Gebroks or Non-Gebroks…That is the Question

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

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

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

Thus began my Pesach minhag.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-Pesach Potpourri of Posts

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

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

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

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

The Haggadah relates that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chag Kasher ve’Sameach.

The Ramchal on Pesach from Derech Hashem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding Why We Believe in the Divinity of Torah

Rambam Mishna Torah – Yesodei Ha Torah – Chapter 8

Halacha 1

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

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

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

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

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

Halacha 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translation from Chabad.

Five Minute Passover Seder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*The answer to the four questions is given.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maror captures the bitterness of the enslavement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11) Shulchan Orech – *Eat the festival meal

Find the Afikoman.

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

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

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

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

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

The Mechutanim

By Mr. Cohen

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

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

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

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

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

The Ramban and Rambam on Korbanos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally posted June 2006

Revisiting The Pesach Hotel Controversy

It started with this article by Rabbi Jonathon Rosenblum titled Five Star Pesach:
I will never forget an address by Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman at an Agudath Israel of America convention on the topic “Living a Life of Ruchnios amidst Gashmius.” I had never before heard Rabbi Wachsman, and I practically jumped out of my seat when he thundered: This topic represents a fundamental mistake. There is no ruchnius amidst gashmius. To the extent that a person is living in the world of gashmius he is removed from ruchnius!

I was reminded of those words recently on a recent trip to Los Angeles, where I had a rare opportunity to speak with a rav whose wisdom has always impressed me. In the course of our conversation, he asked to me, “What would you say is the greatest threat to Yiddishkeit today?” I leaned forward eagerly, confident that he would mention one of my favorite subjects. But I must admit that his answer would not have been on my top ten-list.

“Pesach in hotels,” turned out to be the winning answer. And my friend’s central criticism was similar to that of Rabbi Wachsman: the Pesach hotel industry takes what should be one of the ultimate spiritual experiences of every Jew’s life and encases it in a thick wrapper of materialism. Read the advertisements, he told me: “No gebrochts” right next to “24 hour tea bar;” “Daily daf hayomi” next to “Karate, go-carts, and jeeping for the kids.”

Rabbi Horowitz had his own take on this in The Greatest Threat to Yiddishkeit:

My dear chaver and colleague Reb Yonoson Rosenblum (#204; Five-Star Pesach) describes how he “practically jumped out of his seat,” listening to Rabbi Wachsman “thunder” that there is “no ruchniyus amid gashmiyus.” Well, I practically jumped out of my seat when I read Reb Yonoson’s quote of a Rav who claimed that Pesach programs are “the greatest threat to Yiddishkeit today.”

I do not know which Rav he was referring to, but I will gladly forward my home phone calls and those of Project YES to that Rav for a month. After listening to the terrible and very real challenges that we face individually and communally for thirty days and sleepless nights, I dare say that he may reconsider his thoughts as to what “the greatest threat to Yiddishkeit” is.

Rabbi Rosenblum continued with Pesach Hotels: A Second Look and Rabbi Horowitz published an opposing opinion in Rabbi Horowitz, I Beg to Differ.

Which leads to Azriella Jaffe’s take on the subject in a Yated letter to the Editor:

5/5/08
To: Letter to the Editor, Yated

I felt I needed to respond to the strongly worded sentiments of late that sounds something like: “I-would-never-go-to-a-hotel for Pesach! What is the frum world coming to, that Jews with money pay to escape the workload of preparing for Pesach, and thus, miss the entire spiritual meaning of the holiday?”

Until this Pesach, I was one of those who felt something between envy, disdain, and plenty of negative judgment towards the hotel-Pesach crowd. I’ve done a 180 degree turn, and I hope that Hashem will forgive me for my regrettable, previous inability to give benefit of the doubt. Allow me to explain.

I am an author and speaker on Jewish topics by profession, and I was contacted by the organizer of a Pesach hotel program with this offer: “If you’ll give over workshops/speeches for our attendees on the Shabbos and Yomim Tovim of Pesach, we’d love to have your family join us as well.” Now, I had a dilemma. This was a magnificent opportunity for a professional and family experience we would never have otherwise; how could I turn it down? But I was philosophically against the hotel scene, so what should I do? After consulting with my husband and my Rav, we agreed to give it a try this year. Not only were we all pleasantly surprised, I see the entire scene differently now.

What I didn’t realize until I met, and talked with, numerous guests, is that none of the guests in the hotel that I met were there because they are lazy. They are there with a story. A mother with cancer who can’t possibly make Pesach. A divorced father whose kids are with their mother for Pesach. A Bubbe in her late seventies who realizes that she can no longer handle 27 extended guests in her home for the Yomim Tovim, and they have the financial means to treat the family for a gathering at the hotel instead, so why not? Elderly couples whose married children are now making Sederim with their inlaws. Older singles who don’t want to be spending all of Pesach at relative’s homes who look with pity and disdain at their single status. Houses under renovation, Jews who had some kind of major nisayon this year, (or in some cases, two or three major nisyonos!) and they just “need a break.” Jews who find the shiurim and nightly entertainment particularly uplifting, and they realize that their spirits need an infusion of “spark.”

Yes, the food is delicious, and it’s superb not to have to wash a dish, or scrub the house down before Pesach. It certainly is a vacation. Yes, the Sederim are different when you aren’t in the privacy of your own home, and perhaps not ideal for some families. No question about it – there is truth to the concern that we mustn’t abandon our responsibility to pass along to our children how Pesach, (and all of its relevant mitzvos), is prepared in one’s own home. The hotel scene may not be necessary, appropriate or even enjoyable for many of us. But I urge all of us, as a community, to withhold judgment. I now understand that for many in our community, Pesach in a hotel does not substitute for a spiritual Pesach experience, but rather, it makes a kosher, meaningful Pesach possible.

Originally Published June 2, 2008

Led Zeppelin & Frum Culture

As a BT, I’ve often felt the clash between the culture I grew up in and the “frum” culture I’ve been living in for so long. One of the areas the clash always made itself evident to me was music. I just never could get into “Jewish music.”

This clash took on new meaning for me years ago when I worked as a manager in a small business that employed Chassidic girls, who loved to listen to music as they did their tasks. One girl, in particular, was really into it. She sometimes asked my opinion of the latest song or album. I tried to feign interest, but Jewish music – especially the type these girls liked – really never did anything for me.

One day she excitedly brought in the newest album and played it. I had to admit, at first, that there was something I liked about one of the songs. It had… a certain….

I couldn’t put my finger on it. But it had a quality that resonated for me. And as I listened to it over the next few hours — she played the album again and again — all of a sudden it struck me:

It was “Stairway to Heaven,” by Led Zeppelin, regurgitated in instrumental form without lyrics.

I don’t have to tell most readers here that Led Zeppelin was a famous hard rock band in the ‘70s. Their concerts were drug and alcohol fests; their music hard-driving heavy metal, their lyrics raunchy. In other words, everything a red-blooded American teenager with a rebellious streak ever wanted.

And everything one would have thought a Chassid, in the real sense of the word, would recoil from. Yet, here were these Chassidic girls really into it.

Of course, they had no idea of the context or the words. Moreover, even if they did, there wasn’t necessarily anything wrong with the denuded elevator music version of the song. Chassidic philosophy, in particular, emphasizes the idea that there are sparks of kedusha all around embedded in the tumah waiting for a Jew to come and extract it. Some of the most inspiring Shabbos niggunim were originally Czarist army marching songs. We are here to convert the matter of the lower world into the currency of the higher world.

Still… Led Zeppelin?

One of the lessons this drove home for me was that if I had any reason to feel inferior because of my cultural upbringing I was a fool. If sparks of kedusha could be had in Led Zeppelin, then the sound tracks of my memory banks were gold mines of potential kedusha no Chassid could hope to duplicate.

But the larger point was the place of culture clash in the evolution of a BT. There is, of course, a difference between real Torah and a culture in which this Torah is expressed. They are not necessarily the same thing. Moshe Rabbeinu did not speak Yiddish or wear a streimel (notwithstanding the Parasha sheets our kids bring home from yeshiva).

Yet, the reality is that when we become observant we not only join a religion but perforce join one of the cultures within it, be it Modern Orthodox, Chassidic or whatever. Judaism is a social religion; it demands we become part of a tzibbur, a kehilla, a community. Therefore, we must make our peace with a community, even if it is lacking or imperfect in our eyes.

And so, we BTs more than others, go about our lives in strange paradox, feeling alienated from the culture we left behind for a religion that makes sense but invariably comes with a culture we may not fit perfectly into.

Somehow we have to find a niche not necessarily made in our image without losing our selves. We have to navigate the choppy seas of a culture sometimes at odds with our memories, origins and expectations while remaining glued to the inner compass that led us to the timeless values underpinning that culture to begin with.

Some of the cultural dissonance is relatively easy to handle but some is not. Often there is no easy solution for the latter – other than recognizing that our task here is not always easy.

That’s a lesson we learned long before we came to Torah. You can’t buy a stairway to heaven.

Originally published March 15, 2006

NAJDS and the Search for Meaningful Judaism

I spent the last two days at the National Association of Jewish Day Schools Conference in Philadelphia along with 1,000 other people who value their Judaism. I went as a vendor for my InfoGrasp School Management system as we prepare for the mobile version of our software.

The conferences hosts Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox schools, with the majority being Modern Orthodox. Financial sustainability is a major topic since the main value proposition of these schools is that they provide a sizable Judaism component in their education. However their cost is significantly higher than the good public school alternatives and their education quality is generally lower than the comparably-priced secular private schools. It seems that many have resigned themselves to stagnant and declining enrollments and trying to meet their budgets within those constraints.

Another theme was how to make Judaism meaningful for the students within the school. With a heavy secular studies focus, the Jewish studies take somewhat of a back seat because they are not so relevant to secular success in college and the working world. In addition the practice of Judaism by many of the students is not so rigorous.

As I returned to my regular minyan, I was reminded that the search for meaningful Judaism affects many of us. There are people who put on a second pair of Rabbeinu Tam tefillin, while glancing out their cell phones between the transition. There are Mussar Vaads working on thinking about Hashem randomly though out their work day, while admitting that they don’t have adequate focus during the 100 berachos a day that they’re already performing. And we can all find examples within our own practices.

Judaism promises an amazing life (and afterlife), if we follow its Torah and mitzvos prescription. However, as the Path of the Just clearly spells out, distraction and laziness prevents us from maximizing its benefit. I suggested to a philanthropist at one of the meals, that if we who value our Judaism take it to a higher level, those who currently place less value on it will take notice. She didn’t disagree.

Coercion, Acceptance and the Spiritual Inputs of Purim

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the whole thing here

Spiritual Growth Through Drinking on Purim

The Obligation to Drink on Purim
The Shulchan Orach states (Orach Chaim 695:2): “A person is required to become intoxicated on Purim until he does not know the difference between the cursing of Haman and the blessing of Mordechai.”

Drinking to Strengthen Our Emunah in Hashem
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz in his Servant of Hashem piece in his classic Sichos Mussar connects this requirement of intoxication to the essence of Purim and its comparison in holiness to Yom Kippur. He brings down a few cases where great people like Moshe, King Shaul and King Chizkiyahu were punished because they had incorrectly used their reasoning and logic to misinterpret Hashem’s directives.

Rabbi Shmuelevitz points out that although we need to use our intellectual facilities to serve G-d, the ultimate goal is to serve Hashem out of a simple faith that He is our Creator, Ruler and Ultimate Benefactor. The essence of Purim is that once a year, we become intoxicated and strip away the all traces of reasoning and serve Hashem with our faith alone.

Drinking to Strengthen Our Connection to People
Rabbi Herschel Welcher points out that Purim is a day of unity with its Mitzvos of giving charity to the poor, giving gifts to our friends and sharing a festive meal with family and friends. Drinking brings down inhibitions and allows us to more easily connect deeply with others in line with the goal of unity.

Rabbi Welcher often tells the story of former friends who had become estranged through a dispute. It was only on Purim when they were both intoxicated that they were able to bury the hatchet, embrace and restore their friendship. Many of us can also connect a little better when we are intoxicated.

Drinking to Enhance Our Self Esteem
I am reading a great book by Dr. Dovid Lieberman titled “How Free Will Works”. Dr. Lieberman, a Torah-centered psychologist, defines self-esteem as recognizing our inherent worth, feeling deserving of happiness and good fortune, and knowing that we are precious in the eyes of Hashem. It also includes recognizing both our strengths and our weaknesses and the desire to improve.

What often gets in our way is our ego. Dr. Lieberman says our body wants to feel good, our ego wants to look good, and our soul wants to do good. The more we listen to our soul and do what is good (Torah, Mitzvos and Chesed) the more we will enhance our self-esteem and increase our happiness. Our ego and the desire to look good clouds our perspective, and leads us to perform and rationalize incorrect behaviors.

Although Dr. Lieberman does not discuss drinking on Purim, I think that embracing the mitzvah of drinking on Purim allows us to disable our looking-good mechanizations and enjoy being our inherently good selves and our loving relationships with Hashem, our family and our friends.

Drinking Responsibly
When asked about drinking on Purim, Rabbi Welcher would always tell us that he strongly discouraged his high school students from drinking. The persistent among us, asked, “But what about us Baalei Batim?”. He told us that we have to teach our children how to drink responsibly.

A number of years ago we made the seudah with just our family and I stated that my goal was to teach responsible drinking. I was the only one drinking and I took out a bottle of Vodka. (Rabbi Welcher proves from a Rashi that hard liquor is a suitable drink on a Purim). I proceeded to drink shots and get intoxicated. I gave everybody long blessings and acted within the boundaries of propriety. My kids said, “You’re not drunk!”. To which I replied, “If you were inside my head, you wouldn’t say that”.

Except for a few noted exceptions, every mitzvah has its measure and that includes drinking on Purim. Somewhere between 0 and 12 shots (or glasses of wine) is the right amount. Each person can keep in mind the above mentioned goals and stop at the point where he can bring those goals to fruition.

Purim: Netanyahu, Congress, And The Battle Against Persia – A War Fought In Heaven

TorahAnytime.Com uses the tag line of “G-d’s Reason for the Internet” by which they mean that the learning of Torah and spiritual growth is the reason that G-d created the Internet. Of course, that’s not to say that there’s no potential spiritual downside to such a powerful tool, but the presence of so many distinguished Rabbis on the site, shows that they agree with its potential on the upside.

Rabbi Yosef Viener of Monsey has a recent shiur titled Purim: Netanyahu, Congress, And The Battle Against Persia – A War Fought In Heaven in which he mentions some of the political considerations regarding Prime Minister Netanyahu’s upcoming visit to Congress. However, he strongly points out that it’s easy to get caught up in the politics, but G-ds reason for the Persian threat then and now is for us to daven and do teshuva. Please watch the video.

Meanwhile, in Queens, Rabbi Moshe Schwerd was making similar points while discussing The Special Power of Prayer on Purim. Rabbi Schwerd also points out the connection between the Nachash (the snake) and Haman and why there is a requirement to curse Haman on Purim and the continuing necessity of our spiritual response of prayer on Purim. Please watch the video or download the audio of this great shiur.

The Exquisite Paradox of Teshuva

By Rabbi Benzion Kokis

At the core of the process of t’shuva lies an exquisite paradox.

On the one hand, a mature commitment to a life of Torah and Halacha is the ultimate self-discovery, through which a Jew connects to his spiritual roots. In fact, very often what initiates the entire process of t’shuva is the realization that the modern world not only didn’t, but can’t, satisfy the inner needs of the Jewish soul. There is a sense of coming home to a deeper and more genuine appreciation of one’s own identity.

This is a familiar theme to the thousands of men and women who have made the commitment to transform their lives, and find their place within the Torah community.

Yet, that very same commitment often has the potential to alienate a ba’al t’shuva from the norms that, until that point, had shaped and defined his life. The relationships, friendships, values and habits that had formed his personality, and made up the fabric of life itself, are suddenly destabilized. So the same experience that helps a person discover and mold his inner self, can create issues that throw the self, on some level, into turmoil.

This then is the paradox of t’shuva: the coming home to a much deeper and richer sense of self, alongside a gradual, and sometimes awkward, transition from the “pre-existing” self. T’shuva is truly not an event, but a process, that involves much more than blending in externally to the framework of the religious community.

Often there is a certain duality and subtle tension that accompany ba’alei t’shuva for many years. True, the axioms and values of Torah have become the guiding principles and signposts of life. But the echos of one’s earlier experiences and influences still assert themselves, and tug in various directions.

In future posts, we will explore this paradox in more depth and discuss practical ways to deal with it.

Of Mice Traps and Men

One who reads the Megillah out of sequence has not fulfilled his obligation. (Megillah 17A)

The Sefas Emes asks, “Why is “Purim” not called “Pur”?” Why is it called plural- Purim for lots and not lot in the singular since Haman is described as having cast a “pur” to reckon the most favorable day to attack the Jews?

Michael Behe introduces in his book “Darwin’s Black Box” the concept of “irreducible complexity”. The explanation is as follows. Take for example a simple mouse trap. It has a number of functional parts that make it a mouse trap. Any component piece of the trap is useless and meaningless without the other small number parts. It could never have evolved gradually. Of what use would a spring be without cheese for bait or a board for it to slam its gait upon. The unadorned mouse trap needs all the parts present to be functional. The parts of it would have to have been created with the finished end in mind.

Similarly, a snake with poisonous venom would needs a hypodermic needle for a tooth to inject its pay load. Of what use would the tooth be without the poison and why would the creature need such a potent poison to kill a horse in seconds if it was lacking the sophisticated delivery system?

One of the keys to understanding the Megillah lies in appreciating how a sequence of seemingly simple events form an organized chain- with an eerily predetermined result. In the end, it can be observed how the aggregate is “irreducibly complex”. Minus any small piece in the puzzle and history would have looked so much different. If the King would have taken a sleeping pill instead of reading from a book of remembrances, had Esther not found grace in the eyes of the king, had the king not sent out his first foolish decree, had the king not relocated his capital in Shushan where Mordachai was quietly minding his own business before destiny backed up to his doorstep, then things would have turned out much different and the world would be unrecognizably different.

There is a growing paradigm in science that may help explain what is so deficient about reading or hearing the Megillah out of order. Surprisingly it is called, “Chaos Theory”. It does not aim to demonstrate that things are random and meaningless. Quite the contrary, it postulates the notion that all matters of seeming wild randomness display surprisingly complex and beautiful order. Even the way cigarette smoke dissipates throughout a room leaves a delicate trail of artistry. One of the proponents of this theory, Joseph Ford, refuted Einstein’s statement, “G-d doesn’t play dice with the universe!” He says, “Yes, G-d does play dice, but the dice are loaded.”

In the end Haman’s toss of the “pur” happened within a grander context of a more profound “pur” –or lot for the Jews. Haman not only could not derail the Divine scheme of things but perversely he furthered and promoted it in the most profound way. Our sages tell us that more than all the words of all the prophets were effective in returning the Jews to G-d; Haman was the catalyst to accomplish this when he received the royal signet ring of the king. His ultimatum resulted in the opposite of what he intended with his “pur”. Why? Because another “pur” dominates incorporating and adjusting to all the smaller Machiavellian moves making rather a prefect sense of this nice game of dice- a grand Purim play of mice-traps and men.

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Originally Published March 8, 2006