Why the Mixed Reviews on Noach?

I would like to note that Rabbi Welcher said in the name of Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg of Eretz Yisroel that you can fulfill you obligation of twice mikra and one targum by reading an Art Scroll or any other Chazal based translation. You still have to do the two mikras (readings) in hebrew.

This weeks parsha starts of “These are the offspring of Noach – Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generation”. But if you read these divrei Torah by Rabbi Lichtenstein, Rabbi Frand, Rabbi Adlerstein, and Rabbi Leff there seems to be some lack in Noach.

The major points against Noach are
– Rashi brings down the Chazal that says that perhaps only “in his generation” was he righteous, but in Avraham’s generation he wouldn’t have been righteous. The other opinion in the Chazal says that he was unquestioningly righteous
– There are suggestions that he didn’t rebuke others sufficiently
– There is an indication that he lacked emunah on whether the Flood actually would happen and only entered the Ark when the waters began

So what are we to make of Noach, why such contradictory messages?

Perhaps the Ramban gives us a clue when he describes Noach as completely righteous in judgment, meaning that he did not get involved in any of the negative acts of his generation. He did not violate any negative commands and we can assume he did the appropriate positive commands, which technically classifies Noach as a Tzaddik.

But there is much more to accomplish. A person has an obligation to positively influence those that he can. He must try to increase his levels of chesed. He needs to constantly strengthen his Emunah. A person has to increase the positive acts he does.

Perhaps that is the lesson of Noach. Yes, it’s extremely important not to damage by transgressing negative commandments, but it is also extremely import to build yourself and the world through the positive acts of chesed and increasing emunah. If you fail on those grounds you might technically be a tzaddik, but you are slightly deficient.

After I wrote this piece, I spoke to a local Rav and he said that Noach was an unqualified righteous person:
– For the “in his generation” question, he learns like the Chasam Sofer that if Noach was only at the same level in Avraham’s generation then he would have been not been considered righteous
– The Medrash is clear that Noach did give his generation rebuke
– The lack of emunah when he only went into the Ark when it started to rain, was that he didn’t believe totally that Hashem would not have mercy on world and forestall the flood.

Also Rabbi Dessler in Michtav M’Eliyahu says the Noach was a complete Tzaddik but didn’t reach the level of Chassid (the Mesillas Yesharim type of Chassid).

Visit Steve Brizel’s excellent parsha roundup at Hirhurim for more Noach parsha links.

A Friend of the Devil is a Friend of Mine…(not for Halloween)

I don’t personally celebrate Halloween because it has pagan roots, but as long as the dark forces are on people’s minds, I offer this clarity for you on the topic of Satan.

Sympathy for the Devil

One of the top ten common misconceptions about religion and spirituality is the concept of the Devil. Who is Satan and what is his purpose? Where does the concept come from?

We all sense a craving towards spirituality and meaning, and at the same time we share a desire to do the wrong thing, kill and steal, to insult and eat fatty foods. We intuitively know there is a dichotomy in the world and in ourselves. Did you ever feel like smacking someone even though you knew in your heart it was wrong? (Those of you with teenage children need not even answer that one.)

Flip Wilson used to say “The Devil made me do it.” Of course the Devil can’t make you do something but he can sure tempt you. Life’s circumstances can be tempting from the outside, and we can have desires on the inside. Is that the Devil or your own bad self?

In kabbalah the forces of desire, evil inclination, temptations to stray from morality and spirituality all seem to be one. The three main entities that we find in the texts are Satan, the “evil inclination”, and the Angel of Death, and all represent the same united force.

The Meaning of Life

If you understand well the meaning of life, you have no problem understanding Satan and the “evil inclination”, known as the “yaitzer hara”. We are put on this earth at this time to struggle to connect to the Infinite Being. In order to have an arena of challenge, we must have a desire to go away from God to fight against.

The Satan and yaitzer hara provide the challenge. This force is designed by God and follows strict rules He placed into the spiritual realm. Satan cannot go against God’s will, as an angel or spiritual force, he operates like a puppet of the Almighty, providing the exact spiritual challenges that we need at any given moment in time.

In fact, each and every person is judged based on their own set of circumstances external and internal, which makes it impossible to judge your fellow man because you don’t know their history or internal make-up. Maybe they are naturally a born murderer and hot-head and they have worked hard to control themselves and become just an average rude person. You may think this guy is a big jerk but in reality they are extremely righteous given their challenges. Another person much more pleasant to be with my have been born with a gentle demeanor and has never struggled to make him/herself any better.

To put it a different way, you are put here to make spiritual touchdowns and the Satan is like a linebacker paid to block your path. But the linebacker is purposely designed in a way that you always have the ability to make your way past him. You might not be able to bowl him over; you might have to outsmart him, tell him his shoes untied, fake to the left and go to the right, or some other maneuver. If he stops you, then your job is to review the tape and see how you can avoid him the next time. (The verb “leSatan” means to block and is used in Numbers 22:22 this way. An angel blocks the path of Bilaam when he goes to meet with Balak to curse the nation of Israel.)

The Big Mistake

So the existence of Satan is real and part of daily life. The mistake then is that people think Satan has a separate existence, power, and purpose than God. Many think Satan is somehow avoiding God’s domain and tempting people to sin when God’s not looking. This is not only wrong, but philosophically impossible. Nothing can happen without God’s will accepting it on some level. God wants Satan to tempt us and He wants us to withstand the temptation. He designs the challenges according to our spiritual level and need for growth. If we need to develop patience, God sends Satan to test our patience.

Duties of the Heart by Rabbi Ibn Pakuda tells us that even frum people make mistakes in understanding the nature of God’s omnipotence. We need to be careful not to give the yaitzer hara or Satan any power on their own, they are an extension of HaShem’s will.

Satan does nothing without God’s approval. He’s a servant of God. This is clear from the beginning of the Book of Job that starts with God and Satan having a conversation where God says Job’s a great guy, and Satan says Job is only righteous because he hasn’t been tested with suffering. Let him suffer and he’ll turn against the Lord. God says, ok then go and test him. While this type of conversation may be more metaphor than reality, it shows the basic relationship between God and Satan. The Almighty designed a spiritual universe with angels that help and angels that test. There are prosecuting attorneys, so to speak, and defending attorneys. Satan is the primary prosecuting angel.

We don’t hate Satan, and he doesn’t hate us. He was created to test us, which is our greatest asset and opportunity to accomplish spiritual greatness and closeness to God.

Max Weiman

Parenting by Choice – the Antidote to Today’s Bombastic Culture

Parenting by Choice – the Antidote to Today’s Bombastic Culture

If Jewish identity, pride and general “mentchlekeit, are of value to you and are goals for what you wish to instill in your children – you have more reason to worry than ever. For parents, teachers and Rabbis everywhere – this is the buzz. In a society where internet, TV, DVDs, movies, magazines, iPods and billboards that inundate in a torrential downpour without respite – no group or segment is left untouched (more like “unscathed”) by today’s “24/7-media-at-your-fingertips-and-everywhere-you-turn” culture. Is there an antidote?


“Parenting by Choice”.

When my wife and I were parents with “three under three” to chase after, besides consuming tons of books and tapes on “Parenting” – we looked ahead of the game to find the kids who were the ripe fruits of their parent’s labor. We asked them (from teenagers to young adults) – why are you such a “good kid”? They were respectful, well-mannered, intelligent, playful – strong in Jewish pride and intentionally or unintentionally – brought the same out in their friends while living in everyday, “modern” America. Their consistent answer:

“Comes from the home”.

Not the school – not the Rabbi – the home.

Now, did we do a nationwide survey? No. Yet you don’t have to before seeing “a pattern” and a straight answer that resonates with obvious truth:

“Good kids come from the home” or rephrased – “Parenting by choice”.

So what about the kid(s) who seem to come from a home where the parent’s seem to everything “by the book”?! Patience….

We also did some discreet “interviewing” with parents who constantly “kvetched” about their kids or had some real “nachas” issues – were there any “patterns” there? You bet.

Before I “go there” – let’s just say it simply re-enforced what the “good kids” told us:

“Good kids come from the home” or rephrased – “Parenting by choice”.

Are you “Parenting by Choice”?

In HaYom Yom, “22 Teves” p. 13:

“Just as wearing tefillin every day is a mitzvah commanded by the Torah regardless of his standing in Torah, whether deeply learned or simple, so too is it an absolute duty for every person to spend a half-hour every day thinking about the Torah-education of children, and to do everything in his power – and beyond his power – to inspire children to follow the path along which they are being guided.”

As a parent and a IT Program Manager – “Parenting by Choice” means:

“Do we have a plan and are we working it”?

Any serious undertaking with a high value return needs planning and constant monitoring | refining to ensure the plan is being worked, the plan is realistic and is able to adjust to the “unknowns” – why should parenting be any different? Is there any more a serious and valuable undertaking than raising a child who is a ethical and practical benefit to society?

So while we may plan and save for which college our child will attend and what career path they will choose – how much detailed and daily thinking have we put into addressing how to mold our children in a nurturing way that will foster Jewish identity, pride and general “mentchlekeit?

6 Guidelines to “Parenting by Choice”

More of the patterns that we found by “good kids”, the parents who enjoy the fruits of “parental orthodontics” and advice from experts – could be distilled into 6 guidelines:

1. Do “Parenting by Choice” – have and work a plan.

Check – we covered that. The parting comment on this guideline is – doing “Parenting by Choice” means not claiming victimization by a bombastic society – it means taking back control from a bombastic society and culture.

2. Be a Model – don’t expect our children to do what we do not.

I hate this one. It is the hardest and the problem is – it is the “Golden Rule” of parenting. We all know the “Do-As-I-Say-and-Not-As-I-Do” approach breeds contempt and rebellion. The upside is – children, like all challenges in life, bring out the latent strengths within us to force us to be better than we ever conceived. My children force me to be accountable, to grow. As much as I hate it – it evokes more love to them for it.

Some common sub-themes that detail guideline #2:

a. Dedicated and growth centric – If I am not disciplined and striving for personal growth – what do I expect from my kids?
b. Submissive to a “Higher Authority – if we do not listen to a “Higher Authority” (e.g. Hashem, the Torah, Rabbinical guidance) – why should our kids listen to us?
c. Live Judaism with joy and priority
This doesn’t mean to always have a smile plastered on our face. Let me give some examples:

“Oy, Pesach’s (or Shabbos is) coming – all the cleaning, shopping, preparations….”.

“I have to go to Synagogue.” Or as one parent once told me: “I can attend any day except for Wednesday because I have karate class”. What messages are we sending with statements like these? Also, when was the last time you checked your facial expression during prayer? Do you look engaged or like you are doing your tax returns?

Even if we were to observe Judaism to the strictest degree yet broadcast through comments or our body language that it is a burden, we are “missing out” and we don’t attempt to convey the beauty of our rich, 3,300+ years of Jewish heritage with eagerness and enthusiasm – don’t expect “optimal results” or be surprised by kids who “aren’t interested”.

Another, major ingredient is: Martial and community (synagogue) harmony.

As a close friend of mine who directs a school for assisting troubled teenagers puts it – “You can always find marital or Jewish community discord as one of the top three factors contributing to creating troubled kids”. Examples: Synagogue politics or bad mouthing (instead of solution finding with) the Rabbi, school or criticizing your spouse.

3. Have Borders, Consistency & Fairness

Children and teenagers need rules and boundaries – they will test them but crave them they do. They need to know there are rules, there are consequences to their choices and consistency in the follow through to those consequences which will be “a punishment that fits the crime”.


A child does not put their toys away. They can put their toys away or the toys will be taken for 1-3 days. Keep to the consequence no matter how much they whine.

A teenager behaves irresponsibly with a privilege – it is revoked. Keep to the consequence no matter how much they “freak-out”.

Don’t we as adults understand this? If we choose not to show up for work – what are the consequences?

4. Build self-esteem.

Guideline #3 doesn’t mean being a cruel dictator or a drill sergeant. We have to put thought into how to bring out the strengths of our children and how to help them, help themselves to compensate in their areas of growth.

Example: Help them think through their homework – don’t just give them the answers.

5. Ask some hard questions and give some honest answers about what we are allowing to influence our children.

Friends, TV, internet, cell phones – the list goes on and on. This is called “Parenting by Choice”, not “My-Kid-Is-My-Friend”. Take control. “Parenting by Choice” is a benevolent dictatorship – not a democracy. And yeah – it’s for Gen X and not the 1950’s. This is a loaded topic and would love to dedicate a future article to it.

Example: Do we have to use media for entertainment or can we find an interactive hobby (“interactive” meaning board games, physical activity – not “Wii” or any “gaming”) ?

6. Pray and pray some more.

To address an earlier statement – what about the parent’s that seem to “do it right” and their kids are not exactly a source of nachas (yet)?

The most important factor is, after all has been exhausted and done – we need to pray (constantly) to Hashem for our children’s success. Like a farmer who works, plows and sweats to plant and nurture a crop – if a drought ensues, if pestilence attacks or an early frost comes – all his work is for naught.

At the same time – if the farmer does nothing – why should he be surprised at a crop of weeds?

Easy? – NO – what’s the alternative? Parent/teacher meetings? Ritalin? Expulsion? Therapy? Drugs? Rehab? Stress? Aggravation? What we put in is, on average – what we get out. If we let a bombastic society put into our children in our stead – why should we be surprised if the result is a bombastic child or teenager?

Our energy as parents is going to be used one way or the other – to invest or to make amends – fortunately, we have influence on how our energy will be spent.

Be Empowered in “Parenting by Choice”

Go here as a great resource for “Parenting by Choice”. Great for listening online or being downloaded for on the go. Targeted at the “frum”, “traditional” and not yet observant – you’ll be refreshed by the real-world depiction and down to Earth, tips and tricks that get Parenting results.

About the author: Avrahom-Moishe Erlenwein is a Lubavitcher, with 7 children (14 years-4 years old), married to a “Women of Valor”, strives to actualize the imminent Redemption and works as a business consultant | IT Program Manager.

I’m Having Trouble Shedding My Democratic Values

Like many Baalei Teshuva I was raised in a community that was mostly Democrat and now find myself in a mostly Republican voting Orthodox community. Although I have voted Republican in some previous Presidential elections, I still believe in many of the values and ideas that the Democrats represent.

Compassion for the poor and needy, which is consistent with Torah-values, seems to be more of a concern of the Democrats despite the appearance in recent years of Compassionate Conservatism.

Hesitancy to rely so much on unregulated markets seems to be sensible, especially given the recent markets collapse.

A less war-centered foreign policy seems logical given the limited successes of our recent conflicts and the unsustainable costs of continuing the current policy.

The current policy in the Middle East does not seem to have strengthened Israel’s position in the region. Clearly there are no easy solutions here, but I’m not sure either party has won the right to proclaim they are the “true” friend of Israel.

On the issue of Obama the man, versus McCain the man, if we put aside the mudslinging for a second, the issue seems to comes down to experience. It seems like Jewish History is replete with examples of young smart people successfully assuming great responsibilities.

All these issues are obviously much more complex than can be reflected in a blog post, but I’m not sure why I have to be apologetic because I am considering voting Democrat and find that some of their policies resonate with me.

I find much of the discussion on these issues in the community to be a little simplistic and I was hoping that perhaps this forum of thoughtful participants could possibly yield some fruitful discussion. Is anybody else still holding on to some Democratic values?


My Uterus is None of Your Business

By Aliza Hausman

There is too much pressure on our women to get pregnant.

‘So, are you pregnant?” a friend asked, bouncing over to me enthusiastically.

I rolled my eyes and exhaled.

“What? What did I say?”

Motherhood is hard. And I don’t just mean raising the babies. I mean having them. I mean trying to have them. There is just so much pressure in the Jewish community to have children.

The first year we were married, people – men and women – would ask constantly whether or not I was trying to get pregnant or was already pregnant. And if the answer was “no” and “no”, people hummed around me with sympathy and wished me luck having a baby.

I have startled more than one Shabbat guest by telling them that my husband and I were putting off having children.

“But, of course, you want to have a baby!” the guests would insist.

No one bothered to ask why we were putting it off. And I worried that if I told them that it was because I was recovering from an illness, they would walk away thinking that it had been OK to bring up the subject.

When I ask other Jewish women if they feel pressured, it all pours out. They are under constant interrogation from the community. They talk about money trouble, finishing their master’s degrees (sometimes, bachelor’s degrees) or establishing their careers, and the constant fear that they won’t be able to manage if they have to juggle anything more.

And everywhere – at least in my Orthodox world – someone is lurking, ready to pounce and apply pressure.

The husbands live in a bubble. No one except for his father, Jacob, had asked my husband if we were trying to get pregnant. And my father-in-law didn’t really ask, he hollered: “Get pregnant already!”

So Yehuda was sure that only I was obsessed with the state of my reproductive system.

Without his sympathy, I began to seethe. It struck me as impolite that people would ask about such a personal subject.

And then I was blindsided by an angel of hope.

At another Shabbat meal, a married woman whispered conspiratorially in my ear that people would stop asking about my womb once my husband and I survived our first anniversary.

“They’ll think you’re having problems,” she whispered.

“Problems?” I murmured, mystified.

“Getting pregnant.”

And she was right.

After our first anniversary, the questions stopped abruptly – only to be replaced by questioning glances. If I gained a little weight or wore an unflattering dress, people would stare at my stomach and cock their heads to the side inquisitively.

With an exasperated shake of the head, I would mutter: “No. I’m not pregnant!”

Now and then, a sad look would overtake my interrogators and they would sigh sympathetically about how hard it was to “get pregnant”. Without any signals from me, people started to believe we were “having trouble”. And though I wasn’t, I was suddenly aware that I was surrounded by a world of women who were.

When my best friend Esther told me that someone asked if she had “a bun in the oven”, I cringed. My beautiful friend has had three consecutive miscarriages. She tells me that she hates the assumptions people make.

“After one year of marriage, you must be pregnant. But no one assumes that there are miscarriages. That there are those of us struggling to afford to eat, much less bring children in the world to struggle with us,” Esther said, her voice shaky with emotion.

I tell her that people associate pregnancy with happiness. She replies, “I associate pregnancy with fear. I am scared to death of it.” I tell her that I feel the same way.

I cannot think of pregnancy without imagining myself suffering from the chronic pain and fatigue of fibromyalgia and depression. I would be forced to forgo medications that ward off mental and physical agony as the baby’s needs would come before my own. But really – are my fears, my status, anybody’s business at the Shabbos table?

One out of four women miscarries, I learned, after another whisper told me that a woman in the community had delivered a stillborn baby. Behind closed doors, women began sharing stories about “trying for months” and falling into deep depressive episodes. I had never imagined that so many women could be suffering silently.

The horrific idea that any of them could be asked “Are you pregnant?” overwhelmed me. Somewhere along the line, asking someone who is married about impending pregnancy became no more socially incongruous than asking what someone does for a living (a subject now surely imperilled by the economy).

But it is not a safe subject. Not when more and more couples everywhere are struggling to conceive. Not when we realise that often questions born out of natural curiosity can be hurtful and even traumatic.

So I’m waving a “Private” sign around my uterus for myself and for anyone who is with me. It is time we made asking about pregnancy and talking about having children inappropriate for polite conversation. We should not make people share any more about the subject than they would feel comfortable doing. We should tiptoe around it like we would any other loaded topic.

I guess I’m saying that it’s time to start asking again about the weather.

Aliza Hausman is a Latina Orthodox Jewish convert living in New York and working on a memoir. She blogs at alizahausman.net
Originally posted here.

Meaning and Purpose: A Good Beginning

(B’reishis) In the beginning of G-d having created the heavens and the earth- (Breishis 1:1)

(Reishis) The beginning of wisdom is fear of HASHEM! (Tehillim 110:11)

We know the Torah is not a book of cosmology for the curious but rather a book of instruction. What can we learn from the Torah’s first words?

The story is told about an extraordinarily wealthy person, we’ll call Mr. Vanderbilt. He wanted to go on an exotic vacation so he sent a servant on a mission to prepare the way. An ideal island with a fancy hotel was discovered. The advance scout came into the impressive lobby where he was met by the manager of the hotel. This emissary suggested strongly that Mr. Vanderbilt likes Gothic architecture and if they could please make that arrangement to be done in two weeks. The manager agreed, “Sure, for Mr. Vanderbilt? Anything!” Then the manager opened the master suite. The man was favorably impressed but he suggested to the manager that Mr. Vanderbilt is rather fond of a Greek motif. “If you could just put up some Greek columns and drapes and make it like the acropolis.” The manger agreed, “For Mr. Vanderbilt? Anything!” Then they went to inspect the beach. The fine sand and blue waters were on open display. Mr. Vanderbilt’s front man informed him again that his boss likes sand with varying textures. He wondered if different size particles could be imported for the occasion of his visit. The manager responded, “For Mr. Vanderbilt? Anything!” Turning their attention to the clear blue sky and ideal weather conditions the manager bragged, “It’s always just like this!” “HMMMMMM! Mr. Vanderbilt likes a cloud in the sky. Is there anything that can be done?” With all the professionalism he could muster the manager assured him, “For Mr. Vanderbilt? Anything!”

Two weeks later Mr. Vanderbilt arrives. Entering the lobby he is excited to see Gothic décor. In the deluxe suite he beholds to his delight the sheer elegance of Greek columns draped tastefully with fine silk cloth. Striding onto the beach his feet are pleased by the variety and textures of sand particles between his toes. Now reclining on his beach chair his eyes are vaulted to blue sky where a plane has inconspicuously just deposited a soft white puffy-cloud hovering overhead. Mr. Vanderbilt breaths a deep sigh expressing his most sublime delight and then he declares aloud, “This place is so exquisitely beautiful. Who needs money?”

If this would be a fundraising dinner for a Yeshiva, this would be the time for an appeal. Who needs money? One enters a building where everything is well-built to accommodate the students’ every need: There are masterful Rebbeim, instruments of climate control, and tasty food too just to be certain learning and growth takes place. It’s all a result of great effort, planning, and yes, money that makes this setting of perfection possible. It’s engineered so elegantly that one may be deluded into thinking, “Who needs money? Everything makes itself!”

So it is with this world. In six days of creation a stage is built with such precision and care that the benefactors of that excellence may stride a bit too casually at times and imagine foolishly, “Who needs G-d? Everything makes itself!”

Rabbi Yeruchim Levovitz ztl. writes, “As soon as you start studying the Torah, right from the first verse: “In the beginning The Almighty created…” you become aware that there is a Creator and Ruler of the universe. This first awareness already makes a major change in you for the rest of your life. You realize that there is a real reason for everything. The world has meaning and purpose.” A good beginning!

Transitioning to Torah and Tefillah

The Yomim Noraim period has ended and what a whirlwind it was. From Rosh Hoshana through Yom Kippur the call of the hour was intensified Tefillah. From there we transition to a focus on the mitzvah performance of Sukkah and the four species and the added joy and festive meals of the Yom Tovim.

Now it’s 6 months until Pesach and thank G-d we have the spiritual high points of Chanukah and Purim to get us through the winter. But what about today. Rabbi Michael Rosensweig points out that Shemini Atzeres was meant to transition us back to the spiritual staples of Torah and Tefillah.

With Shabbos soon upon us we have the weekly parsha to keep the spiritual flame lit. Perhaps it’s a good time to undertake the obligation of Shnayim Mikra V’echad Targum or reading the Torah portion twice and the Targum’s explanation once.

The Shulchan Aruch says that you can read Rashi’s commentary and the Mishna Berurah says that you can read a translation which explains the portion according to the commentaries of Rashi and other sages based on the Gemora. It’s possible that if you read the Art Scroll Chumash commentary you fulfill your obligation, but ask your local Rav and if that’s what is doable for you, it’s still a great idea. Please note that there are a number of excellent translations of Rashi and Art Scroll has a translation of the Ramban for Bereishes, Shemo and Devarim.

So perhaps now is the time to focus a little more on learning the Torah inside, focusing on the text itself and the basic explanation to keep our spiritual growth going.

Shemini Atzeres/Simchas Torah Links

Rabbi Michael Rosensweig on Vehayita Ach Sameach: The Joy of Shemini Azeret
Shemini Azeret is the appropriate culmination to Sukkot precisely because it is finally time to relinquish the lulav and sukah and to give full concentration to the spiritual staples of Talmud torah and tefilah. Thus, this day is both an indispensable component of Sukkot and an independent hag. Anticipating the transition to Shemini Azeret, we already begin to dismantle parts of the environment of the sukah, declaring that we have successfully assimilated the idealized framework of that structure and are confidently poised to return to our more permanent structure having achieved spiritual renewal and reinforcement.

Neil Harris on Simchas Torah and Stimuli
All of the passion I have for Torah Judaism can find expression through dancing and singing. This only can happen if there is a spark within me to begin with. What if there that spark is buried too deep for me to find?

That’s alright, because, I can feed off of others’ passion. That how things work, I think. We at times create our own energy and excitement about things. At other times, we rely on various forms of outside stimuli to jump start us.

Rabbi Benyamin Buxbaum – Two Celebrations of the Torah – Why do we have two holidays for the Torah — Shavuot and Simchat Torah.
On Shavuot, we stay up and learn all night to show our readiness and anticipation to receive the Torah. Because it is an intellectual appreciation, we stay up all night learning Torah. On Simchat Torah, however, we dance — expressing the emotional joy of the body. We are showing that even our bodies have gained tremendously by keeping the Torah.

Ask anyone who has increased their Torah observance and they will tell you the same. At first, each feared, according to his or her nature, that some aspect of the Torah would be restrictive. Be it keeping Shabbat, kosher, family purity or laws of proper speech, each encountered an area that tested their resolve. However, they kept the Torah knowing it was the most meaningful thing to do. And as they grew in their Judaism, they found their lives enhanced in every way.

Originally Published Oct 13, 2006

The Sukkah of the World

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
Torah Ideals – Seeking Direction in a Misdirected Worlds

A famous story, probably apocryphal but possibly true, recounts the origins of a shul in Poland named for its founder, Reb Itzele of Cracow. Reb Itzele was a poor peasant who dreamed recurrently of a great fortune that lay buried beneath a certain bridge in the city of Vienna. Night after night the same vision came into Reb Itzele’s head while he slept. Eventually, he could bear it no longer.

With no money to pay his way, Reb Itzele set out on foot to make the long journey to Vienna, hitching rides on the back of carts when he could, but mostly walking, begging for food, sleeping by the roadside when he could not find a barn or stable in which to spend the night.

Finally arriving in Vienna, Reb Itzele wandered the busy streets of the city until he recognized the bridge he had seen in his dream. But what then? People were coming and going constantly. He, a poor peasant from Poland, could hardly begin digging up the earth in the middle of a great cosmopolitan city.

A policeman noticed the poor man loitering under the bridge and accosted him. Disconcerted, Reb Itzele blurted out his whole story. The policeman’s eyes widened in disbelief. “You truly are a fool,” the officer laughed, “to travel half way across Europe because of a dream. Well, let me tell you: I, too, have had a dream. I dreamed there was a treasure hidden beneath the house of a poor Jew in Cracow. But do you think I would travel all that way to look for the house of someone named Itzele just because of a dream? Off with you, now, and be grateful that I don’t arrest you.”

Back went Reb Itzele to his house, where he tore up the floorboards and uncovered a great treasure, which he used to build the shul that bore his name.

* * * * *

The moral, obviously, is that we often have right under our feet the very thing we go off searching the world to find.

But the story has a second, more subtle message: sometimes we may have to search the world over in order to discover what we have had all along. Perhaps that is why the great chassidic masters exiled themselves in the days of their youth. And perhaps that is why the Master of the World has exiled our ethereal souls to this world of spiritual darkness, so that we must find our own way back to the light of His Divine presence.

Finally, perhaps this is why the Torah commands us to exile ourselves for seven days a year, abandoning the comfort and familiarity of our homes for the austerity of the sukkah. Paradoxically, this little hut that affords scant protection from the elements enables us to remember how HaShem protected our ancestors in the desert with the anani haKovod, the clouds of glory, and that it is His hand alone that protects us still.


Wheras the Talmud refers to the Passover Festival by its familiar name, Chag HaPesach, the sages identified the other festivals by descriptive names of their own design. Shavuos they called Atzeres – literally cessation: lacking any distinguishing positive commandments, Shavuos is characterized primarily by the forbidden categories of work common to all Torah holidays. Sukkos they called HeChag – The Festival – implying that this holiday somehow includes or completes the other two.1 And although Sukkos does indeed conclude the cycle of the Shalosh Regalim, the three Pilgrim Festivals, the sages’ reference to it as The Festival appears the diminish somewhat the stature of Pesach and Shavuos. What did the sages intend for us to understand?

Citing Rabbi Elazar HaKappar, the Mishna identifies the three character traits considered most destructive, through which a person a person may forfeit his portion in the World to Come.2 These are kinah (jealousy), ta’avah (lust), and kovod (craving honor). With characteristic penetrating brilliance, the Sfas Emes explains that the three festivals provide the tikkun, or antidote, for these three flaws.3

On Pesach, we celebrate our redemption from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians. A slave lives without either possessions or self-determination. He owns nothing and enjoys no benefit from his efforts. He toils without rest, without thanks, and without reward.

But there are many contemporary forms of slavery. An alcoholic is a slave to his drinking. A smoker is a slave to nicotine. A workaholic is a slave to his business. For many in the modern world, freedom is merely an opportunity to exchange one kind of slavery for another.

Consequently, the freedom we celebrate on Pesach is the freedom to choose our own master. By entering freely into the service of the Almighty, the Jew affirms that everything he does and everything he has is for the sake of the Master of the Universe. And if the Master grants different servants different tools and resources to perform their respective duties, what cause for jealousy is there in that? Ultimately, everything belongs to the One Master before whom we are all in equal service.

* * * * *

Having confronted jealousy, man must address an even more dangerous impulse. Desire. Even one who has gained control over his attraction to material acquisitions may still grapple with the internal longings for pleasure and gratification. Although desire cannot be quantified, the human obsession with food, with power, or with physical intimacy may become so overwhelming that it leads men into irrational acts of self-destruction.

The Festival of Shavuos adjures us to stop! By re-experiencing the giving of the Torah at Sinai, we reorient ourselves to the true purpose of freedom and the enduring satisfaction of spiritual achievement that can never be equaled by the transient pleasure of physical indulgence.


The cycle of holidays concludes with Sukkos, which addresses the final stumbling block of the human psyche: the longing for recognition and honor. Having subdued our physical and spiritual impulses and inclinations, we expect acknowledgment of what we have achieved. We measure ourselves against our fellow Jews and, inflating our own sense of value, we resent others for not according us the credit we believe that we deserve. At best, our arrogance may tarnish our successes. At worst, it may lead us astray and cause us to undo all that we have done.

The solution is exile. We move out of our homes, abandoning the material comforts of freedom and symbolically taking up residence in the shadow of the Sh’chinah, to dwell in the Divine Presence as our ancestors did at the foot of Sinai and in the desert. The leaves and branches of the s’chach above our heads provide only the most superficial representation of a real roof and scarcely a modicum of shelter. Merely by raising our eyes can we recall that only by the grace of G-d are we protected from the elements and the outside world. By implanting this humbling reflection to echo in our memories when we move back into our homes, Sukkos enables us to conquer our craving for honor and thereby preserve the material and spiritual accomplishments of Pesach and Shavuos. In this way, it is truly HeChag – The Festival.

* * * * *

It would appear that together, Pesach, Shavuos, and Sukkos provide all the psychological and spiritual reinforcement to offset the influence of jealousy, lust, and honor. However, human experience suggests that 15 days scattered across half the year are hardly adequate in our battle against the yeitzer hara. How can we guarantee that the lessons of the three Festivals will not be forgotten?

Our sages teach us that anyone who properly recites Ashrei three times a day is assured of a place in the World to Come.4 With its central theme expressed in the verse, You open Your hand and fulfill the desire (ratzon) of every living thing, King David’s 145th Psalm extols the limitless mercy through which HaShem responds to the desire of all the living. By contemplating the message of Ashrei, that HaShem provides us with our every wish and need, we remain focused on the ultimate purpose of our own lives.

But is it true?

The world is filled beyond imagination with unfulfilled desires. The ill who do not recover, the poor who are not sustained, the righteous who suffer a seemingly endless succession of broken hearts and broken dreams. Where in human experience do we find that HaShem fulfills the desire of every living thing?

* * * * *

On the simplest level, HaShem has created a world containing more than sufficient resources to sustain all living things. Since the desires of all the living are primarily material, what the verse claims is ostensibly true: as a whole, the community of life on earth has enough to fulfill the desires of all.

However, the Sfas Emes explains that the Jewish people are different. In contrast to the rest of the world, HaShem has placed within each Jew “the will (ratzon) to know what to request.”5

Most creatures, including the majority of human beings, are driven by ta’aveh – desire resulting from physical or psychological impulse. But the nature of the Jewish neshoma is such that it is the source of ratzon – the will to know and carry out the Ultimate Will of the Creator. Only through knowledge and fulfillment of HaShem’s will is it possible for one to achieve deveikus – spiritual intimacy with the Almighty. It is for this, above all else, that the soul of the Jew yearns.

This, however, does not provide an answer to our original question. If we are never completely satisfied by the fulfillment of our physical desires, how many of us feel satiated in our quest for spiritual fulfillment? Even more so, how can the Psalmist claim that HaShem satisfies the spiritual desires of all the living?


Rabbi Akiva Tatz offers an intriguing insight into human nature. Most of us spend much, if not most, of our time wishing we were somewhere other than where we are. At work we long to be at home; at home we long for some kind of entertainment or recreation. We dream of travel to far away and exotic places, of experiencing the new and the unfamiliar.

When we actually have the opportunity to travel, however, we often grow homesick, disoriented, or ill at ease. We can’t stop our minds from wandering back home, from missing what we left behind and looking forward to our return.

Homesickness, says Rabbi Tatz, is a symptom of the neshoma in exile. Trapped in the physical reality of this world, the spiritual can find no rest and no consolation. The neshoma is like the daughter of a king who marries a commoner. No matter what he gives her, she is never satisfied, for the pleasures with which she grew up in the palace of the king exceed anything her new husband can imagine.6

So too the neshoma. No matter what it has in this world, it longs for the spiritual radiance that surrounded it in Olam HoEmes, the world of pure kedusha from which it came. Its perpetual longing to return home causes every human being, as a physical creature within whose body the neshoma resides, to feel restless, discontented, and far from where he belongs. We seek to quell these feelings by seeking satisfaction in travel to other places but, instead of satisfying the yearning of the neshoma, we feel even more unsettled and drawn to return to the place we think of as home.

* * * * *

Nevertheless, as King David declares in Ashrei, HaShem’s greatness is unfathomable. If it were possible to find satisfaction and contentment in this world, what would become of the Jew and his neshoma? Despite the persistent, inescapable beckoning of our souls, the attractions of the material world distract us continuously from the purpose for which HaShem created us – to earn our eternal reward in this prozdor, this entryway, that precedes the World to Come. How much more easily would we forget the reason for our existence if we could rejoice in the fulfillment of our every desire?

This is the meaning imparted by Ashrei’s central verse and the great paradox of our world: by having placed within us a spiritual will that can never be satisfied and having thereby denied us all but the most fleeting temporal satisfaction, HaShem forces us to remain conscious of the only source of true satisfaction – the pleasure of the World to Come for those who have earned it through Torah and good deeds.

This, too, is the lesson the sages sought to teach by describing Sukkos as the quintessential festival. Whatever our accomplishments, whether physical or spiritual, and however much we strive for satisfaction and fulfillment, the world we live in is in fact little more than a sukkah, a temporary dwelling that bears only the faintest resemblance to our true home in the World to Come.

It is for this reason that the sages introduced King David’s most famous Psalm with the closing lines of his previous chapter: Ashrei yoshvei veisecho – Fortunate are those who live in Your house. The one who recognizes this world as HaShem’s house, constructed not as a place of comfort but as an antechamber in which to earn his ultimate reward in the World to Come – it is he and he alone who is truly fortunate.

1. Rosh HaShanah 16a
2. Avos 4:28
3. Beginning of maamarim on Sukkos
4. Brachos 4b
5. End of Parshas Beshallach
6. Mesillas Yesharim, Chapter 1

Originally published in the Jewish Observer, October 2008

The Yom Kippur Fast, Oh, How I Love You (Yeah, right)

When it comes to the Yom Kippur fast, I have experienced three basic emotions throughout my 48 years). The first was apathy. In our home growing up, we went to synagogue two days a year, Yom Kippur being one of them. And then we came home and had lunch. I didn’t fast for the first time until my mid-thirties. For all of my upbringing and my twenties, I felt no guilt, no ambivalence, really, nothing about it. Fasting on Yom Kippur was for other people, and had no relevance for me. I can’t even say that I felt regret about not fasting. That would have been like asking me if I regretted not ever going para sailing. Nope. It just wasn’t part of my reality, and I didn’t think it should have been, and I felt just fine about missing it.

The next phase of my Yom Kippur fasting we can label “ defiance.” In my thirties, as I began this long process of discovering Judaism, I started looking at the fast differently. Now, I could no longer ignore it. It seemed to have great meaning for so many Jews, and I had begun practicing many other rituals. I now believed that there was a G-d who cared about me, and for whom these practices mattered. I label this phase of the fast – which took about seven years – defiance, because I convinced myself ( with the help of other equally defiant peers), that a G-d who really loved me and wanted my teshuva cared much more about my drawing close to Him, than He cared about me fasting.

I really thought: “If fasting makes me ill, so that I can not pray, certainly G-d doesn’t want that, and if I have to choose between fasting and so-so praying, or fervent praying with a full belly, it is so clear to me that G-d would chose the latter.”

I was so sure of that belief, I was defiant about it ( read – feeling guilty, rationalizing, not ready to face the possibility that the Torah was written by G-d, and that fasting on Yom Kippur was part of the program, lightheadedness or not). In fact, when I attempted fasting for a few years, and gave it up part of the way through the fast because I felt so sick, I was furious about it. I was angry at a religion that would do something as ridiculous (I thought) as expect someone to simultaneously reach emotional depth and soul healing while trying not to faint. I was angry with the Jewish community for making the fast such a big deal. (I had a rebbetzin once tell me that I should be fasting, no matter what, as long as I didn’t need an ambulance to cart me off to the hospital, and that didn’t go over well with me at the time). I was angry with myself for not being able to fast when so much of the Jewish community seemed to do it, young, old, or pregnant. Instead of apathy, I felt shame, and to cover up the shame, I got angry.

And then my children entered day school, and we started growing spiritually as a family, and they came home from school with the knowledge that Mommies and Daddies fast on Yom Kippur. For a few years I snuck food when they weren’t looking, but like so many of the rituals I now keep, I finally “got with the program” so that I could be a good role model for my children, and not create mixed messages about Yom Kippur fasting in the house.

This is when I eventually moved into the emotion I still hold on to today which I’d call “surrender”. I still don’t “get it, why Hashem designed the system the way He did, but I’ve come to accept that this is what it is, and as a Jew, I am commanded to do it. I still feel lousy on fast days, and yes, I’ve tried all the tricks for making it easier and some have worked somewhat, but bottom line, it’s just a day I try to survive, and I count the minutes till the fast is done.

Which brings me to a confession. My davening stinks on Yom Kippur. I am not yet spiritually elevated enough to get past all of my physical symptoms, and to, as they suggest, “ feel like an angel.” I understand the importance of davening on this day, and what is at stake. Each year I try to do better. But I am being honest with you – at best, I might reach a C minus when it comes to davening on Yom Kippur, and more realistically, I probably hover closer to a D.

Call this a rationalization, or perhaps this is a good example of Hashem accepting a BT where we are, as long as we keep striving for better. For me, the Yom Kippur fast is my prayer. I offer it up to Hashem as my sacrifice. I ask Hashem to accept my fast, and the miracle that in my life, surrounded by family who think fasting is stupid, it’s an accomplishment in and of itself. As the afternoon and early evening tests my physical and spiritual and emotional strength, I speak to Hashem, not from a prayer book, but from my heart. And I ask Him to forgive me for my sins of the year, and for not davening properly. I ask Him to take my fast as a symbol of my obedience to him and His Torah, because surely, if He didn’t say do it, I never would.

I learned once that it isn’t proper to wish you an easy fast. I should instead wish for you a meaningful fast.

From one faster to another, I hope that your day is meaningful, and your fast is easy!

First Published on October 8, 2007

OJ and Me

In the Fall of 1995, I was employed at a small civil defense law firm on Wall Street. It was Aseres Yemei Teshuvah and OJ Simpson was on trial for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ronald Goldman. On October 3rd, the news broke that the jury had reached its verdict. Most of us at the firm were huddled into a small corner office where we kept the television that we would use to view surveillance videotapes.

There were myriad reasons why everyone in the office was interested in watching the verdict. Some of us were sports fans who had grown up watching OJ’s Hall of Fame career as a running back for the Buffalo Bills. Others were interested in the racial perspective of the case which seemed to be polarizing the nation. Still others, as lawyers, were interested in watching the judicial system in action with some of the nation’s top lawyers at work. I think that for others (and perhaps for all of us) it was reality tv writ large. Some of these reasons engendered my interest as well. But there was something else. Something more. It was erev Yom Kippur and I couldn’t help associating myself with OJ, as loathsome as I found him. He, like me, was awaiting his verdict. I watched with earnestness as OJ waited for the jury to enter. I wondered, what must be going through his mind? What does a person think about when his life hangs in the balance? How did it feel to know that the decision was imminent? How could he stand to just sit there and wait for his verdict?! And how could I? I, too, was awaiting my verdict as that evening began the Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment.

OJ was eventually acquitted and his acquittal became the symbol of a system gone awry. I didn’t have much interest in the aftermath of the acquittal and the subsequent civil trial. Life moved on.
Read more OJ and Me

Question of the Week: How Do You Maximize Your Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur is the most awesome and powerful day of the year. We’ve identified four approaches to maximizing the potential of the day.

1) Judgment Sealed
Our judgment is sealed on Yom Kippur and the circumstances of the upcoming year will be determined.

2) Day of Kapora
The blemishes that result from our transgressing negative commandments (which are not punishable by koreis or worse), can be removed only on Yom Kippur.

3) Getting Close to Hashem
The spiritual nature of the day, the fact that we refrain from most physical activities (eating, drinking, washing,…), and being immersed in prayer brings the greatest opportunity to getting close to Hashem.

4) Attachment to the Tzibbur
The common pursuit of a full day of spiritual growth, the plural language of the confession and prayers and the communal singing/davening enables us to deepen our connection to our Tzibbur and to the entire Klal Yisrael.

All of the above can motivate us to truly commit to change and intensify our Teshuva and Tefillah.

Which of the above do you find motivating?
Are there other focal points that help you maximize the day?