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

Beyond College Campuses – Judaism in Cherry Hill is Alive

I had the pleasure of meeting Rabbi Yisroel Tzvi Serebrowski, director of Torah Links Center in Cherry Hill, New Jersey at the Torah U Mesorah convention last week. He has clearly demonstrated that beyond College Campuses, interest in Judaism in Cherry Hill and other communities is alive and growing.

Here is an excerpt from the Jewish Action 2013 about Rabbi Serebroski’s community: (Note: that the community has grown more since this article.)

In 2000, as part of the outreach efforts of Beth Medrash Govoha (BMG) of Lakewood, Rabbi Yisroel Tzvi Serebrowski began teaching in the community of Cherry Hill. He organized classes in people’s homes and at the local Jewish community center and public libraries—basically any place that would open its doors—and offered compelling presentations such as “If You Hated Sunday School, Then This One’s for You.” He invited prominent guest lecturers and held Shabbatons in various homes. People came. “The best ambassador is a satisfied customer,” says Rabbi Serebrowski. “One host would lead to another.”

As his following grew, so did the demand for his becoming a full-time community rabbi. “I was content living in Lakewood and traveling to Cherry Hill three or four times a week,” says Rabbi Serebrowski, who was part of a commuter kollel established by BMG. “I never thought we would have a shul or that I would wind up moving to Cherry Hill.” Since the 1970s, BMG has been sending young rabbinical students to establish kollels, with the goal of strengthening Jewish communities across the country. In the late 1990s, BMG began establishing “commuter kollels” in areas commutable from Lakewood.

This arrangement worked well for Rabbi Serebrowski, until one of his students—who lived five miles away from Rabbi Mangel’s established shul—made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. “He told me, ‘Rabbi, I’m all ready to keep Shabbos. If you start a minyan, I’ll never go back to work on Shabbos.’”

Rabbi Serebrowski consulted with his mentor, Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon, BMG’s mashgiach, and Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, founder and rosh yeshivah of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia. They both said, “You have no choice. You must move.”

He did. Rabbi Serebrowski looked for a house in a centrally located area in Cherry Hill. He started a minyan in his basement, initially recruiting friends from Lakewood to ensure he would have ten men. People said, “Host a minyan Friday night only, or just Shabbos morning; don’t overdo it.” But his determination won out. “If I’m moving because of Shabbos, there is going to be a Shabbos. And there’s going to be every minyan, every week.” Rabbi Serebrowski still recalls his excitement the first time twenty people from the community showed up at the minyan. Then twenty people began showing up every Shabbat and he no longer had to make “minyan phone calls.” It had become a solid minyan. Today, on a typical Shabbat, the shul attracts between sixty-five and one hundred participants.

Susan Lipson, fifty, grew up Jewishly unaffiliated in Cherry Hill. Today she’s an integral part of the growing Orthodox community in her hometown, which—religiously speaking—barely resembles the town she knew as a child. “I feel absolutely part of the community. I’ve met so many people on so many different religious levels, and we all get along. We have this amazing shul and don’t have enough room for people; it’s a great problem to have.”

“We have everything here that anyone could possibly need—a self-contained community where people can grow at all levels.”

Genna Landa, forty-six, is a software developer and one of Rabbi Serebrowski’s “regulars” who faithfully showed up for davening and Torah classes from the outset. “Rabbi Serebrowski exudes warmth, and that’s what attracts people. He’s a scholar, a savvy businessman and a warm, caring mensch. [In terms of doing mitzvot,] he doesn’t say, ‘You should do this,’ but [rather] ‘this is what should be done.’”

In 2010, the community purchased a two-acre property, now referred to as the Torah Links Center, or TLC, which currently houses the shul, Hebrew school and adult learning and social programs. TLC’s Hebrew school has more than thirty students and is growing. In the past year, TLC’s programs have touched over 1,000 individuals with varying levels of religious observance.

Cherry Hill’s spiritual infrastructure grows more solid each year. In 2009, Rabbi Mangel opened a community mikvah, which services fifty-five women each month. The community is also in the process of constructing an eruv, which was due to be completed by December 2013. “I see it as a tremendous catalyst for frum families from outside the area to move in,” says Rabbi Serebrowski, who was also instrumental in getting the local ShopRite to open a “kosher experience” section.

“I want to create a situation that when a family becomes frum, they don’t have to leave for a more established Orthodox community,” says Rabbi Serebrowski. Rabbi Mangel concurs. “Our goal is to build Yiddishkeit. We’re bringing a love for Judaism where, no matter what their level, people are growing.”

Pirkei Avos Week 2

This week is the second Perek for Pirkei Avos. Here is the link for an English Translation of all six Perakim culled from Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld’s translation and commentary at Torah.org. The full text of Pirkei Avos in Hebrew can be found here.

Torah.org also has some of the Maharal’s commentary for Pirkei Avos and you can purchase the Art Scroll adaptation of the Maharal’s commentary here.

Here is Chapter 2 of Pirkei Avos

1. “Rabbi said, What is the proper path that one should choose for himself? Whatever is glorious / praiseworthy for himself, and honors him before others. Be careful with a minor mitzvah (commandment) like a severe one, for you do not know the reward for the mitzvos. Consider the loss incurred for performing a mitzvah compared to its reward, and the pleasure received for sinning compared to the punishment. Consider three things and you will not come to sin. Know what is above you – an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a book.”
2. “Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehuda the Prince said, Torah study is good with a worldly occupation, because the exertion put into both of them makes one forget sin. All Torah without work will in the end result in waste and will cause sinfulness. All who work for the community should work for the sake of Heaven, for the merit of the community’s forefathers will help them, and their righteousness endures forever. And as for you, God will reward you greatly as if you accomplished it on your own.”
3. “Be careful with authorities, for they do not befriend a person except for their own sake. They appear as friends when they benefit from it, but they do not stand by a person in his time of need.”
4. “He used to say, make His will your will, so that He will make your will His will. Annul your will before His will, so that He will annul the will of others before your will.”
5. “Hillel said, do not separate from the community, do not trust yourself until the day you die, do not judge your friend until you reach his place, do not make a statement which cannot be understood which will (only) later be understood, and do not say when I have free time I will learn, lest you do not have free time.”
6. “He (Hillel) used to say, a boor cannot fear sin, nor can an unlearned person be pious. A bashful person cannot learn, nor can an impatient one teach. Those who are involved excessively in business will not become a scholar. In a place where there are no men, endeavor to be a man.”
7. “He (Hillel) also saw a skull floating on the water. He said to it: ‘Because you drowned you were drowned, and in the end those who drowned you will be drowned.'”
8. “He (Hillel) used to say, the more flesh the more worms, the more property the more worry, the more wives the more witchcraft, the more maidservants the more lewdness, the more slaves the more thievery. The more Torah the more life, the more study the more wisdom, the more advice the more understanding, the more charity the more peace. One who acquires a good name acquires it for himself; one who acquires words of Torah acquires a share in the World to Come.”
9. “Rabban Yochanan ben (the son of) Zakkai received [the transmission] from Hillel and Shammai. He used to say, if you have studied much Torah do not take credit for yourself because you were created for this.”
10. “Rabban Yochanan ben (the son of) Zakkai had five [primary] students. They were: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenos, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, Rabbi Yossi the Priest, Rabbi Shimon ben Nesanel, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach.”
11. “He (Rabban Yochanan ben (son of) Zakkai) used to list their praises (the praises of his five primary students). Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenos is a cemented pit which never loses a drop; Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya fortunate is she who bore him; Rabbi Yossi the Priest is pious; Rabbi Shimon ben Nesanel fears sin; and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach is as an increasing river.”
12. “He used to say, if all the sages of Israel would be on one side of a scale and Eliezer ben Hurkenos on the second side, he would outweigh them all. Abba Shaul said in his name, if all the Sages of Israel would be on one side of a scale with even Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenos among them, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach on the second side, he would outweigh them all.”
13. “He (Rabban Yochanan) said to them (his students) go out and see which is a good way to which someone should cleave. Rabbi Eliezer said a good eye; Rabbi Yehoshua said a good friend; Rabbi Yossi said a good neighbor; Rabbi Shimon said one who considers consequences. Rabbi Elazar said a good heart. He said to them, I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach over your words, for included in his words are your words.”
14. “He (Rabban Yochanan) said to them (his students) go out and see which is a bad way which a person should avoid. Rabbi Eliezer said a bad eye. Rabbi Yehoshua said a bad friend. Rabbi Yossi said a bad neighbor. Rabbi Shimon said one who borrows and does not pay back. One who borrows from a person is as one who borrows from G-d, as it says, “A wicked person borrows and does not repay, but the Righteous One is gracious and gives” (Psalms 37:21). Rabbi Elazar said a bad heart. He said to them, I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach over your words, for included in his words are your words.”
15. “They (the five students of Rabban Yochanan – see above Mishna 10) each said three things. Rabbi Eliezer said: The honor of your fellow should be as dear to you as your own. Do not get angry easily. Repent one day before you die. Warm yourself before the fire of the Sages. But be wary with their coals that you do not get burnt, for their bite is the bite of a fox, their sting is the sting of a scorpion, their hiss is the hiss of a serpent, and all their words are like fiery coals.”
16. “Rabbi Yehoshua said, an evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred of another person remove a person from this world.”
17. “Rabbi Yossi said, let your fellow’s property be as dear to you as your own, prepare yourself to study Torah because it is not an inheritance to you, and all of your deeds should be for the sake of heaven.”
18. “Rabbi Shimon said, be careful in reading the Shema and the prayers. When you pray, do not regard your prayers as a fixed obligation, rather they should be [the asking for] mercy and supplication before G-d, as the verse says, “For gracious and merciful is He, slow to anger, great in kindness, and relenting of the evil decree” (Joel 2:13). Do not consider yourself a wicked person.”
19. “Rabbi Elazar said, be diligent in the study of Torah. Know what to answer a heretic. Know before Whom you toil. And faithful is your Employer that He will pay you the reward for your labor.”
20. “Rabbi Tarfon said, the day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master of the house presses.”
21. “He (Rabbi Tarfon) used to say, it is not upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to idle from it. If you have learned much Torah, you will be given much reward, and faithful is your Employer that He will reward you for your labor. And know that the reward of the righteous will be given in the World to Come.”

Profiles in Courage – BTs and the Trait of G’vurah

Rabbi Dovid Schwartz zt”l

In their Yeshivas and Batei Ya’akov our FFB children benefit from the study and inspiration-by-osmosis of the classic Mussar literature. In the tables of contents of these works one will find a profusion of fine and noble middos = character traits. There’s alacrity, humility, love, mercy, magnanimity and fear of heaven, et al. on the menu. But there is one trait that is conspicuously absent. While it may not have been expunged from the actual literature the midah of G’vura(=might) and personal courage has been deemphasized in the culture and in the curricula. I have theories as to why this is so but that would be a subject for another post.

For now, suffice it to say we associate “being macho” with some of the more unseemly diffusions of the dominant culture that we broke with when we began our return to Torah and Mitzvahs and that we continue to strive mightily to avoid being influenced by. *2

Many of us operate under the conviction that courage and strength are somehow un-Jewish characteristics. Every stereotype contains a kernel of truth and the Woody Allenesque weak Jewish Nebbishes of the popular imagination were not spontaneously generated in a cultural vacuum. Sure, we are proud of the military prowess of the IDF and may even take some “guilty pleasure” in reading the Holocaust literature that deals with the exploits of the forest partisans and the insurgents of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Yet we view these as the exceptions that prove the rule of the historical Jewish personality makeup that is mild, non-violent, non-confrontational, deferential, and passive to a fault.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Our sages, OB”M, in Pirkei Avos teach us: “Who is mighty? He who vanquishes his evil inclination. As it is written: ‘And one who dominates his own spirit (is mightier) than the champion who captures a city.’” In other words, self control and vanquishing one’s Yetzer HaRah =inclination to evil is identical in kind but superior in degree to the strength, the personal courage, and the steely nerves of the victorious battlefield general. It requires more courage G’vurah- to vanquish the Yetzer HaRah than to finally conquer the besieged city.

It is peculiar that in contemporary Torah Observant Jewish culture the midah of G’vurah should have been so marginalized seeing as it is, as per the Shulchan Aruch, square one of Judaism:

“One should be misgaber*as a Lion in order to rise in the morning for the service of their Creator”

-Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 1:1

IMO BTs are uniquely positioned to raise the consciousness of Jewish Society at large to the indispensable centrality of the Midas haG’vurah and to infuse the cowardly “lions” with new strength. For while the trait of g’vurah is something that all Jews aspire to, it is a trait that the BT excels at and identifies with. Rishonim explain that the famous dictum of Chazal : “in the spiritual station where Ba’alei T’shuva stand even the Tzadikim who never sinned cannot stand” is predicated on the Ba’al T’shuva’s relative superiority in the middah of G’vurah. Having tasted the forbidden to the point that all sense of taboo has disappeared (don’t get offended… as per Chazal this happens after two repetitions!) the level of G’vurah required for the BT to resist future seduction of his/her Yetzer haRah is greater than the level required by the Tzadik to resist an equivalent temptation.

We all know people who possessed the inner strength, the awesome g’vurah, to turn their backs on lucrative careers, break off relationships with significant others, render some or much of their higher education irrelevant, and/or willingly begin to re-educate themselves at an advanced age at institutions where, despite being highly accomplished, they would have to begin anew literally from the ABCs. Many of us even see these people when we gaze at our reflections in the mirror.

Those FFB’s who had the benefit of a Torah enriched early childhood education can hardly fathom and never replicate the courage and strength of the BT. But they can certainly draw lessons in G’vurah… “Profiles in Courage” from them.

There is a most beautiful tradition rooted in the works of the classical Kabbalists to utilize the days of Sefiras HaOmer for Tikun haMiddos = the refinement of character traits in preparation for receiving the Torah on Shavuos. There is a veritable rainbow of goodness to behold when perusing the siddur’s listing of these middos: yet tonight the color most vivid in the middos rainbow is that of g’vurah = personal courage and strength.

Over the past half century the Kiruv revolution has empowered the mighty and encouraged the courageous. It behooves us to offer thanksgiving and praise to the Kel Gibor = the Almighty G-d, who taught us His Torah from “the mouth of His might” and who continues to manifest the divine attribute of g’vurah by stemming and reversing the hemorrhaging of our people in fulfillment of His promise “Ki lo yamush m’pi zarakha v’zerah zarakha mey’atah v’ad olam” = “And the Torah will not withdraw from the mouths of your children or their children now and forever.” But we mustn’t forget that imitation is the sincerest form of praise. As such we ought to search for ways and means to grow even stronger and more courageous ourselves and, leading by example, empower the weak and encourage the frightened. In a paradoxical duty of Oz-like chesed it’s “on us” to grant courage to HaShem’s cowardly lions.

__________________________________________________

* (reflexive conjugation of the word gavar- verb form of g’vurah and all the strength and fearlessness that it implies)

*2 When I speak of G’vurah I don’t mean Jewish street gangs or even JDL like neighborhood patrols. Nor is this limited to more Torah observant Jews enlisting in the IDF. I’m talking about an emphasis on g’vurah that will replace a “passing-of-the-buck”, dodging of responsibility with a buck-stops-here assuming of responsibility. G’vurah that leads to greater emotional and financial independence, a willingness to move away from the frummest population centers to places where Yiddishkeit will not be as convenient, or to make aliyah in spite of the daunting challenges. I’d love to see more nerve to confront social problems instead of the terror that denies them, communal courage and self-confidence that would ameliorate (to a degree, not a reckless one) the current fear-of-contamination informed snootiness and exclusivity that one finds at all too many Yeshivas. I’d love to see more of the individual self-confidence and courage that is required both for a lifetime of spiritual growth and for the serenity and mental-hygiene that comes from realizing it’s OK to be me (so long as it’s within Torah parameters)

Originally Published in May 2007

Pesach – Internalizing Your Knowledge

By Rav Itamar Schwartz the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh.
Click here for the Bilvavi Hagaddah.
Click here for a number of Drashos on Pesach from Rav Schwartz.

Leaving Egypt – and then Receiving the Torah

First we left Egypt, and then we came to Har Sinai to receive the Torah.

It is written, “And you shall know today, and you shall return the matter to your heart.” Our avodah is always first to know the facts, and then to internalize our mind’s knowledge into our heart.

The Egyptian exile deterred us from receiving the Torah. As long as we were in Egypt, we could not receive the Torah; we have to leave it in order to become purified at Har Sinai and receive the Torah. In Egypt, we would not have been able to internalize the Torah had we received it. In Egypt, there was “bricks and mortar”, and this personified the exile. What exactly are these “bricks and mortar” that held us back from receiving the Torah? It wasn’t just that we had cruel physical labor. It was a spiritual kind of bricks and mortar – a blockage that held us back from receiving the Torah.

There were two layers to the redemption. There was a physical redemption, which took place when we actually left Egypt, in the physical sense. But there was also a spiritual layer to the redemption: the redemption that took place in our souls, enabling us to receive the Torah.

Although the physical redemption happened a long time ago, the spiritual redemption to our souls happens every year. Let us learn how we can merit to have the yearly spiritual redemption during this time – to reach the level of receiving the Torah, the level of internalizing our knowledge.

Removing The “Blockage of the Heart”

In the Haggadah we express, “By your blood shall you live” – which the Sages explain this to refer to the blood of the korban pesach (paschal sacrifice) and the blood of bris milah (circumcision) What is the connection between korbon pesach and bris milah? Simply it is because in order to eat the korban pesach, one had to be circumcised, as the Gemara says. But the deeper meaning is that one has to circumcise his “orlas halev” – the blockage that is on his heart.

There exist two kinds of orlah (blockages) which we remove – a physical blockage which exists in the part of the body that is circumcised by bris milah, and a spiritual kind of blockage, which is present on the heart. This is called orlas halev. When our heart is blocked, the Torah knowledge in our mind isn’t able to penetrate into our heart.

On Pesach, we were commanded to become circumcised; the simple meaning of this, as we said, was because we need to undergo bris milah in order to eat from the korbon pesach. But the deeper meaning is that we had to remove our orlas halev, “blockage of our heart” that was on us – as it is written, “And you shall circumcise the foreskin of your hearts.”

We must remove the barrier between our mind and heart, so that our mind’s knowledge can settle in our heart. And it has to be “in” our heart, not just on our heart.

In order to eat the korbon pesach, we had to have a bris milah. As we explained, the deeper meaning of this is that we had to remove our “orlas halev” in order to eat the korban pesach. In Egypt, we removed some of the blockage as we began to cry out to Hashem from our heart, but this process was not yet complete until we left Egypt, when we actually received bris milah – which was not just a physical act of circumcision, but a removal of the blockage on our heart.

How We Can Accomplish Internalization

How do we internalize the knowledge of our mind into our heart? We get to know the Torah by learning it well, but how do we internalize it into our heart? In the works of our Rabbis, there are two general ways described in how we can accomplish it.

The First Way: Da’as

One way is as follows. In our brain, we have three “minds” going on – three different mental abilities: Chochmah, Tevunah, and Daas. Chochmah is what one learns from his teacher. Tevunah is when we think on our own, and Daas is when we connect to our knowledge. Daas is when a person is always thinking about Torah, because he connects to the knowledge of his mind. Daas is an inner kind of thinking, not a superficial kind of thinking.

When a person merely intellectualizes about his learning, he’s either using Chochmah or Tevunah, but this isn’t yet Daas. Daas is only when a person thinks all the time about his learning because he is truly connected to his learning; from his deep connection to the Torah, he thinks about it as a result.

When a person uses his Daas, he is connected all the time to his learning as he thinks constantly of Torah – and in this way, his mind’s knowledge enters his heart. This is when a person learns Torah along with emunah in Hashem in his life. The Torah then penetrates into his heart.

The Second Way: Verbal Repetition

The second method brought by our Rabbis on how we can internalize is by making an direct imprint on our heart, and this is accomplished when we review matters repeatedly using our simple emunah. As it is written in the possuk, “I believed, for I spoke.” When we constantly repeat a fact, it eventually settles into our heart, where it becomes internalized knowledge.

Pharoah knew that Hashem existed, but he didn’t internalize this information. Pharoah means peh rah, “evil mouth.” In other words, he didn’t use his mouth in the right way, and thus he didn’t internalize his mind’s knowledge.

So one way to internalize is to use daas, which is by learning Torah in a way that we connect to it; and this is accomplished when we learn Torah together with having emunah in Hashem. The second method to internalize is to use our power of speech, to affect our heart.

The Third, Deeper Way: Repeating The Facts Of Our Da’as To Our Heart

But there is also a third way, which is deeper than the above two ways, and it combines the two methods together: to speak to ourselves facts that we know from our daas, with the intention that it should affect our heart.

This is also the deeper meaning behind why we count Sefiras HaOmer for 49 days. It is because by repeating to ourselves that today is another day towards Shavuos, it eventually internalizes in our heart; through the power of constant verbal repetition, the facts of our brain settle into our heart and become internalized.

Most people when they learn Torah are only using the lower power of Chochmah, which is located in the brain. This is mere intellectual knowledge, and it doesn’t always affect a person. But the higher, deeper kind of Chochmah is called Chochmas HaLev – the wisdom of the heart – and it is rare. It is accessed when we verbalize our mind’s knowledge to ourselves and we repeat the facts, over and over again, until it penetrates our heart. It then becomes Chochmas HaLev.

Feel The Contradiction Between Your Mind and Heart

First we must realize, though, that our mind and heart are in vast contradiction with each other. There are many contradictions going on between our heart and mind, and therefore, our mind and heart are very far from each other. Our heart is full of various desires that are evil, even though our mind knows that it’s wrong.

Desires, jealousy and honor-seeking are negative emotions that are present in our heart. These negative emotions contradict what we know in our mind. Feel the contradiction going on between your mind and heart – and let it bother you! When you feel very bothered by the great contradiction going on between your mind and heart, you can then realize that you must work to internalize your mind’s knowledge into your heart.

It is not enough to simply ignore these negative emotions that pass through us and hope that they will go away on their own. Rather, we should seek the truth, and instead we should seek to change our heart, by repeating our mind’s facts to our heart, through repeated verbalization.

In today’s generation, our heart is for the most part negatively affected, and we often don’t feel at all how it’s affected. But out heart is being affected more and more, for the worse, as our life goes on. If we don’t seek to change our heart, our heart only gets worse and worse as we get older, and we will only continue to get negatively influenced by our surroundings.

In order to survive the dismal situation of today’s times, we must continuously attempt to internalize our mind’s knowledge into our heart. We have to go through a constant purification process within ourselves. Our heart has to literally burn for Torah, for mitzvos, for love and fear of Hashem, for a bond with Him. It has to burn like a fire, or else we get worse and worse as our life goes on. Every Jew needs to have a heart that is actuallyburning for a bond with Hashem and for His Torah and mitzvos.

Unless a person develops a burning desire in his heart to internalize the facts he knows, he will remain his whole life and end it with his initial level of orlas halev.

We must bring our life to a halt (at least once) and seek how we can internalize our knowledge, how we can acquire a heart that burns for Hashem. A person might go his whole life and know a lot of Torah, but in his heart, he is a total ignoramus, and not only that, but his heart is evil from his youth. Even if he’s a prominent person when it comes to Torah knowledge – even if he gives shiurim and wrote sefarim – it doesn’t mean he has internalized the Torah into his heart…

If a person seeks to change his heart constantly, he will be much less affected by society. A person needs to realize that our surroundings place us in grave danger. We can’t become complacent! If we let ourselves become complacent in today’s times, we are in mortal danger.

To summarize: We must each seek to internalize our mind’s knowledge into our hearts – through our daas, and through repeating the facts with our mouth. And we must set aside time to reflect about important matters, (as Reb Yisrael Salanter would do, to go over one statement of Chazal and repeat it numerous times, passionately).

We need to do this all the time, not just once in a while: we must always seek to internalize the facts into our heart, by repeating to ourselves the facts that we know. Hashem created us with a lev tahor, a “pure heart” – and when we feel our pure heart, we will feel as if we have just converted anew to Judaism.

(Of course, we need a brain too, and not just a heart. We cannot live with just our mind or just our heart – we need to connect them both together.)

We need to have a life brimming with Torah, mitzvos and emunah. This is the true redemption from Egypt.

May we merit to leave the blockage on our hearts, and instead come to “know” Hashem – and to internalize the knowledge about Him in our heart.

The Five Minute Seder

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

A few years ago a non-observant friend asked if I could put together a five minute seder. I pared down the Beyond BT Guide to the Seder and produced the instructions below. Pass it on to anyone for whom it might be helpful.

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1) Kaddesh – Sanctify the day with the recitation of Kiddush
*Leader says

On Shabbos add:
Vay’hi erev vay’hi voker yom hashi-shi. Vay’chulu hashamayim v’ha-aretz v’choltzva’am.
Vay’chal Elohim bayom hashvi’i, m’lachto asher asah, vayishbot bayom hashvi-i,
mikol-mlachto asher asah. Vay’vareich Elohim, et-yom hashvi’i, vay’kadeish oto,
ki vo shavat mikol-mlachto, asher-bara Elohim la-asot.

On all days continue
Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ha-Gofen.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, asher bachar banu mikol’am,
v’rom’manu mikol-lashon, v’kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, vatiten-lanu Adonai Eloheinu
b’ahavah (shabatot limnuchah u) moadim l’simchah, chagim uz’manim l’sason et-yom
(hashabat hazeh v’et-yom) chag hamatzot hazeh. Z’man cheiruteinu, (b’ahavah,)
mikra kodesh, zeicher litziat mitzrayim. Ki vanu vacharta v’otanu kidashta mikol
ha’amim. (v’shabat) umo’adei kod’shecha (b’ahavah uv’ratzon) b’simchah uv’sason
hinchaltanu. Baruch atah Adonai, m’kadeish (h’shabbat v’) Yisrael v’hazmanim.

Ba-ruch A-tah A-do-noi E-loi-hei-nu Me-lech ha-o-lam
she-he-chee-ya-nu v’ki-yi-ma-nu vi-hi-gi-ya-nu liz-man ha-zeh.

*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.

According to one commentator, 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 are discussed.

b)– on that day – explains that we should tell the story on Passover night and not earlier in the month,

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
2) Frogs
3) Lice
4) Wild animals
5) Disease on livestock
6) Incurable boils
7) Hail and thunder
8) Locusts
9) Darkness
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.

d) — It is because of this — “Rabban Gamliel explains why we 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 if we had 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 and speedily sends the Messiah.
Sing the songs of the Haggadah

photo credit: dcJohn via photopin cc

Pesach and the Three Components of Emunah

One of the hardest aspects of Judaism is to turn our intellectual knowledge into heartfelt knowledge and then to have our actions reflect that knowledge. Rav Yisroel Salant addressed this issue with heart-focused Mussar learning, while the Baal Shem Tov addressed it with Chassidus (and today Neo-Chassidus). The teachings of Rav Itamar Schwartz (http://www.bilvavi.net/english) are focused on transferring intellectual knowledge of G-d from our heads, into our hearts, and into our actions.

Belief in G-d and His Torah must begin with the knowledge that G-d created the world, took us out from Mitzrayim, and gave us the Torah. The mitzvah of “Telling of the Exodus Story” along with our twice daily mitzvah to “Remember that G-d took Us Out of Egypt” form the foundation of that intellectual knowledge.

However, the telling of the story on Pesach requires a deeper, more ingrained, heartfelt knowledge. In fact, there is a mitzvah to “See ourselves as if we actually left Mitzrayim”. The commentators discuss that this is a difficult mitzvah because we know that we personally did not leave Mitzrayim. We need to use visualization and the Torah provides the Pesach Offering, Matzah and Maror to assist us in this task. In addition, we can consider that we left Mitzrayim, by viewing the Exodus as an ongoing process which will be completed with the future redemption from our current exile. Lastly, Pesach is a night of Hodaah, a night of Hallel, Dayenu, and endless praise of G-d. Gratitude is one of the most powerful tools to develop a connection and love of G-d for all He does and all He has done for us.

Emunah of the mind is accessible, while Emunah of the heart doesn’t need recall – it’s always there. Emunah of the heart is developed by thinking often about G-d during time bound mitzvos like the Shema, constant mitzvos like the Six Constant Mitzvos, and opportunal mitzvos like Chesed Opportunities. The goal is to always feel G-d’s presence. It’s a lifelong process, but the Pesach Seder is the number one yearly opportunity to develop Emunah of the heart.

The third component is Emunah in our Actions. Not only do we need to know and feel G-d’s presence, but we need to act on those thoughts and feelings. Emunah in our actions focuses on acting faithfully to G-d in all we do and by performing His Mitzvos properly, with thought and feeling. According to the Vilna Gaon, the Pesach Seder provides 64 mitzvos in which we can act faithfully to G-d. It is a great opportunity to perform our mitzvos at our highest level of capability.

We can all improve our service of G-d. Pesach is the opportunity to supercharge our spiritual growth with Emunah of the Mind, Emunah of the Heart, and Emunah of our Actions.

64 Mitzvos According to the Gra from R’ Silverstein
in the name of R’ Elchanan Wasserman

1-Kiddush;
2-Kiddush on Wine;
3-Borei Pri HaGafen;
4-Kiddush HaYom;
5-Mentioning Yitzias Mitzrayim in Kiddush;
6-Bracha of Shechayanu;
7-Drinking First Cup;
8-Leaning for the First Cup;
9-Washing hands for Karpas;
10-Bracha of Netilas Yadayim (we don’t pasken like this);
11-Borei Pri Hoadama;
12-Eating Karpas;
13-Dipping it in Salt Water;
14-Bracha achrona (we don’t pasken like this);
15-Shankbone for Korban Pesach;
16-Egg for Korban Chagigah;
17-Yachatz to show Backbreaking Work;
18-Mah Nishtana;
19-Saying over the Story;
20-Starting with the Bad and Ending with praise;
21-Saying the Haggadah Over Matzah;
22-R’ Gamliel’s 3 things;
23-Seeing Ourselves as Leaving Egypt;
24-Thanking Hashem for Taking us Out;
25-Bracha of Asher Gealanu;
26-Bracha on Second Cup;
27-Drinking Second Cup;
28-Leaning for Second Cup;
29-Washing Hands for Matzah;
30-Bracha for Washing Hands;
31-Bracha of HaMotzie;
32-Bracha of Achilas Matzah;
33-Lechem Mishna;
34-Eating First Kezayis of Matzah;
35-Eating Second Kezayis of Matzah;
36-Leaning while Eating Matzah;
37-Eating the Meal;
38-Bracha on Maror;
39-Eating Maror;
40-Charoses for Zecher Mitzrayim
41-Dipping Maror in Charoses;
42-Korech;
43-Leaning for Korech;
44-Eating First Kezayis of Afikoman;
45-Eating Second Kezayis of Afikoman;
46-Leaning for Afikoman;
47-Mayim Achronim;
48-Kos for Bentching;
49-Mezuman for Bentching;
50-First Bracha of Birchas Hamazon;
51-Second Bracha of Birchas Hamazon;
52-Third Bracha of Birchas Hamazon;
53-Fourth Bracha Birchas Hamazon;
54-Bracha on Third Cup;
55-Drinking Third Cup;
56-Leaning for Third Cup;
57-Hallel;
58-Zimun by Hallel;
59-Bracha after Hallel;
60-Bracha on Fourth Cup;
61-Drinking Fourth Cup;
62-Leaning for Fourth Cup;
63-Al HaGefen after Fourth Cup;
64-Simcha on the Seder night;

Get Ready for Pesach with These Great MP3s and PDFs

Here is the Beyond BT Guide to the Seder which goes through the basic halachos of each step of the seder.

Rabbi Welcher’s Preparing Your Home for Pesach a listen.

Cleaning for Pesach; from Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg – z”tl

Rav Itamar Schwartz the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh with a number of Drashos on Pesach

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The Haggadah relates that:
In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Mitzrayim, as it is says: “You shall tell your child on that day, it is because of this that 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.”

In this mp3, Rabbi Moshe Gordon explores some of the classical approaches to understanding and fulfilling this Mitzvah.

Download Rabbi Moshe Gordon on Leaving Mitzrayim.

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

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

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

—-

YU Torah on Pesach

Torah Anytime on Pesach

Rabbi Uziel Milevsky zt”l on Pesach

—-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COURTESY OF THE COMMUNITY TRAINING INITIATIVE OF PRIORITY-1
Under the auspices of Harav Reuven Feinstein, Shlita

Preparing for Pesach is Part of our Avodas Hashem

Rav Itamar Schwartz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Nissan

In whatever time or situation we are in, we should always be aware that it is an inseparable part of our avodas Hashem. It doesn’t matter if it is something that has to do with ruchniyus (spirituality) or not or if it is something more mundane. Wherever we are, whatever the situation, it is somehow part of our avodas Hashem.

We must wonder in every situation: how is a Jew supposed to go about this?

In these weeks, the frum world, who keep Torah and mitzvos, is very careful to clean the house scrupulously from any trace of chametz. We have a commandment in the Torah to make sure that we do not see or find any chametz in our house; but this mitzvah has much to it which seemingly has nothing to do with Pesach.

Upon reflection, we will be able to see how preparing for Pesach is part of our avodas Hashem, and how through it we can bring ourselves to be closer to Hashem.

“Melumadah” – Acting By Rote

There is a simple point that we must all know and be aware of. This simple point is that we can find Hashem in anything – without exception!

1) When a person begins to clean his house for Pesach, he first has to get rid of the “melumadah” – the tendency to do things by rote. We are not simply cleaning out the house for Pesach “because we have to clean.” Why are you cleaning for Pesach? Because that’s what you did last year and the year before it?! That is not the reason.

2) We all know that to clean the house for Pesach is a mitzvah of the Torah, but what are our thoughts as we do this? If a person doesn’t stop to think, he is only bothered by questions such as: What is the best way to clean the house? What needs to cleaned, and how much? The whole relationship with Hashem is lost with all these questions.

So first, we must get rid of our tendency to just to things without thinking. We must realize that preparing for Pesach is purely avodas Hashem. After we know this we can begin to know how it is avodas Hashem, but the first step is this: don’t just do it like a robot. Just like we understand that learning and davening is avodas Hashem, so must we be aware that preparing for Pesach is avodas Hashem.

If a person feels that cleaning the house for Pesach is not part of avodas Hashem, we can almost tell him that he is forbidden to do it! The Chovos HeLevovos writes that there is no such thing as a gray area; it’s either forbidden or permissible. If it’s not a mitzvah, then it’s wrong to do.

We will try to explain how cleaning for Pesach can be avodas Hashem, in a way how everyone will be able to enter the Yom Tov amidst avodas Hashem, not amidst stress.

Why Do We Clean The House?

If we think into it, besides for the mitzvah of the Torah to keep the house clean from chametz on Pesach, there are more reasons why we need to clean the house.

3) One possible reason why a person cleans is because he feels bad to make the rest of his family do everything! He personally doesn’t care for the house to be clean. Most of the Pesach preparations have nothing to do with the mitzvah of destroying chametz – just various household chores. Why does a person do all these things for Pesach? Many times it is simply because he feels bad standing around and watching everyone else do all the work. He’s doing it all for the sake of chessed.

That is one possible reason why a person spends so much time with Pesach preparations.

4) Another possibility could be that we don’t like it when the house is dirty. Hashem created each person with a natural desire to have a clean house. Some people are cleanlier than others, and they can’t take even the slightest amount of messiness. But all people want their house clean somewhat, so they clean for the house for Pesach.

5) Another possibility can also be because people like it when things are orderly. During the rest of the year people are very busy, and they want to have one time in the year where they sit down and just arrange everything in its place (This is not the same thing as a desire for neatness.)

So far we have mentioned five possibilities why a person cleans the house for Pesach: Acting robotic, doing it because it’s a mitzvah of the Torah, kindness, cleanliness or orderliness.

The first kind of person we mentioned – the one who does it robotically – is obviously not doing it in the right way. That is simple and we don’t need to explain why.

The second kind of person, who does it because it’s a mitzvah, has to put some more thought into it. It is not enough to know that he must clean the house – there must be some more life involved, some more thinking.

Before he begins to clean the house, he should talk to Hashem and say, “Ribono shel olam, Why am I going to clean my house? I have other things to do; I can be learning or relaxing. The reason why I am going to clean my house now is because You, the Ribono shel Olam, commanded me that the house be free of chametz. Since I want to give You a nachas ruach, I will exert myself now to clean my house.”

While a person is cleaning the house, this is what he should be saying to himself. If someone knows how to think in learning Torah as he does something, then he should think in learning and he doesn’t have to do this. But if someone usually doesn’t think in learning as he cleans the house, and his thoughts are just floating elsewhere, then he should at least for a few minutes here and there remind himself of what he’s doing and why he’s doing it.

We are speaking about a very simple thing one can do; there are people who are on a very high level and always have d’veykus in Hashem wherever they are, but we are not speaking of this. We are speaking about something very basic and simple.

If a person cleans the house because he wants to be nice and doesn’t want everyone else to do all the work, he also has to think about this and say, “Ribono shel olam, Why am I doing this? I don’t personally feel a need to clean my house. The only reason why I am doing it is so that I can do chessed with my family.”

A person should keep talking to Hashem throughout the entire time: “Ribono shel olam, it is my will to do Your will. One of the pillars of the world is chessed, and I am thus doing chessed in order to give You a nachas ruach.”

After a day of doing this, besides for the physical exercise you get out of cleaning the house, your entire day is filled with pure avodas Hashem. In this way, a person never leaves ruchniyus even while being involved in this mundane world.

The Natural Desire for Cleanliness

Let us elaborate on the last two points, which are more subtle points about our soul.

There is a desire in a person for cleanliness. Everyone loves cleanliness – some more, and some less. The soul of a person naturally recoils a bit from messiness. People often see a mess and start cleaning it, and if you ask them, “What are you doing? Why you are cleaning it up?” the answer is, “It bothers me.”

People clean because they can’t stand the sight of something dirty or messy, and cleaning it up removes this anxiety. It seems that this has nothing to do with trying to become close to Hashem, and that a person is trying to save his soul from some pain.

But if we think into it just a little, we can connect everything to Hashem. If a person likes to clean, the first thing he should ask himself is: “Why do I like to clean? Did I make myself this way? No. Hashem gave me this nature.”

Realize that whatever your nature is, it was Hashem who gave you such a nature. Not only that, but Hashem is constantly renewing Creation; He is constantly renewing your nature, which is that you like to clean and that you hate messiness.

After you realize with certainty that it was Hashem who gave you this nature to desire cleanliness, and that He continues to renew this nature in you, now think: “Why did Hashem give me such a nature? What is the purpose of wanting cleanliness, and how do I use this natural desire in a person? What are the pros and cons of it?”

The desire for cleanliness doesn’t happen on its own. (It is absurd to think that it does, but the yetzer hora gets a person to succeed not to think.) A person must think to himself, “Hashem gave me this desire for cleanliness. It was Him who placed this desire in me.”

This realization helps you begin your relationship with Hashem.

What indeed is the root of why we like cleanliness?

Cleanliness (nekiyus) is one of the ten steps in the ladder of avodas Hashem as described by Rebbi Pinchos ben Yair, the basis of sefer Mesillas Yesharim. Cleanliness exists for us to cleanse ourselves from sin, because sin sullies our soul. Every power in the soul is also manifested somehow in our body; the power of cleanliness of our soul manifests itself in our body with the need for physical cleanliness.

The truth is that the more a person grows spiritually, the more he increases his cleanliness. Some people are very clean in their soul and others are very particular also about physical cleanliness (in addition to their spiritual cleanliness), but the point is that the more a person purifies himself, the more of a need for cleanliness he has, and the purer his soul becomes.

The root behind cleanliness comes from an inner desire to be purified. This gives us a whole different attitude to have about our need for physical cleanliness – it is rooted in our soul’s need for cleanliness and purity.

Knowing Your Motivation For Cleanliness

There are two reasons why a person wants physical cleanliness; one reason is unnecessary and more of a luxury to a person, while the other reason is coming from our soul’s need for purity and closeness.

There are situations in which we clean more than we have to, and it is extra. It is hard to say exactly what is considered overdoing it, and each person needs to decide for himself what is considered already too much. If a person is just taking a shower or brushing his teeth simply because he is very concerned about his body, this is totally unnecessary (except for certain rare individuals who won’t get affected by this).

Something even worse than this is when a person is really bothered by uncleanliness and he doesn’t clean. Such a person not only has physical messiness, but he damages his soul with this. He is denying his soul’s demand for cleanliness.

So before begins to clean, he must ask himself: What is my motivation in cleaning the house? Am I doing it out of a compulsiveness to clean (just like there are people who indulge in food and drinking), or am I doing it to help my household? If he realizes that he is doing it to help, then he should work on the avodah we mentioned before (which is to say a tefillah to Hashem).

If he discovers that he’s doing it because he has a personal need for cleanliness, he must really ask himself if he is overdoing it or not, or if it comes from a sensitivity in his soul for cleanliness (and he therefore needs it). Everyone must uncover what is motivating him to clean.

Most people do not have these issues. We will therefore discuss a more simple kind of issue that people have which is much more common: when people love to clean something that is clearly a mess. In this, we need to put some thought into the cleaning.

Before a person cleans, he should say: “Ribono shel olam, this mess really bothers me. Who gave me this feeling? You – Hashem. Where does this nature in me come from? It comes from a power in my soul to demand purity. Ribono shel olam, is it Your will that I break this nature of mine and endure the messiness? Or is it Your will that I live with purity and cleanliness? Since it is clear to me that You want my soul to desire this cleanliness, I will go clean the house in order to get close to You and give You pleasure.”

Even though you’re doing it shelo lishmah – not for the sake of Heaven (because you’re doing it out of your need for cleanliness) – you can still add this element of lishmah into your action.

But always remember that cleaning the house for Pesach is purely avodas Hashem. It must be done properly with thought and concentration.

The Importance Of Orderliness

Another point to be addressed is the fifth reason why a person wants to clean the house: to have orderliness.

Just like a person has a natural need for cleanliness, and this comes from the soul’s desire for purity which Hashem put in us, so did Hashem put in us a natural desire for orderliness.

Some people have a more of a need to be organized than others, but all people have a need to get things organized. This is not by itself – it is a nature which Hashem gave each person.

Without our natural desire for orderliness, no one would get anywhere. In order to build up anything, there is a certain order involved. Since every person on this world must build himself, Hashem endowed each person with an ability to have orderliness. Without orderliness, we wouldn’t be able to develop our avodas Hashem.

The more orderly a person is, the more he is able to develop in avodas Hashem. The less orderly a person is, the more confusion he has, and he feels like he is an exile. A person has to get out of this exile of confusion and become more orderly. This is the beginning of an inner freedom.

Orderliness is thus a need of our soul, but we often use it just for our body’s physical needs, such as the need to look very put together and organized.

Just like a dirty house makes our soul suffer, so can living in a messy house bother us so much that it is an impediment to our avodas Hashem. If we don’t care about how our house looks inside, we will definitely be affected spiritually as well.

It is well-known that when a tzaddik would look for a prospective match for his daughter, he would inspect the boy’s room and see if he’s neat. When a person has no sense of orderliness when it comes to the physical, it is a sign that he has is spiritually messy as well.

In order for our soul to get orderliness in spiritual matters, a person needs to first make sure he’s neat when it comes to his physical matters. But we must always remember that it is Hashem who gives us such a nature. We must recognize that our need for orderliness comes from Hashem, and that this need that people have doesn’t come by itself.

Realize that this need for orderliness can be used as a way to connect to the Creator. Like this, a person can take the physical world and use it to develop a relationship with Hashem. It is an inner kind of life, a life spent with Hashem even in ordinary, mundane actions.

When a person realizes that the need for organization is necessary in his avodas Hashem, he is able to realize that organizing the house is not just an act of kindness with his family, but it is a necessary part in one’s personal avodas Hashem.

In this, there are two parts. Some people were born with a need for orderliness, and it really bothers them when things aren’t in place. The avodah of such a person is to realize that this need comes from Hashem, and it is a way to serve Hashem.

But others don’t feel such a need for cleanliness. They know with their minds that a person should be orderly, but they don’t feel that this is a need for their soul. Such people feel that it makes sense to clean the house once a year, or else the house becomes unlivable…but not more than once a year.

This person’s avodah is the opposite of the first kind of person. Besides for the fact that he must organize his house, he also needs to awaken in his soul a desire to have orderliness.

Days Which We Can Grow From

A person wonders: Why did Hashem make it that people have to work so hard on Erev Pesach? Doesn’t this sacrifice our opportunities to grow spiritually by making preparations for Yom Tov? If we have to work so hard cleaning up, how do we prepare for the Yom Tov??

But if you think about it, these days before Pesach contain tremendous areas which we can use to attain growth in. If Hashem made it this way that we have to clean and organize the house, then that is the way for us to acquire all the precious areas of growth which we need.

Really, cleaning up and organizing the house are there to remind us of our soul’s need for purity. This is a precious gain in our avodas Hashem. But the yetzer hora comes and takes away the message of it and turns it into mundane actions, drying it up from all the avodas Hashem contained in it.

If a person understands the depth of avodas Hashem, he doesn’t clean the house simply because he wants it to be clean. He cleans the house because through that, he connects to an inner point in his soul – the need for spiritual cleanliness. He understands that now is precisely the time to work on this.

The truth is that all of life is like this: the yetzer hora comes and takes what’s very important and turns it into something that’s not important. In whatever we encounter, we should always see the greatness we can achieve in this situation. The more confusing and seemingly pointless a situation appears, the more greatness lies in it if we uncover it.

If a person before Pesach is caught up in this and that and he comes into the Yom Tov exhausted and stressed out, what is all our hard work worth? We don’t gain from this kind of a life.

If we don’t see how everything we do can be a form of avodas Hashem and how much being involved with the world takes away from our soul, then these days go to waste. Our preparation for Pesach should not be a physical preparation; although we do exert our body to prepare for Pesach, really, there is an inner depth taking place in what we are doing. It is really a preparation of our soul for the coming days. Through preparing for it in the right way, a person comes into Yom Tov the way he should.

Each person can take these words and open them up more to himself, each to his own. The common denominator between all people is the days preceding Pesach are days of ruchniyus, not days of materialistic pursuits. They are days of closeness to Hashem.

Hashem should help us that we prepare properly for Pesach during these days, from a sincere desire to give pleasure to our Creator. In these days preceding Pesach, each of us should merit to increase our true closeness and love of Hashem.

Purim: The Joys of Simcha and Sasson

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh.

Download a number of Drashos on Purim

Purim: The Joys of Simcha and Sasson

The days of Purim are called days of mishteh (festivity) and simcha (happiness). What is a mishteh, and what is a simcha?

The Gemara (Sukkah 56b) says that Sasson and Simcha (two kinds of happiness) had an argument about who comes first. Simcha said that it came before Sasson, because it is written, “To the Jews there was orah, simcha and sasson”; by Purim, the possuk writes “simcha” before “sasson.”

Sasson is associated with water. On the Simchas Beis HaShoeivah, they would celebrate the nisuch hamayim, the one time of the year in which they would pour water on the Mizbeiach. About this there is a possuk, “And they draw water with sasson.”

Simcha is associated with wine – “And wine gladdens the heart of man.”

What was created first – water or wine? We know that water was created first. This shows us that normally, sasson comes before simcha. But on Purim, simcha came before sasson.

What is simcha, and what is sasson?

Intrinsic Happiness Before The Increase Of Happiness

This has to do with the difference between mishteh and simcha. There is a simcha which comes before a mishteh, and there is a simcha which comes after a mishteh.

Sasson is a joy upon completion. Sasson comes from the word sheish, “six.” When the world was finished being created on the sixth day, there was a joy in creation – a sasson. When creation became complete, there was a happiness just with the very existence of creation.

Simcha is a happiness that comes after that. When one has joy from existence, he has sasson. When one adds onto that happiness, he has simcha. Simcha is when we add onto our intrinsic happiness – when we increase our already existing happiness.

Simcha adds onto Sasson. The entire idea of Simcha is to add onto the happiness of our existence, which is Sasson. Thus, there has to first be Sasson in order to have Simcha.

In order for a person to increase his happiness, he first needs to be happy with the fact that he exists. On top of your intrinsic happiness you are able to add onto that more happiness, but there has to be first be a happiness in yourself in order for you to increase it.

If a person attempts to have simcha by trying to increase his happiness, but he isn’t yet happy with the fact that he exists, then he will not be able to have simcha. You can only add onto your happiness if there is a happiness already there to begin with! This is why sasson must come before simcha. First you have to be happy with the mere fact that you exist, and then you can increase your happiness.

When people just try to increase their happiness but they’re not happy with themselves to begin with, it is a foolish and superficial kind of happiness.

Purim – Above Your Existence

But on Purim, it is the other way around: simcha comes before sasson. On Purim, simcha is mentioned in the possuk before it mentions sasson; this shows us that on Purim we need to have something that comes even before sasson. On Purim, we need to find a simcha which comes even before sasson.

If sasson is the happiness of one’s very existence, what can come before this? What comes before your existence?

We know that there are certain creations which were created even before Hashem created the universe. One of them was the Torah. On Purim, when the Jewish people accepted the Torah again anew, it was really an acceptance of the Torah of before creation. This is an example of something that came before existence.

What is this power that is “before” your existence? How can anything else come before something exists?

One way we see this is in the future happiness, which is “The righteous rejoice in Hashem”. The happiness in Hashem alone is a kind of happiness that is before I exist; such a happiness existed before I exist, and this will be again revealed in the future.

There is another way to arrive at the simcha which comes before sasson. Purim is about totally nullifying one’s Daas – we can see this from the halachah that a person has to get drunk on Purim until he has no more Daas.

This is how one experiences a happiness that is above his existence – when one nullifies his very self to the Creator.

Finding Joy in the Practice of Judaism

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

You Used to be So Much Fun – Relating to Non-Religious Family and Friends

Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg, Menahel, Yeshiva Ohr Eliyahu (LA) gave a 3 part series titled “You Used to be So Much Fun – Relating to Non-Religious Family and Friends”, at the Life After Teshuva conference in Passaic in 2001. More than 230 people attended the conference in Passaic, New Jersey, which was intended to provide ba’alei teshuvah families with lifecycle support — assistance in raising families, adolescent children, etc.

Click on the link to listen to Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. (To download either audio file to your computer, click with the right mouse button on the link and select Save Target As).

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Here are some of the main points from part 1:

In his introduction, Rabbi Goldberg tells us that he’s not discussing halachic issues. And he is not going to talk about how to change our friends and relatives.

We have to look at what can we do to improve these relationships. What have we done to be part of the problem? We can’t talk our way out of problems that we might have behaved our way into.

Every organization is perfectly aligned to get the results that it is currently achieving. In other words if we keep doing what we’re doing, we will keep getting what we’re getting. If we want to get different results we have to do something different. We have to focus on what we can do, because that is the only thing in our control.

Rav Noach Orlowek said in the name of Rav Simcha Wasserman upon being the asked “What can I do to get my parents to understand me?”. Rav Wasserman replied “To get your parents to understand you, you have to try to understand them. As Shlomo Hamelech says “Just like when you see your reflection in a pool of a water, so to the heart of one person to another”.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l said Shlomo HaMelech uses a pond instead of a mirror, because to see your reflection in a pond, you have to take the action of leaning over. So too here, we have Torah, so we need to make the right moves. Don’t allow Torah to split a family apart.

How do we understand parents? In the second blessing of Shema in the morning we say “Place into our hearts, to understand, to know, to hear, to learn and to teach”. If we don’t understand and know, then we haven’t heard. First we have to know and understand – where are our parents coming from. After we know and understand, then we can hear. And when we reach the point of hearing then we can learn. After we have understood and known and heard and learned – only then when can teach.

The source of so many problems is that we became religious and we went right away into the teach mode. So to build a relationship, we must first listen and understand our parents.

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Here is a summary of Part 2, but please take the time to listen to the audio file.

Rabbi Goldberg points out that we can’t hold non observant family members responsible for their sometimes adverse reaction to our Yiddishkeit because we are the ones who went “crazy”. Our parents raised us in a”normal” way and we did the “abnormal” thing. In addition, they raised us to be independent and it is difficult for them when we choose a path so different from theirs. A lot of what we do is a denial of the values that they tried to impart. And that is a hard thing to have thrown in your face on a daily basis. We are sending a constant subtle message that we are rejecting what they have done. From our parents’ point of view, we are kids at risk. We have to do all that we can to improve the situation.

People want to hear about things that will benefit them. If we want to build an understanding relationship the first thing is to show that they benefit because we are now religious. Show them what’s in it for them. Parents and friends see all the things that we can’t do – No more Saturday’s, no more restaurants,etc.. We have to show them that their life is better as a result of our Yiddishkeit. That means a focus on mitzvos between man and his fellow man. Leave religion out of most conversations. Rabbi Goldberg feels it is not our responsibility to Mekariv our parents. What we have to do is avoid creating a Chillul Hashem. Don’t drive them away.

There are a lot of things we can’t do, so we have to create a situation where we say yes as much as possible. A relationship is like a bank account and you have to make a lot of deposits, so when you make the withdrawals you are not overdrawn. Look for opportunities to make deposits. We often need a Rav to know when we can say yes. Rabbi Goldberg states there are surprising heterim, but you need a Rav. If your parents and relatives see that you do say yes whenever you can, then they will know that when you say no, it is because you have no other choice.

Family members sometimes feel that we get some holier than thou pleasure out of saying no. They need to know that we don’t enjoy having to say no to them, we wish we could say yes. Look to take every legimitate leniency, but consult a Rav to determine details. We have to know when to make an issue out of things and when we should let them go.

Why Do We Say Brochos Quickly?

A friend recently asked “Why do we often say Brochos quickly?”. The Mesillas Yesharim helps to explain why, and provides a practical path to the remedy.

In the introduction, the Ramchal points out that serving Hashem is not a natural and automatic process, like eating and sleeping. Therefore, we have to first learn what it means to serve Hashem. Then we need to make a serious concerted effort to improve and reach adequate levels of service, since this is the reason why we were created.

The basis of our service of Hashem, is Deutoronomy 10:12 in Parshas Eikev: “And now, Israel, what does Hashem, your God, ask of you? Only…
– to fear (be in awe of) Hashem, your God,
– to go in His ways,
– to love Him,
– to serve Hashem, your God, with all your heart and all your soul,
– to observe the commandments of Hashem and His decrees, which I command you today, for your benefit. “

The Ramchal writes about each of these components, beginning with the loftiest, summarized as follows:
1) fear (awe) of Hashem – like we would fear (be in awe of) a great and awesome king;
2) walking in His ways – refining character traits and reducing self-centeredness, leading to improved relationships;
3) love – in our heart, and being inspired to please Him, like we would want to please our parents;
4) wholeheartedness – doing mitzvos with a focus on serving and connecting to Hashem, with devotion, not by rote; and
5) observance of all the mitzvos – with all their fine points and conditions.

The reason why we say Brochos quickly is that we are focused on the what of the mitzvah, which is just saying it. However, to serve Hashem properly, we need to also focus on the why – consciously connecting to Hashem through the mitzvos, and the how — doing the mitzvos wholeheartedly, with love, without self-centeredness, and with fear.

Improving our service is a process.
A good place to begin this process is by saying our Brochas each day with a little more focus.
This is what we can focus on when we say a Brocha:
“Baruch” makes us aware that Hashem is the source of all blessing.
“Atah” focuses us on the fact that we’re talking directly to Hashem.
“Hashem” in it’s Yud Kei Vav Kei form, signifies that Hashem always existed and is the source of our existence.
“Elokeinu” says that He is the ultimate authority over all physical and spiritual creations.
“Melech” brings that authority to a more concrete Kingship.
“HaOlam” recognizes that His Kingship extends to the entire universe.

We should continue to travel together on the path of improving our Service of Hashem.

For the Love of Money – Parshas Ki Sisa

“Moshe returned to HASHEM and said, “Please! This people has committed a grave sin and made themselves a god of gold.” – Shemos 32:31

When Moshe Rabbenu comes down from Har Sinai

When Moshe Rabbeinu came down from Har Sinai, he found a very different scene than the one he left forty days earlier. A segment of the Jewish nation, in rebellion against HASHEM, had formed a golden calf and was worshiping it. The rest of the nation stood by and didn’t protest. In context, this was such an egregious act that HASHEM threatened to destroy the entire nation.

Rashi explains that during the process of asking for forgiveness, Moshe Rabbeinu said to HASHEM, “You caused this. You gave the Jewish people gold and silver; they left Mitzraim with great riches. Isn’t it obvious that they would come to sin?”

This Rashi seems difficult to understand when we focus on who these people were and where this was taking place.

The Klal Yisroel was living in the desert. They neither worked for a living nor had any use for money. All of their needs were taken care of. They ate Mon that was delivered to their tents daily. They drank water from the Be’er, the rock that followed them in their journeys. Their clothes were washed by the Clouds of Glory, and their shoes never wore out. They didn’t need money and couldn’t use it. How could it become their downfall?

The real danger of wealth

The answer to this question is based on understanding why the Misilas Yesharim calls wealth one of the great tests of man.

Materialism and self-indulgence are the risks of affluence, but an even greater danger is that wealth can lead a person to view himself as different than everyone else. “There are regular people, but I am different because I am rich. The world is full of people, but I am in a different category. I am a rich man.”

With this also comes a sense of self-sufficiency and arrogance. “I am a wealthy man, so I don’t need anyone. I don’t need my children. I don’t need my wife. In fact… I am so wealthy that I don’t really need HASHEM.”

The danger of wealth is the sense of being a rich man

This seems to be the answer to this Rashi. Granted the Jewish people living in the desert needed nothing and could do nothing with their money, but the real risk of wealth is the sense of superiority that comes along with it. In their minds, they were now rich. As rich men, they were significant, important, too big to be dependent upon anyone, and this feeling was the root cause of their rebellion against HASHEM.

Who were these people?

This concept becomes a tremendous chiddush when we take into account that these individuals were on a higher level than any other generation in the history of mankind. They had been slaves in Mitzraim and were freed. They had lived through the entire process of the Maakos and splitting of the Yam Suf. They watched as HASHEM showed total dominion over every facet of nature.

But more than all of this, they had only recently stood at the foot of Har Sinai when HASHEM opened up the heavens and the earth and revealed the greatest secrets of Creation. They had seen and experienced HASHEM more clearly than did the greatest Naviim, which tells us that they knew exactly why they were created and how passing and insignificant is a person’s station in this world. And yet Moshe Rabbeinu compared their being wealthy to such a difficult test that it would be like putting a young man on the doorstep of sin.

This is highly illustrative of the inner workings of the human. HASHEM created deep within our hearts many needs and desires. One of these is the need for honor and prestige. The drive for Kavod is one of the strongest forces in man. Often we are unaware of its existence until a given situation brings it to the fore.

While the Klal Yisroel were then living in the ultimate Kollel community, money still had value to them – not in what it could buy, but in its more alluring sense, in the associated feeling of power and importance that it brought. They were now rich people, and that sense is so dangerous that it can destroy even the greatest of men. For that reason, Moshe said to HASHEM, “You caused this. The gold and the silver that You gave them brought them to sin.”

Living in our age

This concept has particular relevance in our day and age. Never in the history of mankind have so many enjoyed such wealth. On some level, each of us has the opportunity of “one day being rich.”

As with many life situations, prosperity can be either a blessing or a curse. If a person changes because he is now a rich man, he needs more, he feels that he deserves only the best, and he won’t be satisfied with what everyone else gets by with. That sense of superiority will turn him against his Creator, and the very wealth that he acquired will be the source of his ruin. For eternity, he will regret having been given that test – which he failed.

However, if a person remains aware that he was granted wealth for a purpose – that he is not the owner of it, but rather its custodian, duly charged with its proper use – then he can use it as a tool to help him accomplish his purpose in existence. His wealth will then be a true bracha that he enjoys in this world, and for eternity, he will enjoy that which he accomplished with it.

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Fanning The Flame

Rabbi Tatz has a shiur that I listened to many years ago about how the initial spark of inspiration to any new activity or dream is extremely intense. After a while, the intensity dies a bit and what is left is a lower-burning flame that must be worked at, with much effort, to be kept alive. This is certainly true for myself, and I think many, baalei teshuvah, when it comes to spirituality, religious committment, and davening.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It would be incredibly difficult to stay at such a high for an extended length of time, and one would likely burn out altogether after a while. It’s important for a person to find their equilibrium, to reach a point of balance between that intense spark and their former lower level, and to find it in a place where it is possible to sustain for life.

But it’s hard when you come down from that high. It’s difficult when you realize that you can’t channel that height that you once achieved, and if you can, it’s only for a short period of time. It sometimes makes a person want to give up altogether.

But it’s important to realize that you have to keep plugging away, that this decline is completely normal, and to maintain an equilibrium is an accomplishment in itself. Continuing to daven when it’s by rote, going to shiurim that don’t awe as much as they used to, and learning even when you aren’t as enthusiastic are all still important ways to continue feeding the flame of yiddishkeit that was once lit by a great spark.

I think it’s important that one immerses themselves in a community during these times as well. It’s much easier to feel motivation to continue performing mitzvos when he is not doing it alone. Friends, family and rebbeim can all contribute by adding kindling to the fire, and fanning the flame to stay lit. Having a support system in place to hold one up in times of darkness, to give chizuk during difficult challenges, makes a huge difference in one’s will to keep hanging on.

I think it’s also important to continue reminding oneself that this is a normal phenomenon, instead of beating oneself up for not always feeling the same level of intensity. It’s a normal part of being human to have ups and downs, peaks and plateaus, in any part of life, not just in religion.

The spark inside all of us can stay lit, but it’s not something that doesn’t take hard work and effort, and it’s important that we realize that the flame won’t always burn as bright, the fire as high, as it might initially. The important part is that we keep it burning at all, that we fan the flame, giving our souls the oxygen they need to continue shining.

Originally Posted July 2006.

Twice Adar – Understanding the Halachos of Adar Rishon and Adar Sheini

Rabbi Daniel Travis
Kollel Torah Chaim

Rising to the Occasion

“When Adar arrives we increase our level of happiness” ( Taanis 29a). All year long Jews strive to feel the tremendous sense of joy that should accompany our service of G-d. As we draw closer to Purim, we are instructed to raise our spirits to an even higher level.

What is the reason for this?

We can answer this with help from the famous dictum of the Rema, “There is no joy greater than that which we feel when we have eliminated doubts” (Responsa 5). Adar and Nissan are months during which Hashem performed extraordinary miracles for the Jewish people. Through studying and celebrating these events we can achieve clarity of faith and rid ourselves of any doubts regarding G-d’s eternal dominion over the world. When everything is so clear, we know that our Father in Heaven is watching over us every moment of the day, and we are free to experience a constant state of simcha .

Haman’s lots determined that we celebrate Purim in the month of Adar, the month in which Moshe Rabbeinu was born. What do we do in a leap year, when we have two months of Adar?

Although all opinions agree that Purim is celebrated in Adar Sheni, the overwhelming joy of this period makes its presence already felt in Adar Rishon, with the celebration of Purim Katan. However, numerous other issues arise concerning the halachic question of which Adar is which.

Shabbos Mevorchim

The following scenario raises a fascinating halachic conundrum: On the Shabbos before Adar Rishon begins, the chazzan stands before the congregation in synagogue, holding the Torah scroll. As he clears his throat to announce the new month, he wonders to himself, “Should I call the upcoming month Adar, or must I say Adar Rishon?”

This chazzan’s seemingly simple question is discussed extensively by the commentators . They agree that Adar Sheni is the “real” Adar and Adar Rishon is the additional month ( Ridvaz 1:150). Although this information has relevance concerning when to commemorate a yahrzeit (a memorial day for the departed), our Sages did not define words based on halachic parameters. Interestingly enough, the meaning of a word is mainly determined by its colloquial use, i.e. what people mean when they say it.

Most Rishonim agree that when people say or write the word “Adar” by itself, they are referring to the first Adar, Adar Rishon (Rosh, Ran, Nedarim 63a). This answers our chazzan’s question, and he can say that next week will be “Rosh Chodesh Adar.” However, it is always better to avoid ambiguity, and for the sake of clarity it is preferable if he explicitly announces, “Adar Rishon” ( Mishna Berura 427:3).

An Adar Deadline

All kinds of legal questions can arise when people are not specific about which Adar they mean. Here is an interesting story of one young man whose confusion became almost overwhelming:

David’s father passed away on the second day of Adar during a non-leap year. To honor his father’s memory, David made a vow that by Rosh Chodesh Adar of the following year he would reprint a book written by his great-grandfather.

David hired a printer and wrote in the contract that the books must be ready by Rosh Chodesh Adar.

Meanwhile, David became engaged and the wedding was scheduled for the third of Adar Rishon.

Three weeks before the wedding David contacted the printer and requested that the first few hundred copies be printed as a souvenir to be given out at his wedding. The printer told him that he had not been planning to complete the books until the middle of Adar Rishon, but he could do it for him for an extra thousand dollars.

That week David found among his father’s papers a document recording a $1,000 loan given to someone three years previously, also a leap year. The document was dated “the fourteenth of Adar,” but David clearly recalled that the loan had been given on Purim – i.e., the fourteenth of Adar Sheni. The borrower had since died, but David hoped that with the signed document he would be able to collect the debt from the estate.

To add to his concerns, David wished to fast on his father’s yahrzeit , as was the custom in his family. Would this mean that he would have to fast on two consecutive days – the day of his father’s yahrzeit and the following day, the day of his wedding?

This story encompasses four halachic issues, each one discussed in a different section of the Shulchan Aruch .

The first question regards David’s vow to print the book by Rosh Chodesh Adar. Must they be ready by Rosh Chodesh Adar Rishon or Rosh Chodesh Adar Sheni?

The next question is by which date did the printer obligate himself to complete the printing?

Third, we must clarify whether the loan document is valid or not. If the loan is considered to have been predated to Adar Rishon, it would be invalid and David is not allowed to use it to collect from the property of the borrower.

Finally, we must determine whether the yahrzeit of David’s father should be observed in Adar Rishon or Adar Sheni.

The Shulchan Aruch and the Rema both rule that the word “Adar” used by itself refers to Adar Rishon. Therefore, since David vowed to print the books by Rosh Chodesh Adar, he must have them ready by Rosh Chodesh Adar Rishon ( Yoreh Deah 220:8).

Similarly, regarding the printer’s contract, since the word “Adar” without explanation means Adar Rishon, the printer is obligated to finish the job in time for David to fulfill his vow without any extra charge ( Choshen Mishpat 43:28).

Concerning the document David found, since the word Adar means Adar Rishon, while the loan was actually given in Adar Sheni, the date is incorrect, meaning that the document is predated and therefore invalid (cf. Rema, Even Ha’ezer 126:7).

In conclusion, when someone says or writes the word Adar, the Shulchan Aruch and Rema agree that it means Adar Rishon, even if he actually meant Adar Sheni.

However, other authorities differ, ruling that the word Adar refers to Adar Sheni (Bach, Shach, Yoreh Deah 220:8). Because of this and other factors that could affect the final ruling, a halachic authority should be consulted in every case.

The question of the yahrzeit depends on other factors. Let us study them in more detail.

Yahrzeits

The Shulchan Aruch writes that if a person passed away in Adar of a non-leap year, the yahrzeit should be observed in Adar Sheni during leap years ( Orach Chaim 568:7).

Regarding vows and financial contracts, the exact date usually depends on what people intend when speaking or writing. However, the date of a yahrzeit has more significance because it is a day of judgment for the deceased and his family, and can only be determined by the month which is considered halachically the “real” Adar. Since Adar Sheni is the real Adar, the Shulchan Aruch places all yahrzeits in that month.

The Rema, however, notes that even though Adar Sheni is the real Adar, we follow the principle of doing mitzvos at the first opportunity and yahrzeits should be marked in Adar Rishon ( Yoreh Deah 402:12). Yet the Rema himself cites authorities who say that since this issue is unclear, it is praiseworthy to observe the yahrzeit in Adar Sheni as well ( Orach Chaim 568:7).

The Mishna states that “the only difference between the first and the second Adar is that the megilla is read and matanos l’evyonim are given [in the second Adar]” ( Megilla 6b). In this vein, some rule that keeping the yahrzeit in both Adar Rishon and Adar Sheni is not just desirable – it is an obligation ( Magen Avraham , Gra, Mishna Berura ). As with the previous halachos , there are many different issues involved in determining which opinion to follow, so a Rabbi should be consulted.

Bar Mitzvas
While the question of when to observe a yahrzeit depends on which month is considered the real halachic Adar, regarding a bar mitzva in a leap year we calculate differently.

In order to consider a child as having reached manhood according to the Torah, it is not enough to identify the real Adar. This calculation requires us to be aware of when thirteen years have completed. Here, even the Rema agrees that a boy born in Adar during a non-leap year does not become bar mitzva until Adar Sheni of his thirteenth year, since the year cannot be considered complete until then (Rema , Orach Chaim 55:11).

Continuous Celebration

The Rambam writes that any celebration that is not accompanied by lifting the spirits of the downtrodden is mere self-gratification ( Hilchos Yom Tov 6,18). Therefore the commentators write that when preparing one’s seuda on Purim Katan , it is proper to give charity to orphans and widows ( Eshel Avraham 697,2). Similarly someone who experienced a personal miracle should distribute money among Torah scholars ( Mishna Berura 218,34). However, there is another secret for making sure that one has the correct intentions when celebrating miracles.

After discussing the opinions of whether one should make a seuda on Purim Katan, the Rema concludes his commentary on Orach Chaim , the section of the Shulchan Aruch which deals with daily life, with a quote from the Book of Proverbs: “ Vetov lev mishteh tamid ,” (One who has a good heart is always feasting). In doing so he repeats the word tamid that he mentioned at the beginning of the Shulchan Aruch where he quoted a Psalm: “ Shivisi Hashem lenegdi tamid ,” (I place Hashem’s Presence in front of me always).

The Birkei Yosef notes that the use of the word “ tamid” in both of these instances hints at a very deep concept.

The temidim , the offerings which were brought on a daily basis in the Temple , had to be offered in their specified order, i.e. the morning korban must always precede the afternoon one.

The use of the word tamid at the beginning and the end of Orach Chaim implies a connection between the two ideas. Only after a person senses Hashem’s Presence before him can he aim to achieve the second level of tamid of “One who has a good heart is always feasting.”

Factors in Choosing a Mesivta for your Son – Part 2

Part 1 posted here.

Speak to Other Parents

Make lots of effort to speak to as many parents of boys currently in the school as possible. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. Ask a lot of directed questions. Try to find out how the rebbeim/menahelim handle problem situations – like scuffles/fights in school, skipping class, chutzpah, bullying — even how they would handle an instance of sexual abuse. Ask how the rebbeim have answered difficult questions raised in class, both in terms of hashkafa ( how do we know we’re right and the other religions aren’t) and hadracha (why can’t we talk to/go out with girls, why is internet/TV/movies so bad? ). I have heard scary things about the inability or unwillingness of some rebbeim to answer these questions. It is always important to ask about smoking and drugs in the school, and for co-ed or sister/brother high schools it would be important to ask about dating and sexual exploits among students (although you would have to speak to the students themselves, not the parents, to get candid and accurate information on these points). It is important not to be naïve and think that these things can never happen in a yeshiva. They can and do, but obviously not in all places, so it is important to ask.

Other Factors

Other things to investigate about a school:
1) What are the graduating seniors like? Do you want your son to be like them? What do those boys do immediately after graduation, three years after, etc. (advanced learning, working, college)? In other words, do you like their product and would you like your son to follow the path that the majority take?
2) What kinds of boys go there? Are they the kind you would choose as friends for your son? Are they the kind your son has typically chosen as his friends in the past?
3) What is the ambience in the school? Go visit the school and look around – do the boys seem relaxed and happy? Do the rebbeim/teachers seem happy? Are the boys in class (esp. during secular hours)? Is the school clean and neat? Is there a schedule that is enforced – i.e. is there order? Is there tension from a very strict hanhala?
4) Is there time in the day for physical exercise and some respite from the work? What sort of extra-curricular activities are offered, and what sort of homework policy is there?
5) Do you feel that you can speak openly and honestly with the mechanchim at the school? Are they open and down to earth with you, or do you feel like they are trying primarily to sell their school, or do you feel a sense of their being closed to your input? Do you feel that they understand typically developing adolescent boys with all their challenges, and know how to mold them into young men? Or do you feel that they don’t/wouldn’t understand the nuances of your son?
6) Try to find out the economic level of the typical family at the school; whether the average boy has a lot of pocket money to spend and whether they spend significantly more than you do on material things and/or vacations. Your son may come home newly interested in designer suits and/or wanting to order takeout instead of yeshiva food or wanting to go skiing or to Florida during various vacations and long weekends. This may not matter to you or your son, but it is something to consider.
7) If your son has a particular need or challenge academically, emotionally or socially, do you feel the school is equipped and willing to handle it and is confident of its ability in that area? In the same vein, if your son needs to take any kind of medication, do you feel confident in confiding this to the school hanhala and working with it as a partner in your son’s care?

Dorming

A few words about dorming. Many parents prefer their sons to live at home if at all possible during their high school years. However, it is not always the case that the best choice of school for any particular boy is local, so dorming is a factor to weigh among the other factors. It is my humble opinion that dorming can be a positive experience, and although some “scare stories” are true, many other boys will benefit from the experience. One must research each school’s dorm on a case by case basis.

It is crucial to ascertain that the facility is safe and was built and maintained to code, and that there are procedures for emergencies and other more mundane health issues. It is also very important to ascertain the level of supervision and rule enforcement in the dorm and the types of boys in the dorm. Some boys start smoking in dorm environments, many don’t get too much sleep, and some boys get exposed to things their parents rather they not be. Having said that, there is a wide variation in how strict yeshivas are about dorm supervision and in some schools problems are dealt with swiftly and completely. It is important to speak to some of the older boys in the dorm themselves and ask them directed questions, such as “how many boys smoke?” or “are there any drugs in the dorm?”, “what do the boys do for entertainment at night?” “what is the average lights-out time?” Also speak to the dorm supervisor to get a flavor of the place. Ask specifically if there have been any known incidents of sexual abuse or attempted sexual advances (even boy-on-boy), and what the school did about it.

Assuming the dorm does not have major problems, the positive aspects of dorming include providing a healthy social outlet after a long work day, fostering independence and self-sufficiency, learning to live with others and be sensitive to others’ needs, learning self-discipline and good personal hygiene, and becoming aware of one’s own annoying habits. A parent needs to factor in the disadvantages of commuting to and from a school that may not be in the family’s immediate vicinity, in terms of the difficulty of carpooling, the time taken away from the boy’s sleep and free time during the trips, and just what will be accomplished by the boy arriving home in time to go to sleep in his bed and then leaving the house too early in the morning to interact with anyone anyway.

A dorm might be a good place to be if the home environment is negative, or even just unfulfilling for the boy, including having mostly or all sisters with no one to “hang” with. It is better if the boy has attended sleep-away camp before putting him in a dorm situation, or he may have a hard time adjusting. All of my sons went to (or are currently in) dorming schools despite my reservations, and I was amazed at the growth they experienced, even in their first year. Some of this growth I attributed to dorm living.

No School is Perfect

A final note: there is no perfect school out there. All have their positives and negatives. If I had to give advice in one sentence it would be this (a variation on weighing the pros and cons): Choose a few schools which have the features and positive aspects you are looking for, write down all the negative aspects of each school, decide which of the negatives you are willing to put up with and which you are not, and choose the school with the negatives you can live with.

No matter which school you choose, it is important to keep close tabs on your son’s progress during his high school years and be pro-active in finding out what is going on with him (especially if he answers your questions with typical adolescent-male mono-syllabic responses such as “fine” and “good”). Do not become complacent, even if you are thrilled with the school of your choice. Nothing replaces a concerned, active parent!

First Published – Feb 1, 2011

Getting to Know Your Feelings – Understanding The Power of Love

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

View this and other Drashas on the Bilvavi.Net site

Feeling On The Outside, Da’as On The Inside

Although there are many emotions in the soul, they are all branches of one single root: love.

What is love? Our Sages say:[1] “The prayers of the righteous turn the da’as of Hashem from cruelty to mercy.” Hashem doesn’t just transform His cruelty to mercy; He also transforms His “da’as, because the root of everything is da’as. Hashem sometimes uses da’as for “good,” such as when He exhibits mercy, or He can sometimes use His da’as for when He has to be “cruel.” Da’as is the root of everything, the essence of the soul, as we explained before.

We may think that cruelty and mercy are just emotions, but our Sages say that they are more than that: emotions are really da’as. The Rambam classifies emotions as “hilchos da’as,” because our emotions and our da’as are really one entity. The inner layer of emotions is da’as, and the outer layer is comprised of the feelings that emotions engender. Looking at emotions as only feelings and nothing else is a superficial approach, since the focus is only looking at the garment of the emotions, and not at the essence.

Once we have internalized this concept, it becomes clear that love has two layers to it as well. Love has da’as within it, as well as the feeling of love we are familiar with. The da’as of love is its essence, and the feeling of love we know of is only the outer layer of the love.

What, indeed, is the essence of love? What is the “da’as” of love?

Conditional Love And Unconditional Love

The words of the Sages[2] are well-known: “Any love that is dependent on a reason, the love goes away when the reason goes away; any love that is not dependent on a reason, the love never goes away, even when the reason goes away.”

What are these two kinds of love, and what is their root?

A love that is dependent on something is a superficial emotion of love, and doesn’t involve da’as. A love that isn’t dependent on anything is a love that stems from one’s da’as.

When love is unconditional, the feeling of love that the person experiences is only the garment of the love, while the essence of the love is his da’as.

The numerical value in Hebrew of the word ahavah (love) is the same as echad (one). True love, which is unconditional love, is reached when we want to become one with another. When we view another as being one with us and then we a feel love for the person, we are utilizing the da’as of love. The accompanying feeling of love we experience is only its outer layer, but the love itself is the da’as – the oneness, which we have with another.

The source of conditional love is what we identify as the “emotion” of love. It is not the kind of love that connects people; it is just a feeling, and nothing more. These feelings of “love” toward another can come in numerous ways: either from “loving” him for his money, or for the honor the person gives us, or simply because of our personality tastes.

The love that one is feeling in these cases derive its strength from any of these superficial reasons, but as soon as any of these reasons go away, the feeling of love disappears with it.

Unconditional love is thus when one uses da’as, to foster a sense of unity with another. When a person is at one with another, he can love him. After this process is completed, the feeling of love he then experiences is a garment of the love, resulting from his da’as behind the love, but it is not the love itself. The actual love is the da’as behind it, which in this case is the desire to truly unify with the other.

Every feeling has it’s source. The root of conditional love comes from a superficial source, dependent on something external that causes the love; there is no sense of oneness with another here, and no da’as. Whatever it depends on is subject to change, so the love goes away when that factor changes. Unconditional love comes from tapping into the power of our da’as – to desire unity with another; it lasts forever, because oneness doesn’t change.

Unconditional love is the true and deep kind of love, while conditional love depends on liking something about the other person’s personality, which is subject to change, and thus can never be considered true love.

Natural Love

Now we can understand that there are two sources from which we draw forth our power to love.

Every person is born with a natural love for himself, and we can love ourselves in two ways. One of these ways is a superficial way to love others, while the other way is the true source of love that we have within ourselves.

The primary source of our natural self-love is the love that a person has for himself and his very existence. This is evident from the fact that every person wants to remain alive; a person loves himself for just existing. A second source of self-love we have in ourselves is the superficial kind of self-love, which is to love ourselves for our personality and good middos and qualities.

A person loves himself and his children unconditionally. Even if a person’s child would be evil, and even if the child would be as evil as Amalek, Heaven forbid, the father would still love his child. Why?

It is because he sees the child as a part of himself. He loves his child just as much as he loves himself, and sees him as an extension of his own existence. This love doesn’t come from admiring his child for any specific qualities; it comes from just loving one’s very existence which is a deeper kind of love.

Just like a person loves himself even if he wouldn’t be able to find anything admirable about his personality, so does a parent love his child unconditionally, and not because he admires anything in particular about his child.

These two kinds of natural love – unconditional love for ourselves, as well as conditional love for ourselves – exist within every person. A person can love himself simply because he exists – or for a variety of different reasons, most of which are superficial.

People who love themselves with the second kind of love only love themselves partially, depending on how positive they are toward themselves.

With this kind of love, a person born with a more positive kind of personality will be able to love himself, but a person born with a tendency toward negativity will love himself less.

But when a person loves himself unconditionally – simply because he exists – he loves himself totally no matter what.

Every person needs to recognize these two kinds of love within himself. Most people who need others to admire them for their qualities are usually unaware of how to truly love themselves. People don’t know how to truly love themselves. They think that they should love themselves by finding their good middos. If one has a positive self-image, he may be able to generate feelings of self-love, but if he’s negatively inclined toward himself, he will not feel loved, and he’ll look for love from others, instead of being able to give it to himself. Either way, he has no inner source of love, whereas a person who loves himself unconditionally experiences a constant flow of love for himself, and from himself.

People who feel they don’t really love themselves believe that this is because of their low spiritual level. They have no idea about the true love for themselves they could be having.

When a person loves himself conditionally, he will often feel down about himself and he will feel unloved, when his reasons to love himself fall away. But when a person loves himself unconditionally, such love is consistent, and it rarely fluctuates. This is an ability that exists within every person, whether it is has already been revealed, or whether it remains dormant in the person. His own unconditional love provides a constant inner flow of love from within himself that doesn’t depend on anything external.

It is impossible to find unconditional love from an outside source. Unconditional love comes from one’s inner world; it is not a feeling of love towards oneself, but it is rather a pure kind of love that comes from one’s power of da’as.

This inner flow of love that a person has within himself comes from one’s very existence.

It is the pure kind of love that comes from one’s da’as, and it extends to become a pure feeling. A person can only love himself unconditionally if he loves his very existence; any other type of love can only be conditional.

Revealing True Love Towards Others

However, when it comes to loving others, there has to be both conditional and unconditional love present. For a person to really love others, he has to love them both because of their qualities and because of their very existence. We will explain why.

When a person feels a love toward another person, he must be able to recognize the source of that love: Is it an extension of the unconditional love he has for himself, or does it depend on external factors? We will explain the difference.

If a person only loves himself conditionally, his love for others will be the same kind of love he has for himself. He will love Reuven…but not Shimon. This is why people have a hard time loving others. A husband and wife might only love each other based on certain factors, and thus the love between them is only conditional. A child who loves his father solely because he knows that his father gives him things only loves his father because he gives him things. This kind of love is shaky and impermanent.

When a person loves himself unconditionally, he will have no problem loving others the same way. His love for others won’t depend on anything.

All of us are able to love unconditionally, but our conditional love can hold back the unconditional love if we don’t access it within ourselves. But once the unconditional love pushes itself to the forefront, even if we find a reason to love another, the unconditional love will remain unchanged, and we will be able to experience both types of love simultaneously.

This was the great love that existed between David and Yehonasan.[3] Although they had reasons why they loved each other, they still loved each other unconditionally, because they had recognized unconditional love within themselves and allowed it to be revealed.

Let us review this again: We all have within us two abilities, the power to love conditionally and to love unconditionally. Unconditional love is to love yourself simply because you exist, while conditional love is to love yourself based on a reason. These are not two separate powers, but rather two layers of the same power. The inner layer of love is unconditional love, while its outer layer is conditional love.

One who only loves himself conditionally, however, will not be able to love others unconditionally, even if he tries to.

Let us ask: if a person has unconditional love toward himself, why doesn’t he automatically love all others equally? The answer is because he also has conditional love for himself, which prevents him from loving everyone equally. He is incapable of loving others who don’t appeal to him. His conditional love prevents his unconditional love from being truly revealed.

How, then, can we access our unconditional love for others? Won’t the fact that we love others conditionally get in the way? Conditional love doesn’t totally prevent[4] us from loving the other, because at least a little bit of love for the other has been revealed.

After all, at least we have uncovered a conditional love toward the other, which is already a step. Once we reveal at least a conditional love for the other, we will then be able to reveal even an unconditional love for the other, reminiscent of the love between David and Yehonasan.[5]

Eternal Love

Let us return to the Mishnah in Avos:[6] “Any love that is dependent on a reason, the love goes away when the reason goes away; any love that is not dependent on a reason, the love never goes away, even when the reason goes away.”

This is difficult to understand. It is clear that if the love was dependent on a reason, then the love stops as soon as the reason goes away. But unconditional love cannot go away because it doesn’t depend on anything. Why does the Mishnah point this out?

Unconditional love can be hidden by the conditional love, so the Mishnah is teaching as follows: When a person loves another unconditionally, then even when his conditional love for the other falls away, he will still love the other, because unconditional love will always remain.

The lesson of the Mishnah is that even when the conditions for the love fall away, the person will still be left with unconditional love toward the other. Once there is unconditional love, there will always be love, even when the reasons for the love are no longer there.

Hatred Is Only Possible When The Love Was Conditional

Now that we have explained love, we can understand hatred, the opposite of love. Hatred is whatever love isn’t, and love is whatever hatred isn’t.

Only conditional love has an opposite emotion of hatred; unconditional love, though, has no opposite.

There is no such thing as unconditional hatred, because something that has no conditions to it cannot, by definition, have an opposite.

Hatred is only possible when a person only knows of conditional love.

Once a person reveals his unconditional love, he cannot hate.

Unconditional Love Is Love Based On Da’as, Conditional Love is Love Based On A Feeling

Now we can understand the opening words of this chapter, that the inner kind of love is love that comes from da’as.

What is the difference between a feeling coming from da’as, to a feeling that isn’t coming from da’as?

Da’as is the awareness of reality as it is.

A feeling without da’as, though, is just a “feeling” to us and nothing more.

Unconditional love is an awareness of reality (even if one might also love himself for other reasons).

A person can love himself either due to his da’as, which translates into unconditional love towards himself; or from a mere feeling of love for himself, which translates into conditional love towards himself.

Recognizing Another’s Existence

Before a person is able to love another, he has to first acknowledge their existence based on more than his physical senses.

Most people, though, evaluate others based on externalities, even by something as superficial as seeing or hearing them.

Reb Yeruchem Levovitz zt”l once stated that “A person cannot murder another person.” If so, he asked, how was Kayin able to kill Hevel? It was because he wasn’t aware that Hevel existed. He was cruel; he had no mercy. Only a merciful person is aware that another person exists. Anyone who is cruel enough to kill could only come to such behavior because he is not aware of others.

This can be applied similarly to the idea of loving others. We have a mitzvah to love other Jews on the same level that we love ourselves;[7] “And you shall love your friend like yourself.”

We must love every Jew – absolutely! But there is something that comes before this! If we really want to love others, we need to first be truly aware of the other’s existence, in the same way that we know that we see ourselves as existing. Just as one senses his own existence – in a very real way – so can he sense others’ existence in a very real way.

But if a person never thought about his own existence and doesn’t love himself unconditionally, then his awareness of himself is hidden, and he only experiences his awareness of others in a superficial manner.

Because his love for himself is dependent on a reason, he recognizes the existence of others in the same way.

True love is revealed when one utilizes da’as. Only by realizing the reality of your own existence will you be able to truly love yourself for who you are – and only then will you be able come to love others, simply because they exist.

[1]  Sukkah 14a

[2]  Avos 5:19

[3]  Avos 5:19

[4]  Editor’s Note: The author previously stated that love will not last if it is based on conditional love. Here the author explains that conditional love is still essential in the process of reaching true love and to the contrary, we need to begin with conditional love which eventually will reveal unconditional love but only if that is the underlying motivation.

[5]  Avos 5:19

[6]  Pirkei Avos 5:19

[7]  Vayikra 19:18, Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim Perek 9

Adults at Risk

This article was posted at Rabbi Horowitz’s first site.

By Rabbi Mordechai Becher and Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon

For those of us that have been involved in outreach and fighting assimilation, whether as a full-time senior lecturer (as is the case with Rabbi Mordechai Becher) or as a lay activist leader (as is the case with Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon), various acronyms have become an accepted part of our mainstream “working lexicon” e.g. B.T. (Baal Teshuva), F.F.B (Frum From Birth) and F.F.H (Frum From Habit) … It is for the last mentioned category that we have coined the phrase “Adults at Risk.”

Our analyses of this phenomenon will emphasize some primary causes of the Adult at Risk crisis and more importantly, some proposed solutions. At the outset, however, a clarification of the topic at hand is essential …

What does “Adults at Risk” really mean?

Read more Adults at Risk

Ten Greatest Songs of All Time

This Shabbos is called Shabbos Shirah because of the song sung at the splitting of the Red Sea. Another song is read in the haftorah, the Song of Devora. The Medrash says there will be 10 great songs for Hashem. Nine have already been sung and the tenth in the the times of Moshiach.

Here’s a list of the 10 Songs from Revach.net
1) Shiras Adam – The song Adam sang after Creation was completed: Mizmor shir l’yom hashabbos. To this day, it is part of our Friday night davening.
2) Shiras HaYam – The song at Yam Suf (Beshalach)
3) Shiras Ha’Be’er – Song of the Well in the desert (Bamidbar 21:17) when the Emorim were killed after plotting an ambush and the mountains crushed them. Their blood came up through the Be’er revealing the Nes to Bnei Yisroel.
4) Shiras Haazinu
5) Shiras Ha’Givon in Sefer Yehoshua when the sun remained up through the night to help Yehoshua in his battle.
6) Shiras Devorah in Sefer Shoftim – When Bnei Yisroel defeated the mighty Sisra’s and Yael killed Sisra himself.
7) Shiras Chana in Sefer Shmuel
8) Shiras Dovid – Tehilim 18 when Dovid was saved from Shaul
9) Shir Ha’Shirim of Shlomo Ha’Melech
10) Shir HaGeulah – This song hasn’t been sung yet; the song that will be sung in the times of Moshiach, as it says in the Book of Yeshayahu: “On that day there will be sung this song in the land of Yehuda…. (26:1)”

There are different versions of this list and other Medrashim bring
1. Shiras Mitzrayim
2. Shiras Yehoshafat

Hishtadlus and Parshas HaMon

We are taught that although Hashem runs the world we have to do our Hishtadlus (our own efforts). What that is in any situation differs for each person and is dependent on a person’s bitachon (trust) and his or her personality type. It’s hard to get the hishtadlus factor exactly right, no too much and not too little. The key for us believing Jews is to remember that even after our hishtadlus, everything is in Hashem’s hands. This is something we have to continually work on to internalize.

The halachic works suggest that we read Parshas Hamon everyday to internalize this message. (Tur 1; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 1:5; Aruch Hashulchan 1:22; Shulchan Aruch HaRav 1:9). The Mishna Berurah says “And the parsha of the Manna is such that he will believe that all his livelihood comes through special Divine direction (hashgacha pratis)”.

From my observations, most people are lucky to get through all the davening, let alone recite extras, like Parshas HaMon. However, it just so happens that Rebbe Mendel of Riminov said that saying Parshas HaMon on Tuesday of Parshas B’Shalach is a Segulah for Parnossa. And guest what – today is that Tuesday.

Here’s a link to the Art Scroll Interlinear translation of Parshas Hamon.

The Most Famous Ramban in Chumash – The End of Parshas Bo

The Ramban at the end of Bo is a classic work on Jewish philosophy and probably the most quoted Ramban in Chumash. It’s well worth seeing inside. Art Scroll has published the Ramban on Torah, so if you won’t (or can’t) read it in Hebrew, consider picking up the English translation.

Here is a summary:

Reason for the Plagues

The Ramban says that from the time of Enosh there were three types of heretics: 1) Those that didn’t believe in G-d at all; 2) Those that believed in a G-d, but didn’t believe He knew what was happening in the world; 3) Those that believed in G-d’s knowledge, but didn’t believe that He oversees the world or that there is reward and punishments.

By favoring the Jews and altering nature through the plagues, the falsity of the heretical views became clear to all. The supernatural wonders indicate the world has a G-d who created it, knows all, oversees all and is all powerful. And when that wonder is publicly declared beforehand through a prophet, the truth of prophecy is made clear as well, namely that G-d will speak to a person and reveal His secrets to His servants, the prophets, and with acknowledgement of this principle the entire Torah is sustained. (The Ramban brings down a number of pesukim supporting this.)

Reason for so many Mitzvos regarding the Exodus

Now, because G-d does not perform a sign or wonder in every generation in sight of every evil person and disbeliever, He commanded that we should have constant reminders and signs of what we saw in Egypt and we should transmit it to our children thoughout the generations. G-d was stringent in this matter as we see from the strict penalties regarding eating Chometz on Pesach and neglecting the Pesach offering. Other mitzvos regarding the Exodus are tefillin, mezuzos, remembering the Exodus in the morning and evening, Succos.

There are also many other commandments that serve as a reminder of the Exodus (Shabbos, the festivals, redemption of the firstborn,…). And all these commandments serve as a testimony for us through the generations regarding the wonders performed in Egypt, that they not be forgotten and there will be no argument for a heretic to deny faith in G-d.

The Reason behind Mitzvos in General

When one does a simple mitzvah like mezuzah and thinks about its importance, he has already acknowledged G-d’s creation of the world, G-d’s knowledge and supervision of the world’s affairs, the truth of prophecy and all the foundations of Torah. In addition he has acknowledged G-d’s kindness towards those that perform His will, for He took us from bondage to freedom in great honor in the merit of our forefathers.

That is why Chazal say, be careful in performing a minor commandment as a major one, for all of them are major and beloved since through them a person is constantly acknowledging his G-d. For the objective of all the commandments is that we should believe in G-d and acknowledge to Him that He created us.

Purpose of Creation

In fact this is the purpose of creation itself, for we have no other explanation of creation. And G-d has no desire, except that man should know and acknowledge the G-d that created him. And the purpose of raising our voices in prayer and the purpose of Shuls and the merit of communal prayer is that people should have a place where they can gather and acknowledge that G-d created them and caused them to be and they can publicize this and declare before Him, “We are your creations”.

This is what the sages meant when they explained “And they shall call out mightily to G-d” as from here you learn that prayer requires a loud voice for boldness can overcome evil.

Everything is a Sign of Hashem

Through recalling the great revealed signs of Hashem of the Exodus, a person acknowledges the hidden signs of everyday life which are the foundation of the entire Torah. For a person has no share in the Torah of Moshe unless he believes that all our affairs and experiences are signs from Hashem, that there is no independent force of nature regarding either the community or the individual.

Reward and Punishment

Rather if one observes the commandments his reward will bring him success and if he transgresses them his punishment will destroy him. Hidden signs of Hashem can be more clearly recognized as regards the affairs of a community as in the predictions in the Torah in the matter of the blessings and the curses as it says – And the nations will say, “For what reason did Hashem do so to this land…?” And they will say, “Because they forsook the covenant of Hashem, the G-d of their forefathers”. This matter will become known to the nations, that this is from G-d as their (the Jews) punishment. And it is stated regarding the fulfillment of the commandments, “Then all the people of the earth will see that the Name of Hashem is proclaimed over you, and they will revere you.”

First published in January, 2008. Last 2 paragraphs updated January 2012

Nobody Told Me

A Rabbi was talking to a BT and questioned “you’re follow such a big leniency!?” The BT responded, “but you told me I could do that!”. The Rabbi responded, “but that was 10 years ago”.

Parents teach and send their children to schools where they learn about Torah, prayer, and mitzvos. Was it made clear to them that they have to continue learning about Torah, prayer, and mitzvos for their entire lives?

At some point spiritual growth becomes the individual’s responsibility. After 120 (or even after 30), I don’t think blaming our parents or kiruv/high school/beis medresh/shul/ Rebbeim is going to cut it.

Observant Judaism is not about becoming frum, being frum, or staying frum. Observant Judaism is about continual growth. It’s about growing in learning Torah, growing in Prayer, growing in Chesed, growing in our Love of Hashem.

I’m glad somebody told me.

Shovavim

It’s the period of Shovavim. Here’s some links on the whys and wherefores of Shovavim.

Shovavim and Self Improvement:

Shovavim is an acronym for the parshiyot that we read during the period between Chanukah and Purim. Rav Nachman Cohen writes that this period is an auspicious time to repent for Adam’s sin with the Eitz Hadaat and his subsequent errant behavior, pegimat habrit, for which mankind suffers until today. Why do we specifically repent now for the sin of Adam?

This period falls after the winter solstice when the days begin to get longer. When Adam sinned, the days began to get shorter and he thought it was because of his sin. When the days began to get longer again, he realized he was not doomed and that his repentance had been accepted. Thus this period is an eit ratzon where one can connect to Hashem.

Working on curbing one’s physical desires and avoiding inappropriate pleasures seems male focused. What is the corollary for women? The Maharal says that the primary praise of a woman is her level of tzniut. Rav Pincus writes that because Adam and Chava did not conduct themselves modestly, the snake desired Chava and devised a plot to make her sin. Therefore, in a sense, the sin of Eitz Hadaat came about through immodesty.

What is modesty? It is a call to concentrate our energies on our inner personality, our spiritual nature, which is deep and hidden within us. We must become attuned to our souls instead of getting caught up in the outer trappings of the physical world. Shovavim is not only a time to work on tzniut but a time of introspection, a time to work on our relationship with Hashem. This entails watching our behavior with the awareness that we are in the presence of Hashem. It is irrelevant what other people think. Life is about walking alone with Hashem. Elevating mitzvot to a higher level by practicing modesty in deed – not talking about the mitzvot you’ve done, is an appropriate goal to work on during Shovavim.

Shovavim Tat:

There are a number of reasons given for this period of Teshuvah:
1) During this period we read the parshiyot which describe the Jews’ suffering and exile in Egypt and their redemption, salvation, and exodus by the Hand of God. Just as Israel in the Torah called out from their physical exile, so too we call out of our personal spiritual exile. Just as the Jewish people overcame the darkness of the Egyptian exile so too we try to overcome the spiritual darkness in our lives and come closer to God from whom we are separated.

2) Many Chassidic and Kabbalistic sources describe the focus of this period as strengthening our resolve in areas of family purity (Taharat Hamishpacha) and in studying and keeping the laws of family purity.

A Sign of the Times:

Shovavim is something that came from the Mekubalim. I once heard it explained that as the generations get weaker, Hashem reveals to us the hidden light that can be found deeper into the year. Let’s face it, we didn’t really do a great job on Aseres Yimei Tshuva and Hashem is showing us these loopholes and extensions because he yearns for us to return and wants us to take advantage. This ties in nicely with something I heard from the Chofetz Chaim who when asked skeptically about Yom Kippur Katan, said that we no longer can go a whole year without a Yom Kippur. We need one once a month.

Factors in Choosing a Mesivta for your Son – Part 1

‘Tis the season for high school applications, acceptances, and choices. For those who feel that they could use some pointers in how to go about making these choices I have put together some ideas which were the result of advice passed along to me, hard-won personal insights, and things I have observed during the tenure of three sons in mesivta (yeshiva style high school). I would welcome any additional ideas as well. Full disclosure: our experience is mostly with what some would call more “right-wing” orthodox schools, i.e. those who typically maintain dress codes of white shirts, black pants, hats while davening, etc. However, I think most points will apply to other kinds of schools as well. Also, I have not touched upon the issue of cost – in our experience, most schools of similar type had similar costs, and the differences were not enough to influence our decision. However, when there is a big difference in cost, that factor obviously needs to be considered – but you don’t need anyone to tell you that!

Right Level of Learning

It is important to choose a school which is a close fit to your son’s level of learning. Boys’ yeshiva high schools, with the exception of a community school, tend to be narrowly tailored to a specific level of learning. It is important to consider schools where your son will be challenged, but not so much that he will feel frustrated or be on the bottom of the class and struggling to keep up, nor too little that he will feel bored too soon or where it would be difficult for him to find a chavrusa of similar skill. Larger yeshiva high schools might have more than one class/shiur, with the different classes tracked. It is important to determine if there are different kinds of boys in one track vs. the other and which group your son is most likely to be part of.

How to determine what learning level a school is on can sometimes be a challenge. Yeshivas, like other schools, like to strengthen their reputation to prospective families, and sometimes schools will declare, at an open house or elsewhere, that they serve “the best boys” or have a “top program.” It is important not to be naïve and take everything a yeshiva says about itself at face value. That is, it is important to go beyond these statements and find out what the learning level of the boys who are currently there really is to determine if it is a good match. [Similarly, if a school brags about its graduates who go on to the Ivy League, try to find out if they are bragging about one or two unusual boys, or whether it is typical for its graduates to go on to the Ivy League.]

I would hesitate to send a boy to a “top” school if his grades in learning don’t match up or if he is unmotivated. Some rabbanim recommend that a boy go to a “better” school rather than one with a lesser reputation if a boy is borderline in his learning abilities, because, if things don’t work out initially, it is easier to transfer from a better school to a lesser school than visa versa. I would say this should only be followed where the boy is very motivated and is the type to put in the extra effort he will need to maintain a fair position in the class, and if you as parents are willing and able to pay for tutoring if he needs it. It does him no favors to languish at the very bottom of the class at a “better” school rather than thrive at a more modest school (unless there are other factors present that would counterbalance this possible sense of failure and lack of accomplishment).

Values and Culture Compatibility

Second, it is very important to choose a school whose values and culture “match” where your family is holding, religiously, philosophically, and practically. Rabbi Yerachmiel Milstein shlit’a (from Project Chazon) has said that it is crucial to be on the same wavelength as the yeshiva, and that a family needs to trust the chinuch and guidance that comes from a particular yeshiva. This would include factors such as its attitude toward the outside world and philosophy about participation in secular culture and relationships with non-Jews; religious affiliations should match generally, i.e. are you and the school Agudah types, OU, YU/Modern Orthodox, etc etc; mode of dress/level of tznius practiced by family members; use of internet/movies/TV/various technologies and leisure activities practiced at home; ideas about secular education in general; ideas about a college education and advanced learning after high school; boy/girl relations or lack thereof; ideas about Zionism. Conflict, or even just a clash in values, can put your son in the middle of a sticky situation. Any normal boy will likely pick up the habits and values of his school culture and peer group and adapt them for himself and bring them home, so be comfortable with them before you start!

Some dorming schools also have a philosophy that once in that school, the primary responsibility and influence of a boy’s chinuch has shifted from the parents to the yeshiva, and they assume in large part that the parents are on board with this, and have chosen that mesivta partially for that reason. They are molding a “ben yeshiva” and they create this by being the place where he eats, sleeps, learns, and gets guidance and advice 24/7 for several years. In these schools the boys come home for Shabbos typically only once a month (in 9th grade it can be slightly more frequent) and sometimes less than that. If you choose this sort of school, realize that you are even more fully entrusting your son to their care, and that your role as parents will shrink, whether you want it to or not. Your son’s outlook on halacha, hashkafos ha chaim, and daily living will likely become that of the yeshiva and he may trust their advice more than yours, even in such important aspects of life as his future plans and whom he marries. That is the goal, and some BTs don’t realize this when they sign up. Therefore your values and the school’s values should be as parallel as possible. When the family and the school match, and are true partners, the boy often blossoms beautifully and it is wondrous to behold.

One aspect of judging whether a yeshiva’s values match your needs is its familiarity with BT issues and/or its ability to be flexible. It is good to discuss various “BT” needs and possible scenarios with a school administration to see their reaction and their ability to make accommodations prior to choosing a school. This sort of discussion can also prepare a willing but unfamiliar yeshiva with the kind of issues that may arise and will help the school make accommodations when necessary. An example might be to discuss how they would react to asking for your child to come home from yeshiva for a Thanksgiving dinner that is made for secular family members, or what kind of accommodation they would make for father-son learning sessions where the father is not very advanced in learning.

Is Your Son Wanted There

Does the school want your son? I think it is important that the school regards a boy as a valued member of its class, and communicates that they look forward to the responsibility to be mechanech him for the next four years. It is my humble opinion that it is not good for parents to “push” their son into a particular school, because in sending an initial rejection, the school is saying that they are not equipped or willing to be mechanech him. If anything needs remediation during the school year they may be less willing to respond or put forth resources for him, because they didn’t think the boy was appropriate for the school in the first place. If a family has more than one school to choose from, it is also not a good idea to send to a school if they have the attitude that they are doing you a favor by accepting your child. It does not make for a healthy foundation for the future relationship, and could affect the boy’s self-regard if he finds out he wasn’t wanted in the first place.

Secular Curriculum

Decide what you want for your son in terms of secular studies. There is a wide variation in what some schools offer, and an even wider variation in terms of what they enforce about attending secular classes. It is not unusual at some mesivtas for boys to skip the English classes entirely and graduate without a diploma, or to go to class in a pro forma way without really learning anything. This creates an atmosphere where it is difficult to take the classes seriously, or sometimes even to hear the teacher, even if a boy is interested in learning the material.

I would also take with a large grain of salt any statements that a school is planning certain improvements in the secular (or kodesh) program in the upcoming year/s. Statements from school officials that they will have something in place, will be hiring someone new, or intend to pursue having a particular course may be nice ideas, but the improvements sometimes never materialize, even if the school really wants it to happen. Decide if you will be happy anyway even if the intended improvements never happen, even in four years. The attitude should be ‘what you see is what you get.’ Decisions should be made based on what is, not what might be some day.

I have friends who sent their sons to a particular mesivta partially based on public promises the menahel (principal) made about secular program improvements, and those improvements never materialized despite efforts the yeshiva made toward that end. These friends are still very dissatisfied with the program, and one has switched their son from the school. A boy should not have to experience this sort of upheaval based on a mistaken reliance on someone’s promises, no matter how well-intended.

Part 2 – is scheduled to be posted next week

Originally published in February 2011

Confessions of a BT Wannabe

By Charlotte Friedland

It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I’m not a ba’alas teshuvah (BT). As I was born to observant Jewish parents, the outreach networks dismiss me as an “FFB”—a “frum from birth” specimen, not worthy of attention. The term itself suggests staleness. After all, an FFB arrives in a world where traditions and education are clearly outlined, and from that moment on, it’s same ol’, same ol’.

So there are no special Shabbatons, no charismatic rabbis seeking me out, no books written about my kind—except those describing us as smug, spoiled and spiritually indolent. But that’s not all: the fact that our families held onto religious Judaism renders us likely to indulge in excessive triumphant bleating. And nobody invites a triumphalist to parties.

Thus it is written, and thus it is believed. Lord knows, I’ve tried not to be triumphant, curbed my pride in rabbinic ancestors, lowered my voice in shul. Yet the image persists. To remedy the situation, I’ve been hanging out at outreach events, skulking around, trying my best to look lost. One must appear to be searching, that’s the key.

Usually, in fact, I am searching for my keys, but no one seems to care about the small stuff. Everyone is so busy describing their personal epiphanies, so full of that glowing exuberance over critical life choices, that they can’t hide their disappointment when I confess my lineage. “Oh, an FFB,” they mouth politely, “how nice,” and then move on to that fascinating individual who just entered the room, fresh from an ashram.

No, I don’t remember my first Shabbos. I never struggled over reading Hebrew, nor had a defining moment of truth. But I’ve had a few good cries on Yom Kippur, really, and once in awhile I think to myself, “If I weren’t born religious, would I be doing this?” And then my mind clicks off, unable to fathom the question.

Trained to think in Biblical terms, I look for guidance to the first FFB in history—Yitzchak. After all, his father and mother had grown up “out there.” He was born after they had mastered Shabbos zemiros and correct hemlines, and he was raised to be a perfect Jew from day one. Granted, it appears that he has no trace of his folks’ flair for convincing people of an invisible God. Kind of withdrawn and sullen, he seems—and I think I know why. He probably felt out of place at his parents’ “Judaism 101” weekends. There he is, the first FFB, standing awkwardly among all those repentant pagans, struggling to empathize with their turmoil, while his father works the tent, cheerfully spreading his light.

He nods dumbly as the caravan driver describes to him his disillusion with idols, his attempts to find meaning in camel racing, his sixteen failed marriages, his forty-three children who “just don’t seem to have any values, no values at all. That’s why, I’m here. I’m told that Abraham is onto something big, something that could change my life. You know what I mean? Did you ever wonder ‘what’s it all about?’” Abraham’s son shifts uneasily. “Yeah, sure. I know. I have a brother like that….” But his voice sounds hollow, his tone unconvincing. Better to leave kiruv to the professionals.

The outreach pros in my life have told me how lucky I am. I should be part of their army, they say, marching (but not too triumphantly) along with them. I should be descending upon the secular world with the light of heritage glowing in my eyes. Dunno. Like most FFBs, I’m scared silly that someone will ask a basic question that I can’t answer. I’m not an authority, just a plain Jew.

At least I could invite somebody for Shabbos now and then, that’s true. And the fact is that whenever we do have “late starters” at the table, I always learn something from them. They ask questions that never entered my mind; they marvel at the easy-going confidence with which we roll through the rituals—–to the point that even I take notice. And they make me feel blessed because I have never been without a hearty, meaningful Jewish life, the kind of life they want so badly it hurts.

I think it was the Bluzhover Rebbe—who so valiantly led others through the Holocaust—who once commented that the “ruach teshuvah,” the spirit of awakening rippling across our world today, is the spiritual outcome of the horrific war years. The problem, he mused, is that only secular Jews are taking advantage of it, though it is meant for all of us.

Imagine that. Spiritual growth is not limited to those born on the outskirts of Jewland. You can live your entire life as an Orthodox Jew and still have room to emerge as a ba’al teshuvah. Could that be the challenge? I wonder if there are other people like me—BT wannabes who are beginning to think that maybe being an FFB is deceptively simple, that our goals have been set too low.

Are there enough of us to launch a new era? Dare we raise our banner as FFBBTs, create our own chat room, gather at conventions?

Who am I kidding? In my heart of hearts, this generic Jew knows that the title doesn’t matter and never did. It’s a question of direction. Let’s face it: clawing your way up from being 85 percent frum to 86 percent is a real struggle, even if it doesn’t earn accolades, even if it has no name. There’s no dramatic story, but you have the quiet satisfaction of knowing that you live your Judaism as genuinely as the BT next door.

I suspect that it’s time for us all to drop the labels and move on.


“Reprinted with permission from Jewish Action – Winter 2007, the magazine of the Orthodox Union. “

© 2007 Charlotte Friedland

Charlotte Friedland is a former editor of Jewish Action and also served as book editor at Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

Tenth of Teves Reading and Listening

Rebbetzin Heller on Lost in Translation: The Month of Tevet

What’s the difference between the Septuagint (the 70-man translation) and ArtScroll?

Ptolemy wanted to Hellenize the Torah. He wanted it in his library along with the other classics of his time. To him it was inconceivable that a God-given document and one written by man should be treated differently.

The goal of Torah is to present us with a way of life; one that will change us and take us to parts unknown — Gods infinity. The purpose of other works is to give us greater insight into ourselves and into the world. One deals with human beings and their world, while the other deals with a world far beyond the limitations of human observation. The authors of today’s translations want to let everyone experience Torah by making them bigger. Ptolemy wanted to give everyone access to Torah by dwarfing its scope to fit the limitations of the human mind.

Rabbi Berel Wein on the Tenth of Teves:

The Tenth of Tevet is one of the four fast days that commemorate dark times in Jewish history. The others are Tisha B’Av (the day of the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem), the 17th of Tammuz (the day of the breaching of the defensive wall of Jerusalem by Titus and the Roman legions in 70 CE), and the third of Tishrei (the day that marks the assassination of the Babylonian-appointed Jewish governor of Judah, Gedaliah ben Achikam. He was actually killed on Rosh Hashana but the fast day was advanced to the day after Rosh Hashana because of the holiday).

Rabbi Noach Weinberg on the Seige of Jerusalem:

On the Tenth of Tevet, 2,500 years ago, Nebuchadnezzar began his siege of Jerusalem. Actually, there was little damage on that first day and no Jews were killed. So why is this day so tragic? Because the siege was a message, to get the Jewish people to wake up and fix their problems. They failed, and the siege led to the destruction of the King Solomon’s Temple.

Today we are also under siege. Much of the Jewish world is ignorant of our precious heritage. Children whose Jewish education ended at age 13 now carry that perception through adulthood. The results are catastrophic: assimilation in the diaspora, and a blurring of our national goals in Israel.

Rabbi Yehudah Prero on The Fast of the Tenth of Teves, “Asara B’Teves”

The Aruch HaShulchan concludes that we fast on this day because it marks the beginning of our sorrows – the first event in a chain which resulted in the eventual destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and the exile of the nation of Israel. In the event that it were possible for this day to fall out on Shabbos (which it can not, because of our calendar system), there are authorities which said that we would still fast, although fasting on the Shabbos day is forbidden. Why would we nevertheless fast? We would fast because the words used by G-d to describe the events to the prophet Yechezkel were the same words used in conjunction with the description of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, on which we fast even if the day falls out on the Shabbos: the words “On this very day” “B’etzem hayom hazeh.”

If you haven’t yet listened to Rabbi Schiller’s tape on Orthodox Achdus, which gives a sophisticated and realistic approach to dealing with differences within Orthodoxy, please take the time today to give it a listen. You can download or listen to Orthodox Achdus here.

Doing a Better Hallel On Chanukah

Chanukah is a time of L’hodos U’l’hallel, To give thanks and praise to Hashem and we fulfill that obligation with the saying of the Full Hallel on Chanukah for all eight days. Here are some notes from Maharal: Emerging Patterns by Yaakov Rosenblatt on Hallel.

Give Praise Servants of Hashem from this time forth and forever more
Despite Hashem’s loftiness, He is still intimately involved with the life of man and continually bestows goodness through kindness, judgment or mercy.
He raise the needy from the dust is through judgment because the poor should be provided for.
To seat them with the nobles, nobles of His people is through kindness because although raising the poor out of poverty is just, elevating them to sit with nobles is an act of kindness.
He transforms the barren women into a joyful mother of children is an act of mercy since this women is not capable and therefore is not in the realm of judgment, nor is it kindness since children are not above and beyond human needs, rather it is mercy because even though this woman is unable to have children naturally, Hashem still allows her to conceive and bear children.

When Yisroel Went of out of Egypt, the House of Yaakov from a people of a Strange Language
After praising Hashem for His kindness through normal realms, we now praise Hashem for the miracles that transcend nature.
The sea saw and fled, the mountains skipped like rams, the hills like young sheep – water takes the shape of its container and the Earth is shaped by man. When Hashem acts and gives form and definition to all creation it is natural that the sea fled and the mountains skipped.
Hashem turned the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a fountain of waters – when Hashem is the force, even a rock is shaped effortlessly.

Not to us Hashem, but to Your Name Give Glory
This Psalm says the reason that Hashem performs miracles for the Jews is to give recognition to His name, His love and His truth. Only Hashem deserves this recognition and not things like idols which clearly have no power and are weaker than man. Man’s powers are listed in decreasing importance: speech, sight, hearing, smell, feeling, walking, and making sounds.

Hashem will Bless our Remembrance: He will Bless the House of Yisrael
Hashem will Bless our Remembrance requests that the lasting impact we will have on others and the world will be a blessing.
The Dead cannot praise Hashem, nor can any who go down into silence shows that only when the human body and the world are functioning properly can they “sing” the praises of Hashem. King David says allow us to live, allow us to thrive, so our very existence can proclaim your glory.

I love Hashem Who Hears my Voice and my Supplications
You have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. King David thanks Hashem for saving his soul which represents the spiritual, the eyes which are the connection between the spiritual and the physical because they do not actively enter the world, but monitor it for the mind/soul to process, and the feet which represent the physical. Tears represent a loss of part of the soul.

How can I repay Hashem for all His kindness to me?
I will carry the cup that You have filled with salvation, and call upon the name of Hashem – A cup that is filled represents ones meaningful accomplishments and we think Hashem for the ability to act in meaningful ways.
I will carry …in my arms to show the cup that you filled precedes me and proclaims your greatness
I will pay my vows to Hashem in the Presence of all His People to use every opportunity to proclaim the greatness of Hashem and to publicly honor Hashem’s glory

Give Thanks to Hashem for He is Good
Thanks also mean to concede, so to the extent that a person recognizes and acknowledges the Hashem has given him everything is the extent to which he will thank Him. Different groups: humanity, Jews, Kohanim and G-d fearing people, have experienced different benefits and will therefore thank Hashem differently.

Out of My Distress I called upon Hashem
There are three levels of hatred, basic dislike (all the nations) because of economic, cultural or military threats, dislike due to differences in values which only the Jews hold (they surrounded me) and deep seated hatred (they surrounded me like bees) due to the subconscious understanding that the success of the nations is dependent on the Jew’s failure. If we act according to our spiritual potential the world’s event will be centralized around us for our benefit. If we do not, we are punished and the the nations are successful.

O praise Hashem all you Nations
Hallelukah combines a word of praise with Hashem’s name and is used to praise the miraculous because the only the one who created the worlds (Heh – this world, Yud – the next) can suspend the rules to perform miracles when he sees fit.

Der Meistersingers of Athens – What’s Up with the Tune for Maoz Tzur?

Maybe it’s because I grew up listening to Xmas carols. Maybe it’s because what passes for Jewish music these days is frequently Jewish words grafted onto pop or rock instrumentals. Or maybe it’s because the perpetually waning enthusiasm I see in our young people today might be stemmed if we helped them tap into their neshomas rather than strengthening their connection with secular culture.

I suppose it’s really all three and more. But the bottom line is this: the one thing I despise about Chanukah is the pervasive, annoying, and distinctly un-Jewish niggun the whole world sings to Maoz Tzur – evoking not the heroism of the Hasmoneans but the flaky ambivalence of “Rock of Ages” and the red-suited jolliness of “Good King Wenceslas.”

It should come as no surprise that our popular Maoz Tzur sounds so goyish. It’s been traced back to an old German drinking song, and before that to the 16th Century hymns of the Benedictine Monks. I guess it fits right in with the inescapable practice of gift-giving, also borrowed from Christian society.

I know there are those who don’t object to borrowing Gentile melodies for our niggunim. But why can’t we borrow something that’s worth borrowing? Why do we have to embrace a tune that sounds like it should be accompanied by fat carolers sporting white cotton beards? And if we have to sing it, why can’t we limit it to Maoz Tzur and not repeat it endlessly in Lecha Dodi, Birkas HaChodesh, Shabbos morning kedusha, and twice in Hallel?

Above all, why doesn’t it bother us that on this of all holidays, the season when we celebrate the integrity of Jewish culture, we define our celebration by embracing the culture of Eisav, the culture that continues to dominate us in our final exile and which stands between us and the coming of Moshiach?

What’s that? You don’t know any other niggun? Call me, and I’ll hum a few for your over the phone.

Check out Rabbi Goldson’s latest articles at yonasongoldson.com.

Originally Published December 2008

Experiencing Chanukah

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Chanukah

The Light of Chanukah: Spiritual Or Physical?

Let us learn here about Chanukah in a way that is not just about something that we go through, but as something that really can affect us, experientially.

All of the festivals contain ohr, spiritual light, but Chanukah in particular is the epitome of ohr. In the other festivals, the light is purely spiritual, but on Chanukah, although the light is also spiritual, it manifests also as a physical light that we empower, through the eight lights that we light on Chanukah.

The lights of Chanukah seem to be lit through a wick and oil, but the inner way to understand it is that the light revealed during Chanukah is what is lighting the wick. The wicks, the oil and the flame that we see are [merely] the physical ‘garments’ that clothe the spiritual light that is Chanukah. Of course, it looks like we are lighting it. But it is really the light [revealed during] Chanukah which is shining through the physical wick.

This is the depth behind the halachah that it is forbidden to benefit from the light of Chanukah: we may not use spirituality for This World. When we light [the menorah], a spiritual light emerges [from the hidden realm of spiritual light]. Our physical eyes just see a candle, but our soul sees spiritual light in it.

Although our soul sees spirituality in things, one needs to have a revelation of his soul in order for the soul to see spirituality. With our physical eyes, all we see are just candles burning; therefore we need to actually connect our soul to the spirituality of the hidden light that is revealed on Chanukah.

Seeing The Lights From Our Soul

The neshamah (Jewish soul) is described in the verse, “נר ה’ נשמת אדם”, “The flame of Hashem is the soul of man”. A ner (flame) is composed of a kli (vessel, or container)), oil, and the fire. Our neshamah is called “ner” (flame),and it is also called “ohr” (light), whereas the “kli” (the vessel or container) that holds the neshamah is our physical guf (the body).

The neshamah is called “ner” (flame). Our physical body is created from earth, whereas the soul in us comes from the “breath of Hashem” that was breathed into man by Hashem. Hashem is entirely ohr, so to speak. The earth which our body comes from is a dark material, thus our body is of a “dark” substance, whereas our soul is taken from “light”. Since man is a combined existence of body and soul, his existence is essentially a mixture of light and darkness.

Every person is essentially a light contained within darkness. There is a statement, “A little light can push away much darkness.”[1] We see from the physical world that a small light can light up a dark room, and so too, when our soul is concealed from our access, we will feel like we are groping in the dark. When our soul becomes revealed to us, however, there is a great light we experience, which sends away the “darkness” that is the body.

Thus, when a person hasn’t yet revealed his soul, he lives in darkness. He will experience life through a dark lens. When a person begins to merit a revelation of his soul, his soul begins to shine, and he experiences a degree of spiritual light.

These are the two kinds of lenses through which we experience life: either we see through a dark lens, or we see life through a lens of light.

In deeper terms, there is ayin ra, a “bad eye”, and ayin tov, a “good eye.” The perspective of “ayin ra” comes from the view of the body, and the perspective of “ayin tov” is the view from the soul.

They are different lenses in a person. It is not simply that there are different personalities of either “ayin ra” or “ayin tov” that some people have positive personalities and some people have negative personalities. Rather, “ayin tov” and “ayin ra” are perspectives of how we experience life – either we are viewing life from the prism of the body, or the soul. “Ayin ra” represents the body’s viewpoint, a view from “darkness”, which is a perspective that is darkened by materialism of This World. Thus it does not offer a clear view on life. In contrast, “ayin tov” is a view of “light”, which is pleasant and calming.

These are root concepts of the soul. The world we are in is a mix of light and darkness, a mix of good and evil. And it is mostly dark. What is the world looking like right now? What is it calling out? It is calling out darkness. The world is conveying to us a message of unhappiness, pain, and difficulty – a life of darkness. It is not a place that is mostly good, pure, holy and happy.

A person sees from the place in himself that he is at now. Therefore, if he has a dark lens on life, if he is living a materialistic kind of life where his body dominates and his soul is unrevealed in his life, then he will see a dark life in front of him. If you view life through dirty glasses, everything will look dirty, even if you are looking at something clean. For this reason, when a person sees others, he usually doesn’t see people as souls whom he can have a connection to. He usually just sees the thick materialism of others, he relates to their superficial shell, and as such, he relates to others as physical bodies, and he does not see them as souls in front of him.

But when a person reveals his soul, he will see others through a clear lens. Then he will see the joy, purity, and cleanliness in front of him. This does not mean that he will be naïve and that he’s not aware of reality. He is well aware of reality on this world, but he has gained a view of others that is pristine, clear, and clean.

For example, when he speaks with others, like when asking someone for directions, he will understand that he is speaking with a soul, and not with a body. When he asks questions to others, he is aware that he is asking it from his soul. And when a person speaks from his soul, the soul of the other picks up on it, because the soul is receptive to the sound of another soul. Where you speak from is what the other person will hear; if you speak from your body, the other person hears your gruff body talking, and when you speak from your soul, the other’s soul hears words coming from your soul.

The world today doesn’t have that much speech coming from the soul. When a person meets another and greets him, does he really mean it that the other should have a good day? “Good morning” has become more like a mannerism. Contrast this with what was said about the Alter of Slobodka, who would practice saying “Good Morning” to himself, because he held that it was giving a beracha (blessing) to others.

This is different view on life – totally.

Speaking and Acting From Within Yourself

When a person is talking, where is he speaking from in himself? A person can talk either from the most external part of himself, or from the most innermost part of himself that he identifies with.

Most natural speech flows from the external part of the soul. The more inner a person’s speech is, the more it reflects the statement “words from the heart enter the heart.” This should not just be limited to when a person is conveying a deep emotion such as “I love you”, or “I feel your pain”. It is referring to how a person speaks all the time. All of the time, we really need to speak from our innermost place that we currently identify with.

Most people live from their body and speak from their body, and the person hearing him hears the words from his body. But when a person speaks from his soul, it can go into another’s soul, and the other person will hear it from his soul, because his soul will pick up on it.

Chanukah is a time of “light”, but it is not just a time to light. The light of Chanukah specifically reminds us that the physical is a container for the spiritual – that our body contains a soul. The other festivals are also a spiritual light, but they don’t take on physical form. The light of Chanukah takes on a physical form, showing us that spirituality can be clothed by physicality.

These are not mere intellectual definitions, but a practical view of life to have every day of your life. We do many actions throughout the day. A person washes his hands, for example. How does he do it? We understand that this is allowed through the brain, which sends messages to the body and enables it to function. But when a person tells “Good Morning” to his children, does he do so with at least a little bit of feeling, at least a little more than when he washes his hands? Certainly, he puts some feeling into it. But how many times a day, or a week, or a month, or a year, though do we act from an inner place in ourselves? Are we speaking from a deeper place in ourselves on a more regular basis?

Most people do not access the depth that is contained in themselves. A person who is living inwardly is someone who lives with his depth, all the time, on a regular basis. He lives always with the deepest place in himself. Just like we all use the sink many times a day, a person who lives life in an inner way is using the deepest place he knows of in himself – all the time.

A person usually accesses his inner depth only when there are extreme emotions, of either intense joy or grief. A person usually cannot take that depth that he has reached and bring it more into his daily life. He may remember the pain he felt from his sadness or the joy that he felt when he rejoiced, but he will not remember the depth of the emotions that he reached.

The depth that we do recognize in ourselves, though – how much are we in touch with it on a daily basis?

Recognition of Ourselves

We must recognize who we are. Of course, the purpose of everything is to recognize Hashem. But if we do not recognize ourselves, we can’t recognize Hashem. Skipping self-recognition prevents recognition of Hashem. From recognizing ourselves, we can come to recognize Hashem[2].

Surely, the deepest thing possible is to connect to Hashem, but before we get to that stage, one has to know himself well and identify the deepest place in himself.

How can it be that a person is not in touch with the deepest part of himself? We can memorize many phone numbers. How can it be that we don’t recognize our own self?

If we really want to live a true life, we need to know what our deepest point is in ourselves, which can take a long time to know. After that, one needs to ask himself if his depth has deepened from before. The way we identify ourselves has to mature as the years go on.

We can say in general how deep the soul is, but you on your own need to uncover the depth of your own soul, and then you need to know how to live with it all the time. At least once a day, make sure that you are using it. That is what Chanukah is all about.

The Deepest Point In Yourself

I will try here to explain what the deepest point of the soul is, but it will be hard to understand it, both intellectually as well as emotionally, because each person is at a different point.

The deepest part of the soul, the deepest experience your soul can know of is to experience your very existence (havayah). (There is really a higher experience, which is to experience the reality of the Creator, which is reached through emunah and d’veykus with Hashem. That is an experience above the “I”, however. Here we are describing the experience that is within the “I”.)

One’s very existence is his deepest experience. It is not the will of a person, it is not aspiration, it is not giving, it is not enduring suffering, and it is not joy. Those are all deep experiences, but the deepest experience is to experience one’s existence.

A person needs to be able to remove all the external layers covering the soul, and then he can experience himself. It is not a place of any desires, because it is above all desires.

When a person purifies himself through doing the mitzvos, through attaining a state of purity, and through correcting his middos, then he calms the soul.[3] He can then experience the soul. When he experiences his own soul, he can feel his existence then and be able to live it on a daily basis.

All day, people are running around, and this causes people not to be in touch with the soul. This refers to internal running as well, in which people are running all the time with their desires. They are not calm inside, and they never reach their soul. Therefore, people wonder what the deepest experience is. But the deepest experience is: to experience your own self!

You can’t live from your depth if you haven’t accessed it yet. When you do access it, you need to then live with it all the time – sensibly, of course. This will reveal more and more depth to you as time goes on. In order to get to your own depth, you first need to live daily with the deepest point in yourself – you can think about it and can feel it throughout the day.

These are not ideas or opinions – it is about life. May we merit from Hashem to know our souls and to realize our depths, our existence, and from there, to reach d’veykus with Hashem.

[1] Chovos HaLevovos: Shaar Yichud HaMaaseh: 5

[2] Raavad (Rabbi Avraham ben David, 10th century scholar); based on the verse, “From my flesh, I see G-d.”

[3] See the series of Getting To Know Your Hisboddedus

The Awesomeness of Being Jewish

When Yaakov awoke from his prophetic dream of the earth-to-heaven ladder, he declared “How awesome is this place! This is the house of Hashem and the gateway to heaven”. The Midrash teaches it was the site of the Beis HaMikdash, a place where we can transform animals and grains into a spiritual energy that can power the world.

The Midrash also teaches that the ending of the blessing of Kedushah in Shemoneh Esrai, was first uttered by the angels, when Yaakov had his prophetic vision. Yaakov personifies Kedushah because he recognized that the purpose of every material thing in this world is to connect to Hashem. How awesome is it that we can be living in both the physical and spiritual realms simutaneously.

On a weekly basis, our wine, bread, and chicken is transformed into the mitzvah of Oneg Shabbos. If we eat with a Torah perspective, every bite during the week can be a spiritual experience. Three times a day, we can have a face to face conversation with Hashem. With careful and positive speech we can transform every verbal encounter into a spiritual experience. Every second we spend on this planet has the potential for a spiritual connection to Hashem.

However, if we don’t take advantage of the opportunities, the physical can and will draw us away from Hashem and spiritual reality. The earth-to-heaven ladder is still here, it’s up to us to take climb it and experience the Awesomeness of Being Jewish.

The Influence of Society

Parshas Vayeitzei
“And I will return in peace to my father’s house, and Hashem will be to me G-d.” – Bereishis 28:21

When Yaakov Avinu was told that his brother Aysav was plotting to kill him, he ran from his father’s home and prepared for an extended stay in exile. Along the way, he davened, prayed and asked Hashem for a number of things, including: “I should return to my father’s house in peace.”

Rashi assumes that this can’t be referring to Hashem protecting him physical harm because Yaakov already asked for that. Rather, says Rashi, it means that, “I should arrive safe from sin,” – that Hashem should protect him learning from devious ways of his future father-in-law, Lavan.

This is very difficult to understand. Why would Yaakov have a fear of learning deciet from Lavan? Each of the Avos “specialized” in a particular trait. Yaakov was the Ish Tam – honest and straightforward, integrity was his hallmark, and the mainstay of his avodas Hashem, service of Hashem. While this was a trait that he worked on extensively, it was also something that he was predisposed towards. On some level, it was part of his nature. Of all people, why would he be afraid of learning to cheat?

What makes this question even more difficult to understand is that at this time, Yaakov was seventy-seven years old. He had just completed a long period of uninterrupted Torah study. For the previous fourteen years, he had been learning in the yeshiva that Shem had established. During that time, he never lay down to sleep at nights because he was constantly toiling in Torah. Surely, such a holy person in that state of kedusha, holiness, wouldn’t be affected by being in the presence of a thief. So what was Yaakov’s great fear? The answer to this question can best be understood with a moshol, a parable.

An eye in the sky
A nanosecond is a very small segment of time. One second split into a thousand parts is measured in milliseconds. One millisecond split it into a thousand parts is measured in microseconds. And one microsecond, (a millionth of a second) split it into thousandths is measured in nanoseconds. A nanosecond is a billionth of a second – not a very long splice of time.

You may wonder: What need is there to measure such infinitely small intervals of time? One application is in one of the wonders of the modern world, the GPS. The Global Positioning Satellite system operates by measuring a signal that travels from a satellite in the sky to the ground-based monitor. A GPS unit can determine your exact location, and then guide you along to your destination by measuring the time it takes for that signal to travel. But the precision is excruciatingly demanding. One nanosecond off, and the GPS will be off by one foot. A mere millionth of a second off, and the readings will be off by a thousand feet, making it almost useless. And if it is miscalibrated by as much as a hundredth of a second off, you might as well toss the thing in the garbage. When you are measuring against objects at a vast distance, precision is vital. Even miniscule errors will show themselves in very real results.

The Greatness of the Avos
This seems to be a very apt moshol to our situation. It is very difficult for us mere mortals to even perceive the greatness and level of perfection that the Avos attained. Every action, every nuance, and every thought was weighed and measured with extraordinary precision. The result of living a life with such attention to detail was greatness of unparalleled proportions. And the Avos were very aware of human tendencies.

Yaakov Avinu wasn’t afraid that he would learn to steal because of Lavan; he was afraid that his image of what is considered normal behavior might be affected. He was afraid that by living in the house of a thief, his standard of what is considered acceptable conduct might be affected. While this wouldn’t directly change his actions, he would now be measuring from a very different standard, and that distinction might show itself many years down the line in an ever so small deviation from honesty.

This concept is very applicable to us. The Rambam (Hilchos Dayos, Perek 6) says: “It is the nature of man to be pulled after his friends and acquaintances, and act in the manner of his neighbors.” The reality is that we are shaped by our experiences and the times that we live in.

We live in wondrous times, and we have opportunities that Jews of previous generations couldn’t imagine. However, it has been a very long and bitter exile, and unfortunately we have adopted much from the people amongst whom we live. When we recognize how much the society shapes our understanding of what is normal, we can protect ourselves from the dangers of those changes.

Rabbi Shafier is the founder of the Shmuz.com – The Shmuz is an engaging, motivating shiur that deals with real life issues.

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The Teshuva Journey: A Shabbat With Springsteen

When a person accepts upon himself a particular religious commitment, for example to observe Shabbat or eat only Kosher food, Hashem may send him a test or two to measure his level of dedication. Although not apparent at first glance, the tests that Hashem sends are always for our own benefit. G-d only gives us tests that He knows we can pass. The purpose is to prove our level of commitment to ourselves, those around us and G-d. The challenges are always very personal, and are in areas that are most dear to us.

For 13 years Jimmy Baron worked as a radio announcer in Atlanta as the Morning Drive Radio host on 99X Radio. When he first began observing Shabbat it was a major step because much of his job revolved around concerts and other events on Friday night. But he was extremely committed to keeping Shabbat and was able to withstand the challenges of his job.

Outside of growing on his path toward observance, Jimmy had one other passion in life: Bruce Springsteen. Jimmy describes himself as “an absolute obsessed Bruce Springsteen fan.” He has traveled around the country to attend Springsteen concerts, spending thousands of dollars and burning up vacation days to see him perform.

Several years ago Springsteen announced that his tour schedule would include a major concert in Atlanta on a Friday night. Jimmy had been keeping Shabbat for only six months and was still growing in his observance, so he was very tempted to go.

But if that wasn’t enough of a challenge G-d had something else up His sleeve. A few days before the concert, a friend of Jimmy’s who works in the record industry called him to invite him to go backstage after the concert and hang out with Springsteen in his dressing room.

This was a dream come true for Jimmy. He had never met Springsteen and he knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. But how could he turn his back on his religion and his commitment to keep Shabbat? He was torn, but he gathered up his strength and told his friend that he would be unable to go because it was on Shabbat.

“You did hear what I said, right?” his friend asked.

“Yes, I heard you, but this is my life now. I’ve made this commitment,” Jimmy replied.

“Jimmy, G-d will forgive you,” his friend said.

“Boy, you must have some inside knowledge.”

For Jimmy it was a powerful moment. Passing that test made him realize the depth of his commitment to Shabbat because he was able to make the decision so quickly.

“It was a real landmark in my Jewish growth, choosing between my commitment to Judaism and what I just wanted to do,” Jimmy said. “The satisfying thing was not only being able to make the right decision, but being able to make that decision without even thinking about it. Six months earlier I would have been at that concert.”

Jimmy acknowledges that it took a lot of strength to overcome the challenge, and he attributes that strength to have come directly from Hashem. For others faced with similar tests, he says it is important to look beyond the moment and measure how you will feel about the choice in the future.

“If on that one night I would have made an exception because it was Bruce and went to the concert, I know I would have regretted it for the rest of my life,” he said. “You have to look within yourself and think is this something tomorrow, or next week I will be happy about or beat myself up about.”

The Friday night came and Jimmy and his wife were at a friend’s house for Shabbat dinner. Jimmy’s spirit was uplifted even more than on a typical Shabbat because he knew he had made the correct decision and had demonstrated his commitment to Shabbat. Jimmy’s friends knew how significant his choice had been so they ordered a special cake with the words “I Missed Bruce Springsteen For Shabbat.”

Jimmy was touched. Years later he still has the top of that cake in his freezer as a testament that he passed his test.

A few years after that Friday night concert, Jimmy received even more clarity that he had made the correct choice. Springsteen was in Atlanta recording a new album and Jimmy happened to be at the bar in the hotel where he was staying. Springsteen came in by himself and Jimmy asked if he could buy him a drink. The two talked uninterrupted for 30 minutes, which was far longer than he would have gotten in the dressing room after the concert.

As King David wrote, “Favor and glory does Hashem bestow, he withholds no goodness from those who walk uprightly.” (Tehillim 84:12) For Jimmy, making the correct choice earned him tremendous rewards.

(published in The Jewish Press December 12, 2007)

The Shy Student: An Adventure in Shidduchim

by Ross Kryger

Every character trait has its benefits and detriments. On my very first day in Israel, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, I decided to visit a popular tourist site called “The Wailing Wall” (whatever that was). Glancing around, I was intrigued by so many people praying outdoors, and although I wondered could be on the other side of this impressive structure, my eye was on the ramp. What could be up there? I thought, totally unaware that my “invisible impurities” presented any type of barrier from my finding out. I slowly ascended the ramp, and when I almost reached the top, I was suddenly halted by an exceedingly tall man holding a large brown robe. “In order to come up here,” he whispered in a rather demanding tone, “you must put this on.” I was confused, but I was also a bit shy by nature. I did not ask the reason, and I did not want to put on his robe, which anyway was about three sizes too large. I looked downward and subtly shook my head, then turned away and quickly returned to ground level. I remember that months later in yeshiva, upon hearing an Eliahu HaNavi story, I thought about this strange man.

My best friend landed in a BT yeshiva two years before I arrived in Israel, and although I now accepted his invitation after graduating college to visit him, I had no desire to meet his other orthodox comrades. Being a shy stranger in a strange land, I stuck closely with him, and eventually started paying attention to some of the ideas I was learning. I extended my stay (from two months to just over four years) and for the first eight months, we spent every Shabbos together. I was friendly to everyone in the yeshiva and made a few acquaintances, but after my best friend transferred to another yeshiva in a different town, I felt lost. While it didn’t affect my learning all that much, I wasn’t able, on my own, to gain the emotional support I sorely needed. My family at home was understandably hostile over my absence at my brother’s church wedding, and my decision to remain in Israel during the Gulf War sent matters spiraling downward.

I was never one to make conversation easily. I was the Haggadah son who didn’t know what to ask, so I rarely had any occasion to approach a rabbi about anything. The rabbaim were always friendly and polite, but I was missing that necessary deeper connection. Many times I would notice another student sitting at a table and talking with a rabbi for an hour or more, wondering what they could possibly be talking about, and feeling a twinge of jealousy over not having the same attention. Even learning with a chavrusa was somewhat difficult. Although much of the time I understood the basic meaning in the Gemorrah, I never offered an argument or a different perspective, but rather found myself nodding my head to any type of logic presented (perhaps to some guys, I would be a dream chavrusa!) Hillel says in Pirchei Avos that a student who is too shy will never learn, and I certainly have no doubt that I missed out on countless opportunities.

By far, the parsha of shidduchim was the most difficult. After noticing for a while that guys who have been in the yeshiva as long as me were either getting engaged or actively dating, I approached a rebbe who knew somewhat of my family circumstances, and sheepishly asked him when I should consider starting. He stared at me incredulously and said, “You’re not dating yet?!” The words, “I was waiting for you to tell me when and how to begin” luckily didn’t escape from my mouth, as the last thing I needed was a rebbe who thought I was full of chutzpah. He then gave me the name of a few shadchanim and their addresses, and told me I could later give him a name to check out. I was a little curious that he didn’t discuss with me about the process in general, or even if I was ready.

Most shadchanim smiled when I informed them that in my “former” life, I never had a girlfriend (it seems my shyness turned out to be an asset after all.). Although they offered me names of girls from all types of families, I was most excited to hear the names of BT girls. I really wanted someone who could understand me, and where I was coming from in life. She would have a spiritual side, and we could grow together. (I’ll give away the ending—I married a wonderful FFB, but the contrast in our married life is for a different article, perhaps.) The first name I received was of a BT girl, and I passed it on to my rebbe, who told me to go out for now, and he would check her out. The shadchan set up the date, and I just needed to take a bus and meet the girl at a hotel. What a great system for a guy like me! On the designated night, I was a little nervous, and arrived at the hotel. There were four girls standing outside. They all looked at me, waiting for me to do something. Since I couldn’t pick out the girl myself from the lineup, I was at a loss for the proper protocol. Luckily, one of them finally decided with a grimace that I just couldn’t be her date, and walked away (well, excuse me!) With great embarrassment, I chose one of the remaining three at random, and stammered, “Are-are-y-you Sh-sh-shoshana?” “No, I’m not,” she replied firmly. I was somewhat relieved, as she was about five inches taller than me. The real Shoshana slightly smiled and introduced herself. She seemed to be knowledgeable in this system, as she explained that this happens quite often. We left the final contestant outside (presumably brokenhearted) and found a quiet table in the lobby.

I sat down, and she sat down. I nodded, and she nodded. I smiled, and so did she. How long was this date supposed to be? I really don’t know what I had expected a date to be like, but pathetically, guys like me need a manual. Was there one under the table? Little did I know that I was expected to…talk. And talk. Certainly not my area of expertise. The date was on the short side (I know it was, because when we left the hotel, contestant number three was still waiting for her date). The next morning, I was more than a little surprised when my rebbe quietly remarked, “The date was how long?” But I must have done something right, because she agreed to go out again. Then the floor completely fell through. My rebbe informed me of certain information which might effect this shidduch, and advised me not to continue. I had no problem with that, but then I stupidly (!) passed this on to the shadchan, and somehow it got back to the girl who traced the information to its original source. I still remember the dreadful conversation with that rebbe, who was understandably livid, to say the least, and hinted that I should find someone else to consult with. I was devastated. (Not to mention disgusted over the pain I must have caused the girl.) And now I was totally alone. This was my introduction to the world of shidduchim.

After a break, I did start dating again, but every date was so exhausting, and keeping the conversation going was worse than heavy manual labor. Things would inevitable fizzle out. I also had nobody to talk to in the yeshiva. In addition, it was very hard for me to say the word “No” to a shadchan. It was all quite confusing. Soon after, I made a decision to return to America, and entered a yeshiva in Brooklyn, far from my hometown. My issues with shidduchim followed me there, and to make matters worse, I actually had to call the girl before we went out! There were guys who told me that they spent four or five hours on the phone with a girl, and I couldn’t imagine how this was possible. (I once spent two hours on the phone, but that was when my insurance company put me on hold.) And then, after an actual date, I had to make the decision, of course, by myself.

Another problem which came up is that I began to develop stereotypes. Even though looking back, I feel that every girl that I dated, without exception, was a special person, I really did not feel that a Brooklyn FFB girl would be able to understand me at all. For whatever unfortunate reason this came about, I really did not want to pursue such a shidduch, but again, I found it too hard to say “No”. (It would be a great punch line to say that my wife is from Brooklyn. She’s not. Sorry.) Overall, my career in shiddichum lasted for six long years. Luckily, I never became depressed or despaired, although I couldn’t figure out how guys became engaged. It was like a huge mountain. When I did finally become engaged, I saw that the whole process entailed enormous siyata d’shmaya, and I guessed that up in Heaven, they were tired of watching me go through this.) The first few dates were quite a lot of work for me, but I just kept plowing through. On my last date, we were driving through my hometown, and she casually remarked, “If you’re waiting for me, I’m ready.” I grasped the steering wheel. It was the closest I ever came in my driving career to hitting a tree. We’re now married with six children.

Everyone knows that the biggest rule in shidduchim (besides serious davening) is that one must have someone with whom to consult. In BT yeshivas, a guy is fortunate if he makes that vital connection with a rebbe with whom he feels comfortable. If the guy feels the rebbe understands him, then he’ll take the leap of trust in the rebbe’s judgment, even if it seems that he personally would do the opposite of what the rebbe says. People do make mistakes, but a guy must trust someone, and as my Rosh HaYeshiva once said, one has siyata d’shmaya when he listens to his rebbe. But not everyone is so lucky, especially guys like me. Sometimes it’s not easy for us too search out the help we need. We find the same occurs in school age kids. Many times, a rebbe might not concern himself with a student because it seems like he’s doing just fine…he never complains, he does everything right, and he sits so quietly in class. How many students have fallen through the cracks because in reality, they were not doing just fine, and could’ve have really used some attention? Many are just ashamed to ask. Guys in a BT yeshiva are like school age kids. They’re in a somewhat new environment, and are learning just like the school age kids. And they all need attention, especially when it comes to shidduchim.

The yeshiva must make sure every guy has appointed to him a mentor or a rebbe when he begins to date. Every guy must be accounted for, everyday of his yeshiva years. (There must also be a service provided through an organization for single guys who are not in yeshiva, or living on their own). Sometimes you have one rebbe whose job is too deal with shidduchim, and guys need to make appointments to speak with him. But that’s very hard, because after a date, a guy needs someone to speak with NOW. Having hanging indecision for a lengthy period can also be detrimental.

The fact is that practically, there aren’t too many solutions to this problem. But I think that everyone who is employed a BT yeshiva should, before he goes to work, sit on the floor with his legs crossed and eyes closed (like the Jews in India before they discover Jerusalem and yiddishkeit) and repeat over and over, “He has no family, he has no support, he is alone.” Or can they can just repeat this mantra in their heads while surveying the beis midrash and finding at random a guy to shmooze with about his life. Even if the guy seems he’s doing just fine. BT yeshivas are filled with rabbeim who understand human nature and can guide others according to the Torah, and everyone should have strong connection with one.

As we watch our families grow, may we always merit the proper guidance and may we only share simchas together.

Originally Posted July 2009

Just One Dance

My wife’s comment on Simchas Torah pretty much summed it up, “I feel like this is the biggest tease for you.” You see, my mom a”h was niftar right before Pesach and when I asked a shiloh about how I should observe dancing on Simchas Torah I was told that I should just dance once during each hakafah. In a way it was the biggest tease. I was in a shul whose Morah d’Asra is the person I have learned more Torah from than anyone else in my adult life. I was surrounded by both baalei batim and klei kodesh that were inspired and on fire for Yiddishkeit. While not being the most physically active dude I really do live for dancing on Simchas Torah. Yet, I spent a majority of the night and day sitting with a sefer. I felt as if I’d been put on “pause” while the rest of the world kept moving.

Gnawing at me was a story that Rav Moshe Weinberger, Rav of Cong. Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY always tells before Maariv of Simchas Torah.

Rav Isaac l’Kalover recounted that there was once a Jew who came to a trade show in Leipzig to sell his merchandise. He planned to make a lot of money so he stayed in the nicest hotel he could find. While things didn’t workout as he planned in terms of selling his merchandise, he had a great time in the hotel. He ate the nicest meals that he had even eaten in his life and the bed and room were more comfortable than he had ever experienced in his little town. After a few days, the management began to get a bit worried. They noticed that he wore the same clothes every day, seemed to be enjoying the food a bit too much, and generally didn’t act like someone accustomed to such wealth. One day after this Jew enjoyed a big meal the manager came over to him about his stay and the food. He assured the manager that the had never experienced such nice accommodations or such delicious food and that he was very satisfied.

Still concerned, the manager showed him the bill and asked whether he thought there would be a problem paying it. The man admitted that while he had intended to make a lot of money at the big trade show, things had not worked out and he had no money to pay the bill. Infuriated, the manager grabbed the man and was about to take him to the police who were likely to beat him up and kill him. Protesting, the man said, “Wait! You won’t get any of your money back by handing me over to the police. But I will make an arrangement with you. I am a very talented dancer and I attract big crowds back home. Let me dance outside the restaurant and you will see that my performance will attract a crowd and you will see that the additional business brought into your restaurant will far exceed my bill.

Indeed, the Jew danced up such a storm that a large crowd gathered and ultimately, the business brought in by his dancing far outweighed the cost of his own hotel stay and use of the restaurant. Reb Isaac’l concluded that during the previous year and even Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we have enjoyed the beautiful accommodations of this world, but that we do not have the Torah and mitzvos to “pay” for our stay here. But as the days of judgment come to an end on Hoshana Raba, we say to Hashem that he should not take us away from the world. The dead cannot serve Hashem. Rather, we promise that we will dance in honor of Hashem and the Torah on Simchas Torah and that our dancing will bring so much honor to heaven, that it will more than “pay” for our stay in this world. (Adapted from Rav Weinberger’s 5775 drasha by Binyomin Wolf)

So, I was left with the question of how effective was my “payment” this year if I was only dancing once per hakafah? Aside from the learning I attempted do do using hakafos this question was running hakafos in my head. I tried to have the kavanah of being as “Simchas Torahdik” as possible while not going as nuts as I would had I not been in a a a aveilus. Even when I came home that night I still wasn’t sure if I had fulfilled my chei’uv by dancing.

However, what questions and reservations I had were washed away when I recalled an offhand remark I heard on my way to shul just the day before on Shabbos morning. I had the honor of waking my friend’s mother to shul (she uses a walker and I had trouble keeping up with her). She mentioned that like myself, she had a son-in-law that was also in aveilus. In the course of our conversation, she said that the whole year of mourning is the last act of kibud av v’em that a person can do, even if it means curtailing your dancing.

“Make His will like your will,” says Rabban Gamliel ben Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi in Pirkei Avos 2:4. I often find ascribing ideas like ‘being m’vater’ (to give up) or ‘bittul’ (to nullify or be selfless) my actions or lack of actions as something of an afterthought. I’m probably not as mindful as I should be about putting my wants or ‘will’ in the proverbial back seat in my Avodas Hashem. In this case the back seat ended up being a front role seat in the social hall/basement of a shul. All in all, not too shabby.

Rabbi Mayer Schiller – The Biggest Challenges Facing Baalei Teshuva

Part 1 — Challenges

I have been asked to write on the “biggest challenges facing baalei teshuva.” Of course, every Jew in his life’s pursuit of Hashem and His Torah encounters challenges. However, the challenges we face and how we respond to them is forever colored by who we are and where we come from. Thus, much of what follows may be relevant to all Jews but it strikes me that these challenges are of particular concern to baalei teshuva.

The tikkun that each individual’s life is to achieve requires a realistic assessment of the nisyonos that are specific to one’s place in life, human/Jewish history and cultural context.

Also, any discussion of this issue must be colored by much subjectivity. We can, in the end, only speak with authority about our own “challenges.” Part of us is always alone in the world. Yet, life is also a shared experience. Hopefully some of what I – and others on this site – have to say may resonate in the heart of another and together we may be worthy of giving and receiving a bit of chizuk as we seek to ascend the har Hashem.

In all honesty, I have encountered so many challenges, born of the baal teshuva experience, that one almost doesn’t know where to begin. Plus, the challenges change, some deepen, while others become weaker over the years, as one spends more time in the Orthodox community.

At the beginning, I think a baal teshuva is haunted by a certain loneliness in, and sense of alienation from his new environment. Everyone else practices Judaism as a matter of second nature. To baalei teshuva, at first, everything done, learned and experienced is new, startling and , at times confusing. Everything is a big deal. Everyone else seems to know what is a big deal and what isn’t.

As part of this problem there is the, at times, blasé attitude of FFBers who seem less than enthused about things that the BT has been taught are of the utmost importance. This too can be most disconcerting.

Before long, one realizes that Orthodoxy is not a monolith and that there are many different models of how to live in the Torah world. Should the baal teshuva select a significant sage to tell him where to go or, should he seek a derech that fits his own soul’s needs as he perceives/experiences them?

Perhaps, the most daunting challenge faced is the ever growing awareness that not all Orthodox Jews are paragons of empathy or kindness or patience or even honesty; or even very much engaged in proper study and prayer. Further, to some of them, their religion is simply a rote practice, little cherished and almost no source of inspiration to them. The personal encounters with all the above can give many a baal teshuva moments of pain and doubt. To a degree that pain will never pass. We all entered Yiddishkeit in search of a good, more meaningful and certainly more spiritual, moral and ethical life. The grim knowledge that this is often far from the reality hits baalei teshuva very hard.

Indeed, the pain for the BT intensifies when he later confronts the fact that his children are FFBs and often far less passionate about the same things that inspired him.

Often the BT learns by experience that it is even those Torah teachers that may have once seemed so perfect to him that are, in reality, flawed human beings as well.

For the thoughtful BT the process of engaging with Torah and halacha may at times prove disquieting. Laws and ideas concerning non – Jews, women, the disabled, slaves and the like are apt to be unsettling and the proposed answers often apologetic and/or seemingly inadequate.

Finally, there is the general stance of Orthodoxy in relation to non – Orthodox (or haredi towards Modern Orthodox and, more surprisingly, Modern Orthodox to haredi) society both in Israel and America as self absorbed, insular tribes with little interest in or responsibility towards “outside” groups /individuals, be it of a material or spiritual nature. This attitude inevitably costs many BTs some sleepless nights.

All or some of the above are among the challenges BTs face. As a BT member of the Beth Shraga Beis Medrash said to me in the summer of 1968, “In the end we are different. It is not just that we can’t go home for Shabbos. We are built differently and always will stay that way.”

This is both a blessing and a curse. Just as the BT will often carry some alienation and doubt throughout life, he will also experience Torah in powerful, wondrous, insightful and joyous ways that might be inaccessible to most FFBs.

In my next entry I hope to discuss the possible means (thoughts, seforim, leaders, books, communities and the like) that will help a BT through the moments of darkness just outlined.

For the interim, the essential issue is to retain the fervor and devotion of one’s initial experiences in Torah while living in the real world with its ambiguities. complexities, paradoxes and disappointments. This is the calling of the mature, thoughtful BT.

May we all be worthy of success and joy in our service of the Ribbono shel Olam.

Rabbi Mayer Schiller

Originally posted on December 9th, 2005.

Believing and not believing – Parshas Noach

By Ben Tzion Shafier

“And Noach, his sons, and his wife came with him because of the waters of the flood.” — Bereishis 7:7

HASHEM told Noach that his entire generation was wicked and would be destroyed. Only he, his family, and certain select animals would be saved. When the flood actually began, the posuk says that Noach and his family went into the Ark “because of the waters of the flood.” Rashi observes that these words imply that it was the water that caused Noach to go into the tayva, not Hashem’s command. Therefore, Rashi says that Noach was “One who believed and didn’t believe.” On one hand, he believed that HASHEM would bring the flood, but on the other, he didn’t believe it would happen. Therefore, he didn’t actually go into the tayvah until the rains forced him in.

This Rashi becomes difficult to understand when we take into account some of the background of the event.

Noach was a Tzaddik

Noach is called a righteous man, so much so that HASHEM chose him to be the single person to rebuild the human race. So how is it possible that when HASHEM told him there would be a flood, he didn’t believe it?

This question comes into sharper relief when we view the situation in its broader context. Many of the Rishonim ask, “Why did HASHEM ask Noach to build the tayvah? If HASHEM wanted to destroy the generation and save Noach, there are many ways He could have done it. Why trouble this tzaddik to draw the plans, cut the wood, and fit together the pieces? HASHEM could have miraculously saved him without Noach having to become a carpenter.

Rashi answers that HASHEM wanted to give the generation one final opportunity to do tshuvah. When Noach would work on the tayvah, people would see him and ask, “What are you building?”

“HASHEM told me He is going to destroy the world,” he would answer. “The only hope is to repent. Do tshuvah.”

For 120 years, while he was building the tayvah, Noach was on a mission to convince his neighbors that HASHEM was going to bring a mabul and destroy the inhabited world . . . unless they changed their ways.

With this, the question becomes much stronger. Here we have a man whom the Torah calls a tzaddik, whom HASHEM spoke to directly. He was told by HASHEM Himself exactly what would happen. He then spent year after year preaching that very message to the people. How is it possible that he didn’t believe it himself?

The nature of man

The answer to this question is based on understanding the nature of man. When HASHEM created the human, He joined together two divergent elements and fused them into one entity. Part of me only wants to do what is right and proper, only wishes for that which is good, and yearns to be close to HASHEM. That part of me, the Nefesh Ha’Sichili or the spiritual soul, is untainted, pure intellect. It is the part of me that understands exactly why I was created.

However, there is another part of me, a Nefesh Ha’Bahami or a physical soul. This other part is also vibrant and has needs, but its aspirations, drives, and desires only relate to that which is physical. It only sees the here and now. In its world, if I can’t hear it, feel it, or see it, it doesn’t exist.

When I engage in any spiritual activity, these two components of me are in direct conflict. For instance, when I daven, part of me feels a deep, inner yearning to grow ever closer to HASHEM, and part of me is bored. Part of me is aglow because I am connecting to my Creator, and part of me just doesn’t care. The Nefesh Ha’Bahami doesn’t see HASHEM, can’t relate to HASHEM, and therefore doesn’t have any connection to anything spiritual.

As long as a person lives, there will be a part of his essence that denies the existence of HASHEM, not because that part is rebellious, nor because it wants to do anything wrong, but because it is incapable of seeing anything that isn’t physical. The more a person grows, the more clearly he relates to his spiritual side, and the less the Nefesh Ha’Bahami clouds his vision. However, as long as I am housed in a body, this darkness remains a part of me.

The answer to Noach

The answer to the question seems to be that Noach was a real believer. He had a powerful, unwavering belief that everything that HASHEM said would happen, would indeed come true. But that was only half of him. There was another part of Noach that didn’t see HASHEM, couldn’t relate to Him, and couldn’t see anything beyond the here and the now. That part denied that there would ever be a flood.

Even an ish tzaddik, who spent 120 years engaged in teaching that HASHEM was going to bring a flood, was still a human, and as such, he couldn’t fully see it happening. It wasn’t until the rain started that it became real to him, and then he went into the tayvah.

The darkness of physicality

This concept is very relevant to us because no matter what level a person has reached, there will always be a part of him that denies anything spiritual. There will always be a part of me that feels alone in this world because it cannot see HASHEM, nor even relate to anything that is not physical. However, there is another full dimension of me that intuitively knows that HASHEM is right here, running the world, involved in every detail of my life.

Rabbi Shafier is the founder of the Shmuz.com – The Shmuz is an engaging, motivating shiur that deals with real life issues.

All of the Shmuzin are available free of charge at www.theShmuz.com or on the Shmuz App for iphone or Android.
Simply text the word “TheShmuz” to the number 313131 and a link will be sent to your phone to download the App.

Start Shnayim Mikra V’Echod Targum This Week with Bereishis

Chazal (the sages) instituted a weekly spiritual growth mechanism which takes advantage of the power of Torah learning called Shnayim Mikra V’Echod Targum, which is reading the weekly Torah portion twice in Hebrew and its translation once.

The Shulchan Aruch and Mishna Berurah describe different levels of performing Shanyim Mikra, but here’s the easiest way which will enable you to perform it and achieve its spiritual growth benefits:

1) Read out load the Parsha in Hebrew during the week to fulfill the first Hebrew reading.
2) Read out loud the Art Scroll translation in English during the week. This fulfills the translation component.
3) On Shabbos, during the public leining read along out loud quietly to fulfill the second Hebrew reading.

Each week counts as a separate mitzvah so don’t fret if you miss a week.

Rabbi Jonathan Rietti was kind enough to allow us to post the outline here, but you can purchase the entire outline of the Chumash for the low price of $11.95 for yourself and your family.

Bereshis
#1 Creation of the Universe
#2 Creation of Man
#3 The Snake
#4 Cain Kills Hevel
#5 Ten Generations of Adam
#6 Warning of Global Destruction

#1 Creation of the Universe
1st Day: Heaven-Earth – Light-Darkness
2nd Day: Rakia is split
3rd Day: Land-Sea & Vegetation
4th Day: Sun-Moon & Stars
5th Day: Fish-Birds-Creepies – Blessing to Multiply
6th Day: Animals – Man-Dominate-Tzelem-Blessing to Multiply. 

#2 Creation of Man
* Shabbat – Heavens and Earth complete 
* Rain-Man
* Creation of Adam & Chava
* Located in Gan Eden
* Tree of Life & Tree of Knowledge of Good and Negative
* Four Rivers: 1) Pishon; 2) Gihon; 3) Hidekel (Tigris); 4) Euphrates
* One Command: “Don’t eat from Tree of Knowledge or you will die!”
* Not Good To Be Alone
* No Companion – Adam Names all the animals
* Sleep
* Chava Created
* Naked

#3 The Snake
* Snake was Cunning
* Chava Ate
* Adam Ate
* Eyes opened-Clothes
* “Where Are You?”
* Adam blames Wife – G-d
* Chava blames snake
* The Snake’s Curse: Most cursed, Legless, Eat dust, Hated, Slide.
* Woman’s Curse: Pain in Pregnancy, Childbirth, Child-Raising, Husband will Dominate.
* Man’s Curse: Ground is cursed, Sweat from toil, Death-return to dust
* Man names his wife ‘Chava’
* Expulsion from Gan Eden

#4 Cain Kills Hevel
* Hevel’s offering
* HaShem rejects Cain’s offering
* “Why are you depressed? Pick yourself up and start again!”
* Cain kills Hevel
* Cain is cursed – Wanderer
* Cain’s children: Chanoch & Lemech-City named Chanoch
* Chanoch – Irad – M’huyael – Metusha’el – Lamech marries Adda & Tzilah.
* Adda mothers Yaval & Yuval (Yaval is first nomad, Yuval makes musical instruments).
* Tzilah mothers Tuval Cain – (he invents weapons and metal works)
* Tzilah mothers Naama
* Adam reunites with Chava – Shet

#5 Ten Generations of Adam
1st Gen. Adam 930
2nd Gen. Shet 912
3rd Gen. Enosh 905
4th Gen. Keinan 910
5th Gen. Mehalalel 895
6th Gen. Yered 962
7th Gen. Chanoch 365
8th Gen. Metushelach 969
9th Gen. Lemech 777
10th Gen. Noach-Shem-Cham-Yafet

#6 Warning of Global Destruction
* Population explosion
* Fallen Angels take women
* 120 year life limit
* Titans
* Man’s entire agenda was wickedness all day!
* Decree to destroy entire world except Noach

Succos and Koheles

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download this and a number of other Drashos on Sukkos

Koheles – Everything Is “Hevel Havalim”

“Moed” – A “Meeting” With Hashem

Yom Tov is called moed. Moed comes from the word vaad, which means “gathering” or “meeting.” Who are we meeting with? With Hashem! When a person makes up to meet with his friend, they make up that they will meet in a certain place. Where is the place that Hashem would meet us in? In the Beis Hamikdash. In the times of the Beis Hamikdash, there was a mitzvah three times a year to go up to the Beis Hamikdash. It was an eye-to-eye meeting with Hashem, just like when two friends meet each other and make eye contact.

Nowadays, we have no Beis Hamikdash. Where then can we meet with Hashem?

Yom Tov is our meeting with Hashem. It continues to exist, long after we no longer have a Beis Hamikdash.

Hashem is fully ready to meet us – He is everywhere. Nothing is holding Him back. The only thing that prevents a person from meeting with Hashem is his very self. If a person manages to remove the barrier holding him back – his very self – he would then be able to meet Hashem, wherever he is. The Mesillas Yesharim[1] writes that a person who is constantly connected with Hashem is considered to always be walking with Him, even as he lives here on this physical world.

When a person is always connected to Hashem in his life, even though he has no Beis Hamikdash to meet with Him, he himself has become like a Beis Hamikdash – and he can meet with Him.

Every Yom Tov has an inner power in it that enables a person to meet with Hashem. A person has to receive the inner point of each Yom Tov which will connect him with Hashem.

On Sukkos, what is that inner point of Yom Tov that can connect a person with Hashem?

Removing the Barriers

On Shabbos of Chol HaMoed Sukkos, Chazal established that we read the book of Koheles.[2] This is not a coincidence that we read Koheles specifically on Sukkos. There must be some connection between the book of Koheles and the theme of Sukkos; otherwise, why would Chazal establish that we read Koheles on Sukkos?

Shlomo Hamelech begins the book of Koheles with, “Hevel havalim (“futility of futilities”), so says Koheles; hevel havalim, everything is hevel havalim.” Rashi brings from Chazal the following: “Koheles is making an announcement and saying that all of Creation is futile; he says “hevel” seven times in the possuk, corresponding to the seven days of Creation. The commentators are perplexed: How could Shlomo HaMelech say such a thing?! How could he say that Hashem’s Creation is all futility and vanity?

The depth of the matter appears to be as follows. The world is called “olam”, from the word “he’elam” – “concealment.” This world really conceals Hashem from being revealed to us. The world – this world of he’elam – was created in seven days; in other words, there are seven levels of he’elam. A person’s job on this world is to remove all the he’elam – to remove all the barriers between him and Hashem – and come to reveal Hashem. All of a person’s avodah is essentially to show how all of creation is one big he’elam.

When a person comes to really feel that all of Creation is hevel – in that it conceals Hashem from us – he personally reveals Hashem in his life. He essentially enters the state of before Creation, in which there was no he’elam yet; he will be able to become constantly attached to Hashem as a result. Anything which deters a person from being attached with Hashem is a kind of he’elam. When a person manages to remove that barrier from upon himself – he views everything as hevel, since it’s all getting in the way of revealing Hashem onto the world – he will be able to always become attached to Hashem.

This is the inner point that one can reveal on Sukkos. This is the way how one meets with Hashem on the Yom Tov of Sukkos.

Reb Chatzkel Levenstein zt”l once said that it’s not enough for a person to read the book of Koheles written by Shlomo Hamelech; every single person has to write the words “Hevel havalim…everything is hevel havalim”, and these words have to be ingrained in one’s blood. A person has to feel clearly in his heart that this world is completely hevel – it leads us astray from Hashem. This is the Avodah of Sukkos: write your own personal sefer Koheles!

Before and After the Beis Hamikdash

When the Beis Hamikdash was around, a person had special Heavenly assistance to reach utter closeness with Hashem and get past all the barriers of this world. He would bring the korbonos (sacrifices) and eliminate the physical aspect of the animal, transforming the physical into the spiritual. He would reveal G-dliness in what was previously something totally physical, something that was a kind of he’elam.

Now that the Beis Hamikdash isn’t around, we have to accomplish this very same goal, but through the abilities of our soul. We need to eradicate the he’elam of this world and instead to come meet with the Creator of the world – the state of total attachment with Him that existed before creation, when there was no he’elam yet.

[1] chapter 26

[2] Ecclesiasties

Yom Kippur – Putting Our Mistakes Behind Us

Dr David Lieberman summarizes the human experience as follows:
– The body wants to do what feels good.
– The ego wants to do what looks good.
– The soul wants to do what is good.

We all possess a pure soul that wants to do the right thing. However the drives of the body and the ego often lead to mistakes in the form of harmful words, harmful actions, and harmful thoughts.

God knows we make mistakes, after all He is the one that created us with the body-ego-soul conflict. In His infinite goodness, He gives us one day of the year which is set aside for some serious soul-searching. A day that we set aside the drives of the body. A day that we can freely admit out mistakes. A day that we can reconnect to the pure soul that we each possess. That day is Yom Kippur.

Fasting and abstaining from other physical pleasures is not a punishment, but rather a means to break free of the demands of the body, so that our beautiful souls can shine through.

The other key component of the day is the quiet verbal admission, that we’ve made mistakes. We say things that are hurtful. We’re not 100% squeaky clean in financial matters. We eat things we shouldn’t. We fantasize about things that are unhealthy. We don’t always offer or show the love, care, and comfort that our family, friends, and neighbors need.

But the admission of our faults is really the foundation on which we can grow. We are great people, with the potential to increasingly be loved and loving towards people and towards God. On Yom Kippur, God gives us the opportunity to put our mistakes behind us. That is why many Jewish Sages consider it the happiest day of the year.

Have a meaningful Yom Kippur!

Rebbetzin Heller on Approaching the Viduy on Yom Kippur

Adapted from a newsletter article by Rebbetzin Heller

Keep in mind that Hashem accepts you with all of your faults and broken pieces, you needn’t act as if they don’t exist.

Review the viduy before Yom Kippur in the machzor.

Don’t fall into any of the usual traps when you read the list of potential sins that you may have done:
1. What a great list. It’s even alphabetical. How interesting. I think I did everything.
2. I am doomed. I think I’ll go out for pizza. This is too heavy.
3. My life is a mess. It can’t be fixed. No one who had a childhood like mine will ever be clean on the inside.
4. This is extreme. I’m basically a good person. What’s all this breast-beating good for?
5. I hate myself.

Instead, come to grips with the reality of imperfection. If you’re human, you’re imperfect. You have the chance now to open yourself up to greater and higher movement towards being the person you want to be. Every breath you take is a gift from the One who wants to (and can!) understand you totally. Read the list with the same sort of feeling you would have if you were discussing a heartbreaking issue with your therapist. You want to change, that’s why you’re there.

There is one critical difference. Your therapist can only help you hear yourself. Hashem can help you discover a self that you may never have encountered (or may have thought was lost). If you open yourself even a little bit, He will open His Heart to you beyond your greatest hope.

Four Words that Fuel Spiritual Growth

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains that the key to establishing a palpable closeness to G-d when we say the Shemoneh Esrai, are the words Melekh (King), Ozer (Helper), uMoshia (Rescuer), uMogen (Shield) in the first brocha. We start off addressing G-d as a majestic but somewhat distant King. A Helper is more available and closer than a King, like a friend who we know we can call on. A Rescuer is closer than a Helper, because he is right there to save us when we need help. A Shield is closer than a Rescuer because he is surrounding us, protecting us from harm. If we say these four words slowly (4+ seconds per word), focusing on the different perceptions of closeness, we can sense Hashem’s protection.

This four word progression is also applicable to the Yomim Noraim. On Rosh Hoshana we focus on Hashem as King. In the ten days of Teshuva, we call out more in Selichos to Hashem, our Rescuer, because He is more available in this period. On Yom Kippur, we pray and confess to Hashem, our Saviour, as He saves us from the consequences of our sins. On Succos, we focus on Hashem, our Shield, through the mitzvos of the Sukkah and the feelings of protection that it generates.

The idea of the progression from King, to Helper, to Rescuer, to Shield, might help explain a question regarding brochos. Every standalone or sequence-beginning brocha must contain Hashem’s name and the word Melekh. However, the beginning of Shomeneh Esrai is missing the Melekh. Tosfos gives the most quoted answer: the first Brocha mentions Avrahom, who was the first one who made Hashem King over himself. The question still remains: why not just put the word Melekh, like we find in every other brocha?

Perhaps we can say that the word Melekh by itself represents a distant King. However in Shomeneh Esrai we are talking directly to Hashem, To help us create that conversational closeness, the Men of the Great Assembly, put the word Melekh at the end of the brocha in the progression leading to Magen. This is the relationship Avrahom personified, and that is the relationship we are pursuing in the first brocha and in the entire Shomoneh Esrai.

May we all merit to make the progression from Melekh to Magen in these upcoming Yomim Noraim, and in every tefillah that we daven.

The Chofetz Chaim’s 85th Yahrzeit is the 24th of Elul – Here is His NY Times Obituary(1933)

Chofetz Chaim, 105 Is Dead in Poland

Venerated by Orthodox Jews as one of the 36 ‘Saints Who Saved the World’.

Lived Long In Poverty

Gave Up Store When Popularity in Village ‘Deprived Other Mechants of a Living’.

WILNO, Poland, Sept 15 (Jewish Telegraph Agency) – The famed Chofetz Chaim, venerated by Orthodox Jews throughout the world as one of the 36 saints because of whose piety the Lord has not destroyed the world, died today in the village of Radin, near here, where he had spent most of the more than 100 years of his life. He had been ill only a short time

The Chofetz Chaim, whose real name was Rabbi Yisroel Meier Cohen, had been a figure of almost legendary importance for almost half a century. Stories of his piety sprang up in the lore of Eastern Europe and among orthodox Jews all over the world. The village where he had served for a few months as a rabbi was the scene of pilgrimages of thousands of orthodox Jews seeking the blessing of the Chofetz Chaim.

In 1873 Rabbi Cohen published a book in Hebrew, entitled the “Chofetz Chaim”, listing all the forms of slander from which a pious Jew must guard himself. It was because of this book that he became known as the Chofetz Chaim.
Age Believed to Be 106.

He was born in the village of Zhetel, Poland. After a brief period as a rabbi in Radin he founded a yeshiva, a school for teaching the Talmud, and supported it for many years. He gained renown as a Talmudic scholar and many of his works on the regulations of the Jewish religion have been accepted as definitive.
Funeral services will be held Sunday at Radin.

The Chofetz Chaim was 105 years old, according to information from his family, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported. He never would reveal his age, however, and several years ago, when friends and relatives planned a birthday celebration in his honor, the scholar was very much perturbed.

Despite his fame as “the uncrowned spiritual king of Israel”, the Chofetz Chaim was a modest and humble man. His career as a merchant was of short duration. Because of his popularity all the Jews of the town flocked to his store. The Chofetz Chaim thereupon closed the store on the ground he was depriving other Jewish merchants of a living.

At the age of 90, when he was already a legendary figure among the Jews, the Chofetz Chaim became convinced of the imminent arrival of the Messiah, who would lead the Jews back to Palestine and he regarded it as his special duty to assume the functions of the high priest.

He was the author of a score of works surrounding the religious and ethical principals of the Jewish religion, including one which became a handbook for all rabbis. Despite his great distinction the Chofetz Chaim lived in povery all his life.

Chofetz Chaims Obituary

The Kingship of the Ten Days of Teshuva

Rabbi Chaim Friedlander zt”l in the Rinas Chaim writes about the issue of Kingship after Rosh Hoshana:

“The similarity of issues, which appear in the prayers of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, pointing to Hashem Yisbarach’s kingship and reign, leads us to a question. Why must we bring up the issue of malchus, Hashem’s kingship, on Yom Kippur as well?

Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment, and the whole concept of judgment is a product of His kingship. Hashem Yisbarach, as the supreme monarch, distributes tasks — and the vehicles necessary for the fulfillment of those individual tasks — to each one of His subjects on Rosh Hashanah. Thus, on the first day of the year, HaKadosh Baruch Hu dons the cloak of the supreme Judge and estimates the quality of each person’s fulfillment of his tasks from the previous year. Those individual tasks are part of the general goal of proclaiming Hashem Yisbarach as King over creation, and over each one of us in particular. Hashem Yisbarach then delegates each person’s task for the coming year according to the level of his performance the year before.

However, due to Hashem’s lovingkindness, the judgment does not end on Rosh Hashanah, but lasts during the subsequent Ten Days of Repentance, during which it is still possible to repent and to amend the final verdict. On each of those ten days we en treat HaKadosh Baruch Hu with the supplications of “Inscribe us in the Book of the Living,” and “In the Book of Life… may we be inscribed before You.”

The whole issue of judgment is maintained within the concept of kingship, as we stated before. We are judged according to what extent we have accepted upon ourselves Hashem Yisbarach’s kingdom in all aspects of our lives, and especially in the fulfillment of our individual tasks. Our judgment also hinges upon the extent that we are prepared spiritually for the holy task of proclaiming Him as King in the forthcoming year. That is why we stress kingship in our prayers during those ten days, saying “the holy King,” and “the King of judgment.” All these ten days are days meant for us to proclaim Hashem as King over us — and our judgment flows from this.

The conclusion of the judgment occurs on Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur it is assessed and established to what extent we are spiritually ready to recognize the reign of our King, the King of all kings — HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Therefore, on Yom Kippur we mention and we seek the acceptance of Malchus Shmayim, the Heavenly kingdom, just as we do on Rosh Hashanah. On Yom Kippur the spiritual task of the entire ten days of proclaiming Hashem King comes to its peak and culminates with the acceptance of Ol Malchus Shmayim at the end of the Ne’ilah prayer.”

Taking the Next Step in Teshuva

By Micheal Sedley

Elul is upon us and collectively the Observant community is getting into Tshuva Mode.

Beyond BT poses an interesting question which I think applies to many people who are Ba’al Tshuva, or have moved in the level of observance over a period of years:

When I first became a BT, Teshuva was so easy. Over the course of 2 years, I was keeping Shabbos, Kosher, Davening regularly and performing all the seasonal mitzvos.

After 8 years it has become a lot harder to do Teshuva, even at this time of year. When I look over the last year, the changes are much smaller and were much more difficult to make.

Have other people experienced this change in Teshuva?

Are there a different set of tactics and goals at this later stage?

Is there anything special about the Teshuva of a BT at this point or am I now fighting the same battles that a FFB faces?

“Former Teshuva Master”

I think in a nutshell the problem is that the focus of one’s tshuva must change, and the new focus is often more difficult.

Many people going through a transition towards more observance have a list of things that they know deep down they should be doing but aren’t yet. This list may even be subconscious, but come Rosh Hashana time it’s relatively easy to find the item on the top of the list and commit oneself. If last year I didn’t daven, than this year I’ll start davening. If I’m already davening, maybe I’ll increase the Tfilllot I say each day, or attend minyan each day, or be more careful with kashrut, or Brachot, or some other easy-to-identify Halachic obligation.

This type of Tshuva is relatively easy, and it’s a wonderful feeling to look back over the past year and say “two years ago I ate traif, last year I stopped eating non-kosher meat, this year I’ll be 100% kosher”.

The problem is that eventually you find that you’re living a complete halachic lifestyle – there is nothing quick and easy on the top of the list. Sure you could improve your kavana during davenng or cut down on Bitul Zman or Lashon Harah, but these things are hard to quantify, they aren’t the sort of thing that you can put a check mark next to on your list. I think that this is one of the reasons that suddenly a “Former Teshuva Master” can find it very difficult to have a meaningful Elul.

To make matters even more difficult, this question is seldom addressed directly. In Yeshiva whenever there was a talk on Tshuva they always used a simple example like “lets say someone wants a cheeseburger and stops himself, that’s tshuva” – the problem is that most tshuva is not so easy to qualify, and besides I’ve never had a cheeseburger in my life, and don’t have a particular ta’ava for one, so the metaphor really doesn’t talk to me.

Anyway, the article from Beyond BT got me thinking, and I tried to put together a list of things that I really can work on. I probably wont achieve all of these improvements this Elul, it is possible that I wont achieve any of them, but at least if I have a list it’ll be a place to start on this year’s tshuva adventure.

These items are just off the top of my head, if you have suggestions, feel free to leave a comment. Bli Neder over the next 40 days (until Yom Kippur) I’ll review this list, maybe modify it, maybe just think about it, but hopefully this will help give me some direction to move in during Elul, and maybe – just maybe, after Yom Kippur I’ll have at least one measurable improvement in my life.

* I’ll make a conscious effort to appreciate my wife more, especially her non-stop effort to keep the household running smoothly. I’ll identify additional ways that I can help around the house and show additional support for my wife both physically and emotionally.

* I’ll make a conscious effort to spend more time with each of my kids. They all need time with their father on a daily basis and I’ll try to make sure that spending time with them is part of my daily or weekly routine. This could include learning Gemara with my oldest, or practicing reading with the girls (each at their own level), or maybe riding a bike or playing a board game with them – each of them.

* I’ll work on anger, especially with my kids. It is very easy to loose patience with your own kids, but I’ll try to never raise my voice to them and to treat them at least as well as I would the kids of a neighbor (I can’t imagine myself yelling at someone else’s kids).

* I’ll try to use all my time as constructively as possible. When I’m working I should be 100% at work, when I’m with the kids I should be 100% with the kids, when I’m in a shiur I should be 100% at the shiur.

* I’ll slow down with my Brachot, especially Birkat Hamazon. Does mumbling and skipping words in Birkat Hamazon really show my appreciation for the food that I just ate? Is it really so difficult to make sure that I say ALL of the words?

* I’ll try to start off my day by being ON TIME for shul – how difficult should it be to get to shul a few minutes before it starts to put on Tfillin, recite Korbanot, and maybe even look at Parsha Shavua?

Have a great Elul!

Originally posted in August 2008 here.

The Importance of Developing Emotional Connections

The Need For Emotional Connection
The Mesillas Yesharim teaches us that the basis of our Service of Hashem, is Deutoronomy 10:12 in Parshas Eikev: “And now, Israel, what does Hashem, your God, ask of you?
– Only to fear (be in awe of) Hashem, your God,
– to go in all His ways,
– and to love Him,
– and to serve Hashem, your God, with all your heart and all your soul,
– to observe the commandments of Hashem and His decrees, which I command you today, for your benefit.

We are quite good at observing the commandments, but many of us have trouble with the emotional component, specifically that of loving Hashem. We know we are supposed to love Hashem, but do we actually experience that love emotionally?

Without a strong emotional connection to Hashem and Torah, our mitzvos become rote, our davening becomes rushed, and we look to our possessions, our vacations, our vocations, and the worlds of sports, entertainment, and social media for emotional stimulation. It’s very likely that the spiritual malaise effecting large segments of our community is a result of a lack of a strong emotional connection to Hashem and Torah.

How Can We Develop Love
Rabbi Yitzchok Kirzner zt”l taught that to develop our Love of Hashem, we should work on Loving Our Fellow Jew, which is a commandment in its own right.

Love means to have a strong emotional connection. Most people have a strong emotional connection with their spouses, their children and their parents. But when we walk into Shul, with how many people do we actually feel a strong emotional connection?

To develop our love of our fellow Jews, we have to identify and relate to their positive qualities. One such quality is that at the root of every Jew is a pure spiritual soul. Every Jew is part of the collective soul of the Jewish people which unites us all. Every Jew is a child of Hashem and is loved by Hashem. Every Jew in our community places a part in creating an environment where we can grow through Torah and Mitzvos. And every Jew in our minyan, is instrumental in increasing the likelihood that Hashem will accept our Tefillos. We’ve identified a few positive qualities that give us the ammunition to develop our love.

Having identified the positive qualities, we have to actively and repeatedly think about that we love our fellow Jews because of their qualities. Thinking that we love someone is instrumental in actually developing that love. We shouldn’t be sidetrack by the fact that we love our spouses, children and parents more then our Shul members. We are obligated to love every Jew and each Jew has inherent positive qualities that form the foundation of love.

Actively thinking about our love of our fellow Jews is critical to developing that emotional capacity – and using it to love Hashem. So on a regular basis we can look around our Shul, and think about how we love this person, and that person, etc..

Loving Hashem
When we develop the practice of experiencing emotional love on a regular basis, we can then use that capability to Love Hashem. Our prayer books are filled with praise of the positive qualities of Hashem which give us many reasons to love Him. We have to actively think about how we love Hashem. It’s not enough to know it intellectually, we have to develop that love, by regularly thinking how we love Hashem.

It’s interesting that Chazal have put a special focus in the Three Weeks on developing a Love of our Fellow Jews. This is followed by the month of Elul, where we focus on Love of Hashem as indicated by ‘Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li’ – ‘I am for My Beloved and My Beloved is for Me’. Loving people and loving Hashem are commandments that are achievable. We can start on the right track every day in Shul with thoughts of Love. Don’t worry, nobody will know, but don’t be surprised if we start feeling them loving us back.

The Essence of the Month of Elul

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Elul

Elul – The Month of Maaseh\Action

With siyata d’shmaya, we are nearing the month of Elul, may it come upon us for good tidings. Let us try to understand a little, with the help of Hashem, the avodah upon us during these days, and hopefully we will each merit to also act upon these words, each on his own level.

Each month contains a special power that is connected to the particular time of the year that it is found in. The power of Elul is called maaseh, action. The power in man to “act” is especially manifest in Elul.

The Sages state (according to one opinion) that the world was created on the 25th of Elul. The Creation is called the “handiwork of Hashem”, His maaseh (action), thus the month of Elul is rooted in the original maaseh of Creation. Hashem revealed the power of His maaseh in Elul, so to speak; He “made” the heavens and the earth, which is all in terminology of “maaseh”.

When Elul arrives each year, the power of Hashem’s maaseh returns each year, as it were. Being that man has an avodah to resemble Hashem (as the Sages say, “Just as He is merciful, so should you be merciful; just as He is compassionate, so should you be compassionate”), there must also be a power of maaseh on man’s own level, in some small resemblance to Hashem’s power of maaseh. What exactly is that maaseh, though, that we must perform?

The Gemara says that “the purpose of Torah is teshuvah (repentance) and maasim tovim (good deeds).” The simple meaning of this is that these are two different things the Torah leads to: repenting, and good deeds. It seems as if these two matters bear no connection; simply speaking, if a person commits a bad deed, he must repent over it, and thereafter he must perform good deeds. But the depth of the matter is as follows.

When Hashem created the world, He made it over the course of six days. This was an utterly pure and holy action, but even more so, Hashem created it with His ten expressions; His dibbur (word). He said “Let there be light” and there was light. He told the heavens to be created, and they were created. All of Creation is thereby powered by His word. When people perform an action, we usually attribute it to ourselves, thinking that it is our hands which do things. Our hands are the symbol of human action. But the symbol of Hashem’s actions are His word, for it is His word which created each thing.

Elul are days of maaseh, but it is hard to understand how exactly these days are days of maaseh. The Tur says that Moshe Rabbeinu stood for 40 days to receive the Torah, and the first 30 days of this were in Elul. The 40th day was Yom Kippur. Where is the ‘action’ in these 30 days of receiving the Torah? Moshe stood there for 40 days to receive the Torah, but how was this “action”? In truth, however, it shows that Elul is both a time of action and a time of receiving Torah. It is just hard to understand how exactly it is a time of action. What we need to understand is that these days are of a different kind of action that the usual kind of “action” that we are familiar with.

This is a deep concept, so we will need to explain it very thoroughly.

Action\Building In Elul: Using Our Power of Speech In Selichos

The Gemara says that Torah scholars are called builders[1], for it is written, “And all your builders are those who learn [the Torah of] Hashem”. How is something built? The power to ‘build’ [in the spiritual dimension] is not like how we build physically, which is through our hands, but through speaking words of Torah. A Torah scholar spends his day speaking of Torah, and that is how he builds the world.

This power is also given to all of us as well: we can build and perform deeds, through our power of speech. Just as Hashem created the world through His word, so did He give us the power to build, through words.

Where do we see this kind of ‘building’ take place, though? In Elul and in the Ten Days of Repentance, we make heavy use of our power of speech. There is Selichos, where we repeatedly ask Hashem for mercy. This is surely connected with the fact that we must increase our good deeds during Elul; but we just need to understand what exactly the connection is.

The way we know the answer to this depends on knowing what our soul’s power of maaseh is. What does it really mean to ‘do’ something? In the spiritual dimension, how can we ‘do’ something? We can understand that our body ‘does’ something, but how does our soul “do” something? If we understand what it is, we can understand what the avodah of “maaseh” in in Elul, but if not, then perhaps we will be able to increase our good deeds in Elul, but we will not have succeeded in developing the soul’s power of maaseh.

Let us reflect into the soul’s power of maaseh. The body performs actions, and it is our words which execute actions. Man is called “nefesh chayah” (living spirit), and Targum translates this to mean “ruach memalelah”, a talking spirit; man’s power of speech is essentially his spiritual power to “do” things. Thus, our power of dibbur (speech) is the source of our power to perform deeds (maaseh).

To illustrate this [on a deeper level], a Torah scholar lives in the realm of Torah words. He is constantly accessing his spiritual power of maaseh. In contrast, someone who does not live in the realm of Torah is not making use of the spiritual power of maaseh; the only maaseh he performs are physical actions with his hands,

Being that dibbur (speech) is identified with man’s title of nefesh chayah (living spirit), dibbur\speech is the source of all our spiritual actions. In Elul where we use the power of dibbur a lot [through prayer and Selichos], we are thus involving ourselves in a dibbur that leads to maaseh; we are involved with a kind of dibbur that is all about maaseh. Soon we will explain what it is, but this is the outline of the concept.

Action Is About Completion

What exactly is the soul’s power of maaseh\action that is contained in the power of dibbur\speech?

The Gemara says that one should perform that which he says. Otherwise, he has not completed that which he spoke about. We can learn from here that an “action” implies the completion of something. [On a deeper level], the “world of action” we live in is the finalized and completed form of all the higher worlds which precede it. What we “do” here on this world is the last step of everything that emanates from the higher worlds; it all ends here. Hashem intentionally created an imperfect world – and it is “completed” in the world of action we live in. We were created imperfect, and it is our task to complete ourselves, here on this world, this world of action.

A person thinks, then he says what he is thinking, and then he acts upon what he says. The action is the final step of the thinking process; it is the final step of everything. So action is not just an action – it is the completed and final step of a process.

What is the soul’s power of maaseh, then? It is essentially the completion of the soul. Our body completes an action when it finishes “doing” some kind of labor or work, and our soul “does” something when it has completed its spiritual work on this world.

The Depth of Teshuvah: Uprooting The Reason To Sin

Let us try to understand a little more about the concept of maaseh.

Elul is the time where the world began (according to one opinion in the Sages, as mentioned earlier), but in the order of the months, it is the final month of the year. This shows the connection between Elul and maaseh: because Elul is the completion of the year. This is not because it is the ‘last month on the Jewish calendar’; it is the time of the year where our soul has finished its work for this past year.

Teshuvah (repentance) includes regret and confession, and the Ramban famously writes that Hashem knows what the person is really thinking as he does teshuvah, if he is earnest or not. The depth of his words is because teshuvah is about putting an end to the sinful action. If one continues to sin, his “action” continues, thus he has not reached completion. If one confesses the sin but he continues to sin, he has not yet ended his sinful action. He is missing his soul’s completion. But if he does teshuvah, that means he has put an end to the sinful action; he has reached completion.

Thus, the soul’s power of maaseh is to put an end to things; for one to place boundaries and limitations on himself that he will not cross.

Elul, the days of maaseh, are also days of teshuvah. The connection between these two facts lies in the understanding of the earlier-quoted statement of our Sages, “The purpose of Torah is teshuvah and good deeds”. It is because when we do proper teshuvah, we access the power of maaseh. The concept of teshuvah is thus connected to the soul’s power of maaseh, which is essentially the idea of putting and end to things, to place boundaries and limitations on any sinful acts which we were doing, so that the sinful actions won’t continue to spread any further.

There are some parts of the soul which do not need boundaries to be placed on them. The desire in our soul to learn Torah, to daven, and to do mitzvos are all holy desires, which should only be increased, not decreased. But there are parts to the soul which we need to place limitations on. That is the idea of teshuvah.

Teshuvah is about returning the soul after one has sinned, not just to stop sinning. In order to do teshuvah in which one will not return to the sin, it is not enough to do teshuvah over the act itself, but to do teshuvah over the reason that motivated the person to sin. Often we are used to doing teshuvah over the sinful act, but not over the reason that caused us to sin. For this reason, the teshuvah of many people does not last. The depth of teshuvah is to stop the particular aspect in the [external layer of the] soul that is being motivated to sin.

Whenever our Sages said their words, they were not speaking to our bodies. They were speaking to our souls. The language of the soul is different than the language that the body understands. Of course, our body is a factor; much of keeping Halachah affects our body, not just our souls. But teshuvah is about returning the soul, not just to stop sinning. When one sins, the action is no longer here, but the motivation to sin is still here. We aren’t supposed to do teshuvah just on the mere actions that we did; we are meant to do teshuvah on the motivations to sin, which remains on this world long after the sin is over. That is how we return our soul when we do teshuvah – and that is the depth of teshuvah.

To Feel Complete

Let’s attempt now to explain this in clearer terms. We will ask: Why does a person sin? What is the internal source in the person that causes a person to do the opposite of Hashem’s will, chas v’shalom?

In the blessing of Borei Nefashos, we say, “Borei Nefashos rabbos v’chesronam” –the Creator of many souls and their deficiencies.” A person sins when he feels deficient about something and he seeks to fill that deficiency. If he would feel filled, he would not seek to fill himself with anything from the outside, and he would never commit the sin.

Thus, we can now understand better how the depth of teshuvah is not merely about stopping to sin, but about uprooting the reason that caused the sin in the first place.

For example, if a person spoke lashon hora about someone, why did he speak lashon hora? He was jealous of him, or doesn’t like him. What is his teshuvah? To stop talking lashon hora about the person? Or to uproot his negative emotions towards him? The only reason why he spoke evil speech about the person was because he had an evil ‘eye’ towards the person. Every sin stems from some deficiency in the soul. That is where the main aspect of the teshuvah lies.

The main avodah of a person in doing teshuvah, besides for avoiding the sin, is to do “complete teshuvah” – to uproot the inner reason that caused one to sin. Incomplete teshuvah, by contrast, is to repent over the evil deed that was committed, without regretting the evil motivation that caused it. Teshuvah is therefore about returning the soul’s abilities to their pure source, after they had been used for evil.

For example, when a person steals 100 dollars, not only should he return the money; his teshuvah should be about regretting the desire he had to steal. If he would have been “happy with his lot” as the Sages teach, then he wouldn’t have come to steal. He only stole because he felt deficient about himself. Had he felt complete within himself, he never would have come to sin. The main part of the teshuvah is thus to return the soul from its deficient state into its original, complete state.

This is the meaning of “complete teshuvah” which we daven for in Shemoneh Esrei, and this is also the idea behind the soul’s power of maaseh.

Now we can understand better what the power of maaseh is. Maaseh is to feel complete and to feel that we lack for nothing; to feel complete within ourselves.

Of course, this is a power that needs to be used in its proper time and place. It does not mean that one should not have aspirations for holiness. If one learned a page of Gemara, he must certainly want to learn more pages of Gemara and he must not remain satisfied with the page of Gemara he learned. The power of maaseh, to feel complete, is only referring to being at peace from avoiding materialistic desires, not spiritual desires.

If a person is jealous of another person, if a person lusted after something, it was because he felt deficient about himself. The root of sin is always about some kind of deficiency the person felt. Thus the depth of teshuvah is to nullify the very desire for the sin, not just to regret the act of sin itself.

The days of Elul are called yemai ratzon, “days of will” – for it is the time to get in touch with our innermost will; to uproot the negative desires we have. This is what lays in the power of maaseh. When I don’t feel a necessity to pursue a desire, because I feel complete within myself, this is called maaseh – the “action” is complete.

The Deep Source of Teshuvah

This is a subtle and deep approach towards teshuvah. We all know we must do teshuvah, we all resolve to be better this year, but there is much more to teshuvah than this!

Chazal say that teshuvah was one of the things that existed already before Hashem created the world. Why was there a need for teshuvah if nothing was missing at that point from Creation and there was no possibility of sin? It is to show us that the level of “complete teshuvah” is only when one connects to his deep inner source which lacks nothing.

If we do not know this deep source of teshuvah, it is very hard to actually do teshuvah. We all know what teshuvah is, we all want to teshuvah, but if we do not understand the deep source that it comes from, we cannot really do teshuvah.

The Sages said (concerning physical action): “The eyes sees, the heart desires, and the actions complete.” Not only does the body complete and “do” action that begins in the eyes and the heart (this was said in the context of physical desire), but so does the soul contain the power to “do” actions that complete: by feeling complete within itself, with no need for anything else outside of it. In this way, a person will never feel deficient, and he will never come to sin.

On Rosh HaShanah, it is brought in Halacha that one must rejoice[2]. How can we rejoice on Rosh HaShanah, when Hashem is judging the world? It is because if one doesn’t rejoice on Rosh HaShanah, it is because he feels deficient. If he is incomplete, he cannot come to do real teshuvah.

So we must really know what teshuvah is about. Teshuvah is not only about regretting the sin and resolving not to sin again. The depth of teshuvah is to reach the deepest part of our soul, where we feel complete. When we feel that completion, we will find there that we have no desire to sin.

“One who is greater than his friend, has a greater yetzer hora than him.”[3] Why is this so? Compare this to a person who has a hundred dollars, who wants two hundred dollars. The more one has, the more he wants. But how indeed does one get rid of all his extraneous desires? By accessing the power of teshuvah that came before Creation. (In spirituality, we must aspire endlessly and always want more. But when it comes to materialistic desires, we must nullify all of these desires.)

That is complete teshuvah: to return to the deepest part of ourselves, where there are no desires. In that place in our soul we find the deeper power of teshuvah that has been around before Creation.

The teshuvah in Elul leads to Rosh HaShanah, the beginning of the year; thus the teshuvah in Elul leads to a new beginning. It is not simply leaving this past year and entering the new year. It is about reaching an entirely new beginning.

Elul are days of maaseh. It is not about simply doing more good deeds, although that is also true that we must increase our goods. It is about reaching the completion of our soul, where we feel complete inside ourselves, where we are so attached in closeness to Hashem that we feel the greatest sense of completion from this.

Elul is depicted as “Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li” (“I am to my Beloved, and my Beloved is to me”)– one who does not feel this in Elul cannot feel completion, and then he will be missing the true depth of teshuvah. But if one feels the meaning of “Dodi” (“my Beloved”) in Elul – that Hashem is our Beloved companion Who fills all of our life – this enables him to feel completion at this, and from that place in himself, he is spurred on to do “complete teshuvah”.

The Deep Source of Our Completion

Thus, we can now understand that “Torah scholars are called builders” in the sense that they build from a place of completion in themselves, not out of deficiency. They build the world through their words of Torah, and the Torah is complete; thus they are building the world from a complete source.

The more a person is attached in closeness with Hashem, he is connected to completion and perfection, and he lacks for nothing. It won’t be possible for him to sin, because there is no more reason that motivates him to sin. Of course, we are human and imperfect. But when one is close to Hashem, he receives a special spiritual light of completion, which makes him feel complete and doesn’t allow him to sin.

In the days of Elul and Yomim Noraim, we should know that these are not just days to increase Torah learning and to do more mitzvos, although that is certainly truthful to do; it is not the purpose. The purpose of these days is to enter the depth of this time, to enter the deepest part of our own souls, where our soul is connected to the reality of Hashem. It is a place in the soul which is attached to perfection, and when we connect to this place in our soul, we are connected to completion and perfection, and there is then no possibility of sin there, with the more we are connected to that place. It is there that we can do complete teshuvah.

In Conclusion

We ask Hashem in Shemoneh Esrei, “Return us, in complete repentance, before You.” To do teshuvah “before Hashem” is to do teshuvah and become closer to Hashem through it. If the teshuvah doesn’t bring one closer to Hashem from it, it is not “complete” teshuvah.

May the Creator merit us to reach this perfection in our souls and to connect ourselves to the reality of the Creator, and to do His will always, throughout every day of the year.

[1] Berachos 64a

[2] Tur: Orach Chaim 597:1

[3] Sukkah 52a

The Bilvavi’s Personal Teshuva Journey – From the Mind to the Heart

Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh and the Getting to Know Yourself, Getting Know Your Soul, Getting Know Your Emotions seforim has a free download available of Elul Talks here.

The Rav Speaks
We all know and believe that Torah and mitzvos are what life is all about, but do we really feel that these are what make our lives meaningful? Read Rabbi Shwartz’s personal account of how he searched and grappled with these issues, and how he came to feel these truths in his own heart. He promises that we can get the same results as he did.

Feeling Empty

I remember about 17 or 18 years ago I looked on the calendar and saw that it would be Rosh HaShanah soon.

Since the Yomim Noraim were approaching, I knew that I must feel something, but I didn’t know what to feel. I didn’t see anything in my life that is missing. I knew that I felt empty, but I didn’t know what it was that I was missing.

Why did I feel so empty? I learned all day; I had three full sedarim in the day where I learned. I davened and did all the mitzvos. So why did I feel empty inside?

I sat and thought: Am I missing something? Why do I feel empty if I am doing everything I am supposed to?

It bothered me very, very much.

I started to look at others to see if I could know how others are happy, and I saw that everyone else was happy except myself. Then I became very lonely, because I felt that everyone else was happy and enjoying their learning – everyone except me.

After many years, I met many people who felt what I felt then – people who feel like they’re empty inside and haven’t found themselves in life. There is no one here in Eretz Yisrael who hasn’t found themselves when it comes to mitzvos and Halacha. So what was missing in my life that I have to change myself?

I began to ask people if they felt like me. No one understood me – they were like Pharoah’s servants who couldn’t interpret his dream. No one gave me answers I was satisfied with.

This was one of the hardest times in my life – I can’t forget it. I had no idea what to do and where to go in my life. But I knew that I shouldn’t give up; I knew I’m not an old person at the end of his life, that I’m young and that I have hope.

I davened to Hashem to help me

After some time, I went to a private room and cried to Hashem. I asked Hashem, “Hashem, I know there is no more prophecy anymore, but what do You want from me? Tell me what You want from me!”

I cried terribly to Hashem. But I had faith that Hashem would send me my answers and show me what He wants from me in my life.

I hope no one goes through what I went through then. But if you ever went through this too, I want you to know that I was there too and went through it – and I came out of it.

After this, I remember that I made a list of all the things I was unhappy with my life, and I wrote how I feel like an old person who has no satisfaction in life. But I told myself not to give up, and I knew that Hashem will help me and show me what He wants from me. I didn’t know where my answer would come from, but I trusted in Hashem that He would send me the answer. How?

I knew it wouldn’t come from my mind. I knew that when Hashem opens up my heart, it will be then that I understand – to understand what the reality of this world is.

The Realization

I remember this clearly. I was sitting and learning with a sefer, and suddenly it hit me: I felt the reality that Hashem exists. Then, everything became clear to me.

I grew up in a frum home and learned in a good yeshivah, and I knew all about Emunah that a person is supposed to have. I was taught the 13 principles of faith of the Rambam about belief in G-d. But I realized that although I knew a lot, I didn’t feel what I knew.

Then I knew what I was missing.

This is what I realized: There is a place in one’s heart where he can feel the Endlessness of Hashem’s existence, and when a person doesn’t feel this, he feels empty. He will search and search and he will not find the answers to his emptiness.

Some people were not blessed by Hashem with much feeling, and this emptiness doesn’t bother them, the same way a table doesn’t feel anything. They get up and go to work or even if they go learn, they simply don’t feel this emptiness. They feel fine. But any person with a little feeling can see how this world is full of so much emptiness – tohu and vohu, and utter darkness. They want light – the light of Hashem – to illuminate their darkness.

The more feeling a person is, the more unhappy he is with what the reality is. XXX
There are a few people who are very deeply feeling people and they are in a lot of pain. They see others who are fine and look happy, and they don’t know why they themselves aren’t happy. These people suffer greatly inside. In addition to this, they are searching to fill their emptiness, and they don’t know how.

The more feeling a person is, the more unhappy he is with what the reality is. He sees others sitting and learning and enjoying their learning – he sees how by others, the Torah is their life. But he doesn’t feel in his own life how the Torah is life. He knows that it is supposed to give him life, but he doesn’t feel it. He feels that Torah doesn’t give him life, so maybe life is found elsewhere… such as the streets…

We must know one thing. The world is full of false pleasures; the Sages say that our soul will never be satisfied with this world’s pleasures, whether it is forbidden pleasure or whether it is permissible pleasure. Why? It is because our soul comes from Heaven; it wants something else.

The Root Of All Problems

At one point in my life, I realized what the root of all problems in the world is.

Baruch Hashem, people know most of the statements of Chazal, but they only know it intellectually – and that’s it. People know that Chazal say that the world stands on Torah, and that Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world, etc. But what is missing from us? We only know it – but we feel differently in our own life.

What we need to do is truly feel the truths about Torah and how it is everything, and then everything will change.

Falafel and Vacations

For many years, I thought about this until I finally came to this conclusion.

One time I passed by a falafel store and I saw a long line waiting out the store; a new kind of falafel came out, and everyone was waiting in line to try it. I thought to myself, “Maybe they’re right – maybe there really is something to this falafel? Maybe this falafel will make me happy?”

I waited on line, I bought it, I ate it – and I was very disappointed.

I began to think about what makes people feel more happy and alive.

I realized that some people feel a certain vitality from the honor they receive from other people, but I knew right away that that this was a false kind of vitality.

I saw people who were always going on vacations who seemed to really be enjoying it, though. I thought maybe there really is something special to all these vacations. I went on one of these vacations, but I was terribly disappointed. I rented a car, checked out into the hotel room, and as soon as I got into the room, I threw the keys onto the bed in frustration. I realized that while going to a hotel may have given me some more relaxation, it didn’t make me feel happier with my life.

It took many years for me to go deep into my soul and realize that I couldn’t be happy with my life based on anything external, but that it has to come from within myself. The more connected I felt to Torah and to Hashem, the more alive I felt. The more I would run after pleasure from the outside of myself, the more I realized I was chasing wind.

This is not a lecture. I am talking about a true story of my life – I am talking about my search, and what I found. Candies, cigarettes and walking on the beach can all give a person relaxation, and sometimes a person does need to relax in order to have some yishuv hadaas, but these things don’t give a person life. A person can only feel alive when he is truly connected to Hashem and the Torah.

More Frustration

It took me a lot of time to come to this conclusion.

One of the hardest times in my life I remember was when I learned in Yeshivah. I learned in Yeshivas Ponovezh, and I learned a lot. But I didn’t feel that my learning was giving me more life. I knew that the Torah is supposed to give me life, but I didn’t feel it. I thought that maybe I am the kind of student that the Sages say doesn’t see success in his learning. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to learn; I knew how to learn very well. I was regarded as an excellent student. But I didn’t feel like the Torah is what is giving me life, which is what I am supposed to feel.

I thought maybe I should leave yeshiva – I didn’t feel like I came onto the world to learn Torah. I knew that there are people who feel that they came onto this world to learn Torah, but I just didn’t feel that way.

I went to Jerusalem and decided that I will speak to one of the Gedolim who was there and ask him for his advice.

I went to his house, but he wasn’t available. I was very frustrated that I didn’t get into him, and I didn’t know what to do. I was very, very frustrated!

The Answer

At some point later, I realized what the answer was.

I thought to myself and realized clearly that if Hashem was the one who said that the Torah is our life – “Ki heim chayeinu” – then it must be so, and that I should never give up.

My Message To You

Don’t ever give up, even for one moment. Hashem is Avinu Av Harachaman – He is a merciful Father, and He wants you to have life. If you really want to find life in the Torah, you will find it.

If someone feels empty inside – or even if he doesn’t – he must know that he will not find anything pleasurable on this world; it’s all in his imagination that maybe there is something good out there other than the Torah.

Any pleasure on this world is fleeting and will not give a person enjoyment out of his life. If you really want to have a true life, cry to Hashem from the depths of your heart, “Open my heart to Your Torah” – not just that Hashem should open your mind, but to open your heart that you should have the true life – and then you will become a truly happy person, plain and simple.

I hope with all my heart that all of you should merit this and that Hashem should open up your hearts to realize that besides for a deep connection to Hashem and learning the Torah, there is nothing else we have that will give us enjoyment out of life.

Beat the Rosh Chodesh Elul Rush – Start Thinking About Teshuva Today

Rosh Chodesh Elul is coming which means that the Teshuva season is about to begin. If we want to have a successful Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur, seforim strongly advise us to start early in the month. It’s a tremendous opportunity for growth and we’d be foolish not to take advantage of it.

Most of the current day Rebbeim advise us to pick something small. Maybe saying Asher Yotzar with Kavanna, or pausing before we speak on occasion or perhaps starting an extra 10 minute seder in Mussar, Mishnah or Tanach. The sky is truly the limit, but we have to start reaching for it when Elul begins.

Being that our goal is to get closer to Hashem and we’re doing mitzvos to accomplish that goal, it might make sense to try to do the mitzvos with a little more Kavanna. There are three simple thoughts we can have before doing any mitzvah:

1) Hashem commanded us to do the mitzvah
2) We are the ones being commanded
3) And the specific mitzvah, whose commandment we are fullfilling is …. (whatever mitzvah you are doing)

It’s really pretty simple and it will help us get so much more mileage out of the mitzvos we already do.

Here’s a few resources for extra motivation:

Stepping Stones to Repentance: A thirty-day program based on Ohr Yisrael the classic writings of Rav Yisrael Salanter By: Rabbi Zvi Miller here’s an excerpt

DAY ONE: “BOUNDLESS BLESSINGS”
“There is no enterprise that yields profit like preparation for the Day of Atonement. Through studying Mussar and reflecting on how to improve one’s ways, a person is inspired on Yom Kippur to make resolutions for the future. Even the smallest, most minute preparation to enhance one’s Yom Kippur experience is invaluable, bringing boundless blessings of success. It saves one from many troubles — and there is no greater profit than this.” (Ohr Yisrael, Letter Seven, p. 193)

Rebbetzin Tzipora Heller – Three Steps to Genuine Change. An excerpt:

In the course of our lives, we close doors to higher and deeper selves and sometimes forget that we, too, are more than earners, spenders, and travelers through life. Our thoughtless enslavement to mindless routine can leave us without much of a relationship to our souls. In a materialistic society, it is all too easy to view others as competitors. As toddlers we observed that when you have three cookies and give one away, all you have left are two. From that point onward we are afraid to give.

R’ Dovid Schwartz zt”l- Rabbi Yonah of Gerona – Guilt is Good – mp3

R’ Daniel Stein – Hilchos Teshuva Introduction – mp3

R’ Moshe Schwerd – Din V’Cheshbon – mp3

R’ Yakov Haber on Rosh Hoshana and Hirhur Teshuva according to Rav Soloveitchik can be downloaded here.

R’ Yakov Haber on Rosh Hoshana davening can be downloaded here.

The Never Ending Road of the BT

“I’m a BT.” This statement has an air of finality to it, doesn’t it? Like, “I’m a graduate of Harvard Med School”, or “I’m a doctor”, or “I’m a mother”. “I’m a BT” could be right up there with the other descriptors that apply to me: Jewish, female, wife to Stephen, age 47, professional author, mother of three. “I’m a BT.” I like the ring of it. I don’t have to give over the long complicated story of how I journeyed for twenty years as an adult before committed to a Torah way of life. This is the thirty-second elevator speech: “I’m a BT.” Then, the person to whom I’m speaking can nod his or her head in an understanding way. “Ah, I get it. You’re a BT!” Now we understand each other. . .

After I mastered the art of announcing myself as a BT without stumbling over the words, or feeling embarrassed about it, it came as a bit of a surprise to me that the label can be quite misleading. I AM a BT makes it sound like I have graduated from BT school, and I can now pronounce myself as holding a Masters in BT’dom. I AM a BT makes it sound as if I traveled down a road, picked up this identity along the way, and now I am, forever more, a fully formed BT, with all the credentials. I AM a BT is a bit of a cop-out, an easy way to size up a complex journey that is impossible to reduce to an elevator speech. More accurate would probably be this: “I am growing and learning in Torah.” But of course that expression isn’t as jazzy sounding, doesn’t quite sum it up in a few easy to remember initials.

I now find it more accurate to use the expression “I am a BT” to identify the direction to which I am moving — closer towards Torah and the Torah ideals of my long-ago ancestors who stood at Mt. Sinai and pronounced themselves ready to follow Hashem’s commandments. I am no longer moving away and disowning my Jewish heritage, I am embracing it. I am no longer focused on successful assimilation for my children, but rather, successful indoctrination of my children into the yeshivas way of life. I am no longer satisfied with just knowing enough Jewish learning to get by — I want to learn something new every week. I am a BT, growing in Torah, and trying not to be discouraged by how far I have to go, but rather, looking back at how far I’ve come.

My seventh-grade daughter is studying the laws of Shabbos in school. I’ve been fully shomer shabbat for about six years, and to my knowledge there isn’t anyone in our Highland Park community who won’t eat in my home. I pass the test, so to speak. I can hang the BT kashrus certification on my fridge. But just the other day, my daughter came home from school and told me — nicely, because that’s how she’s been trained to speak to her Ima on such sensitive matters — that I was opening the black olive can wrong on Shabbos. I knew not to use the electric can opener. I knew not to tear off any letters from the label. I didn’t know that before I opened the top of the can, I was supposed to puncture a hole in the bottom, so that I would be rendering the vessel unusable. News to me. I’ve opened about 200 black olive cans the wrong way. Please forgive me, Hashem. I am a work in progress.

The longer I am a BT, the longer the road ahead of me appears to be. Way in the early days, I worried about such basics as separating milk from meat, and wearing a hat on Shabbos. I was figuring out how to say the right thing on the Yom Tovim, so that I didn’t just say “Good Shabbos” to everyone when it was a Tuesday. I felt like I was at the bottom of Mount Everest ( or should I say, Mt. Sinai), and the top seemed out of sight. But then, as I started climbing, with the help of some very special teachers, I started feeling more confident. I CAN DO THIS! I can keep a kosher home that even the Rabbi will eat in. I can wear a sheitle and a long skirt and look every bit the part of an FFB. I can go to classes and learn, and learn, and learn, and then practice, and practice, and practice, and I can DO this. I can raise my children to be frum yidden who will also choose to raise their children to be frum yidden. I have returned.

Funny thing about climbing this mountain. I’ve discovered that it’s somewhat comforting to keep looking “down” – it reminds me, when I get discouraged, of how far I’ve come. And I’ve also discovered that there really is no summit to reach when, should I get there, I can just kick back and enjoy the view. Thank G-d, I have three children, ages 8, 11, and 12 1/2 (in 2007), who keep teaching me how much more I have to learn. Thank G-d.

*******

Azriela Jaffe is the author of “What Do You Mean, You Can’t Eat in My Home, A Guide to How Newly Observant Jews and their Lesser Observant Relatives Can Still Get Along”, which can be purchased at Barnes and Noble and other online booksellers.

Originally Published Feb 27, 2007

Tisha B’Av Preparation – Preserving Our Prayer Portal – Lessons from Bar Kamtza’s Pain

It’s not often that Bar Kamtza is portrayed as the good guy, but in this shiur by Rabbi Herschel Welcher, titled “Lessons from the Pain of Bar Kamtza“, we take a look at the story from Bar Kamtza’s perspective and see the lessons we can learn and apply today. Please download the shiur here.

In a shiur titled, “The Morning after the Mourning“, Rabbi Moshe Schwerd explains how we were responsible for closing the Prayer Portal of the Beis HaMikdash and how we’re unfortunately repeating the lesson with our distracted approach to prayer today. Please download the shiur here.

The Internet, The Smartphone and my Deepening Connection to Rabbi Uziel Milevsky zt”l

The first time I heard Rabbi Uziel Milevsky zt”l speak was at a Rosh Hoshana program close to 30 years ago. Over the years I have read his two published works: “The Ohr Someach Haggadah” and “Ner Uziel – Perspectives on the Parsha”, a number of times. Rabbi Milevsky received smicha from Ner Yisrael, served as Chief Rabbi of Mexico and taught Torah at Ohr Somayach in Yerushalayim and Toronto. Unfortunately he passed away at the young age of 50 on December 31, 1992.

These days I feel fortune to feel more connected to Rabbi Milevsky due to the following set of circumstances:
1) Ohr Somayach taped his lectures from his Chumash classes over 30 years ago,
2) Ohr Somayach converted the tapes to mp3 and offered them for sale on the Internet.
3) Ohr Somayach made its entire audio library available for free.
4) I now download his available Chumash classes every week and since my phone is also a mp3 player, I have Rabbi Milevsky teaching me Torah where ever I go.

What I appreciate the most about Rabbi Milevsky’s parsha classes is that he is looking to say pshat on a posuk, a Rashi, a Ramban or other commentator. He will often say a chiddush but it is always based on sources and is well grounded. Give him a listen to at https://audio.ohr.edu/showperson/id=5 .

I want to also thank Ohr Somayach for freeing up their library which was a source of revenue at some point.

In 1984, at the first Hackers Conference, Stewart Brand told Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak: “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

If this is true of secular knowledge, how much more so for Torah, which has can changed so many of our lives. There really is no reason we can’t be listening to Torah an hour or two a day thanks to our Smartphones, the Internet, and the proliferation of free Torah sites.

So please make your way to
https://www.simpletoremember.com/media/ or
https://audio.ohr.edu or
https://torahanytime.com or
https://www.yutorah.org or
http://www.mp3shiur.com or
http://torahdownloads.com/
and load up your phone. It’s also appropriate to donate to the sites from which you benefit.

A Yeshivish Fourth of July to All

Gettysburg Address – English Version
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war.

We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.

It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this…The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here for the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of their devotion– that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain–that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom–and that the government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Gettysburg Address – Yeshivish Translation
Be’erech a yoivel and a half ago, the meyasdim shtelled avek on this makom a naiya malchus with the kavana that no one should have bailus over their chaver, and on this yesoid that everyone has the zelba zchusim.

We’re holding by a geferliche machloikes being machria if this medina, or an andere medina made in the same oifen and with the same machshovos, can have a kiyum.

We are all mitztaref on the daled amos where a chalois of that machloikes happened in order to be mechabed the soldiers who dinged zich with each other.

We are here to be koiveia chotsh a chelek of that karka as a kever for the bekavodike soldiers who were moiser nefesh and were niftar to give a chiyus to our nation.

Yashrus is mechayev us to do this… Lemaise, hagam the velt won’t be goires or machshiv what we speak out here, it’s zicher not shayach for them to forget what they tued uf here.

We are mechuyav to be meshabed ourselves to the melocha in which these soldiers made a haschala–that vibalt they were moiser nefesh for this eisek, we must be mamash torud in it–that we are all mekabel on ourselves to be moisif on their peula so that their maisim should not be a bracha levatulla– that Hashem should give the gantze oilam a naiya bren for cheirus– that a nation that shtams by the oilam, by the oilam, by the oilam, will blaib fest ahd oilam.

Weiser, Chaim M. 1995. The First Dictionary of Yeshivish. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, P. xxxiii.

We’re All Broken Vessels – The 17th of Tammuz

Based on a lecture By Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller which can be found here.

The first major tragedy in history was when Adam ate the fruit and internalized confusion. Prior to that sin, confusion was external, but after the sin the confusion was internalized. Man went from an objective reality of true and false to an often confused subjective reality of good and evil.

Much of the negativity in the world is due to this confusion, where collective mankind brings upon itself tragedies such as hunger, poverty and war. This is the negative side of free choice and these tragedies result from our confusion. If we had G-d awareness, we would be able to get past these tragedies. If we had a strong sense of G-d’s presence, confused negative traits like selfishness, violence, cruelty and abusiveness would not exist.

After the first sin, G-d withdrew His presence from the world, but it was restored by people such as Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov until a full awareness of G-d was acheived at Sinai. So how did the people worship the golden calf shortly thereafter?

Nobody thought the golden calf was the creator of the world. Nobody creates an idol in the morning and thinks that it created him in the afternoon. The golden calf was representative of the powers of nature and strength, it was a representation of G-d. What is so bad about this? What’s so bad about idol worship is that we were created to elevate ourselves. Idol worship brings G-d down to man instead of man rising up to G-d. When we try to make G-d small, we fail as humans, we stop moving upwards. This lack of spiritual ambition was the second great tragedy.

Many people today are not intellectually confused, they are spiritually lost. They don’t see the value of becoming “big”. When we build golden calves we weaken spiritual ambition and cause spiritual diminishment.

When Moshe came down from Sinai on the 17th of Tammuz and saw the Golden Calf, he smashed the tablets. The Midrash says the tablets were very huge and the letters of the tablets carried the weight of the stone, the spirit carried the body. When he saw the golden calf, the spirit was gone and all that was left was stone, so the tablets fell under their own weight and were smashed.

Today we live in a world of rampant materialism and foreign lifestyles. It is a world where spirit is gone and what is left is stone. This is one reason why we fast today.

The next significant event is that the sacrifices were stopped before the destruction of the temple. Even during the siege of Yerushalayim, the Jews would offer sacrifices. They would send down money over the wall and an animal would be sent up. One day they sent down money and a pig was sent up. It was at that point that the sacrifices stopped.

Today, many of us have trouble with sacrifices both emotionally and intellectually. But most of us have no problem using animals for food or for leather. We are fine with exploiting animals for our physical purposes, but if we talk about using an animal for spiritual means it becomes barbaric and ridiculous. This is because we have stone and we don’t have spirit, we can relate to eating, but we can’t relate to worship.

Animal sacrifice is a way of experientially relating to G-d. The person offering the sacrifice had to put their hand on the animal, saying I am mortal, I came from you and I will return to you. It was an extremely powerful way of relating to G-d. The reason we’re concerned about the day the sacrifices stopped is because of what it says about it. The fact that the temple could be destroyed is an example of spirit turning to stone and the animal sacrifices being another symptom.

The other tragedies on this day were the Torah was burned, an idol was brought into the temple and the walls of Yerushalayim were breached, leading to the destruction on the 9th of Av. When we talk about losing the Temple, it’s hard to grasp what that means. The temple was called a mountain by Avraham, a field by Yitzchak and a house by Yaakov. A house is a place where you can personally express yourself. For a Jew, personal self-expression means putting back spirit where there is only stone. The Beis Hamikdash was a place where spiritual experience was a part of physical experience, it wasn’t two different worlds like it is today.

We can’t relate to what we are missing in the temple experience, because we have never met anybody who met anybody who met anybody who saw the Jewish people when our major identity was spirit and not stone. We don’t know who we are anymore.

What does this have to do with us personally? When we think about what gives our life joy it comes down to two things, triumph and love. If we think about our happiest moment, there is no doubt there is triumph and love. Triumph and love only happen when spirit is greater than stone. Our world is very banal and grey and the only thing that allows us to rise above this physical existence is the moments of triumph and achievement that are truly spiritual that come to us through the mitzvos.

The 17th of Tammuz is a personal day when we have to do an accounting of our soul, a cheshbon nefesh. We have to figure where we are, where we want to be, where we want to be next year. What do we want people to say about us in the end, how would we want today to look if it was our last day? It’s a heavy day, it’s meant to be heavy.

In addition to looking at this personally, we have an obligation to look at this collectively. Collectively, we are not in such great shape, especially in regard to events in the Middle East. We are all collectively responsible for the state we are in.

Today we have to say, can we be the person we talk about every day in the Shema? Can we love G-d with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our possessions? Do we live up to the ideal of spirit over rock. G-d has promised us that when we live up to our potential, He will give us the land and He will give us peace. When we fail, we are expelled. This is what we say in the Shema, if we serve Hashem with our heart and our soul we will get blessings. But be careful that your heart is not seduced. We can’t let our emotions lead us to choosing the physical over the spiritual. This will lead us to worshipping and serving other G-ds, our own private golden calves. We all know at least one person who is enslaved to their ego, or their income or their career. This is personal enslavement. When we reach that state of enslavement, G-d will expel us from the land, because He cares for us. G-d on his side wants to give, but do we want to receive?

Fasting has two purposes to move us away from the physical and to recognize our fraility. We move away from the physical pleasure, specifically eating which is a big part of our life. As it gets late in the day, many of us will ask, when is the fast over. We will be concerned about the phyisical. This need for the physical reminds us that we are frail and we are physical. Part of raising the spiritual over the physical is being forgiving of each other. The more we are aware of our own fraility, the easier it is to remember that every person we encounter is a member of the brotherhood of the frail. Everybody else faces the physical and gratification struggles that we do. We need to forgive them like we want G-d to forgive us.

In the time of the sacrifices in Shilo, after pottery vessels were used for libations, they had to be broken within sight of the alter. After coming in to possession of some of these pottery shards, Rebbetzin Heller realized that these shards were pieces of someone else’s Teshuva. She sent some of these shards to a friend in the States who had suffered some great losses. She asked her what she thought about the shards. Her friend told her, “We’re all broken vessels”.

Once we see everybody as a broken vessel, we can forgive them, we can love them, we can let what we see of their spirit overcome what we see of their stone. This is the key that will help us overcome the destruction that we find ourselves in now. This is the way the Third Temple will be built.


First Posted on July 3rd, 2007

Earning a Living Doesn’t Have To Be Difficult

By Ben Tzion Shafier

Parshas Chukas
“And Hashem said to Moshe and Aharon, ‘Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore, you will not bring this congregation to the land that I have given them.’” — Bamidbar 20:12

The be’er disappeared when Miriam died
For almost forty years while the Jews were traveling in the desert, their source of water was the be’er, well, a large rock that provided the water they needed to survive. The Jewish nation then consisted of about three million people. They had also taken many animals with them when they went out of Mitzrayim, so they required millions of gallons of water each day. The be’er provided all they needed and more.

When Miriam died, the rock disappeared, and Klal Yisroel, the Jews recognized that their survival was in jeopardy. Hashem told Moshe Rabbeinu, our teacher to go out into the desert, speak to the rock, and bring the water back. When Moshe and Aharon went to the rock, they spoke to it and received no response. Moshe then assumed that just as it was necessary to hit the rock when the Jews first went out into the desert, so too now. When he hit the rock, it began pouring forth water.

Later, Hashem told Moshe and Aaron that they had erred. Hashem told them to speak to the rock, and it was through the power of speech that the miracle was to come about. On some level, they were lacking in their trust in Hashem, and this caused them to miscalculate. Had they been more complete in their trust, they would have used words alone, and the rock would have provided the water.

Rashi tells us that because of this mistake, the Jewish people lost out on a great lesson. Had Moshe only spoken to the rock, the Jews would have said to themselves, “A rock doesn’t require sustenance, yet it listens to the word of Hashem; surely, we, who rely on Hashem for parnassa, livelihood must listen to Him.” However, since Moshe hit the rock instead of speaking to it, that lesson was lost.

Rashi seems to be saying that if Moshe had spoken to the rock, the Jewish people would have increased their level of service to Hashem. They would have realized that their livelihood was dependent upon their doing mitzvahs, and this would have added focus and precision in the way that they fulfilled them.

Reward for mitzvahs isn’t in this world
There are two problems with understanding this Rashi. One is that the Gemara tells us that the reward for mitzvahs is not in this world. While it is true that Hashem rewards every good a person does, the place of that reward is in the World to Come. In fact, it is considered a curse to use up your payment in this world – something that is reserved for wicked people. So it doesn’t seem to be correct that their livelihood was dependent upon listening to Hashem.

The second problem with this Rashi is that any motivational system must be tailored to fit the audience. The people of this generation received the Torah on Har Sinai. They spent almost forty years surrounded by the Clouds of Glory, completely immersed in Torah study, and sustained by the mon, manna. They were on the highest madreigah, level of any generation in history. So even if their parnassa was dependent upon their listening, how would they be motivated by something so mundane as earning their daily bread?

Obstacles that prevent us from serving Hashem
The answer to this question is based on understanding the Rambam (in Hilchos Tshuvah, Perek 9). He explains that even though we don’t receive reward for doing mitzvahs in this world, if a person keeps the Torah properly, then Hashem will remove all of the obstacles that normally prevent a person from keeping the mitzvahs. Sickness, war, poverty, and hunger prevent a person from learning or fulfilling the mitzvahs, commandments. If a person is happy and dedicates himself to keeping the Torah, Hashem will shower him with all of the requirements to better serve Him, including peace, tranquility, well-being, sustenance, and all else that a person needs to follow the Torah.

The Rambam is telling us that since Hashem created the world in order to have man follow the Torah, when a person uses the world properly, then Hashem allows him to have his needs met in this world without strain. This will help him better serve Hashem.

Hashem was telling Moshe and Aharon that this lesson would have greatly affected the generation of the desert, but it was lost. Had the people seen the rock obeying Hashem’s command, they would have been moved to a powerful realization: “The rock doesn’t have needs, yet it listens to Hashem. How much more so should we, who have so many needs? Hashem has promised that if we follow in his ways, He will remove all obstacles from our path. But if we don’t listen. . .”

That was a lesson that would have affected even this generation because their very survival depended on it. While people may have many lofty motives, one of our strongest drives is self-preservation. Had that generation come to a more clear recognition that their existence was dependent upon keeping the Torah, it would have changed even their appreciation — but it was a lesson lost.

Earning a living isn’t easy
The concept that Hashem takes care of our needs when we use our lives properly can be a great source of motivation. Earning a living isn’t easy. Market economies rise and fall. Entire industries come and go. Careers that are in high demand in one decade are outsourced and sent overseas the next. Financial security in an ever-changing world is fragile at best.

While our main motivation to keep the Torah is that Hashem commanded us to do it for our benefit in the World to Come, the reality is that we live in this world. We have bills to pay, children to put through school, and many, many financial obligations. Knowing that Hashem will remove the obstacles standing in our way, as long as we dedicate ourselves to passionately keeping the Torah, can be a great impetus to growth.

This is not to say that life will be a bed of roses. There will still be nisyonos, life tests and different settings that we need for various reasons. However, the basic starting position is that Hashem will take care of my needs so that I can better serve Him. That understanding can aid us to focus on our true purpose in this world and allow us a much greater degree of success in all of our endeavors.

For more on this topic please listen to Shmuz #161 – April 15th The Test of Emunah

Rabbi Shafier is the founder of the Shmuz.com – The Shmuz is an engaging, motivating shiur that deals with real life issues.

All of the Shmuzin are available free of charge at www.theShmuz.com or on the Shmuz App for iphone or Android. Simply text the word “TheShmuz” to the number 313131 and a link will be sent to your phone to download the App.

The Joy of Mussar

You might be questioning whether it’s appropriate to use the words “Joy” and “Mussar” in the same sentence. Mussar has a strong judgemental tone. When you give somebody Mussar, you’re not telling him to “Have a nice day”. Rather, you’re telling him that “You need to make some serious corrections, brother.”

If we look at the Mesillas Yesharim, the classic textbook on spiritual growth and Mussar, we’ll see that the perceived judgemental tone of Mussar is well founded. The early chapters deal with the trait of Zehirus, watchfulness. The first essential spiritual practice of Zehirus is thinking before you act so that you don’t come to do something wrong. The second essential spiritual practice is reviewing your daily actions to identify and work on correcting in the future the things you did wrong today. This type of self-judgment sounds intense and it may turn a person away from Mussar, but please read on.

The key is to put this self-judgement in its proper perspective, as the Mesillas Yesharim does in the first two chapters of the sefer. He tells us that the highest pleasure that can be achieved in this world (and the next) is the pleasure of connecting to Hashem. We know that positive emotional and spirtual pleasures are the result of love and connection, as we experience in the pleasure of loving our spouses, our children, our parents, and our friends. We can experience an even greater pleasure when we love and connect with the Master of the Universe and the Source of All Existence. Achieving this great spiritual pleasure takes work. However, when we do put in the proper effort and achieve success, the fact that we worked hard to earn that pleasure makes it even sweeter.

The Ramchal teaches us that the work primarily involves overcoming three spiritual deficiencies: 1) controlling and directing our physical desires; 2) reducing self-centeredness and ego; and 3) overcoming our natural inclination to be lazy. Corresponding to the extent that we overcome these deficiencies is the extent to which we can experience the greatest of pleasures—connecting to Hashem. We correct these deficiencies through the positive and negative mitzvos. And just like a businessman must judge his activities to achieve his goals, so too must we judge our activities to see why we are not achieving the intense spiritual pleasure available to us.

This is the Joy of Mussar. We have the ability to achieve intense connection and pleasure and Mussar helps us to keep moving on that path. We know from our professional, friendship-building, parental, and spousal experiences that achieving success in the most important things in life takes work. How fortunate are we to have an avenue like Mussar, and a sefer like the Mesillas Yesharim to instruct us on what we need to do to help us achieve the greatest pleasures and happiness available in this world.

How to Make a Bar Mitzvah and Actually Enjoy It

Having made a number of bar mitzvahs, I have some experience which I would be happy to share with Beyond BT readers who have reached this point in their family lives.

Practical Points
The most important thing is to make a list of all required actions and put them on a schedule leading up to the date of the Bar Mitzvah.
A sample would be as follows:

-9 months to one year before:
–begin bar mitzvah lessons if son is going to lein the parsha
–reserve the date with the gabbai of your shul

-6 months before:
–order tefillin if ordering from Eretz Yisroel
–decide what to do re: seudas mitzvah, Kiddush, Shabbos meals
–examine venues and reserve one for each of the above if needed
–start your diet (just joking!)

-3 months before:
–order tefillin if ordering locally
–make inquiries into invitation businesses and order invitation package. Don’t forget some form of thank you cards.
–make inquiries for catering and reserve caterer. The actual reservation can be done at a later time but it should be started early.
–hire musician and photographer. If they are popular or you live in a large city this may have to be done earlier.
–call neighbors and arrange for sleep over arrangements for those friends and relatives staying over for Shabbos
–order new sheitel if needed
–if cooking for meals or Kiddush yourself, start freezing!! You should not have to cook for shabbos at the last minute

-2 months before:
–begin shopping for clothes for family, including YOU! (for bar mitzvah boy this includes new suit, new hat (or two), shoes, etc.), for both Shabbos and seudah evening. This could be done earlier if clothing for the season is available, but since children tend to change size, I don’t recommend shopping too early.
–edit and make final changes to invitation

-1 month before:
–confirm and pay for hall and establish table set-up.
TIP: don’t forget to check out where the speakers will stand and make sure there is an outlet nearby for the sound system!
–decide and confirm menu for seudah, Kiddush and shabbos meals
–send out invitations
–confirm with musician and photographer.
–prepare a list/spread sheet for invitation responses and who sent gifts for thank you cards
–order benchers.
–confirm neighbor’s guest arrangements
–buy small gifts for neighbors who will be hosting your family
–buy small welcome bags and fill with snacks, water, etc for your out of town guests
–if you are self-preparing the Kiddush, hire waiters to set it up while you are at shul.
–decide how to prepare centerpieces for seudah, and if necessary reserve at a gemach or florist. Gemachs can also be used for Kiddush serving pieces if doing it yourself.
–have hubby (HELP-ha ha) write the pshetel (bar mitzvah boy’s torah speech) and his own remarks.
–invite your Rabbi, rebbe, principal, etc. to speak at the seudah
–sheitel appointment
–haircuts

-Week of:
–last minute food shopping & Shabbos cooking
–last minute clothes shopping –don’t forget several pairs of new stockings
–give final guest count to the caterer
–make sure everyone’s siddur, other Shabbos needs are in one secure place. Especially their shabbos shoes!

-Day of (for Shabbos):
–Wake up early! Leave for shul early! Take a chumash to follow along with the leining (unless the shul has enough copies)!

-Day of (for the seudah):
–check out set up as early as possible. Many times things are not set up properly
–bring the centerpieces
–bring the benchers
–bring along a long, heavy duty extension cord (just in case)

-TIPS: For those seeking to scale down the celebration and/or save some money, there are several things that can be done yourself.
–The Kiddush can be in your home. This will save $1000 or more by itself. Yes, it will be messy and crowded, but it will last only an hour. We did ours in our back yard and it was amazing! We cooked, baked and froze, and were supplemented by many generous friends.
–The invitations can be done by someone who knows or is studying computer graphics, for a fraction of the cost. Buy the stationary yourself at Staples, and do the copying at a Kinkos.
–For the photography, find someone with a good digital camera and arrange a deal where he takes the shots and you just take the chip/card afterwards and you do the printing yourself. But this is not worth it if he is not good. The photos are your remaining memories of the event, so make sure he/she is good!
–We did the centerpieces ourselves: with vases from the gemach I made fresh flowers for each table in matching pieces of fresh fruit. You can cut the cost even more by putting flowers only on the women’s tables (men don’t notice or care anyways).

Emotional Points
–Obviously, this is a lot of work. It can get quite stressful, especially when there aren’t frum family involved helping you with the arrangements, or who want to do things differently than you. And especially when holidays like Pesach are near or on your son’s bar mitzvah date.
–Despite the joy the event heralds, many BT mothers have experienced bar mitzvah planning as lonely and stressful. If you don’t have a mother or sister to share the planning with, it would be a positive move to involve a good friend to help you out, shop with you, and help you make your decisions (along with your husband of course).
–Family milestones can also resurrect difficulties with non-frum family that you thought were resolved. For example, asking them to dress modestly, issues of driving to you on Shabbos, the separate dancing, the separate seating, the women behind the mechitza in shul, can all be flashpoints for vocal disagreements. Being prepared for this eventuality and discussing with your husband how to respond to various possible scenarios is the best way to prevent or diffuse any arguments.
–After all the planning, however, when the day arrives, it ushers in a powerful experience of simcha and yiddishe nachas, when you realize how far you’ve come as a family and how much your son has grown. In my experience, boys take their bar mitzvah very seriously and it is an opportune chinuch moment to emphasize how proud you are of him and how you love seeing him involved in his learning and davening. Im Yirtzeh Hashem he should go from this accomplishment to other Torah milestones!

Mazel Tov!

Thanks to bar mitzvah planner Laurie B from Passaic.

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

Pirkei Avos from the Top

It’s week one again for Pirkei Avos and you can download an English translation here (Translation by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld from his commentary at http://torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos). For those who don’t like to download PDFs, here is Chapter One:

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

PSSD: Post Shavuos Stress Disorder

After spending an inspiring Shavuos, I often find myself a little overwhelmed. While most of us get stressed out about getting home on time for Shabbos, or all the preparation that goes into Pesach, I find the days after Shavuos to be stressful. Cheesecake aside, the magnitude of spending an entire evening engaged in Torah study and celebrating our acceptance of that Torah, is awesome.

I find the “high” I get after spending a night learning Torah or listening to a lecture is something I want to hold on to, forever. I want to take it, bottle it, and hide it away for the times when I feel challenged with my learning or my davening. For me, I find it stressful. As I walked home, Shavuos morning, from a night of intellectual and emotional stimulation I had questions running in my mind: What should I learn and where do I start? Who am I to even attempt to get “into learning”? When will I find time?

For some reason my mind wondered back to something I had heard from Rabbi Baruch Klein (Far Rockaway). He said, in the name of the Chofetz Chaim, that the secret to staying inspired is found in the Shema. The Torah says in Devarim (Deuteronomy 6:6): “And these matters that I command you today shall be upon your heart.” All of my answers, according to the Chofetz Chaim, are in this one verse.

What should I learn and where do I start? “And these matters” refers to words of Torah. It really doesn’t matter if you are starting out with Alef-Beis, Chumash, or the laws of Shabbos. Any way that you can increase your Jewish knowledge and grow closer to Hashem is fantastic!! Don’t fall into the trap of there being “too much” to learn. Just pick up a book, go to a class, or go online to any link featured at BeyondBT.

Who am I to even attempt to get “into learning”? It’s easy to look at FFBs or even BTs who have years of Torah learning behind them and think, “There’s no way I can ever catch up to everyone else. I feel like I’m so far behind.” “That I command you” the verse says. Who commands me? Hashem is commanding us. Learning Torah, davening, grown in mitzvah observance all about having a relationship with Hashem. It really doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing or what their background is. By definition, a Baal Teshuva is one who goes against the way they were raised or against lifestyle they grew up in. We start off so headstrong and sure of ourselves, yet as we “settle into” yiddishkeit, it’s easy to get caught up the status quo.

When will I find time? “Today” is as good a time as any. Don’t tell yourself you don’t have any time. Remember the Nike commercials: JUST DO IT.

“Shall be upon your heart” means that then entire verse should be constantly in our thoughts throughout the day. Torah is meant to become part of us. Torah Judaism is more that just a lifestyle or a set of laws. It is something that is entwined within the fabric of our being. The opportunities to get close to Hashem are not confined to a night of Shavuos. It’s everyday. It every bracha we choose to make, every kind word we say about another person, and every time we remember that we are connected to Hashem.

Thanks to Rabbi Klein and the Chofetz Chaim, I’m feeling less stressed.

Originally Posted June, 2006

Attaining the Needs of Our Soul

Rabbi Itamar Shwartz (Author of Bilvavi Mishkan Evner)
Download Rav Shwartz’ Shavous Talks here.

Three Kinds Of Love: For the Creator, For Torah, and For Another Jew

With the help of Hashem, we are approaching the time of the giving of the Torah.

When the Torah was given, there were three great revelations. The first revelation was that Hashem came down onto Har Sinai, and opened up all the heavens and showed us that Ain Od Milvado, there is nothing besides for Him. The second revelation was the Ten Commandments, which contains the entire Torah. The third revelation was that we all stood together with one heart.

The sefarim hakedoshim reveal that there are three kinds of love that we need to seek: love for Hashem, love for the Torah, and love for the Jewish people. These three kinds of love were all revealed at the giving of the Torah. Our love for the Creator was revealed when Hashem revealed Himself to us. Our love for the Torah was revealed through the Ten Commandments. Our love for the Jewish people was revealed when we had complete unity with each other, standing together with one heart.

The Love We Have Towards Ourselves

When a person is born, his power of love isn’t developed yet. He does not know of love for Hashem, for Torah, and for another Jew. He loves himself – and he identifies himself as a body, so he loves his body. As a person gets older, he is supposed to mature and develop his love to become more spiritual, forming a love for Hashem, for Torah, and for other Jews.

When a person loves himself, there are two kinds of love: love for his body (guf), and love for his soul (nefesh).

Unless someone works on his middos, he naturally worries for himself all day, from morning until night. People also think a little about others, more or less, and it depends on each person; some are a bit more purified.

A person worries about his physical needs and for his emotional needs (we are referring to his nefesh habehaimis (“lower, animalistic layer of the soul) and not to the deeper, spiritual needs of the soul).

Most people put more focus on their physical needs. This is usually a very strong kind of love. People eat and drink because they love their body.

Most people are concentrating on their body’s physical needs – and not their soul’s basic emotional needs.

We are not even addressing how people neglect their soul’s spiritual needs, which are higher needs; even the basic emotional needs of a person are often neglected. Most people are busy and occupied with [shopping for] clothing and food. And if that is the situation of Jews today, surely non-Jews are like this too. The world today is mostly running after physical gratification.

Unless a person works to change this, when it comes Shavuos time – a time to prepare for loving Hashem the Torah and the Jews – it is far from him. If he doesn’t meet his soul’s basic emotional needs, he won’t even care about his spiritual needs.

How We Love Others

A person who pays attention to his body and neglects his soul only loves others superficially. He might feel like he “loves” his friends, but in reality, he only loves their bodies.

Even with his family he’s like this; he only loves his wife and children with a “body” kind of love. The Chovos HaLevovos writes that our family is part of our flesh. Therefore, if a person loves only his ‘flesh’, and not his soul, then although he will love his family, he only loves the physical ‘flesh’ of his family. He can love his wife who is called his ‘flesh’ (that is, if he even reaches the basic love for his wife…), but he only loves her from his body, not from his soul.

If a person doesn’t love his own soul, he does not know what it means to love the soul of another. This is because love is an extension of how much a person loves his own self[1]. If a person only loves his ‘flesh’, he will love others only for their ‘flesh’. (One he truly loves his soul, though, is a very inner kind of person). His whole Ahavas Yisrael towards other Jews will be superficial, because he only loves others’ ‘flesh’, and not their souls. This is not Ahavas Yisrael.

We can find that there are certain people who only love their own ‘type’ – similar to how the chassidah\stork only does kindness with other storks, and not with other animals. (And for this reason, the stork is a non-kosher bird, because it does not do real kindness – only to those who are the “same type”…) It is all because most people are only loving the flesh of others, because they only know of love for their flesh, and they do not know of love for the soul.

A person can only love others in the same way he loves himself, because love to others is an extension of how much you love yourself. If one only loves his ‘flesh’ – his physical existence – his love can only go so far as to love the ‘flesh’ of others, but he cannot love their souls. He doesn’t love his own soul.

Simchas Yom Tov

When Shavuos comes, it’s a time of Simchas Yom Tov (rejoicing in the festival). What is the simchah? Is it physical contentment, or it is a spiritual feeling?

Of course, Chazal say[2] that the mitzvah is fulfilled through meat and wine; these things do bring a degree of happiness. But it’s clear that meat and wine are not the entire of happiness of the Yom Tov. This is not only true with regards to Simchas Yom Tov. It is true with regards to all of life: the physical aspects of our life cannot be everything. There is more to life than our physical needs.

When a person does mitzvos – like if he puts on tefillin – it might be on his ‘body’, but it’s not necessarily affecting his soul. This is because if a person identifies himself as a body and not as a soul, it will hamper his connection to anything spiritual.

Learning Torah is spiritual. Even the intellectual aspect of it is spiritual. If a person only identifies with his body and not with his soul, then even if he learns Torah for many hours of the day, it won’t affect his soul.

Overeating: The Prime Example of Materialistic Pursuit

The generation is full of physical desires (including kosher and non-kosher). New things come out every day. When a person pursues them, his soul gets concealed more and more, as the person only gives attention to his physical body. He embodies the possuk, “Ach besari” – “Nothing but my flesh”…

When a person eats and eats, he can get so involved in it that he feels as if the food is a part of him! The Chovos HaLevovos writes that when people indulge in food, it connects a person more and more to materialism, and the more a person indulges, the thicker he is entrenched in the materialism. The person begins to feel very connected to food with the more and more he indulges, and he identifies the food as a part of himself…

Nowadays, when a person meets with a friend, he usually eats with him. Rarely do people meet each other without seeking to have some kind of meal with each other. Why can’t people meet each other and just be happy that they see each other, without eating with each other? With many friendships, it’s based on how eating they have with each other!

When it comes to spending time with family, all people often do is eat meals with each other, and that’s the basis of their whole relationship…

The physical desires of this world all affect us with the more we indulge in it. When we only give attention to the needs of our physical flesh, we experience life only through our physical flesh – and that is how we will see others: as mere physical flesh. Our whole relationship towards others will only be based on recognizing them as physical bodies of flesh.

And, taking this further, rachmana litzlon, that is how a person will also relate to Torah and to Hashem: he will have a very superficial connection with Torah and with Hashem, because he is only living life superficially. Even if he tries to experience a connection with Hashem, he won’t get to it, because he is living only in his physical flesh.

The Maharal says that the more a person attaches himself to choimer\materialism, the less the Torah can enter him. The Torah is spiritual, and it cannot enter materialism.

Physical Affection: Feeling The Other’s Body – Or Feeling The Other’s Soul…?

When two friends meet each other and they feel really close with each other, they will usually hug and kiss each other, as signs of affection. What are their motivations, though? If they only love their bodies, and not their souls, then they are hugging and kissing the other person’s body, not the other’s soul!

They should really wish to hug and kiss the others’ soul, and the signs of physical affection would be a reflection of that inner love for each other. But because they live life through their bodies, they can only know of love for the others’ body…

It is similar to when Esav kissed Yaakov. When Esav kissed Yaakov, he wasn’t kissing the soul of Yaakov. He was kissing the body of Yaakov. It wasn’t a love emanating from his soul, because he only knew of physical gratification. The rules is that “Esav hates Yaakov” – even though he kissed him. Because it wasn’t a real kiss.

But if a person lives a life of the soul, and he loves his soul in turn, he will open himself up to begin to love the soul of others.

The Needs of A Child

The love that most people have for their families is only for their bodies, and not for their souls.

We can see this from the fact that most parents do not provide even the most basic emotional needs of the child, such as that the child should feel loved and happy. They give lots of things to their children, but they don’t provide the emotional needs.

Why? It is because they don’t even give themselves their own emotional needs. Therefore, they don’t realize that their children aren’t getting their emotional needs met, because they don’t give importance in their own life to their own emotional needs.

The Test

If a person was given a choice if he will be given 10 minutes of good food or 10 minutes of happiness, what would he choose?

Here is the litmus test. If a person says he’ll go for the food, it shows how he views life, that his life is all about loving his physical flesh. If a person says he’ll choose happiness, it shows that he identifies with his soul’s needs.

We are not describing a high level to be on. We are talking about how a person experiences life.

What Weddings Have Become Today

Take a look at simchos (celebrations) today. When people go to a wedding, how many of them can say that they rejoiced the chosson and kallah? What is the simcha that most people have by weddings? The food! People go to weddings and eat and eat and eat; weddings nowadays have become an entire evening for one to simply fulfill his physical desires! What does this have to with rejoicing a chosson and kallah?!

A person often gets caught up in all the good food there, and he often doesn’t even get around to rejoicing the chosson and kallah. If we ask him, “Did you get to rejoice the chosson\kallah?” The answer is, “I didn’t even think about that. I was too busy eating the food and having a good time.”

If you ask him if he enjoyed the wedding, he might answer, “Sure, I enjoyed the wedding.” Baruch Hashem, he enjoyed it. He enjoyed it all for himself; he didn’t even think to rejoice the chosson or kallah. Can we call this simcha?! Is this the simcha of a wedding?!

The only happiness that we have today – conceptually – is (besides for Yom Tov) by a wedding, a simchas chosson v’kallah. But to our chagrin, weddings today are not about simcha – people go just for the food. They gratify their bodies through it, not their souls.

Changing

The choice that everyone has on this world is: If he will live life through his body, or through his soul.

A person should ask himself how much physical gratification he’s getting, versus how much of his basic soul needs that he is getting. One should try thinking about this every day.

If anyone reflects, he’ll find that most of the day is spent on physical gratification – whether it’s coffee, smoking, food, newspapers, etc. Each to his own.

To begin to change this, one should try to make sure that he’s giving himself at least a little attention each day to his soul’s needs.

Today, pleasure is often only experienced sensually, with the physical. People often are completely devoid of experiencing any enjoyment whatsoever with regards to their souls.

A person can start to change this by making sure to give his soul a little pleasure each day. This is just the beginning step.

When a person then feels a desire for something physical, such as for food – if he feels that he can give it up for something that is a soul need, he is making progress with this. It shows that he has begun to change his perspective at least a little.

Someone who does this and gets used to this will come to an amazing discovery. He will begin to actually feel others. He will feel other’s happiness when they make a simcha, and he will feel their sadness when they go through a loss. His soul will be able to feel the other’s soul.

A Newly Developed Awareness

The more a person gets used to satisfying his soul’s basic needs, he will begin to live a life of the soul. It will open a whole new kind of awareness in himself.

Most people identify themselves as a body and live life through that awareness. People know intellectually about the soul, but they are mostly experiencing life only through their body.

Once a person identifies himself more with his soul, he will feel like his body is a heavy weight upon him. He will feel like, “This body of mine that I’m carrying all the time is so heavy!” Even if he isn’t a heavy person, he will still feel that his body is like a heavy weight upon him that he has to carry around. He used to think his body was himself, so he didn’t feel this heaviness as a burden. He thought his body was “Me.” Now that he has begun to identify himself as a soul, his body feels like something on top of him that’s a heavy load. Slowly, his desires for the physical will listen.

This has to become a natural feeling toward oneself, and in this way, one will begin to naturally feel that others are souls as well – as opposed to feeling them as mere bodies of physical flesh.

Feeling Another’s Soul

To give an example: When two friends meet each other and they shake each other’s hands, what do they feel? Do they just feel each other’s hands, or do they feel the other’s soul? If the person only feels the other’s hands, then he is acting with the same emotions with which a non-Jew lives life.

When a person meets another, why doesn’t he feel if the other is in a happy mood or a sad mood? It is because he only feels the other’s body. He doesn’t feel the other’s soul.

The more a person gives attention to his own soul’s needs, the more he will naturally feel another soul, as he begins to pay attention to his own. He will feel both the emotional as well as the spiritual needs of others. Without feeling oneself as a soul, love for others doesn’t even begin.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that after beginning to change his mindset that he will have perfect love toward others; he will still feel bothered by some people. But at least he has begun to open up in himself the ability to love others, and he’s on his way to building his love for others.

Leaving The Body And Entering The Soul

When we heard the Torah at Har Sinai, our souls left us. In other words, we left the perspective of the body and entered the perspective of our soul!

This shows us that the way to prepare for the Torah – [at least] one of the ways – is to leave our body’s perspective and to instead enter into our soul a bit. This will resemble how the souls of the Jewish people left their bodies at Har Sinai.

May we be zoche to leave the thick materialism of this world and instead feel how we are a soul, beginning from the most basic needs of our soul [our emotional happiness], and then to the more spiritual needs of our soul, until we finally reach the highest part of our soul – the point of total d’veykus (attachment) with Hashem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Up With the Hardcore Jewish People?

A friend sent us a link to a book called What’s Up With The Hard Core Jewish People? The excerpts help us understand a little better what some parents of Baalei Teshuva are going through:

“When our son, Carter, decided to blow off law school and stay in Jerusalem studying to be an Orthodox Rabbi, we were in cognitive dissonance. In our wildest dreams, we would have never expected such a thing. We needed to know what the hell just happened, why it happened, and what I needed to do to keep Carter’s desire to be an Observant Jew from breaking up our family. We had no one to turn to but the Hard Core Jewish People, and they’re no help. They thought what Carter was doing is the ‘bomb’. They lauded him for his courage — the consequences be damned. What about living 7,000 miles away from home on a different continent? What about the U.S. Department of State Travel Warning urging U.S. citizens to carefully weigh the necessity of their travel to Israel in light of the suicide bombings that were taking place on a regular basis? What about the divisiveness such a drastic lifestyle change can cause in a family? None of that matters because Torah rules! By learning Torah and teaching it to his children, Carter will be a part of the unbroken chain of Jewish tradition that has been carried from generation to generation for over 3,500 years. Oy!”

“The transformation from Secular to Observant Jew is rather shocking to those of us on the ‘dark side’. Why would anyone want to trade hedonism and materialism for Jewish spirituality and living up to God’s expectations of us?”

“We knew Carter was a goner when he told us he was shomer negiah. This means that other than a mother, grandmother, or sister (of which he has none), Carter can’t touch or be touched by a woman to whom he is not married. Even shaking hands is out of the question and pre-marital sex is definitely a no-no.”

“When we finally realized that Carter’s commitment to Judaism was for real and that he hadn’t been brainwashed, our job was to go into what I refer to as ‘Xanax-mode’ (staying calm no matter how preposterous something sounds) and my new favorite word became ‘whatever’.”

Originally Posted May 2006

Embracing Bais Yaakov Dress Standards – Differences Between Mother and Daughter

Bais Yaakov school dress standards often include duty length skirts (to the calf and not to the floor), loose fitting, legs fully covered with knee socks or stocking, past the elbow, staying away from fashion trends, etc..

Some FFBs and BTs did not embrace all these standards in their own dress, so they are faced with a contradiction between what they do and what they’re children are expected to do from their schools.

How have parents dealt with this issue?

Originally Published August, 2010.
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From the comments:

Belle says:

Tznius is a very hard mitzva for some girls to keep to. There is a lot of peer pressure to look cool, thin and pretty, and unfortunately many would say wearing an adorable mini skirt and tee shirt is more cool and pretty than a long pleated skirt and button down blouse. Having said that, then, when a parent herself “is not there yet” then the child will take that, consciously or unconsciously, as permission herself to be “not so strict.”

I think that a parent should choose which school best suits their family’s hashkafa and educational priorities. Then if the dress code is not in line with the parents’, it is incumbent on the parents to get it in line by the time the child is old enough to notice. Otherwise the child will detect hypocrisy (they are very very sensitive to that) and possibly reject the school’s teaching. The only exception I can think of is if the parent and child can honestly communicate about a single issue – let’s say wearing stockings – and the mother can say, “You know, I never grew up wearing stockings all the time and I still find it so hard to wear them in the summer. I wish I had the strength to do it because I think it is important, and I am going to try. But please know that I support that level of tznius and that is why I think that you need to wear them, you are still young and I want you to form good habits and have higher standards than I have.” If a child has maturity she will then see this not as hypocrisy but as a human struggle.

The real test, of course, like Judy Resnick says, is when the girl grows up and makes her own choices. Nothing that we do guarantees that someone else will choose to do mitzvos at the highest level, despite how they were raised. Sending them to a school with high standards is a good start, since that is what they get used to HOWEVER not if the school is too restrictive. Then it’s just a turn-off.

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From the comments:

Judy Resnick says:

At home, my husband and I were strict about Hilchos Tznius for me and my girls, and we sent our daughters to schools that were also strict in their dress codes. The girls were OK with this because it was accepted as the norm within their peer group and their friends and their community. Girls on the block where they grew up, even if they attended different schools, held by these standards. In addition, the girls in our shul and in other shuls in the community, and the girls they met at the playground or in summer camp, also held by these standards. Because they fit in comfortably and felt “normal” rather than “odd” or “weird” our daughters did not have a problem with Hilchos Tznius while growing up.

I did have a problem when the schools enforced rules that I thought went beyond Hilchos Tznius into some bizarre desire for ultra conformity. For example, the high school which my youngest daughter attended did not permit girls to wear their hair long and down over their shoulders: they had to tie up their long hair into a pony tail. They also did not permit dangling earrings: girls could only wear small stones in their ears. I also took issue with the ugly plaid skirts that were required for uniforms for high school girls. They were totally unattractive, making the girls look less mature, less smart and less thin all at the same time. However, I did not protest as I wanted my daughter to attend that school.

While I do my best to adhere to Hilchos Tznius in my own clothing, I do have personal issues with the limited color palette for frum women’s wear. If you go to an organization dinner, it looks Gd forbid just like a levaya, because all the women are wearing black. I’m not talking about looking garish or attracting attention, but why can’t we women wear some brighter colors sometimes, such as a tasteful dark red or a peach and aqua ensemble?

My four daughters are grown women now between the ages of 27 and 34. They are all wives and mothers and living independently. Three of them have chosen to continue observing Hilchos Tznius; the second girl has made choices and has decided not to do so, although she still keeps kosher, Shabbos and mikveh. I think you could describe this daughter as LWMO, not meaning anything negative toward LWMO or my daughter’s personal choice of her own observance level.

Sefiras Ha’Omer- Why We Count, What We Count

Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier

Sefiras Ha’Omer- Why We Count, What We Count – Parshas Emor

“And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the rest day, from the day when you bring the Omer of the waving — seven weeks, they shall be complete.” — Vayikra 23:15

Sefer HaChinuch: The Torah commands us to count the Omer so we can relive the Exodus from Mitzrayim. Just as the Jews back then anxiously anticipated the great day when they were to receive the Torah, so too we count the days till Shavuos, the Yom Tov that commemorates the giving of the Torah. To the Jews then, accepting the Torah on Har Sinai was even greater than their redemption from slavery. So we count each day to bring ourselves to that sense of great enthusiasm, as if to say, “When will that day come?”

With these words the Sefer HaChinuch defines the mitzvah of Sefiras HaOmer. The difficulty with this is the statement that “to the Jews then, receiving of the Torah was even greater than being freed from slavery.” It seems hard to imagine that anything would be greater to a slave than being freed. This concept is even more perplexing when we envision what it was like to be a slave in Mitzrayim.

A life of suffering and bloodshed

The life of a Jew in Mitzrayim was one of misery and suffering. They had no rights. They had no life. They couldn’t own property, choose their own destiny, or protect their own children. They didn’t even have the right to their own time. A Mitzri could at any moment demand a Jew’s utter and complete compliance to do his bidding. If a Jew walked in the streets, it was every Mitzri’s right to whisk him away, without question and without recourse, and force him into slave labor for whatever he saw fit.

Waking in the early morning to the crack of the Mitzri’s whip, the Jews were pushed to the limit of human endurance till late at night when they fell asleep in the fields. Without rest, without breaks, the Jews lugged heavy loads and lifted huge rocks. Sweat, tears, and bloodshed were their lot. In the heat of the sweltering sun and in the cold of the desert night, at the risk of life and limb, the Jew was oppressed with a demon-like fury. A beast of burden is treated wisely to ensure its well-being, but not the Jew. He was pushed beyond all limits. Finally, when Pharaoh was asked to let the Jewish people go, he increased their load, taking it from the impossible to the unimaginable.

How could anything in the world be more desirable to the Jews than freedom? How could it be that anything, even something as great as receiving the Torah, could mean more to them than being redeemed from slavery?

What the Jews experienced by living through the makkos

The answer to this question lies in understanding the great level of clarity that the Jews reached by living through the makkos and the splitting of the sea.

For ten months, each Jew saw with ever-increasing clarity that HASHEM created, maintains, and orchestrates this world. With absolute certainty, they experienced HASHEM’s presence in their lives. This understanding brought to them to recognize certain core cognitions.

Every human has inborn understandings. Often times they are masked and subdued. Whether by environment or by desire, the human spends much of his life running from the truths that he deeply knows. When the Jews in Mitzrayim experienced HASHEM’s power and goodness, they understood the purpose of Creation. They knew that we are creations, put on this planet for a reason. We were given a great opportunity to grow, to accomplish, to mold ourselves into who we will be for eternity. We have a few short, precious years here, and then forever we will enjoy that which we have accomplished. Because they so clearly experienced HASHEM, their view of existence was changed. They “got it.”

Because of this, the currency with which they measured all good changed. They recognized that the greatest good ever bestowed upon man is the ability to change, to mold himself into something different so that he will merit to cling to HASHEM. They recognized that everything that we humans value as important pales in comparison to the opportunity to grow close to HASHEM. Because they understood this point so vividly, to them the greatest good possible was the receiving of the Torah — G-d’s word, the ultimate spiritual experience.

And so, while they anxiously anticipated the redemption from slavery as a great good that would free them from physical oppression, they valued the reason they were being freed even more. They were to receive the Torah.

Davening is me talking to HASHEM; learning is HASHEM talking to me

This concept has great relevance in our lives, as we have the ability to tap into this instinctive knowledge of the importance of learning. When a person gets caught up in the temporal nature of this world, the currency with which he rates things changes. The value system now becomes honor, power, career, or creature comforts. That is what he views as good, and that is what he desires. The more a person involves himself in these, the more important they become, and the less precious the Torah becomes. Our natural appreciation of Torah becomes clouded over by other desires and an ever-changing value system.

However, the more a person focuses on his purpose in the world, the more he values the Torah. He recognizes it as the formula for human perfection. He now sees the Torah as the ultimate gift given to man because it is both the guide and the fuel to propel his growth. With this changed perspective, the very value system with which he measures things changes, and now his appreciation, love, and desire to learn increase until finally he becomes aligned with that which HASHEM created him for — perfection and closeness to HASHEM .

For more on this topic please listen to Shmuz #166 – Sefiras HaOmer –

Rabbi Shafier is the founder of the Shmuz.com – The Shmuz is an engaging, motivating shiur that deals with real life issues.

All of the Shmuzin are available free of charge at www.theShmuz.com or on the Shmuz App for iphone or Android. Simply text the word “TheShmuz” to the number 313131 and a link will be sent to your phone to download the App.

Why American Jews Reject Torah – Some Pain, Not Much Gain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classic Ramban on “Be Holy” – “Don’t Be a Scoundrel with the Permission of the Torah”

One of the most famous Rambans in the Torah is on Vayikra 19-2, where the Torah says “You Shall be Holy”. Here is translation of that Ramban from Sefaria.

You shall be holy: “One should be separate from sexual transgressions and from sin, for any place that one finds a fence [before] sexual transgressions, one [also] finds holiness (kedusha)” – this is the language of Rashi.

But in Sifra, Kedoshim, Section 1, Chapter 2, I saw only, “You shall be holy.” And [so,] they learned there (Sifra, Shemini, Chapter 12:3), “‘And you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, since holy am I’ (Leviticus 11:44) – Just like I am holy, you should be holy; just like I am separate, you should be separate.”

But according to my opinion, this separation is not to separate from sexual transgressions, like the words of the rabbi (Rashi). But [rather], the separation is the one mentioned in every place in the Talmud where its [practitioners] are called those that have separated themselves (perushim).

And the matter is [that] the Torah prohibited sexual transgressions and forbidden foods, and permitted sexual relations between husband and wife and the eating of meat and [the drinking of] wine. If so, a desirous person will find a place to be lecherous with his wife or his many wives, or to be among the guzzlers of wine and the gluttons of meat. He will speak as he pleases about all the vulgarities, the prohibition of which is not mentioned in the Torah. And behold, he would be a scoundrel with the permission of the Torah.

Therefore, Scripture came, after it specified the prohibitions that it completely forbade, and commanded a more general [rule] – that we should be separated from [indulgence of] those things that are permissible: He should minimize sexual relations, like the matter that they stated (Berakhot 22a), “That Torah scholars should not be found with their wives [constantly] like chickens.” And he should only have relations according to the need for his execution of the commandment.

And he should sanctify himself from wine by minimizing it – just as Scripture calls the Nazarite, holy (Numbers 6:5); and mentions the evil that comes from it in the Torah with Noach (Genesis 9:21) and with Lot (Genesis 19:33).

And so [too], he should separate himself from impurity – even though we are not prohibited from it in the Torah – as they mentioned (Chagigah 18b), “The clothing of ignorant people are [considered] midras (a type of impurity) for perushim.” And just as the Nazarite is also called holy for his guarding [himself] from the impurity of the dead.

And he should also guard his mouth and his tongue from becoming defiled from the multitude of coarse food and from disgusting speech, as mentioned by Scripture (Isaiah 9:16), “and every mouth speaks a vulgarity.” And he should sanctify himself with this, until he comes to separation (perishut) – as they said about Rabbi Chiya, that he never spoke idle conversation in his life.

For these [things] and similar to them comes this general commandment – after it listed all of the sins that are completely forbidden – until he includes in this general rule the command of cleanliness of his hands and his body. As they stated (Berakhot 53b), “‘And you shall sanctify yourselves’ – these are the first waters (to wash hands before the meal), ‘and be holy’ – these are the last waters (to wash hands after the meal), ‘since holy’ – this is fragrant oil (to ward off bad odors).”

As even though these commandments are rabbinic, the essence of Scripture prohibits things like these; that we should be clean and pure and separate ourselves from the masses of people, who dirty themselves with those things that are permissible and with those things that are ugly. And this is the way of the Torah to state the particulars and [then] the general rules.

And similar to this is when after the prohibition of the specific laws of trade among men – do not steal, do not burglarize, do not deceive, and all of the other prohibitions – it states the general principle, “And you shall do the straight and the good” (Deuteronomy 6:18), so that it places into a positive commandment, uprightness, compromise and going beyond the letter of the law towards the will of his friend – as I will explain (there), when I get to its place, with the will of the Holy One, blessed be He.

And so [too] with the matter of the Shabbat, it forbade the types of work with a negative commandment and the exertions with a general positive commandment, as it states, “rest”; and I will explain this more (Ramban on Leviticus 23:24), with the will of God. And the explanation of the verse saying, “since Holy am I the Lord, your God,” is to say that we merit to cling to Him by our being holy.

And this is like the matter of the first statement in the ten statements (Ten Commandments – Exodus 20:3). And it commanded (Leviticus 19:3), “A man, his mother and father must fear” [here], since there (in the Ten Commandments), it commanded about honor, and here it will command about fear. And it said [here] “and guard my Shabbats,” since there it commanded on the remembering [of the Shabbat] and here on the guarding and we have already explained the matter of both of them (see Ramban on Exodus 20:8).

Should I Hide Being a BT?

By “Alan”

I live in a fairly black hat community and it seems to me that many BTs make great efforts to hide the fact that they are BTs. There are people here who are BTs for 5-10 years, who learned for less than 2 years full time in Yeshiva, who don’t even consider themselves BTs anymore.

One person told me that many people hold that being a BT is a negative, although few will tell you that to your face or say it publicly. Being known as a BT effects how people view you, shidduchim, and jobs in certain community organizations, so he feels it makes sense to hide the fact that you are a BT, whenever possible.

My problem is that I think that living this type of charade will cause problems for me and my family in the future. It seems like we are denying a reality instead of dealing properly with it. I didn’t choose to be born into a non-observant family and I feel that the strides I’ve made are significant and I continue to work on my Yiddishkeit. So tell me again why we should hide or deny the fact that we’re BTs?

Originally Published July, 2007.

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From the comments:

Ora says:

I’ve never felt that I had to hide my background, but I’ve chosen to do so on several occasions. Mostly for four reasons.

1) (especially when I had been religious for less than 2/3 years) It’s nice to “pass.” It takes a lot of effort to get to the point where you are knowledgeable enough and comfortable enough with Jewish life that those who grew up in religious homes can’t tell that you didn’t. I liked the feeling I got when some girl from seminary who I’d known for months would say, “Oh, your family isn’t religious? I didn’t know!”

2) I don’t want to deal with stereotypes. I don’t know if the people I’m meeting have BT stereotypes, or if they think of being a BT as a positive or negative thing. But either way, I don’t want that one part of my history to influence their opinion of me. This is especially strong when I first meet people. In fact, now I have a pattern of telling people a bit of my story after I’ve known them for a little while, and then the full story comes out after a few months.

To be honest, sometimes it’s more annoying when people are overly positive than slightly negative. I don’t like being told “Oh, BTs are so inspiring, you gave up so much, blah blah blah” when I’m feeling like an uninspired slacker. Also, I don’t feel like I gave up very much to get to where I am, because I wanted so badly to be here that all the other stuff didn’t really matter. So I don’t feel that I deserve the praise.

3) I’m afraid that people will take my opinions less seriously. As in “oh, you’re a newcomer, what do you know,” etc. I have never once encountered this attitude, but my fear of it is still there. I think a lot of BTs who hide their identities do so mostly do to their own fears and not actually FFB attitudes.

4) Ultimately I don’t think it matters very much. So many of my friends who were raised in religious households weren’t really religious until they were in their late teens/early 20s. They might use terms like “raised religious” or “FFB,” but until a certain period in life they were just going with the flow (and then at some point fully accepted Hashem/Torah). Others were seriously introspective and spiritual even as kids, but had a period where their hashkafa grew apart from that of their parents. We’re all pretty much in the same place now. So I don’t see how telling someone “I’m a BT” will give them useful knowledge. It will eventually come out in anecdotes/ when they meet my family/ etc if we’re close, but I feel no need to mention it if the subject doesn’t come up.

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From the comments:

Dovid says:

This is a wonderful post and I’m thankful to all who have commented thus far. Integration into a frum community is not an easy process. After all, we’re not talking about our first day on campus at college here. For us, “Orientation” is an ongoing process that for some continues for years or even decades,
depending on what stage in life we are when we become BT’s.

My wife and I became BT’s in our mid 30’s, so we did not have the opportunity to develop over
our younger years like most BT’s that we know. No time studying in Ohr Someach or Aish, etc. during our college years, when most of our BT friends began their BT journey’s. No, for us it was a quicker decision both for ourselves and our children (6 and 3 at the time). We were in an “out-of-town” community with a small shul that had maybe 3 Shomer Shabbos members and the rest of them either non-committed but enjoying the shul. We knew that we needed to move away, because the community presented conflicting values and observances that would confuse our children. For us personally, the “Modern” communities presented an outlook (both outward and otherwise) too similar to the secular lifestyle that we were trying to move away from. We wanted a frumkeit that was so clearly different than the secular life we left, that our children would grow up to feel “uncomfortable” with an outlook that shared the fashion and open-door philosophy we found to proliferate in these communities. After consulting with our Rav and a few good friends, we chose a large and diverse frum community that is essentially black hat, (although their are all sorts of those, and streimlach-a-plenty). Yes, it was a bold move indeed.

We have been here for 7 years now, and as expected, we have found many, many other BT’s here. BT’s seem to gravitate to each other somehow. It has been a great comfort to us that this is the way of things. We can talk and share our experiences together and help each other along the way. We have all experienced the “cold shoulder” from FFB’s who have no clue about what it is like for us, and we don’t blame them personally. They simply have lived such cloistered lives, that they don’t know what to think of folks like us. But for the most part, we have had positive experiences here. I would have to say that even though our children have adapted well, I expect that they will some day likely marry into other BT families. I would be pleased if they married into FFB families as well, but I think that people generally will be attracted to others whose families are similar to their own. There are exceptions of course, but I think it will take more than one generation for our family to more completely meld into the community that we’ve chosen. We do not hide our BT status, and do our best to show our brothers and sisters who are FFB, that we have come a long way to be here (a lot longer trip than driving from Flatbush). Some don’t feel comfortable with that, and others are most welcoming and encouraging. Upwards and onwards…

Kashrus and the BT

As I said previously, as major as kashrus is, it was one of the last mitzvos I was able to embrace. The reason for that was that I couldn’t bear to hurt my mother. I was sure she would take my refusal to eat her food as a personal rejection.

My mother is not the only one who feels this way. I know a Stoliner family, all FFBs, whose daughter married a man from another Chassidus. The new husband was strict about eating meat from the hechsher of his Chassidus, so the mother had to buy the right meat if her daughter would be coming for Shabbos. The mother had no problem with this, but one of her friends asked in horror, “Aren’t you insulted?” If a frum woman, who ought to know that kashrus is simply a halachic issue and not an emotional one, still assumed her friend would feel insulted or rejected, how then would the average secular mother feel? After all, we mothers do put love into our cooking.

The way to bridge this gap is by being mentschlich. BTs cannot demand that their parents change their old ways to suit their new needs. Parents are masters of their home, and everything the BT does should be with this thought in mind.

I learned how to keep kosher within my mother’s non-kosher kitchen through intensive shiurim at my seminary. In addition to practical and detailed discussion about everything relating to food and cooking, we received advice about how to make the transition easier for our parents. One piece of advice was: Respectfully ask for exclusive use of one rear burner on the stovetop. By choosing only one rear burner, we would effectively show that we were not imposing our way on everybody.

Another piece of advice we received was to take responsibility for the family grocery shopping. This not only insured that we would get the kosher food we needed, it would relieve somebody of a chore. By being helpful, our observance of kashrus would no longer seem like an imposition to our parents.

There’s a wonderful book called Keeping Kosher in a Non-Kosher World by Rabbi Eliezer Wolff. It deals with the specific issue of keeping kosher in a non-kosher home, but the topic of eating out is covered as well.

Although the book is not well-known, I think it’s a must have for a BT. This link will take you to its actual contents, but I think the book version should be distributed at kiruv centers around the world. I also think it should be renamed Keeping Kosher in a Non-Kosher Home but that’s really a small thing.

Chabad also does wonderful work kashering people’s homes, but they can’t help when parents aren’t willing to make a complete change-over. But even BTs living with non-frum parents or roommates can find workable solutions. Keeping kosher in a non-kosher home is not simple, but it is possible. And I can say that with authority because I’ve done it.

Getting Beyond the Proofs

In the introductory program of the baal teshuvah yeshivah in Jerusalem where I was introduced to Torah Judaism, the “Proofs of God and Torah M’Sinai” was the hottest thing going. We fought over them, stayed up until three o’clock in the morning debating them, and spent weeks and months on them. Having a degree in the life sciences I was particularly loathe to drop the idea of random evolution or accept the idea of a soul. After three months of fiery debates, participating in them and also observing some of the best minds of the finest universities getting shot down to the dust, I was pretty convinced.

Then came summer break. With a new addition to my backpack – a pair of tefillin – I made my way with a few guys down to the Sinai for scuba diving and fun in the sun. From my present perspective it’s hard to envision what there was to do on the beach for so long, but suffice it to say that a month later the “Proofs of God and Torah M’Sinai” were a distant mirage. The tefillin didn’t see the light of day anymore.

What happened? It’s not an uncommon phenomenon. One can see valid evidence and be convinced by intellectual proofs, but the influences of peer pressure from the surroundings and physical urges hold sway.

No one brought any evidence to the contrary. I never even discussed the proofs. But the entire edifice crumbled under the onslaught of vacationing youth on the beach.

Although I had chosen at this point to remain non-religious, I returned to the yeshivah, feeling distant from what had begun to be a tentative tasting of the Torah lifestyle. I needed a base to plan my next step, graduate school or work, so I returned to the dorm. Someone from the administration sat down with me and offered the next stage of programming: Mishnah, Gemara, Chumash, Ulpan. I liked the idea of getting textual, and gaining some Hebrew language skills.

That’s what did it for me. It was a case of “boy meets Gemara, and they lived happily ever after.”
There are no questions for the yeshivah student who is happily engrossed in the intricacies of the Gemara, gaining an intimacy with spiritual Intellect that is the foundation of creation. It is literally the authentic “soul food.”

Now, I’m not naïve. I understand that peer pressure and environment is a two edged sword. I’m not claiming my spiritual experience of the love of Torah is any kind of proof.

What I am saying is the experience of spiritual pleasure in Torah life, whether it be derived from Torah study, prayer, Shabbos, or good deeds, is the counterbalance to the physical urges and egocentric motivations that disturb us from perceiving the truth.

The existence of God is the single most obvious element of existence. What sometimes prevents the greatest minds from perceiving it are the biases of ego, physical desires, and a desire for unrestricted moral freedom.

No one is going to be able to batter ram the truths of Judaism down the throats of millions of secular Jews. Although presenting the evidence for the claims of Torah Judaism is an important first step, and absolutely vital in today’s marketplace of ideas, it cannot be the basis for a commitment to Torah.
This is because a human being generally does not operate on a rational basis. For example, Rabbi Galinsky tells the amusing story of a college professor who passionately lectured to him for hours about the dangers of smoking and then lit up a cigarette after the lecture.

The evidence for the existence of God and Torah M’Sinai is out there (check out www.simpletoremember.com for a selection of the material). A person can and should base his emunah on reason and knowledge. However, the crux of free will necessitates that we need something more to counterbalance the effects of egoism and physical desire, which influence us to conveniently overlook our intellect.

That’s the way to get beyond the proofs. A Jew who is sincerely motivated to become close to God and His Torah has to find an avenue of lasting spiritual pleasure that works for him/her on a personal basis and has the power to overcome the siren song of this world.

First published on Jan 10th, 2008

Beginners Guide to the Passover Seder

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

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

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

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

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

Seder Plate
— Three Matzahs – two normally required for Yom Tov and Shabbos in remembrance of the two portions of Manna that fell before Yom Tovim and Shabbosim in the wilderness. The Middle Matzah is for the Biblical Commandment of Eating Matzah.
— Karpas – Dipping foods and the eating of greens before a meal was the sign of wealthy men in the past. Another reason we eat it tonight is that it is not a normal procedure and children will notice the difference and ask questions.
— Maror – Two types. Romaine Lettuce and Horseradish; Romaine Lettuce – bitter taste symbolizes our bondage in Egypt. The Romaine lettuce initially tastes sweet and then turns bitter like the life of our forefathers in Egypt who were first paid workers and then oppressed slaves. Horseradish – sharp taste symbolizes our bondage in Egypt. When we eat the Maror (by itself and in a sandwich) you can use either one.
— Charoses – symbolizes mortar used to make bricks. Also counteracts the taste of the Maror.
— Shankbone – recalls the Pesach Offering. The Pesach Offering was in remembrance of the lamb that was put aside and then eaten on the night of Passover. In the times of the Temples, a major part of the holiday was the eating of the Pesach Offering. Since the destruction of the Second Temple, we no longer bring offerings and the Shankbone represents the Pesach Offering but is not eaten at the Seder.
— Egg – recalls the Festival Offering. On all Festivals there would be a special offering. As mentioned above, since the destruction of the Second Temple we no longer make offerings so the egg represents the Festival Offering. The egg was chosen since it is a mourner’s food and symbolizes our mourning for the Temple and our inability to offer the Pesach and Festival Offerings.

Reclining
We are required to act as if we ourselves had just been freed from Egyptian Bondage. Therefore, when we dine on the night of Passover, we eat and drink while leaning – in the manner of free men and royalty. We lean when we drink the four cups, eat Karpas, and eat Matzah. Women don’t lean since it was not the practice for most women to lean while eating.
Four Cups of Wine
Symbolizes the 4 terms of redemption mentioned in Torah.
— 1st Cup – Kiddush -I will take you out from the burdens of Egypt.
— 2nd Cup – over the Story -I will save you from their servitude.
— 3rd Cup – over Grace after meals -I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.
— 4th Cup – over Psalms of Praise -I will take you for Me for a people.
We drink at least 1.7 ounces while leaning to left (women don’t recline). Beverage preference; wine, wine with grape juice, wine with water, grape juice, grape juice with water, raisin wine. People should pour the cups for each other to feel like royalty. We drink it in less than 9 minutes, preferably within 2 minutes.

*The first cup of wine is poured.

1) Kaddesh – Sanctify the day with the recitation of Kiddush.
Leader of the Seder recites Brocha over Wine, Brocha over Kiddush and a Brocha thanking G-d for bringing us to this time.
Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ha-Gofen.
Blessed Are You Hashem, Our G-d, King of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.
Kiddush Brocha – See the Hagaddah
Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Shehecheyonu V’kiymonu V’higi-onu Lazman Hazeh
Blessed Are You Hashem, Our G-d, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this time (season).
* Everyone answers – Amen. Do not talk until you drink at least a half a cup.
* Everyone drinks first cup of wine; men lean to the left.
This is the cup of wine over the mitzvah of reciting Kiddush.

2) Urechatz, – Wash the hands before eating Karpas.
In the times of the Temple, when people were able to observe the laws of spiritual purity in full they washed before eating a vegetable dipped in a liquid that is still moist to wash away spiritual impurity. According to many opinions in our times, we don’t do this since we are unable to reach this level of purity. At the Seder, we wash because it reminds of the times of the Temple and it expresses the hope that we will soon be required to follow it again, with the coming of Mashiach. It also represents a royal custom in keeping with the special dignity with which we dine tonight. It also arouses the curiosity of the children so they should ask questions.
*Pour water over right hand twice and then over left hand twice. Do not make a Brocha. Dry your hands.

3) Karpas – Eat a vegetable dipped in salt water.
In olden days, banquets were started with such appetizers. The custom was preserved to make the children ask questions and to serve as a sign of freedom.
The dipping of the food is also a sign of comfort and indulgence.
The salt water represents the tears of the Jewish People in their suffering.
The vegetable is dipped in salt water and everyone takes a piece. (Don’t eat it yet.)
*The leader says the Brocha or you can make your own Brocha:
This Brocha is intended to also include the Maror that we will eat later and the person making the Brocha should have that in mind when making the Brocha.
Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ho-adomah
Blessed Are You Hashem, Our G-d, King of the Universe, who creates fruits of the earth.
*Everyone eats the green vegetable. Eat a small amount so that there is no requirement to say an after Brocha.

4) Yachatz. – Break the middle Matzah. Put away larger half for Afikoman.
We are about to recite the story of our Exodus and the Torah tells us to do this when Matzah is before us. The Matzah is often referred to as the bread of poverty and affliction and a poor man does not feast over a whole loaf since he is never sure he will have food for the next meal.
We hide the Afikoman to insure that it will not be mixed up with the other Matzahs and inadvertently eaten and not to shame it, so to speak, since it will not be eaten till the end of the meal.
Hiding it keeps the children awake by encouraging them to try and steal it.
The leader breaks the middle Matzah and puts away the larger half for the Afikoman.

5) Maggid – Tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
The central mitzvah of the night is telling about the Exodus from Egypt.
We are supposed to remember the Exodus from Egypt everyday, but at the Seder we must tell the full story from bondage to deliverance, in the form of question and answer with as much elaboration as possible.
Bread of Affliction – Draws attention to the bread of poverty over which the Hagadah is to be told.
This paragraph does not appear in the earliest sources but was composed after the destruction of the Second Temple. In exile, we can not fulfill the Torah commandments of Pesach and Maror so that Matzah is left as the preeminent obligation of the evening. But Matzah is special since it symbolizes both freedom and bondage, with the hasty departure of our forefathers from Egypt, it became a symbol of freedom. Originally, however it was their food when they were slaves and therefore it is a symbol of bondage. We stress the bondage aspect of the Matzah at this point so that it will trigger the recollection of the events in Egypt, and help us to project ourselves into the situation of our forefathers so that we can better feel the relief and joy of deliverance. This is the goal of the Seder, to fell like we personally were redeemed from Egypt.

*Second Cup of Wine is poured to stimulate the asking of questions.

*Four Questions are asked by youngest child, if there are no children an adult asks, if a person is alone he asks the questions to himself. Only someone who is bothered by a question is really interested in the answer. We are particularly eager to pass on the message of Pesach because the assurance of our national continuity lies within this passing on from one generation to the next.
There are four questions, two about Biblical commands (Matzah and Maror) and two about Rabbinic commands (dipping and reclining) to show the equal validity of both types of commands. Another reason for these four questions is to highlight the paradox of the evening in that it reflects both a sense of enslavement (Matzah, saltwater, Moror and Charoses) and freedom (beautiful table selling, while kittel. wine, reclining and dipping).

According to 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 1 came forth out of Egypt.”

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 1 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

This is the first part of Hallel, which are Psalms of Praise, and declarations of our faith in Hashem.
We will say the second part of Hallel after the Seder. Hallel is not normally said at night. It is normally said in the Morning Prayer service on Yom Tovim and Rosh Chodeshim (the first of the Jewish Months). Daylight is normally the time when we see G-d’s kindness in action and sing His praises. Night usually stands for trepidation and calls for faith rather than jubilation. The night of Pesach is different from all other nights of the year. In the 132nd Psalm it says that on Pesach G-d ‘lit up the night like the day’ through his great self-revelation (with the last plague and our redemption) so it is appropriate that we should say Hallel at night
The first part of Hallel deals with the deliverance from Egypt and therefore belongs to the part of the Seder preceding the meal.
The second part looks ahead to the Days of the Messiah and our ultimate redemption, which is the theme of the Seder after the meal.
Also, by bracketing the Seder meal between hymns of praise of G-d, we mark it as a Divine service, rather than an ordinary supper.

*Leader of Seder recites blessing of Boray Pri Hagofen.
Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ha-Gofen.
*Everyone answers – Amen. Do not talk until you drink at least a half a cup.
*Everyone drinks the second cup of wine, men leaning to the left.
*This is the cup of wine over the mitzvah of telling over the Haggadah.

6) Rachtzah – Wash the hands prior to the meal.
Whenever we eat bread (or Matzah) at a meal we wash our hands.
*We wash by pouring twice over the right hand and then twice over the left hand.
*Before we dry our hands we say the Brocha, then we dry our hands.
Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melcch Ho-olom Asher Kidshonu B’mitzvosov V’tzivonu Al N’tilas Yodoyim.
Blessed Are You Hashem, Our G-d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and has commanded us concerning the washing of hands.
*We do not talk until we eat the Matzah.

7) Motzi – Recite the blessing, Who brings forth, over Matzah as a food.
Before we eat any food we say a Brocha, but before we eat bread (or Matzah) at a meal we say the Brocha ‘Hamotzi’ which covers all foods we will eat at the meal.
At meals on Shabbos and Yom Tovim (Holidays) we always use two loaves of bread (or Matzah) to commemorate the double portion of Mannah that fell before Shabbosim and Yom Tovim when the Jews were in the Wilderness.
The stringent amount of Matzah is a piece measuring about 6” by 7” (2/3rds of a round Matzah). The lenient measurement is 4” by 7”. Measure out the proper amounts for all participants at this point.
*The leader of the Seder says the Brocha while holding the two Matzahs and the broken Matzah between them.
Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Hamotzi Lechem Min Ho-oretz.
Blessed Are You Hashem, Our G-d, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.
*Everyone answers – Amen. Do not talk until you finish eating the Matzah. Do not start eating until the Matzah brocha.

8) Matzah – Recite the blessing and Eat the Matzah.
The Matzah represents both our bondage (bread of poverty) and our freedom (hasty departure from Egypt). We say an additional Brocha over the Mitzvoh on this night to eat Matzah.
*The leader of the Seder says the Brocha while holding the upper Matzah and the broken Matzah.
Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Asher Kidshonu B’mitzvosov Vtzivonu Al Achilas Matzah.
Blessed Are You Hashem, Our G-d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and has commanded us concerning the eating of Matzah.
*Everyone answers – Amen. Do not talk until you finish eating the Matzah.
Everyone eats the required amount of Matzah, men lean to the left. Take a piece from the upper two Matzahs.

9) Maror – The Maror is dipped in Charoscs and eaten.
The Maror represents the bitterness of our enslavement. The charoses represents the mortar with which we built bricks. The Maror is dipped in charoses but the majority is shaken off so as not to mask the taste of the Maror.
The amount of Romaine Lettuce required for this eating is an 8” by 10” piece if you are eating the full leaf and 3” by 5” if only eating the stalks. If using Horseradish, the amount is 1 ounce of a grated Horseradish, equal to a full plastic shot glass.
*The leader says the Brocha or you can make your own Brocha:
This Brocha is intended to include the Maror that we will eat in a sandwich.
Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Asher Kidshonu B’mitzvosov Vtzivonu Al Achilas Maror.
Blessed Are You Hashem, Our G-d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and has commanded us concerning the eating of Maror.
* Everyone eats the Maror dipped in Charoses. Do not lean for this Mitzvah since the Maror symbolizes bondage and not freedom

10) Korech – Eat the sandwich of Matzah and Maror.
The reason we eat the sandwich is because the great sage Hillel (Who said: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’) took the view that the Pesach offering, Matzah and Maror must be eaten in a sandwich rather than separately. The rest of the Sages ruled otherwise but the Talmud, which was written after the destruction of the Temple, does not rule on who we follow. This is because after the destruction of the Temple, the Pesach Offering was no longer made and the Maror is now a Rabbinic command instead of a Biblical command. Matzah is still a Biblical command. To preserve a reminder of Hillel’s practice during Temple times we eat Matzah and Maror together even though we already ate them separately.
The amount of Matzah for this eating is a piece measuring about 4” by 7”. The amount of Romaine Lettuce required for this eating is an 8” by 10” piece if you are eating the full leaf and 3” by 5” if only eating the stalks. If using Horseradish, the amount is 1 ounce of a grated Horseradish, equal to a full plastic shot glass. Measure out the amounts and include a piece from the bottom Matzah
We will use part of the bottom Matzah for this Mitzvah. The Maror is dipped in charoses but the majority is shaken off.
*The leader (or everyone) recites the paragraph- In remembrance of the Temple…
*Everyone eats the sandwich of Matzah and Maror; men lean to the left.

11) Shulchan Orech – The Festival meal is served.
*Everyone eats the Festival Meal.
It is a custom to start with a hard boiled egg because it is a symbol of mourning. It has no opening or mouth, just as a mourner is struck silent by his fate; at the same time it offers encouragement: it signifies the turning of the wheel of destiny which hopefully will bring joy instead of sadness. The absence of the Pesach Offering evokes a sense of mourning for the destroyed Temple, which hopefully will be rebuilt in our time. Roasted meat is not served, since the Pesach Offering was roasted.
The meal must end by Halachic Midnight in time for the Afikoman. One should not overeat. We must have some appetite leftover for the Afikoman.

12) Tzafun – Eat the Afikoman which had been hidden all during the Seder.
There are two opinions about the Afikoman. One is that it is a memorial to the Pesach Offering which was eaten at the end of the meal. The other view is that the Afikoman represents the Matzah that was eaten with the Pesach offering and it is this Matzah which represents the actual Mitzvah of eating Matzah.
The eating of the Afikoman completes the eating of the Middle Matzah which represents the “Bread of Affliction” and therefore symbolizes our ultimate redemption from all affliction and oppression. This in effect introduces the second part of the Seder which is dedicated to the redemption to come, that of Mashiach.
The stringent amount of Matzah for this Mitzvah is a piece measuring about 6” by 7” (2/3rds of a round Matzah). The lenient measurement is 4” by 7”. Measure out the proper amounts for all participants at this point.
*Everyone eats the Afikoman; men lean to the left.
We don’t eat after the Afikoman except for water, tea, or the like.

*Third Cup of Wine is poured.

13) Barech – Recite Birchas Hamazon, the blessings after the meal.
It is a Biblical commandment to give thanks to G-d after we eat a meal. There are several blessings, the first is thanks to G-d for giving food to all and was composed by Moses; the second is for the gift of land and was composed by Joshua; the third is to Jerusalem and Israel which gives the land special goodness and was composed by Kings David and Solomon. The text of the third was changed after the destruction of the Temple. The Sages added a fourth blessing when the Romans permitted the burial of the victims of the Bar Kochba rebellion in the third century. It teaches us to be grateful, even in bitter times and for favors that might not evoke rejoicing.
*Everyone should read the Blessings out loud in a low voice.
*Leader of Seder recites blessing of Boray Pri Hagofen.
Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ha-Gofen.
*Everyone answers – Amen.
Do not talk until you drink at least a half a cup.
*Everyone drinks third cup of wine; men lean to the left. This is the cup of wine over the Birchas Hamazon.

*Fourth Cup of Wine is poured. The extra cup for Elijah is poured.

14) Hallel – Recite the Hallel – Psalms of praise and declarations of our faith in Hashem
As mentioned above (at the end of Maggid) we now recite the second part of Hallel. This part of Hallel deals with our ultimate redemption with the coming of Moshiach.
*Everyone recites Hallel out loud. At the part “Thank Hashem for He is good” we recite it responsively. At the part of “Hashem save Us”… we recite it responsively.
*Leader of Seder recites blessing of Boray Pri Hagofen. Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ha-Gofen.
*Everyone answers – Amen. Do not talk until you drink at least a half a cup.
*Everyone drinks fourth cup of wine; men lean to the left.
This is the cup of wine over the Hallel.

15) Nirtzah – Pray that G-d Accept our observance and speedily send the Messiah.
We ask G-d, that just as we were worthy to perform the Pesach service this year so may we be worthy to perform it in the future.

Sing the songs of the Seder.

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

Pesach and The Essence of The Three Festivals

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Pesacb

Terms For Yom Tov

There are three festivals – Pesach, Shavuos, and Sukkos. We find different terms used by our Chazal (holy Sages) in describing the festivals. Our festivals are called zmanim, chagim, moadim, and regalim.

They are called zmanim and moadim, since they are established as certain times of the year. They are called chagim from the word machog, which means to “cycle”, because the cycle of the festivals repeats itself each year.

They are also called moadim from the word vaad, which means “meetings.” Three times a year we would trek to the Beis HaMikdash and bring a korbon; we would all gather together and ascend upon the mountain of Hashem, the site of the Beis HaMikdash. But this was not just a “vaad” in the sense that we were all gathered together. It was our meeting with Hashem – we would appear “in front of Hashem”. It was a vaad in that we were all gathered together, and it was a vaad because we were all meeting with Hashem.

Another term to describe the three festivals is “regalim.” The simple meaning of this is “feet” that we would all walk by foot to travel to Jerusalem for Yom Tov. For example, the Gemara[1] deduces from the word regalim that a person is only obligated in the mitzvah if he has normal feet to walk with, but if he limps, he is exempt from the mitzvah.

Regel\Walking – Going From One Place To Another

Let us reflect on the regalim aspect of the Yom Tov.

Chazal say that the world stands on three pillars – Torah, Avodah, and Chessed; these are like three “feet” which the word stands upon. The world stands on three pillars, and so does time. Time stands on the three festivals of Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos, which are like the three pillars that uphold time.

The word regel, besides for its simple meaning of “foot”, can also mean “because of”, like when Yaakov told Lavan, “And Hashem blessed you, because of me.” It is also written, “The feet of His pious ones are protected [because they are pious].”

In other words, the three festivals are not a purpose unto themselves; they exist “because” of a greater goal. The festivals take us and lead us to a certain point.

If a person is unaware that the Yomim Tovim serve a greater goal that they lead to, then he does not experience Yom Tov through his soul; he only experiences it through his body. The festivals are given to us so we can use them to reach a higher place than we were at until now. A festival moves us from one point to the next point.

We have so far mentioned two aspects of Yom Tov. One aspect of Yom Tov, we mentioned, is that it upholds a person. The second aspect of Yom Tov is that it leads us to a higher point. Thus, meeting with Hashem for three times a year was not just to travel there with our feet. The purpose of Yom Tov was that we should ascend to a higher point. That is the deeper implication of regalim.

Yom Tov is a time to ascend spiritually. Just as we ascended onto a certain place in the world on Yom Tov – the site of the Beis HaMikdash – so must we ascend, in our very soul, to a higher place than the one we are at now.

Holy Habits

How do we ascend in our souls through Yom Tov?

The answer lies in the following: there is another meaning of the word regel. It can also mean to “search”, as we find in the word meraglim, “visitors” of the land, who really come to search out the land. This hints to us that the way we ascend through Yom Tov\the regalim is by “searching” for something. The first regel is Pesach, which we begin by searching for any chometz.

Yom Tov is a regel, and this implies that we need to search for something on Yom Tov.

Chazal say that it is better had man not been born; now that we have been born, we need to examine our deeds. We need to search inside ourselves. What is it that we need to search for?

The word regel can also come from the word hergel, which means “habit.” We ask of Hashem, “Shetargileinu B’Torasecha”, that “we should become accustomed in Your Torah” – we want to develop a habit for the words of Torah. Doing things out of habit is usually not a good thing [this is called melumadah, doing things by rote]. But there are times in which we find that doing things out of habit is a good thing [and then hergel is being used for holiness]. On Yom Tov, we need to search inside ourselves and see which of our habits are good, and which are not good.

We count 50 days of the Omer until we get to the giving of the Torah, in which we have hopefully become accustomed to the Torah by then, when we have hopefully reached our aspiration of “And we should become accustomed in Your Torah.” At first we search ourselves out on the night before Pesach, and this is the beginning aspect of the regel. In between Pesach and Shavuos, we have hopefully become more accustomed to going to the Beis Midrash, that our feet are naturally taking us to towards the Beis Midrash [as Dovid HaMelech describes in Tehillim]. On Shavuos, we ideally reach the apex of getting used to holiness, which is the purpose.

This is the first aspect of the three regalim, which begins with Pesach – at first we search inside ourselves to see what our habits are, if they are holy or unholy. If we find habits in ourselves that are not for holiness, we need to destroy it, just as we destroy the chometz we find in any nooks and crannies. Along with this, we need to gain good kinds of habits – to become used to learning Torah, which is how we use the power of hergel\habit, for holiness. “Shetargileinu B’Torasecha.”

The First Step In Growing From Tom Tov: Inner Order To Our Soul

When we search inside ourselves to discover what our habits are, we must proceed in steps. It is written of the Jewish people when they would travel to Jerusalem, “How beautiful are your steps.” When we would travel to Jerusalem by foot, it was with “steps” – in other words, our avodah needs to be practiced in steps. We must give ourselves some inner order to our soul. As the Mesillas Yesharim says, we cannot acquire the various levels of piety all at once. Spiritual growth is a gradual, step-by-step process.

So when we search ourselves inside, we must do this in steps. It must be done with carefully planned thought; “Sof maaseh b’machshavah techilah” – “The end of actions if first with thought.”

Thus, we need to gain a clear perception of what our soul’s abilities are. As one of the Sages said, “You see a clear world.” We should be clear in what our soul abilities are, from the lowest point to the highest point, and be aware of the many parts in our soul. Then we should search our entire soul, in an orderly fashion [beginning from our lowest point of the soul, all the way to the highest point of our soul] and discover what our habits are leading towards. We need to mark down all our habits that are holy, and all our habits that are unholy, so that we can be ready to the holiest habit of all – to become accustomed to learning the Torah.

This is the first step of how we grow from Yom Tov.

The Second Step In Growing From Yom Tov: To See Where We Are Going

There is a more inner avodah we have on Yom Tov as well. This is contained in another term for the word regel – the term “aragah”, which means “thirsty.” We find this in the possuk, “Just as a deer thirsts over the banks of water, so does my soul thirst for You, G-d.” The feet of a person leads him toward something he wants and longs for. Yom Tov, which is called regel, leads a person to what he is thirsty for, to what he has “aragah” (thirst) for. Yom Tov reveals to a person what his aspirations are. It shows what we really want, what we are really getting pleasure from in life.

So the first part of our avodah is that we need to search inside ourselves and discover what our habits are, and after that, we need to discover where we are actually heading towards. If we discover in ourselves that we are heading towards habits that are bad, we need to destroy them.

When we left Egypt, we were “redeemed from a house of slaves”; we were not just redeemed in the physical sense from Egypt, but we were redeemed in our souls. There were “seventy souls” who went down to Egypt, connoting that the exile in Egypt was taking place in our souls as well. The redemption from Egypt was essentially an inner redemption, a redemption from the exile upon our very souls. Hashem took us out from there and instead “brought us closer into His service.” We became close to Hashem because we gained inner clarity within our souls. The redemption showed us what we really wanted and enjoyed and longed for.

Defining The Joy of Yom Tov

The unique mitzvah of all three festivals is that we have a mitzvah to rejoice on Yom Tov. Chazal state that the mitzvah of Simchas Yom Tov (joy on the festival) is fulfilled through meat and wine.[2]

Yom Tov is a revelation of our happiness, and it also shows us what makes us happy. The meat and wine only satisfies our nefesh habehaimis, the lower and animalistic part of our souls, but this is not the entire simcha of Yom Tov. It is only needed so that we can give something to our nefesh habehaimis to satisfy it, because if we don’t satisfy it, our nefesh habehaimis will rebel and get in the way of our true, inner happiness.

Therefore, if a person thinks that Simchas Yom Tov is all about dining on meat and wine, he only satisfies his nefesh habehaimis, and he only knows of an external and superficial Simchas Yom Tov. Woe is to such a person!

What is the real happiness of Yom Tov? The possuk says, “And you shall rejoice in your festival.” Our true happiness on Yom Tov is the happiness we have in Yom Tov itself. It is to rejoice with Hashem, Whom our soul is thirsty for. It is from this that we derive the depth of our happiness, on Yom Tov.

“The righteous rejoice in Hashem.” When a person lives a life of truth, when he lives a very internal kind of life, his entire happiness is “in Hashem.” He is happy
“in” his feeling of closeness with Hashem and with His Torah – the place where true happiness is derived.

So Yom Tov, the time to rejoice, is the time in which we discover the happiness we are used to. It is a time to discover if our main happiness is coming from externalities such as meat and wine (for the men) jewelry and clothing (for the women) and candy (for the children) – or if our happiness is coming from an inner place. It is only inner happiness which satisfies our spiritual needs – our Nefesh HaElokus (G-dly soul).

Yom Tov is thus not just the time in which we rejoice, but it is a time in which we clarify to ourselves what our soul is really rejoicing in. On Yom Tov, we do not just attempt to ‘connect’ ourselves to happiness, as if happiness is somewhere on the outside of ourselves. The festivals are called regalim, which implies that we reveal from within ourselves where we are habitually drawn towards, where we really are.

When a person never makes this internal clarification – when he never bothers to search himself outside, and he never discovers what truly makes him happy – he is like a dove who cannot find any rest. Yom Tov to him will feel like a time of confusion; he is like the dove who could not find any rest from the mabul (the flood), which is from the word bilbul, confusion.

A person should cleanse himself off from the desires for this world’s pleasures and instead reveal his thirst for the true happiness.

Make This Assessment

When Yom Tov arrives, the first thing we need to clarify with ourselves is: If Yom Tov really makes us happy.

You should know that most people are not really happy on Yom Tov – not even for one second do they really experience Simchas Yom Tov! [This is not just because the Vilna Gaon says that the hardest mitzvah to keep is Simchas Yom Tov, due to the fact that it is for a 24-hour period lasting for seven days. We are referring to a much more simpler and basic level, which most people do not even reach].

Most people enjoy some moments of relaxation on Yom Tov, but they never reach one moment of true simcha. If someone experiences even one moment of Simchas Yom Tov, he has begun to touch the spiritual light of Yom Tov.

In order to reach true simcha on Yom Tov, we need to remove the various bad habits we have towards the various ambitions we have that are not about holiness. We must remove any “thirsts” we may have for things that are not truthful sources of pleasure. When we begin to feel our souls’ thirst for its source – Hashem – we will find our source of happiness there.

A person needs to discover: “What makes me happy?” If someone’s entire happiness on Yom Tov comes from meat and wine, then according to Halacha he has fulfilled Simchas Yom Tov; he has made his nefesh hebehaimis happy. But he did not reach the goal of Yom Tov; he did not reach “And you shall rejoice in your festival.” He hasn’t even touched upon the real happiness of Yom Tov.

The three festivals are called the regalim. They have the power to awaken us to spiritual growth, and to know what is making us happy. From knowing that, we are able to continue that very same happiness and extend it into the rest of the year.

[1] Chagigah 4a

[2] Pesachim 109a

Rosh Chodesh Nisan is Coming, a Good Time for Spiritual Pesach Preparation

Here is the Beyond BT Guide to the Seder which goes through the basic halachos of each step of the seder.

While getting ready for Pesach, you might want to give Rabbi Welcher’s Preparing for Pesach, Insights in the Haggadah and Pesach Renewal shiurum a listen.

Check out YU Torah’s Pesach to Go.

Don’t forget Torah Anytime’s Pesach Shiurim.

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.”

In this mp3, Rabbi Moshe Gordon, Rosh HaYeshiva at Yisrei Lev, explores some of the classical approaches to understanding and fulfilling this Mitzvah. You can download it here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COURTESY OF THE COMMUNITY TRAINING INITIATIVE OF PRIORITY-1

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

The 60 Second Guide to Purim

The Essence of Purim
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato writes in “The Way of G-d”:
“The significance of Chanukah and Purim is to bring forth the particular Light that shone at the time of their original miracles as a result of the rectification that they accomplished.

…Purim involved Israel being saved from destruction during the Babylonian exile. As a result of this they reconfirmed their acceptance of the Torah, this time taking it upon themselves forever. Our Sages teach us that “they accepted the Torah once again in the days of Achashverosh”.

The Particular Light That Shone at That Time
The physical world functions through spiritual input from G-d. This spiritual input has a constant component known as “nature” as well as an infrequent component which occurs as needed in the course of history. The infrequent input, which we call “miracle”, illuminates the understanding that even when G-d’s presence is not obvious, He’s still running the show.

During the Babylonian Exile
Megillas Esther, the story of Purim, which we read at night and during the day, takes place about 70 years after the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and exiled the Jews from Israel. It records the roots of modern anti-Semitism as Haman, the prime Minister of Persia, convinces King Achashverosh to decree a holocaust, the destruction of the entire Jewish People.

A Hidden Miracle Saves Us From Destruction
The Megillah records how the Jewish leaders, Mordechai and his cousin Esther, work to prevent the holocaust and the Jewish People turn towards G-d in communal prayer and fasting. A series of seeming coincidences facilitates the victory of Mordechai and Esther over Haman and the Jews avoid destruction. G-d’s name is not recorded in the entire Megillah, teaching us that He’s always the guiding force, even when His presence is not apparent.

Reconfirming The Acceptance of The Torah
Although the Jewish People accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai after the Exodus from Egypt, the obvious presence of G-d at that time indicates that the acceptance was based on fear and awe. The re-acceptance of the Torah during the time of Purim, when G-d’s presence was hidden, remedied the original fear-based acceptance. This re-acceptance, accompanied by a commitment of intense study and observance of Torah, gives the Jewish People the spiritual fortitude to stay connected to G-d during the exile that we continue to face until this very day.

Celebrating Through Jewish Unity
In addition to hearing the Megillah, there are three other mitzvos of Purim: having a joyous meal, giving charity to at least two poor people and giving a gift of food to at least one person. These mitzvos focus us on helping others and uniting with our fellow Jews. Unity is a necessity as we continue our mission of leading the world to a spiritually focused existence through a constant awareness and connection to G-d in our thought, speech and actions.

American Pie Purim

It’s become a tradition here in St. Louis that my wife and I invite the Yeshiva High School senior boys over each year for our Purim seuda. Given the logistics of our house, the males gather around a long table in the den while the women watch in amusement and, occasionally, dismay from the relative safety of the dining room. How my wife prepares enough food to satisfy the appetites of a minyan of teenage bochurim is one of the great mysteries of life.

I begin with the Reading of the Rules (e.g., anyone who feels sick must make it to an emergency exit before, well, you know), move swiftly through a parody of kiddush, then come to the main part of the celebration, where I introduce all the students in turn with lyrical grahamen and they earn their fare by presenting divrei Torah. When the last one is finished, I give my own davar Torah, which somehow weaves together all of theirs in sequence. (Don’t be too impressed; it’s a lot easier to do drunk than sober.)

Lower classmen, although not officially invited to the meal, often drop in as do graduates who happen to be in town, for a chance to see the effects of a full bottle of wine on their unswervingly staid rebbe. (According to rumor, I never loosen my tie). It’s also not often that a bochur gets to hear his rebbe perform a drop-dead, Paul Robeson rendition of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

But the highlight of the afternoon festivities (which typically run between three and four hours) is my annual exegesis of Don Maclean’s American Pie.

The references are a bit dated for today’s teenagers, although they still know Buddy Holly (the music), Mick Jagger (Satan), Elvis (the king), and Bob Dylan (the jester), and they usually get the Lennon-Lenin pun. Such references as Charles Manson (helter-skelter), the sock-hop, Woodstock, James Dean, and the 1968 Democratic National Convention (the “sweet perfume” may be tear gas) require a bit more explanation. And a few of the lyrics need editing (e.g., the Father, Son, and Casper the Ghost). Don Maclean’s message of modern music’s messianic hope and ultimate failure seems to resonate well within the spiritually complex structure of Purim.

I suppose some might suggest that I am degrading Purim, introducing the secular, the mundane, even the profane into avodas haKodesh. And although I generally avoid listening to modern music with its coarse or often heretical lyrics, although I never insert secular melodies into Shabbos davening or Shabbos zemiros, although I struggle to squelch discussions of baseball whenever they turn up at the Shabbos table, I would argue that Purim, with its theme of blurring the boundaries between Mordechai and Haman, is different. Moreover, I would argue that Purim offers a unique opportunity to resurrect, selectively and briefly, the ghost of my secular past as a demonstration of the need to strike a balance between the spiritual and the physical.

Who can measure the impact on Amerian kids of the lingering memories of a Purim celebration that integrates the culture they find so enticing without losing focus on avodas HaShem? And what could ever have replaced what has become my trademark Purim schtick if I hadn’t learned American Pie way back when?

First published Fev 28, 2008

Purim – Rising Above Doubt

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Purim

Exploring The Connection Between Purim and Yom Kippur

There is a famous teaching of our Sages, “Yom HaKippurim is like Purim”[1] – Yom Kippur is “k’purim” – like Purim. This implies that Purim is ‘similar’ to Yom Kippur, and perhaps equally or even more holy. Let’s explore our avodah on Purim and its relationship to Yom Kippur.

The festivals of Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos are celebrated for two days outside of Eretz Yisrael, because of the doubt about their exact dates (sefeika d’yoma).[2] Since all of the festivals contain sefeika d’yoma, they all contain an element of doubt. On an inner level, this means that we are exposed to doubt during these festivals.

For example, consider Rosh Hashanah and Amalek. Rosh Hashanah is a time that celebrates the remembrance of the beginning of Creation, whereas the evil nation of Amalek represents the concept of safek/doubts. Amalek is called “reishis.” the “beginning” of the nations.2 [Hence, Amalek has power on Rosh HaShanah, since Amalek gets its strength from beginnings]. Specifically, we celebrate Rosh HaShanah for two days, because in the times of the Beis Hamikdash it was difficult for witnesses to see and pass on the exact time of the new moon. Thus, since the Sanhedrin could not be sure if the month was sanctified or not, we celebrate two days of Rosh HaShanah to cover both possibilities.

Unlike the other festivals, Purim is not celebrated on two different dates due to the reason of sefeika d’yoma. Rather, the two days of Purim is only simply to celebrate the two different military victories which occurred on two different dates. Specifically, Purim falls on either the 14th or the 15th of Adar, depending on whether the celebrant resides in a walled city or an un–walled city. The Rabbis agreed that inhabitants of walled cities recite the Megillah on the 14th of Adar, whereas inhabitants of un–walled cities recite the Megillah on the 15th of the month.

So Purim is different from the other festivals since there is no doubt about its date. However, there is an even greater reason why Purim is dissociated from doubt. Purim is a festival celebrating our victory over Amalek which has the same gematria as the word safek.[3] It is well–known that the evil force of Amalek is essentially the very concept of doubt. Thus, Purim, in which we were victorious over the force of Amalek (Haman), is the antithesis of doubt.

Furthermore, we celebrate Purim in the month of Adar, and Adar stands for “aleph dar.” “The Aleph (the One)will dwell”.23 This phrase alludes to how Hashem Himself fights Amalek during the month of Adar. Haman was an Amelekite and Mordechai defeated Haman during Purim also in the month of Adar. Thusly, Adar is a month of victory over Amalek – and we won through our emunah in Hashem. In addition, Moshe was born in the month of Adar, a leader who helped the Jewish people in their victories over Amalek.

The War With Amalek/Doubt

In summary, the very concept of Purim is the opposite of doubt. Purim is a celebration of the Jewish people’s triumph over Amalek/safek/doubts. (Of course, as we will explore below, we cannot erase Amalek completely in our times, because Amalek is at war with Hashem, in every generation. Only in the future will Hashem erase Amalek completely; when Amalek will be completely erased, Hashem’s Name will be complete.)

Every time we doubt Hashem, chas v’shalom, Amalek is winning. Amalek pounces on us at the first sign of doubt in our emunah. The generation who left Egypt surely believed in Hashem, they were in doubt about what Hashem would do to save them. We can refer to their very doubt as “Amalek” triumphing over them.

Amalek also comes to attack our kedushah (holiness). When the Jewish people left Egypt, we were on a very holy level, but the Erev Rav (the “mixed multitude.” which included Amalek) came with us and influenced us. Thus, our redemption from Egypt was not complete.

Amalek was particularly terrible since they also paved the way for other nations to fight us. Chazal compare Amalek to a person who jumps into a scalding hot bath; he burns himself in the process, but he cools it off for others. So too, Amalek were the first nation to have the audacity to attack the Jewish people, and in a brazen manner. By having the audacity to rise up and even attempt to conquer the Jewish people, they showed the other nations that such a coup is possible.

The Inner Point of The Soul Where There Is No Doubt

Now let us learn how this matter applies to our personal souls, and what power we have that can counter Amalek/safek/doubt.

Hashem is called “tzur levavi.” “Rock of my heart”.[4] The revelation of G–d lies deep in all of our hearts, as is it written, “And I will dwell amongst them.” The Sages state that Hashem dwells “in all of them.” every Jewish soul – within each of us lies an inner point in our soul, a “cheilek eloka mimaal.” a “portion of G–d above.” [5] This point is completely holy and it cannot be tainted by doubt. Only the outer parts of us are subject to doubts.

After the Original Sin, human beings were given free will to choose between good and evil. In This World, it is difficult to separate between good and evil. All of us live with two options – good and evil. We as humans are fallible, so our choices are open to imperfections, which lead us to doubt ourselves. But Hashem cannot be doubted. Consequently, there resides no uncertainty or doubt within the G–dly part of our soul, as long as a person merits successfully in uncovering it and revealing it outward.

When Bnei Yisrael fought against Amalek [there was a constant pattern], When Moshe’s hands fell, Amalek gained strength. When Moshe’s hands were raised Amalek became weakened. The possuk says that Moshe’s hands were raised in “emunah”.[6] The power of emunah in our soul is essentially the revelation of G–d within man. When one really lives with emunah – not just because he knows about Hashem, but because he palpably feels the emunah in Hashem deep inside his heart – then he lives with less doubt, and in turn, he is strengthened. But without complete emunah in our heart, we are subject to doubts and are weakened as a result.

Amalek fights Hashem in every generation. We are commanded to fight Amalek and never forget their attack on us. However, the outcome of our efforts to fight Amalek is ultimately in Hashem’s hands. Only Hashem can erase Amalek, because Amalek is all about safek, and man cannot defeat the force of safek without Hashem. We have to fight, but only Hashem can annihilate safek completely.

In other words, the only way to overcome safek is for us to completely integrate our own selves with Hashem. When a person reveals total emunah in Hashem from within himself, he is essentially revealing outward the deep, inner revelation of G–dliness within his soul. This is the only way man can defeat Amalek. Only when one erases his own doubts by connecting his existence with Hashem, will he essentially receive the power to erase Amalek.

Unfortunately, these days it is difficult for us to even identify Amalek itself, because the wicked king Sancheriv[7] mixed up all of the nations, making it impossible for us to discern the origins of the people of other nations. Thus, we are even in doubt about where our doubts lie, which creates an even more powerful safek. Even more so, Hashem’s presence is more hidden and concealed from us in exile – we constantly lack certainty in Hashem and His truth.

In summary, safek (doubts in emunah) fuels Amalek’s power. Whether the doubts are external or internal, Amalek thrives on our doubts and then takes us over. Thus, our ongoing war with Amalek is unlike any other war. It is an inner, spiritual war being fought between our powers of emunah and safek/doubt. It is about fighting forHashem’s revelation as the “Vadai Shemo” (His Name is absolute). Only when our G–dly part of our soul dominates does Amalek’s hold weaken.

Purim – Yom Kippur

Besides Purim, there is another day of the year which is completely holy and not associated with any safek – Yom Kippur. Although there should have been a sefeika d’yoma on Yom Kippur too, the Sages decreed that we should not have two days of Yom Kippur. On a simple level, this ruling was decreed because it is dangerous to fast for two days. But the deeper reasoning for having only one day of Yom Kippur is so that it should not be subject to any safek/doubt.

Chazal refer to Yom Kippur as the “yomo shel HaKadosh Baruch Hu.” the “day of Hashem.”[8] You cannot doubt Hashem. We can have doubts about ourselves, but Hashem cannot be doubted. Hashem gave the other festivals to the Jewish people and thus these festivals also have an association with humans and doubt. In contrast, Yom Kippur is called “the day of Hashem”. Unlike human beings, Hashem has no doubts, and doubt cannot mix or be associated with Hashem. As the Sages say, “Is there such thing as doubts in Heaven?”.[9]

On Yom Kippur we are like angels. This day is clearly the day of Hashem, the day in which Hashem reigns supreme. Since there are no sins and we are forgiven, so there is no room for the human concept of doubt to creep in.

In summary, the festivals were given to man, who is naturally full of doubt. Thus, there can be doubt associated with the festivals. In contrast, Yom Kippur belongs to Hashem, Who has no safek. Yom Kippur is a day in which doubt cannot take hold.

[Now we can see the connection between Purim and Yom Kippur, and why Purim is like Yom Kippur: they are both days in which can rise above doubt].

Celebrating the Doubt–free Purim and Yom Kippur

These days, we all generally live with uncertainty. We all have ‘Amalek’ in the soul!Hashem’s existence, His presence, His love for us, is all doubted and unclear to us. But Purim shows us how a situation with two or more options does not have to be confusing because both options are actually necessary. On Purim, we bless Mordechai as well as Haman. On a deeper level, we can recognize on Purim that even Haman is ultimately needed!

In the future, Hashem and His Name will be One. The Gemara raises a pertinent question: “Is He not [already] one in our times?” The Gemara then answers that in the future His name will be the name of havayah[10], while now He is called by His name of adnus[11] (Master), which is not the same thing. Chazal teach that Hashem’s name is not complete in our times due to the presence of Amalek[12] – who fuels our doubts of emunah.

There is a teaching that our “heart cannot be revealed by the mouth”[13]. This means that we do not express what is truly in our hearts. The fact that we read the name of havayah of Hashem but we do not pronounce it, and instead we currently pronounce it with the name of adnus, reflects the fact that our “mouth and heart are not in line with each other”. We can see the meaning of havayah in our heart, but the mouth cannot express it. The Torah itself is made up of names of Hashem, but Amalek causes one to doubt even His name!

We are always confounded by doubts. For example, a person gets married, but doubts if his wife is the right one for him. Or he buys a house but remains unsure if he has made the right purchase, and he agonizes over his decision. All of these doubts actually come from Amalek!

Options and doubts are the hallmark of our current exile. And as long as a person has doubts, he does not have simchah. “There is no simchah like the clarification of doubts”.[14] Simchah is when we erase our doubts, and therefore, if a person has safek, he cannot have simchah.

True simchah is achieved only when there is a harmony between our guf (body) and neshamah (soul). The opposite of simchah/joy is sadness, and sadness comes from the body, which was created from the element of earth. When Adam ate from the Eitz HaDaas, the body was cursed with death, which causes it to return to the earth. The Jewish people contain a body and a soul. Whereas the soul wants to rise to Heaven, our body wants to be here on earth. While our soul yearns for G–d, our body wants materialism. This internal war creates a force of doubt. [We are all born with this struggle with doubt, and our life is a constant battle between our spiritual and our material desires].

Thus, our life in This World is riddled with doubt. But the good news is that a person can penetrate a place in his soul where there are no doubts! When a person erases Amalek within himself, he can connect both body and soul together. This “clarification of doubts” will enable him to reach simchah here in This World even before the redemption.

On Purim, we are commanded to become intoxicated until we reach the point of not knowing “the difference between cursed be Haman and blessed be Mordechai.” When we reach this point of shedding our [consciousness] daas, the body and soul become harmonized and all doubt is left behind.

The festival of Purim celebrates the Jewish people’s victory over Haman the Amalekite and therefore doubt. Haman intended to kill us and separate our bodies and souls. Our victory demonstrated that we are “one nation.” Haman himself acknowledged this, albeit begrudgingly. And on a deeper note we also can be “one” within our own self.

In the future, Chazal say that all festivals will cease except for Purim when Moshiach comes. Chazal are teaching us a lesson pertinent to the present – that we can connect even now to the light of the future. Purim thus represents our ability to access an inner point of certainty and trust regardless of the external doubts in our current life.

Living a life full of doubts prevents us being connected to the spiritual dimension. One destined to live in the World To Come (ben olam haba) is essentially one who reveals the inner point of oneness and certainty in his soul, the revelation of G–dliness within himself. A ben olam haba refers to the place in the soul where there are no doubts.

All realities in this world can be doubted, because they are finite and are not based on Truth. Only Hashem is One and only Hashem is forever. By connecting to His Oneness and emes, we too can erase our doubts.

Purim proves that there is a time where we can exist free of doubts. Although we currently live in a world of doubt, Purim represents a time in this World where we can have both body and soul and still experience certainty and trust without a doubt.

The words here are not simply an intellectual matter. Celebrating Purim does not simply require knowledge of reading the Megillah and learning how to fulfill all the laws of Purim. In order to experience Purim properly, we must experience a day of no doubt in our heart. Then we must actualize this attitude in our life.

Practically Applying This Concept

When a person has a doubt, how does he remove it internally?

One way to get rid of doubts is to seek Rabbinical guidance, as Chazal say: “Make for yourself a rav and remove yourself from doubt.”[15] However, this is only a limited solution since doubt is deeply embedded within us.

The inner way to minimize doubt is by connecting to our inner dimension – to our inner spark of Hashem’s presence – in order to view our doubts objectively and remind our self that these doubts are not who we really are. We must bring Hashem into the picture. Remind yourself that He is the only true reality and clear out all the uncertainty – He placed the situation of doubt in front of us. We now have a choice – to focus on the doubt, or to focus on the Source of everything (including the doubt itself), which has no doubt.

When you have doubt about which path to choose, you can tell yourself that Hashem created and gave us both these two options. When you remember that Hashem does everything, your entire avodah changes – instead of finding the ‘correct’ option, you rather are trying simply to find Hashem in everything. If one really wants to do the will of Hashem in every situation, he will find how Hashem is clothed in every situation.

The simchah of Purim is that one can internally feel that everything is from Hashem. The real choice is not between the two or more options. Rather, our choice is simply whether or not to do Hashem’s will. If we focus on ourselves and our choices before us, then we will naturally be riddled with doubts, as we are human and finite and fallible. But if we manage to focus on the fact that Hashem is doing everything, and we nullify our own will to His will, then we can reach an inner place of certainty, of “HaVadai Shemo” – “His Name is absolute.”

Hashem is fighting Amalek, not us. If we fight Amalek ourselves, we are bound to lose. Only once we recognize that Hashem fights Amalek are we enabling Hashem to win in our case. The path before us will become clear only by choosing to focus on doing Hashem’s will.

Purim is the time to see that Hashem is behind all decrees. Even Haman’s decree ended up being good. Just as Hashem makes the decrees He can nullify them if He chooses. Purim shows us that though man always has doubts, there is no doubt associated with Hashem. The best way to leave all doubts is to see Hashem in and behind every action.

Practically speaking, we should try an exercise of emunah every day in order to battle against Amalek. This will gradually allow the knowledge that Hashem is the One behind everything to penetrate our hearts and overtake our doubts. When we are faced with indecision, we should tell ourselves that the situation was created by Hashem and that He is the only Truth. In this way, one will merit to erase Amalek from his heart and merit the simchah of leaving their doubts.

Through this work, with the help of Hashem, may the light of our discovery lead to the illumination of all of Creation, when Amalek will be completely erased, and “Hashem will be One, and His Name will be One.”

[1] Tikkunei HaZohar 421 (57b)

[2] a concept and legal principle in Jewish law which explains why some Jewish holidays are celebrated for one day in the Land of Israel but for two days outside the Land.

2 “Raishis goyim, Amalek” – “The first of the nations is Amalek” – Bamidbar 24:20

[3] The Hebrew word Amalek has same numerical value as the hebrew word Purim (240)

3 sefer Bnei Yissocher

[4] Tehillim: 73

[5] Iyov 3:4; Kli Yakar Bereishis 1:3, 9:201; Tanya (Ch. 2), Nefesh haChaim (Ch. 1)

[6] Shemos 17:12

[7] The king of Assyria who destroyed Babylon.

[8] Yalkut Shimeoni Tehillim 139

[9] Yoma 74b

[10] Referring to Hashem’s essence.

[11] A substitute pronunciation of the divine name, havaya

[12] Rashi in end of Parshas Beshalach

[13] Zohar Beraishis 11a

[14] Shaalos U’Teshuvos HaRema 5; Metzudas David to Mishlei 15:30; also attributed to a statement of the Rambam

[15] Avos 1:16

Are We Too Focused on Doing Mitzvos?

I was talking to a few people this week about a scenario where a person can put on tallis and tefillin, daven three times that day with a minyan, do all the required mitzvos, say at least 100 brochos, and not think about Hashem once. Nobody blinked and on introspection most admitted that on a particularly distracted day – that person could be them. Why is that?

The reason is that in our chinuch, whether as FFBs or BTs, we are focused on doing the mitzvos, getting it done – but not on the reason why.

The Mesillas Yesharim sets us straight on this matter. He teaches that our purpose in life is to become more aware of Hashem, to get closer to Hashem, to deeply connect to Him, to make His presence a reality in our day to day lives. And we do that by performing mitzvos. Mitzvos are the means, not the ends.

We do so many mitzvos. What a shame it would be if they didn’t accomplish what they were meant for – which is connecting us deeper and deeper to Hashem.

Here are three daily opportunities to address this problem:

1) Before you say a Brocha with Asher Kid’shanu B’mitzvosuv (while washing your hands, putting on Tallis and Tefillin, etc.) think about the fact that you are performing this mitzvah because Hashem commanded you.

2) Before you daven Shemoneh Esrai, think about the fact that you are about to praise Hashem, make requests of Hashem, and thank Hashem for His daily kindness.

3) Before you say Hashem’s name in any brocha, but especially in Shema, think about the fact that Hashem is your master and the source of all existence – and particularly your existence.

Every mitzvah is an opportunity to connect to Hashem – why not use them as intended.

Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Schwartz, Z”l

Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Schwartz, Z”l

Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Schwartz, z”l, mechanech, writer, and former Mara d’Asra of Congregation Sfard of Flatbush, was niftar on 22 Shevat. He was 60 years old, and had been suffering from a serious illness for several months.

In each of the diverse roles Rabbi Schwartz filled, his depth of thought, balanced by his easygoing personality and good humor, made him a uniquely beloved and valued figure, leaving an indelible impression on those whom he encountered.

A dedicated talmid and devotee of sefarim such as the Pachad Yitzchak, Rav Tzadok Hakohen, the Torah of Beis Izhbitz and other similar works, he drew from the deep waters of Chassidus and machshavah with a distinctive ability to bring their teachings into his own life, as well as into the lives of others.

Rabbi Schwartz was born in 1957 and spent his formative years in Los Angeles. His parents, Reb Meilech, z”l, and Mrs. Lydia Schwartz, a”h, were both Holocaust survivors from Poland, who vividly imparted the authentic atmosphere of yiras Shamayim that they had experienced in their youth to their children. Reb Meilech, an Ostrovtzer chassid, had led the Talmud Torah of the kehillah of Lodz prior to the war, and after emigrating to America served as a Rav, chazzan and shochet.

Young Dovid attended Yeshivas Ohr Elchanan, then under the leadership of Harav Simcha Wasserman, zt”l, and the end of his high school years traveled to New York to attend Yeshivah Rabbi Chaim Berlin. The move would have a profound effect on his life. He was privileged to know Harav Yitzchok Hutner, zt”l, whose works were a particular favorite of Rabbi Schwartz, and he became a dedicated talmid of, ybl”c, Harav Aharon Schechter, shlita, with whom he forged a close bond.

The many years he spent within the walls of that hallowed institution served to nurture his innate affinity for sifrei machshavah and the profound thoughts they contain.

Additionally, Rabbi Schwartz spent a year in Eretz Yisrael, where he studied in Yeshivas Mir under Harav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zt”l.

In 1984, he married Sima Stein, the daughter of Rabbi Chaim Stein, one of Chaim Berlin’s early talmidim. Rabbi Schwartz was a member of Kollel Gur Aryeh for several years before accepting a position as a Rebbi in the Fasman Yeshivah High School, a division of Beis Hamedrash LaTorah, in Skokie, Illinois, later moving on to Yeshivah Tiferes Torah in Staten Island.

For more than 20 years, Rabbi Schwartz dedicated himself to outreach work, first teaching at Be’er Hagolah Institute, a school geared to immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, and later at the Jewish Heritage Center of Queens and Long Island. His unique ability to impart sophisticated concepts in Yiddishkeit to students who largely lacked formal yeshivah background made him a particularly effective force. His eloquence, wit, calm personality, and genuine caring for his fellow Jew made him all the more successful in encouraging many to strive for greater heights in avodas Hashem.

Starting as a young bachur, Rabbi Schwartz’s family background, thirst for ruchniyus, and intellectual leanings attracted him to the sefarim of the giants of Polish Chassidus. For many years, he wrote and distributed a weekly pamphlet, written in English, “From the Waters of the Shiloach,” based on the teachings of the sefarim of Bais Izhbitz. Combining his talent for writing as well as for explaining sophisticated concepts, these publications served as a valuable elucidation of some of the most radical and complex works in the catalogue of Chassidus.

In the years when Harav Shimon Schwab, zt”l, worked to make his divrei Torah available in print, among others, he enlisted Rabbi Schwartz to collaborate on producing what became the sefer Mayan Beis Hashoevah.

His unique skill with the written word and strong grasp of world affairs also made Rabbi Schwartz a greatly valued and beloved member of the staff of Hamodia for many years.

In 2011, Rabbi Schwartz began to serve as the Rav of Congregation Sfard, a historic shul on Coney Island Avenue, displaying great dedication to its small and diverse kehillah. He delivered several regular shiurim in both halachah and Aggadah. Each Shabbos morning, at Kiddush, Rabbi Schwartz would offer divrei Torah and lead niggunim, imparting an authentic “Yiddishe taam” to the weekly event.”

From there, the aron was taken to Lakewood for kevurah.

Rabbi Schwartz is survived by his wife, Mrs. Sima Schwartz; brothers, Reb Chaim Menachem and Reb Avrohom Dov; sons, Reb Yosef Chanina, Reb Binyomin, Reb Menachem Mendel, Shlomo, Nosson Nechemia, and Elimelech; daughter, Miss Gittel Leah Schwartz, as well as by several grandchildren.

Yehi zichro baruch


By Rafael Hoffman
Originally published in Hamodia

If you Really Want Unity, Stop Sleeping!

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

… and Israel camped there opposite the mountain

-Shemos 19:2

 וַיִחַן[the singular form, the pasuk does not say that the Israelites camped there. This indicates that they camped there] “as one man with one heart”, but all the other encampments were [on bad terms] with complaints and strife. — [from Mechilta]

-Rashi ibid

I am HaShem your Elokim who brought you out of Mitzrayim, from the place of slavery.

-Shemos 20:2

Sleep is one 60th of death.

-B’rachos 57B

Many meforshim commentaries address this question: why is HaShem’s calling card in the 10 commandments so provincial?  Why does He introduce Himself as “the One who brought you out of Egypt” rather than as “the One Who created the cosmos”?

Conventional wisdom views sleep as, at worst, a benign activity.  When sleeping we recharge our batteries, no more and no less. But the Izhbitzer school takes a much less sanguine approach to slumber than we do.

The Bais Yaakov, the second Izhbitzer, explains that that when one is asleep there is a kind of disintegration and dissolution at work.  It is only the wakeful, conscious mind that integrates a human being into an organic whole.  Under the sovereign direction of the mind and soul all of the body’s organs, limbs and digits work towards the attainment of the common goals that are mutually beneficial to the person as a whole.

Asleep and in a horizontal position the human head is on the same plane and level as all the other limbs and organs of his body.  This is true both literally and metaphorically.  The position of the recumbent sleeper is that of the proverbial level playing field.  It is an egalitarian posture in which no one member of the body has any pre-eminence or dominance over any other.

Then, the soul begins to stir the body into wakefulness and the human being transitions from a horizontal position to a vertical one.  The life-giving soul stands the person up and, by doing so, establishes a hierarchy (a shiur komah) in which the feet scrape the floor and the head, containing the mind and soul, is at the very top of the pecking order.

Our sages teach us that we don’t wake up merely because, when our batteries are fully recharged, so to speak, we are “done” sleeping. Instead it is because our souls, mostly absent during slumber, have been restored to our bodies.  This concept underpins the first words we utter upon waking “I admit to You, O living and eternal King that You have compassionately returned my soul within me, Your trustworthiness is abundant” and the morning blessing that is part of our daily liturgy that begins with the phrase “my L-rd, the soul that You put into me is pure etc.” It is only when we are awake and vertical that our diverse limbs, organs and faculties become truly incorporated into a united whole.

In stark contrast; death does not merely render the body inert and motionless. Death initiates the dissolution of the human being.  In death, anatomical connections begin loosening and the body breaks apart. The teaching of our sages can now be understood to mean that the disintegration of sleep is 1/60 of the decomposition, and utter disintegration, of death.

The unity that K’lal Yisrael   the Jewish People, achieved prior to the Revelation at Sinai was more than preparatory, it was anticipatory. As HaShem’s Shechinah Divine Indwelling, began shining forth from Sinai, it was the macro-soul beginning to enter the slumbering body of K’lal Yisrael that blended the various tribes and the conflicting interest groups of Israel into an integrated organism “as one man with one heart.” A plural, multiplicity of “Israelites” fused together to become “Israel” in the singular.

Rav Gershon Henoch, the Radzyner Rebbe spells out his father’s Torah more explicitly:

The aseres hadibros are most commonly translated as the 10 commandments.  However this translation is both literally and factually inaccurate.  The translation is erroneous on a literal level, because dibros, a plural form of dibur, translates as “sayings” or “pronouncements.”  Factually imprecise, because only the last nine dibros are expressed as  mitzvos-commands, the first one is not.  The opening of the Decalogue is a statement of fact, a presentation of credentials, as it were.

On the macrocosmic level the head and soul of the cosmos is HaShem Himself.  The Radzyner explains that it was K’lal Yisrael ‘s clear, expanded consciousness of HaShem’s Oneness and Omnipresence, that nothing and no one but He truly exists – ein od m’Lvado, that exerted an irresistible tug on them to follow the Head, the Mind and the Soul and, as such, to coalesce and form an organic whole.  With this clarity of G-d consciousness a command to believe in G-d was not only unnecessary, it was inconceivable.  It would have been as if a person’s two legs began walking in opposite directions or if his respiratory system began hyperventilating without any physical exertion and the mind would suddenly need to verbalize a command saying “hey YOU pay attention, I’m in charge here!

This explains why the first of the aseres hadibros ends with the limited “the One who took you out of Egypt” rather than with the universal “the One Who created the cosmos.” For if HaShem is the Omnipresent Soul that animates everything and all, what is it that is unique about K’lal Yisrael in particular?  The answer to this question is contained in the exodus experience.  The letters that spell the word Egypt, Mitzrayim, also spell the word constraints, metzarim.

When HaShem brought K’lal Yisrael out of Egypt He was also unshackling them of all the narrow-minded constraints that conceal and camouflage His control and management of the cosmos.  The balance of humanity was never liberated from these.  HaShem’s control and management of the cosmos is beyond their comprehension.  When “introducing” Himself to, and into, K’lal Yisrael HaShem informs them that it is only because I brought you, in particular, out of Mitzrayim /metzarim that you were uniquely capable of integrating and uniting to sense my Divinity, the Mind and Soul that directs and animates all.

There is a minhag Yisrael kedoshim   Jewish custom, of staying awake throughout the first night of Shavuos.  The Magen Avraham494 bases this minhag on the midrash that says that the Jews “overslept” the Revelation at Sinai and that kivyachol  so to speak, HaShem had to awaken them. We stay awake in order to be metaken  put right, the negativity generated by those who overslept.

I would add that the Izhbitzer insight adds richness and complexity to this custom. Oversleeping the Revelation was much worse than a breach of etiquette or an extremely poorly timed  slothful self-indulgence. It was antithetical to the entire experience and to the first of the dibros in particular. At the foot of Mount Sinai, organic unity for K’lal Yisrael was both the prerequisite for, and the direct response to, HaShems Revelation. The souls (re HaShems) return to the body (re K’lal Yisrael ) requires one that is awake, alert and able to coalesce and integrate, not one that is disintegrated through death-like slumber.

~adapted from Bais Yaakov Yisro 40 (pp113B, 114A)
Sefer Hazmanim , First Day Shavuos 5643 D”H Vayeechan page 61

Tu Bishvat – Eat some fruit! Enjoy life!

Some call it Israeli Arbor Day. Others think of it as Jewish Environmentalism Day. Mystics make a symbolic holy meal called a seder at night. Others plant a tree in Israel.

Its true name is Tu Bishvat, Hebrew for the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shvat which always comes at this time in the winter, and is known as the New Year for Trees. Years ago it was practically an unknown or un-celebrated holiday on the Hebrew calendar but over the last ten years it has grown in popularity for different groups, from different angles.

Older traditional kabbalists started the original “seder” in Tsfat, Israel in the 16th Century. The seder consists of symbolic eating of fruits combined with recitation of verses from holy books. And with the popularity of Kabbalah these past years… this holiday has also taken on new meaning for some mysticism enthusiasts.
On the other hand young people who are into environmentalism are also taking part in a seder, but for different reasons.

For example, Next Dor is a local organization in a house that offers a place for young Jews to gather for social and educational events in a non-denominational atmosphere. At the house in St. Louis City, Next Dor is hosting a Tu Bishvat Seder. According to Yoni Sarason, spokesman for Next Dor, the seder will include both traditional aspects as four cups of wine and four types of fruit corresponding to the kabbalistic concept of four realms of creation, and also, as he puts it, “more modern Eco Jewish aspects.”

In general the holiday is focused on the theme of appreciation to the Creator for the benefits and pleasure of food. Because of its sweetness, fruit is most iconic for this focus. Fruit is nature’s dessert.

And in some ways this holiday is not that unsimilar to Thanksgiving, but with kabbalistic pilgrims.

You can do your own version of a Tu Bishvat seder by merely having a variety of fruits and expressing your appreciation to the Creator for the blessings you have.

Shvat
Shvat is the month of Aquarius, the water carrier. Water is a symbol for wisdom. There is a potential outpouring of wisdom at this time. What is wisdom? The type of knowledge that allows you to become one with the Infinite.

There’s a three step process that the sages seem to be telling us is good for this:

Step One: Make a brocha and take a bite of a sweet juicy grape, fig, pomegranate, olive, date, apple, pear, etc.

Step Two: Silently thank the Creator for making the fruit, the tastebuds to enjoy the fruit, and your ability to have access to the fruit.

Step Three: Feel the closeness of Creator.

We celebrate the fruit in the winter when things look bleakest. Outside its pretty barren, but deep down the sap is starting to rise in the trees. This marks the beginning of the blessings to come.

Sometimes when things look bleakest, the blessings are in the making.

Eat some fruit! Enjoy life!

For more about the month of Shvat see: KME and St. Louis Spiritual Living Examiner

Denying G-d and Denying Humanity

Beshalach-An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

 This weeks From the Waters of the Shiloah is dedicated in memory of Gitel Leah A.H. bas Menachem Mendel HY”D; Mrs. Lidia Schwartz, the authors mother, whose yuhrzeit is Thursday, 8 Shevat.
Please learn this dvar Torah l’ilui nishmasah.

HaShem will wage war for you [against Egypt] and you must remain silent. And HaShem said to Moshe, Why do you cry out in prayer to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and let them travel.

-Shemos 14:14,15

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “This is no time to pray at length, when Israel is in distress.” Another explanation [of God’s question (Why do you cry out to me?) implies]: “The matter depends on Me and not on you,”

-Rashi ibid

And so it was that as long as Moshe held his hands up Israel would be winning but when he let his hands down then the battle would turn in Amalek’s favor …  and his hands remained faithful; steady until sunset. 

-Shemos 17:11,12

All is foreseen, yet autonomy is granted

-Avos 3:14

And Rabi Chanina said “all is in the Hands of Heaven except the awe of Heaven”

-B’rachos 33B

There are two conflicting approaches to confronting the enemy that appear in this week’s Sidra.  Towards the beginning of the Sidra, when the Jewish people literally had their backs against the wall with the pounding surf of the Sea of Reeds before them and the Egyptian cavalry giving chase from the rear, the Divine command for silence came.  Not only were the Jews not allowed to wage war against their enemies; they were not even permitted to pray for Divine intervention.

In sharp contrast to this, at the end of the Sidra, we find that prayer was the weapon of choice when the Jews were waging war against the Amalekites. Our sages teach us that during the Amalek war, when Moshe had his arms outstretched in prayer, the tide of the battle would turn in the Jews favor (Targum Yerushalmi ad locum).  When the hands would drop and the prayers stop, so would the military advances.  The Mei HaShiloach asks: why were there such a drastic difference in tactics and strategies for confronting these two mortal enemies?

His answer is based on the succinct epigram that encapsulates kivayachol -if you will, the “division of labor” between HaShem and human beings. “All is in the Hands of Heaven except the awe of Heaven IE how one serves HaShem.” This means that absolutely everything in our lives; our health, our wealth, our popularity and the success of our relationships is up to HaShem.  The only area in which we enjoy a true autonomy is in exercising our human free-will to make moral and ethical choices.

Both halves of the axiom are equally true.  To claim that “not everything is in the Hands of Heaven” is patently heretical.  This position advances a false theology that would limit HaShem’s Infinite Power.  But in Judaism it is not enough to have an accurate and true theology.  One must maintain an accurate and true “humanology” (for want of a better word) as well.  To deny the second half of the axiom by saying that there are no exceptions to the rule; that ALL is in the Hands of Heaven, period, including “the awe of Heaven” IE including how one serves HaShem, is no less heretical.

The Mei HaShiloach explains that, historically, the nations of the world that have opposed, antagonized and oppressed  Klal Yisrael-the Jewish people have been proponents of one of these two heresies.  Their cultures, their weltanschauungs, their very collective national beings, were predicated either on the proposition that not everything is in the Hands of Heaven or that, on the contrary, all is in the Hands of Heaven including human awe of Heaven IE that human free choice is an illusion and that all human behavior, even apparent moral and ethical choices, are entirely controlled by HaShem .

The Egyptians under the Pharaoh are archetypes of the first heresy.  Having positioned himself as a deity in his own right Pharaoh could hardly have conceded exclusive and absolute control of the cosmos to a “rival” deity.  On the contrary Pharaoh portrayed himself as the one in total control of all the transpired in Egypt as he declared; “The [Nile] river is mine, and I have made it.”(Yechezkel 29:9).  He was a living incarnation of “It was my own might and the personal power of my hand that has brought me all this prosperity”(Devarim 8:17)

The nation of Amalek is the quintessence of their progenitor, Esav. Esav is portrayed by our sages as a yisrael mumar-a Jew who has traded true faith for heresy (Kiddushin 18A). There are as many ways to become a heretic as there are heresies and the precise nature as of the Esavs heresy is unclear.  However, Chaza”l (Sanhedrin 60A,Berachos 10A-Hagahos HaBac”h footnote 2) use this term, yisrael mumar, to describe another Biblical character; Ravshakei.

He was the one who said to the emissaries of King Chizkiyahu “Did I now arise against this land to destroy it without HaShem? HaShem said unto me: go up against this land, and destroy it.” (Yechezkel 36:10). Ravshakei and the emperor he represented, Nebuchadnezzar, had exercised their free-will to arrive at the decision to destroy Chizkiyahu’s kingdom.  Yet he did not consider himself accountable.  He attributed his own choice to G-d.  In his soliloquy Ravshakei asks many rhetorical questions.  Expecting no answers, he was actually telling Chizkiyahu’s emissaries “don’t rely on your military alliance with Egypt.  But don’t rely on HaShem either, for it was He who sent me to destroy you.   I am no more than a knight in the hands of the Divine chess master.”

The Izhbitzer asserts that Ravshakei’s ostensible affirmation of emunah is, in fact, a denial of humanity, of the grandeur of human free-will and that this denial of humanity is the precise heresy of Esav and Amalek as well. Esav/ Amalek is a mumar because of believing that all is in the Hands of Heaven, there is no “except etc.” Amalek maintains that all of the evil that he does is, chalilah, the Will of G-d, that absent HaShem’s Will he would never have been able to have done it.  Superficially, it is almost as if Amalek accords greater honor to HaShem than K’lal Yisrael does.  The stance of Amalek-Esav is that HaShem’s control and authority is absolute.  They deny that humanity has any autonomy at all.

As one great 20th century thinker put it, when our sages taught that Amalek is “one who knows his master and intends to rebel against Him” they don’t mean that Amalek intends to rebel against HaShem in spite of knowing  that HaShem is their Master, but because of knowing  that HaShem is their Master; that their rebellion consists of knowing that HaShem’s mastery over them is absolute.  There is no wiggle room.  Not one small space, albeit a tiny one, for human independence, autonomy and free choice.

We can now resolve the apparent contradiction between the dissimilar tactics of war employed to battle the Egyptians and Amalek.  When the enemy rides under the banner of “not everything is in the Hands of Heaven” then the Jewish response must be to emphasize HaShem’s control.  Against the Egyptians it would’ve been out of place for the Jews to highlight and emphasize human free-will.  Free-will, AKA “the awe of heaven”, human avodas HaShem, is best exemplified through prayer; the “service of the heart”(Ta’anis 2A). So they silenced their prayers, eliminating their part in the “division of labor” and HaShem took total control of the battle. All, absolutely everything, was in His Hands.

But when the enemy rides under the banner of “ALL is in the Hands of Heaven with no exceptions” and that human free-will is a sham, then the proper Jewish response is to exercise our free-will. Human free-will is best exemplified through our service of the heart , our avodas hatefilah.  And so, during milchemes Amalek when Moshe would raise his arms in prayer the Jewish warriors would advance.  When his prayers faltered IE when his arms grew weak so would the Jews military efforts. 

~adapted from Mei Hashiloach Beshalach D”H HaShem yilachem

Rabbi Dovid Schwartz Needs Your Tefillos

Rabbi Dovid Schwartz, a good friend to many of us and a Beyond BT contributor is in very critical condition. The name Raphael has been added. Please increase your Tfillos and learning for the merit of Raphael Yitzchak Dovid Ben Gittel Leah.
Click here to sign up for a few perakim of Tehillim for a week for his recovery.

Please read his classic post on the how to deal with conformity.

Towards a Subtler Nonconformity

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz

The majority of the posts and comments on the conformity debate deal with standardization in dress and speech. The basic consensus is that swallowing hard and adopting a bleak conformity is just another of the many sacrifices that we make for integration into the Frum community. Unlike relinquishing, say, seafood this demanding sacrifice seems to reward those who make it with a lifetime of ambivalence. Here are some thoughts I hope will make us more comfortable within our own skins by recasting this never-ending and draining sacrifice as a labor of love.

We need to ask ourselves: “Do I yearn for nonconformity or individuality?” At times, nonconformity implies a grouchy contrariness simply for the sake of being contrary. It often indicates insecurity and low self-esteem that cannot be assuaged without gaining notoriety. The nonconformist may be subconsciously saying “If I can gain prominence by excelling at what I do and where, I am… terrific if not I will do so by deviating from the expected standards in obvious and attention-grabbing ways”. In short it often comes from an unhealthy place.

Individuality, on the other hand, expresses the central Human longing for self-actualization and the resistance to external oppressive forces that would squash it. It is a wholesome drive that unites rather than divides BTs and FFBs. It is born in a whisper at our innermost core that demands that we be who we truly are. Where nonconformity is reactive, individuality is proactive. The drive for individuality concerns itself not with modes of dress but with the personality being clothed, not with the language but with the message, not with affectation but with effects, not with mannerisms but with middos (character traits).

IMO, we often under valuate our lifestyle makeovers. In spite of the popular “Avrohom” and “Yisro” models for repudiation of the dominant culture, what compels a Jew to do T’shuva in the post-Sinai era is not a rejection of secularity or secularities’ excesses. These may serve as triggers to the process but they are not the key moving forces. Rather, it is the drive for individuality. A Jew is a Jew and can never hope for self-actualization without Torah and Mitzvahs i.e. living as a Jew. An eagle that has grown up among marching penguins does not take flight to spite the penguins and mock their black and white conformity. The eagle flies because that’s what eagles do. Even when both are at rest the eagle is qualitatively unlike the penguin. It need not behave differently to be different. Yet, its very being compels it towards unique behaviors.

There is a Midrash about the cruelty of S’dom. In S’dom there was only one bed for wayfarers. When the forlorn traveler was forced to spend a night in S’dom they were made to lie down on a “one-size-fits-all” bed. If they were too short a rack would stretch them and if they were too tall they would be decapitated to fit the bed.

The dominant culture with its tyrannical egalitarianism is the heir to the mantle of S’dom’s bed. While ostensibly celebrating nonconformists by allowing for some superficial dissimilarities it is a culture that demands leveling and conformity between men and women, between old and young and between criminal and victim. Many a soul has been stretched to the breaking point or constrained and crushed by this harsh and unreal steamrolling.

Paradoxically, the outward uniformity of frum societies proffers the blessing of true individuality. It is precisely because so much external uniformity is expected that people must dig deeply to discover what makes them unique and irreplaceable individuals. In analyzing both the sacred avodah of Hagrolah (the sacrifice lottery) on Yom Kippur and Shoshanas Yaakov, the anthem of Purim, Rav Hutner Z”tl explains that once we posit that two things are, in fact, different it follows that the greater the number of layers of external similarity they share then, perforce, the deeper and closer to their cores will be that which actually differentiates them.

Chazal describe Hashem as “the peerless Artist” because every piece of His work (human beings) is a one of a kind creation. Our aching to be unique is a paean to the Divine Artist. It is nothing less than the ultimate, logical conclusion of imitatio dei (Mitzvah of Divine Imitation:clinging to the ways & middos of HaShem). Just as He is Yochid (singularly individual) so shall you be! Individuality ought to be embraced and celebrated in spiritual, sophisticated, deep-seated ways that flow outward from the core of our values and our beings not relegated to some quirks at the outer limits of our most public personas. Such quirkiness represents little more than a clichéd, shallow conformist’s losing touch with their individuality by “going with the (nonconformist) flow”.

The Natural, the Supernatural and the Counter-natural

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

Therefore say to the Bnei Yisrael-chidren of Israel, “I am HaShem. I will extricate you from the burdens of Egypt and free you from their slavery. I will redeem you with a demonstration of My power and with great acts of judgment.

-Shemos 6:6

I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and thus will produce the opportunities to display many miraculous wonders and signs in Egypt.

-Shemos 7:5

At the end of parshas Bo, in validating the centrality of the mitzvos that serve as reminder to the exodus from Egypt, the Ramban famously explains that the makkos– the 10 plagues, were meant to pierce the veil that conceals G-d.  The strands of which that veil is woven are the Laws of Nature. All of the makkos were openly miraculous, flouting numerous Laws of Nature in the most overt way.

The Maharal and the Chidushei haRi”m explain that the 10 makkos , seven of which occur in our Sidra, were the bridge between the asara ma’amoros shebahem nivra haolam– the 10 pronouncements through which the world was created, and the aseres hadibros-the 10 commandments through which the Torah was revealed.  A world that does not perceive god as the Creator is unready to accept G-d as the Divine Legislator.  By laying bare the existence of a Force that superseded Nature, that could utterly manipulate Nature and that could bend Nature to It’s supernatural Will, the makkos removed any the lingering doubts about the existence of G-d the Creator and proved the truth of numerous principles of our faith.

Thus understood, one could jump to the erroneous conclusion that the G-d-concealing, illusion-of-independence-projecting, natural order is constantly at odds with G-d. In fact, nature is the regular and consistent expression of the Divine Will.  Why and when the Divine Will chooses to superimpose the hanhagah nisis– the miraculous management of the cosmos upon and, apparently, against the hanhagah tiv’is– the natural management of the cosmos, is something that only the Divine Mind knows.

In this same vein many of us striving to make good moral/ethical choices and grow spiritually regard our own human natures as G-d-negating, mortal enemies. We are conditioned to fight our natural impulses. We associate them with our yetzer hara – inclination to evil. But the pasuk says “everything that HaShem has made is for His own sake.”(Mishlei 16:4) That is to say for His greater Glory.  All of the works of creation are expressions of the Divine will.

When inanimate objects and living beings behave according to the laws of nature they are fulfilling the will of HaShem. The great challenge with things behaving “naturally” is that they appear to be on autopilot.  The Divine Will that created the Laws of Nature and that continues to direct natural law often becomes obscured by natural processes. This is why Torah numerologists have pointed out that Elokim shares an equal numerical value with  hateva-the Nature (86) and why Torah etymologists teach that the root of the word olam-cosmos, world, is he’elam-concealment.

When Rabi Pinchos ben Yair traveled to redeem a captive Jew (pidyon sh’vuyim-redeeming captives, is the highest form of tzedakah-charity) he reached the banks of the Ginai River and could go no further. He commanded the river waters to interrupt their flow so that he could cross through the riverbed and proceed on his mission of mercy. The river responded “you go to do the Will of your Creator and I go (flow) to do the Will of my Creator.  There is only a chance that you will fulfill the Creator’s Will but, so long as I flow, I’m most definitely fulfilling the Creator’s Will. If so, why should I cease my flowing so that you can get going?” (Chulin 7A).

Ultimately the river split for Rabi Pinchos ben Yair and he accomplished his mission of pidyon sh’vuyim. But the “conversation” between him and the river is significant in that it establishes beyond a shadow of a doubt that even inanimate things functioning according to the Laws of Nature are doing the will of the Creator, HaShem. It belies the philosophy that Nature opposes G-d. Nature is no more G-d’s enemy than the veil is the face’s adversary.

HaShem brought the cosmos into being through the “10 pronouncements”.  All that exists in the cosmos, and the way in which they function, are expressions of HaShems will. We define a mitzvah as a thought, word or act having a positive and ethical charge.  What makes them “good” or positive is that they are consistent with, and fulfillments of, HaShem’s will.  As such it follows that every one of HaShem’s non-free-will-endowed creatures that behave according to natural law is, in a sense, performing mitzvos.

Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, teaches that just as in the macrocosm, a river running downstream is “running to do with the Will of its Creator” so too, in the microcosm known as man, all the natural impulses induce man to “run to do the Will of his Creator.”  When a man thirsts, it is G-d’s will that he hydrate himself.  When a man hungers, it is G-d’s will that he ingest nutrition.  When a man desires intimacy it is G-d’s will that he procreate.  When a man grows fatigued it is G-d’s will that he sleep. When human acts of eating, drinking, procreating and sleeping are done as responses to the dictates of human nature they too are mitzvos.  When they are indulged in excessively, going beyond the dictates of nature, they are not. This is the point that the gemara is trying to get across when it says that when one engages in physical intimacy that he do so “as if compelled by a demon” (Nedarim 20B). Absent an irresistible compulsion to act, physical intimacy fails to rise to the level of “running to do with the Will of his Creator”

Over the past decade Perek Shirah has gained enormous popularity. This concept is the deeper meaning of Perek Shira.  When we hear a frog croaking cacophonously we run for a pair of earplugs. We hardly consider this croaking to be the music of a symphony orchestra. But when the frog tells King Dovid that “I sing HaShem’s praises day and night” (Zohar Pinchos 222:B)what it really means to say is that just acting naturally and croaking, in accordance with the nature endowed in the frog by its Creator, is sweet music, a “singing of the Divine praise.”

… [The frogs will be] in the homes of your officials and the people, even in your ovens and in the kneading bowls.

-Shemos 7;28

Why did Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah deliver themselves to the fiery furnace, for kiddush HaShem-the sanctification of the Divine Name? They argued a kal v’chomer- a fortiori to themselves: If frogs,[of the second plague] which are not commanded concerning kiddush HaShem yet it is written of them, “and they shall come up and go into your house . . . and into your ovens, and into your kneading bowls.” when are the kneading bowls to be found near the oven? When the oven is hot! [Then we must certainly do so.]

-Pesachim 53B

While behaving “naturally” is the default setting for “running to do with the Will of the Creator” it is essential to remember that in some unusual times and circumstances, supernatural and contra-natural behaviors are required in order to “run to do with the Will of the Creator”. The most basic instinct for all species is the survival instinct. Yet, during redemption process, when HaShem chose to superimpose the supernatural hanhaga nisis upon the hanhaga tiv’is, then, as part of the second plague, the frogs threw themselves into the hot ovens flames contravening their survival instinct.

While humans are endowed with free-will and the rest of G-d’s creatures are not, we must nevertheless learn from them and exercise our free-will choices appropriately. While choosing to maintain our lives and responding to the dictates of our natures is often a mitzvah, making choices that are contra-natural, even to the point of mesirus nefesh and self-destruction, can be “running to do with the Will of the Creator” as well.  As the pasuk says “[HaShem] Who teaches us — from the beasts of the earth, and makes us wiser — from the birds of heaven.”(Iyov 35:11)

As it goes for the macrocosm so it goes for the microcosm.  There is room for the redemptive and the supernaturally, contra-naturally miraculous within human beings as well.

Adapted from: Tzidkas Hatzadik 173

Searching for God in the Garbage

Beyond BT contributor, Bracha Goetz, has written an extremely candid memoir, Searching for God in the Garbage, detailing how she became an observant Jew and overcame anorexia. It is told through actual diary entries and letters, spanning through the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s.

Here is an excerpt from the book.

Chapter Fourteen: 1983 – 1985

January 26, 1983

Dear Barbara,

I was glad you responded in such a positive way to my letter about the book. I honestly didn’t expect it. Sure, I have a lot more thoughts that I’d be very happy to share with you. Years ago, when we were working on the feminist critique together, you were Jewish and you were angry – but what could I say to you then? What can I say to you now … when I have this chance?

You seemed to hate men vehemently at the time. They were the ones who had put you down – kept you “in your place” for all these millennium. It was their fault. That was so clear to you. Remember how we all used to hang out in “Bread and Roses” restaurant – all the angry feminists of Radcliffe, who were mostly Jewish, and who could see so clearly that men were the culprits and that women had been the victims. I was there too, but if you remember, I never had much to say at any of our meetings. I didn’t see it all so clearly. Something bothered me with all this talk about the good guys and the bad guys … and most of all … it seemed so full of anger.

Now here I am, seven years later, finally feeling ready to say something back to you. What I have to say will sound strange at first, I know, and that is why a part of me doesn’t even want to bother. At the same time, I know it is important for me to let you hear my thinking now.

Remember the disgust we used to feel when we were considered nothing but bodies by all those men out there? Those were our souls reacting. When we were striving to be treated with the same respect that men were afforded, when we were fighting to have the opportunity to fulfill our greatest potentials as women – and even when society’s stress on skin-surface beauty was making us sick deep down inside – all of those times – it was our Jewish neshamas (souls) that were crying out to be recognized by us.

I know what you’d think of me if you saw me. Not usually barefoot, but pregnant – and baking bread (challahs) on a regular basis. Right away you would probably classify me as one of those who had given up. But it’s more the other way around. I turned away from all the anger at “Bread and Roses” because it was on a dead-end street. All I knew then was that it couldn’t be the way for us to get somewhere.

Last time we saw each other, I was headed for medical school in South Carolina. The summer after my first year there, I took a trip to Israel. I had just six weeks of vacation until my second year of medical school would begin. I was coming in search of something that was missing in life, and I knew that this was the last stop I was going to make before resigning myself completely to the cynical, de-sensitized way of life I was finally getting used to. I could not understand at the time that the constant, un-surrendering force inside that kept pushing me onward and wouldn’t let me rest – was Jewish. The drive to meet our spiritual needs is in all of us, but we don’t usually recognize where the deep and unfulfilled cravings are coming from.

We had dismissed Judaism early on, as being unable to provide any solutions to the problems that were important to us. The graduation ceremonies from Judaism were held at gaudy Bar Mitzva receptions. There was more than plenty of good food, but nothing that lasted. Then later on, we all heard stuff about how the status of a woman was inferior to that of a man’s in Judaism. Someone once even showed us some Jewish laws to prove it. We didn’t hear much, but what we did hear made a lot of sense. After all, it was exactly what we had suspected.

Well, now I wish I could ask you to take a second look. I would ask you to look from the place that lies even deeper than your anger. From that pure part of you – still unmarred from long years of hating – I want you to look at me and see what there is to this woman that you would find doing dishes, changing diapers, and making dinner for her husband every day. You never wanted others to judge you at face value. Now, I’m asking for that too.

An understanding of the woman’s true role in Judaism can only be obtained by suspending your usual way of thinking for awhile. From the very start, we have been taught to believe that public recognition is what counts. We saw men out up front in prestigious positions getting a lot of recognition – and we wanted it too. It seemed to those lurking in the background – that men were having all the fun – living life in the most exciting way.

But who told us that out in public is “where the action is”? Who was telling us that success in the public arena would make us happy? And who got us thinking that being a homemaker was a drag? What I’m trying to say is – somewhere along the line most of us accepted an assumption which no one ever proved to us. We believed it when “they” told us that getting public recognition would bring fulfillment, and yet we never even saw one living example of it.

In these intervening years, through exploring authentic Judaism, I’ve had the chance to discover a fact of life that was never disclosed to me before. Simply put: What’s up front is not what counts. It’s still very hard for me to accept that thoroughly, however. It will take a long time for me to adjust to this view of life, completely topsy-turvy to the one I’d been indoctrinated to hold up until then.

In a sense, though, I think this topsy-turvy view of what really matters in life can be considered a truly feminist way of thinking. It requires recognizing fully that the man’s role is not the preferred role. Once this readjustment in thinking can be integrated at a deep level within, it finally becomes possible for a woman to realize her greatest potential. Once freed from the burden of wanting to be like a man, she is able to be a woman wholeheartedly. We are then able to taste the many pleasures inherent in creating a home. These are pleasures of the deepest sort, which we would have never even permitted ourselves to accept and experience as pleasures before.

You can purchase a copy of Bracha’s memoir in paperback or Kindle formats.

One Nation, Indivisible

Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier

Parshas Shemos

And he said, “Who placed you as a judge and ruler above us. Will you say to kill us as you killed the Egyptian.” And Moshe feared, and he said, “Now the matter is known”. Shemos 2:14

When Moshe came of age, he went out to visit his brothers — to share in their suffering. What he saw caused him great anguish. The oppression, subjugation, and cruelty were present wherever he looked. The next day, Moshe again “went out to his brothers,” this time he witnessed two Jews engaged in mortal combat. One was standing over the other in an attempt to kill him. Moshe called out, “Wicked one, why are you hitting your friend?!” This put an end to the bloodshed.

However, Moshe’s intervention wasn’t appreciated. Quite the opposite, their response was, “Who appointed you to be a judge over us? Are you going to kill us as you killed the Mitzri yesterday?” The Medrash tells us this was actually a threat. The day before Moshe killed a Mitzri guard, who was mercilessly whipping an innocent Jew. The two Jews who were fighting had seen this, and they now warned Moshe that they were going to report him to the authorities for rebelling against the king—which they did.

When Pharaoh heard that the heir apparent had openly challenged the law of the land and defended a Jew against his master, he brought Moshe to trial for tyranny. In the end, Moshe had to flee Mitzraim at the risk of his life.

Interestingly, when Moshe first heard their threat his response was, “Now the matter is known.” Rashi explains that for many years, Moshe had a question: “Why is it that of all the seventy nations, the Jews are singled out for oppression?” Once he saw that there were talebearers amongst the Jews, he understood why this nation was so fated.

3 questions

This Rashi is very difficult to understand for a number of reasons. 1. Moshe witnessed two people threatening to report him. Two individuals don’t define a nation. 2. Didn’t all the other nations speak Loshon Harah as well? 3. Even if it were true that entire Jewish People were gossipers, what is so egregious about this sin that an entire nation should suffer cruel, brutal subjugation?

The answer to this can best be understood with a moshol.

Making a hole in my cabin

Imagine a man boards a transatlantic ocean liner carrying an electric saw. Late at night, one of the ship’s personnel hears a distinct rattling noise coming from the man’s cabin. The crewmember knocks on the door – no answer. The noise continues. He knocks again. Still no response. Fearing danger, he kicks in the door, only to see the passenger standing poised against the ship’s hull, electric saw in hand, attempting to cut through the skin of the ship. The crewmember screams out, “Stop it! What are you doing?”

The passenger calmly responds, “Sir, do you see this boarding pass in my hand? Do you see that it states that I have the right to a private cabin? Why are you disturbing me? Here I am, in the privacy of my own compartment, doing what I want. If I want to drill a hole in my room, that is my choice. I have paid for this cabin and I have the prerogative to do whatever I want here. Leave me alone.”

The Chofetz Chaim compares this situation to the Jewish people. He explains that our nation is one unit – irrevocably tied together in a common fate. What happens to one affects another. The state of each individual impacts the whole. There is no such concept as one person doing what he wants in the privacy of his home and not affecting the Klal. But more than this, we are one body. Where the tail goes, the head can’t be far behind. When Moshe saw the levels that the tail had sunk to, he knew that the body of the nation couldn’t be that high. This single action shed light onto the madregah of the people.

The Chofetz Chaim explains that the antidote to Loshon Harah is “loving my neighbor.” If I, in fact, viewed him as connected to me, I would never speak negatively about him. It would be like bad-mouthing myself.

This seems to be the answer to this Rashi. The Jewish nation is one. If such an incident of vicious slander could occur, it reflected on the state of nation. If the people had been on a higher level, this could not have transpired. It meant that the nation as a whole was lacking in a key ingredient – a sense of common destiny, a sense of brotherhood, the sense that I am one with my fellow Jew. And that is why the nation deserved to be punished.

More is expected from the Chosen Nation

If the people involved were the French, the Germans, or the ancient Greeks, this wouldn’t have been an issue. They are a people by circumstance, born of common lineage and brought up in a common land, but there ends the connection. The Jewish people are different. As children of Avrohom, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, we share a common heritage and destiny. We are bound together for eternity. We are one.

For that reason, when Moshe witnessed this act of cruel gossip mongering, he took it as a sign of the health of the nation. If the bottom has sunk this low, the head can’t be that much higher. He then understood why it is that the Jews deserved such treatment. If any other nation degrades one another, there isn’t much fault found with them. If a member of the chosen people speaks badly about another, that bodes serious consequences. We are held to a higher standard.

This concept is a powerful lesson to us about the unity of the Jewish people, our common destiny, and the power of each individual to impact the whole.

Rabbi Shafier is the founder of the Shmuz.com – The Shmuz is an engaging, motivating shiur that deals with real life issues.

All of the Shmuzin are available free of charge at www.theShmuz.com or on the Shmuz App for iphone or Android. Simply text the word “TheShmuz” to the number 313131 and a link will be sent to your phone to download the App.

Shovavim – Repairing Our Thoughts

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Introduction To “Shovavim”

The holy sefarim[1] describe the days of “Shovavim” (Parshas Shemos through Parshas Mishpatim) as days of teshuvah (repentance), based on the possuk, “Return, wayward sons”, and that the main sin which we need to focus our teshuvah on during these days is to rectify the sin of keri (spilling human seed).

We need to know what the root of the spiritual light is that exists during this time, what exactly it means to damage the Bris, and how it is rectified.

In many places, the custom during these days is to recite Selichos (prayer supplications) and to perform various tikkunim (soul rectifications) for the public.

The ancient scholars who taught the inner parts of the Torah[2] established five ways to rectify the sin of spilling seed, and each of them are based on the five different causes that can lead a person to the sin. The five causes that bring about this sin are: 1) Thoughts, 2) Desire to gaze at another woman[3], 3) Desire for gay behavior[4], 4) Wasted spittle[5], 5) One who deliberately delays circumcision[6].

In these coming chapters (Shovavim #02, #03, #04, #05 and #06) we will not delve that in-depth into the esoteric concepts here; rather, we will see the homiletic statements of our Sages about these matters.

We will begin, with the help of Hashem, with the first path of rectification of the sin, which is to rectify the thoughts.

Rectifying The Thoughts: Returning To The “Beginning”

The power of thought is described as the “beginning point” of man. To illustrate the concept, the first thing Hashem did to create the world was that He thought about it. The beginning of a matter is always with thought, thus, thought is seen as the beginning point. Thought is the first kernel of wisdom that allows for the wisdom to become expanded further and further.

Since the purpose of Creation is to reveal the sovereignty of Hashem, “the end of action is first with thought”, therefore, the end of Creation, which will be the purpose, is somewhat reflected in the beginning point of Creation. So the concept of thought, which is the beginning point of Creation, is actually a reflection of the purpose of Creation.

Before the conception of the Jewish people, the Torah describes the 70 nations who descended from Esav. Although the Jewish people are called raishis, “the beginning,” they were still preceded by the 70 nations. What is the meaning of this? It is because the 70 nations of the world are a different kind of beginning. They are another kind of tool which brings about the revelation of Hashem. We see this from the fact that in the future, Hashem will first reveal Himself to all the nations, “And His Kingdom will reign over all jurisdictions”, and after that, the Jewish people will then become the tool that will reveal the purpose of Creation. The purpose of Creation is the revelation of Hashem’s Presence upon the world, and when His sovereignty will be revealed, that will be the tool that brings it about.

Thus, there are different tools which Hashem has set into motion that will reveal the purpose of Creation. Even the gentile nations of the world will be a key factor in the process; this is actually the deeper meaning behind why Esav’s head is buried with the Avos. It is a hint to the fact that the beginning of the nations is really good at its root. The nations of the world have a good beginning, because they will be the first stage in the revelation of Hashem upon the world; it is just that their end will not be lofty as their beginning was. Their dominion will come to an end, and that is why only Esav’s head is buried with the Avos, because only the “head” of Esav is worthy. The Jewish people, by contrast, have both a beginning and an end which will reveal Hashem upon the world.

When one’s thoughts are damaged through sinful thinking, that essentially means that the “beginning” point in a person is damaged. This has several aspects to it. One aspect of our thoughts is that our thoughts are meant to remain inside us; our thoughts are private, and they are supposed to be kept private. To illustrate, we don’t know what others are thinking; the reason for this is to show us that thoughts are supposed to be kept private. When thoughts do need to become revealed, they must be revealed in a proper way, because in essence, they are really meant to be kept private.

Thus, we have a two-fold avodah in protecting our power of thought: We need to keep them private, and in addition, when we do reveal them, they need to be revealed properly.

The Root of Damaging The Bris: Feeling Completely Independent

The root of a person’s downfall is when he thinks he is perfect. “Esav” is called so because he was asuy, already “made”, meaning, he was born “complete”; the inner meaning of this is that he thought he was complete, and that is the depth of his ruination. When a person thinks he is complete, he denies the fact that he needs others in order to be completed. Because he thinks he is perfect, he doesn’t feel a need to connect with others. This is really the depth behind damaging the Bris: when a person thinks that he does not need to receive from others. When a person is unmarried, he can understand well what it means to feel lacking; he knows that he needs to be completed by another.

Although we find that the Sage Ben Azai did not marry, because he desired learning Torah alone and didn’t feel the need to be completed by a woman, still, although he reasoned well, we know that his path is not meant for us to take, for the Sages recount that when he was shown Heavenly revelations as a result of his spiritual level, he could not survive the revelations, and he died out of shock.

After Adam sinned, before Kayin and Hevel were even conceived, it is brought in the holy sefarim[7] that droplets of keri left his body; and for the 130 years that he was separated from Chavah after the sin, demons were formed from those droplets. Why was he punished? It was because he blamed Chavah for the sin; “This woman you gave me, it is she who gave me from the tree that I ate.” When he said this, the deeper implication of this was that he was basically saying that he doesn’t need her, chas v’shalom, for he was declaring that woman is detrimental to man. So he thought he doesn’t need her to complete him, and that he is better off without her.

This leads us the way to how we can fix the sin of spilling seed. When one feels incomplete, and he is aware that he needs to receive from others in order to become complete, he has fixed the sin at its root. Perfection is not achieved by feeling perfect about yourself and not needing others; rather, it is achieved precisely when one realizes he is incomplete without another to help him reach perfection.

The Deeper Implication of Misusing The Thought Process

In the power of thought, there are three kinds of thoughts: Chochmah, Binah, and Daas. Chochmah is the knowledge that one learns from his teachers. Binah is to reflect on the words of the Chochmah and thereby expand upon them. Daas is to connect the information that the Chochmah imparts and the information that the Binah imparts, bringing them to their potential. Daas reflects the concept that Chochmah needs Binah in order to become complete.

Thus, when a person has sinful thoughts, he has misused his daas, because he thinks he doesn’t need others in order to be complete.

The external part of the rectification for the sin is to feel lacking without another, but the inner layer of the solution is for a person to realize that he needs to become a tool that reveals beginnings. Soon, we will explain what this means.

The truth is that the concept of damaging the Bris was already existent as soon as Chavah’s body was separated from Adam’s; this already reflected a kind of separation between man and woman, in which man thinks that he doesn’t need woman for completion. Once Adam became separated from her, the idea of damaging the Bris became possible. It was the idea that it is possible for husband to be complete without his wife.

When one damages his thoughts, it is not only that he has misused his mental powers of Chochmah, Binah and Daas. The thoughts are damaged even when one has extraneous thoughts – when he lets his thoughts turn outward to think about things that he doesn’t need to think about. Just like the eyes are supposed to be controlled and they should not be turned outward that much, so is there a concept that the thoughts of a person not turn outward.

Repenting Over The Shame Caused By Sin

According to the Kamarna Rebbe, the 50th Gate of Impurity, which is the lowest level, is the sin of heresy, and it is created through the sin of damaging the Bris. This shows us how the Bris is damaged – but it also shows us at the same time how it can be repaired.

We can ask: Why is spilling seed considered to be the lowest level of impurity? Why can’t it just be viewed like any other desire that a person has?

The deep reason is as follows. Before the sin, Adam and Chavah were unclothed, yet they were not ashamed in their nakedness. As soon as they sinned, they realized they were naked and they grew ashamed; this shows us that the entire concept of shame began after the sin. Before the sin, there was no concept of shame. Why? It is because shame is when a person is concerned of what others think about himself; what is a person is ashamed of? He is ashamed of how he appears outwardly to others. But he is not concerned of how he appears inwardly to others. Before the sin, Adam and Chavah were so pure that they were only concerned of how they looked internally, not outwardly. After the sin, they became concerned with externalities, therefore, they were ashamed of how they appear outwardly to others.

So the pure state of mankind is to be concerned with who really is deep down, and not to be concerned of how he appears outwardly to others. Thus, the way to repair the sin is by returning to the original state of Adam, in there was no shame yet; meaning, for a person to concerned about his internal state, to keep his thoughts private as they are meant to be, and not to reveal them outwardly, not to think into things that he shouldn’t think about.

Thus, it’s not enough for a person to simply be ashamed about damaging the Bris. Although shame over a sin normally atones for all sins, the sin of damaging the Bris requires a higher kind of teshuvah, and shame alone is not enough to rectify it, for it was the sin that brought about shame to the world; the sin requires more than just shame and repentance, then, to rectify. What really needs to be rectified is the very fact that we are ashamed! Because if not for the sin in the first place, we would never know what shame is.

Of course, this does not mean chas v’shalom that one should harden himself and not feel bad after he sins. It means that a person has to reach an inner place in himself in which he returns to the state of before the sin, in which there was no shame yet, because then, when man was entirely pure, he was not concerned of anything external or outward!

When a person’s thoughts think about things that he shouldn’t think about, he is turning his thoughts outward, and this can lead chas v’shalom to eventually damaging the Bris. Our avodah during Shovavim is to return to our source, that even our power of teshuvah should be returned to its source.

During the Ten Days of Repentance, we say in Selichos that “If one’s heart understands and he repents, he will be healed”, meaning, if one is ashamed because of his sins and he repents, his teshuvah is valid. However, the teshuvah we do during Shovavim is a different concept of teshuvah than the usual kind of teshuvah. Shovavim comes after the Ten Days of Repentance, because the sin of damaging the Bris needs its own rectification and thus it cannot be covered by repenting during the Ten Days of Repentance. It is because teshuvah alone does not rectify damaging the Bris [as the Zohar states].

But that doesn’t mean that a person shouldn’t feel ashamed about damaging the Bris. Of course a person should feel ashamed and do teshuvah about it! But it is just that after he does that, he should then do a deeper kind of teshuvah – he should do teshuvah over the very fact that he has shame as a result of the sin; he should do teshuvah over the fact that he allowed his thoughts to be turned outward, that he allowed himself to be involved with the external and left the inner world of his thoughts.

Of course, now that we live after the sin, our initial nature is to seek what’s outside of us. But our avodah is to return ourselves to the original state of mankind before the sin, and to describe this in deeper terms, it’s referring to the power of emunah. Emunah helps a person stay in his proper place, where he will never feel a desire to go outward from himself.

Thus, the first way to rectify the sin of damaging the Bris (spilling human seed) is through rectifying our thoughts, and this means to return our thoughts to their source – that we should keep our thoughts inward, and not let them roam outward.

Private (Intimate) Matters Should Be Kept Private

The Chida[8] and others write that if someone reveals secrets to others when he wasn’t supposed to, he will end up sinning with damaging the Bris. This is because he turned outwardly when he should have remained inward. A secret should only be revealed to one who is modest, because he will know how to protect the secret.

When a person lets his thoughts roam around to explore thoughts that are forbidden or extraneous, that is the first root of what leads to damaging the Bris. But it also includes not to speak about private matters with others.

“Matters of the heart are not revealed to the mouth”[9], meaning, inner and private matters should not be revealed outwardly by the mouth to others. When a Bris [the covenant of marriage between man and woman] remains private between them and it is not spoken about to others, it remains as a protected covenant, as long as it is not spoken about through the mouth [to others].

This is what it means to have Kedushas HaBris, to keep the holiness of the Bris Kodesh: to protect the private nature of the Bris [the covenant of marriage between husband and wife]. Holiness means to conduct one’s private affairs in a hidden manner, in a dark room, privately, and it should be kept hidden and protected – never spoken about with others.

This is the first rectification of repairing the Bris Kodesh. May Hashem help us be able to act upon it practically.[10]

[1] Arizal: shaar ruach hakodesh: tikkun 27; further discussed in Levush, Magen Avraham, Beer Heitiv, and Pri Megadim to Orach Chaim: 685

[2] Rav Chaim Vital in Shaar Ruach HaKodesh (Arizal), ibid.

[3] This will be discussed b’ezras Hashem in Shovavaim #005 – Repairing Lust

[4] See Shovavim #04, Shovavim Today

[5] Shovavim #003

[6] Shovavim #006

[7] Shaar HaPesukim, Yechezkel

[8] Avodas HaKodesh: Tziporen HaShamir: 7: 113

[9] Koheles Rabbah 12:1

[10] Editor’s Summary: In the beginning of the chapter, it was stated that we have a two-fold avodah in repairing our damaged thoughts. The first part is to protect our private thoughts; this includes two aspects, 1)Not to think about forbidden things, which is obvious; 2)Not to reveal our private matters to others. The second part of the rectification was that when we do need to reveal our thoughts to others, they must be revealed properly; now it has been explained at the end of the chapter to mean that matters of privacy should only be revealed to someone who is modest who won’t tell it to others.

Finding Hashem in the Darkness

A Jewish king’s task is to personify G-d’s majesty in this world. I would like to suggest that through the rulership of Yosef and Moshe, Hashem’s glory was manifested on two different levels.

Yosef was the embodiment of the divine characteristic of revelation. Like a king, Yosef displayed royalty. He wore the brilliant kasones pasim (multi-colored garment). He was beautiful and beautified himself. Paroah gave Yosef the name Tzafnas Pa’nayach – literally, the hidden, revealed through the face.

Moshe, on the other hand was hidden. He was the most modest of all men. He covered his face with a veil to conceal his light. The germara relates that Moshe wore simple white garments as he served as Kohen Gadol (high priest) during the seven inaugural days of the Mishkan. This was unlike the usual regal vestments worn by the Kohen Gadol (Taanis 11b).

Where is there a greater manifestation of G-dliness, when Hashem is revealed or concealed? Was Hashem’s glory perceived at a greater level through Yosef’s revelation or Moshe’s concealment? At face value, one would think there is more G-dliness invested in a revelation. Perhaps the opposite is true.

Like the physically dark winter months, the calendar reflects a time of spiritual darkness as well. The germara describes 3 days of darkness, which culminated in the fast day of the tenth of Teves. On that day, the siege of Yerushalayim commenced. It eventually led to the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash (holy temple) and the exile.

The germara (Yoma 69b) explains that the Men of the Great Assembly merited the title “Great” because they restored G-d’s glory to its original greatness. Originally, Hashem is praised with the words “the great, mighty and awesome”. Decades later, Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Bais Hamikdash. Yermiya reasoned, “Where is Hashem’s awesomeness” in the midst of such concealment and destruction? He deleted “awesome” from the original praise. Similarly, Daniel witnessed the oppression of the Jews in exile and proclaimed, “Where is G-d’s might?” He deleted “mighty” as well. However, the men of the Great Assembly perceived reality from a different perspective. G-d does not conceal his “might” when the Jewish people are persecuted, He reveals it, by controlling His wrath and waiting until the right moment to execute vengeance. In addition, G-d displays His “awesomeness” through the exile of the Jewish people. How else could the survival of a helpless nation surrounded by hostile nations be explained? Therefore, they reinstituted the original praises of “mighty and awesome”. The Men of the Great Assembly understood on a deeper level, that through the darkness of exile G-dliness is not hidden but revealed.

Chasidus offers an analogy. Where is essence found? The essence of any one thing is the very core of its existence. Essence is the microcosm that encompasses an entire reality. To illustrate, one sees a beautiful, large, fruit tree in full bloom. Thousands of colorful blossoms encompass the foliage. The sight is breathtaking. Where is this tree’s essence? We are in search of the one thing that incorporates all its immense beauty, its size and its fruit. The answer is … the seed. In the seed is everything, that tree was, is and will be.

Logically, one would conjecture that this seed which holds all the tremendous beauty within it, would in and of itself be exquisitely beautiful. However, this is not the reality. The profound lesson is that the seed appears to be no more than a small meaningless pebble. The same is true in man. Chasidus explains, true essence can never be revealed. It can only be experienced. It is only through the concealment of a seed that essence is engaged.

Like the disguise of a seed, G-dliness is found in essence in a similar fashion. G-d is found amidst concealment. The nature of this physical world is that it conceals Hashem. The root of the word olam (world) is helem (conceal). The physical world hides Hashem like no other. Therefore, it is explained that G-d’s essence is experienced here as well.

This is the secret of a mitzvah. The root of the word mitzvah is tzausa – to join (to Hashem). It is not by coincidence that most mitzvas are accomplished through the performance of a physical (apparently mundane) action in this dark world. It is through the medium of physicality that Hashem is found and can be connected to in essence. Similarly, the root of the word Shabbos is shev (to return). On Shabbos through the physical pleasure of consuming a scrumptious meal in purity, we return and experience a union with Hashem. This is the envy of the heavenly hosts. Angels can enjoy G-dliness but they can never experience a relationship to Hashem in essence as we can in this world.

There is a telling story of the Vilna Gaon. On his deathbed, the Gaon began to cry. His students pondered, “You have spent a lifetime preparing for the next world. Now that you are about to enter it, you cry?” The Vilna Gaon pointed to his tzitzis and said, “This garment I bought for so little money. By wearing it each day I was able to fulfill such precious mitzvos. In the next world, even such a simple act will be impossible.”

With this it can be understood why the climax of history will culminate in this apparent mundane world, through the coming of Moshiach. The question must be asked, is the absolute reward of man not the ecstatic pleasure a neshama (soul) experiences in the next world? As we explained, the ultimate connection with Hashem is in this world, therefore the neshamos of the departed will experience the revival of the dead in a physical form on earth. It is here, through the material reality of this world that Hashem will be experienced on the most supreme and intense level.

Moshiach Ben Dovid is Moshe Rabbeinu “Moshe is the first redeemer and the last redeemer,” (Midrash, Zohar Bereishis 25b, 27a). In the end of days Hashem’s majesty will be revealed on two different levels through Moshiach Ben Yosef and Moshiach Ben Dovid. Moshiach Ben Yosef will initiate the process, however Moshiach Ben Dovid / Moshe, will manifest the glory of Hashem in its ultimate level in this world in the end of days.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge of life, is utilizing the darkness as an opportunity to connect to Hashem. The lesson of Moshe is; Concealment and darkness are not a lack of G-dliness, they are precisely where Hashem can be experienced in essence.

“In the place a baal teshuva stands a perfect tzadik is unable to stand.” Finding Hashem in the light is relatively easy. Finding Hashem in the darkness is the true greatness and unique power of a baal teshuva.

Originally Posted Dec 28, 2007

Ten for the Tenth of Teves

Ten points about the Tenth of Teves from an article by Rabbi Berel Wein.

1) The Tenth of Tevet marks the onset of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylonia, and the beginning of the battle that ultimately destroyed Jerusalem.

2) The date of the Tenth of Tevet is recorded for us by the prophet Yechezkel, who himself was already in Babylonia as part of the first group of Jews exiled there by Nebuchadnezzar, 11 years earlier than the actual destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem itself.

3) The Tenth of Tevet is viewed as such a severe and important fast day that it is observed even if it falls on a Friday (erev Shabbat), while our other fast days are so arranged by calendar adjustments as to never fall on a Friday, so as not to interfere with Shabbat preparations.

4) On the eighth of Tevet, King Ptolemy of Egypt forced 70 Jewish scholars to gather and translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek. Even though the Talmud relates to us that this project was blessed with a miracle

5) The 70 scholars were all placed in separate cubicles and yet they all came up with the same translation

6) The general view of the rabbis of the time towards this project was decidedly negative. The Talmud records that when this translation became public “darkness descended on the world.”

7) The ninth day of Tevet is held to be the day of the death of Ezra the Scribe. This great Jew is comparable even to Moses in the eyes of the Talmud. “If the Torah had not been granted through Moses, it could have been granted to Israel through Ezra.”

8) Ezra led the return of the Jews to Jerusalem from their Babylonian exile. It was under his direction and inspiration, together with the help of the court Jew, Nechemiah, that the Second Temple was built, albeit originally in a much more modest scale and style than the grandeur of Solomon’s Temple.

9) Since fasting on the eighth, ninth and 10th days of Tevet consecutively would be unreasonable, the events of the eighth and ninth were subsumed into the fast day of the Tenth of Tevet.

10) The rabbinic policy of minimizing days of tragic remembrances played a role in assigning the Holocaust remembrance to the Tenth of Tevet for a large section of the Israeli population.

The Dyslexia of Teshuvah

How could men as great as the tribes of Israel have committed the crime of selling a brother into slavery?
Why was it Yehudah who took the lead in saving Binyomin?
Why does Yehudah begin his soliloquy with the word “bi= please”; instead of the standard word for please “na“?

Yehudah walked up to Yoseph and said בי אדני“Please, your highness, (alternatively; it is within me, my Master) please let me say something to you personally…”

Bereishis 44:18

“Send the boy with me” said Yehudah to his father Yisrael …”I will be responsible for him myself.  You can demand him from my hand. If I do not bring him back and have him stand here in your presence I will have sinned to you for all time.”

Bereishis 43:8,9

I will have sinned against you for all time: For the world to come.  [from Bereishis Rabbah 91:10, in other words Yehudah staked his share in the world to come on Binyamin’s safe return to Yaakov]

Rashi ibid

When the Most High allocated nations their birthright and split up the sons of man, He set up the borders of nations to correspond to Israel’s descendants.

— Devarim 32:8

Yehudah said to his brothers “what gain is there in killing our brother [Yoseph] … let’s sell him to the Arabs … “

Bereishis 37:26,27

 If one person kidnaps and sells another and [the victim] is seen in his hand then [the kidnapper] shall be put to death

Shemos 21:16

… Rabi Yochanan said in the name of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai: Dovid was not the kind of man to do such an act [the sin with Bas-Sheva] nor was Israel the kind of nation to do such an act that act [the sin of the golden calf] … Why, then, did they commit these acts? [G-d predestined it so] in order to teach us that if an individual sinned [and hesitates about the possibility and efficacy of repentance] he could be referred to the individual [Dovid], and if a community commits a sin they should be told: Go to the community [the generation of the Exodus] … This accords with the following saying of Rabi Shmuel bar Nachmani, who said in the name of Rabi Yonoson: What is the meaning of the verse “So said Dovid the son of Yishai, and so said  the man raised on high”? [It means this:] “So said Dovid the son of Yishai, the man who elevated the yoke of repentance.”

— Avodah Zarah 4B-5A

“Return to Me, and I will return to you,” says HaShem of the legions. But you say: “How can we return?!”

— Malachi 3:7

Parashas Vayigash begins with Yehudah’s soliloquy in his dramatic and historic encounter with Yoseph. The encounter was dramatic because Yehudah was “all-in”; he was risking everything; both his freedom during the balance of his temporal life as well as his eternity. It was historic because, as it culminated in Yoseph’s revelation to, and rapprochement with, the rest of his brothers, it meant that the rip in the fabric of Bnei Yisrael-the children of Israel; had been repaired and made whole again.

The cosmic significance of the shivtei Kah-the branches/ tribes of G-d; cannot be overestimated. As we see clearly from the passuk that states that all of humanity’s borders and birthrights were merely intended to correspond to Israel’s descendants,  the shivtei Kah were kivyachol-so to speak; G-d’s objective in Creation. So while human nature is to forget the unpleasant details in “alls-well-that-ends-well” narratives, it is still extremely troubling to consider that the first chapter of this story began with what was apparently a heinous crime; a sin that is covered by the commandment of “Thou shall not steal” in the Decalogue and that is a capital offense. How could the shivtei Kah the — founders of our holy nation — still be venerated as holy, exalted souls after committing such a cardinal sin?

Rav Leibeleh Eiger approaches this nettlesome question using the precedent set by the Gemara-Talmud; in Masechaes Avodah Zarah.  At times when we see the righteous acting sinfully — completely out of character, we understand that the point of their behavior was not the kilkul-spiritual ruination; of the sin but the tikun-metaphysical repair; brought about by their teshuvah-repentance; for that sin. The powerful teshuvah that these spiritual giants accomplished serve as templates — how-to guides — and provide inspiration for latter-day sinners who would love nothing more than to do teshuvah themselves but find the task too complex, daunting or discouraging.

Rav Leibeleh asserts that Yehudah is the father of sinning for the sake of instructing others on the fine points of teshuvah. Yehudah took a leading role in the sale of Yoseph into slavery i.e. the sin; so that he, among all of the brothers, would be the one to blaze the trail for the teshuvah / tikun for that odious crime as well. The entire point of the episode was to open a new avenue for teshuvah and a closer reading of his astonishing encounter with Yoseph yields a valuable lesson in the dynamics of teshuvah.

After approaching Yoseph for their historic encounter the very first words that Yehudah uttered were בי אדניbi adoni. Translated in a hyper-literal way these words mean “it is within me my Master.” The roshei teivos-first letters of the words; in this phrase are beis and aleph; an inverted sequence of the first two letters of the aleph-beis-alphabet and therein lies an allusion to the teshuvah dynamic.

Read more The Dyslexia of Teshuvah

The Dreidel of Life

This article is cross-posted at Oy!Chicago.

Just like the notion that there are two sides to every story, there are four sides to every dreidel. Over the years I have found myself associating the sides of that little dreidel (made out of recycled plastics) with memories of the past and the present along with thoughts about identity and perseverance

Let’s face it – playing dreidel is probably the closest thing to ancient kosher gambling. It takes skill and savvy, and that little kiss that you blow onto the dreidel cupped in your hands can make all the difference between a gimmel (getting all the pot) and a nun (getting nothing). I was enamored with the official game and would play it all the time in my Hebrew School days. My friends and I would have contests to see whose dreidel would spin the longest (I think my record was 45 seconds). Around fifth or sixth grade the game became pretty lame, but I was back to the dreidel circuit during my college years, though that’s a whole other story.

My kids (ages 14, 11, 7) are big fans of this seasonal game of chance. Although they have mastered the art of the upside-down spin, it’s the access to parent-sanctioned candy that keeps them playing the game year after year. In fact, they will keep playing it through the winter and into the spring. I’m guessing it’s the chocolate coins that keeps them playing and not the feeling of being historically connected to our ancestors who played the game when Greek soldiers would pass by.

I think the dreidel is one of the best Jewish symbols ever. Its size and function impart valuable lessons. I identify and navigate through many different social (and social media) circles during the day. A dreidel is small enough that if I were to put it in my pocket for a day, I think it would remind me that there’s another circle that I’m intrinsically part of.

No matter how many times we spin the dreidel it will always fall down on one of four sides. The outcomes are often this way in life. Sometimes we gain everything we want and sometimes we gain nothing. Sometimes we have to compromise and give up our half of what we want and sometimes we all have to pitch in a little of what we have for the greater good. Regardless of what side out dreidel lands on, we can always pick up the dreidel – and ourselves – so that we can continue trying to win the game.

Chanukah – Miracles Within

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Chanukah

Miracles – When Nature Is Overcome[1]

On Chanukah, we make a blessing of שעשה ניסים לאבותינו, expressing our thanks to Hashem for this time where He performed miracles for us. Although we also experienced miracles on Pesach, only the Rabbinical festivals of Chanukah and Purim contain a blessing where we thank Hashem for the miracles performed, which we express in the prayer of Al HaNissim in Shemoneh Esrei.

Hashem runs the world through a system of laws He created which we know as “nature” (teva), and He also built into this a system that works above the normal laws of “nature”: miracles (nisim). Hashem has allowed the laws of “nature” that He created to be the system of the normal “laws” (chukim) which He runs the world with.

When we analyze Creation deeper, there are actually different kinds of “nature” in creation. There are four classifications in Creation: the non-living objects (doimem), plants (tzomeiach), animals (chai), and people (medaber). Each of these has their own specific natures. Human beings, animals, plants, and inanimate objects each have their own specific kind of “nature”.

Each of the creations has their limitations. If Hashem enables a rock to grow and have life to it, it would be a miracle for the rock, because the nature of a rock is that it cannot grow. If Hashem were to allow a plant to move from place to place like an animal can, this would be a miracle for the plant, because a plant’s nature is that it does not grow. If an animal is allowed by Hashem to talk, such as the donkey of Bilaam who was allowed to talk, this is a miracle for the animal, because an animal’s nature is that it cannot talk.

Thus, what is the depth of a miracle (nes)? It is when a different “nature” is revealed in something. A miracle is not simply that Hashem changes the rules. Rather, as the Ramban and others explained, the definition of a “miracle” is when a lower level creation is allowed to function on a level that is normally above its natural level. When a rock can grow, when a plant can walk, when an animal can talk, these are all miracles, because they would be functioning on a higher level than they are normally on. Thus, in the days of Chanukah, we experienced “miracles” in the sense that a higher level of creation was revealed within this lower realm that we dwell on.

Becoming Uplifted To A Higher Level

When one has a difficulty (nisayon\נסיון), either his avodah is to find a way to run away from it (וינס), such as what happened with Yosef when he had to run away from the wife of Potiphar; and sometimes the avodah of going through a nisayon is to bear through it and thereby become uplifted from it (להתנוסס).

When the family of the Chashmonaim had to go to war with the Greeks, it was a nisayon for them, and they passed the test, becoming uplifted from it and rising to a higher level than before. That was the miracle. The Chashmonaim faced some difficulty in their avodah in their own individual souls, and because they passed the difficulty, they were elevated to a higher level, where miracles were performed for them.

In clearer terms, as mentioned earlier, a miracle is when a lower level creation is allowed by Hashem to function on a higher level. This can apply within human beings as well: what is considered nature for one person might be considered a miracle for another person, and vice versa. If Shimon is on a lower spiritual level than Reuven, and Shimon rises to the level of Reuven (which is a natural level for Reuven to be on), this is a miracle for Shimon.

Thus, every year when Chanukah returns, where the spiritual light of “miracles” is revealed, this does not simply mean that the miracles of Chanukah are revealed to us in the very same way it was revealed to us last year. Rather, the definition is that if we have risen to higher levels since a year ago, last year’s miracle isn’t considered a miracle anymore for us, because it has now become our natural level.

The spiritual light of the miracles are shined upon us during this time of the year, as our Sages explain, but the depth of this concept is that it depends on the level we have reached since last year. If one has passed more nisyonos (difficulties) since last year, he merits a greater level of “miracle” this year, because now that he has become more elevated since last year’s level, the miracle of last year is now his natural level, and he is now ready to receive greater miracles than the year before.

Overcoming Our Own Personal Natures

Applying this to us on a personal level, every person has his own “natures” which Hashem has implanted into his soul. There are four elements contained in our various “natures”: fire, wind, water, and earth. These are the roots of our negative middos (character traits). Fire is the root of conceit and anger, wind is the root of idle speech, water is the root of seeking hedonistic pleasure, and earth is the root of sadness and laziness, with their branching traits.[2] These are the natures of our middos. When one works to improve his middos, he is really working to uproot the various natures that Hashem has implanted in him.
Read more Chanukah – Miracles Within

Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman – ztz”l

Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman, the leader of Torah Jewry, passed away today at the age of 104. An estimated 600,000 people attended the funeral, held on short notice.

Here is an excerpt from Rabbi Shteinman, Humble Giant, Serving God and the Jewish people for 104 full years.

Torah Leadership

In contrast to the Western style of choosing leaders – often a self-aggrandizing popularity contest between egocentrics – Rabbi Shteinman was chosen with no elections, campaigning, or brash publicity antics. He became leader based on his deep humility, compassion, respect for God, and commitment to serve – with no thought to personal compensation or glorification. He served with no salary, no palatial office, no private jet, and no term of office – maintaining his position solely on the people’s trust.

When it came to Torah study, Rabbi Shteinman was a purist. He defined “yeshiva” as not simply a place for high-level Torah study, but as a safe haven free of forces antithetical to Torah. Particularly in the digital age, where negative influence is impervious to physical barriers, he believed that the best protection is unswerving commitment to Torah values.

Rabbi Shteinman was known as a moderate. He backed the idea of Nachal Charedi, providing a path for yeshiva students to serve in the Israeli army. For this Rabbi Shteinman took some heat, and for years courageously stood up to criticism. Rabbi Shteinman instituted a policy of “no child left behind,” starting schools for less-talented children, children of immigrants, and others at risk. And he increased Torah influence in Israel by approving the inclusion of a charedi minister in Israel’s cabinet.

Rabbi Shteinman was a role model for anyone trying to steer clear of the many trappings and pitfalls of a modern lifestyle. When Israeli Ambassador to Japan, Nissim Ben Shitrit, visited Rabbi Shteinman’s small and humble apartment, he astonishingly remarked: “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

On weekdays, his entire daily food intake was one cucumber, one boiled potato, and few spoons of oatmeal. Rabbi Shteinman had trained his body to desire food only for pure motives – to keep his body healthy – without a drop of hedonism. On Shabbat, he ate different foods in honor of the holy day. When he was offered delicacies as a guest, he obliged by eating half a grape.

Rabbi Shteinman typically sat on a word bench with no back. He used various techniques to stay awake for long hours and study. Over the years, many people offered to upgrade his accommodations, but Rabbi Shteinman always refused, insisting that he has precisely what he needs and no more.

Vayeshev Yakov: Achieving True Jewish Unity Through a Divine Division of Labor

An elaboration of the teachings of Rav Hirsch on the first two psukim of the parsha
By Yakov Lowinger

Rav Hirsch says of this week’s parsha that the overlooked feature of the original sinah and kinah — between Yosef and his brothers — was that they could have just simply focused on their connection to and service of Hashem, which carries with it a natural division of talents and labors and supersedes the formation of negative divisions. Instead, they obsessively focused on the superficial differences between them. The b’nai Leah thought they were superior and looked down upon the sons of the sh’fachos, instead of recognizing and appreciating the unique role that their half-brothers were to play. Yosef, a bit arrogant and caught up in his own beauty, would work with the bnai Leah during the day and spend time with the sons of the sh’fachos at night. Not quite a member of the first club, he basked in the superiority and adulation he felt in the presence of the second. He was not only “brotherless”, in the sense that he could not form a real connection with any of his brothers (Binyamin being too young at the time), but also “motherless”, growing up mostly without the love and attention of a mother figure unlike all of his older brothers. He develop in himself an extreme feeling of individuality and isolation, which was the cause of his attempts to win more of his father’s love by tattling on his brothers. The b’nai shfachos, on the other hand, perhaps feeling slighted and marginalized, turned inward and eventually joined the campaign against Yosef — better to be on the more powerful side than on the side of the privileged but troubled loner.

These descriptions in the Torah sound eerily like petty feuds, rivalries, and attempts at social exclusion that the world has seen untold times, and yet they are even still the primary cause of all our sufferings in exile. Just serve Me, Hashem says, and you will get along. You will develop an understanding of your own special duty to me, and cease to worry about the superficial differences over time. But they, as we, would not listen. Although we are the same, brilliantly diverse chunks of the infinite rained down into this world into more or less similar bodies and life challenges, yet instead of focusing on the differences that are real — the different levels and duties of our souls — we focus on the ones that hurt, fascinate, and occupy us on the superficial level, the exoticness of the slightly different-looking and differently quirked behavior, and so forth. How easily this obsession turns to hate and isolation, because these differences not only form no basis for a higher unity, but need to be maintained and reinforced through an ongoing effort.

The differences in our neshamos are just there, require no special maintenance, and our the basis for a beautiful coming together that the physical world can only serve as an expression of. But Yosef and his brothers occupied themselves in maintaining the differences between them, an activity which requires constant upping of the levels of jealousy and hatred just to keep those differences noticeable. Since these superficial differences are not really there, it is only through manipulation of emotions that they can be made noticeable — and this level of manipulation must be intensified over time or we would just grow numb to these supposed differences (c”v!). This effort to constantly point out surface differences and generate negative feelings about them only leads to disastrous events, from the selling of Yosef to the churban and on down the line.

It is only when the disastrous consequences of sinah and kinah are clear, do we attempt to return to each other, but this work of repairing exaggerated differences is far more difficult than the work of creating them in the first place. So the longer we are in galus, the opportunity to simply ignore our differences and serve Hashem alone, the opportunity for each of us to focus on our unique avodah in the Divine division of labor becomes more and more precious. The superficial differences among us have become so magnified over the generations that we almost can’t see past them to what really distinguishes us from one another — our neshamos and the avodah they impose on us. Only this recognition, 1) that the differences we see in the physical world are nothing in comparison to the differences in our neshamos, and 2) these superficial differences and the work that goes into maintaining them only serve to divide rather than unite, will lead us to…
3! An understanding that our neshamos were sent down here to be TRULY different from each other, uniting their special avodos to bring us to the ge’ulah, may it be soon. This will be the ultimate vayeshev Yakov, not in the sense of being settled but in the sense of shuv or teshuvah, all the sons of Yakov returning to Hashem and each other one triumphant last time.

Chanukah – Transcending Self-Centeredness

By Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

The Greeks centered their opposition to the Jews on three religious laws that one the surface of things couldn’t be less threatening to them or their way of life. Why would a Greek concern himself about someone else circumcising his son? If a neighbor likes having three rather lavish meals on Saturday after attending the synagogue why let it occupy space in your mind? The most puzzling was their antagonism towards consecrating the new moon, a religious ceremony that had no observable impact other than being the basis of the Jewish calendar. Can you imagine losing any sleep over when Ramadan comes out next year?

The underlying antagonism was caused by what these commandments represent. Circumcision is a statement. It tell you that you are not born perfect, that perfection has to be earned, and that the path towards perfection requires a certain degree of sacrifice, and a certain measure of authentic submission to a force higher than your own ego. Nothing could possibly be less Greek.

Shabbos takes us even further from the Greek vision of a human centered world. What we say by keeping Shabbos is that even our creativity and our ability to dominate nature and make it our own, is not the end of the story. The highest level from our point of view is taking all of our creative energy and saying, “let go. It’s time to step back and see what God, not I, created”. When you see things from that angle, it isn’t hard to see what was so offensive about defining time through ritual instead of through human observation.

What all of this tells you is that this is the time of year that you can decide once and for all that you can finally stop being a closet Hellenist. You body, your endeavors and your sense of reality can all go beyond the limitations of the little castle called “me” and explore a new planet, one called “transcendence”. You can be bigger than your ego and your assumptions.

Let the light of the candles that reflect eternal truth give you enough light to step into the next phase of your life, into a more holy and God aware future.

Alternate Trajectories – Part 4

Written By C. Sapir,

You can read part 1 here.
You can read part 2 here.
You can read part 3 here.

One day, Ben mentioned that he had taken a client out to eat, and I innocently asked where they had eaten.

“Don’t ask questions that you don’t want to know the answers to,” he advised me in a friendly tone.

From then on, I didn’t ask him where or what he had eaten outside the house. It wasn’t my business. What was my business was my own kitchen, and I knew I could trust him not to do anything that would treif up my kitchen. Ours is an honest relationship, and even after Ben’s commitment to Yiddishkeit eroded to the core, his commitment to me and our marriage remained steadfast. Since Shabbos, kashrus, and taharas hamishpachah were non-negotiable to me, Ben wouldn’t do anything to break my trust or sabotage my observance of those or any other mitzvos.

In recent years, I’ve been contacted by numerous women – both baalos teshuvah and frum-from-birth – who are heartbroken over their husbands’ spiritual deficiencies. Some are upset that their husbands aren’t going to minyan or aren’t learning three sedarim a day. While I wish, inwardly, that that would be all I have to deal with, I truly sympathize with their disappointment. Others are grappling with far more serious issues, like chillul Shabbos.

My advice to these women is usually to separate the marriage issues from the religious issues, and work on the marriage. When the relationship is loving and respectful, religious differences can usually be overcome. But when the relationship itself is troubled, then religious differences only exacerbate the existing chasm.

All the years, Ben and I had made a priority of spending quality time together and investing in our marriage. After we moved away from New York, our life took on a slower pace, and Ben and I had found time to play chess, cook fun things together, read the newspaper aloud to each other, and discuss politics, history, and current events. In doing so, we had strengthened our relationship to the point that it could withstand significant challenges, from the loss of a child to Ben’s gradual abandonment of frumkeit.

“How do you respect a husband who’s not frum?” a woman will occasionally ask me.

“You want to know how I do it?” I respond. “I look for the good in my husband. He’s a mentsch. He’s kind to me and to the children. He’s warm and caring to our friends and guests. He’s generous. He works hard to support the family. He works for clients and community members pro bono when they can’t afford to pay.”

“But what about bein adam l’Makom?” she’ll protest.

“Have you ever learned Tomer Devorah?” I tell her. “It’s a slim volume written by Rav Moshe Cordovero, the Ramak. He was a great kabbalist, and a disciple of Rav Yosef Karo, who wrote the Shulchan Aruch. Tomer Devorah explains Hashem’s 13 Middos Harachamim and describes how we humans, who are created in His image, can emulate these middos. For instance, Hashem is nosei avon – He carries us even in the midst of an aveirah – and we, too, can continue to ‘carry’ our loved ones even when they transgress.”

In keeping with the Tomer Devorah’s teachings, I’m not going to ruin my marriage by nagging Ben to work on his relationship with Hashem. Instead, I’m going to continue davening and try to be a shining example of someone who does have a relationship with Hashem.

Part of being that shining example is remembering that Hashem matched me with this husband, and trusting that He knows what He is doing. He could have matched me with any man on the planet, yet He chose this special person just for me. We may be on alternate spiritual trajectories, but each of us is exactly what the other needs.

Orginally published in Mishpacha Magazine August 25, 2017

The narrator of this story has formed a support group for observant women (BT or FFB) married to men who are no longer observant.

You can contact her at tomerdevora13@gmail.com

Don’t Just Bless … Reverse the Curse

Why didn’t Avraham bless Yitzchak?
Why was Yitzchak unaware of whom he was actually blessing?
Neither Yaakov nor Moshe required savory dishes before offering their respective blessings.Why did Yitzchak require a savory dish before blessing his son?

Yitzchak, who dined on Esavs game, loved him while Rivkah loved Yaakov.

— Bereishis 25:28

And it was as Yitzchak aged and his eyes grew too weak to see that he summoned his older son Esav and said “My son” and he [Esav] responded “I am here.” … “go out in the field and trap me some game and make me a flavorful dish the way I love it and bring it to me to eat, so that my soul will bless you before I die.”

— Bereishis 27:1,3-4

And Elokim said “the earth should issue forth flora; seedbearing grasses and trees that are fruits that produce seed infused fruits along species lines upon the earth.” and it (almost) happened. The earth issued forth flora, plants bearing their seedbearing own species and trees [that are wooden] producing seed infused fruits …

— Bereishis 1:11-12

and trees that are fruits [The Divine Creative Will was] that the taste of the tree should be identical to the taste of the fruit. However, it [the earth was insubordinate and] did not do so but “the earth issued … trees [that are wooden] producing seed infused fruits,” but the trees themselves were not fruit. Therefore, when man was cursed because of his Original Sin, it [the earth] too was punished for its sin (and was cursed.)

— Rashi Ibid from Bereishis Rabbah 5:9

HaShem Elokim said to Adam “Because you hearkened to your wife’s voice and ate of the Tree regarding which I specifically commanded you ‘Do not eat from it’ the earth will be cursed on account of you. All the days of your life you will eat of it [the earth’s produce] with sorrow. It will sprout thorns and thistles for you … “

— Bereishis 3:17,18

HaShem Elokim commanded the man saying:  “Eat from all the trees of the garden. And from the Tree of Knowledge /Union of Good and Evil do not eat from it. For on the day that you it from it you will definitely die.”

— Bereishis 2:16,17

The woman saw that the Tree was good to eat, desirable to the eyes and attractive as a means to gain intelligence.  She took from its fruits and ate and also gave some to her husband with her — and he ate.

— Bereishis 3:6

… but you shall not sever it; for man is a tree of the field

— Devarim 20:19

The Biskovitzer poses several pointed questions about the brachos-blessings; that Yitzchak bestowed on Yaakov, while under the impression that he was Esav:

Why, in fact, did Yitzchak deliver his brachos erroneously and unconsciously? Why was Yaakov’s worthiness for benediction concealed from Yitzchak, the conduit of blessing? Even with his physical vision impairment and the willful blindness caused by his love for his eldest son, as a prophet, Yitzchak could easily have been informed by HaShem that Yaakov is the son deserving of blessing.

We find two other great figures in TeNaK”h who bestowed brachos; Yaakov — first on his grandchildren Ephraim and Menashe — and then later, on his deathbed, on his sons. Immediately preceding his death Moshe blessed the Tribes of Israel as well. Yet neither Yaakov nor Moshe requested mataamim-a flavorful dish; in order to elicit their brachos; so why did Yitzchok?

In order to appreciate the Biskovitzer’s approach to resolving these questions we must first examine how some of the great Torah thinkers understood the roots of blessing and curse.

The Original Sin of the first human beings was not merely the first in a long unbroken chain of transgression on the part of humanity; it was qualitatively different from almost all subsequent sins.   The magihah-writer of the annotations; in Nefesh haChaim explains that while the original humans were endowed with bechirah chofshis-free will; there was still a paradigm-shifting difference between their bechirah chofshis and ours.

While our yetzer hara-inclination to evil; is internal and presumes to be, at minimum, a component of our essential identities, the yetzer hara of Adam and Chavah was extrinsic to their beings and distilled, clarified, unadulterated evil. Our yetzer hara’s “pitch” to us is: “here’s what I want to do.”  Whereas the nachash hakadmoni-the primordial snake; said “here’s what I think you ought to do.” The nachash hakadmonis powers of seduction and persuasion were delivered in the second person.  Like a presidential candidate from the opposition party trying to unseat the Incumbent kivyachol-as it were; the nachash hakadmonis exhorted Adam and Chavah to vote for the yetzer and against the Yotzer-the Creator; yet the “voters” never conflated the identity of the opposition candidate with their own.  When they exercised their bechirah chofshis to sin they understood that they were submitting to the will of the nachash hakadmoni — not acting on their own initiative.

However, as the Original Sin was the ingestion of the fruits of the Tree of Union of Good and Evil the first humans incorporated evil into their very beings.  It is not merely that the Original Sin was qualitatively different from all subsequent sins; it was that, by its very nature, it effected that transformation. Man became what he ate, a tangled amalgam of good and evil. For the remainder of their lives Adam and Chavah, and all subsequent generations of human beings (until our patriarchs blazed the trail and the nation of Israel stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai) have been conflicted and ambivalent. Even when humans use, rather than abuse, their bechirah chofshis by choosing to do good and shunning evil they are often convinced that they have gone against their own desires. Once internalized, the yetzer hara becomes as inextricably linked with all human thought, speech and deed as a conjoined twin.

Rav Chaim Volozhiner taught that the meaning of the passuk (Koheles 7:20) “For there is not a righteous man on earth, that does good, and doesn’t sin,” is that even the greatest of tzaddikim-righteous people; do good with “something lacking.”  There good is not clarified, distilled unadulterated good. It may be miniscule, but on some deeply concealed subconscious level there is an admixture of self-interest — of a tad less than lishmah-for its own sake; — in even the noblest persons Torah learning and mitzvah performance.

Conversely, Rav Chaim and some other thinkers have argued that there is no evil perpetrated by even the wickedest people that does not incorporate some tiny smidgen of goodness. This is the meaning of the passuk (Iyov 7:20) “If there will be even one angel among a thousand, an advocate, to vouch for a man’s uprightness.” The better angels of our nature may be testifying to a 1 tenth of one percent amount of noble intentions against 99.9% of evil drives and motivations, nonetheless, it is there.

As man is a microcosm, or more accurately as the cosmos is a macro-man, the Original Sin brought about a merging and mixture of good and evil on a cosmic level. An overt manifestation of this effect on the cosmos are the presence of weeds, thorns and thistles growing in the same fields that grow the good, delicious and nourishing produce. The earth cursed through the Original Sin brings forth a jumble of good/nutritious and evil/noxious.

The Biskovitzers approach is predicated on the concept that, after the Original Sin, merely choosing good and rejecting evil is insufficient.  To effect a genuine tikun-repair; of the Original Sin birurim-sifting and selections; must take place. The hodgepodge of good and evil in both the microcosm and the macrocosm must be untangled and clarified. Until and unless evil is distilled and expunged from the muddled fusion, man and the cosmos will not have been rectified. It is not enough to bestow blessing on man still conflicted and ambivalent and on an earth still cursed and pregnant with the thorns and thistles of evil.

When Chavah was first tempted to commit the Original Sin she made three observations: that the Tree was “good to eat, desirable to the eyes and attractive as a means to gain intelligence.”   The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 65:13) says that while Chavah yearned for gratification of the palate, visual stimulation and intellectual satisfaction, Yitzchak declared that he would derive pleasure from taste alone. As he commanded his son “make me a flavorful dish the way I love it and bring it to me to eat.” Yitzchak was blind and he was ignorant i.e. he lacked knowledge of the factual events surrounding his bestowing of blessing. The Biskovitzer asserts that eliminating the elements of attractiveness to the eyes and the mind that initiated the Original Sin was indispensable to the tikun process.

It is striking and noteworthy that while the Divine Creative Will was that trees and their fruits should share an identical flavor, there was never an expression of the Divine Creative Will that trees and their fruits should share the same qualities of visual attractiveness or extend the same benefit to cognition. Yitzchaks blindness and ignorance of the facts removed two of the three factors of Original Sin. This cut things to the chase by leaving only the element that had been corrupted and broken even before the creation of the human beings; the dissonance in flavor between tree and fruit, between producer and product.

Paradoxically the earth’s anticipatory, pre-Original Sin contained within it the seeds of tikun at the very moment of kilkul-deficiency and ruination; for the Tikunei Zohar (99B) reveals that the Tree of Knowledge itself was entirely good. It was only in the fruits of this tree in which good and evil merged together. The Tree was created as clarified, 100% pure good while its fruits required birurim.  While Adam became what he ate, the Biskovitzer understood the Midrash to be teaching us that Yitzchak became what Adam had never ingested or tasted; the Tree itself. Yitzchak, the bark of the Tree of Knowledge itself, avoided the ill effects of the bite of its fruit. But like the Tree of Knowledge itself, Yitzchak the man-tree bore fruits of good and evil united in utero. These human fruits of the Tree of Union of Good and Evil required birurim.

The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 61:6) teaches that Avraham abstained from from blessing Yitzchak because, as both evil Esav and good Yaakov existed within him in potentia, blessing him would have been comparable to cultivating a “tree of life attached to a tree of lethal poison.” Now, in Yitzchak’s advanced age, maintains the Biskovitzer, the time had come for the tikun of the Original Sin by threshing away evil from good and bestowing blessing exclusively on distilled goodness and life. As the Zohar (Volume I, 143A ) reveals, when Yaakov received the blessings the earth finally emerged from its curse. The blessed Yaakov manifests man restored to his pre-Sin state. As death is the wage of Original Sin this is why, per our sages (Taanis 5B) our patriarch Yaakov never died.  Adam is rectified and restored through Yaakov and — as teshuvah and tikun always reach back into the past and modify it — we now have, as the Izhbitzer taught, an alternate narrative and a new reading of HaShem’s command to Adam:  “HaShem Elokim commanded the man saying:  ‘Eat from all the trees of the garden and [also eat] from the Tree of Knowledge of Good … (And) [But] Evil do not eat from it.’”  Yaakov is that clarified-by-birurim soul of man that reveals retroactively that Adam was nourished exclusively by the good of the Tree.

Only those who are purely good, with no admixture of even the slightest trace of evil, can be safely and truly blessed. To do otherwise is to irrigate and fertilize a field of weeds, thorns and thistles. This is why Yitzchak bestowed a blessing while Avraham did not. When Yitzchak tasted the savory dish that Yaakov and Rivkah had prepared for him he discovered his own fruit with no difference in flavors, the taste of the bark and the taste of the fruit were identical. Yitzchak, needed to be blind to, and ignorant of, the fruit of evil and to discern the uniformity of flavors, and the blessing worthiness of his “fruit” only through his palate.  This is one of the meanings of the gemara (Taanis 8B) that teaches that “blessing is not to be found other than in a thing hidden from sight.”

~adapted from Mei Hashiloach Bereishis D”H Vayetzav
Neos Deshe Toldos
D”H Vayehi
Nefesh HaChaim 1:6 in
the Hagahah

Alternate Trajectories – Part 3

Written By C. Sapir,

You can read part 1 here.
You can read part 2 here.

Ben and I hosted numerous Shabbos guests, many of whom were just discovering Yiddishkeit, and we helped shepherd these not-yet-religious people toward greater observance, even as Ben himself flagged religiously. When guests had questions at our Shabbos table, he would say, “Ask my wife!”

Much as I tried to get the kids interested in learning and Yiddishkeit, they sensed Ben’s ambivalence. The girls were less affected by that ambivalence, and grew into frum Bais Yaakov girls, but the boys showed more interest in sports and science than in Gemara.

As the children grew older, I worried about the ever-increasing materialistic standards of our in-town community, and I wished that Ben could be a more involved father and husband. Thinking that we might do better in a different environment, I consulted daas Torah for guidance.

The rav I spoke to advised that we move away from New York and the East Coast. I discussed the possibility with Ben, who agreed that it was a good idea to move, even though he had just made partner in his law firm. Although moving would mean giving up the prestige and income he had worked so hard to attain, he realized that the work schedule he was keeping was burning him out and stealing his children’s childhood from him. Later he told me that I was his “Sarah,” and just as Hashem had told Avraham “Shma bekolah – listen to her voice,” he had chosen to listen to the wisdom of why I felt we should move.

We looked at the map and considered communities that were big enough to boast Jewish infrastructure and small enough that our presence would make a difference.

The community we ended up choosing had several Orthodox shuls, but only one was in walking distance of our house. It was more yeshivish than Ben would have preferred, but he did feel welcome in the shul.

Sometime after we moved, we went on a family trip to a place in the mountains that had alpine slides. We took a ski lift to the top of the mountain, but as everyone else was getting onto the slides, I realized that the hat I was wearing would be blown off if I went down the slide. I would have to ride the ski lift down the mountain while everyone else had fun sliding.

Standing there on top of the mountain, it occurred to me that I was doing this purely for Hashem’s sake. My husband had told me many times that he thought it was ridiculous
for me to cover my hair.

I thought of the rebbetzin I was so envious of, surrounded as she was by talmidei chachamim. “Please, Hashem,” I begged, “all I want is to have a husband who learns and sons who learn. Why can’t I have that?”

Right then and there, Hashem gave me the answer. It’s because someone has to set an example of a woman whose connection to Yiddishkeit and Torah is not through a man. I don’t have a father, or a husband, or a son, or a brother who learns Torah. My connection to Hashem is about me.

Looking out at the mountains, I thought of all the Jewish women who have no man in their lives: widows, divorcees, older singles, women in lonely marriages. Someone has to stand up for these women and show them that they can have a rich spiritual life even without a man in their life to act as their spiritual conduit.

That idea became my lifeline. Holding onto it helped me to stop wishing so much for what couldn’t be, and instead embrace what was and explore who I could become with, and not despite, my husband.

Twelve years after we moved, our family suffered three losses in a span of one year. First, our married daughter had a stillbirth. Less than six months later, our teenage daughter was tragically taken from us. Then, just four months later, Ben’s mother passed away suddenly.

Ben and I were both grief-stricken by the losses, but his faith was shaken, while mine remained intact. Having bolstered my emunah by davening and learning Torah all the years, I knew that whatever Hashem does is best for me, no matter how unpleasant and painful it may feel. I also knew that the body is only a temporary garment for the neshamah, and that death is merely a separation, not an end. We all come into this world to die and go to Olam Haba, except that some people’s journeys through this world are longer and some peoples are shorter. So while the death of a loved one hurts dreadfully, I didn’t see any of our losses as reason to doubt Hashem’s existence, His goodness, or His love for me.

Ben did. At first, he was angry at Hashem. Then he started to question whether Hashem even existed.

I felt sorry for Ben that he couldn’t feel Hashem’s love and access the consolation that comes with knowing that everything Hashem does is for the good. We were both suffering tremendous grief, but my grief was so much less painful than his, because my emunah gave me a context for the pain.

For decades, I davened fervently that Ben should return to full Torah observance. My real hope was that that after his parents reached 120 and he would have to say Kaddish for them, he would get back into the habit of davening. I knew that despite his theological issues, he would say Kaddish faithfully.

And indeed, when his mother died, Ben was scrupulous about saying Kaddish. For years, he hadn’t been much of a shul-goer, and he had long since ceased davening three times a day, but during the year of aveilus, he made a point of davening every single tefillah with a minyan.

Ben wasn’t the only one in his family who was scrupulous about saying Kaddish. His sister Candice, who lived in Manhattan, said Kaddish every day, too. In her Open Orthodox congregation, that was just dandy. But when she came to visit us, things got sticky.

Ben tried explaining to Candice that this wasn’t how things were done in our community, but she would not hear of missing Kaddish. Out of respect for our shul, she dressed for Shabbos in her most modest outfit, and then went with my husband to Minchah and Maariv Friday night. She was alone in the women’s section.

The rav and congregation did not take kindly to Candice’s recitation of Kaddish, even from behind the mechitzah. The rav tried to stop her from saying it, and when she refused, he asked her to at least say it quietly.

“If you were mourning your mother, would you want to do it quietly?” she asked pointedly. And the next time the congregation got up to Kaddish, she said it aloud again.

To the astonishment of both Ben and Candice, the rav stopped the Kaddish in middle and skipped to the next part of davening.

Ben was horrified. “I’m done with shul,” he told me. “And I’m done with the frum community as well.” That was the last time he said Kaddish.

With that, my hopes for Ben to develop a deeper, richer connection to Hashem through davening regularly and saying Kaddish were dashed. But I wasn’t the only one who was saddened by Ben’s closing the door on shul and the community. He was, too.

“Do you think it’s easy to lose your emunah?” he asked me. “Do you think it doesn’t hurt to lose faith in everything you’ve believed in and wanted to believe in?”

There was nothing I could do or say that would repair the damage. From then on, I went to shul alone on Shabbos morning.

to be continue

Orginally published in Mishpacha Magazine August 25, 2017

The narrator of this story has formed a support group for observant women (BT or FFB) married to men who are no longer observant.

You can contact her at tomerdevora13@gmail.com

Everyone Views Things Just As I Do…

Parshas Chayei Sarah

“And I asked her and said: “Who is your father?” and she said, “I am the daughter of Bisuel…” and I placed the bracelet on her hands.” — Bereishis 24:47

Eliezer was given a mission
Eliezer, the loyal servant of Avrohom, was charged with the mission of finding a wife for Yitzchak. Before sending him out, Avrohom Avinu cautioned him, “Only take a girl from my family and my father’s house.” Eliezer then asked HASHEM for a sign: “The girl who, when I ask her for water, responds, ‘Not only will I give you to drink, but your camels as well,’ is to be the girl that You have chosen for my master.” (Bereishis 24:14) Her response was to be the indication. If it happened exactly as he outlined, then it would mean that this was the woman intended for Yitzchak.

No sooner did Eliezer finish this request than Rivka appeared at the well. Eliezer said the words, “Please give me to drink,” and Rivka answered, “I will give your camels as well.” She then moved with such alacrity and enthusiasm that Eliezer was astounded. He was so certain that she was the right one that he immediately gave her the golden bracelets, formally engaging her to Yitzchak. Only later did he ask her name to find out that she was, in fact, from Avrohom’s family.

When telling Lavan, Eliezer changes the order
When Eliezer met Lavan and Besuel, he told over the events exactly as they transpired, but with one change. He said, “First, I asked her name and then I gave her the bracelets.”

Rashi, in explaining why Eliezer changed the order, explains that Eliezer was afraid that Lavan would never believe him if he said that he first gave the bracelets and then asked her name. He would assume Eliezer was lying. Therefore, Eliezer reversed the order, “First, I asked her name and then I gave her the bracelets.”

Eliezer wasn’t afraid to say a miracle happened to him
This becomes difficult to understand when we recall that just a few moments before this, Eliezer told Lavan of a striking miracle that had occurred to him. When he began telling over the events, he started with the expression, “Today I left, and today I arrived,” recounting a startling phenomenon.

Avrohom lived many days’ journey from Charan. Eliezer had said that he set out from Avrohom’s house that very morning and arrived the same day. It was physically impossible for Eliezer, who was traveling with ten camels laden with goods, to have covered that distance in such a short time. Chazal explain that he had a Kifitzas Ha’Derech. The land literally folded under him like an accordion so that his few steps took him over vast distances, something so supernatural that it is hard to imagine.

Apparently, he wasn’t afraid to tell this to Lavan. He didn’t assume that Lavan would call him a liar. Yet he was afraid to mention that he trusted that HASHEM had brought him to the right woman for Yitzchak. The question is — why? If Eliezer felt that Lavan could believe that HASHEM did miracles for him, why couldn’t Lavan believe that Eliezer trusted HASHEM?

Seeing the whole world through my eyes only
It would seem the answer is that Lavan lived by the golden rule: Do onto others before they do you in. Lavan was devious, deceitful, and lived a ruthless existence. Because he was untrustworthy, he didn’t trust anyone else, either.

Lavan assumed that since he was too smart to trust anyone, then anyone who “had brains in his head” would never be so foolish as to trust. He saw the whole world through his eyes. The idea that someone could trust HASHEM was something he couldn’t accept. Miracles, as unlikely as they may be, he knew could happen. But for someone intelligent to actually trust — that couldn’t be.

Lavan was engaging in what is known as projection: projecting his worldview onto others, assuming that the way he was, the way that he approached life, is the same way that all others do. He could never accept that someone would let his guard down and actually trust. Therefore, Eliezer was afraid to mention that he acted with complete trust in HASHEM. He knew Lavan wouldn’t believe him and would assume he was lying.

The way we see the world
This concept has great relevance to both the way that we relate to others as well as the way we relate to HASHEM.

If a person is a giving and caring individual, it is easy for him to see the good in man. If I am a giver, then intuitively I see that in others. I assume their motivating force is generosity. However, if I am self-centered, then I tend to see that as the driving force in others, and the nature of man appears to me to be dark.

This concept applies to our relationship with HASHEM as well. Often times we find it difficult to discern the kindness of HASHEM. Where is the chessed? Where is the loving generosity that HASHEM is reported to exhibit throughout Creation?

The more that I practice doing for others without expecting anything in return, the more I can see that quality in the way that HASHEM created and runs this world. The more that I train myself to be a giver, the more accurately I learn to see giving in HASHEM.

Quite simply, my character traits and personal bias shape not only the way that I act towards others, but the very way that I view the world. My view of people, my view of those close to me, and ultimately my view of my Creator are based on my perception. My perception is based on me — who I am, how I act, and how I think. The more that I adopt the nature of a giver, the better a person I will become, and additionally, the more easily I will identify that same trait in others and in HASHEM. The whole world takes on a different view.

Rabbi Shafier is the founder of the Shmuz.com – The Shmuz is an engaging, motivating shiur that deals with real life issues.

All of the Shmuzin are available free of charge at www.theShmuz.com or on the Shmuz App for iphone or Android. Simply text the word “TheShmuz” to the number 313131 and a link will be sent to your phone to download the App.

Utilizing The Power of Concentration

Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the Bilvavi and the Getting to Know Your (Self, Soul, Feelings, Home)
An excerpt from this article which is from the sefer: Getting to Know Your Feelings available from Amazon.

Utilizing The Power of Concentration

First, before we speak of solutions for those who are in deep emotional stress, we will speak of a general solution to deal with emotional problems. (Just like we know how to take care of our body, we need to learn how take care of our soul.)

We are speaking even of the emotions found in the animalistic layer of the soul. How can we have a healthy animalistic soul?

The best way to develop healthy emotions is to access the simple power of unity in the soul, which we can reach when we lead a life of concentration. In practical words– remain focused on what you are doing, and do not do two things at once.

When a person does many things at once, he gets in the habit of fracturing his focus. The soul then stops concentrating, and disconnects from the actions he is doing. The inevitable result will be scattered emotions. In the worst case scenario, if there is one emotion that is more extreme than all the other emotions, such a person can have an emotional breakdown.

This is the first part of the solution to emotional problems: Do one thing at a time. Don’t do two things at once. Prevent your thoughts from floating somewhere else while you are doing something. Concentrate on what you are doing.

This may explain why some people have a hard time concentrating during davening. It is possible to daven out of obligation and not feel anything. When we do something, and our feelings aren’t there, then our thoughts wander away from what we are doing. Davening is a spiritual manifestation of this problem, but it also exists for the non-spiritual: the tendency to “space out” when performing a task that is not of interest.

One can invite trouble when he isn’t focused. Doing one thing, while thinking about something else at the same time, can be a recipe for disaster. The soul gets used to the idea that you can do many things at once and that you don’t have to be thinking.

Our generation has more emotional problems than any other generation. In previous times, people were focused on what they were doing. Today, it’s perfectly normal and acceptable to be talking on two different phone lines at the same time. To the first caller, the person says, “One minute…one minute,” and then he talks to the next one on the other line. People who function this way from a very young age get used to doing two things at once. His mind becomes scattered, and the soul suffers from this.

Only a life of calmness and quiet can allow a person to focus on what he is doing. Even our animalistic soul can understand this. We see that when people want to do something they are interested in, they can focus very easily. The question is whether we can learn to focus all the time instead of in small increments.

Concentration Enhances The Quality of Life

The Chovos HaLevovos[16] writes: “Smaller, pure amounts are bigger than big amounts, and big amounts that aren’t pure are just as good as small amounts – they are useless.”

When people try to “save” time and maximize each moment, it appears to be an admirable trait, but in reality it is detrimental to emotional health. A person gets used to doing so much without ever focusing totally on any one thing. People are doing too much, and there is too much emphasis on quantity over quality.

When we get used to focusing on what we do, we will begin to internalize what we are doing. Instead of just “going through” life, we will be connected to what we do and experience all that we can in a meaningful way.

The more we concentrate on what we do – actions and thoughts together and unified – the more our animalistic layer in the soul gets used to truly experiencing what the body is doing, and we start to enjoy life! We will feel vitality from living and from the concentration that we are putting into it.

Concentrating on what we do leads to experiencing what we do. When we experience what we do, and are concentrating and focused, then all the various emotions become connected into one unit. This is the general beginning of building healthy emotions.

Nothing is Perfect Until it’s Incomplete

Why did Avram seek advice before proceeding with milah-circumcision?
Why did some of his closest friends and disciples oppose his undergoing milah?

HaShem appeared to him [Avram] in the Plains of Mamre while he was sitting at the opening of the tent as the day[‘s heat] blazed.

— Bereishis 18:1

Why did HaShem appear to him in the Plains of Mamre?  [He appeared there] as a reward Mamre for his offering Avram positive advice and encouragement concerning circumcision.

— Rashi ibid

… And He said to him [Avram] “I Am Keil Shakai. Walk yourself before Me and become perfect. And I will tender My covenant between me and you …

— Bereishis 17:1,2

This is My covenant between Me, and between you and your offspring that you must observe: you must circumcise every male. You shall excise the flesh of your foreskin and this will be the mark of the covenant between Me and you.

— Bereishis 17:10,11

The refugee came bringing intelligence to Avram the Hebrew who was living serenely in the Plains of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshkol, and brother of Aner; they were the masters of Avram’s covenant.

— Bereishis 14:13

Why was Kiryas Arba-the Town of the Four; so called? Because of the four saintly people living there; Aner, Eshkol, Mamre and Avram

— Bereishis Rabbah 58:4

When the Holy Blessed One told Avram that he should circumcise himself, Avram sought the advice of his three beloved friends; Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. He first went to Aner and said “HaShem commanded me to do such and such.” Aner responded “He wants to make you a baal mum– someone defective/ an amputee?! The relatives of the Kings that you slew will seize this opportunity to kill you in reprisal as you will not be able to flee.” He left him and then proceeded to Eshkol. “HaShem commanded me to do such and such.” Eshkol responded “You’re old. If you circumcise yourself you’ll hemorrhage and lose too much blood. You won’t be able to endure it and you’ll die.” He left him and then proceeded to Mamre. “HaShem commanded me to do such and such. What is your advice?” Mamre responded “You ask me about this? Wasn’t it HaShem who saved you from the fiery furnace and wrought all the miracles for you?  Wasn’t it HaShem who saved from the kings? If not for His Might and Power the kings would have slain you in battle. HaShem has saved all 248 of your limbs and organs [numerous times] and you’re asking my advice about the small appendage to a single organ?  Do as He commands.

— Midrash Tanchuma Vayera 3

הקנאה, התאווה והכבוד – מוציאים את האדם מן העולם
Jealousy, lust and the pursuit of honor eradicate a person from the world

— Pirkei Avos 4:28

The Izhbitzer School addresses various questions that arise from a superficial reading of the Tanchuma. How could Avram, greatest of the believers in HaShem, who had already withstood many Divine trials, grant Aner and Eshkol and Mamre “veto power” over a direct command from HaShem? Had all three advised against circumcision would he have actually complied with their advice instead of obeying HaShem? Why did Aner and Eshkol, described as “the masters of Avrams covenant” and as tzadikim-righteous ones; advise against circumcision? In Avrams previous and subsequent trials he did not seek anyone’s advice. Why did he seek advice regarding circumcision?

Rav Shmuel Dov Asher-the Biskovitzer, understands the dialogues between Avram and his consultants as not being a question of “yes or no?” but of “how”?  What’s the best way to go about this? He wanted to decide whether to undergo circumcision inconspicuously or publicly.

The fact was that 20 generations had passed since Adam without anyone undergoing circumcision and that people have a strong predilection for resisting change and having a skeptical attitude towards innovation. Avram considered the possibility that publicizing this groundbreaking development in Man’s relationship with G-d would evoke enough opposition of others to try and prevent him from going through with it or, at minimum, mocking and scorning this bizarre operation, after all circumcision affects a most sensitive area. This societal ridicule and scorn would diminish the gravity and appeal of the Monotheism that Avram had devoted his life to teaching and preaching. Avram did not want HaShem to become cholilah-Heaven Forefend; a laughing-stock.

Additionally, Aner opposed publicizing the covenant of circumcision because of the personal danger it would expose Avram to. Opportunistic relatives of the 4 kings bent on vendetta killings would consider a circumcision-weakened Avram an easy target. Aner reasoned that one shouldn’t rely on miracles when natural means to avoid danger, in this case keeping the circumcisions secret, were available. While clear-headed and cautious, this advice did not appeal to Avram. HaShem had Chosen to Grant him victory over the kings in the most transparent, prominent and famous way. How then could fulfilling HaShem’s command publicly and openly lead to his downfall?

Eshkol thought that the threat of Avram dying as a result of post-operative complications was very real and that, perhaps, the trial of circumcision was a kind of auto-Akeidah; would Avram be willing to kill himself at G-d’s behest? But Eshkol fretted over the disastrous PR consequences of “passing” such a test. How many potential new monotheists would be discouraged and dissuaded? How many of Avrams proselytes would drop out of a religion demanding such supreme human self-sacrifice? How many people would condemn the G-d of Avram as a wrathful and capricious Deity?  If the circumcision-related causes of Avrams death were to become widely known an epic chilul HaShem-desecration of G-d’s name; would result.  On the other hand if the circumcision was a well-kept secret and, worst-case scenario, Avram did not survive it, the cause of death could reasonably be attributed to Avram’s “old-age” or any number of causes. Avram rejected this as well. He thought it inconceivable that HaShem would command him to do something that would result in his death.

Mamre’s recommendation and encouragement resonated with Avram for all the reasons that the suggestions of Aner and Eshkol did not.  Avram followed the advice of his consultant Mamre and “B’etzem hayom hazeh-In the very core of that day; Avram and his son Yishmael were circumcised. All the men of the household both homeborn and bought for cash from a stranger were circumcised with him.” (Bereishis 17:26,27).  Elsewhere Chazal have taught that the phrase “B’etzem hayom hazeh” connotes an in-your-face challenge to would-be opponents, scoffers, skeptics or those who would stop it outright.  As if to say “I/We did it out in the open at high-noon … stop us if you can!”

As he often does, the Biskovitzer concludes with a take-away lesson that we can apply to contemporary Avodas HaShem. He maintains that each of us have an internal Aner, Eshkol, Mamre. When we exercise our free-will to do good and perform mitzvos there are still “voices” within us that will try dissuading us from performing HaShem’s Will in the best and most fulsome way, more often than not by voicing some iteration of the fear of ridicule and public misunderstanding.

The approach of Rav Tzadok-the Kohen of Lublin, takes to demystifying the Tanchuma requires some background divrei Torah:

There are three basic, deep-seated drives and yearnings of the human spirit/ psyche: The drive for pleasure and sensual gratification AKA taavah-lust; the drive for control and domination of others AKA kinah-jealousy; and the drive for transcendence and eternal perpetuity AKA kavod-the pursuit of honor.  Honor and transcendence accrue to those who produce progeny. As the passuk (Mishlei 17:6) declares “Children’s children are the tiara of grandfathers.”

All of these drives can be sublimated and harnessed for Avodas HaShem and, in a broad sense; each of the Patriarchs embodies one of these drives that have been refined and distilled into an essence of kedushah-sanctity; and Avodas HaShem. Avram, the pillar of chessed-lovingkindness; is the spiritual “hedonist” who seeks the ineffable pleasure of uniting with his Creator. Yitzchok, the pillar of gevurah-might and self-control; is the holy warrior who fights, controls and dominates his internal foe; the inclination to evil. Yaakov, the pillar of emmes-truth; is the father of twelve tribes and morphs into Yisrael. His progeny, who bear his name, are an eternal Nation that transcends time and space for truth is, by definition, eternal and transcendent.  That which expires and fades away cannot be true. As the passuk teaches “The lip of truth shall be instituted forever” (Ibid12:19).  That said, while each of the Patriarchs may have “specialized” in a particular drive every one of them was motivated by, and refined elements of, all three of these primal drives.

The drives toward pleasure and sensual gratification and for control and domination can metastasize into the pure evils of murder and fornication. In contradistinction, every yearning for transcendence and eternal perpetuity, i.e. honor, is essentially good and holy, it can never devolve into something truly evil.  At worst this drive can be less than perfectly lishmah– for the sake of Heaven. It can sometimes be underpinned by ulterior motives settling for ersatz honor that may outlast the split second but that is not truly eternal.  This helps explain why, in the development of kedushas Klal Yisrael-the holiness of the Nation of Israel; Avram and Yitzchok sired sons who were incarnations of the evils of kinah — culminating in murder (Esav) and taavah — leading to fornication (Yishmael), while all of Yaakov/ Yisrael’s sons were good and holy.

The mystery of HaShem’s covenant of circumcision is veiled in the passuk of “Walk yourself before Me and become perfect.” For we know that this alleged “perfection” was achieved through self-mutilation. The pre-circumcision Avram was imperfect although his entire physical plant was unblemished and intact. The letter hei was added to his name post-circumcision to express his new control of the five limbs/ organs that were beyond his control pre-circumcision  (see Bereishis17:1 Rashi v’heyei.) The covenant of circumcision, accomplished through excision of the foreskin, is an act of addition by subtraction, of perfection through deficit and maiming.

By loving and attaching themselves to Avram, by becoming the masters of his covenant, the three Emorites; Aner, Eshkol, Mamre were drawn to Avodas HaShem and the sublimation of the three primal drives. Aner was drawn to sublimating kinah, Eshkol to refining taavah and Mamre to purifying kavod.  Nevertheless in waging these cosmic, spiritual battles they were never more than the knight/warrior-Avram’s squires and weapons bearers (cp. Rashi Bereishis 14:24).

The Lubliner Kohen explains the Tanchuma in light of Aner, Eshkol and Mamres specialties in terms of the three primal drives. Perhaps subconsciously, the advice that they offer Avram gives voice to their own core motivations and drives. The kinah and taavah sensibilities, especially if not fully refined, can never grasp the mystery of milah-circumcision.  For the desire for control and domination would never countenance even a temporary loss or deficiency.  The kinah drive works under the adage of “dominate or be dominated” and lives in mortal terror of every loss, deficiency or temporary setback.  And so Aner tells Avram “the relatives of the Kings that you slew will seize this opportunity to kill you.” If you do not keep yourself whole and healthy, if you do not press every advantage to dominate and subjugate, then you will be the one who becomes dominated and subjugated.

The drive for sensual gratification is fundamentally narcissistic and selfish. The hedonist is a collector and a hoarder and is especially fond of those collectibles that complete, aggrandize and fulfill the self.  The notion of giving rather than taking, of relinquishing rather than retaining is utterly foreign to the taavah drive. And so when asked for his thoughts on milah Eshkol cries “you’ll hemorrhage and lose too much blood.”  Any loss is an anathema to the one driven by taavah how much more so when the loss of a body part or the bodily fluid containing the very life-force of the hedonist?

It is only Mamre, informed by kavod — the drive for transcendence; who possesses the sensibility that a temporal loss can result in an eternal gain, that nothing can become perfect unless and until it’s incomplete. On the contrary, being defeated and dominated, unfulfilled and incomplete, are the keys to eternity and deathlessness because, ultimately, the other two drives seek that which cannot endure.  Many of the greatest Emperors, who subjugated millions, saw their empires crumble in their lifetimes. All of them died knowing that their dominion would pass to others. Many of the greatest hedonists aged or were impoverished to a point where they could no longer indulge their lusts. All of them died and lost the sensual coil that they spent a short, blink-of-the-eye lifetime gratifying.  Only honor is transcendent. And so Mamre, whose defining middah was kavod, advised Avram to pursue the temporary loss of milah that would lead to the promise of offspring, the vehicle for deathlessness and undying glory.

~adapted from Neos Deshe Vayra D”H Vayera (the first)
Kometz Haminchah 40

Alternate Trajectories – Part 2

Written By C. Sapir,

You can read part 1 here.

I had six children in seven-and-a-half years and cared for them almost singlehandedly, but that didn’t stop me from continuing to learn. I devoured Torah books and recordings, maintained regular study partners, and attended numerous shiurim. I was particularly drawn to the shiurim of a rebbetzin in a nearby community, who combined the feminine wisdom of the eishes chayil with solid Torah sources.

I viewed her as my role model, and envied her at the same time. Her father had been a famed rosh yeshiva, and after his passing, her husband – also an outstanding Torah scholar – had taken over as rosh yeshiva. Her brothers and sons, too, were talmidei chachamim. I allowed myself to envy this rebbetzin on the grounds that it was kinas sofrim.

I had a close relationship with the rebbetzin, and she coached me through many difficult moments as it became clearer and clearer that I would never achieve what I had hoped for, what I had dreamed about as a new kallah, and what I yearned for as I learned more. I was trying so hard to build a certain type of family, and while my husband allowed me to do most of what I wanted, he wasn’t the leader, and he often wasn’t even a partner in my endeavor. I felt like I was carrying so much and the load was so, so heavy.

One day, a gadol was visiting the rebbetzin’s home and she called me over to get a brachah. The gadol gave me a brachah, and then he told me to say the brachah of “Hanosein laya’eif koach” with extra kavanah. The rebbetzin then explained to me the deeper meaning of this brachah. “Ya’eif is different from ayeif,” she said. “Ayeif means sleepy, while ya’eif means weary. In this brachah, we are saying that Hashem gives special koach to those who are ya’eif in His service.” This gave me a different perspective on the load I was carrying, and as I said the brachah with more kavanah on a regular basis, my load became somewhat lighter.

I was consistently pulled in the direction of more Torah learning, more meticulous observance of halachah, more involvement in the frum community, and over the years I felt increasingly comfortable with women on the right of the Orthodox spectrum, the chareidi-yeshivish type. Ben, on the other hand, drifted in the opposite direction, feeling less and less comfortable in frum surroundings.

Rather than daven on Shabbos in our local Agudah-type shul, he began walking a mile and a half to a Sephardi shul that was more relaxed, and whose congregation included both frum and non-frum members. At some point, he began eating salads in non-kosher restaurants, and dropped his weekly chavrusa.

Yet even as this dynamic emerged, with me being the spiritual leader of the home while he was the breadwinner, we made a point of working on our marriage and maintaining a sense of full partnership on the relationship level. No matter how busy or tired we were, we went out together every Motzaei Shabbos. We’d get a babysitter and then go out of the house, even if it was just for a drive.

In the meantime, I kept learning and growing in my Yiddishkeit, while Ben kept lawyering. Eventually, my Torah knowledge, and my ability to express it, grew to the point that women in my community started asking me to give shiurim. I began to teach parshah, shemiras halashon, and Jewish philosophy to women from many different backgrounds.

to be continue

Orginally published in Mishpacha Magazine August 25, 2017

The narrator of this story has formed a support group for observant women (BT or FFB) married to men who are no longer observant.

You can contact her at tomerdevora13@gmail.com

Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Scher, ztz”l

Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Scher, ztz”l, a Beyond BT contributor, was niftar on the second day of Marcheshvan, October 22, 2017.

Mordechai Yosef Scher was born and raised in Stamford, CT. He moved to Israel shortly after finishing high school. He was educated in some of Israel’s best known Religious Zionist institutions, notably Machon Meir, Yeshivat Mercaz Harav Kook, the Shaal program of Yeshivat Shaalvim, and the Midrasha Gevoha.

Rabbi Scher served in the Israel Defense Forces as an infantry soldier and combat medical specialist.

Rabbi Scher was certified as a sofer (scribe) by Rav Shmuel Wozner of B’nei Brak. He was certified to examine and decide on the work of scribes by Rav Mordechai Friedlander. He was certified in the laws of kiddushin and testimony by Dayan Ezra Batzri. He was ordained for the rabbinate by Rav Shear Yeshuv Cohen (Chief Rabbi of Haifa), Rav Uzi Kalcheim of blessed memory, Rav Gershon Binet, and Rav Zalman Nehemia Goldberg of the kollel dayanim at the Midrasha Gevoha. He held Master Teacher certification from Yeshivat Shaalvim.

Rabbi Scher held a BSc in Health Sciences, a BSN in Nursing, and was board certified as a flight paramedic (FP-C). He worked part-time as a flight nurse/flight paramedic at Med Flight Air Ambulance. He also worked as an Emergency Department nurse, a rural paramedic, and a wilderness search team paramedic.

He was among the founding members of Atalaya Search and Rescue team of Santa Fe, and was a search dog handler with Mountain Canine Corps of Los Alamos. Rabbi Scher has taught and served in the rabbinate in the Jewish communities of Jerusalem, Israel; Houston, TX; Vancouver, BC; Worcester and Boston, MA and Sante Fe, NM. (adapted from the RCA website).

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Here is an excerpt from the Eulogies for Rabbi Scher:

Rabbi Scher was not someone who wanted to be in the spotlight. He did not seek to be a leader. His greatest joy was to sit in the Beit Midrash and learn in the traditional ways that Jews have learned for millennium, and to have anyone who wanted to learn HaShem’s Torah to sit with him, and learn. To start at the beginning of something, and work through it as it was meant to be learned, until they got to the end. And then to move on to the next thing.

Rabbi Scher was fundamentally a teacher. The halacha states that a person should not eat or sleep in a Beit Midrash, except for a Torah scholar and his students, “because the Beit HaMidrash is his home.” (SA O”Ch 151:1, MB 8) Rabbi Scher was definitely someone for whom the Beit Midrash was home. He learned for many years in Merkaz HaRav, the yeshiva of Rav Kook, in Jerusalem. When it came time to take a teaching position he only sat for a smicha exam because his colleagues told him he needed it for getting a job as a teacher. Although he far exceeded the knowledge needed to be a shul Rav, he never wanted to be treated as such. I don’t know that he ever quite forgave me for insisting on calling him “Rabbi,” but I felt obligated to do so out of respect for his Torah.

We all saw how much he loved to teach, how much he loved being in an environment of Torah learning. When we had, for several years, students from YU who came to join the congregation for Rosh HaShanah, he had such joy in just being in the presence of people who cared about Torah, and reminiscing with them about their Rabbis when they learned in Yeshiva.

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Here is a link to the posts that Rabbi Scher contributed to Beyond BT. May his Neshama have an Aliyah.

Alternate Trajectories – Part 1

Written By C. Sapir,

“Good Shabbos!”

“Oh, rabbi, what’s good about it?”

My chassan, Ben, fielded this question while we were in a hospital room visiting a patient with advanced cancer. During our year-long engagement – we waited until he finished law school before getting married – we would often meet on Shabbos and walk over to Manhattan’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, where we were part of a rotation of volunteers who visited the Jewish patients.

At the time, Ben sported a full beard and a big black yarmulke. In his Shabbos suit, he looked like a rabbi, even though he was a fairly recent baal teshuva. The compassion he showed each patient warmed their hearts, as well as mine. How lucky I was to be engaged to such a warm and caring man!

But the pain he confronted on those visits took a toll on him. And when patients mistook him for a rabbi and looked to him for words of solace, he was often at a loss. How could he explain to parents why G-d was inflicting so much pain on their little girl? How was he to explain to a dying teenager that Hashem loved him?

To me, the existence of pain in the world was no contradiction to the existence of a loving, perfect G-d. Unlike Him, we humans are imperfect, and we therefore can’t comprehend everything about the way He runs the world.

I had discovered Yiddishkeit as a teenager, and the more I learned about it, the more I wanted to be part of it, even though I came from a completely nonreligious background.

Ben’s journey to frumkeit was very different. He hailed from a traditional American Jewish family that maintained some cultural Shabbos and kashrus observance, and he had become more religious in college, thanks to a campus kiruv organization.

When we first met some 30 years ago, we were on similar levels of observance. What I didn’t realize then is that although our religious trajectories intersected at that point, his was peaking at the time we met and would slowly decline from there, while mine would keep climbing.

I had attended seminary and loved learning Torah. Ben’s discovery of Yiddishkeit had been primarily experiential – campus Shabbos meals with gusty zemiros – but he never had the chance to study Torah in a serious way. By the time we got married, he had shaved off his beard.

Several months after our wedding, when Ben was about to begin his first job with a Manhattan law firm, he shared with me that he might not wear his yarmulke to work. “Stand up for what you believe in!” I encouraged him. “You’re either a yarmulke wearer or not. Why should you present yourself in two different ways, one at work and another at home?”

“You’re right,” he agreed. “I don’t think I’m a yarmulke wearer anymore. I’m going to stop right now, before I take that job. Thank you for helping me clarify that.” I was stunned.

When we were first married, he was davening three times a day with a minyan, but it wasn’t long before that turned into davening without a minyan, or skipping one or two of the daily prayers. Or not davening at all.

As a junior tax lawyer in Manhattan, Ben was under tremendous pressure to put in 2,000 billable hours a year at work. Most of his colleagues were working seven days a week, and many were double-billing or “padding” their hours (meaning that they would report the same hours twice if they did work for one client that they could reuse on behalf a second client). Ben did not work on Shabbos, and refused, on principle, to double-bill, which meant that during the week he had to work significantly longer than his colleagues. Most days he’d leave the house at six in the morning and return at ten pm, or even midnight. Friday afternoon, he’d slide into the house just before candle-lighting. On Shabbos, he’d go to shul and then catch up on his sleep for the week while I watched the kids.

Since he was out working all the time, I assumed the full responsibility of running the house and caring for the kids. I bought the kids’ clothing – and decided how to dress them. I got the kids out to school – and chose the schools they would attend. We agreed on no TV in the house – and I determined the flavor of the kids’ entertainment.

In the summer, I took the kids up to a yeshivish bungalow colony, while Ben stayed during the week with his parents, who looked askance at my religious fervor.

Ben’s schedule left him with little spare time, and since he had never studied in yeshiva, Torah learning was not a priority to him. It was a priority to me, however. Early on in our marriage, I would learn together with Ben: halachah, Jewish philosophy, Tanach. He went along with the learning, but it was always my initiative, my thing. Eventually, as he got tired of it, I found friends to learn with.

Orginally published in Mishpacha Magazine August 25, 2017

The narrator of this story has formed a support group for observant women (BT or FFB) married to men who are no longer observant.
You can contact her at tomerdevora13@gmail.com

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller on Cheshvan: Facing the Ordinary

by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

Our feet are on the floor again. Tishrei, the month of the holy days that change us forever, leads us to a place of calm that we laughingly refer to as “real life.” The question that we have to ask ourselves at this point is “how do we relate to the ordinary?” The answer that we offer as Jews is with mindfulness, with the desire to find meaning, and most of all with a deep belief that God is unchanging and, by definition, is no more or less present at any time or place.

What makes one time different than another time — say the stillness before the Chazzan begins to chant Ne’ilah, the intensely sacred end of the Yom Kippur service, and 7:45 a.m. on an ordinary weekday as we turn off the alarm clock for the second time and yearn to reunite with our covers and sheets — is not God. It is us.

There are times when the best way to serve God is to look deeply within ourselves, and He provides us with special times in which it is easier and more accessible to make the sort of discoveries that can move us forward. There are other times in which the best way to serve Him is to interact with His world, to get out of that warm bed, take a shower, get dressed, say a prayer and face the world head on. He provides us with time and space for tikkun olam, for repairing the world, and when Cheshvan, the second month in the Jewish calendar comes around, we have to take a deep breathe and say, “The time is now.” All of the hopes, prayers and moments in which we saw ourselves clearly committed to growth have to be concretized. We have to see that our checks don’t bounce.

Read the whole thing here.

Growing With Shnayim Mikra V’Echod Targum

Chazal (the sages) instituted a weekly spiritual growth mechanism which takes advantage of the power of Torah learning called Shnayim Mikra V’Echod Targum, which is reading the weekly Torah portion twice in Hebrew and its translation once.

The Shulchan Aruch and Mishna Berurah describe different levels of performing Shanyim Mikra, but here’s the easiest way which will enable you to perform it and achieve its spiritual growth benefits:

1) Read out load the Parsha in Hebrew during the week to fulfill the first Hebrew reading.
2) Read out loud the Art Scroll translation in English during the week. This fulfills the translation component.
3) On Shabbos, during the public leining read along out loud quietly to fulfill the second Hebrew reading.

Here’s a link to Rabbi Welcher’s shiur on Shneim Mikra V’Echad Targum where he says that Rabbi Chaim Sheinberg zt”l says you can fulfill the targum requirement with an Art Scroll Translation.

Each week counts as a separate mitzvah so don’t fret if you didn’t start this year with Bereishis. You can start this week with Noach.

Rabbi Jonathan Rietti was kind enough to allow us to post the outline here, but you can purchase the entire outline of the Chumash for the low price of $11.95 for yourself and your family.

Noach
#6 Building Noach’s Ark
#7 The Flood
#8 Mt. Ararat
#9 Rainbow – Noach Drunk
#10 The Descendants of Shem, Cham & Yafet
#11 Tower of Bavel – 10 Generations of Noach

#6 Building Noach’s Ark
* Praise of Noach
* The Three Sons of Noach
* World corruption
* “Behold! I will destroy them utterly!”
* Build an ark
* Compartments
* 300 X 50 X 30 cubits
* Skylight – Slanted Roof – 3 Stories
* 1 Male – 1 Female of every animal – Store Food

#7 The Flood
* 7 pairs of kosher animals
* 2 pairs of non-kosher animals
* 7 pairs of birds
* Noach 600 years old when flood began (2nd month, 17th day)
* 40 days & 40 nights – 15 cubits above the highest mountain
* Total destruction
* 150 days

#8 Mt. Ararat
* 150 days till water receded
* 7th Month, 17th day, the Ark rested on Mt. Ararat
* 10th Month, 1st day mountain tops become visible
* Raven
* Dove #1, #2, #3
* 1st Tishrei Noach opened gate of Ark
* 2nd Month, 27th day, land was totally dry (exactly 365 days after the flood began).
* ‘Leave the Ark!’
* Noach built an Altar
* G-d appeased & promises never to flood the earth again
* Four seasons

#9 Rainbow – Noach Drunk
* Blessing to Noach “Be fruitful and Multiply!”
* All living creatures will fear you
* You can eat meat but not flesh from living animal
* Violation of suicide
* Death penalty for murder
* Command to be fruitful and multiply
* G-d promises never to flood entire world again
* Rainbow is sign of this promise
* Noach planted a vineyard
* Drunk
* Canaan cursed: slave of slaves to his brothers
* Blessed Shem and Yafet
* Noach died 950

#10 The Descendants of Noach
* Descendants of Yafet and Cham (Nimrod grandson of Cham & 1st world despot)
* Descendents of Canaan
* Descendants of Shem

#11 Tower of Bavel – 10 Generations of Shem
* One Language
* The Tower
* HaShem scattered them
* 10 Generations of Shem
* 11th Gen. Shem 600
* 12th Gen. Arpachshad 438
* 13th Gen. Shelach 433
* 14th Gen. Ever 464
* 15th Gen. Peleg 239
* 16th Gen. Re’oo 239
* 17th Gen. Serug 230
* 18th Gen. Nachor 248
* 19th Gen. Terach 205 – Avram-Nachor-Haran
* Haran – Lot – Milka & Yiska (Sarai). Haran dies in Ur Kasdim
* Avram marries Sarai
* Nachor marries Milka
* 20th Gen. Avram
* Terach leaves Ur Kasdim with Avram, grandson Lot & Sarai
* Terach dies in Charan

A Gourmands Approach to Sukkos

From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

-For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-

A Sukkah built taller than twenty Ahmos is posul-unfit to perform the mitzvah in. What is the source of this law? Rabbah answered: The Posuk states:,” That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in Sukkahs” (V’yikra 23:43) [With a Sukkah] up to twenty Ahmos [high] a man ‘knows’ that he is dwelling in a Sukkah, but with one higher than twenty Ahmos he does not ‘know’ that he is dwelling in a Sukkah, since his eye does not catch sight of it [the schach-roofing]!

-Mishna and Gemara Tractate Sukkah 2A

 As an apple-tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the sons. I yearned for His shade and sat underneath it, and His fruit was sweet to my palate.

-Shir HaShirim 2:3

While it’s often been said that there’s no accounting for taste a societal consensus does exist as to what constitutes good taste and poor taste. While hamburgers, franks and coca cola are flavorsome and greasy comfort foods it is foie gras caviar and champagne that come to mind when we contemplate the finer things in life.  Day-Glo bright colors may appeal to kindergarteners when finger-painting, but a more developed visual sensibility perceives beauty in the muted hues and the delicate interplay of light and shadow that inform the work of the great renaissance masters. Certain artistic, fashion, cultural and even political choices are considered refined and sophisticated while others are scorned as low-brow or philistine.

Torah and Mitzvahs are the very finest things in life. While we all know this to be true on an abstract level it is the rare soul that has an inborn taste for the spiritual high-life. For the vast majority of people who hanker for ruchniyus-spirituality it is an acquired taste. We find that Dovid HaMelech-King David had “eyes to behold the goodness of the light” i.e. highbrow spiritual tastes. Here is the glowing review that he wrote about Torah and Mitzvahs: “They are more enviable than gold, even more than a great deal of fine gold, and are sweeter than honey and the drippings of honeycombs.” (Tehilim 19: 11).

The question is…how do we cultivate our spiritual palates? How should we go about acquiring a preference for the very finest things in life?

Rav Leibeleh Eiger cites a passage in the Zohar stating that the “shade” mentioned in this posuk in Shir HaShirim refers to the Mitzvah of Sukkah. He adds that the end of the posuk: “his fruit was sweet to my palate” refers to the Mitzvah of the daled minim – Lulav, Esrog etc.  By means of performing the Mitzvah of Sukkah one gains the heavenly assistance required to develop a King David-like keen and subtle vision. The essence of the Mitzvah is about vision. The tractate expounding this Mitzvah opens by proclaiming that a Sukkah that the eye cannot catch sight of is no Sukkah at all.

Accordingly, a more in sync translation of the posuk (and, coincidentally, a more literal one as well) would be: “In/ due to His shade [the shade of the Sukkah- described in the Zohar as “the shade of faith”] I have come to covet, to crave [the truth]…and due to His fruit [the various produce of the Holy Land that comprise the Mitzvah of the four species the truth has become] sweet and savory to my palate.”

But here’s the rub: How does one acquire a taste for the Mitzvahs of Sukkah and the daled minim ?

To carry the food analogy a bit further we should regard these specific Mitzvahs as Hors d’oeuvres. Appetizers, as their name suggests, are items served at the beginning of the meal to stimulate the appetite or small samples of the main course that fuel the desire for more. Antipasto and Hors d’oeuvres are cooked and spiced by design to make the consumer crave, and better enjoy, the other courses.  One who arrives at a banquet with a poor appetite will nibble on them and they get his gastric juices flowing. Rav Leibeleh proposes That we begin thinking of Sukkah and the daled minim as appetite stimulants and palate refineries for spirituality. If we do, we will seize upon them with gusto.

Contrary to the popular cliché seeing is not believing.  It is, well, seeing!  There is no longer any need for faith in something’s coming or existence once we behold it with our own eyes. This is among the things that our sages were alluding to by calling the Mitzvah of Sukkah “the shade of faith”.  Faith precedes actual vision like an appetizer precedes a real meal.

As we work on acquiring a more refined taste, a more cultivated palate, a subtler sensibility we must have faith that we will get there one day.  You can’t wean a person off of hamburgers and beer unless he comes to believe that, if he keeps working at it, at some point he’ll find filet mignon washed down with a good cabernet sauvignon even more delicious. The shade of the Sukkah provides shelter and relief to all those who can’t yet see the light or taste the sweetness of Torah and Mitzvahs but who deeply believe that in the shade of the Sukkah, in the Sukkahs delicate interplay of light and shadow , they will come to covet and crave the truth.

Adapted from Toras Emes-1st Day  Sukkos 5634-1874 A.C.E. (page 81)  

Sukkos – The Jews Inner Self

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download this and a number of other Drashos on Sukkos

Sukkah and the Four Species – The Dual Natures of Man

On Sukkos, we have two mitzvos: to sit in the sukkah, and to shake the Four Species. These two mitzvos represent the two sides of man. The Four Species, which we shake around and move, represent how man is always in movement. We are full of various retzonos (desires), and all of these desires are a kind of movement. The mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah represents a totally different side to us. In a sukkah, we don’t move; we sit there.

Hashem is mainly called by two names. The lower name of Hashem is “adonoy” – He is our adon, our master. This refers to how we serve him with the mitzvos. The higher name of Hashem is the four-letter name of havayah, and this refers to the simple recognition of His existence. The two names of Hashem reflect the two sides of our life’s mission. On one hand, we “move” constantly by doing all the mitzvos. This is how relate to Hashem as our Master, Whom we serve; that He is adonoy. But the inner essence to our life is that we recognize his existence and integrate our own existence as a part of Hashem. This is how we relate to Hashem with his higher name, havayah. It is the deeper part of our life.

The fact that Hashem exists is not just a fact about life, but it is something which we can connect ourselves to. The mitzvah of sitting in the Sukkah is entirely about this concept – to sit in Hashem’s Presence, with no need to move around, and instead to connect to Hashem’s Endlessness.

In this discussion, the intention is not merely to say a nice dvar Torah for Sukkos, but rather, to define the very essence of Sukkos: accessing our innermost point of our self – our point of non-movement – when we integrate with Hashem. It is also a concept that has ramifications to our entire life. It is the way how we can prepare for the future, when we will sit in the Sukkah made of the leviathan skin.

The depth of our Avodah on Sukkos is to combine the two sides of mankind and integrate them together: the Four Species, which represents our mitzvos\movement, and the mitzvah of sitting in the Sukkah, which represents our recognition of Hashem\non-movement.

Our Actual Essence Vs. The Outer Layers of the Self

We will try to explain this as much as Hashem allows us to understand it.

The most complicating thing in the world is our self. Anything else we recognize are all superficial realities – such as our house, the block we live on, the country we live in, even the world; it’s all an external, superficial kind of recognition. If this is all a person knows of, then he lives a superficial kind of existence – he lives on the outside world. He is thinking all the time about things that are outside of himself. The clothing we wear is not either a part of who we are.

When a person begins to look for his inner essence, he is apt to think that he “is” what he “does.” He identifies himself based on his actions, his emotions, and his thoughts.

For example, a person has an affinity to do chessed (kindness), so he thinks of himself as a “good person” since he sees that he is drawn towards doing good things. When he has to reprimand his children sometimes, he feels horrible inside, because now he thinks he’s a “bad person” by having to act cruel to them.

If a person is deeper, he knows that there is more to himself than the actions he does. He is aware of his thoughts – and he identifies himself based on what’s going on in his mind. Yet this is erroneous as well, because a person is not his thoughts either.

Our actions, our emotions, and our thoughts are just outer layers that cover over our essence. They are like garments that clothe our soul.[1] But there is more to who we are than our actions, emotions, and thoughts.

How can a person identify who he really is?

To be frank, there is almost no one who truly knows who he is, and there is almost no one as well who really recognizes Hashem. If a person doesn’t know he really is, he can’t either recognize Hashem!

There are many people who are searching to find Hashem. But, it is written “From my flesh I see G-d”[2]; in other words, we need to know who we are in order to be able to recognize Hashem.

Only By Recognizing Our Self Can We Recognize Hashem

We will expand more upon these words, because it is a very fundamental concept which needs to be understood well.

There is no person who has no self-knowledge of himself whatsoever; all of us know ourselves to a certain extent, besides for those who have become mentally ill (may G-d have mercy upon them). But the way we understand ourselves is superficial: we recognize ourselves based on the outer parts of our self, such as our actions, our conversations, our emotions, and our thoughts. These are outer layers to our soul – garments that cover over our actual soul – and therefore these factors are not a real way to identify ourselves.

When a person only has a superficial understanding of himself, he will in turn have a superficial relationship towards G-d. It is written, “From my flesh, I see G-d”, so if a person doesn’t properly recognize his own “flesh”, his real self, he won’t come to really identify Hashem either. As a result, he will never form a deep bond with the Creator, because he doesn’t really conceptualize the Creator’s existence in the first place.

We can compare this to a person who wishes to grind flour but he has no home appliance to grind it with. The “I” in a person is a tool for one to recognize the Creator of the World, because “The Holy One and Yisrael are one”. If someone recognizes his own Yisrael, the Jew inside himself – his beginning, for Yisrael is called “the beginning” (see Rashi Beraishis 1:1), then he can come to recognize the beginning of his own beginning, which is the Creator; the Ultimate Beginning. But if a person never got to his own beginning, and he only knows of branches from his beginning – his various abilities – then not only is he missing a bond with the Creator, but he is missing his own Jew within. The essence of the Jew is that he is a Yisrael; thus, if a Jew does not recognize that he is Yisrael deep down in his soul, he is missing self-recognition.

How indeed can a Jew attain self-recognition? It is not written in any sefer\book in the entire world. A book is an outer entity, and thus it impossible for the actual “I” to be described in any book! If the “I” could be written about in a book, that would be releasing the “I” from its inner chamber out into the open world, and that itself is impossible.

The only one who can reveal the “I” is Hashem Himself. “I am Hashem your G-d.” The word anochi (I) stands for the words ana nafshai kesavis yehavis, “I Myself can write this.”[3] In other words, the only one who can write about the “I” is Hashem. Hashem has given us the tool in how we can recognize Him: the more we recognize our self, the more we recognize Him. If we have only a superficial self-recognition, then our recognition of Hashem will also be superficial. If we recognize what our essence is, then we will be able to recognize the essence of Hashem.

The Torah begins with the letter beis, in the word Beraishis. The Ten Commandments began with the letter aleph, in the word “Anochi.” The depth of this is that Hashem reveals Himself in the letter Aleph, which is the beginning letter. If we come to our letter “aleph” in our soul – our point of beginning – then we will be able to come to the total level of Aleph, the Absolute One, the Absolute Beginning – the One who existed, exists and will always exist: the Creator. But if man doesn’t recognize who he is, then he won’t be able to recognize his Creator.

What is the most hidden thing in Creation? Hashem’s Name is never pronounced. Whenever the Name of Havayah is used in the Torah, we read it as “Adonoy.” The actual “I” of Hashem, even when it is written, is never read. And when we do read a name of Hashem, it is not written there. This is not only a fact about reading Torah. It a perspective to have on Creation, a perception of our soul.

There in inner kind of writing of our soul which cannot be read. If we could read it, we would be in the state of Moshiach’s times, which we are not in right now. When we all will be able to pronounce the Name of Havayah, Moshiach will come. Nowadays, only a few individuals are allowed to use the Name of Havayah. Our Avodah is for us to reach the Name of Havayah of Hashem, which we do not currently recognize.

We usually relate to Hashem with the fact that we must do the mitzvos He commanded us with. However, there is an inner aspect to our relationship towards Hashem which we start out being unaware of, and we must discover it. It is the fact that we are not just servants of our Master, but rather, our whole existence is connected with Him.

That is the difference between the lower name of Hashem, Adonoy, and the higher name of Hashem, which is Havayah. The lower name, Adonoy, represents how we must do the mitzvos, for He is our Master. The name of Adonoy implies that our relationship with Him is dependent on the actions we do. The higher name, Havayah, reflects that we are all integrated with Hashem, regardless of what we do or not, because the connection is intrinsic. “A Jew who sins is still a Jew.”

The point of havayah – our true existence, in which we are integrated with Hashem – is the point that is hidden away deep in the soul. When we do the mitzvos, it builds the outer layers of our soul, but it doesn’t build the point of havayah in the soul.

When a person performs a mitzvah, he is doing an action. The root of all action is the power of ratzon – the will. The will represents man’s nature to always be in movement; ratzon comes from the word ratz, to “run”, to move. If a person considers his ratzon to be the deepest part of himself, he identifies himself with the power of movement, of action. He is at the level of the Four Species, which move in all six directions of the world – but he hasn’t yet gotten to his own self. He hasn’t yet gotten to the “Sukkah” inside himself – to the “Yisrael” inside him, his true “I.”

With a poor sense of self-recognition, even a person sitting in the Sukkah doesn’t grasp what the concept of Sukkah is. Although it appears as if he’s reached the point of non-movement, because he’s sitting in the Sukkah – he’s only there physically, but he doesn’t see himself as being in the tzeila d’meheimenusa, the “shadow of faith” that the Sukkah is. He’s doing all the mitzvos for His Master, but he hasn’t yet reached emunah – the sukkah that is all about emunah, recognizing Hashem’s existence.

Thus, there are essentially two stages in our bond with Hashem: first we become His loyal servants by doing all his mitzvos. At a later stage in life, we must eventually enter the second, inner stage, which is to recognize Him with our emunah. These two stages are represented by two great events that our people went through: the exodus of Egypt and the Giving of the Torah. By the exodus, we were released from Pharoah’s servitude and now we became servants of Hashem. By Sinai, Hashem revealed Himself with the giving of the Torah, and now we reached a new level: we recognized Hashem.

When Hashem revealed Himself by the Torah, He did not reveal Himself with His lower name, Adonoy, but rather with His higher name, Havayah. This shows us that the Torah is essentially the higher name of Hashem, Havayah.

For this reason, we never really begin to learn the actual Torah, because we are not connected to Havayah. And surely, we never finish it, for that reason. “The Torah of Hashem is wholesome, it settles the soul.” The Baal Shem Tov said that the Torah is wholesome and perfect because no one has ever begun to learn it and complete it. What is the meaning of his statement? No one ever begun to learn the Torah?! The meaning is that the Torah throughout the generations until the end of time is not yet the actual Name of Hashem to us, and this is the deep reason why the Name of Hashem is not allowed to be pronounced.

When a person recognizes his real essence, he merits to truly learn the Torah – the essence of the Torah. Through his learning, he can then come to recognize Hashem – not just the actions and middos of Hashem, but an actual recognition of Hashem Himself, so to speak, in the same way that he recognizes his own essence.

Only a person who feels his own essence can come to feel the reality of Hashem. Of course, anyone will claim that he can feel himself as existing, not just a Jew, but any non-Jew as well, and even animals, can feel they exist. But as we explained, most people never arrive at true self-recognition, and they only are aware of the outer layers to their existence.

Summary

To summarize: If we want to define the purpose of Creation, the definition is clear. The purpose of Creation is to recognize the reality of Hashem. The way to get there is through self-recognition. The self is the point in a person which never ceases, for Hashem and Yisrael are one; just as Hashem is eternal, so is a soul of Yisrael eternal. If a person views himself as an entity that can cease, then in turn he views his bond with Hashem with the same superficial perspective.

The soul of a Jew is a “piece of G-d from above”, and therefore, one can come to recognize Hashem through the recognition of himself. A Jew is the only nation on this world which is capable of feeling the inner self and thereby sense the Creator with just as much clarity.

This is the lesson of Sukkos: we have two mitzvos – to sit in the Sukkah and to shake the Four Species. We have both of these mitzvos because we are meant to integrate both of the lessons they represent together. The Four Species represents how we must move to do all the mitzvos, the actions through which we serve our Master with. The mitzvos are the way for us to get through to our heart and reveal it. “The heart is pulled after the actions.”[4]

What is it that we must reveal from our heart? It is not limited to the great exalted feelings of love and fear of Hashem. It is not about becoming awe-struck from elation. It is about reaching our essence, our “I.” The point of doing all the mitzvos is so that we can use all these actions to reach our I” and reveal it. In this way, we integrate Adonoy with Havayah.

The “I” can be reached in several ways. There is way to reach it directly, but only the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur knew the secret of how to do it. The other way is the way which we generally take, and that is through doing all the mitzvos so that we can get through to our essence and recognize the Creator as a result. But when we do the mitzvos, the focus should not be on the actions, but rather on the goal, which is to come to our essence.

Reaching Our Point of Menuchah\Serenity

Understandably, the words here are very deep, but they are the secret about life.

All of us want grow higher and elevate ourselves. Yet, this is still a superficial approach. It’s superficial because life is not just about feeling more elated. Elation is still a kind of movement, and as we explained, movement is only the outer layer of our existence. For this reason, there is almost no one who reaches what he wants in life, because a person keeps evading his main goal, in spite of his many aspirations to grow and become more elated in spirituality.

There is a well-known parable that illustrates this message. A man dreams that there is buried treasure underneath the bridge of his town, while in reality, there is buried treasure sitting underneath his house all along.

The lesson we can learn from this is that even when a person seeks spirituality, he might very be well be running away from his real “treasure” all along. For example, if he thinks that Hashem is in Heaven, while he is merely on this lowly earth, then all he will know of is the mitzvos, and his entire life will be limited to performing superficial actions. The truth is that Hashem is found everywhere (Zohar III 225a) – He is found inside a person! Our Avodah is to uncover our true existence, and then we will find Hashem there.

Of course, it will require a lot of “movements” to get to that inner place in ourselves, but we must at least aspire to reach this point of serenity (menucha). When a person reaches menuchah in himself, Hashem is truly revealed, because menuchah represents Shabbos, the point of non-movement and a cessation from all labor. One who attains menuchah on this world can recognize the Creator, and he attains it no less than how all of us will eventually recognize Hashem in the future. But if someone never reaches the point of menuchah in himself, the “Shabbos” in himself – he will not come to the recognition of the One who created the world.

[1] See Tanya chapter 4, and Tzidkas Hatzaddik 263.

[2] Iyov 19: 26

[3] Yalkut Shimeoni: Shemos 20: 226

[4] Sefer HaChinuch, 16

Keep the Change

As the Neilah service on Yom Kippur reaches its crescendo, the congregation cries out in unison: “Hashem Hu HaElokim” (Hashem is G-d) seven times. We can probably still hear this cry echoing in our minds. At that precious moment, we have reached the peak of the spiritual heights we have been climbing since the beginning of Elul.

“Hashem Hu HaElokim” finds its source in the tanakh, Melachim I 18:39. At that point in history, it had already been three long years since Eliyahu had imposed a drought in order to: 1. prove to King Achav that Hashem grants great power to his Prophets; and 2. inspire the Jewish Nation to teshuvah. King Achav and Ovadiah HaNavi then separate in order to search for fertile land. While traveling, Ovadiah “happens upon” Eliyahu HaNavi who convinces Ovadiah to arrange for a meeting between Eliyahu and King Achav. At this meeting, Eliyahu proposes a contest between himself and the 450 prophets of Ba’al to be held on Mt. Carmel. A “Battle of the Prophets”, if you will. King Achav accepts the challenge and sends for the prophets of Ba’al.

After the nation congregates on Mt. Carmel, Eliyahu reproves them, asking “How long will you stand on both sides of the threshold? If Hashem is G-d, follow Him! And if Ba’al is god, follow him.” The People could not answer. Sometimes the truth hits that hard.

Eliyahu then set down the contest rules: Both he and the prophets of Ba’al would be given a bull to sacrifice. Each was to slaughter the bull, cut it into pieces and place them on top of firewood on their respective altar. But they were not to kindle the firewood! The prophets of Ba’al were to call upon their god to send down fire, and Eliyahu was to call upon Hashem to send down fire. The One who would send down fire would be recognized as the true G-d, and the other as a falsehood. Both the People and the prophets of Ba’al agreed to this trial.

Eliyahu encouraged the prophets of Ba’al to go first and they took one of the bulls, slaughtered it and prepared it for sacrifice on their altar. They then called upon Ba’al all morning, hopping and dancing and cutting themselves till they bled, as was their manner of worship. But there was neither a sound nor any other response from heaven! As time went on, Eliyahu began mocking the priests of Ba’al, saying “Call louder, maybe your god is with his advisors, or maybe he is at war with an enemy; maybe he is asleep”. (Rashi states that Eliyahu even said “maybe your god is relieving himself”.) The prophets of Ba’al increased their efforts and continued to call upon Ba’al until the time of Minchah. Still, not a murmur, not a sound, not a sign from the heavens.

Then Eliyahu HaNavi cried out to the People, “Come near to me,” and they came near. He took twelve stones and he made a trench around the altar. He put the wood in place and cut the bull into pieces and placed them on the altar. Eliyahu commanded the People “Fill four jars with water, and pour it on the offering and on the wood.” Then he said, “Do it a second time.” Then he said “Do it a third time.” Eliyahu himself then filled the trench surrounding the altar with water as well.

Eliyahu drew close to the altar and prayed, “O L-rd, G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yisrael, make it known today that You are the G-d of Israel, and that I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your command. Answer my prayer, O L-rd, answer my prayer that this People may know that You, O L-rd, are G-d and that just as You allowed them to slip backwards from You – if they repent, You will also bring them closer to You.” At that moment, the fire of Hashem fell from Heaven and consumed the offering, and the wood, and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that Eliyahu had poured in the trench. Amazing!! The people had no means of response other than to spontaneously proclaim “Hashem Hu HaElokim, Hashem Hu HaElokim, Hashem is G-d! Hashem is G-d!” There was no question. Afterwards, Eliyahu had all of the prophets of Ba’al killed.

When word got back to Queen Izabel, the wife of King Achav and a fervent idol worshipper herself, she sent a message to Eliyahu HaNavi: “At this Time tomorrow, I will make your soul like their souls.” In other words, just as you killed the prophets of Ba’al, I will kill you. Queen Izabel was incensed, she was roused to the level of cold blooded murder. Why then did she say “At this time tomorrow”? Why not now? Does the schoolyard bully say “You’re in trouble now, meet me at the flagpole next month”? Why did Izabel, in all of her red-blooded passion, in the throes of vengeance, say “I’ll get you tomorrow”. The simple answer is that all of the People had witnessed the miraculous workings of Hashem and Eliyahu earlier that day. Queen Izabel would be unable to muster even a single mercenary at the highest of prices, to carry out her murderous intent. But tomorrow, ah tomorrow, after going back to their workaday lives, they’ll all begin to forget already. Then, Queen Izabel will be able to find men to oppose Eliyahu.

Unbelievable? Not really. In the inimitable words of Nasan HaNavi to David HaMelekh, “You are that Man”. You and me both. We walk out of Yom Kippur motivated, with resolve, “I’m going to change.” “I’m going to be better.” “I’m going to be great.” “I’m going to be a Tzadik!” “This is gonna be the year I turn it all around.” “Hashem Hu HaElokim” resounds through the canyons of our minds. But the next day, the very next day, when we return to our everyday lives, we begin forgetting. When we go back to our jobs, to the traffic, to the lack of sleep, to the financial worries and day-to-day troubles. Our resolve weakens, we are already on our way back to where we were.

How do we avoid falling into this repetitive cycle? Sure, we’ve changed but how do we keep the change. The torah in Parshas Va’eira says “And G-d spoke to Moshe and Aharon and commanded them regarding the Children of Israel and regarding Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to take the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt” The Talmud Yerushalmi in tractate Rosh Hashana infers from this pasuk that while still in Egypt, G-d commanded Moshe to inform the Jewish people of the Mitzvah of Freeing Slaves. When the pasuk tells us that Moshe and Aharon were to command the Children of Israel, it means that they would be delivering a command for the future: when they live in the land of Israel, and they have Jewish slaves, they should send them out to freedom after 6 years.

Why did Hashem deem this to be an appropriate time to tell the bnei yisrael about ‘shiluach avadim’- freeing slaves when they wouldn’t even be in a position to fulfill the commandment for more than fifty years. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt”l, answers that, in actuality, there was no more appropriate time to tell them about ‘shiluach avadim’ than that very moment. When they are slaves, they know the burden of servitude; they know what its like to have a master. Presumably, it’s not an easy thing to send away a slave. After one has had an unpaid worker who has toiled exclusively for him for six years, it is not easy to let him go. If G-d would have given Bnei Yisrael this mitzvah later on, when the Jewish people already had their own slaves, they would have heard it in an entirely different way. Now is the time to tell them about sending away poor slaves. Now it will make an impression. Now it will be meaningful.

Rav Shmulevitz points out that a person needs to hear something at the precise time when he will be most receptive to it. One has to “seize that moment” of opportunity before it eviscerates.

The Gemara in Sanhedrin praises Palti Ben Layish as exceeding even Yosef HaTzaddik in Yosef’s ability to stave off the advances of Potiphar’s wife. What did Palti ben Layish do to deserve such praise? The Talmud relates that Shaul HaMelekh had a daughter who was married to David, but Shaul argued, erroneously, that based on a technicality she was not married to David and, legally, had no husband. Shaul took this daughter and gave her as a wife to Palti ben Layish.

Palti ben Layish was faced with a dilemma of epic proportions: He could not refuse the King; he had to take his daughter as a wife. Yet, he knew very well that this was a married woman. There he was in the bedroom, on his wedding night, with a married woman. What did he do in order to ensure that he would succeed in withstanding temptation? He took a sword and stuck it in the ground and said “Anyone who ‘occupies himself with this matter’ will be stabbed by this sword.” The Gemara goes on to say that because of this tremendous act, Palti Ben Layish merited the assistance of Heaven and was able to live with the King’s daughter for many years and never so much as touch her.

What was so incredible about the act of sticking the sword into the ground? Why did he merit this unbelievable “siyata d’ishmaya”. The answer is that on that first night, Palti ben Layish clearly knew what was right and what was wrong. On that first night, he had his priorities straight. On that first night, it was crystal clear. He knew that she was a married woman and that it was forbidden to touch her. But, he also knew himself and he knew the human condition. He knew that when “Izabel’s tomorrow” came and as the days and the months and the years passed, his feelings would dissipate, his clarity would become murky. He would come up with an excuse, he would become weak, and he would rationalize. Therefore, he said to himself, “I need a reminder; I have to seize this moment of absolute clarity and take a concrete step that will remind me of the time when I knew what is right and wrong in this situation.” There are moments when one does not rationalize, when one can clearly see the truth. Those are the moments to seize as our permanent reminders.

This, says the Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva, is something that we all can and must do. There are many occasions when we will be put into situations where in the beginning we will know what’s right and what’s wrong. We know “Hashem, Hu HaElokim”. We know we can be better. We know we can change. We know we can be great. But, later on, there will be reasons– financial reasons, professional reasons, practical reasons and a whole library of rationalizations. How will we know what is right and what is wrong? We have to seize the moment. We have to stick that sword in the ground and say to ourselves “I know what’s right and what’s wrong, and I’m not going to let that change and become unclear!”

That is the lesson of Palti ben Layish. We have to grab the opportunity so that when the time comes, when we have temptations and questions, we will always be able to look back and say “We knew it was right then — and we know it is right now!”

Succos comes quickly on the heels of Yom Kippur. Hashem himself provides us with a reminder. Look around you, Hashem Hu HaElokim! For those of us who have not already “Seized the Moment”, it is beginning to wane. “Izabel’s tomorrow” is creeping in. Pretty soon we’ll all be back at work. It is time to plant our swords. Peg an area of growth to some part of the day that will serve as a reminder. I won’t eat dinner before I learn one page of mussar. I won’t go to bed before I say one kapitel tehillim for sick people. I won’t eat lunch before I call my parents. I won’t take off my tefillin before I learn one mishnah. Plant your sword today so that tomorrow you will still remember, with perfect clarity “Hashem Hu Ha Elokim.”

Originally Published 10/10/2008

Beyond Beinoni

What’s so bad about being a Beinoni, at least I’m not a Rasha? What’s wrong with some Steak, Scotch, and Sushi as long as I daven, learn, and do chesed? America is the home of Lifestyle Judaism, where we can have our cake and Torah too – so why rock the boat? The short answer is that our purpose in this world is to develop a constant connection to Hashem and to unite all our actions, and in fact the entire world, in line with that connection. If our Torah observance is not resulting in continually improving connection, then we need to introspect.

The Rambam states (Hilchos Teshuva 3.3) that the Beinoni needs to do Teshuva – we need to change. Since lasting change needs to be done over time, we don’t have to give up all our permitted creature comforts. What we do need to do is work on our Avodas Hashem, so we can begin the process of uniting our actions in line with our connection to Hashem.

The Ramchal in Mesillas Yesharim gives us an extremely practical path of improving our Avodas Hashem and it starts with focusing more regularly on our purpose in life. The Ramchal explains that the essence of our existence is fulfilling mitzvos, serving God and withstanding trials, and worldly pleasures are only means to provide us contentment in order to free our heart for service of God. So we don’t have to give up our pleasures, we just need to bring them in line with our purpose.

We have until Hoshana Rabba to show that we are seriously committed to improving our Torah, Tefillah, Mitzvos and Gemillas Chasadim. May we all find success in demonstrating our committment and thereby merit being sealed in the Book of Life.

Ten Days of Repentance: A plan to plan

I was pleased to see my erev Rosh Hashana caller’s name via the Caller ID on my cell, though I was somewhat embarrassed at the circumstances. It was my son’s shver (father-in-law) — the Brooklyn one mechutan (in-law) — calling as is customary to share erev yomtov greetings. Pleased, because he is such a fine person, and I so enjoy speaking to him. Embarrassed for two reasons: One, because it was 9:45 a.m. and I was still in shul, hurriedly unwinding my tefillin to join a group doing hataras nedarim (nullification of vows). And two, because, as usual, he’d gotten to me before I could get to him, as he always did.

The call, when I returned it, didn’t disappoint, and I couldn’t resist sharing with Shlomo my mixed feelings about the timing of his call. “Your call reminds me,” I said, “that every year, during [the month of] Elul as Rosh Hashana approaches, I am certain that this is the year I am going to have a calm, orderly erev Rosh Hashana, take care of getting everything set as it should be — and here I am, once again, at an embarrassingly late minyan because I was in the office at 3 AM, trying to get ahead of the next two days’ business that I won’t be around to do.”

I could hear him shaking his head across the ether. “Rav Brevda z”l said ‘Elul is dead, and it was killed in America,” said Shlomo. As usual, Rav Brevda had nailed it. It could be that once, perhaps even in our lifetimes, investing an appreciable amount of time over the course of four weeks in spiritual and psychological preparation for the Days of Awe was something a working stiff could relate to, and maybe even not that long ago. Maybe even in America. But looking around at my own life, it certainly hasn’t been a realistic ambition in a long time. And it seems reasonable to assume I haven’t been the only one who has felt that way since the dawning of the age of iPhones, yeshiva dinners, bar mitzvah-vort-wedding obligations and … the manifold other blessings, mixed and otherwise, of our contemporary existence.

“I’d be happy to even think of it,” I responded. “Maybe this call will give us a leg up on making some use of the aseres yimei teshuvah [Ten Days of Repentance]. It would be an a meaningful accomplishment for us these day if we would be sufficiently mindful that we could plan … to plan!”

He agreed, and told me of how is uncle had told him about his father — Shlomo’s grandfather — would, during the aseres yimei teshuvah, get up early — well before it was time for services — just so he could get to shul at 5 a.m., ahead of the sun’s ascent into the sky, and take time to sit in the still of dawn and… reflect. To hear himself think ahead of Yom Kippur.

And that was then. It sounded like a good idea. I can’t imagine pulling it off myself. But it sounds like a plan.

Planning isn’t everything, of course. I planned to write this post and then call my other son’s shver — the California one. But Yitzchok called me first, too. And talking to him was every bit as invigorating and elevating as talking to Shlomo. What good guys! What a brocha!

I don’t mind losing the Cell Phone Sweepstakes every erev yom tov. It’s not a race, who calls first. We’re all three of us fond of each other and no one’s keeping score of who calls first. There’s no need to because it’s never me, and that’s just fine. And if these moments with my fellow fathers-in-law are the only moments of reflection, besides finishing this post, I experience before I am lost in the pre-yomtov cyclone of preparatory activity, logistics and climate control duties, who’s to say I haven’t had at least a little bit of Elul by virtue of their warm thoughtfulness?

Can I plan a more ambitious plan than this for the next ten days? It won’t be easy. Outlook, that omniscient mussar sefer (self-improvement text) that is my constant companion, tells me that the next week and a half include filing deadlines; an address at a conference; two depositions in the Midwest and the preparation for them; and 2,409 “Unread” emails — oops, no; 2,410. They won’t be read before Yom Kippur, but my entry in the Book of Life will all the same.

On the other hand, starting tonight I have two days — no, three this year! — off the vicious grid. Three days to plan some kind of little spiritual plan, even if I can’t memorialize it digitally or dictate it to an assistant. So yes, I can do it, but it will have to be simple.

That’s already a plan, isn’t it?

Yom Kippur – Disconnecting from Sin

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of other Drashos on Yom Kippur

A Day of Soul With No Body

It is written, “For on this day you shall be forgiven and be purified.” Yom Kippur is the time of purity, in which Hashem purifies the Jewish people. The words of Rabbi Akiva are well-known: “Praiseworthy are the Jewish people – before Whom are they purified, and Who purifies them? Just as a mikveh purifies those who are impure, so does Hashem purify the Jewish people.”

Let us think of how our purification process is compared to that of a mikveh. In the sefarim hakedoshim, it is brought that one should immerse in a cold mikveh, because the words “mayim karim” (cold water) has the same gematria (numerical value in Hebrew letters) as the word “meis” – “corpse.” In other words, when a person immerses in a cold mikveh, he is considered to be like a dead person.

What is the gain in being considered like a dead person? Hashem doesn’t want us to die – He wants us to live. A dead person cannot serve Him and do mitzvos. So what is the gain in being considered like “dead” when one goes to a cold mikveh?

There are many meanings behind this concept, but we will focus on just one point, with the help of Hashem.

What, indeed, is death? When a person dies, does he stop existing? We all know: of course not. We are made up of a body and a soul; by death, the soul leaves the body, the body is buried and the soul rises to Heaven. So the whole concept of death is that the soul leaves the body.

If we think about it, this is what Yom Kippur is all about. We have a mitzvah on this day to fast, and our body is denied certain pleasures. We have to be like angels on this day – souls without a body. Only our body suffers from this, though – not our soul. The soul actually receives greater vitality on Yom Kippur (as the Arizal writes). Normally, we need to eat and drink physically in order to be alive, but on Yom Kippur, we receive vitality from above, and thus we do not need physical food or drink.

The Arizal would stay up all night on Yom Kippur. Simply speaking, this was because he didn’t want to take a chance of becoming impure at night (from nocturnal emissions). But the deeper reason behind his conduct was because Yom Kippur is a day in which we are angelic, and we don’t need sleep. Yom Kippur is a day of soul with no body.

On every Yom Tov, there is a mitzvah to eat. Although Yom Kippur is also a Yom Tov, we don’t eat, because it is a day of soul with no body. It is the only day of the year in which we live through our soul and not through our body. The rest of the Yomim Tovim involve mitzvos that have to do with our body.

It is also the only day of the year in which we resemble the dead. We wear white, and there are two reasons for this: the inner reason is because we are resembling the angels, and the external reason is because we want to remind ourselves of death, who are clothed in white shrouds. The truth is that these are not two separate reasons – they are really one and the same: a dead person is a soul with no body, just like an angel.

Let us stress the fact that we do not mean to remind ourselves of death in order to scare ourselves. Although there is a concept of holy fear, that is not our mission on Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah is actually scarier than Yom Kippur, because it is the day of judgment. The point of reminding ourselves of death on Yom Kippur is, because Yom Kippur is a day in which one is a soul without a body – resembling an angel.

The Purity Available Only On Yom Kippur

That is the clear definition of Yom Kippur, and now we must think into what our actual avodah is on this day. We mentioned before the custom to immerse in a cold mikveh before Yom Kippur. It seems that this is because when we immerse in cold water, we are considered dead, and thus we are purified. But on a deeper note, the death which a person must accept when he immerses in the mikveh is so that he can realize that he is really a soul, without a body. Hashem purifies us on Yom Kippur – when we consider ourselves to be like a soul with no body.

Our purity does not happen on Rosh Hashanah or on Sukkos. It does not happen on Pesach or on any other Yom Tov. We are purified only on Yom Kippur – the time in which we are a soul without a body.

The Lesson We Learn from Yom Kippur For The Rest of the Year
Read more Yom Kippur – Disconnecting from Sin

Rosh Hoshana: Committing to the Plan

Rosh Hoshana is almost here and the focus of the day is on the creation of the world and on Hashem as our Melech (or King). How is this different than the creation we recognize every Shabbos? Secondly, how are we to understand this concept of Malchus (or Kingship), and how is it different from the Malchus we accept twice a day when we say Shema?

Shabbos is focused on the initial creation of the world. We recognize Hashem as the creator of the physical world and the fact that creation was completed on the seventh day. Rosh Hoshana is focused on the creation of the plan for the world. According to the Ramchal in Derech Hashem, G-d’s plan is to create a world where His presence would be hidden to some degree, and we need to strive to clearly recognize His presence and absolute control of the world. The primary obstacles we need to overcome are our physical desires and self-centeredness.

On Rosh Hoshana we recognize the plan, clarify the plan, and renew our wholehearted committment to the plan. A key component is the recognition of the Planner Himself, because in the plan of the creation, the King and our recognition of Him is intrinsic. The Kingship we accept on Rosh Hoshana is the recognition of the force behind the plan and his absolutely central role in all aspects of the plan. In the Shema we commit to the service that comes in the wake of the acceptance of the plan.

Every year when we recognize and recommit, we have the opportunity to redefine our role. The King stands ready to assist us in fulfilling the role which we can shape to some degree. This assistance takes the form of judgment.

Imagine a CEO who always did right by you. He tells you that next week you’ll have your yearly review, where your role will be assessed, your commitment measured, and you’ll receive constructive criticism on how to achieve your personal success. Any smart person would welcome that meeting, and prepare by exhibiting awareness of their deficiencies coupled with improvement strategies.

This is the self judgment of Rosh Hoshana, recognizing what we need to do to fulfill our role properly. When we perform this self-judgment properly, the King accepts our self-assessment. Put in its proper perspective, this judgment can be filled with joy as we anticipate with excitement our renewed commit to a deep and meaningful life.

Rabbi Dessler says that the first day of Rosh Hoshana is judgment for those fully committed to having a key role, while the second day is for those who will assist those who are fully committed. The first day is the performance review for the executives, with the second day is for the worker bees. This is an opportunity for all of us to join the executive class.

Although Rosh Hoshana is one of the ten days of Teshuva, we don’t perform the key ingredient of viduy (confession) on that day. One of the reasons is that to really do Teshuva properly (with regret and commitment to the future), we need to be very clear on the overall plan and our chosen role. On Rosh Hoshana we define the parameters of our Teshuva through our re-committment. On the following days through Yom Kippur we start actualizing our role by working on our deficiencies through the full process of Teshuva.

It’s an awesome day with great potential for a bright new beginning. May we all merit to take full advantage of the opportunities it brings.

The Avodah of Rosh HaShanah

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download this and a number of other Drashos on Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur

Rosh HaShannah – Avodah of Ben & Eved

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Malchiyus – Declaring Hashem’s sovereignty

Hashem says on Rosh HaShanah, “Declare before Me malchiyus, zichronos, and shofaros; declare malchiyus so that I should rule over you.”[1]

The truth is that in all of the davening on Rosh HaShanah, the only time we mention “zichronos” and “shofaros” is in the tefillah of Mussaf. Throughout all of the tefillos, however, we mention malchiyus. This shows us that malchiyus is the main aspect which we mention on Rosh HaShanah.

“There is no king without a nation.”[2] In order for Hashem to be King on us, so to speak, we need to declare ourselves as His servants. In other words, the avodah we have on Rosh Hashanah is not just to declare Hashem as our King. It is mainly that we become His servants.

Now that we have clarified that the main avodah on Rosh Hashanah is to accept our servitude to Hashem, we must know what it means to be an eved, a servant. If we truly know what it means to be an “eved”, we can understand our mission on this day.

“Eved” – Derogatory or Praiseworthy?

The Gemara[3] says that when we do Hashem’s will, we are called a ben (son) of Hashem, and when we don’t do His will, we are called eved\servant. It seems from this statement that eved is a derogatory title, something we are called when we don’t do Hashem’s will.

However, we find that Moshe Rabbeinu is given the unique title “eved” of Hashem. He is also called “eved ne’eman” – “trustworthy servant of Hashem”.

This is a paradox. Is eved a derogatory title, or is it a praiseworthy title?!

Three Levels

It depends, because there are two implications of the word “eved.”

One person serves his king, not because he loves him, but because he needs the king to fulfill his needs. He’s serving the king all for himself. An eved like this is the negative implication of eved, because all his service to the King is for his own benefit.
There is a higher implication of eved, and that is when the servant doesn’t serve Hashem for his own personal interests, but because he’s devoted entirely to the king. This is the deeper meaning behind why “whatever a servant acquires, his master acquires it” – it is because ideally, a servant has no personal life of his own, and his whole life is devotes to his master. This is the desirable level of eved – and one who acts like this fulfills the purpose of Creation. This was the kind of eved that Moshe Rabbeinu was. It is the meaning behind the Mishnah in Avos, “Do not be like servants who serve their master in order to receive reward, rather, be like servants who serve their master not to get a reward.”
We see from the above that it’s possible for a person to act selflessly and be considered “eved”, and that one doesn’t have to on the level of “ben” in order to reach this. Ben is when a person goes even beyond that and serves the king out of his love.

A person needs to have selfless devotion to Hashem, and this is “eved.” With this as well, a person needs to have serve Hashem out of a love for Him, and this is called “ben.” If so, we have altogether three levels:

The lower kind of eved, one who serves Hashem only because he needs Him.
The higher kind of eved, one who serves Hashem because he lives his life for Him.
Ben, which is when one serves Hashem out of a love for Him.
Practical Guidance for Utilizing Rosh Hashanah

If we want to prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashanah and declare Him as King over us – and that we become His servants – we must understand that if we feel as if we are forced into serving Him, we are being the first kind of eved, and then the whole purpose of Rosh Hashanah will be lost. Our main task on Rosh Hashanah we must do is to be like the second kind of eved: that our whole lives should be about one goal alone – serving Hashem. This should be why we live our life, and we shouldn’t have any other personal desires. This is the inner meaning behind all of our avodah on Rosh Hashanah.

It is not enough just to daven slowly and with concentration on Rosh Hashanah. Our main job on this day is to come to a decision that we will change our lives and live only for Hashem – and not for ourselves.

This job obligates us to make a deep internal clarification. We must know exactly what we want to get out of our life, and to examine our deeds to see if they are line with the goal we are striving for. If one truly decides to live a life of serving Hashem, he has to see if all that he does 24\7 is reflecting this.

How We Can Let Rosh Hashanah Affect Us For The Whole Year

If a person accepts upon himself to become a true eved of Hashem, then Rosh Hashanah must not end for him on the third day of Tishrei; Rosh Hashanah has to carry over into the rest of the year as well, until the next Rosh Hashanah! If a person examines his situation and finds that on Purim and Pesach he doesn’t think about Hashem, it must be that he did not have a good Rosh Hashanah. It shows that he did not accept upon himself on Rosh Hashanah to become an eved of Hashem.

May Hashem merit us that we all accept His sovereignty on Rosh Hashanah, and that we should become His true servants – and through this, we can merit to have the light of Rosh Hashanah affect us the whole year round.

[1] Rosh HaShanah 16b

[2] Kad HaKemach, Rosh HaShanah 70a

[3] Bava Basra 10a

The Selichot Experience In The Eyes Of A Ba’al Teshuvah

By Cosmic X from Jerusalem

I believe that the first time that I said selichot I was at 770 Eastern Parkway on a Saturday night with “the Rebbe”. Someone gave me the selichot booklet with old yellowed pages. I could not follow what was going on. At the end the Chasidim started singing something, I think it was some of the Aramaic that we say at the end of the selichot. I understood nothing, and I couldn’t even hum along with them since I did not know the tune. I had this embarrassed kind of feeling that one gets when you are the only one in the room that does not know what is going on. But this wasn’t a normal room. This was 770, with hundreds of black-frocked Chasidim singing and dancing while poor Cosmic X stared confused. (That weird, embarrassed and confused feeling was my lot quite often during the first year of Teshuvah.)

The rest of the selichot that year were not any better. It meant waking up earlier than usual to pray in the local synagogue. These guys had been saying the selichot since they were little kids, and they knew how to finish them off with blinding speed. (I’m not sure how many of them understood what they were saying.) All this was of course was a prelude to the Shacharit Indianapolis 500, which would be over in 25-30 minutes.

Later on when I moved to Israel my Hebrew vocabulary expanded, and my understanding of the selichot improved accordingly. The more I learned Torah, the more I understood what the authors of the Piyutim were alluding to. The composers of the selichot were great rabbis, who knew how to weave their incredible knowledge of Torah, Talmud, Midrashim and the Hebrew language into amazingly creative poetry. I also purchased an excellent book a few years ago that explains all of the selichot in depth, and I’ve really come to appreciate them. They are a true delicacy!

The bottom line of this post is that you get out of the selichot what you put into them. Take the time to learn the selichot, and find a minyan that prays at a speed that you feel comfortable with. If you are a beginner, don’t get discouraged. Selichot can and should be a meaningful experience.

Originally posted here.

Parents Cannot Be Their Childrens’ Friends

In the good old days children were expected to be seen and not heard. The rules of childhood were clearly defined. They were taught to have good manners, follow parental instructions, and to never give lip to adults. Blind obedience was demanded and, punishments were often swift, corporal, and harsh. When a child became old enough it was expected that he or she help out in the house, the shop, or the fields, whatever the case may be. Yeshiva boys were often exempt from such labour but, they had little idle time to neglect the rigors of Torah learning. Marriages were often arranged by parents while the children were still adolescents giving the prospective choson and kallah little choice over the matter. How times have changed!

Our ancestors of yesteryear would be quite shocked to see how we raise and educate our children nowadays. The modern day approach seems the complete opposite of what it once was. After several decades of expanding our knowledge of child psychology, modern society has developed a much more nuanced view of children. They are no longer seen in black and white terms as miniature adults that need to be tamed through discipline. Today parents are told that each child is a unique individual with their own personality traits, desires, moods, talents, and special potential that the parents and teachers must respect and cultivate. While child rearing trends seem to come and go every few years, our modern view of the child is that he or she is an independent person in their own right with needs and wants that we have to recognise. Therefore, children are often given the freedom to make their own choices and to express their own opinions, and often in many cases, even outright child rebellion is seen as healthy.

Torah teachings are eternal, hence these are never subject to any shift in psychological theories or new discoveries. The famous teaching of ‘Al pi darko’, was Shlomo HaMelech’s ingenious pedagogical teaching of “educate a child according to their ways.” Each child’s chinuch should be accommodated to meet their particular needs. Our ancestors surely knew of and followed ‘al pi darko’, but they did so within their view of the child resulting in much more rigid and more clearly delineated parameters. The issue that arises these days is one of going to extremes. How far do we go to teach a child according to their needs? How far do we go to cater to each child’s wants and to allow them their own choices and freedom of expression until we go too far and wind up with a child that is chutzpahdik, undisciplined, or off the rails completely?

It is surely harmless and might even be healthy for a little girl to choose whether or not she wears her pink skirt or her blue one for Shabbes. Nothing will go awry if a boy is asked what parts of Torah he enjoys learning the most and allowed to focus on that. Indeed children should not be treated like little robots without their own emotions and minds. The old way had its advantages in that it created much more obedient children and less rebelliousness. However, one can be safe to surmise there was also quite a bit of repression and, even covert abuse in their methodology, albeit unintentional, as the parents were products of their day, as we are also products of ours.

Yet, the question remains, how much choice and freedom is too much? Should a child also be given the freedom to decide if she wants to watch a video a little bit longer than allowed? Or should a child be given the freedom to eat that cake right before dinner? Most parents would say of course not, as they are reasonable people, and there must be rules. It is understood that children must be given structure, limits, and discipline. We won’t allow them to skip bruchas, refrain from washing negal vasser, or to eat treifes, chas v’shalom. There are limits.

However, life gets busy and stressful. After all, there are kitchens to clean, bills to pay, and errands to run. If little Mendy or Chani is whining, pestering, making demands, or miserable, maybe we can feel pressured and feel like we are being a bad parent. Aren’t they also individual human beings with their own wants and needs? Maybe it’s harsh or cruel to deny them their freedom of expression? Modern child psychology is there to justify just giving in to their will. We could tell ourselves we are not being too lax but, we are respecting our child’s personhood. Where to draw the line between being overly permissive and respecting the child’s individuality becomes muddled and unclear. When this happens we could run the risk of ceasing to function as our child’s parent. Now we have become our child’s friend and this is dangerous territory.

A child needs their parent to be their parent and not their friend. A parent who functions as a friend is denying that child a functioning parent. A parent who cowers, shows anxiety, and gives in to their child’s unreasonable demands when their child tells them “I hate you!” has reneged on their parental responsibility. A parent who allows their child to run wild and to be ill- mannered may convince themselves that they are being a good parent by giving their child freedom to express themselves, but is actually doing that child a great disservice. A parent who asks their child their opinions about important family matters, or about whether they should be punished, or allows their child to berate authority figures or other adults, has put their child on equal footing with them as an adult. When parents do all this, how can we expect children to be respectful?

Much good has come from the modern child psychology. Nevertheless, as with anything in life, the path of moderation is the wisest one. Moderation can be defined differently for each person. Thank G-d we have a Torah and wise Jews we can turn to for guidance.

The Lost Art of Teshuva

Rabbi Bentzion Shafier of the Shmuz is one of the rare speakers with content, inspiration, listen-ability, and practical application in every one of his shiurim. One of the many great things he has done is to make all his shiurim available online for free.

He has compiled a Nine Part Series on The Lost Art of Teshuva and each shiur can be listened as a standalone. You can also download all nine at once in one zip file!

Here is the link to The Lost Art of Teshuva

Here are the summaries of the shiurim:

Part 1 – Rosh Hashanna – Issues of the Day
In this introduction to teshuva Rabbi Shafier explains how Rosh Hashanah impacts us all-from the largest cosmos in our universe to the smallest news headline. Listen to this first to really get into the spirit of Elul.

Part 2 – Diamond with a Flaw
If you’re overwhelmed by fire and brimstone droshos, this shmuz is for you. Full of chizuk and encouragement, it discusses how we are all ‘diamonds’-and what we can do to polish up those scratches.

Part 3 – Finding Direction in Life
This shmuz will show you how it is possible to come through Yom Kippur a vastly different human being-for all eternity. Essential preparation for the Yom HaDin.

Part 4 – Limiting Beliefs
What is holding you back? We have the potential to be higher than melachim, and yet we often arrive in shul thinking about those same old mistakes. In this shmuz Rabbi Shafier will show you how to stop limiting yourself and start actualising your amazing, unlimited potential.

Part 5 – A Fresh New Start
Focus. That’s what we need right now, in the days that are leading us to Yom HaDin. In this shmuz, Rabbi Shafier gives us that clarity to focus on the incredible gift that is teshuva, and the devastating consequences should we fail to make us of it.

Part 6 – Yom Kippur – Finding The Real You
In this generation it may seem that teshuva is impossible-what can G-d possibly expect from us when we’re surrounded by such unprecedented immorality? Rabbi Shafier answers this fundamental question in this shmuz and gives us the chizuk we need to move forward this Rosh Hashanah.

Part 7 – The Four Components to a Complete Teshuva
When we realize the greatness of our own potential, we can begin to understand the gravity of sin and the incredible gift that is teshuva. An essential shmuz that will deepen your awareness of why you were created.

Part 8 – Is It Possible To Do a Partial Teshuva
In this shmuz Rabbi Shafier brings examples from Chazal to show us how even the lowest of people can do a full teshuva-and even get rewarded for their actions.

Part 9 – A Mitzvah To Do Teshuva
The halachah shmuz, this is the fundamental guide to the ins and outs of what exactly teshuva involves and how to make sure we get it right. Includes many practical examples on how to get the most out of this auspicious time.

Click to download The Lost Art of Teshuva series.

Strike the First Blow and the Fix is In

Why is the war mentioned at the beginning of Ki Seitzei offensive while the one mentioned in Behaaloscha defensive?
Why is victory guaranteed in the war mentioned at the beginning of Ki Seitzei ?

 And when war will come in your land against the tormenter that puts pressure on you, you shall sound a staccato on the trumpets. Then HaShem your Elokim will remember you and will save you from your adversaries.

BeMidbar 10:9

When you set out to wage war against your adversaries HaShem your Elokim will give you victory over them such that you will capture [his] prisoners.

Devarim 21:10                                                                                                                         

In the day of good be absorbed of good, and in the day of evil observe; for Elokim has made one parallel the other.

Koheles 7:14

And the two of them were naked, the Adam and his wife, but they felt no shame.

Bereshis 2:25

 Prior to the sin they were purely good and they related to “the face below” as they did [and still do] to “the face above” [i.e. as there is no shame in eating, hearing, smelling or seeing or in the organs that are the channels of these senses so too there was no shame in reproduction or the organs of reproduction]. For the component of evil that became incorporated in human beings is what differentiates between the two “faces”.  It is in the lower portion of the human gestalt where evil acquired an abode. By way of proof observe: The sign of the holy covenant is surrounded by a husk, the foreskin, which HaShem commanded to excise for it is there that shidah rested [see Yeshayahu 34:14].

— Ohr HaChaim ibid

There are several marked differences between the two pesukim-verses; describing the wars of the Bnei Yisrael– the Nation of Israel.  The pasuk in BeMidbar describes a defensive war, a war that “will come” to you while the pasuk at the beginning of our sidrah-weekly Torah reading; speaks of an offensive, aggressive war: “When you set out to wage war”.  While rescue and living to fight another day is promised in the former pasuk, victory over the opponent is guaranteed only in the latter pasuk.

When weighing the decision of whether or not to wage war there are a myriad of factors that require consideration. The first among them is if the projected war or fight is winnable. No individual, nation, tribe or even terrorist entity launches a fight or a war that they know that they can’t win.  While combatants may be prepared to lose many rounds or battles and to clash for years and even decades; no one sets out to lose the war.

That said few war decision-makers are 100% certain of their ultimate victory. Military history is replete with many “David vs. Goliath” upset victories. Hubris, megalomania, underestimation of the enemy, bad intelligence, poor diplomacy and a host of other uncontrollable factors may delude combatants into thinking that their victory is assured. Still, most rational military men understand that it takes more than valor or superior technology and manpower to win a war.  They understand that they must remain ever vigilant, persistent and brave because; “it ain’t over till it’s over”.

This is what makes the opening of our sidrah so odd. The prophecies of war should have been stated conditionally; “When you set out to wage war against your adversaries IF HaShem your Elokim will give you victory over them and if you will capture [his] prisoners.” In point of historical fact the Bnei Yisrael were not victorious in every war nor did they always capture prisoners. Why then does the pasuk guarantee victory?

Understanding that all of the wars of Bnei Yisrael are not merely physical and geopolitical but metaphysical and spiritual and that, when applied to the microcosm of individual Jews, they translate into milchemes hayeitzer-the war against our inclinations to evil;  Rav Leibeleh Eiger explains the distinctiveness of the war described at the beginning of our sidrah allegorically.

Imagine a great warrior king whose crown prince is his only son. While the king wants the prince to achieve the glory and honor that only military victory can accord, he is unwilling to actually risk his only, irreplaceable son’s battlefield defeat and death. And so the king, aware of the tactics, strategy and covert intelligence reports, waits until “the fix is in” and does not dispatch the crown prince to wage a war until and unless he, the king, knows that victory is not only probable — but a foregone conclusion. Military observers, combatants and reporters following the war may imagine it to be a closely contested competition — but the king knows better.

When it comes to milchemes hayeitzer our Heavenly Father and King, HaShem, would never risk the death and defeat of His only son; the Bnei Yisrael. While the war may endure a lifetime for individuals and the entire span of human history for the nation as a whole; the ultimate victory is not a question of “if” but of “when”. There is no possibility of defeat. In the end HaShem your Elokim will give you victory and deliver the enemy into your hands … including all that had been yours that the enemy had temporarily captured.

To carry the metaphor a step further: After deciding to wage a war because of its presumed winnability the first strategic consideration is whether to launch a preemptive or even surprise attack or to wait until the enemy makes the first move and, only then, to retaliate.

Rav Leibeleh Eiger goes on to view our sidrahs opening pasuk through the prism of the doctrine of Sefiros-Divine Emanations; in order to understand the offensive, aggressive nature of this war.

As this is the sixth sidrah in Sefer Devarim-the Book of Deuteronomy; it corresponds to sixth Sefirah of Yesod-Foundation. The Kabalistic tradition associates with the Sefirah of Yesod with the reproductive organ as this is the font and foundation of life and of the holiness of life.  It is precisely because it is the foundation for the entire structure of life and sanctity that so much passionate, powerful opposition to life and holiness concentrates against Yesod. For “Elokim has made one parallel the other.” It is there that many of the greatest battles of milchemes hayeitzer are waged.  This is why the war must be waged preemptively and aggressively. The only effective defense in this primary war is offense. This is why the bris milah-covenant if circumcision; is performed as soon as the human is born before any sentience of evil and lust inherent in the organ is even felt, i.e. before the enemy brings the battle to us … we strike a blow, and draw first blood.

Once the first, preemptive strike is struck there will still be many battles. These will be incessant and exhausting. There may even be many battles lost and much ground relinquished but “the fix is in”.  The war will be won. The King would never allow his only son to be vanquished and killed.

 

~adapted from Toras Emes Ki Seitzei the third D”H Ki

This post is an installment for Ki Seitzei 5774  in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK

What Is The Most Important Thing That You Want In Life?

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Elul

The days of Elul are here, and a new year is before us, approaching. There is no Jewish soul during these days who isn’t inspired at least on a minimal level. Every Jew has some feeling, at least a tiny feeling, to do teshuvah (repentance), to change.

Let us try to understand a bit more about this matter, so that we can have a clearer and deeper understanding of it.

Everyone has many things in his life that he wants. A husband wants his wife to be a good wife to him, a wife wants to have a good husband, and they both want good children, good health, ample livelihood, and a comfortable home. Each person has many more things to add onto this list as well. Now let’s come to a person and ask him: “Now that you’ve listed all these things that you want, from all of these 50 things you wrote down, what do you want the most?”

There’s a saying in Israel going around, “Ha’Ikar, Berius” – “The main thing, is health.” A 20-year old isn’t concerned about health, though. Only when people get older do they start to worry about their health. And if they have good health, what, then, do people think about? Happiness.

The truth is, however, that even if a person would have both complete health and happiness, he would be in a lot of danger [spiritually speaking]. Why? Because he would grow complacent and feel, “I have everything!”

Every person, as we said, has many desires. But what is the main thing that a person wants in life? One needs to think about this at times. It’s possible for a person to live 70 or 80 years yet not even once did he think, “What is the thing I truly want, more than anything, in my life?”

Of course, a person might give a quick answer to this. But it won’t be truthful. It is not a question that you can answer so quickly. It needs more than half a year’s worth of time to answer!

If Elijah the Prophet would reveal himself to a person and say to him: “Hashem has decreed that whatever you asked for, will happen. You can now ask one thing, as in the verse “One thing I seek from Hashem, that is which I sought” – what would a person ask? That his oldest daughter should become engaged? That the bank shouldn’t put his house in foreclosure? What would a person ask for…?

As long as a person hasn’t yet thought about this, he remains unclear about the main point of life. If he is unclear about it, he is like a person who has many important businesses yet he is unaware of what his main one is. He will invest most of his money in the businesses that are less important, and the main business will be financially neglected for the most part. His main business will surely fail with this approach – clear and simple.

So a person first needs to become clear what the main point of life is that he is living for. The question is: How much is a person willing to invest, in order to figure out what he truly wants in life?

When a person goes for a blood test and the results don’t come back good, he goes back for more blood tests, until they tell him, “We see that something here is abnormal. But we don’t know exactly what it is. Maybe go to a certain doctor for this, Dr. X. He is an expert and he will almost definitely know what the problem is.” In such a situation, a person would be prepared to spend much money in order to find out what the illness is in his body. It is directly affecting his health and his entire life. Now: How much is a person willing to invest in knowing what he truly wants in life?

If a person is sure that his main interest in life is money, a nice house, a nice car, or getting lots of honor, then he also has a problem to deal with. It is clear that such a person is living for a purpose that is clearly not the purpose of life, and he will have to deal with this problem.

The first thing, then, that a person needs to do, is to try to figure out to himself what the main thing is that he wants in life. After that he can begin to understand on what level his Avodas Hashem is.

Before a person figures this out, chances are that he is living in a totally delusional realm. He might be a person who has regularly fixed times for learning Torah, for an hour at night or more; he might regularly give tzedakah and try to be a baal chessed and to host guests, and many other wonderful things. But what does he really want in life? It is not tzedakah, hosting guests, or the hour of learning Torah he has every night. Those things rank at either #9, #17, or #36 on his list of what he considers “the most important things that I want”….

What is the main point in life that a person wants more than anything else?

A Big Surprise About The Reward In The World To Come

We all Baruch Hashem do the mitzvos, for the most part. We make effort to daven, to put on tefillin, to wear tallis and tzitzis, to keep Shabbos, etc. What will be our reward for all of this? We will be paid back with spiritual reward. But if a person doesn’t care too much for the spiritual, he can’t enjoy the reward for all his mitzvos! He will come upstairs to the High Heavenly Court and there is nothing physical there, only spirituality. But that is not what he wants, so he will remain there with nothing.

If a person wanted a nice car more than anything else, after 120 when he goes upstairs, with millions of mitzvos at his side, he will be told: “Here is payment for all of the millions of mitzvos that you did. Here is your greatest wish: the new car which came out this year.” Understandably, he will not want to get into that car, realizing that he has lost his entire spiritual reward! This is what is meant in the verse, “A man according to his praise.”

This is not some kind of joke, and it is not a mere thought of mussar.

If anyone is working at a job and he finds out that he will not get paid at the end of the month, what would he do…? What happens if a person finds out after 70 years of living that he will not get any payment for anything he did? Does anyone have a guaranteed ‘insurance’ in the World To Come that he will get paid for all the mitzvos he did?

Compare this to a child who did something good, so his father buys him a new car as a gift. What can the child do with the car? Only after 16 years old can he can get a permit to drive. Right now, he can’t do anything with the car. Hashem is loyal to pay back anyone with reward, but who says that the person when he gets upstairs will be able to use the reward that was given to him?

Imagine a person who works for someone for a month and then at the end of the month, he is given a pair of glasses as his payment. He doesn’t need glasses, he can see quite fine. This is not considered payment to him, because he doesn’t need the glasses.

We all Baruch Hashem make effort to do the right actions, each person on his own level. But is it clear to any of us what we want? If a person wanted what they will give to him in the Next World, he can enjoy it as reward. But if this isn’t what he really wanted in his life, he cannot enjoy his reward in Heaven, because this is not what he wanted. Chas v’shalom, it can be the realization of the verse, “He pays back his enemies….to destroy them.”

Knowing What You Really Want In Life

Every person needs to figure out for himself if Hashem is satisfied with his actions or not, and this is a very important issue to know. But that is a second question to know. The first question one needs to answer for himself is: “What do I want from myself??”

Here is an example from the physical world to illustrate what we mean. Sometimes there is a boy who is 19, 20, 21 or 23, and he has no idea what trade he wants to learn. To our chagrin, his parents do not really understand his soul and what he really needs, and what his true interests are. A year goes by and he still hasn’t decided what he wants to do with his life; perhaps he has some options now, but he hasn’t yet decided. He learns about a certain trade for another half a year, then he stops, thinking that it’s better to switch to a different field. The parents are at a loss of what to do. They are prepared to spend all of the money in the world, just so that their son should become focused and learn something. But the boy doesn’t even know what he wants from himself.

In the physical world, it is clear that if a person doesn’t know what he wants, he won’t be able to make something out of his life. How can it be, then, that a person can remain unclear about the entire meaning of his life altogether?!

Of course, a person can say: “I want Torah, mitzvos, and good deeds.” But is that really what the person wants? Or does he want other things than this too [which he considers more important]? A person might do good deeds, learn Torah, and keep the mitzvos, and surely his deeds are important, but what does he really want in his life?

Dovid HaMelech testified about himself what he wanted: “And as for me, closeness to Hashem, to me, is good.” [1]There is a well-known question: Was it only ‘good’ for Dovid HaMelech? Is it ‘not good’ for everyone else? The answer is: No! Most people do not want closeness with Hashem! Therefore, for them, it is not called “good”. Most people, if you would come to them ask them if they want to have the reward of dwelling all day with Hashem (as Dovid HaMelech says) and nothing else, they will say: “I don’t want the mitzvos, or the reward.”

A story is told over about one of the tzaddikim who was asked to be shown what Gehinnom (hell) is and what Gan Eden (paradise) is. They showed him a person sitting with a shtender and learning. They said to him: “This is Gan Eden, and it is also Gehinnom.” He didn’t understand what this meant; either it’s Gan Eden, or Gehinnom, but how could it be both? They explained it to him: “It is very simple. If a person loved to learn Torah, this will be Gan Eden for him. If he did not love to learn, for him, this is Gehinnom.”

Gehinnom is experienced by one who never connected to the heavenly realm, and he remains connected to this lower realm. What happens the moment he dies? If all he wanted his whole life was money, a car, a nice home, and other worldly desires, what happens the moment he dies? He has nothing to do when he goes upstairs. He will have no car and no house there, nothing. That is his Gehinnom – the fact that none of his desires can be actualized.

It is certainly possible that a person learned Torah (Baruch Hashem), put on tefillin every day, gave tzedakah and hosted guests, but in his heart, he wanted other things entirely. He doesn’t even understand what the issue is. He would come to his Rav and ask: “What sin did I commit? Where is it written that I did anything wrong?” But it doesn’t have to be written anywhere – rather, he’s in a situation that is entirely the wrong place to be in.

This is not another side issue, but a root issue, of where a person is living from, what he wants, what he breathes from morning until night, what interests him, what he is involved with in his life.

Every person has ruchniyus (spirituality), but the question is, how much percentage it takes up in his life, and how much of a percentage of balance there is between his spiritual side of life and his material side of life. Where is he found? Is he 99% found in the material, and only 1% in the spiritual? Or the opposite? Or are the percentages different?

A person gets up in the morning, and until he goes to sleep at night he is thinking about the material side to life, such as making money and his health. Only at night does he grab an hour to learn Torah (in the best scenario, that is). If he is worried about his spiritual situation, he uses even more time for Torah study, but since he only cares for his material situation, he doesn’t.

There are some people who want to feel good about themselves, so they give maaser (a tenth of their earnings). Once I was speaking to a wealthy Jew, who entered into a million-dollar business deal. I asked him: “For what reason do you need this?” He answered, “So that I’ll be able to give maaser from all the profit.”

I said to him: “You didn’t do it to give maaser. You did it because you wanted to make millions of dollars. But to quiet your subconscious, you tell yourself that you’ll give away a tenth of it for Hashem. If you would have really entered this investment for the sake of giving tzedakah, for Hashem, why are you only giving away a tenth of the profits? Why not 100% of the profit? Obviously it must be because you are really doing it to become a millionaire. Your heart isn’t at peace with this, though, because deep down you know it stems from a lust for money. So you are trying to ‘bribe’ Hashem, by giving away a tenth of the profit.

“But this won’t help you. Hashem knows exactly the reason why you entered this business endeavor. It is not because you don’t have what to eat and you need to support your family, or because you really want to give it all to tzedakah and increase the honor of Heaven. It is simply a desire for more money. Giving maaser from it is just the excuse.”

The deepest, most fundamental question in life for each person is: “What do I really want?”

If a person answers that what he really wants is ruchniyus (spirituality),he should think of the following: If that is really what he wants, then why doesn’t it take up his mind the entire day? If a person has an affidavit in the bank which he doesn’t succeed in finishing by the end of the month, he thinks about it the entire day. If a person has a child who is ill, Heaven forbid, he searches for the right doctors and healthcare and it occupies his mind the entire day. Not because it’s ‘written’ anywhere to do so, but because this is what he wants.

If a person claims that he really wants ruchniyus, he should think about it for most of the hours of the day, besides for anything else necessary that he needs to think about, which he needs to take care of. In the end of day, there are other things which also must occupy our mind, due to the various responsibilities of life. But in spite of that reality, there is one main point which you should want with all your heart.

Ruchniyus Should Be Real To You

Each and every one of us wants, with Hashem’s help, to merit a good, sweet year. Who doesn’t? On Rosh HaShanah night, everyone is blessing each other to have a shanah tovah u’mesukah, a good sweet year. But does anyone think that the year will suddenly become transformed into a good, sweet year, just because his friend said so?

Let’s imagine for ourselves a person standing in front of the Heavenly court in judgment, and it is decreed upon him that he must die. His friend comes to him and says to him, “May you have a happy, sweet new year.” Will anyone think this will help?

The problem is that we have gotten used to a lifestyle where the spiritual side of life is ambiguous and unreal to us.

When two people lift a glass of wine together and declare, “L’chaim” (To life), does that really mean that we are given a new year of life? How exactly does that work? When we are dealing with the spiritual, suddenly things seem unclear to us.

Think for a moment: If a person owes a thousand dollars to his friend, and he comes to him and says “May it be the will of Hashem, as if I have paid you”, will his friend accept that? Will it solve anything? No! Why is it then that when it comes to the spiritual side of life, suddenly people believe that eating all of the simanim will make everything good? We eat different foods on Rosh HaShanah night, confident that we will merit a good year, in their merit – but where do we get this from?

Our words here are aiming at something deeper of what the intention should be in this custom, and not G-d forbid to nullify the custom of eating these foods. The point we are driving at here is that we have gotten used to being imaginative and unrealistic about the spiritual world, without approaching it as real.

A person may think that just because he has done certain customs on Rosh HaShanah night, everyone at the table will have a good year! But he did the same thing last year, and it didn’t work. His blessing didn’t ‘work’ for everyone. It is unrealistic to assume that the coming year won’t have any troubles in it, and that everyone will have it all good and pleasant, in their health, livelihood, etc.

The point here is very basic and fundamental: Ruchniyus (spirituality) has to become a simple reality in our lives, no less real than the material side of life. If ruchniyus would be a clear reality to us, our desires for ruchniyus would be realistic, in turn.

But when ruchniyus is cloudy, unknown, and unclear to us, when it is not tangible to us, this causes us to be immersed in the material side of life, and ruchniyus to us is then limited to all kinds of various segulos (spiritual charms). A person will think, for example, that if he gives a fifth of his earnings to tzedakah, says certain tefillos on Motzei Shabbos and also gives some tzedakah to Vaad HaRabbonim, then, everything will be fine. But he is not living this ruchniyus in the same way he experiences the material side of his life.

Changing Our Life

Each of us has already been through many Rosh HaShanahs. Does it help anyone, having been through Rosh HaShanah many times?

Maybe you’ll say: “We have good hopes for this year. We hope this year will be a better one.”

One year, about one or two days after Rosh HaShanah, I was walking in the street and I thought to myself: “The world looks exactly as it did, when it was the 28th of Elul. Nothing has changed at all!” Does anyone think that after Rosh HaShanah anything will change? Where will this sudden change come from?

Now let’s come and think about this: We know that life continues. We aren’t little children anymore who are 2 or 3 years old. Do we want the coming year to look like the past year? Or do we want to change one day?

If a person has a business that isn’t making any profit, and his wife comes and tells him, “Enough. This business used to be doing well, and it seemed profitable. But now you need to spend 2 or 3 years learning a different trade, so that we can support our family, with Hashem’s help.” In the same way, we must change the entire direction of our life. It is not one detail we have to change, but our entire life.

In simple words, a person needs to reach the conclusion of what he really, truly wants. If he discovers that he really wants material comfort, he must change the direction of his life and desire the spiritual. And if he says that he really wants ruchniyus, he should examine his life and see if everything he wants throughout the day is matching up with his desire for ruchniyus.

No one can succeed 100% in changing, because no one in the world is perfect. But it is always upon a person to keep checking himself to see if he is getting closer to the goal of life, or if his actions are contradicting the goals which we are supposed to want.

First, we need to clarify what we want, and after that we can begin to examine our actions. A person gets up in the morning and says Modeh Ani– does he really want to say it, or not? If he eats before davening, does that match up with what he really wants in life? If he learns Torah, does this fit in with what he wants or not? One can take apart all aspects of his schedule and keep seeing if they fit his spiritual goals in life or not. The point is to become aware of what you truly want in life, and to then inspect all your deeds and see if they are aligned with your goal.

The point of this is not to start changing everything you do, from this day onward. Rather, there are some things which require quick change, and some things which you will only be able to gradually improve in. Compare this to a person who has a house in need of repair, and he doesn’t have enough money to get all the repairs done. He must sit down and make a list of what’s most important to fix first, then what’s second to most important, etc. Every year he can do another repair, in order of preference. Slowly as each year passes, the house can get more and more repaired.

Dealing With The Truth About Life

If a person doesn’t clarify to himself what he wants in his life, he has no reason to live!

Once there was a Jew who passed away on Erev Yom Kippur, and when the Brisker Rav heard about it, he said, “He was born a fool, and he died a fool.” Someone there who was close to him (perhaps it was one of his children) exclaimed: “Rebbi! Of all times to speak lashon hora! It’s Erev Yom Kippur!!” The Rav zt”l responded: “You don’t understand what I said. I tried finding merit for this person, who led a sinful life. The only single merit that I could find about this person was that he was born on Erev Yom Kippur as a fool, and he remained foolish until he died, so there is no complaint we can have on him.”

But does anyone think that this would be a true way to live? Is that how we should lead our lives? Would our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchok, and Yaakov, and the rest of the leaders throughout the generations, live this way? Have the times changed so much that people now consider priorities to be secondary, and what was secondary has now become priority? Has everything become completely upside-down?

This is not an inspirational lecture for Rosh HaShanah, nor is it a program. I am presenting to you a very simple question which each person needs to ask himself: “What do I really want? Am I taking the right direction in my life?”

The fact that most people don’t want to think about this and that there is almost no one who speaks about this publicly doesn’t show us that it’s not true. It is the truth and there is nowhere to run to from it. It is as unpleasant as thinking about the day of death, which no one likes to think about, yet that doesn’t help us evade death. People die even if they never think about it; it is useless to avoid thinking about it. The same is true for our question of what we are living for.

The issue is if we are truly prepared to deal with the truth in life. One needs to ask himself: “Do I believe that there is a Creator of the world, or not? Yes. Do I believe He gave the Torah at Har Sinai? Yes. Do I believe that there is an eternity? Yes. Do I believe that there is no physicality in the eternal world? Yes. Do I believe that in the eternal world there is only One alone – the Creator of the world, together with His Torah? Yes. Is my life really aligned with all of this?”

Take apart all the parts of your life, bit by bit, and inspect them truthfully, to see if they are matching up to the truths you recognize. If one hasn’t yet made this clarification of the truth, he should begin to do so, starting today. Sit and learn the sefarim that deal with this topic, or speak to Torah scholars who are knowledgeable in this topic, those who know what the truth is. But whatever option you choose, begin to do it, immediately! Now!

We all know that there is a truth, that there is a Creator of the world. The question is if a person is prepared to align his lifestyle with this truth. We live in a world where there are many well-known truths that all people know about, yet many live in a way that is totally opposite than this knowledge. The world today is not lacking in this knowledge; it is not found at the other side of the Sambatyon. Most people know the truths, but they behave differently.

When Rosh HaShanah arrives, the Rav in the shul might get up and say a nice idea for Rosh HaShanah. Everyone will praise the derasha and say how good it was. But what did the idea help? Perhaps everyone listening fulfills a mitzvah of learning Torah for two minutes. But did it change anyone? Did a person become a different person from listening to the Dvar Torah he heard, as the Rambam says, that one who does teshuvah is not the same person anymore and he becomes an entirely new being?

I hope that you understand that I did not say here anything new, not even one thing. So if they are not my own novel words, you should agree to act upon them. Don’t do it because I said to, but because each of you alone knows it on your own.

May we merit with the help of Hashem, each of us, to align our lifestyle with the goal and purpose of life.

[1] Tehillim 73:28

Stepping Up Our Teshuva Early in Elul

Rosh Chodesh Elul has arrived which means that the Teshuva season has begun. If we want to have a successful Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur, seforim strongly advise us to start early in the month. It’s a tremendous opportunity for growth and we’d be foolish not to take advantage of it.

Most of the current day Rebbeim advise us to pick something small. Maybe saying Asher Yotzar with Kavanna, or pausing before we speak on occasion or perhaps starting an extra 10 minute seder in Mussar, Mishnah or Tanach. The sky is truly the limit, but we have to start reaching for it when Elul begins.

Being that our goal is to get closer to Hashem and we’re doing mitzvos to accomplish that goal, it might make sense to try to do the mitzvos with a little more Kavanna. There are three simple thoughts we can have before doing any mitzvah:

1) Hashem commanded us to do the mitzvah
2) We are the ones being commanded
3) And the specific mitzvah, whose commandment we are fullfilling is …. (whatever mitzvah you are doing)

It’s really pretty simple and it will help us get so much more mileage out of the mitzvos we already do.

Here’s a few resources for extra motivation:

Stepping Stones to Repentance: A thirty-day program based on Ohr Yisrael the classic writings of Rav Yisrael Salanter By: Rabbi Zvi Miller here’s an excerpt

DAY ONE: “BOUNDLESS BLESSINGS”
“There is no enterprise that yields profit like preparation for the Day of Atonement. Through studying Mussar and reflecting on how to improve one’s ways, a person is inspired on Yom Kippur to make resolutions for the future. Even the smallest, most minute preparation to enhance one’s Yom Kippur experience is invaluable, bringing boundless blessings of success. It saves one from many troubles — and there is no greater profit than this.” (Ohr Yisrael, Letter Seven, p. 193)

Rebbetzin Tzipora Heller – Three Steps to Genuine Change. An excerpt:

In the course of our lives, we close doors to higher and deeper selves and sometimes forget that we, too, are more than earners, spenders, and travelers through life. Our thoughtless enslavement to mindless routine can leave us without much of a relationship to our souls. In a materialistic society, it is all too easy to view others as competitors. As toddlers we observed that when you have three cookies and give one away, all you have left are two. From that point onward we are afraid to give.

R’ Dovid Schwartz – Rabbi Yonah of Gerona – Guilt is Good – mp3

R’ Daniel Stein – Hilchos Teshuva Introduction – mp3

R’ Moshe Schwerd – Din V’Cheshbon – mp3

R’ Yakov Haber on Rosh Hoshana and Hirhur Teshuva according to Rav Soloveitchik can be downloaded here.

R’ Yakov Haber on Rosh Hoshana davening can be downloaded here.

Musical Chairs – The Final Chapter – The Wedding

Finally the wedding day arrived Molly and Nahum linking their arms to their oldest son clad in a brand new black suit covered by a white kittel, the shroud which bridegrooms wear as a reminder of their mortality. As the sun set in the background and a violinist played the Jewish wedding song they strode to the huppa as if they were floats in a parade.

Watching them were all the principle players in their lives. Esther of course in a long curley wig who sat in the first row beaming. Next to her was Mrs. Attias and to her right. Nahum’s sister Glenda who sat next to Nahum’s mother. Across the aisle on the men’s side sat Asher’s brothers and his yeshiva buddies. Ezi, Yidy, Itamar Levi and , Refael Shmuel Ephraim Klapper, whom Asher had forgiven, as well as Rav Benzi and Asher’s old teacher Rabbi Marks.

Not present was Molly’s father.He had phoned and wished them well but he was took weak to make the trip and Molly’s mother who was watching from the other world.

Standing under the canopy her face covered with a heavy white cloth, Rahely looked like a statue.that her features were invisible . The face covering indicated her willingness to submit herself to her husband’s will.

As they approached the huppa Molly turned to Asher. “I hope you won’t’ take advantage of that,” Molly whispered to Asher. “Is that what you think of me Mom,” said Asher. He was smiling. The ceremony seemed to take minutes. Then Asher and Rahely disappeared into the heder yihud, a small room at the back of the hall to break their fasts together and perhaps have their first kiss. It all seemed so strange; Asher locked in a room with a woman.

Molly sat at the head table surrounded by her new machatenesteh and other assorted female Silvers. She washed her hands made the blessing and bit into a pita. She hadn’t really eaten properly.Maybe the calories would lift her spirits. Then Shulamis Black came to her side. “Everyone says that weddings are the ultimate joy but they can be tough. You won’t be bringing Asher home anymore.” Molly forced a smile.

“You’re going to make me cry and ruin my makeup.”

Shulamis wrapped her arm around her friend. “”You’ll get used to it. but it will take time. And please
G-d the grandchildren will come. And you’ll find yourself a new life.”

Just then the music swerved into a lively crescendo. Shulamis grabbed Molly by the arm. Come let’s dance’ she said. And that is just what they did.

Musical Chairs – Chapter 8I – The Engagement Rituals

Chapter 8I

The engagement party, a combined vort and lechaim the two events merged on account of frugality, and the exigencies of the Jewish calendar, the three week period before Tisha B’Av looming ahead, was held at the Silver’s house. This time there were were even more marshmallow skewers and even more paper streamers and a huge banner declaring ‘Mazal Tov Rahely and Asher.”

The Silvers were all smiles, Rabbi, Rebetzin fourteen children plus another twelve children by marriage and assorted grandchildren in various shapes and sizes

“By me, machutonim are mishpocha,” Rabbi Silver told Nahum as he shook his hand. In her modest but decorous way Rahely dazzled in a salmon pink dress studded with tiny pink sequins and Asher looked happy. Surrounded by his new brothers in law and yeshiva buddies he seemed to glow.

This night marked the culmination of all a year full of phone calls, investigations, prayers .

After the guests had gone home, Molly and Asher sat down with the Silver’s around their dining room table where they discussed when to have the wedding and wear. They agreed on a four week engagement. Once the couple had agreed to be wed it seemed pointless to make them wait.

The next few weeks were a blur of shopping trips Molly running around trying to organize the required gifts for the bride. First she had to find a diamond bracelet and then a diamond engagement ring , a complicated procedure as the diamond is purchased separately from the setting and then must be put together. After that came a leather bound prayer book and psalter with Rahely’s name stamped in gold on the cover.and finally pearl necklace which Asher would give to Rahely at the wedding.

For their part the Silvers presented. Asher with sets of the Talmud, the Code of Jewish Law which arrived in large cardboard boxes. . Following the so called Shabbat out of Hell, the slang moniker for Asher’s first Sabbath visit to the Silvers he came home with an expensive Swiss watch.

“Do they have to do this, “said Nahum.

“Well, it’s become customary.” said Molly.

“But really?”

“No it’s not a mitzvah. It’s a cultural thing and it would be weird to opt out.”

“But how can they afford to buy all this stuff.’

Molly lifted her eyebrows. “Don’t ask me. I’m not going there.”

Clearly Defining Service of Hashem

There is a verse in this week’s Parsha, that the Mesillas Yesharim, The Path of the Just, says is the basis of our Avodas Hashem, our service of Hashem.

As we probably know, the Mesillas Yesharim, was written by R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzato, also known as “the Ramchal”, and is one of the two most studied character development books of all time (the other being the Duties of the Heart).

The reason why Mesillas Yesharim is so popular is because the Ramchal teaches us:
– What it means to serve Hashem (Ramchal’s Introduction).
– Why we should devote our entire lives to serving Hashem (Chapter 1 – Man’s Mission in the World).
– How to methodologically improve our service of Hashem (Chapters 2 through 26)

The verse that the Ramchal says is the basis of our Service of Hashem, is Deutoronomy 10:12 in Parshas Eikev:
“And now, Israel, what does Hashem, your God, ask of you?
– Only to fear (be in awe of) Hashem, your God,
– to go in all His ways,
– and to love Him,
– and to serve Hashem, your God, with all your heart and all your soul,
– to observe the commandments of Hashem and His decrees, which I command you today, for your benefit. “

The Ramchal continues and says:
“Here, has been included all the components of complete Divine service that are pleasing to Hashem, blessed be He and they are: fear (awe) of Hashem, walking in His ways, love, wholeheartedness, and observance of all the commandments.

The Ramchal then writes a paragraph on each of these five components, which can be summarized as follows:
1) fear (awe) of Hashem – like you would fear (be in awe of) a great and awesome king,
2) walking in His ways – refining our character traits, leading to strengthening of Torah and improved friendships,
3) love – ingraining in our hearts a love of Hashem, and being inspired to please Him, like we would want to please our parents,
4) wholeheartedness – doing mitzvos with pure motives, focused on serving Hashem, not by rote, with heartfelt devotion,
5) and observance of all the mitzvos – observing the entire body of mitzvos, with all their fine points and conditions.

The Ramchal then says, “I have found that our Sages of blessed memory have categorized these elements in a different, more detailed formulation, in which they are arranged according to the order necessary for their proper acquisition.”

This is based on the Beraisa by Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair in the Gemora which says that Torah leads to Watchfulness, Zeal, Cleanliness, Separation, Purity, Saintliness, Humility, Fear of Sin, Holiness, Divine Inspiration, Revival of the Dead. The Mesillas Yesharim is based on this Beraisa.

I always wondered about the order of pasuk and why the Ramchal is so focused on it as the basis for Divine service, while the Gemora and the commentators are focused mainly on the fear (awe) part of the pasuk. I believe that the Ramchal sees that the Pasuk is in the reverse order of the Beraisa, with
5) observance of all the mitzvos – take us from the beginning through Cleanliness
4) wholeheartedness – takes us through Purity
3) love – takes us through Saintliness
2) walking in His ways – takes us through Humility
1) fear (awe) of God – takes us through Fear of Sin.

I believe that this is why the Ramchal is all over this pasuk, because it has the same structure as the Beraisa delineating the components and levels of Divine Service.

This is a fantastic opportunity to review the first chapter of Mesillas Yesharim, which can be found here.

Musical Chairs – Chapter 8H – Rav Amram Helps Bring Clarity

Chapter 8H

Even though Nahum woke up with a headache he dragged himself to minyan. Services with a prayer quorum was non-negotiable and they were a good idea. Even if he slept or daydreamed through his prayers they would still be carried to heaven on the backs of those who carefully recited every word.

There had been a terrorist attack that morning, a molotov cocktail thrown at a car. The service included a lengthy recitation of the psalms for the wounded. Nahum grew impatient. He felt guilty for it—he hadn’t been attacked and yet all he could think about were his own troubles.

After services, he’d speak to Rav Amram. Rav Amram would tell him what to do, but today the tiny synagogue was more crowded than usual and everyone wanted Rav Amram’s attention.

One after another the worshipers approached him as Nahum sat in the back row waiting in the hot stuffy synagogue.

Finally it was his turn.

Nahum spilled out the whole story.

“Wow, tough.” said the Rav. Nahum leaned over toward him.

“Do you think I’m wrong. I mean what you would do”

“I’ll look into it. Call me in the afternoon.”

Instead of going home, Nahum bought breakfast at a falafel joint and ate alone in the office at his computer.
Work would distract him from his new status as the family ogre but what else could he say. He’d been fed false information, deceived, lied too.

At midday Rav Amram called to tell him to come to his home.

The door to the Rav’s apartment was half open “Come in,” he heard the Rabbi say “Sorry I’m not getting up.” He found the Rabbi seated on a bar stool alongside the kitchen island eating a grilled cheese sandwich. ‘Can I make you one too.”

For the first time he’d laughed since this whole thing started Nahum laughed. “So tell me about this girl. I mean do you think she’s a good match for your son otherwise.”

Nahum thought for a moment. Finally he shrugged his shoulders ” I don’t really know. He met her five times and I met her for five minutes. What can I know.’

“Well what do your wife and your son say?”

“Oh they think she’s great.”

“Please write out everyone’s names. Your’s your wife’s your sons and the kallah.” The rabbi handed him a legal pad and a pen.

“Can I write it in English. ”

“That’s fine.” For a long time the Rabbi studied the paper. What was he seeing in those hastily scribbled words? What sort of mystical magic was he performing?

“Nahum.’ Rav Amram “Do you know what your name means.”

It was his grandfather’s name meaning “It means comforter. ”

“Nahum melishon rahamim.” Said Rav Amram. “You’ve got the quality of mercy and mercy brings blessing. ”

“But do I have to pick up the pieces for the Silvers”.

“You feel like a frier,” the rabbi employed the Hebrew slang term for a sucker, a chump.

Nahum blanched.

“Someone else was here this week, seated exactly where you are right now. A fellow whose made beautiful shidduchim for his kids, and he always splits the costs precisely down the middle, on principle. Well this time he married off another daughter and made the usual deal .” Nahum nodded. “So what is so bad about that.”

“Yes except that it’s a half year later and the poor girl is going for a get, The chosson had an internet addiction and he’s refusing treatment.”

“Okay so,” Nahum shook his head.

“You are right. Fifty fifty is ideal but I know that Rahely Silver is an excellent catch, even if she comes without a dime.”

Nahum grimaced.

“The Rav stretched out his hand. ” Mazal Tov Nahum – smile.”

Flourishing in the Spiritual Dimension

This is the next in the series on Four Dimensional Flourishing.

The components of the Spiritual Dimension consist of recognizing three things:
1. the timeless existence of Hashem;
2. that Hashem is the authority of everything in existence; and
3. that Hashem has a plan for the world.
The flourishing currency is purpose. The habit we need to create is service and the deterrent is comfort.

In Derech Hashem, the Ramchal teaches that Hashem created the universe for the purpose of bestowing the greatest good upon man; closeness to Hashem. Closeness in the spiritual realm is defined by the degree of resemblance.

For this “greatest good” to be most significant, the one enjoying it must earn it. Hashem, therefore, created the world with elements of perfection and deficiency and gave man the means to move toward perfection and avoid deficiency. To maximize the challenge, He created man with a soul inclined toward the spiritual and a body inclined toward comfort and the material.

Hashem gave man the commandments, through which he can consciously subjugate himself to God and reverse his inclination towards the material. The Ramchal goes further, explaining that when we do non-commandment activities, like eating and sleeping, with the motivation of maintaining our body in order to serve God, then they also become acts of perfection and fulfill the purpose of the world. As such, everything that we do has the potential to be aligned with the ultimate purpose of creation.

The major deterrent in the Spiritual Dimension is comfort. We are inclined towards the material and to rest and relaxation. We don’t want to exert our physical, emotional and mental capabilities. The key is to focus on serving God as the most significant aspect of our lives.

Sometimes, even when we are doing things that are inherently spiritual, such as saying a brocha, we lose track of the tremendous opportunity to come close to Hashem and fulfill our purpose. Let’s look at how we can transform the brocha over washing our hands into an opportunity to flourish.

The “Baruch” makes us aware that Hashem is the source of all blessing. The “Atah” focuses us on the fact that we’re talking directly to Hashem. Yud Kei Vav Kei, signifies that Hashem always existed and is the source of all existence. “Elokeinu” says that He is the authority over all creation while “Melech” brings that authority to a more concrete Kingship. “HaOlam” recognizes that His Kingship extends to the entire universe. “Asher Kid’shanu” says that Hashem has set us apart with a special mission and holiness. “B’mitzvosuv” tells us that we accomplish our purpose through the commandments. “V’tzivanu Al Netilas Yadim” awakens us to the fact that, in this very moment, I am fulfilling that purpose with the mitzvah of washing my hands.

Thirteen, sometimes mumbled, words which when said with a little thought, awaken us to the fact that we are currently performing an act that is a part of fulfilling the purpose of creation. We can multiply this amazing experience a hundredfold with all of the brochos and mitzvos we do each day.

When we flourish in the Spiritual Dimension, we will often also flourish in the other Dimensions. That’s because our focus on purpose in the Spiritual Dimension makes our actions meaningful, which is flourishing in the Mental Dimension, and the knowledge that we are connecting to the Master of the Universe and doing His will produces profound happiness, which is flourishing in the Emotional Dimension.

In summary, the path to purpose in the Spiritual Dimension is to focus on our constant service to Hashem. The deterrent is comfort and avoidance of exertion in our actions. We can overcome this deterrent if we bring to mind that with proper service, we are fulfilling our purpose in creation and flourishing in all four Dimensions.

Crying From Within on Tisha BAv

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on the Three Weeks and Tisha B’Ave

Who Is The Redemption About?

At the end of the first berachah of Shemoneh Esrei, we say, למען שמו באהבה, “l’maan Shemo b’ahavah” (For the sake of His Name, with love).

We await the redemption, but besides for this, we await the kind of redemption which is “for the sake of His Name”. Rather than simply bringing the redemption simply for the sake of His children, Hashem will bring the redemption is “for the sake of His Name, with love.”

A Seeming Contradiction

The Three Weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av is a time where we are supposed to feel pain and mourning over the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. Yet, we also look forward to the redemption. This seems like a contradiction in our Avodas Hashem. How do we integrate these two seemingly contrary feelings – joy due to hope for the future geulah (redemption), but also sadness at the current state of exile, the galus?

Personal Suffering vs. National Suffering

It is natural for humans to want to escape pain. We are creatures of comfort and long to be redeemed from any uncomfortable or painful situations. However, escaping pain is not the purpose of the Redemption. Rather, the purpose of the Redemption will be “for Hashem’s sake”, as we say in Shemoneh Esrei – “l’maan shemo b’ahavah” ,“For the sake of His Name, with love.”

The sole purpose of the Redemption is to reveal Hashem’s name in the world, which is the purpose of Creation.[1] [Thus, we must long for the Redemption not to end our personal suffering but rather to achieve the whole purpose of Creation, for His Shechinah to be able to rest in this World.]

The Root of Exile

What does the passuk mean when it refers to the Redemption being for the sake of the “Name” of Hashem?

A name reveals the nature of something. In the gentile world, a name is meaningless [it is merely an arbitrary string of letters attached to things to enable people to communicate]. Similarly, the name of a gentile does not define his essence. However, in contrast, Jewish names reveal their essence. The names of people and things are intricately woven into their essential nature. Thus, the “Name” of Hashem when it is revealed in the future will reveal Hashem in the world.

Thus, since the entire purpose of Creation is to reveal Hashem in the world, the Redemption will be in His name’s sake. The word for exile in Hebrew is “galus”. The Hebrew word for redemption is “geulah”. Both these words are rooted in the Hebrew word “giluy”, meaning “to reveal”. This hints to the fact that both the exile and the redemption will reveal Hashem.[2]

Exile is essentially Hashem’s concealment of His radiance toward us (otherwise known as “hester panim”).[3] In other words, our current exile is synonymous with the revelation of Hashem concealed from our minds and hearts. In contrast, the redemption will reveal Hashem in our minds and hearts. It will be the time in which we will exclaim, “This is my G-d, and I will glorify Him”, and when all the nations of the world will exclaim, “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu” (Hear, Yisrael, that Hashem is our G-d).

Needless to say, the four periods of exile that the Jewish people have endured (the fourth of which we are still currently enduring) have been rife with suffering and tragedy. However, the sufferings of the exiles are just the external branches. The root of the exile is the hester panim. The fact that Hashem has concealed His radiance from us – that is the true exile.

Chazal state that wherever the nation of Israel is exiled, the Shechinah (Hashem’s Presence) is exiled as well. However, it is important to note that the exile only occurs because the Shechinah has gone into exile. The exile ends when the Shechinah returns and Hashem is again revealed to us.

In other words, all of the exiles – from Egypt until the present exile, which is Edom (Rome and all the nations that have branched out from it) together with Yishmael (the Arab nations) – are merely representative of the true underlying cause of the exile – the absence of Hashem’s radiance toward us.

Why Are We Crying?

Of course, during this time of mourning, we have to think about the suffering of the Jewish people. However, it is important to remember that the suffering and tragedies are not the original cause of our situation but rather the result of our situation. The cause or root of the problem, the root of all the exiles, is hester panim. Without being aware of this, a person just has the “branches” [the consequential effect] without the “root” [original cause].

In summary, there are two layers to our mourning. There is the external layer, crying, which concerns the suffering we experience during our exile. However, these tears are really sourced in the internal, root cause of our sadness – the hester panim.

What Do We Really Want?

In the words ”le’maan Shemo b’ahavah’ of Shemoneh Esrei, why we do we also say the word b’ahavah (“with love”), and not simply l’maan “Shemo” (“for the sake of His Name”)?

[In order to understand this, it is useful to explore the meaning and source of the Hebrew word “ahavah.”] The Hebrew word for father is av, which is rooted in the word ahavah, love. Ahavah also means ratzon, to “want”.[6] This alludes to our Avos (forefathers), who wanted the true ratzon (will) – the desire to do Hashem’s will: “It is our will to do Your will.”

Thus, the ahavah of “l’maan Shemo b’ahavah”, concerns the love that comes from the revelation of our very deepest ratzon. There are other kinds of ahavah, love – including ahavah rabbah (“great love”) and ahavas olam (“eternal” love). However, the love expressed in the words “l’eman Shemo b’ahavah” is greater than both of these. It is a love that comes when the true ratzon, the will of Hashem, is revealed. It is a revelation of “retzoneinu laasos Retzoncha” – “Our will to do Your will.”[7]

Exile thus represents a state whereby we have not achieved this greatest love, where our will is not to do Hashem’s will.There is no revelation of “retzonenu laasos Retzoncha” in exile. Admittedly, even in exile there can still be a revelation of the desire to see Hashem, for “It is our desire to see Our King” (“retzonenu liros es Malkeinu”.)[8] [In other words, we ‘want to want’ to do Hashem’s will. But we have not achieved the level of actually wanting it and incorporating our will into His will.]

Another way of understanding this distinction is to consider the prayer [which we recite later in Shemoneh Esrei], of לישועתך קוינו כל היום, “For Your salvation we await, every day.” This salvation is the true redemption. However, we obviously do not fully have sufficient ratzon for Hashem to save us, otherwise the redemption would have already come. Unfortunately, our ratzon itself is in exile! Our true internal, higher soul and its desires remain hidden from us. And as we explained above, since ratzon forms the basis of this greatest love, the absence of ratzon is the absence of the love.

How To Reach The Real Crying

To truly have pain over the exile, we have to first fire up our ratzon to truly want the redemption. Only when we have uncovered and fired up our true, inner desire for redemption will we truly feel pain over the exile, that we have not yet obtained what our hearts’ desire. This weeping can only be achieved when a person recognizes within himself of what he is truly missing and how discontent we truly are. This realization will bring us to true tears, not just fleeting moments of emotion.

The following scenario may assist us to understand this better, demonstrating how the greater the ahavah, the greater the ratzon and emotion involved with this person.

This is also true of feeling the pain over the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash and the current exile. We do not necessarily feel the pain (and thereby achieve the avodah of the Three Weeks/Nine Days) without work. How, indeed, can we reach this inner source of the crying?

We have to focus on our true ratzon. What do we truly want? Learning Torah and doing the mitzvos only shows what we want on the outside. What do we truly want on the inside? What is a person’s true ratzon in life…?

Hashem will bring the Redemption “for the sake of His Name, with love.” He has a will (ratzon) as well as a love (ahavah) for us. The more we strive to connect ourselves to these middos of Hashem (of ratzon and ahavah), more we reveal our ratzon for the redemption, and the closer we will be to our salvation from this exile.

The Avodah of Tisha B’Av

What is the practical avodah we need to do on Tisha B’Av (I would instead say: What, practically speaking, is the avodah we need to do on Tisha B’Av?)?

Fasting and being forbidden to learn Torah make Tisha B’Av difficult to endure on the outside. To inspire themselves to reach a point of mourning, many people read different statements of Chazal in the Gemara about the destruction or listen to inspiring lectures. However, such mourning is simply an external sadness and pain.

In order to reach a true, inner pain, we must consider and reflect on what the destruction truly represents– the fact that we no longer have the Shechinah is because we do not have the ratzon to bring it here!

This is what we truly have to mourn about on Tisha B’Av. The destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, the many tragedies that took place then, the suffering of all the exiles – these are just the external layer of the destruction. It is the destruction to our soul, and to our soul’s true ratzon to reveal Hashem into the world, that we should really be crying about.

[1] As explained at length by Ramchal in sefer Daas Tevunos

[2] Maharal (Netzach Yisrael: 1)

[3] Ramchal (sefer Daas Tevunos)

[6] Siddur Nusach Arizal, Tefillas Shacharis Shabbos, “b’ahavah u’bratzon”; Kedushas Levi Tehillim 69:14

[7] Berachos 17a

[8] Rashi Shemos 19:9

A Tisha B’av Kinah for Our Times

Woe to us on this bitter day! We have what to cry about!
Woe for all the heads without Tefillin
After 3700 years from Avraham Avinu
After having survived Holocausts and Inquisitions…
Jewish boys and girls blunder
In the darkness that plagues our generation
And go lost by the millions
With visions of isms and instant pleasures
Rapt in utter ignorance
Bathed in a blue light they may never escape
And generations and giant whole families
Holy congregations have disappeared
For nothing!
And their names dead ended
Now only grace lonely stones
In forgotten cemeteries
Bearing words their children
Those that had- Could never read
Woe to us on this bitter day! We have what to cry about!

The pervasive angst of isolation!
Microwaves our very beings!
We feel beaten from within.
The continuous waves of psychological pain.
We suffer with a wry smile and a diet coke.
The gnawing insecurity and emptiness.
It brings us to search for things that do not exist.
The sublime is substituted with the virtual.
Pictures and fantasies tickle n’ dissolve like
Cotton candy for the eyes…in a world of lies
Fire works for lonely hearts that only grow lonelier
Noshing on empty calories for an endless soul
And as for the big itch…the really big itch…
That small thin voice is starved…
Portrait of a Holocaust victim!
So we turn up the tempo
Tapping like a blind man
Louder and more frantically
We are lost as never before.
Woe to us on this bitter day! We have what to cry about!

The Chutzpah around us and within.
The skirts…the so called “styles”…the pressure to conform
The lewdness …the angry language
Rap -rap -rap….bark -bark –bark!
Bitter and desperate…is the new normal
The almost total loss of respect
Nothing and no one is Holy
The good ones are ridiculed-
The object of derision
For framing a G-dly Image
And dressing as humans do
For keeping the Shabbos Holy
Watching our eyes and tongues!
While pictures of the unthinkable
The pop-ups of our lives
Invade constantly
On every bus that passes by
Our brothers and sisters
Drop like fall leaves
Fewer and fewer hang strong
Woe to us on this bitter day! We have what to cry about!

The inmates are running the asylum.
Clouds of chaos gather all around
Bombs are fashioned for our final solution
And we are lost in the mirror again.
Wondering if we are loved or looking good
70 wolves salivate with teeth like daggers
Aimed to devour our tiny flock!
Where are we?
Busy with our cell phones
Texting our way to oblivion
Dealing with emergencies of little import
Consumed by crumb size concerns
Like Chometz…And the size of our noses
Woe to us on this bitter day! We have what to cry about!

The Chillul HASHEM
We have lost our luster
Suspicion surrounds us
The Nation of HASHEM
The people of truth
Are ridiculed and considered low
While every sports team and slick politician
Has their stadium…Their edifice their complex
Where their glory is on open display
Where is the place of HASHEM in this world?
Billions speak falsely in His name
Identity theft on the grandest scale
Religion is a rejected and dirty word
We are tagged zealots and bigots
For preserving four cubit of Hallacha
This is our crime
And so we owe the world an apology
HASHEM and we His People
Share all time low approval ratings
For this we truly owe a broken heart
Woe to us on this bitter day! We have what to cry about!

What can be done when what’s done is done?
Who can rebuild such a wall torn down?
Our Holy Temple is destroyed!
Echoing in the cosmos
Is a muffled scream!
Of unspeakable abuse
A silent crime!
Against our most beautiful daughters
Made to suffer alone
Scarred in a way
No one can say
With more than broken hearts
Shattered Tablets
And bitter memories
Bleed bad blood
And families crumble
With no happy choices
But to seek greatness
And avoid the pit of insanity
There I said it! Without saying it!
Woe to us on this bitter day! We have what to cry about!

Thousands take to the streets
In a moment’s notice
To look for Leiby
The heart …my heart… where’s my heart?
How can we go up to our father and the youth is not with us?
How can we go up to our Father in Heaven
and the innocence and youthfulness is no longer with us?
HASHEM wants the heart! Where’s the heart? A frantic cry!
It’s been stifled, torn asunder in the heart of our hearts!
In the midst of our midst!
Our innocence is ravaged from within!
We cannot even trust ourselves!
A knife is driven repeatedly into our heart again and again
Where is our heart!
Where are our youth?
HASHEM wants the heart!
If not for the watchful eye of…
A camera …random… nothing is!
We could live in the shadows of doubt…
Postulating and philosophizing
So now we are all mourners …
We are done looking outward
The mirrors are covered…enough…enough
We sit low and quiet
Our eyes turned inward…at last…
We hope to find a heart yet beating…there
from where we can build-
…from where can we build
On this day of brutal truth? We have what to cry about!

How did it happen? Where are you?
Unanswerable questions!
Persist in their asking!
Where a person’s mind is…
Says the Ba’al Shem Tov
That is where he is entirely!
So with a single Holy thought!
One of 60,000 a day!
An apple…a golden apple
Is rescued from the thieves
And goodness is restored
When opening our inner eyes
We begin to realize
The ground we are standing upon
Is not less than the Holy of Holies
The shoes are easily removed
A Burning bush…is revealed
We survived! We survived!
Till this historic moment!
You and I together
With a song …the wail of a longing heart…
Brought history and destiny to meet and embrace
As tearful friends reunited!
After thousands of years!
Moshiach is born!
On this special day! We have what to cry about!

This Tisha B’Av Kinah was Composed August 2011

Tens of Tisha B’Av Mp3s

The laws of mourning on Tisha B’av are modeled after the laws of mourning when a relative passes away. One significant difference is, that by a relative the stringency of the halachos decreases as time passes, while those of Tisha B’av increase as we pass from the three weeks, to the nine days, to Tisha Bav itself.

One explanation is that for a relative we feel the loss immediately and most strongly when they pass away, and the pain of that loss decreases as time goes on. Whereas for Tisha B’av it is difficult for us to mourn for a loss that we never experienced, so we need to work on increasing the feeling of that loss throughout the Three Weeks.

With that said here are some direct downloads and links to other sites to help prepare for the mourning of Tisha B’Av:

Torah Anytime on Tisha B’Av

YU Torah shiurm on Tisha B’Av

Torah Downloads on Tisha B’Av
——————–
Rabbi Akiva Tatz on Tisha B’av – Destruction of The Mind

Rabbi Akiva Tatz on Tisha B’Av – Why Mourning in Afternoon

Rabbi Akiva Tatz on Tisha B’Av – Destruction and Renewal

Rabbi Akiva Tatz on Tisha B’Av – Why We Mourn for the Land

——————–
Rabbi Herschel Welcher on “Eretz Yisroel and Emunah”

Rabbi Herschel Welcher on “Lessons from the Pain of Bar Kamtza”

Rabbi Herschel Welcher on Tisha B’av Directions

Rabbi Herschel Welcher on Tisha B’Av (2011)

Rabbi Herschel Welcher on Tisha B’Av (2009)

Rabbi Herschel Welcher on Tisha B’Av (2007)

Rabbi Herschel Welcher on Tisha B’Av (2006)

——————–
R’ Moshe Schwerd on The Broken Luchos – An Everlasting Gift

R’ Moshe Schwerd on Tefillin, Tisha BAv, and the Bais HaMikdash

R’ Moshe Schwerd on “The Morning after the Mourning”

R’ Moshe Schwerd on How Mourning Brings the Dawn of Moshiach

R’ Moshe Schwerd on Tisha B’Av – Past, Present & Future

R’ Moshe Schwerd on Bringing Korbanos With Our Lips

R’ Moshe Schwerd on “Tisha B’AV Mourning and Consolation”