Monday, August 17, 2009

Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva - May 22, 2009

This week there was a simcha at the yeshiva, as our third year student, Dan Levitt, was married to Naomi Firstman of Riverdale on Sunday. We celebrated their sheva b'rakhot at the yeshiva on Tuesday, and Betzalel Kosofsky - a man with developmental disabilities and who does some office work for the yeshiva - who happens to be a cousin of Daniel's - delivered a beautiful d'var Torah for the couple. It was a very touching moment to see him deliver this d'var Torah, and he even made a cake for dessert for the couple.

There was also a scare and some excitement the other night (Wednesday) when four people were arrested in a failed attempt to plant bombs in two synagogues in Riverdale. The arrest actually occurred directly under my window, and I saw the descending of the SWAT teams and the apprehending of these would-be terrorists. We should take a minute to reflect on this event, and what lessons we should draw from it. First, we must respond with hakarat hatov - to God, to the police, and to the undercover agent who risked his life infiltrating this group. We should pay a particular hakarat hatov to the United States government, and its firm commitment to protecting all of its citizens, and in particular in defending its citizens against hate crimes. We need only look at various countries around the world to recognize that this should not be taken for granted, and that in other countries Jews are much more vulnerable to such attacks, where police are sometimes less than vigilant in such cases, and in some countries are even sometimes complicit in acts of anti-Semitism. Secondly, this is a reminder that we cannot allow ourselves to believe that there is no anti-Semitism in the United States. There remain those who hate us and are bent on destroying us. At the same time, we should not be overly anxious, and we need to remain calm and to recognize that we are well protected, and that life goes on. Appropriate caution and vigilance is what is called for, not extremist responses. Let us offer a prayer of thanksgiving, a tfillat hodaya, for this yeshua and a prayer of request, a bakasha, that if and when such heinous acts are attempted again, they are foiled as this one was foiled.

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This year the yeshiva has been focused on the learning of the laws of Shabbat and, more recently, the laws of Yom Tov. As Yom Tov is arriving, I should mention the very relevant issue of lowering the gas flame. What is the halakha if one has a high flame and wants to cook on a low flame? It would seem that this should be totally permitted, because it is Yom Tov, and is being done for the sake of eating. However, based on the gemara in Beitzah 22a, a number of Rishonim understand that extinguishing a flame is always considered to be work (melakha) done for the sake of food, but external to it (makhshirei okhel nefesh), since it is only removing something unwanted (the fire) and not directly producing or improving the food. Now, even if that were the case, one is allowed to do such work if it could not be done the day before, but - again based on one interpretation of this gemara - there are those who argue that this law is not to be officially promulgated (see Shulkhan Arukh 514:1 for these issues). So, according to this, one cannot lower the flame even to cook. This is the way the Shmirat Shabbat rules (13:10), and insists that another, lower flame be lit (from an existing fire), rather than lowering the existing flame. Rav Moshe Feinstein (OH 1:115) in a short responsum dismisses this and states simply that this is directly for the sake of food and is permitted. I act this way without hesitation, since both (a) even according to those who rule that some extinguishing is external to food preparation, this case is clearly directly for the sake of food and (b) there is serious debate whether we are not allowed to promulgate the rule regarding work for the sake of food but external to it.

So - this brings us to the next question of what to do with a large flame on Yom Tov that was used for cooking, but which one does not want to remain on high due to safety concerns. What I will do is lower the flame to cook something that uses a low flame, and then leave it on low. Sometimes it will just blow out (and then I will turn off the gas), and even if not, it will be much less of a safety issue (and I can just cover it with a blech if necessary).

I should also mention the issues around electricity. Electric stove tops are more complicated, because we consider the red-hot element to be fire, thus one is always running into the problem of creating new fire. This is also a problem of going from an element that is on, but not yet red hot, and raising it until it becomes red hot. Also, even if it is red hot, sometimes when the temperature is raised, an outer ring turns red hot, and this would be considered creating a new fire for this outer ring. There is no question that for Yom Tov, you are better off with a gas stove.

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Allow me to share a brief thought on the parsha, one that I gave at the sheva b'rakhot in the yeshiva and that is also relevant to Shavuot and chag matan Torateinu.

This week, when we move from sefer Vayikra to sefer Bamidbar, we are finally moving away from Har Sinai, where Bnei Yisrael have been for almost a year. From the middle of Shemot through the end of Vayikra, they have been encamped at the foot of Har Sinai, having received the Torah, mitzvot and the laws, and then all the laws of the Kohanim, through Kedoshim and Behar Bichukotai. It is only because we lose sight of this that the opening of Behar takes us by surprise. "What does Shmitta have to do with Mt. Sinai?" Rashi asks. The answer is obvious - because they are still there, and the parsha is reminding us of that, as it draws to wrap up their experience at Har Sinai.

Now, this experience at the foot of Har Sinai can be likened to the period of the chuppah and the sheva b'rakhot. The moment of the giving of the Torah was the moment of marriage (nissuim). The intimacy, intensity, and immediacy of the connection and self-revelation that occurred between God and Bnei Yisrael is like the coming together of chatan and kallah, the consummation of the betrothal (kiddushin). In addition to the intensity of the love , the brit is actualized and the full obligations of the relationship are accepted -the mitzvot and the laws - with the sefer habrit being, in essence, the ketuvah, with all its reciprocal obligations.

Now, however, as we move to Bamidbar, it is time to move away from the chuppah, and to move on with our lives. The question will be - how has our life changed and how will we move forward? The Torah tells us that when we camp elsewhere, the encampment must always be with the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, in the center. Even when we break camp and move forward, the Mishkan must move in the center. As the Torah says in Terumah - "and I will dwell in your midst". Even when we depart Har Sinai, when we are distant from the immediacy of the Shekhina, we must always encamp around the Mishkan - we must orient our lives towards God and God's presence. And when we move - it is in the context of our relationship to God - "by the command of God they encamped, and by the command of God they moved." Thus, no matter how geographically distant we are, we will not lose our way if we continue to orient ourselves to God - "around the Mishkan they shall encamp." The way I read it, the remainder of Bamidbar is the working out of this challenge - can Bnei Yisrael depart from Har Sinai, and continue to keep God in their midst, continue to orient themselves towards God's presence? We know this is not trivial - it can be a real challenge.

This is also the challenge as a couple moves from the chuppah and the sheva b'rakhot and begins to move forward and continue with their life. Sometimes one of the couple will need to travel geographically, or will need to involve him or herself in career, education, or other demands or pursuits. This is a necessary part of life. We must move from Har Sinai. But if we have worked on the relationship, and continue to work on the relationship, then wherever and whenever one travels, the other will always be their center, and all that we pursue will be with the other in mind. William Donne put it best in his "Valediction: Forbidding Mourning":

Dull sublunary lovers' love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.

But we, by a love so much refined
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two:
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do;

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

Let us constantly work on our relationship with our spouse, and our relationship with God, so that when we leave the chuppah and when leave the experience of matan Torah, and that wherever and however far we doth roam, that the other will be our center, so that we will make our circle just and end where we had begun.


Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Dov Linzer

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