The 60 Second Guide to Shavuos

The foundation of Judaism is that there is a G-d, who is completely spiritual. G-d created both a physical and spiritual world. The centerpiece of creation is man who is composed of a physical body and a spiritual soul. Our collective purpose is to transform the world into a unified G-d connected spiritual world.

To accomplish this spiritual transformation G-d transmitted the necessary knowledge and tools in the form of the Torah. The Torah informs us how to turn physical acts into G-d connected spiritual acts. Every positive act we perform can be G-d connected, but the ones with the greatest connection power are the mitzvos G-d explicitly specified in the Torah.

The holiday of Shavuos is the day that G-d spiritually transmitted the Torah. The entire Jewish nation experienced this transmission and Moses experienced it to a much greater degree. The day is filled with a spiritual energy through which we can deepen our commitment to connect to G-d through the learning of Torah. There is also a mitzvah to eat 2 special meals and in doing so we transform the physical act of eating into a spiritual G-d connected activity.

This was written to try to capture the essence of Shavuos to all types of Jews in 60 seconds.

If you think it’s useful please send it to your friends and family.

The first incarnation of this guide can be found here.

So Another Child Will Learn Torah

From 1997-99, I was one of eighteen school principals who spent three weeks each summer upgrading our professional skills as the first cohort of Torah Umesorah’s Senior Leadership Program.

During the first year of the program, we had the great ze’chus of spending several hours with Reb Shlome Wolbe zt’l who graciously answered our chinuch questions on a wide range of topics.

At one of those sessions, (starting at 9:28 on this promotional video introducing Bright Beginnings Volume One), I asked Reb Wolbe zt’l what we should do if the educational instruction we received at Torah Umesorah indicates that we would improve the quality of the chinuch our students are receiving by modifying/upgrading the teaching methods at our Yeshivos.

“What’s with [following] the Mesorah (tradition) [of the way we were taught by our rebbeim]?” I asked.

He responded that, “Your Mesorah is to transmit our Mesorah to our children and you are all not only permitted, but obligated, to use every education tool at your disposal so that another child will learn Torah.”

With that backdrop, I am thrilled to present to our readers The Marc Schertz Memorial e-Book version of our Bright Beginnings Chumash Workbook Vol. 1 2nd Edition.

It is my humble prayer that this interactive, digital workbook will help countless Jewish children (and adults) learn Torah.

We hope it will help:

Many Jewish families who live overseas and find the shipping costs of our books to be prohibitive. In the three years since the print version of this workbook was released, we’ve received requests from Jewish Yeshivos/day schools and parents in Gibraltar, South Africa, Australia, China, and on and on. In most of those instances, the shipping costs far exceeded the price of the book itself! This e-Book version can be “delivered” effortlessly free of charge.

Children whose parents don’t have the Judaic background to do homework with them. One of the features of this e-Book is that it allows children to email their work to others to review.

Children whose parents are in the office or on the road during the time that they are working on their homework. Here too, parents can be more involved in the learning of their children each evening.

Kids whose attention spans run short when they are doing traditional “paperwork” but are able to concentrate for far longer periods of time when working with digital tools.

I am deeply grateful to my childhood friend and chavrusa (Judaic study partner) Heshie Schertz and his wife Bonnie for their ongoing support of the Bright Beginnings series since its inception, and to his mother Mrs. Gloria Schertz and her children for dedicating this digital edition of the Chumash Workbook in memory of my childhood friend Marc Schertz a’h who recently and tragically passed away at the age of 48.

This digital workbook was converted to the e-Book format by my dear friend and colleague Rabbi Mordechai Smolarcik, one of the most creative and talented educators I’ve ever met. Rabbi Smolarcik has received numerous awards/grants for his outstanding curricular efforts including the 2013 JEIC Innovator Grant for his Torah i-Textbook Project. I am deeply grateful to him for his assistance with our efforts.

The digital workbook is currently only available for use on an iPad. Our sources (read: Rabbi Smolarcik) inform us that Apple is working on an app that will eventually allow it to be used on an iPhone as well. Additionally, we are working to get it converted for use on other platforms as well and will use this email list to inform you of any new releases, print or digital. Please email email@kosherjewishparenting.com or text 22828 and in the message line, type PROJECTYES (in caps) to sign up for our emails so you can have instant access to the information.

Visit www.bbchumash.com to learn more about our popular chumash workbooks designed to give your children the Hebrew language skills to succeed in school.

For Today, Erev Rosh Chodesh Sivan – A Translation of The Shelah’s Prayer for Parents on Behalf of their Children

The Shela HaKadosh says that Erev Rosh Chodesh Sivan is a special day to daven for your children’s spiritual and material needs. Here is an English Translation of the prayer he composed for this. You can say the Hebrew version here.

You have been the Eternal, our G-d, before You created the world, and You are the Eternal, our G-d, since you created the world, and You are G-d forever. You created Your world so that Your Divinity should become revealed thorugh Your holy Torah, as our Sages expounded on the first word therein, and for Israel, for they are Your people and Your inheritance whom You have chosen from among all nations. You have given them Your holy Torah and drawn them toward Your great Name. These two commandments are, “Be fruitful and Multiply” and “You shall teach them to your children.” Their purpose is that You did not create the world to be empty, but to be inhabited, and that it is for Your glory that You created, fashioned, and perfected it, so that we, our offspring, and all the descendants of your people Israel will know Your Name and study Your Torah.

Thus I entreat You, O Eternal, supreme King of kings. My eyes are fixed on You until You favor me, and hear my prayer, and provide me with sons and daughters who will also be fruitful and multiply, they and their descendents unto all generations, in order that they and we might all engage in the study of Your holy Torah, to learn and to teach, to observe and to do, and to fulfill with love all the words of Your Torah’s teaching. Enlighten our eyes in Your Torah and attach our heart to Your commandments to love and revere Your Name.

Our Father, compassionate Father, grant us all a long and blessed life. Who is like You, compassionate Father, Who in compassion remembers His creatures for life! Remember us for eternal life, as our Forefather Avraham prayed, “If only Yishmael would live before You,” which the Sages interpreted as “…live in reverence of You.”

For this I have come to appeal and plead before You, that my offspring and their descendants be proper, and that You find no imperfection or disrepute in me or them forever. May they be people of peace, truth, goodness and integrity in the eyes of G-d and man. Help them to become practiced in Torah, accomplished in Scriptures, Mishnah, Talmud, Kabbalah, mitzvos, kindness, and good attributes, and to serve you with an inner love and reverence, not merely outwardly. Provide every one of them with their needs with honor, and give them health, honor and strength, good bearing and appearance, grace and loving-kindness. May love and brotherhood reign among them. Provide them with suitable marriage partners of scholarly and righteous parentage who will also be blessed with all that I have asked for my own descendants, since they will share the same fate.

You, the Eternal, know everything that is concealed, and to You all my heart’s secrets are revealed. For all my intention concerning the above is for the sake of Your great and holy Name and Torah. Therefore, answer me, O Eternal, answer me in the merit of our holy Forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov. For the sake of the fathers save the children, so the branches will be like the roots. For the sake of Your servant, David, who is the fourth part of Your Chariot, who sings with Divine inspiration.

A song of ascents. Fortunate is everyone who fears the Eternal, who walks in His ways. When you eat of the toil of your hands, you are fortunate, and good will be yours. Your wife is like a fruitful vine in the inner chambers of your home; your children are like olive shoots around your table. Look! So is blessed the man who fears the Eternal. May the Eternal bless you from Zion, and may you see the good of Jerusalem all the days of your life. May you see your children’s children, peace upon Israel.

Please, O Eternal, Who listens to prayer: May the following verse be fulfilled in me: “‘As for Me,’ says the Eternal, “this My covenant shall remain their very being; My spirit, which rests upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth nor from the mouths of your children, nor from the mouths of your children’s children,” said the Eternal, “from now to all Eternity.” May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be pleasing before You, Eternal, my Rock and my Redeemer.

What Do We Do with Our “Baggage”?

Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz

Firstly, I’d like to thank Beyond BT for inviting me to guest blog. It’s truly an honor and a privilege to share some of my own experiences with my peers. It is also an auspicious time to blog – I’m writing this on the third day of Chanuka which mirrors the third day of creation when Hashem saw it was good twice. Chanuka is also the time for “pirsumei nisa” to publicize and show gratitude for the miracles Hashem has worked.

We live in an age of baggage. Everyone seems to have some to one degree or another. The unprecedented shidduchim crisis is exacerbated by fears – unfounded or otherwise – of the other person’s “baggage”. Similarly, when people undertake a journey towards a Torah life they frequently express concerns about all of their past “baggage”. So what can we do about all this baggage?

I actually began thinking about this theme in earnest several years ago when we were about to move to a smaller house. Suddenly, my “assets” (antiques, oversized furniture, collectibles) didn’t really seem so much like assets any more. After all, I had to build space for them, pack them, pay to have them moved, stored, etc. Perhaps Hillel was on to something when he said “when one increases possessions, one increases worry”. I recalled reading a story about several gold prospectors in the Yukon who hit the mother lode. They sewed the gold into their sleeves and cuffs and got on the raft to go back down the river. The raft capsized and our prospectors apparently drowned under the weight of their clothing while those who had been “less fortunate” swam to safety.

What about the other kind of “stuff”, the spiritual kind? In his seminal work “Tanya”, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi cites a gemara in Yoma which is simultaneously enigmatic and empowering. The gemara quotes Reish Lakish (himself an inspired returnee) as saying that one who does t’shuva out of fear – his sins are expunged, but one who does t’shuva out of love, his sins are converted into merits.

What a radical concept! Imagine an accountant telling the CEO of a major company that the company was about to post a huge loss. The CEO is mortified and asked the accountant for a suggestion. Suddenly the accountant jumped up and said “I’ve got it – let’s carry all the losses over to the profit column!” Reish Lakish tells us that we can in fact do just that with our spiritual ledger. A story is told of the famous Berditchiver, Rabbi Levi Yitchak who went over to a fellow reputed to be a wholesale sinner. “I envy you” he said” You possess such potential spiritual riches.”

By way of a “regel achas” (on one leg) introduction, I’m probably more of the classic type of BT – brought up frum, leaving the “derech” for a long walkabout and then fighting to come back, making peace with what I lost and what I left behind and moving forward. I’ve been in love with pop music since childhood and I can hold my own on the guitar with the best of them! I worked as an attorney in the entertainment industry for many years. Whatever they say about the music business is true and then some. It’s full of shallow, narcissistic, vain people who labor under the illusion that they will remain “forever young” – and that’s the positive side. The seamy underbelly contains a self-destructive force of unbelievable intensity which has claimed numerous victims over the years. I was going through some old industry photos recently and my wife pointed out that I was pretty much the only one in most of the photos who was still alive.

So what do I do with my “peckel” of life experience? I chose to work with Jewish kids. The minute they hear that I knew “Jerry” or hung out with Clapton or Dylan or the Beatles, they’re suddenly open to hear what I have to say. I’m no longer just another guy with a black coat and beard (I still have to convince people that Chassidim had the look before ZZ Top!).

It’s ironic that my credibility has to come from experiences which I’ve largely repudiated but in chassidus one takes one’s Torah where one finds it. When high school kids would come up to the farm where were lived with their guitars in tow, I used to get a kick asking them if I could “sit in” They’d kinda stare at me and say “Rabbi, do you play?” I’d smile and say “Just a little” Then, I’d break out the old telecaster and off we’d go – no hostages taken!

Similarly, in the days when we still had TV, I was a huge fan of the classic TV show “The Honeymooners.” I am a firm believer that the answers to all of humanity’s problems lie within the original 39 episodes. I’m currently working on a quasi-Purimlike work entitled “Tal D’vash” or “Honey Dew” (gematria anyone?) in which the episodes are used to demonstrate everything from the shabbos melachos to the Story of Purim (by way of illustration, one of the episodes had the main character, an oversized, ego-inflated bus driver named Ralph Kramden being asked to make a speech at the annual Raccoon dinner. He thought that he was being given the coveted Raccoon Of The Year award . The speech he crafted echoed his ersatz surprise and false modesty at being the recipient of such an honor. Imagine his surprise when he was given a speech to deliver awarding the honor to his best friend. It’s the Purim story on steroids!)

One year we planted a huge patch of corn on our farm. One day I came down to the garden and the heads of corn seemed to have exploded with gray and black pustules. It looked like something out of a science fiction movie. It was truly frightening. I ran into the house holding one of the misshapen ears screaming “Rivkie, we’re ruined”. I grabbed one of my organic gardening manuals and went back down to the garden to figure out what had gone wrong. I did some quick research and discovered that the culprit was a fungus called smut. The book recommended burning, not composting the plants, not planting in that area again, and to use smut resistant strains next season. It then went on to point out that if there was a gourmet market nearby to sell it as it is considered a delicacy (it is actually related to the mushroom and truffle). I ran back into the house yelling “Rivkie, we’re rich”.

The bottom line – baggage or riches – it’s your call.

Originally published on Dec 31, 2005

How Can We Avoid Alienating our Families and Breaching Our Values?

Dear Beyond BT

My husband & I are the only frum people in our respective families, except for an emotionally unstable brother who is somewhat estranged from the family. We have sheltered our kids from as much as we could while still having a loving & close relationship with our parents & siblings.

However, something that has been a huge issue the last few years is interdating & intermarriage. We’ve got it on both sides, from both our siblings & our nieces/nephews and it’s rampant. We straddle the line between guarding our kids and not insulting the relatives, but it is getting harder & harder to do that.

Even the ones who marry Jews live together first. It gets increasingly sticky b/c we receive regular financial help (as compensation) from a relative whose children are ALL married/in serious relationships with non Jewish women. In their eyes, it’s just not important to marry a Jew; the most important thing is to be “happy”. Nothing I’ve said or done has made a bit of difference; I’ve tried.

What I still hate most about being a BT is not having frum relatives who embrace Torah & live by the same values. I want to have frum family to share Shabbat & holidays with. One would think after 30+ years I would just get over it but it just gets more and more difficult to the point of resentment. Baruch Hashem, my own kids will always be able to come to us (or each other) and I’m thrilled but I’m actually a little jealous of them as well.

Also, my daughter herself married a BT and I see her having to deal with the same issues with her in-laws I’ve had to deal with my entire life and I feel terrible, because it is so stressful for her. In some ways it’s even harder for her than it was for me b/c as an FFB she is less equipped to deal with it.

I would love to hear how others on Beyond BT deal with these issues. It seems that the only choice is to alienate the family or breach our values, neither of which are a solution.

– Susan

First published 12/15/2010

Overlooking the Challenges of Marriage

By Bob Garber

As someone constantly learning with Baalei Tshuva and potential BTs, my relationship always seems to end with the marriage of my students. Up until the wedding, I frequently see my students at Shabbatonim, visiting our home for Shabbos, or attending an interesting lecture or program. The wedding is usually an exciting, joyous party with many mutual friends, current and former students attending. The Sheva Berachos are filled with inspiring divrei Torah and dancing, usually in an intimate setting with friends and family.

However, once the festivities end, connections seem to begin to diminish. Of course, we invite the newlyweds for Shabbos, and they come a few times, but even this contact gradually diminishes as the couple begins their new lives together and get involved in their careers and their community. My wife and I have attended numerous such weddings in the past five years, and in almost all cases we have gradually lost contact with former students, rarely seeing them except for chance meetings. I don’t necessarily think that this is a bad thing, as couples develop their own relationship and build their home and family.

Nevertheless, the following pattern has also become increasingly common. I start hearing rumors or innuendos that someone is separated, but of course no one can really speak about it because its lashon hora. Then I hear rumors about a get, and then still later I meet the person (sometimes with a baby) and find out that the couple is in fact divorced. Sometimes the BT also appears to be dressing inappropriately, and later is no longer Shomer Shabbos.

I am very saddened by this pattern. Marriage, instead of being a significant stepping stone to personal and spiritual growth, seems in many cases to have become the culmination of spiritual growth, and is unable to survive the ongoing pressures and challenges that observant couples inevitably face.

Part of the problem is that I don’t think the couple, family, friends and even rabbis and other spiritual guides focus much on life after marriage. The reality is that it’s not easy changing the focus of one’s life when you get married, and the older the chassan and kallah are, the more difficult that transition becomes. Moreover, it’s also not easy to learn to prioritize another person’s needs over one’s own needs, especially when that person is so different than oneself. After the excitement wears off, and the couple becomes entrenched in their routines, sometimes communication and expectations between the parties get out of sync. I also think especially BTs, who do not have observant parents as role models, may become confused as to their spiritual direction both individually, and in relation to their spouses.

The worst part is that I believe the downhill slide is totally preventable. Many couples just don’t know that Judaism has much to contribute to the ongoing relationship, and that learning about marriage and relationships, e.g. Shalom Bayis, may be just as satisfying and important as learning about Shabbos and Kashrus. The Torah has much to say even about the personal relationship skills that each partner in a marriage need to practice and perfect. In addition, there is no reason that inspirational Shabbos and learning experiences should end after marriage. I believe that Kiruv and regular Jewish institutions need to devote more efforts to reaching out specifically to BT married couples and provide them both with the spiritual resources such as classes and learning opportunities, as well as practical and personal resources for handling the stresses of living as a couple and later with children.

Mourning’s End – Understanding Sefira and Lag B’Omer


The Torah’s Honor

The untimely demise of a Torah giant impacts every Jew, leaving a deep feeling of loss. If two Torah leaders died on one day (G-d forbid), the tragedy would be immense. We cannot even fathom how we would feel if the number was ten, fifty, or a hundred. In this light, we can begin to grasp the devastation of 24,000 Torah scholars dying between Pesach and Shavous, all students of Rabbi Akiva.

Our Sages reveal that they all died for the same reason: they did not honor each other properly ( Yevamos 62b). Their failure to honor their colleagues prevented them from appreciating words of Torah said by others. As a result their understanding of Torah was confined to their own insight, an extremely limited perception. Lacking total comprehension, they were not worthy to pass the Torah on to the next generation.

This flaw was rooted so deep in their conduct that they were not aware of it. Even Rabbi Akiva did not perceive it and never reproached them for it. If so, why were they punished so severely? The period between Pesach and Shavous is a time when a Jew is meant to prepare himself to receive the Torah. They should have used this opportunity to look within themselves and recognize their shortcomings. Instead, their souls were returned to their Creator.

Because of this tragedy, the Jewish people observe a period of national mourning between Pesach and Shavous. During this time we refrain from getting married, taking haircuts and shaving ( Shulchan Aruch 493:1-2). In addition, the accepted custom is not to listen to music ( Igros Moshe 1,166 and other poskim ) or to dance, even at a seudas mitzva ( Mishna Berura 493,3).
Read more Mourning’s End – Understanding Sefira and Lag B’Omer

A Shavuos Retreat at a Center Built for BT Families

Ohr Somayach, Monsey finished construction of their magnificent Beit Shvidler Conference Center five years ago. This beautiful family retreat center was built for the express purpose of providing inspiring guidance and family support services to the Ohr Somayach alumni and extended Baal Teshuva community through shiurim and weekend retreats.

Ohr Somayach launched their family division, Ora V’Simcha under the dynamic leadership of Rabbi and Rebbetzin Naftali and Rivky Reich almost three years ago. Since that time, Ora V’Simcha has conducted over 20 inspiring and informative weekend get togethers which have been highly acclaimed and greatly appreciated by all attendees.

This Shavuos, Ora V’Simcha will once again be hosting their Shavuos Retreat for families with Rabbi YY Rubinstein, Ivy Kalazan, Rabbi Avrohom Braun, Ayala Berney and Rabbi and Rebbetzin Naftali and Rivky Reich. The retreat boasts gourmet cuisine as well as a professional child care program. The retreats are offered on an open enrollment, first come first served basis, and they are normally sold out well in advance.

For those interested in inquiring or attending, please contact Mrs. Shoshanna Kirshner at sk@oravsimcha.org or 845-216-3970.

What I Would Tell Every New BT

1. Listen to the wise advice of Pirkei Avos. Make yourself a rabbi and acquire yourself a friend. It’s essential to have a reachable rabbi who has a good brain, a good heart, a sense of humor and lots of practical good sense. It’s also important to have an understanding and patient friend whom you can cry on, vent on and kvetch on.

2. Don’t be like the guy who’s always changing the hands on his wristwatch whenever he spots a different time on someone else’s. Maybe, just maybe, the other guy is wrong! And that’s even if the other guy is an FFB going back to the Vilna Gaon. That’s why you need the reachable rabbi and the patient friend mentioned in #1.

3. Having too much money will never be a problem again.

4. Having too much leisure time will also never be a problem again.

5. Angels are perfect. Human beings, even if they wear black hats or sheitels, are not.

6. It is the most wonderful experience in the world to be a grandparent to frum from birth grandchildren. Unfortunately, you first have to pass through a stage known as Being a Parent. Being a parent to frum children is a three-way race to see what you lose first: all your sanity, all your money, or all your hair.

7. Parts of New York are their own planet.

8. Do one tremendous awesome Yom Kippur to atone for all of those sins in your previous non-frum existence. From then on, take it one year at a time.

9. Learn to read Hebrew. You don’t need to actually speak it, unless you’re planning on moving to Israel. You do, however, need to learn frummisher sprach (all of those Yiddish-Yinglish-whatever slangy expressions which are sprinkled through FFB speech). “Our b’chor won Chosson Bereishis on Simchas Torah at his Yeshiva Gedola by pledging to learn two thousand blatt.” “Bli ayin harah, my machatenesta is in remission from yenem’s machalah.” “The rav’s aynekel’s bris was on Shabbos Chol Hamoed, so they invited the entire kehillah to a fleishige seudah in the shul sukkah.” English, of course, right? But would anyone not part of our culture understand what you were trying to say?

10. Reach out beyond your reachable rabbi and your patient friend to a support group, like the people right here at Beyond BT dot com.

11. Distinguish between those family members who are supportive and those who are toxic. Spend quality time with those who are supportive and caring. Send Rosh Hashanah cards once a year to those who are not.

12. Gehinnom was created on Erev Shabbos. That’s why Fridays are frantic and stress-filled no matter whether sunset is four-thirty or eight-thirty.

13. Bosses are generally more willing to let you leave early on Friday if you work late on Thursday. The problem is, that’s also when you have to shop and cook for Shabbos. So say goodbye to any chance of getting to sleep at a decent hour Thursday nights.

14. If you have two cents the kids’ yeshivos will take it. See Number Three above.

15. Find a spouse who’s in it for the long haul.

16. Pray to G-d a lot.

I’m sure my fellow BT’s out there will have their own tips, strategies and survival secrets to pass along to new BT’s (hopefully without scaring them off). Originally Posted on Jan 19, 2010.

Can One be a Frum Jew with a Nose-Ring?

A classic Beyond BT post from December 15, 2005.

Growing up, I was always the nerdy kid. I was the one who did not fit in with the crowd, who did not care about being popular, who wore crazy clothing, who wrote poetry instead of paying attention in school, and who went through a rainbow of hair colors.

I first became enamored with Judaism when I joined my high school youth group. Despite my weirdness, I was accepted for who I was, and I did not have to change myself to have friends.

I first encountered frumkeit when I got to UPenn. The Orthodox students I encountered were warm and welcoming. Their love of Judaism sparked my interest, and I wanted more than anything to be like them.

As I started taking on more and more mitzvot, I thought that it was not enough just to be observant. In order to truly be frum, I had to have the” frum personality.” I ignored all the parts of me that I did not consider Jewish, and plunged into Jewish life, making huge Shabbat meals for everyone, going around the dorm building giving away fresh baked cookies or deli-roll, attending 5 shiurim a week (plus learning with a few chevrutot). Every activity I did was Jewish.

I think everyone goes through this stage, where they cut off all ties to their past persona and try to reinvent themselves as their new frum self. Unfortunately for me, this led to an identity crisis. I still did not feel like I truly was one of those Orthodox girls that I looked up to, and yet, I had definitely transformed into someone completely different than my own self.

It took me a trip outside to a park for me to consciously realize what I had done. Up until this point, I had not realized that there was this whole part of me that I had pushed deep down inside.

It takes a lot of thought to go back through your memories, your old essence of self, to pull out the remnants that can be saved, that can be incorporated into your new frum self. But I would argue it is something that we all need to do at some point. No one can completely re-create themselves.

For me this required dedicating more time to reading fantasy novels for fun, to taking walks in nature, and to relaxing in front of the television every so often. But even this was not enough. I felt that in some way I needed to reclaim part of my old unique self in order to be able to better merge that self and my Jewish self instead of having them as two different personalities. Something I had wanted to do since freshman year, but had told myself it was not something that conformed to Orthodox norms.

That something was getting my nose pierced. I had talked to my rabbi, who gave me the psak that there was nothing halachically wrong with this, (though he thought I was a bit crazy). I did not want to make an outward statement of rebellion, of rejecting the religion I had tried so hard to be a part of. But I wanted a reminder to myself that deep down inside I was still Rachel.

It was a very cathartic experience for me. And for all that I worried that people might shun me for not conforming, most people either did not notice it (since I got something small and discreet) or if they did, thought it was cool. Even the yeshivish community in Providence that I visit whenever I am living at my parents’ house did not really notice or think less of me.

So I would say that the moral of the story is that if there is something you want to do that does not conflict with halacha, but is not part of your community’s norms, go for it. People are more accepting than you would expect, and they might even respect you more for not being afraid to be who you are.

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