Sefiras Ha’Omer: the BT Nemesis?

YY Bar-Chaiim

The typical Baal Teshuva is driven by a burning search for meaning. This often finds satisfaction within the plethora of thrilling spiritual experiences to be discovered within Torah life. But what happens when such a BT encounters one of those supremely thrilless rituals like Omer Counting?

Granted, in some communities there are spiritually gifted individuals who serve as models for infusing this Mitzvah with great fervor. Nevertheless, its technically monotonous nature takes its toll when, at least after the first weeks pass, some may find themselves mumbling the words with as much excitement as those who are “thrilled” to be done with it already!

So is there any way around this BT nemesis? The following is one perspective, relevant to every Jew, culled from the profoundly sober teachings of Nesivos Shalom.

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“Just like the four cosmic worlds can be spoken of in terms of Asiya (Deed), Yetzira (Spirit), Briah (Mind) and Atsilus (Soul), so too there are four types of piety; each one a world unto its own.

“There is a class of pietists who are people of deed… They are scrupulous in physical and material matters, never indulging their appetite nor material pleasures, even when permissible.

“… Higher than this is the Service of spirit… No materialism has sway here, whatsoever. (Such a person) need not devote to overcoming appetites and materialism, but rather (invests in) a purely refined, unblemished Service (i.e. prayer).

“… Next is the world of mind… where no evil exists, whatsoever. It is a supremely spiritual world. (Such a Jew) elevates and devotes himself to lofty conceptions and emotions pertaining to Divine Service, until his very heart and flesh rejoice in the Living G-d.

“(Yet) even higher is the world of Soul, wherein not the slightest trace of materialism exists… (This can be explained) through the words of the Mishna [Shab. 66: B; Mishna 6: 9]: “Sons go out with connections; royalty go out with bells.”

~ N. Sh. I, Chossidus, 2 ~

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An historical interjection: When parents used to take their children outside, they would tie their shoelaces to their own to ensure they wouldn’t get lost [Bartinura]. Thus, the question arises: Is this a form of carrying and thus prohibited on Shabbos? The Mishna rules that while dragging something along by your shoelace is technically carrying, in this case it’s permitted since parents and children share an inherent “connection.” So too do the bells worn by royalty express something intrinsic to their status and thus are not considered as being carried.

In jumps the Mezritcher Maggid (1710-1772). His spiritually penetrating interpretation of this Mishna sheds light on the nature of going “outside” the world of orthodox religious convention, explains the Nesivos. While this is generally a grave problem, there are two exceptions: Those who “royally” serve H’ and those who do so as “sons.” According to the Maggid, the former are totally immersed in the world of Briah/Mind. These are the Talmidei Chachamim who can rely upon the “bells” of Torah learning ringing in their heads to shield them from the onslaught of impure, worldly attractions. They are capable of engaging the non-Orthodox without being influenced by them. The “sons”, the Maggid teaches, function on an even higher level, called Atsilus,which we roughly translated as soul but literally means nearness or communion. This virtually divine sphere is reserved for those rare individuals who feel naturally at one with their Creator, far beyond their specific Torah knowledge. Like a young child feels about his parent, this Jew feels totally “connected” to H’.

To be sure, we see examples of this connection within those classic chassidic stories about little shepherd boys, or some other innocently uneducated Jews, who at one time or another are overwhelmed by their love for their Creator. The conclusion is always the same. They have NOTHING to give Him other than some seemingly very insignificant little thing, like a recital of the alphabet, a whistle or a song, which they proceed to offer with total devotion… until one of the local tsaddikim hear a heavenly voice declaring that this “little” prayer saved the entire community! Which brings us back to S’firas Ha’Omer. It is one of those seemingly insignificant little things, explains the Nesivos [vol. II Omer, 6], that can change the world or, more accurately, worldS. As per the custom to say at the conclusion of each counting, as printed in many siddurim: “…and through this (Mitzvah), may there flow an abundance (of Divine input) into all the worlds.” Accordingly, the Midrash teaches [VaYikra Rabba 28]: “One should never take the Mitzvah of Omer lightly, since it was through the merit of Omer-counting that our father Avraham inherited the Holy Land.” But could that really be? Simply by counting “today is x days in the Omer” the celestial U.N. would decree that the entire Land of Israel belongs to the Jews – for eternity!?

Indeed, concludes the Nesivos, it is PRECISELY because of the utter thrillessness of this Mitzvah that the first patriarch was able to serve his Maker with the purest, childlike devotion.
To be sure, this total purity of intention is the necessary component for inheriting the Land. As the Nesivos taught last week (Avos 4:4) about the connection between being meod meod shafel ruach, “very, very low spirited,” and the Land being called tova meod meod, “very, very good.” One is directly dependent upon the other. A thoroughly humble Jew will pine to come to Israel and vice versa.

Perhaps this also alludes to the aforementioned four levels of piety: There’s the arrogant deed doer, the humble spiritualist, the very humble learner and the thoroughly humble child. I.e. while doing godly acts is a tremendously important step in the process of Divine Service, if one stops there he has not only neglected to reign in his spiritual life but is taking pride in it! The serious Jew will accordingly give priority to prayer, which inherently involves the cultivation of humility. Yet, here too, the trial of pride digs in its claws. Meod, Meod! The Divine conscience will not give us peace within even the most heartfelt prayers until we emerge with renewed dedication to serving our Maker within two more dimensions: mind and soul.

A tall order? Certainly for the average BT who may find it difficult to maintain a steady and concentrated Torah learning regimen. To such a person it may even be a cruel slap in the face to imply he’s destined to wallow in the world of pride!
Ah – that’s why we’re given Sfiras HaOmer. It’s THE Mitzvah for BTs! Finally, we too can reach the peak of religious purity. Perhaps we can even lead the pack. For all we have to do is draw on that basic belief that got us into this business in the first place:

The belief in being “sons with connections.”

What Questions And Issues Bother(ed) You or Your Acquaintances?

Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky spoke in Kew Gardens Hills on Tuesday on “Uniting the Jewish People – Answering Difficult Questions”. It was an informative and entertaining shiur and through the wonders of TorahAnyTime.Com you can view it here.

As Baalei Teshuva we’ve all had our share of questions and issues that have bothered us and our friends, family and acquaintances.

What are the questions and issues that have bothered you or your acquaintances?

Do you think you have good answers to all your questions and issues?

Update: These are some of the questions and issues that seem to bother other people. Do you have any to add?

-Does the Chosen People imply that Jews are better than other people?
-Why do women seem to be treated as second class citizens in Torah Judaism?
-Why does Torah Judaism fault gays for their natural tendencies?
-Why do the innocent suffer and the wicked prosper?
-Why did G-d cause the Holocaust?
-Why is there evil in the world?
-Why is there so much suffering in the world?
-Aren’t animal sacrifices cruel?
-Why does Torah contradict scientific evidence of the Age of the Universe?
-Why does Torah contradict the widely accepted theory of evolution?
-Why is there no generally accepted scientific, historical or archaeological evidence of the flood?
-Why is there no generally accepted scientific, historical or archaeological evidence of the Exodus?
-Can you prove there is a G-d?
-How do you know Torah was really given by G-d at Sinai?
-If there are multiple accepted interpretations of Torah in the Talmud why are the interpretations of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist excluded?
-Why do so many Torah Observant Jews look unhappy?
-Why do I have to give up so many pleasures to become Torah observant?
-Why do Torah observant Jews look down on non-observant Jews?
-If I can’t keep the whole Torah, isn’t keeping part of it hypocritical?
-If I don’t plan on becoming Torah observant, why should I study Torah?

Updated from the comments (with slight modifications)
-Why do some Orthodox Jews seem to make a big deal about keeping kosher and wearing a uniform, but are rude to people, cheat on their taxes, and do other forms of bad behavior?
-All these rules mean you don’t get to see your family on the holidays. Isn’t religion really about family and morality, rather than ritual?
-Isn’t religion supposed to unite us, rather than divide us?
-Why would G-d care if I drive on Saturday especially if I am coming to Shul? (this question fits almost anything, it just starts why would G-d care if I……………)
-We have good refrigeration and cooking facilities now so why not eat pork?
-Can’t I just be a “good person?”
-Isn’t it more important to honor your parents, so how can you not eat at their house anymore?
-Why do you have to be so Jewish?
-Why do we hear only success stories (like at Discovery or Aish or just about all the Kiruv sites) and not stories of those who were never reached, who stayed uninterested in Judaism despite all efforts?
-Isn’t it possible that the Pintele Yid will never manage to burst into flame?
-Why don’t I hear about other couples who remain at different levels and have to live with that difference forever?
-With so much focus on the success stories are we not neglecting the reality that a large percentage of Torah Observant Jews will have some awareness and relationship with Hashem, but it will nothing to write home about?

A Lesson From my Sister

   She let me know during our Friday afternoon Gut shabbos phone call, the call that I had made to show what a nice sister I was and to ask about the plans were coming along for our Dad’s yahrzeit commemoration.

   “ Yitz and I are coming round to the opinion that women shouldn’t be at the grave” .

   What?????? Her tone was so casual, I wondered if she even realized that she’d thrown a bomb of verbal dynamite in my direction.

   Her words threw me off balance, causing my whole body to tense up; every muscle morphed into petrified wood.

   She went on, talking apparently oblivious to my reaction.

   ”Yitz says that the seforim say that when women come to the grave the soton dances on the kever and Mom said that in Europe women never went to the grave..”

   I tried to take it all in—all that I’d just heard —that it was wrong for me to go to my Dad’s grave…. And that by going I’d be inflicting damage onto his soul and and violating family custom—a family custom I’d never even knew our family had.

   ”Gut Shabbos,” I murmured in a shaky voice, putting the receiver quickly before I’d have a chance to say something I’d later regret. My body was thawing out and the shock was turning to anger.

   “Where did she get her nerve ,” I asked myself. “ We aren’t hassidim. We never held this….Why is she putting this on me, this humra, I never heard of before.” .

   In the rational spots in my brain, I knew that my sister wasn’t trying to hurt me. She was a ba’alas teshuva, a newbie in the strictly orthodox world as were my brother in law and myself. Most likely she’d read something or heard something in a lecture or a conversation that had put this idea into her head, and now she couldn’t get it out. Caballistic customs especially as they relate to death are scary, even spooky.

   In her reckoning, the vision of a dancing Soton weighed more heavily than feelings at Yahrzeit time. But the question was, what about me? Did I have to go along with it too?

   With just minutes left to candle lighting, I phoned my Rov. Thank G-d for my Rov, a Talmid Chochum, an FFB, with uninterrupted generations of frumkeit flowing in his veins, wise, kind, and accessible. The Ribono Shel Olom must have been rooting for me because he picked up right away.

   “Yes,” he said, “There is such a custom… the Vilna Gaon did hold that way but that isn’t the majority opinion especially not in the US.” And then he added. “My sisters visit my father’s grave. It’s fine for you to go.”

   “It’s not a simple thing, taking on a new custom,” my Rov added. “It really requires a lot of thought.”

   Hearing my Rov made me feel strong, as if the ground had been restored beneath my feet. I would go to the Yahrzeit proudly, without ambivalent, vaguely guilty feelings, do what I needed to do and let my sister and brother in law do their own thing.

   In many ways we are similar, my sister and I, both BTs, both determined to get everything right in our Yiddishkeit, but sometimes, we can get carried away in our zeal to apply things we’ve learned.

   I once heard Rav Reisman talk about how he as a bochur had taken on his Rebbe Rav Pam z’l’s humra of not using hot water for dish washing on Yom Tov. Then when he married, he asked his Rebbe whether to continue. “Ask your wife, “ he was told . Predictably, the new Rebetzin was unenthusiastic about facing Yom Tov with a freezing sink and so the humra went by the wayside in favor of the larger goal of Shalom Bayis.

   That anecdote carries a big lesson, of putting people before pieties. Hazal tell us that circumstances don’t just come into our life randomly; they are set up by G-d as spurs to our growth. So rather than using this particular incident to nurse a grudge—which is of course contrary to halacha, I will try to grow from it, to remind myself that in my zeal to climb the ladder to heaven, I must be sensitive and take care not to trample the guy (or gal) on the rung below.

Postscript: I went to the cemetery on the Yahrzeit and my sister wasn’t there, but it was fine.

Introducing People to the Blueprint

As Baalei Teshuva, we know the difference Torah has made in our lives. Torah has taught us that our outlook must include concern for our fellow Jews. What better way to help our fellow Jews than to bring them a little closer to Hashem and His Torah.

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On Tuesday 5/27 at 8:00 pm, Rabbi Dovid Orlovsky will be speaking at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills on the topic – How to Answer Difficult Questions — for Kiruv AND Chizuk. Rabbi Orlovsky, a BT himself, is an extremely inspiring and entertaining speaker, so please come.

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The Kiruv.Com site has another creative way to introduce your friends, neighbors and relatives to Torah. It revolves around the fantastic film, Blueprint which was released this year.

Go to the Kiruv.com site and you’ll see the following instructions:

1. Using the link above, email “Blueprint” to as many unaffiliated people you know.
You can write: I saw this great short video and thought you’d enjoy it. Let me know what you think.

2. A couple of days later ask them if they saw it and if they liked it.

3. When they respond, ask them if they would like to learn something with you for just 10 minutes a week. It could be on any topic they would like or you could suggest a topic.

You can also explain that there is a custom for people to learn Torah together on Shavuos, any topic they want.

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Let us know in the comments whether you intend on reaching out this Shavuos to introduce more people to the beauty of Torah.

Teshuva – The Challenge of Recreating Oneself

By Rabbi Dovid Gottleib

Teshuva is the greatest creative challenge a person will ever face: the challenge of recreating oneself. A person’s whole past – talents, training, experience, successes and failures – provides the materials from which his new identity will be forged. He does not turn his back on his past, but organizes it to fulfill its potential in a new way. It is a denial of Providence to regard any of his “unplanned” prior life as a loss. Everything which happened to him was planned so that he could fulfill his unique human potential and make his unique contribution (see Luzzatto’s Derech Hashem, Part II, Chapter 3). Later, he will see how his seemingly pointless past gave him the tools for his religious future.

One important benefit of becoming religious later in life, through a conscious mature decision, is a heightened sensitivity to those aspects of Torah life which tend to become rote for others. Often this sensitivity generates insights from which all can benefit. A father once told me that he was nervous about speaking in public to deliver a dvar Torah for the bris of his third son. But then he began to wonder: why didn’t speaking in front of Hashem Himself, cause him the same concern? He deduced that his prayer should be improved.

In my own case, working in kiruv (outreach) makes everything that I had previously learned relevant. It helps me communicate more effectively with people who are educated and talented, but who also want to be sure that Jewish society will understand and appreciate them. Even if one cannot see it at first, teshuvah is not so much a totally new beginning, as a redirected continuation leading to a new, higher goal.

Reprinted with Permission from http://www.dovidgottlieb.com/

Report from the Torah Umesorah Convention – Raising Maaminim in a Disbelieving World

I had the good fortune to attend the 52nd Annual Torah Umesorah Convention this past Shabbos. I was attending as an exhibitor for my company InfoGrasp, which sells Web-based Software for Schools, Shuls and Non Profits to manage their financials, academics and operations. (InfoGrasp and another venture named InfoSilk, which delivers Web Based reporting without programming, help support Beyond BT, so give us a call if applicable.)

The convention, which was held at the Friar Tuck Inn in upstate NY, was attended by close to 1,300 Torah Observant Jews, primarily from the yeshivish end of the spectrum and the atmosphere was heimish and friendly. Torah Umesorah is an organization that fosters and promotes Torah-based Jewish religious education in North America and the convention is geared towards teachers, principals and administrators. My own involvement with Torah Umesorah began over 20 years ago, in my early days of observance, when I had the good fortune to attend a number of Seed Programs over the course of a few summers. In the Great Neck, NY Seed that I attended, Lakewood Yeshiva students set up a Kollel for two weeks and I had the wonderful opportunity to learn Gemora and attend many shiurim. It was a fantastic experience.

Now I’m at the other end of the Teacher-Student relationship as a mentor in another Torah Umesorah program, Partners in Torah. I’ve been learning for close to three years with a car dealer from Lakewood and it has been a tremendous experience. My chavrusa loves to learn and every week he reads the Art Scroll Chumash and goes over every note. He asks great questions and it’s great seeing him grow and participating in other learning programs in Lakewood. Partners in Torah needs many mentors, so please consider volunteering some time each week, you won’t regret it.

Before and after Shabbos there were workshops on many issues relating to chinuch. You can visit Torah Umesorah’s Chinuch.org site, which provides free materials for teachers to use, to see the schedule.

The convention was filled with some of the greatest Rebbeim in America. On Shabbos we heard drashas from Rabbi Aharon Feldman, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, Rabbi Dovid Harris, Rabbi Malkiel Kotler, Rabbi Hillel David and Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon. In addition, Rabbi Zev Leff and Rabbi Berel Wein flew in from Eretz Yisroel, and were joined by Rabbi Yerachmiel Milstein and Rabbi Yonah Lazer in addressing the convention. All the drashos and speeches were in English. Rabbi Horowitz came up for the day on Friday and I spoke to him about the theme of the convention.

The theme was “Raising Maaminim (believers) in a Disbelieving World”. The speakers on Shabbos addressed the topic titled “Why We Are Not Reaching Our Talmidim’s Neshamos”. Before the speeches I asked a few people how they understood the title – was the problem with a minority of students or with most. As it turned out the speakers themselves struggled with this question. On one hand we see the tremendous growth of Torah in America and there are many emunah oriented students and our Rebbeim deserve our whole hearted appreciation for their great efforts at sub-standard pay scales. On the other hand a significant number of students are leaving the Torah Observant fold. And in the middle one speaker pointed out that the average Torah Observant Jew does not seem to be fired up about his davening, learning, chesed and Emunah. So even before we get to the possible solutions, the parameters of the question itself needs analysis, as is true with many Torah-community problems.

Here are some thoughts that the Rebbeim gave:

  • There has to be more focus on each individual student
  • Too much focusing on what’s good for the school or for the Rebbe harms the students
  • We have to accept that we can’t always answer every question and a bad answer is worse than no answer
  • We have to recognize that different tools, methods and messages are needed for differing places, times, and circumstances
  • We need to focus on developing more Emunah in ourselves
  • Torah has to be taught with the joy and enthusiasm and the clarity that this is the Torah received at Sinai
  • Student and teacher need to bond heart to heart

All in all it was a great experience and it’s heartening to see that our leaders recognize there are problems, there is always room for improvement, and they’re spending time and resources attempting to address them.

Inside and Out

Many of us struggle with the difference between our internal and external lives. Perhaps for baalei teshuva this struggle is harder; the “old us” is always running, somewhere, under the surface. But this is not a challenge unique to BT’s, our tradition assures us. The seder hatefilos (order of prayer) provides an example we may overlook every day.

After morning brochos (blessings) and the Akeidah (the recitation of the Torah section about the “sacrifice” of Isaac) and before korbonos (the recitation of the sacrifices) in the morning prayers, there’s a little tefilla or amira (something you say that is itself not a petition to Hashem) called Le’olam yehei odom — “A Person Should Always Be.” In the Artscroll Siddur, it is translated as follows:

Always let a person be God-fearing privately and publicly, acknowledge the truth, speak the truth within his heart, and arise early and proclaim: Master of all worlds and Lord of all lords! Not in the merit of our righteousness do we cast our supplications before You, but in the merit of Your abundant mercy…

This prayer continues until the recitation of the first verse of kerias shema (recitation of the Shema), and then the brocha (authorities differ as to whether or not to say it as a complete brocha, i.e., with Hashem’s name in it) and, as the siddur points out, someone davening in a situation where he might not get to kerias shema on time should say the whole thing at this juncture.

Now, most siddurim say Le’olam yehei odom yireh shomayim b’seiser u’vagaluy: A person should always fear Hashem in public or in private. But scholars such as my rebbe R’ Aharon Lopiansky (now Rosh Yeshiva in Silver Spring, Maryland, and formerly on the staff at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem), the author of the Aliyas Eliyahu siddur, point out that the old siddurim have the proper nusach (version) — they say only Le’olam yehei odom yireh shomayim b’seiser – a person should fear Hashem in private. In other words, he should fear Hashem in his heart of hearts, no matter what things seem to the outside world. The u’vagaluy obviously snuck in there (thanks to a local rav? a well-meaning printer?) because someone thought the ancient nusach sounded like “in secret” or something. But that misses the point: it is b’seiser that is really what this section of the siddur is about. This amirah is not about Kiddush Hashem b’farhesia (public sanctification of Hashem) or looking frum or looking not frum. It is about having yirah in your heart as you embark on the morning prayers in preparation go on to your day of living life with all its challenges.

This little thought satisfied me, and I conveyed it recently to a friend who enjoyed it, too, but this morning I saw another angle on this topic that seemed to complement it perfectly. It was in a tribute R’ Chanoch Henech HaCohen Leibowitz, zt’l, on his shloshim (the end of 30 days following his passing) written by Rabbi Yoel Adelman and Daniel Keren, printed in last Shabbos’s English HaModia, and it was an attempt to capture how R’ Henech embodied the ability of his rebbe, the great Alter of Slabodka zt’l, to be at once a grand spirit, a molder of men and the essence of humility:

The Navi Micha summarized the entire Torah in three basic principles: “Asos mishpat, ahavas chessed, v’hatze’a leches im Elokecha” — to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk modestly before Hashem. The Alter of Slabodka commented that to do justice requires one to be outspoken and resolute in the pursuit of justice.

Similarly, the chessed of Avraham was one where the entire world knew of him. His house was wide open in all four directions to all wayfarers. He was recognized [even] by the Hittites as “nesi Elokim — Prince of G-d.” How is it possible to be tzanua — to conceal oneself? Where is there even room for concealment?

The Alter explains that even when one performs the most visible of acts, the purity with which one does them is not visible. Two people can perform the very same chessed, but their intentions may be very different from each other. One might be doing the chessed purely for the sake of chessed, while his friend might be partially influenced by personal pleasure or personal gain. Therefore, one can conceal one’s greatness and purity even when performing great deeds.

The Rosh Yeshiva was always looking for ways to conceal his accomplishments and the purity which he brought to bear on all that he did.

The great man, the yorei shomayim b’seiser, is like the iceberg — called a berg or “mountain” of ice, so large does it tower on the frigid oceanic horizon; yet revealing only a fraction of its scale. He is seldom truly hidden, because a pure soul is typically perceived as such by those around him. But in fact he hides more than he shows. This takes Le’olam yehei odom yireh shomayim b’seiser beyond the mundane conception of “really, truly” holding Hashem in awe within yourself, regardless of what it looks like to others, and elevates it to the level of not only negating the need to include u’vagaluy, but to render it in fact redundant. And it reminds us of how reluctant we must be to believe we are capable of sounding the depths of another person — not only one who seems shallow, but one who seems to loom large as well.

Note: There will be a Community Wide Hesped to mark the Shloshim of HaGaon HaRav Alter Chanoch Henoch Leibowitz zt”l – Rosh HaYeshiva – Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim at the Yeshiva of Central Queens – 147-37 70th Road on Wednesday May 21, 2008 from 8:00pm – 9:30pm – Maariv to follow.

When Your Choices Hit On All Four Cylinders

Once again, our esteemed BeyondBT hosts sent out a plea for posts, and sent out some suggested topics. Two of the topics recently hit home with me, so I’ll blend them a bit and see how it comes out. The topics were: “Kosher Entertainment, where to turn?” and “Am I really glad that I’m a BT?”

A few days ago (or a few weeks ago, depending on when this actually gets posted), I went, along with several other Jewish motorcyclists to the Virginia Holocaust Museum. Although our group was all Jewish, I’m the only one who keeps strictly kosher, both at home and out. I researched it a little bit, and there was only one kosher restaurant in the area, and they had a limited menu. I mentioned it as an option for lunch, and everyone else agreed to go there. I was touched because there have been other Jewish events where the basic message seemed to be “if you keep kosher, then just brown bag it, we’re going to Pizza Hut (or similar, non-kosher type venue).” For more info about my trip to the museum, click here.

In fact, I’m seeing this even in my non-Jewish friends. For example, before I started keeping kosher, I used to eat out with other deaf employees in my company about once a month. Once I started keeping kosher, I pretty much dropped out of that. However, they asked me if there were any kosher places they could go to once in a while. There is one kosher restaurant that is a little ways off. Basically a “long lunch” but not so long that we’d have to stay too late to make up the time. They said they wanted to go and “try it out.” Turns out they enjoyed the restaurant. (One quote really made my day, “THIS is what pastrami is supposed to taste like!”) Now every few months we go over there, so I’m still able to participate in get-togethers.

Another example happened in a week long training event I was at recently. The rule was that if your phone rang in class, you had to buy donuts the next day. One person at my table forgot to turn the ringer off after a break, and her phone rang. The instructor started listing off all the donut places. When he mentioned a Krispy Kreme up the road, I mentioned “Oh, that one is Kosher, I could eat those donuts!” (My rabbi is a mashgiach there.) Later I told her that it was out of her way (there was a Dunkin Donuts a block away from the class) and not to bother, I was just teasing. But the next day she brought in 3 boxes of Dunkin Donuts and one bag from the Krispy Kreme just for me! I was flabbergasted, but she said she wanted me to enjoy the sugar high that everyone else was getting as well.

When I first started keeping more and more Mitzvot, and made the decision that I would keep strictly kosher, I thought to myself, “I’ll do it, but boy, it’s going to be a pain, I hope I don’t wind up regretting it.” Instead, it seems to have brought out the flexibility in more folks, whether they fully understand what I’m doing and why I’m doing it or not. This reinforced to me that 1) I made the right choice, and 2) I’m glad I made the commitment, because I’m not only seeing an improvement in myself and what I’m capable of, I’m seeing my friends, co-workers, and even people I’ve just met in an even more positive light.

*Update*

After I finished writing the above, yet one more example happened. I went to a dinner last night for blood donors in my area. I ate a small meal at home before going, because I figured there’d be nothing there for me. The dinner was held at a local hotel. I saw a basket of oranges on the hotel desk, and asked if I could have one, explaining I wouldn’t be eating anything at the dinner. The desk clerk said that they keep kosher meals in the kitchen, and could heat one up and serve it to me at the dinner. I most definitely was not expecting that! I wound up having a nice (wrapped and sealed by the local Vaad) chicken dinner. More details here.

Maybe I should stop being surprised when things like this happen. But then again, the surprise, and the good feeling that comes with it, almost feels like a reward for following the commitment I made and not taking the easy way out.

Pre-Shabbos Links

Just a few pre-Shabbos links for your consumption.

Summer’s in the Air Link

Rabbi Horowitz gives his answer on what to do with A Son Who Refuses to Go to Day Camp.

Something to Say At the Table Link

Steve Brizel offers his always comprehensive Parsha Roundup at Hirhurim.

Blast From the Past Link

In this BBT post from two years ago, Michael is Looking for Suggestions to Breakdown Communication Barriers. The comment thread ranges from ideas and advice on dealing with inter-family religious tensions, respect for Jews and non-Jews, derech eretz and the school system.

Have a great shabbos!

What Do You Do On a Long Shabbos Afternoon “Out-Of-Town”?

I find that long Shabbos afternoons (over here, sunset can get as late as ~9 PM) present a type of programming problem; how can I seize the day and use the available time enjoyably for Jewishly meaningful activities? In our case, without young kids in the house, with extended families hundreds of miles away, and in a neighborhood sparsely populated with Jews (any type), I often descend into boredom by late afternoon.

Naps are not meant to fill the time available. The Hebrew and English seforim sit there wondering why I’m so lackadaisical about reading them, now when I have the time. Where’s the fiery enthusiasm I ought to have? Does it depend on others being around to engage in the give-and-take? That is very likely, but the potential “others” have their own family lives or worthy pursuits, or maybe their own forms of boredom.

So, I’ll throw this out to the readers here: What solutions have worked for you or your community under comparable circumstances to enrich the typical long Shabbos?

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller on Friendship, Parenting, Ayin Tova, Making Changes

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller came to Kew Gardens Hills on May 6th and 7th and we (Mark and his wife) were priviledged to host her for part of her stay. She is one the most clear thinking people in the Orthodox world as well as a wonderful speaker and writer.

Please download these mp3s and avail yourself of her wisdom.

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller on Friendship – can be downloaded here.

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller on Parenting – can be downloaded here.

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller on Ayin Tova – can be downloaded here.

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller on Making Changes – can be downloaded here.

An Amazing Opportunity…To Help Jews On Campus

By Ben Clayman

A Little About Me: I am 20 years old, grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, and in the summer going into senior year of high school I went to Aish HaTorah quite randomly and came back frum. I now go back during my summer and winter breaks, by the way I am in university. Other interesting tidbits, I have a beard, sport curled peyos, and always can be seen with my tzizis out. Some would call me a flaming BT, I prefer “very enthusiastic”. I live in the Chabad House of the University of Chicago, am half Moroccan, went to Uman this Rosh HaShanah, am close to Chicago’s Ohr Somayach rabbis, and my Rebbe is Rav Noach Weinberg thus I follow Nusach Askenkaz of the Lithuanian Yeshivish flavor. At this point, you might be asking, “What is he getting at?” I am trying to hit home to encourage Ahavas Israel and give you a look at campus life for young Jews. We are rapidly growing bunch and we need your help…

Campus Life: Next order of business, let me first say unequivocally that sending your children to live on campus is dangerous, foolish, and near guaranteed to put them in an atmosphere that ranges from negative to hostile to a frum lifestyle. Not to say they won’t succeed, but it will leave scars. I have dozens of BT friends on campuses all around America. We have the following suggestions that would make our lives greatly improved.

1. Be Proactive. We have minyan 3x a day, only one person in our regular minyan has frum grandparents. I’ll let you infer as to what that means about the rest of the minyan. There are BTs out there on campus, if you live near one give a call to the Kiruv rabbi on campus, Chabad House, or Hillel and ask for their phone numbers and give them a call. Invite them over. If you are an alumnus, even if you don’t live near the school, giving a call to one can not only make your day, but could change the student’s life knowing that some random Jew loves them enough to call them and see how they are doing spiritually on campus.

2. ADOPT US! Don’t tell us “Give me a call for Shabbos” instead make us part of your family, We don’t have frum family, we don’t have ‘guaranteed’ Shabbos plans if things fall through with someone else, we don’t have a support network of Baal Baatim we can look up to as models living in both the Shul and workplace. We NEED you. After getting to know one of us, say to yourself, “I need to take responsibility for him” and sit him down and say, “You are permanently invited to our home, for meals, for a place to stay, for our Simchas, and for being an older brother/sister to our children for the next 4 years.” It will change their lives and yours.

3. Of course the professional Kiruv workers are doing amazing jobs, but for the already BT, life can be tough on campus. The battle for the hearts and minds of young Jews most often takes place on campus, speak to any Kiruv professional and they will tell you that most BTs come frum right after or during college. An age of change, open to new ideas, and outside their familiar environment, they explore their Judaism for the first time. When first coming to campus, nothing impressed me more then when a chair of a department invited me to his home for Shabbos. This chairman walks around campus with his untouched beard, black hat, and always a smile and time to say hello. A scientist in the medical school came to the student’s Mincha and invited us to learn Bava Kama with him during his lunch break. An alumnus invited us over on a permanent basis, he ‘adopted’ us while another alumnus made us feel part of the family by making sure we had Sedorim with their parents and a place to stay. A rebbe at a local high school said to us that if we ever needed a meal he would always be there for us. This is the kind of message that needs to be given to all BT students.

In Conclusion: Adopt a college student, don’t just speak about Ahavas Israel but live it through actions and be loud and proud, and if there are frum Yidden in the ultra-corrupting atmosphere of college campuses who can come out alright, we have nothing to fear. Additionally, I am starting a support group for college BTs to have an annual Shabbaton, share experiences, get mentors, and create a community that will bezras Hashem, will encourage others to do teshuvah.

Email me at clayman@uchicago.edu if you have any names of BTs at universities or your yourself are one and want to get involved or give feedback. Together, we can bring home countless Yidden.

P.S. In the comments, post if you yourself did teshuvah in college or currently help out on campuses.

How to Develop Your Own Learning Program

Zev writes:

I have struggled for years with my tremendous desire to grow in learning. I was very fortunate to learn in 2 Yeshivas. Although I gained much in learning skills, I have felt stunted in my growth because I could not learn for more years.

I enjoy many areas of Torah learning, but I find it challenging to learn on my own and develop my own seder halimud (learning program) in order to be able to learn as much as I can.

Does anybody have any suggestions on what they have seen work?

Love, Awe & Rabbi Akiva’s Students

The time between Pesach and Shavuos is a mourning period partially for the reason given in Yevamos (62b): “It was said that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbatha to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect.”

One of the questions asked on this Gemora is how is it that the students of Rabbi Akiva, who taught “Love your neighbor as yourself is the primary teaching of the Torah” did not respect one another to such a degree that it caused their death.

The Chasam Sofer answers this question by stating that Rabbi Akiva taught “Love your neighbor as yourself is the primary teaching of the Torah” after the death of his 24,000 students when he started over with 5 students. He saw that this teaching was primary for the continuance of Torah itself.

I would like to propose another answer. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (in Innerspace) points out that all emotions stem from the two root emotions of Love and Awe. Love is the emotion whereas we become connected, attached and united. Awe is where we recognize the greatness and uniqueness of another and we create distance out of the recognition and respect of that difference.

Rabbi Akiva’s student’s learned the message of “Love your neighbor as yourself” very well and they saw themselves and their colleagues as one unified entity. Love creates this unification. However, in addition to the needed connection resulting from love, we also need to see our uniqueness and the respect that flows from our unique role in the world. This is where the students failed and it was partly an over-emphasis on love and connection that lead to not properly respecting and recognizing each students unique greatness.

I told this over to Rabbi Welcher over Shabbos and he liked it even though he said over the Chasam Sofer’s explanation in his drasha. He provided some support of this idea from the Gemora on the same page (Yevamos 62b) where it says one should love his wife like himself, but honor her *more* than oneself which again shows the interplay between love and respect.

Another posssible application is the typical BT issues of communal integration coupled with the need of maintaining our sense of uniqueness. From the lesson of the Rabbi Akiva’s students we see the importance of both. If we continue to solidify our connections as well as recognizing and respecting each individual’s unique soul, talents, environment and challenges then perhaps we can fine tune the interplay between love and awe/respect and make our community a better place.

Moreinu HoRav Henoch Leibowitz zt”l – Reflections From Outside the Inner Circle

By Yitzchok Adlerstein
Reprinted With Permission – from Cross-Currents

Funerary orators often begin their remarks by relating how they are at a loss for words to properly express their feelings. I don’t have that problem The thoughts and images cascade without end in reacting to the petirah of my rebbi, Hagaon Rav Alter Henoch Leibowitz, zt”l.

The reason, perhaps, is that I am not in the inner circle. When you are a member of the core group, you have to focus on the expected causes for adulation of a gadol – gadlus in Torah, devotion to the cause, leaving behind many talmidim and institutions, serving as a link to the glory days of pre-War Lita. These were all fully true of the Rosh Yeshiva, and a succession of Torah luminaries, yibadlu lechaim tovim – Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, shlit”a, the Novominsker Rebbe, shlit”a, Rav Malkiel Kotler, shlit”a – extolled these virtues in their remarks at the levayah.

I left the yeshiva almost thirty years ago for the opposite coast. I’ve been back very few times, and my sons did not (with one brief exception) attend any of the many branches of Chofetz Chaim. I have had much time to look at the yeshiva and the Rosh Yeshiva (the two are really inseperable) without the constraints that come with proximity. It has left me with more to say, rather than less.

Despite my having gone “my own way,” much of what I am (at least the things I would take pride in) is attributable in no small degree to the Rosh Yeshiva – even the fact that I went my own way! The Rosh Yeshiva did not smother people in his personality. He was large enough to allow individuality and even non-conformity, even as he himself believed that rules and details helped the majority stay focused on the chief occupations of yeshiva life. He spoke openly about chinuch and pedagogy (come to think of it, he spoke openly and frequently about many topics that are ignored in other yeshivos), especially as part of the world of mussar in general, and Slabodka in particular. He would tell and retell stories about the uncanny educational abilities of the Alter, giving the credit not to the individual alone, but to the mesorah of mussar he represented from Kelm and before. It behooved an educator to take into account the needs and the talents of each talmid as an individual, and to address and nurture them. This could mean at times that he would refrain from imposing his view on a talmid who needed space, or something a bit out of the ordinary. (I was privileged to be part of a not-so-small chevrah who were all fiercely individualistic, and maintained their identities.)

He could and did embrace uniformity in the yeshiva in regard to the key principles of the yeshiva, such as commitment to the service of Klal Yisrael. In regard to externalities like dress (within certain limits), he was fiercely opposed to regimentation. His objection here was not that it denied freedom of choice to the individual. I don’t think he thought of it in those terms – he had strong feelings about conservative and semi-formal dress, not to create uniformity, but to enhance kavod haTorah in both the talmid and those he interacted with. His objection was again an outgrowth of Slabodka. The mussar personality must make self-development a real avodah. Wearing a uniform detracts from that avodah, because consciously or otherwise, the wearer of the official colors tells himself that he has already arrived and joined the elite group, and would be less likely to worry about internal matters.

If he had a uniform himself, it consisted of one item – a smile that almost never vanished. A well-developed sense of humor, including self-deprecation, accompanied it. He could energize you with that smile and a freely offered hug – something I appreciated in my dating days after a bad break-up that he somehow always found out about within hours.

His appreciation for individuality, at least when married to yiras shomayim, allowed him to advocate his own position to the hilt, explain exactly why he disagreed with others, and still not look down upon those with whom he disagreed. If their honest search came up with different answers, he would still disagree, but he was quick to point out that neither he nor the Ribbono Shel Olam could have any complaints to the party in error. In that sense, he was a pluralist before the word became PC.

He paid a price for being an iconoclast. He was aware that his yeshiva didn’t quite fit in with many of the others, but he would not compromise on his principles. Neither would he disparage the others. He taught how important it was for bnei Torah to feel that they are part of a greater Torah effort shared by all other yeshivos.

Nowhere was this felt as strongly as in the general resistance to his well-enunciated derech of learning. Ironically, those who mocked it were unaware that what he really championed was one of the most traditional views of the yeshiva world, at least of the name roshei yeshiva. Chofetz Chaim is notorious (sorry, that is the most effective word that comes to mind) for proceeding through a sugya at the pace of a paraplegic snail. (It is only partially true. At least in my day, the yeshiva was just as adamant that talmidim cover ground at a brisk pace – faster than what was going on in other yeshivos – in the long bekiyus seder. Like people who took education seriously, there was accountability for quotas of output, with hanhala members regularly monitoring progress.) The slow progress in iyun seder was not for everyone. (It wasn’t for me or my children.) But at its essence, it represented a commitment to the primacy of Gemara and Rishonim. Talmidim would learn lots of acharonim, but not for their own sake. They could never be more than tools to unravel the many layers of meaning in a Rishon or gemara itself. This attitude – one championed by many other roshei yeshiva of the last generation, is very different from what is often found in more yeshivish places, in which (as my youngest son aptly put it) the gemara acts as a heichi timtzeh to plow through interesting acharonim. He demanded rigor in reading Rishonim, because that was the real key to success in learning, and because emunas chachamim created the confidence that time spend digging for gold in the words of a Rishon was almost always worth it.

Emunas chachamim was enormously important to him. He communicated the notion to talmidim not by demanding it as a sine qua non of yeshiva life, but by painstakingly demonstrating its importance, deflecting the objections to it, and teaching about its successes. It was not a monopolistic emunas chachamim, but one that allowed for divergent opinions. (In my case, this sense of emunas chachamim essentially launched my intellectual career, and put me at odds with the stated principles of the yeshiva. The Rosh Yeshiva was enormously practical. He believed that you taught what you knew best, and shouldn’t be consumed with guilt for not being able to be all things to all people. He knew lomdus, and he knew mussar. The cocktail of both of them refreshed the souls of most talmidim. Somehow, I had a slightly different shorech neshamah. I needed something more. Hashgachah had it that in a short period of time, I stumbled upon two other great influences on my development, Rav Nachman Bulman zt”l, and Rav Aryeh Kaplan, zt”l. Both of them introduced me to a wide range of seforim outside the main reading list of Chofetz Chaim. Both slaked my own inner thirst. Yet I would never have committed myself to the effort involved in learning the seforim they insisted upon had I not had the absolute confidence in chachmei hamesorah I got from the Rosh Yeshiva. His success in teaching me ironically assured that I would drift off in a slightly different direction! He did not seem to resent it, or the fact that I chose to work outside his own large network. The last time I really saw him was when I was sitting shiva for my father A”H in Kew Gardens Hills just a few years ago, and he showed up unannounced to be menachem aveil – despite my decades away from the yeshiva. On the other hand, he pretty much never forgave me for not becoming a shul rav, whose value he believed in, which was very different from the attitude of some of his peers who saw the rabbinate as an also-ran.)

All of this may boil down to a single perception, one not likely to be made by the inner circle. To those who never knew him at all, the loss of the Rosh Yeshiva should still be reckoned as a great tragedy, and not just because of the passing of an enormous adam gadol. The Rosh Yeshiva proved the historians of mussar incorrect.

Customary wisdom has it that chassidus succeeded, and mussar failed. To be sure, mussar had a huge impact upon the yeshiva world. Mussar classics became standard fare. The office of mashgiach was added to many a yeshiva. A heightened awareness of midos issues very much continues to this day.

As a movement that could capture the imagination of the many, and transmogrify the masses, mussar pales by comparison to chassidus. Historians offer a simple explanation. Mussar is very demanding. It takes intelligence and commitment to succeed. (So do many levels of chassidus, of course. But chassidus has some ground level elements that are accessible to the hamon am behaviorally and externally, that are exciting to the masses. Chassidus became a mass movement; mussar impacted Lita the most, and its stellar overachievers were individuals here and there. It seemed hopelessly limited to the relatively rare individual with superior intellect and heightened sensitivity. Even the flirtation with mussar in the non-Jewish world in the wake of Alan Morinis’ work would not change that equation.

The Rosh Yeshiva proved them all wrong. He did not make mussar the darling of the entire frum world, but he proved that it could become, even in contemporary times, an important mass phenomenon. Chofez Chaim produced, and continues to produce, a special kind of graduate. Minimally, they are almost always nice guys – polite, cooperative, refined people who can engage others in conversation. Maximally, it took a good number of talented people and turned them into superstars. Typically, they take teaching and pulpit positions disproportionally greater than their absolute numbers.. To be sure, they have had their disappointments, their disputes, their failures. They just seem to have fewer of them. People for the most part have fewer complaints about their interpersonal skills. Mussar on the group level may not guarantee Souls on Fire, but it does a demonstrably good job in making ordinary people a few notches better, and good people skilled mentors.

The Rosh Yeshiva did not have any children. People will be quick to point out that he had hundreds of children in his talmidim. This is certainly true. There seems to be some cruel irony, however, that he left no one to even say kaddish for him.

The Sochatchover explains somewhere that Ben Azai lost nothing by not marrying. HKBH created marriage as a vehicle to allow people to ratchet up their chesed, forcing them to reach beyond themselves and learn to give in ever increasing quantities. Ben Azai was so enthusiastic about his Torah, and so good at it, that he contributed the same gifts to the world through his Torah as others would have through raising families. This is also true of the Rosh Yeshiva.

Personally, I suspect that there is something more going on. When I first got married, I was part of a chevra kadisha that served all of Queens and Nassau. All of us were from the yeshiva; the Rosh Yeshiva was not thrilled with our participation, but did not stop us. (He feared that the daily, constant involvement with death was unhealthy for young people working at building our new marriages.) We quickly learned one of one of the traditionally-held bonuses of chevra kadisha work. After 120 years, we would be greeted in shomayim by all those we had helped in their final journey. I suspect that chevra kadisha members do not have a monopoly on receiving admirers. Somewhere in shomayim, a huge crowd is of neshamos is gathered to give honor to the Rosh Yeshiva. Saying kaddish in that minyan is none other than Rav Yisrael Salanter himself, in grateful recognition of what the Rosh Yeshiva did for him.

All of us – those who knew him and those who did not – should miss the Rosh Yeshiva. תהא זכרונו ברוך

In the Eye of the Beholder?

by Akiva of Mystical Paths

Recently I had a humorous post up on my blog about an interesting morning at the (mens) mikvah. For those who don’t regularly utilize a mens mikvah, let me say that the conditions are (often) equivalent to a busy gym locker room.

I was somewhat taken to task for putting up a post that discussed (humorously) these conditions. After all, mens and womens mikvah experiences are just not the same.

The men coming through are very business like, taking care of a holy _optional_ ritual with alacrity, quickly spiritually cleansing themselves for the start of their day. Like when one goes to the gym, men are not usually not put off by the … heavy use conditions. They’re in and out, and on to other things.

This is significantly different from a womens mikvah. Their experience is once a month, the community often invests significantly to make sure the womens mikvah is a very nice place, and the mikvah attendants clean the facilities after every single use. Further, as an obligatory mitzvah, the concept of hiddur mitzvah (enhancing the mitzvah by enhancing the facility) can be applied. And of course, many woman would not tolerate, and indeed would possibly (G-d forbid) not perform the mitzvah, if the sanitary conditions were not of a high level.

So when we discuss mens mikvah experience, we discuss stories such as the Baal Shem Tov taking a mikvah in a frozen river. We discuss thousands of men who do the same by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov in Uman every erev Rosh Hashanah (where the river is not frozen that time of year, but is very cold and rather muddy, or so I’m told). We discuss the mikvah Ari in Tzfat (Safed), which bubbles out of the side of a mountain and has a chill that will take your breath away (and of which it’s said if you dip there, you won’t leave this world without doing teshuvah).

When we discuss womens mikvah experience, we discuss the beauty of the mitzvah and the facility to go with it. We discuss those who may travel far, very far, to the nearest kosher mikvah, and sacrifices to perform the mitzvah in it’s full beauty.

In the case of womens mikvah facilities, we have a halacha that a community must have a womens mikvah as a first priority, more important that a synagogue, even if one must sell the synagogue to build one. In the case of mens mikvah facilities, well, lets just say adequate is the rule, optional is the case, and it’s often late on the community’s list of things to get to.

Few men are put off by locker room conditions. You go, you change, if it’s not pretty you barely notice (same if it is), you get on to your workout. You finish, you shower off quickly, get dressed and get out. Neither the style of the tile nor a little mildew is going to affect you.

Few women would accept mens locker room conditions. And that’s ok, there’s nothing wrong with maintaining a higher standard, our ladies are worth it.

Some people get put off when you discuss some practical facts of Jewish observance. I think thats a bit sad. While we don’t focus on the fact that there’s a bunch of plumbing carrying away unwanted products in the bathroom, when that plumbing has problems we’re going to be faced with some unpleasantness. If we never discuss that it’s there at all, people are going to be ill equipped to deal with those occasional … back ups.