Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Eretz Yisrael: An Integral Aspect of an Orot Education

Orot takes great pride in the fact that its students not only identify with the Land of Israel, but spend time and energy learning about and traveling the Land. Because Eretz Yisrael is part of their identity and their college curriculum, they are able to transmit their love for the Land to their students in classrooms across Israel.

Each year, students studying in Orot's "Eretz Yisrael Studies" Department lead the entire student body of special tiyyulim across Israel. On this year's second field trip they took the students to the Shefelah (coastal plain) and south to Beth-Shemesh to acquaint Orot students - the future teachers of Israel - with the area around Emek Ha'Elah where the famous battle of David and Goliath took place.

The students also visited the site where the war between the people of Judaea and the Romans took place in the second century, where there are remnants of caves in which Jews hid from the Romans.
Approximately 250 students as well as 10 teachers participated in the field trip. The guides were students from the department of Land of Israel Studies, who were trained by the teaching staff. In the pictures you can see the students in Tel-Azakka learning about the combat of David and Goliath.

The Gift of Tzara'at, on Yom Ha'atzmaut

By Rabbi Reuven Spolter, Director of Recruiting and Special Projects
What's the worst gift that you've ever received? When I got married, my wife and I received a plastic platter in the shape of a fish. We found it both strange and rather ugly. So we kept it. Each of us has a gift like that. I'm sure we've all gotten pretty bad gifts. But in each case, at least someone tried to give you something nice – even though it turned out to be a miserable failure. But what if your neighbor "gave" you the flu – on purpose? Would you consider it a "gift"?
Parshat Metzora relates the very unusual appearance of nigei batim, blemishes that appear on the walls of one's home. The Torah describes the procedure requiring the removal of the tzara'at in order to purify the home. Yet, the language describing this particular tzara'at raises an important question. In other cases of tzara'at, the Torah describes the affliction in neutral language: אדם כי יהיה בעור בשרו שאת – "if a person has in his skin a blemish…" The Torah doesn’t make any judgments about the wound. It's there. How should he act? But when describing tzara'at of the home the Torah says,
כי תבאו אל ארץ כנען אשר אני נותן לכם אחזה, ונתתי נגע צרעת בבית ארץ אחזתכם
When you come into the land of Canaan, which I give to you for a possession, and I put the plague of leprosy in a house of the land of your possession.
The word ונתתי doesn't really mean "and I put." It means "and I give," which leads us to wonder, what type of gift is tzara'at on one's home? I can think of many things I'd rather have instead of having to knock down parts of my home. Why then does the Torah use the verb לתת – "to give" when describing tzara'at of the home?
Rashi gives the famous answer that the Emorites hid money in the walls of their homes before the Jews conquered the land. So, when Jews moved into their homes, the homes broke out with hives, so that when the people knocked down the walls they found the money.
But the Yalkut Meam Loez (Vayikra page 153) answers the question in a way that can give us new appreciation for the trials and tribulations that we have experienced this past year in the Land of Israel.
When they originally built their homes, the Emorites dedicated their construction to their idol of choice, thus infusing these homes and buildings with a רוח טומאה – a spirit of impurity which would defile anything that dwelled in those homes. Because Hashem wished to give us the Land and that His presence should dwell in it, He did not wish for his Shechinah to dwell in a place of Tum'ah. For this reason, he sent blemishes in the walls of the homes containing the defilement, so that the people could remove them and purify their new homes, themselves, and their new Land.
Meam Loez asks us to see trials and tribulations from a new perspective. Although difficult to appreciate, sometimes destruction is actually constructive. If we succeed in removing the spirit of Tum'ah, and replace it with a sprit of purity, then the tzara'at was indeed a gift, even if it didn't seem so at first.
This week we'll celebrate the 61st anniversary of the great gift from Hashem that is the State of Israel. Like tzara'at habayit, sometimes we might feel tempted to look at the difficulties and struggles that Israel must deal with and think, "Some gift. Who needs all these troubles?" Why did we have to add more names to the list of the fallen during the past year? Why must we keep fighting wars to defend our right to live in our God-given Land?
But when we place these struggles in context and see the tremendous growth, bounty and blessing that is the State to not only the Jewish people, but to the world, we realize that we have a lot to be grateful for.
And one day we will also realizes that even the blemishes – which we commemorate on Yom Hazikaron before we celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut – were a necessary part of the process that brings about the needed purification of Eretz Yisrael.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

“Beyond the Teachers’ Room” – A Social Network for Jewish Educators in Training

“Beyond the Teachers’ Room” is a trusted and trusting on-line cohort group of educators facilitated by Dr. Keren Goldfrad of the English department at Orot Israel College, and Dr. Karen Shawn of Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration. This social network is designed for educators in training or pursuing advanced degrees to discuss ideas, thoughts, and feelings about specific aspects of daily school life; to explore the connections between Jewish texts and our teaching; and to share the challenges and rewards that Jewish educators experience as we take on the task of speaking to the hearts and minds of the 21st century student.

This social network, which was a required on-line component in two independent blended academic courses, provided a unique opportunity that extended far beyond the conventional learning experience. This international collaboration offered global perspectives on education in cross-cultural environments. Technology facilitated this process by offering a comfortable platform for a fruitful exchange of ideas. Students created a caring and trusted on-line community of practice with multiple colleagues in different educational settings whose task was to listen, support, and respond by offering validation, different and diverse points of view and ways of thinking, and help in brainstorming solutions to another’s questions or dilemmas. Our hope is that students' learning experience and practice will be improved, enhanced, and/or enriched by their active involvement in this community.

To Lean or Not to Lean?

Leaning During the Seder
by Rabbi Reuven Spolter, Director of Student Recruitment and Special Projects
Click here for a downloadable pdf version of this devar Torah.

While the night of the certainly presents a wonderful educational and historical experience, many of us find some aspects of the Seder rather challenging. The Seder begins late, especially outside of Israel. We engage in lengthy discussions, long before we get to the food. Matzah and Marror aren't the easiest foods to consume, especially in the large Seder-night quantities. To me though, the most challenging aspect of the Seder is the issue of leaning. As we eat or drink during any meaningful portion of the Seder, we lean to the left and eat in an awkward, unusual position. Why do we do it? We lean to symbolize our freedom, of course. Funny though. When I lean during the Seder I feel anything but free.

Some Halachic and Historical Background
We can trace the requirement to lean during the Seder all the way back to the times of the Mishnah, which clearly assumes a requirement to lean. The Mishnah (Pesach 99b) states, אפילו עני שבישראל לא יאכל עד שיסב – "even the impoverished in Israel may not eat until he leans." The Gemara accepts the ruling of the Mishnah unconditionally, adding that one must not only lean during while eating matzah, but also as one drinks the four glasses of wine. Why must we lean? Rashi explains that we lean "in the manner of free people, as a reminder of our freedom, with a bed adjacent to a table."
Thank goodness for Wikipedia. How else would I have been able to easily learn about table habits during the Roman Empire? How did people eat their meals in the Roman era? Actually, it depended on who you were – which is precisely the point.
The dinner was consumed in a special dining room, which later was to be called triclinium. Here one would lie down on a specially designed couch, the lectus triclinaris. Around the round table, the mensa, three of these lecti were arranged in the shape of a horseshoe, so that slaves could easily serve, and a maximum of three diners would recline at each lectus. During the kingdom and early republic, the only people allowed a place on a lectus were men. By the late republic and imperial times, and especially among the aristocracy, women were permitted to recline during meals. Traditionally, women would dine sitting upright across from their husbands or fathers in chairs. More tables for the beverages stood beside the couches. All heads were oriented towards the central table, with left elbows propped on a cushion and feet at the outside of the dinner-couch. In this fashion at most nine people could dine together at one table. Further guests had to sit on chairs. Slaves normally had to stand.
On Pesach night, we're all the masters. There are no slaves standing around to serve, nor regular guests. In order to fully appreciate the level of freedom that we achieved on Pesach night, we each must recline on our own lectus triclinaris. No one dines upright on the Seder night because for at least this one night, we're all princes – or emperors.
There's only one problem with this halachic ruling: while the history of Roman dining is really fascinating, no one today – from the President of the United States to the Queen of England to the Prime Minister of Micronesia dines on couches, recliners, beds or especially lectus triclinaris. (or is that lecti triclinari?) So why must I recline in a manner that while certainly significant two thousand years ago has no meaning today?
This is not a new question, and was posed by no less than the Ra'avyah (Rav Eliezer the son of Yoel HaLevi, a member of the Tosafists, lived in Germany from 1140 until 1225), who noted that even by his time people had long since stopped leaning on couches. For this reason, he and his disciples, including the Avi Ezri quoted in the Tur (Orach Chayyim 472:2) wrote that, "nowadays, as we are not accustomed in our land to lean, one sits in the normal manner and is not required to lean." After all, logic dictates that if we lean to demonstrate our feelings of freedom, we should display that freedom based on the customs of our time, and not on ancient Roman practice.
Yet, while Ra'avyah's ruling did carry significant halachic weight (as we shall soon see), major halachic authorities never adopted his position. In fact, R' Yosef Karo writes in the Beit Yosef that, "[Ra'avyah's] is an individual [opinion] in this matter; meaning that the position of all the poskim is that one must always lean even nowadays." He expresses his position clearly in the Shulchan Aruch writing not only how to lean (on the left, preferably against something like an arm of a chair, a pillow, or the person sitting next to you), but also that one who fails to lean has not fulfilled his obligation to eat of drink and must repeat the consumption in the proper position. (472:7) (Rama, following Ashkenazic tradition argues that in a case of bedieved, one can rely on the position of Ra'avyah and need not eat or drink a second time.)

What about the Women?
Shulchan Aruch writes that "A woman is not required to lean unless she is significant (חשובה)." So, as Orot President Rav Neria Gutel explained, it's up to the woman: if she considers herself an אשה חשובה, then she should lean. If not, then at least according to Sephardic custom she need not lean. Rama argues on two critical counts:
a. All of our (read here: Ashkenazi) women are נשים חשובים.
b. Still, none of our very important, significant, honored and cherished women lean during the Seder. Why not? It must be because they relied on the ruling of the Ra'avyah.

Bottom Line and How Do I Do It?
As important as the Ra'avyah's position is, the bottom line is that everyone – men and women – must lean during the Seder. Unless someone suffers from a medical condition that would preclude them from leaning comfortably, halachah considers leaning an integral aspect of the Seder experience. Sorry.
There's still the question of how. What's the best and most proper way to lean? Ideally, get yourself a lectus triclinaris – or at least a chaise lounge. Place it next to the table, spend the night leaning to the left, eating grapes and living like a king. Barring that, one must lean to the left on something and not in the air, and lean the entire body and not just the head. I'd like to also add the suggestion of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed (the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Brachah) writes in his book Peninei Halachah on Pesach (page 226):
Instead of sitting straight upright against the back of the chair, one should pull his rear-end forward to the center of the chair, such that he is able to lean his back on the backing of the chair and lean himself towards the left.
In other words, nowadays the best way to lean on Pesach night is to…slump. What better symbol of freedom could there ever be? Throughout our childhood, our mothers told us to sit up straight and not slump in our chairs. On this night we slump!
Finally, on this night, we are free to practice bad posture. Just make sure that you've got the number of a chiropractor handy. And have a wonderful, happy and Kosher Pesach!