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

Beyond BT Guide to the Passover Seder

Please make copies of the guide for your seder so that participants who want to perform the mitzvos properly can do so, without the need for continual instruction. Please feel free to email it to anyone who you think would find it useful.

Here is the link for the Beyond BT Guide to the Seder. The contents are also included below.

(Compiled by Mark Frankel) Brought to you by www.beyondbt.com.

The purpose of this guide is to highlight the structure, Mitzvos and some insights to the Seder. The halachos and measurements were mostly culled from the Kol Dodi Haggadah by Rabbi David Feinstein.

Mitzvos of the night
Biblical Mitzvos are mitzvos that are found in the Torah (five books of Moses)
Rabbinic Mitzvos are mitzvos that our Sages enacted. There is a Biblical Mitzvoh that the Rabbis can enact Rabbinic Mitzvos and we follow them just as if they were Biblical Mitzvos

In the times of the Talmud and before (before the year 500 C.E), there was a Sanhedrin composed of 70 of the leading Rabbis of the time. Every Rabbi had to be ordained by a Rabbi who had been previously ordained with the chain going back to Moses and the giving of the Torah by G-d at Mount Sinai. To be ordained, the Rabbi had to know all the laws of the Torah. After the period of the Talmud, this ordination process ended, mostly due to the dispersion and persecution of the Jewish People.

The Biblical Mitzvos on Pesach are:
— Eating Matzah – “In the evening you shall eat unleavened bread”.
— Relating the Story of the Exodus from Egypt – “And you should relate to your son (the story of Pesach) on this day”.

The Rabbinic Mitzvos on Pesach are:
— Drinking four cups of wine
— Eating Bitter Herbs
— Reciting the Hallel – Songs of Praise

Read more Beyond BT Guide to the Passover Seder

Structure of Maggid According to the Malbim

According to the Malbim (although there is a dispute whether it really is the Malbim) the structure of the narrative portion of the Haggadah is based on the verse in the Torah from which the obligation to tell the story is derived:

And you shall relate to your child on that day, saying “It is because of this that Hashem acted for me when I came forth out of Egypt.” (Shemos (Exodus) 13:8)

This source verse is broken up into six parts corresponding to the six sections of the story in the Haggadah.
— 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.

And you shall relate to your child…The first eight paragraphs correspond to this verse and teach us about this obligation to tell the story
— “We were enslaved unto Pharaoh and G-d freed us”– tells us we should relate this to our children who would also still be enslaved had G-d not taken us out.
— “It once happened that Rabbi Eliezar..” –shows that our greatest sages told the story, since the main function is to recount it for our children.
— “Rabbi Elazar, son of Azaryah, said…” –shows the duty to do so at all times.
— “Praised be the Ever-Present, praised be He…” –shows how every type of child is to be instructed at the Seder.
— “What does the wise son say…” –shows how to teach the wise son
— “What does the wicked son say…” –shows how to teach the wicked son
— “What does the naive son say….” –shows how to teach the naive son
— “And regarding the one who does not know how to ask a question…” –shows how to teach the son who can’t ask a question

–“on that Day…” –The next paragraph tells us when the obligation to tell the story applies
— “One might think that the obligation to talk…” –explains when the special duty applies.

–“saying…” — The next paragraphs contain the actual saying of the story of the Exodus
— “In the beginning our fathers were worshippers of idols…” –shows the deeper roots of the exile and the Exodus as the way to spiritual redemption.
— “Blessed is he who keeps His promise…” –shows that G-d kept His promise to Abraham that we will be enslaved and redeemed
— “It has stood firm…in every generation there are those who rise against us..” –shows that G-d continually redeems us
— “Go and ascertain what Lavan the Aramite intended to do…” –describes the beginning of the Exodus when Jacob went down to Egypt
— “And he went down…And he sojourned there…With few people…And he became there a nation…” –Great, mighty…And formidable…describes how we became a great nation in Egypt
— “And the Egyptians made evil of us…” –And the tormented us…And laid hard labor upon us…describes how the Egyptians enslaved us
— “And we cried out unto G-d… And G-d heard us…And He saw our distress… And our travail… And our oppression…” — describes how G-d heard our pleas
— “And G-d took us out of Egypt…With a strong hand…And with and outstretched arm…And with great terror…And with signs…And with wonders…” –describes how G-d redeemed us
— “Blood, and fire and smoke…An alternative explanation…These are the ten plagues…Rabbi Yosi the Galiliean says…Rabbi Eliezer says…Rabbi Akiva says…” –describes the miracles and wonders G-d did for us during the redemption
— ‘How indebted are we…How multiple, then is our debt to G-d…” –describes additional accounts of G-d’s benevolence which were not yet mentioned

–“It is because of this…” –can be read this is because of…Rabban Gamliel reads it this way…this refers to Pesach, Matzah and Maror
— “Rabban Gamliel used to say…” –explains the concrete Mitzvos ordained for the Seder: Pesach, Matzah and Maror.
— Pesach… Matzah…Maror…explains the reason for these Mitzvos

–“Hashem acted for me…” –The next paragraphs describe how we should consider it as if Hashem took us out of Egypt
— “In every generation, one is obliged to regard himself…” –emphasizes that, in celebrating the Seder, we must see ourselves as having gone out from Egypt.

–“when I came forth out of Egypt.” — The next paragraphs are the introduction and recitation of Hallel songs of praise, similar to the songs of praise that were recited when we left Egypt.
–“Therefore it is our duty to thank, praise…” — since Hashem took us out from Egypt, we praise Hashem for his kindness ending the Haggadah with a Bracha.
–“Praise G-d…” — When Israel went out of Egypt…is the beginning of Hallel which describe the going out from Egypt

Uncle Martzi – The Son Who Wanted to Come Back

In the mid afternoon on Passover eve, a special guest would come to my parents home. Martzi Baci. Uncle Martin, my great uncle. I don’t recall him visiting us at any other time, only on Erev Pesach and for the Seders.

His routine was as follows; he’d come in, take off his coat, light up another cigarette,one always seemed to be dangling from his mouth, and head straight the the kitchen which my mother, a wonderful cook herself gladly ceded to him.

An apron tied round his waist, Martzi got to work preparing the ceremonial foods for the Seder meal, hard labor in those pre food processor days, but . Martzi.was up for the challenge Before retiring, Martzi had been a chef running the kitchen at a posh Arizona resort where the guests were millionaires, movie stars and politicians. But even as he worked, he always seemed to have time to chat with a little girl.

“Oh how are you doing with school,” he’d ask.

“Not so good” , I mumbled. I was in third grade at the time, and struggling with arithmetic and hopeless at sports.

“Oh I didn’t like school either. Was no good at it.. You know I was so bad that I flunked the second and fourth grade.”

That story blew me away. Never had I encountered an adult who willingly confessed to struggling with school.

Years later, I discovered that it was a myth, a fabrication, that Martzi had gotten though school just fine and even spent several years at a Yeshiva in his native Hungary.

He left the heim sometime around the first world war. The stories about that are fuzzy. I once heard cousins say that he went pink and found his way into Bela Kuns revolutionary army for a time. Sometime in the early 20s after the Johnson act curtailed European immigration he made it to America illegally, taking a job on a ship and slipping into New York City after the boat docked.

It was in New York that he met his wife, Esti Neni, a good looking divorcee with a child. and papers, the term they used back then for a green card. For reasons that are not known to me, Esther was allergic to religion. In her home, there was no Passover, no Seder, no Rosh hashana , no Yom kippur.

For a long time Martzi went along with it. That was his family, his life. Europe seemed very distant and he went along with the amnesia of assimilated Jewish culture but then one year my mother invited him to join our family and he said. yes. I don’t know what caused him to agree, good manners, nostalgia, or a respect for my mother who lived out the war in Europe and spent a year in Aushwitz but after that he came each year, until his death, when I was eight.

On Seder night Martzi was different, morphed into his childhood persona Mordche, the bochur from Tur Terebes. He spent the entire time immersed in ritual tasks. After he finished preparing the kaira, the Seder plate, he changed his clothing, went to shul and the took my father’s seat at the head of our mahagony dining room table to conduct the Seder. His Seder wasn’t just a prelude to the meal. It was a real Seder, run exactly as his pious father had run it in Europehe Hagaddah straight through without skipping anything.

Looking back on it all, I don’t know how he managed to live inside the paradox, conducting a strictly orthodox Seder and then going back home on the subway a wife who was making sandwiches. He never spoke about it. People back then were reticent, un-analytic, very much in the moment.

I suppose there are those who would call Martzi a sinner, the bad son of the Hagaddah, but they couldn’t have met him, seen him chopping and grinding with the seriousness of a priest in the Holy Temple. I prefer to see him as another kind of son, not included in the Hagaddah’s four categories, but very much present among us, the son who has gone some distance but is trying to find a way back home.

First Published April 2010

How I Learned to Stop Complaining and Love Yom Tov

Making Yom Tov requires a Jewish woman to be a frugal shopper, an adequate cook, an event planner, an astute student of Jewish law, and a gracious hostess. She needs to be all this while still being a wife, a mother, or often a career woman too. In short, making Yom Tov is an endeavor that requires a Project Manager. Being the balaboostah is not a simple task, as she must oversee all aspects of the project from start to finish. Over 20 odd years of running my own kosher kitchen in our Torah observant household, I have learned through repeated failures and successes how to stop complaining and love Yom Tov. Here are ten of my tips:

1. Always prepare well in advance.
Like any big project, making Yom Tov requires a schedule. Give yourself ample time, weeks or months if necessary, to do all the planning, shopping, cooking and freezing. Inviting guests is often best done at least a few weeks ahead of time, lest you find yourself disappointed that people have made other plans. It helps to know as soon as possible exactly how many people you are catering for. This way you know what quantities of food to buy, and you also have time to search for bargains. Then you can measure out your freezer, because unless you have a separate freezer for Yom Tov, (which some lucky women do) you will still be using it for everyday food storage. You need to know there will be room to store all the Yom Tov food, before and after it is cooked. I like to work out what to purchase and cook by dividing it into the number of servings for each meal. If I know that I will be serving 45 portions over the entire two days of a Yom Tov, then I know I need 45 portions of soup, 45 portions of fish, 45 portions of desert, and so on and so forth.

Then I cook in short cooking sessions over the course of days or weeks. To do a long cooking marathon into the wee hours of the morning leaves me too exhausted to go to work the next day. Instead, I grab an hour or two here and there, in the early evenings and on Sundays, to cook a tray of fish balls, or a tray of chicken, to bake a cake, or to make a kugel or two, etc. Then I pop them into the freezer with labels taped on the containers to keep track. Following this method ensures that by the time Yom Tov comes around I am relaxed and ready without panicking or having endured undue loss of sleep.

2. Never try to keep up with the big Rebbetzins or the Goldsteins.
Yom Tov became much more enjoyable for me when I stopped comparing mine to other women’s Yom Tov tables. I used to drive myself crazy by feeling inadequate when my table wasn’t as fancy or my food not as elaborate as the big Rebbetzins or the Goldsteins next door. It took me a while, but soon enough I realised that it was all so self-defeating. Just as no matter who you are, there is always going to be someone smarter, richer, or better looking than you, there will always be those women whose Yom Tov making is more efficient, more beautiful, and more tasty than yours too. Some women have more talent and an eye for aesthetics or cooking. Some women grew up with better Yom Tov making training than others, so they have an advantage. So what? At the end of the day, only Hashem knows your particular circumstances. And your circumstances includes things like your inborn talent, the amount of money you can spend, the amount of time you have, the amount of energy G-d gave you, your family situation (5 little kids under the age of ten is challenging for anyone), and the type of lifestyle you live. No one else can or should judge you. Remember, the only one you really need to impress is the Almighty. Only He really knows if you extended enough effort to honor the Yom Tov, and that is between you and G-d.

3. I make sure I cook what my family likes.
The most important people you have to satisfy is your own family. No sense of copying a great fancy recipe just because it looks great in the latest trendy kosher cookbook, or because your friends loved it, if your own family doesn’t like it. It’s your home, it’s your Yom Tov table, and your most special guests are your own family. Keep them happy first and foremost, and then your guests will also enjoy your meal all the more. If your husband likes plain instead of fancy, then make plain. You can prepare an extra dish or two just for the guests, but be sure the bulk of the meal satisfies your family. Remember, your guests will leave after the meal, but your family lives with you. Believe me, a family with happily filled tummies makes for more a much more pleasant Yom Tov and more shalom in the home.

4. Use paper goods.
Yes, I know you invested in fantastic crockery and cutlery, or maybe you have that special set handed down to your from your grandmother. So use them, for at least part of the Yom Tov if you must, but paper goods will save you so much extra cleaning time. After Yom Tov you will appreciate doing only two loads of dishes in the dishwasher instead of ten. And its less pile up in your sink and on your benches during Yom Tov too. Paper goods need not be expensive to be pretty and practical. I absolutely love popping them all in the rubbish bag after the meal, it’s a machayah!

5. Turn on Torah tapes or inspiring Jewish music while working.
Preparation time can be long, mundane, and mind numbing. You can utilize that time by making it inspiring. Not only are there heaps of Torah leaning tapes you can borrow or buy, but the internet has dozens of Torah websites that have unbelievably good Torah classes on audio. Listen while chopping, kneading, mixing, scrubbing, and polishing. Not only will you stimulate your mind, you’ll have some words of Torah to give over at the table, and the holy vibes of the Torah learning will get absorbed into your food making it all that more tasty.

6. Be inner directed.
Don’t look for compliments or appreciation from hubby, kids or guests. If you get it, then great, but don’t be needy of it. Get your head straight as to the purpose of making Yom Tov and, that is to strengthen your connection to G-d and to create holiness, to sanctify your home, and to do the mitzvah. Not everyone in your life will always understand how hard you worked, especially kids, and some guests, so get over it!

7. Go to shule only after I am rested.
I love going to shule, but not if I haven’t got the attention span or the energy. It’s better to get bit of rest or quiet time sometimes on Yom Tov mornings, even if it means missing a Kaddish or two. So what? We’re not men, we are not obligated to be there, we can daven just as well at home most of the time. It’s just nice if we can go and only if we enjoy it. And why drag your kids along if they won’t behave, or if you spend the whole time chasing them, or shushing them to be quiet?

8. Go to a Torah class or gathering if there are any.
No matter how tired I get on Yom tov afternoons, if there is a Torah class, or a frabrengen, or any type of speaker or gathering, I try with all my strength to drag myself to go. I find that once I am there I am always happy I went. After all that cooking serving, hostessing, etc., it’s great to have some social interaction with other women and it can charge your batteries up even better than a short sleep.

9. Indulge yourself and buy at least one nice new thing.
Get something nice for yourself for Yom Tov, whatever you can afford. If not an entire outfit, it may be a piece of costume jewelllery, or shoes, or get a facial, a manicure, or get the sheitel done. Whatever it is that makes you feel more feminine, more princess like, more pampered, do it, and do not feel guilty. The Torah agrees that we women need these little perks.

10. Endorse yourself for a job well done!
When it is finally all over and done with, when you have finally put that last dish away in its place in the cupboard, take a deep sigh and pat yourself on the back. You did it again!

Also posted on Shoshanna’s blog.
Originally Posted on 10/27/2010

Preparing Your Soul for Pesach

Rabbi Itamar Shwartz author of Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh and the Getting to Know Your Self/Soul/Emotions/Thoughts series has some great articles for Soul Preparation for Pesach.

Pesach Talks

Pesach – Freedom From The Evil Inclination

Pesach – Internalizing Your Knowledge

Pesach – Time of Our Freedom

Pesach – Redeeming Your Soul

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Rabbi Akiva Tatz has some amazing Pesach Shiurim here.

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Torah Anytime has hundreds of shiurim on Pesach.

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YU Torah has hundreds of shiurim on Pesach.

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Aish has many articles on Pesach here.

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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.”

Rabbi Moshe Gordon explores some of the classical approaches to understanding and fulfilling this Mitzvah in this mp3 on Leaving Mitzraim.

And here is an amazing series of Shiurim by Rabbi Gordon on the Seder and the Haggadah which covers the major Rishonim, Achronim and Poskim on the mitzvos of Pesach night and the Hagaddah.

Seder
Kadesh and Arba Kosos
Urchatz Karpas Yachatz
Hallel Rachtza Matza Heseiba
Maror Korech Shulchan Orech
Afikomen Barech End of Hallel Nirtza after Seder

Haggadagh
Intro to Sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim
HaLachma Anya Akiras HaShulchan Intro to Ma Nishtana
Ma Nishtana
Avadim Hayeinu Arami Oved Avi
Arami Oved Avi 2
Makos End of Magid

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Beyond Observance

For many of us, observance fills an important need. We have food and other permitted pleasures to fulfill our physical desires. Our family, friends, and sports buzzer-beaters are there for our emotional needs. Business, politics, and science challenges us intellectually. And Religious Observance gives us that important spiritual dimension.

This four dimensional perspective was popularized by Covey in the 7 Habits, and as long as we learn Torah, fulfill the mitzvos and think about God on occasion, many would argue that there is nothing wrong with such an approach.

But the Torah offers us so much more. We can move towards human greatness and be in control of our desires, our ego, and our wandering attention. We can develop deep loving relationships with hundreds of people. We can develop a constant connection to God which brings amazing spiritual pleasure and helps us successfully navigate the trials and tribulations of the world. And we can develop our immortal souls which will exist for all of eternity.

Every one of us has the ability to go Beyond Observance towards the greatest pleasures the world has to offer. The Ramchal provides us with the path. I am working with a number of friends on making this a reality and the progress everybody is making is extremely exciting. It’s not an overnight quick fix. It’s Hashem’s guide to achieve our purpose in this world. The key is to follow the plan. I’ll keep you updated.

There Are no Lightweights or Heavyweights … Only Half-Weights

Pikudei-Shekalim-An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-

Everyone who is to be counted in the census must give a half-shekel according to the holy standard where a shekel is 20 gerah … the rich may not increase [their donations over and above] and the poor may not diminish [their donations below the amount of] (than) this half-shekel …

-Shemos 30:13,15

I believe with absolute assurance that the Creator, Blessed is His Name, rewards those who observe His commandments with good and punishes those who violate His commandments.

-Maomonides 11th principle of Faith

Our Rabbis taught: A man should always regard himself as though he were half guilty and half meritorious [so that] if he performs one mitzvah, fortunate is he, for he has tipped his personal scale towards merit; if he commits one aveirah-transgression, woe to him for tipping his personal scale towards guilt … Rabi Eleazar son of Rabi Shimon said: Because the world is judged by its majority, and an individual [too] is judged by his majority [of his personal good or bad], if he performs one mitzvah, fortunate is he for tipping the scale, both for himself and for the whole world, [down] on the side of merit; if he commits one transgression, woe to him for tipping the scale for himself and the whole world towards guilt …

-Kiddushin 40A-B

The silver census money collected from the community came out to 100 kikars–talents and 1775 shekels by the holy standard …  The 100 [silver] kikars were used to cast the foundation sockets for the Mishkan and that the cloth partition. There were a total of 100 foundation sockets made out of 100 [silver] kikars, one kikar for each foundation socket.

–Shemos 38:25,27

Everyone, both rich and poor was commanded to contribute exactly the same coin.  As the census numbers were calculated by counting these coins the need for a standardized contribution is easily understood.  If the wealthy were to drop multiple coins, or a larger, weightier denomination, into the contribution box it would have been impossible to arrive at an accurate tally. Still, it would seem that a full shekel coin, the standard unit of currency, would have been a more appropriate uniform contribution for one and all. On a pragmatic level, it could simply be that this level of contribution might prove onerous for the poorest people in K’lal Yisrael-the Jewish People, whereas everyone could afford a half-shekel without being pinched too severely.  But the Izhbitzer drew a great, defining lesson in avodas HaShem-serving HaShem, from the use of the half, rather than the whole, shekel.

In our newfangled economies cash money has become nearly obsolete.  With the advents of ACH, wires transfers and scanning codes for payment; even credit cards and checks, that supplanted cash, are becoming passé.  But once-upon-a-time cash was the “new” currency. The truth is that our “fiat money” — paper document banknotes, AKA cash, is intrinsically useless and valueless; they are used only as a medium of exchange. They replaced banknotes of the gold and/or silver standard economies under which governments would not print more banknotes than they had precious metal reserves to back. Under the bimetal standards, one could redeem their dollars for fixed amounts of gold and silver. Before that there was no paper money at all. Currency was exclusively coins made of precious metals; gold and silver.  These coins did have inherent value and the value of the various coin denominations was determined by the weight of precious metal that each contained.  E.g. a silver dollar weighed four times as much as a silver quarter.

We can now understand the etymology of machatzis hashekel-the half shekel.  The verb in lashon kodesh-the holy language, for weighing is sh’kol, the noun for weight — mishkal. Thus, a more precise translation for machatzis hashekel would be “the half weight”.  The full unit of currency, the shekel, was very aptly and descriptively named, as it was the standard unit of weight of precious metal for the currency system. Larcenous coin-debasement practices such as coin-clipping and coin-sweating aimed at reducing the weight of precious metal of the coin while continuing to circulate it at face value. In fact, striping or engraving the rims of coins was first introduced to prevent clipping the coins’ circumference.

Mefarshim-commentaries, have explained that Maimonides 11th principle of faith; belief in reward and punishment, also expresses the belief in human Free-Will.  For as of the Rambam himself writes; if human Free-Will was an illusion if our thoughts, words and deeds were predetermined by Divine Providence then “through what system of justice would HaShem exact punishment from the wicked or compensate the righteous with reward? Would the Judge of all the earth not render justice?” (Hilchos Teshuvah 5:4)

Based on the Gemara  in Kiddushin the Izhbitzer extrapolated from the maftir of Shekalim that we read this week, that the opposite is equally true; that there can be no human Free-Will or, at least, that human Free-Will cannot be fully exercised, unless the willful choices that we make result in the ultimate in reward and punishment. If, when facing every new situation we do not confront the ultimate in reward and punishment, then we are self-sabotaging our Free-Will.

On the Beyond Teshuva Blog the challenge of plateauing has been explored many times.  Most people begin their lives as ovdei HaShem with the period of sustained growth.  Of course we stumble and suffer setbacks but, in general, the arrows on the graphs of our spirituality head upwards.  Then, for a variety of reasons we begin to flatline.  We get into a groove (some would call it a rut) and, essentially, we stop growing.

The Izhbitzer avers that the two primary causes of plateauing are the smug self-perception of secure, set-for-life spiritual wealth on the one hand and the utter hopelessness and sense of futility arising from the self-perception of spiritual poverty on the other hand.

Like the young entrepreneurs who may have found themselves in the right place at the right time making boatloads of money in a go-go economy, some of us, who’ve already learned lots of Torah and performed many mitzvos feel as though we can coast for the rest of our lives.  The spiritually rich, and sometimes even the spiritually nouveau riche, feel as though they’re so far ahead of the game that their next move, i.e. their next free choice opportunity, could not possibly negatively impact them, nor could the next 10,000 such moves.  In their delusional organization of reality they imagine that they have a very thick safety cushion, that  they have accumulated such a huge pile of Torah and mitzvos that spiritual bankruptcy, and the draining of their heavenly reward points accounts awaiting them in the afterlife, is unthinkable.

In stark contrast, the spiritually impoverished are paralyzed by hopelessness.  Their self image tends to be one of an inveterate sinner.  Like the compulsive gambler or the irresponsible social climber who purchased a home that he could not afford, who finds his mortgage underwater and his credit rating damaged beyond repair, the spiritually impoverished delude themselves into thinking that the hole of debt that they have dug themselves into is just too deep and profound to ever climb out of. The spiritually poor, and sometimes even those who just transgressed one “whopper” of a sin, feel as though they’re so far behind the game that their next move, i.e.  their next free choice opportunity, could not possibly positively impact them, nor could the next 10,000 such moves.

But what the rich and the poor share in common in these cases is an apathetic, detached approach to the future based on a profound sense of one-sidedness and imbalance.  In their minds eye the scales of Divine Justice, reflective of their own personal ledgers, are not in equilibrium.  There is no balance at all between their merits and their demerits, between their credits and their debits between their mitzvos and their aveiros.  As a result the next move is of no consequence.  Irrespective of what they do next time, the lopsided scales will not budge.  What both the smug and the hopeless lack is the machatzis hashekel sensibility.  If only they were to follow the advice of Chaza”l and view the personal, civic and global scales of spiritual merits and demerits to be in perfect equilibrium; their every move would be invested with cosmic consequence.  There would be no room for either taking it easy or for giving up.

This, says the Izhbitzer, is what the pasuk means.  The status of the rich and the poor described in the pasuk is not determined by the size of the persons bank account.  Rather, these terms describe their personal spiritual ledger; the scales of the persons mitzvos and aveiros or, at least, their perception of those scales.  The Torah issues as a stern warning “the rich may not give a more and the poor or may not give less than this half weight.” The Torah doesn’t ask us to build a house of G-d with the full shekel sensibility.  The Torah demands that they “give” i.e. that they perceive and come to realization, that half the standard unit of weight weighs down one side of the scales and that the other half standard unit of weight weighs down the other side of the scales in perfect equilibrium, and that the persons next move, his next exercise of Free-Will, shall tip the scales one way or the other.

Chaza”l have a very close, precise reading of the pasuk “they will make a sanctuary for Me and I will dwell in THEM.” (Shemos 25:8) Per Chaza”l this means that HaShem declares “I will dwell in them (the builders-klal Yisrael) not in it (the mere building.)”  In other words each and every one of us can become a tabernacle and sanctuary for the Divine Indwelling.  Rashi (Shemos 30:15) says that there were three separate terumos and that the first one that the Torah demanded of klal Yisrael, the machatzis hashekel, was used to supply the silver for the adanim-the foundation sockets of the Mishkan. I’d like to add that in light of the Izhbitzer’s Torah that we learn this take away this lesson: Our lives are meaningful. Our thoughts, our words and our deeds are of cosmic importance and that this gift of the machatzis hashekel sensibility and perception forms the very adanim-foundation sockets, of restructuring ourselves as abodes for the Shechinah.

 ~adapted from Mei HaShiloach II Ki Sisa D”H Inyan Machatzis

See also Bais Yaakov  Ki Sisa 17

Musical Chairs – Chapter 8a – The Cystoscopy

The morning before the cystoscopy Asher joined his father at Rav Amram’s little synagogue for morning prayers.

“Are you sure you want to come? You always said that that we daven too long.”But Asher insisted . For the first time in his life he appreciated the subtle beauty of the slow service with it’s contemplative melodies and extended meditative silences.

In many synagogues he got the feeling that the men were racing through their prayers eager to get them over with so that they could get to work or even to yeshiva.Though the yeshiva prayers tended to be slow, he knew that most of the guys preferred the intellectual exertions of study to the work of the soul. He’d been like that too but now ever since he’d become, sick, not really sick but health challenged he’d come to value prayer. He was utter powerless over the most elemental functions of his own body. . Prayer was the only real card he had to play and it felt good to be around people who understood this.

After the service ended told his father that he wanted to speak to Rav Amran. “Are you sure?”

In the past, Asher had avoided his father’s Rebbe preferring the Lithuanian Rabbis from his yeshiva. “Yes, I feel like I need a brocha. Does Rav Amram know what is happening with me?”

“No, I never said anything to him.”

Asher slid his hand into his fathers and together they walked to the front of the synagogue where Rav Amram studied from a holy book, wrapped in tallis and tefillin.

“I’m running to a bris now but come to my house at noon.”

Asher spent the morning helping his mother prepare for Pesach which on this day meant scrubbing the fridge gasket with a q tip and scraping around the cabinet knobs with a tooth pick, to extricate any residue of hametz, leavened substance .In the past he’d avoided Pesach cleaning spending hours in a neighborhood Bais Medrash and doing the bare minimum but this year he found the simple physical tasks soothing rather than tedious. As he work he sang loudly to the latest Schwecky CD which he played at full blast, the music filling his mind and pushing out the space where worry might have crept in.

At noon Asher arrived at Rav Amram’s to find the rabbi laying underneath his stove holding a power screw driver in his hand.

“This holiday, brings you down to earth before it takes you up to heaven. “.

Asher smiled wanly

“Feel free to talk. ” The rabbi rose up. He was in shirtsleeves.

“Should I wear my hat and coat or am I alright as is?”

Once again Asher voice failed him again . He stood at the entrance to the Rabbi’s kitchen stuck in awkward silence until Rav Amram looped his arm around his shoulder.

“So, what can I do for you.”

He’d never before noticed that Rav Amran’s eyes were bright blue and his face was open and full of light . He thought for a moment. Should he retell his story with all the gory details. No. He’d just ask for a blessing.

Rav Amram laid his hands on Asher’s head and whispered the priestly blessing. Then he mumbled a few more words. “Refua shlaima, complete healing, Hatzlacha, success and a zigug hagun benekal, a proper match easily located. Simchas. Celebrations.

On C-day Molly and Nahum escorted their oldest son now two months short of his twenty third birthday to the hospital, In the back Asher dozed a baby in a car seat. The day was warm , the sky a bright blue and the hills around Hadassah hospital swathed with green like a Middle Eastern Switzerland.

A stocky bleached blonde nurse with a thick Russian accent escorted Asher into the treatment room handing him a pair of hospital pajamas and leaving him alone. As, Asher waited he bit his nails as if he were a child again. His head throbbed, The night before he’d tossed as his mind explored his worst fears. What if the doctors would find something and even if they didn’t what if his body had a reaction to the anesthetic like Grandpa Fred?

He took a deep breath and then began to pray in his own words. “”Help me, Please don’t end my life now. I’ll do what you want me to do. I’ll get married, I promise I won’t be too picky. I’ll find a good girl and build a family to give you nachas. G-d just let me live.”

Where were the doctors? How long would they leave him alone on an operating table shivering in threadbare pajamas.

In the morning his urine had been normal. Maybe he didn’t really need to do this. But just as he began to step down from the bed a deeply tanned man wearing scrubs arrived. .”I’m Dr. Moshe the anesthetist You like you’re getting off. ”

Asher obediently climbed back on the bed.

“Afraid?” Asher nodded slightly. What kind of question was this? Of course he was afraid. This man, had the power to end his life.

“It’ll be fine. You have a girl friend?”

Asher burst into laughter. Other than a non Jewish fellow, his father worked with no one ever asked him that.

“I wish I had one. I’m divorced for two years. I want to marry but this job doesn’t give me a moment to date and women aren’t’ interested in men who have no time for them….” Asher had never heard anyone talk this way and he was captivated Maybe he told this to all his patients, a bizarre ploy to calm their nerves but it worked. As Dr. Moshe continued his monolog anesthetic dripped into Asher’s vein . By the time, he finished Asher was unconscious.

Just outside Molly and Nahum sat nervously, Nahum scrolling through his email as Molly recited psalms. Then Nahum lifted his head and turned to his wife. “Are you thinking about my Dad?”

“Oh Nahum.” She clasped his hand in hers. It was trembling and cold.

“I can’t get it out of my head. I’m so scared.”

In a soft voice Molly hummed Shlomo Carelbach tunes with words from the pslams” I lift my eyes up to the mountain, where will my help come,” Nahum joining her until the nurse returned to tell them that the procedure was over.

When they entered the treatment room, Asher was wearing street clothes and Dr. Sadeh was there too, dressed in surgical scrubs. “Looks good, “he nodded. ” No need to worry”

“What about the bleeding?” Asher asked.

“It’s very minor. You’ll probably bleed today but I expect that it will stop very soon”

“And what about growths, can—” Asher could hardly say the word.

“Nothing, absolutely clean. ”

Molly threw her arms around her eldest son. Then she hugged Nahum and then all three of them huddling together in a circle of love.

On the ride home Asher asked about Shidduchim.

“Already? Molly face clouded. Don’t you want to recover from this first?.”

“Soon there will be a new crop of girls on them market.”

“Crop.????”Potatoes are crops, not girls”

“You know what I mean. Another bunch of girls. ”

At Passover a new group of 19 year old girls would enter the shidduch market— more girls for Asher to meet.

Musical Chairs is a novel about a Jerusalem American BT family’s struggle to find a bride for their FFB yeshiva bochur son.

Aish Appreciation

One of the foundations of spiritual growth is connecting to Hashem through appreciating all that He does for us on a regular basis.

Another foundation of spiritual growth is connecting to people through appreciating all that they do or have done for us.

With that being said, we at Beyond BT, would like to express our appreciation for Aish HaTorah and their web site Aish.Com.

Another source for Aish Appreciation is their web site Classic Sinai where they have a number of free mp3s on Torah Fundamentals. Here are some of the Classics available for instant download at that site.
Great for a dose of inspiration!

Our Bodies Our Souls – Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller
Forget the glass ceilings you are expected to exceed. Take a different route to smooth out the impossible juggling act between life, work and everyone else’s expectations.

Happiness – The 48 Ways – Rabbi Noah Weinberg
Happiness is today’s most sought after pleasure – and also the most elusive. Hear sound advice to break common unhappiness habits, regain lost optimism, and increase your energy level for a more rewarding life.

The Matrix and Jewish Reality – Rabbi Motty Berger
This probing discussion on ‘The Matrix’ explains how the movie is an excellent representation of how Jewish philosophers have always perceived reality.

World Perfect – Rabbi Ken Spiro
Rabbi Spiro exposes the secret immorality of ancient civilizations and gives a surprising glimpse of where modern society really draws its existing moral lessons from.

Mysticism, Meaning & Life – Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb
To what extent is it possible to make life decisions without pride or passion getting in the way? Go beyond the mask of self-interest to deepen your objectivity and discernment.

And many more at Classic Sinai.

Can a BT Earn the Right to Coast?

Hi

I’m frum for about 16 years and I have a close friend who’s been frum for about the same amount of time. We’re both married with families. My friend worked very hard on his Yiddishkeit for many years, but in the last 2 years he has noticeably declined in devotion to his learning and his seriousness about davening. I asked him about it and he told me that after all the years of applying pressure on himself to advance further he decided that he had made enough progress and he thinks Hashem will be happy with him because of the struggles he’s endured to become frum and raise a frum family.

Is it possible that his assessment is not so crazy and he’s earned his right to coast?

If he’s making a mistake how can inspire him to return to the path he was formerly on? The for-the-kids argument didn’t work because he argued that they’ll do fine because his wife does a great job with them.

-Akiva

—————–
From the Comments

This post could have been written by me as well.

For the past two years, after 15 years of observance, I feel less connected with my daily practices than before and have been frankly-coasting. Not with belief and not with ahavas Yisrael or most day-to-day observance, G-d forbid, but with the entire lifestyle. I don’t feel compelled to learn or to run to shul 3 times a day anymore. I feel I have bought into a bill of goods that really no longer moves me spiritually as it once did nor do I find it particually appealing. And the Rabbinic answer always seems to be more more and even more perfunctory observance. This absolutely manifests itself with Sleichot in my opinion (which I find detrimental to my attempt to do t’shuva) and the inability of leadership to address people like me on an intellectually honest level. And I find most of the outreach programs intellectually dishonest.

I can trace this to the general complacency in shul as a whole (so its not just me); my observation that Judaism is being measured by hat size not by spirit size; the pull away from the middle that every single American Jewish community is experiencing; and last but not least, the inability to come to grips with the financial strain tuition and kehilla have placed on me. Frankly, I am a little sorry I went down this road – not that I would turn back – but I got much more than I bargained for when I had no kids.

I am not an indulgent person, I just wanted Shabbat and shul in my life many years ago and to level the playing field for my children to marry Jews. I seem to have gotten a lot more baggage than that.

-Chaim

Purim, the BT and Unity

I still remember my first Purim as a BT. I didn’t drink, reasoning that I didn’t come to Torah observance to party. However I did get to witness a few unbelievable Purim Shpiels at Ohr Somayach in Monsey as Rabbi Lam was a central participant.

After many years I have a much greater appreciation of Purim and its connection to the BT. Purim at its core is about Jewish Unity and Teshuva. Faced with annihilation that entire Jewish people banded together to rediscover their true purpose and reconnect with Hashem and His Torah. As Baalei Teshuva we certainly have first hand experience of the intense Teshuva experience and the power it creates.

On the Unity side, the mitzvos of the day, illustrate this theme. The reading of the Megillah is a public proclamation of Hashem’s guidance over the affairs of the Jewish People. It is often noted that Purim night is the most crowded event at Shul, with the possible exception of Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur.

The Purim Seudah is a unifying experience as are all Shabbos and Yom Tov meals. Shaloch Manos and Matanos L’Evyonim are both mitzvos designed to created closer bonds between Jews. Some Poskim hold that the drinking on Purim at the Seudah serves to bring us together, as sometimes it is necessary to loosen up to make closer connections.

Baalei Teshuva long for authentic Jewish connections, which is why communal integration is one of our major issues. And as Jews who have been on both sides of the observant/non-observant divide, we have the potential to spur the community to further unification. But first we need to feel in the depths of our hearts that we are all part of one Jewish People. If we can feel that deep connection, many of the divisions caused by judgementalism would fade, as we tend to judge ourselves favorably. Deeper connections would also spur us to collectively work on the crisis’s of Jewish Assimilation, Financial Pressures, Kids at Risk and Shidduchim. Often we see these as somebody else’s problem, but as integral parts of the Jewish people we need to view them as all of our problem.

Today as we engage in the very communal act of a public fast heading into Purim, perhaps we can focus on the essential mitzvos of these days, working on caring deeply about our fellow Jews and collectively returning to Hashem.

Musical Chairs – Chapter 8B – A New Zman and A New Possibility

Chapter 8b

The day after Passover Molly stood inside closet pulling scarves. “The pink or the teal.”

“Either is fine” said Nahum. He hadn’t lifted his eyes to look. “What are you getting so dressed up for anyway?

“I’m going to a job fair.”

“A what? But you’re a yoga teacher and what about your volunteer driving??”

“I haven’t taught in months and even the volunteering dried up. Mrs. Attias is in remission and no one else seems to need me..”

“Well, “he looked at her. “Do you have a resume and business cards”

After Nahum left for morning prayers, Molly printed out an ancient resume. College, graduate school, yoga teacher training followed by a long list of all of the classes she’d ever taught, over fifty in all. Was that who she was now, who she wanted to be? Beyond that single instagram photo her food business had never moved from dream to reality. She was ambivalent about cooking for a living. While she loved cooking for her family she didn’t want to spend all her time in the kitchen. Years ago, she’d studied psychology but she didn’t want to spent her days in a chair listening to other people’s problems. She could sell real estate—she liked meeting new people and being on the go, but real estate could prove to be a dead end. What career was there for her? Her friend Shulamis Black babysat for her grandchildren while her daughters went out to work. One day maybe she’d be able to do that….if only Asher’s bride would appear.

The fair was in a community center auditorium across town, a clean modern place, with bright lights, white walls. The only employment available were computer jobs at US hours, a workday that began in the late afternoon and ended late at night

Why had she bothered . The night before staying up late storing the Passover dishes and returning the hametz dishes back to the kitchen. While she loved the work of creating the holiday restoring the status quo after was grunt work..

There was nothing here for her. She’d leave, go home, have a nap but as she made her way to the exit she saw a swathe of purple cotton rising up above the crowd. The only person that could belong to was Emuna Brod. Tall and stately as a palm tree Emuna Brod was an almost mythical figure, single-handedly supporting her scholar husband and thirteen kids with the English language school she conducted in her living room. All four of the Tumim children had been students at various times.

Molly eventually found Emuna ,manning her own table. She was expanding, seeking to train others to open similar schools.
“Interested?” she asked Molly.

For split second Molly imagined herself guiding a group of preschoolers to fashion letters from playdoh but then remembered how frustrated she got while she helped her own kids to plow through Emuna’s homework books.

“Let me think about it,”

“Well if you are interested I think you’d be smashing.. ” Emuna’s leathery face seemed to shine.

“Well good luck,” Molly turned to walk away when Emuna called her back. ” I was thinking, not about English. You know I do matchmaking. I’ve got a fabulous idea for you’re Asher. How I loved teaching him”

Molly was a sucker for compliments. ” Yes, tell me more.”

“I almost went mad when my kids were going through it but this girl will restore your faith. Sarena Feldman. Have you heard that name?”

Molly shook her head.

“She’s from Har Nof. Her mum is called Leah. ”

“Ah yes”. Years ago Leah Feldman had briefly attended her yoga class. She dropped out when she started going out to work but Molly had liked her.

“Sarena is a complete doll, gorgeous, ” Emuna added emphasis to that adjective. “intelligent and she comes with an apartment. Not that the Feldman’s are wealthy but they inherited two apartments and they are giving one with each daughter.”

By evening Sarena’s resume and photograph had landed in Molly’s inbox . She could have easily sponged off 50 per cent of her eyeliner but Sarena was indisputably pretty long slender face, an aquiline nose and dewy ski and an impressive list of accomplishments ; She danced, sang, baked and cared for mentally handicapped children and crafted beaded jewelry. At the bottom was a long list of references and phone numbers. Molly recognized all of them. Within a day she had the goods on Sarena. “Nahum, she sounds like a winner. Lets go for it.” and Nahum agreed. Almost as soon as they’d decided Emuna phoned. “See” said Molly ” that’s not a coincidence. That’ synchronicity. I can feel it in my bones.”

“The Feldmans are interested,”.

“That was fast,” said Molly.

“They heard very good things.”

Molly smiled. But then she thought of the photograph; how she’d show it to Asher and he’d point to the tiny pimple on the nose, the slight sprinkling of freckles, the teeth spaced too closely together. “What if you don’t show him the picture,” said Nahum.

“He’s going to ask. You know him.”

It was the final week of the month-long Passover vacation and Asher was in his room strumming plaintive Carlebach melodies on his guitar. “So Mom, are you just here for the chorus ”

“There’s a girl.”Daddy and I think it’s a good idea. The matchmaker is waiting for our answer. What do you say.

Asher strummed another chord. “Can I see a picture?”

“I thought you weren’t going to do that anymore.” said Molly.

“You are right. If you don’t have one then you can skip it but if you do—”

Molly brought him to the computer. For a very long minute he sat in front of the screen staring at every pixel of Sarena’s computer generated image. He’s never going to go for this, Molly told herself . Not in a million years. The he lifted his head and smiled. “Okay. A bit too much makeup but she’s fine.”

Four days passed from the moment Emuna made the suggestion until Asher met Sarena; In their circles this was almost speed dating.

The date took place at an old hotel in Geula, Sarena arriving with her father, a small trim man with a long beard who quizzed Asher on the Talmudic tractate he was studying.

“He actually seemed very nice.” Asher told his parents when he got home.

“You’re not marrying the father. What about Sarena,” said Nahum.

“She wore a striped mini dress with a skirt tucked underneath to conceal her legs and knees. “I don’t usually like that look but she pulled it off.”

A fashion critique was a bad sign but Asher was beaming. “I’d see her again.”

Molly threw her hands around Asher and let out a shriek that filled the entire apartment. Elazar ran into the living room and began to strummed od yeshama the Jewish wedding song on Asher’s guitar and Bella and Moshe started to dance.

“Not yet,’ said Asher. He gestured for them to tone it down but he was laughing. Then he grabbed his suitcase and returned to the yeshiva. “Call me when you hear from the matchmaker. I’m available whenever she is”.

That night Molly dreamed about her new daughter in law and her grandchildren to come. Nahum dreamed about the money he’d be saving by not having to buy an apartment . Bella dreamed about her makeup and up do and satin bridesmaids gown. Moshe and Elazar dreamed of the wild dancing and shots of whiskey at the wedding and Asher well he dreamed about what all prospective bride grooms dream about.

Though shidduch protocal decreed that the boy report back to the matchmaker the morning after the date, Molly was unable to reach Emuna. “Why don’t you text her,” said Nahum. “She has a kosher phone. No texts.”

“What about email?”

“I did. She didn’t answer.”

“Well with all those kids there must be something going on in her personal life.” Molly nodded in agreement. It never passed through either of their minds that that Sarena might not want to continue to date their son.

As stars began appearing in the night sky Emunah phoned

“I’m sorry. I hate to be the bearer of bad news but she said no. She liked him a lot but she’s looking for someone more spiritual.”

“No???”.How could she say no and what a lame reason.

“Asher spends twelve to fourteen hours a day learning the Talmud. What could be more spiritual than that.”

“Shall I to point that out to her?.”

“No,” Her future daughter in law would need to recognize Asher’s sterling qualities on her own.

Nahum had just returned home from evening prayers when she broke the news. “I can’t believe it. She said no.”

“Well then she’s clearly out of her mind.”

Molly didn’t smile. “I don’t know why she couldn’t give him one more chance. One date. That just doesn’t seem like enough. And Asher seemed to really care for her. How are we going to tell him.”

“I’ll help. He’ll be okay. You’ll see.”

Asher had just returned to yeshiva for the new zman. Just as he was leaving the study hall his parents phoned both of them speaking into the receiver together, a parental chorus in two part harmony.

“I guess it wasn’t meant to be.” Asher’s voice was soft but flat.

“He didn’t sound so bad,” said Nahum after they hung up. ” I think he took it rather well.. “Yes Molly agreed. “Yeah but these kids play by a different set of rules. It isn’t as intense for them. I’m so happy that they don’t have to deal with the garbage we had to deal with.”

“Yes,” said Nahum. He doesn’t even sound hurt but Asher wasn’t quite as indifferent as his parents believed.

When he spoke to his parents Asher had purposely wrung his emotions from his voice just as he’d wring water from a floor mopping rag. His real feelings were like the murky puddle of water on the bottom of a bucket, complex and dark.

Standing under the shower, the hot water coursing over his body, he imagined Sarena, her thick blonde hair tied into a pony tail, her bright blue eyes, her general loveliness. She had smiled , she answered his questions, laughed at his jokes. Should he have discussed his Torah studies, told a Hassidic story, hummed a nigun.

He needed to hash this out but with whom? His parents wouldn’t get it—his mother would be too intense, and his father would brush him off and none of his friends, were available. Ezi had gotten engaged to a girl so amazing that his parents let him skip over his five single sisters. Yidy was busy with his wife and baby so,. Even Itamar Levy was dating someone.

Maybe he needed to go to an empty field to yell out to heaven like the Bratslav Hassidim but all the open fields had become construction sites.

The Three Major Themes of Pesach

These are the three major themes of Pesach:

Emunah/Belief
The Ramban says at the end of Parsha Bo that the miracles of Yetzias Mitzraim established three fundamental principles of belief: the existence of God, Hashgacha Pratis and Prophecy. These principles are the foundation of performing mitzvos and seeing the Godliness in everything.

Hodaah/Thankfulness
We thank Hashem for Yetzias Mitzraim, Matan Torah and making us His nation. As the Ramchal points out in Mesillas Yesharim in Zerius, we can show our thanks to Hashem by doing His mitzvos. This is why we meticulously perform the mitzvos on the seder night.

Cheirus/Freedom
Materialistic pursuits such as desire, ego-gratification, and worldly distraction imprisons our soul and prevents us from focusing on Hashem and His mitzvos. The anti-materialistic diet of Matzah powers the first stage of breaking free from the shackles of materialism.

Musical Chairs – Chapter 7 – Asher Tries Some Alternative Medicine

Chapter 7

The night before his appointment Asher’s body passed a new shade—dark brown as if his bladder had turned into a cola machine. Lying awake on his dormitory mattress,he looked around at his roommates, all of them asleep. Why wasn’t he? Why was G-d torturing him? Where he’d gone wrong? He tried his best to stay away from girls. He rarely watched movies and never looked at porn. So why him?” G-d please show me what I need to fix and I’ll fix it. But please make me better.”

Towards morning he fell into a deep dreamless sleep and he woke up still feeling tired. In taxi to the hospital he felt so drowsy that he asked the driver to wake him when they arrived.

Dr. Sadeh was hardly the imaged of the distinguished professor of medicine. He wore jeans and a rumpled blue chambray shirt that hung tight over his oversized belly. His white hair was long and uncombed but diplomas on his wall said Hebrew, University, Harvard and Sloan Kettering.

“So,” the doctor tilted toward him, his pince-nez.dropping to the tip of his bulbous nose “You are still passing blood?”

Asher nodded.

“Then we must do a cystoscopy.”

“A cystoko what?” Asher could scarcely wrap his tongue around the word. He had readier grasp on thousand year old Aramaic phrases.

“A tiny probe inserted inside the organ determine if you have a growth.”

“Like cancer.”

“Well there are many types of growths but we have to rule that out. That’s why I’d like to do this quickly..”

Asher’s heart went into a rapid flutter. “Does it hurt?”

“No, I wouldn’t say. We do it under general.”

“General???” Asher’s heartbeat grew even quicker. Grandpa Fred, his father’s dad died under general during a routine procedure. Asher barely remembered him; Grandpa Fred lived in Minnesota where his Dad had grown up. He always remembered birthdays and every winter he sent each of Tumim children a bright red greeting card emblazoned with the words “season’s greetings.” When Asher asked his father to explain the phrase he said that it was like the greetings for a good week or a good month or a good year .It wasn’t until years later, when Fred died and his father didn’t sit shiva that Asher learned that Grandpa Fred was a goy. That didn’t bother him ; he liked the guy. How could he dislike a grandfather who mailed him a $100 bill twice each year?

“Call the office to schedule it but don’t wait too long.”

Asher paused to think There were still three weeks left to the zeman. It would certainly be easier for him to do this when he wasn’t at yeshiva. . Then no one would notice his absence but if something was growing he didn’t want to take any chances.

“Can I wait three weeks?”

“Yes but not a day more.”
Read more Musical Chairs – Chapter 7 – Asher Tries Some Alternative Medicine

Coercion, Acceptance and the Spiritual Inputs of Purim

Rabbi Noson Weisz explains the spiritual input that God offers on Purim:

There is much more to Judaism than the outer trappings of observance. Observance is the body of Judaism, but its soul requires the Jews to place their relationship with God at the very center of life. The observance of the commandments is only meaningful when it is the outer manifestation of this inner reality. One cannot be truly Jewish without dreaming of the Temple and of Jerusalem. Jews who manage to find a good life in the absence of this dream are on their way to annihilation as a distinct people no matter what their level of observance may be.

There is a famous saying in Yiddish, S’is shver zu zein a Yid! “It’s hard to be a Jew.” Israel has lost far many more Jews through its history to this statement than to the persuasive power of foreign ideologies.

The spiritual input of the Purim holiday is provided to counter this tendency. In essence, it comes to counter the protest of coercion. We see the Torah as coercion as long as we feel that strict observance is impractical and burdensome in the context of the realities within which we are forced to live. But Jews in exile must be able to find joy in the practice of Judaism to be able to maintain their commitment to Judaism as the focus of their existence. They must still feel that despite all the hardships of exile, their commitment to the Torah is the force that gives them life.

When they were faced with Haman’s edict, the Jewish people found the strength to reach deep into their collective soul. Israel realized that the physical annihilation which threatened them was an indication of the spiritual level to which they had sunk. They were threatened with outward physical annihilation only because they were close to dying as a people spiritually on the inside. They reexamined their attitude to their own commitment to Judaism, located the protest of coercion in their collective Jewish soul, and gave it up for good. As a result, the physical edict was rescinded and the Jews were blessed with “light, happiness, joy and honor.”

The joy that comes from Torah observance under seemingly unfavorable circumstances is the spiritual input that God offers on Purim. May we all merit receiving a powerful dose of it.

Read the whole thing here

Achdus on Purim

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato writes in “The Way of G-d”:

…Purim involved Israel being saved from destruction during the Babylonian exile. As a result of this they reconfirmed their acceptance of the Torah, this time taking it upon themselves forever. Our Sages teach us that “they accepted the Torah once again in the days of Achashverosh”. The details of the observance of both these festivals are related to the particular rectification associated with them.

To accept the Torah on Sinai we needed to be united as if the entire nation was “One Man with One Heart”. On Purim, when we re-accept the Torah, we once again achieved that unity in the face of annihilation.

The mitzvos of the day, charity to the poor, giving gifts of food, a meal with family and friends give us actions leading to achdus.

Adding achdus in thought and emotion is also important. Here are three ideas:

– Focus on the successes of our local institutions who are there to serve us.
– Support those dedicated to teaching and spreading Torah.
– Try to emotionally connect to our family, friends and community members who share our common spiritual purpose.

Musical Chairs – Chapter 6 – Asher Seeks a Second Opinion

Chapter 6

By March, winter had ceded to spring. At the edge of the Jerusalem forest, the almond trees had burst into lacy white blossoms. Soon, it would be Purim. A day for masquerading, feasting, joyous drunken reverie, and intense prayer. Molly loved this holiday’s license to cut loose creatively. Without work or shidduchim to distract her she’d thrown herself into Purim inviting thirty-five guests to a Persian-themed Purim banquet: Persian meatballs, Persian rice, Persian vegetable fritters, Persian décor (photographs of Persian carpets), and, of course, Persian costumes. She and Bella dressed as very modest belly dancers and Nahum and the boys as ayatollahs.

Then just as her preparations were in full swing she got a shidduch call from Rabbi Ganz a teacher at Asher’s yeshiva. It was the first shidduch she’d heard about since Genia tried to push Michal Farber on her many weeks before.

“I don’t want to get too excited, but this one sounds almost too good to be true,” Molly told Nahum, as she pried a batch of freshly baked Persian walnut cookies off the parchment paper.

“So, who is she?”

“Hindy Lipsky…”

“Oh that’s a big name. ” The Lipsky’s were a fabled clan of rabbis, one of whom, Rabbi Akiva Lipsky had been the subject of a very popular biography.

“Yes, and according to the shadchan, she’s everything Asher could have ever dreamed of.”

“Money?”

“Yup. She’s got that too,” Molly handed Nahum a cookie.

“Good.”

“The shidduch or the cookie?”

“Both.”

“She’s becoming a psychotherapist. She’ll help Asher grow up.”

“You think Asher needs therapy to grow up?”

Molly actually wondered about that. Why Asher so stuck in his desire to marry a beauty queen? Was it an insecurity or a deep seated fear of marriage? She would have liked for him to see a therapist but she knew that he’d wouldn’t so didn’t offer. Molly had seen many therapists, her first when she was twenty two, Asher’s age. Had they really helped? Of the seven four were bad, two mediocre and one, the gem in the haystack who’d made all the difference but who was to say that Asher would find a gem and yet this girl appealed to her.

“She may have insight, self awareness,” she told Nahum.

“Ask for a picture first,” said Nahum.

After she put the cookies away Molly phoned Rabbi Ganzi . His wife answered. Though her English was heavily accented it was grammatically correct English and she impressed Molly as he sort of woman who shopped for groceries in a freshly set wig.

“I suggest that you take a look in person. Hindy will be at the Strauss Spiegel wedding at Binyanei Hauma on Wednesday night.”

“But, I’m not invited.”

“You’re not going to sit down to eat. You go, have a peek and then you leave.”

When she hung up, Molly looked glum.

“What’s wrong hon?” Nahum asked.

“Yes. The matchmaker just told me to crash a wedding.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. She wasn’t kidding. No invite. Just show up. I can’t believe this.”

“Do you think the bouncer will throw you out?”

“Probably not.”

“And you’re not going to eat so you won’t be stealing their food right?”

“Yes but it just feels wrong.”

“Ask them to send a picture.”

Molly called Rebetzin Ganz back. “Sorry,” she said. “I don’t approve of pictures. You never know where they will end up but everybody does this. Don’t worry. I’m sure there will be others doing the same.”

Asher’s ultrasound report came back quickly . His kidneys were normal. So was his liver, bladder and spleen. . His bloodwork was fine, even his urinalysis was fine – but, if he was so healthy, why was he still passing blood?

Dr. G had no answer. “It happens sometimes. It’s one of those quirky things and it might just disappear as mysteriously as it arrived,” he said.

But Asher wasn’t satisfied. How could he live this way and even more pressing how could he date.

Then one day over lunch, Asher overheard Ezi. It was one of those synchronistic moments his mother had taught him to look out for, when he knew that G-d had heard his prayers.

“…and my father called Tuli Roth and he got my Savta into some big professor from the medical school…”

As Asher swallowed down his breaded chicken cutlet, the proverbial alarm bell went off in his head.

Everyone used Tully Roth, the “medical matchmaker,” who steered patients to the best doctors.

Why hadn’t he? How could he have been dumb enough to entrust his body to socialized medicine?

Right after he bensched, Asher ran outside to a nearby park to make the call. This wasn’t a call he wanted anyone to listen into.
“Phone back at five,” he was told. That was right in the middle of his next study session. No problem. He’d simply tell his afternoon study partner that he had to make an urgent call. And his partner would assume that the call had something to do with a girl…if only that were true.

At ten to five, Asher returned to the park only to find that it now contained with dozens of neighborhood children their tiny voices merging into a deafening cacophony. He left sprinting down the block until he landed at one of the older apartment buildings built on stilt like pillars cars parked in the hollow space. The perfect place to call. Standing behind a pillar he phoned. The secretary answered right away, he was thankful for that but then she placed him on hold for many long minutes as Asher looked out onto the street. He knew too many people in this neighborhood, his teachers, friends, local men who frequented the study hall. He didn’t want was to be spotted hiding out in a private parking area . Finally Tully Roth answered barking out his orders in a low nasal voice.

“Go to Hadassah hospital Ein Karem and see Dr. Gil Sadeh privately.”

Dr. Sadeh was a department head, a medical school professor and he charged 1100 shequels for an office visit – a fortune for a yeshiva student. Where would he find that kind of cash?

He could ask his parents, but his father’s work load had been cut .. Even his mother wasn’t teaching anymore, not that that earned much. He didn’t want to burden them and more than that he didn’t want to worry them. They had enough problems with his siblings, Elazar, and Bella giving them all kinds of trouble. The week before Bella had been suspended again, caught wearing a denim skirt and Elazar was still talking about going into the army.

As he paced up and down in front of the yeshiva, he thought about ways to raise the money.

He could sell his stuff, but what did he own? A dozen white shirts. Five neckties, only two of which were silk. One genuine Borsalino hat and one copy. One good suit and two not so good suits. But if he sold them, what would he wear? He also owned four pairs of cheap cufflinks, a Casio wrist-watch, an alarm clock, an old fashioned cellphone, an MP3 player, and lots of holy books – the same ones that everyone else owned. His most expensive possessions were his titanium framed glasses and the custom made orthotics he slipped into his black sneakers to counteract his fallen arches, but neither of these items were of value to anyone but him.One of the guys gave interest free loans of up to 350 shequels. But that wasn’t nearly enough.

“Can you close this?” Molly handed Nahum the enormous pearl choker he’d given her during his gravy days back in New York.

“So, you’re going to be a well-dressed gatecrasher.”

“I still don’t feel right about it.”

“Don’t – I bet half of the women there are for the same reason.”

“That’s what Rebetzin Ganz said but I find it hard to believe.”

“Why not ask?”

Molly grimaced. “Oh come on.”

She walked in the hall briskly her eyes trained on the carpet to avoid eye contact. Under her breath, she muttered a prayer: “Please G-d make sure that I don’t meet anyone I know.”

Binyanei Hauma was Jerusalem’s largest and priciest hall. There were hundreds of guests but so far, she didn’t recognize anyone and no one recognized her. A miracle. Molly wended through the crowd until she arrived at the dance floor where dozens of girls were jumping and gliding to the latest hip-hop inspired hassidic line dance.

The matchmaker’s wife had described Hindy as a slim long strawberry blonde who wore her hair in ringlets. As the girls passed she watched them. She saw brunettes, red heads, blondes, even one beautiful black girl who danced with striking grace, but no one with strawberry blonde ringlets.

Then, as the band segued into a Breslov trance number, Miss Strawberry Blonde Ringlets floated past. Dressed in hunter green and gold, this season’s latest colors (a welcome break from black), she was well-proportioned and uncommonly pretty and she danced nicely. Molly discretely raised her phone into the air and pressed the camera button. There – she’d gotten the goods. For a millisecond, she smiled in self-satisfaction. A tsunami-sized wave of shame poured over her. By attending the wedding without an invitation and then photographing Hindy without her knowledge or consent, she’d invaded the poor girl’s privacy and probably even broken the law. This couldn’t really be the way that the eternal building blocks of the Jewish nation were formed.

At home, she reexamined the picture. Yes Hindy was certainly pretty but she didn’t have a good feeling about the match. “Why would the Lipsky’s with all of their social connections want their daughter to marry our son. There must be son ulterior motive,” she told Nahum.

“You researched this well.”

“I think so.”

“Can you give a reason why Asher shouldn’t meet this girl?”

“No.”

“Then let’s give them a heads up. Boys get right of first refusal.”

It was late now. In the morning Molly phoned the Ganz’s but before she could deliver her news the Rebetzin preempted her. “Hindy Lipsky is busy right now. I’ll let you know if the situation changes.” Her tone was crisp and business-like. “Why did she suggest a girl who was busy,” Molly wondered.

Maybe something came up. You know how it is especially for a girl like that.. I bet the matchmakers are banging down her door.”

Molly nodded. “I can’t help but feeling that Asher didn’t make the cut. ”

Just then Molly removed Hindy’s resume and photograph from her file and tore them both up. She felt an odd delight as she as she ripped the paper into large jagged pieces and tossed them into the garbage can.

“Honey isn’t a little dramatic,” said Nahum.

“Come on. I don’t have to get to work right away. Let’s go for a walk in the forest.”

Outside the whole world was in bloom: the bright red poppies, pale purple cyclamen, even the Queen Anne’s lace, which, by summer’s end, would turn into a nasty weed, appeared pretty and delicate. How could she feel so blue when the world was so beautiful?

“Hon. Take my word. These Lipskys don’t know what they’re missing.out on.”

When they came home from their walk, Asher was in the kitchen sipping cocoa.

“Mom, Dad. I’ve got a problem.”

“Are you all right?” His eyes were uncharacteristically dull.

“Well, yeah, kind of. I need to see a private doctor. I’ve got blood in my pish.”

Molly gasped and then she reached for Asher’s hand.

What kind of tortures had her son been experiencing? Then Nahum reached into his wallet.

“Here. He handed Asher his credit card.

Go to whichever doctor you need and where happy to come with you”

” No. I’m okay going by myself but just one more thing ”

“What is it Asher,” said Molly. Her voice oozed with concern.

“Please , Mom, Dad this is secret. Don’t tell anyone.”

Musical Chairs is a novel about a Jerusalem American BT family’s struggle to find a bride for their FFB yeshiva bochur son.
You can read
Chapter 1 here,
Chapter 2a here,
Chapter 2b here,
Chapter 3a here,
Chapter 3b here
Chapter 3c here
Chapter 3d here
Chapter 3e here

Chapter 3f here
Chapter 4a here
Chapter 4b here
Chapter 4c here
Chapter 4d here
Chapter 5 here

Skepticism — the Beginning of True Faith

Why do the episodes of the war with Amalek and Yisro’s arrival serve as lead-ins to the revelation at Sinai and the Decalogue?
Is it better to be shrewd or gullible?
Is there any room for skepticism in the hearts and minds of believers in the 13 Articles of Faith?

And [thus] Yehoshua weakened Amalek and his allies by the sword

— Shemos 17:13

And Yisro priest of Midyan , Moshe’s father-in-law heard about all that Elokim had done for Moshe and His people Yisrael, when He extricated Yisrael from Egypt … And, along with Moshe’s wife and sons, Yisro came to the desert where Moshe was camped near Elokims mountain.

— Shemos 18:1,5

And Yisro … heard: What news did he hear that [motivated him enough] to come? The splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the war with Amalek. —(from Zevachim 116A, and Mechilta)

— Rashi ibid

Now I know that Hashem is the greatest of all the deities, for [He came] upon them [the Egyptians] with the very thing that they plotted.

 — Shemos 18:11

Of all the deities: This teaches us that he [Yisro] was familiar with every type of idolatry in the world, and there was no pagan deity that he had not worshipped. (from Mechilta)

— Rashi ibid

Destroy all the places, where the nations that you are driving out served their gods, [whether] upon the high mountains, the hills, or under every verdant tree.

— Devarim 12;2

For your gods were as numerous as the number of your cities, O Judah …

— Yirmiyahu 11:13

… yet upon every high hill and under every leafy tree[traditional places of idols and their worship] you recline, playing the role of a harlot.

— Yirmiyahu 2:20

The naïf believes everything; but the incredulous understands the correct footsteps to tread.

— Mishlei 14:15

Strike the scorner, and the naïf grows shrewd. 

— Mishlei 19:25

“Strike the scorner” this refers to Amalek “and the naïf grows shrewd” this refers to Yisro

 — Shemos Rabbah Yisro 27

I am HaShem your Elokim who extricated you from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery

— Shemos 20:2

And he [Bilaam] gazed at Amalek, and took up his allegory, and said: “Amalek is the first among the nations; but his end shall come to eternal destruction.”

— BeMidbar 24:20

Like fire and atomic energy; faith can be a tremendously positive and constructive or a negative and destructive force. When one has faith in HaShem, true prophets and chachmei haTorah-authentic Torah sages; it sustains and nurtures the life of the faithful, as the pasuk teaches v’tzadik b’emunaso yichyeh-and the just will live in/through his faith (Chavakuk 2:4). However, when faith is invested in false gods, false prophets and/or assorted charlatans, there is nothing more corrosive, detrimental to society and self-destructive. To carry the simile further, just as nations are better served by building safe and secure nuclear power plants than in stockpiling surplus nuclear warheads, one must be extremely judicious and discriminating in deciding what and/or whom to invest their faith in.

So, while faith can potentially be the greatest of virtues, it is not to be confused with gullibility and naïveté. Faith unleavened by healthy doses of discernment and skepticism is folly and, as Yirmiyahu the prophet implies by describing the idolatrous Jews of his era as “playing the harlot” and having as many deities as cities, a kind of promiscuity of the heart and mind.  The emunah-faith; of one who has “complete and perfect faith” in the thirteen fundamental articles of Jewish belief is of diminished value if he also believes in every outlandish hoax ever publicized or if he can be swindled into buying the Brooklyn Bridge because he is convinced of the seller’s integrity.  For faith in truth and belief in reality to be commendable one must first stop suspending his disbelief in mirages and repudiate the bill-of-goods that he had formerly been convinced of for the lies that they are.

At one time or another Yisro believed in every possible manner of fabrication. Chazal teach us that there was not a single pagan deity that Yisro did not worship. To buy in to so much and such varied deception means that Yisro was possessed of an extremely credulous and gullible nature.  The lashon kodesh-biblical Hebrew; word that defines this kind of folly is pessi-a naïf who’ll believe anything.

At the extreme opposite pole of human nature stands the letz-scorner/scoffer who believes in nothing and no one. Such people wear their incredulous disbelief as badges of honor marking them as wiser and as sharper than the credulous. They scoff at believers, first and foremost by mocking all that they believe in. Such skeptics scorn across the board and no target is safe from their sneering, scathing “appraisals.” Such letzim are the Wildean cynics who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Amalek is identified by Chazal as the letz incarnate.  The national character of Amalek is wired to scoff and mock everything, up to and including all that is real, true and holy. How else can we understand that while all other nations were awestruck by the events of the Exodus from Egypt and the Parting of the Sea of Reeds, so much so that they had come to some level of belief in the invincibility-borne-of-chosen-ness of the Bnei Yisrael-the Jewish people; and the Infinite Power of the G-d of Israel, Amalek remained unimpressed?  The preemptive attack launched by Amalek was their über-skeptical “I’m from Missouri, you’ve got to show me” moment.

The Izhbitzer explains that once letzim are inevitably set in evil ways they become irredeemable. All exhortations to tikkun-repairing ones evil; depend on getting the perpetrator to believe in the value of change and improvement. But the scoffing, scornful, skeptical letz does not recognize or tolerate chashivus-value and significance. One can try to rehabilitate the letz with both high-minded arguments and/or corporal-punishment “convincing” and both will be wasted on those who know the value of nothing. On the other hand, when dealing with a pessi there is someone to talk to and something to work with.  The ethical challenge of the pessi is that he believes in the value of too many things.  Discernment and a healthy dose of skepticism come with experience and education, sometimes even from education gleaned from the lessons and exhortations wasted on the letz.

 

Read more Skepticism — the Beginning of True Faith

The Myth of Self-Actualization

My senior year in college, my friends and I organized a party. Having exhausted such themes as “Come as your major” and “sixties revival,” we hit upon what seemed a novel idea: Come as you will be in ten years. Attendees rose to the occasion, coming as Greenpeace activists or genetic engineers. (For the sake of my children’s shidduchim, I decline to state how I came.)

My favorite costume, however, was that of Keith, who dressed in his usual sleeveless sweatshirt and jeans, adorned only with a name tag that read: Keith — self-actualized.

We used to joke that even after achieving self-actualization we would still need therapy to cope with the loneliness of being self-actualized in a world of chronic and pervasive neuroses. I periodically wonder whether this is not an apt description of the successful ba’al tshuva who has “made it.”

Readers may be familiar with the story of Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva is gabbai of the shul. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva is ba’al tefillah for the Yomim Noroyim. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva fills in for the rav giving the Shabbos shiur. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva is respected by everyone in the community. So why do they still call him Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva? Because Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva still insists on not talking during kriyas haTorah.

How many of us became ba’alei tshuva because the ideals of Torah attracted us by their truth and their beauty, because of the kedusha of the Shabbos table and the exultation of Simchas Torah? And how many of us subsequently came to question why, if the ideal was so inspiring, did the reality leave so much to be desired? How many of us gradually learned to cope by lowering our expectations for the community, and then, inevitably, for ourselves, only to wonder somewhere down the line what happened to us, to our enthusiasm, to our idealism?

And how many of us grew bitter, convinced that if only our communities were stronger, we could be so much stronger ourselves?

Is this self-actualization?

In a series of letters I exchanged a few years back with Rav Mendel Weinbach, shlita, of Ohr Somayach, I repeatedly vented my frustrations with this or that failing of Klal Yisroel. Rav Mendel never told me I was wrong, never chastised me for my intolerance, never ordered me to clean up my own house before I condemned others and theirs.

What did he tell me? Quite simply, he said: We’re in galus. This is galus.

It’s easy to become cynical, and it’s easy to justify our cynicism because there’s so much about which to be cynical. But we gain nothing through our righteous indignation, except to distract ourselves from our real avodah. Indeed, it’s possible that the ikkar avodah of the self-actualized Torah Jew is to accept the imperfections in the world around him, to understand that the world will only be perfect when we have perfected ourselves as avdei HaShem, and that fixating on the shortcomings of others only serves to prolong the galus. On the other hand, by striving to better ourselves we not only shorten the galus but ease our own passage through galus until Moshiach brings it to its final end.

Originally Posted on Jan 16, 2006