rav Mordechai Breuer developed an innovative response to the Bible critics, although some Torah personalities, like R. Shlomo Aviner, have issues with his assumptions and methodology In an unconventional use of modern media to illustrate the depth of the Torah to a new generation, Rabbi David Fohrman has launched These are all examples of renewal; they are models of what can transpire “when we apply the desire for newness to man himself, to achieve new insights which result in the transformation of his soul and his spirit.”

The theme of renewal permeates our classical sources.  Rabbi Lamm cites the prophet Yehezkel, (Ezekiel) who “properly pleads for lev hadash ve-ruah hadashah (Ez. 36:26), ‘a new heart and a new spirit,’ not merely for new techniques and new objects. The halakhah declares that ger she-nitgayyer ke-katan she-nolad dami, ‘a proselyte has the status of a newborn child’ (Yevamot 22a). And, in the same spirit, Maimonides declares that the repentant person must experience the feeling of spiritual rebirth; religiously he is a new individual (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 7:7).”

The “new song” of the Leil HaSeder is really the text of the “same old Hallel” that we have come to know and love. On the Seder night, and for that matter, throughout Pesach, each Jew is being challenged to discover new purpose in his or her life as a Jew; on the eve of the Exodus, “Why be Jewish?” warrants new consideration.  Our task is to make the same old song …… a שיר חדש.

Congregation Ezra Bessaroth is in a unique position. Founded by Sephardic Jews from the island of Rhodes, EB provides the structure, the rootedness, the tradition.

In recent years, EB has welcomed in Jews from various backgrounds: Ashkenazic Jews, Ba’alei Teshuva/recently religious Jews, and Gerim, converts. The call of the day? Cross-fertilization!  What does this practically mean? That newcomers should respect the Rhodesli synagogue customs, including the text of the Tefilot and the proper pronunciation of those Tefilot, to name just a couple of examples. On the flip-side, long-standing members should both admire and revel in the pure inspiration and idealism of our new additions. Together, this Pesach, we can generate a Hallel that is truly a שיר חדש, a new song.

While some seek novelty, we must pursue renewal.



The Blogosphere Takes on Torah Min Hashamayim

You may wish to read my post on the EB blog about the last 10 days of activity in the blog world, a response to Zev Farber’s controversial posts in late July.  You can see my brief review here:  Right after Shabbat, I came across an article by YCT student Ben Elton and then a flurry of comments/replies by various individuals, including R. Nati Helfgot of YCT.  You can follow that discussion here:

RCA Statement on Torah Min HaShamayim

In recent days there has been much discussion regarding the belief in Torah Min HaShamayim. We maintain that it is necessary not only to assert the centrality of this bedrock principle in broad terms, but also to affirm the specific belief that Moshe received the Torah from God during the sojourn in the wilderness, the critical moment being the dramatic revelation at Sinai.  The Rambam and others have included this in in their various Principles of Faith but its centrality is so evident that an appeal to these Principles of Faith is almost superfluous.  The very coherence of traditional Jewish discourse concerning the authority of theTorah she-bikhtav and the Torah she-be`al peh rests upon this conviction.
When critical approaches to the Torah’s authorship first arose, every Orthodox rabbinic figure recognized that they strike at the heart of the classical Jewish faith.  Whatever weight one assigns to a small number of remarks by medieval figures regarding the later addition of a few scattered phrases, there is a chasm between them and the position that large swaths of the Torah were written later– all the more so when that position asserts that virtually the entire Torah was written by several authors who, in their ignorance, regularly provided erroneous information and generated genuine, irreconcilable contradictions.  Beyond a shadow of a doubt, none of the abovementioned figures would have regarded such a position as falling within the framework of authentic Judaism.

While we recognize and respect the theological struggles that are a feature of many a modern person’s inner religious life, the position in question is unequivocally contrary to the faith requirements of historic Judaism.

About the RCA:

The Rabbinical Council of America, with national headquarters in New York City, is a professional organization serving more than 1000 Orthodox Rabbis in the United States of America, Canada, Israel, and around the world. Membership is comprised of duly ordained Orthodox Rabbis who serve in positions of the congregational rabbinate, Jewish education, chaplaincies, and other allied fields of Jewish communal work


For more information contact:


Rabbi Leonard A. Matanky, President

Rabbi Mark Dratch, Executive Vice President


The Rabbinical Council of America

305 Seventh Ave

New York, NY 10001


RCA and OU Tisha B’Av Call for Mutual Respect

July 15,, 2013



RCA and OU Tisha B’Av Call for Mutual Respect


In the shadow of the mournful fast of Tisha B’Av, a day which marks the destruction of our sacred Temples in Jerusalem and the onset of countless years of tragedy for the Jewish people, the Rabbinical Council of America issues a heartfelt plea. We call upon all Jews throughout the world to reclaim the glory of our people by refraining from language that divides us and promoting language and deeds that unite us.

Recently we have witnessed a frightening exacerbation of internal discord and an ominous intensification of inflammatory rhetoric. We have heard vile insults, offensive name calling – including the inciteful invocation of the name ‘Amalek’ — and vicious personal attacks emanating from all sides on the various troublesome issues which we now confront. We have even witnessed physical violence.  Indeed, in recent months we have seen precincts of Jerusalem’s Old City – in the shadow of the destroyed Temple for which we mourn today – become a venue for provocation and insult, rather than a place of unity for the global Jewish community.

We urge all Jews to celebrate the diversity of our Torah community, whatever our ideology or choice of headcovering. Each of us, men, women and children, is a cherished member of our people and we must educate all members of our community to honor and respect each other. We pray that all will one day soon glory in the rebuilding of our nation and our Temple.

We recall the teaching of our sages who noted that the Second Temple was destroyed due to the sin of “sinat chinam” – unprovoked enmity. We therefore, on this eve of Tisha B’Av, call on all individuals and organizations to join us in in seriously dedicate our efforts to creating a world filled with “ahavat chinam” – unqualified love for one another.

May each of us who this year mourns the destruction of Jerusalem, merit to see it rebuilt speedily in our days.

and on FB:

About the RCA:

The Rabbinical Council of America, with national headquarters in New York City, is a professional organization serving more than 1000 Orthodox Rabbis in the United States of America, Canada, Israel, and around the world. Membership is comprised of duly ordained Orthodox Rabbis who serve in positions of the congregational rabbinate, Jewish education, chaplaincies, and other allied fields of Jewish communal work


For more information contact:


Rabbi Leonard A. Matanky, President

Rabbi Mark Dratch, Executive Vice President


The Rabbinical Council of America

305 Seventh Ave

New York, NY 10001