Pre-Pesach Links and Have A Chag Kosher V’Someach

We want to take this opportunity to wish all our readers, commentors and contributors a Chag Kosher V’Someach. May we all continue to grow together and through our efforts help bring about the final redemption.

Here is a special link to all of the Beyond BT Pesach Posts from this year as well as last year. It includes the Beyond BT Guide to the Seder, practical advice and divrei torah.

Aish has an audio post of traditional hagaddah tunes. If you have little ones around the house, Aish also has Haggadah Coloring Pages and Ten Plagues Coloring Pages that will keep them busy during Sunday and Monday’s Pre-Pesach crunch time.

Rabbi Noson Weisz has a great article which shows us how to free ourselves from the limitations of physical reality (emes) and tap in to the deeper reality of sprituality (emuna).

YU Torah has a great Pesach package called Pesach To Go which includes some great Dvrei Torah and some great seder nights games for the kinderlach. And here’s the Pesach to Go from 5766.

Check out the Absolut Haggadah, a refreshing blend of humor and commentary trying to uncover the pshat (basic meaning) of the Haggadah.

Pesach is Z’man Cheiruseinu, the time of our redemption. Unfortunately, several Israeli soldiers remain captive. The OU is sponsoring a worldwide learning initiative in their merit, you can find out more and sign up here.

Making Room at Our Pesach Tables

(Note: This letter was posted yesterday as a comment on my Open Letter to Girls Who Lost a Parent, a column that I wrote several months ago for Links magazine. Disclaimers: My father passed away before my fourth birthday. I am a regular contributor to Links magazine and greatly admire the efforts of Mrs. Kohn to help orphaned girls.)

R’ Horowitz:

During this joyous time of the year, I appeal to all of Klal Yisroel to please look around and try to be in tune to the needs – and the pain of – the orphans and widows in our communities.

Although this doesn’t apply directly to Pesach, I’d like to bring it up as an example. A widow called me shortly after Sukkos of last year deeply pained. Her 6-year-old son had insisted on going to the men’s side during hakafos as he didn’t want to remain in the women’s section and be ‘different’ than his friends. Hesitantly, his mother sent him down and watched from the balcony to see what would happen. What she saw broke her heart. Her son, shy by nature, stood at the outside of the circle trying to break in. He nearly got trampled, so he backed off and watched close-by. Hundreds of men, his uncles included, passed him by, some nodding their heads in his direction. Nobody thought to stretch out their hands, invite him to join the circle, or perhaps even put him on their shoulders.

Sure, we can be dan l’kaf z’chus (judge favorably) but for the purpose of kabbala al ha’osid (future improvement), can we open our eyes, try to find children who may need a boost and give it to them. A smile costs nothing but gives so much. So does a pat on the back. An outstretched arm. A two-minute conversation.

R’ Horowitz, I hope you don’t mind, but there’s one more story I’ve got to add.

A married man recently told me that when he was orphaned as a young teen (at age 14). He tried to put on a ‘macho man’ demeanor but of course, he was deeply pained. He was a bright boy, a strong learner and very popular. At age 16, he went to learn in an ‘out-of-town’ yeshiva and had a terrific z’man. When he came home for Pesach, he tried to share with his mother all about how wonderfully his learning had been. All of it fell flat. His mother didn’t get the lingo and was busy with the cooking. He told me that at that moment he felt like committing suicide. He said he felt like the entire good feeling of the z’man had been destroyed in his mind, as he had nobody with whom to share his success.

I beg all of you: Please look around and try to be in tune to the needs of others – especially the orphans and children who are living in single-parent households. We can never bring back their parent but we could offer them some time and some love.

Sarah R. Kohn
Editor, Links Magazine

Rabbi Horowitz Responds

It is a time-honored tradition to begin our Pesach Seder by inviting guests to join us at our tables. Much ink has been spilled and many beautiful Torah thoughts offered to explain why we express this invitation when we are already assembled at our Seder table as opposed to, say, in shul, where we would actually be inviting guests to come home with us.

I would like to suggest that we mention this open invitation to needy people in the very first words of our Pesach Seder to support the notion that this nedivus halev (generosity of spirit) is really the essence and the core message of the Pesach Yom Tov. Sure, there are many mitzvos associated with Pesach. But our ‘take-away’ from the reliving of our exodus from Egypt is to reach out to those less fortunate among us. Freedom has its responsibilities – along with the comfort and security that comes along with being a free people. (Please review this dvar Torah for an insight into the Torah’s admonition to us to treat converts kindly.)

Especially during the Yom Tov season, there are so many opportunities to display this generosity of spirit all around us. All you need to do is to open your hearts and minds to ‘walk a mile’ in the shoes of others for whom Yom Tov brings heartache along with the simchas ha’chag.

Just think for a moment of what it is like to be a single adult sitting at a Seder table listening to his/her nephews and nieces singing the mah nishtana and reciting their Torah thoughts. Please don’t ask them why they are ‘picky’ or offer unsolicited advice. Just provide your friendship and support. Perhaps consider suggesting a shidduch for him/her or hosting a Yom Tov meal for singles in your community where young men and women can meet and perhaps find their life-partner.

– Just think for a moment of what it is like for the children of your spiritual, amazing ba’alei teshuva friends who, like Ruth, gave up the comfort of their families to embrace an Orthodox lifestyle, watch their classmates play with their cousins in shul on Yom Tov. Perhaps consider inviting a ba’al teshuva family over for Yom Tov meal or two and provide friendship and a sense of belonging to them – and their children.
– Just think for a moment of what it is like to be an ‘at-risk teen’ returning to his/her home for Yom Tov. He/she may look brave and his/her counterculture trappings may strike you as an ‘in-your-face’ repudiation of our communities value system. Trust me, please, when I tell you that they are just nice kids trying to sort things out for themselves and deal with their challenges. A ‘cute’ barb from you may be the final straw that informs them that they are unwelcome in our community, while a kind word may be letting them know that they are valued – and wanted. Don’t ask the kids “Which yeshiva they attend?” (They may have just been expelled from school or in a work setting). Just ask them a more generic “How are things going”, or ‘What are you doing’. Take a genuine interest, please. If they say they are going to college, ask them what courses they are taking, etc. And please try using these words when you see a rebellious-looking kid in the back of shul that hasn’t come in a while, “It is so nice to see you.” Or “It’s such a pleasure to have you in shul.” And please make sure that your tone is warm and accepting.
– Just think for a moment of what it is like to be the parent of such a child in our close-knit, ‘fishbowl’ communities. Imagine how difficult it is for the father of an at-risk kid to do the right thing and walk with his child to shul – perhaps even coming much later than usual to tefilah in order to wait for his son to wake up. My home phone rings off the hook in these days before Yom Tov as parents of at-risk kids call for advice on how to navigate the minefield of raw human emotions when their children come home for chagim. Please, please be good friends and good community members.
– Just think for a moment of what it is like not to be able to afford nice Chol Hamoed trips for your children. Perhaps consider going to the home of your child’s rebbi or morah who dedicated their lives to chinuch in the next few days. Write them a personal card thanking them for all they do for your children, and if you can afford it, give them a substantial financial gift and tell them to treat their children to a special chol hamoed trip that they otherwise would be unable to afford.

It is this type of generosity of spirit that will bring the long-awaited redemption and comfort us with the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash where we will once again partake in the bringing of the Pesach offerings.

© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

Mesillas Yesharim – Chapter 1 – Concerning Man’s Duty in the World

The foundation of Saintliness and the root of perfection in the service of God lies in a man’s coming to see clearly and to recognize as a truth the nature of his duty in the world and the end towards which he should direct his vision and his aspiration in all of his labors all the days of his life.

In Michtav-Me-Eliyahu (Strive for Truth), Rabbi Dessler takes this sentence and breaks it down making the following points:

The foundation of Saintliness – you must get the foundation right, to insure a stable structure.

…and the root of perfection in the service of God – roots enable us to continually draw sustenance and provide stability.

…lies in a man’s coming to see clearly – clarifying something takes work and must occur in both the intellect and the heart which is the source of our actions, but we must truly believe that Hashem will help us succeed if we make real efforts.

…and to recognize as a truth the nature of his duty in the world – we often know what our rights are but how clear are we on our duties and obligations? For example, we have an obligation to pray, but do we really fulfill it when we mumble strings of words and phrases without thought and feeling.

…and the end towards which he should direct his vision and his aspiration in all of his labors all the days of his life – an ambitious person will use all the means available to reach his goals. This is even more important in the spiritual realm where a person is constantly opposed by the Yetzer Hara. As such, we must keep our goal of increasing our closeness to Hashem in mind and use all the means out our disposal to achieve this goal.

Getting closer to Hashem is a life long project, but like any successful project we need purpose, vision, goals, tasks and techniques. The Mesillas Yesharim is setting up the parameters for us to be successul in this most important of projects.

Here is Chapter 1 from the R’ Shraga Silverstein’s translation and posted here through the genrosity of Feldheim Publishers. It is available for purchase here.

The foundation of Saintliness and the root of perfection in the service of God lies in a man’s coming to see clearly and to recognize as a truth the nature of his duty in the world and the end towards which he should direct his vision and his aspiration in all of his labors all the days of his life.

Our Sages of blessed memory have taught us that man was created for the sole purpose of rejoicing in God and deriving pleasure from the splendor of His Presence; for this is true joy and the greatest pleasure that can be found. The place where this joy may truly be derived is the World to Come, which was expressly created to provide for it; but the path to the object of our desires is this world, as our Sages of blessed memory have said (Avorh 4:21), “This world is like a corridor to the World to Come.”

The means which lead a man to this goal are the mitzvoth, in relation to which we were commanded by the Lord, may His Name be blessed. The place of the performance of the mitzvoth is this world alone.

Therefore, man was placed in this world first – so that by these means, which were provided for him here, he would be able to reach the place which had been prepared for him, the World to Come, there to be sated with the goodness which he acquired through them. As our Sages of blessed memory have said (Eruvin 22a), “Today for their [the mitzvoth’s] performance and tomorrow for receiving their reward.”

When you look further into the matter, you will see that only union with God constitutes true perfection, as King David said (Psalms 73:28), “But as for me, the nearness of God is my good,” and (Psalms 27:4), “I asked one thing from God; that will I seek – to dwell in God’s house all the days of my life…” For this alone is the true good, and anything besides this which people deem good is nothing but emptiness and deceptive worthlessness. For a man to attain this good, it is certainly fitting that he first labor and persevere in his exertions to acquire it. That is, he should persevere so as to unite himself with the Blessed One by means of actions which result in this end. These actions are the mitzvoth.

The Holy One Blessed be He has put man in a place where the factors which draw him further from the Blessed One are many. These are the earthy desires which, if he is pulled after them, cause him to be drawn further from and to depart from the true good. It is seen, then, that man is veritably placed in the midst of a raging battle. For all the affairs of the world, whether for the good or for the bad, are trials to a man: Poverty on the one hand and wealth on the other, as Solomon said (Proverbs 30:9), “Lest I become satiated and deny, saying, `Who is God?’ or lest I become impoverished and steal…” Serenity on the one hand and suffering on the other; so that the battle rages against him to the fore and to the rear. If he is valorous, and victorious on all sides, he will be the “Whole Man,” who will succeed in uniting himself with his Creator, and he will leave the corridor to enter into the Palace, to glow in the light of life. To the extent that he has subdued his evil inclination and his desires, and withdrawn from those factors which draw him further from the good, and exerted himself to become united with it, to that extent will he attain it and rejoice in it.

If you look more deeply into the matter, you will see that the world was created for man’s use. In truth, man is the center of a great balance. For if he is pulled after the world and is drawn further from his Creator, he is damaged, and he damages the world with him. And if he rules over himself and unites himself with his Creator, and uses the world only to aid him in the service of his Creator, he is uplifted and the world itself is uplifted with him. For all creatures are greatly uplifted when they serve the “Whole Man,” who is sanctified with the holiness of the Blessed One. It is as our Sages of blessed memory have said in relation to the light that the Holy One Blessed be He stored away for the righteous (Chagiga 12a): “When the Holy One Blessed be He saw the light that He had stored away for the righteous, He rejoiced, as it is said (Proverbs 13:9), `The light of the righteous rejoices.’ ” And in relation to the “stones of the place” that Jacob took and put around his head they said (Chulin 916), “R. Yitzchak said, `This teaches us that they [the stones] gathered themselves into one spot, each one saying, “Let the righteous one lay his head upon me.” Our Sages of blessed memory drew our attention to this principle in Midrash Koheleth, where they said (Koheleth Rabbah 7:28) – ‘See the work of God…’ (Ecclesiastes 7:13). When the Holy One Blessed be He created Adam, He took him and caused him to pass before all the trees of the Garden of Eden. He said to him, `See how beautiful and praiseworthy are my works; and all that I have created, I have created for your sake. Take heed that you do not damage and destroy my world.’ ”

To summarize, a man was created not for his station in this world, but for his station in the World to Come. It is only that his station in this world is a means towards his station in the World to Come, which is the ultimate goal. This accounts for numerous statements of our Sages of blessed memory, all in a similar vein, likening this world to the place and time of preparation, and the next world to the place which has been set aside for rest and for the eating of what has already been prepared. This is their intent in saying (Avoth 4:21), “This world is similar to a corridor …,” as our Sages of blessed memory have said (Eruvin 22a), “Today for their performance and tomorrow to receive their reward,” “He who exerted himself on Friday will eat on the Sabbath” (Avodah Zarah 3a), “This world is like the shore and the World to Come like the sea …” (Koheleth Rabbah 1:36), and many other statements along the same lines.

And in truth, no reasoning being can believe that the purpose of man’s creation relates to his station in this world. For what is a man’s life in this world! Who is truly happy and content in this world? “The days of our life are seventy years, and, if exceedingly vigorous, eighty years, and their persistence is but labor and foolishness” (Psalms 90:10). How many different kinds of suffering, and sicknesses, and pains and burdens! And after all this – death! Not one in a thousand is to be found to whom the world has yielded a superabundance of gratifications and true contentment. And even such a one, though he attain to the age of one hundred years, passes and vanishes from the world. Furthermore, if man had been created solely for the sake of this world, he would have had no need of being inspired with a soul so precious and exalted as to be greater than the angels themselves, especially so in that it derives no satisfaction whatsoever from all of the pleasures of this world. This is what our Sages of blessed memory teach us in Midrash (Koheleth Rabbah), “‘And also the soul will not be filled’ (Eccelesiastes 6:7) What is this analogous to? To the case of a city dweller who married a princess. If he brought her all that the world possessed, it would mean nothing to her, by virtue of her being a king’s daughter. So is it with the soul. If it were to be brought all the delights of the world, they would be as nothing to it, in view of its pertaining to the higher elements.” And so do our Sages of blessed memory say (Avoth 4:29), “Against your will were you created, and against your will were you born.” For the soul has no love at all for this world. To the contrary, it despises it. The Creator, Blessed be His Name, certainly would never have created something for an end which ran contrary to its nature and which it despised.

Man was created, then, for the sake of his station in the World to Come. Therefore, this soul was placed in him. For it befits the soul to serve God; and through it a man may be rewarded in his place and in his time. And rather than the world’s being despicable to the soul, it is, to the contrary, to be loved and desired by it. This is self-evident. After recognizing this we will immediately appreciate the greatness of the obligation that the mitzvoth place upon us and the preciousness of the Divine service which lies in our hands. For these are the means which bring us to true perfection, a state which, without them, is unattainable. It is understood, however, that the attainment of a goal results only from a consolidation of all the available means employable towards its attainment, that the nature of a result is determined by the effectiveness and manner of employment of the means utilized towards its achievement, and that the slightest differentiation in the means will very noticeably affect the result to which they give rise upon the fruition of the aforementioned consolidation. This is self-evident.
It is obvious, then, that we must be extremely exacting in relation to the mitzvoth and the service of God, just as the weighers of gold and pearls are exacting because of the preciousness of these commodities. For their fruits result in true perfection and eternal wealth, than which nothing is more precious.

We thus derive that the essence of a man’s existence in this world is solely the fulfilling of mitzvoth, the serving of God and the withstanding of trials, and that the world’s pleasures should serve only the purpose of aiding and assisting him, by way of providing him with the contentment and peace of mind requisite for the freeing of his heart for the service which devolves upon him. It is indeed fitting that his every inclination be towards the Creator, may His Name be blessed, and that his every action, great or small, be motivated by no purpose other than that of drawing near to the Blessed One and breaking all the barriers (all the earthy elements and their concomitants) that stand between him and his Possessor, until he is pulled towards the Blessed One just as iron to a magnet. Anything that might possibly be a means to acquiring this closeness, he should pursue and clutch, and not let go of; and anything which might be considered a deterrent to it, he should flee as from a fire. As it is stated (Psalms 63:9), “My soul clings to You; Your right hand sustains me.” For a man enters the world only for this purpose – to achieve this closeness by rescuing his soul from all the deterrents to it and from all that detracts from it.

After we have recognized the truth of this principle, and it has become clear to us, we must investigate its details according to its stages, from beginning to end, as they were arranged by R. Pinchas ben Yair in the statement which has already been referred to in our introduction. These stages are: Watchfulness, Zeal, Cleanliness, Separation, Purity, Saintliness, Humility, Fear of Sin, and Holiness. And now, with the aid of Heaven, we will explain them one by one

The BT, A Stranger In A Strange Land

I became a BT 24 years ago. Prior to that, I was strictly BLT.

Making the transition from BLT to BT was an adventure, filled with memories that profoundly embarrass me to this very day. After all, I didn’t know ANYTHING! I was raised in an assimilated home which spoke very little about G-d, Judaism, or anything even remotely Jewish. How I stumbled into REAL Judaism is another story, not for this post, but I will say that G-d reached out an arm and I latched on.

During my first year discovering Jewish observance, I drove to shul on Fridays and Saturdays. I would park my car blocks away and out of sight. One day, just as I was getting into my car to drive home, my rabbi walked by and saw me. He knew that I drove, how could he not? Still, I said to him, “Rabbi, I was really hoping you wouldn’t see me doing this.” My rabbi replied, serious, yet non-threatening, “What do you want me to do, hit you over the head with a stick?” That must have been a good line since I still remember it.

Then one day I received a phone call from a synagogue member who had an apartment for rent in the community. He asked me if I might be interested? I imagine he must have been shocked when I moved in the next day. Driving on Shabbos would now become no more than a faint memory of a past life. This is just one from a storehouse of retrospectives on how I found my way back to my Jewish roots. As I review the events which led up to my return, and to this very day, it isn’t hard for me to see that Hashem was leaving His business card every step of the way.

After moving into my new home in the community I recall the thrill of one day being invited to my Rabbi’s house for the first time. His father, another rabbi, was also there, a short, stout man harboring a full and neatly trimmed white beard. With a strong South African accent the father asked me, “How are you acclimating?” Too nervous to think with any clarity, I assumed he was talking about the weather, not about my new life’s direction. I told him I thought the climate in Santa Monica was outstanding.

I’m only telling you this little embarrassment in trust that you won’t repeat it to anybody. If we keep it just between you and me no one will ever have to know that it ever happened. In case you are interested, I’ll tell you what my acclimation was REALLY like. Something akin to thawing a caveman out of a block of ice and then dropping him into the house of Emily Post. I can tell you that It was difficult, and it took me a long time to adjust.

Speaking of my new and wonderful community, I would often be invited to people’s homes for Shabbos meals. A number of times, early on, I would use the bathroom of one of my hosts during Shabbos and by sheer force of habit, turn off the light on the way out. Then my reflexive actions would take over as I “quickly” flicked the light back on, hoping that no one would notice. Turning the light off was not really a difficulty since it was without thought. Turning the light back on was much more problematic because, reflexive or not, I knew what I was doing. Inculcating into myself the idea that Jewish law comes ahead of personal embarrassment was a level I had not yet attained.

We former BLTs can be very self-conscious, at least I was. In many cases, people such as myself are opening our eyes to this new and very different world for the first time in our lives. There is so much we do not understand. We don’t know the routines, people are using expressions that are totally foreign to us, and we are in constant fear of exposing ourselves as ignoramusses.

What I yearned for more than anything else was guidance. I wanted people to be sensitive to my situation, to read my mind, to stay one step ahead of me at all times and give me a heads up before I made a fool out of myself. Judaism has a lot of walls and a lot of holes, and I think I made a habit of bumping into walls and falling into holes. I needed a bunch of big brothers.

Here are a few more early recollections to give you an idea.

There was a non-kosher restaurant I used to frequent that had a weekly $3.95 steak and baked potato special…YUM! One evening, just as I was leaving my apartment for that favorite dinner of mine a friend walked over. I said hello, told him where I was going, and then I volunteered, “It may not be a kosher steak, but it’s not as bad as eating pork.”

I’ll never forget his reply, “I don’t know about that.”

Five words, and over 20 years later I’m still thinking about them. What reason did I have for believing that pork was worse than non-kosher steak? Maybe it’s worse, maybe it’s not, that’s not the point. I was making assumptions without any basis in fact to back them up. I wasn’t asking questions and I wasn’t looking for answers. I was making it up as I went along, because it felt right to me. At that moment I realized that my life up to that point had been guided by a secular outlook to the world. I knew what was right and what was wrong. I knew what was serious and what was minor. I knew because…well…I just knew, that’s all.

I was crushed by this self-revelation. I didn’t go to that restaurant that night. I missed out on my delectable steak and baked potato. In fact, as of that evening, never again, to my knowledge, have I ever eaten anything that wasn’t kosher, not at home, not with friends, not with family members…nowhere…ever!

All of this restaurant talk reminds me of the time I learned that I was supposed to have a six hour waiting period between eating meat and dairy. As I was now becoming truly observant, I would always wait six hours after eating meat before eating dairy, and I would also wait six hours after dairy before eating meat.

I did this for a year or two before learning one day that the rules for eating dairy after meat were not the same as the rules for eating meat after dairy. There is a particular reason why this discovery profoundly upset me. Why had no one realized that I was new to Jewish observance and that I needed somebody to come forward and provide me with this information? How can I ask people the appropriate questions when I don’t know what questions need to be asked?

Another example I remember which really bothered me was after tearing a paper towel one Shabbos.

“What are you doing?” someone asked me as if in shock.

“I don’t know. Aren’t I allowed to tear a paper towel?”

“NO! Not on Shabbos.”

The point is that many times we former BLTs really do not know what we are doing. We certainly don’t want to look foolish, and we absolutely need YOUR help and input. How sensitive are we, you and me, to the plight of those Jews who really need Jewish friends helping them along? That is the subject of KIRUV. Are we looking out for the genuine needs of our fellow Jews? Are we trying to be ahead of the curve, or are we simply following the curve, often after the curve has fallen off the cliff?

As I write this I realize that Pesach is almost upon us. Does not the son who doesn’t even know how to ask a question come to mind? Perhaps this year, as you read about the four sons at your Seder tables, you will give a bit of additional reflection to the plight of this child in need. I know I will, now that I have reminded myself of what it was like for me.

Eliyahu and his wife Leah run a forum called Observant Judaism HQ. Give it a visit when you have a chance.

Who’s Cleaning for Pesach?

Special thanks to Rabbi Rosenblum for permitting us to publish this piece. In fact he recently became aware of Beyond BT after Yaakov Astor’s recent post on Divorce and BT.

by Jonathan Rosenblum, Yated Ne’eman, March 21, 2007

My wife has decamped for Poland with a group of seminary students. And my only daughter is busy cleaning her own home for Pesach in Bnei Brak. That leaves only us guys to take care of the last heavy cleaning.

The absence of female hands on deck means that this year I won’t have to listen to the results of surveys in my sons’ yeshivos showing that no good yeshiva bochur has any cleaning responsibilities prior to Pesach. No need to threaten to deduct any money spent on mercenaries from that available to replace shiny suits, misshapen hats, and shoes with holes in them.

Yet I have heard enough anecdotal evidence over the years to know that the informal surveys cited above are not entirely a figment of my sons’ overactive imaginations. And that is too bad.

One can certainly understand how a parent’s heart swells with pride at the sight of a bochur who at the end of a long winter zman still wants nothing more than to put in a full day in the beis medrash. Yet parents would still be well advised to avoid freeing their sons from all Pesach cleaning responsibilities on that account.

Bein hazemanim, as the term implies, is not simply a continuation of the zman in a different setting. Rather it is a time for a different type of growth than can be achieved in the yeshiva. I heard recently from Rav Reuven Leuchter, one of the closest talmidim of the famed Mashgiach Rav Shlomo Wolbe, that bein hazemanim is a time for a type of interaction with the world that cannot take place hunched over one’s Gemara. As the Steipler Gaon used to say, it is hard to even assess a bochur’s middos while he is in yeshivah. After all, did his shtender ever speak back to him or express a contrary opinion?

Talmudic prodigies exist. But there is a certain type of wisdom that only comes with age and life experience, no matter how brilliant a person may be. That is why the leaders of the Torah world are inevitably drawn from the ranks of the ziknei hador. If the first adjective still used to describe a person is ilui, he is probably not yet ready for leadership. Bein hazemanim is the time for acquiring some of the experience of interacting with the world that is crucial for the development of middos and self-knowledge.

The second major reason not to grant draft exemptions from Pesach cleaning is that it fosters a sense of entitlement that can work against true striving in Torah. Contrary to the common impression among yeshiva bochurim, limud Torah is not a general exemption from all responsibilities in life. As one who was zocheh to learn in kollel for nearly 15 years, I view the expansion of kollel learning as the glory of our generation. But nothing will ever come from one who views yeshivah or kollel as life with an E-Z Pass.

One who accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah will, as the Mishnah in Avos (3:6) teaches us, find the yoke of derech eretz lifted from him. That is both a result of the siyata d’Shmaya that he merits and a natural response to his diminished involvement in the material world: the less concerned he is with material objects the less the burden of their attainment weighs upon him.

But acceptance of the yoke of Torah must come first. One does not demand that one be freed from responsibilities in order that one can learn. Nor does the yoke of Torah provide one with a right to demand from others that they take on one’s responsibilities. One of Eretz Yisrael’s leading young poskim was asked why his shul only sponsors a bein hazemanim yeshiva in the morning. He replied that bochurim also have to share in Pesach cleaning. The obligation to clean falls on all members of the house not just the women.

More and more, especially in shidduchim, we hear the attitude expressed that a ben Torah is entitled to be spared all life’s worries and to be able to live in comfort in order that he can learn in peace. Such an expectation is both unrealistic and dangerous. It is impossible to protect oneself from all worries: illness strikes, fathers-in-laws’ businesses go bankrupt, wives who undertook the burden of parnassah find that they are no longer physically or emotionally capable of doing so six children later, or that the children are suffering from having a permanently drained and part-time mother.

The quest for comfort can be inimical to spiritual growth in general and to growth in Torah learning in particular. When the Mishnah in Avos (6:4) describes the way of Torah – “bread with salt shall you eat, water by measure shall you drink, on the earth shall you sleep” – it is hardly describing a life of comfort.

What distinguished the gedolim of pre-War Europe from today’s bochurim was not kishronos, but what they were willing to forego for Torah. As a student in Volozhin, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer often went days without food, and his nephew Rav Elazar Menachem Shach testified the same about himself. When Rav Aryeh Leib Gurwicz’s father sent his young son across the border to learn in Lithuania, he never expected to see his son again. Knowing that his son would be sleeping on a bench in an unheated beis medrash, he gave him the greatcoat off his back.

Today when even average bochurim often seek the type of lifetime support that was once reserved for future gedolei hador, one still sees that an overwhelming percentage of the greatest talmidei chachamim live in very strained circumstances. That is not accidental. According to their willingness to sacrifice for their learning, do they wax great.

Among the “comfort” items, we hear on some shidduchim lists is that the girl not be too frum – i.e., she won’t push her husband too much – an explicit recognition that comfort and spiritual growth can be tarti de’sasri (mutually exclusive).

Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler’s message to both the chassan and kallah under the chuppah was to dedicate themselves to being givers and not takers. Just as at this moment of your greatest happiness, you are filled with a desire to give to each other, he would tell them, may you always be filled with the desire to give to one another. As soon as that desire begins to wane, so too will your happiness.

Nothing could be more antithetical to that spirit of giving than approaching marriage with the attitude of “What’s in it for me? What are they offering?” When such questions begin to seem normal, there are no limits. An acquaintance told me recently that her brother had been advised against a certain shidduch by his friends. They had pointed out that the girl’s parents were already in late middle-age, and that she had only one sister, so she might end up having to take care of her parents one day. At least her brother was embarrassed when she pointed out: “Oh, so you expect your in-laws to support you for twenty years, but, chas v’Shalom, you should ever have to do anything for them.” No doubt such bald-faced selfishness is rare, but the extreme examples often reveal more than we care to admit.

Surely one of the reasons that early divorces are far more common today than they used to be is marriage is being approached selfishly, i.e., as means of facilitating an easy life, with a minimum of responsibilities. Under the best of circumstances, those who are not committed to building a partnership based on mutual sharing will never know the true joy of marriage. And such a marriage will never be able to survive the types of setbacks and external pressures that are part and parcel of this olam ha’asiya.

If for no other reason than to help prepare our sons for the next stage of their lives, we owe it to them to make sure that they make themselves available for a few hours of helping with Pesach cleaning. Not for our good but for theirs.

FFB Children of BTs Part I

Last year, we were zocheh to host Rabbi Lazer Brody for our first Beyond BT melava malka. As my wife and I were discussing my plans for getting to Passaic motzei shabbos, our (now 14 year old) daughter asked to come along. My wife and I had previously decided that we wouldn’t be bringing any of the kids (even though this daughter is probably more mature than I am) and we jokingly told her “Sorry, it’s only for BTs”. She immediately responded “Yeah, but I have BT blood”. The kid is right.

BTs raising their FFB children face many, many challenges such as balancing how much of their past to reveal to their children, keeping up with their children’s studies and walking the tightrope of relations with non-frum relatives. But, in my humble opinion, FFB children raised by BT parents tend to exhibit a certain indescribable quality. Those BTs among us who have been zocheh to have children know that the challenge of BTs raising FFBs is a unique one. It is at times, daunting, rewarding, hilarious and, let’s face it, often downright scary.

I do not profess to be a parenting expert or an expert parent. I do profess to be a parent and to having many BT friends who are parents. In a way, I guess that qualifies me to discuss this issue. In this piece, I intend to highlight some of the major parenting issues and challenges facing BT parents, as I see them. Feel free to disagree, I’m sure you will:) .

In order to write a piece of this length, it helps to use acronyms. However, I haven’t yet stumbled upon a good acronym for children of BTs (I’ve tried SOBs [sons/daugher of Baalei Tesuva], too heavy with negative connotation, FFPs [frum from parents], too lacking in any personal input or choice on the part of the child and FFBBDBPBT [frum from birth but different because parents are baalei teshuvah], just too long. So, for the purpose of this piece, I will call them CBTs (children of Baalei Teshuvah).

My personal take is that well adjusted CBTs combiine the best of both worlds. They often have the bren and entusiasm that BTs are famous for (no, that does not mean that FFBs do not have enthusiasm) and the formal learning, schooling, skills and social structure of an FFB (no, that does not mean that BTs don’t have formal learning, schooling, skills and social structure). There is often a seriousness of purpose and an acceptance of Jewish responsibility that is not always found in non-CBTs. I recognize that this is an extreme generalization so let’s just say that CBTs have the potential to synthesize the best of the BT world and the best of the FFB world. We often decry the rift between the FFB and BT worlds and the challenges of BT integration and/or acceptance. CBTs have the opprtunity to integrate without shedding the positive aspects of a BT outlook. In life, the greatest potentialities walk hand-in-hand with the greatest potential pitfalls. Let’s identify some of these potential pitfalls and some possible approaches for avoiding them.

Great Expectations and Vicarious Living

Some BTs bemoan “lost time”, meaning that they feel like they wasted a good portion of their lives doing non-Torah things. A symptom of this “lost time” syndrome is that one might feel, perhaps subconsciously, that since their children were born into frum homes, they will direct their lives in such a manner as they think they would have lived if they were born into frum homes. One might also think that each of his children should be the gadol hador as opposed to being the best chaim or chaya he\she can be, living up to their personal potential and not to our “wannabe” dreams. The result of this vicarious parenting approach is often undue pressure, unrealistic expectations and the squelching of individuality.

Perhaps, the best way to address this issue is by first addressing it in our own lives. In addition to the parenting problems mentioned above, this “lost tim e” syndrome can be depressing and debilitating. I think that two approaches can help in that regard.

1. I have a family member who is a giores (convert). Shortly after she was megayer (converted), she told her Rav that she felt like she had wasted her whole life chasing sheker (falsehood). The Rav responded that Bnai Yisroel spent 40 years wandering in the desert before reaching Eretz Yisrael. It was 40 years of complaining, wrong turns and sins. That 40 years was necessary in order for Bnai Yisroel to reach the “holy land”. They couldn’t have gotten there without it. He continued, “You couldn’t have and wouldn’t have gotten to yiddishkeit if it weren’t for your own wanderings. “

2. The other approach was laid out by Rabbi Brody. Rabbi Brody says that we have to realize that we were born into non-frum families because that’s exactly where Hashem wanted us born. To quote Rabbi Brody “what, there wasn’t enough room for you in a family in Boro Park or Bnei Brak?!”. Along with that understanding comes the fact that Hashem determined that you be born into a non-frum family in order to grow from that and to bring something different, something special to the frum world.

Coming to terms with our own uniqueness and individual role will help us to appreciate and foster the individuality of our children, thereby avoiding vicarious parenting.

Stigmatism and Pomposity

I find that there is an interesting dichotomy in how many BTs view themselves. Some feel as if they are second class citizens and will do anything to hide the fact that they are BTs (that is not to say that all BTs who are very discrete about the fact that they are BTs do so for this reason and that there are never good reasons to do so). Others wear their BT status as a badge of pride. This can also be detrimental when taken to extremes. The way we view ourselves and our frumkeit is usually picked up by our children. BTs who are embarrassed that they are BTs will have children who may feel inferior or not as good as their non-CBT peers. On the flip side, BTs who take an extreme, unhealthy pride in their BT status can expect their children to develop a hloier-than-thou attitude toward their non-CBT peers.

The way to address this potential pitfall is by developing in our selves a healthy attitude toward our BT status. I would suggest that such an approach would be “I am happy that I am a BT because that is what Hashem has chosen for me and He doesn’t make mistakes. I am happy that I was zocheh to become frum and that I have tremendous opportunities for growth. Being a BT, in and of itself, doesn’t make me better or worse than the next guy. It simply means that I have different challenges and potential. The world needs FFBs and the world needs BTs.” If we take that attitude, our children will incorporate it in their lives allowing them to avoid both stigmatism and pomposity.

Pesach Seder Guide

Based on a lecture given by Rabbi Raphael Butler at Holliswood Jewish Center, Queens, NY Erev Pesach 1995
Expanded by Neil Harris
You can download this guide here.

“In every generation one is obligated to see himself as though he himself had actually come out from Egypt.”

Major themes in the Seder and symbolism:

The word Seder means “order”- there is a specific order to the Haggadah. The Haggadah and the Seder are meant to be an educational model to teach our children the importance of Hashem taking us out of Eqypt – to give us the Torah. Hashem has reasons why things happen in a certain order in the world and in our life. If you missed a connecting flight, of course, you’d be upset… but what if that plane crashed (God forbid). You’d be singing a different song then.

Matzah- Why does it have to be whole (not broken)? We want to make the mitzvah complete. Every mitzvah I do creates an angel. If I speed through a mitzvah or purposely don’t perform it properly, then the angel created will be incomplete. Matzah is both the free-man’s bread and the poor-man. That’s why we eat it leaning, to symbolize our freedom.

Maror- The bitterness of life. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (author of Messilas Yesharim and Derach Hashem) states that life is full of ordeals. If we don’t have a Torah and Rabbis to teach us how to life our life fully, then life is bitter.

Egg- Symbolizes the Karbon Chagiggah (Festival Offering) during the Beis HaMigdash. An egg is round and symbolizes life, which is a cycle.

Roasted Meat (shank bone)- The Karbon Pesach (Passover offering)- in place of the lamb being sacrificed.

Karpas- Green vegetable with saltwater. Our tears from 210 years of slavery.

The Seder plate is the framework for our experience tonight. It is a time to talk. Freedom is the main theme that is developed through reading the Haggadah and discussion of its contents. Tell the story of what happened. Engage in conversation about the Egypt experience. Did you know that only 1/5 of all Jews left Egypt with Moshe Rabbenu? 80% of our sisters and brothers stayed in Egypt, victims of the “slave mentality”. What does it mean to be free? Ask each person at your table.

Torah Mitzvos:

Rabbinic Mitzvos:
Four cups of wine

Items to be introduced:

Kiddush-freedom with wine. It’s a drink of royalty. Wine is a symbol of free choice. It can be used for holy purposes (Bris, Kiddush, Wedding, Havdalah), or abused and become an addiction.

Parsley/ Celery- What does it mean? Tears of enslavement. It’s an hor d’ourve. It reminds of that we were slaves and now we are free. Not all life is sweet.

Talk about personal slavery. What do you do to keep your Jewish identity in America? Is having a Seder a way of celebrating freedom? We were freed from Egypt in order to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The freedom we celebrate is the freedom to follow Hashem, to appreciate all that Hashem does for us. We couldn’t do it during the Holocaust. It’s a good thing to be free. We were given the free choice to decide how to serve Hashem, with the Torah as our guidebook.

Kittle-It’s a custom to wear it at the table. White is the color of purity, the symbol of a king.

Separate the Matzah- Put away the Afikomin. Symbol of Moshiach. This is the bread of affliction, not just stomach aches! We had to make it in a hurry. We invite the hungry and needy to our table. This is the only passage in the Haggadah that’s in Aramaic. Why? It was the language of the people. We are all entitled to come and participate in a Seder, it’s a Mitzvah!
Who do you want involved in your Seder? It’s all about dialogue and discussion. What does the Seder say to me?

Four Questions and Answers- Judaism has answers. Searching for the answers is part of being Jewish. Let people at the Seder answer.

Rabbis in Bnai Brak- Different groups of people staying up all night and getting caught up in the excitement of the Seder experience.

Four sons- Diverse personalities. Children are different, even twins!! The real theme with the four sons is freedom. What is our role in the world? How can we help people?

Thanking Hashem:

Develop the trait of HaKoras HaTov (Thanking for the good)
Hashem always saves the Jewish people. Never in history has there been a terrible planned out extermination of a nation of people like during the Holocaust. Yet, we survived. What we think as being man driven is really Hashem driven. Use the Seder to talk about the Hand of God and miracles. What miracles have happened to me? How has Hashem directed my life? Reflect on acts of divine assistance.

Ten Plagues- Miracles upon Miracles. Can you top these miracles?

Dyanu- “Enough”. This is a history lesson. We didn’t deserve anything that Hashem did or does for us. Hashem did 15 steps to help us. We must express HaKoras HaTov. This is a night of appreciation. Hashem sustains us even among challenges and difficulties.

Pesach- Why a lamb? It was the symbol of the main God in Egypt. Hashem command us to destroy it and show that there is only one creator in the world.

Matzah- Poor-man’s bread. Can’t bake for more than 18 minutes. Time is important. How we use time is very important in Jewish life.

Maror-Bitter herbs are symbols of anguish and enslavement.

Quick story by Reb Nachman of Breslov: Two guys, one Jewish and one not Jewish (vagabonds) wonder into a town Pesach night. The Jewish guy says, “Tonight we can get a great meal. After Shul we’ll get invited out and eat a feast.” Well, they each get invited to different homes. The non-Jew sits down at the Seder and is served Karpas with salt water. Yuk!! Then they eat Matzah , pretty dry. What a bad cracker! Then they drink wine and sit and read a book and talk for a few hours. Finally the host announces that the meal is about to begin. Great!! What do they eat…maror!! Guy gets up from the table and leaves.
Later that night he meets his Jewish friend. “What a great meal,” the Jew says. “We had soup and chicken, vegetables, a meal fit for a king.”
“What are you talking about? They gave me salt water, bad crackers, and horseraddish.”
“You fool. If you had stayed two more minutes, then the real meal would have been served”
Lesson: We are too impatient. Our world is a world of instant gratification. This is not the Jewish way. We need to have patience with people and with Hashem. The Seder reminds us that things take time. Good things come to those who wait.

Bentching-Thanking Hashem

Hallel- Praise and reflect on the greatness of Hashem. It’s the highlight of the evening. Most people don’t even get past bentching.

Afikoman- We can’t finish the Seder without it. It’s the dessert and the taste of redemption.

L’Shanah HaBa’ah B’Yershalyim- “Next Year in Jerusalem” This is the final transformation of the Jewish people. Moshiach is coming tomorrow and we must be ready.

A Seder isn’t judged by how good the food was, but by how meaningful it was to us. We should leave the Seder thinking that I want to be part of Klal Yisrael (The Jewish people)! I want to find out more about Judaism and Mitzvos! I want to challenge my mind and my soul.

The challenge of the second night, being in exile, and Judaism is to make it just as meaningful and fresh as the first night.

Posted as a zechus for a refuah shleima for Rivkah Bas Sara Freida

Rabbi Yakov Horowitz on Making Aliya

Recommended reading for this column – “When American Families Move to Eretz Yisroel” by Rabbi Yair Spolter of Kiryat Sefer.

Dear Rabbi Horowitz:

My wife and I have always had a deep love for Eretz Yisroel since we both studied there in our post high school years. Over the years, we have been discussing the idea of making aliya (moving there) with our family, but somehow we never got to actually doing it.

Now, we feel that we are ready, but we are concerned about relocating our children. We have four children; the eldest is thirteen, and we would appreciate your guidance with this potential move.

I’m not sure how important this information is, but my wife is not as gung-ho about this as I am.


Rabbi Horowitz Responds

Imagine that you decided to go on a one-day camping trip and then prepared a backpack with your provisions. Please bear with me Dovid while I carry this one out, but in the analogy, you are the sandwich, your wife is the bottle of orange juice and your kids are the dozen eggs.

I say that because generally speaking the men/fathers find relocation to be less stressful than do the wives/mothers. Why? Because the mothers are the ones who need to take care of the ‘stuff’ – the details that will make or break the success of your aliya.

Dovid don’t make the all-to-common mistake of underestimating the importance of getting the ‘stuff’ right. Please don’t trivialize or dismiss your wife’s concerns with the pragmatics of the move. Don’t think, “Here we are thinking of the incredible mitzvah of spending the rest of our lives in Eretz Yisroel and my wife is worried about jobs and schools for the kids.” If you need an example of what things look like when one is inspired by a big idea and neglects the details, just analyze the horrific train wreck that the war in Iraq has become. That also began with two big ideas – free the Iraqi people and spread democracy. But President Bush was so inspired by his vision that he forgot to ask or inquire if the troops will have bulletproof vests or who will make sure that the Iraqi people have electricity.

All things considered, I am most concerned about your thirteen year old. If you are the sandwich (easy to move), and your wife is the bottle of orange juice (much more likely not to handle the adjustment well), your children are the dozen eggs (far more likely to crack during the transition). And moving your adolescent child is like taking the eggs out of the container and stuffing all of them into your pants pockets.

I am always reluctant to give detailed advice to people whom I do not know well, but I can tell you with near certainty that you should not make the move at this point in your life. Let’s face it. Your children – especially the older ones – are Americans and making the adjustment to the Israeli culture is quite complicated. And although the benefit of making aliya is great, the risks are simply too high in your case. I suggest that you keep this dream of yours on hold until, with the help of Hashem, your children are married, or at least settled in the last year or two of High School. I would be far more likely to encourage you to make the move if you had written that you had either: 1) spent a great deal of time planning the move, 2) spent a summer in Eretz Yisroel with your children, 3) taught your children Hebrew and they took to the language well, and 4) your wife and children all ‘on board’ with your aliya plans. But from your question, it does not seem that this is the case. Should you decide to go ahead with your plans, please spend lots of time and effort properly planning for the move. The people I know who have made successful aliya — including and especially those who had teen children — all spent many months or years preparing for the transition.

For readers who are contemplating aliya, here are my suggestions:

* Do as much homework as possible. Speak to as many American olim as you can to pick up tips and suggestions to make the transition easier.
* Please read an outstanding article by my dear chaver, Rabbi Yair Spolter of Kiryat Sefer. While we respectfully agree-to-disagree on other topics (Click here and here), I concur with his column completely. (In fact, I first got to know Yair when I cold-called him to compliment him for his clarity of thought – and courage – when this article was first published in The Jewish Observer.)
* An excellent resource is Nefesh B’nefesh. ( They have successfully facilitated the aliya of hundreds of families due to their methodical approach to guiding families – and their understanding of the importance of getting the ‘stuff’ right for the families who are making the move.
* If you are making the move, do so while your children are younger. The earlier in their lives the better.
* Look into the schools in prospective communities – even if your children are toddlers. Most Israeli schools are very different than American ones, and it is critically important that your family is in sync with the mosdos that your children will attend. Generally speaking, there is far more ‘gray’ in America than in charedi society in Eretz Yisroel. Make sure that your views on kollel, sports-playing-for-children, tzniyus for girls (and mothers) are at least close to that of the community in which you live.

I know many people who have successfully made aliya and I commend you for having the commitment to consider the move. My response is not ‘no’ – it is just, “Not yet” or “Not now.”

© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

Please visit Rabbi Horowitz’ newly redesigned website,, to review/post comments on any of the archived articles. You can also visit the “Resource Listing” section (Click Here) of the website to become more familiar with many services and organizations that can assist you in your quest to help your children realize their fullest potential. Bright Beginnings has a growing number of skill-based materials in Chumash (Click Here) and Kriah (Click Here). I hope that you find them helpful. YH.

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Divorce & BTs

In actuality, this article was started about twenty-five years ago.

I was a bachur in Ohr Somayach, Yerushalayim, at the time. Despite struggles with the realities of becoming observant, I still wore a nice pair of rose-colored glasses about the world I was entering. Yes, there were challenges and even real problems, but it was still a disinfected picture of life in the yeshiva lane I beheld.

Then, casually – it was during a walk in Meah Shearim on a bright, late summer Shabbos afternoon – someone in a group I was strolling about with remarked that he heard Rabbi Gottlieb say that the divorce rate of baalei teshuva was as high as those of the general, secular world.

First there was disbelief.

“Are you sure you heard that?” another person asked. Yes, he seemed to be sure. Furthermore, he said, he heard that in Rabbi Gottlieb’s opinion baalei teshuva should date for six months, not six weeks, before they get engaged.

Truth be told, I never had those claims confirmed: that the divorce rate of BTs was as high as in the secular world and that Rabbi Gottlieb had actually said it or that BT dating should last six months. Nevertheless, the conversation stuck with me.

Flash forward about a year later. I am now a fully committed BT learning full-time in yeshiva. I am at a weekend retreat with my fellow bachurim. The previous year, a slightly older peer – I’ll call him Michoel – had made Kiddush for us. I envied Michoel: he was intelligent, deeply committed, funny, personable, creative. And he had a wife who was as intelligent and spiritual as she was attractive. They were the picture of perfection in my mind.

Now, a year later, I sat at Michoel’s table, and he was making Kiddush again… but his wife was not there. They had since divorced. (They had been married long enough to have a child.)

This sent me for a loop. I never asked him what happened, but his divorce stuck in my gut. Michoel was someone I could relate to; someone who had achieved, externally at least (internally, too, it seemed), many of the things I dreamed of. Yet, his picture perfect life was shattered. And with it my own picture of perfection about becoming a baal teshuva. If one wasn’t careful, one could stumble and fall like Michoel, like his wife, like the 50% or more secular and/or non-Jewish Americans who divorce.

Anyway, to this day I still do not know if, in fact, the divorce rate of baalei teshuva is comparable to that in the secular world, but I have witnessed or heard of enough divorce, to say nothing of difficult marriages, among baalei teshuva to ask the following question: What are the pressures and circumstances that might put more strain on a marriage of baalei teshuva than others?

I suspect that the answer is: strains that are no different than those of becoming a BT in the first place.

For instance, if it can be said that a baal teshuva tends to have less familial support than an FFB, then the baal teshuva couple has more strain on them because they tend to not have parents to give them the same degree of physical, emotional and/or financial support one might typically get from FFB parents.

(Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. My own parents, baruch Hashem, took the hour-and-a-half ride to visit us three or four times a month for over a decade. This had an enormously positive impact on my children. Often, I thought to myself how the kids would have fared without them.)

There are greater financial stresses and requirements needed to live the observant life. In theory, and often in practice, they are offset by positive communal attitudes and a healthy Torah outlook. However, is that always enough? And what about baalei teshuva who do not have the deepest roots in a community or perhaps even the same depth of Torah wisdom to apply this knowledge?

The strains of raising and being mechanech children: It can put a strain on any marriage when children have difficulties in school. Many BT parents lack the learning skills to teach their children beyond the elementary school years. This is another extra strain.

I am sure there are other things, but I want to leave this article more open-ended. What are examples of other strains, in your opinion? What are the worst ones? What are your strains and what do you do and/or what can anyone do about them?

Do you even accept the premise of this article: that BT divorce rates are as high as (higher than?) secular divorce rates? Do you think they are higher than FFB divorce rates?

I look forward to the usual spirited and articulate responses.

What’s in a Name?

When I began my journey of return six years ago, one of the first things I was encouraged to do was start using my Hebrew/Yiddish given names, Leah Hudis Esther, or at least Leah.

Not only was it meant to be a new form of self-identification, reflecting my journey of teshuvah, but it also would help me reconnect to my distant past – my Jewish past. How weird, though, like discovering a second personality or running into an old childhood friend.

It had been so long since I used the moniker as a child in parochial school, I had to knock the rust off. I remember my first time at an Orthodox Shul six years ago, meeting the strange panoply of characters that would become my kehilla. Tongue-tied and blushing furiously, I introduced myself as “Leah,” but it came out goyische-style, “Lee-uh” not “Lay-ah,” simply because of nerves.

I realized right away I had blown it. I was mortified. Someone corrected me, not unkindly, informing me, “We say, Lay-ah, not Lee-uh.”

“G-d,” I thought, “It’s just me here. If I really matter to you like they say I do, simple me, can you please help me through this horrible moment ….”

And he did. But that’s a story for another day.

It took me a long time to reconcile the Melanie I remained in my secular (work) life and the Leah I was becoming in my Jewish religious private life. Given my family’s strong opposition to my becoming observant, we fought over it. They thought my using the name Leah was pretentious, which is ironic, since we were all given lovely Hebrew/Yiddish names at birth, like Simcha, Reizel, Devorah and Dovid.

I’m not sure what label you’d affix to my family. We kept “pseudo kosher,” with separate milchig and fleishig dishes and utensils, same for Pesach, but ordered in Chinese every Sunday night. My mother made Shabbos Friday night meals, replete with white tablecloths, gefilte fish and chicken soup, faithfully bentsching licht. Same with the yomim tovim meals, after which we’d watch the hockey or baseball playoffs depending on the season.

We were staunchly affiliated with a large Conservative shul, but were devoted once-a-year attendees.

For better or worse, my parents insisted that I have a “Jewish education” at a Zionist secular day school, where I was taught next to nothing about Torah observance but did learn to read Hebrew, quite handy some 40 years later when I davened for the very first time.

The penultimate middle child, somehow I got overlooked and missed the particularly torturous experience of “serious” Hebrew school learning (Conservative style) and Bas Mitzvah prep. My brothers weren’t so lucky – they had upcoming Bar Mitzvah bashes to worry about. My big sister, the trail-blazing family feminist, had to get ready for a class-action Bas Mitzvah.

Imagine the brain lurch when I came to understand that in the Orthodox world, we devote our entire lives to learning.

Still unfolding, my journey of teshuvah began with an internet conversation several months before 9/11. I stumbled upon an internet messageboard on religion, where I found myself fighting the most virulent anti-Semitism.

And then I argued with an Orthodox Jewish poster, who woke me up to the knowledge that without love of Torah and fear of Hashem, our connection to Judaism was tenuous at best. I ended up marrying that poster, but not before we had a donnybrook over what it meant to be Jew.

What did it mean to be a Jew from my perspective? First you admit you have a problem, put pictures of Sandy Koufax and Leonard Nimoy on your wall, then whip out the checkbook and donate to a Jewish cause. Your job is done.

So when I encountered Eliahu, my husband of almost four years, I began to understand that my definition of “What it means to be a Jew” bore no resemblance to what Hashem expects of us as Jews. I also learned I was on pretty thin ice. As Eliahu wrote, “think of yourself as standing in the middle of a busy freeway, not realizing you’re in danger.”

That splash of cold water woke me from a 46-year slumber, and some days I still feel like I need a proverbial cup of strong coffee to get on with it.

But I always had my given Hebrew name, that tenuous tie to ancestral Torah devotion that somehow got lost in a generation of prosperity, comfort and assimilation.

Six years ago, not long after I told my shocked and worried family that I had become shomer Shabbos and was starting to live my life as an observant Jew, I went to a nephew’s birthday party. Despite the hostility, and the strangeness of my dressing visibly Orthodox (tsnius skirts and shirts) in a very secular family, I insisted on maintaining ties, and made every effort to attend their family functions, studiously bringing along kosher cakes and plastic utensils and participating to the degree I could.

On this occasion, I was perusing the birthday cards my nephew had received and picked up the one I gave him.

And it was signed, “Aunty Leah.”

I hadn’t intended to sign it “Aunty Leah” (I didn’t want start a fight). I didn’t realize I had signed it “Aunty Leah.” I was as shocked and dumbfounded as they were that I had signed it “Aunty Leah.” It hadn’t even occurred to me to do so. When had it become so ingrained?

And now, years later, the shock and surprise has worn off. My family is used to the way I live my life and are no longer angry and resentful. I showed them it wasn’t a flight of fancy or a whim, nor had I been kidnapped by a cult.

I showed them I am as much Leah now as I had been Melanie before, yet it is still all me.

So now they send e-mails addressed to Leah. My mom tries to call me Leah, but still lapses into giggles of discomfort and gets mixed up. I take it as a sign of real progress.

The gematria of Leah is 36: 36 candles of Chanukah, 36 righteous people in the world, Yaakov returns to Eretz Ysroel after 36 years away from home, and Rachel dies at age 36.

There is a lot in a name, it turns out.

Two of our newest contributors, Leah and her husband Eliyahu run a forum called Observant Judaism HQ. Give it a visit when you have a chance.

Some Links

Jonathon Rosenblum on It’s the Effort That Counts

Children who are praised from an early age for their native intelligence often become obsessed with protecting their image as “smart.” They tend to give up easily when they are intellectually challenged or do not grasp things immediately. They also come to devalue effort and to view working hard as a contradiction to their image of as “smart kids.” Ultimately, too much praise for their native intelligence can even cause them to underestimate their own abilities. Because they downplay the importance of effort, they may conclude that their failure to understand anything immediately proves that the earlier praise was unjustified

Rabbi Berel Wein on the Pre-Pesach Drive is On.

Thinking about Pesach makes us also think about how special we truly are and what our purpose and responsibility in life and in this world should be. Jewish history is not only facts and dates, scholarship and academic disciplines. It is, more importantly, inspiration and faith, guidance and hope, vision and destiny. And for all practical purposes, Jewish history begins with Pesach, with the Exodus from Egypt. It is ironic that there are those in the Jewish world who, for whatever unfathomable reasons, have attempted to deny the entire narrative of the Exodus from Egypt.

All of Jewish history and the fact of Jewish survival itself over the ages put the lie to such attempts and theories. Judaism is based upon the simple notion that my grandfather was not a liar. All of the deniers of the Exodus are modern scholars. Well, we are witness to the fact that many truths, such as the Holocaust, can spawn a denial industry. But that will not change the truth. So, knowing the Jewish story is itself a great high point of our pre-Pesach preparations.

Rabbi Brody on Shuli Rand and Ushpizin:

Don’t think that Shuli is a lone wolf. When I met him last week in Jerusalem, he told me that more than twenty of his former screen and stage colleagues – Tel Aviv’s best known stars – have become Baalei Tshuva (Jews returning to their roots).

Orthodox Assimilation On Campus – Part 2

By Yaakov Weinstein – Part 1 is here.

Strategies for a rebbi, teacher or pulpit rabbi:

1) Never give up on a student! Let us say a rebbi tries to convince a student to skip college totally or attend Touro/YU. What happens when the student goes against the rebbi’s suggestions (due to his own thinking or forced by his parents). Well, sometimes the rebbi ‘gives up’ on the student. Since you’re going to college anyway, you may as well throw your yarmulka away… (note the rebbi may not word it this way but this may still be the message the student gets). It should not have to be stated (but unfortunately it IS necessary to state) that this is the worst possible thing to say. Besides the fact that it is utterly false (many great Orthodox leaders of all streams attended secular universities),the student might believe what the rebbi says. The student will get to college and think – I’m already going to ‘burn in hell’ for being here in the first place – why bother getting up for davening, learning a seder, dating a Jewish girl. My dear reader may find this outrageous but it is not – this has happened to good students from wonderful yeshivos.

2) Students can grow in learning, spirituality and all else good, on secular campus. Believe it. Anyone who became frum on campus should already know this. But it is not only ba’alei t’shuva who can grow on campus. Rather then give up on students for going to the ‘wrong’ place, give students the means to grow – book lists (see post of R’ Hirsh for some good books), curricula, email shiurim to them, talk to them in learning when they’re home. Do not be surprised that they learn, expect it from them.

3) Don’t give glib answers to sincere questions. If you think you can answer who wrote the Torah or the evolution ‘problem’ in a one minute conversation keep it to yourself. You merely show that you are not taking the question seriously. Also, don’t say a question is stupid, and if you don’t know something, admit it.

4) Email students, visit them, talk to them, volunteer to give a shiur on a campus near you, invite your local Hillel’s orthodox students to your house, invite students over for a tisch when they are home for winter break. Be active! PLEASE! A quick story from my time on campus: a friend was clearly upset. He told me about a girl in his class he was acquainted with and who was irreligious. That day he had been walking through campus and noticed the campus Chabad rabbi handing out Purim paraphernalia (hamantaschen and the like). He decided to take some for this girl to help spread Purim cheer to someone who, he thought, may need an extra reminder. When he offered the stuff to her she reacted very graciously and said, “Oh, but I already have everything I need. My (Reform) synagogue sends out care-packages before the every holiday.” “A shul sending out care packages to kids on campus?” my friend exclaimed, “Can you even imagine an Orthodox shul doing that? Of course not.” A notable exception to this is R’ Bieler of Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring, MD. Here’s a description of some of what he does – and students who I have known from his shul truly appreciate it (the rest of the discussion is interesting too).

Strategies for parents:

All of the above applies doubly for parents – the ultimate ‘rebbi’ for their children (whether the parents think so or not). So go back and read those suggestions again! After you’ve read the above twice here are some additional suggestions:

1) Care about the kodesh. Before college – don’t rely on a college advisor who doesn’t REALLY know what’s going on Jewishly on a campus. Instead, get on the Hillel website and talk to the Hillel’s Orthodox rabbinic advisor. While your child is on campus – Keep in touch with him religiously too. When your kids are at college ask them how their learning is going, maybe you can even learn with them on the phone. Keep the number of that Orthodox advisor.

2) Demand strength in high schools especially in Tanach. Kids don’t need to learn about the Documentary Hypothesis in high school. But they do need to see how Tanach works. Insist that students see the majesty of Tanach as can be gained from serious study of Rashi and Rambam but is brought out clearly by R’ Hirsch and R’ Hertz. Do your kids know why different names of the Almighty are used in the Bible?Their Judaic studies professor does (and you won’t like the answer)…

3) Humble skepticism – teach your kids to question unproven statements but realize there are people a lot smarter than them (I must thank Mike Berkowitz of Alon Shevut for this wonderful formulation – see it here.

4) I was told by a Brigham Young University student that at BYU (Mormon) before being allowed back on at the beginning of a semester a student must have a signed letter from their cleric (Mormon or not) that they’ve been keeping up with your religious duties. I have never heard of a Jewish parent who stopped paying tuition because his son or daughter was not learning enough Torah.

5) There are kind, moral, and religious people who are not frum and not Jewish. B”H, on this website I should not have to convince anyone of this. Make sure your kids know this too.

Strategies for students:

1) Time management – students have lots of free time. They’re not in class much, all their food and other necessities are taken care of for them, and, especially liberal arts majors, don’t have much homework. But the free time may be scattered throughout the day and it may not line up with other people’s free time. Students need to learn how to maximize their free time for useful endeavors.

2) Know what situations you might be in and know tha answer before-hand. I’m not a fan of speculating on every possible thing that can happen but some things have a good chance of happening so think about it before hand. Here’s an example: you’re working on a group project. If the project goes well there’s a decent chance someone may suggest going out as a group to a restaurant or bar. Should you go at all? If you go can you eat or drink anything? Thinking about this in advance will help you answer properly when the situation comes up. Another example: you learn with a non-frum chavrusa in the “Study with a Buddy” program. Your chavrusa may invite you to a party, a get-together, or some other event. Do you go? If you go, how much do you participate? Will you walk out if something happens that you do not approve of?

3) Learn practical halacha (especially laws about the kitchen) – you’ll need it.

4) Intense secular studies needs intense Torah studies. There is a lot of chochmah on a college campus. It’s intricate, complex, beautiful… and it can make Torah seem dull by comparison. Unless you can see the beauty and complexity of Torah. Study Torah deeply and intensely! Do not settle for superficial learning. Make up a goals per week and per semester – but be realistic. You can finish shas mishnayos while on campus. You can finish gmara mo’ed. You can learn all of Shulchan Aruch! See how long it is and how much needs to be done on average each day (it’s not much) … Understand that you won’t learn that much during mid-terms and finals. Know this in advance and get back into learning afterwards. If you pull all-nighters for work, pull all nighters for Torah (after midterms or finals please)!

The above are only a few suggestions that people may want to utilize in preparing for a studenton a secular campus. The list is not exhaustive and, of course, individuals need individual preparation.Another series of suggestions from a different approach can be found here.

I have a picture of the ideal Orthodox community on a secular campus. It’s made up of students who are impeccably honest, selflessly helpful, and fiercely proud of their religion. This community is a beacon of moral clarity on a landscape of moral relativity. Jews in this community treat others with respect and dignity while strongly protesting secularism and moral relativity. This community sanctifies the name of God and is a true ‘kingdom of priests.’ To such a community, others would come flocking. There is truly a thirst for knowledge on a college campus – and only a truly religous community will demonstrate that this thirst is a manifestation of the ultimate thirst – “Not a thirst for water, but to hear the words of the Lord” (Habakkuk 2:14).

Thoughts for Those With Non Observant Spouses

My marriage since becoming observant has been a very painful reality for me. Don’t get me wrong, I am married to a wonderful man. The painful part is that we don’t share a commitment to living a Torah life.

In the Jewish community, people often talk about the “intermarriage problem.” But marrying a Jew isn’t enough. The ideal situation is clearly to marry a Jew who shares your definition of “Jewish home,” “raising Jewish children,” and “observing Jewish law/rituals/practices” (or at least compatible, similar definition). The problem for BTs is that our definition of all those things has changed, which increases the odds that we are married to someone who isn’t frum and doesn’t want to be.

When I met my future husband, I was moving at a glacial speed towards observant Judaism (I intellectually knew Orthodox Judaism was the only sort of Judaism that rationally made sense to me, but I was living a largely secular life). My husband is Jewish, but never had much of any exposure to Judaism growing up, and our secular lifestyle suited him just fine. But after about two years of marriage, my Jewish glacier melted and became a fast moving torrent of new observances.

Of course, as you might imagine, I tried all sorts of methods to encourage my husband to take up my new found Judaism. I asked nicely, I sent web links, I bought him books, I begged, I bribed, I threatened. None of that worked, but it did bring our marriage dangerously close to divorce. Hopefully, if you find yourself in a similar situation, then you can do as I say and not as I did.

First, you should know that at least in the beginning, you are likely going to be the major (if not the only) source of Yiddishkeit in your home. Instead of bemoaning the fact that your spouse doesn’t act like a husband or wife in a traditional Jewish home, perhaps you can get to a point where you appreciate the opportunity to be such a bright light for your family.

Second, take the time to find out why your spouse isn’t interested in becoming more observant. It may be that there are things that you can do to make observing some mitzvot more comfortable for him or her. Perhaps lack of knowledge, feeling uncomfortable, or the magnitude of commitment a Torah lifestyle requires are stumbling blocks for your spouse. Look for opportunities to help your spouse participate (if he or she is willing). For example, transliterated blessings with instructions on how to light Hanukkah candles helped my husband light a menorah for the first time this past Hanukkah. He was able to do it without my help, so rather than feeling infantilized he felt empowered.

Third, you really do catch more flies with honey. You can’t force your spouse to be observant, but you can show him or her how beautiful and meaningful an observant life can be. I doubt there is a person on the planet who became frum because his or her spouse constantly criticized all the things he or she was doing that were “wrong.” But there are many among us who started becoming more observant because of someone else showing us kindness and compassion.

Fourth, it is helpful to find compromises instead of fights. If your spouse still wants to eat food from a non-kosher restaurant, then maybe you can agree that he won’t bring it into your home. Obviously you don’t want to compromise your own commitment to halacha (or that of your children, if you have them). But it’s important to your marriage that everything is not a fight.

Finally, I’ll end with what is probably my most controversial idea. If you are committed to staying married, then you will have to learn to respect the fact that your spouse may never observe Judaism the way you do. You can pray, encourage and lead by example, but you simply cannot force someone to be observant.

Work Situations – A Colleague’s Son’s Bar Mitzvah

A colleague’s son is having a Bar Mitzvah in a non-Orthodox setting. The son went to Hebrew school, and the father has shown some interest in Yiddishkeit. You’re invited and can’t make it to the party, but would like to purchase a gift. Do you give:

1) A non-religious gift

2) A religious article such as a pushka or a menora

3) An english sefer on a Torah topic

If you opt for choice 3), what sefer would you give.

Hard Time in a Hard Holy Land

One of the most troubling threads of discussion to emerge from this blog is the firm, virtually unanimous line of warning from Americans, particularly BT’s, who have chosen to make Israel their home — or those who, having made that decision once, concluded it was the wrong one for them, and have returned to their countries of origin. Having just come back from a trip to Israel, where I stayed in the largely North American enclave of Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph, I found this discussion particularly compelling. It is clear, based on my observations, discussions with American olim, and the majority of commentators here on this topic, that the cultural environment for North American BT’s who wish to find a place in Haredi life in Israel is brutally harsh. I can understand many reasons why this may be so. Some of them suggest rather harsh observations as well, and ones that we should learn from for our own sakes.

Fundamentally, American haredism and Israeli haredism bear largely superficial relations to each other. The differences are more fundamental than the similarities. You might object to this and insist that it is an overstatement; both kind of haredim, after all, are committed to scrupulous observance of halacha, including the cultural pressure points of tzenius and limud hatorah. But there are substantial populations withing the dati leumi camp, including those who consider themselves a sort of cross between haredim and datiim — chardal, they call themselves (Haredi Leumi — Nationalist Haredim) — who fit this description as well. Datiim also observe Shabbos and kashrus, all with varying degrees of stringency. Yes, non-hasidic haredim consider themselves in the same camp as hasidim; but probably not as many hasidim as they’d like to think agree.

But haredi society in Israel is so profoundly different from that of the group that uses the same name here (including hasidim to a large extent) that American olim have found it necessary to build their own camps. It is widely understood among Americans, and according to many it is daas torah, that Americans should live and learn mainly separately from Israelis, even in Israel. There are a number of very significant differences, and they don’t all have to do with hashkofah (outlook or philosophy).

One does: In Israeli haredi society (non-hasidic), men are simply not supposed to work for a living. Men learn. The “elite” includes everyone, except those who wish never to be regarded as fully frum. In America, by contrast, while there is a large and culturally very significant cadre of full-time learners, there is a place of honor at the table for the learned baalebos (“householder” or layman). This does not solve all our economic and social problems — witness the threads here about yeshiva tuition, for example — but it does mean we have a society in which the expectation of a man who is the head of a household being supported by others is not the default position. It is not an understatement to say that this is a profound difference between American and Israeli haredi society, and evidently men who learned in yeshiva for years, BT or otherwise, who get to Israel after having already left the beis medrash and begun to take personal and direct responsibility for their families’ sustenance, discover that they are at best second-class citizens in the eyes of Israeli haredim. This is regardless of their level of Torah knowledge, frumkeit and observance, and it is, from what I gather and from what I can project in my own case — because who does not visit Israel and muse of staying there? — demoralizing to say the least.

That is the easy one. The second main thrust of criticism that I have gleaned is far less amenable to interpretation as an artifact of idealism, and it is this: Haredi life in Israel is brutal. Some of this is the result of the first issue; where an entire social group lives on handouts, and insists that it is entitled to them by virtue of the spiritual benefit if bestows on those from whom it makes this demands, let us just say there will be… resistance. And gnawing, growing need. Corruption is almost inevitable. Every sort of tribal and clannish behavior is found and, unfortunately, rewarded by the system. Schools and seminaries become personal fiefdoms. The Israeli political system — recognized as one of the free world’s most corrupt — being largely the benefactor of an entire ethnic and cultural sector, inevitably leeches its crooked ethos into the soil from which even the most idealistic blooms grow. To an American, this is inevitable: Earthly sustenance disconnected from effort is contrary to the Protestant work ethic that every American, including orthodox Jews, believes in, even as we acknowledge abstractly that our work is only hishtadlus (a contribution of external effort) and that parnosah itself is awarded only by the grace of God. Here we say it; there, they live it. In fact they live it so profoundly there that they have political parties whose sole job is to press forward with enforcing the grace of God in the Knesset. It is inconceivable that American olim do not view this cynically, and that it chips away at their idealism.

(In a similar vein, Americans raised on concepts — however much observed more in the breach — of fair play and communal responsibility, the idea of living in a place and not contributing to its physical security, regardless of the spiritual station you assign yourself, is itself seen in largely unflattering terms — especially by many BTs. I cannot say, however, that I have observed this particular point to be one which has resulted in a large amount of American aliyah disfunction among haredim. Perhaps this is because of the widespread and reasonable observation that the Israeli political and philosophical hashkofah and utterly un-tzenius lifestyle that are part and parcel of military service are really so offensive to Torah values.)

Americans are told, or find out the hard way, that the system is “different” in Israel, and some of it is because of these profound structural differences. There are more. There is no question that despite the existence of chesed and tzedaka on phenomenal levels in Israeli society, there is a harshness in personal interrelations that simply does not comport with conception of Jewish middos that we learn about and try to inculcate in our children and ourselves. This Old World harshness, almost a certain brutality, is far more commonplace in Israel than in America.

This is not entirely surprising. In America, we go out of our way to avoid giving offense; making friends, being socially accepted by broad categories of persons, and even obsequiousness are considered ways to get ahead. One of our all-time biggest sellers is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. A recent article discussed how this book is being used in haredi communities here, such as hasidim, where such concepts are utterly foreign; but to Israelis, the promulgation of such ideas seems preposterous. Israelis joke about their style, but to fresh-scrubbed Americans, driving (it seems) to kill, assertive and widespread tobacco use, physical violence — all known phenomena in the Israel haredi world that cannot be blamed on exposure to the krum (gross) host culture — frankly seem abominable to North American eyes. To strangers, often lacking roots and native skills, such as language, the coldness and lack of outer warmth is more than off-putting. It can be a genuine challenge to religious inspiration, to say the least.

And finally, there is that issue of roots. I mentioned clannishness briefly. The English-language journalism, and the “reports” from the field in Israel, are clear: There is tremendous polarization along ethnic and “racial” lines among Jews in Israel, and these prejudices are very much alive among haredim. One recent article described an ehrliche (sincere) haredi parent’s attempt to enroll his child in a cheder, which was unsuccesful in cheder after cheder until he was given the advice to just plain lie about his children’s Sefardi grandparents on his mother’s side. We have Ashkenazi and Sefardi camps here, too, but I cannot fathom such a story in any but the most obscure communities, if then, in chutz l’aretz.

Undoubtedly, Israeli haredim are on the front lines of a very profound kulturkampf, a fight for the soul of the Jewish people that is being played out in very stark terms. But where there is war, there are uniforms — rigidly enforced; there are casualties — however regrettably; and there are atrocities — so to speak. Yes, I remain more than impressed — positively inspired — by the wellspring of enthusiasm and, yes, idealism by olim who have grown and blossomed and flourished in our eretz hakadosh. The growth of Torah to historically phenomenal levels can only be a sign of Heavenly approval. When I was in Israel, especially as I walked the streets of Jerusalem, I felt truly at home. Perhaps it is because I am a native New Yorker, but to me it is Jerusalem that I picture when I imagine, fantasize really, about living in Israel. But as my youthful enthusiasm gives way to reality and the acceptance of who and where I am, I have realized and learned that, unfortunately, there is almost no conceivable way I can be there, short of the miraculous Redemption, in the foreseeable future. What pains me most, though, is the realization that this fantasy, like so many others, can perhaps only be nurtured in the abstract, and that from what I have read, seen and heard, this love may well be unrequited.

We are, after all, in galus.

Some Links

A Simple Jew has Questions & Answers With Bob Miller – Midwestern Derech Eretz. An Excerpt:

I found some remarkable articles on the Web by Professor Deborah Tannen that clarify some misunderstood aspects of New York City (and Jewish) interpersonal behavior (see here and here). The gist of this is that some aspects of NYC conversational style and general American conversational style (as in the Midwest) are so different as to cause major misunderstandings about intent, character, etc.

Reading this material, I began to understand certain things that have happened in my life as a displaced New Yorker who has lived many years in the Midwest and other places outside Greater New York. It told me that much of what we take to be an indicator of derech eretz or the lack of it has to do more with local mannerisms than intent.

That said, I have noticed areas where derech eretz really does seem better in the Midwest:

1. People say “Good Shabbos” even to Jews on the street who are not their friends, relatives, or teachers, and are not dressed in the same Shabbos uniform.

2. Store personnel are generally friendly to customers and vice versa.

Read the whole thing.

Boruch Horowitz on Chulent, The View from the Fringes, and Blogging.

How can the Orthodox world prevent the need for “cities of refuge”? True, there will always be rebels, but not every person who doesn’t neatly fit in is a rebel. Sometimes, we have to be more understanding when thinking about why people do not conform easily. Such people may be working bnei torah, older singles, or people struggling with issues of faith and doubt. If there is something that the Frum community can do to minimize the phenomenon, then we should be doing it.

Rabbi Noson Weisz on Jewish Reality Checks

Every time we read Ki Tisa, we are freshly overwhelmed by the sin of the Golden Calf. How could the Jewish people construct and serve an idol a mere forty days after having heard the commandment “You shall not recognize other gods in My presence” from God’s own mouth at the foot of Mt. Sinai? Apart from the enormity of the sin involved, the fact that it was intellectually possible for the Jews to believe that such an idol had any power is incomprehensible. How could such great people have made such a silly mistake?

But the question goes even deeper. How could any intelligent human being possibly bow down to a statue? What is idolatry any way, and why are there so many injunctions in the Torah against it?

The OU Passover Guide is available here.

Approaching Mesillas Yesharim

Approaching Mesillas Yesharim can be a daunting task. The Ramchal is talking about reaching very high levels and most of us are still in the starting gate. The Ramchal was a master of systemization and in Mesillas Yesharim he presents a path to reach the highest levels a person can reach in this world. It’s a step by step process with many hurdles to jump along the way.

A person might say that this path is too hard for me, I’ll take an easier one. Is that a real alternative? The Ramchal’s path is firmly based on Torah sources and it’s what G-d expects of us. We may not reach the highest levels, but we have an obligation to understand the game plan as laid out in the Mesillas Yesharim and try to follow it given our set of circumstances.

A wonderful thing about Mesillas Yesharim is that it spells out the many pitfalls to spiritual growth. As the Ramchal points out, how foolish it would be to ignore those obstacles. And as an added bonus, the Mesillas Yesharim is loaded with ideas and techniques on how to overcome them.

Let’s deal with one basic idea which I heard directly from Rabbi Welcher and from Rabbi Shafier on a Shmuz mp3 this week. That simple idea is that we must THINK. Rabbi Shaffier points out the Tom Watson turned IBM into a mega-successful company with this simple mantra – Think! Rabbi Welcher pointed out that this is one of the main mussar lessons he has learned from he Rebbeim and from the Mesillas Yesharim.

That might seem like an obvious lesson, but it takes work to put it into practice. How often do we daven or do other mitzvos by rote? The halacha says we should think about what we are doing, but we often don’t follow that obvious perscription. How about our interactions with others? Do we really think about the effect our words might have and even what effect we would want them to have? And how about life itself? We believe that spirituality is more important than materialism, but how consistently do we live the spiritually focused life? I’m sure everybody can come up with many examples of where a little more Thinking is called for.

This is the first message of the Mesillas Yesharim and the point he makes often through out the book. THINK! Think about where you are, think about where you want to go, think about how you’re going to get there. Think about the long term and think about the short term. In fact, think about everything you do.

That’s what we’re going to try to do as we journey on the Path of the Just together. We’re going to learn to put proper thinking into practice, to make it a habit. And from making thinking a habit, we will, G-d willing, turn ourselves into mega-successful human beings, and turn the world into the mega-successful place it is destined to become.

This learning project is dedicated in memory of Sarah Bas Reb Eliezer Kops. We would like to again thank Feldheim Publishers for permitted us to post R’ Yosef Leiber’s translation. You can review the first chapter below.
Read more Approaching Mesillas Yesharim

Book Review: Shidduch Secrets

I was browsing the Aish website one day when I came across an article called “The Pickiness Factor”, the article was a shorter version of the first half of the book “Shidduch Secrets” written by Leah Jacobs and Shaindy Marks. I found certain aspects of this article to ring true to me and I decided to order the book.

The first part of the book focuses on blocks that might be getting in the way of someone trying to find his/her soulmate. At the end of each chapter, the authors list four or five questions that pertain to a particular block. The reader is supposed to think carefully about whether each question applies to him/her. There are no right or wrong answers, as long as you are honest. You could find that one or two blocks completely apply to you or you might find that you have elements of more than 1-2 blocks that you have to work on. It is important to keep these blocks in mind for the 2nd part of the book.

In the 2nd part of the book, the authors ask you to write down a list of what you want in your soulmate, you can write down anything that comes to mind. Eventually, you will have your list of Top 10 character traits that you are looking for in a potential spouse. The authors go over ways to decide which traits are the most important on your list. After the list, the final chapters focus on: how to date using your Top 10 list; how to naviagate going to a matchmaker;, what questions you should ask of your dates in the beginning stages; how to proceed if you come across issues in the dating process (if you find out something not so nice about your date).

Throughout the book, the authors use stories from their clients to illustrate their points. I like that approach because in most cases you can relate to these stories and you have an easier time understanding the ideas behind the book. Anyone who is dating for the purpoes of marriage or who knows of anyone dating for the purpose of marriage should read this book.

Music Lessons

As I was putting our seven year old to bed the other night, we were trying to decide what CD he should listen to. He was pushing for something lively (a Piamenta Band disc), but I put on something a bit more mellow instead (Jonathan Rimberg’s Kumzitz CD).

When it started playing my son said, “Abba, is this the guy who wasn’t Jewish?”

Puzzled I asked him what he meant. My son said, “You know, the guy who didn’t keep Torah and Mitzvos when he was a little boy, like you?”

I explained to my son that the artist he was thinking of (Yitzchak Halevi) was born Jewish. He didn’t become Jewish like Tzipporah and Yisro did (he had just learned about them a few weeks ago).

I told him that some people like me, just didn’t grow up knowing about Hashem, his Torah, and never had a chance to go to a day school. To say that they were “not Jewish” isn’t the appropriate term.

I then said that The appropriate term is Baal Teshuvah, someone who returns to Hashem and a life of Torah and Mitzvos. The concept wasn’t new to him, as he remembered when my wife and I were NCSY chapter advisors.

My son then said, “Abba, you’re a Baal Teshuva, right?”

I answered, “Yes.”

He then said, “Cool. So it’s, like, Elul and Tishrei for you the whole year, huh? That’s awesome.”

Impressed and moved by his observation, I could only reply, “It should be,” and I gave him a hug and said, “Shluff Gazunt” (good night in yiddish).