Time, Space and Soul

When you come into the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest interlude, a sabbath for HaShem.  For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards and gather your crops. But the seventh year shall be a sabbath of sabbaths for the land, it is HaShem’s Sabbath during which you may neither plant your fields, nor prune your vineyards … You  shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants; This is your jubilee year;  when each man shall return to his hereditary property and to his family … Do not make him [your brother] pay advance interest , nor give him food for which he will have to pay accrued interest … And if your brother becomes impoverished and is sold to you, you may not work him like a slave. He shall be with you just like a hired servant, or a resident [farm] hand. He shall serve you only until the year of jubilee.

                                                                                                                                      —Vayikra 25:2-4,10,37,39,40

 A sabbath to HaShem: For the sake of HaShem, just as is stated of the Sabbath of Creation (i.e the Shabbos we observe on a weekly basis)

—Rashi Vayikra 25:2 from Toras Kohanim 25:7

 I.e., just as every seventh day is a holy Sabbath day, acclaiming that G-d Himself rested on the seventh day [after creating for the first six days] and thus confirming that G-d is the Supreme Creator of all that exists, similarly, man must refrain from working the land on the seventh year, for the Glory of G-d, not for the benefit of the land, so that it should gain fertility by lying fallow for a year.

— Sifsei Chachamim ibid

The mekubalim-expositors of the Torah mystical tradition; teach that all that HaShem created exists on the three parallel planes of olam/shanah/nefesh-world/year/soul i.e. in the realms of space, time and spirit. (cp. Sefer Yetzirah) In Parshas Behar the Izhbitzer school explores several applications of this concept.  Among our Sidrah’s opening topics we find the Shmittah/Shvi’is-sabbatical year; d’ror avadim-the liberation of slaves; and ribis-the prohibition of charging interest.  The Izhbitzer explains the common denominator of these three topics in light of olam/shanah/nefesh.

A ma’amin-one who is theologically correct and believes in the thirteen articles of faith should, in theory, have complete bitachon BaShem– reliance upon G-d.  Believing that G-d is Benevolent, Omniscient, Omnipotent and directly controlling of the infinite to the infinitesimal (hashgachah p’ratis) it would be foolish to place ones trust in anyone or anything else. Yet, as the chasm separating our dispassionate beliefs from our heartfelt emotions is vast; people are constantly looking for substitutes for G-d to place their trust in and to rely upon. First and foremost we search for things to vouchsafe our ongoing existence; ways and means that can maintain and sustain us and, broadly speaking, these ways and means fall into one of three categories; property, time-charges and other people.

The most tangible and static of properties is real estate. Once a mortgage has been paid off real estate ownership is permanent. Unlike movable property real-estate cannot be removed by thieves. Inasmuch as the structures comprising residential or commercial real estate can depreciate, be partially damaged or be completely destroyed the most solid and reliable of all real estate is, arguably, farmland. Farmland represents the owners tangible kinyan-possession; in olam-space; and that which he relies and depends on to sustain him with produce and which he hopes will enrich him with its surplus produce.

The mitzvos of Shmittah/Shvi’is force the farmer to lay down his tools and throw the gates of his agricultural properties open for man and beast.  These laws demonstrate that real-estate property ownership is an illusion; that all space belongs to HaShem. In so doing the farmer exposes his own reliance and dependence on his farmland, his kinyan in olam, for the mirage that it is.

While attorneys rack up billable hours and taxi-drivers meter their fares, at least in part based upon elapsed time, neither of these are the purest manifestations of the maxim “time is money.”  In truth, the client or the cab rider are paying for a service rendered.  Time is merely the yardstick used to determine how much or how little of the service in question was provided.

The purest manifestation of the “time is money” equation is the charging of interest.  When charging and collecting interest, whether simple or compounded, the lender collects a fee from the borrower for the units of time that the latter held and used his funds.  No greater goods or services are rendered on a $10,000 principal amount whether the loan is paid off in one year or in five years.  The higher interest paid by the lender for a five year loan is exclusively for the elapsed time.  When it comes to collecting interest, time is literally money.

Interest represents the lenders tangible kinyan in shanah-year/time; and that which he relies and depends on to sustain him with accruing wealth by transforming time into money.  The Torahs prohibition of interest and usury denies this ersatz security to those who would place their faith and trust in time rather than in the time-transcendent G-d.

The most G-d-like of all substitutes in which people invest their reliance and trust — are other people.  People are, after all, created b’tzelem Elokim-in the image of the Divine; and we are attracted to “dependable” people. This may be the most noxious form of bitachon-reliance; substitution inasmuch as it inverts the relationship between the one relying and the One being relied upon.  Instead of relying on and trusting HaShem Whom they must serve; people rely on and trust a variety of people who will serve them.

We depend on our domestics to keep our homes clean, on our gardeners to keep our lawns well-groomed and we trust our physicians to dispense correct prescriptions and medical advice and our stockbrokers to manage our portfolios to profitability. The salaries and fees that we pay these laborers and professionals represent our concrete kinyan in nefesh-soul.

But the starkest iteration of a kinyan in nefesh is slave ownership.  When one holds a slave he is not “renting” a particular talent or skill, a mere particular koach hanefesh; but has acquired the nefesh in toto. Every talent and faculty of the slave can be harnessed and depended upon to fulfill the owners’ needs. The slave is a wholly owned subsidiary of the slave owner, so much so that the reliance and trust that the slaver invests in the slave can almost be deemed self-reliance and self-confidence. The mitzvah of d’ror avadim in yovel-the jubilee year; conveys the truth that one Jew can never possess another Jew, even one who had his ear bored through because he refused to leave his master. All bonds of interpersonal human reliance are ephemeral and an ownership which must be surrendered is, in fact, no ownership at all, even before it is relinquished.

Collectively the three mitzvos of Shmittah/Shvi’is, d’ror avadim in Yovel, and ribis give the lie to being able to cultivate a true kinyan, and thus acquiring the security and insurance through, either olam, shanah or nefesh.  We have no one and nothing to lean on but our Father in heaven.

The Izhbitzer’s disciple, Rav Tzadok the Lubliner Kohen, applies the olam/shanah/nefesh model to link the end of Parshas Emor and the start of Parshas Behar. His interpretation is based on a commentary of the Ba’al HaTurim that Parshas Emor essentially ends with the narrative of the Megadeph-the one who cursed G-d; and Parshas Behar begins with the laws of Shmittah/Shvi’is because, as Rabbah bar bar Chanah taught in Rabi Yochanan’s name: “The the sages convey [the elocution and precise meaning of the Divine] Name of four letters to their disciples [only] once in a seven year period. Others opine, twice in a seven year period.” (Kiddushin 71A)  Cursing the Name is a capital offense only when the curse was cast against the Name that had been articulated and pronounced correctly.

The Lubliner Kohen is unconvinced by the Ba’al HaTurim’s approach because the gemara does not indicate when, precisely, within the seven year period it was that the sages revealed the secrets of the Divine four letter Name of to their disciples. For the link between the sidros to be validated we must first establish that the secrets of the Divine Name were revealed during the Shmittah/Shvi’is year. Additionally, the conclusion of the gemara reads: Said Rabi Nachman ben Yitzchok “Reason supports the view that it was [only] once in a seven year period for we read, ‘this is My Name forever [le’olam]’ which is written ‘to conceal’ [le’ahleim].”  This explanation requires further clarification, for if  the Divine four-letter Name must be concealed why is it permissible to reveal It’s secret even once in a seven year period?  On the other hand, if the spelling of the word le’ahleim does not absolutely prohibit revealing It’s secrets then why limit it? Perhaps it could be taught twice in a seven year period?

Rashi cites the Toras Kohanim/ Safra that equates the Shmittah/Shvi’is year with Shabbos.  The Lubliner Kohen asserts that Shabbos is to time what Mikdash-the Temple in Jerusalem; is to space. The Mikdash was a consecrated space which was somewhat exempted from the prohibition of articulating the Divine Name explicitly. When the kohanim would confer the Birkas Kohanim-priestly benediction; in the Mikdash they would explicate the Divine Name and when the Kohen Godol would confess sins over various offerings on Yom Kippur he too would explicate the Divine Name. Just as the secret of the Divine name could be divulged in the Mikdash in the sphere of space; so too could it be exposed on Shmittah/Shvi’is year in the sphere of time.

As to why the parallel is to years rather than to days (it is absolutely prohibited to explicitly utter HaShem’s name on the weekly Shabbos of a non-Shmittah year) the Lubliner Kohen incorporates the Ramban ad locum. The essence of his answer is that just as HaShem created the world in seven days, history endures for seven millennia. For each of G-d’s “days” lasts a millennium as the psalmist wrote “For a thousand years in Your Eyes are but as yesterday when it is past … ” (Tehillim 90:4) The seventh millennium, that epoch which lies beyond the scope of olam hazeh-this world, is the time when our consciousness’ are raised to perceive the Divine without veils and obfuscation.  The very derivation of the prohibition of explicating the Divine Name comes with a built in statute of limitations.  The prohibition must only persist for the duration of the “lifespan” of the temporal here-and-now world. The le’ahleim- concealment is for the  le’olam-this world. The Lubliner Kohen concludes that it was permissible for sages to reveal the secrets of the Divine name during every Shabbos of the Shmittah/Shvi’is year.  This is the deeper meaning of the Ba’al HaTurim’s commentary.

~adapted from Mei HaShiloach I Emor D”H Dahber
Pri Tzaddik Emor passage 7

This post is an  installment for Behar  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-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

 

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


The Torah’s Honor

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

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

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

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

Days of Mourning
Although the students of Rabbi Akiva died between Pesach and Shavous, all agree that there were not deaths on every single day of this period. Some Rishonim cite a Midrash which says that the students died continuously from Pesach until “ Prus, ” half a month before Shavous (Abudraham , Razah and others.) According to this calculation, mourning should be observed as long as the deaths continued, i.e. until the 19th of Iyar, the 34th day of the Omer . This is the conclusion of the Shulchan Aruch (493,2) and the accepted practice among Sephardim.
Other poskim cite a comment by Tosfos saying that they continued to die until right before Shavous (Maharil). However they did not die on the sixteen days that Tachanun is not said (i.e. seven days of Pesach, six days of Shabbos, and three days of Rosh Chodesh ) leaving a total of thirty-three days. Those who accept this version do not mourn on the exact days that the students died, but rather during a corresponding thirty-three day period established by our Sages.

The Rema follows this view and it is the accepted practice among Ashkenazim (Rema 493:2-3 citing Maharil see Bach ). Some have the custom to observe this period from the second day of Pesach to Lag B’Omer, and others from the day after Rosh Chodesh of Iyar until Shavous.


Dancing at Two Weddings

What are the practical implications of these two different understandings? According to the Sephardi custom , one may not celebrate a wedding until the thirty-fourth day of the Omer . According to the Ashkenazi custom, a wedding may be held until the second of Iyar, or from Lag B’Omer onwards (depending on the custom of the parties involved).

However in certain areas there is a halachic concept of miktzas hayom c’kulo (part of a day is like a full day). For this reason, although seven days of shiva are required, a mourner “gets up” from shiva on the morning of the last day. Therefore Ashkenazim may take a haircut after sunrise of the thirty-third day of mourning, and Sephardim after sunrise of the thirty-fourth day.

May one officiate or participate at a wedding which falls during the period of mourning one observes? An Ashkenazi who knows he will attend a wedding during the Omer ahead of time should follow the custom which places the date of the wedding outside of his mourning period if possible. However at times this is not possible, e.g. he has two weddings, each in a different period.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that since attending a wedding is a fulfillment of the mitzva of rejoicing with a bride and groom, and the couple are allowed to get married at times permitted according to their custom, it is permissible to attend a simcha during one’s Sefira mourning period (Responsa Igros Moshe, 1,159; 2,95).

The Rema rules that since a bris mila is considered to be a personal Yom Tov for the father of the child, he may have a haircut the day before. The haircut should take place close to nightfall unless the bris is on Shabbos, in which case he may do it at any time on Friday. The same halacha applies to the Sandek and the Mohel , for the bris is also considered to be a Yom Tov for them ( Mishna Berura 493,12).

If one needs to take a haircut for health reasons one may be lenient and do so during Sefira ( Aruch HaShulchan 493,2). If one will sustain a financial loss (e.g., you may lose your job) it is permitted to shave or get a haircut (Responsa Igros Moshe , Orach Chaim 4,102). Similarly if one is learning to play a musical instrument for financial reasons, he may practice during Sefira ( ibid . 3,87).

Lag B’Omer
A number of poskim maintain that according to the Rema, a wedding may be celebrated on the night of Lag B’Omer ( Chok Yaakov , Elya Rabba , Graz , Mor Ukatzia Igros Moshe ibid . and others). Since Lag B’Omer is a Yom Tov in its own right, one should not mourn on that day. A proof for this is that Tachanun is not said during Mincha on Lag B’Omer or the day before ( Mishna Berura 493,9). If one has a good reason to hold a wedding on the night of Lag B’Omer, one should consult with a rabbi.

The commentators are unclear on the exact nature of Lag B’Omer ( Pri Megadim ). There are a number of reasons offered for the festival, all of which share a common theme – the strengthening and beautification of Torah for the Jewish nation. In this light, Lag B’Omer fits well into the period between Pesach and Shavous, which is a time of preparation to receive the Torah. At the same time, this period serves as a rectification for the transgressions that brought about the original decree against Rabbi Akiva’s students.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai
It is commonly believed that Lag B’Omer has significance because it is the anniversary of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s death, as well as the day that he and his son left the cave after years of hiding from the Romans ( Kaf HaChaim 493,27; Aruch HaShulchan 493,7; Chaye Adam 131,11 and others). On the day of his death Rabbi Shimon revealed the mystical insights of the Zohar and he did not die until he had completed this revelation ( Bnei Yissaschar, Iyar 3,3). To commemorate this momentous transmission, Rabbi Shimon stipulated that Lag B’Omer should be a day of simcha and promised tremendous reward to those who would rejoice on this day at his graveside . As a result many have the custom to ascend to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Eliezer in Meron to celebrate Lag B’Omer.

The Ari relates an incredible story which sheds light on the magnitude of this day. A great tzadik named Rabbi Avraham HaLevi had the custom to add the prayer of nachem (consolation for mourning) to Shemonah Esreh during the Omer . One year he went to Meron for Lag B’Omer and said nachem usual. The image of Rabbi Shimon appeared to him and told him that he had desecrated this holy day with his prayer, and as a result he would need consolation in the near future. Within a month one of Rabbi Avraham’s children died ( Magen Avraham 493,3 ; Kaf HaChaim 493,26.)

Lag B’Omer is an auspicious time to pray to be blessed with children and it is a well-known segula to pray for this purpose at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon on the day. Some people also distribute eighteen rotel (a fluid measure) of wine or grape juice, another act considered auspicious.

The sanctity of the day has the power to restore life as well. More than a hundred years ago a woman ascended to Meron on Lag B’Omer to give her son his first haircut on his third birthday. In the midst of the celebration the boy suddenly fell deathly ill and shortly afterwards everyone thought that he had passed away. His mother cried to Hashem that she had brought her son to rejoice on Lag B’Omer and instead tragedy had befallen her. Shortly afterwards, she heard the boy crying and he soon recovered ( Ta’amei HaMinhagim p. 263).

Other poskim also associate Lag B’Omer with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in a different way. After the death of his 24,000 students, Rabbi Akiva acquired five new disciples, one of them was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. On Lag B’Omer he gave them semicha , declaring them to be rabbis, thereby assuring that the transmission of the Torah would not be halted by the death of his previous students but would continue with his five new disciples ( Chida, Tov Ayin 18.)

The Miracle of Manna
The Chasam Sofer has a different approach to the nature of Lag B’Omer ( Responsa, Yoreh Deah 233). He proves that when the Jewish people left Egypt they first received the Divine sustenance of the manna on Lag B’Omer. Just as the miracles of Chanukah and Purim are commemorated with national festivals, so too we remember the manna on Lag B’Omer.

One should keep in mind that the manna was not just a source of food for the Jews in the desert. It provided spiritual sustenance that elevated the Jewish people, enabling them to later learn Torah ( Meam Loez, Shemos 16,12). In this respect it has a direct connection to the receiving of Torah and it is appropriate to commemorate this event before Shavous.

The Talmud ( Yavamos 62b) tells us that the students of Rabbi Akiva were punished because they did not show honor for one another. This statement implies that they felt respect for each other but they did not outwardly show it.

In these troubled times it is incumbent upon the Jewish people to look for ways to find favor in Hashem’s Eyes, especially in this matter where we have transgressed in the past.

Demonstrating respect for all of our fellow Jews is no trivial matter. It is an essential prerequisite to receiving the Torah.

Rabbi Travis is the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Toras Chaim.

Originally published here on 5/4/2007

If You Want Me to Be Closer to You … Get Further From Me

Why is contact with the dead prohibited to kohanim?
Why would Divine Providence create a kohen with a congenital mum-blemish; that disqualifies him from serving?
The Megadeph was apparently motivated by the holy yearning to “belong” to K’lal Yisrael-the Jewish People. Why was he so severely punished?

[Still, in spite of the kohen being physically blemished] he may eat the bread [i.e. food sacrifices] of his G-d, both from the holy of holies, and from the holy. But he shall not come to the cloth partition, nor approach the altar, for he has a blemish …  

—Vayikra 21:22,23

 And the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian man, went out among the children of Israel; and the son of the Israelite woman had a quarrel with a man of Israel in the camp. And then the son of the Israelite woman blasphemed the Name, with a curse. The people brought him to Moshe[’s court]. And his mother’s name was Shlomis, the daughter of Divri, of the tribe of Dan.

—Vayikra 24:10,11

 the son of an Israelite woman…went out:  Where did he go out from? … He “went out” of Moshe’s court [with a] losing [verdict. How so?] He came into the encampment of the tribe of Dan [attempting] to pitch his own tent. So [a man of this tribe] said to him, “What right do you have to be here?” Said he, “I am of the descendants of Dan,” [claiming lineage through his mother] he said to him, “[But Torah says (Bemidbar 2:2): ‘The children of Israel shall encamp] each person near the flag-banner bearing his paternal family’s insignia,’” [thereby refuting his maternal claim]. He entered Moshe’s court [where his lawsuit against the tribesmen of Dan was tried], and he “came out” defeated. Then, he stood up and cursed. (Vayikra Rabbah 32:3)

—Rashi Ibid

 Rabi Eliezer son of Rabi Shimon was coming from Migdal Gedor … and was feeling … elated because he had studied much Torah . There he happened to meet an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him, “Peace be upon you, Sir”. He, however, did not return his welcome but instead said to him, “Empty one, how ugly you are! Are all your fellow citizens as ugly as you are?’’ The man replied: “I don’t know, but go and tell the Craftsman who made me, ‘How Ugly is the vessel which You have made’ “.

—Taanis 20 A-B

 As it was taught, Shimon HaAmsoni … interpreted every [word] es in the Torah; [but] as soon as he came to, “You shall fear [es] HaShem your Elokim” he abstained [from interpreting the word].  His disciples said to him, “Master, what is to happen with all the esin which you have interpreted?” [Stumped by how to interpret the current ‘es’ Shimon HaAmsoni renounced the legitimacy of all his prior es readings. He taught his students … ] “Just as I received reward for interpreting all these words so too will I receive reward for retracting them [my elucidations.]”

                                                                                                                                      —Pesachim 22B

In Parshas Emor the Izhbitzer concentrates a great deal on the issue of תרעומות כלפי מעלה tarumos k’lapee ma’alah–grievances against G-d. When comparing and contrasting the Izhbitzers understanding of the kohen ba’al mum–who is physically blemished or disabled; and the Megadeph-he who cursed; i.e. the defeated litigant in a lawsuit in Moshe Rabenu’s court who cursed G-d; we find that their diverse approaches to tarumos addresses a trait central to the core of Jewish identity.

When a kohen becomes tamei-ritually impure; more often than not the cause is his carelessness or other human error. Moreover, being tamei is a temporary condition. In cases of tumah-ritual impurity; there is no permanent loss of the privilege of serving HaShem in the Mikdash. While a kohen tamei may be miffed at losing his turn at serving in, or even entering, the Mikdash, relatively speaking it is easy for him to accept and come to terms with his disappointment and frustration. However, many of the physical blemishes or disabilities that render a kohen a ba’al mum are congenital birth-defects. A kohen ba’al mum places the responsibility for his permanent ineligibility to perform the Divine service in the Mikdash squarely on Hashems shoulders kivyachol-as it were.  After all, as in the case of the ugly man whom Rabi Eliezer verbally abused, the kohen a ba’al mum considers HaShem “the Craftsman who made me”. He is bewildered over why his Creator/ Craftsmen would have brought him thisclose to the Divine Mikdash service by having been born into the patrilineal Ahronic line yet, ultimately, excluded him and distanced him from Divine Mikdash service through “crafting” a “defective product”. In short, the kohen ba’al mum bears tarumos-heartfelt grievances; towards G-d.

The Izhbitzer understands the mitzvah addressed to the kohanim ba’alei mumim of eating of the korbanos– sacrificial offerings; as a way of appeasing them and addressing their tarumos. Their pnimiyus-their inner essence; even physically, is equivalent to all other kohanim. While the kohen ba’al mum may be blemished externally and superficially, his inner core lacks nothing.  More pointedly; his internal organs become another vehicle for intimacy with HaShem. HaShem is Just and determines precisely how many kohanim ba’alei mumim there must be and which particular souls will be implanted into these “defective” bodies. Through the mitzvah of eating of the korbanos the kohen ba’al mum achieves intimacy with the Divine and, while being kept at arm’s length, kivyachol, in terms of service in the Mikdash, comes to realize that this too is a fulfillment if HaShems Will. In achieving this consciousness the bitterness of his tarumos are sweetened; transformed into wistful, brokenhearted yearnings for the closeness achieved through service in the Mikdash.  In turn these yearnings engender the closeness and intimacy that HaShem has with the heartbroken “HaShem is close to the brokenhearted” (Tehillim 34:19 cp Zohar VaYesheiv page181A)

In contradistinction to the letting go of tarumos of the kohanim ba’alei mumim; the Megadeph allowed his tarumos to become his undoing. Per the Izhbitzer the inclusion of the narrative of the Megadeph in the Torah is only to serve as a cautionary tale of just how much we all need to rid ourselves of tarumos k’lapee ma’alah, even those rooted in the most noble of yearnings.

Read more If You Want Me to Be Closer to You … Get Further From Me

Four Top Misconceptions About Judaism

A while ago I attended an excellent seminar in Kew Garden Hills, NY from Project Inspire, a joint initiative of Aish HaTorah and the OU aimed at creating a grass-roots outreach movement. One of the highlights of the evening was a presentation by Rabbi Chaim Samson from Aish about the four main misconceptions about Judaism than non-frum Jews hava, and the four reassurances that can overcome them. While I can’t recreate the full glory of the presentation in a written summary, the ideas are inspiring enough in any format. For anyone involved professionally or casually in outreach, keeping these four misconceptions in mind is a good starting point. The presentation is also great for ba’alei teshuva.

When he was learning at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem, Rabbi Samson and his friends would often pass backpackers hanging out in the old city. He and his friends had a running that joke that if they approached two backpackers and asked them if they’d like to spend some time in a yeshiva learning about philosophy, mysticism, ethics, how Judaism can inspire our lives, etc., they would get the same answers every time. One of the backpackers would jump at the chance, saying that he had always wanted to learn more about Judaism. The other would demur and make up a litany of excuses. Inevitably the one who is eager to learn about Judaism would be non-Jewish, and interested in comparative religions or an understanding of the development of religions, and the one who wants nothing to do with the religion would be Jewish.

Why this hesitancy? Rabbi Samson points to four misconceptions that lead to this, and four reassurances which can counter them.

1. Judging Others

First, there’s the misconception that religious Jews look down on non-religious Jews, judging them to be less holy or less of a Jew. So therefore why would a non-frum Jew ever want to walk into a room full of frum Jews, thinking that everyone in the room is judging him?

But this idea is completely contrary to Judaism! At the core of Judaism are the concepts of care, concern and love for our fellow Jews. Judaism brought the ideals of charity, kindness and respect to the world. No matter the religious beliefs of another Jew, we have a mitzvah to love and respect them.

As an illustration, Jewish law rules that if someone puts a gun to your head and tells you to kill someone else, you must refuse. This is based on the Talmudic concept that we can’t know whose blood is redder, for only G-d knows who is holier. Taking the example one step further, if you were forced to choose between killing a homeless, alcoholic bum, who never worked a day in his life, and shooting the Chofetz Chayim, one of the biggest Rabbis of all time, Judaism also would say that you cannot choose. We as humans cannot know which of the two people is holier. Each of us has a mission in this world and a potential we can reach, and we cannot know who is closer to reaching it.

Therefore this is a complete misconception, for it could be that the non-frum Jew is truly on a higher level and closer to G-d that his religious brother! The frum person can gain and learn from his less-religious coreligionist, so we can never say that one person is on a lower level than ourselves.

2. Who wants Judaism? It’s a hardship!

There’s the common misconception that Judaism is a hardship, a deprivation of all enjoyment in the world, and that a non-frum person would have to give up all that he enjoys in life. Nothing could be farther from the truth! Judaism is about sucking the marrow out of life and making the most of it. While we have to temper and focus some of our desires, one of the goals of Judaism is getting the most out of this world and achieving the greatest amount of satisfaction.

One of the most important desires that any parent has for a child is that he or she should be happy. It’s the same for G-d. We are His children, and He wants us to get pleasure in this world and the next. Therefore He shows us how real happiness comes from becoming holy. Learning Torah and keeping mitzvot brings the greatest levels of enjoyment a person can have.

Just as a person would never drive a car without reading the instruction manual, we shouldn’t go through life without first reading the instructions. The Torah is our instruction book, our guidebook for getting the most out of life. When a non-frum Jew sees a beautiful Shabbas table with singing, a closeness among family members and true happiness, he or she gets a taste of real enjoyment. The way to do this is by sincerely showing people that Judaism, the Torah and the mitzvot hold the key to happiness.

3. It’s all or nothing.

Upon seeing the multitude of laws and customs in Judaism, many people will throw up their hands and say “It’s too great for me! I’ll never achieve it all, so why should I try?” When they realize they can’t do everything, they opt for nothing.

But it’s a fallacy to assume that we can achieve everything. There is no person on earth who can honestly say that he’s learned every item of Torah, perfected every mitzvot and learned every secret. No one achieves it all.

Instead we all need to take baby steps. We need to take on new mitzvot one at a time. A person may think it’s hypocritical to only take on particular items, but it’s really being human. We’re all constantly struggling to achieve perfection, but that’s human nature. As long as we’re focused on constantly improving and adding to our observance, taking small steps is the way to go.

For example if a jeweler put 613 precious diamonds on a table and told you to grab as many as you could in a few seconds, it’s obviously impossible to grab them all. But that doesn’t mean you should walk away from the table without trying. You need to try to grab as many as you can at once.

By showing other Jews how easy it is to do single mitzvot, such as lighting candles on Friday night, wearing tzitzit, etc., you’ll inspire them to tremendous heights. One mitzvah leads to another. It’s important to get to know a person well enough to be able to recommend particular mitzvot to them, but the most important item is that slow and steady steps helps one win the race.

4. It’s not true!

Often people outside the spectrum of Torah-true Judaism will think of the religion as archaic and backwards, a belief system for people who lack something and who are less intellectual. This probably stems from a misconception based on other religions that require a leap of faith to accept their laws.

Judaism is based on the completely opposite idea. We believe that not only is there a G-d, but that it’s possible to know that He’s out there, that it’s provable. It’s unreasonable to think that G-d would want us to pray to Him without knowing for sure that He’s there. What would be the point of it? How would we ever achieve the heights of spirituality if we weren’t sure our prayers were being heard?

Judaism is one of the only religions that encourages questions and challenges. These are the central goals of Jewish learning and the cores of Judaism. If we can constantly question and challenge, it’s a tremendous testimony to the veracity of Judaism! G-d wouldn’t encourage us to question if it was impossible to find the truth. Our eagerness to question demonstrates our supreme confidence in the truth of our religion.

Based on these four misconceptions and four reassurances, we also have four key methodologies for reaching out to people:

1. Showing care for people, to show that any thoughts that they’re being judged are incorrect.

2. Demonstrating the beauty and pleasure inherent in Judaism.

3. Taking baby steps to observance.

4. Showing that Judaism is based on truth.

These four statements are fundamental to outreach, and fundamental to our performance of our religion.

To end with my own addition, these four statements are also excellent items to work on as we prepare for the divine tribunal on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These are four areas that we need to constantly work on. By strengthening our love for fellow Jews and refraining from judging them, we become more caring and compassionate people. By making sure that our actions radiate the beauty of Judaism, we remind ourselves and those around us how beautiful our religion is and we enhance our performance of the mitvot. Taking baby steps is the best way to adopt any new mitzvah or practice, and doing so is especially appropriate during this month of Elul. By spending this month taking small steps towards our commitments for next year, we demonstrate to G-d and ourselves that we are sincere and that we will really try to achieve them next year, instead of just jumping into them without preparation on Rosh Hashanah. And by demonstrating to the world that truth is at the core of Judaism, we can inspire ourselves, our families and our communities to greater love and observance of Judaism.

Originally Published in October, 2006

Kedoshim – Spirituality and Materialism Do Not Mix

The Ramban’s commentary on the opening posuk of Parsha Kedoshim is perhaps the second most famous Ramban on the Torah. Rabbi Noson Weisz explains the Ramban’s comments as follows:

“The lesson of the commandment to be holy is that we can be fully observant without necessarily being very different than the rest of the world in terms of pursuing materialism or leading a life devoted to consumption. We can open restaurants that are up to cordon blue standards and yet are strictly kosher. We can dress our wives and daughters in the latest fashions without violating the letter of the laws of modesty. We can aspire to live in mansions and drive fancy cars and spend our vacations in romantic far away places without violating any of the strictures of the Torah in the slightest degree. In short, observance does not foreclose the possibility of leading a materialistic life.

In fact, there is even a downside to observance in this regard. Whereas the non-observant person who engages in such a lifestyle has no illusions that he is leading a spiritual life, the strictly observant person who engages in the same life with minor variations might easily conclude that because he is observing the Torah commandments to the letter, he is immersed in spirituality even as he drowns in materialism. It is to forestall this attitude that the Torah urges us to holiness.”

Read the whole thing and spend some quality time with Parshas Kedoshim, which the Ramban calls the foundation of all the Aseres HaDibros.

Here is the outline from Rabbi Jonathan Rietti. Thanks again to Rabbi Rietti for allowing us to post these outlines. (You can purchase the entire outline of the Chumash here).

Kedoshim
# 19 Be Kedoshim!
# 20 Consequences of Major Violations

# 19 Be Kedoshim!
* Train yourselves to be in control of your cravings
* Fear Parents
* Observe Shabbat
* Warning against following Avoda Zara. 
* Don’t make a Pessel for others.
* Don’t eat Pigul
* Don’t eat Notar.
* Laws of Peah, Leket, Peret, Ollalot
* Laws of stealing, denial of rightful claims.
* Laws of Oaths:
* Laws of cheating in business & withholding wages.
* Laws against cursing.
* Laws of Justice.
* Laws of interpersonal behavior.
* Forbidden mixtures.
* Forbidden practices.
* Behave with Awe in The Temple.
* Don’t seek mediums to communicate with the dead.
* Don’t seek out a Yidoni (to enter mystical states).
* Honor the elderly and Torah scholars.
* Don’t hurt a stranger or convert
* Love the convert like you love yourself
* Honesty. Don’t miscalculate, own honest measures.

# 20 Consequences of Major Violations
* Molech – Skila
* Inquiring after Ov – Karet
* Inquiring after Yidoni – Karet
* Cursing Parents – Skila.
* Adultery – Strangulation.
* Step Mother – Skila
* Daughter in law – Skila
* Homosexuality – Skila
* Mother & Daughter – Burning.
* Beastiality – Skila
* Step sister from father or mother – Karet
* Nidda – Karet
* Aunt – both die childless
* Sister in law – both die childless
* Don’t go in the ways of other nations.
* I separated you form the other nations to behave in a holy way.
* Act of Ov – Skila
* Act of Yidoni – Skila

The Three Keys To Jewish Happiness – Connection, Connection, Connection


The Improbable Happiness of Israelis

The WSJ ran an article yesterday titled “The Improbable Happiness of Israelis”, which pointed out that Israelis rank 11th of 158 countries in the United Nations’s World Happiness Index, and 5th out of the 36 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries on the OECD’s Life Satisfaction Index—ahead of the U.S., the U.K. and France. The author, Avinoam Bar Yosef, asks how can this be given that Israelis live in a hostile and volatile neighborhood, engaged in an endless conflict with the Palestinians and under the threat of nuclear annihilation by Iran.


The Nationality, Culture and Tradition of Israelis

Mr. Bar Yosef posits: “The explanation probably lies in indicators not considered in standard surveys. For instance, a new study by my organization, the Jewish People Policy Institute, looked at pluralism in Israel and found that 83% of Israel’s Jewish citizens consider their nationality “significant” to their identity. Eighty percent mention that Jewish culture is also “significant.” More than two-thirds (69%) mention Jewish tradition as important. Strong families and long friendships stretching back to army service as young adults, or even to childhood, also foster a sense of well-being. All of these factors bolster the Jewish state’s raison d’être.”


Connecting Within Ourselves, To Hashem, and To Others

I would like to suggest a different explanation of Jewish Happiness from a Torah perspective. Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the popular Bilvavi and Da Es seforim, points out that our purpose in this world is rooted in three types of connection: connection between our body and soul, connection between ourselves and Hashem, and connection between ourselves and other people.


The World Stands on Connection Via Torah, Service, and Acts of Kindness

The Mishna in Avos (1:2) says the world stands on three things, Torah, Service of Hashem, and Acts of Kindness. The Nesivos Shalom says that the world refered to in the Mishna is our personal world which we build each and every day. Torah provides us with the concepts and mitzvos that enable us to use the material world in a spiritual way – which connects or physical bodies to our spiritual soul. Service of Hashem is accomplished through prayer which connects us to Hashem on a daily basis. Acts of Kindness, both large and small, connect us to our family, friends and community.


Happiness is the Result of Completeness

The Maharal in his commentary on Avos (6:1) says that happiness flows from completeness, just as grief is the result of loss and deficiency. When we are connected within ourselves, to Hashem, and to other people, we are more complete and the happiness flows. Happiness is not the goal of Judaism, but when we accomplish our purpose through the pursuit of three types of connection, happiness is the result. If we are not feeling the resulting happiness, then we are not pursuing the connections properly.

May we continue to pursue our connections so that we can soon witness the day when Hashem is One and His Name is One in the eyes and hearts of the entire world.

Healing a Wounded Covenant – Children of Holocaust Survivors Reclaim their Heritage

By Bayla Sheva Brenner

Children born in the post-Holocaust era of the 1940s, 50s and 60s grew up knowing their parents had gone through hell on earth. The ghosts of murdered grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings loomed large in their homes by their very absence. Sounds like an atmosphere ripe for major crises in faith. Yet, from many of the survivors who either lacked the strength to believe in a benevolent God or to observe His Torah came offspring who have picked up the discarded baton and enthusiastically embraced observant Judaism. I am one of those who chose to reclaim my heritage and have always wondered if there were more like me. These are the stories of survivors’ sons and daughters whose struggle with faith led to consequential life choices.

The “2Gs,” (the generation after the Holocaust) as many of us refer to ourselves, span a two-decade age range. Some of us were born in war-torn Europe, some smack dab in Middle America, but we all share basic commonalities that helped shaped our sensibilities about what it means to be in a world that could suddenly and brutally fall apart. We felt different, because our parents were different.

Born in the Bronx, New York, and raised in the Rego Park section of Queens, Allen Kolber remembers himself as a nervous and fearful child. “I was obsessed with the Holocaust,” he says. “By the time I was eight, I had amassed a whole collection of Holocaust material. I was trying to understand my father’s experience.”

His father had grown up in Sanz, Poland, and was nineteen when the war began. On Yom Kippur 1939, the Germans dragged the Jews out of the shul across the street from his home and brazenly cut off their beards. “My father decided then and there that he was leaving,” says Kolber. “He told his parents they should do the same, but they resisted. He convinced a brother and sister to join him and together they traveled to Soviet-controlled Lemberg.” The Soviets then shipped them to a labor camp in Siberia. “My father went through the war with a pouch around his neck that contained five photos of his family. Except for the brother and sister [with whom he had fled], his parents, two brothers with their families and another sister were murdered.”

Although his parents were raised in Torah-observant homes, Kolber, forty-six, was not. “Judaism [in our home] was defined by the Holocaust,” he says. “My Jewish identity was the European Holocaust identity. It wasn’t about a relationship with God or learning Torah.”
If there was any indication of his father being religious before the war, he “lost it completely afterwards.”

“He wasn’t anti-religious,” says Kolber. “[In fact,] he spoke about [his life in the shtetl] with fondness. He remembers going to cheder as a five-year-old, but doesn’t [seem to] know any of the Jewish practices. [Yet], in the photograph I have of his parents, his mother is wearing a sheitel and his father is wearing a koppel [kippah].”

At the age of sixteen, Kolber’s mother fled with her family from Berlin to France, to Spain, then to Portugal, and finally to the United States in 1942. Unlike her husband, she maintained an affinity for frumkeit. “They struck a compromise,” says Kolber. “We had a kosher home and Friday night dinners. On Shabbos, my mother, sister and I would go to a Conservative shul and then we were free to do whatever we wanted. She did, however, raise me with the sense that it would be good for me to become religious when I got older.”

Children of Holocaust survivors inevitably absorb the emotional repercussions of their parents’ trauma; its effects are usually played out as they enter young adulthood and begin to make their way in the world. Kolber describes his father as always having difficulty venturing beyond his own four walls. “He had this thing about suitcases. He couldn’t bring himself to pack a suitcase; he didn’t go on vacation or sleep away from the house.” Similarly, Kolber found that he also had difficulty navigating life. “It took me six years to graduate college,” he says. “I started out pre-med and got kicked out of [college]. I was depressed; I just sat in my room all day and smoked.”

Many survivors internalized the crushing deprivation foisted upon them; this, too, was passed on to their children. “I would ask my father, ‘What are you eating over the sink for? Sit down at the table and eat on a plate,’” says Kolber. “And he would answer: ‘You think I had a plate in Siberia? You think I need a plate? I ate for five years without a plate.’ I felt I didn’t deserve to be happy, to be fulfilled and complete.”

Kolber managed to graduate from Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York. He decided to go to law school, and to look into frumkeit. Throughout his three years of study, he attended Torah classes in Manhattan during the school year and learned at the Ohr Somayach, a yeshivah in Israel, each summer. He also started going to shul.

After graduating from law school, Kolber went to Israel for a year of Torah study and returned to the United States with a kippah, tzitzis and a desire to get serious about Yiddishkeit. He quickly set up a schedule of intensive Torah learning with Rabbi Dovid Schwartz, associate director of the Jewish Heritage Center in Queens.

Also a son of survivors, Rabbi Schwartz, fifty, has mentored a number of 2Gs who became ba’alei teshuvah. “The overwhelming sense that I get from learning with 2Gs is that their parents were generally silent about their experiences,” says Rabbi Schwartz. “Once they conducted their own Holocaust research and realized the enormity of the murder rate and how miniscule the chance of survival was, they felt a sense of mission, as if to say: ‘If my parents survived and they were incapable of regaining their frumkeit, I’ll be darned if I’m not going to.’ It brings them to a tremendous sense of purpose.”

Today, Kolber, an attorney, lives in Monsey, New York, with his wife, Liora, and their four children, each of whom is named after members of his father’s martyred family. His mother recently died; she had taken ill soon after the birth of Kolber’s first child and had been incapable of fully enjoying the gratifying nachas of grandparenthood. “I was wondering if she can see everything now,” says Kolber. “I have boys with peyos and tzitzis, and a girl who wears a long dress. She would be so happy with that.”

The Soul-Saving Power of Giving
Read more Healing a Wounded Covenant – Children of Holocaust Survivors Reclaim their Heritage

Translated Text of Pirkei Avos

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

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

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

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

Here is the first perek.

1 “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it Joshua. Joshua transmitted it to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise many students, and make a protective fence for the Torah.”

2 “Shimon the Righteous was of the last survivors of the Men of the Great Assembly. He used to say, the world is based upon three things: on Torah, on service [of G-d], and on acts of kindness.”

3 “Antignos of Socho received the transmission from Shimon the Righteous. He used to say, do not be as servants who serve the Master to receive reward. Rather, be as servants who serve the Master not to receive reward. And let the fear of heaven be upon you.”

4 “Yossi ben (son of) Yo’ezer of Ts’raidah and Yossi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem received the transmission from them. Yossi ben Yo’ezer used to say, let your house be a meeting place for the sages, cleave to the dust of their feet, and drink thirstily their words.”

5 “Yossi the son of Yochanan of Jerusalem said: Let your house be open wide, and let the poor be members of your household, and do not talk excessively with women. This was said regarding one’s own wife, certainly with another’s wife. Based on this the Sages have said, one who talks excessively with women causes evil to himself, wastes time from Torah study, and will eventually inherit Gehinnom (Hell).”

6 “Yehoshua the son of Perachia and Nittai of Arbel received the transmission from them (the Rabbis mentioned in Mishna 4). Yehoshua the son of Perachia said, make for yourself a Rabbi, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge everyone favorably.”

7 “Nittai of Arbel said, distance yourself from a bad neighbor, do not befriend a wicked person, and do not despair of punishment.”

8 “Yehuda the son of Tabbai and Shimon the son of Shatach received the transmission from them (the scholars mentioned in Mishna 6). Yehuda the son of Tabbai said, do not act as an adviser to judges. When the litigants are standing before you they should be in your eyes as guilty. When they are dismissed from before you they should be in your eyes as innocent, provided they have accepted the judgment.”

9 “Shimon the son of Shatach said, examine witnesses thoroughly, and be careful with your words, lest through them they learn to lie.”

10 “Shemaya and Avtalyon received the tradition from them (the scholars mentioned in mishna 8). Shemaya said, love work, despise high position, and do not become too close to the authorities.”

11 “Avtalyon said: ‘Sages, be careful with your words lest you deserve to be exiled and are exiled to a place of bad waters. The students who come after you will drink of these waters and die and God’s Name will be desecrated.’ ”

12 “Hillel and Shammai received the transmission from them (the scholars mentioned in Mishna 10). Hillel said, be of the students of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to Torah.”

13 “He (Hillel) used to say, one who seeks a name loses his name, one who does not increase decreases, one who does not learn deserves death, and one who makes use of the crown [of Torah] will pass away.”

14 “He (Hillel) used to say, if I am not for me who is for me, if I am for myself what am I, and if not now when.”

15 “Shammai said, make your Torah study fixed, say little and do much, and receive everyone with a cheerful countenance.”

16 “Rabban Gamliel said, make for yourself a Rabbi, remove yourself from doubt, and do not give extra tithes due to estimation.”

17 “Shimon his [Rabban Gamliel’s] son said, all my life I have been raised among the Sages, and I have not found anything better for oneself than silence. Study is not the main thing but action. All who talk excessively bring about sin.”

18 “Rabbi Shimon the son of Gamliel said, on three things does the world endure – justice, truth and peace, as the verse says (Zechariah 8:16), ‘Truth and judgments of peace judge in your gates.’ ”

R’ Noah Weinberg’s Lakewood Seminar

Download the 6 part mp3 series from R’ Noah Weinberg’s Lakewood Seminar.

Kiruv Training Seminar by Rabbi Noah Weinberg zt”l

This 6-talk series was presented to the advanced rabbinical students of Lakewood Yeshiva, New Jersey. The sessions focus on the full array of issues raised by today’s questioning youth. This is probably Rabbi Weinberg’s most comprehensive explanation of the principles of kiruv – and is considered his most brilliant performance.

Beyond Vertlach – Key Points of the Seder

Divrei Torah and vertlach at the Seder are wonderful, but it’s important to focus on the key points of the seder.

Here’s are the Key Points of the Seder in text:

1) Tell the Detailed Story – Sippur Yetzias Mitzraim

2) Use Imagery & Details to Really Live/Feel It

3) Strengthen Your Emunah
a. Hashem Exists
b. Hashem is Directly Involved – Hashgacha Pratis
c. Hashem is One – No Other

4) Feel the Gratitude – Hakaros HaTov

5) Give Thanks, Sing, Praise – L’Hodos, L’Hallel, L’Shevach

6) Serve Hashem with Love, Joy and Enthusiasm

Download the one page graphic here.

Guide to the Seder and The Five Minute Seder

The Beyond BT Guide to the Seder contains all the steps of the seder along with some commentary and halachic instructions.

A few years ago I edited the above guide and compiled a Five Minute Seder for a non-observant friend and his family. Five minutes may be stretching it, but it’s pretty bare bones for those who have trouble going through the whole thing.

And here’s the One Minute explanation if you’re really pressed for time.

The Events of the Exodus
The process of the Exodus began when our forefather Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, and his family settled in Egypt as the honored guests of the Pharaoh at that time. The process continued through the Jewish enslavement by the Egyptians; the 10 nature-defying plagues prophesized by Moshe and activated by G-d over a period of 12 months; the subsequent release of the approximately 3 million Jews to freedom after the plague of the death of the first born; the splitting of the Red Sea 7 days after their release; and the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai 7 weeks after their release.

The Centrality of the Exodus
The centrality of the Exodus in Judaism is predicated on the fact that the Jewish people were freed and separated as a unique nation through the clear actions of G-d Himself. Besides the physical freedom achieved, G-d chose us to be the world’s spiritual leaders by giving us the mitzvos of the Torah at Mount Sinai The mitzvos free us from a purely animal-like physical existence, to one in which we can elevate all our actions to be spiritual and G-d connected. Passover is a time where we commemorate the Exodus and renew our spiritual focus.

The Seder
The Seder with its focus on the telling of the story enable us to experientially reconnect with the slavery and freedom of the Exodus and express our appreciation to G-d for our redemption and selection as His chosen people. The salt water in which the green vegetable is dipped and the bitter herbs are associated with our bondage. The four cups of wine and the festival meal help us relive our freedom.

The Holiday of Matzah
The Matzah is the central component of both the Seder and the 8 days of Passover. Matzah, consisting of just flour and water was our no frills food when we were slaves in Egypt. It’s also a symbol of our freedom because we hastily left Egypt without time to bake bread.

On a spiritual level, the leaven in bread makes it more digestible and flavorous. This is appropriate for the rest of the year when our main challenge is to integrate the physical into the spiritual. On Passover, we eat only Matzah and abstain from the physically oriented leaven. This allows us to keep spiritually focused as we recharge our spiritual mission and focus during the holiday of Passover.

Understanding the Structure of the Haggadah

According to the Malbim (although there is a dispute as to 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

Surviving the Seder – Guide to the Perplexed

Years ago, Maxwell House Coffees used to give out free Haggadahs at all the grocery stores, a nice way of reminding people that Maxwell House Coffees are Kosher for Passover. Those Haggadahs were actually quite nice (with charming illustrations) and were really helpful, with clear translations, a picture of the Seder plate layout, and easy instructions in English. In addition, if you had a couple dozen of these free Haggadahs, everyone at the Seder table could literally be on the same page.

OK, you can survive preparing for, and undergoing, the Pesach Seder even without the help of those good folks at Maxwell House. Bring some common sense, sanity and a lot of organization and you too can Do It Right on the Seder Night.

Kaarah shel Pesach (Seder Plate): Most seder plates have labeled spots where each item goes. Beytzah, Maror, Zroa, Karpas, Chazeres, Charoses. Beytzah (Roasted Eggs): Hardboil a lot of eggs in your Pesach pot (you’ll eat most of them later in salt water as a first course of the festive meal). Take one hard boiled egg, hold an end of it gently into the flame of the gas stove to get a dark spot. Use this slightly browned egg for the seder plate (keep it in the fridge to use again on the second night). If you prepare the egg on Yom Tov itself, eat the egg the next morning and then the second night prepare a new roasted egg (refer to the halachos of not preparing food on one day of Yom Tov for the next day, which starts evening before).

Zroa: I like to use a turkey wing just for this purpose, but really a chicken wing or any meat bone will do. I wrap the turkey wing in foil and place it right on top of the stove top gas burner flame. This could get a little messy, as the turkey fat melts and sputters. I have an old metal Pesach flat grater that I don’t use anymore for grating, so I put the foil wrapped packet containing the turkey wing on it, that holds some of the grease. I leave the turkey wing on the flame until it’s actually roasted and edible and browned (if anyone wants to eat it later following the Seder night they could if they wished). Again, as with the roasted egg, follow the halachos of cooking on Yom Tov if preparing the Zroa after Yom Tov begins (might need to eat it the next morning and prepare a new Zroa the next night for the second seder).

Charoses: There are a zillion Charoses recipes out there. If you want to make it easy on yourself, buy a package of ground walnuts. Peel and core an apple, cut into very tiny pieces (some people use a chopper or food processor). Mix the chopped bits of apple with the ground walnuts and some red wine. Add cinnamon and a speck of ginger if on hand. The exact proportions are disputed, make it as thick or as runny as you want. You don’t really need quarts of this stuff, we use just a large dollop on the seder plate and that’s good enough. People aren’t generally eating the stuff, it’s only a dip for the maror (and you shake it off, too). We used to be even lazier and use the dried Charoses mix that one yeshiva used to send us every year (they stopped doing that a few years ago). Those who want to keep kids busy might prefer buying whole walnuts, distributing nutcrackers and ordering kids to crack the nuts. Without kids to do it, don’t bother, use the packaged ground walnuts.

Maror and Chazeres: If you plan on using the eye-watering, throat-clearing stuff, be aware of the halachos about grating the horseradish root less than 24 hours before you use it (meaning grate it on Erev Pesach to be used the first Seder night) but then leaving it uncovered so that some of its strength lessens (the Pesach guidebooks by Rabbi Blumenkrantz zatzal and Rabbi Eider zatzal discuss proper preparation if you are using horseradish root). Also buy a clean new jigger glass (one fluid ounce) since the shiur or required measurement for fresh grated horseradish root is quite small (check with your own Posaik or local Orthodox rabbi).

My family gave up on fresh grated horseradish years ago (my husband used to turn purple after ingesting) and now we use romaine lettuce for maror. The shiur (minimum size) differs if you are using the leaves, the stalks or the solid centers of the romaine lettuce. Also romaine lettuce is extremely bug-infested and difficult to clean properly. We use the more expensive pre-checked pre-washed romaine lettuce (that used to be a specialty of Gush Katif before the expulsion, the Aleh Katif romaine lettuce). Again, the Pesach books have charts to measure the correct sizes when distributing the romaine lettuce for achilas maror and again for the Korech (combination).
On the Seder plate itself, some people use a little bit of the ground horseradish as Maror and a little bit of romaine lettuce for the Chazeres. We like to use a solid center from the romaine lettuce on the Kaarah as Maror, and a little piece of leaf for Chazeret.

Karpas: Everyone’s going to get a tiny bit, less than a Kazayis, so I simply boil a potato (we have tons) and use that for Karpas. Celery is OK too. This will be dipped into a small bowl of salt water (simply add some salt to water) and distributed to all participants in the Seder.

Matzah: If you use the hand baked shmurah matzohs for the Seder, follow what the R. Blumenkrantz and R. Eider guidebooks say and use approx 1/3 of a hand matzoh for a Kazayis (volume of an olive) and twice that or 2/3 of a hand matzoh for a K’beitzah (twice that or the volume of an egg). So everyone should get 2/3 of a matzoh for Motzi Matzoh, 1/3 of a matzoh for Korech, and 2/3 of a matzoh for the Afikoman. That works out to 5/3 of a hand matzoh for each person. Eleven hand shmurah matzohs are in a two-pound box, which is enough matzohs for six people at one seder. Obviously the three shmurah matzohs on the table for display won’t be enough to feed the crowd, so you give out little bits of those matzohs along with all of the extra matzohs you need to make up the minimum shiur. If somebody really can’t eat all of that matzoh I believe that in those cases just managing a total of one Kazayis or 1/3 of a hand matzo is enough, but ask your Poseik or Rav.

There is a nine-minute time period for eating the matzoh, this seems to include chewing but not swallowing, so your Seder participants sit with bulging cheeks chewing away at the round hand matzohs.

Wine or Grape Juice: Don’t be daunted by the requirement for four cups. We use small size cups, actually five ounce juice glasses, much easier than using regular size wine bechers which can be six or eight ounces. We also use very light wines for those who have trouble with heavy or high alcohol wines. Kedem has some very drinkable light wines such as Matuk Rouge Soft and Matuk Rouge Kal. The Pesach guides have a discussion here also about the minimum shiur. The first Kos has to be at least 4.42 ounces for Kadesh if the first Seder falls on Friday night and it is also Kiddush for Layl Shabbos, otherwise the shiur is even smaller for each of the arba kosos. Since for two of the kosos you must drink the whole kos and for two of the kosos at least half of the kos, it is easiest to use small glasses or cups for the kosos (measure in advance).

Maggid – With daylight savings time, the Seder doesn’t start until after the guys get back from davening Maariv, which means not even beginning until 9 PM. Pretty late. Our family takes about 2-1/2 hours on Maggid, we don’t get to the Matzah and Marror eating until about 11:30 PM and the dinner itself until close to 11:50 PM. Since chatzos is at 1 AM that gives us just one hour for the meal itself (we do it quickly by leaving out the fish and salad courses, just hardboiled egg in salt water, soup, main course, dessert), getting to the Afikoman at about 12:58. We try to allow everyone to say something during Maggid even though we want to move the Seder along. I think we strike a good balance. Benching then Nirtzah, we finish by 2 AM, hopefully the adults are awake enough to drink the last two Kosos and sing Hallel plus the famous Seder songs Chad Gadya and Echod Mi Yodaya.

You too can survive the Seder. Try to take a nap Erev Pesach, easiest when Erev Pesach is Shabbos, more difficult on a weekday. Help to get the table and the Seder Plate ready so that the Seder can begin right away after the men get back from Maariv. Everyone should start off with a Haggadah and a Kos on a small plate or saucer. The dish of three matzohs with a cover should be near the person leading the Seder, also the bowl of salt water and some utensil for dipping the bits of Karpas. Plenty of different strengths of wine and grape juice should be ready for pouring on the table. There should be a washing cup and towel near the sink for Urechatz and Rachtzah. People should have cushions or pillows ready on their chairs so they can lean (“recline”) when they drink the Arba Kosos. As mentioned above, it helps for everyone to use the same Haggadahs, however some people have their favorite Haggadahs and there are kid-friendly Haggadahs (aside from kid-made Haggadahs from school). Dig in the closet to get out the white Kittel that was cleaned and put away after Yom Kippur.

As long as you fulfill the halachic requirements, surviving the Seder is quite doable, and there’s plenty of room for some creativity and even humor. There are families who toss around stuffed frogs at the Esser Makkos – Ten Plagues point of the seder. My kids still sing songs from an old Pesach tape they heard about twenty years ago. I know that there are people who conduct a very serious Seder; we are a little more lighthearted. It’s very important for the children at the Seder table to be involved in the telling of the Haggadah; after all, that’s one of the mitzvos of the night, teaching your children about yetzias Mitzrayim. It’s interesting to think about how the sages of two thousand years ago designed the Haggadah and the Seder in a way to keep children interested and awake, millennia before anyone dreamed up the phrase, “multi media presentation.”

Chag Kasher v’Sameach to all!

Originally Posted on March 26, 2010

Researching an Article on Family Estrangement

I am conducting research for an article to be featured in an upcoming issue of Jewish Action magazine (the OU’s quarterly publication) on family estrangement – parent and adult child, adult sibling and sibling, etc.

All interviewees will remain strictly anonymous. If this applies to you, I welcome your participation.

Please contact me at brennerbs@ou.org. Thank you.

Bayla Sheva Brenner
Senior Writer
Department of Communication & Marketing
The Orthodox Union

Pesach Advice From Experienced Jewish Homemakers.

Rivka Slatin has a nice site called Jewish-Life-Organized.com, which lots of tips and techniques to organize the Jewish home. She was kind enough to let us post anything from her site that would be useful for the Beyond BT community.

Pesach advice as told to me by experienced Jewish homemakers.
Pesach advice collected. Being the researcher that I am, I am constantly interviewing homemakers who are very experienced, running a home for over 30 years. Here is some pesach advice that I want to share with you. See what can work for you in your own home.

My own Pesach Tip!!!-I don’t make a cent off of this recommendation. There is a product that removes the cold hard grease from any surface. I just cleaned my refrigerator and the gunk underneath is with a few sprays! It is really really important that you get this product if you want to clean easily. The only downside is that it is not a natural product so you’ll want to wear gloves and not inhale. I think it is from Israel. This company also makes the Magic Sponge and the two products when used together are pretty powerful degreasers.

* I think about Pesach all year round. Otherwise it becomes impossible. No food is allowed upstairs or downstairs EVER! If chametz is all over the house, pesach becomes much harder.

* After Purim I start cleaning the dining room. Empty out the buffet, wash everything. I put a sign on it and only return things that are clean.

* I work my way up the cabinets in the kitchen, consolidating everything on the top shelves. That way, by the time my grandkids can help me bring stuff upstairs, I have empty space for Pesach dishes. My bottom cabinets end up Pesachdik.

* My kitchen is Pesachdik 2 Shabbosim before Pesach. I use a bunson burner if I want to cook anything with Chametz.

* If you want to Spring clean, fine. We all do. But have it done before Purim. Or wait until Pesach is over.

* I kasher my silver and use it all year-round.

* I save my cabinet liners year to year, cut them to size, and write on the back which shelf it corresponds to.

* I don’t bake after Purim and I start minimizing the chametz in my pantry. The chametz mamash goes in a box in the hallway. I keep cans in my pantry and just tape it up over Pesach.

* I pull one all-nighter and by the morning of bedikas chametz my house is completely ready for Pesach.

* There are 4 weeks between Purim and Pesach, I spend the 1st week on bedrooms, (after which no one brings food upstairs), the 2nd week on the downstairs, and the 3rd week for the kitchen. Having defined goals keeps me focused.

* I spend one whole day planning my Pesach meals. I choose foods that I know will serve many people. I tear apart my recipes and make sure EVERYTHING is on the list. It takes a whole day. After that, I spend one whole day going shopping.

* I have two freezers. During the year, I keep one chametz free.

* BUY A SELF-CLEANING OVEN!

* It’s all about attitude! I feel that my home is a miniature Bais Hamikdash and I am like the Kohen Gadol. I keep this in mind all year long but when it comes to Pesach, the feeling is even stronger. For me, cleaning for Pesach is a spiritual cleansing.

* I start around Chanukah time…no food is allowed anywhere besides kitchen and dining room.

* I work in 20 minute intervals, one task per day. So if I have the time, I just pull out a drawer and clean it.

* I don’t clean one room at a time. That’s too hard. I break it down into tiny tasks to complete daily.

* After Purim I start on the kitchen. I clean out my pantry, take out real chametz and put it in boxes. I leave the boxes in the corner of my dining room. It never goes back in the closet. Slowly I work on the kitchen, one shelf and one cabinet at a time. Once a cabinet is done, I am very careful about putting my dishes back in there. Before I put the dishes away, I make sure they aren’t put on a chametz counter.

* Cleaning the oven takes one whole day. So does the fridge and the stove! If you think a task takes 2 hours, give it 4! You can’t do it all in a day.

* I try to have everything Pesachdik 4 days before. We will have our kitchen Pesachdik before Shabbos HaGadol this year. That means our Shabbos food will be Pesachdik. We will eat in the dining room on plastic. After shabbos, the tablecloth is literally thrown out the door. The Dining room is my last room to turn over.

* Making Pesach is a Family project. It is not only the mother’s job. I divide up chores according to what each person does best. Kids are responsible for doing their own rooms. Make it fun!

* Around Purim time, I make lists of everything that needs to done in each room. I clean one room each Sunday.

* My home is usually changed over Sunday night. Shabbos we eat in the kitchen. Motzai Shabbos I do the oven, stove, and sink. Sunday, I reline the pantry, put chametz downstairs and put out the Pesach food. Sunday night the Pesach dishes are brought upstairs. This is the one night a year that we go out to dinner.

* I reserve one day for cooking fleshigs and one for cooking milchigs. My kids do the baking.

* I spend Erev Yom Tov preparing the Seder plate.

* My shopping is done 2-3 weeks before pesach. I store the Pesach food in my second fridge. For someone without one, leave the food in boxes and buy the perishables later. I buy kosher for pesach brands all year round. I always ask myself-DO I REALLY NEED THIS, IT’S ONLY 8 DAYS!!!!!!??!!!!!!!!!

* I keep an active Pesach folder all year round with recipes, inventories, & lists.

Originally Posted June 2007

The Freedom of Shabbat

A being is free only when it can determine and limit its activity.
~Karl Barth

They had Shabbat at the sleep-away camp I went to when I was ten, and I wanted to take it home with me. I made a pretty challah cover in arts and crafts, and carefully packed it in my suitcase to try to take Shabbat home, but it didn’t work. The challah cover just stayed on a shelf in the linen closet after I unpacked it.

Years later, I found the lavender and white carefully needlepointed cover neatly folded in the back of the closet, after I returned from a trip to Israel one summer. I pulled it out and tried to bring the Shabbat I had experienced in Israel into our home. This time it lasted for two sweet Friday night dinners. Then I must have forgotten about the challah cover again. Other stuff seemed more important.

It wasn’t until I lived within a community of people who observed Shabbat that I finally got to experience it on a weekly basis. For a person who is very driven, it is a healing oasis. I don’t think there is anything but a higher spiritual purpose that could get me to stop wanting to accomplish more things.

When I finally began to welcome Shabbat on a weekly basis, I heard the expression that Shabbat is the “pause that refreshes,” and that just fit so perfectly. It fits even more now than ever before. Now, it’s a chance to unplug from all the ways in which we are wired. This past Shabbat I was pondering how Shabbat becomes even more noticeably distinguishable from every other day of the week as we progress technologically. Shabbat moves in, and we lay down all the gadgets that accompany us all week long. We are left with just ourselves—and the people right around us. It feels so gloriously natural and old-fashioned—but there is no way I would free myself up in this way without a strong spiritual incentive motivating me.

It’s ironic, because from the outside it may look like those of us who are observing Shabbat are curtailing our freedom, but I know there is no other way we would release ourselves from all our gadgets. We are actually choosing to “disconnect” in order to more fully reconnect spiritually one day each week.

It’s fitting that we use the expression, “observing Shabbat.” Shabbat becomes the only chance we give ourselves each week to slow down and observe the people and places that are beside us. It provides us with time to more fully appreciate and savor all the blessings we can see (like candles shining) and feel (like welcoming hugs) and taste (like warm challah) and smell (like chicken soup simmering) and hear (like singing together, and even conversing with a real live person next to us).

We’re all here on our unique spiritual journeys—searching for different missing parts. Shabbat gives us the time and space to be mindful and observe where we are on our journeys. When we slow down to a Shabbat pace, we can pause to reflect upon the week that has passed, what its highlights were, and hopefully, reconnect with our purpose.

That challah cover I once made in camp got used so many times after I got married and was blessed with children that it became irreparably stained—with lots of spilled cups of wine and grape juice. We eventually replaced it, and for a while our little ones played pretend “Shabbat” with my old stained challah cover—on regular weekdays.

We get lost from our purpose again and again in our lives. It’s coming back to it that is miraculous.

Bracha Goetz is the author of 30 Jewish children’s books that can be found in Jewish bookstores and online here: http://www.amazon.com/author/spiritualkidsbooks-brachagoetz. This story is due to appear in the upcoming anthology, Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Less, which is scheduled for release on April 19th.

Birth and Rebirth on Tazria, Parshas HaChodesh and Pesach

This week’s parsha, Tazria discusses a mother giving birth. There is a great irony in the birth of a child. The mother is one with the embryo before birth. Physically, a closer bond could never be attained between two. However, at birth, when the infant emerges and mother and child are physically separated, the love intensifies and there is an even greater bond than before. The irony is; through the separation is a stronger union. This new connection can be referred to as a union “face to face.”

The gemarah (Eruvin 18a) explains that Adam and Chava (Eve) were first created as one being, back to back. Hashem separated the two in order to achieve a greater union face to face.

In the deeper wisdom, the back represents the side of negativity. It is the side of darkness where light does not shine. It is a lack of revelation (expressions can only be seen on a face, not a back) and it is the place of filth. Negative energy is referred to as the sitra acher, the forces of the back.

Hashem separated Adam and Chava. In doing so, He created their back, great negativity. The sacrifice, however, was for a greater good. It was in order to attain an eventual, superior union face to face.

The Arizal elucidates that a soul before birth is created back to back. It is explained that a zivug (one’s soul mate) is half of one soul, separated into two, male and female. It seems that, like Adam and Chava, one is attached to his zivug in Heaven back to back. At birth, the two are separated and a virtual back is created. This is the negativity the couple experiences through separation in this world. However, all the uncertainty and anguish is for a greater good. It is in order to have the exalted relationship of face to face under the chuppah.

I would like to suggest this is all a parable for the ultimate relationship in life, our relationship with Hashem. We too were one with Hashem before birth. The soul is a part of Hashem above. Perhaps, our attachment to Hashem on high was like a back to back relationship. Our soul is separated from Hashem and plunged into this lowly world. It is only through the back, the darkness and pain of this world that we can achieve the supreme, ecstatic union of face to face with our Creator.

This is the challenge of Parshas Hachodesh (the Torah portion of the new moon read this Shabbos). The moon only shines in the night sky after it experiences great darkness. A crescent blossoms into a complete sphere. This is the Jew. Through the darkness he shines most magnificently. The non-Jewish calendar is exclusively a solar calendar. A solar year is called a shana. In Hebrew, shana means old. However, our calendar is also based on lunar months. A month in Hebrew is a chodesh. It means new. The Jewish people, like the moon, are always reinvigorating and becoming stronger and brighter than they were previously.

This is the message of Pesach. One can only complete the hagadah when the matzah and marror (bitter herbs) are before him (Pesachim 115b). His mouth can only be full of song through the recitation of Hallel (praises to Hashem) on the Pesach night, when there is a constant reminder of the darkness of Egypt. This is the breaking of the glass at a wedding. This is the plight of a baal teshuva. The apparent negativity and distance is not simply a reminder. It is an integral component of growth. It is this very darkness that yields the greatest simcha. This is Pesach. It is the back to back union transformed into a face to face relationship through the birth of the Jewish people into a nation.

Good Shabbos,
R’ Moshe Zionce

Originally Posted 4/4/2008

Sederim Without Extended Family

My children feel sad every year when Pesach comes around, because they are in yeshivas where they are surrounded by friends who talk about their excitement about Pesach Sederim, and all the extended family who will be there. My children have grown up with their grandparents never at the Seder table, or any extended family for that matter, and this is how it will be until Moshiach comes. Sometimes I would try to console my children with the tried and true BT speech: “Some day you’ll be grown up with children, and I’ll be the Bubbe at your Seder table!” Lately, I don’t give that speech. I just hug them and say, “I understand. I miss having family at the Seder table too. I wish Grandma and Grandpa, and Nana and Papa, and your cousins could be there too.”

The key is, I miss the concept of having family at the Seder table. It’s a beautiful, sentimental idea that belongs with Pesach, like it was written into the script. But I don’t miss having my family at the Seder table, or my husband’s family either for that matter. That’s when the rosy picture breaks down. When I wrote the book, “What Do You Mean, You Can’t Eat in My Home, a Guide for Newly Observant Jews and Their Lesser Observant Family Members,” I had a conundrum when I got to the chapter on Pesach. First I tackled Pesach as a cheerleader: You can do it, you can have Seders even in your mother’s non-observant home, or you can join together with your secular sister and her kids. Here’s how! And for some families, these compromises and adjustments are a small price to pay for the pleasure of being with family on Pesach, and it is a goal that can be accomplished and relished. To those families who have figured out how to bring together observant and non-observant (or lesser observant) families at the Sederim, G-d bless you. In some families, compromises won’t work, and true harmony is only reached by making a mutual decision that on this holiday, or for this simcha, or in this circumstance, we just can’t be together. We still love each other, but we have to separate from each other at this time. And so it is, in our family, for Pesach.

I remember when my husband pointed out to me that all of my life, I had never actually experienced a Pesach Seder on Pesach. When we were growing up in our secular home, we knew we were Jewish because we celebrated Hanukkah instead of Christmas, and Passover instead of Easter. Our Seder took all of twenty minutes. We used a booklet produced by the Reform movement called, “The Concise Family Seder”, and my mom cooked a delicious (non-kosher of course) brisket and bought a box of matzoh. We dipped the parsley, recited the plagues, ate the horseradish, sang “Dayenu”, and got right to the meal. Every Seder, and its accompanying meal, was over before Passover actually began, because who’s going to wait until 9 PM to start? I’m sure we were eating bagels the next morning, and there was no meaningful discussion at the table. What was meaningful was that this completely secular family was still holding on to this annual ritual of the Passover Seder. It wasn’t what the Seder stood for that really mattered; what mattered is that we still identified as Jews, who therefore, did three things: circumcised our babies, avoided Christmas, and then sat around a Seder table reading stories of our ancestors to remember that we are Jews. Even when I was away at college, and an adult in my twenties before marrying my husband, I came home for the Seder.

For the past fifteen years, my husband and I have been conducting the Pesach Seder in our own home. We don’t join with other BT families (as many do, to relieve the sadness of loss of family and to celebrate together in friendship), but instead, we give our three children ample time at the Sederim to share over the volumes of learning they have brought home from Yeshiva. Getting together with family is not an option for us. Going there is impossible because there would be nothing kosher about it, and no willingness to accommodate to the extent we’d need. So then, why not invite family to our Sederim? We’ve always done so, but the answer is always no, and I understand. To them, it looks like a punishment. You don’t start until 9 PM? You spend two hours with all of the rituals before you get to the meal? Instead of nachas over the children’s excitement and learning, there is something between distaste and disdain, and who needs that at the Seder table?

I feel sad when I see the children’s excitement at the Seder table, and I know that their grandparents are missing out on all this nachas. I feel sad when I know that all of our family members choose to separate from us on the most family-centric holiday of the year. I feel sad when I’m going through the sometimes-exhausting Pesach preparations, and I dream about what it would be like to have a mother or sibling to share it with, or at least someone who could even relate. It can be a lonely time, Pesach, one that really reminds me how far we have moved away from our families of origin.

I’m not going to end this essay with a “rah rah” sentimental speech about how good my husband and I feel as observant Jews, and how this makes up for all of the sadness, etc. This is what is true for me. Sometimes the path of the BT is a lonely one, especially when it comes to family. Sometimes I ache for my family to join me. Sometimes I’m angry that they aren’t here. Sometimes they are angry that I am not there. Sometimes I miss the good old days when I didn’t know any better, and I didn’t have to clean out the whole house for Pesach, and the Seder was over in twenty minutes. . . let’s eat. But there’s no going back. What there is, after fifteen years on this path, is increased pride and conviction of where my husband, children, and I have gone – no turning back – and increased acceptance that this has meant a necessary separation from our families of origin. This is what it is. It isn’t perfect, but this is it, so we live with it and make the most of it. And sometimes we cry. While my husband’s eyes are brimming over from too much horseradish, mine are sometimes teary from being lonely for observant family to join us. G-d receives all of our tears, whatever their origin. A very famous alcoholic came up with an expression I find very true everytime Pesach rolls around: “G-d grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Amen!

First Published April 14, 2008

It’s Never as Bad, or as Evil, as It Seems

How does Jewish sin differ from sin in general?
Why do we read Parshas Parah only at this time of the year?

I have recorded a homiletic interpretation … of R. Moshe Hadarshan … And have them take for you… just as they took off their own golden earrings for the calf, so shall they bring this [cow] from their own [assets] in penance. A red cowThis is comparable to the baby of a maidservant who soiled the king’s palace [with fecal matter]. They said, “Let his mother come and clean up the mess.” Similarly, let the cow come and atone for the calf.] … [Midrash Aggadah and Tanchuma Chukath 8]

–Rashi Bemidbar19:22

A Kohen who converted to an idolatrous religion should not “raise his palms” in the priestly blessing. Others say that if he repented then he may perform the priestly blessing.

–Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 128:37

But if he actually worshipped an idol, even if he was forced to do so and even if he subsequently repented, he may not perform the priestly blessing.

–Be’er Heitev ibid footnote 63

Approach the altar: [The salient corners of the altar reminded Ahron of the juvenile horn-buds of the Calf] because Ahron was embarrassed and frightened of approaching [the altar] Moshe said to him: “Why are you ashamed? You have been chosen for this [role]!”

– Torath Kohanim on VaYikra 9:7

Fire came forth from before HaShem and consumed them [Nadav and Avihu], such that they died before HaShem. Then Moshe said to Ahron, “This is precisely what HaShem meant, [when He said], ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me (Shemos 29:43) … “

–VaYikra 10:2,3


מוֹצִיא מִזָּלוֹת יְקָרוֹת. מַתִּיר מֵאֲסוּרוֹת מֻתָּרוֹת. נוֹתֵן מִטְּמֵאוֹת טְהוֹרוֹת
HaShem brings forth the priceless from the worthless, He allows the permissible from the prohibited, He produces the pure from the impure.

Piyut-“Yotzros” for Parshas Parah

The mei chatas-the waters whose main ingredient were the ashes produced from immolating the carcass of the Parah Adumah-the Red Heifer, are the only means to gain purity after contracting impurity through contact with the dead- tuma’as meis. A person who has become tamei meis may not consume the korban Pesach-the Passover sacrifice. (Or, for that matter, any consumable sacrifices.) When the Bais HaMikdash-the Temple in Jerusalem, stood those who were tme’ei meis would undergo the mei chatas purification process required to enable them to offer their korban Pesach.  Nowadays, as the Bais HaMikdash lies in ruins, the four special parshiyos/ maftir readings that precede Pesach are all meant as a preparation for the holiday.  So we can easily understand that it is apropos to read Parshas Parah at this time of the year.

However, during each of the shalosh regalim-pilgrimage holidays, multiple offerings had to be sacrificed and consumed in a state of ritual purity.  This being the case, the Biskovitzer asks: Why is the reading of Parshas Parah limited to pre-Pesach preparation?  Logically, we ought to be reading it before Shavous and Sukkos as well. The insights that he and other members of the Izhbitzer school provide by way of answering this question reveal a profound and deep-seated difference between Jewish sin, and sin in general.

In Torah literature the Parah Adumah is known as THE Chukas haTorah, THE (most) irrational mitzvah of the Torah (preceded with the definite article.)  In a broad sense the entire body of Torah law covering the rules of purity and impurity contains only chukim-irrational mitzvos.  After all, the states of ritual purity or impurity rise above sensory perception.  We can neither see taharah-purity nor smell tumah-impurity.  Similarly, there seems to be no rhyme or reason when trying to connect the dots between cause and effect in either tumah or taharah or in endeavoring to understand their various levels.  But what makes the Parah Adumah a category of chok unto itself is the conundrum of it being a factor causing both tumah and taharah.  Those who prepare and handle it contract a low level of tumah while those who were sprayed with the mei chataas regain a state of purity after being in the thrall of the most powerful and fundamental form of tumah.

Tumah is identified with sin while having attained atonement and rapprochement is associated with taharah.  As such, the conflicted nature of the Parah Adumah serves as a metaphor for the convergence of sin and repentance; of merit and the demerits; of kilkul-spiritual ruination, and tikkun– it’s repair and restoration. The Parah Adumah itself is seen as atoning for the greatest of all sins; the Golden Calf.  It is the mother that comes to clean up the mess that her baby left in the king’s palace.

While the Calf is the “child” and the Red Heifer the “parent” oddly enough, in this case, it is the child that gives birth to the parent.  Absent the Golden Calf there would never have been a Red Heifer. The Biskovitzer maintains that the message of the Parah Adumah is that Jewish sins even the most catastrophic an egregious of Jewish sins; are not all bad.  A weed cannot produce a tasty apple.  If we were to see a delicious apple hanging from a noxious weed we would be forced to conclude that there’s more to this weed than meets the eye.  While it may look and smell like a weed, it must contain some genetic material capable of producing such delicious and nourishing fruit.

If ever there was a sin, a metaphysical weed that looked “all bad” it was the Golden Calf.  Yet when considered on a deeper level it was motivated by something virtuous. K’lal Yisrael, the Jewish People wanted (a) god to lead them.  Ultimately HaShem agreed to this and said “and they should make a sanctuary for me and I will cause my Divine Indwelling to be among them.” (Shemos 25:8) And when they besieged Ahron to become their agent to serve/ worship and to build the altar this too remained as a permanent fixture in the Divine service of HaShem, as Ahron became the Kohen Gadol.

Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, when listing many examples of spiritual/metaphysical darkness that are the necessary prerequisites to the light that follows, goes so far as to say that the sin of the Golden Calf was the primary cause of the construction of the Mishkan and that the sin of Nadav and Avihu was the primary cause of the Mishkan’s holiness.  Still, the Lubliner Kohen pointedly reminds us that, while the light is contained in the darkness and that spiritual purity and sanctity are present in potentia in every Jewish sin, that sin nevertheless remains, well, sinful … and something to be ashamed of. (cp Taanis 11A Tosafos D”H Amar Shmuel). Otherwise, why would it be prohibited to remind those Ba’alei Teshuvah-masters of repentance, who were motivated to repent by the love of HaShem, of their earlier misdeeds?  While we know that repentance motivated by such love has the power to transform premeditated, and even malicious, sins into zechuyos, merits/ mitzvos, there is nonetheless something untoward and unseemly about the original acts which still appear as sins in the historical record.

This explains Ahron’s reticence and sense of shame and apprehension when he first approached the altar to do the Divine service.  Ahron had done absolutely nothing and exerted no efforts to attain the Office of Kohen Gadol.  On the contrary, his culpability in the sin of the Golden Calf would have seemed to torpedo any chances that he had to serve in the Mishkan.  The halachah states that a Kohen who worshipped idols is disqualified from serving again as a Kohen to HaShem, even after returning to the fold and repenting. How much more so for the “enabler” of this foulest idolatry of the Jewish People? It was only his profound sense of shame over his involvement in the sin of the Golden Calf and his feelings of unbridgeable distance and alienation from HaShem that, paradoxically, brought him closer to HaShem than anyone else. To paraphrase the paytan-liturgical poet, of the Parshas Parah yotzer vis-à-vis Ahron;  HaShem brought forth the premier servant from the most mutinous rebel.

The Biskovitzer concludes that while ritual purification from contact with the dead is required in order to consume any of the korbanos we read Parshas Parah only before Pesach because they convey the identical message.  During the Exodus from Egypt the ministering angels “challenged” HaShem’s salvation of the Jews and simultaneous destruction of the Egyptians by saying; “these and those are both idolaters.”  Yet, during the night of the slaying of the firstborn, HaShem “passed over.” He, kivyachol-as it were, leapfrogged from one Egyptian occupied home to the other while leaving the Jews occupying the homes in the middle, unscathed.  On a level so profound, deep and imperceivable that even the angels could not grasp it, there was, indeed, a difference between Jewish idolatry, and the concomitant descent into the 49 gates of impurity, and the idolatry of the Egyptians.  While both Egyptians and Jews worshipped idols, the Jews had suffered terribly for k’vod Shamayim-for god’s greater Glory.  Jewish idolatry was not all bad, somehow the purity and sanctity of Mattan Torah-the revelation at Sinai inhered in the degradation, defilement and, yes, even in the idolatry of the Jewish slavery experience in Egypt.

~adapted from Neos Desheh Parshas Parah
Takanas HaShavin 5 page 21
Resisei Laylah 24 pages 3031

This post is An installment for Shmini-Parshas Parah 5774–  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-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

Gebroks or Non-Gebroks…That is the Question

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

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

Thus began my Pesach minhag.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally Published in April 2006