Why American Jews Reject Torah

Having been heavily involved with Kiruv and BTs for many years, it has always bothered me why we have such a low success rate of attracting people to Torah. I’m not talking about becoming fully observant, but rather about showing interest in Torah learning and practices.

My experience interacting with BTs and non-observant chavrusas, friends and relatives drives my thinking. I have also discussed this for countless hours with others involved in kiruv. I would like to share my current thinking on the matter.

I think the main reason Torah is rejected is because most non-observant Jews come to the conclusion that increasing their Jewish knowledge or practice will not significantly increase their pleasure or happiness and is therefore not worth their effort. They come to this conclusion largely from their observation of Torah observant Jews.

Let’s dig deeper using the four human dimensions: the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.

In the physical dimension, Torah requires us to limit our physical pleasures in the areas of food, sensuality and sun and fun activities. Most non observant people enjoy their restaurants and vacations, and even with the tremendous increase in kosher restaurants and resorts, it doesn’t compare. In regards to financial stability, the higher costs of Torah living, specifically tuitions, gives an advantage to the non observant.

From an emotional vantage point most non observant people seem to control their anger, envy and desire for honor on a level with the typical observant Jew. Although Torah provides the prescription for great relationships and emotional maturity, the typical secular person also has decent relations with their spouses, children, friends and relatives. Regarding happiness, the growth of the positive psychology movement with its focus on happiness has provided more paths for non observant Jews.

In the mental domain, non observant Jews find meaning in their jobs, communal activities and political discourse. Although Torah learning and mitzvah observance provides additional avenues of meaningful activities, this is not always observable.

The spiritual domain is one in which Torah provides a tremendous advantage. However, belief and connection to Hashem is difficult to measure. In addition our davening and observance of mitzvos performance often lack observable degrees of spirituality and purposeful living.

In summary, I think the secular lifestyle provides an advantage in the physical sphere and can approach the typical Torah life in the emotional well being and happiness areas. Regard meaning and the mental dimension, Torah has the potential to provide advantages. In the spiritual and purposeful living arenas, Torah is clearly superior.

So why do most observant Jews think a life of Torah is better, while most non-observant American Jews are not convinced? I think the reason is that most people are more focused on the lower realms of physical pleasure and happiness than they are on the higher ones of meaning and purpose. Torah observant people experience all the realms so they typically live a more fulfilling life, while the non observant experience more physical pleasure and decent degrees of happiness.

Perhaps if we were even more focused on living a Torah life of purpose and meaning, it would lead to more demonstrable contentment and happiness. If the non-observant could observe the clear advantage of Torah in three of the four human dimensions, they would to want to find out more.

Pirkei Avos – the Soul Food from Pesach to Shavous

As many of you know, there is a widespread Jewish custom of learning Pirkei Avos in the six week period between Pesach and Shavous. Some have the custom to keep on learning a perek a week until Rosh Hoshana.

Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld of Beit Shemesh, Israel has an excellent commentary to Pirkei Avos over at Torah.org.

A few years ago, to facilitate review of Pirkei Avos, I cut and pasted Rabbi Rosenthal’s translation into a document so that I could print off the perek of the week and keep it in my wallet for review. Rabbi Yaakov Menken, the man administering Torah.org, Cross-Currents.com and other spreading Torah projects was gracious enough to allow the document to be downloaded here.

Here is the link for the English Translation of Pirkei Avos.

Here is the translation for Chapter One:

Chapter 1
1. “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it Joshua. Joshua transmitted it to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise many students, and make a protective fence for the Torah.”
2. “Shimon the Righteous was of the last survivors of the Men of the Great Assembly. He used to say, the world is based upon three things: on Torah, on service [of G-d], and on acts of kindness.”
3. “Antignos of Socho received the transmission from Shimon the Righteous. He used to say, do not be as servants who serve the Master to receive reward. Rather, be as servants who serve the Master not to receive reward. And let the fear of heaven be upon you.”
4. “Yossi ben (son of) Yo’ezer of Ts’raidah and Yossi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem received the transmission from them. Yossi ben Yo’ezer used to say, let your house be a meeting place for the sages, cleave to the dust of their feet, and drink thirstily their words.”
5. “Yossi the son of Yochanan of Jerusalem said: Let your house be open wide, and let the poor be members of your household, and do not talk excessively with women. This was said regarding one’s own wife, certainly with another’s wife. Based on this the Sages have said, one who talks excessively with women causes evil to himself, wastes time from Torah study, and will eventually inherit Gehinnom (Hell).”
6. “Yehoshua the son of Perachia and Nittai of Arbel received the transmission from them (the Rabbis mentioned in Mishna 4). Yehoshua the son of Perachia said, make for yourself a Rabbi, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge everyone favorably.”
7. “Nittai of Arbel said, distance yourself from a bad neighbor, do not befriend a wicked person, and do not despair of punishment.”
8. “Yehuda the son of Tabbai and Shimon the son of Shatach received the transmission from them (the scholars mentioned in Mishna 6). Yehuda the son of Tabbai said, do not act as an adviser to judges. When the litigants are standing before you they should be in your eyes as guilty. When they are dismissed from before you they should be in your eyes as innocent, provided they have accepted the judgment.”
9. “Shimon the son of Shatach said, examine witnesses thoroughly, and be careful with your words, lest through them they learn to lie.”
10. “Shemaya and Avtalyon received the tradition from them (the scholars mentioned in mishna 8). Shemaya said, love work, despise high position, and do not become too close to the authorities.”
11. “Avtalyon said: ‘Sages, be careful with your words lest you deserve to be exiled and are exiled to a place of bad waters. The students who come after you will drink of these waters and die and God’s Name will be desecrated.’ “
12. “Hillel and Shammai received the transmission from them (the scholars mentioned in Mishna 10). Hillel said, be of the students of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to Torah.”
13. “He (Hillel) used to say, one who seeks a name loses his name, one who does not increase decreases, one who does not learn deserves death, and one who makes use of the crown [of Torah] will pass away.”
14. “He (Hillel) used to say, if I am not for me who is for me, if I am for myself what am I, and if not now when.”
15. “Shammai said, make your Torah study fixed, say little and do much, and receive everyone with a cheerful countenance.”
16. “Rabban Gamliel said, make for yourself a Rabbi, remove yourself from doubt, and do not give extra tithes due to estimation.”
17. “Shimon his [Rabban Gamliel’s] son said, all my life I have been raised among the Sages, and I have not found anything better for oneself than silence. Study is not the main thing but action. All who talk excessively bring about sin.”
18. “Rabbi Shimon the son of Gamliel said, on three things does the world endure – justice, truth and peace, as the verse says (Zechariah 8:16), ‘Truth and judgments of peace judge in your gates.’ ”

Finding My Place in Davening

Finding oneself completely baffled by davening is an experience many on us probably share. I personally had no familiarity with the siddur whatsoever when I first started, so I very quickly became a noodgy davener, always looking over my neighbor’s shoulder to find the page, and that was in a shul where it was frequently announced. Baruch Hashem, everyone was very considerate about it, and Rebbetzin Hadasa Carlebach gets an extra yasher koach for giving me my first tutorial in the siddur, later followed up by NJOP’s Hebrew Crash Courses I and II. Even after I gained familiarity and began stumbling through the Hebrew, I still always found myself falling behind everyone else. “Oh, well,” I thought. “Hashem will have to accept my inadequate prayers.”

After a year in sem, I finally did become very well-acquainted with the siddur, and Rebbetzin Marci Jablinowitz taught us what we as unmarried women ought to say daily. At that point, I became quite regular about davening, and could walk into any shul and daven with confidence.

Baruch Hashem, only a few years later, Hashem blessed me with the next monkey wrench to my davening: kids. There was no point in even starting Shemoneh Esrei when they were little. I was sure to be interrupted. I knew I was exempt for a valid reason, but I felt inadequate nevertheless.

Of course, I was wrong both times. One night, my husband baby-sat so I could go say Tehillim with the ladies on our block. Being a BT, my Hebrew was slower than everyone else’s and I managed to say only one book. But Hashem made sure I received the chelek of Tehillim that contained familiar words, words I’d practiced many times as I was struggling to learn the Pesukei D’zimra. It was then that I realized how far my early “inadequate” prayers had carried me. When I was feeling like the biggest idiot in shul, I never dreamed I’d really “make it,” that I’d someday be married and living as an integrated member of the frum world. Yet there I sat, reciting Tehillim with my neighbors and friends. And at the same time, it was clear to me that I was not justified in feeling guilty for my lack of consistent davening while my kids were so little. Hashem answered my early prayers in greater ways than I could imagine, and He would do the same for my irregular ones. Ultimately, Hashem wants our hearts, and as long as we’re giving Him that, whether in shul or at home, in a siddur or spontaneously, He will answer us.

Originally Published 1/10/2006

Mark Twain and the Pesach Blues

Pesach is over and many see it’s chometz avoidance requirement as a chore and are relieved to see it over. Obviously that is not what Hashem intended in the mitzvah. Here is a comment from David Linn on a past post which may help us gain some perspective

I also think it helps if you focus on the mitzvah aspect of the cleaning, prep and carefullness. One of my favorite literary scenes is of Tom Sawyer painting the fence. For those who aren’t familiar, Tom has been punished and must whitewash the fence. He would, of course, rather be fishing or swimming or whatever else the other boys would be doing on a summer day. He devises a plan to make the other boys think that he wants to paint the fence and that they should only be so lucky. Before you know it, the boys are begging for a chance and actually giving Tom their respective prized possessions to get a chance to paint the fence.

Twain then writes:

“He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it — namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.”

Now, I don’t think you’re going to have your friends paying you to help clean and prep for Pesach, if you do, please contact me so I can get the recipe. But, I do think that we build up the cleaning and prep to such a point of drudgery that we often fail to realize that there are mitzvos involved. Losing sight of that adds to the drudgery and exhaustion.

This won’t make it easy but maybe, just maybe, it will help us focus and see the gain from the pain.

Fifty Ways to Meet Your Lover (Sefirat HaOmer)

Mystical writings make this time period analogous to a woman preparing for union with her lover. She purifies herself for seven days. Seven is also the number of types of impurity that must be eliminated, and in our case linked to seven weeks, the time period between Passover and the Biblical holiday of Shavuot, forty-nine days called Sefirat HaOmer, “Counting the Omer”. God reveals all wisdom that there is to know on the fiftieth day, Shavuot, symbolized by the consummation of a marriage. In other words, to learn wisdom is to become one with the Infinite.

Therefore “spiritual purification” is a theme of these fifty days. Each day is designated for us to pray for and work towards a small piece of spirituality.

Don’t get me wrong, anyone who wants God’s wisdom can have it. He loves everyone and wants to give to them. But the more we are equipped to deal with it the more useful it will be.

There’s an old story of a person who seeks to speak with a wise Zen master.

As the proposed disciple sits before the master, the disciple begins to expound on his own knowledge to impress the master. The master stays quiet and begins to pour tea into a cup for the visitor. After the cup is full the master continues to pour until the tea is pouring over the sides causing the disciple to jump up and yell “Stop, the cup is full and can hold no more!”

The wise Zen master replies, “And what about you? Are you full of wisdom? If so, there is no more room for me to teach you anything.”

Wisdom is being poured out from above, but we have to be ready to receive it. Are we humble enough to know how little we know about marriage, parenting, happiness, and meaning? If so we will hit the jackpot.


Step by Step

We are commanded to count each and every day between Passover and Shavuot. This implies that spiritual growth is best achieved step by step, one day at a time. Our soul wants to soar straight to the Infinite. Our body also wants to become holy overnight so it doesn’t have to work. The real path, though, is to fire up a burning desire for purity every single day, working step by step to make progress on the ladder to the Heavens.

Seven Shepherds

One path the sages recommend to grab this opportunity is to emulate the Seven Shepherds. Each week is designated for a different holy one to try to be like.

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David each represents a different character trait. The first week is dedicated to Abraham, the second to Isaac, and so on. There are seven kabbalistic terms in Hebrew that do not lend themselves to an English translation so I will describe an aspect of them instead.

1st Week:
Abraham exemplifies the quality of Chesed, a trait evidenced in his extreme love of mankind. This first week, in order to purify yourself and tap into the flow of Divine assistance, we can look for the positive things in others that bring to the surface that natural love in our hearts for all humanity. If the Almighty can love all His children, so can we.

2nd Week:
Isaac exemplifies Gevura, a trait of discipline and inner strength. He never wavered from whatever he deemed the will of God. To imitate him we can focus our attention on things we are doing that we know are not God’s will and eradicate them.

3rd Week:
Jacob is Tiferet, the ability to be in harmony with all forces. Sometimes he fought, sometimes he bowed. He knew how to handle every single person that came his way. He even had two names which showed his flexibility. He blessed each of his children, showing that he spent time considering the nature of each child, trying to give each one what he needed, encouragement, rebuke, insight, etc. We can do this too by thinking deeply about each of our close family and friends and think about what each person needs.

4th Week:
Moses is Netzach, the Torah’s eternal conduit. We can emulate him by studying the insights of the Torah and try to remove any of our own personal influence on the insights, looking for the pure unadulterated truth.

5th Week:
Aaron is Hod, a trait which made him beloved by all who knew him. He loved peace and did everything he could to bring peace into the world at every opportunity. We all want people to get along, but how many of us are doing anything about it? This fifth week we can emulate Aaron by doing something practical and specific that brings more peace in the world.

6th Week:
Joseph is Yesod, similar to Jacob’s ability to relate to all people, Joseph’s ability was to be able to bond with, join, and become a part of each and every person he met. He easily and successfully became a trusted assistant wherever he went, whether with Jacob, Potiphar (an Egyptian official), the jailer of the dungeon, or to Pharaoh himself. He was immediately trusted because he truly felt the pain of each person he met. We can imitate him by trying to become one with the people we know and their challenges to the point they truly trust us.

7th Week:
David is Malchut, a trait that allowed him to connect his own royal power and tie it to the Almighty. Power corrupts unless you constantly remind yourself that your power is only the Divine putting you in a position like a marionette puppet. When all others were afraid of Goliath, David said, “Are you going to let this guy curse the Almighty? HaShem will help you defeat him.” David knew that the Almighty runs the show at all times. “To You are the greatness, the strength, the harmony, the permanence, and the glory….” We can look at all of our abilities or power roles this week and see how we are merely a conduit for the Almighty.

If you try to emulate each character trait for one week of the seven week period you will experience a new type of enlightenment at the end. This is a simple straightforward approach to the Sefirah period. A more complicated approach uses all seven traits each week. Because each trait is incomplete without all the other six. You can’t have real love like Abraham if you don’t include Isaac’s awe of God. Otherwise you’ll transgress God’s laws to fulfill your love. You’ll spoil your children and become a doormat to your spouse. Each trait properly includes all the others. So a complicated approach to the 50 days has a different combination of two traits each day.

Our tradition says that the Israelites accomplished this when they left Egypt and fifty days later received the Torah.

Riding the Escalator of Life

Sometimes we get a special gift. When you work on spirituality in a consistent way the Almighty opens up a gate for you that you might not have imagined. If you look for reminders of what you are working on you will also notice on a daily basis how the Almighty is guiding and directing your efforts at self-growth. This daily testament to His role in our daily life is comforting and keeps us connected. But when we get that special gift, sometimes a whole new world opens up.

Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch) had an angel come to him and teach him many secrets because of his consistent study of the Mishna, the Oral Tradition. We are not all going to have such a special and holy event happen to us like that but each on our own individual level will receive a boost.

Kind of like that way someone gets “discovered” after plugging away for many years at something. Kimya Dawson was a relatively unknown recording a performing artist for years until one day an actress in a movie called “Juno” recommended her recording with the Moldy Peaches for the soundtrack which became a chartbuster. Now Kimya Dawson is “suddenly” a recognized star. Suddenly….after years of continuous effort. In the spiritual world it happens too.

Whatever area of growth we want to grab a hold of, consistency and continuity will be helpful, and sometimes they will be the cause of a major leap that propels us into a higher level. Our small path of steps just might be turn into a springboard. Now is the time to take the first step.

First Published on May 14, 2008

The Making of a Passover Seder

Chapter 1 The Great Pesach Divide

I don’t think there are many days in the year that can cause greater strife in BT-Familial relations than Pesach. I think the reason for that is twofold. First, Pesach is a holiday that involves a high level of kashrus scrutiny. Second, many non-religious people take Pesach seriously on their level and a BT’s unwillingness to eat in their home often comes across as offensive.

Growing up, one seder was always held at my Aunt’s house, approximately 45 minutes away by car. Although my Aunt and Uncle weren’t religious, they were fairly traditional and they took Pesach seriously. My Aunt is one mean cook and my Uncle (he should rest in peace) always prepared the entire seder, complete with written explanations for each participant to read at the appointed time and his strawng awshkenawzi pronawnciation. He also freshly grated horseradish that could clear a stuffed nose from across the room. Other than my eternal fear of botching the four questions, I actually looked forward to those Seders every year. I was one of the few youngsters who stayed with the older men to complete the hagadah long after the others had retired to watch a post-meal hockey game. The seder at my Aunt’s was also pretty much the only time of the year that my extended family would get together.

So, it was with great trepidation that I approached my parents when I was approximately 16 and told them that I was no longer willing to ride in the car on Passover. At the time, I thought I might have more easily launched the first missle of WW III but, though my Aunt was not pleased, my parents handled it as well as could be expected and my Aunt, I think, eventually forgave me.

Chapter 2 A Teenager’s Seder
To my parents’ credit, they decided that if I wasn’t willing to go to my Aunt’s, they would stay home as well. That meant that I would have to prepare the Seder. Every year I would meticulously prepare my father’s hagadah with notations, explanations and parts so that he could “lead” the Seder. My father a’h, mother, brothers and any guests bravely persevered as we completed the entire hagaddah both nights for years. Knowing that this experience would not be the most pleasant one for the others, I did everything I could to try to make the seder relevant to them. I would spice it with history, family remembrances, riddles, jokes, etc. (One year we went through an entire scientific analysis of the process of leavening, another year I contacted the seder participants and asked them to submit advance questions about pesach the answers to which I researched and presented at the seder)

Chapter 3 The Seder in My Own Home
Though I am only in my mid-30s, I have been preparing a seder for the past 20 years. I think that my early seder experiences have helped fashion the seder I presently run. I am blessed with my own children now and I try to prepare a seder that is fun, interesting and relevant to them and any guests. Our seder is becoming well known for our children’s Ten Plagues skit (especially the famous water into blood scene, a must see), mixed minhagim (I have incorporated many of my Father In Law’s sephardi minhagim), interesting niggunim (kadesh, urchatz… to the tune of the Egyptian National Anthem) and the signed, notarized statement I procured from my wife and mother-in-law promising that they will not stay up all night the day before Pesach. I still think the time my father-in-law, already in his 70s, stood on his chair like a little boy to recite the Four Questions so he could get a chocolate covered marshmallow was the best.

Though my decision to break from my extended family’s passover seder was a difficult one that had relationship reprecussions, it forced me to develop a deeper understanding of the Hagadah and to (I hope) prepare a seder that is interesting and meaningful to its participants.

First posted on April 10, 2006

TEN WAYS to help you and YOUR CHILDREN have a more Meaningful and Inspiring PESACH SEDER

Use these suggestions to infuse new meaning and excitement into your seder and create a lasting experience for you and your family.

1.Make the most of your Seder and best fulfill the mitzvah of V’higadita L’vincha by staying focused on telling the actual story of Yetzias Mitzrayim; concentrate on the events and their lessons.

2. Transform Yetzias Mitzrayim from a story into a reality by celebrating the Seder like you celebrate a Simcha in your own family. Speak about it vividly, personally and enthusiastically…you’ll inspire yourself and your children.

3. Prepare for the Seder! Spend time studying books and Midrashim that elaborate specifically on the details of each miracle to help your children appreciate the extent of Hashem’s kindness.

4. Make Pesach personal and relevant to your children. Use your discussion about the amazing miracles of Yetzias Mitzrayim as a means of opening their eyes to the miracles Hashem performs for us every day.

5. Show your children how so much of the Pesach Seder revolves around them, demonstrating how much Hashem cares about every child and values each one as an essential member of Klal Yisroel.

6. Involve your children in the Pesach Seder. Prepare stimulating and challenging questions that will guide them to understand the lessons of the Haggadah and be an active participant in the Seder.

7. Practice the lesson of the Four Sons during your Seder by making a particular effort to involve each child (and adult!) in a way that best suits his or her unique personality, style and level.

8. Take the time to patiently answer your children’s questions. If you don’t know the answer, create a powerful Chinuch experience by asking a rabbi and exploring the issue… together with your child.

9. Reinforce their Emunah through the Pesach Seder by explaining that the miracles of Yetzias Mitzrayim irrefutably demonstrated Hashem’s complete control over the world to millions of eyewitnesses. We attest to this truth every year on the Seder night.

10. Inspire yourself by remembering that tonight Jewish parents around the world are passing on a glorious 3,320 year old legacy to their children as their parents and ancestors have done before them. Realize that the Seder that you create for your children will inspire them for the rest of their lives and shape the future Seder that they will make for their children.

The Pesach Seder:
A Unique Opportunity to Instill Emunah in Our Children

The Mitvah of telling the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim is primarily focused on our children and family. Its main purpose is to instill in their hearts the full knowledge of Hashem’s sovereignty and the magnitude of His strength and miracles. One should explain the story to them in the language that they understand to make them aware of the extent of the wonders that Hashem performs. It is not sufficient to explain just the main points of Yetzias Mitzrayim written in the Haggadah. Instead, we should describe all of the miracles vividly as they are depicted in the Gemara, Midrashim and other Seforim. (Based on Yesod V’Shoresh Ha’avoda 9:6)

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Under the auspices of Harav Reuven Feinstein, Shlita

For additional copies of this poster or for more information about Priority-1’s training programs, resources and consultations for parents and educators, please call 800-33-FOREVER

Inspiring Ideas for the Pesach Seder

In the hope of trying to create an inspiring, interesting and educational leil Pesach, we have often attempted to create activities that can be used to keep the kids (and adults) awake and involved. Please share with us any creative ideas, thoughts or activities that you have used at your seder or seen used at other seders.

Any contributions geared to any age group and/or ability or learning level will be great.

Please try to indicate weather the idea is best for pre–school, elementary school, high school, adult or all ages and/or weather it is best for beginner, intermediate, or advanced level.

Include as much detail as possible so that we can all benefit from each other’s experiences.

Here’s a starter from Aish: Family Fun with the Ten Plagues.

Gebroks or Non-Gebroks…That is the Question

This blast from the past first published on April 06, 2006. Shayna was one of original contributors and if you’re still checking, we hope everything is going well with you and your family.

Being kosher seemed like a good way to be a true Jew, so I called the local Chabad House, and a nice man came and did the job. He finished, turned to go, and I asked him what I was allowed to eat. He sketched out the basic symbols and wrote “cholev yisroel” and “pas yisroel” on the bottom. I had no clue what they meant, but na’asai v’nishma: knowing nothing, I was machmir to only buy products listing those words.

Then Pesach approached. I called the same friendly man who told me to only buy things that said “non-gebroks.” End of conversation.

Thus began my Pesach minhag.

Although less naive about minhagim, my husband’s approach is always, when in doubt, you can’t go wrong by following the strictest guidelines.

Living in Monsey, it’s no problem being cholev yisroel. But gebroks gets us down year after year after year.

Pesach is the most resonant Yom Tov for most of us. I grew up gleefully eating on Yom Kippur, oblivious to Shabbos, but with a strangely nostalgic attitude about Pesach. We always had some facsimile of a seder. In speedy English and occasional bouts of broken Yiddish, my father attempted to imitate his father’s seder, while the kids snuck more and more Manishewitz. I didn’t really “chup” the point of this strange ritual. What lasted and lasted in my memory was the matzoh meal pancakes.

What an utter disappointment to make teshuva and resurrect Passover, and then find that the totem of my memory was taboo on the Yom Tov itself!

The concept of minhagim is an uncomfortable one for a BT. We all have them, but they were buried in the generation(s) of assimilation. Who knew what would be lost back when my great-grandfathers davened next to the FFBs’ great-grandfathers in the shtetl shul? Who knew that I would be only one out of dozens of my ancestors’ progeny who would regret history, and devote her life to piecing back together the broken line?

What of our history is “kosher”? Yes, I grew up eating gebroks, but I also grew up eating BLTs and dating non-Jews, practices that I am most definitely not going to pass down to my children.

How can BTs sort out our legitimate fossils? Knowing that my grandparents emigrated from there, is it okay to research Lithuanian Jewry and then adopt the customs of those frum Jews? How much has survived in my DNA? Is it because I’m a “yekkie” that I’m on time, or because I grew up inculcated with the Protestant Work Ethic?

Does aping the actions of mentors or emulating the habits of sages create a meaningful tradition? What about when there are several legitimate practices? Why do I have to tough out the “minor” fast days–my FFB female friends eat or only fast half the day, just like their mothers did. Must we also shun garlic on Pesach because two centuries ago it was transported alongside grain, and so it became some families’ practice not to use it? At what age should I put away the bobby socks and hold my pre-schooler up to the tznius standards of the big girls? How do we answer with conviction when our kids ask which way our family holds?

It’s kind of scary: at what point does twisting open the soda bottles on Shabbos morph from a habit to a tradition to an immovably holy practice that will be passed down from generation to generation?

Pre-Pesach Potpourri of Posts

Over the last few years, we have had some interesting Pesach posts here on Beyond BT. In case you might have missed some, here are some highlights:

Rabbi Rosenblum reminds us that everyone needs to pitch in when it comes to Pesach cleaning in Who’s Cleaning for Pesach?

David Linn wrote about how he came to make my own seders fairly early in life inThe Making of a Pesach Seder

Here is the link for the Beyond BT Guide to the Seder compiled by Mark Frankel.

The Haggadah relates that:

In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Mitzrayim, as it is says: “You shall tell your child on that day, it is because of this that Hashem did for me when I left Mitzrayim.” Mark Frankel asks Is it Possible to Really See Ourselves as Leaving Mitzrayim? and in this mp3 Rabbi Moshe Gordon explores some of the classical approaches to understanding and fulfilling this Mitzvah.

The Fifteen Steps of the Pesach Seder serve as the framework for our fulfillment of the mitzvah to tell the story of our exodus from Egypt. They have been compared to the 15 Steps leading up to the Beis Hamikdash in that both sets of stairs are used to bring us to a greater level of unity with Hashem. The haggadah has been called the most commented upon work of liturgy. Commentary on the haggadah serves many purposes: it broadens our understanding of the mitzvos of the night; it brings greater appreciation for the miracles Hashem performed for us; and it makes the Seder night and all of Pesach more relevant to us. Join us as we climb the fifteen steps together by presenting a short vort/dvar torah by different bloggers/commenters. Let’s Climb.

Climbing the Fifteen Steps of the Seder (Steps 1-3) – David Linn

Yachatz (Step 4) – A Taste of Things to Come – Rabbi Yonason Goldson

Maggid – (Step 5) The Lesson of the Simple Son – A Simple Jew

Rachtza (Step 6) – The Washing of the Hands Preceding the Eating of the Matzah – Daivd Linn

Motzi (Step 7) – Uplifting a Jew to Near Perfection – Rabbi Lazer Brody

Matzah (Step 8) – Training in Emotional Gymnastics – Mark Frankel

Maror (Step 9) – The Eating of the Bitter Herbs – Aryeh Leib Ecker

Korech (Step 10) – The Sandwich Generation – David Linn

Shulchan Orech (Step 11) – Food for Thought – David Linn

Tzafun (Step 12) – Halachic Approach to a Common Problem – Steve Brizel

Barech (Step 13) – A Special Opportunity To Elevate An Everday Mitzvah – Mark Frankel

Hallel (Step 14) – Time to sing! – Rabbi Gershon Seif

Nirtzah (Step 15) – Bringing it all Home – Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz

Chag Kasher ve’Sameach.

The Ramchal on Pesach from Derech Hashem

The significance of matzah is related to the Exodus from Egypt.

Until the Exodus, Israel was assimilated among other peoples, one nation in the midst of another. With the Exodus, they were redeemed and separated.

Until that time, every aspect of the human being was darkened by the spiritual opaqueness and pollution that overcame it. With the Exodus, the Jews were set aside so that they would have the opportunity to purify their bodies and prepare themselves for the Torah and for dedication to God. In order for this to be possible, they were commanded to rid themselves of leaven (chametz) and eat matzah.

Bread which is designated as man’s primary food, is appropriate to the state that God desired for man in this world. Leaven is a natural element of bread, making it more digestible and flavorous, thus adding an element of pleasure and desire to its primary purpose of nourishment. This element feeds the Evil Urge (yetzer ha-ra) which is a necessary component of man in this world.

At a particular determined time, however, Israel was required to abstain from leaven, and be nourished by matzah, which is unleavened bread. This reduced the strength of each individual’s Evil Urge and inclination toward the physical, thus enhancing his closeness to the spiritual.

It would be impossible, however, for man to constantly nourish himself in this manner, since this is not the state desired for him in this world. This practice is therefore observed only on certain designated days, when he must be on an appropriately higher level. This is the main concept of Pesach as the Festival of Matzos.

The other rituals of the Seder night are also all details paralleling various particular aspects of the redemption from Egypt.

Understanding Why We Believe in the Divinity of Torah

Rambam Mishna Torah – Yesodei Ha Torah – Chapter 8

Halacha 1

The Jews did not believe in Moses, our teacher, because of the wonders that he performed. Whenever anyone’s belief is based on wonders, [the commitment of] his heart has shortcomings, because it is possible to perform a wonder through magic or sorcery.

All the wonders performed by Moses in the desert were not intended to serve as proof [of the legitimacy] of his prophecy, but rather were performed for a purpose. It was necessary to drown the Egyptians, so he split the sea and sank them in it. We needed food, so he provided us with manna. We were thirsty, so he split the rock [providing us with water]. Korach’s band mutinied against him, so the earth swallowed them up. The same applies to the other wonders.

What is the source of our belief in him? The [revelation] at Mount Sinai. Our eyes saw, and not a stranger’s. Our ears heard, and not another’s. There was fire, thunder, and lightning. He entered the thick clouds; the Voice spoke to him and we heard, “Moses, Moses, go tell them the following:….”

Thus, [Deuteronomy 5:4] relates: “Face to face, God spoke to you,” and [Deuteronomy 5:3] states: “God did not make this covenant with our fathers, [but with us, who are all here alive today].”

How is it known that the [revelation] at Mount Sinai alone is proof of the truth of Moses’ prophecy that leaves no shortcoming? [Exodus 19:9] states: “Behold, I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people will hear Me speaking to you, [so that] they will believe in you forever.” It appears that before this happened, they did not believe in him with a faith that would last forever, but rather with a faith that allowed for suspicions and doubts.

Halacha 2

Thus, those to whom [Moses] was sent witnessed [his appointment] as a prophet, and it was not necessary to perform another wonder for them. He and they were witnesses, like two witnesses who observed the same event together. Each one serves as a witness to his colleague that he is telling the truth, and neither has to bring any other proof to his collegue.

Similarly, all Israel were witnesses to [the appointment of] Moses, our teacher, at the [revelation] at Mount Sinai, and it was unnecessary for him to perform any further wonders for them.

This concept [is alluded to in the interchange between God and Moses at the revelation of the burning bush]. At the beginning of his prophecy, the Holy One, blessed be He, gave him the signs [and wonders] to perform in Egypt and told him [Exodus 3:18], “And they will listen to your voice.”

Moses, our teacher, knew that one who believes [in another person] because of signs has apprehension in his heart; he has doubts and suspicions. Therefore, he sought to be released from the mission, saying: “They will not believe me” [Exodus 4:1], until the Holy One, blessed be He, informed him that these wonders [were intended only as a temporary measure,] until they left Egypt. After they would leave, they would stand on this mountain and all doubts which they had about him would be removed.

[God told him:] Here, I will give you a sign so that they will know that I truly sent you from the outset, and thus, no doubts will remain in their hearts. This is what is meant by [Exodus 3:12]: “This will be your sign that I sent you: When you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve God on this mountain.”

Thus, we do not believe in any prophet who arises after Moses, our teacher, because of the wonder [he performs] alone, as if to say: If he performs a wonder we will listen to everything he says. Rather, [we believe him] because it is a mitzvah which we were commanded by Moses who said: If he performs a wonder, listen to him.

Just as we are commanded to render a [legal] judgment based on the testimony of two witnesses, even though we do not know if they are testifying truthfully or falsely, similarly, it is a mitzvah to listen to this prophet even though we do not know whether the wonder is true or performed by magic or sorcery.

Translation from Chabad.

Five Minute Passover Seder

Some people want to have a very fast seder. This guide is for them.

1) Kaddesh – Sanctify the day with the recitation of Kiddush
*Leader says Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ha-Gofen and 2 other blessings whose text can be found in the Hagadah
*Drink the 1st cup of wine. Lean to your left while drinking.

2) Urechatz, – *Wash your hands before eating Karpas.

3) Karpas – *Eat a vegetable dipped in salt water.
*Leader says Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ho-adomah –
*Everybody eats the vegetable Lean to your left while eating.

4) Yachatz. -* Break the middle Matzah. Hide the larger half for Afikoman.

5) Maggid – *Tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt
Here is a summary of the story. (Alternatively go around the room reading in English from a translated Haggadah.)

The main mitzvah of the night is telling about the Exodus from Egypt.
*Pour the 2nd Cup of Wine
*Four Questions are asked

*The answer to the four questions is given.

It’s broken up into 6 parts based on the verse in the Torah which describes the mitzvah of telling the story at the Seder:
“And you shall relate to your child on that day saying: it is because of this Hashem acted for me when I came forth out of Egypt.”

a)– And you shall relate to your child – four types of chidren/people with different belief levels

b)– on that day – explains when we should tell the story (the answer is on Passover night)

c)– saying – the actual story:
Our ancestors were idol worshippers;—– through Abraham;—– Egyptian Enslavement;—– We cry out;—– G-d hears our cries
G-d saves us with the 10 plagues;—– We express our thanks for G-d saving us
Dip your finger in the wine for the 10 plagues
1) Water, which turned to blood and killed all fish and other aquatic life (Exodus 7:14–25)
2) Frogs (Exodus 8:1–8:15)
3) Lice (Exodus 8:16–19)
4) Wild animals (Exodus 8:20–30)
5) Disease on livestock (Exodus 9:1–7)
6) Incurable boils (Exodus 9:8–12)
7) Hail and thunder (Exodus 9:13–35)
8) Locusts (Exodus 10:1–20)
9) Darkness (Exodus 10:21–29)
10) Death of the first-born of all Egyptian humans and animals. To be saved, the Israelites had to place the blood of a lamb on the front door of their houses. (Exodus 11, Exodus 12)

d) — It is because of this — “Rabban Gamliel explains why use the Passover offering, Matzah and Maror.
The Passover lamb, represented in our times by the roasted bone, recalls the blood on the doorposts and the terror and anticipation of the night of the plague of the first born.

Matzah is what we ate in the morning when Israel was rushed out of Egypt with no time to let their dough rise.

Maror captures the bitterness of the enslavement.

e) — Hashem acted for me…” – “In every generation, we should see ourselves as having gone out from Egypt.

f) – when I came forth out of Egypt.” –We recite 2 songs of praise to G-d similar to the songs recited when we left Egypt.

*Leader of Seder recites Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ha-Gofen.
*Drink the 2nd cup of wine. Lean to your left while drinking.

6) Rachtzah – *Wash the hands prior to eating Matzah and the meal.
*After washing and before drying say
*Say Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melcch Ho-olom Asher Kidshonu B’mitzvosov V’tzivonu Al N’tilas Yodoyim.

7) Motzi – *Recite the Hamotzi blessing over eating Matzah before a Meal
*Say Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Hamotzi Lechem Min Ho-oretz.

8) Matzah – *Recite the blessing over eating Matzah
*Say Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Asher Kidshonu B’mitzvosov Vtzivonu Al Achilas Matzah.

*Eat the Matzah. Lean to your left while eating.

9) Maror – *The Maror is dipped in Charoscs
*Say Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Asher Kidshonu B’mitzvosov Vtzivonu Al Achilas Maror.
*Eat the Maror.

10) Korech – *Eat a sandwich of Matzah and Maror.
*Eat the Sandwich.

11) Shulchan Orech – *Eat the festival meal

Find the Afikoman.

12) Tzafun – *Eat the Afikoman which had been hidden all during the Seder.
*Pour the 3rd cup of wine

13) Barech – Recite Birchas Hamazon, the blessings after the meal
*Leader of Seder recites blessing Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ha-Gofen.
*Drink the 3rd cup of wine. Lean to your left while drinking.

*Pour the 4th cup of wine;
*Pour the cup for Elijah

14) Hallel – Recite the praises of G-d
*Leader of Seder recites Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ha-Gofen.
*Drink the 4th cup of wine. Lean to your left while drinking.

15) Nirtzah – Pray that G-d accepts our praise speedily sends the Messiah.
Sing the songs of the Haggadah

The Mechutanim

By Mr. Cohen

This true story happened to me approximately in my 11th year as a Baal Teshuvah.

I used to work in a company owned and mostly staffed by Orthodox Jews.
One of my FFB coworkers, around 50 years old, made frequent phone calls
during work hours and I could easily hear everything she said.

One day I noticed something about her conversations:
The mechutanim this…
The mechutanim that…
The mechutanim want…
The mechutanim said…
The mechutanim did…
The mechutanim own…
The mechutanim know…
The mechutanim forgot…
The mechutanim will…
The mechutanim won’t…
The mechutanim can’t…
The mechutanim over and over and over again, more times than I could count.

I suddenly came to a realization:
Even if I mastered every Torah book that was ever written,
I would always be a disadvantaged contender in the marriage market
of Orthodox Jews, because my traif parents will never be valid mechutanim.

Mr. Cohen invites Orthodox Jews to join his web site for quick Divrei Torah: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DerechEmet/

The Ramban and Rambam on Korbanos

Here is an excerpt from and article By Rav David Silverberg on the Rambam and Korbanos.
Read the whole thing here.

The Ramban, in his commentary to Parashat Vayikra (1:9), famously cites and rejects the Rambam’s approach to the underlying reason behind the institution of korbanot (sacrifices). In the passage from the “Moreh Nevukhim” (3:46) paraphrased by the Ramban, the Rambam claims that God ordered that we bring sheep, cattle and goats as sacrifices because various pagan cultures in the ancient world worshipped these animals. We demonstrate our firm rejection of these beliefs by sacrificing these alleged deities to the one, true God. Earlier in the Moreh (3:32), the Rambam writes that God found it necessary to demand a sacrificial order because animal sacrifice had become the universally accepted mode of religious worship in the pagan world. Benei Yisrael could not have been realistically expected to accept a religious system that did not feature sacrificial offerings. It was in response to this need that God established the order of sacrifices outlined by the Torah here in Parashat Vayikra.

The Ramban sharply criticizes the Rambam’s comments and raises several objections against his theory. We will focus on his initial remarks after he paraphrases the Rambam’s stance: “These are nonsensical words, which offer healing offhand for a great wound and considerable difficulty.” This phrase – “offer healing offhand for a great wound” – is borrowed from a verse in Sefer Yirmiyahu (6:14), in which Yirmiyahu cites the Almighty’s condemnation of the false prophets who opposed Yirmiyahu. We cite here the relevant verse in context: “For from the smallest to the greatest, they are all greedy for gain; priest and prophet alike, they all act falsely. They offer healing offhand for the wounds of My people, saying, ‘All is well, all is well,’ when nothing is well.”

The late Professor Nechama Leibowitz a”h observed that the context of this verse may very well shed light on the Ramban’s specific claim in this passage. In the vast majority of his prophecies, Yirmiyahu conveyed to the people a message they were not interested in hearing – predictions of catastrophe and doom, and the need for a fundamental change in conduct and values to avoid the impending disaster. The false prophets, by contrast, eager to win the people’s favor, presented a far more pleasant prognosis: “All is well, all is well.” They eased the masses’ conscience by assuring them that God is on their side, that they need merely to continue along their current path and remain confident in God’s imminent salvation. In this manner, they “offered healing offhand for the wounds of My people.” They cavalierly dismissed the looming threat, insisting that in truth there is nothing to fear and no reason for any substantive change of lifestyle.

With this in mind, Professor Leibowitz suggested, we can understand the Ramban’s castigation of the Rambam’s theory. He felt that this approach all too conveniently absolves us from delving into the depths of the sacrificial system to uncover its true meaning and spiritual significance. The Rambam here allowed us to write off this entire institution as a phenomenon necessitated by an unfortunate circumstance, thereby obviating the need to search for any further meaning. A proper understanding of this critical topic, the Ramban insisted, requires thorough study and inquiry; in his mind, the Rambam’s speculative theory hardly suffices.

Of course, we may reasonably presume that the Rambam did not postulate this theory out of intellectual laziness, but rather because he honestly believed this to be the factor that prompted the Almighty to include in the Torah a system of korbanot. We may also assume that the Ramban here does not actually accuse the Rambam of laziness, or to equate him with the false prophets of the First Temple era. Rather, the Ramban was troubled by the fact that the Rambam’s approach effectively rendered meaningless any serious analysis of the korbanot. Indeed, later in his commentary, the Ramban writes that the concept of korbanot involved a “sod gadol” –– profound Kabbalistic meaning. He therefore objected to the Rambam’s theory, according to which we have no reason to attribute any deeper meaning to the system of korbanot.

Will I Ever Fit In? Do I Want to Fit In?

We thought this post by Josh Goldman was perfect for Beyond BT. Thanks to Josh for letting us repost it.

Spending a day in Brooklyn can be a little overwhelming for an out of town Ba’al Teshuva (born-again Jew). There are Jews everywhere. Jewish stores, Jewish signs, even Jewish license plates. It’s a bit much.

But it made me think about the religious lifestyle I lead, and how much it is different from my brethren who have always been frum. Can my own religious lifestyle ever be the same as theirs? Would I want my lifestyle to be the same as theirs?

I have a lot of freedom to objectively observe Jewish Law, independently of how it is commonly practiced. That is good and it is bad. For example, I had to choose my own prononciation of Hebrew words, which forced me to learn what the differences are, where they come from, and how they are viewed in Halacha. I think most Frum from birth (FFB) people just take their parents’ prononciations for granted, not realizing how much depth there is to even such a simple issue. Even if in the end we come out at the same place, I’ve gained so much in my approach.

Of course, there are also the many phases of Baal Teshuvakeit, from testing the waters to utter zealousness. I’ve gone through them all. I remember when I skipped any prayer that seemed remotely optional, even if it just had a smaller font. I also remember when I thought it was frummer to add in every page, paragraph, and bracket into my prayers. But there is a certain maturity that eventually develops.

By its very nature, my approach to Orthodoxy is at the same time fundamentalist and open minded. But can my perspective ever be the same as that of an always been frum person? Could I marry an FFB? I know many BTs go that route, and many stay amongst people from similar backgrounds. A lot of it results from the natural attraction between people of similar experience. But beyond that, can the wide-eyed evaluation of the BT coexist with the cautious eyes of the FFB? Do they balance each other out?

It seems that so much of Orthodoxy is merely cultural norms, not Frumkeit. How do you raise your kids with that open-mindedness, that honest search?

Will I ever fit in? Do I want to fit in?

Originally posted June 2006