Pesach – What’s Your Focus?

What topics do you focus on for yourself and your family at the Pesach Seder?

Do you think it is better to have a narrower focus or to discuss and think about many topics?


Thankfulness to Hashem

Emunah (Faith)

Bitachon (Trust in Hashem)

Hashgacha Pratis (Divine Providence)

Praise of Hashem

Mitzvos of the Evening

Feeling as if you Left Mitzraim

Other things

A Better Jew, A Better You

It’s a great mitzvah to help any Jew come closer to Hashem. Perhaps we need to focus a little on helping ourselves come closer. If we could consciously and mindfully make a collective effort to become better Jews, perhaps we can have a sizable impact on ourselves and the world around us.

If we take simple, achievable steps that do not require any additional time commitments, we can collectively improve our service and become the better Jews we all want to be.

Here are four simple, practical steps we propose to work on once a week:

1) Think about Hashem – internalize the fact that He created the world with the purpose of us getting closer to Him and committing yourself to that purpose.

2) Improve an Interpersonal Communication – when approaching a friend, relative or stranger, think about how you can learn from that person or how you can do something for, that person. The “doing” can consist of honestly asking how things are going, giving a compliment or offering some piece of helpful information or advice.

3) Do a Mitzvah With Kavanna – When doing a mitzvah (kiddush, Shabbos meal, tefillin, bentching, …), think about the fact that Hashem commanded this mitzvah and that you are fulfilling His command with the action you are performing.

4) Stand Before Hashem When Davening – When starting Shomoneh Esrai, focus on the fact that you are standing before Hashem and praying to Him.

Let’s do this as a group. Anybody can join.

Email us at to join the group and receive a twice weekly reminder. We’ll take a look at how we’re doing in a few weeks.

If you like the idea and want to help, please link to this post. Thanks.

Baruch Dayan Emes – HaRav Elya Svei Zt”l

HaRav Elya Svei Zt”l, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Philadelphia Yeshiva was niftar yesterday. The levaya took place today in the Yeshiva and the aron was transported to Eretz Yisroel. The Rosh Yeshiva was a great leader in Klal Yisroel and a pioneer in expanding advanced Torah learning beyond the immediate vicinity of New York City.

May his zechusim protect us.

The Unfinished Project

It is not uncommon for the following exchange to take place on BBT:

Dear Beyond BT,

I have a great project which will help a certain segment of the Jewish People.

– Gary Ideaguy


Dear Gary,

It’s a great idea. Please send us a short writeup and we’ll be glad to post it with a link to you’re site.

-Beyond BT


We star the email in Gmail and quite often we never here from the person again. What happened?

According to the Baalei Mussar, our excitement often dissipates when we talk about an idea, perhaps because the talking is some small aspect of doing. In fact one Torah Great would sometimes hold an idea for years until he would share it so that its effect would remain in effect longer.

So the next time you have an idea, please send us the three paragraphs when you email us. There’s a good chance we’ll post it and you will have at least taken a few more steps.

How to Learn Hebrew: A Guide for Ba’al Teshuvahs who Can’t get to Yeshivah

By Ari Mendelson

For many a Ba’al Teshuvah, the classic works of Jewish thought are a sealed book. From time immemorial, the international languages of Jewish scholarship have been Hebrew, Aramaic, and a Hebrew/Aramaic blend. However, few Jews who grew up outside of Orthodoxy or outside of Israel have had the opportunity to learn these languages in their youth from a teacher.

Many who come to Judaism later in life, thinking that they are neither young enough nor smart enough, do not even try to learn the language. Others have tried repeatedly, but failed in their quest to learn Hebrew. I finally succeeded in learning Hebrew on my fourth or fifth try (I lost count). And I learned it well enough to read and understand Shulchan Aruch, Mishnah Berurah, Mishnayos, and even Gemara with the Rashi and Tosafos! And I did it all on my own without professional instruction in a Yeshivah. And I did it without a genius IQ, just good technique and persistence.

Learning any foreign language is a tall order for any adult, especially one who is not in a place in which he can immerse himself in the language. With proper technique and persistence it is within reach of nearly anybody. With this article, I will instruct the reader in the most efficient techniques to master the language of our sages. All the reader need supply is the persistent effort to make the techniques pay off.

I will begin with the assumption that the reader can recognize nothing more than the various Hebrew letters, and proceed to outline the steps necessary to get from that point to the mastery of enough Hebrew to learn the classic Rabbinic texts without a translation. I will further assume that the reader, for one reason or another, cannot, take the time off to learn Hebrew in an Orthodox Yeshiva, as I myself was, unfortunately, never able to do.

What you will need

# A basic list of Hebrew Vocabulary (one which contains a couple of hundred of the most common Hebrew words).
# A siddur
# The “Learn Hebrew” program from Rabbi Shalom Gold available at
# The Super-Memo computer program available at
# The five volume Ruben Alcaldi Hebrew-English Dictionary.
# Practical Talmudic Dictionary by Yitzhak Frank
# Siyata L’Gemara (Aiding Talmud Study) by Aryeh Carmell
# Ezra Melamed’s dictionary of Talmudic Aramaic.

If you are serious about learning Hebrew, you will need to invest some money as well as your time. The above materials are carefully chosen to give you the most bang for your buck, so to speak.

Stage 1

Learning to read Hebrew well enough to say the prayers in Hebrew even without comprehension

So, you can recognize the Hebrew letters. You know what each letter’s name is, and what sound it makes. You can also recognize all of the vowels. Trouble is, that you can hardly sound out the words. As a result, you say your daily prayers in English. You want to be able to say them in Hebrew. But the thought of spending two hours sounding out the words of one prayer inspires nothing but dread.

The good news is that, with proper technique and persistence, you will be saying all of your prayers in Hebrew within six months. There are four things you must do.

First of all, DO NOT SOUND OUT THE WORDS out loud. Sound out the words in your head. Once you can say the word in its entirety in your head then you should say the entire word out loud
. This will be of great help in remembering the word for the future. After all, which would be easier: to remember four things such as “Miss” and “Siss” and “Sip” and “EE” or to remember one thing “Mississippi.” Same goes for Hebrew words. If you constantly sound out the words, but never actually say the entire word, it will be harder to remember the words you said when you say them again tomorrow.

Second, take the process slowly. Tomorrow morning when you do the Shema or the Amida in Shacharis, say the first line, and only the first line in Hebrew. Do the remainder of the prayer in English. When this becomes easy, then move on to the second line. When this is easy, move on to the third, and so on. The prayers are finite. Eventually you will be able to say the whole thing in Hebrew, and rather easily. I did this myself in my early twenties, and was able to completely say all of the prayers in Hebrew within three months. I also taught several people this technique, and they reported similar results.

The third thing is to do this every day. Remember, only persistence will pay the dividends.

The fourth thing is to listen to others speaking Hebrew. I benefited greatly from listening to the lectures of the late Rabbi Isaac Bernstein. He switches back and forth from English to Hebrew constantly (and doesn’t always translate his Hebrew) but his lectures are very interesting and you will learn a lot while you learn what the Hebrew language sounds like when it is spoken with the Ashkenazic pronunciation. See: If you want to learn to pronounce as the Sephardim do, check out this site:

Stage Two

Building Basic Vocabulary

One major advantage to saying your prayers in Hebrew is that you will constantly see the same words over and over. If you look over to the translation, you will soon be able to recognize a few words and know what they mean. Getting a basic vocabulary list of biblical Hebrew will help you learn even more. If you learn only a few hundred of the most common words, you will soon be able to understand most of the words on any given page of written Hebrew. To learn the REST of the words will take persistence effort and technique.

Step Three

Mastering the Grammar

In the twelve and a half years that I have been interested in learning Hebrew, I have purchased several books that offered to teach Hebrew. None of them helped much at all. The only source I have ever found that teaches Hebrew grammar in a way that I was able to understand it and master it was the video program produced by Pirchei Shoshanim available at It teaches everything from the grammar of the “nekudos” (the Hebrew “vowels”) to the construction of words from three letter roots.

Step Four

Getting the feel for how the language is used

If you want to learn to understand the Hebrew you read, you must read Hebrew. Do so frequently. Of course, you will, at first, need to read only things that have been translated into English. Read the Hebrew. Then read the English. Try to figure out which words in Hebrew are equivalent to the words in the English translation. You will soon get a feel for how the language is used.

Step Five

Mastering Advanced Vocabulary

As I said earlier, I would estimate that only a few hundred words are enough to understand about half of the words on any given page of written Hebrew. The other half of those words on that page come from a much larger pool of vocabulary. You will have to learn a whole lot more words to master those.

The way to find words for your vocabulary lists is to read Hebrew, and look up the words that you don’t understand immediately. Mark those words down. I will tell you what to do with them later. But this is how you will collect all the words you need to truly master Hebrew.

Of course, there is a big problem with trying to look up words that you find in a written text of Hebrew. If you look up the precise sequence of letters that you found in the text, you may not actually be able to find it. You see, the Hebrew language is based on the expansion of three letter roots into various forms. The root functions as a basic kernel of meaning. By expanding the word, one can make that kernel mean a wide variety of things. One can make the word into a verb a noun, or an adjective just by adding prefixes, suffixes and infixes, and by adding vowels in various ways. You must figure out what that three-letter root is. Sometimes, the three letters of the root do not appear in the word you actually see before you. This is because some Hebrew words drop or switch letters from their root. Rabbi Gold’s videos will help you make sense of this.

When you finally figure out the three-letter root, enter that root into your vocabulary lists. You will likely also have to enter several of the nouns, verbs and adjectives that are associated with that root. In Reuben Alkaldi’s dictionary of Hebrew, there are long lists of words that are associated with the root word. You may find some important vocabulary in those lists.

And that’s just the beginning. Hebrew roots may convey a basic kernel of meaning, but that same three-letter sequence may have quite a few different meanings. You must remember them all if you truly want to master Hebrew. With patience and good technique, you will learn them all.

The most powerful tool I have ever used to master large volumes of vocabulary is a program produced in Poland called Super Memo, which is available at I cannot recommend the program highly enough. If there ever was a secret to the success that I have had in learning Hebrew, this program was it. I will teach you to use the program to maximum efficiency.

The way that Super-Memo works is that people forget material in a predictable way. If you review the material too often, you will waste your time. If you don’t review the material often enough, you will forget everything. Super-Memo keeps track of when you reviewed your vocabulary last, and how well you did on each word. It then quizzes you on the right words at the right time to make the most efficient use of your time. For more details see:

Here’s the best way to use Super-Memo to learn Hebrew.

First of all, you should learn how to convert your keyboard to one on which can type in Hebrew. You can do this by making a few changes in Windows (in the “Regional and Language Settings”). Print up a diagram of the Israeli keyboard, and learn to touch-type with it. Don’t hunt and peck, but touch-type. Your investment of effort in learning to touch-type in Hebrew will save you quite a bit of time in entering your vocabulary into Super-Memo. It is a bit of a hassle switching back and forth from Hebrew to English Keyboards, but it’s a small price to pay to learn to read G-d’s Torah. I found that it is easiest to read the display if the font size is enlarged to twenty-point font, but preferences on this are sure to vary.

Second, you put in all of the definitions of a particular root into the program in the “answer” section.

Third, you will need to learn how the different words are used. In both Alcaldi’s dictionary and Rabbi Frank’s dictionary, example sentences from the Tanach or the Talmud are often provided which contain the word you have looked up. I usually enter that sentence into Super-Memo with the translation of that sentence as the answer. By so doing, I get to see the word I’m trying to learn more times as the program quizzes me, and I get to see how the word is used. Both of these factors help to master the vocabulary. Also, if a particular word has many definitions, an example of the word used in each meaning is very helpful in remembering all of those pesky definitions.

I would recommend that anybody interested in learning Talmud or other rabbinic writings enter every vocabulary word presented in Carmell’s “Aiding Talmud Study” and Perlmutter’s “Tools for Tosafos” as well as every abbreviation. Abbreviations are quite important in reading many Rabbinic texts. You will know an abbreviation when you see it. They contain a single quotation mark somewhere within the letters.

I would recommend entering all of this information, but I would recommend that you take your time and absorb what you are trying to learn before putting in the thousands of words and definitions that you will need to truly master the language. Enthusiasm and persistence are important, but patience is as well.

The last tip I have is to enter mnemonics in the answer section. As I previously explained, Hebrew words are based on three letter roots, which are converted into other grammatical forms. Trouble is that many of those three letter roots differ only slightly from other, totally different, meanings. It is helpful to come up with mnemonics to remember which definition is which. And it is best to write those mnemonics in the answer section of the Super-Memo program so that you can use the mnemonic to remind you of how to think if you get the word wrong in your study session.

Now you know exactly how you can go from novice levels to fluency. Let’s just see how far you can push your knowledge and proficiency. I bet it’s farther than you ever dreamed possible.

What’s the real BT Impact to the Religious Jewish World?

by Reb Akiva from Mystical Paths

One often wonders, what’s the real BT impact to the religious Jewish world? After all, most of our vaunted institutions are run by rosh yeshvot with yichus (distinguished family heritage), and the institutions are often a generational family project. Similarly the big and famous rabbaim (rabbis), those giving the shiurim, heard on tape or DVD, often are big name “son-of” people. No difference if one enters the chassidic world, the Rebbe’s are all distinguished lineage back to the talmidim (students) of the Baal Shem Tov or the Maggid of Mezirich.

It’s enough to give a BT a complex. Kind of like (l’havdil) arriving at the court of a king, where all the advisers are dukes or barons or what not, and you’re just a guy (or gal). And we see this feeling in religious society as the older BT’s all go under cover. You never hear “oh that’s Rav Ploni (so-and-so), a BT”.

But I’m here to tell those not so far along the path, the impression is wrong. BT’s are spread throughout Jewish religious society, and not in small numbers. Religious schools are swelled with children of BT’s. Professionals throughout Jewish religious society are frequently BT’s. And even in Meah Shearim, perhaps the most closeted religious Jewish community, if one goes to the mens mikvah, one will be surprised at the number of older and old men with a tattoo (forbidden by Jewish law, and I’m not referring to a Holocaust number tattoo).

Some of our rosh yeshivot are BT’s from _their_ teens or twenties. Some of our rabbaim from before or after. Even a known tzaddik is a BT.

So while yes, religious Jewish society remains a bit wary of BT’s, the impact and influence of BT’s is there at all levels, as are the BT’s themselves. For there are no limits in Torah.

A Wholly Life


Dr. Moshe Kaplan

If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race… Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of… but he is as prominent on the planet as any other people… The Jew saw [the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans], beat them all, and is now what he always was… All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?

– Mark Twain

The Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from heaven the everlasting fire, and has illumined with it the entire world. He is the religious source, spring, and fountain out of which all the rest of the peoples have drawn their beliefs and their religions. The Jew is the pioneer of liberty. The Jew is the pioneer of civilization. The Jew is the emblem of eternity.

– Leo Tolstoy

The Jews have done more to civilize men than any other nation… They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth. The Romans and their empire were but a bubble in comparison to the Jews. They have given religion to three-quarters of the globe and have influenced the affairs of mankind more and more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern.

– John Adams
(second president of the United States)

The secret of the Jews’ immortality is our relationship with the Divine. We are each to sanctify ourselves and make ourselves holy – and by so doing be partners with God in building the world. This is the charge implied in the famous verse, “As for the heavens, the heavens are God’s, but the earth He has given to mankind” (Psalms 115).

Turnus Rufus the Wicked once asked Rabbi Akiva:

“Whose works are better, the works of God or the works of human beings?”

Rabbi Akiva answered, “The works of human beings…”

Rufus then asked him, “Why do you circumcise?”

Rabbi Akiva replied. “knew that you were asking about this. That is why I anticipated your question by saying that the works of human beings are better.”

Turnus Rufus objected, “But if God wanted man to be circumcised, why didn’t He arrange for boys to be born that way?”

Rabbi Alkiva answered, “Because the Holy One, Blessed is He, gave the commandments to Israel so we could be purified through theme (Midrash Tanchuman, Tazria 5)

God’s gift to humankind, created in the Divine image, is the existence of spirituality beyond physicality. Besides impurity and death there is also the possibility of purity and eternal life.

We have the power to overcome our physical impediment and imperfections. We can ennoble and sanctify our animal drives and instincts. By doing so, we perfect human nature and redeem an imperfect world, for the route to a life of sanctity requires making sacred the materialistic and mundane around us.

Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, zt”l, mashgiach of the Mir Yeshiva, explains:

Whereas all other living things are created essentially in a state of completion and need only to grow in size and mass, man is created as raw potential and must invest a great deal of effort to becomewhat he was meant to be. A human being’s goal is to strive toward perfection, knowing it can never be achieved. This is man’s mission.

God created the world to bestow His kindness upon us. This world is beautiful and magnificent, but it nevertheless needs completion and perfection. This is accomplished, first and foremost, by our strengthening our weaknesses, repairing our transgressions, and sublimating our drives to sanctify God’s creation. Each defect in the acts of individual people ultimately impacts on the entire universe.

We are given free moral choice, but we have responsibility. Just as a passenger in a boat cannot drill a hole under his seat and tell others to mind their own business, so we cannot say that our actions only affect us individually. We have an obligation to strive for wholeness, balancing and harmonizing our needs with the needs of our neighbors, friends, and loved ones – contradictions and all.

When a person enters the world he becomes a hired watchman for his body and soul and, as an adult, is responsible for all his behavior except for unusual events beyond his control. Fulfilling that responsibility by perfecting his behavior is what makes a person holy.

This is not a simple charge, nor is the best route to achieve it always obvious. However, many people have made the journey and can offer us their experience if we seek it. Some of those experiences are joyous, some trials, but all provide insight in how to achieve true sanctity rather than an illusion.

In our own lives, we must view our own joys and trials through the lens of trust in our Maker. We must understand that ultimately everything under His aegis (meaning absolutely everything!) is for the good – and use the experience with which He provides us to sanctify ourselves and the world. In so doing, we will accomplish much more than a private communion with God. Just as an organism only functions well when all its parts are whole and healthy, so does the world only function optimally when all its players act according to the Divine law. Playing by His rules will allow everyone’s goal to be achieved. Trying to “beat the system” will eventually run everyone into the ground.

Inasmuch as Jews were made a separate nation for the sole purpose of increasing God’s glory in the world (otherwise they could have been left in Egypt), any action that does no contribute toward that goal is misplaced. Not that Jews lack value as individuals, but their value is not that of an island, bu rather of a flower in a flower garden-beautiful by itself, be also part of the garden.

As an example, one who takes pleasure from the world without acknowledging the Creator properly is said to be stealing from both God and the Jewish people. By misusing the world, one distances God from His people, and thus essentially robs both of their relationship. For God is driven, so to speak, from a world that could have been holy. Thus, an individual who abandons his responsibilities as a member of the people that can make God’s presence manifest has done damage to the entire nation’s purpose for existence.

Judaism is not just a religion, it is a way of life. It is meant to be lived on the road, at work, at the gym, ball game, and table. Different people with their different strengths and weaknesses can more easily sanctify different aspects of life, but all are obligated to work toward holiness in every area. Judaism understands God to measure people by how hard they try, not by what they accomplish – but in spiritual matters all are obligated to try! Saintliness is not expected only of some “chosen few.” We must all aim for it, because we all have the potential to attain it in some measure.

Many religious systems disdain the physical and preach that the soul triumphs through denial. They believe that physical pleasure seduces a person away from spirituality. This is not the Jewish point of view. Used properly, the physical becomes an invaluable and indispensable aid in the acquisition of spiritual greatness. Our job is to take the worldly gifts that God gives us and elevate them to the heights of holiness – to combine the physical with the spiritual. Physical pleasure finds its place as a subject for gratitude to the One who created physical enjoyment. However, the misuse of physical pleasure has led to all of humanity’s struggles, suffering, and unrest. What is needed is the proper fusing of license and restraint, to elevate us and create harmony, serenity, gladness, and joy – holy goals.

Pleasure is holy and pure when it is measured, when the supervising intellect ensures against both excess and denial, and provides the proper intent. Overindulgence in any area of one’s physical life, even in the most kosher activity, becomes spiritually destructive. The challenge, then, is to free ourselves of the domination of selfish and self-destructive desires and make room for our longing for the Divine.

How are we to know the proper balance in matters of physical pleasure? For many, common sense is sufficient. For others, help can be found in the traditional sources, such as Rambam (Maimonides), or from a mentor. In any case, both excessive indulgence and excessive self-deprivation must be guarded against. We are called to account in Heaven, it is told, for those things we could have legitimately enjoyed and didn’t. The sages of the Talmud say it is no feat to remain pure by fasting and retiring from the world. The real accomplishment is to live in the world, doing what is permitted and avoiding what is prohibited. Judaism is not a life lived only for bold moments and heroic feats. Rather it values and nurtures the everyday details that bring one closer to God’s light.

So there is the challenge, given by God to those who choose to take it up. But it is not an even choice. On the one side is sanctity and life. On the other, spiritual death. Nor is it possible not to choose. Choosing not to move forward toward holiness inevitably pushes a person toward a wasteland of spiritual destruction.

Becoming an integrated, holy person requires sanctifying every aspect of one’s personal behavior using all of one’s God given abilities and resources. According to one’s success in this endeavor, so will he be judged, in this world and in Heaven. As it says in Avos (Ethics of Our Fathers):

Who has wisdom? He who learns from everyone.
Who has strength? He who conquers temptation.
Who has wealth? He who is content with his lot.
Who has honor? He who respects others.

In the end, one’s worth is determined by one’s character and spiritual achievements.

The Maharal explains that the years of a person’s life are like a spiral – we pass over the same ground each year, but move higher with each cycle. A wise person knows that life is a gift that can be utilized well or badly, and that it is never too late to change for the better. Every minute that we are alive there is hope.

As Avos (Ethics of Our Fathers) further states:

“You are not expected to complete your work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

It is my hope that this book will give you a start on the how and why of being God’s partner in the creation of the world and ourselves.

“Excerpt from “A Wholly Life” compiled by Moshe Kaplan, MD.
Click here to get this book for free – just $4.95 for U.S. shipping”

What is Torah Judaism? (in 500 words or less) – Volume #3

The answer to the question “What Is Judaism?” would be different for a student of comparative religion, a Sephardic resident of an Israeli development town, or someone who grew up in an assimilated Jewish family in America, just to give a few disparate examples. I will address the last one of these, because of course I have the most familiarity with his mindset.

Ethics are of fundamental interest to anyone who cares about anything, but the idea that there are no ethics for the Jew other than those that emanate from the Torah distinguishes Judaism from all that came before and all that comes after.

Judaism is, of course, objectively identifiable as an essential source of guidelines for ethical living. Because of the richness of Judaism’s intellectual tradition, and because that richness has the quality of being both ancient and in constant scholarly and practical agitation, Judaism is probably the best developed system of ethics in the world in both its scope and its depth.

But while all that matters to every searching person, every person of conscience, it is not the heart of Judaism. It is necessary but not sufficient. Rather, the central concept is that while our ethics, as well as our laws regarding how people interact with each other even in non-ethical spheres, are completely open to intellectual probing, challenge and debate, they are absolute. They are based on the Torah given at Mt. Sinai, which we can only understand through the received tradition.

That is why between each chapter of Pirkei Avos we find the recitation, “Moshe received the Torah at Sinai, etc.”: It reminds us that although we are talking about ethics, regarding which everyone feels qualified to opine, ultimately all our hypotheses, speculations and gut feelings bow to the revealed truth of Torah.

One fundamental corollary of this double-barreled premise – that Truth only comes via Torah, which only comes via Mesorah [“received tradition“] – is that the Truth may conflict with our personal sensibilities, which non-Jewish culture teaches should be supreme.

But our idea of what is right and true and good is necessarily flawed. We are imperfect because of our distance from God, which is axiomatic in being creatures of flesh and blood. We cannot know and understand all, and our capacities for reasoning, empathy, objectivity and foresight are only human. Even at our best, we are tainted by a lifetime of interaction with other imperfect creatures and their ideas, most of whom do not acknowledge the Truth of Torah at all.

The bombshell corollary of this core concept is that not only ethics, but actions – all actions – are governed by the Truth of Torah. This not only separates Judaism from most world religions and moral systems, but presents a fundamental challenge to every possible concept of what my posited non-religious American Jew can have thought about his life, why it matters, and what he does with it. This Truth defines our relationship and responsibility to the rest of Creation. Now sit and learn!

Predictable Surprises: Post Purim Reflections

The story is told of a simple woman who attended synagogue regularly, and would weep each year when the story of Yosef and his brothers was read. Her behavior was so predictable that it became a bit of a synagogue joke. Those who sat near her would anticipate her cries each year when the story of Yosef being sold into slavery was read.

One year she did not cry.

Her fellow congregants were so surprised that after services they asked her why it was that every year she cried for Yosef, and this year she did not.

She replied in all sincerity, “If he is stupid enough to go to them again this year after what they did to him for the past ten years, then I’m not crying for him.”

This year on Purim, I had a sense of déjà vu as we read the Book of Esther. It seemed to me that there were no surprises- and it wasn’t just because I had heard the story before. You see, Haman, the wicked man, acted exactly as wicked people have acted in all generations. Mordechai, the Rabbi, acted exactly as Rabbis do, urging people to maintain high standards, and leading them in teshuva and renewal in times of crisis. Even Esther, the heroine of the story, acts in a most predictable fashion. In times of crisis- when her nation needs her help- she proceeds to do what needs to be done for the benefit of her people.

To the point that I began to wonder why the Book of Esther was recorded at all. After all, I couldn’t find a single extraordinary event in the entire story. Haman’s behavior, Mordechai’s behavior, and Esther’s behavior are most predictable. Even Achashveirosh, the king, gets swayed, first by one prime minister, then by another, in a most predictable fashion.

But I believe that therein lies the lesson of the Meggilah. Because, although the behavior of the characters was predictable, they still had free choice to do either good or bad. Haman could have chosen not to attempt genocide. Mordechai could have chosen to shirk his responsibility as a leader of the Jewish people, and Esther could easily have refused to cooperate with the plan of salvation. The actualization of what we could have predicted is the expression of free choice which is celebrated in the story of the Meggilah.

Often in life we experience the opportunity to actualize a predictable surprise. For example, if someone were to call you to be the tenth in a minyan for a neighbor who needs to say kaddish, your good natured response is fairly predictable. Likewise, if your sibling, who is responsible, needs a short term loan to avoid credit
card debt, and you have the money, we could anticipate your response with a fair degree of accuracy. Nevertheless, there is free choice, and when you actualize the predictable, it is still considered monumental.

The lesson of Purim is not in people acting in a way that is surprising. The behavior of the key characters is fairly predictable. The lessons of Purim are that there is evil in the world, that good people should do good things, and that when they do, G-d will intervene to orchestrate salvation.

With best wishes for a wonderful Shabbos,

Rabbi Mordechai Rhine
Young Israel of Cherry Hill
Torah Links of Cherry Hill

The Essence of Purim

I spent a lot of time a few years back trying to clarify the whys and hows of the mitzvah of Drinking on Purim. My Rav, Rabbi Welcher, feels that the main thrust of the mitzvah is to foster feelings of friendship and achdus in line with the other mitzvos of the day. However he states clearly that drinking to the point where somebody is out of control would be beyond the bounds of the halacha.

So in line with the theme of Achdus, this is probably a good time to give a Purim group hug. To realize that we are all on the same team and that includes people following a different derech and Rabbonim giving a different psak from the one we are following.

The biggest kindness we can do for somebody is helping them get closer to Hashem and that is our primary goal here at Beyond Teshuva. Hopefully, we all realize that we can use improvement in the areas of hearing, listening, understanding and communicating – essential skills in the process of spreading Kedusha.

Let us all rededicate ourselves to Jewish Achdus as we use the holiday of Purim for the purpose it was intended.

First published March 14, 2006

Should We Teach People That The Torah is the Best Worldly Tool?

When I was first becoming observant, one book that had a great effect on my thinking was Tradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism. It was written by a non-frum sociologist who immersed herself in two different communities of Baalei Teshuva to learn why they chose to become observant and in what ways they differed. She spent a few weeks studying at a Beis Chana Chabad Seminary for Baalos Teshuva and several weeks with the Lincoln Square Synagogue, a center for many modern orthodox Baalei Teshuva in Manhattan.

One of the major impressions that I had from this book, which, to me, reflected negatively on the modern orthodox approach to teaching Baalei Teshuva at Lincoln Square, was that their whole approach was completely this-world centered. They taught how Judaism and observance leads to a better life in this world. They showed people how being observant was healthier physically, emotionally and socially. They showed people how, if they became more observant, they could have better lives in this world. This was their main approach to outreach.

In contrast, the approach at the Chabad seminary was to encourage the women to grow in their committment to Yiddishkeit by focusing mostly on the spiritual side of it. They showed the people there how they could transcend this world and connect to G-d through keeping the Torah.

My impression was that the more “right wing” approach was to take a more direct route and actually focus on the real deal, which is that religion is supposed to bring a person closer to G-d, not merely a more “effective” life in this finite world.

However, I saw a very interesting Kedushas Levi in Parshas Vayishlach (5th piece) which speaks about this basic concept. He talks about two different stages in a person’s development. He says that when one is first beginning to get closer to G-d, the yetzer hara is very strong. The person is still so steeped in “this-world”, that they have no language or frame of reference for really focusing on the transcendent, which just doesn’t move the person at that stage because he just doesn’t speak that language yet. In order to grow in observance at that stage, a person can only fight their yetzer hara by focusing on all of the good things of this world that a person gets by keeping the Torah. In such a way, the yetzer hara is pacified and lays off a bit, and the person can grow.

But in “stage 2,” when a person is already davuk, cleaving to Hashem, then he should no longer focus on the good things of this world that the Torah will bring him. Rather, he should only focus on giving nachas ruach, pleasure to Hashem as his only motivation. At this stage, the nefesh haEloki, the G-dly soul, is so revealed that one does not need the crutch of focusing on the worldly benefits of Torah anymore to subjugate the yetzer hara. The lure of greater deveikus with Hashem and the ability to give Him nachas ruach through one’s avodah is incentive enough.

After seeing this piece in Kedushas Levi, I realized that both approaches, the Lincoln Square approach and the Chabad approach from that book are both necessary for different people, and for the same people in different stages of their development. I don’t actually know whether the teachers at Lincoln Squqre are actually aware of “Stage 2″ or not. I don’t know if they intended to help influence the members of their community to the more spiritual, G-d oriented, transcendent side of Yiddishkeit when they were ready or not. But the Kedushas Levi is teaching that this method should not be shunned. It is something necessary for each of us in the beginning stages of our avodah (which can often take a lifetime) and should be used without embarrassment because for those of us coming from a secular culture, the worldy benefits are the only ones which will speak to us until we learn how much more is out there.

I don’t think that only one or the other approaches are right. We have to know ourselves to discern which strategy to pursue when fighting our own yetzer haras and which is the right approach when teaching others. We have to know which language we and others understand and which we don’t. IY”H, we should all be zoche to take the right approach in our own inner work and when trying to be mashpiah in a positive and productive way on others.

Originally posted at Dixie Yid

Reaching Out to Co-Workers

I have been trying to do my part by engaging in a little non-professional kiruv. Nothing formal or pushy, something along the lines of working to encourage friends and associates to become more Jewishly involved and educated.

There are a number of Jews in my office included my boss, a number of co-workers and a number of people working under me. They are not religious but also not completely disinterested.

I was wondering what others think about encouraging them to become more Jewishly involved. Should I treat my boss and subordinates different then my co-workers.


It’s All in the Details

By Azriela Jaffe

The difference of just two words can make all the difference. I learned that today.

I’m the college professor of English, journalism, and public speaking for Yeshiva at IDT, a yeshiva program for bochurim who learn Gemara in the Beis Midrash in the morning, and earn a bachelor’s degree in the afternoon. I travel two days a week from my home in Highland Park to the IDT building in Newark, NJ, which is a 90-minute journey each way.

Since I don’t have a parking pass, and you have to wait till someone dies to get one (or you have a very good friend you can borrow one from), I park my car about a half-mile away from the station where it’s legal to park, and walk to the station, toting my overstuffed briefcase and dreaming of parking passes the whole way.

My good friend, Vicky Krief, works for IDT. She is the fortunate holder of the coveted parking pass, so she is able to park in the train station. If I’m lucky enough to be on the same train as her coming home from classes (which happens often), she gives me a lift to my parked car, saving me the walk when it’s cold, dark, and my feet hurt from teaching all afternoon.

Earlier today, Vicky asked me if I would be at work, and I replied that I would be, and I hoped to see her on the train, unless I caught the one before, which sometimes happens. She replied that I should wait for her because she had THE CAR. I figured that from her point of view, it was worth delaying my departure a few minutes so that I’d have the advantage of her giving me a lift from the train station.

At the end of my class period I got an email from Vicky asking if I was leaving and I replied ‘yes’, and shut down my computer and packed up to go. I walked outside and waited in the usual spot for the Light Rail that shuttles me to the Newark Train station. No Vicky, as I was expecting. I boarded the train, and then my cell phone rang. It was Vicky asking me where I was. “On the train, where are you?” I replied. She answered, “I’m waiting for you! I told you I have THE CAR. I’m in the parking lot!”

Oh, she had the car. At IDT. It never occurred to me that this is what she meant. Creature of habit, I just presumed it was the usual ‘I have the car in the train parking lot.’ Likewise, it didn’t dawn on Vicky that she had to spell it out anymore than telling me that she had the car. Wasn’t it clear to me what “I have the car” means?

As I’m on the train, Vicky is texting me over and over again, first with apologies for the miscommunication, and then with general chattiness and I’m getting really worried. I stop texting her back because I don’t want to encourage this dangerous habit, as I visualize her negotiating the highway with her blackberry on her lap, poking at the keyboard while she drives. My absence from texting only serves to fuel Vicky’s concern further that she has upset me by leaving me on the train and not giving me the opportunity for a ride home. She continues texting. Finally I spell it out. “Don’t text me while driving. It’s okay. I’m fine with the train.”

To which she texts back: “I’m not driving. Nachum ( another friend of ours who also works for IDT who understood he was driving home with Vicky) was actually driving her car home while she was texting me. I felt much better and we chatted by text all the way home, her in the car, and me in the train. I got out of the train and began my long walk to my car, and a few blocks away, there were Nachum and Vicky waiting for me in her car – so that she could give me a lift to my car from the train station, per usual. Now, that’s a really good friend.

And so, today it struck me in a visceral way why Hashem in all His wisdom, gave us the oral law. “When I instructed you to bind them as a sign upon your arm and let them be totafos between your eyes, let me tell you what I really meant by that. . .

Vicky and I only had the written communication; we needed the oral as well. ‘I have THE CAR.’ What exactly does that mean?