Bad Religious Experiences

Reposted with Permission From A Meaningful Life by Rabbi Simon Jacobson. Ths article was first posted here.

Dear Rabbi J.,

You are perhaps the only Rabbi that I feel I can write to about the following painful subject.

I grew up in a very secular home, with no faith and no G-d. My parents were both highly intelligent, cultured individuals. My father amassed a fortune as a shrewd and successful businessman, while my mother was a professional in her own right. But despite my family’s stature, we grew up in a loveless home. Our parents were not there for us, nor were they there for each other. My parents were not loyal to each other and ultimately divorced, leaving my siblings and me adrift.

I was always conscious of being Jewish, though I knew nothing about it. As I suffered through my un-nurturing home life, I began a spiritual search that ultimately led me to the Jewish community. There I found a warmth and love that I had never before experienced. The power of Jewish tradition – Shabbat, prayer, even kosher – resonated with me. Not that commitment came easily to me. But I appreciated the power of commitment – something I had never really experienced. My life was all about shifting loyalties, broken promises, dashed dreams – all creating profound distrust and insecurity. But now I discovered something new: Committed people to each other, to family, to community and to a higher calling. It was quite compelling. I also sensed a simplicity and even rejection of the high culture I grew up in. Most of the religious Jews I met were not open to other ideas and to a free-spirited perspective. But I reckoned that perhaps the trade-off was worth it: Sacrificing some of the beauty of art and literature, but without a rudder, for a life of trust, love and commitment, with very strong sense of purpose.

I was seduced by the observant lifestyle, and I slowly but surely became totally observant myself. At some point I couldn’t do enough. I made friends quickly and was welcomed into the community with open arms. For every friend and family I came to know another set of traditions became part of my regimen. I began using my Hebrew name in place of my secular one. I was kissing mezuzahs, reciting Tehillim, running to synagogue, praying at holy places, tying red strings on every one of my joints. I even took an extended leave from work to go study in a Yeshiva in Israel. And I met many others on a similar journey. As I look back at it now, it all was a blurring whiz – I was completely taken and consumed by the euphoria, like a marathon runner whose legs can’t stop moving, being pulled along on the adrenalin generated by the cheers of all the bystanders and the momentum of my fellow runners.

Pretty soon I was one of those “baalei teshuvah,” with various Rabbis and Rebbetzin’s taking credit for my miraculous “return” to my roots. Adding a feather to many caps, I was then deluged with “shidduchim,” potential marriage mates, whom I began to date. At that point, I began to feel my own self re-emerging and wasn’t really sure what I wanted outside of the demands and pressures of those around me. Truth be told, their intentions were for the most part pure, but they simply did not allow me to be myself. With the argument that they – or as they would put it, the “Torah” – knows better. I realized that my great hunger for spirit and meaning totally overwhelmed my senses and my sense of self, and I was being carried on the waves of enthusiasm. I seriously couldn’t distinguish between who I was as opposed to who others thought I was; between my individual needs and the expectations of me. The boundaries became blurred: where did others end and where did I begin?

And then the ax fell. The honeymoon was over. As I began to land and returned to my daily routines, I also began to see many of the flaws of the communities that embraced me. Frankly, that did not disturb me at all. I was not a child nor naïve; I understood that every social circle has its strengths and its weaknesses. People are people. What drew me to the religious community was not a fantastic expectation that I found perfect people; rather that I had found a perfect Judaism – a way that G-d wants us to live. What ended up truly troubling me was that so many of the religious community were simply mindless and mechanical – and callous. That too is forgivable; the secular world is not much different. What was not forgivable, however, was that in their mindlessness (masked in blind faith) many were cruel and selfish. And to top it off, when “dressed” in religious garb, the self-righteousness is simply unbearable. From condescension to outright arrogance, anything that did not neatly fit into the “comfortable” zone of the initiated was simply dismissed or criticized. Religion was much more about appearances and mechanics than it was about inner spiritual development. Except for a rare few, I did not witness introspection, an effort in personal refinement and growth, deepening love and relationships. That’s fine, as long as you don’t spend your time criticizing others and convincing yourself that you are better than others just because you are wearing a sheitel.

My questions, for example, became the irritating voice of the malcontent. From “she’s too independent” to the profoundly psychological “what can you do, she comes from a dysfunctional family,” people seemed to need to explain me away some way, instead of just having an intelligent conversation that perhaps would enlighten us all.

Especially destructive were those Rabbis and teachers who always knew “what was best for me.” I appreciate their scholarship, but many are quite unevolved when it comes to human emotions and personal refinement. They hide behind texts and quote chapters, verses and halachot. But some simply are clueless of the “fifth” shulchan aruch – common sense. Some of these “authorities” felt that they had to baby-sit for the “nebech” me and others who unfortunately did not grow up “frum.” Their guidance, I understand today, was anything but empowering. It was not driven by confidence in our souls, but by fear that we would wander off. Their intentions may have been fine, but they fundamentally believe that in Judaism there is an “us” and a “them,” “haves” and “have-nots,” and that they were superior to the less informed and educated. If you rejected their advice, on whatever grounds, you were turned on, blacklisted and cast out of the “inner circle.”

Today I am alienated and angry. Lonely and disturbed. And yes, I have regressed in my observance. I deeply love the spiritual path of Judaism. [Not all is lost, Rabbi. I still kiss mezuzahs and wear my red string… Among other things that I cherish and embrace, including Shabbat]. Yet I cannot find a community where I can belong. Equally sad are the other lonely souls that I meet with similar stories.

Many have completely rejected the Jewish tradition that they once embraced. Some are livid when it comes to this topic. I am not in that category. Please understand: I am not writing to you to vent my grievances or to just criticize the “system.” I see much of its beauty and am eternally grateful to those that took me in, taught me and in many ways transformed my life.

I am writing on a personal level: How should I view my experience? What should I be doing? Is there hope?

D. A.


Dear D. A.,

Thank you for writing and opening up a “Pandora’s box” of issues that affect many people, yet is hardly discussed, at least in a Torah context. I for one firmly believe that as irreverent as your questions may be, it is absolutely critical to address them in a constructive and meaningful manner. Hopefully this can be a catalyst that will generate a wider discussion in the broader community.

As you accurately emphasize, the focus here should not be on criticizing the negative elements of the “system” and “establishment.” That deserves its own discussion – and much can be said about it. What I will then discuss is the actual spiritual/religious journey you describe – a journey that many have taken – and its challenges and hazards, and above all: how we are to navigate in face of all the shortcomings you describe and many more that you don’t.

You may be surprised to hear that your dilemma – troubling so many people today – is addressed in this week’s Torah portion.

The chapter describes a defining event in history: For the first time ever the Divine presence finds a home in the material universe – in the Mishkan, the holy Sanctuary. “Built me a Sanctuary and I will rest among you.” As the verse states: On this first momentous “opening” day of the Mishkan, “G-d’s glory was revealed to all the people. Fire came forth from before G-d and consumed the burnt offering.”

You can imagine what kind of powerful reaction this must have caused amongst the people who witnessed this unprecedented revelation. What happened next? “When the people saw this, they raised their voices in praise and threw themselves on their faces” in complete awe.

Then, in a moment of utter spiritual ecstasy, “Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, placed fire on it and then incense. They offered before G-d a strange fire, which He had not instructed them. Fire came forth from G-d and it consumed them, and they died before G-d.”

Aaron’s sons had a religious awakening, and in their sheer hunger and bliss, they were driven to enter the Holy of Holies, and got consumed by the very fire they were trying to contain.

What did they do wrong? They moved too fast and did so at their own volition, unprepared. The fire was Divine, but it was “strange” to them. They were not ready to contain it.

Though Nadav and Avihu were on a level loftier than any of us will ever attain, the lesson to us all is very clear:

True faith is a powerful force. Like a fire it has the power to warm and illuminate, but also the power to consume and destroy. When edging close to the fire great care has to be taken to ensure that you are able to take the heat and contain the light.

Do not lose yourself in the process of becoming Divine. You have to own your choices. Faith ought not be a “strange fire,” which is alien to you; it needs to be integrated into your being. If not, its intensity can burn you.

Does this then mean that we should not embrace Judaism until it is totally integrated? Absolutely not! An equally polarizing approach is to be so cautious of the fire that we never make a move.

Balance is the key: Knowing how to move forward at your own pace, in a way that doesn’t overwhelm and consume you. One mitzvah at a time. “Mitzvah goreres mitzvah,” our sagely wisely tell us. One mitzvah brings along another.

The outcome of the Nadav and Avihu story is not that no one shall ever enter the holy sanctuary; rather, G-d lays out an entire set of rules, a process, how one is to enter the holy place and remain intact.

This delicate dance is especially acute for sensitive souls, who sense the power of the fire. Aaron’s sons were the most spiritual of them all, as Moses makes it abundantly clear that their demise was a result of their greatness. It was their deep love and passion for the Divine that caused them to enter the Temple unprepared (as the Ohr haChaim explains). As Moses told Aaron that his sons experience fulfilled G-d’s words, “I will be sanctified among those close to Me, and I will thus be glorified.”

Deep souls hungry for spirituality and cognizant of its intimate power have to be especially careful when faced with a Divine experience.

Too often religion is presented in a didactic and dogmatic way. Peer and social pressure is applied demanding conformation. And you – the individual – are lost in the process. While there is value in inspiring someone with faith and there is a notion of joining a community, and not standing on a side (“al tifrosh min hatzibbur”), at the same time, however, the power of community is only possible once and after an individual has found his distinct place and unique voice, then he can join and actually help create a community, to which he is loyal. But the group is not meant to stunt or annihilate the individual, rather to enhance him. First, we must cultivate self-confidence, and then allow the individual to make and own his choices.

As important as a community may be, as welcoming as a religious group may be – what is even more important is that the individual entering the community be allowed and encouraged at his or her own pace. To ensure that new found spiritual truth be integrated into his or her being.

This is true even in the purest form of religious experience. How much more so when it is being presented by flawed human beings, who themselves are hardly role models and paragons of spiritual refinement.

Too often, certain teachers and guides and mentors see their role as one of prodding along, directing, even babysitting for a person who is just being initiated into Judaism. Even if their intentions are right, it is vital to gauge the needs of the individual, not the needs of the teacher, lest you end up burning the person who is not yet ready for such spiritual enlightenment.

How much more so when the teacher is far from perfect and may not be the best representative of the message. Then, it is of critical importance, that the teacher qualify his role and humbly acknowledge how he and all of us are in the same boat, and are available to help each other.

So while it’s true that children need to be directed in the path of faith, and we all, even adults, are in need of the support and guidance of teachers and mentors, yet, the ultimate goal is not to create dependencies but independence. Because after all is said and done, the path of faith is not about the teacher, nor is it about the community; it is about G-d and His personal relationship with each one of us. The spiritual path is not a superimposed one but one that allows and facilitates the true human personality to emerge – the Divine Image in which each of us individually was created.

The ultimate role of a teacher, a mentor and a Rabbi is to inspire, motivate and empower each of us in that direction. If an adult is unable to own his faith there is something seriously wrong.

Bureaucracy more than religion is the root of the attitude that religion is an elitist country club, with a few “gifted” authorities – blessed with being born religious and having received a solid education, achieved scholar status and authority – bestowing their benevolence on others and allow them into the inner club. Either we believe that all people were created equally in the Divine Image or we don’t. Religion is not an end in itself; it is not about a set of rituals and traditions. It is about allowing the soul free, and actualizing the potential within each one of us.

The spiritual journey is not about self-indulgence. Neither is it about scoring points. It is the sacred journey of discovering your life mission. It is a Divine journey about releasing your soul, and transforming your corner of the universe into a home for G-d. So though we need the support from communities and structure, yet above all it is a fiercely personal journey – that has little to do with other people’s expectations and pressures.

This is the profound and yet simple lesson each one of us today can glean from Nadav and Avihu: Own your faith; make it yours; integrate it. Don’t allow it to be strange to you. Or else…

Once it becomes yours then you will be less vulnerable to the predators, to the community and to the pressures around us. The fire, especially in the hands of those that don’t always appreciate it, can be a force that annihilates personalities and ends up being used as yet another weapon of control.

It is up to each of us to understand that we are adults and that we assume responsibility for our choices, with the full and complete ability to live up to them.

I empathize with your life story and cry for your disappointments, as well as for so many others who have lost their trust in the Jewish community. With that being said, please don’t suffice with joining yet another club – the ex-club, “ex-baal-teshuva,” ex-orthodox, or the other exes out there, who gather together and share horror stories of the religious world. I understand the tendency and even healing element in finding a support group; I do not dismiss the value that it offers (no different than any of the support programs that help many people heal from various addictions and abuses). But true healing comes when we don’t just complain but do something about it.

Like it is with healing from any form of abuse – religious abuse included – we cannot afford to just wallow in the grief and remain bitter. To sit around and complain about absentee fathers and neurotic mothers doesn’t allow you to grow. It keeps you trapped as a victim. And if Judaism and faith is anything it is not about victimization. It is about empowerment. We must mobilize ourselves and create a revolution.

Allow your disappointments inform you and others. Your disillusionment contains much more than a negative experience; it demonstrates that 1) you have/had great confidence and aspirations in the spiritual path, 2) you have experienced first hand the inadequacies and failures of the “system.” This places you in the unique position of doing something about it.

We can say that those who have personally experienced the limitations and shortcomings of the religious community are uniquely positioned to teach us all how we can create a spiritual revolution, and do so in fashion that allows us to bypass the petty and partisan forces of the system, and above all – allow the spirit within each of us to shine.

The key is that you care. You genuinely and sincerely are troubled about the situation. Don’t allow that concern to turn into resignation. It would be a terrible shame if you allowed some flawed people and underdeveloped communities to shatter your dreams and hopes; it would be a great loss if your experiences undermine everything you ever believed in, your confidence and your spirit.

Even Aaron’s sons, though consumed by the fire, were driven by their spiritual heights, by their love and passion for the Divine.

Now you are at a place where you can own your Judaism; where you can express your faith with your beautiful and unique voice.

Don’t be afraid of yourself. Don’t be afraid of those that want you to conform. The story of history is that the masses have always tried to intimidate the spirited few. It was our great father Abraham that pioneered the path of individuality. Defying the mainstream he forged a path toward G-d.

Today too we need you to be our Abraham. You, who have been burned by the fire, teach us how to walk slowly, but proudly.

It is vital that we create a network, a healthy and powerful synergy of like-minded individuals, who are on the spiritual journey and have yet to din their place. We must create grass-root connections (if not communities). So much good can grow out of that.

Please see me as a friend and kindred spirit, offering you any support I can in your journey. Hopefully we both can help each other and so many more in our mutual Divine odyssey.

Much success in your journey. May it be glorious.

OU Initiates Literary Kosher Certification

June 27, 2008 NY, NY

In response to growing consumer demand for kosher literature, the OU announced today that they have launched a new literary division and hechsher, and that the first set of 30 approved classic novels has been released today in special OU editions.

Staffed entirely by Baalei Teshuva with Master’s Degrees, the literary division of the OU works under the strict supervision of leading Rabbeim, to extract, expurgate, and endorse only the finest secular literature which meets the highest moral and aesthetic standards of the Orthodox community.

Rabbi Yaakov Rubinosteinfeldwitzman, the division leader says, “Oreos have been made kosher, now finally Faulkner is too. Our goal is to have a significant percentage of the best classic and contemporary literature under our supervision. The Orthodox Jewish market segment is growing ever stronger, and when publishers like Knopf and Random House see how we can deliver customers, they’ll kasher their presses. It will be a boon for the publishing houses, for America, for the Jews, and for the OU.” William Faulkner was unavailable for comment.

Here is the list:

A Confederacy of Blintzes
Tess of the M’atzahballs
Lady Chatterley’s Lubavitcher
As I Lay Plotzing
The Brie on the River Kwai
Love in the Time of Cholent
Dorkiness at Noon
Death of a Seltzerman
The Borscht Supremacy
Rosemary’s Bialy
For Whom the Matzah Balls
The Unbearable Likeness of Beets
Voyage of the Bagel
Profiles in Cabbage,
Beyond Good & Kugel
The Matzah of Castorbridge,
House of the Seven Bagels
The Gouda that Failed
Being & Nerdiness
Raise High the Succah Beam, Accountants
To Kill a Matzahball
Far from the Madding Cholent
A Knish Before Dying
A Long Day’s Journey into Passaic
Flounders for Algernon
Remembrance of Things Pastrami
The Pita & the Pendulum
Tender is the Brisket
The Vegan is a Lonely Diner
The Electric Kool-Aid Hasid Test
Das Kappucino

Becoming Close and Attached to Hashem

From Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh I – Paragraphs 39-42

We will try to inspire the reader to want to become close and attached to Hashem.

Each of us knows that the day will come when he will take leave of this world, as it says, “Every man dies eventually.” (Berachos 17a). Everyone wants to be spared from Gehinnom and to merit Gan Eden. What does one do in Gan Eden? The Ramchal writes in the beginning of Mesillas Yesharim, “Man is created solely to find delight in Hashem and enjoy the radiance of His Shechinah.” This is the primary enjoyment in Gan Eden. Consequently, if one does not become truly attached to Hashem, there will not be much for him to do in Gan Eden. “Gan Eden” in reality is a state of deveikus to Hashem. If a person, chas veshalom, does not want to cleave to Hashem, what will he do in Gan Eden? If a person claims that in this world, he wants to benefit from this world, but when he leaves this world, he will want to cleave to Hashem, one must realize that this is a ridiculous idea. The sefarim hakedoshim have written that the way a person thinks and feels in this world is the way he will be in the next world. Therefore, if in this world, a person’s mind and heart are not attached to Hashem, but to other matters, so too will they be in the World to Come. Even if in his mind he will want to cleave to the Creator there, he won’t be able to. Against his will he will continue to desire whatever he was attracted to in this world.

In other words, a person cannot create a dichotomy, to be unattached to Hashem in this world, but cleave to Him in the next. Either he will cleave to Hashem both in this world and the next, or not in either one, chas veshalom. (Of course a person who has not used his life properly can be rectified eventually, but here is not the place for that discussion.) Hence, one must understand that if he is not attached to the Creator in this world, he will not be so in Gan Eden and the World to Come, and he will not have what to do there. One must consider deeply the fact that he is losing eternity by not achieving deveikus to Hashem in this world. The World to Come is called “the world which is completely good.” What is the goodness there? The Ramchal has written, “‘As for me, closeness to Hashem is my good.’ Anything else deemed good by people is vanity and deceptive emptiness.” You see that there is no goodness other than closeness to Hashem. So if a person is not close and attached to Hashem, he has no connection to the world that is completely good. Of necessity, to merit this good in Gan Eden and in Olam Haba one must live with deveikus to Hashem, an appreciation that “closeness to Hashem is my good” even in this world.

In this world, a person running a business takes an inventory once a year. He closes the store for a day to take stock of what was sold and what wasn’t and assess his progress. A person must do the same with his life. This is not merely a short self-accounting for fifteen minutes, a half hour, or even an hour. He must halt the whole course of his life and ask himself: Do I want to be close and attached to the Creator, or not? If I do, am I treading on the path that brings me closer to feeling this palpable closeness I seek? Or perhaps my path of learning Torah with the mind only and performing the mitzvos with minimal inspiration, will not bring me to true closeness to Hashem. One should take as much time as he needs to reach this recognition, but he must emerge with an awareness and a clear will to live his life solely for the sake of closeness and deveikus to Hashem. Then, his task will be to identify a definite path that will bring him there. But again, first of all, it must be clear that this is the entire true purpose of life – closeness and deveikus to Hashem.

Once it has become absolutely clear that the sole purpose of life is true closeness to Hashem, and a person feels a real will to live that kind of life, the time is appropriate to try to understand and reflect upon the path that brings him to this kind of life. He might think that since he is immersed in Torah and mitzvos, the day will certainly come when he will suddenly feel closeness to Hashem in his heart. This, however, is an error that many have fallen into. They think that closeness to Hashem just comes automatically to anyone who learns Torah and keeps the mitzvos, but this is not at all the case.

Chazal have said, “Even the emptiest of them [the Jewish people] are filled with mitzvos like a pomegranate” (Berachos 57a). The obvious question is: why, then, are they called “empty” if their mitzvos are as numerous as the seeds of a pomegranate? The Gaon HaRav Dovid Povarsky, zt”l, gave a wonderful answer. He said that one might have many mitzvos to his credit: Torah, chessed, and many more. However, he will still be defined as empty. Why? Because a pomegranate has many seeds, but each one is distinct from the others. It is not like an apple or pear that is one unit. Rather, each seed stands alone. Similarly, a person can learn Torah and perform many mitzvos, but he will still be considered empty, because his deeds are separate from each other, with nothing unifying them.

Torah and mitzvos must be performed as parts of one unit, not as disconnected acts, chas veshalom. They must all participate in the building of one’s inner spiritual edifice. If he has not achieved that inner element that unites all his Torah and mitzvos, a person might learn Torah his entire life and fulfill many mitzvos, but still be among “the empty ones among them”.

What is that inner element? Deveikus to Hashem! The Torah must be studied in harmony, bearing in mind the principle that “Hashem, the Torah, and Yisrael are one” (Zohar 3:73). Through the Torah, one must cleave to his Creator. The term mitzvos is based on the word tzavta, referring to a bond with Hashem, as mentioned above. Consequently, both Torah and the mitzvos have one inner goal, which is closeness and deveikus to Hashem. If one is working to reach this goal, all the Torah he studies and all the mitzvos he performs will be interconnected, for they all will bring him to a common goal. But if Torah and mitzvos are not performed in a way that brings a person to this closeness, and there is nothing to unite them, they will remain disconnected from each other. When one’s heart is empty of the Creator, and there is no realization of “I will dwell in their midst” in his heart, this unifying element is lacking. There may be Torah and mitzvos, but there is no unified heart devoted to our Father in Heaven. There is no inner element attaching him to Hashem.

Every person must take stock of his spiritual situation and ask himself: “Do my way of life, my Torah, prayer and mitzvos, bring me to palpable, true deveikus to Hashem, or perhaps, chas veshalom, my deeds are like those of “the emptiest of them,” lacking an inner element that unifies all the Torah and mitzvos I perform?

Getting My Learning Back on Track

When I was originally becoming observant I used to learn a few hours a day. I spent 6 months in Eretz Yisroel in Yeshiva, but even when I came back I was still learning at least 2 hours a day. Five years later, I have a pretty good knowledge in halacha and I’m down to about 30-45 minutes a day of learning.

Is this normal? Should I be learning more? If so, any suggestions on how to increase my learning?

– Ahron

What My Rabbi Told Me About Different Levels of Observance

(Disclaimer: This is what my Rabbi told me for my particular situation. It does not necessarily apply to others even in similar situations.)

When my husband and I got married, neither of us was observant. Since I was the one who grew in Judaism and he wasn’t, I changed but should not expect him to change, as long as he is not making me commit sins (which he is not, just he himself doesn’t want to participate).

Even though he remains non-observant, I should not look down on him. His frame of reference is not a Torah frame of reference, so he doesn’t know why it’s wrong to do certain things.

I can’t go to treif restaurants with him or break Shabbat for or with him, etc., but as long as he is treating me properly – which he does – then Shalom Bayit is paramount. I should focus on his good qualities and not compare him to others.

My rabbi said that I can consider all of the above to be his Halachic decisions on the way I should conduct my life and my marriage from now on.

So … it seems that now I have been given a new charge by the Al-mighty, one which focuses on mending my own attitudes. I am posting this rather intimate, personal article to ask for help in dealing with these challenges and tasks, and to ask for Chizuk, support, anything anyone can tell me to strengthen me. I am in deep pain right now and looking for comfort and healing.

Authentic Kiruv – Part 1

By Dan Illouz
This article first appeared on

Thank God, in the last few decades, the Jewish World has experienced a movement of return (Teshuva) to it’s tradition. This movement has been lead by “Kiruv” movements. I want to explore, through very short thoughtful posts, what authentic Kiruv should be like according to Torah.

There are two types of Kiruv usually mentioned. The most common practiced today is known as “Kiruv Rehokim” – To bring those which are far way closer. However, there is a fundamental problem with such a practice. In order to practice “Kiruv Rehokim”, I need to believe that I hold the truth and the other is very far away, and I am bringing him closer to my truth. The belief that you hold the ultimate truth to which people must be returned is a clear sign of Gaavah (haughtiness).

From the Lubavitcher Rebbe:
“You say you are ‘bringing close those who are distant.’ What gives you the right to call them distant and pretend you are close?”

On top of that, secular Jews which are exposed to such kiruv movements refuse to be connected to them because they believe they are right in their ways of lives. This position often, unfortunately, translates into some people loving their fellow jews only to turn them religious – inviting them over for a shabbat meal only if they believe it will help connect them to Judaism. If at the end he didn’t become connected, inviting him was a bit of a waste of time. Unfortunately, some people, through this position, give no intrinsic value to loving their secular brothers in the way they are, without the need to change them.

On the other hand, there is a concept called “Kiruv Levavot” – Bringing the hearts closer together. Kiruv Levavot comes from an understanding that everyone holds a part of the truth. Yes, even secular Jews hold some part of the truth from which we can learn. Sometimes, this reality is easier to understand retroactively – 100 years ago, the secular world started speaking of communities, nations, universal love. Zionism, the movement which brought Jews back to their land after 2000 years of exile, stemmed from this perspective. At first, religious people thought that everything presented by the secular world had to be rejected. This can explain the initial violent rejection of Zionism by most of the religious world. However, Rav Kook explained that Zionism stemmed from deep and holy ideals which permeated Judaism. Zionism was the holy call of the Jewish nation to become a nation once again, to serve God on it’s land. Rav Kook explained that just as the secular had a lot to learn from the religous, so too, the religious had a lot to learn from the secular – a lot to learn about nation building, sacrificing their lives for klal israel, etc…

Through this perspective, each side realizes that we each hold a part of the truth, and by working together, mixing our perspectives, we will be able to get to the ultimate truth.

—— reflects the constant yearning of the Jewish People for the past 2000 years for the national renewal of the Jewish People, on their land, with the building of the temple in Jerusalem as a house of prayer for all nations.

Check out’s, “Question of the Week” – a question which will ask readers to answer through the commenting system on the blog. Every week, all of the answers found in the comments in a raffle from which will be drawn one name which will get a special, real prize!

Choked to Life

”Thank Hashem for His kindness, and His wonders you should tell over to people” (Tehillim 107, 21). The Shelah notes that this passuk starts in the singular (kindness) and concludes in the plural (wonders). Furthermore while we thank Hashem for kindness, when we speak to other people we are told to mention His wonders. What is the significance of these differences? We may suggest that David Hamelech is revealing to us the secret of strengthening our relationship with Hashem and of helping others to do the same.

When it comes to our relationship with Hashem we must thank him for the smallest acts of kindness, as Chazal say “On every breath a person takes he is obligated to thank Hashem” ( Midrash Rabba , Devarim 2). However, when speaking to others about Hashem’s greatness we have to wake them up from the deep sleep that causes us to forget all the acts of kindness He does for us constantly. When someone experiences special hashgachah from Hashem he is obligated to tell this to others. When Moshe Rabbeinu met Yisro after all the miracles of Mitzrayim, he told him immediately about the miracles (Brisker Rav, Shemos 18:8). Eliezer too, returned from his mission to find a wife for Yitzchak and before anything else told Yitzchak how he had experienced kefitzas haderech and how the water had flowed upwards to Rifka at the well (Mizmor L’esoda page 291).

The following experience brings these thoughts to life.

Rio de Janeiro in Brazil is known for some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. During the daytime, for obvious reasons, it is impossible for a religious Jew to visit them. Early in the morning they are less crowded.

During Elul 5752, a few weeks after our marriage, we were visiting my wife’s family in Rio . Because it was Elul, I decided one morning that I would tovel in the sea before anyone got there. This way I would be able to see the beauty of these famous beaches while performing a mitzvah . My wife warned me that there were muggers around, but my desire to tovel and see the beaches overrode her admonition. I wore my bathing suit underneath my clothes and headed for the beach.

As I watched the sunrise, I reflected on the month of Elul and its predominant mitzvah to do teshuvah and return to Hashem. My heart was filled with awe over the sheer splendor of the experience.

As I prepared to go into the sea, suddenly two enormous hulks loomed up beside me. I contemplated running, but realized that I had no chance of escaping them. What could I do? One of the thugs grabbed my neck and started to choke me while forcing my face into the sand. The other one searched through my few possessions, repeatedly muttering, “No money, amigo.” This was an abrupt lesson about what Chazal mean that one must thank Hashem for every breath. The air supply to my lungs was getting less and less, and I was sure that my end had arrived.

Suddenly a thought popped into my mind, a shiur that I had heard about the Brisker Rav. His life was endangered and he thought, ein od milvado “there is nothing in the world except for Hashem”). Chazal promise that anyone who concentrates on this phrase will be spared from all danger, and this thought had saved the lives of the Brisker Rav and many others.

As these words came into my mind the mugger released his grip on my throat and both muggers ran away. As they departed with my few possessions they shouted, “The Mafia of Brazil!” Still determined to complete my mitzvah , I toveled in the sea and ran quickly back to my mother-in-law’s apartment.

During the same year as the mugging in Brazil, on 18 ( chai ) of Sivan, Erev Shabbos Shelach, I was in a serious car accident where I was miraculously saved. These two revelations of Hashem’s niflaos woke me up and pushed me to think that maybe Hashem wanted more from me. As a result I started to write sefarim, and five years ago opened up Kollel Toras Chaim.

May Hashem help us to recognize Him constantly by merely hearing about His wonders, amen.

Rabbi Travis will be making a seudas hodayah on Shabbos the eighteenth (Chai) Sivan at the Gra shul in Har Nof. Please be in touch with him if you would like to attend. The following article will appear in this week’s Hamodia.

Writing an Inspirational Story

By William Kolbrener – First Published at

I re-connected with an old friend last week. We had been in high school together (though not in the same class), and when a mutual friend let me know that Justin (not his real name) was going to be in town, the two of us set up a meeting. Justin recognized my name (‘I knew a Billy Kolbrener when I was in high school!'; yes, that is how I was known back then), but when we met, he couldn’t link my name to my face. Over cafe hafouch at David’s Citadel in Jerusalem, we shared the pleasure of discovering similar paths taken. Though many of our fellow-classmate in Roslyn High School all strongly identified as Jewish (though it didn’t stop many of them from intermarrying), only Justin and I (with just a handful of others of whom I know) overcame the suburban prejudices against orthodoxy to discover what Justin described as the “treasures” of Judaism. And he was not talking about the tunnel tour in the Old City or the laser show on the City’s Walls…

In the process of catching up, Justin asked if among my books and articles, I had anything that I might want to pass on–mentioning that he had an interest in stories providing inspiration, of people who had overcome challenges as they maintained and strengthened their faith. I’ve admittedly never written in that mode, and I wondered if I could come up with anything. Certainly, there are no shortage of such stories. In Jerusalem, you hear about them all the time. A friend of mine had just the previous day recounted a hesped (or eulogy) from a funeral service he had attended. In this case the eulogy was simple, a sparse recounting of the facts of a life: from a birth in Austro-Hungary, to a loss of parents in Auschwitz, to the beginnings of a life in France, to an eventual re-settlement in the US and then Israel–the story of a woman’s life (or what seemed to be different lives) interspersed with the challenges and tragedies that someone from my background (and Justin’s) can hardly even begin to imagine. My mind turned also to the pair of men who sit in front of me in shul–‘regulars’ (always precisely on time; “early is also not on time,” one of them often tells me). Over sixty years ago, they had been among the children of the kinder transport–German Jewish children who were sent away from their homes by their parents who sensed the horrors to come. Brought on one of the special trains from Germany which carried children during the period that began shortly after kristelnacht and ended with the blitzkrieg), they were ‘re-located’ with British families–many of them not even Jewish. The two bonded as young refugees in England while the war spread and the fate of their parents was sealed. At war’s end, they were separated (one remained in England, the other to the US) until they were reunited in a little synagogue in Bayit Vegan in Jerusalem, my neighborhood shul. In Bayit Vegan alone, there must be hundreds of such stories, of enormous spiritual resilience in the face of adversity.

These are stories which can’t fail to make an impression, but I was struck, by the end of our meeting by another story–Justin’s. By any possible measure, Justin was wildly successful, having risen to the top of his field, with access to all of the accoutrements of luxury, wealth and privilege which his position afforded. But here he was in Jerusalem. Although I did not hear all of the details, I know that the path which brought him to the Holy City was also not without sacrifice–not the sacrifice of the previous generations, but sacrifice nonetheless. For Justin (to the mixed admiration and disbelief of friends and relatives) had made his own sacrifices, given up many of the benefits and entitlements that the fast track has to offer–moving his family to a community with a shul, placing his children in Jewish day school, and committing himself to a life of connection and service to G-d and others.

Our tradition teaches us that there are six hundred thousand letters in the Torah–one for each of the six hundred thousand who gathered on the foot of Mount Sinai at the time of matan Torah, the giving of the Torah. So every Jew has his or her corresponding letter in the Torah, and it’s the task of a lifetime to discover that letter. No letter is the same; there is no ‘objective’ Torah template of how Torah observance should look. Achitophel, our sages tell us, wore all of the outward trappings of a frummer yid, a religious Jew, but G-d rejected his service, because the service was not his own. G-d wants the whole person–that is, he wants our subjectivity to express itself in and through our service. Achitophel did not search for and write his own letter, he merely imitated the service of others. Again, G-d wants our letter, not someone else’s. As we write that letter–carving it’s shape, adorning it with embellishments, deepening it’s hues–we may gain strength and inspiration from the letters of others, but we should also own up to both the challenges and pleasures of writing ourselves. Making too much out of ourselves leads to egotistic self-satisfaction and stagnation; but making too much out of the stories of others may lead us to a resigned humility preventing us from finding and writing our own letters. (A friend relates to me that his Rebbe tells his students to avoid reading too many stories of great contemporary figures, lest they fail to develop their own distinctive avodas Hashem, service of God).

In Jewish practice, the absence of only one single letter from a Torah renders it invalid: for the Torah to show itself fully in this world, each Jew needs to find his or her own letter. Once found, we spend a lifetime crafting that letter, writing our letters for all to see. Sometimes, it’s true, it takes someone else to see the beauty of the letters we have already begun to craft, to feel the inspiration of the stories we have begun to write.

On our way out, as Justin and I walked through the revolving doors of David’s Citadel, he turned to me with a sudden realization and said, “you are the Billy Kolbrener I once knew; when you smiled, I recognize you; it is you!” So surely, people like Justin and I find inspiration in the stories of gedolim and tzaddikim–great and righteous people. Though sometimes we may also find evidence of letters in unanticipated places, and in recognizing them, discover how those letters are shaping us and others in ways we did not expect.

Considerations When Taking on New Chumras

Let’s say someone is considering whether or not to accept a given chumra (stringency). Let us use cholov yisroel as an example. He speaks to his rov, or rebbe, or mentor, and that person lays out the issues for him but ultimately says, as many rabbonim will in such a situation, “Those are the issues. You must make this choice for yourself.”

Now, the question: Is it appropriate for him to consider, when making the choice, that he enjoys the taste of cholov stam products? What if the rov did not include that among the factors to consider? Is it part of the question he should ask?

Note: We’re only using cholov yisroel as an example and we’re aware that segments of the Orthodox community consider this the halacha and not a chumra.

Accepting Rabbinic Authority – Is The Individualistic American Outlook a Deterrent?

When we think of America, one of the core principles is freedom. The Bill of Rights enshrined and gave freedom a legal foundation. Much of American history, whether in the debates against slavery and its expansion, the protection of one’s right to think, speak and worship or not to worship and even an asserted right to privacy, revolve around an individual’s rights and his or her ability to push the envelope of society-whether intellectually or culturally-at the expense of what other elements in society would consider immoral, inappropriate or violently offensive to their sense of decency. Based upon these facts, it is no accident that the media, etc of 2008 are neither that of 1988 nor 1888.

The Torah and especially halacha, in my opinion (IMO), offer a different point of view (POV) on freedom. The Halacha is first and foremost a a system that is premised on both the individual and the community. Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik (RYBS) pointed out that the Machzor for the Yamim Noraim incorporated this factor intentionally to highlight the discrete roles of the individual and the community. However, as an individual, halacha is premised on how one fulfills one’s obligation in a particular context called a mitzvah. In other words (IOW), the issue is not how one pushes the envelope to get away with fitting in with the system, but rather in fulfilling one’s obligations in a sense that one fulfills the spirit as well as the letter of the law. By comparison, a First Amendment based challenge or even far less seemingly significant cases are all based upon pushing the level of existing precedents or merely blindly defending them.

Given that premise and the American tradition of individualism, the demand that a Jew nullify his or her own will and rely on what a Rav says or after many years of study, what they think that their rebbe would say, is no small intellectual challenge. It requires rewiring your mind to think first and foremost-what does halacha require and how can I best fulfill my obligation as a Jew. IOW, I would suggest that attempts to manipulate halacha to accommodate those who view Halacha as either sexist , etc, fail to recognize that halacha is based on obligations, not rights.

In its most pristine and ideal form, all of halacha is built first and foremost on how each of us can best fulfill his or her obligations , whether on the individual or communal level. Seder Zeraim, beginning with Brachos and continuing thru the end of that seder that deals which deals wiith many of the Mitzvos HaTelyos HaAretz, reminds us that man may only consume from this world in a proper and Divinely permitted way. Seder Moed tells us that time is sacred. Seder Nashim teaches us to get married , be a better spouse and to use our mouths and minds in a proper manner. . Seder Nezikin tells us how to compensate an injured party, how to pay for one’s negligence, how to respect someone else’s property as well as how a court system should operate. Sidrei Kodashim and Taharos instruct us how to offer what we earn to God and how to act in a holy manner. The key is how do I fulfil my obligations-not how I can stretch the meaning of the law. Even the language of Halacha speaks of obligations-Yotzei, Chayav, Patur, Lchatchilah, meizid, shogeg. Once one has fulfilled their obligation, then and only then, can one speak of enhancing one’s fulfillment of any mitzvah via minhagim , etc.

The easiest contrast between the American values of freedom and how a Torah observant Jew views the world is in the realm of marriage . In this regard, just read any of the supermarket tabloids or even the NY Times Sunday Styles and contrast the wedding announcements with those in any media that is read in the Torah world ranging from the Jewish Press to the Yated. The contrast between the two is very palpable.

Let me suggest a relatively simple explanation.Obviously, the halachic view of the family neither is hedonistic nor one based on Victorian notions of prudery. However, IMO, there is a major factor that firmly accentuates the community’s right and obligation to sanction the creation of a Bayis Neeman B’Yisrael.

The Rambam in the beginning of Hilcos Ishus describes marriage before and after the giving of the Torah and the fact that Halacha demands that the marriage ceremony be held before a minyan. RYBS once commented that the Rambam was emphasizing that marriage is an act that requires communal approval and sanction, as opposed to the contemporary ethos that basically looks at marriage either as the consummation of a long “hook up” of two pieces of plumbing for convenience or a merger of assets to obtain economic benefits. While contemporary society almost venerates romantic love as the basis for marriage and worships at the holy grail of society, Halacha, in a revolutionary way, reminds us that marriage is the holiest of acts between a man and woman for a higher purpose that requires a communal approval. It is only after the vort, chasunah and sheva brachos that a couple can learn, on a day to day basis, to love and cherish each other.

I would add one small caveat, A system that is predicated on individual rights seemingly at the expense of the community invests all with the same abilities and rights to an opinion, regardless of their level of knowledge. Halacha insists that while all Jews are created in the Divine Image and our ancestors stood at Mt. Sinai, only those with the most knowledge of Torah and Halacha are entitled or should render an opinion, especially on cutting edge issues of halacha. It is akin to seeking medical or other specialized advice. Only someone with expertise in a subject can be counted on for an intelligent, albeit not infallible opinion.

Pirkei Avos from the Top

It’s week one again for Pirkei Avos and you can download an English translation here (Translation by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld from his commentary at For those who don’t like to download PDFs, here is Chapter One:

Chapter 1
1. “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it Joshua. Joshua transmitted it to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise many students, and make a protective fence for the Torah.”
2. “Shimon the Righteous was of the last survivors of the Men of the Great Assembly. He used to say, the world is based upon three things: on Torah, on service [of G-d], and on acts of kindness.”
3. “Antignos of Socho received the transmission from Shimon the Righteous. He used to say, do not be as servants who serve the Master to receive reward. Rather, be as servants who serve the Master not to receive reward. And let the fear of heaven be upon you.”
4. “Yossi ben (son of) Yo’ezer of Ts’raidah and Yossi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem received the transmission from them. Yossi ben Yo’ezer used to say, let your house be a meeting place for the sages, cleave to the dust of their feet, and drink thirstily their words.”
5. “Yossi the son of Yochanan of Jerusalem said: Let your house be open wide, and let the poor be members of your household, and do not talk excessively with women. This was said regarding one’s own wife, certainly with another’s wife. Based on this the Sages have said, one who talks excessively with women causes evil to himself, wastes time from Torah study, and will eventually inherit Gehinnom (Hell).”
6. “Yehoshua the son of Perachia and Nittai of Arbel received the transmission from them (the Rabbis mentioned in Mishna 4). Yehoshua the son of Perachia said, make for yourself a Rabbi, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge everyone favorably.”
7. “Nittai of Arbel said, distance yourself from a bad neighbor, do not befriend a wicked person, and do not despair of punishment.”
8. “Yehuda the son of Tabbai and Shimon the son of Shatach received the transmission from them (the scholars mentioned in Mishna 6). Yehuda the son of Tabbai said, do not act as an adviser to judges. When the litigants are standing before you they should be in your eyes as guilty. When they are dismissed from before you they should be in your eyes as innocent, provided they have accepted the judgment.”
9. “Shimon the son of Shatach said, examine witnesses thoroughly, and be careful with your words, lest through them they learn to lie.”
10. “Shemaya and Avtalyon received the tradition from them (the scholars mentioned in mishna 8). Shemaya said, love work, despise high position, and do not become too close to the authorities.”
11. “Avtalyon said: ‘Sages, be careful with your words lest you deserve to be exiled and are exiled to a place of bad waters. The students who come after you will drink of these waters and die and God’s Name will be desecrated.’ “
12. “Hillel and Shammai received the transmission from them (the scholars mentioned in Mishna 10). Hillel said, be of the students of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to Torah.”
13. “He (Hillel) used to say, one who seeks a name loses his name, one who does not increase decreases, one who does not learn deserves death, and one who makes use of the crown [of Torah] will pass away.”
14. “He (Hillel) used to say, if I am not for me who is for me, if I am for myself what am I, and if not now when.”
15. “Shammai said, make your Torah study fixed, say little and do much, and receive everyone with a cheerful countenance.”
16. “Rabban Gamliel said, make for yourself a Rabbi, remove yourself from doubt, and do not give extra tithes due to estimation.”
17. “Shimon his [Rabban Gamliel’s] son said, all my life I have been raised among the Sages, and I have not found anything better for oneself than silence. Study is not the main thing but action. All who talk excessively bring about sin.”
18. “Rabbi Shimon the son of Gamliel said, on three things does the world endure – justice, truth and peace, as the verse says (Zechariah 8:16), ‘Truth and judgments of peace judge in your gates.’ ”

Groups Within Orthodoxy

A while ago, Steg, a Beyond BT commentor defined some principles of Left Wing Modern Orthodoxy in a comment. We thought it might be useful to define some principles of the other wings of Orthodoxy. This is a work in progress and your comments and corrections are appreciated.

Left Wing MO Right Wing MO Left Wing UO Right Wing UO
Believe In G-d Yes Yes Yes Yes
Believe in Torah From Sinai Yes Yes Yes Yes
Believe in Reward & Punishment Yes Yes Yes Yes
Believe Mitzvah Observance is Obligatory Yes Yes Yes Yes
Halachic Adherence Lenient Normative Halacha Normative Halacha Strict
Scholarly Approach to Torah Full Acceptance Partial Acceptance Little Acceptance Rare Acceptance
Women’s Learning Gemora Taught Gemora Usually Not Taught Gemora Not Taught Gemora Not Taught
Normative Occupation Business, Profession Business, Profession Business, Profession, Chinuch Learning, Chinuch
Attitude Towards General Society Positive Potentially Positive Cautious Dismissive
Interaction with Non Jews Frequent Cautious Occasional Rare
Integration with Non Orthodox Groups Frequent Cautious Occasional Rare
Non Traditional Women’s Roles Very Accommodating Accommodating Occasionally Accommodating Not Accommodating
Mixed Teenage Socializing Accepted Not Encouraged Not Accepted Not Accepted
Mixed Fund Raising Dinners Accepted Accepted Partially Accepted Not Accepted
Mixed Shmorg at Weddings Vast Majority Significant Majority Separate With Crossover No
Mixed Seating Weddings Accepted Sometimes Never Never
Men’s Dress Cultural Norms Suits, Business Casual Suits, Colored Shirts Dark Suits, White Shirts
Women’s Dress Cultural Norms, Hair Not Covered No Pants, Hair Covered No Pants, Hair Covered No Pants, Hair Covered, Legs Covered
Secular Studies Encouraged Encouraged Accepted Necessary for Occupation
Secular Fiction Accepted Accepted With Limits Sometimes Accepted Rarely Accepted
Secular Non Fiction Accepted Accepted Sometimes Accepted Rarely Accepted
Television & Movies Vast Majority Majority Minority Insignificant Minority
Internet Vast Majority Significant Majority Sometimes Rarely
Video Games Vast Majority Significant Majority Sometimes Rarely

A Call to Normalcy

Whenever I bring my family to the East Coast, they pick up little nuances from the observant Jews of the New York area. “The counselor said I should take two dollars and pick myself up a nawmal swim cap,” my six-year-old daughter told me. Somehow in a NY accent, the word “normal” contains subtleties we don’t have in the Midwest. It seems that lots of observant Jews place an importance on keeping the status quo and not doing anything unusual. This attitude to life may be very beneficial in safeguarding Clal Yisrael from negative influences like Rap music. But we also need to be on the lookout for something new and different that might be good for us.

In the introduction to the sefer Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Kagan z”l mentions a yetzer hara that tells you that following the laws of lashon hara carefully will make you abnormal. This is one of the strategies of the yetzer hara. We are afraid not to be Normal. If, however, we were clear about how much the Almighty loves us, and how the mitzvos are only for our benefit, we would never be cautious or afraid of trying to fulfill them properly.

Rabbi Shlomo Rothenberg of Mountaindale related to me that when his Rebbe, Rabbi Yehuda Davis z”l, was about to leave Europe he went to see meet with the Gedolim of that time like the Chofetz Chaim and others. He noticed that they all ate, slept, and lived life like normal human beings. You can be a Tzaddik and a Chacham without being abnormal.

What is normal?

The question is asked sometimes – What if everyone acts weird? Is that the new normal? What if everyone speaks lashon hara? Is that normal? What happens when Clal Yisrael gets used to not having a Holy Temple, or a Sanhedrin, or a fully observant Clal Yisrael?

In Gemara Yevamos 60b it discusses the passage from the Torah, Numbers Chapter 31, where Moshe allows the army to bring back some of the Midianite women to become part of Israel. In order to determine which women are fitting to join us they use a special test. The women are brought in front of the Tzitz, the golden head-plate of the High Priest. If her face changes color she is not fitting to be accepted. Later in history (Judges Chapter 21), the gemara relates, Yehoshua , is faced with a similar situation and Jewish women are chosen with a test for a similar reason, but they use a different test. Why, the gemara asks, don’t they use the same test the Jews used on the Midianites? Why don’t they use the Tzitz? Because the head-plate is not meant to be used for punishment, only favor. So then why was it used for the Midianites? Because they weren’t Jewish. Although you might suggest that this only relates to the Tzitz, but it seems in general that God’s judgment is designated mainly for non-Jews, while His mercy and compassion is designated for Israel.

Of course all human beings are worthy of God’s love, but once you have chosen to be a part of His special army, and abide by His holy commandments, you are more inline with His essence, so to speak, and more ripe for His love.

Another indication of this is concept is brought out from the Bnei Yissaschar on the months on Tammuz and Av. He mentions from the Zohar that the months of the year are spiritually designated and divided between Yaakov and Eisav. Nisan, Iyar, and Sivan went to Yaakov, and Eisav got Tammuz, Av, and Elul. This made Eisav happy as it left little help for Clal Yisrael to do teshuva before Rosh HaShannah. Yaakov fought for the rights to Elul, and thereby mitigated the aspect of Din inherent in Tammuz and Av. Yaakov therefore represents Din – judgment, and Eisav represents Chesed – love.

It needs to be mentioned that even though the other nations are more inclined to receive judgment, the gemara also says that the major problems of the other nations all over the world stem from Clal Yisrael not acting properly. So the war and famine all over the world is a specific message to us.

We live in a time period fraught with anti-semitism, conflict in the Middle East, Israel in constant danger, much of the world lives in poverty, meanwhile most of the Jewish people are not observant. This is not normal. None of this is normal. It’s easy to fall into a daily routine, praying for moshiach and Eretz Yisrael, but at the same time relating to the worlds problems with indifference, as we’ve gotten too used to living with judgment. We think meeting a Jew who is intermarried is normal. Well it may be common, but it is certainly not normal. What “normal” should mean is the way of life the Torah and the Shulchan Aruch proscribe.

Chesed – Love

We are told by our Torah and the sages of the incredible amount of love the Almighty has for us. He’s our “loving Father in Heaven”. He wants us to live with the fullest expression of His love. Even when a father is punishing his child, all he really wants to do us hug and kiss. Does our Creator want the profanity on the airwaves and the cruelty in the streets? Does He want the drugs and rising immorality? Does He want ignorance, atheism and paganism? No.

HaShem wants goodness and wisdom to permeate the world. That’s what life is really supposed to be like. He wants to shower us with health, wealth, chachma and kedusha. As we say each time we say Birchat Hamazon, “liyadcha, hamleah, hapesucha, hakadosha, veharchav” – from Your hand which is full, open, holy, and generous. HaShem can’t wait to give us blessings. All the blessings. Big blessings.

Maybe we need to adjust our attitude a bit as to what exactly really is… normal.

The Heart Really Matters

Why do we read the Book of Ruth on Shevuos? One answer is that Ruth was the great-grandmother of King David who was born on Shevuos and 70 years later died on Shevuos. Still, what does King David have to do with Shevuos in particular?

Our sages tell us that “the king is the heart of the nation!” What does that mean? The king as a leader doesn’t tell the people what to think. He rather, amplifies the pulse of the people. He tells us what we really feel. In Tehillim-Psalms King David expresses prophetically the highest aspirations and moorings of the Jewish heart, individually and collectively. He reveals for us a G-d intoxicated intellect. He writes, “What’s good for me is being close to G-d!” (Tehillim 73:28) What King David artfully articulates in Tehillim is the authentic heart of the nation.

In the fourth chapter having to do with trust in G-d, The Chovos HaLevavos makes a surprisingly strong claim regarding the requirement to develop “duties of the heart”. He states that Olam Haba- the world to come is not a necessary result of the external performance of Mitzvos but rather a function of the internal dimension of those Mitzvos. He informs us that the outer aspect of the Mitzvos yields a “this worldly” benefit while the next world is a consequence of the depth and direction of the heart. Ultimately, Olam Haba is based on a relationship. It is not a business deal with a quid pro quo. One can no more expect by coldly dropping flowers on the table or even a diamond that love will automatically flow in return.

When I was yet an unmarried Yeshiva student, we had the great honor of meeting a holy man. The Manchester Rav, Rabbi Yehuda Zev Segal ztl. prayed with us the afternoon service. Long after most of us had finished saying our prayers he remained bent over, shaking and weeping all the while. We watched in awe without knowing exactly what we were witnessing. I remember saying quietly to the fellow next to me, “I wonder what he did so wrong!”

Days later while eating a Shabbos meal at the home of one of the rabbis we were discussing the visitor we had been treated to that week. The Rabbi told us that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ztl. had considered the Manchester Rav to be one of the thirty-six hidden Tzadikim of the generation. I had a knack for asking obvious questions that elicited sharp responses, so I queried aloud, “If he is singled out, publicly as one of these hidden Tzadikim then he’s no longer hidden. His true identity has been exposed, his cover is blown and he cannot by definition be one of the thirty-six hidden Tzadikim in whose merit the world exists.”

The Rabbi looked at me with a look that shouted. I wondered what I had said so wrong. It was a good question I thought. Then he gently but intensely explained, “Label, you think you see him? You see his beard. You see his hands. You see his eyes, but do you really think you see who he is? He holds a Siddur and prays the same words as you and me and look at the chemical reaction those words have within him. He puts on Tefillin and so do you. You can be sure that his is somehow different than yours. The outside is merely the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the limbs and the deeds he does there’s a whole hidden continent of love and devotion we could never hope to fathom.”


As I was making pizza the other night, I was listening to A CLASSIC CASE: The London Symphony Orchestra Plays The Music Of Jethro Tull.

My son (7 years old) runs into the kitchen as Ian Anderson is going crazy on the flute and says, “Whoa! Abba, is that a new Piamenta album?”

“No, I wish. It’s actually a non-Jewish band and their music is being played by a symphony”, I answered.

“Too bad”, he said.

As I went back to pizza making I got to thinking. How cool is it that my son’s musical references are primarily based on what he listens to…Jewish music?

Just like eating Kosher food and keeping Shabbos are aspects of the only lifestyle that he’s experienced in his long seven years of existence. He has the right perspective.

As I, a BT, raise my kids as FFBs I realize it’s all about perspective.

The truth is that what we value and how we live our lives really forms and defines our perspective on things. This is true for each of us and, of course, for our families.

I have often tell myself and my kids that one has to look for mitzvah opportunities that Hashem sends our way. It’s my perspective.

I’m glad my son could show me his perspective.

The Teshuva Journey: A Bumpy Road

Joel Kessler’s path towards becoming Shabbat observant was filled with potholes, but he was guided by G-d’s hand and in the end received an unbelievable salvation.

Joel’s journey began in April of 2005. His father had just passed away and he made a commitment to go to synagogue every day to recite the Kaddish prayer in his memory. Joel began attending his Conservative synagogue’s daily prayer service, but Saturday mornings posed a challenge. He worked as the manager of a nearby electronics store and needed to leave to open the store before the 9:00 am Shabbat morning service at his synagogue.

He heard that the local Orthodox synagogue, the Young Israel of Plainview, had an early Saturday morning service at 7:30. Joel decided to try it. He knew that he would not be able to stay for the entire service, but would be able to say a few Kaddishes.

That Shabbat morning he drove to the Young Israel and was warmly received. He stayed for a little while and then excused himself and drove off to the store.

Joel decided to attend the Young Israel every Saturday morning and started going to the morning service during the week as well. Over the next few months his friends at the Young Israel’s daily morning service served as an ad hoc support group and helped him through his bereavement. He felt part of a huge, caring family.

“I was brought there, I was guided there for a reason. You have to believe in Hashem. Things like finding that synagogue don’t just happen by accident,” Joel said.

After a few months, the Saturday morning service had become a staple of his life and he looked forward to it all week. But now he had a different challenge. He enjoyed the service so much that he dreaded having to leave early.

At this point a perfect opportunity arrived. For many years Joel and a friend had contemplated opening their own electronics store. By mid-2005 they had saved up enough money and opened a store. For Joel it meant that he now had a partner who could watch the store while he was in synagogue!

Joel began attending the entire Shabbat morning service each week and stayed for Kiddush afterwards. He still left to go to his store after services but loved his few hours each week in synagogue. Now he began wishing he could quit his job and commit to Shabbat. But he saw no way out. It was his store now.

Joel eventually got his wish, though not in quite the way he had hoped. From almost the beginning the store had financial problems and through 2006 business was on a downward spiral. The store went bankrupt in October 2006.

Joel was absolutely frightened. The store was his livelihood and he wasn’t sure how he would be able to make ends meet.

At the same time he was beginning to see G-d’s hand in his life. He realized that G-d had provided him with the opportunity to keep Shabbat.

“Part of my life was ending, but I knew that something new was beginning,” Joel said. “It’s such a calming feeling to have Shabbat.”

After the store folded, Joel began spending the entire Shabbat in synagogue and with families in the community. His wife and children joined him on occasion, and his teenage son now walks to synagogue with him every Shabbas.

It was the first time in his life that Joel had found peace. During his 16 years as a store manager, employees constantly called him even during vacations and Jewish holidays. For those 16 years every Rosh Hashanah was spent the same way: in the morning he went to synagogue with his family, and in the afternoon returned all of the work calls that had piled up while he was praying.

“It’s such a calming feeling to have Shabbat and to know that nobody will call me and beep me,” Joel said. “Now I found peace.”

So at the end of 2006, a year and a half after he first stepped foot in the Young Israel, Joel began keeping Shabbat. But he was now without a job. He went on lots of interviews, and during each one explained that as an observant Jew he could not work on Saturdays or Jewish holidays. Since Saturday is the prime day in the retail world, no one hired him. But despite all the rejections, Joel never compromised on Shabbat.

Joel eventually heard that the electronics store B&H Photo in Manhattan was expanding so he applied and was given an interview. Lo and behold he was hired to work in the home entertainment division!

B&H is owned by Orthodox Jews and is closed on Saturdays and Jewish holidays. It shuts early on Fridays. The store even has a Mincha service each afternoon.

The B&H job was Joel’s salvation. His desire to keep Shabbat was so intense and he had given up so much for it, so G-d sent him the perfect job to let him to do so.

“I have faith in Hashem, and he’s leading me somewhere. The whole time he’s been taking me by the hand and leading me,” Joel said.

King David refers to G-d as “your shadow” (Psalms 121:5). Just as a shadow copies its owner’s actions, G-d reacts to our actions. If we exert ourselves to keep Shabbat, G-d reciprocates and arranges events to help us do so.


Michael Gros is the Chief Operating Officer of the Jewish outreach organization The Atlanta Scholars Kollel. The Teshuva Journey is a monthly column chronicling amazing teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. To share a story or send other comments, email To receive the column via email or see back issues, visit

(published in The Jewish Press February 2007)

Are We Goal-less in Golus?

I’ve been in the frum community for over 12 years and I don’t see the goals of Torah articulated in a clear and consistent way.

Do we accept the premise that the goal of Torah and mitzvos is to come as close to G-d as possible and to help the entire world come close to G-d?

Do our Schools, Shuls and homes stress the goals of Torah, chesed and mitzvos is to get closer to Hashem or have these activities become disconnected from their ultimate goal?

“Gal Goalless”