When Your Teenager Asks: How Can You Daven That Fast?

Dear Beyond BT

I would consider myself a very growth oriented BT and I’ve continued to progress over the years.

Recently my employment situation has required me to think about work when I am at home. This is a reality which can not be changed at this current time. As a result my kavannah during davening is suffering and my davening is often on the fast side.

The other day, my growth-oriented 15 year old Yeshivish son asked me how I could possibly daven that fast. I didn’t have a good answer, but someone suggested that perhaps I could at least stay in Shomoneh Esrai a little longer (by not stepping back) so at least it looks like I’m davening at a more respectable pace.

I’m a little uncomfortable with that, but at the same time I don’t want to provide bad role modeling for my son or get into a “Do as I say, not as I do” relationship.

Any suggestions on what to do and what to say to my son.

Thanks
Reuven

Originally Published May 13, 2009

Senseless Love and the Key to Redemption

Maimonides offers a formula that has often been referred to as “senseless love.” We must reach out to each other without agendas that corrupt into another form of acquisition. The process is transformative in the way that it changes our focus:

We are obligated to speak well of other people, sharing our joy at having glimpsed his/her inner beauty. The act of speaking positively allies us to each other. It makes us aware that we are on one team.

We are obligated to care for each other’s material needs. By being aware of how frail and needy our bodies make us, we become more forgiving and tolerant.

We are obligated to seek out situations that bring honor to others. By doing so, we give them the precious gift of self-esteem and simultaneously remove ourselves from the egotistical traps of center stage.

This three-step process is deceptively simple. Yet it can change us dramatically. It can change not only our relationship to others, but can lead us to rediscover ourselves. In doing so, the endless mourning for our lost selves, and for our national tragedies, will cease.

From Feeling the Loss by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

The Fire Within Her

For my wife Shana, what started as a tiny spark deep inside her soul eventually grew into a brilliant light guiding her forward on life’s journey.

Each one of has this spark inside us, a yearning to connect to our traditions. The Torah portion of Vayikra begins with the words, “And He (G-d) Called to Moses.” In the word “Vayikra – And He called,” the last letter Aleph is written uncharacteristically small. The 18th century Chassidic leader Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl in his book Meor Einayim writes that the small Aleph represents G-d, who places a small piece of Himself inside every Jew.

This tiny divine spark constantly calls to us to grow in our observance. The call starts out quiet, almost inaudible. But if someone hears it and responds, G-d embraces him with open arms, just as the second half of the verse says: “and Hashem spoke to him.” When Shana responded to the spark, Hashem spoke to her by showering goodness on her.

Shana grew up in Queens in a traditional household, which meant going to synagogue every Saturday morning, and then out to eat treif for lunch.
Read more The Fire Within Her

Kinah for Tisha B’Av

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!

Originally Published August 2011

The Power of Words

Rabbi Noson Weisz explains the power of words:

The Goan of Vilna explains how this spirit — man’s power of speech — is the locus of man’s essential being. For it is only in this area that man is conscious. Beneath this spirit are man’s physical urges which are all subconscious.

(We do not consciously move the blood through our veins, or command our lungs to draw breath or our stomachs to digest.) Above this spirit is man’s soul through which he is attached to God, the higher aspect of man’s being of which he is also consciously unaware. In the middle, between these two areas of sub-consciousness, is man’s spirit, where his thoughts that have been put into words and his emotions are located. This area is the only place where he is self-conscious.

Between the areas of sub-consciousness lies man’s spirit, where his thoughts transformed into words are located.
Thus, the battles of life and its conflicts are all located here.

Man’s soul attempts to pull him upwards so that the spiritual power in his words becomes entirely dedicated to the expression of his soul. In terms of the universe, this would amount to attaching man’s spirit to the upper side of the interface of God’s words, which hang suspended between the heavens and the earth.

The physical urges attempt to pull man down to their level so that the spiritual power of his words is entirely turned over to the satisfaction of physical desires. In terms of the universe this would amount to separating man’s words from the words of God, and pulling them downwards to become mired in the corporeal universe.

Read the whole thing.

Bittersweet – Rosh Chodesh Av

Rosh Chodesh Av is amongst the strangest of days.

As we’re aware, Rosh Chodesh Av marks the commencement of the nine day mourning period culminating in the most tragic and mournful day of the year, Tisha B’Av. As the gemorah states “MiShenichnas Av MeMa’atin B’Simcha” when the month of Av enters, we decrease our joy. Yet, it is still Rosh Chodesh, a joyful day, a semi-holiday. Quite the discordant mix.

On Rosh Chodesh Av, the melody of Hallel is tinged by the portending sobriety of Kinos and Eichah. Leining and mussaf which speak of the korbanos offered on Rosh Chodesh in the Beis Hamikdash remind us of the fact that we were deprived of the ability to bring such korbanos when the Beis HaMikdash was torn from our lives and hearts.

One of the causes for the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash was sinas chinam (baseless hatred). The Netziv explains that the sinas chinam that caused the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash was not exactly what we commonly think it was. The Netziv points out that the sinas chinam that caused the destruction included hatred between Jews with different hashkafas or a different psak in halachah. If someone would see another frum jew serving Hashem in a way that was different from his own, he would judge and vilify that person. The Netziv grieves over the fact that this type of sinas chinam existed in his time as well. Is our time any better? Are we getting closer to ahavas chinam (groundless love, the cure for sinas chinam) or further?

Rosh Chodesh Av is also the yahrtzeit of Aharon HaKohen, the ultimate lover and pursuer of Peace. Perhaps the fact that Aharon’s yahrtzeit falls on Rosh Chodesh Av serves as a reminder to us to make peace with our fellow jews, even when they are very different from ourselves. In doing so, may we be zocheh to see the tinge of sadness of this Rosh Chodesh removed and the fulfillment of King David’s statement “You turned my mourning into dancing, you have removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.”

This post originally appeared on July 26th, 2006.

Emily Stern and Ivanka Trump Keep Shabbos

Regardless of what you think of her father’s comedy or her father’s politics, both Emily Stern and Ivanka Trump keep Shabbos. Lori Palatnkik points out in this clip, that 30 years ago, most non-observant Jews knew few, if any, observant Jews. And now, due to the number of BTs over the past 30 years, this situation has changed dramatically.

Lori is the Co-Founding Director the the Jewish Women Renaissance Project, which is a Birthright for Moms. JWRP’s mission is to empower women to change the world through Jewish values that transform ourselves, our families, and our communities. This July, over 600 women will take participate on an 8 day trip to Israel.

Yasher Koach to Lori and the JWRP for all the wonderful work they are doing for Klal Yisroel. Stop by the JWRP site and give them some financial, emotional, mental or spiritual support.

Keys to BT Success from a Shabbos in Monsey

I had the pleasure of spending some time this Shabbos with two Beyond BT contributors. Rabbi Label Lam was my host and he davens on Shabbos morning at a Shtiebel where he and Yaakov Astor alternate giving the weekly Shabbos drasha. Yaakov’s drasha this week included recounting some fascinating Torah lessons he taught on his recent trip as a tour guide through Poland.

The area of Monsey that they live in observes a high level of halachic stringency, which can presents challenges for a BT. Yet, both Yaakov and Rabbi Lam have thrived there. I think there are three factors which contribute to their success.

The first factor is that they have accepted the norms of the community. It’s easy to find fault in any community, and our ego makes it easy to fall into that trap. However, publicly following the norms shows respect for the residents, which makes a lot of sense if you want to live and grow there. Most communities allow for some room for deviations from the norm in the privacy of your home.

The second is that they connect with their neighbors. Connecting to others is a major determinant of happiness and success. The demographics in Monsey have become increasingly Chassidish due to a large migration of Yeshivish families to Lakewood. Although neither Yaakov nor Rabbi Lam are Chassidish, they do connect with the commonalities they have with their neighbors. They pray together in the same Shuls, they learn Torah, and they are focused on connecting to Hashem. These are major commonalities and a strong basis for friendship and connection.

Thirdly, they are continually growing in Torah, Avodah and Gemilas Chassadim. This is perhaps the most important factor. In my many years as an observer of BTs, continued growth in these three area is the number one determinant for success – by far.

These keys to BT Success are in fact universal and are highly recommended, wherever you may reside.

Catching Bagels

It’s probably happened to most of us. You’re out somewhere, it could be at work, a museum, a park or anywhere else, and someone walks over and throws you a bagel. If you’re lucky it isn’t frozen. Well, I’m not really talking about that kind of a bagel. “Being Bageled” is a phrase that, while not coined by him, is becoming popularized by Rabbi Mordechai Becher. It’s basically when a person who is not visually identifiable as being Jewish (at least in their own eyes) says something to you so that you know that they too are Jewish.

Example: I was sitting at a real estate closing when the buyer walked in with 4-5 additional family members. The buyer’s attorney turned to me and whispered “Oy, they brought the gantza mishpachah!”

Rabbi Becher tells a hilarious Bagel story. He was traveling in Budapest when a couple of tourists approached him and asked how to find a certain marketplace. Rabbi Becher pointed the way and one of the tourists said “Thanks a lot. You know what, we’ve been wandering around for a while, we wouldn’t want to be wandering around for forty years like last time!”

Why do people bagel? Is it because they are looking for commonality? Friendship? Something else? How do you respond to a bagel? A shmear and some lox? A discussion of where the person is from? Something else? Rabbi Becher says that being bageled is siyata deshmaya (divine providence) but how we react to the bagel is part of our “free will” and can often be quite critical. Anybody out there have a good bagel story or some good insights on the bagel phenomenon?

Originally Post May 15th 2008

When the Secular Little Cousins become Teenage Cousins

Fresh from my annual time share vacation with the secular family, I want to write for the Beyond BT readers on a topic that I think needs some further exploration and discussion.

Logic says that the longer we are working things out with our secular family, the easier it gets. Everyone finally realizes that the orthodox family isn’t going to change its mind, and they didn’t really join a cult. They get used to the fact that there are some simchas we aren’t going attend, and they don’t make as much of a fuss ten years into it, as they do the first time you send back the R.S.V.P. with a “sorry, we cannot attend.” You’ve figured out how to eat in mom’s kitchen, or at least, everyone accepts the fact that you’ll bring your own food. Yes, it’s absolutely true that in many ways, on many occasions, it gets easier. So if you’re a new B.T., take heart – you won’t spend the rest of your life trying to convince your mom that you really do mean it when you say that you can’t eat her lasagna with meat sauce, even if she’s the best cook this side of the ocean.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, and here’s one: When the kids and the cousins start growing up and become pre-teen, or teenagers.

Every year we assemble the entire extended family for a week at a time-share in the mountains. It was accepted when we didn’t come for Shabbos and chose mid-week instead. They rolled their eyes a bit when we brought in a wheelbarrow of food because kosher food wasn’t available for purchase, and we didn’t want our kids to feel deprived all week long. They even eventually accepted our rule that sister and brother can no longer sleep in the same bed. In many ways, we’ve worked out a lot of issues, but. . . .

I wasn’t prepared for how DIFFICULT it becomes when the little cousins who once played with each other on the floor, and talked about barney and sesame street, now talk about “hot” boys, my space, and IPODS. When the kids were little, the differences between all of the cousins was not as pronounced, and other than making sure that the kosher kids only ate the kosher food, it wasn’t much of a problem.

Now – my girls aren’t supposed to do mixed swimming anymore, and I caught a conversation between my oldest daughter and her teenage cousin who couldn’t quite believe that my daughter has never had a boyfriend. Now the teenage cousins bring their computers and IPODS and videos to vacation, and none of it is Jewish. Now my 10-year old son’s eyes can easily be diverted by his teenage cousin’s non-tnius dress, or lack of dress.

In the beginning of the week, my kids think their cousins are weird. But after only a few days, they start looking fascinated, and that’s the biggest problem. I don’t think it has ever gotten to the point where they’d want to trade places, but one never knows what can happen when that thought is introduced for even a day or two. And, what really bothers me is that I want my kids to feel really privileged and lucky to be frum Jews. I worry when the “other side” starts looking attractive, and our way of life seems to be making them “miss out.” (Yes, of course we can give the speeches to our children about how the secular kids are really the ones missing out, but hey, kids are normal, and some freedoms in life look very delicious at times to them).

The most challenging aspect of this problem is that it’s not one my secular family would understand. I can say, “sorry, can’t come to the simcha on Shabbos, mid day, an hour’s drive away.” But how can I possibly say, “sorry, I don’t want to expose my children to their teenage cousins, your sons and daughters?” It will never happen. These words I wouldn’t say, other than in a forum like this. Their kids are fine people, just not harmonious in many ways with ours. Those who have taken the stand that they will not allow their teenage children to “be exposed”, if that works for you and your family, amazing. It would never work in our family. My parents, and brothers, and nieces and nephews would be so insulted, there would be permanent damage. All we can really do is talk to our children about it, prepare them, protect them as much as possible when we are there, and then talk about it in the car on the way home. And, like most of you, our get-to-gethers are infrequent.

I would suggest that there be some discussion about this issue on this forum. I’m not writing with a solution, but rather, with an acknowledgment that this is a source of trouble, and unlike many other issues that get resolved over time, I think that this issue gets much more problematic as the kids grow older, not less so. Especially for those of us that maintain a commitment to ongoing connection to extended family.

Best to you all –

Originally published 9/17/2008.

Fear and Loathing in Jerusalem: the Olam Ha’Sheker Excuse

By William Kolbrenner
Open Minded Torah

Spring time in Jerusalem, so yet once more, my wife and I embark on the path of finding a place for our son Shmuel with Down syndrome, this time in a cheder, a pre-kindergarden class in our neighborhood.

So earlier this week, we set up a meeting with the principal of a school around the block from our house. Not only was he cordial, but he had the look of someone who was genuinely interested in helping us with the education of our son. There had not been a child in his school with Down’s syndrome for a generation, but listening carefully to our description of our son, his cordiality turned into what seemed like understanding. He invited us back the following day to meet with a rebbe and an administrator to discuss logistics – and how to integrate Shmuel and his ‘syat’ or ‘shadow’ into the classroom. The teacher of the class which the principal had in mind for Shmuel put it simply – ‘my business is to teach children; and I’d do my best to teach Shmuel as any other child.’ ‘Though I am not a professor,’ he continued with a wink, ‘I do have thirty years of experience.’

As we were leaving – s’yata d’shmaya my wife said – another one of the rebbes, seeing Shmuel, stopped us, and mentioned that he had been a classmate of the boy with Down’s syndrome from years back. To the questions which reflected the principal’s main concerns – ‘will he be disruptive?'; ‘will he be accepted by the other boys?'; ‘will he want to participate in class? – the rebbe answered with reassurance. As Tolstoy might put it, no two children are alike, and no two children with Down’s syndrome are alike, but the rebbe only affirmed what we had told the principal – his classmate had been full of joy, eager to participate and imitiate, not at all disruptive. Shmuel’s affability and good cheer – traits which prompt my wife to wonder what I would be like with an extra chromosome – and his cognitive high-functioning, we explained eagerly to the principal, are what brought us to mainstreaming and his neighborhood school in the first place.

A few days passed. I left some messages at the school, but my calls were not returned. When I finally reached the principal, he suggested I speak to someone else in the school -now a fourth person – who I was told would make the ‘final decision.’ It didn’t sound good; so I pressed the principal instead.

‘It’s a very difficult decision…’ His voice trailed off. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way Rav Kolbrener, and please don’t be insulted….’

Calling me rabbi, I thought to myself, was a bad sign.

‘It’s a matter,’ he hesitated, ‘of considering the mossad.’ It was now not just an elementary school, but an institute.

‘What about the mossad?’, I asked.

‘Its reputation.’

I was silent.

‘We have to think of what other parents will say when they see a child like Shmuel in the class with their normal children. How will we be able to justify it to them? They also have to be respected. It simply will not be good for the reputation of the school.’

I wasn’t insulted, in fact I had heard versions of this before.

There was an undoubtable hint of frustration in his voice – likely I thought that those from whom he had sought advice had a different view of the ‘mossad,’ and were forcing him to do something against his better judgment. So I responded: ‘we both know that what you are now advocating – acquiescing to close-mindeded and sanctioning fear of difference – is against our hashgafa, indeed I continued, any Torah perspective.’ ‘It’s a chilul hashem,’ I continued, ‘a desecration of G-d’s name, to send us away to schools outside of our community – to other schools, and other communities – when you yourself acknowledged that Shmuel could find a place in one of your classrooms.’

‘And as far as ordinary children,’ I went on, filling the silence, ‘we are not children of Esau who find perfection in this world, but the b’nei Yisrael, children of Israel, of Jacob, who acknowledge that this world is a place of lack and imperfection.’ ‘I am a pragmatist,’ I continued: ‘if Shmuel is disruptive or can’t be integrated into the class room, then we will take him out immediately, but if the experience of our home is true, if that of our building is true, of his nursery school are true, then Shmuel’s presence will be a blessing for him, and for all who have the chance to be around him.’

‘Rav Kolbrener’ – again the wrong title – ‘what you say is all emes l’emiso’ – the undeniable truth, ‘k’dosh k’doshim,’ the holy of the holies, but, and I could almost see and feel his shoulders shrugging, ‘we live in ‘olam ha sheker – a world of lies.

Here it was – the olam ha’sheker excuse! I had heard people exclaim ‘olam ha’sheker’ as an expression of frustration; this was the first time I heard it as an explicit excuse. Using the olam ha’sheker excuse, not as a form of self-consolation, but justification for doing the wrong thing, turns Torah into something theoretical – ‘we can’t actually live by the words of Torah!’ So Torah ceases to be a manual for life – a handbook for tikkun olam – the redemption of the world, but an ideal to which we aspire when not in conflict with our prejudices and fears. The principal couldn’t help being honest: so he acknowledged that my words were true, even holy, but from the olam ha’sheker perspective, such truth and holiness don’t have a place in the world. So Judaism transforms into a religion of ideals only. How often is such an excuse – even if not explicitly uttered – used as a means of justifying our laziness, self-interest or even corruption?

Traditions in the West in literature, philosophy and theology – from Homer to Plato to the apostle Paul – separate the ideal, take it out of the world. But Judaism – and this was one of the reasons that I started, years ago, to begin to split my time between the library and the beit midrash – transforms the real into the ideal, elevating the world. Judaism offers the promise of a learning which is not simply theoretical – those earnest discussions I used to have in the seminar room in graduate school – but a learning leading to action and tikkun olam.

Or perhaps this is naive? too idealistic?

First published here

Rav Wolbe Warns Stringencies Can Lead to Arrogance and Sin

Rav Shlomo Wolbe was raised in an secular Jewish home and received his education at the University of Berlin (1930–1933). During his university studies he became a baal teshuva through the efforts of the Orthodox Students Union V.A.D. (Vereinigung jüdischer Akademiker in Deutschland). After university he attended the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary. He continued to study at Rabbi Boczko’s yeshiva in Montreux, Switzerland. He then attended the Mir yeshiva in Poland, where he became a student of the mashgiach ruchani, Rabbi Yeruchom Levovitz, and, to a lesser extent of Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein.

He published his first volume of Alei Shur in 1966, which contains his mussar (“ethics”) analysis on a proper regimented life of a yeshiva student. The second volume published 20 years after the first was an intense glimpse into his actual mussar workshops for developing elevated character traits. The book contains step by step instructions and specific exercises.

Rav Wolbe believed that the student should not rely on habit or emotions, rather they should structure their lives. “The greater the person is, the more organized is his life.” (Alei Shur, Pg. 68)

Rav Wolbe felt that there are four basic areas aside from the regular Gemara curriculum of the yeshiva that the yeshiva student should master:
He must know the Halakha (Jewish law) that affects him through the Mishnah Berurah.
He should know Chumash with the commentaries of Rashi and Ramban as a basis for one’s hashkafah.
He should know Pirkei Avos with the commentary of Rabbeinu Yonah (a cousin of Nachmanides) as a basic primer in acceptable character traits (midos).
He should know Mesillat Yesharim (by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto) which he calls “the ultimate compendium dictionary for midos.” It must constantly be delved into.

(above from Wikipedia)

In the Sefer Rav Wolbe on Chumash, Parshas Chukas, published in 2014, he says:

“Although one must adhere to every halachah, a person should be wary of stringencies. If abiding by a stringency will cause him to become conceited about his high level of spirituality, then he is better of without it. It was because Bnei Yisrael were on such a high spiritual level – they merited having Hashem’s Shechinah reside in their midst – that they became haughty and subsequently sinned.”

The Myth of Self-Actualization

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this self-actualization?

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

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

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

Originally Posted on Jan 16, 2006

Sheryl Sandberg Illustrates New Directions in Kiruv

On June 3rd, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, posted her thoughts and feelings after the accidental death of her husband Dave Goldberg. Here are the first two paragraphs:

Today is the end of sheloshim for my beloved husband—the first thirty days. Judaism calls for a period of intense mourning known as shiva that lasts seven days after a loved one is buried. After shiva, most normal activities can be resumed, but it is the end of sheloshim that marks the completion of religious mourning for a spouse.

A childhood friend of mine who is now a rabbi recently told me that the most powerful one-line prayer he has ever read is: “Let me not die while I am still alive.” I would have never understood that prayer before losing Dave. Now I do.

Please read the entire post as a merit for Sheryl’s late husband.

I think that Sheryl’s post highlights the new face of kiruv going forward. Non religious people are very interested in learning about God and the Torah’s view on purpose, meaning and happiness within the ordinary and extraordinary occurrences in our lives. However if they feel like they are being proselytized to a fully Torah Observant way of life, they will probably back away and lose some interest in learning.

As Rabbi Avraham Edelstein wrote in December 2012

“Kiruv is the communicate of timeless Torah through contemporary vessels and idioms. As such, the kiruv movement is always in a certain state of transition. We are dealing with a moving target, a rapidly changing generation, and almost daily technological innovations. Woe betides the kiruv organization that thinks that it has found “the formula.” Today’s successes are tomorrow’s failures. Methodologies, goals and targeted age-groups need to be constantly reassessed and often reformulated. The kiruv world by its very nature is engaged in transformation. For us, creative breakthroughs are a part of our basic avodas Hashem. Given the enormous implications of this movement in world history, I remain with boundless optimism that we will make the breakthroughs that are necessary to take us to the next level and beyond.”