Getting Past BT Burnout

In the two months before Pesach, I had decided I’d had enough. My day was too full to work in the davening, the tehillim, the perek shirah, etc. etc., and still take care of my household responsibilities, a full-time job and a two-hour a day commute.

So I stopped davening.

I’d get up in the morning, make my coffee, sit down at my computer and check out my blogsites, all the while suppressing this nagging guilty feeling.

I told myself it didn’t matter, I’d get back to davening soon, that I was just tired and needed to regroup.

I went through my defiant phase — who needs davening, why bother, what good does it do, I bet half the women in my shul don’t daven, etc. etc. etc.

But while I was having this debate in my head, my external world was collapsing around me.

Our bankroll got thin.

I was tired, grouchy, depressed, inert.

I couldn’t motivate myself to do anything, let alone daven.

Work was hard, things went wrong, plates, broke, I ached, we argued.

And all the time I kept thinking — this is a slippery slope. How can you say you’re “frum” if you don’t even talk to Hashem?

“What’s your problem,” I asked myself. “You keep kosher, you light your candles, you do the important things. So who needs to daven? If I say a little prayer here and there, and remember to say my brochas for eating and going to the washroom, shouldn’t that be enough?”

I’ve done this before, dropped tehillim, stopped davening, davened rushed or badly, given up on perek shirah, until I pulled myself out of the funk.

It is so obvious to me that when I drop my responsibilities to Hashem, my personal world goes very wrong. Things are just harder, as if you’re trying to climb up a hill with a 50-pound bag of sand on your back.

I’m not saying I’m being punished. I think being a BT is forever this crab walk of sideways skittering, two steps forward and two steps back. But this awful feeling of abrogation, of dereliction of duty, of leaving things unfinished, that’s the hardest to take.

I committed to starting up again on Erev Pesach this year. I would pick up the football and run with it. And I did — the whole nine yards (figuratively speaking).

And have been faithfully doing so every since.

And my world is going smoothly.

The bills are paid.

The work is fun and challenging but not frustrating.

My relationship with my husband and others is excellent.

And the sun shines every day, even when it rains.

There’s no doubt in my mind that when you finally understand our sole job is to serve Hashem, everything begins to make sense. The priorities click back into place. Everything becomes a little easier and a little clearer.

I’m not sure, but I suspect that even a BT who decides it’s too much and goes back to his old secular way of life will never be the same again. They’ve had a taste of Gan Eden on earth by seeing a glimpse of kedushah and seeing their part in Hashem’s plan, and it will have left an indelible mark.

The ‘Good Person’ Test

From my personal experience, whenever a religious person is dragged into a discussion about religion with a combative non-religious person, the first thing the non-religious person tries to emphasise is how they / their spouse / children / siblings / whoever are ‘good people’.

The argument, which I’m sure must be familiar to other readers of Beyond BT, goes like this: “It doesn’t matter if I / they / whoever keep the mitzvot. What matters is that we are good people.”

I’ve ruminated a lot about this over the years, because without an objective guide to what constitutes a ‘good person’, anyone can claim the title. In some cultures, you can blow yourself up – killing tens of people in the process – and be acclaimed as a ‘good person’. In other cultures, it’s enough to say that you’ve ‘never hurt anyone else’. Apart from the fact that this is a massive fib – everyone has done something to hurt or upset someone else, however unintentional, accidental or minor – it also doesn’t say very much about a person’s character if that is their only claim to fame.

Case in point: an old lady is being mugged. I stand to one side and let her assailant get on with it. Maybe I try to pick her up off the floor, or maybe I don’t. But the point is, I can still claim to be a good person.

Today, ‘good’ for many people seems to be defined simply as an absence of bad – which is why someone who is just a ‘good person’ could never be called a good Jew. Because being a good Jew requires actions.

A good Jew puts on tefillin, keeps Shabbat, keeps kosher etc etc. But I don’t want to dwell on the mitvot between G-d and man in this post, as I feel that doing so often obscures the far more compelling argument about how living a Torah-true life is the single best guarantee of being a good person.

Instead, I want to look at the mitzvoth between man and man. A good Jew is required to give at least 10% of their income to tzedeka every month. Whether or not they feel like it; whether or not they have house renovations to complete or new cars to buy; whether they are rolling in green or struggling to make ends meet.

A ’good person’, by contrast, is not.

A good jew is required to treat their parents with the utmost respect – to stand up for them, to take care of them, to speak politely to them at all times, even in the midst of a heated disagreement or argument.

A good person is not.

A good Jew is commanded to always try to judge their peers favourably; to be humble; to avoid speaking loshon hara; and to do acts of kindness whenever and wherever they can.

A good person is not.

You get the idea. I know that there are many non-observant people who are real mensches; they are kind, generous, considerate of others and principled. I also know that there are many outwardly-observant people who are not; they often don’t treat other people very nicely and display all manner of character flaws.

None of us are perfect. But what all the mensches, both religious and not religious have in common is this: they would never presume to call themselves a good person, because they understand all too well that while they are making significant progress in many areas of their live, there are many other areas that still require a lot of hard work, effort and honesty.

Conversely, the world abounds in self-proclaimed good people. I know ‘good people’ who treat others incredibly insensitively – even brutally; yet they retain their ‘good persona’ in their own eyes because they never take the time to evaluate their actions objectively, and simply can’t admit to ever doing something wrong.

Sometimes the cognitive dissonance is overwhelming. I once had a conversation on a London tube with a ‘good person’ who spent half an hour complaining about anti-social behaviour and how no-one ever thinks about anyone else anymore – who then stowed his empty starbucks cup carefully next to one of the seats, before getting off, instead of taking it with him and chucking it in the bin.

Other examples: the man earning a 7 figure income who claims to be charitable because he gives a pound coin to collectors on the street; the caring relatives who always seem to schedule family get togethers on fast days, and then complain about you ‘spoiling it’ for everyone else.

I’m not a good person: I’m a person who is trying very hard to do more good things than bad in life, and who is trying very hard to identify my problem areas and to work on them.

Which is why when I get lectured by ‘good people’, particularly non-religious ones, about how I should be behaving or acting, it sometimes takes all my strength to nod, smile and pretend to agree.

I know that G-d wants me to apologise, even when it’s not my fault, if it means keeping the peace; to risk being a ‘sucker’ if it means helping a fellow jew out; and to understand that try as I might, I will always be a work in progress, and far from perfect.

The biggest irony of all is that often, it’s only my yiddishkeit that keeps me trying to build bridges and be more understanding of these ‘good people’, when left to myself, I’d prefer to have nothing to do with them. The same religious practises that they like to knock, denigrate and deny are the only reason I can smile when they tell me this, nod sympathetically and invite them back again for more food and prating.

I struggle with it, I really do, as sometimes the provocation is overwhelming. But I know that if I answer back, go on the offensive, or don’t make every effort to judge them favourably, I won’t be acting like a good jew; but I probably would be acting like a good person.

Powerless

What would you do if you were one of the world’s greatest magicians? No, not like David Blaine and slight of hand type magic, but real magic. Would you sell your abilities to become wealthy? If you knew God blessed you with these abilities would you use them to do something He didn’t want you to do?

Is there real magic?

The forces of power in the world are created by God and some people have figured out how to tap into them. We often find that which we desperately seek. Many of us are curious, fascinated, or skeptical of strange powers, ESP, psychics, or people into real magic. But some people strongly gravitate towards impure forces, and try in many ways to acquire unusual abilities. Others are merely “blessed” with these abilities.

Everything in life is a test and a challenge. In the areas of normal human behavior we have lots of challenges. Relationships, work, honesty, love, a lifetime of spiritual struggles follows all of us around. Along with life’s struggles comes challenges and difficulties that we don’t relate to as a spiritual task, but rather merely a hurdle from the natural world. We wish we could magically avoid or overcome the hurdle. Is this the fascination with Super Heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman? Do they help us vicariously enjoy the world through the fantasy of extra abilities?

Bilaam, the ancient sorcerer

Bilaam was one man who had special abilities and those talents merely allowed him to do more spiritual damage and become more of an egotist. His self-worth was so large that he thought he deserved the royal treatment. In Numbers Chapter 22 we see a person who appears on the outside to righteous and only want to do what God wants. Yet we see how easily he is lead to do that which we know God doesn’t want. How come? Because it’s all a show. He really doesn’t care about God, even though he recognizes Him as the source of his blessings. He is blinded by honor and gifts.

This is precisely the danger of special abilities. The stronger you are, the more people you have the power to help and to hurt.

As human beings we have incredible abilities that largely go untapped. And all the more so we are able to ask the Almighty for assistance that we lack in many areas. We are able to ask God to save our life, heal the sick, stop a war, and He often answers our prayers.

One request remains as one of the most important and often forgotten. That request is for the ability to use whatever blessings we receive only for the good. Let us not fall into the trap of using our blessings to go away from our Benefactor. What would be more of an insult to Him than that?

Baalei Teshuva often have blessing they were given because of the circumstances of their upbringing. Some want to ignore these blessings. Some are embarrassed about them. Some give them up as if they are tainted.

Nothing is an accident. If you feel like there’s something wrong the way you grew up and therefore there’s something wrong with the blessings you possess, you may be correct. But you may also be very incorrect. It might even be an extreme lack of appreciation to God to ignore or reject the blessings you have.

An alternative to shunning our blessings is to pray for assistance to use the blessings correctly.

God still runs the world

As one sage once put it, “God runs almost everything in the entire world. And the last bit left.He also controls.”

Even with all of his abilities, Bilaam was still unable to curse the Jewish people, as Balak, the king wanted him to. It wasn’t for lack of trying. He did his best, but when he opened his mouth to curse, God put in his words a blessing.

A person can point a gun, but if the Almighty really doesn’t want the victim to die, they’ll survive, or the bullet will jam, or the shooter will miss. There are so many ways for Him to circumvent the plan of the killer. Its part of the plan of life that the Almighty gives us free will and doesn’t force us into doing mitzvos or avoiding transgressions. But that doesn’t mean if He really wants to stop something from happening He can’t. He can and He does, often.

The real thing

Why did Balak choose Bilaam to hire to curse the Jews. Because he recognized their true power lies in their mouths. Prayer is the true power of the servants of God, so Balak looked for someone else who had the power of the mouth to fight them.

Our power is prayer. That’s what helps us the most because with prayer you can tap into the power of the Almighty. With His help, is there anything you can’t accomplish?

Don’t waste your time with minor powers like magic, ESP, and psychic abilities. Develop the power of prayer and you can have the world in the palm of your hand.

Metamorphasis of a Teenage Punk

Sometime back Ezzie sent us this post from a frequent guest contributor to his site. I believe the post was also up for a JIB Award.

By Pobodys Nerfect
The following is an essay that I wrote for English class, on the topic, “Growing Up.” Enjoy.

Many people have a hard time digesting the following information about my past, but I guarantee it is no jest. Despite my current appearance as a happy, religious, and overall normal young adult, my turbulent teenage years saw me as an angry and rebellious punk. For some, the most shocking aspect of my transformation is that I speak about it readily; they expect a closed attitude of, “Let history remain history and move on.” However, I feel differently. Though my past may conjure up some unpleasant memories, I have made a conscious decision to learn from my experiences and use the lessons to better my present and my future.

During my early high-school years, I hated everything Judaism represented, mostly because it had been misrepresented to me. Many teachers refused to acknowledge my questions on the existence of G-d or explain the traditions we were being instructed to practice. My persistence in questioning eventually rewarded me with answers, and I am ever thankful to the patient few who guided me in the proper direction. The truly influential people in my life were the ones who never forced their beliefs on me, allowing me to instead come to my own realizations. What affected me perhaps the most was that I saw my mentors apply the principles they were teaching into their own lives. I anticipate the day when I can use the knowledge and insights I gained through my journey to help others who are seeking the truth.

The change in my attitude towards Judaism brought about a change in my outer appearance as well. My wardrobe back then was very black- right down to my nail polish and spiked leather bracelet. Like most teenagers, I was expressing myself through clothing. My goal was to convey to the world that I was displeased with everything life had to offer. Since my spiritual metamorphosis, my closet has also morphed into a more conservative, button-down blouse and kick-pleated skirt style. Due to my drastic change, I that people would be changing their mental judgments of me. This brought me to the realization that dressing as an observant Jew is a responsibility. My future actions would be stereotyped as typical of Orthodox Jewry, whether that became my objective or not. It is my hope that I can accurately represent my people and my faith before a judging world.

Perhaps the most important discovery I made as a teenager was about the true path to happiness. I spent much of my punk stage miserable that my life wasn’t perfect. I blamed my unhappiness on the dysfunctions of my family and on my own character flaws. What I didn’t realize was that I was bringing about my own sadness; I was not allowing myself to become happy. Happiness requires constant effort and self-control to keep from thinking depressing thoughts. That might be to be a lifetime battle, but I am confident I will succeed.

To quote the character Rafiki from Disney’s The Lion King, “Oh yes, the past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it, or learn from it.” My experiences as a teenage punk helped form the person I am today. The journey is not over, but I hope to take the lessons I’ve acquired with me as I struggle to soar higher.

Beyond BT Beyond Borders- Melava Malka in Eretz Yisrael

The Beyond BT Melava Malka in Eretz Yisroel is scheduled for THIS MOETZAE SHABBOS,May 26th from 9:00-11:30 in Beit Shemesh at the home of Beyond BT contributor Menachem Lipkin.(I believe his daughter will be there as well, so you can ask all of the questions you want about their letters ;) ) For location details and directions, please e-mail msl at lipkinfamily-dot-com.

REMINDER

Preparations for the Passaic Shabbaton are in full swing. We are trying to get an idea of numbers so if you are planning on joining us on July 20-21, please e-mail us at beyondbt@gmail.com

Good Shabbos.

What No One Wants to Talk About

Beyond Teshuva is now just about a a year and a half old. I think we,as a community, have done some great things. We’ve pretty much taken at least some small steps in the direction of our tag line “learning growing, giving”. Our posts have pretty much run the gamut from noserings to sartorial splendor, economic pressures to “Big Fat Secular weddings”. However, there’s one area that I consistently see us failing to address and that is the issue of singles, dating and marriage. Sure, we’ve often detoured into the area and touched upon it on the periphery of related topics. But, no one seems willing to step up and address it head-on. That “no one” includes me.

Maybe together we can bring the issue to the foreground. I will throw out some questions for discussion and hopefully we can start a meaningful dialogue in the comments. Please get involved by giving your input.

Here goes:

Is there really a singles “crisis”?

If so, how did we get here and how do we address it?

Is the problem more difficult for BTs?

How is dating for BTs different than dating for FFBs, if at all?

In general, should BTs date FFBs?

What are some dating mistakes to avoid?

What is the best advice you would give someone who is dating?

How can singles expand their contacts beyond their own local geographic area?

How can the average married person get more involved in shidduchim?

How does the dating process differ between Eretz Yisrael and Chutz La’Aretz?

*** After writing this post, I saw an advertisement for “The Shadchan Magazine” which is a new magazine that states “Here’s what we’re doing about the shidduch crisis” and says “You don’t have to be a shadchan to make a sgidduch. The website is here. Has anyone seen the magazine? Any thoughts?

JIB Awards

Well, the JIB Awards have wrapped up and we’re happy to say that Beyond Teshuva came in Second Place for Best Group Blog. We’d like to thank everyone who voted for us and extend our gratitude to all of you that contribute and comment here on a daily basis. This clearly is a group effort.

We also won the Best Jewish Music Post for Live on the Radio: The Seeds of Teshuva of a Nascent Rock Star. If you haven’t already checked out that post, it’s worthwhile.

The Omer (Part II) The Ultimate TS (Tinok Shenishba)

The tinok shenishba is the “kidnapped Jewish child”.

Question: Who is he kidnapped from, his parents?

Answering that question yes or no would be missing the point. After all,the parents might well be the kidnappers. The tinok shenishba is the Jew who has been kidnapped from Hashem, kidnapped from the vital knowledge requisite to understanding one’s role before G-d. In our day and age it is usually the case that the parents of a tinok shenishba themselves fall into the category of tinok shenishba. One cannot teach what one has never known.

At this moment I am thinking of a particular tinok shenishba. He is a baby, only months old. There is a blood lusting monster who wants this little baby dead and will stop at nothing to see him dead, and this is real. There is no stopping this monster and it intends to scavenge every cranny of every house until it finds this baby and murders him.

The desperate parents know the monster is coming. They take a gamble that offers the baby little hope for survival, but little is better than nothing. A broken-hearted mother waterproofs a basket, gently sets her baby inside, and places the basket amongst the reeds at the edge of a river. The mother’s neshama cries to the high Heavens as she turns around and walks away.

Who would have believed that the deadly monster had a daughter who would find the baby in the river, care for him, and raise him as her own?

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The Omer period begins the night following the initial Seder and is designed for continuous movement up the 50 rung spiritual ladder between the impure and the pure. At the end of seven weeks, 7 x 7 days, the pinnacle of our journey is reached. Next stop: Day number 49 + 1: Shavuous.

Moshe Rabbeinu, the ultimate tinok shenishba, had ascended to the 49th level of purity during his lifetime.

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The numbers 49 and 50 appear to be highly significant and closely related. I am going to speak briefly about Hashem’s Torah codings. First however I have to blow some chaff away from the grain. There are essentially two kinds of Torah Codes, esoteric and clear.

Too many times I have seen the people using esoteric examples to try and discredit the clear codings. One may as well use examples of lamb chops to try and discredit broccoli. They are not the same thing. An esoteric code, for a wild example, might be used to try and discover what color socks I’m going to wear next Tuesday. The clear codes are of a different ilk, as we shall see…and with an Omer bent.

One of the many varieties of Torah codes is known as ELS, or Equidistant Letter Spacing.

I hope you will participate in the rest of this post. Knowledge of the Hebrew alef-beis will be a prerequisite however. Take out a Chumash, and open it up to the first Verse of Bereishis (Genesis). Go to the letter “tav” in the very first word, which is Bereishis. NOW, keep your place, but turn to the first Verse of the second Book of the Torah, Shemos (Exodus). Again look at the “tav” in the beginning, in the word “shemos.”

From both “tavs” count 50 letters. Each time you will arrive on a “vav.”
From both “vavs” count 50 letters. Each time you will arrive on a “reish.”
From both reishes count 50 letters. Each time you will arrive on a “hei.”

Tav – vav – reish – hei spells Torah, and you used the Code of 50 to get there in each case.

I hope you agree when you look at this that there is nothing accidental here. It is clear. It should not be lost on anyone that 50 also matches the 49 + 1 count of the Omer period, as well as the 49 + 1 count that carries us to the Yovel (Jubilee year), when Eretz Yisrael is required to have a Yovel year.

The Code of 50 seems to be the key coding system in the Torah.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Now that you’ve seen the obvious, I’m going to paint a little picture. It’s my picture, so you can like it…or not like it…agree with it…or not agree with it. I think it’s flawless, but you are now the art critic, not me. Here we go.

I own an ELS computer program. Assuming I am using the program correctly, the WORD Torah is found IN THE TORAH 32 times in the Code of 50. 19 of those 32, Torah is spelled forward (Tav-vav-reish-hei), and the other 13 times, Torah is spelled in reverse (hei-reish-vav-Tav). That’s not very many, and we have already seen two of them in the first two words of Bereishis and Shemos.

I’d also like you to know that the word Torah is found only 15 times in the Code of 48, 16 times in the Code of 49, 15 times in the Code of 51, and 16 times in the Code of 52. It seems far more than coincidental that the Code of 50 doubles these numbers: 15 – 16 – 32 – 15 -16. There is much more I can write about this, but I’m trying very hard not to make this piece too
long.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Let’s move on. We look at BaMidbar 8:1, concerning the Menorah in the Mishkan – “…kindle the lamps toward the face of the Menorah…”

That is, the flames on the right are to face toward the left, and the flames on the left are to face toward the right. The flame in the middle is not to join with either side, but acts to bring all the lights together as a unifying force.

I am going to apply this thought to our word Torah by the Code of 50.

The Book of Vayikra is the unifying force in the middle. Indeed, the word Torah is not encoded anywhere around the beginning of Vayikra, neither written forward nor in reverse.

In the next Book, BaMidbar, we return again turn to the very first Verse, this time to the word, “Moshe.” From the “hei,” in Moshe, count every 50 letters. You will again spell Torah, this time in reverse, hei-reish-vav-tav. This would be consistent with facing the middle flame.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This brings us to Devarim. Devarim has a unique and significant difference from the rest of the Torah. Sometimes the Torah is considered to be two volumes. Volume 1, the first four Books, the Word of Hashem, and Volume II, the fifth Book, Devarim, the word of Moshe Rabbeinu.

Devarim, Chapter 1, Verse 1 – “These are the words that Moshe spoke to kol Yisrael…”

You will not find the word Torah in the Code of 50 in the first Verse of Devarim, as you will in Bereishis, Shemos, and BaMidbar. It needs to be taken into account that Devarim is the BOOK OF MOSHE, and Moshe reached the 49th level during his lifetime, not the 50th.

As Moshe’s Book, the fifith book, we turn to Chapter 1 of Devarim, but Verse FIVE. The word Torah is found in the Code of 49, written in reverse, as with Bereishis, Shemos, and BaMidbar, this Devarim code is also facing the center flame. To find this code in Devarim, go the word HaTorah in the 5th Verse (naturally). Now count every 49 letters.

Shavuot Shiur in KGH Area: Bringing Moshiach Through Kiruv

My shul features all-night learning on Shavuot and offers people in the community the chance to speak. I will be speaking on a topic relevant to all of us so I would like to invite anyone in the area to stop on by.

I’m speaking at 3:10 a.m. at Ohr Moshe in Hillcrest, 170-16 73rd Avenue, (corner of 171st and 73rd). It’s a 15 minute walk from Main Street.

There are several incredible sources in the Torah and Chazal that hint at the Kiruv Revolution we’re now in and say that it will immediately precede the coming of the Moshiach. I will go through some of the sources, talk about ways for non-Kiruv professionals to get involved in Kiruv, and will give over some great baalei teshuvah stories.

Of course, there will be plenty of (chalav yisrael) cheesecake, other desserts and coffee to go around.

If you’re interested in the topic but can’t make the shiur, you should get a copy of Rabbi Tauber’s Days are Coming. Rabbi Tauber goes through many of the sources. (The book is out of print but you can find it on-line)

Getting Real and Going Global

One of the things I’ve loved about the whole “Beyond Teshuva” experience has been the ability to meet so many of our fellow bloggers and commentors at live events. We have two such events on the horizon:

Beyond BT Melava Malka in Eretz Yisroel

Mark has already landed in Eretz Yisrael and will be in attendance at the melava malka, moetzae Shabbos, May 26th from 9:00-11:30 in Beit Shemesh at the home of contributor Menachem Lipkin.(I’m stuck here holding down the fort. Man do I need a new agent) For location details and directions, please email msl at lipkinfamily-dot-com.

Shabbaton in Passaic

Preparations are under way for the Passaic shabbaton tentatively Scheduled for July 20-21, please e-mail us at beyondbt@gmail.com if you’re planning to join us.

Good Shabbos and Good Chodesh.

An Exchange of Letters With My Daughter

In preparing to move my newly married daughter out of the house I found two letters that we had exchanged a few years ago. The letters were written in the summer of 2001 while Elisheva, between eighth and ninth grades at the time, was away at camp in the Catskill Mountains and are reprinted below with her permission.

Dear Mommy & Abba,

I don’t really know how to start this letter but I guess I’ll try. Approximately a month ago before camp I came to two decisions. They were made on my own; no one put me up to it. It was something I needed to do for myself. I guess I’ll get right to the point. The first thing I decided is that I won’t wear slits anymore. As of now I don’t have any slitted skirts, so I just won’t buy any with slits. The second thing is (to get right to the point) I don’t want to go to the movie theatre anymore. The last few times I went I just sort of cringe and feel like this is not where I belong. I hope you respect and approve these decisions. I don’t expect you to go out of your way for me, for example on Chol Hamoed. I’ll be fine, I’ll go to a friend or whatever. I really love and admire both of you.

Much Love,

Elisheva

*******

Dear Elisheva,

First of all, Happy Birthday! Wow, you’re 14. It’s hard to believe. Seems like yesterday you were clutching your “pillow”. Oh wait, it was yesterday. (he he)

Regarding your letter to us. Not only do we respect and approve of your decision, but we are very proud of you. As parents we can plant the seeds and nurture the growth of your Yiddishkeit, but we don’t know it has taken root until you begin to grow on your own.

As Baalei Teshuva mommy and I both know how important it is to be able to come to observance on one’s own. Before any of you were born we joked how it would be nice if we could raise our children non-frum so they could become Baalei Teshuva on their own.

The truth is though, a Baal Teshuva is not just someone who goes from eating at McDonald’s to eating at KD [Kosher Delight]. Everyone, no matter how “frum”, can and should be a Baal Teshuva.

Some parents worry when their children become “frummer”. We know that you are a very level-headed person who can tell the difference between true growth in Yiddishkeit and a lot of the “Shtus” out there that people pretend is being “frum”. You also know that Frumkeit is not just on the outside, but also the type of person you are and how you represent Yiddishkeit to other Jews and even non-Jews.

We look forward to watching your continued growth into a true Bas Torah.

Love,

Abba & Mommy

Profiles in Courage

Rabbi Dovid Schwartz

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 1:1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do the Details Really Matter?

People often ask me, “what mitzvah was the hardest one to take on? Was it covering your hair, or eating kosher, or the laws of mikvah?” I reply: “None of the above. It was the attitude change I had to make, which I still struggle with to this day, even after over a decade of observance.”

“Does G-d really care about this detail?” This is the question that haunts me. Why would the creator of the Universe care about whether I wait 3, 4, or 6 hours after eating meat before I enjoy an ice cream cone? Why does the Almighty concern Himself with which bird is sacrificed for which sin, and the actual materials that go into the building of the mishkan? If I listen to music today, or my husband and son get a haircut, and it’s not Lag B’Omer yet, this matters to Hashem? The same creator who gave us oceans, and mountains, and oxygen? Details, details, details, the Torah is filled with millions of them, and my former allegiance to being Reform crops up time and again. I make Judaism a me-centered religion every time I ask this question: “Why can’t I just do it my way instead?”

It’s been sinking in slowly over the last ten years: to become observant means that I believe that G-d does care about these details, and even when I question a certain detail, I ACT as if G-d cares, because I now believe that if it’s in the Torah, and if it’s been passed along by the oral tradition for thousands of years, then G-d really does pay attention to what I put in my mouth, or on my head, or in my heart. I can’t fathom it, but that’s my limitation.

Yesterday I made a silly faux pas in the kitchen, and it led me to think about this question metaphorically.

I was making brownies from scratch for Shabbos — Ultra rich godiva chocolate fudge brownies. Even though I published a kosher cookbook for those concerned about eating kosher food with less fat, calories and carbs, this recipe was NOT in that book! Nothing dietetic about them. I placed them into the oven to bake and started to clean the kitchen. One finger swipe of the chocolate ganache pan told me these brownies were going to be worth the calories. Then I took another finger swipe from the batter bowl — and gagged. It was one of the worst tastes I could ever describe. What went wrong?

It didn’t take long to figure out that I had mixed up the two jars in my kitchen — one that read salt, and one that read sugar. Long ago I poured sugar and salt into glass jars that sit on my kitchen counter to make it easier to bake without shlepping the sugar or salt out of my pantry. Do you know what brownies taste like when you put 1 1/4 cups of salt into the batter instead of 1 1/4 cups of sugar?

Pretty darn awful.

I had to throw away the whole pan, and as I was cleaning up the mess, I got to thinking. I learned my lesson — my salt and sugar will now be put in dissimilar looking jars. I’ll only make this mistake once. But more than that:

What if G-d has a very precise recipe for how the world is supposed to operate, and how I, as a Jew, am supposed to live my life? Maybe the sugar and the salt look a lot a like, but substituting one for the other results in one lousy tasting brownie.

To be observant means that when I’m tempted to substitute my own ways for Hashem’s, I can remember the taste of that brownie gone wrong in my mouth.

Torah is the recipe I am to follow. Lucky for me, there’s more sugar in it than salt.

The Fire Within Her

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

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

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

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

Have You Voted in the JIBs

The JIB Awards are underway and we made it to the Finals in four categories thanks to the Beyond BT community. Since Beyond BT is between 93% and 99% L’Sheim Shmayim (for the sake of heaven) there’s a possibility that if you vote for us and more people get involved with the community, you’ll get credit for a mitzvah.

Click here to vote for Best Group Blog

Click here to vote for Best Jewish Religious Blog

Click here to vote for Best Torah Blog

Click here to vote for Best Jewish Music Post

After (or before) you vote you can perform the mitzvah of Talmud Torah by learning the following Mishna from the second Perek in Pirkei Avos:

“Rabbi said, What is the proper path that one should choose for himself? Whatever is glorious / praiseworthy for himself, and honors him before others. Be careful with a minor mitzvah (commandment) like a severe one, for you do not know the reward for the mitzvos. Consider the loss incurred for performing a mitzvah compared to its reward, and the pleasure received for sinning compared to the punishment. Consider three things and you will not come to sin. Know what is above you – an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a book.”

There Are No Coincidences

I was reviewing the Parsha Friday morning and I realized that I hadn’t informed my Partners in Torah chavrusa that it was a double parsha. My chavrusa loves to learn and each week he reads *every* Art Scroll note and translation on the parsha.

I gave him a call around 10:15 to tell him. He said that he was just sitting down to learn and he noticed Behar was short and he wondered if perhaps it was a double parsha. At exactly that moment my call came in to tell him that it was a double. Pretty cool.

Beit Shemesh Melava Malka and Passaic Shabbaton

The Beit Shemesh Melava Malka is scheduled for May 26th at the home of Menachem Lipkin from 9:00 PM till 11:30 PM. We hope our readers, writers and commentators will join us there. Please e-mail us for the address. beyondbt@gmail.com

The Passaic Shabbaton is currently scheduled for July 21st due to the many camp comings and goings in June and early July. There looks like there will be a limit on the number of people we can accomodate, so if you think you’re coming it would make sense to let us know as soon as practical.

Please Email us at beyondbt@gmail.com with your expressions of intent or if you have any questions.

Pesach Sheini

Last week was Pesach Sheini, the “raindate” for bringing the Korban Pesach for those who were ritually unclean when the first date came around. It wasn’t until I sat down to write this, more than two decades after accepting the yoke of the mitzvos on myself as a young adult with a secular background, that I realized what a profound metaphor this is for baalei teshuva. But every year Pesach is, for me, a watershed of realization of just how much has changed — and how much more there is to do.

That there’s always more to do I understood even before I understood what it meant to be a Jew. I had cut out the quote from Pirkei Avos 2:21, “It is not upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to desist from it,” and posted it on my dormitory door even before I knew where it came from. (No, I am not suggesting the Sages were talking about Pesach cleaning!) The fundamental truth of it spoke to me, as did the implicit insistence that life has meaning, purpose, a goal behind personal achievement and fleeting pleasures. Ironically, Pesach Sheini seems to contradict that message by its apparent focus on a ritual whose moral meaning we don’t readily comprehend. But Pesach has a unique way of reminding me of a very accessible lesson about keeping the Torah. Perhaps we can say it is about bitul — nullification. No, I don’t mean nullifying one’s pride, or one’s ego; I am not the one to preach on that topic. But do let me explain what I mean.

Let me first ask you: Did Pesach just seem to whiz by this year? It did for us. When it comes out the way it did this year, with “no chol hamoed” as we say — there’s an erev Shabbos in it, and an erev yomtov, and another day stuck in there, but by and large they don’t even bother promoting special chol hamoed fairs and concerts — it’s just over as soon as it starts, isn’t it?

Well, when I was a kid we kept a kind of Pesach. Besides our fast-motion sedarim out of the Workman’s Circle Haggadah, there was also the chometz issue. In our family, we didn’t eat bread or bread-like products. As far as we knew, that was observing something. So right until my first visit to yeshiva I was meticulous about eating matzah on Pesach, right up to and including eating a matza-borne cheese steak in college, in which I took great pride of a sort and saw no fatal contradiction.

But my, how long these Pesachs were!

Eight. Endless. Days. Of. Negation.

No bread. No pizza. I’m a carbohydrates guy, see? I felt this negation of desire. Perhaps it buoyed me in a way for my future as an orthodox Jew. The discipline of it, after all, was fairly unique in my life. And I mentioned the pride inherent in eating this traife matzah thing in the middle of a Princeton eating club; that’s a good thing too, right? You can build on that; orthodox Jews have to get used to being oddballs in galus (exile). On the other hand, I remember not enjoying this time. Eight. Endless. Days. Of. Negation.
Read more Pesach Sheini