A Deeper Understanding of Rabbinic Authority

Several years ago, my wife and I had a very intelligent Baal Teshuva at our home many times, who had become observant through one of the Baalei Teshuva yeshivos in Israel. Over time, as he learned that things in Yiddishkeit are a little bit more complex than he had originally believed, he started to get bothered more and more. This was probably exacerbated by his chosen profession and passion, which involved some activities which are not permitted according to halacha, which may have created some cognitive dissonance for him. He is no longer observant, as far as I know right now, and this has bothered me.

One kasha that bothered him and he asked me, and about which I could not adequately answer him at the time, was the following; With the large number of halachos d’rabannan (Rabbinical Laws) that we keep, and the idea of Daas Torah and Emunas Chachamim (faith in the Sages), and the mitzva we have of “לֹא תָסוּר,” not to disobey the sages in every generation, it seems like the idea of rabbinical authority is almost a foundation of everything orthodox Jews believe in. But the truth of that authority seems so weak when there is only one little pasuk that backs it up; Devarim 17:11, “לֹא תָסוּר, מִן-הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר-יַגִּידוּ לְךָ–יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאל.” “Do not stray from the thing which they tell you, to the right or to the left.” How can such a brief and unclear pasuk be the source for such all-pervasive power and authority over the whole Jewish people?!

Recently, I was speaking with a local Rav who turned most people’s initial understanding of the relationship between the Oral and Written Torahs on its head. We were talking about how to learn a certain halacha out of a pasuk in the Torah (“בנך הבא מישראלית קרוי בנך ואין בנך הבא מן < העובדת כוכבים> {הגויה} קרוי בנך ,אלא בנה”, Kiddushin 68b). He told me that according to the opinion of Rebbe Akiva, all of the principals, details, and minutiae of halacha were given on Har Sinai to Moshe Rebbeinu. However, the actual parshios, the text of the Torah, was not fully given, according to whatever method, until the end of the 40 years in the desert.

If that is so, then what is the gemara always doing when it figures out how to derive all of the halachos of the mishna from psukim in the Torah? All of those halachos were known anyway from the time of Ma’amad Har Sinai! Why do they bother “learning out” those halachos from the Chumash, when they were known independently of the text of the Torah anyway?

He explains that part of our mitzva of Talmud Torah, learning Torah, is that Hashem gave us all of the halachos, and he also gave us his “notes,” or “shorthand,” for what is written in the Torah. One of our jobs in learning Torah is that Hashem wants us to find all of the hints to all of the halachos that we received orally on Har Sinai in His “notes,” the Written Torah. This means that we are not so much “learning out” halachos from the Chumash, but are rather “learning in” halachos into the Torah! That is how we are zoche to find all of the places where Hashem “hinted” at the halachos in the Written Torah. (The fact that there is machlokes about many halachos and which pasuk to “learn them from” is also Hashem’s will, and is due to human forgetting, and is a separate issue from what I am talking about here.)

One major ramification of this new understanding of the relationship between Torah She’bechsav (Written Torah) and Torah She’ba’al Peh (Oral Torah), is that it totally changes what we would expect to find in the Oral Torah. Those aspects of Halacha which are most obvious and known to the masses of the people, need to be hinted at in the Written “notes” Torah the least!

For example, the halachos of having a lunar calendar tremendously affects our lives, in determining what date our Yomim Tovim, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Rosh Chodesh, and Sefiras HaOmer fall out. However, all of that is hinted at in one half of one pasuk in Shmos 12:2, “הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם, רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים!” Whereas the halachos of Tuma and Tzara’as (Vayikra 12-15 ), which hardly ever affect anyone and only the kohanim need to fully understand how to pasken, take up perakim in sefer Vayikra! This can now be understood. The purpose of the psukim in Torah for, for purposes of halacha, is not to be the primary source for how we know these halachos. Rather, they are the notes that hint to those halachos. So just like one needs less notes for things that they understand better already, the Torah needs to say less when it comes to important things that are already well known and part of society. So there is little need for reminders about the halachos of the calendar, something people live with every day, while there is a greater need for hints (more detailed “notes”) to remember the halachos of Tuma and Tahara and Tzara’as, which are not well known and understood on the whole.

Similarly, with our problem regarding “לֹא תָסוּר,” rabbinical authority granted in the Torah, we can now understand that the written Torah is not, its self, granting this rabbinic role and rabbinic power, in which case one could understand why that would seem like a terse and oblique granting of that “power.” Rather, the rabbinical role of protecting and guiding the Jewish people in all generations is an integral part of our lives, and Hashem vested them with that responsibility and the necessary authority to exercise it along with all of the other halachos on Har Sinai. Since it is such an integral part of our Yiddishkeit and our society, like many other well-understood parts of halcha, little “reminding” was needed in Hashem’s “notes”, the written Torah. That is why the reference is so brief.

At least next time this issue comes up with someone, I’ll have a better understanding for myself, so that I will be able to understand the inyan better and be better able to explain it to others next time!

Recharging our BT Batteries

Twice a year, I go to Israel to see my children and grandchildren who live there. This post was written in Israel. One thing about being a BT is that you never have to let yourself get jaded. You can always recall what brought you on the BT journey, and being in Israel can supercharge the BT batteries.

This is where our forefathers and foremothers lived, this is where the Torah came to life, this is the land Hashem promised to us. People my age remember when Jews could not pray at the Wall. (But many BTs my age, including me, had not yet developed their Jewish consciousness enough to realize how holy and miraculous it was when, in 1967, the Wall once again was in Jewish hands.)

I’m one of those people who gets stressed out by the hassles of traveling. But there’s something different about traveling to Israel. And being a BT, I think, enables a person to take to heart the Torah lessons one has learned and put them into practice. Before I set out on this trip, I did a search for the word “travel” on one of the well-known BT Web sites. I came up with the lesson about the Mishkan, how when the Jews traveled they were not really traveling in an ordinary way, but more like a baby secure in its mother’s arms. No matter where the mother travels, the baby doesn’t feel like it is traveling because it is with its mother – that is the baby’s “place” so to speak. This was an enormously calming thought for me to have, that I was secure with Hashem, and I would try to trust in Him throughout all the traveling. I can’t say it works for me 100% of the time, but this is an example of bringing Torah into one’s life, and I think that it’s easier for a BT to do that.

Being in Israel can be so moving. The beauty of the land is not just physical, but enormously spiritual. As a BT, I can feel the aura of holiness here. It’s just a matter of tuning in to one’s Jewish antenna and using the special sensitivity a BT has, the soul which sparked and came alive at the beginning of the BT journey.

Of course, celebrating a Simcha with family and seeing new grandchildren is beautiful anywhere in the world, but it is so utterly beautiful here in Israel.

I think that part of a BT’s special gift is that we don’t take things for granted. We’ve had to climb that mountain on our own, but we’ve strengthened our spiritual muscles by doing so. As such, we can deeply enjoy the wonders and the miracles Hashem does for us. We can do this wherever we are in the world, even if we don’t have a chance to be in Israel, because we are the baby secure in its mother’s arms wherever she is, and we are with Hashem always, basking in His radiance and His protection.

Bridging the Gemora Gap

It seems that many BTs never bridge the Gemora Gap. That is they never develop the skills to really be able to sit and learn Gemora.

What would you suggest for such people who can’t go to learn in Yeshiva for a few years:

1) Thank G-d for Artscroll and learn Daf Yomi
2) Put aside the Artscroll and keep on trying to crack the Gemora, even if it takes years to master the skills
3) Learn things other than Gemora

Doing the Right Thing in a Tough Situation

Rabbi Lazer Brody originally posted this good advice here:

Josh from New England sent me the following question via my dear friend A Simple Jew:

I wanted to get your 2 cents on something. It’s my rabbi and my trouble seeing him as “my rabbi”. I am used to warm and caring rabbis, however he is what my wife refers to as “gruff”. His wife, on the other hand, is one of the sweetest rebbetzins you would ever meet.

The rabbi is constantly frazzled and short with me. Often he walks right by me without saying hello. He never engages me in conversation when I come over to wish him a “Good Shabbos”. He is easy to lose his temper, barks out commands to his kids, and often partakes of an inordinate amount of alcohol – and not just at times when it is customary to do so. This last observation has also been made by a number of people at my shul.

If I boil down what I am saying, he is not my ideal for a rabbi and barely meets my qualifications for a decent person. Have any advice for me? Finding another shul is obviously your first answer. However, my kids have lots of friends at this shul and also adore the rebbetzin. What should I do? I would have to move to another town since this is the only shul in walking distance if this is your advice to me.

Regards, Josh

Dear Josh,

First off, I want to warn you about gossip and slander. Even if the facts are true, you and other community members shouldn’t be talking about the rabbi unless you are bona-fide representatives of the community doing so to consider extending his contract or not. In your words, This last observation has also been made by a number of people at my shul – don’t fall into the Yetzer’s gossip trap.

If what you say is true, both anger and alcohol are clear signs of dark-side influence. Such a person cannot be a healthy spiritual guide, for if he is disconnected from holiness, how can he connect you to holiness?

I don’t suggest that you uproot your family because of this guy. Find yourself a rav and spiritual guide outside the community, and pray within the community. With email and cheap long-distance dialing, it’s no problem talking to any rav you like anywhere. Make no expectations from the local rabbi and you won’t be disappointed. Also, be careful not to join on a bandwagon against him. Hashem will take care of this His own way. Blessings and Happy Chanuka, LB

How Becoming More Observant Helped Me Beat the Xmas blahs.

By Jewish Deaf Motorcycle Dad

Every year I used to start getting depressed after Thanksgiving. The kids in school would be excitedly talking about Xmas, the teachers would put up Xmas decorations, and we’d always have assemblies to watch various Xmas movies. Sure, they would toss a dreidle or menorah in with the decorations, or tell me if I didn’t want to watch the movie, I could go to the school library, but I always got a real “outside the group” feeling. This just continued on through high school, college and early in my work career. Sure, there was no one rubbing it in, but when you go to the malls and see all the candy canes, Xmas trees, etc., you still get that “everyone but me” thing going.

Then one year I went to Friday night services, on what happened to be Xmas Eve. While I wasn’t a member of the synagogue, I lived nearby and just had the urge to attend. The rabbi said something that gave me some perspective of this. He said that we shouldn’t be envious of those who made such a big deal out of Xmas, because for a vast majority of them, Xmas was their one religious holiday (leave out the secularization of the holiday for now) of the year that they celebrated, so they were packing as much of a punch into it as they could. On the other hands, Jews had holidays spread throughout the year, so the sense of being in touch with our religious side was more constant and spread out, so we didn’t need to throw everything into one day. Thinking about that for a while, it made a lot of sense to me, and did help me to feel better about the situation. I still wasn’t overly thrilled about it, but I could rationalize and accept it.

But it wasn’t until after I got married and became more observant that things really started to shift. I started out by fully observing one day of each Jewish holiday, then both days (or more for those like Passover!). And it wasn’t the superficial observance either. Instead of just not eating bread on Passover, I was watching everything I ate, talking with my kids about it, getting fully involved in the Seder. I was waving the lulav and esrog in the sukkah, fasting the full 25 hours on Yom Kippur, listening to the full Megillah twice on Purim, keeping each and every Shabbos, etc. Now that I was really giving my all to Judaism, I noticed something… I no longer had the holiday blahs at the end of December, not even a little.

Those who only celebrate Xmas have 24 hours to pack in all their feelings for the year. No wonder they start as early as they can! We have about 1300 hours of Shabbos a year (25*52), plus how many hours for all the Yom Tovs and Festivals? No contest! I’m happy they enjoy their 24 hours (plus all the “prep” time starting around Halloween), but I’ll stick with celebrating Judaism all year long.

Flipping Out? Myth or Fact? The Impact of the “Year in Israel” – A Review

One of the most talked about issues within the Modern Orthodox world, whether in its publications such as Tradition 1, the Yeshiva University student media 2, a fairly popular , if stereotypic novel 3 and many a Shabbos table, is the effect of a year of study in an Israeli yeshiva for post high school students. Much of this discussion inevitably segues to how the Orthodox world has shifted to the proverbial right 4 . Too much has been written from the view of the external, as opposed to the internal thought processes of these young men. At long last, a welcome corrective has arrived that actually explores the effect of the year on Modern Orthodox post high school young men. Yashar Press deserves much praise for publishing “Flipping Out?: Myth or Fact? The Impact of the “Year in Israel”.

“Flipping Out” is prefaced by an introduction by Richard Joel, the President of Yeshiva University, who extols the benefits of the year in Israel programs, but who urges greater parental involvement and who argues against rushing through one’s college years. This introduction was written before Yeshiva University announced recently that it was engaging in an evaluation of the yeshivos and seminaries on its Year In Israel Program, which form one of the key elements for the near record enrollments in YU , RIETS and Stern College for Women 5. It remains to be seen whether the evaluation is primarily financial , academic, or ideological, especially since some of the institutions that recently left or were dropped from the program may have supplied too few students and engaged in decidedly anti YU sloganeering, etc .

“Flipping Out” consists of three different studies. Dr. Shalom Z. Berger profiles the rise in the “year in Israel” programs. Dr. Berger, an educator, graduate and musmach of YU , RIETS, and the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, depicts the rise of Modern Orthodoxy and the growth of the “year in Israel” programs. Dr. Berger’s study profiles the various yeshivos that these young men attend , why students spend a year in Israel, their spiritual growth and how they maintain their growth upon their return to their families and college environments. Dr. Berger also notes that many Modern Orthodox schools have “Israel nights” with visits from educators from many yeshivos and also run a religious guidance track to enable their students to make a proper choice.

Contrary to much of the prevalent urban mythology that is prevalent in some Modern Orthodox circles, the overwhelming majority of these young men are not deserting college for a life in kollel. Based upon studies and interviews with many of these young men, Dr. Berger finds that they return with a far more intense commitment to the core elements of Jewish continuity and belief, namely Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim. Of course, time is the greatest method of quantifying this commitment, but Dr. Berger concluded that these programs have provided great service to the Modern Orthodox world.

Much has been written either in publications such as Jewish Action or elsewhere about intergenerational strife that emerges from a parent who wonders what happened to his son who used to be far more passionate about baseball and contemporary culture than in working his way through a page of Talmud. Dr. Berger points out very cogently that parents can navigate this potential area of conflict by parents if they appreciate enhanced religious growth commitment, as opposed to viewing the same being a threat to an often lukewarm commitment to Orthodoxy. 6

Dr. Jacobson, a RIETS musmach and psychologist now residing in Israel, explores the more precise nature of the adherence to halacha by students, the realization of the depth of the study of Torah and Talmud , increased sense of ethics and connection with the Land of Israel among many students.7 Dr. Jacobson also provides much well needed understanding into the spiritual atmosphere and

personalties that many students encounter in their yeshiva and among their Roshei Yeshiva and mentors in their yeshivos. In addition, Dr. Jacobson describes how change begins during the course of the yeshiva calendar or “Zmanim” , impediments to change and the role of Roshei Yeshiva as instruments of religious change. Dr. Jacobson also analyzes how students interact with their parents. In this regard, in the “Parents’ Guide To Their Child’s Year in Israel:Issues and Questions” that was published by the Orthodox Caucus, , Dr. Jacobson suggests that parents stay in touch with their children in a yeshiva not just via cellphone , visiting Israel and treating their son and his friends for dinner, but in learning Torah together, attending a shiur, and realizing that a son who has a positive commitment that is different than his home’s is far better than a son who has walked away from observance. In the wake of Noah Feldman’s “Orthodox Paradox” article8, one can ask the following rhetorical question quite seriously-would one prefer a son who is more committed to Torah or a son who is gradually or rapidly losing all connections to Torah observance?

Dr. Chaim Waxman, a sociologist who has written many articles on American Orthodoxy, views the year in Israel programs in the context of a history of Relogious Zionism and Modern Orthodoxy in the United States , as enhancing a positive view of Israel and allowing for many Minhagim of Eretz Yisrael to become part of American Orthodoxy. Dr.Waxman also notes that what many consider as “chumra” is really a more stringent practice than what one had been previously practicing publicly or privately and that the same has antecedents as far back as 14th Century Spain.. Dr. Wazman points out that even though Charedim are perceived to be ideologically anti Zionist, they are far more conservative with a small “c” on issues of land and peace. Dr. Waxman also analyzes the impact of the “year in Israel” progams, the Orthodox community and aliyah and the political viewpoint of the American Orthodox community with respect to Israel and whether it has evolved from a perspective of avoiding involvement in “domestic” Israeli political issues such as the withdrawal from Gush Katif.

All in all, the above three elements demonstrate that the Year in Israel Programs succeed in helping Modern Orthodox young men realize the profundity and spirituality of a Torah based and centered life. One of the undercurrents that emerged from reading this book is that the study of Torah in many yeshiva high schools in the Modern Orthodox community competes with Advanced Placement tests, college admissions and extracurricular activities. None less than Rav Aharon
Lichtenstein has bemoaned the fact that in such a setting “the Rambam frequently does not so much compete with Michaelangelo as with Michael Jordan, or even lamentably, Michael Jackson. Small wonder that he often loses. Clearly, there is a need to exert an effort that the ambition to become a talmid chacham becomes a primary aspect of youthful dreams, and that provision be made for for their optimal realization.” 9

Despite the above portrait of American Modern Orthodox education, the Year in Israel programs have enabled many to reevaluate their spiritual and material goals. It is only a Year in Israel program that can enable someone who might have been thinking either of the Ivy League or as a professional career to realize that he just might have a more profound life as a Talmid Chacham serving the Jewish People. We need to applaud these young men and their spouses who have chosen such an avenue in life, as opposed to belittling them with variants of “those that can’t do, teach.”Although “Flipping Out” focused on the effect of the “Year In Israel” programs for young men, one would hope that a future edition would focus on the effect of the programs for young women at a wide range of seminaries and ulpanot.

Obviously, Israel is not a religious insurance policy that will work wonders for all students and there are some fine Bnei and Bnos Torah who did not spend their initial year after high school in Israel. Yet, Drs. Berger, Jacobson and Waxman stress that the many positives of what should be considered as mandatory for any Modern Orthodox student considering a college education anywhere in the Diaspora far outweigh the overemphasized and little understood reasons why there is strife between some parents and some of their returning sons. As a parent of adult daughters who have gone through the year in Israel and its many positives, I have seen its positive effects not just on its participants. Many a young man and woman, whose commitment to Torah observance was tenuous, ritualized and shallow, have returned with a far deeper commitment to Torah observance . Drs. Berger, Jacobson and Waxman have written an excellent book that should be read by anyone concerned about Torah education in the Modern Orthodox world.

1 Tradition, Vol.32 Summer 99

2 Commentator, Kol Hamvesar, Volume 1, Issue 1, 9/5/07kolhamevaser .com

3 The Outside World

4 Haim Soloveitchik “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy ( Tradition, 28:4) ( 1994) pp. 64-129. Sliding to the Right Samuel C. Heilman University of California Press (2006).

5 Yucommentator.com./media/storage/paper652/news/2007/11/05

6 Dr. Berger’s doctoral thesis, of which this section is largely taken, can be found at lookstein.org/articles/sberger-dissertation.pdf

7 Dr. Jacobson’s doctoral thesis, of which this section is largely taken, can be found at lookstein.org/articles/dj-dissertation.pdf.

8 Noah Feldman “Orthjodox Paradox NY Times. com/2007/07/22magazine/22/yeshiva-t.html

9 R. Aharon Lichenstein “The Future of Centrist Orthodoxy” ( Leaves of Faith, Vol. 2 , Chapter 15, P.324)

Originally posted on Cross-Currents

Tenth of Teves Reading and Listening

Rebbetzin Heller on Lost in Translation: The Month of Tevet

What’s the difference between the Septuagint (the 70-man translation) and ArtScroll?

Ptolemy wanted to Hellenize the Torah. He wanted it in his library along with the other classics of his time. To him it was inconceivable that a God-given document and one written by man should be treated differently.

The goal of Torah is to present us with a way of life; one that will change us and take us to parts unknown — Gods infinity. The purpose of other works is to give us greater insight into ourselves and into the world. One deals with human beings and their world, while the other deals with a world far beyond the limitations of human observation. The authors of today’s translations want to let everyone experience Torah by making them bigger. Ptolemy wanted to give everyone access to Torah by dwarfing its scope to fit the limitations of the human mind.

Rabbi Berel Wein on the Tenth of Teves:

The Tenth of Tevet is one of the four fast days that commemorate dark times in Jewish history. The others are Tisha B’Av (the day of the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem), the 17th of Tammuz (the day of the breaching of the defensive wall of Jerusalem by Titus and the Roman legions in 70 CE), and the third of Tishrei (the day that marks the assassination of the Babylonian-appointed Jewish governor of Judah, Gedaliah ben Achikam. He was actually killed on Rosh Hashana but the fast day was advanced to the day after Rosh Hashana because of the holiday).

Rabbi Noach Weinberg on the Seige of Jerusalem:

On the Tenth of Tevet, 2,500 years ago, Nebuchadnezzar began his siege of Jerusalem. Actually, there was little damage on that first day and no Jews were killed. So why is this day so tragic? Because the siege was a message, to get the Jewish people to wake up and fix their problems. They failed, and the siege led to the destruction of the King Solomon’s Temple.

Today we are also under siege. Much of the Jewish world is ignorant of our precious heritage. Children whose Jewish education ended at age 13 now carry that perception through adulthood. The results are catastrophic: assimilation in the diaspora, and a blurring of our national goals in Israel.

Rabbi Yehudah Prero on The Fast of the Tenth of Teves, “Asara B’Teves”

The Aruch HaShulchan concludes that we fast on this day because it marks the beginning of our sorrows – the first event in a chain which resulted in the eventual destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and the exile of the nation of Israel. In the event that it were possible for this day to fall out on Shabbos (which it can not, because of our calendar system), there are authorities which said that we would still fast, although fasting on the Shabbos day is forbidden. Why would we nevertheless fast? We would fast because the words used by G-d to describe the events to the prophet Yechezkel were the same words used in conjunction with the description of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, on which we fast even if the day falls out on the Shabbos: the words “On this very day” “B’etzem hayom hazeh.”

If you haven’t yet listened to Rabbi Schiller’s tape on Orthodox Achdus, which gives a sophisticated and realistic approach to dealing with differences within Orthodoxy, please take the time today to give it a listen. You can download or listen to Orthodox Achdus here.

Dealing with Being Childless

By “Shifra”

As an (as-of-yet) childless BT, who married much later than most, I’m finding myself at the periphery of not only the FFB community, but also the BT community. It’s hard to find a safe place; it is the primary topic throughout the frum velt. The discussion at the tables at simchas inevitably comes around to children and grandchildren; shiurim more than often deal with the same.

I keep telling myself that it is not a Yid’s purpose to raise children, but to raise him/herself.

It feels like the galus of galus and I wonder if there are other “landsman” who have thoughts to share about this issue or who I could talk to about this isolating place.

When the Faucet is Turned Off Too Soon

By, Charnie

Virtually everyone who visits this website has had to deal with the subject of intermarriage, be it among family or friends. In my family, intermarriage is rampant on my mother’s side. Within the next generation, nebich, there will be no Jews remaining within some families.

So why is one particular case affecting me so deeply? Why is it making me feel so sad, and why am I so preoccupied by this sadness that I’m posting this. Unlike my cousins with whom I have infrequent contact, this time it’s the daughter of my oldest and dearest friend. A woman I’ve known since we were 8 years old, a girl I’ve known for her entire life. The young lady, a charming and beautiful 23 year old graduate of an Ivy League college (let’s call her Jill) has hooked up with a man who is not Jewish. After my friend (we’ll call her Susan) somewhat sheepishly told me about this, my first reaction was “well, that’s the biggest argument for the importance of Jewish education”. This family isn’t totally irreligious, they’re probably what would be called Traditional – members and attendees of their local Conservative synagogue, kosher in their home, and of course, their two children had the obligatory Bar and Bat Mitzvah. As Susan and I discussed this issue, I mentioned to her that in the typical American Jewish lifestyle, a child’s Jewish education, the afterschool Talmud Torah, ends just when in the Day School, Yeshiva and/or Bais Yaakov world is first starting to get into the meat and potatoes. In other words, the faucet gets turned off just when it was intended to start flowing. Now that these children have learned to read Hebrew and can read a Haftorah, let’s just turn them loose and hope that those 3 or 4 years of education will carry them throughout their lives in a meaningful way.

Jill lives on her own, so her parents feel they can’t influence her in the same way they did when she was a teenager. When she was in college, Jill was often at a loss in trying to explain to her diverse group of friends why she only could date Jewish men. After not being able to answer the question in a convincing way, she’s apparently stopped asking it of herself as well. Her paternal grandparents were both Holocaust survivors, and sadly, Jill’s dad attended yeshiva but no longer is frum. In fact, he and I sort of passed each other in opposite directions, because there was a time when he was the only Orthodox person I knew, and then many years later, I became frum, and he left. All of this means that the parents are in the unfortunate position of having offered too little, too late. Susan kept stressing how kind and thoughtful this young man is. No doubt, but that’s not the issue. Apparently, his kindness goes so far as to eat kosher food, since Jill does want to retain a kosher home. Susan says the Jewish fellows she’s dated have mocked her for wanting to keep kosher. Aren’t there Jewish young men who fall somewhere in between Reform and Orthodox? However, because of the dad’s personal feelings about Orthodoxy there’s always sort of an “uncomfort” zone when we socialize with them.

Statistically speaking, it’s inevitable that this ailment will strike us all in some manner or other. But when it hits those who matter so much, there’s a terrible sadness that sets in. Over the years we’ve tried to reach out to this family because they are our close friends, inviting them for Purim Seudahs, Succos meals, whatever we could. Most of the time, we’ve been turned down, and the few times they’ve come, Jill has never joined them. The sadness I’m feeling in my heart just doesn’t abate. Because I’m frum, shouldn’t I be able to do something? Or should I just accept that is life and be grateful that my children are thankfully on a different path. Obviously, this is putting a long term friendship in jeopardy because I just can’t seem to contain myself. When I see Jill’s picture on a social networking website (she’s not my “friend”) together with this man, it makes me feel so awful.

Divrei Torah To Warm The Jewish Soul

Rabbi Moshe Zionce

Vayigash means to approach. Yehuda approaches Yosef. The deeper wisdom explains that each of the 7 shepperds (Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Moshe, Aaron, Yosef and Dovid) have their own persona. Yosef¹s distinct characteristic is to bring close and to join. This week¹s parsha begins with Yehuda coming close to Yosef.

There are many examples that illustrate Yosef¹s power of attraction. Yaakov “loved Yosef more than all the other sons”, Yosef found “favour” in his master¹s eyes and Eishes Potifar wanted to be with Yosef. Yosef found favour in the prison warden eyes as well. In fact, the entire world approached Yosef to receive the Egyptian produce he disseminated.

Yosef Hatzaddik (the righteous) is the sixth of the seven sheppards. The letter vav, six, is a conjunction in Hebrew. Like Yosef, it is the letter that joins two things together. The vavim in the Mishkan (tabernacle) were hooks that joined. In fact, graphically the form of the vav resembles a hook. Mystically, six is the characteristic called Yesod. It means foundation. In the construction of a building, a foundation is one that links mortar to ground, or it is the fusion of higher to lower. This is the power of a tzaddik. He brings down the flow from heaven to earth. Similarly, Yosef sustains the entire world through the Egyptian produce. It is the secret behind the Chasidic custom of giving the Rebbe the sixth aliya. ³Tzaddik yesod olam², the righteous are the foundation of the world.

The Vilna Gaon explains and the Bnai Yissachar echoes the same approach; the true characteristic of anything in the Torah is revealed the first time it is found. ³Hakol holech achar harosh,² everything follows after the head (the beginning). In the nucleus of a fetus is everything genetically that the child will be for life. For example, if a genetic disease is manifested at age 50 in a person, it was originally there 50 years earlier, as infinitesimal information. Only an expert knows how to read the genes in vitro and can decipher what their meaning and impact will be. So too with the Torah. Our Rabbis teach us to look at the first time a letter is used, in order to get a glimpse into the letter¹s true nature. ³Histakel borisa obara olma.² Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world. Through the Torah, all came to be. Like the genes of an embryo, the Torah holds the “data” that is all of reality.

The first vuv in the Torah is in the very first posuk (verse). ³In the beginning G-d created heaven and earth.² This first vuv is in between the words ³heaven and earth². The tzaddik is represented by the this letter vuv/six . He brings down the G-dly flow from heaven to earth. (In this pussuk the vav is connected to an apparent superfluous word es. The word es is comprised of the first and last letter of the alphabet, representing all the letters. Perhaps it is alluding to the creation of heaven and earth through the words of the Torah/alphabet).

The Baal Shem Tov teaches; the name reveals essence. In Tehillim (Psalm 81, it is the shir shel yom of Thursday), Yosef¹s name is written with an extra hey. The gemora (Sotah 10a) says Yosef sanctified Hashem’s name in private therefore he merited that one letter of Hashem’s name was added to his name. In addition, the Arizal explains that the gamatria (the numeric value) of the word Yosef is 156. That is 26 x 6. 26 is the numeric value of Hashem¹s name and six is the number of attachment. Through the very name of Yosef one can see his dynamic. I would like to suggest Yosef¹s name alludes to the G-dly power that he brings down from above.

The medrash relates, it was in the merit of Yosef that the sea split. The sea did not part until Moshe brought the bones of Yosef before it. Yosef is the power of fusion, not separation. What is the deep connection of the sea splitting and Yosef? In addition, a similar question can be asked; the gemora (Sotah 2) says “It is as difficult to match (two people in marriage) as it is to split the sea.” Matchmaking is a union, the splitting of the sea is a separation? What is the connection between these two apparent opposite dynamics? I would like to further ask, which was the bigger salvation; the sea splitting or the sea uniting?

I believe the answers lie in a tremendous secret of life. Closeness can only be achieved through distance.

Water and fire are opposites. When combined, each one will overpower the other. How does one unite the two? There is one way …a pot. It is only through a separation (the pot) that fire and water can unite. This is the deep lesson of the laws of the holy Jewish family as the gemora explains.

One wants to leap over a fence. However, he stands directly below it. There is one way for this to be accomplished. He must back up. Through momentum, he can now make a running jump over the fence. Backing up, is going in the exact opposite direction that is desired, however, it is the only way to go forward. In Shemona Esreai we take three steps back in order to take three steps forward.

In heaven the two Neshamos (souls) are one. They are separated at birth. Only through marriage are the two reunited.

All of the above is only a parable for the true great lesson. Before birth, on high, the neshama is one with Hashem. Hashem detaches it from His essence and breathes it into us. The soul is a chelek elokah memaal, a piece of Hashem. After 120 years the neshama is once again united with Hashem. What is accomplished through the soul¹s journey as it travels in an apparent full circle?

Our task in this world is to find Hashem. The world can seem very dark. Each and every moment we are tested to find Him and reveal Him. If we endure, when we approach Hashem on the day of reckoning, the sweetness of the union will be far greater than it was before the separation. The velt (world) says, ³Absence makes the heart grow fonder.² It is only through the trial and tribulations of this world that an even deeper connection is made to our creator.

The water splitting was not the true salvation at the sea. The Egyptians could have continued to pursue. I would like to suggest it was the separation in order for the union. The death of the Egyptians through the water crashing back together, is the true salvation.

Perhaps this is the true characteristic of Yosef; a separation for a greater union. It is only after Yosef is separated from his brothers for 22 years that there is true unity and love amongst the brothers.

This is the greatness of a baal teshuva. Through a deep void and lack of G-dliness, an intense reunion is achieved upon return.

Good Shabbos
Rabbi Moshe Zionce

Rabbi Moshe¹s weekly lectures can be accessed at www.torahmedia.com

The Success of the Teshuva Movement

On the National Jewish Population Survey (2000-2001) presentation regarding Orthodox Jews, slide 9 presents the following statistics:

Of the 587,000 Jews who were raised Orthodox and currently consider themselves Jewish
– 240,000 are currently Orthodox
– 347,000 are currently non-Orthodox

Of the 297,000 Jews who were raised Jewish and currently consider themselves Orthodox
– 240,000 were raised Orthodox
– 57,000 were raised Non-Orthodox

There are some issues with the numbers in that 10% of American Jews in the study consider themselves Orthodox, and it looks like they are using a number of over 5,000,000 total Jews which would mean that there are over 500,000 Orthodox Jews, not 297,000.

But is seems that there are about 57,000 Baalei Teshuva in America.

In an article by Marvin Schick from 2005 he quotes Effie Buchwald, former head of AJOP as saying that the number of Baalei Teshuva has doubled since 1990 and that the average Kiruv professional mekarevs 1 2/3 Baalei Teshuva per year.

Update: Here is a study from Brandeis which questions the NJPS numbers and says that there are over 6,000,000 Jews in American with no more than 10% Orthodox. It also cites the Avi Chai 2004 day school census which says that there are 132,000 Orthodox Day School students between the grades of 1 and 12.

What do you make of this?
Does the 57,000 figure sound right?
Is becoming Orthodox a good measure of successful outreach?
What should we do differently?

Teives of the Lonely Heart

What are we left with when that last of the nine lights on our dining room window ledge flickers out?

My life was transformed when I was offered admission to what seemed to be the greatest college in the world, well before U.S. News & World Report started saying year after year that, indeed, it was just that. For me it appeared to be not just the greatest college, but the greatest place. Indeed they sing there that it is “the best old place of all” — for it is so transformative to so many. Certainly to me it was more of a generalized place than a mere educational institution. I could not really imagine what it meant for a university to be a great college, because no one in my immediate family had ever graduated from college. Although we lived about ten miles from this one, it may as well have been ten light years.

And light did flood the world, it seemed, the day my parents brought me to the campus for the first day of Freshman Week. It was a bright day at the end of August, and perhaps it was the harsh sunlight that made my father, an orphan raised by his immigrant grandmother on the Lower East Side, cry as we walked around the country-club like setting where I would spend the next four years. I was not so emotional. I used blue sticky-gum to pin my Israeli flag to the plaster walls of the gothic dormitory, unpacked my bike and my six pairs of jeans and few other physical possessions, and got ready for the ride that would eventually lead to my present, very different, place in life.

But as summer faded and autumn settled on central New Jersey, the light, a little at a time, began to ebb.

This first semester did not go well. On the first day of school, bicycling across campus to the math building, I fell into a puddle of mud. I may as well have stayed there; I was soon on track to failing calculus even after a year of it in high school, and wisely bailed out during the add/drop period. Other classes were puttering along decently enough, with grades reflecting the considerably tougher standards and competition I was now encountering. But having no oral tradition of college, and having already been shot as from a slingshot across the universe far from the only world I knew, I was aimless. Most of the extracurricular things I probably should have done, given my talents and strengths such as they seem in retrospect, I did not do. All the things I wanted to do, the things I had been a high school star in, I resolutely failed at that fall. My high school girlfriend, off at another campus, abandoned me, too, in the process of what seemed at the time of abandoning herself in her new “place.”

And as September yielded to October, the sun, putting distance between itself and my place, grew dimmer. And I grew lonely. In my dormitory, I seemed to be entirely alone as November enveloped the campus. Everyone was at a … sport. I was not an athlete; but this time of year I should have been rehearsing a play or any number of other things that I was not doing, that they would not let me do, in this place. I looked out the drafty leaded glass dormitory window to the freezing quad below, illuminated by garish green lamps and a few other lit windows, and waited until it was respectably late enough to trudge of to the commons dining room to eat alone with hundreds of my classmates. After dinner, at least, the other guys would come back to the dorm, and I would have society, and life, and light.

But through those long, dark afternoons of late fall and early winter, loneliness — a feeling I had never experienced for even a moment in my life — overtook me. The onset of winter, and the draining of light from the world with the advent of December, has haunted me ever since. Now this is not about me. I won’t save for the end the fact that each and every failure that I experienced at the best old place of all that fall was, over the course of the next four years, reversed in spades. Indeed, all the things I wanted and could not grasp then, I had in embarrassing abundance by graduation, and thank God for that, because a baal teshuva who leaves behind what passes for “everything” for a life of Torah and mitzvos makes a much better “BT blog” contributor than the (mainly mythical) “loser at life” who “can’t hack it” in the “real world.” No, I had it all; yet every approach of the solstice still chilled me, and my soul. The emotional hurt of that fall still does not let me go, but this is not about me, right?

Zos chanukah. I always found it odd that people think Chanuka was fried up as a Christmas alternative in order to “brighten up your winter solstice.” What kind of present is that? When that last candle goes out on the last day of Chanuka, yes, any astronomer can tell you that you have more or less turned the corner along with the earth in its orbit, and that the days are imperceptibly beginning to wax long again. But in fact, if the descent into darkness chills your soul as it does some people’s, at the midway point all you have is a promise of another six weeks of the dark misery, and all that much colder, as well, for your money. And yet they say that “zos chanukah” — this last day of Chanukah — encapsulates the whole of the holiday before it. How is this?

We know that eight days — the days of Chanukah, the days before the bris — represent the transcendence of the supernatural over the natural. But while the eight days of the bris are essentially a waiting period, the eight days of Chanuka are each of them a day of yomtov, an improvement over the previous day, a brighter day than what preceded it, another day of miraculousness. To start them any later than the time of ultimate darkness over the world would be to ask too much of us in fighting despair. But to continue them beyond eight — that is not a favor. How will we ever glitter and irridesce by ourselves if we do not bring that light inside, and use it to kindle something of our own?

Some people hang colored strings of lights, keeping them up seemingly forever into the winter, hoping, it seems, to just outlast the cold night, to drive it away by luminous force. Artificial light never warms, however. It does not teach. It does not reach. The pure light of the menorah, however, at least gives us hope that we can weather the harshness of mortal life.

I have not assimilated all the lessons of the lights. Every year December still brings its dread to me. A Jew should never feel alone; he should not, but being human, and maybe wanting too much in this world, he may yet do so anyway. But every year I hope that, at least when I look out the window into the dark of night, the lights — and the clear glow they leave after they are gone — reflect, refract and reach into me just enough to keep the the light inside burning till spring.

Grampa’s Menorah

In my family, there are precious few “religious heirlooms”. In fact, other than this menorah, I can really only think of my Grandmother’s small, white, swan-shaped porcelain honey dishes used by my mother each Rosh Hashanah. This menorah is not much to look at. Although it is pure silver, it is small, a bit slanted to one side and it’s missing the shamesh. But to our family, it’s the most beautiful menorah ever.

My mother still remembers that cold winter day when my Grampa brought the menorah home. He was wearing his trademark silk and wool scarf which was easily one and a half times as long as he was tall. He entered the home, menorah in hand. No wrapping paper, no cushioning, heck, no bag. Just the menorah in his shivering hand. This menorah came with silver caps so that you could put the oil right into the cup, place the wick in the oil and thread it through the silver cap. However, by the time Grampa got home that windy evening, a few of the caps had blown away. And, so, the caps were never used. I’m not sure what happened to the shamesh but I wouldn’t be surprised if that blew away too!

Grampa Aaron was something special. He was about as close as I ever got to “the old country”. He had a heavy accent and his English was liberally spiced with Yiddish. He wore long underwear (longe gotkes) all year round including in the summer. He would cross major thoroughfares with absolute disregard for traffic signals and vehicular presence. Holding both arms straight out to his sides as a stop sign was sufficient. When frightened he would say “Oy, I almost became a hearts attack.” Grampa couldn’t understand why ice cream had pits (chocolate chips to me and you) and he, quite simply, did not hear too well. In the summer, Grampa Aaron would sit outside our bungalow in a brown chaise chair, taking in the country air and smiling. He quickly became popular with the colony kids who knew that a quick hello and a smile would yield chocolates, sucking candies and a few quarters for the pinball machine.

I’m not quite sure what it is about this menorah that makes it so special. Perhaps it’s because, like Grampa, though it may be small, old and a bit hunched to one side and though it may be missing a few pieces, beneath it all, it’s pure. And I guess it’s because this menorah is one of the few remaining links of my family’s Jewish past.

My Two Cents on BT-Ness

By Bob Miller

By now, it should be clear that anything a BT writes about BT-ness strongly reflects his/her own life experiences and personality. This has led to confusion and even acrimony in Beyond BT discussions, as each commenter knows deep in his/her heart what the teshuva process “really” is, while each reader or later commenter has some alternative reality. This, anyway, is my reality, as revealed somewhat in an interview with myself.

1. Q. Did some teshuva/kiruv operative or organization find you one day and straighten you out? A. No.

2. Q. Did you have some unusually depressing or inspiring moment that sent you headlong into a new life? A. No.

3. Q. Can you point to one particular mentor you always use as a guide? A. No.

4. Q. All right, already! What got you into teshuva mode?

A. It’s like this:

From college onward, I kept observing movements in action whose adherents and essence were clearly phony (Communism, Anarchism, an assortment of weird eastern religions, Reform and Conservative Judaism…). At each turn, it became clear to me that these were inferior to real Judaism in every way. But it took a long while to make the logical decision to take real Jewish learning and practice seriously enough to do them wholeheartedly in practice.

Even then, there was no sudden makeover. Incrementally, I began learning this and doing that, with great support from my wife. It’s great when a couple can be moving in the same positive direction. Since we were married, we have lived in seven different cities (plus, I was working away from home in New Hampshire for several years and commuting back monthly or so—a story for another time). In each of them, we met great Jews as neighbors or rabbis. We learned a lot from them and often still correspond with them. We are still works in progress, as Jews should be, and fit no pat paradigm at all.

The upshot is that I can’t be totally skeptical about any teshuva path suggested at Beyond BT, because they can all probably work in the right place at the right time for the right people.

There is a fine line between righteousness and self-righteousness. We want to distinguish ourselves from the wild and crazy members of general society. We want to connect with the true Mesorah and its practitioners and disconnect from the lies and the liars. On the other hand, the temptation exists to classify even some halachically valid forms of Orthodox Judaism as irretrievably over the line, because these don’t appeal to us or match the path we’ve taken. There is enough pain in the world that we shouldn’t amplify it by taking in-crowd-ness to a laughable level well beyond principle.

An Innocent Mistake?

By Reb Yaacov Yisroel Bar-Chaim

One of the most symbolic mistakes I’ve ever made as a newly religious Jew was the way I had been pronouncing – for YEARS! – a verse in the Hallel HaGadol. You see, I had always enjoyed flowing with this series of ki l’oilam chasdo praises for all those fabulous miracles done for our people throughout the expanse of history. From the time I began regular tfilla (praying), I felt I could resonate with the meaning of these words, in contrast to many other tfillas which took quite awhile to identify with, let alone pronounce correctly.

Thus it was that one day, as I was learning about the deeper meaning of Chanukah, I did a double-take. The drasha (exposition) was explaining how the Chanukah miracle was associated with one of the concluding lines in that prayer:

b’SHIF’Leinu zachar lanu, ki l’oilam chasdo

in our lowliness He remembered us, since His kindness is forever

“Oh WOW,” I exclaimed to myself, with an embarrassed chuckle. “I had always read this as b’SHVILeinu… (for our sakes …)!”

As I continued to learn, the depth behind this “mistake” became painfully clear. Our nation was t-o-t-a-l-l-y unworthy of the Chanukah miracle. We were so extremely shafel, wallowing in the spiritual pits, that it was below what the Creator had designated for being within the purview of His planned interventions. In contrast to Pessach, for example, we weren’t nationally hanging on to even that 1 / 50th level of purity that was the basis of meriting the Exodus. Rather, we had been forgoing circumcision, disusing our holy language and dress, forsaking Shabbos, making public declarations of atheism, etc., etc.

Similarly, I’d learn how the classic mashal (metaphor) about the nature of the feasting we do on the holy days must be modified to accommodate the two Rabbinic holydays, Purim and Chanukah. Whereas on Shabbos our souls are said to be lifted up to the King’s castle to dine with Him and on Yom Tov the experience is likened to His glory visiting our homes, on Chanukah and Purim the spiritual reality is comparable to a King who comes looking to visit His beloved son… and we’re not there! So He starts searching, hears a faint moan, follows it until peering into a deep, dark pit – Oy! There we are. “Gevalt,” the King cries. “My son, my precious son. How did you get in there? I thought I told you to stay farrrr away from these pits!”

But we had no answer.

Then and there, the mashal continues, His royal Majesty jumps into the pit, to the utter consternation of His ministers. “Finally! We’re together again,” our Creator soothingly tells us. “Now let’s work our way back up…” And so we proceed to climb out, slowly but surely. In the process, His holy garments get quite soiled and we expect to receive a giant umbrage from the royal ministers about this. Yet as we emerge, all we see is the awe they have for the King. Why? Because of the deepest love emanating from His Majesty’s eternal eyes…

So that’s the mashal (with a little embellishment!). Now you tell me: Is this about shif’leinu or shvileinu?

Personally, besides my progressive exposure to the teachings of Tsadikkim which made it crystal clear that it’s the former, my ultimate resolution came from within. I had to admit that the fact that I had been pronouncing that line as I did – for YEARS! – despite my relative Hebrew fluency, revealed a giant Freudian slip. Something within my subconscious, obviously based on my liberal, democratic education, was determined to deny any possibility of the existence of shiflus, spiritual worthlessness. Perhaps the intrapsychic term “cognitive dissonance” is more accurate. It means something like this: When the unique network of radio waves that are presently flying around within one’s mind can’t incorporate a particular broadcast of facts coming at it from without, it immediately scrambles them, as a kind of supremely self-sustaining defense mechanism.

B’shifleinu thus naturally blips into b’shvileinu.

Very nice. But surely we’re talking here about more than a natural phenomenon. The words in question are part of a divinely endowed broadcast system! So shouldn’t I assume that My Creator was communicating something through this “mistake?”

Indeed, as I thought more about it I realized that the immature religious side of me had been presuming that at LEAST Chanukah was a time when every Jew is fully appreciated for where he’s holding; at LEAST these eight days were a time for unconditional, “democratic” celebrations.

‘Tis the season to be jolly, right?

Ahem.

Talk about rude awakening. As much as the theory had worked nicely for the so-called Judeo-Xn value system, it simply was not authentic Judaism. That “the Shechina (Divine Presence) never dwells below ten tfachim (about 2 feet),” I’d soon learn, is a substantial principle in the Talmud (Succa 5B). It’s referring to those who indulge in earthbound pleasures. And the fact that the Chanuka Menorah CAN be lit as low as three tfachim is merely an exception to the rule. An exception for the sake of encouraging us – but NOT a reprieve. The special Divine visit we gain at this time is meant to return us to the reality of being ABOVE ten tfachim and strengthen our resolve to NEVER go back to that deep, dark pit where sensualism and atheism call the shots (Nesivos Sholom throughout his Maamarei Chanukah ; see pp. 10, 14, 45-50 for starters).

*

In the meantime, I’ve had a few more years to qualify my relationship with this topic and have come up with a more positive spin, based on a few questions, which I’d like to now share:

1) Why does the verse praise the Alm-ghty’s remembering our shiflus, as opposed to what we say in the post-Shma prayers, that He is magbia shfalim, uplifts the lowly? How does it help to remember us if we’re still stuck!?

2) Every single other verse in the Hallel HaGadol stresses the greatness of G-d and makes no bones about where we were holding. “To the One who performed great wonders alone… To the Splitter of the Sea into pathways… To the Guider of Israel’s passage through it… to the Knocker of great kings…” Etc. So perhaps this reference to our shiflus is not meant to put us down but just to bring out another, unique excuse for praising Him?

3) The Mishna teaches (Avos 4): Haveh meod meod shafel ruach, that we should “be of very very lowly spirit.” The Noam EliMelech (on Shmos) points out that it doesn’t state that we should mashpil rucheinu, actively degrade our spirits, just that we should accept our spiritual state as being very low. Could this be referring to a retrospective orientation; the value of accepting our lowness AFTER the fact of having fallen?

4) The Halacha (Jewish law) is that there is ktsas Mitzvah, a conditional obligation, to feast on Chanukah. Only if a concerted effort is made to imbue the evening with religious song and praises is a Jew justified in feasting then (Rma on O. Ch. 670: 2). This is comparable in the Halachic literature to a bas talmid chacham, daughter of a learned, pious Jew, who marries an Am HaAretz, a coarse, unlearned Jew. The law here as well is that while it may be a perfectly kosher marriage, those who attend should be careful not to eat unless there’s an atmosphere significantly imbued with religious songs and praises (ibid, M. Brura s”k 8, in ref. to M. Avraham in ref. to Mordechai). Now this imagery perfectly fits our discussion. For while this marriage, as far as the girl’s spiritual wherewithal is concerned, is considered shafel meod, a clear antidote is given for uplifting it. So perhaps this is also applicable to the shafel aspects of every Jew on Chanukah?

These are all rhetorical questions, of course. Undoubtedly it helps that He remembers us. As per that mashal, though He might not yet have revealed Himself above our pit, we must believe in the PROCESS the King takes to find His lost son. Similarly, the Hallel HaGadol (which by the way, tradition has it that it’s sung everyday by the angels) is most definitely all about positivity. The point of noting our lowness is not about us but about the miracle of the distance the Creator is Willing to go for Redeeming us.

Even jumping into the pits!

Finally, the idea of viewing our shiflus as retrospective merit is surely the implication of that otherwise problematic Mishna. No one should ever seek degradation, or purposely match a bas tamid chacham to an Am HaAretz. But once that’s the case we must realize that there’s a most beautiful way to gain from it all.

Songs and praises.

That’s it. Incredible! Genuine, heartfelt zmiros and shvachos on Chanukah can turn each and every Jew’s terrible experiences of shiflus into ones worth remembering… for an eternity.

As we sing in the Maoz Tzur:
naaseh nes l’shoshanim

a miracle was done for the roses

We’re the roses; those lovely flowers embedded amongst awesome amounts of thorns. The thorns are not just our external enemies. They are the b’shvileinu-mindsets that try to confuse us into believing the reason our Maker helps us out of so many holes is in order to make our lives there more comfortable. But the truth is the opposite. It’s ONLY in order to demonstrate the greatness of His love for bringing us back home…

ABOVE the allures of this world.

Halleluya!

A Privileged Trip

Because I have four children in Israel, I travel there often to see them, and I belong to a frequent-flyer club. As a result, when I purchased my ticket for the trip from which I am coming back as I write this, I was able to get a one-way upgrade to a premium class. I decided that I would get the upgrade on the flight back from Israel, my reasoning being that, firstly, it would alleviate some of the “blue” feelings I always have when I leave my children and leave Israel, and secondly, the westward trip is longer.

So here I am, sitting in the premium cabin on an international flight – something I have never experienced before – and as everyone sleeps while I am trying to stay awake and readjust my inner clock to Dallas time, this is a good time for reflection.

My family and friends laugh good-naturedly at my trait of always being early for everything. I had spent my last Shabbat of this trip at the home of my daughter, who lives in a remote village in Shomron, across the green line. Most taxi drivers don’t go there, but another daughter of mine, on her most recent trip, had found one who would, so I used his services also. My flight was scheduled to depart on Motzae Shabbat, and I asked the taxi driver to leave his home base right after the end of Shabbat to pick me up and take me to the airport. Hashem made everything go smoothly; I arrived at the terminal in plenty of time.

As a premium ticket holder, I was invited to while away the hours in an exclusive lounge with all sorts of amenities. Regular coach passengers have to be ready to board an hour or two ahead of time, but premium passengers can spend their time in the lounge and go to the gate only one-half hour prior to departure. I got so caught up in the various creature comforts in that lounge that, when my flight was called, I had to run to the gate! As I was sprinting there, I thought about the well-known metaphor we’ve probably all heard, about how life is like a cruise ship which makes an interim stop at a pleasant port. Some of the passengers get off the ship but hurry back in plenty of time. Some get so involved in the pleasures of the port that they almost don’t make it back to the ship; those are analogous to people who get so caught up in the pleasures of this world that they nearly forget about the World to Come. The lesson was just too obvious to ignore!

When I boarded the plane, I was ushered to a section of magnificent, roomy seats with many features you don’t find in coach. I had asked for an aisle seat; this section of the plane was set up in a 2-3-2 pattern, with my seat being at the end of one of the “3” parts. A woman sat next to me in the middle seat of the three; she started scolding one of the flight attendants, protesting that here she was in a premium class but she was in a middle seat “like a tourist.” The seats were arranged with plenty of room to get up and move around nevertheless, but my seatmate was not a happy passenger. As I write this, she is asleep. I hope she is comfortable; all of the seats in this section can recline like beds. To me, though, this experience is too exciting to sleep through – and I am usually one who sleeps on planes, even when I’m cramped in coach.

I once watched a movie where a woman, blind from birth, was given the opportunity to see for a period of a few hours before she would once again be blind. To me, flying in a premium class is like that. Why would I want to sleep through it when I can be awake and have all these new experiences? To be attended to and served and have my every whim catered to is not my everyday life.

There is an article on Aish HaTorah’s Web site by someone who was upgraded to first class, and he mused on how it was so easy to feel superior just because one is sitting in a premium class. I’m glad I read and reread the article, because it keeps me mindful of not falling into that trap. Flying is usually a very stressful experience for me. While in Israel, I bought a book about emunah, faith in Hashem, and I’ve been trying to internalize the lessons it teaches. It’s almost like Hashem has given me a special gift now, to let me enjoy this flight, because I have taken a first step toward strengthening my faith and trust in Him. So rather than feeling superior, I feel grateful to Hashem that He is showing me such overwhelming kindness. Of course, He shows me kindness every day and every moment, but I’m not always able to see it. I can see it and savor it now, at this moment, as I sit in this roomy seat. On a practical level, as well as thanking Hashem, I am trying to compliment and thank the flight attendants as much as I can for their help in making the flight pleasant for me. I want to spread my happiness around and make it easier for service people, whose lives are certainly not easy. And I’m sure that in a premium class, more is expected of them than in coach, as shown by my unhappy seatmate.

Judaism is such a beautiful religion. Hashem doesn’t ask us to deny the pleasures He gives us in this world; He asks only that we keep a higher goal in mind and look toward the World to Come. We have to remember what the Chofetz Chaim said: We are only passing through. But meanwhile, as long as we remember Who is giving us the pleasures we have, we are free to enjoy the banquet He sets before us. When He gives us a free gift like this, He is like a loving parent who gives his child a prize. The child, if properly raised and not spoiled, just wants to hug and kiss the parent for showing such love to the child. I sing in my heart to Hashem, and thank Him for letting me enjoy this wonderful experience. And most of all, I thank Him for once again having let me visit His holy Land of Israel and my beloved children who live there.

Is Chanukah A Good Time for Family Kiruv?

Scenario 1
Aunt Marcia, who lives in a town with a dwindling Jewish population informs you that she has proudly placed her electric Chanukah menorah in the front window. She has also made it clear that a friend of her said that you can use the electric menorah instead of candles.
Do you:
1) Politely tell her that she should also light candles
2) Give her words of encouragement for her public display of the menorah
3) Say something like “that’s nice”

Scenario 2
It’s the annual Chanukah party with you non-observant relatives. Although you’ve said some great Divrei Torah at these occasions in the past, your spouse has informed you that most of the guests eyes glaze over when you speak
1) Do you give another D’var Torah, reasoning that if not now, when
2) Just enjoy being with the family and celebrating Chanukah together and skip the D’var Torah this year

The Chanukah Drama

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz

Suppose you read two reviews in competing newspapers about the same Broadway play. One went something like this: “This drama tells the coming of age story of a young Knight. Set in medieval Scotland, the hero’s dilemmas still speak to modern audiences. The dialogue was crisp but even after a thorough review of the periodic table, chemistry between Mr. Boyer and Ms. Klapholtz was nowhere to be found.” The next notice read “The stages floorboards were mahogany inlaid with spruce. The latest halogen equipment illuminated the boards causing the actors to perspire profusely. The orchestra included some moonlighting philharmonic clarinetists”. You’d probably conclude that although both reviewers witnessed the same performance the second had “missed the boat” and was not offering any real insight as to what the play was about or whether or not it was worth seeing.

Chanukah celebrates the triumph of Torah wisdom over that of the Greeks. Of all Yomim Tovim this theme seems most relevant to us. While we all acknowledge that there is brocha- worthy wisdom among the nations the issues of confluence, congruence and conflict with Torah vex us. Where does Wisdom end and Torah begin?

Perhaps one key to unlocking this enigma inheres in Chazal’s choice of the words Chochma Cheetsonis- External wisdom to describe non-Torah disciplines. Both Torah and nature are revelations of HaShems will. Yet we mustn’t forget which of the two reveals the inner essence and which uncovers the merely peripheral. Without scripts and playwrights, theaters become superfluous. “If not for my covenant day and night (Torah) I would not have set up the laws of heaven and earth (Nature)”. Torah is the Divine drama being played out in the theater, and on the stage, of nature. Uncompromising directors and producers want the lights and the sets to be “just so” as well as the script and the casting. So if it falls our lot in life to be carpenters or lighting technicians in HaShems production then we ought to do our jobs capably and with keen awareness of His will in their implementation. But, we should never confuse those chores with the play itself. If they are true theatre fans even the carpenters will spend every spare moment watching, reading and acting in plays. Imagine a lead actor voluntarily jumping into the orchestra pit to grab a fiddle! The play’s the thing!

During this thanksgiving festival our hearts should overflow with gratitude for our own personal Chanukahs, not only for the miracle of an infinite inexhaustible light, that began as a small fragile flicker, shining into our lives, but also for the miracle of our individual recognition of the primacy of the inner wisdom and the secondary, peripheral nature of the external wisdom. The underpinning of brocha (blessing) is establishing ikkar (primary) and tofel (secondary).

The bard said, “”All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.” As such, each of us should say “Blessed are you our Lord King of the universe who chose us from among the nations and gave us his script to read and play a major role in and did not relegate us to carpentry or props.” Chanukah gave us lights… it’s time for action! The show must go on!