After thoughts on Chanukah….Keeping The Tree of Light Burning Bright

By Marsha Smagley

A ba’alas teshuva of only the last ten years, I have difficulty letting go of the holidays, especially Chanukah.

It is the last night of Chanukah and as I watch the glowing lights of our three menorahs, two with flames from oil and one from wax, I feel sadness at its end. I want to hold onto this night, I want to hold on to this magnificent light.

The wax candles in our menorah are slowly melting down, its flames fading into the night. The oil candles will burn longer; their light is exquisite, I want to hold onto this light. How can I still keep Hashem’s light burning bright, with the lights of Chanukah fading away? Tears fill my eyes, the very tears of the soul, imploring the gate of tears in Heaven to return the eternal light of the Shechinah.

When we gaze upon the lights of the menorah, we are basking in Hashem’s Tree of Light (Rav S.R. Hirsch describes the menorah as a “Tree of Light” in his chumash on Parshas Teruma in Shemos), the gift He gave to His beloved children of Israel, to get through the darkness of winter, and the bitter darkness of gulus. G-d’s light is hidden in the thirty six Chanukah candles. We light a total of thirty six lights during Chanukah, the same number of times the word ohr, light, is found in Torah and the same number of times neir, candle, appears in Torah. When I light the lights of Chanukah, I take comfort in being enveloped in His Divine light.

The soul is compared to a candle; trying to break free of its body of wax, yearning to touch the Heavens. As the candles’ flames seem to shuckle to and fro, I am reminded of the dance of the soul, as it strives to lead the body through life, trying to shine Hashem’s light onto this world.

A little light dispels a lot of darkness. The light of the candle slowly flickers within the recess of my mind, with the realization that we have a pintelle yid, a spark of the Divine forever burning brightly within our soul. As the light in the tent of Sarah Emeinu never went out during her life time, our pintelle yid too forever burns brightly. I take comfort in knowing that G-d’s candle is always burning within me.

“Ki neir mitzvo ve’Torah ohr,” For a commandment is a candle and the Torah is light.” (Mishlei 6:23). Each time we perform a mitzvah, we attach ourselves, like a candle’s flame to its body of wax, to His Divine will, and become an emissary of His light of Torah.

The numerical value of neir is 250, which corresponds to the 248 positive commandments and the 248 limbs of the body. The additional two needed to equal the 250 of neir, is ahavas Hashem and yiras Hashem, love of Hashem and awe of Hashem. When a Jew performs mitzvahs with the koach/strength of their entire life force, igniting the flame of the candle with ahavas Hashem and yiras Hashem, it awakens the pintelle yid within. (Sfas Emes L’Chanukah, suf reish lamed-aleph).

I take solace in knowing that when we light the lights of the menorah, the tree of light, we are reminded not only of the miracle of Chanukah, but our very calling as Jews The Jew is a wick that allows an infinite light to be manifest and that is a miracle, and through the mitzvahs, we illuminate the world with Hashem’s light of Torah, and sanctify it with His glory.

As the flames of the last candles of our menorah reach upwards, I am reminded that I too can strive to perform the mitzvahs with my entire being, and ignite the flames of the pintelle yid within, with yiras Hashem and ahavas Hashem, and keep His Tree of Light forever burning bright.

May we merit to touch the Heavens on earth, and ignite the everlasting light of redemption, speedily and with rachamim, mercy.

Marsha Smagley resides in Highland Park, Illinois, with her husband and two children. She has devoted the last ten years to studying Torah, becoming observant, guiding her family in Torah life, and recently, writing articles appearing in The Jewish Observer, Kashrus Magazine, Hamodia, Horizons, Binah Magazine, and Yated Ne’eman, which convey her heartfelt journey to Torah.

This article can not be distributed or published without the prior permission of its author.

How to Handle These Potential Shul Embarrassment Scenarios?

All three of these situations occurred this past Shabbos and Sunday.

1) The loud Shomoneh Esrai davener.
A father of a guest davened a really loud silent Shomoneh Esrai. My friend moved his seat during every Shomoneh Esrai after Shacharis. I tried to wait him out by davening very slowly. I remember asking a Rav about this in the past and he suggested not saying anything as it would make the person very self-conscious when they davened.
Anybody have any suggestions on how to handle this?

2) The potential Art Scroll Offense.
There was an Auf Ruf on Shabbos and I gave the non-observant grandfather an Art Scroll Chumash for the leining. A friend mention that he seemed to be unable to find the place in his all Hebrew Siddur for Hallel so I went to get an English Art Scroll. Just as I was about to go over to hand it to him, he seemed to be davening with no problem out of the all-Hebrew Siddur so I refrained from giving it to him to avoid potential embarrassment.
How have other people handled this situation? Should one risk embarrassing the potential recipient?

3) During one of the Kaddishes on Sunday Rosh Chodesh Chanukah the Baal Tefillah was about to say the wrong Kaddish before Mussaf. Many people loudly stopped him in his tracks. This is a time-is-of-the-essence mistake.
Is there a less embarrassing way to correct the Baal Tefillah?

What, Judaism Can Actually be Fun?

Written by: Gemma

I got speaking to a mother who had reluctantly just sent her daughter to seminary. She wasn’t religious herself but was angry that her daughter had become religious and couldn’t understand what she saw in Judaism.

I got to the root of the problem – she then told me that Judaism was forced down her throat, “Do this! Why? Because that’s how it must be done!” She said she rebelled the opposite way, she wasn’t going to listen to that. She couldn’t understand why anyone would want to be religious, “it’s like being in prison, you can’t do anything you want, your whole life is controlled – “you can’t do this, this and this!”

Judaism was very prescriptive in her generation, she was turned off. She rebelled. Now her daughter is doing the opposite, thereby creating guilt on the mother’s behalf. Had the daughter come up with any other dietary requirement I’m sure she’d only be too pleased. The reason why there exist so many unobservant Jewish families is because the only way the older generations were taught was through force, prescriptive and seemingly meaningless laws. There was no Jewish thought, philosophy, mussar (ethics) and other works which we are fascinated by today, no nice “vorts.” And because of this, their kids have the same perception of Judaism, i.e. a burden.

I think, therefore, that perhaps the challenge of our generation is to remodel Judaism into its true essence. Judaism isn’t a load of laws and don’t-do’s; that’s missing the whole point. You can’t keep Shabbat simply by not driving, not turning on lights, not cooking, etc without doing the positive mitzvot on the day like making Kiddush, special davening, family time, self-reflection, special food and delicacies, learning with our children and wearing our best clothes. Judaism and happiness go together; if you don’t have the latter you’re not doing the former properly. “Ivdu et Hashem b’simcha” – serve Hashem with joy, King David tells us.

One of the best ways to experience true Judaism is by seeing it in action. Most unobservant Jews will regard Shabbat as restricting and boring, yet how many of them have actually seen a religious family on Shabbat? They’ve not seen the atmosphere around a real Shabbos table, they’ve not watched the wife being praised, the children being blessed, the beautiful songs, fine food and spirituality. And maybe that’s where we as observant Jews have to take responsibility. We have to not only retain our tremendous hospitability but we have to perform our mitzvot with joy and enthusiasm. If we look like we’re watching paint dry in shul on Shabbos morning or if we talk to Hashem the way we talk to the tax man then that’s exactly how mitzvot will be perceived; not only by other Jews but by our children. It’s all very well to say that Judaism is great, but we have to show it’s great. Not through being fake and acting like it is, but by truly believing it is.

Originally posted here.

How Can We Eliminate The Pain of Being Judged?

One of the reasons non Observant people give for not finding out more about Judaism is that they feel judged.

How are we to understand the pain of being judged when we enter into a relationship with a non Observant Jew?

Is it because at some level we may feel superior because we are observing G-d’s will to a greater degree, and therefore make the other person feel inferior?

Is it because the mere fact that we are observant, makes the person judge themselves as to their own non-observance?

Is it because the teacher-student relationship is inevitably one sided and in regards to Judaism we automatically assume the teacher role, making the unsolicited student feel uncomfortable?

Is it because we believe that G-d judges observant people better through his granting of a better world-to-come for the observant and therefore we feel justified in following what we understand to be G-d’s judgment?

What do you think?
Why do non-frum people feel judged and more importantly, what positive steps can we make to reduce the pain of being judged?

Help Free Jonathan Pollard

After 23 years in federal prison, it is time for Jonathan Pollard to go home.
Just a few moments of your time can help Jonathan Pollard regain his freedom. Your phone calls, faxes and letters can help make that happen. He needs your help now.

Please visit to find out how you can help by doing one of these things:

Click here for more information

Click here for addresses and sample letters

Sign up to have your name added to the petition that will be sent to President Bush

Print out the petition and give it to your family and friends to collect signatures

Collect letters from Clergy, School Principals, Elected Officials, and other community leaders

Rabbi Ozer Bergman – Alarmists

For better or worse, I am not an alarmist. So when I got an e-mail or two that tzaddikim of various stripes were warning “The End is Near for American Jews! Get Out While You Can!” I was a little underwhelmed. After all, I’ve gotten e-mails in the past that “Mashiach is DEFINITELY coming by this coming Rosh HaShanah” and, sadly, he didn’t. In other words, the track record of alarmists is not an argument to heed any of their warnings.

Mind you, I don’t mean to say that their messages should be ignored or summarily dismissed. Rather that current events are fairly inscrutable and people should not hurriedly make life decisions based on what’s reported in the e-mail de jour that so-and-so said such-and-such. Did he? Exactly what did he say? In what context? Was he addressing his own congregation/community/adherents or all of Klal Yisrael?

Nonetheless, even Ozer Laidback realizes that what we’re witnessing requires a response. The world is certainly undergoing some serious changes, even if those changes aren’t leading immediately and directly to Armageddon (you’ll pardon the expression). Some of us are old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism. Maybe now it’s time for capitalism and democracy to fall. After all, despite any personal affinity we may have for them, neither is kadosh or Torah m’Sinai.

That said, please allow me a digression. I want to publicly express my dismay and distress about the reaction of too many people. The reaction and my subsequent distress go back to 9/11. Too many (even one is too many) in our community feel that gloating is an appropriate reaction to America’s trials and tribulations, to its suffering and setbacks. This is an un-Torah and even anti-Torah attitude and view.

Our holy Torah teaches us that converts from certain nations, though they become Jewish, may never marry into what is called Kahal Hashem. Some may marry in after a defined waiting period (Devarim 23:4-9). Egyptian converts may marry after three generations because we we were guests in their land. Even though they enslaved, humiliated and beat us for close to a century; even though they drowned millions of Jewish babies, because they gave us a place to stay when we were in need we are not to totally shun them (see Rashi, v.8).

In Sefer HaMidot (aka The Aleph-Bet Book) Rebbe Nachman teaches that it is forbidden to be an ingrate, to a Jew or to a non-Jew (Tefilah A:62). This seems to be based on “David asked, ‘Is there still anyone left of the House of Shaul with whom I can do kindness for the sake of Yonatan?'” (2 Samuel 9:1); and on “David said, ‘I will do kindness with Chanun son of Nachash, as his father did for me…'” (ibid. 10:2). The Rebbe also teaches that one is obligated to pray on behalf of his host city (Tefilah A:56).This is apparently based on Yirmiyahu HaNavi words, “Seek the peace of the city to which I have exiled you. Pray to God on its behalf because its peace will be your peace” (Jeremiah 29:7).

Whatever the shortcomings and failures of the United States of America in regards to its Jews and the Jewish people, it has been a very, very good home to millions and millions of us. Instead of gloating, we ought to be praying strongly for its protection and prosperity. Amen.

Returning to our initial topic: Mashiach has to come; why not sooner than later? God is shaking things up, and that is certainly part of the unfolding process that will result in Mashiach’s arrival—speedily, in our lifetimes. Amen! But in the meantime it is both disconcerting and scary. What can we do get our bearings and overcome our fears of the what the future holds?

Rebbe Nachman recommends holding on to a genuine tzaddik. The Torah teaches that in the Messianic era Hashem will grasp the ends of the earth and shake off the wicked (Job 38:13). But the genuine tzaddik—and those holding onto him—will not be cast off. He/they will survive. Let’s work on strengthening our faith in Hashem’s unending, loving providence (aka hashgacha pratis), that on the heels of this cloudy whirlwind ride, is clarity and calm. Let’s actively seek out the clear wisdom and advice of genuine tzaddikim, past and present, and do our best to live accordingly. Amen.

Originally posted on A Simple Jew.

Should a Single Observant Woman in Her 30s Consider a Non Observant Spouse?

Last week, Rachel, a columnist in the Jewish Press (Chronicles of Crises in Our Communities), published a letter from an older single in which she is considering marry a not yet observant spouse. Here is a relevant excerpt:

Recently I started dating someone who is considering becoming religious, to conduct a Torah household when he is married; however, not at this point in time. This is someone I truly like and can see myself with. He is kind, generous, smart, funny, honest, serious and mature. What do I do? He is not the type of person that comes around often. I am not oblivious to the consequences when children are in the picture; education and lifestyle need to be considered. I would like to raise them in a similar fashion to my upbringing, but I know that I will have to take a chance with their religious education.

I have finally met someone whom I can relate to and admire and can live with what more can I consider right now? I am aware that it is usually the more religious minded partner in a relationship who will end up changing, rather than the “left”-minded one. I just have to make a decision – knowing that there is the realistic probability that I may not have Shabbos Zemiros or Torah conversations at the table. Perhaps I will need to compromise more on the actual halachos than the Spirit of the law.

I am taking the risks quite seriously and the pros on my list do not outweigh the cons. This is something many of the women of my generation are considering and yes, it is sad in a way, that dating has come to this point. But what am I to do?

This week, Rachel published her response to the writer in which she seems to advise against marrying a non observant man.

Here is a relevant excerpt:

You claim to be G-d-fearing, religious and serious. Surely, then, you take your religion seriously. You feel that matchmakers are not as concerned with you (older singles) as with the younger generation. Do you mean to say that you have actually entertained the thought that your Maker, the Arbiter of all matchmakers, is less interested in you than in the younger generation? Believe purely and simply that nothing is beyond His capability; beseech Him purely and simply to guide you in the right direction; rely on Him whole- heartedly to lead you where you were meant to go and He will relieve you of the enormous burden of uncertainty.

If all your friend can offer is a “maybe one day I’ll think about becoming observant,” your projection as to how your future with him will play out may prove prophetic. Notwithstanding that the choice is yours to make, be forewarned that the consequences of that choice will be with you a lifetime − and the hands of the clock cannot ever be turned back.

If it is children you yearn for, consider the option of becoming a foster or adoptive parent to a child who has already been brought into the world but has been shortchanged and is in desperate need of a mother’s love and nurturing. The satisfaction and benefits of such an arrangement can be vastly fulfilling.

I was in a similar situation (although divorced and with kids) and I did marry a non-observant man. He is still not observant. We are an older couple so we have no children together. All our previous kids are now grown up.

Do you agree with Rachel? What would you do?

– Phyllis

Not Good Enough

And Yaakov remained alone and a man wrestled with him until break of dawn. And he saw that he could not defeat him so he grabbed him in the hollow of his thigh and he dislocated the hollow of Yaakov’s thigh with his wrestling with him. And he said, “Send me because the dawn has broken.” And he said, “I will not send you unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Yaakov!” And he said, “No long will your name be Yaakov but rather Israel, because you struggled with the Divine and man and you prevailed.” And Yaakov asked and he said, “Tell me please, what your name is?” And he said, “Why is it that you ask for my name?” And he blessed him there. (Breishis 32:25-30)

This is a very odd dialogue. After wrestling an entire night, the man that Yaakov wrestled with became desperate to leave. Yaakov refused to let him go without first receiving his blessing. The man tells him that his name is no long Yaakov but rather Israel. Why does Yaakov demand a blessing from his opponent? Why does he accept a change of his name as a blessing? What does that mean? Who was the person with whom Yaakov struggled all night long?

I’m not such a numerologist. Numbers go through my system like diet soda. I like chunky calorie rich ideas. However with regard to Yaakov and his name change there is an amazingly instructive way of appreciating what happened with a few simple calculations. The numerical value of the name Yaakov (Yud-10+Ayin-70+Kuf-100+Beis-2) equals 182. Our sages inform us that Yaakov was victorious that night against not less the “yetzer hora”-the negative inclination. Another name for that opposing force in Hebrew is Satan. The name Satan when spelled out numerically (Sin-300+Tes-9+Nun-50) equals 359. It is a curious fact that Yaakov (182) plus Satan (359) together add up to Yisrael (Yud-10+Sin-300+Reish-200+Aleph-1+Lamed-30=541). What are we to make of this discovery, not my own?

The sages offer a curious comment on the verse, “And G-d saw all he created and behold it was very good!” (Breishis 1:31) Why did everything suddenly improve from good to “very good”?

The simple answer, we would think of, is that after all the good quality ingredients are harmoniously blended together a new synergistic whole that is greater than the sum of its parts emerges and that is what is “very good”. Our sages say, “Very good! This is the evil inclination!” Whoa! What a shocker! What does that mean? Let us try two approaches.

1)It could be that as Reb Tzadok HaKohen wrote that wherever we struggle the most, wherever the Yezter Hora has invested so much energy, there in that spot, is the where our greatest potential lies. If we would peak into the Kremlin during the cold war and observe that they have a thousand warheads aimed at some benign location on the plains of Kansas where there sits an elderly man on his front porch smoking a corncob pipe and rocking in his chair while his old hound Boo slumbers, we may wonder, “What’s he got in that pipe?” However, when we dig a few stories beneath the surface we discover America has a secret silo with thousands of weapons pointed at strategic locations in Russia.

It’s not unusual that in the overcoming of a given difficulty a person can make his greatest achievements. I know of a man of with a great record of helping people that testified that he has a cruel streak and in curing himself from that tendency he found the milk of human kindliness buried beneath the shale of his callous nature.

2) Imagine that the Israeli army has chased the Syrian army to the Golan and their soldiers have abandoned their tanks as they scramble back to Damascus. Would the Israeli army just leave all that valuable equipment there? No! They would incorporate them into their own arsenal.

So too Yaakov was not going to send away his negative inclination in defeat. He was now ready to subjugate and sublimate all worldly forces in the service of HASHEM. This signals a grand expansion of potential for Yaakov, and such a major merger calls for a new name. With the surrendered weapons of the Yeter Hora in his employment the promise for Israel is no longer a life of mild goodness. However good it is, it’s not good enough.

Thanks From Leah Larson – the 100,000 Winner of the Wells Fargo Contest

Leah Larson shows her gratitude on her Yaldah Magazine site.

Thank You!
I’m happy to announce that YALDAH is the Grand Prize Winner of Wells Fargo’s Someday Stories Contest!!

This past Shabbos, my school went on a Shabbaton in a hotel. Right after Shabbos I called my mother to check if she’d heard any news from Wells Fargo. She told me she got an e-mail that we won! My whole school was screaming behind me and hugging me, so I couldn’t hear anything else she was saying! Here’s a photo of me about a minute after I got the news (thank you Elisheva Eisenberg for having your camera ready!)

Now for the thank you’s! So many people helped spread the word. I’d love to mention everyone, but since we got 28,880 votes that’s not possible. So here are just a few, and if I missed out anyone, please know that I am extremely grateful.

First of all, thank you to Hashem. As much as we try to do our part down here, we know that all blessings come from Hashem. I look forward to using the money to encourage more girls to come closer to Hashem and the Torah.

Thank you to my parents, who encouraged me from a young age to go for my dreams. A huge thank you to my mother for entering the contest and for the hours upon hours she spent spreading the word about voting. Thank you to my siblings and all my relatives for your support and for spreading the word as well.

Of course, a huge thank you to Wells Fargo for sponsoring this wonderful contest!

Enormous thanks to Carolyn Lanzkron of who headed our publicity campaign along with Don Martelli of MS&L. Carolyn was able to use her connections with bloggers and social media, together with many hours spent and lots of hard work to spread the word.

Thank you to the entire Bais Chomesh High School for spreading the word and for all your support!

Thank you to the YALDAH staff for spreading the word and for everything you do for YALDAH! We can’t do it without you!

Thank you to the following blogs, websites, organizations, and newsletters, who posted announcements about voting:

visit Leah’s site for the list.

Stumbling Blocks

By David Bogner

One of the most significant stumbling blocks standing in the path of a Jew who is toying with the idea of becoming more religiously observant is embarrassment. Or more correctly, the fear of embarrassment.

You see, when viewed from the outside (i.e. from a Ba’al T’shuvah-eye view), religious communities and their intricate customs and institutions look suspiciously like a huge minefield filled with endless opportunities to stumble and humiliate oneself.

On one of my first trips to a synagogue after my decision to explore becoming more observant, I was offered an ‘honor’ during the service… which I quickly declined. Someone sitting nearby who correctly guessed the reason I’d refused the honor, tried to put me at ease by sharing the following joke that perfectly sums up a Ba’al’ Tshuvah’s deepest fears:
Read more Stumbling Blocks

How Should We Relate to a Relatives Non-Jewish Spouse?

A friend of mine, an FFB Ben Torah, received this letter from his estranged intermarried niece as a response, to a family wedding invitation. His sister an avowed atheist who has since passed on; isolated herself from the family well over 50 years ago and raised her children as atheists.

The letter which is pretty self explanatory basically poses the classic challenge of “How are you going to accept my (non-Jewish) spouse?”; within the framework of the background of “my mother estranged herself from yiddishkeit but I grew up this way and is there any way for us to have common ground”. This is another twist on the timeless issue of how to deal with intermarried relatives, but when neither side has changed or forfeited their original lifestyle

Any ideas for a response or an approach?

– R’ Reuven

Here is the letter:


It has been a long time since you have heard from me so I have decided to share some of my thoughts with you so you would better understand what is behind that silence. I have felt confused about how to handle a relationship with you knowing we live in different worlds though we come from the same family. There is much you do not know or understand about my world and life and the same can be said about my dim knowledge about your life. I do however appreciate your reaching out and making some efforts to see me. I was curious to meet you and anxious to learn more about my mother’s years with a family destiny has cut me off from knowing. I wanted desperately to understand my own mother better since there was so much about her past she did not talk about or share with me. But there was a serious problem with our meetings we never addressed. How come we could not meet in my home where you could meet my husband who was made to feel left out of the picture as if he did not exist? I do not wish to exclude him from any future contact I would have with my family which has caused me to distance myself from you.

Last year I received an invitation to a wedding in your family and I was very pleased at the thought of meeting the family and being invited. There was something holding me back from feeling comfortable with the invitation. There was no mention of my husband. Was he also invited, would he have been welcome?

I do not foresee the possibility of close relations between us because of the complexity of the past and the differences in our lifestyles and life choices. However, some degree of communication could be possible, even desirable, if there would be some acknowledgement of the fact that my husband is part of the family dynamic. His exclusion is unnatural and hurtful to both of us. I know my mother left this world with many things unresolved in relation to her family and her tangled past. But I also know there were many painful things she could not talk about openly that bothered her, and one of them was how to resolve or bridge the rift between the family she was born into and the family she created and raised. I have no doubts that if we could find some way of overcoming these obstacles she would have been very pleased, especially since it was something she could never find a way of accomplishing in her own lifetime.

This letter is meant as a friendly gesture, a means of conveying what is on my mind and a chance for you to think about how you wish to handle our relationship. It is important to me that any relationship we might have include both me and my husband, for that is the family I belong to. You and your wife are welcome to visit us in our home in ……. where we have been living the last few years since our retirement.


I hope your family is well and that you are in good health.


Panim Al Panim – The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Facebook

I have, it seems, made my mark on Facebook, which is poised to become the world’s leading online social networking medium. Without going in for the adolescent (and worse) “applications” that people are constantly cooking up, I’ve managed to combine the RSS feeds of my two blogs, and my sensibilities for nostalgia, multimedia, self-promotion and wisecracking, plus a semi-plausable rationale — I’m trying to raise the profile of my strongly Internet-oriented law practice — into a pretty sizable “following.” I’ve met a lot of people from all around the world, Jewish and gentile, reconnected with innumerable friends I was certain I would never hear from again, and unquestionably opened up a number of opportunities that could bear fruit in the medium run. As I said, I’ve made my mark on Facebook.

But what kind of mark has Facebook made on me?

There are so many issues that arise from the point of view of Jewish sensibility that almost any one of them is worthy of a separate essay. I hope these bullet points, however, will stimulate constructive discussion… and not merely more lookups of my Facebook profile.

* The forgotten past: BT’s are always struggling with the issue of whether to bury the past, and if so how deeply. Facebook certainly brings this concern into “real time.” My observation is that, on the whole, this aspect of the Facebook experience — people from my past reemerging — has been very positive for me. Many of our ideas of what we’ve left behind, and whom we left behind, are based on rose-colored projections that are themselves premised on inaccurate or wishful recollection of the real past. Without going too far into it or getting too personal, what I see of the lives of people with whom I haven’t been in touch for 20, 30 or sometimes even more years, via their Facebook profiles, is that I haven’t missed all that much, in any sense of the word.

* A world of respect: New friends I’ve made on Facebook, who quickly are able to ascertain from my profile and my ongoing contributions to it (via blog feeds, photographs, “status” updates and the like) that I am orthodox, express great respect for my way of life. Naturally those who are put off by it don’t become friends. I believe this does result in a Kiddush Hashem. I regret that I can’t magnify this effect by posting family pictures, which as a rule I will not do on an open Internet site. On the whole I believe this is an overall positive result.

* Drawing near of hearts: We Jews have a concept that we are supposed to beware of k’rivas hadaas — an inappropriate “drawing near” of emotions between men and women who should not have intimate relationships. It is well known, and has been discussed here often, how the Internet has, in many contexts, caused many people who otherwise would not have inappropriate relationships with members of the opposite sex in “real life” to drop their usual guard and to become ensnared in unfortunate situations. Oddly enough, there is something about Facebook, at least in my experience, that seems to militate against this. It may be that there is, as a rule, less anonymity on Facebook than in the old chat rooms or on instant messenger; people are mainly there to project their personalities on some level, not to hide them. There also ground rules and a person can be kicked off. At least as a middle-aged adult interacting entirely with other adults, I have found this not to be a problem.

* Whither dignity?: On the other hand, there is no question that, just as in the real world, there is a much lower standard of personal dignity, especially as it relates to “modesty,” on the Internet and on Facebook than there is in our frum communities. There is no particular reason I have any interest in interacting with people who are much younger than I am (who are typically the least dignified in this respect) or whose standards of behavior is not in line with what I would typically expect to experience in an environment in which I would ideally operate. But there is little question that if only by virtue of friends of friends or other incidental interactions, that on Facebook I am — just as I do in real life — interacting with people who hold themselves to a lower standard of dignity than is ideal.

* The other side: And that brings me back to a point related to my first one. The more I am exposed to what’s out there, whether it is among my former friends, associates and classmates who “look me up” or vice versa or among new people that I meet, the better I feel — by far — about the decision I have made about how to live my life. I cannot stress how much more valuable this is to me than the finger-pointing homilies in frum literature, periodicals and classrooms about the emptiness of gentile or non-frum Jewish lives. I see people whose lives are pathetic or sad, yes. I encounter a very distressing number of photographs of people of both sexes in their twenties, not life’s losers but professionals and prospective professionals, who are comfortable posing with alcoholic beverages hoisted in the air, as if life were just one drunken binge. This could go into the “dignity” point above, and it is a sad thing to see. But I also see people with rich, full, interesting and accomplished lives, professionally and, by all indications, personally, and nothing — not a thing — makes me want to switch places with them. The overall effect for me is one of chizuk, reinforcement.

The greatest reward from Facebook of all, for me, is the opportunity to connect, communicate and commune, on whatever level, with more and more people who are interested in ideas, in life, in each other just because of who we are. Ultimately I spend more time on Facebook than I should, and I have resolved to spend less, simply as a matter of prioritizing how time is spent in life by a Jewish person. In fact, if I had no career rationale for it at all, I may be hard pressed to justify it in any event. On the other hand, online social networking is probably one example of a mode of human social — and business — interaction that will get more, not less, important in the coming years. Face it.

Contributor Ron Coleman’s blogs are LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION®, about trademark, copyright, Internet and free speech law, and Likelihood of Success, about everything else.

Live at the Aish Conference

I’m here at the Aish Conference in Stamford. It’s a tremendous inspiration to be with hundreds of inspired Baalei Teshuva. The conference theme is “YOU CAN make a difference”.

We got here late last night, so we missed the opening session. Rabbi Yitz Greenman lead a discussion on The Greatest Problems Facing the Jewish People. At the end of the session, Rabbi Greenman reduced the 20 problems raised by the participants to primarily 2 – lack of proper Jewish Education and lack of enough leaders. Steve Mantz was at the talk and he gave a nice plug for Beyond BT and the discussion we had on the subject.

Lori Palatnik gave an amazing talk on “Why I Donated a Kidney to Someone I Didn’t Know”. She is an amazing speaker and she showed the tremendous power of giving, on others and ourselves.

Rabbi Eric Coopersmith is talking about steps of learning, listen carefully (plowing), understand the support of what is being said (seeding), make a judgment whether the teaching is true (harvest) and understanding the implication of what was learned (eating).

Parshas Vayeitzei — Bringing the Well into the City

And [Yaakov] saw that there was a well in the field. Three flocks of sheep were there lying beside it, since it was from this well that the flocks were watered, and a great stone [blocked] the mouth of the well (Bereishis 29:2).

This is how the Torah describes Yaakov’s arrival at the house of Lavan, his uncle, after fleeing from his wicked brother, Eisav, and beginning his search for a wife. Curiously, when Eliezer, servant of Yaakov’s grandfather Avrohom, arrived at the same place a generation earlier, the Torah describes the location of the well not “in the field” but ”at the edge of the city” (Bereishis 24:11).

This seeming inconsistancy provides the basis for an enigmatic debate recorded in the Talmud (Bechoros 8b):

The Elders of Athens said to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah, “We have a well out in the fields; bring it into the city.”

Rabbi Yehoshua took chaff and threw it before them, saying, “Make me a rope out of chaff and I will bring it in.”

They asked, “Who can make a rope out of chaff?”

He replied, “Then who can bring a well from the field into the city?”

Last week, we explained that the Torah employs the imagery of a well – the source of water, which is the basis of physical life – as a symbol for Torah itself, which is the source of spiritual life.

The Malbim explains that when peace and a sense of unity exist among the Jewish people, when they live in the Land of Israel with the Divine Word guiding their actions and their attitudes, then the “well” of Torah is “in the city,” providing the people with security and their settlements with prosperity.

However, when our spiritual negligence and complacency cause us to be exiled from our land and subjected to the uncertainty and unpredictability of life among the nations of the earth, when we have to struggle against all manner of obstacles to keep G-d’s word and His commandments central in our lives, then the well of Torah is “in the field.”

This was the assertion of the Elders of Athens, the scholars of the Roman Empire who based their wisdom on the teachings of the ancient Greeks: If you Jews are divided against one another, if you yourselves recognize sinas chinom, the senseless hatred among you, as the cause of your exile, then how can you ever expect to earn your redemption? How can you believe that the well “in the field” will ever become transformed into a well “in the city?”

Rabbi Yehoshua’ s answer finds its meaning in the continuation of the Torah narrative:

And all the flocks would gather there, and they would roll away the stone from the mouth of the well and allow the flocks to drink, and then they would return the stone to its place over the mouth of the well (Bereishis 29:2).

To bring the well from the “field” into the “city” requires a spiritual “rope” to bind the future with the past. The Malbim explains that the three flocks represent the three eras of Jewish exile, each imposing upon the people the challenges and crises. Only by working together to overcome these challenges will the people achieve a level of unity to become worthy of redemption and acquiring the merit to build HaShem’s Temple so that the Divine Presence can dwell in their midst.

In the course of the first two exiles, the collective merit of a unified Jewish nation ultimately ”rolled away the stone” of temptation and transgression, allowing the waters of spirituality to flow free and revive a spiritually thirsty people. And each time, prosperity encouraged the people to stray after the inclinations of the hearts, so that the stone of self-indulgence and self-interest rolled back to its place and drove the people back into the parched desert of exile.

The first era was galus Mitzrayim, the exile in Egypt, which forged the people into a nation and culminated in their entry into the land and their ultimate construction of the first Beis HaMikdash. Tragically, without the external pressure provided by enemies around them, their commitment to one another dissolved and, over time, led to the erosion of their collective merit and their exile to Babylon.

Thus began the second era, in which the Jews gradually earned back the privilege of living in their land, rebuilding the Temple, and regaining political autonomy in the aftermath of the miracle of Chanukah. But infighting among the descendants of the Hasmoneans eventually led to the disintegration of political stability, the conquest by the Roman Empire, and the destruction of the second Temple.

Out of the ruins of the Roman Empire grew Western Civilization, the final exile of Jewish history, in which the twin attractions of material prosperity and cultural assimilation have exceeded all the obstacles to spirituality that have confronted the Jews throughout all previous ages. And once again, the divisiveness that traces its roots back to the senseless hatred of 2000 years ago stands in the way of bringing the well of Torah and spiritual redemption from the “field” into the “city.”

Scattered like chaff, the Jewish people will remain in exile until, by bonding together in unity, they form the “rope” that connects them back to their origins as a cohesive people. When that happens, Rabbi Yehoshua told the Elders, when the “chaff” of disunity becomes a “rope” of redemption, then the Jewish people will find their way home.

But how is that possible? the Elders asked. Just as chaff cannot make a rope, disaffected and disparate individuals cannot form a people.

That may be true, answered Rabbi Yehoshua. But the image of chaff only describes the Jewish people in the most simplistic and superficial way. We may appear cut off from one another, but we share the collective soul of the Almighty’s chosen people. The more we become distant from one another, the more we yearn to return to our common roots. As the exile grows darker and deeper, we come closer to the time when the very depths of our spiritual darkness will compel us to pull together, thereby pulling ourselves forward into the light of the messianic era.

Rabbi Goldson writes at Torah Ideals

Under the Black Hat: A Bar Mitzva Celebration

There was a bar mitzva in shul a few weeks ago. As is the custom, upon hearing the bar mitzva boy’s blessing over the Torah, the girls in shul, leaning over the mechitza, rifled – more like uzi-machine-gunned – toffees towards the bima. ‘Ouch’! – a little sister’s revenge – a strawberry toffee right in the bar mitzva boy’s face! Meanwhile, the rugby-scrum scramble for candy: there was such an excess of it – the frenzied stuffing of booty into plastic bags – that more than one of the older boys offered toffees to their dejected younger brothers. As order was restored, and the congregation prepared for the musaf prayer, I watched one of the older boys – also already bar mitzva, you could tell from his hat – working through a private dilemma: his bag of toffees was overflowing – too big for his pocket and too unwieldy to balance on the shtender in front of him. With the chazan intoning the kaddish directly preceding musaf, I watched the boy’s ‘eureka’ moment: he lifted his hat and plunked the bag of toffees on his head. By the time the congregation answered ‘amen,’ the boy’s hat was back in place, and he was shuckling away.

When a boy reaches bar mitzva, he becomes a bar da’as – a person of sound mind, responsible for his actions. Our sages tell us, ‘just as their faces are not alike, so their da’as is not alike.’ Da’as loosely translates as knowledge, but also means opinion, intelligence or even way of thinking. But what is this way of thinking – as distinctive as a person’s face – that makes a person responsible for his actions?

Da’as is one of those words – Freud writes about them in his essay on the ‘Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words’ – that has different, sometimes even opposing, connotations. On the one side, da’as is an ability to make distinctions – that is, to see differences; on the other, da’as is the means to make connections. והאדם ידע את חוה – ‘And Adam knew Chava': through knowledge one achieves the closest kind of connection. But to know another person, there first has to be recognition of the separateness of that person. In the earliest stages of child-development, there is no real recognition of the other – just the expansive self, fulfilling his needs in relationship to a world whose independence he cannot yet fully recognize. Many of us know someone who seems still to inhabit (or at least wants to inhabit!) such a world; being an adult, however, means recognizing that the world is not just an extension of the self.

The power of da’as to join together is not, however, only shown in relationship to the outside world: a bar da’as distinguishes, orders and connects with different parts of his internal world as well. A bar da’as first distinguishes: there are some demands of the internal world which he will not heed. Metaphors abound to describe the agent producing desires to which a bar da’as must say ‘no': our sages call it the yetzer hara – or evil inclination; Freud calls it the id. But da’as contains its opposite as well: it is a means to distinguish, but is also a כח החיבור – a capacity to connect. A bar mitzva boy wears tefillin on his head and arm to show the connection between the realms of thought and action. Though we may know a precociously intelligent eleven year old, he is not a bar da’as – because he has not yet developed that capacity – da’as – to link thought to action [for those who like to note invidious gender distinctions: da’as is reached by a boy at 13, a girl at 12]. The prophet says, ‘on that day you shall know – וידעת היום – and rest it on your heart that G-d is One in the heavens above and the earth below.’ G-d’s unity is affirmed in the heavens, and then on earth: through da’as, the abstract ideal rests on the heart: da’as – knowledge of the heart – is an act of internalization, bringing the knowledge of Torah down to earth.

‘You shall love Hashem, your G-d with all of your heart’ – בכל לבבך. Hashem is the name of G-d as unknowable, ein sof – a G-d beyond comprehension. He becomes ‘your G-d’ – a personal and beloved God through love – the worship of the heart. Through the doubling of the letter bes – ב – in the word for ‘your heart’ לבבך, the Torah tells us that we should serve G-d with both our good and evil inclinations. It is not, therefore, a one-way street: da’as not only connects the upper to the lower world, but the lower to the upper world as well. Only on the sixth day of the creation does G-d behold His handiwork and call it ‘very good’ – טוב מאד. Not just good, as in the other days of creation, but very good, because on it, our sages tell us, the evil inclination was created – without which a man would not marry, establish a household or engage in creative activity. A person develops, opens himself up to unknown future possibilities, through harnessing all of the resources of his personality – both of his inclinations, all of his heart. One who is insensitive to the demands of his inner world risks becoming an external shell – ‘a frozen ego.’

The greatest form of individuality does not come through intellect alone, but though unifying upper and lower worlds, integrating parts of the soul. The tzadik – our sages tell us – brings together heavens and earth; he does so through the powers of da’as. This is what makes a person an individual: ‘just like their faces are different, so is their da’as.’ The face is where the soul shows itself in the body; da’as is that internal link between body and soul. My da’as is as distinctive as my face, the point where my energies and desires engage with the ideal image of who I want to be – my way of bringing the Torah down to earth. It’s the work of a lifetime, starting with bar mitzva – for one thirteen year old, standing in prayer before G-d, a bag of toffees tucked safely under his hat.

Bill Kolbrenner blogs at

How Can I Prevent Cremation?

I have been frum for 31 yrs. My parents are in their 70’s. They informed me when my grandmother passed away that they have prepaid for their cremation and that it is irrevocable. (By the way my grandmother who died at age 100 1/2 had prepaid for a real leviah with tahara and burial, even though she was not religious.)

My husband and I and my sister and niece were the attendants at the leviah and my husband the Rabbi. (my mother who has been unwell could not attend). I have broached the subject a few times with my parents, who are not open to seeing another view point.

HELP! I need advice as to how to deal with this, wanting the end result to be a proper burial and not cremation when their time comes, after 120 yrs. Due to their young age at this time, I don’t want to be premature in bothering them about this as it could ruin our relationship. We are not really close but do have a respectful cordial relationship, I visit once a yr and send pictures of the great grand kids, which gives them nachas.

Any strategies or suggestions mush appreciated.