Vayeshev Yakov: Achieving True Jewish Unity Through a Divine Division of Labor

An elaboration of the teachings of Rav Hirsch on the first two psukim of the parsha
By Yakov Lowinger

Rav Hirsch says of this week’s parsha that the overlooked feature of the original sinah and kinah — between Yosef and his brothers — was that they could have just simply focused on their connection to and service of Hashem, which carries with it a natural division of talents and labors and supersedes the formation of negative divisions. Instead, they obsessively focused on the superficial differences between them. The b’nai Leah thought they were superior and looked down upon the sons of the sh’fachos, instead of recognizing and appreciating the unique role that their half-brothers were to play. Yosef, a bit arrogant and caught up in his own beauty, would work with the bnai Leah during the day and spend time with the sons of the sh’fachos at night. Not quite a member of the first club, he basked in the superiority and adulation he felt in the presence of the second. He was not only “brotherless”, in the sense that he could not form a real connection with any of his brothers (Binyamin being too young at the time), but also “motherless”, growing up mostly without the love and attention of a mother figure unlike all of his older brothers. He develop in himself an extreme feeling of individuality and isolation, which was the cause of his attempts to win more of his father’s love by tattling on his brothers. The b’nai shfachos, on the other hand, perhaps feeling slighted and marginalized, turned inward and eventually joined the campaign against Yosef — better to be on the more powerful side than on the side of the privileged but troubled loner.

These descriptions in the Torah sound eerily like petty feuds, rivalries, and attempts at social exclusion that the world has seen untold times, and yet they are even still the primary cause of all our sufferings in exile. Just serve Me, Hashem says, and you will get along. You will develop an understanding of your own special duty to me, and cease to worry about the superficial differences over time. But they, as we, would not listen. Although we are the same, brilliantly diverse chunks of the infinite rained down into this world into more or less similar bodies and life challenges, yet instead of focusing on the differences that are real — the different levels and duties of our souls — we focus on the ones that hurt, fascinate, and occupy us on the superficial level, the exoticness of the slightly different-looking and differently quirked behavior, and so forth. How easily this obsession turns to hate and isolation, because these differences not only form no basis for a higher unity, but need to be maintained and reinforced through an ongoing effort.

The differences in our neshamos are just there, require no special maintenance, and our the basis for a beautiful coming together that the physical world can only serve as an expression of. But Yosef and his brothers occupied themselves in maintaining the differences between them, an activity which requires constant upping of the levels of jealousy and hatred just to keep those differences noticeable. Since these superficial differences are not really there, it is only through manipulation of emotions that they can be made noticeable — and this level of manipulation must be intensified over time or we would just grow numb to these supposed differences (c”v!). This effort to constantly point out surface differences and generate negative feelings about them only leads to disastrous events, from the selling of Yosef to the churban and on down the line.

It is only when the disastrous consequences of sinah and kinah are clear, do we attempt to return to each other, but this work of repairing exaggerated differences is far more difficult than the work of creating them in the first place. So the longer we are in galus, the opportunity to simply ignore our differences and serve Hashem alone, the opportunity for each of us to focus on our unique avodah in the Divine division of labor becomes more and more precious. The superficial differences among us have become so magnified over the generations that we almost can’t see past them to what really distinguishes us from one another — our neshamos and the avodah they impose on us. Only this recognition, 1) that the differences we see in the physical world are nothing in comparison to the differences in our neshamos, and 2) these superficial differences and the work that goes into maintaining them only serve to divide rather than unite, will lead us to…
3! An understanding that our neshamos were sent down here to be TRULY different from each other, uniting their special avodos to bring us to the ge’ulah, may it be soon. This will be the ultimate vayeshev Yakov, not in the sense of being settled but in the sense of shuv or teshuvah, all the sons of Yakov returning to Hashem and each other one triumphant last time.

The Teshuva Journey: A Very Unlikely Messenger

Many ba’alei teshuva can point to a particular person or event which started them on their journey towards becoming Orthodox. Whether it’s a Rabbi, a Shabbas invitation or a co-worker, there is often a fixed point of disembarkation.

A Buddhist priest in the farming village of Yobito, Hokkaido in northern Japan was the inspiration that Jason Katz* needed to begin his journey home towards Judaism.

Jason grew up in the Detroit area and was very involved in his Reform synagogue, but it was a religious experience that lacked religion.

“There was no G-d involved. The only mention of G-d was in prayers, but otherwise nobody spoke about G-d,” Jason said.

Jason went to Japan as an exchange student during high school and lived with a family in Yobito. His host father Mitsuo Kiyosu is a 49th generation Buddhist priest and the spiritual leader of the village. Jason developed a deep rapport with him and over the years has had many deep conversations with him. He has always been impressed by the priest’s wisdom, his understanding of the purpose of life and his respect for all people.

Years earlier during his training to become a priest, Mitsuo Kiyosu had studied with a Christian minister and a Rabbi. He therefore had some understanding of each religion, but never pushed Jason towards any particular observance.

After college Jason lived in Japan for seven years and frequently visited the Kiyosu family. It was finally time to return to the United States but before leaving he paid one more visit to see them.

For Jason it was a time of great soul searching as he was trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life.

While sitting together with his host father Mitsuo Kiyosu in the kitchen sipping green tea, Jason unburdened the challenges he was facing. The conversation turned from his job search to his larger search for direction in his life.

“My host father realized that I was searching not only for a job, but for spirituality,” Jason said. “He told me that when he dies ‘there will be such and such spirit in the next world who will save me. I live this life with confidence because I know I will be saved when I die. On the other hand, a Christian person has Jesus. A Christian person has Jesus, who is a bridge to the Jewish G-d. That’s how he will be saved when he dies.'”

“‘But you, you are a Jew. You have a direct connection to the Jewish G-d. What more are you searching for?'”

That comment opened Jason’s eyes. He grew up hearing about G-d as the Judeo-Christian G-d, but he had only ever heard Christians speak about G-d. His host father said No! It is not Christianity that has a direct connection to G-d, and not even Buddhism. It is the Jewish people who have a direct conduit to G-d.

“He woke me up to the fact that I have a unique place in this world as a Jew and an intrinsic relationship to G-d,” Jason said. “G-d had been just a philosophical concept to me and the last thing I was searching for.”

While Jason didn’t initially recognize it, something had changed inside him.

“At that time I still knew virtually nothing about G-d, nothing about Torah, but my heart was different, like a seed was planted inside,” Jason said.

Jason returned to Florida and a few months later a family friend recommended a class given by a local Chabad Rabbi. He soon began going each week. The class focused on the weekly Torah portion in particular and the Jewish perspective on life in general. Jason was stunned by what he heard.

“It was so profound, so deep,” Jason said. “I had been searching my whole life around the world. I had been to missionary camps, spoke to Buddhist priests and Hare Krishnas. I had no idea that there were such depths in Judaism.”

Over the next two years the Rabbi spoke often about G-d and G-d’s relationship to the Jewish people, and it gave new life to that seed inside Jason. The class helped Jason acknowledge his personal connection to G-d, which gave him the reason to begin keeping mitzvot and delving into Jewish learning.

Throughout Jason’s journey the seed planted by the Buddhist priest was forever in him, pushing him forward to find the truth.

How does one take such a path? How does one find traditional Judaism through the direction of a Buddhist priest? Hashem put in every Jew an innate desire to look for spirituality and connect with larger truths. He hopes we’ll use this desire to find our place in Judaism, but sadly, scores of unaffiliated Jews find spiritual fulfillment in other religions. Out of the masses that try other religions, a small number find their way back to Judaism through the experience.

This trend is actually predicted in the Torah. Before his death Moses reminded the Jews of the blessings and curses that would befall them based on their future behavior:

“And it will be that when all these things come to pass – the blessing and the curse, which I have placed before you, then you will return to your heart in the midst of all the nations where G-d your G-d dispersed you.” (Devarim 30:1)

The Sforno biblical commentary, written 500 years ago, has an amazing explanation of these words. As explained by Rabbi Ezriel Tauber in the book Days Are Coming, the Sforno writes that Jews will join other nations and religions, and will eventually find their way from there to Judaism:

“You are going to probe and research the destructive nature [of the lifestyle of those nations amongst whom you live], and you will reflect and be struck by the sharp contrast between truth and falsehood. And with this you will perceive how far you are from G-d and you will be lifted up [out] of the knowledge and practices that are not according to His Torah.”

The Torah predicts that there will be a mass return of Jews to Judaism, and many of them will find their way back through other religions. That’s precisely what happened with Jason. G-d knows what catalyst each of us needs to start us on our journey home, and He sends the right person in exactly the right time. The irony with Jason’s story is the perfect person was a Buddist priest halfway around the world.

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 To receive the column via email or see back issues, visit

(published in The Jewish Press July 6, 2007)

* Not his real name

Safety Amidst the Ice Floes

By Yaakov

My brother, living half the year in Hungary and half the year in California, writes me, living in Israel, a detailed analysis of the political situation vis a vis Iran, Israel, the U.S., etc., and at the end of his cogent points, adds, AND THE ONE PLACE I WOULD NOT WANT TO BE LIVING IN SUCH A SITUATION IS ISRAEL.

And I reply that there are many I know who believe that Israel will be the safest place in the world.

In my next email, I add to that:

…And if you will ask me how anyone can possibly say that Israel will be the safest place in the world, I’ll answer that I don’t know. I’ll say that maybe it’s something like the eye of the hurricane, but that doesn’t really answer it.

Reasonably speaking, the statement about Israel being the safest place in the world doesn’t make much sense.

And from one side, I wish that things ran only according to reason. Then I could use my powers of analysis and feel that I have a good idea about how things run. I’d probably feel much more comfortable in this body, in this world, if I could reach that point. Then, if things didn’t go the way I knew they should, I would have someone to blame for it.

Then, reason or better yet, misused, distorted reason, would be the explanations for the larger or smaller events of my life and of the way of the world.

But from another side, what can I do if I’ve seen many, many, many times over that the supra-rational enters into the picture, into all pictures, so much so that, as uncomfortable as it is, as difficult as it sometimes makes my life as it shakes up my belief in my own abilities to reason things out, I have no choice but to take it into account?

How can one possibly deal with something like that without boxing it off in a separate category, saying, “Yes, there is something that is supra-rational, something called “The Mystery,” but it’s over there, in another place. The place I find when I go meditate, or sometimes when I walk aside the ocean. Meanwhile, right here is reality.”

What can I do if I know already that without entering the supra-rational into reality I have an incomplete picture?

What can I do?

I have no choice but to learn to navigate unchartered waters.

And that has a beautiful and complete feel of truth to it, so if I have to navigate, so be it.

As maybe it was Mark Twain said, “a ship is a beautiful thing, but its purpose is not to sit in the harbor.”

It’s a constant learning process and the only way to learn is to be out there in the ocean. There are no rehearsals. And sometimes I hit ice floes. (I don’t want to say “icebergs,” because that brings up images of the Titanic, which lies forever on the ocean floor).

So the ice floes, or meteors if one prefers the metaphor of flying in outer space, are constant elements that have to be taken into account. They sometimes have the advantage of being, at least, solid matter, as opposed to the void that surrounds one in space or in the ocean.

A friend of mine tells me of the time he sailed a small boat across the ocean. He started out, more or less, with a book in his hand entitled something like, “How to Sail Across the Ocean.”

One day, out there somewhere, he decided to go for a swim. So he anchored his boat and jumped in.

What he saw and experienced was so frightening that he immediately scuttled his mission and bounced right back into the boat.

What happened was that out there the water is so crystal clear that he was able to see down and around him much further that he ever thought possible, pristine clear, and it was something like being inside of a crystal, or, I think, more like free-falling without any bearings. It terrorized him.

On the other hand, as one gets used to it, to whatever degree a flesh-and-blood human can, one receives what can only be called, “gifts,” the kind of gifts that those who stay in harbor cannot even conceive of. The kinds of gifts that give one the feeling that, “Ahh! For that I was born!”

The kinds of gifts that can give him his Life, and ruin his life.

And right after that, he can run into another ice floe. It’s what might be called an “occupational hazard.”

And there are any number of people around, good people, well-meaning people, who are ready to say, “Ah! You see! You see what it’s all got you to!”

And then you have your moments of doubt, but then, again, mercifully or not, Life beckons and you spend the rest of your time in harbor gathering up supplies.

And before you leave, you tell your well-intended, but settled friends in harbor the story brought down at the end of a Jewish book, Gesher HaChaim, that details the Torah laws of the mourning process:

Twins are in the womb. One of them is quite content with his life as it is, having all his food brought to him automatically amidst the mesmerizing rhythmic heart-beat and cushioned watery environment.

The other has some kind of what can only be called a “received,” intuitive awareness that there is more to it than that, more to come.

They go back and forth discussing it, disagreeing, for many months.

“Don’t you see, my brother? We have everything here. What else were we created for?”

And the second one can only speak vaguely of some feeling, some innate understanding of his, that there is something “outside.”

Finally, comes the time to go out. The “receiving” one is going first. As he goes, his brother is heartbroken. “My brother, don’t leave, come back! What did it get you, all your ideas?!”

What he doesn’t hear, or maybe hears only faintly without it penetrating his awareness, are the joyous cries on the other side, “Mazel Tov! You have a son!”

So you stay in harbor long enough to lick your wounds and gather supplies, dodging the “ice floes” which are also found on safe ground, the ones you meet up with oftentimes when you go into the settlers’ stores, as they beckon you to mature and become realistic, “if not for your sake, at least for your family’s sake for God’s sake, do it.”

What happens next? I don’t know. I’m still licking my wounds and all I have is a vague memory of a previous scenario, which may or may not be relevant next time around.

What the Ba’alei Teshuva Do for Us

By Jonathan Rosenblum
Jewish Media Resources

The theme of this year’s annual convention of Agudath Israel of America is the necessity to “Wake the Sleeping Giant” by involving all members of the Torah community in efforts to reach out to non-Orthodox and unaffiliated Jews. We are fast approaching the point where intermarriage and assimilation will have so reduced the general American Jewish population that there will be little left to rescue.

The relatively short window of opportunity remaining and the untapped potential of all Torah Jews – and not just kiruv professionals – will be the focus of most of the speakers. But I would like to address another aspect of the ba’al teshuva phenomenon that is too frequently overlooked: the positive impact that ba’alei teshuva have had on American Orthodoxy over the past 25 years.

As one who travels frequently to communities on the other side of the Hudson River, I am frequently struck by the extent to which many out-of-town communities are primarily made up of ba’alei teshuva and geirei tzedek. Nor is this phenomenon limited to out-of-town communities.

At a recent Shabbos meal, we entertained four or five English-speaking bochurim currently learning in Eretz Yisrael. True, they were not learning at Brisk (or one of its satellites). But their yeshiva is for boys who come to Eretz Yisrael already serious about their Torah learning. Each of these bochurim came from a family where one or both of the parents are ba’alei teshuva, and they told me that the same is true for well over half the boys in the yeshiva. In sum, the American Orthodox world is experiencing something of a population transfer.

But numbers is only one contribution that the ba’alei teshuva have made to the American Torah world – and likely not the most important. For one thing, they have deepened the level of Torah being taught publicly to the benefit of the entire Torah world. Most ba’alei teshuva enter the Torah world after having obtained a sophisticated secular education. Their questions are different than those who enter the Torah educational system at age six, and the level of the answers given them must be correspondingly higher as well.

Ba’alei teshuva by definition must make a positive choice to become mitzvah observant. Something must attract them and convince them to dramatically change their lives and all their expectations for the future. Most often that attraction involves both intellectual and emotional elements. And among those intellectual elements, the exposure to the depth of Torah thought is crucial. (Some of that depth can be tasted even before the ba’al teshuva develops the technical skills to fully experience the excitement of Gemara learning.)

It is no accident, I believe, that the Thursday night shiur of HaRav HaGaon Rav Moshe Shapiro, which attracts several hundred listeners every week and is disseminated around the world, was for many years given in the beis medrash of Ohr Somayach, one of the flagship institutions of the ba’al teshuva movement, or that many of those in attendance are ba’alei teshuva. In short, ba’alei teshuva helped to create the audience for some of the most penetrating Torah thinkers of our time.

Again, because the decision of ba’alei teshuva must be a positive one, they were in many cases attracted by some of the finest individuals the Torah world has to offer – some well-known and some not. They did not grow up in the Torah community, and were attracted to the community – in some cases perhaps a bit naively – by its highest ideals and their exemplars. Part of their acculturation process requires learning to live with the fact that neither all Torah Jews nor the community are perfect in every respect.

Nevertheless, there will always be some tension for the ba’al teshuva between the ideals that attracted him or her in the first place and the reality that they discover over a period of years. And because of that tension ba’alei teshuva are perhaps more inclined to demand that the Torah world live up to its own highest ideals and not just accept things as “the way it is.”

Ba’alei teshuva are acutely sensitive to issues of Kiddush Hashem and Chilul Hashem. In part that is a function of the fact that they continue to live in two worlds. Even after they have entered the Torah world, most of their family and lifelong friends are not religiously observant. There remains a part of them that continues to view the Torah world through the eyes of those family members and friends. Because they constantly find themselves having to justify their decision to leave their former lives they are perpetually alert to whatever places frum Jews or the frum community in a bad light.

There is a positive side to this tendency to view the Torah world through one eye that retains the perspective of the outside world. And that is a heightened concern to avoid any trace of Chilul Hashem and the constant search for opportunities for Kiddush Hashem. Those traits link the ba’alei teshuva, incidentally, to all the gedolei Yisrael about whom I have written, and who, without exception, made Kiddush Hashem one of the centerpieces of their avodas Hashem.

Finally, ba’alei teshuva have played a disproportionate role in kiruv work. That is not to say that only ba’alei teshuva can be effective working with non-frum Jews – something which is demonstrably not the case. Effective kiruv professionals come from the ranks of both the frum from birth and the ba’alei teshuva. The key is caring about one’s fellow Jews and possessing the Torah knowledge necessary to show non-religious Jews an entirely new world (which is not to deny an important role in kiruv for all committed frum Jews, whether they are very learned or not).

It is only natural, however, that the passion for drawing other Jews close to Torah is most frequently found among ba’alei teshuva, who have experienced both life without the guidance of the Torah and a life with Torah and know the chasm between the two.

Much of the discussion of ba’alei teshuva has typically centered on our religious duty to draw our fellow Jews close or how we should be nice to them because they are nebechim, cut off from their families and lacking ready role models to emulate as parents. But it is also good to keep in mind how much the ba’alei teshuva have brought to our community.

This article appeared in the Yated Ne’eman on November 22 2007.

Thanksgiving – Sanctifying Hashem By Being a Mentsch

This article was originally posted on November 19th, 2006.

For many BTs, Thanksgiving can be an easy or tortuous day to negotiate. R Gil Student posted a link to an article by R’ Michael Broyde that set forth the various views of Gdolim on the issue of partcicipating in the celebration and related issues such as the Mesorah of the Kashrus of turkey. I reccomend the article for anyone seeking a guide to the halachic issues.

We have always “celebrated” by having a shiur in the morning followed by getting together with relatives for a sumptuous repast. Assuming that one accepts the view that one should celebrate the day as a form of Hakaras HaTov for the amazing religious liberties and freedoms that Jews enjoy here, as opposed to any country,excluding Israel, , it can be an easy way of spending time with relatives if one utilizes a great natural resource-common sense.

Assuming that there are no kashrus problems, it is a great opportunity to show all of those relatives and assorted guests that a Torah observant Jew can interact with all sorts of people and engage in social chit chat, etc. Obviously, in such a context, your goal is to appear as a mentsch at all times. I would counsel against engaging in any conversation that even remotely touches on Torah and mitzos unless someone asks you directly for your point of view and you calculate that you can answer the query without sounding like you are on a soap box or being defensive in any way. It is almost like an office outing-politics and religion, among other issues, are not just issues to be discussed at such an occassion, unless you are directly asked a question.For instance, I was once directly asked how one could educate one’s children to avoid intermarriage.Once I realized that the question was meant as an openning to a discussion, I then proceeded to give a time honored answer-If one views every opportunity with one’s family to educate them on the supremacy of Torah and Mitzvos and does not rely on the formal educational processs-your children will have a much stronger probablity of marrying a Jewish partner as opposed to constantly harping on the negatives.On another occassion, I was asked about the interaction of the First Amendment and property rights vis a vis the erection of a sukkah in a coop. That led to an email correspondence on recent cases that dealt with that issue.

Like it or not, the currentlty prevailing ethos of pluralism and secular ethics allows Torah Judaism to compete with any and all humanly created ethical and moral systems. In that sense, while your family and friends are great that you can get together without any of the “stress” of a Shabbos or Yom Tov, IMO, Thanksgiving is not a day for kiruv based activities or engaging in any heavy discussions about different lifestyles. However, it is a day whereby you can be Mkadesh HaShem Brabim simply by being a mentsch.

It goes without saying that issues of kashrus, etc should be discussed and that not all issues in this regard can be easily negotiated,Yet, if these issue do not present a problem, then a social gathering has the potential to be a huge Kiddush HaShem.

Thanksgiving – The Holiday where Turnabout is Fair Play

Today I got an email from Mark and David, with a call for more posts. Among the suggested headings was: Thanksgiving – the official holiday of BTs.

Hmmm, I didn’t realize it was “The” official holiday! But then again, I get it. For me, it’s more a matter of it being: “Thanksgiving – The Holiday where Turnabout is Fair Play.” When we got married, my wife and
her wonderful (FFB) family helped me with many of the Jewish holidays. I knew the basics of many of them, especially the major ones, but not the full details, and some I really had no clue about. But then I learned that they never celebrated Thanksgiving (other than my father-in-law having a turkey drumstick on the Friday following Thanksgiving). This was my one chance a year to show and explain to them information about a holiday they know very little about!

The first year or two, my wife and I didn’t really do much. But then my wife’s brother and sister, having some vacation time available around Thanksgiving, came down various years. So they, and my wife, wanted to
learn more about Thanksgiving. It gave me a chance to play a little turnabout and teach them about a holiday for a change. (I guess doing all those plays in elementary school paid off!!) My wife even went on the internet to research how to cook a turkey. It came out well, too! The following years I was able to add to the meals, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie (why is it hard to find parve pumpkin pie??), stuffing (also hard to find kosher stuffing!), etc.

It also felt nice because we had family with us, had a great dinner together, and didn’t have to worry about breaking Shabbos or Yom Tov rules. This year will be different, as my sister-in-law and her familyare now in Israel, and my brother-in-law won’t be able to make it down. But now my kids are old enough that I can start explaining some of the things to them. I already started talking to my 4 year old daughter about Thanksgiving over the weekend. We both came to the realization that this is the first non-Jewish holiday that we’ve discussed! And so the learning goes on for another generation.

What Do You Find Precious About Judaism?

Rabbi Yerachmiel Milstein gave a great shiur recently titled “Ahmedinejad, the Jews, and You: What We Can Do to Protect the Jews From Their Worst Enemies?” You can download it here.

Rabbi Milstein points out that we are facing real danger from Iran and Ahmedinejad. He illustrates that Achdus is the key to our protection and the root of Achdus is V’ahavta L’reyacha K’mocha – Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.

“As yourself” implies that you have to love yourself first. And self-respect must proceed self-love. In the first half of this shiur, Rabbi Milstein gives us four ingredients of self-respect:

1) Self-respect in how we speak.
2) Self-respect in how we dress.
3) Self-respect in how we use our time.
4) Respect for our Judaism. We are to love Jews, just because they are Jewish. So what is important and precious to us about Judaism.

So what do you find precious about Judaism?

You don’t have to limit it to five things and you can keep on coming back for more.

In Defense of Art Scroll

I am no fan of ArtScroll’s historical and hashkafic perspective, but in my opinion, their Machzorim and Siddurim have enabled more Jews to fulfill the mitzvah of Tefilah properly and with some hashkafic perspectives than at any time in Jewish history.No other Sidddur or Machzor contained a halachically proper text, halachic instructions ( i.e. HaMelech HaKadosh, Musaf on Yom Tov) than ever before.

Their Chumash, Mishnah and Talmud have opened the world of learning for many Jews who either use it as a means to get to real Jewish texts or as a reintroduction to Limud HaTorah. ArtScroll deserves a major Yasher Koach for its work on the Mesoras HaRav Machzorim. Instead, we now see where the far LW MO stands on Jewish literacy. Unless it meets that sector’s PC feminist POV and includes POVs of scholars whose views are not part of the Mesorah , they are concerned that ArtScroll is too frum for them. Click here for the Jewish Week’s article. There is also a companion article on a Feminist friendly Bentcher authored by Susan Aranoff and Rivka Haut.

IMO, the choice is easy. A publishing company whose Siddur, Machzor, Mishnah and Talmud enables one to daven and learn, even with its Charedi learning Hashkafa, deserves our communal patronage far more than anything published by two feminists whose POV is simply beyond any reasonable definition of MO. Unfortunately their idea of Halacha is every imaginable Daas Yachid opinion, plus the implementation of R’ Rackman’s proposals, which clearly do nothing except be Marbeh Mamzerim B’Yisrael.

Rabbi Herschel Schacter once quoted R Y Gorelick ZTL, that every Adam Gadol has his mishegas, but a mishegunah is someone whose pastime is collecting the mishegas of every Adam Gadol. The nentcher in question clearly fits that description aptly.

The article on ArtScroll almost made it look like ArtScoll was engaged in some conspiratorial or criminal act in its fund raising. It should only be that every mossad and publisher of Jewish works was so successful. Of course, neither article mentioned the Machzorim based on the teachings of RYBS-but I have unfortunately come to expect nothing but the worst about Torah Judaism from the Jewish Week.

How Can We Overcome the Barriers that Keep People from Accepting Torah?

A recent article in Hamodia presented a quote from Rabbi Tzvi Inbal, the Baalei Teshuva co-founder of Arachim. Arachim pioneered the seminars which present the Evidence of the Truth of Torah. Rabbi Inbal stated:

“Arachim has spent years compiling research on what motivates people to grow. For a person to change his life, he needs to resolve three different types of issues:
1) Whether the Torah is true;
2) Whether the Torah is good for his life;
3) To explore any defense mechanisms he’s carrying with him.”

For the friends, family, co-workers you know who aren’t observant, which of these issues come in to play?
Are there any ways we can we better address these issues?

Report from The Aish Conference

My wife and I spent this past Thursday through Sunday at the Aish Partner’s Conference. The term partner in this context is anybody involved with in Aish in any way. The organization aims to be inclusive and if you want to: help bring Jews back to Judaism; avocate for Israel; or just learn Torah, then you’re welcome.

Many of the people I met there had heard of Beyond BT and the Aish people were supportive of the site. Everybody was approachable and we talked to many of the senior people about a number of issues. The speakers were fantastic and the program was packed with sessions. We attended about 15 different lectures and sessions on a wide variety of topics. They were all of extremely high quality. You can see the program here. My only complaint is that all the great videos they showed in the 2007 Accomplishment session on Moetzae Shabbos awakened my somewhat dormant taiva for Rock n Roll.

But the most amazing thing about the conference is how Aish, under Rabbi Noach Weinberg’s leadership, has taken Baalei Teshuva like you and me and empowered, enabled and assisted them in a wide array of projects that benefit Klal Yisroel. The vast majority of the key staff including Eric Coopersmith (CEO), Nechemia Coopersmith (Aish.Com head), Yitz Greenman (head of Discovery and Aish New York) and numerous others are Baalei Teshuva. Rav Noach recognizes the innovative power of Baalei Teshvua and is helping to unleash that power in signficant ways. We can all take pleasure in what they’ve done. (R’ Noach says: take pleasure, not pride in your accomplishments).

The theme of the conference was very focused on our mission as Jews, which is bringing G-d’s Torah to the entire world. The message is that each one of us can and should have a role in that mission. The conferences had several examples of individuals who have made significant impact through their efforts. Perhaps in subsequent posts I’ll share some insights from particular shiurim, but for now let me just leave you with a few of the projects that Baalei Teshuva powered Aish is accomplishing:

Aish.Com is the most innovative and comprehensive Torah oriented sight on the Web.

Project Inspire is a project to help and encourage Torah Observant Jews to share the wealth of Torah with their fellow Jews.

Aish Exploratorium is a state of the art museum which will introduce 350,000 Jews a year to Torah through the medium of Jewish History when they feel the tug of their heritage at the Kosel.

Hasbara is a program that educates and trains university students to be effective pro-Israel activists on their campuses.

Aish On Campus
brings university students across North America an inspiring, fun and meaningful Jewish campus experience.

Aish Cafe serves a new brand of Jewish learning by bringing the best of education and entertainment straight to dorm rooms on campus.

Media Central cultivates relationships with journalists in Israel and provides them with an Israeli point of view on issues and events in the Middle East.

Jewish Pathways
is for people who need to “catch up,” or who want to learn Torah in a more systematic, comprehensive way, Jewish Pathways courses are built around essential learning components like videos lectures, readings, slide shows and quizzes. Currently all the courses are being offered for free, so it might make sense to try it out today.

We’re big fans of anybody who spreads and supports Torah for BTs and PreTs, but after experiencing the conference (on my own dime) I’d have to say that Aish is firing on all cylinders.

Orthodox Individualism: Is There a Model?

By Reb Yaacov Yisroel Bar-Chaim

There’s much confusion about the role of the individual within Orthodox Judaism. This is especially true among spiritually sensitive newcomers. Well after accepting the theological and emotional rewards involved in performing the “big Mitzvahs” like holidays, kashrus and daily prayers, these often very intelligent, critically thinking neophytes find themselves questioning (if not panicking over) why so much legal minutae is taking over their lives. There is also a growing number of natives who are joining the fray. As the Jewish Observer periodical pointed out in their recent expose` on “Adults-at- Risk,” there are troubling numbers of fall-outs from established Orthodox families who feel their individualism is suffocating within a religion about which they otherwise deeply believe.

Another interesting article on this topic appeared earlier this week on the this blog. The writer sums up the perspective of Reform Rabbis from first hand experience: Doesn’t abdicating so many private choices to religious authorities foster a “moral crutch” attitude, stymieing us from personally taking responsibility to distinguish between right and wrong?

Unfortunately, the answer given in that article misses the point. He describes the absurdity of a medical patient insisting on having the last word on every move his doctor makes; so too must we realize that our Torah authorities are highly qualified, spiritual doctors, simply letting us know what the holy Torah wants from us. Very nice, but our suffering questioners are asking about the HEALTHY Jewish ideal!!

In fact we have an explicit verse on the matter (Deut.6): “And you should do what’s honest and good in the eyes of G-d,” which the Nesivos Sholom (vol. I, pp 137-141) explains, in the name of the Ramb”n, to mean that the PURPOSE of Torah is to bring each and every Jew to the point of making his own, non-prescribed choices.

I respectively offer some insights from recent Torah portions about a model process for achieving that ideal.

And Avram said:

“My L-rd, G-d,
what can You give me
being that I go childless;
the steward of my home
is Damascus Eliezer?”
~ Gen. 15: 2,3 ~

Now everyone asks: why complain about being childless when already promised that your seed will populate the earth (ibid 13:15, 16)? And if the first patriarch is simply being candid, confessing his lack of patience, why bring the servant into the fray? Isn’t the point simply to underscore the torment in being childless? Finally, why specify the servant’s name and title? G-d isn’t exactly some kind of beaurocratic clerk in need of a reminder!

According to the Me’or V’Shemesh (par. Lech-Lecha), a third generation Chassidic Rebbe after the Baal Shem Tov, the Midrash which Rash”y brings explaining the meaning of the title “Damascus Eliezer” is very problematic. It claims that the Hebrew Dameshek is a contracted phrase describing his servant’s strongest qualities: doleh u’mashkeh, “drawing up (like water from a well) and watering.” That is, Eliezer impeccably retained and espoused his master’s teachings. He was renowned for his ability to give over to the masses what Avram taught without losing a proverbial drop from the bucket. If so, the MvSh asks, why in the world would that be a basis for complaint?!

His answer is powerfully incisive. Whereas the context of this prayer is the Alm-ghty’s offer to reward Avram, the latter is confounded about how that could happen. For the only conceivable reward for him is a successor to his life’s mission of spreading the light of Torah, yet Eliezer is the only viable candidate and he dispenses his master’s Torah SO exactingly that he disqualifies himself, since the essence of Torah is for each individual to UNIQUELY live it!

To which G-d responds:

“Gaze, please, upon the heavens
and count the stars
if you can count them!”
And He said to him:
“So shall be your offspring!”

I.e., you’re more right than you know. While your descendants will not only possess the capacity to uniquely teach Torah, they will do so with a distinctive shine as bright as the stars are innumerable!

Fast forward two parshas. Avraham’s life is winding down and this selfsame rejected servant is being given the most sensitive mission of finding a wife for the “competition” – the up and coming star of the next generation, the patriarch’s beloved son from Sara, Yitzchak. Sure enough, we soon learn that Eliezer is trying to set up his own daughter as a marriage candidate (Rash”y on Gen.24:39, reflecting on 24:5). Yet the master refuses to bite, telling him that not only must he travel a great distance to find the right one, but if after finding her she refuses to come to the Promised Land, he’ll be “cleaned” from his oath, i.e. no longer restricted from choosing someone from among the Canaanites while STILL not being permitted to offer from his own (Rash”y on Gen. 24: 8, as clarified by Mizrachi).

This is really quite amazing. For Eliezer is from the same, cursed stock as the Canaanites!

Apparently the patriarch is insisting on driving into this extremely robotic frummie that while his external actions are highly valued, his spiritual motivation is the lowest of the low; that even under the most exceptional considerations, he just ain’t got what it takes to contribute to the soul of klal Yisroel.

On the other hand, such a put down flies in the face of a number of sources which underscore the grand heroics of Eliezer. Like when we learn that upon fulfilling this mission, he’s liberated from the Canaanite curse and becomes a free man (Br. Rabba. 59, 60; Zohar Chadash 3 ). Or how about the famously Talmudic remark about the outstanding amount of verses the holy Torah uses to describe that mission (Br. Rabba; Rash”y Gen. 24:42): “The conversations of the servants of the patriarchs are more beautiful than the Torah of their children!”

So what’s the story? Is Eliezer a model or a puppet?

The answer is both. His modeling was precisely in his ability to get beyond first being puppet like; a process so precious to G-d that He indeed invests an inordinate amount of holy ink to help us learn from it. That adage of the Sages should be accordingly understood. The word it uses for beauty – yafeh – is the most superficial of a number of Hebrew words for beauty (a subject I touched on within my last posting). It’s referring to a very transitory kind of religiosity, as in hevel ha’yofee (Prov. 30), the “mist” that initially impresses and then dissipates. Such was Eliezer’s style of devotion until learning the ideal of “the Torah of the children” – the Torah of uniquely shining individuals.

Aye, this exquisitely explains why the first patriarch allows for some Canaanites to become second choice in-laws but not others. For while those same people (which acc. to Rash”y were Aner, Eshkol and Mamreh, his loyal confederates) had already proven their deepest respect for Avram’s spiritual path, they had made no pretensions of worshipping the particular way he did. It was therefore conceivable that a daughter of theirs could enter the educational process leading up to “the Torah of the children.” But not for a child raised to be infatuated with only one style of Torah worship.


So we now have a principle for guiding each and every Jew to successfully liberate his G-d given individuality: choose a decidedly trans-yofee Torah path. In particular, aim to conclude your life like Eliezer’s, when after convincing everyone of the earthshaking synchronism behind how he found his master’s daughter-in-law, awoke in the morning to witness the family’s complete turn-around. To which his final response is, uncharacteristically curt:

Send me and I will go
to my master

Not up to AVRAHAM, but my master. THE Master.

A few verses later, after Rivka declares her willingness to go, no matter what, and they do the most unbelievable thing of blessing her (with a blessing we use to this day!), we hear the following:

And the slave took Rivka
and went…
and the slave told Yitzchak
all the things he had done

No more prostrating and praising. No more being called someone else’s slave. Just serving the one, true Master.

Now THAT’s a true individual.

Aye, it will quickly become the model for Jewish history, as we learn in the beginning of this parsha about Yitzchak’s successor, Yaacov, being “a wholesome man; a dwellor of tents” (Gen. 25:27). Why the plural? Rash”y: These were the study halls of Shem and Eiver, wherein he immersed him self in religious study for well over a decade, just like his father did. But why go to them? Weren’t there better teachers in the tents of Yitzchak and Avraham (who was alive until Yaacov’s Bar-Mitzvah)?!

It must have been that the patriarchs had learned their lesson. Never again should a Jewish leader allow a disciple to even entertain the thought of cloning his style of worship. As long as there’s another genuine scholar to be had, a true devotee of Torah should seek him out, or at least be exposed to him. That’s the model around which all Talmudic study revolves. And that’s the model within which all our “Adults at risk” should be lovingly guided to find their authentic self expression.

Mazal Tov to Ilanit Meckley on the Birth of a Baby Girl

Mazal Tov to Ilanit Meckley and her husband, of Houston, on the recent birth of a baby girl. The baby was named Yael Devora this past Shabbos.

In addtion to the Mazal Tov, we would like to take this opportunity to thank Ilanit for her contributions detailing the Meckleys’ growth as Torah observant Jews. Yael Devora is extremely fortunate to have such wonderful people as parents.


I once again have the privilege of co-chairing the Achdus Chinese Auction which will be held this year at the New York Hall of Science on Motzei Shabbos, November 10th. Now, most of us that live in Jewish neighborhoods on the east coast are aware that this time of the year is “chinese auction season”. It seems that there is a different chinese auction, (or two, or three) every other day. Achdus, we believe, is different, very different.

The idea for the Achdus auction was developed four years ago when administrators from two different schools, the Bais Yaakov of Queens and Yeshiva Tifereth Moshe, realized that they were each planning to run their own chinese auction. They hit upon the idea of combining their auctions thereby lightening the load on the community calendar and enabling the pooling of the respective resources and talents of two administrative and parent bodies to produce one amazing joint fundraiser — Achdus! We believe that this joint fund raising concept is unprecedented.

We have worked extremely hard to produce an elegant, fun evening with great games, delicious food and amazing prizes. There’s really something for everyone: fine jewelry, travel, Artscroll Shas, electronics, trips to Israel, judaica, gift certificates and “Achdus Auction Exclusives“, unique and fun prizes that can’t be found anywhere else. For example:

The Kosher Supermarket Blitz
The winner of this special prize will have five minutes alone in a fully stocked kosher supermarket. The store will be closed to the public as the lucky winner races against the clock to fill his/her shopping cart to overflowing with a bountiful array of kosher groceries. I’m sure this will end up being a phenomenal YouTube moment!

Give Me Two Scoops and Make it Personal
Many of you are familiar with Max & Mina’s Ice Cream store in Kew Gardens Hills. They are famous for their wild flavors such as lox, potato chip fudge and Ring Ding, have been written up in the New York Times and have been named no 1. on the list of Top 10 Unique Ice Cream Parlors in America by the author of Everyone Loves Ice Cream. The winner of this “Achdus Auction Exclusive” will be able to help create their own flavor that will appear on the flavor board and be served up at Max & Mina’s. Anyone up for a scoop of Chewy Teshuvah Chocolate Chunk?

Up, Up and Away
Hop aboard and bring a friend on your private one hour aerial sightseeing tour of New York City. Traffic will crawl beneath you as you glide safely above the City that Never Sleeps.

This year’s Grand Prize is a Kosher Caribbean cruise for two. As old man winter has finally begun awakening from his slumber, imagine yourself surrounded by turquiose waters aboard a Five Star luxury cruise liner with award winning gourmet Glatt Kosher dining, complete spa facilities, top notch entertainment, women’s Israeli dance classes, Shiurim, Daf Yomi, Minyanim, Mixers and much more. The Grand Prize includes two round trip tickets to point of embarkation and $1,000 spending money.

Those of you who are in the metro New York area, please join us this motzei shabbos and stop me to say hello, I’ll be the one running around like a chicken with his head cut off. Those of you who aren’t local, please take advantage of the opportunity to support two great schools, the achdus concept and the chance to win some amazing prizes by purchasing your tickets today.

For a list of all the prizes and to order tickets, check out our website at

**Today, November 5th, is the last day to take advantage of the early bird bonus ticket packages.**

Avigdor’s Helping Hand

A friend of mine tragically lost his son in September 2005 and started an organization in his memory. Here is the mission statement for Avigdor’s Helping Hand:

Avigdor’s Helping Hand seeks to provide (i) immediate, emergency and short term relief, both financial and non-financial, to families in our communities who have sustained the recent loss of the primary breadwinner and (ii) financial assistance to orphans who are getting married in the near future.

Here is some information from their home page:

Each and every one of us knows of families that have sustained the tragic loss of the wage-earning husband or wife leaving the surviving spouse and their children in unimaginable pain.What can be done for these families? These are people, just like you, who led normal lives until tragedy indiscriminately struck and instantly turned their lives upside down.How can we ease their pain and suffering? The effects of such a loss are monumental. Children without their parents, wives without their beloved husbands and husbands without their cherished wives. Their suffering is too great to bear even before the economic impact begins to engulf them.

How will these families survive financially? Even in cases where benefits, such as insurance or governmental assistance, are available, it often takes weeks or months for those benefits to be processed and made accessible to the family.

Additionally, Avigdor’s Helping Hand provides financial assistance to orphans who are facing the positive major life event of getting married. Unfortunately, this happiest of times is often marred by poverty. With the absence of one or both parents, this poverty is even more evident.

If you know of anybody in need of this type of assistance please have them contact Avigdor’s Helping Hand.

A Fainthearted Salesperson

My mother, of blessed memory, sold cosmetics for over 50 years. She was the proverbial saleswoman who could sell anyone the Brooklyn Bridge. She could convince anyone to do just about anything. Our family still jokes about the household item she put up for sale, that wasn’t the kind of thing anyone would buy, and yet she sold it. At her funeral, my son expressed his hope that now that she was in Heaven, she would convince Hashem to send the Messiah quickly. (I guess that has been a harder job for her than selling cosmetics.)

Me? I’m the total opposite. I’m not good at convincing people to do things; I don’t recall ever being able to sell anyone anything. I’m just not aggressive enough, assertive enough, whatever the correct term is. But for some reason, I feel deep down that a BT is “supposed” to be able to convince other Jews that a Torah lifestyle is best.

A tragedy occurred recently in my extended family. It was not a death; that could happen to anyone. It was a terrible series of events that “should not” have happened in a religious family – but it did. Even now, as I write, I am still in pain, still stunned and numbed by the shock, trying to put my thoughts into coherent words.

Besides the pain and shock, though, there is another thought that keeps surfacing: How will the non-religious people that I know view a Torah lifestyle now? These people were Torah-observant, and yet this terrible thing happened. I have already gotten comments from one non-religious person, to the effect that if they had not followed the Torah’s command to do thus-and-so, then this tragedy would not have happened.

We know that human beings are fallible. Despite the Torah’s prescriptions, we are going to fail sometimes. Some failures will be trivial; some will be as serious as this tragedy. But how can a BT convey that to the non-religious world, while still maintaining that the Torah’s laws are ultimately beneficial? How can a BT even convey it to himself or herself?

We are reading about Avraham Avinu and his many tests. Each of us has tests; but I am not Avraham Avinu, although I am his descendant. My world and my family’s world has been shaken. How to sweep up the pieces?

One Torah benefit I can point to is the supportive communities, both for that part of my family and for myself. When someone has experienced a tragedy, Torah-observant people rally round the person and support them in countless ways. Besides the fact that we are a merciful people, the Torah commands this support.

But for the rest of it, the whys and the wherefores, it is a hard “sell” at this moment.