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Passover and the British Monarchy

Edmonton Jewish News, April 2016

In 2005, Queen Elizabeth II came to Alberta for our centennial celebration.  Rabbanit Batya and I had the good fortune of being invited to the official state dinner with the Queen.  Nevertheless, she didn’t limit her interactions to leaders of the province; she made sure to make a number of public appearances, including a visit to the Provincial Museum, which was subsequently renamed the Royal Alberta Museum.

My mother-in-law, Sylvia, happened to be in town and was thrilled to have the opportunity to greet the Queen.  Spending her formative years in France, she had always had immense respect and wonder for the royal family and was also looking forward to reciting the special bracha one makes when one sees a monarch.  Anticipating busy crowds, Sylvia set out early to get a good spot on the road where the procession was due to take place.  Can you imagine her surprise when she was first in line and only about a hundred people showed up to greet the Queen?!

The truth is, many people believe that the monarchy is an antiquated relic of earlier forms of human progress.  In our age of tabloid magazines, respect for the royal family has all but disappeared.  Is it not time to become a republic?

Particularly, at this time of year, as we approach Passover and celebrate our freedom from the Egyptian monarch, Pharaoh, many of us probably ask why we would support the rule of Queen Elizabeth II. Isn’t it time we freed ourselves of the shackles of monarchic rule?

As tempting as it may be to jump on the republican bandwagon, as Jews we have many important reasons to be staunch supporters of the monarchy. Firstly, the Talmud (Gittin 80) states that we must be so concerned for good relations with the gentile monarch that we must recognize them on our religious documents, such as bills of marriage and divorce!  How much more concerned must we be about supporting them throughout our societal and political interactions!

Second, we are bound by the principle of dina d’malchusa dina – we must obey the law of the land.  Believe it or not, it is still treasonous to act against the monarchy.  And so unless they are corrupt or oppressive, we are halachically obligated to support them.

The third reason is practical and has to do with our love for the State of Israel and the safety and security of our brothers and sisters in Israel.  Recently, British Prime Minister David Cameron criticised ‘settlement construction’ in ‘East Jerusalem.’  In 1967, Israel captured the eastern part of its capital city from Jordan.  Prior to 1967, no modern sovereign nation-state had ever laid claim to the area.  And so when Israel claimed it as its own, it did not steal it from anyone.  Contrary to popular myth, the Palestinian people never owned the territory and in fact rejected the United Nations’ offer to have it in 1947.

And so despite the fact that the nations of the world wanted to recognize that piece of land as Palestinian territory, they never claimed it as their own.  Israel was the first modern state to stake a legal claim in the eastern part of Jerusalem.  To draw an analogy closer to home, although there were indigenous people living in the land that today we call Canada, those people never staked a modern legal national claim to the land.  The first do so were the British and therefore Canada today is under the rule of the Queen of England.

And so when PM Cameron criticizes Israel for building homes in East Jerusalem, he might as well criticize every public action carried out by the Canadian government, with the approval of the Queen’s representative, the Governor-General.  Who gives them the right to build on land belonging to Inuit and First Nations people?

In other words, as long as Great Britain retains its stake in Canada, as long as the monarchy remains in place as our sovereign ruler, Britain has absolutely no right to criticize Israel’s actions in East Jerusalem or the Golan!

Of course, the major difference between Israel’s ‘occupation’ and Britain’s is that nobody denies that the British came here from abroad and colonized Canada.  In contrast, everyone agrees that the Jewish people are the true indigenous inhabitants of the Land of Israel!  The only complication is that for the two thousand years that most of our nation lived in exile from our homeland, others came and repopulated the area.  And so upon our return home, they too claimed indigenous status.   But never did they claim to establish a nation-state; and never did Israel occupy sovereign territory that belonged to anyone else.

Really, we should not have to defend our right to the Land of Israel.  Anyone who has ever read the Bible, or studied a little history or archaeology knows who the rightful owners of Israel are.  But until Moshiach comes, we live in an international society and we must play by their rules.  L’shana haba b’Yerushalayim!

COR comes to Edmonton

COR-Kashruth Council of Canada Comes to Edmonton for First Ever Pre-Pesach Community Event

The Yeshiva World News, 11 April 2016

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Ki Va Moed by Filipino Men’s Choir

International Book Giving Day

BookGivingDay

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Do You Facebook Love Your Kids?

Times of Israel

My children just finished their first semester in school and we received their report cards (Why couldn’t they just email it to me? Do I need more junk mail?!). I took a quick glance at the report (Who has time to read all those teacher comments?) and I couldn’t believe how many A minuses and B’s I saw. I immediately called the kids over to grill them about their poor performance. Had they not paid attention in class? Had they not studied adequately? What’s their problem?

In Parshat Vayechi, Yaakov is lying on his deathbed and calls over his sons to bless them. He begins with the eldest Reuven: “Impetuous like water, take no more, for you mounted your father’s bed, then you desecrated the One Who ascended.” Next two sons: “Shimon and Levi are brothers, stolen tools are their weapons. Into their plot, may my soul not enter! In their congregation, do not unite my honor! For with their rage they killed men and with their will, they uprooted an ox.”

What kind of blessings are these? Instead of blessing them, it sounds like he is cursing them one after another! Why at the end of his life does Yaakov rebuke his children as opposed to leaving them with good thoughts and advice? What’s more, it seems like he is focusing on each of their weaknesses and rehashing all their misdeeds. Why would a father want to leave their sons to be remembered in such a manner?

Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, known by the name of his famous sefer, the Sefas Emes, once stayed up all night long learning Torah with his chavrusa (study partner). Wanting to refresh before davening, he put his head down for a few minutes in the morning, but ended up sleeping a few minutes longer and walking in late for the services. His grandfather, the Chidushei HaRim strongly reprimanded him for his tardiness. He stood there listening and when his zayda was done, he apologized. His friend witnessed the entire episode and was flabbergasted. Why, he asked Yehuda Aryeh, did he not simply tell his grandfather that he had been up all night learning? The Gerer Rebbe replied, “When Zayda rebukes, every word is golden.”

Our patriarch Yaakov recognized each of his children’s strengths and knew how much greater they would become. He wasn’t rebuking them to curse them. He was rebuking them because he loved them. Every word from their father was golden. While it seems like he is being negative what he’s really doing is focusing on each son’s weakness in order to make them even greater. He knew that they were each special in their own way and that they had already achieved greatness. The only thing now that was holding them back was their individual challenges. So Yaakov leaves them with the advice of turning their weaknesses into their strengths. He advises them on how to transform their challenges and use them for the good.

But the Midrash says something striking about their reaction to our patriarch’s words. When the sons of Yaakov heard their father’s rebuke, they retreated into a corner of the room. Nobody wanted to step forward and receive the next “blessing.” Why not? Shouldn’t they have been as excited as the young Gerer Rebbe?

What’s clear from the Midrash is that throughout Yaakov’s lifetime, he would encourage and praise all his children. However, now lying on his deathbed, he realizes that this would be the last time he could help them reach their ultimate potential. And so he shows them tough love, making sure that they have the tools to achieve their destined greatness. Until now, he focused only on the positive; but his parting words were the whole truth. That’s what he means when he begins by saying “do unto me kindness and truth.” Kindness meant building up their self-esteem; truth meant ultimately being brutally honest.

So I’m about to berate my kids over their report-card performance and I suddenly remember: in the twenty-first century, we are told that children should be given only positive reinforcement. We should be stressing the wonderful things that our children do. Instead of focusing on how they made a mess baking a cake we should tell them how happy we are that they made it. Yes, there were a number of B’s, but why had I glossed over the vast majority of A’s?

“My dear kinderlach,” I said to them, planting a kiss on their foreheads, “I can’t believe how lucky I am to have you as my offspring! These entire report cards are overflowing with A’s, they are shining as bright as you guys shine! You give me such amazing nachas! You make me so happy!”

The truth is, in Judaism, that attitude is nothing new. Yaakov kept his children all devoted to him by building them up with positivity. But what’s different from our twenty-first century advice, is that it wasn’t the end of the story. As he lay on his deathbed, Yaakov didn’t tell himself, ‘Let me make sure they remember me in the best light possible.’ Instead, he used the opportunity to make them truly great. How? By rebuking them. Why would he rebuke them now when they were least expecting it?

Psychologists teach the 80/20 rule. For every time you criticize your child (or anyone, for that matter), you should praise them four times as many times. The problem today in parenting is almost the reverse – we are so busy showering praise upon our children and stroking their egos that we forget that if we truly want to rear decent, upstanding individuals, there’s a time for criticism and rebuke as well. When is the right time to rebuke?

Yaakov teaches us that the right time is only once they are ready to hear it. They’ve come to him seeking his blessing. They are all ears. And so now is the time, he realizes, to truly bring out the best in them, by giving them the 20 along with the 80. When your children know how much you love them, you have earned the right to criticize them and make them the outstanding people they have the potential to be.

The problem today is that we are so absorbed in our own lives, checking our Facebook, Twitter feeds and emails that we end up just telling them, ‘I love you, you’re wonderful and beautiful, now here’s twenty dollars.’ That doesn’t make you a good parent. That’s not love. That’s not real praise. It’s pretty much a cop-out when you can’t be bothered to take the time to read all the painstaking comments your kids’ dedicated teachers have laboriously written. On Facebook it might be okay to ‘like’ or ‘friend’ someone without meaning it. It’s time to stop Facebook ‘loving’ your children.

Take an active interest in your kids’ lives. Treat them like you would treat your biggest customer or client. That means even if you couldn’t care less about their hobbies and dreams, at least pretend you do! Of course, you do care deeply about your children. You know that; but they need to know as well. When they know that you truly love them and are not merely boosting their egos, only then can you offer the tough love that will be accepted wholeheartedly by them and make them incredible human beings!

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbanit Batya

Rav Lau, Chief Rabbi of the Democratic Jewish State

Times of Israel

Charedi Chief Rabbi David Lau is talking to a Charedi radio station and he’s asked his thoughts on Naftali Bennett’s visit to a Conservative day-school. “If Minister Bennett would have asked my opinion before the visit I would have said to him explicitly: You cannot go.” And the Jewish social media lit up. Why were we so surprised? How did we think the Charedi Chief Rabbi would respond to a Charedi audience? What is all the fuss about?

In Parshat Vayigash, Yosef, the viceroy of Egypt reveals himself to his brothers and requests that his father and his family come join him in Egypt due to the famine in Canaan. Yaakov gathers his entire family and goes down to Egypt and settles in Goshen away from the capital. Why Goshen? Rabbeinu Bechaya explains that Yaakov wanted his sons as far away as possible from the royal court so they wouldn’t be lured into government positions.

What is most interesting about this explanation is that his concern is with Egyptian government appointments, which presumably extends to any country in which we live in while in galus (exile). Today, Baruch Hashem, after two millennia of exile, we once again have Jewish sovereignty in Israel. Today, no doubt, Rabbeinu Bechaya would say that it is a mitzvah to work for the government – politicians and bureaucrats have the great zechus (merit) of serving Am Yisrael!

The State of Israel is a Jewish country, and at the same time, a democratic country. When JFK became president many were worried that since he was Catholic he would be answerable to the Pope and not act in the best interests of the American people. When Mitt Romney was running for presidency once again many were concerned with his religious beliefs because he was Mormon and theoretically subordinate to the prophetic president of the LDS Church. When Rav Lau commented on Naftali Bennett’s public policy decisions, he was unwittingly jeopardizing the electability of any yarmulke-clad political candidate.

Minister Bennett proudly serves the democratic State of Israel, and the Jewish people in Israel and abroad. In that capacity, he understands that he represents more than just a religious party or Orthodox Jews. Actually, he has gone to great lengths to make his party as inclusive as possible – his second in command is Ayelet Shaked, a secular Israeli!

What’s more, Rav Lau’s position is also a political appointment of the democratic State of Israel, the state of the entire Jewish people. And so wherever he finds himself, whether in Israel or abroad, he represents ALL Jews, not just the Orthodox. And, even when he is talking to a Charedi radio station, he represents ALL Jews not the just the Orthodox. In the democratic State of Israel, the Israeli chief rabbis’ roles are well-defined: life cycle events, such as births, funerals, marriage, and divorce, and other ritual matters such as kashrut and conversion.

When he commented on the policies of the Diaspora ministry, firstly, he was stepping out of his bounds; but more importantly he momentarily forgot he is the Chief Rabbi of all the Jews of Israel, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or secular. “Ki miZion tetze Torah” means that Minister Bennett must strive to spread the light of Torah and Zionism to all Jews everywhere. And, in my humble opinion, Rav Lau should also strive to spread the light of Torah and Zionism to all Jews everywhere.

Our Sages teach that Yaakov’s best years were ‘lived’ in Egypt because the Shechina (Divine presence) rested upon him. Why in Egypt, and not Canaan? Because there’s no greater happiness than having all your children living peacefully together. We have spent two thousand years avoiding government. Now that we have the opportunity to serve, we must strive to be as inclusive and united as possible. May we merit to be all on the same page of unity and inclusiveness; this time not in Egypt, but in the Holy Land!

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbanit Batya

Donald Trump is No Fool

Times of Israel

The shooting in San Bernardino has been a shock to us all. Our hearts and prayers are with the victims of this terrible tragedy. And Americans are at a loss as to how to respond. Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump, has issued the most sweeping statement of all, calling for a moratorium on the entry of Muslims into the US. His announcement has been condemned by Democrats and Republicans, Muslim, Christians, and Jews alike. What would prompt a smart man like Trump to issue such an offensive statement?

In Parshat Mikeitz, Yosef is appointed viceroy of Egypt after successfully interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams. As prime minister, he gathers food over the seven years of plenty and fills the storehouses with enough grain to last through the seven years of famine. The ensuing famine spreads throughout the region, including the land of Canaan. Yaakov hears there is food in Egypt and sends his sons to seek sustenance for the family. Once there, however, Yosef recognizes them and accuses them of spying. Following their second visit, he sends them away, but hides his royal goblet in Binyamin’s bag. Yosef sends his son, Menashe, in hot pursuit. Catching up to them, he accuses them of stealing the goblet. The brothers respond, “With whoever of your servants it be found, let him die, and we also will be my lord’s slaves.”

Sound like a familiar story? If you answered yes, it’s because of the similar account we had just a few weeks ago. When Yaakov left Lavan’s home with his wives and children, Lavan pursued him and accused him of stealing his terafim (idols). Yaakov, having no idea who took them and thinking that no one actually did, declared, “With whoever you find your gods, he shall not live!” Our Sages say that as a result of this declaration, Rachel, who had taken the terafim died prematurely.

Since Yaakov declared that someone will die the words of the tzaddik needed to be fulfilled. In our parsha, we have a similar occurrence. Assuming the goblet would not be found in their bags, they have the same reaction as their father: “with whoever it will be found, let him die.” Why would they repeat the same declaration if they already knew the outcome from the last time they were accused? Why would they take that chance?!

Children learn the ways of their parents. They’re like sponges and repeat and act everything a parent does. Sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Children use foul language because it’s what they hear at home. They in turn use foul language in front of their own children, and the vicious cycle continues. When a parent is constantly negative and a child is brought up hearing negativity, they repeat the negative comments to their children. This is what the sons of Yaakov did. They heard Yaakov declare death so they did the same.

After 9/11, President Bush’s reaction was to announce that the US was to embark on a “crusade.” Can you imagine the horror of Muslims (and Jews) hearing these words? But he didn’t invent the term. It followed a millennium and a half of Christian-Muslim conflict. It was the message he had heard from his Christian forebears. And so that was his kneejerk reaction.

But it was completely unacceptable in twenty-first century America – a time and place where we recognize that not all Muslims are evil. And so, in his second inaugural address, Bush declared, “America’s ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character – on integrity, and tolerance toward others, and the rule of conscience in our own lives . . . sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people.”

Trump’s reaction is not surprising. He has a habit of saying what millions of Americans are thinking. But that doesn’t make it acceptable. Just because your parents said things time and again doesn’t make it right. We have to choose the right attitudes of our parents and repeat them; while discarding the inappropriate attitudes of our parents. Negativity and brush stroking must end with us.

Negativity is not only about being offensive towards other cultures and religions. Some people will find something positive to say in every situation; others will always criticize and see the glass half empty. Such attitudes are hard to change, but no matter what impressions our parents gave us, we have the power to decide our own outlook on life.

We need to break the cycle. As adults who know good from bad, there’s no excuse to behave or talk pessimistically. We are responsible for our own actions. We should only take the positive from our upbringing and leave the cynicism behind. Otherwise we will be responsible when our children talk and act the same way. May we be a source of nachas for our parents and if unfortunately, we have some negativity in our upbringing, may we not be afraid to leave it behind and focus only on the good attitudes our parents have given us.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbanit Batya

Nostra Aetate

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Article in the Edmonton Journal: Edmonton Jewish, Catholic leaders meet to mark 50 years post-Nostra Aetate

Avoiding a Conversion Crisis

Times of Israel

“Our community needs a lot of healing.” Those were the powerful words of one congregant when we first arrived in Edmonton thirteen years ago. Sadly, the people had lost faith and respect for rabbis having been through over thirty rabbis in less than a century! Each one that passed through would question the halachic status of the shul, the kashrut of the kitchen, the conversions of his predecessors, the way bat mitzvahs were performed, etc, etc. The people were fed up and confused. Why wasn’t the previous rabbi kosher enough? Will you or won’t you accept our conversion? Do we have to go through another one with you? He was Orthodox after all! We felt the pain of these people. It wasn’t their fault. How were they supposed to know which rabbi was acceptable and which one wasn’t?

In Parshat Vayeshev we have the most incredible sibling rivalry story ever. “Yosef would bring evil reports about them (his brothers) to their father. . . His brothers saw that it was he whom their father loved most of all his brothers, so they hated him, and they could not speak to him peaceably.” How could these holy tzadikim have such animosity toward each other especially as they were siblings? Sibling rivalry – shouldn’t that be an oxymoron? How could Yosef speak lashon hara about them? How could they sell him into slavery?

The Midrash explains that the evil report that Yosef told was that he saw his brothers eat flesh from a living animal, which is one of the noahide prohibitions. The matter of contention, however, concerned what constitutes a living animal. Our Sages explain that the brothers reasoned that once the animal was slaughtered, it was good to go, as the Torah states the law for Bnai Yisrael (Jews). Yosef maintained that as noahides, they had to wait until the nerves of the dead animal ceased quivering to eat it. In other words, their machlokes (dispute) was over their status before the Giving of the Torah. Were they considered Bnai Yisrael or Bnai Noach?

Okay, so they had a debate over halacha. Big deal. Couldn’t they just agree to disagree? Couldn’t they just respect one another’s opinions?Why did Yosef have to go tattletale on them? Why were they so upset that they were willing to kill their own flesh and blood?

Judaism encourages healthy discourse. The Talmud is filled with disagreements and varied opinions. Halachic disputation is healthy. But there is one area where it becomes lethal and that is the question of ‘Who is a Jew?’ The sons of Yaakov were all great tzadikim. They all loved each other and respected one another. Only when the issue of their status arose did the animosity begin. When their status was questioned, suddenly the stakes became way higher.

We have seen a lot of heated discussion of late in the international Orthodox community. Debate is healthy and nobody should impose their views on anyone else. If one person finds a rabbi or community they like, nobody should have the right to tell them that their rabbi or philosophy isn’t kosher enough. It’s their choice and no one else’s business. Indeed, the conflict today often concerns matters that are not clear or not even mentioned in our tradition. That’s sibling rivalry and sometimes we must agree to disagree.

Nevertheless, that’s true as long as we’re merely contending over the finer points of halacha and tradition. There is one area of Jewish life that we should never fight about. And that’s status issues. Where conversions are involved, we have to tread very carefully. It’s no longer about our own opinions, needs or wants; we have to think about the rights of these holy souls that have come to take shelter under the wings of the Shechina, and the status and acceptance of their future children and grandchildren.

Coming to Edmonton, my husband recognized the nuances of acceptance into Orthodoxy. He wanted to ensure that those who would convert under his watch were never going to be questioned again about their halachic status. And so he made a decision not to perform any “in-house” conversions. For the last thirteen years, all our conversions have gone through the universally accepted Chicago Rabbinical Council. Because Jewish status should not be a matter for debate.

It is wonderful that we have so many different ways to live by the Torah. Many people and organizations are doing fantastic work and have only the best of intentions regarding the spreading of Torah and Hashem’s light. Clearly, the best approach to maximizing the number of adherents to traditional Judaism is an ongoing discussion. But, first things first, we must always strive to protect the unborn convert. If splitting our community in half will lead to future distress around status issues, we must think twice.

Each side may accuse the other of being the cause for the division; that’s not the point. The point is, what are the consequences for the innocent bystanders — those who sincerely believe they are joining the ranks of Orthodoxy, only to have their status questioned years later? That’s not fair. That’s not what Hashem wants. And that’s why many in the leadership of the RCA have been very cautious in their response — the stakes are just way too high.

Ultimately, Hashem loves achdus (unity). Let us stand hand in hand with our brothers and sisters, even when we have different opinions on how to practice our Judaism. However when it comes to who is a Jew what is our status, then the sibling rivalry stakes are just too high to disagree over. I hope and pray that we can find a solution and the courage to live in unity once again very soon.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbanit Batya