Stuck on a Desert Island

October 20, 2017 – Volume 6, Issue 1 –Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan 5778
Parshas Noach

If you were going to be stuck on a desert island that had no Wi-Fi, and all of your basic needs would be met, what would you take with you? I have asked this to numerous people and am always intrigued by the responses. Some say a book or collection of books. Others say their spouse. Some, in private, say, anyone but their spouse (joke), while yet others would prefer a game they would never get bored of. Of course, many of you will appreciate the response one person shared with me, “chocolate.” Whatever you would take, it would certainly be telling about what is important to you and where your priorities lie.

This question is not as hypothetical as you may think. In our Torah portion, Noach is faced with a very similar conundrum. He and his family have spent over a year in the famous ark during the deluge which made Hurricane Harvey look like a Pacific Northwestern ho-hum mist. After exiting the ark, Noach is faced with a question: how to begin building the world again? What should be planted, what should be done? If Noach could have one thing in the world, what would it be? Noach makes a curious choice. He plants grapes. And, when the grapes come to bloom, Noach turns those grapes into wine. A shot or two later, Noach is intoxicated (that’s what happens when you lay off of alcohol for a while, the effects set in early).

The commentators discuss the seemingly preposterous decision to choose wine/grapes as the first substance to cultivate. Arguably the more necessary first would be wheat, one of the most basic staples of life. One approach is based on understanding the mental state Noach was in after having faced the harsh reality he went through over watching the world crumble to shreds before his very eyes. First, he was witness to the moral depravity that derailed like a speeding freight train, which he was incapable of decelerating even slightly. Then he watched helpless as the physical world is torn asunder through the tragedy of the flood. In a very real sense, this may have left Noach emotionally and spiritually scarred. The commentary of the Seder HaDorot paints Noach’s desire to drink as a way to bring him out of his spiritual morose (to…lift his spirits, if you will). The danger, as many addicts know too well, is that whenever we self-medicate and dull our emotional pain with a substance, we are putting ourselves in grave danger. The cycle of addiction only begins with one drink or one use of a substance to numb our pain. There is, however, no stop sign that flashes when a person has gone too far. When Noach hit rock bottom it was only his children’s sensitivity to their father’s degradation and feeling ashamed on behalf of their father that gives him the chance to recover. It is Noach’s sons who carry their father’s dignity and help him regain the poise which they saw manifest for the long year in the ark. They are the heroes who help their father recapture what, had he been alone, may have been lost.

Indeed, it is our loved ones who can pick us up when we have hit bottom. They are the trusted people in our lives who can pick us up from the mire, dust us off, and, at some point later, set us straight. So as you enter into the Shabbat this week, hold your near ones close, perhaps a little closer than you have in the past. They are the ones you may need to turn to when your chips are down and when you need a pick-me-up.

Shabbat Shalom

Worshiping Football and God

September 14, 2017 – Volume 5, Issue 44 –24th of Elul 5777

For many worshippers here in the Twin Cities a renewed air of excitement has reinvigorated the Land of 10,000 Lakes. This excitement, in my estimation, does not stem from the anticipation of the expected clergy’s speeches during this High Holiday season about the important issues facing the United States government today. In fact, it has nothing to do with the Jewish holidays at all.

This palpable passion comes from the beginning of the new Vikings season. What better way to start the season than a trouncing of our first opponents! In revelry with friends and family, fans will be singing the famous Skol Vikings cheer. Rapt parents will teach their young children about the rules of football, and who the good guys are and how we root for the Vikings. The indoctrination begins early in sports.

And now we come to a question I have been asked now and again: Rabbi, why don’t you wait until your children are older to let them choose how they want to practice Judaism? Aren’t you slanting their biases and shaping their young minds to believe what you believe in? My answer: Yes, I am. As do you, my dear reader. Allow me to explain based on a few verses in the week’s Torah portion.

Then Moshe commanded them saying…at the end of every seven years…in the Festival of Sukkot…all of Israel comes to appear before the L-rd [in the Holy Temple]…you shall read this Torah before all of Israel…the men, the women and the children…

Click HERE to read the entire article.

Try Putting Yourself In A ‘Growth Mindset’

September 8, 2017 – Volume 5, Issue 43 –17th of Elul 5777
Special Elul Edition

By Giti Fredman

I teach lots of ‘challah bakes’ but last week’s stood out. I was told off by a 9-year old that I needed to be in a growth mindset…
Challah bakes begin with kneading the dough, letting it rise, making the blessing and taking the challah piece, a prayer, and then last, but not least, learning the fancy braiding techniques. Until about a year ago I could do all of the above…except teaching the classic six braid. I stealthily replaced the six braid with a less sophisticated four braid and, with a little sleight of hand, distracted everyone by introducing them to the oval push up challah pan. I couldn’t teach it because I didn’t know and not for lack of trying. Enter Stacy Pinck, who created a whole narrative around the six braids including the Jewish community and people being alone and hugging, and the flood gates of six braid opened up for me. Yesterday, as I was explaining the narrative to help my students learn to braid, I admitted that since I don’t have a math brain, we wouldn’t be numbering the strands and we’d be sticking to the narrative to learn the braiding.
I was politely interrupted by a 9-year old student who began explaining the intricacies of a growth mindsetto me. He pointed out how, if I stated I wasn’t good at math, I wouldn’t grow in math and that I would be short changing myself for life. He shared about mistakes and brainwaves and suggested googling the concept for more information. Talk about smart people learning from everyone, I had a lot to learn from this child.
Click HERE to read the entire article.

When My Sports Cap Met a Perfume Bottle

September 1, 2017 – Volume 5, Issue 42 –10th of Elul 5777
Parshas Ki Teitze

Sports fans around the world will proudly don their caps to show fealty to their local team. In Minnesota, especially in the winter, you will see purple and yellow caps everywhere you go. Loyalty to the Vikings is almost a must here in the Twin Cities. And, though perhaps not quite as beloved, the Twinkies (a name of endearment for the Minnesota Twins baseball team) gets its fair share of the marketing along with the Wild (hockey) and Timberwolves (although the ‘Wolves’ due to their often predictably pitiful performance, seem to share the least popular slot of the four).

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The Death Penalty in Judaism

August 25, 2017 – Volume 5, Issue 41 –3rd of Elul 5777
Parshas Shoftim

The death penalty. Perhaps it is not as highly debated as when I was growing up, but it will occasionally be brought up in the context of how the United States (or each particular state) should function. Should there be capital punishment or not? At the time of this writing there are, based on a cursory Google search, over 30 states that still can impose the death penalty (Minnesota not being one of them). Which means that over half of the States, on the books carry the death penalty for certain crimes. What is fascinating to note, however, is that over 30 states have not actually carried out the penalty in over five years! I would like to understand this somewhat bizarre phenomenon based on this week’s torah portion.

In our portion we are introduced to the concept of the Sanhedrin, the great rabbinical court and its accompanying governing body of laws that set the precedent and maintained the Jewish system of law and order. I have been asked on a number of occasions how to understand the Torah’s proscription for the death penalty in any number of wrongdoings. Simply put, Rabbi, why does the Torah want to put someone to death for ____(Fill in one of the many possible wrongdoings here.)

How are we to reconcile a loving, kind G-d with the Torah that imposes the death penalty on any number of crimes. How come G-d allows, nay requires, the courts to take away someone’s life? The answer, quite profound, I heard from the late Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg of blessed memory.

In order to appreciate the answer we need to clarify a few laws. Namely, what is required in order for an individual to actually get capital punishment in the times when there was a Sanhedrin? For starters, there must be two kosher witnesses to the crime, who, in advance of perpetrating the crime, gave proper warning to the would-be criminal. My question for you is: how close in proximity to the action does a warning have to be for it to remain valid. To give an example, if I warn my children that they must clean their room or else they’ll forfeit their screen time, how long would my warning last? A day? A week? A year? Suppose I give my children this ultimatum and one year later they neglect to clean up, should they lose their screen time? I have asked this to hundreds of people who all agree they should not. So how close in proximity would the warning have to be for it to remain in effect?

The law, as codified by Maimonides, is that if the warning comes more than about 3-4 seconds before the crime is committed, the warning is not valid and capital punishment cannot be administered. That means if someone is warned one minute before s/he acts that the act s/he is about to commit will get them the death penalty, and they go ahead with the crime anyway, the Torah would not allow us to execute him/her by way of the court system! This almost sounds absurd!? It means anyone can get off the hook. Just wait a few seconds after the witnesses warn you and you’re “good to go!?”

The answer is sort of and no. Of course the courts need to protect people and if they have reason to suspect someone to be a criminal and menace to society they can “lock him up or worse,” but capital punishment cannot be enforced. But…to fully understand this dichotomy, we need to go one step further.

When the Torah tells us that a particular action gets the death penalty, it means that G-d views the action as such a heinous crime the perpetrator technically has chosen death. The Torah delineates the punishment or better said, the consequence, so us mortals will have a crystal clear understanding of just how serious a particular action is. It’s not as much about getting the punishment as it is about understanding that if we go ahead with the action we are basically putting a kill-shot to our neshama (soul). Indeed, says the Talmud, if a court executed more than one person in seventy years, they are considered a ‘tough’ court. Because it is very difficult to have everything lined up in a way that the defendant would actually incur the punishment.

I think the important take away is to begin to understand the system that the Torah has set up as a window, so to speak, into G-d’s “mind.” Sure, we may think that we would not have set up the system this way…but G-d did. And if G-d sets up the rules we are best off if we understand them. The more we appreciate what G-d values, the more we can live in tune with those values…and then, the world will be a more G-dly place.

Shabbat Shalom