The Teshuva Journey: The Miraculous Sukkah of Afghanistan

For Rabbi Nosson (Mark) Sachs, a Reserve Chaplain in the U.S. Army, building a Sukkah last year in Afghanistan against all odds showed him Hashem’s hand more clearly than almost any other experience of his life.

Rabbi Sachs traveled to Afghanistan in 2006 for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot to lead services for American personnel. For most of his time there, he was based at the Bagram Air Base. When he arrived, the Presbyterian chaplain at the base assured him that the base had not just one, but two sukkahs for the coming holiday. Rabbi Sachs was ecstatic – of the 15 personnel who attended his Yom Kippur services, 11 said they would be interested in coming back for Sukkot, so two Sukkahs would be enough to seat everyone.

Four days before Sukkot Rabbi Sachs opened the boxes and immediately realized they didn’t hold two Sukkahs, but the broken parts of a single small pop-up Sukkah.

Sukkot was starting on Friday afternoon, so Rabbi Sachs had to quickly design and build a new Sukkah. He sketched plans and brought them to the sergeant major involved with the base’s engineering corps to see if they could build it. The sergeant major handed him a stack of papers which required several signatures.

“How long do you think it will take to build it?” Rabbi Sachs asked. “The holiday starts in four days.”

“Maybe we could finish it by December,” the sergeant major replied.

Rabbi Sachs gulped.

Rabbi Sachs decided to try to build the Sukkah himself. He and the Presbyterian chaplain ran around the base for the next few hours getting all the necessary signatures.

Rabbi Sachs next went to the base’s building supplies store. The two Bosnian Muslims manning the store had never heard of a Sukkah before, but were eager to help. They said all the supplies would be available by Thursday afternoon.

The only items they did not have were metal L brackets to connect the sukkah to one wall of the chapel. In a country of mostly mud huts, metal brackets were almost nonexistent. Finally after an hour driving around the base looking for somewhere to acquire brackets, Rabbi Sachs finally found a building that made aluminum air conditioning ducts.

Rabbi Sachs ran into the building and asked the man inside, this time an Afghani Muslim, if he could make L brackets. He was so excited to make something other than air conditioning ducts.

“How many you need?” the man asked. “I can make a lot. A thousand?”

“Actually no. Twenty will be sufficient,” Rabbi Sachs said.

Rabbi Sachs returned two hours later. The man had made sixty brackets.

Thursday afternoon came and Rabbi Sachs picked up the rest of the materials. He had requested wood beams to build the frame of the Sukkah, but the only beams available were twelve feet long! So he borrowed a saw and began the long process of cutting the wood.

Also on the base were a group of civilian comedians who had been brought to entertain the troops. They were set to return to the U.S. but were unable to arrange a transport out of the country. Soldiers and military supplies are given priority on aircraft in a theater of war, so for civilians not essential to the war effort, finding a way out can be a challenge. Each day the comedians tried to arrange a flight back to America. It was especially pressing as one member of the group was set to get married the following Monday.

The groom happened to walk by Rabbi Sachs as he began cutting the wood and asked what he was doing.

“I’m building a Sukkah,” Rabbi Sachs responded.

“What’s a Sukkah?”

Rabbi Sachs explained the fundamentals of the holiday, and noticed a shocked look on the comedian’s face.

“Is everything okay?” Rabbi Sachs asked.

“You know what my full time job is? I’m a carpenter by trade. A carpenter!” he yelled. “Don’t you get it? Now I understand why I’m stuck here! If I help you, I’ll get out of here.”

“Halleluyah!” Rabbi Sachs shouted.

The carpenter began cutting the wood, and in three hours the two men had assembled the entire frame. And just as the comedian hoped, he and his friends caught the next flight home.

As they were finishing the frame, an officer came by and asked what they were doing. Rabbi Sachs described the fundamentals of the Sukkah.

“What are you going to use for the walls?” the officer asked.

“I’m not sure yet,” Rabbi Sachs said.

“Come with me.”

The officer brought Rabbi Sachs behind his quarters, where there was a large, unused bundle of camouflage netting. When they brought the netting back to the Sukkah frame to see if it would work, it fit to the inch.

For skach Rabbi Sachs used tree branches, but he had another problem: the valley surrounding Bagram experiences extremely strong wind storms every fall afternoon which threatened to blow the branches off the Sukkah.

In another miracle, just as Rabbi Sachs finished assembling his Sukkah, the wind stopped blowing and it didn’t start again until after Sukkot.

Friday night came and 11 Jews joined Rabbi Sachs in the Sukkah for a beautiful meal full of singing and dvrai torah. It was the first time most of them had ever eaten in a Sukkah. Here they were, in the middle of war, and for a few days could have the spiritual bliss brought by the miracle Sukkah of Afghanistan.

As Rabbi Sachs learned, when a Jew tries to bring light to a dark part of the world and inspire Jewish souls, Hashem makes anything possible.

Michael Gros is the Chief Operating Officer of the kiruv organization The Atlanta Scholars’ Kollel. The Teshuva Journey is a monthly column chronicling amazing teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. To share a story or send other comments, email michaelgros@gmail.com To receive the column via email or see back issues, visit http://www.michaelgros.com

Am I More Judgmental of the Non-Observant Since Becoming a BT?

Am I more judgmental of the non-observant since becoming a BT?

This was a question posted by David & Mark to BeyondBT contributors. It’s a good question. One that I constantly ask myself. I feel especially sensitive to this question because before I started becoming more observant, there were several people (both BTs and FFBs) who I felt were judgmental towards me and it was a definite turn off. At one point I even sent in a letter of resignation to an organization I was working with when the coordinators sent me what I felt was an extremely insulting e-mail about my eating at a non-kosher restaurant after an event was over. After that incident, and a few other interactions with people in an orthodox environment who questioned me and put me on the defensive, I pretty much ruled out becoming more observant, in fact, I became almost non-practicing (e.g. High Holidays and Passover only). I didn’t want to be in an environment where I always felt judged.

It wasn’t until years later when I began dating the woman who would become my wife, and being welcomed by her Modern Orthodox family that I again thought of being more observant. This time most of the reaction was positive. Her family never flinched when I made a mistake, or when I spoke of things I did that were not things an observant person does. I also began going to my local Chabad and was welcomed with no questions asked, and no patronizing lectures directed at me. I was told that when I was ready to move up, they were there to help me, and when the time really did come, they were the ones who did help. There were still a few incidents where someone else (usually not in the family, or in Chabad) would overzealously push me before I felt ready (for example, keeping kosher outside the home, which I was working up to) but by this point I had learned to tune them out. I honestly think if others hadn’t made me feel so judged in the past, and instead had helped me to feel welcome and worked with me, I would have become more observant earlier in life. I still regret those years in-between that were full of wasted opportunities.

Now on the occasions when my wife and I have non-observant friends, or family over, I sometimes feel that they are waiting for me to start judging them and tell them what they are doing wrong. However, after my experiences when I was the one being judged, I could never do that to another. Instead, I simply try to make them feel as welcome as people had finally made me feel. As Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man.”

Cleaning the Bottom of Our Pots

By Carolyn

For the first seven years of our marriage, we spent Rosh Hashanah with my husband’s Uncle David and Tante Ursula. It was one of the highlights of our year.

Then we moved home to Massachusetts. While our hearts filled with joy to be near our parents, we always feel a bittersweet lack on Rosh Hashanah away from Uncle David and Tante Ursula.

Whatever we manage to provide for our guests at our own Rosh Hashanah table, our best results are but an ambitious imitation of theirs. Whatever we happen to get right is due to witnessing the sparkling and passionate conversations, learned and inspiring divrei Torah, spontaneous and harmonious singing, delicious and elegantly presented meals, the atmosphere of generosity and appreciation, and the overall kedushah (sanctity) of their home.

As a young bride I found Tante Ursula’s kitchen inspiring. I still do. It was spotless and efficient, yet open and warm. It was overflowing with both love and every tool necessary, yet it was without clutter or waste. It was a serious workplace adorned with fresh flowers and posters from the family’s many travels. Visitors felt as comfortable relaxing over tea on the sofa, as stirring the soup while the pomegranates were being peeled.

The kitchen table held a freshly starched tablecloth in a bright, colorful floral pattern that was both elegant and uncontrived. It was perfectly ironed – without a wrinkle – yet not the least bit stiff. Her kitchen table was a place to linger for a chat after breakfast, to work a crossword, to polish silver, or to play a very unorthodox game of Scrabble.

On my first visit we had been married exactly one month. After dinner the first night of that first Rosh Hashanah, as Tante Ursula and I were putting the stock pots away, she paused and looked meaningfully at me. She said that when she was first married, her aunt told her, “One should always clean the bottom of one’s pots just as carefully and as well as the inside.”

Since we all hail from solid yekkish stock, earnest housecleaning advice certainly could be taken at face value. And Tante Ursula isn’t prone to religious sermonizing. Her insights are more likely to be revealed via reflection on her irreverent quips or ironic turns of phrase. She keeps her soap-boxes neatly stacked in her closet.

Likely due to the Rosh Hashanah mood, or perhaps from the intensity of its delivery, or maybe because my eagerness to collect whatever wisdom from them I could absorb, I knew immediately that this advice could only be about everything but the pots.

The first part was easy. The outside of the pot is what’s visible in public. If this is messy, others will make assumptions about its contents and about the cook. Yet nobody knows what’s really goes on inside someone else’s pot.

Clearly, the inside of the pot is our private behavior, either at home with family, or in solitude. The cleanliness of the inside of the pot is vital to the integrity of the meal. If you don’t clean the inside of the pot, even the most savory roast will be spoiled. Washing the outside at the expense of cleaning the inside is an indication of misplaced priorities.

But the bottom of the pot? What difference could it possibly make if there is a stain that nobody sees, that never touches the food? Who has time to scour the bottom of their pots?

I have to admit, my first internal reaction to Tante Ursula’s advice as we said goodnight, and I retired to the guest room, was dismissive. Whatever she was trying to tell me about homemaking, philosophy, or morality seemed like an exercise in over-achievement, a recipe for nurturing obsessive compulsive disorder. Even for a newlywed yekke with little responsibility and a very small apartment.

Overnight, however, the idea stewed and simmered (sorry, couldn’t resist!) In shul, as I listened to the shofar blowing on that first day of the first Rosh Hashanah of my married life, I was preoccupied with Tante Ursula’s pots.

The shofar, the trumpet-like instrument made from a ram’s horn, is the main symbol of Rosh Hashanah. In fact, when the holiday is mentioned in the Torah, its name is “the time of the shofar blowing”, not “Rosh Hashanah”.

On Rosh Hashanah, we read the part of the Torah that describes Abraham’s binding of his son, Yitzchak, to be sacrificed at G-d’s command. First, G-d calls to Abraham. Abraham responds, “Hinneni” (“Here I am”) , the rest of the events of the Akieda proceed. Eventually the ram stuck by his horns in the thicket is discovered, and everyone (except the ram) lives either happily thereafter or not, depending on whose interpretation you prefer.

Similarly, the sound of the shofar heralded the events at Mount Sinai. Just before the Torah was revealed to us, as one nation, we said a plural parallel to “hinneni”, “Naaseh v’Nishma”, (“We will do and we will hear/understand.”)

This phrase, “Naaseh v’Nishma” represents Judaism’s focus on the value of behavior before belief. Belief, understanding, and faith are experienced as a result of action. Performing a good deed with imperfect motives is preferable to refraining from acting, waiting until the motives are pure. Ultimately, over time and through repetition, proper motives will come to accompany proper behavior.

What a relief that ones merits can accrue directly from actions, which are concrete and observable! How liberating to be free of the need to produce faith on demand, or to expect it of others. We, the nation of Israel, struggle with G-d. We are not judged by the current status of the struggle, but by our willingness to engage in it, and by our behaviour.

I have always taken refuge and found comfort in this approach, because the “naaseh” part is in my hands. I control how I behave. That second part, the “nishma” – the belief, the understanding, the faith – often eludes me. When asked about personal issues of faith, I’d respond, “I’m working on ‘naaseh’ for now.”

And that’s why Tante Ursula’s pots rattled me.

Does it matter if there is a mismatch between the spiritual level of one’s thoughts if one behaves well both in public and in private? Is it enough to concentrate energy on the outside and inside of the pots, neglecting the bottom? Can’t the bottom of the pot wait until later? How urgent is the status of the bottom of the pot?

A person could go a lifetime, never giving much thought to the condition of her pot bottoms. The kitchen would likely function well enough, wouldn’t it?

However, it is difficult to imagine someone who takes care to clean the bottoms of the pots, not having spotless pots overall. This is analogous to one whose spirituality doesn’t translate into good behavior. Such misguided values result in a meal we would not be eager to share.

Judaism’s behaviorist philosophy leads me to imagine that even someone who never intended to take care of the cooking parts of her pots, would experience an improvement in this area. Scouring the bottom of a pot makes it impossible to ignore the parts that touch food.

The private, ineffable, “non-functional” aspects of one’s spiritual life, like the bottoms of the soup pot, deserve the same diligent scrutiny and thoughtful attention as the outside. Tante Ursula’s subtle lesson struck me then, and has stayed with me since.

It is of the most religiously motivating ideas I’ve experienced.

While distance prevents us from spending Rosh Hashanah with them, we think of them often during the holidays (and throughout the year). And for me, particularly when faced with a sink full of Yom tov dishes to wash.

I wish Uncle David, Tante Ursula, their children and grandchildren, the readers of this blog, and all of Israel a chatima tova. May a year of health, happiness, prosperity and peace be sealed for all of us.

May we all have the time, energy, and inclination to clean even the bottoms of our pots.

Rav Soloveitchik on Awakening the Emotional on Yom Kippur

In the Sefer, Before Hashem You Will Be Purified, the following is brought down from Rav Soloveitchik’s 1976 Teshuvah drasha:

My religious world-view was formed not only through learning Torah, but also by me religious experience…I continually refer to the the two traditions of Torah learning — halakhah and that or religious life and feeling — the enthusiasm, the love of Hashem, the yearning for Hashem… The first is relatively easy to impart; I can give long lectures on shofar, the halakhot of teshuvah, the Avodah, etc. with great depth and thoroughness. Yet what is easy for me [to explain] regarding the first tradition is very difficult regarding the second tradition.

To recount what Jews of earlier generations–not only the Gedolei Yisrael, but Jews in general — experienced on the Yamim Nora’im — the yearning, the nostalgia that overtook one’s entire being — to impart the emotion is almost impossible. As a child, I remember how infectious that emotion was: I felt the same yearning as everyone else without really understanding what exactly I was yearning for. Those emotions which overtook me as a child stimulate me still today, and my whole Weltenschauung, my whole religious philosophy, is a result of this experience.

Contemporary Orthodoxy is well ground intellectually. In spite of this, however, its followers lack passion and enthusiasm. This deficiency is especially evident on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

How can a Jew pray on Yom Kippur and not feel the greatness, the fire and holiness of the day? How can I possible impart such an experience? Perhaps one can begin to awaken the ecstatic feeling by discussing the customs and laws which we observe on Yom Kippur. From within the allegedly dry confines of Jewish law, there is an awesome, warm, enormous world — there is a definite transition from Halakhah to service of Hashem. Perhaps through such a discussion, the audience will be awakened to the religious mood that a Jew must find himself on Yom Kippur.

Paths to Torah: Truth or Self-Fulfillment?

There are 70 facets of the Torah, and probably as many paths for an individual to get there as a BT. In my life as a second-time BT, I have taken at least two of them.
Very brief background: I’m a Baby Boomer who grew up in a traditional (kosher but not Shomer Shabbat) household. The synagogue we DIDN’T attend, except when we walked there on the High Holidays, was Orthodox. I went away to college at age 16, dropped all semblance of observance, acquired a Gentile boyfriend; then, when he dumped me, I found a non-observant Jewish boyfriend, and when I was 18 and he 20, we got married.

So how did I come to Torah?

My first path to Torah was through the three children we had together. I looked ahead decades and decided I wanted them to have a Jewish identity, that it would bother me very much if they would intermarry. (It wouldn’t have bothered their father at all.) So, this path was basically one of self-fulfillment: I wanted to perpetuate my heritage through my children. G-d helped me, and I succeeded in giving them an authentic Jewish education and raising them as observant Jews. They have remained so, and have raised observant Jewish grandchildren for me.

In the process of their Jewish education, I learned, too. I saw the truth and beauty of Judaism as I learned. Thus, self-fulfillment led to truth and interacted with it.

But life has twists and turns, and my life included a subsequent marriage to another man, a BT, with whom I had three more children. Unfortunately, there was abuse and violence in that marriage, and I raised the children alone for many years, after which they were wrenched from me; more on that momentarily. Fortunately, thank G-d, they all turned out OK (and also observant), and they too have given me observant Jewish grandchildren.

Life as a single mother in an observant community is not the norm, and it affected me deeply. I did not deny the truth of Torah, but I was weak, and the self-fulfillment was now largely missing. Eventually, when I married my present husband (who is non-observant like the first one was, but not quite like that – he IS open to some limited observances), I lost custody of my three younger children, which is a whole story in itself. That really precipitated my “losing my religion”: I basically went off the derech. (Just for the record, yes, each time I was divorced, I did obtain a kosher Get.)

But, because I had that grounding in the truth of the Torah from my first BT experience, it never totally went away. Some of my sins were acts of rebellion, but most were acts of weakness; the Torah distinguishes among different types of sins in those ways.

I kept a “kosher corner” in my kitchen for when my children would come to visit. Gradually I accommodated them in other ways, such as turning the refrigerator light off before Shabbat. And don’t think that didn’t “draw fire” (pun intended) in the household! It’s one of those little things that was big at the time, but which my husband has long since accepted.

I remember, quite clearly, when my daughter – who was probably about 10 or 11 at the time – was davening and wanted me to daven with her. I picked up the Siddur and tried to, but I burst into tears and said I just couldn’t. Too many observant people had hurt me along the way.

It was only after we moved to the Dallas area that I really did start coming back. DATA (Dallas Area Torah Association), the local Kollel which offers all kinds of outreach connections, held classes which I began to attend. In a way, with my previous BT background, it was as if I had gone back to kindergarten; but I needed these refresher courses, and most of all, I needed to be accepted in the non-judgmental way DATA so excels at. The warmth and the love of these genuine Torah Jews in Dallas brought me back the second time – and so, here I am, a second-time BT.

That’s just one woman’s personal journey. Can I generalize from it? The Torah is the epitome of truth, and most of us can recognize the honest truth. I think that ability is in our souls. But, it’s also how that truth is presented. Are the people presenting it living in the way that it commands? For most of us, I think there does have to be a self-fulfillment factor. Ultimately we are supposed to follow Torah Lishmah, for its own sake; but meantime we have to utilize factors that are Lo Lishmah, not for its own sake. We need both the spiritual/intellectual satisfaction that comes with the truth of Torah, and the emotional satisfaction of feeling happy and fulfilled, in order for Torah to “stick”.

Drop By Drop

Friends of ours had bought our five-year old daughter a flowering plant. She was proud of having the responsibility to care for and tend to the plant. A few weeks later, I noticed that the plant was not looking too great. In fact, it looked to be on its last legs. “Atara, what’s going on with your plant?”, I asked. She held her hand to her tiny lips and said “Oops, I forgot to water it this week!” Perhaps I should have used the moment to explain to her the importance of plant care (me, the blackest of the black thumbs?!). Perhaps I should have stressed the character trait of responsibility. But, she was too cute and my cereal was too crunchy for me to take the moment to pass on that parental advice.

About a half hour later, Atara confidently walked up to me, Poland Spring water bottle in hand, and proudly exclaimed “Abba, I poured TWELVE bottles of water on my plant.” Then, she looked at me as if to say “That problem is solved” and confidently walked away to go about the business of coloring, jumping rope or some other activity of great importance. If I had thought she was cute earlier, now she was absolutely delicious. But I knew at that moment that if the plant previously had any remaining chance of survival, it had just been, quite literally, washed out.

Here we stand, before another Yom Kippur. Another year where we, humans that we are, failed to take proper care of our souls and the responsibilities entrusted to us by Hashem. Our souls are thirsty and weak because we have failed to diligently and properly water them throughout the year (and you thought a one day fast was difficult!). We realize our mistakes, we regret our mistakes, we verbalize our mistakes and we resolve to rectify our mistakes. But all too often we attempt to slake our thirsting souls with bottles and bottles of water in a well meaning attempt to make up for the long drought. “I didn’t properly set aside time to learn torah last year, an hour a week is just not enough. This year, I’m going to learn daf yomi, mishna yomi, mishnah berurah yomi, hey, I may even invent a new “yomi” and learn that as well!”

On the surface, it makes sense. We are thirsty and we realize that we should have been drinking all along. But we simply cannot handle all of that water all at once. Overwatering kills more plants than any other cause. We are just setting ourselves up for failure.

What we really need is drip irrigation. Drip irrigation was developed and perfected in Israel. It is the slow, steady application of water directly to the plant’s root zone where the water is most urgently needed. Drip irrigation minimizes water loss and prevents overwatering which eventually chokes off roots and kills the plant. If I’ve realized that an hour a week of learning is not enough, this year I’m going to start learning an extra half an hour a week. After a few months of consistency, after the roots have gotten stronger, they may require a little more water, another fifteen minutes perhaps. And don’t kid yourself into thinking that a drop at a time cannot develop sea changes. Remember the story of Rabbi Akiva who had observed a hole cut clean through a rock, the hole having been formed by the continual dripping of water.

Throughout Selichos and the Yom Kippur service we echo the words of the navi Yezekiel’s promise from Hashem: “I will sprinkle upon you pure waters and you will become purified.” As Hashem does his sprinkling, let us do our own sprinkling: little by little, drop by drop, Spiritual Drip Irrigation. Gemar chasima tovah.

A Mussaf of Inspiration

Before we share the final post of this year with you, we would like to take this opportunity to wish everybody a Kesiva V’Chasima Tova. May we all merit another fruitful year of learning, giving and growing together. – David & Mark

By R’ Mordechai Scher

Every year, without fail, the same memories are dominant in my mind during the month of Elul. As I wonder and worry, yet again, how will I possibly be ready and able to benefit most from the opportunity of Rosh HaShana, I return to the most moving public prayers I’ve known.

One such experience was in Tulkarem, an Arab-populated city in the northern Shomron, east of Netanya. I was a company medic and squad leader on reserve duty. It was the end of summer, and our compound (called the “michlaot”, animal pens) was dry, hot, and dusty. Our duties were unpleasant this time round; by day reinforcing the police in maintaining public order and enforcing curfews, at night hunting wanted terrorists in the surrounding villages and hills. I was one of the fortunate soldiers able to leave for Rosh HaShana. My family was visiting in the States, so I made the expected choice and remained in Tulkarem so that someone else could go home to his family. I chose this out of understood obligation. I didn’t want to do security patrols and worry about ambushes on Yom Tov (our battalion CO had been firebombed while on patrol in his jeep). I didn’t want to have my holiday meal in the heat, under camouflage nets. I didn’t want to pray in my fatigues, in the dust, with barely a minyan, precariously perched on folding benches.

We could be sure of a minyan only for morning services, since we were all needed on patrols throughout the day. Nonetheless, there were many yeshiva students in our neighbouring armoured battalion, and we got services organised. Ashkenazim and Sepharadim prayed together, as we had neither the numbers nor the facilities to fully accommodate both customs. We prayed the Shachrit service lead by an Ashkenazi, and the Mussaf service led by a Sepharadi. As long as I live, I do not expect to follow a more moving service than the Mussaf, that Rosh HaShana. I was awed and inspired then, and I am whenever I call up that experience in my heart.

The young man leading Mussaf was an infantry officer in the Golani division. He was of North African descent, from a religious upbringing, and clearly knew what he was doing. I can’t recall his name, despite my gratitude to him. His prayer exemplified so much of what I aspire to in reaching for communion with G-d.

His melodies were simple, straightforward. He had a pleasant voice, and his melodies drew their beauty from deep inside him, rather than some artificially added musical adornment. His prayer conveyed and inspired confidence and awe together. He prayed as a child, confident in Avinu, our Father in heaven. He prayed as one who was safe and secure in his Father’s presence, assured that his loving Father was close by, and that all would be as it should ultimately be. He knew that he was his Father’s child, a product of his Father’s loving act, and bearing within him a soul that is the expression, the inherited characteristic from that Father. Such faith, such comfort as he communicated, was beyond words.

Together with this confident love, was a tremendous, trembling awe. Even as he prayed, he seemed about to be dumbstruck by the wonder and concern. Was he truly going to live up to his Father’s gifts to him? He was so aware that his Father is no less Malkeinu, our King. The Divine mastery, absolute and evidenced in all the Creation, required an accounting of him. How could he stand before ultimate justice, knowing his mistakes and failures? How badly might he have betrayed the relationship and confidence his Father invested in him? What might the necessary consequences be, to set aright the Divine balance he must be part of, in G-d’s people, and G-d’s creation? He, and his congregation, are the King’s children. Yet how prepared were they to live with the King, to represent Him, as they stood before Him at the height of Rosh HaShana’s accounting and judgement. Did they really accept the King’s sovereignty, and did they really accept their place as His children? Was it a hutzpa, an unforgivable arrogance, to stand before the King, and maybe not truly acknowledge Him?

I do not know how long that prayer lasted. It seemed that we had been given a glimpse of eternity, and we did not want it to end. This young officer’s prayer was naive and honest. It spoke of faith, love, confidence, and unbelievable awe. It was complex, but it was not complicated. Each year I thank G-d for having been a part of the prayer of one who was tamim — wholly with his G-d. Each year I remember, and each year I pray that I should learn to pray.

The Path of a Bas Noach Baales Teshuva

By Alice Jonsson

Attempting to describe my turn towards Hashem and Torah, while being brief, is a challenge. Here’s my attempt.

Imagine a 10-story-tall catapult. But instead of a boulder the size of a VW bug, its cargo is you. Because this catapult has been cranked back slowly, each tooth clicking into place, for thirty-six years, the energy behind the launch is tremendous. You find yourself being rocketed through space, old grudges, all of the axes you were grinding, mountains that you were carrying on your shoulders are one by one falling away, making you lighter and lighter, increasing your velocity. Convinced this bizarre dream will end with a violent splat — or a human shaped hole in the middle of a field of corn with you at the bottom — you find yourself not rocketing but gently coasting at great altitude, experiencing true joy and relaxation. When it comes time to land, instead of racing towards the earth, your landing is more like a leaf flitting back and forth in the breeze, making a lazy descent towards the grassy field.

The field is a good place to end up, because that’s where you will do some great work. Despite the fact that you feel like a lunatic, albeit a gleeful one, you take the advice of a very wonderful rabbi half way around the globe and go for walks talking to the old corn stalks, ravens landing on power lines, and the grasshoppers that land on your sweater with a chirp way too loud to come from such a tiny creature. This is your synagogue and they are the congregation. There you can talk to the perfect God for you, even though this still strikes you as being totally bonkers, and amazing things begin to happen.

Of course this is a totally irrational and unscientific thing to do. But it works. Quickly. Even though you aren’t Jewish, this rabbi’s advice fits you like a custom made suit. You learn that you don’t need to be Jewish to believe in Judaism, and that there are seven laws just for you. Negative emotions that plagued you for decades dissolve, leaving you not your old self, but a person you never were. Lessons accumulated over millennia by Sages living near the Dead Sea, or deep in the woods of the Ukraine, guide you through grocery trips, dysfunctional family dinners, and help you to not lean on the horn in traffic jams.

Well, that’s how the journey began. Three years later, we live in the big city. The cornfields have been replaced with subways and burglar bars. It’s a good thing Hashem can be found anywhere because that all sounds a bit depressing, yet the tranquility found in those fields persists. We live near shuls and kollels, minyans and lunch and learns. And just like when we lived in the country, I read Jewish websites, listen to cds in my car and lectures on my MP3 player, anything to maintain the connection to God. Now that we’re in the city, Torah classes are part of my life as are a hodgepodge of fellow Torah believers: Western European Ashkenazi, Hassidim, Iranian Jews, Sephardim from Morocco, Sephardim from Mexico, Sephardim with lush Southern accents and plaid flannel kippas, soon-to-be Jews, thought-they-were-Jews, and even Gentiles-who-wish-they were Jews.

Where do Bnei Noach fit in? It’s clear that any newcomer to the world of Torah runs the risk of becoming overwhelmed by the labyrinth of traditions, commandments, communities, and politics, let alone a Gentile. But to my mind it doesn’t matter if you are a BT from a line of rabbis ten generations long or your dad’s a Methodist who married a beauty named Shoshanna. There are times you will feel in. And there are times you feel out. And when that ‘out’ feeling starts to wheedle its way in, I return to the cornfield, only this time it’s a broken sidewalk, and I’m pushing a red stroller ferrying a blonde two-year-old clutching a water bottle. Hashem is right there with me again to remind me that I am one member of an enormously complex congregation who know that the Torah is the blueprint. And that He is always there with me. And with you.

I recommend with great enthusiasm any of the cds by Rav Shalom Arush and Rabbi Lazer Brody available on Lazerbrody.typepad.com. And for a terrific, accessible approach to Torah techniques for coping with negative emotions, The Trail to Tranquility, by Rabbi Lazer Brody. Many of the techniques that have worked so well for me and for my family are described therein.

This piece was originally posted on Dixie Yid.

Small Steps and Big Jumps

It’s been ages that I’ve written here, so here’s something for Elul.

The Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation has an excellent tape series called “Grasp the Gift of Teshuva.” One of the tapes contains the following true story which is also an amazing mashal for teshuva.

During World War II, the Rov of a certain town managed to smuggle a knife with him into the cattle car when he and his kehila were captured by the Nazis. Using the knife, he broke a hole into the cattle car and urged everyone to jump through it.

“It’s your chance at life!” he told the people. “You know where we’re going.”

But the cattle car was speeding along the tracks, and taking the jump meant risking serious injury and possibly death. The people were too scared, so only the Rov took the jump. And he was the only person from his town to survive the war.

The speaker on the tape applied the Rov’s lesson to abandoning the path of sin. We know where sin leads us, and sometimes, we have to take one big jump to get away from it. Doing it might be scary, but not doing it is certain doom. In the long run, the wiser thing is to take the jump.

Of course, every BT in the world knows what it is to take a big jump. We’ve redefined our whole lives. But every BT has also received the advice to go slow, not to take on too much too fast, because that often leads to backsliding. The same principle applies when we’re already frum. Teshuva lasts when taken on in small increments. Instead of working on kavannah in davening overall, we concentrate on one particular tefilla. Instead of going cold turkey on some pet aveira, we gradually wean ourselves from it.

I want to share with you my Elul of two years ago. I had a part-time secretarial job and was spending much of every work day online. When I started, it was just during the down times, but later, it became an addiction. I knew it was wrong, and I felt guilty about it, but I felt I was incapable of going cold turkey. So I decided that for Elul, I would resist any online activity at the office for 15 minutes a day. Very soon, I worked it up to 2 hours a day. And then, instead of visiting my favorite social sites, I began listening to online shiurim.

I’ve often said that Cheshvan is when we get our post-Yom Tov cheshbon. (Leave it to a BT with rudimentary Hebrew to come up with a vort like that.) That Cheshvan, despite these efforts at self-improvement, I was fired. It came as quite a blow because it felt like Hashem hadn’t accepted my little steps toward teshuva.

But teshuva is never worthless. The next job I got was ad writing for Rabbi Berel Wein’s Destiny Foundation. I actually got to earn my living by listening to shiurim – the very thing I was doing illegally at my previous job!

Of course, I still had further to go. I’d made little steps, but the big leap was still to come. And as many of you know, it came about six months later, during Sefirah, with Rabbi Solomon’s anti-Internet drasha. I needed a gadol to give me the push. I was too weak to do it on my own. But the entire experience has taught me a little about how Hashem runs the world. We make changes in Elul, daven for our future in Tishrei, and feel the effects of both the rest of the year. Those little steps toward teshuva in Elul sealed my fate for the big jump I was to make in May. Those little steps build up momentum toward one big, running leap.

May Hashem bless each of us with the strength we need for small steps and big jumps.

The Pain of Forgetting The Mourners Consolation

By Hirshel Tzig

You wanna know pain? I’ll show you pain.

A local non-frum/maybe half-frum Jew walks into shul to say Kaddish. He seems like a somewhat affluent man, yet disheveled, like he hasn’t slept or shaved for a few days. It turns out his dear wife of many years just passed away, and he’s still in middle of Shivah. So the Rov tells him to sit down on a low chair, and that the people davening there will bless him for his recent loss. So, one by one he hears the “HaMokom” from everybody at the Minyan and thanks them for it, although he’s not quite sure what it is they’re saying. A Phenomenon like that is not something you see every day, but it sure does prepare you for what you might see outside of your local frum neighborhood these days.

There was this one gentlemen – a real Tzaddik, a Baal Tshuveh, yes, and most frum people can learn a lot from him – who also wanted to partake of this Mitzvah, (for lack of a better term) and who also started to say the HaMokom. Lo and behold that’s all he could remember, he couldn’t remember the words that follow! The pain and frustration that was visible on his face was worse than anything I had ever seen. Of course he wouldn’t ask anybody what the exact words were, at least I didn’t see him doing that. I also couldn’t bring myself to tell him what they were, for fear of emabarrassing him further, since he didn’t know that I saw him forget. So, he quietly and humbly walked away, in a very “aw-shucks” way lamenting the fact that he couldn’t console the poor old man on his loss. What’s ironic about all this is that he must’ve heard the phrase hundreds of times when being consoled for his own recent loss…..

Ah it’s Elul…and Forgiveness is in the Air!

Rabbi Dovid Schwartz

The significance of this time of the year is that it corresponds to the 40 day period beginning on 1 Elul and culminating on 10 Tishrei (AKA Yom Kippur) when Moshe, ascending again to heaven, mounted the national T’shuva effort of K’lal Yisroel to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf.

At this writing we are more than halfway through this annual period of regret, remorse and reconciliation. In preparing myself both for the Days of Awe and for presenting my upcoming presentations at the Jewish Heritage Center I’ve been wrestling with some nettlesome questions about forgiveness that, although basic, are still (at least to me) quite unclear. I’d like to share some of these with you:

Our sages teach us that T’shuva motivated by fear /awe transforms (diminishes) premeditated sins into unintentional ones and that T’shuva motivated by love transforms premeditated sins to z’chuyos (something positive and meritorious). Is there a T’shuva that evokes more than the former but less than the latter i.e. that “wipes the record clean” and, if so, as awe and love seem to cover the entire possible gamut of motivations, what type of motivation to T’shuva is left that might evoke a Divine “wipes the record clean” response?

We also know that we needn’t be more saintly than G-d. A plank in our theological platform is that G-d, though infinitely forgiving and merciful, is not a vatran, one who unilaterally absolves debts without cause nor being asked. Yet we routinely recite a prayer before the bedtime Sh’ma and before Kol Nidreh (T’filas zakah) in which we extend forgiveness to those who have slighted or hurt us without them even having apologized. How can we be (apparently) more forgiving than G-d?

Can humans forgive AND forget or is forgiving and remembering sufficient? Can interpersonal T’shuva be motivated by anything other than love? (I speak of T’shuva for sins committed against peers not those committed against parents and/ or Talmidei Khakohmim). If so, is it possible for mere human beings to aspire to an imitatio dei http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imitatio_dei
approximation transforming premeditated sins to something positive and meritorious?

When asking/ begging forgiveness should we aspire to achieve a level of “forgiven but not forgotten” or to achieve a level of “forgotten”, or, even transforming premeditated sins to something positive?

Are interpersonal mitzvahs (bein odom l’khaveiro) really a separate and distinct category (intuitively I know that they are) or are they just another form of bein Odom l’mokom (between persons and G-d)?

Allow me to flesh out my conundrum; There is a halakha in the laws of honoring parents that states that one must honor a step-parent (in a parental kind of way) but only during the lifetime of the biological parent. Once the biological parent passes away no special honor, love, awe or respect need be given to the step-parent above and beyond that of other Jews (all hakoras hatov=gratitude obligations being equal). The legal theory behind this is obvious. The extraordinary honor due a step parent is only an adjunct of the extraordinary honor due a biological parent. It is presumed that the biological parent wants the child to accord extraordinary honor to the step-parent. Absent the will of the biological parent there is no compelling reason to treat the step-parent differently than anyone else.

So, to reiterate my question, do we have and fulfill interpersonal mitzvahs because the other person’s Jewishness or humanity demands as much? Or because G-d’s will is that we do so? To say the former is to skirt dangerously close to secular humanism while to affirm the latter is to diminish “loving ones fellow” to the same moral plane as the mitzvos that demand ethical treatment of animals and plants.

Just some food for Elul thought.

Note: Rabbi Schwartz is giving a series on Gaining and Granting Forgiveness at the Jewish Heritage Center, beginning on Wednesday, Sept 5th at 8:00 PM at the JHC – 68-29 Main Street Flushing. Classes will also be held on Sept 10th, 17th and 24th. Admission is free with an RSVP to 1-888-4Judaism (458-3427) or email series@thejhc.com and $5 at the door.

A Sanctuary in my Heart (Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh)

The Sefer “Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh (In My Heart I Build A Sanctuary)” is a highly acclaimed manual for the development of a personal and intimate relationship with Hashem. It was authored by Rav Itamar Shwartz, who recently toured the United States.

Dixie Yid has posted all the recorded shiurim of the tour. The shiurim are in easy to understand Hebrew.

If you prefer text to audio, an english translation of the text is published here.

Here is an excerpt:

What in truth is the purpose of man in his world? The words of the Mesillas Yesharim (Ch. 1) are known. He wrote, “In truth, the only true completeness is deveikus (attachment) to Hashem. That is what David HaMelech said (Tehillim 73:28): “And for me, closeness to Hashem is good….” In other words, if one wishes to know what makes a man complete, he should consider what David HaMelech understood to be good for himself. If it was good for him, it is good for every single one of us. He said, “And for me, closeness to Hashem is good.”

No one is interested in a broken table or a broken chair. No one wants to sleep on a broken bed. All the more so, no one deep down wants to be a broken person, but a complete person. (There is a concept of a broken heart, but that is not relevant here.) What is a complete Jew? One who doesn’t lack hands? Who doesn’t lack legs? No, that is only superficial perfection, bodily perfection. True completeness, which is in the soul and is inward, is the completeness derived from closeness to Hashem. As the Ramchal wrote (Ch. 1), “In truth, all true completeness (the completeness of every single person without exception) is deveikus to Hashem.” As he says there, “Anything else deemed good by people is vanity and deceptive emptiness.” This is all a Jew really has in life — closeness to Hashem and deveikus to Hashem. The whole essence of a Jew is to be close to Hashem and to cleave to Him. Not only in the World to Come is a man’s purpose to cleave to the Creator, but even in this world, man’s job and purpose is to cleave to the Creator. If there is a moment in which one does not cleave to the Creator, for that moment, he is an incomplete human. He lacks true completeness, which is deveikus to Hashem.

A sincere person, who hears these words and truly accepts them in his soul, must take these words of the Ramchal and write them on a sheet of paper and place it in his pocket. About every fifteen minutes (so the words will be before his eyes at all times), he should remove the paper from his pocket, and contemplate it well, and remind himself again and again: Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? The answer is deveikus to Hashem. He will read the words again and again until they are alive before his eyes and he no longer needs to look at the paper. Rather, his soul will clearly recognize the purpose of life and he will constantly seek to apply the message.