Monday, June 22, 2009

Five Smooth Stones and a Little Faith

So, it’s summer time, which means 5 things:

(1) The Fantasy Football pre-season ridiculousness is well underway. And talks of successfully doing an auction draft have me giddy.
(2) I am officially a college graduate, or, more accurately, unemployed.
(3) Clothing is at a minimum.
(4) I watch a lot more television, including the NBC drama “Kings”, which, between episodes 1 and 5, went from “intriguing show with interesting Biblical allusions” to “unwatchable and...holy crap, that's Macaulay Culkin!”
(5) This blog will be updated more often. Potentially.

In last weeks Torah portion, God tells Moses, the Supreme Leader of the Israelites and self-proclaimed World’s Humblest Man, to send men to spy out the Promised Land. Moses obliges and sends off a “prince” from each tribe, including the tastefully named Gadi ben Sussi from the Tribe of Menasseh. They check out the land, and come back with what appears to be a pretty accurate description of the land. They went in front of everyone, and reported that, as advertised, the land was in fact flowing with milk and honey. Then they showed the people some fruit, told them where the enemies and giants lived, and that the task was impossible. For bad-mouthing the land, the people were punished with 40 years of wandering…wait…GIANTS?

Yes, the Torah talks about giants. They go by different names: Nephillim, Anakim (or Bnei Anak), Rephaim (or Bnei Rapha), Zamzumim, Emim and perhaps more that I’m missing. Well, they might be giants. All we know is how these words have been translated through the years. They are mentioned a bunch of times throughout the Tana’kh including, but not limited to: the pre-flood account, the aforementioned spies story, the Joshua land-conquering story, and in the epic David vs. Goliath showdown. Whether they were just a bunch of freakishly tall guys, or, as Genesis 6 implies regarding the Nephillim, the illegitimate children of “sons of God” and “daughters of man”, doesn’t really matter to me. It does matter that whoever, or whatever, these guys were, they were definitely intimidating. But also...defeatable.

Five smooth stones and a little faith. Sounds more like a Christian rock band than a formula for military success. But for one good looking, red-faced young man, that’s what it took to slay the mighty Goliath. An army full of soldiers and not one was willing to fight. So David, the shepherd boy, stepped up. The prize? A kingdom.

I spent the weekend in the modern day promised land for young Jewish adults: the Upper West Side. One of my favorite people of all time, and reigning fantasy football champ, got married yesterday, so I decided to spend the weekend with my boy Hecker. I’ve definitely enjoyed having readily available food available during my 40 days wandering Baltimore in between college and whatever it is that lies ahead. But I'm also aware that the comfort level that comes with sleeping late can eventually become detrimental. So I went to spy out the Land. Much to my delight, the flowing milk and honey of the Biblical Holy Land were replaced with fine scotch and cheap beer. Unfortunately, there are definitely a few giants that stand in my way.

I guess I just need to have a little faith. And if any of you guys have stones, or employment opportunities, for this red-faced young man, I’d love to slay the bastards.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Man in the Mirror

(Editor's note: This blog post was originally given as a speech last Friday night at the Hillel house. If you were there, don't waste your time. It's probably not worth reading again. If you were not, enjoy. Also, the grammar isn't perfect. And I'm ok with that.)

So, yesterday we were privileged to hear two Torah portions in one service: Acharei Mot…and Kedoshim. Both are obviously wonderful in their own right, and to say one is better or more interesting than the other would be doing a disservice everyone. With that in mind, I will focus exclusively on the latter one. Kedoshim.

Parshat Kedoshim starts with one of my favorite Torah “catch phrases” of all time. And yes…there are some great catch phrases in those 5 books. “Daber el kol adat bnei yisrael v’amarta aleihem…Kedoshim tihiyu, ki kadosh…ani Hashem Elokeichem”. Leviticus 19:2, the second verse in the Parsha, states, “You shall be holy, for I, the LORD your God am holy”. So…great. We are commanded to be HOLY because God, the Being we so adoringly refer to as “The Name”, is holy. I don’t know what you guys think, but THAT…is pretty darn vague. What does it mean to be holy in this Godly sense?

When I have an issue with something, I always go to the same place. The Torah. Luckily for me, I was already there. The next two verses read, and I quote “Ish Imo v’aviv Tira’u, v’et Shabbtotai tishmoru, ani hashem elokeichem…al tifnu el ha’elilim, etc. ” To translate: “you shall each revere your mother and father and keep my Sabbaths…I am the LORD, your God…do not turn to idols…etc.” We get a list of laws. This, apparently, is how one becomes holy in the Godly sense. If we follow these laws, then we become holy. Case closed. Sounds easy enough. Only one problem: we’ve heard these, or variations of these, before. In fact, we’ve heard them quite prominently. These laws are part of the TOP TEN. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS! Moses screamed them in front of everyone. There were trumpets and shofars blowing…thunder and lightning…the whole deal! They were written on stone tablets, “B’etzbah elohim” with the divine finger of God! There is obviously a lesson to be learned. What can we learn from this, the most obvious of parallels, between the laws here in Kedoshim to the Ten Commandments.

Just so you all know, I was not the first person to realize the similarities. A whole bunch of commentators have written about, some even going as far as finding all ten in some form or another. I don’t buy it, but it’s still pretty cool stuff.

So, as I mentioned earlier, when I have a problem, I read the Torah. What is the connection? Why do we need to repeat these laws that we have clearly already heard before? This is where things start to get interesting. Immediately following these basic laws, these commandments that we have heard and come to keep and love so dutifully, we get…(pause for effect)…an OBSCURE law about sacrifices, known as “Pigul”. I’m gonna paraphrase this one for convenience…but it’s in there if you don’t trust me. When you slaughter a Korban Shelamim, the “Shelamim” offering, you gotta eat it in 2 days: the day you slaughter it and the next. If you don’t, and you eat it on the next day…BAM rejected. God no longer wants it. Oh and not only is this a tremendous waste of your livestock and money…you get Karet. Excommunicated. You didn’t finish eating on time, so God doesn’t want you…OR your korban. Hmm…seems a bit steep. And, for our purposes…pretty confusing. How can this law possibly be placed next to the most basic and important laws of our existence? What’s going on here?

Well, let’s look a little bit closer at the sacrifice we are dealing with here, the Shelamim sacrifice. According to the bottom of the Artscroll Bible, my source for any and all imporant Torah insight, the Shelamim was brought voluntarily by someone who was moved to express his love for God…or who just wanted to get closer to Him. A man would travel to Jerusalem, buy a cow, or a sheep and sacrifice it to the Lord. The fats would get burned on the Altar. The priest will get a little to feast on, and the man who, as we just learn, just wanted to praise the Lord would eat the rest. I don’t know if you guys have ever seen a cow, or a sheep before. But that…is a lot of meat. Believe me, I know. We had “lamb day” back when I spent a year in Israel. Some nutty Israeli came with a small lamb and slaughtered it in front of an adoring American crowd. I, of course, had a barbershop to run and couldn’t make it, but I do know that that little sucker fed a whole lot of hungry Yeshiva students. Like…everyone. But back to the point…why does this guy get punished for not being gluttonous? I mean…excommunication?! To make matters worse, Chazal, our sages of old, take this a step further: if a man even THINKS about eating it after the second day the sacrifice is rejected. What sense does that make??

The answer to these questions could not be found plainly in the text. I had to look deeper, and I did, with the help of “Rabbi” Menachem Leibtag…famous for being the only man who’s class I have never walked out on. He teaches, through his website (, that…OF COURSE it’s impossible to finish the meat. For one man to finish an entire cow or sheep in 2 days is impossible. But that was the intention. In essence, God, in his ultimate wisdom, intended to “force” this guy to share. And, presumably, not with his family. Most ancient Jews did not live in Jerusalem. A man who wanted to bring this Shelamim sacrifice would have to trek all the way to the Temple in the capital city. His family wasn’t with him. In fact, he probably didn’t know anyone there. And that…was exactly the point. He is being forced to share with people he doesn’t know, with people he has never met before. And if he is not willing to do that, if he even thinks about being selfish…God no longer wants his Korban. In fact, God no longer wants this person at all: “v’nichrita ha nefesh ha’hi”, “and he is cut off from his people”.

Now that we solved the mystery of Pigul, let’s try to work backward to our earlier questions. To remind you, I was wondering aloud what someone has to do to be holy…and why the Torah felt it was necessary to repeat laws for us that were already quite well known.

The parallels of those verses, of revering your mother and father and not turning to idols, to the 10 commandments are quite obvious. But almost just as striking, to me at least, is the way in which the words here CONTRAST those that were announced at Har Sinai. There, in front of the whole congregation of Israel, and I’m starting with the 3rd commandment for convenience, we have (3) don’t have images of “heavenly” beings, (4) Remember the Sabbath and (5) Honor your father and mother. Here, we have, “Ish Imo v’aviv tira’u, v’et Shabbtotai tishmoru…” "…Mother and father fear…Shabbat we keep." Upon closer review, the words are not exactly the same. In fact, it’s almost…the reverse. It REFLECTS what Bnei Yisrael, the ancient Israelites, were told earlier. Even the wording is reversed. There, in the Ten Commandments (See Exodus 20:2-14 for all ten), it is written “honor your father and mother.” We have a verb, an action: to honor. Whom do we honor? Our father and mother. The progression is: verb…father…mother. Here, in our portion, Kedoshim: mother…father…then the verb, to fear. There it says, “remember the Shabbat” verb…and then noun. Here it says, “Shabbat Tishmoru”…the Sabbath…you should keep. Here, the noun comes before the verb.

I don’t know about you guys, but when it comes to the written word of the Torah, as related from the LORD to Moshe, it is hard for me to accept word choice as coincidence. Perhaps, God’s choice of words is a not-so-subtle reminder to all of us. In order for us to be Holy, in order for us to be Holy like GOD, we must be able to reflect on ourselves, and really objectively decide what kind of person we are, and whether or not THAT person is a good one. What is the best way to measure this? What is the best way to reach this ultimate self-awareness and acceptance? What immediately follows the “reflective” commandments? Pigul. That obscure sacrifice law, the quintessential point of which is that God is DESPISED by the idea of having someone in HIS community that won’t seek out his fellow man to break-bread, to have a beer with, to share in his sacrifice. Because if you don’t, if you’re NOT someone who looks to SHARE with his fellow man, it doesn’t matter how many Shabbats we keep, or how Kosher our food is, or what job we have…or what money we can spend…God does not want us. If YOU don’t, no…if I DON’T look out for my fellow man, how can I look at myself in the mirror and HONESTLY reflect on myself favorably.

And THAT I believe is the message the Torah is trying to teach us in placing the seemingly repetitive commandments about parents and Shabbat next to the seemingly random law of Pigul, and the Korban Shelmamim.

As I look back and reflect on my four years here, at Maryland, a lot has changed. The people have changed. My ideas about life have changed, and I am sure many of yours have also. I have not always made the right decisions, or done what was right. I, personally, have not always been holy. I can’t imagine any of you have either. But through the ups and downs, being able to look at myself in the mirror is something I have always striven for. And I recommend you do the same. It doesn’t really matter who does what to you, or who says what about you…or what anyone thinks about you. Because at the end of the day, when you’re in your pajamas brushing your teeth, you have only yourself in the mirror. Not me. Not even God.

Just you…staring right back at you.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Exodus and Dancing Asians

So, I've been meaning to get a few blog posts up. There has been two ideas brewing in my head, and I intended to post them at the blog of my former employee, Moment Magazine. Due to the adjective "former", I have since decided against using their blog as a forum for my unsubstantiated comparisons between Jewish related topics and the real world. Anyways, here's the first.

I woke up one morning, about 6 weeks ago, and, as I always do, checked my email. What made this day different was that there was actually something in my inbox. But what really made this day different was that I had emails from two completely different friends, both requested I follow a certain link to youtube. I obliged, and, much to my delight, a small group of Asian women dazzled my dusty computer screen with a professionally performed synchronized dance to a Miami Boys Choir classic. Pure comedy. But what really amazed me was that two people, from completely different areas of my life, both got a hold of the same video. And both sent it to me. It was crazy.

As many of you are probably aware, the Jewish holiday of Passover is rapidly approaching. Aside from the unhealthy amount of Matzah consumed, the Holiday is mostly in celebration of the Jewish Exodus from their slavery in Egypt. The Bible tells us of the trials and tribulations the Israelites endured living a bitter life as "strangers in a strange land". But after enough time passed, and enough plagues were executed on the Egyptians, God told Moses to gather up the people and leave. Seems easy enough. Until you remember that over 600,000 people were there. And by people I mean men between the ages of 20 and 60. Including women, children, and maybe even a few elderly, that number can reach as many as 3 million, according to the Rabbis who taught me in Elementary school. The exact number doesn't matter. What does matter, is that it's a lot of people. I mean...a LOT of people. How did the speech impaired and self described "World's Most Humble Man" Moses spread the word fast enough to that many people?

That morning, after watching the ridiculous video of pre-pubescent males singing beautifully in Hebrew, I checked the amount of views the video had. A little over three-thousand. Not astounding, but definitely more significant than the 2007 UMD Purim Shpiel videos. Later that night, I was in the mood for a few more laughs, so I watched the video again (I'm a senior...I have time. Well, at least until we rediscovered the N64, arguably the most imporant discovery since the Dead Sea Scrolls). The views had swelled to more than 10,000. A week later, the views had tripled to over 30,000.

The conclusion is clear. If there's one thing that has stayed consistent throughout the history of the Jewish people it's this: we can spread news faster than any other people out there...whether it's regarding something as important as leaving slavery or something as ridiculous as dancing Asian women.

Oh, by the way, here's the link:

Friday, January 30, 2009

What's the Opposite of Brother's Keeper?

New semester. New course load. New internship. New blog.

I have no idea how long I have been writing this blog for. But I do know two things: (1) The amount of posts does not accurately represent that time period and (2) my back didn't have hair on it when I started. So basically, it's been a while. In any case, I decided that before I go further with more rambling posts about Judaism and fantasy football I should lighten the mood up a bit, and tell you a a little more about myself, in the form of a childhood story. (Update: much like my beloved Ravens, the S****** S***** were eliminated in the semi-finals. Congratulations to my boy Ed, whose repeat Fantasy victory is undoubtedly going to be the happiest moment of his year. And he's getting married this summer.) It's a coming-of-age tale, one that has already been featured in argument-form at and has doubled as my last minute wedding toast for the official older brother of the blog. My point is, many of you have already heard it.

Sharing a room with brothers, especially an older one, is a necessary part of growing up. It's like training camp. Before I reach the regular season that is real life, I gotta get hit a few times. But unlike in football, where hits are strictly of the physical nature, these hits are also mental, emotional, and in my particular case, due to my inability to understand how unimportant defeating Super Mario Land 1 is, fiscal. Splitting the room is half is something that many roommate brothers decide to do, and something that even more end up doing. So when a Soccer ball-stationary contract was placed before me complete with a line for me to sign my name, which was also the only writing I could do at the time, I jumped at the opportunity to not only show off my writing skills but also to get some much needed privacy.

The first indication that something was off was the laughter that immediately echoed through the hallways of our average-at-best-sized suburban home. The second was the fact that I was no longer allowed to walk into my room. Like Esau, I had been tricked into a deal I did not necessarily want to make. In fairness, I signed the contract and the room, as my wise brother informed me, was in fact split in half. What I was failed to be notified about was that our green line did not go across the floor. It was on the walls. The room was split laterally. Up and down. I was entitled to the top bunk, the ceiling and everything on it. He had the bottom bunk, the floor and everything on it. Even my prized possession, the ceiling fan, was rendered useless when I realized that its switch laid below the line.

The horror officially came to a close after I invaded his land and literally ripped the contract in half, rendering it ineffective. Well, it was that and the crying to Mom. Either way, order was restored, and I learned an important lesson in survival: sometimes you have to embrace your inner Jacob and trick a brother in order to get by.

And since I know I could've easily ended up sold into slavery like Joseph, I consider myself lucky.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Judaism: What is it?

So, I'm taking this class called "Is Judaism a Religion?". Yes, this is an actual class. Now I know you readers are either thinking, "Oh, there's Gadi...what a freakin' heretic?" or , "Thank GOD! Not another stupid post about sports!" Actually, I hope to prove both groups wrong, but we'll see what happens. In any case, I've taken an interest in this class and not just because it has given me the opportunity to represent all of Orthodox Judaism (now I got all you heretic criers in actual tears). Of course the class isn't as easy as saying "yes, it is a religion, so let's go home and drink some Manichewitz," or "no, it's not, so let's go home and sacrifice to Baal." We had to define our terms, which led to some interesting conversations about what religion really is, and, in turn, what Judaism really is. But what was and continues to be surprisingly interesting to me is that through all the readings, scholars from all stripes, colors, and denominations have failed to characterize Judaism as a religion. For the sake of time, and due to pure laziness on my part, I will only discuss two.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was a great scholar and if you want to learn about his life I suggest Wikipedia-ing him. Among other things, he had to defend traditional Judaism to the reformers of his time. In his article Religion Allied to Progress, Hirsch goes on a scholarly, and often times sarcastic, rant about what the reformers were doing incorrectly. Without going into detail about the positive and negative aspects of his arguments, Hirsch openly says that Judaism is NOT a religion (emphasis added...and I'm not going to "footnote" any of this, so you'll have to take my word for it). This baffled me. Seriously, this man is considered by many to be the father of Orthodoxy, or neo-Orthodoxy as the Matrix fans like to call it, and he is saying that Judaism is not a religion. Obviously, I needed to keep reading. In his eyes, Judaism wasn't a religion because that would be too limiting. A religion, in the mind of Hirsch, is something that comes and goes. It's something that you can do once a week, once a month, or once a year, however the individual chooses. To Hirsch, Judaism is life...everything else is just a distraction. Besides sounding an awful lot like those old And-1 t-shirts (which I never had but was always jealous of), that is truly what he believed. Surely, he wouldn't recommend living in a bunker with nothing but the Babylonian Talmud and some matza balls. But if it would come down to that or changing the way life had been for generations, Hirsch would ditch the glamor for the matza balls.
On what has been commonly referred to as the other side of the spectrum lies Mordecai Kaplan and Reconstructionist Judaism. Without going into details about Kaplan's life or Reconstructionism, since I know very little of either, I will focus instead on what I do know. Kaplan was a people person. Not necessarily in the Abrahamic "four open sides to the tent" way, but rather in that he placed the peoplehood, the camaraderie, the nation, the society of Jews number one on his list of importance. God is no longer front and center. God is whatever the people make Him to be. The Torah is no longer divine, no longer transmitted from God to Moses to Joshua to the Elders to Rashi (sorry, that was a slight dig at what has become an over-reliance on Rashi). But, and this I'm 80 percent sure of, Kaplan did see importance in making synagogues into centers of Jewish life, which has led to the appropriately named Jewish Center, located somewhere in N.Y. To Kaplan, Judaism isn't a religion at all, rather a people who have the power to place importance on whatever traditions they see fit.
Now what. As a guy who keeps separate dairy and meat dishes and straps on tefillin (almost) every morning, how can I make sense of a non-religion religion?
I guess sometimes I just gotta follow in the wise words of Will Ferrell and keep on truckin'.
Fantasy Football Update: With the trade deadline looming, the S******* S****s are not so comfortably nestled in 6th place. My QB messiah, Aaron Rodgers, is beginning to resemble Shabtai Zvi more than the real Son of David. I think the main problem is in the locker room, where Plaxico Burress has been nothing but a distraction. But hope is on the way. Mike Singletary is coming in for a pep talk...and I'm making sure he takes his pants off.
I forgot how to link, so for an explanation, try this:

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Freshly Squeezed

Preface: You know how every once in a while sitcoms have those serious and sappy episodes that really get the audience thinking...or slightly annoyed? Usually, the episode revolves around drugs, drunk driving, or domestic abuse. When we're lucky, the stars come on the screen after the show, introduce themselves by their real names (which is always confusing for a split second because we know them as their characters), and tell us about the issue at hand. But even with all the seriousness, the laugh track is still rolling throughout the whole show. The example that sticks out in my head is the Home Improvement episode when the Taylor's find out Brad's been smoking pot. This is the blog version of that. Hope the laugh track still works.
Fortunes can change at the blink of an eye. One second you think you have everything, the next, its gone. Of course, I already spoke about this in my last post, in reference to the season ending injury to the official number one draft pick of the blog, Tom Brady. (In case you were wondering, the S****** S****s are currently in the thick of the playoff race, after a mid-season trade to acquire Aaron "Mr." Rodgers has proven golden. Though he's much uglier than Mr. Giselle.) These situations are so common, and so normal, that there are even sayings to promote them. My favorite has always been "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade". I say take that freshly squeezed lemonade, have a seat, and watch some sports. Or somehow make it into a lemon flavored Gatorade and play something.
Because sports, although not a solution, is the ultimate distraction.
Before I go further, I would like to apologize to all of you have complained to me in the past about talking to much about sports. I have heard your complaints, and chosen to ignore them.
When looking for distraction, the thing you want most is consistency. It doesn't matter what month it is, what day it is, or what time zone you're in. There is always sports going on. There are those nights that you have to settle for MMA. (Though, between the homoerotic leg-locks and the 80s punk band hair-dos, I wouldn't recommend watching while...under the influence. I WOULD recommend youtubing the last Kimbo Slice fight...Gus Johnson is UNREAL.)
You want a distraction that can take your mind off everything. You want a few moments to be removed from whatever lemons were just thrown at you. Sports provide that. If the perfectly timed passing play doesn't do it for you, then the running back willing himself to the first down will. If the excitement of the alley-oop pass isn't pure enough, then the text book D is.
But sometimes watching sports isn't sufficient. After all, baseball games are long and arduous and you need more than the thought of CC Sabathia and Prince Fielder at the buffet table to get you by. Playing sports is always an option. For you lazy folks...fantasy sports is the clear answer. Whether you're making transactions, checking injury reports, or mocking fellow fantasy owners, there is always something to be done. Managing a team of your own is not only time consuming, it also makes you feel accomplished. Well, if you win.
Sometimes life just sucks. There are no explanations, no reasons, and no answers. Tom Brady had never been hurt before in his life. One hit to the knee, and hopes and dreams are all broken. Aaron Rodgers whipping TD passes to Greg Jennings may provide a great distraction, but it doesn't mean I've forgotten what could've been with Brady.

Monday, September 8, 2008

My Own Worst Fantasy

There are certain times in life where one becomes aware of their own mortality. My moment came yesterday, half way through the first quarter of the first game of the season. It only takes one hit, one awkward twist of the knee, and a season can be over. Of course I speak of star QB and world renowned "hottie" Tom Brady. I don't speak of him as the fearless leader of the New England Patriots, rather as the official number one fantasy selection of the Blog.
Let me back track a minute. After achieving the commissioner-ship in a bloodless coup, while promoting "Change You Can Believe In", I was immediately faced with a number of challenges to the league. A league name needed to be clever ("No Xcuses Play Like a Champion" won out, paying homage to both the movie "Wedding Crashers" and the X-Games), various rules needed to be adjusted, and a draft time and type needed to be decided. Many hours of deliberation and inappropriate comments led to the conclusion that an online, standard draft was the most convenient way to select our players. I got stuck with the 7th pick in the draft, a spot where the top tier running backs would already be gone. My only options were to take the MVP QB who shattered offensive records last year on his way to leading his team to the Super Bowl, or a career third-down back who had never shouldered a full seasons load of carries. I took the QB.
And that brings me to today. After a downright awful performance on opening weekend (that still hasn't been completed), the future of S****** S****s took a devasting blow when the news of the extent of Brady's injury went public. As his ACL was ripped and torn, so too were the hearts and souls of countless fantasy owners who hinged their fantasy title hopes on his Midas-like right arm. Do I regret my decision to draft the man with the supermodel by his bedside? No. Fantasy Football is not about regrets. Do I wish we had done the draft differently so I would not have been forced into taking someone I wasn't really sold on? Yes. But my feelings in favor of the auction draft have been consistent since my the first time I tried it. Going back to the standard draft style was like going back to Jim Beam after having fine Scotch: I'm not happy about it and I may vomit later, but I'll do it because I have to and it's more convenient. But that is neither here nor there. These times of adversity are the ones that separate the fantasy men from the fantasy boys.
And I look forward to celebrating a new kind of Bar Mitzvah at the conclusion of this fantasy season.