The Teshuva Journey: A Message From The Past

The Teshuva Journey: A Message From The Past

Becoming observant often requires a person to make radical changes in his life as he takes on new observances and practices. For David Wachtfungel*, an encounter with the memory of a deceased great-grandfather helped him overcome these hurdles.

David grew up non-observant in Michigan. During college he began to realize the importance of passing Judaism onto his children. David’s parents had gotten divorced years earlier, and his father had remarried a non-Jewish woman and had non-Jewish children with her. David’s brother married out of the religion. His sister followed suit and did not raise her children Jewish. David recognized that he was the only person left who could continue the religion. “I was going to be the last one to carry on the Jewish tradition in the family. I felt I owed it to myself to start asking questions about my Judaism,” David said. “I realized it’s ending with me, this Reform Jew. I don’t have a clue about Shabbat and Judaism.”

David went to Israel after graduation to increase his knowledge of Jewish culture and history. He spent two years there and loved it. He was all set to make aliyah, when he tore two ligaments in his ankle and had to return to Michigan for surgery. After the surgery David spent several months in Michigan recovering. He longed to return to Israel. Even though he still knew very little about his religion, he felt the most connected to it there.

While in Michigan he met several Orthodox Jews and began learning more about Judaism from them. He soon realized that it wasn’t the country of Israel that he missed but the religious feelings he had experienced there. David began working for a small company in Michigan owned by Shimon Traeger, who himself had become observant a few years earlier. During work the two men often discussed Judaism and Shimon tried answering David’s many questions.

After a few months, Shimon invited David to spend Shabbat with him and his family. David came and had a beautiful time. Still, he had many doubts about Orthodoxy. He loved the deep intellectual traditions, but felt that Judaism was too foreign to his lifestyle and too alien from how his family practiced the religion.

On Shabbat afternoon, Shimon and David went to a small Chassidic synagogue for Mincha. After the service Shimon introduced David to the Rabbi of the synagogue, Rabbi Stein. He was a middle-aged man and the son of the founding Rabbi of the synagogue who had passed away years earlier. He lived in New York and traveled to Michigan only a few times a year for the Jewish holidays and an occasional Shabbat.

“Rabbi, this is my friend David Wachtfungel,” Shimon said.

The Rabbi stood in shock for a second.

“David Wachtfungel?” the Rabbi replied. “Was your grandfather Ira Wachtfungel?”

David nodded in confusion.

“Stand right here. I have something for you.”

The Rabbi returned a minute later holding two dusty plaques. They were acknowledgements of contributions made many years earlier to the synagogue. Inscribed on them were the names of David’s grandfather, great-grandfather and great-grandmother!

Rabbi Stein said that David’s great-grandparents, who were Orthodox, had been active members of the synagogue in its early days. One plaque was from David’s great-grandfather in memory of his wife, and the other was from David’s grandfather in memory of his father. The plaques had been sitting untouched in the synagogue for thirty years.

David’s great-grandfather passed away when David was very young. When he was five, David remembers visiting his great-grandfather and receiving a kiss from him on his forehead. His great-grandfather said something to him, and while David doesn’t remember what it was, he thinks it was a blessing or a prayer for him. That memory has always remained with him.

“I have always felt a closeness to him as if he was watching over me,” David said. “I can’t help but feel grateful to him and those words he said to me.”

For David, the plaques were pieces of the puzzle he was missing. His biggest hurdle was trying to understand Judaism as a way of life with particular behaviors we must do every day. Here were members of his own family who lived based on those principles.

“These were my roots. I realized this is not a cultural thing, but this is my family,” David said. “I was interested in Judaism, but the gap seemed too far. It always appeared like two different worlds. How do you bridge that gap? That was a big breakthrough when I saw that my great-grandfather was religious.”

David had also been hesitant to adopt an observant lifestyle because he felt like doing so would cut off his family. But he realized that he wasn’t breaking with his family but was actually returning to their traditions.

The guiding hand of G-d is clear in David’s story. David and Shimon just happened to go into the synagogue, the Rabbi just happened to be there that Shabbat and the plaques just happened to be still be sitting there after 30 years. G-d arranged the events behind the scenes in precisely the order that David needed to return.

David’s story also proves that you never know the result of a good deed.

When Rabbi Elazar Meisels, who is affiliated with several outreach organizations, heard the story from David he said, “Your grandfather thought he was helping the Rabbi when he gave him the money. What he didn’t realize is this money that he gave was going to insure that his family would continue, because it’s only from you that he would have Jewish offspring.”

* The names in this story have been changed with the exception of Rabbi Meisels.

Michael Gros is the former Chief Operating Officer of the outreach organization The Atlanta Scholars Kollel. He writes from Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. The Teshuva Journey column chronicles uplifting teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. Send comments to

(published in The Jewish Press June 2007)

The Difficulties of Reconciling Feminism with Orthodoxy

I was raised in an egalitarian culture and graduated from Barnard College, a women’s liberal arts college.

I am now integrated into the Orthodox world where the synagogue, an important center of Jewish life, has a strict separation of roles and the yeshiva offers the boys a significantly different curriculum than the girls.

.Do you know that I am unable to help my ten year old son with his mishna and gemora homework. Part of me thinks this is completely absurd. How can we continue to deny an entire gender access to our culture’s core knowledge? (How many women do you know who are proficient in the Shita Mekubetzes, the Ketzos, Rabbi Akiva Eger–even at a JOFA convention? I wouldn’t expect to find more than a handful, if that many). But then the other half of me is humble.

I’m a mother of boys–six of them. This is how they’ve been doing it since the beginning of time, and they are the greatest men (yes they were all men) who ever walked the face of the earth, Moses, Jeremiah, the Tanaim the Amoraim, the Vilna Gaon, all the way to the Piazeczna Rebbe. So who am I to suggest that its all wrong (at an alanon meeting I heard someone say something similar about the writings of Bill W. so kal vahomer, how much more does this apply to our sages)? But even so, the feminism is still stuck in my bone marrow and at times it is hard for me to live inside of this.

Anybody with any thoughts, feelings or insights on this subjects?

Making Exceptions

Getting from the house to cheder — or rather the two separate chedarim that my sons attend — always takes time. Shmuel is like a seven-year old Wordsworth — constantly stopping to marvel at the wonders of nature (and the neighborhood); while Pinchos, five, comports himself like a young Newton, always pausing to ask how things work. Today, a garbage pick-up fired both of their imaginations. Yes, getting to cheder takes a long time.

Between the flights of sublimity and the mechanical inquiries, I pursue another topic — ‘How to Cross the Street.’ First, an under-undergraduate course in semiotics: ‘What do the thick white lines on the pavement mean? What does the blue and white illuminated image of the pedestrian connote? Yes, this is the place to cross the street!’

So we stand and dutifully wait. One car zooms by; and another. Then a young father, with ear phones – he seems deep in thought — his five year old daughter in tow, crosses down the block, away from the pedestrian crossing. I see Pinchos wondering: ‘what exactly is abba trying to pass off on us?’ ‘You don’t have to cross here,’ he finally says, another car whizzing by: ‘look at them,’ he points to the father and daughter still in sight and already at the makholet across the street, presumably poised to buy lachmania and choco for the day ahead.

‘No you can’t have lachmania and choco; mommy packed you a lunch.’ And: ‘just because other people do the wrong thing does not mean that it’s right.’ Finally, a car stops, the driver waiving us across benevolently. I nod in gratitude: ‘thank you for abiding by the law.’

Pinchos is first today. Shmuel, shy, is reluctant to accompany us, so he waits outside the cheder gates. Some boys lean out towards the street through the metal bars – starting to tease him, even as I’m standing by. ‘Yesh l’chem baya?’ — I ask — mimicking what boys typically say when taunting Shmuel who has Down’s Syndrome: ‘you guys have a problem?’ When I come back, Shmuel is still standing there – he looks confused, a departure from his wondrous happy friendly self: one of the boys is standing with his tongue hanging out with a mocking stare.

When I returned my wife asked: ‘what do you expect?’ Pinchos is in one of the schools that would not take Shmuel — why should we expect more from children than their teachers?

Back on our morning trek, now walking in the direction of Shmuel’s cheder, we encounter the bouncy-gait of the nine year old Yehuda: ‘Good morning Shmuel!'; and shortly after, a smiling boy in Shmuel’s class, ‘Shalom Shmuel!’ ‘He’s my friend,’ Shmuel boasts loudly to me. And then the gawky eleven year-old from down the block, who keeps a rooster in our building courtyard, volunteers, ‘Can I walk with Shmuel to cheder? I’ll take him!’ These are boys from a chassidic cheder in our neighborhood: while other principals told us, ‘Shmuel will give the school a bad name‘; their rebbe says: ‘it’s a mitzvah gedola; it’s a big mitzvah!’ So the children look at Shmuel as an opportunity. Or maybe they just like him?

So what kind of exceptions do we make — for ourselves? for our children? One thing is sure: when we start making exceptions, they become natural, even second-nature. Like crossing the street in the wrong place, or, making a new friend, even though he may be a bit different.

Tzadik-Baal Teshuva Symbiosis

By Chaim Grossferstant

Maimonides (Laws of Repentance 2:1) teaches us that : = What is considered a complete/absolute Teshuva? If the penitent is confronted with the sin (again), has the opportunity to transgress but abstains not because of diminished capacities or fear (of human repercussions) but because of his repentance. E.G. if someone had an illicit affair with a woman and later was secluded with her in the same locale where they had originally sinned and is still vigorous and still loves her yet desists and does not transgress, this (person) is a Master of absolute Teshuva.

There is a symbiotic relationship between Tzadikim (those who have not sinned) and Baalei Teshuva (those who sinned but have repented). Very often Tzadikim help Baalei Teshuva in their “repair work” and Baalei Teshuva, by turning lemons into lemonade, help raise the consciousness of Tzadkim to understand that, paradoxically, sins aremissed opportunities that open up new and better opportunities.

In Jewish thought Yoseph and Yehuda are archetypes for the Tzadik and Baal Teshuva, respectively. Consider their diverse behaviors and reactions when confronted with their respective tests of resisting their desire for a woman prohibited to them.

Commentaries have argued about the motivations for Yoseph’s request that Binyomin be brought before him and Yoseph’s standoff with Yehuda at the beginning of Parshas Vayigash. I think it may be understood in light of the Tzadik/Baal Teshuva archetype roles of Yoseph and Yehuda and the symbiotic relationship between Tzadikim and Baalei Teshuva..

IMO what Yoseph was trying to do was help Yehuda achieve absolute Tehuva. He orchestrated the frame-up of the divining chalice in Benyamin’s sack to replicate, as much as was possible, the circumstances of Yehuda’s sin of having sold Yoseph. Once again Yehuda was confronted with the same choice as when he initially sinned; a beloved ben z’kunim of Rachel, his own half brother, was in danger of becoming a slave to gentiles. Would he repeat his previous sin, opt for the path of least resistance and allow Binyamin to become a slave? Or… would he risk all, his temporal life and his share in the world-to come, to save his half brother?

Yehuda, helped (manipulated) this way by the Tzadik, becomes a fully realized Baal Teshuva. Then when Yoseph, decked out as the viceroy of Egypt, drops the masquerade to reveals to the Bnei Yisrael that he is their brother and not some malevolent despot, he is not only teaching his brothers that things are not always what they appear to be. He is having an epiphany and admitting this to himself as well. Yehuda the Baal Teshuva helped the Tzadik to realize that sin is not a bottomless pit, “full” of emptiness and life-robbing snakes and scorpions, but a springboard to attain even higher heights. The deeper the trampoline falls/”gives”, the higher it propels. When we think about our pasts, our mistakes our squandered opportunities and our sins we ought to also remember that the harder we fell the higher we can come.

Originally posted on January 1, 2009.

Tensions in Dealing With Non Observant Friends and Relatives

In every mitzvah, there are inherent tensions that make the mitzvah difficult. Slogans like “Just Don’t Speak Loshon Hora” , “Just Have Emunah”, “Always Treat Your Spouse with Honor and Respect” don’t work because there are factions that make Loshon Hora, Emunah and Shalom Bayis difficult. The key is to identify the tensions so that you can deal with them.

Here are some of the tensions in dealing with non-observant friends and relatives:

– You think they’re missing out by not performing Mitzvos
– They think you’re a fanatic in your fulfillment of Mitzvos.

– You’re giving up some physical pleasures for spiritual pleasure.
– They think you are missing out on so much fun in life.

– You think it’s important to keep distance between the sexes and to watch your language.
– They think you’re a puritan.

– You would love them to perform an occasional mitzvah here and there.
– They think you are out to convert them to Orthodoxy.

– You’re happy that you have found a Torah observant way of life.
– They think that you think that you’re better than them.

What are some of the other tensions?

What are some ways to deal with these tensions.?

Navigating Religious Divides

In the Motherlode parenting section in the NY Times, Lisa Belkin writes Navigating Religious Divides Within Families about “parents out there who are befuddled by children who are more religious than they were raised.”

The article focuses on Laurie Dinerstein-Kurs, of East Windsor, N.J., a mother of an Orthodox daughter and son-in-law and 7 Orthodox grandchildren. The grandmother can’t take the grandchildren out for the day alone; no overnights, no baby-sitting, and no vacations.

Mrs. Dinerstein-Kurs has founded a support group for others in the same boat, called Parents of Religious Kids (PORK). Her advice for navigating religious divides within families is to rise to the highest degree of observance.

“I keep my house to the (kosher) level of my daughter and her family,” she says. “so anyone who comes to my house can eat, no matter who they are.”

The comments section turned into a bash-religion fest until this constructive comment by Chaya from Passaic:

I was raised in a reform Jewish household and now follow a Torah-observant lifestyle. Alienation and estrangement are not inherent in religious differences. They are obstacles to be overcome.

I love my parents (one a non-observant Jew and the other a non-Jew) and am committed to honoring them in the way the Torah shows me. If anything, I have become more committed to my relationships with them since becoming observant.

Part of that commitment is facilitating a close relationship between them and their grandchildren. This means being creative and vigilant on both sides to navigate religious issues.

By the way, some of the details of the Jewish family described in the post don’t make much sense. I think something might have been lost in the reporting.

Living with Tension

Yaakov Avinu represents the highest level of perfection among the Avos. Avraham Avinu produced a Yishmael; Yitzchak Avinu produced an Esav. But Yaakov’s progeny became the Twelve Tribes; each one of them entered into Klal Yisrael.

Avraham’s defining middah (characteristic) was chesed (loving-kindness); Yitzchak’s was the opposite, gevurah (strict judgment). Yaakov’s characteristic of emes (truth) can be viewed as a synthesis of the two.

The above schema is well-known. But it raises an interesting question. Why did HaKadosh Baruch Hu have to proceed through Avraham and Yitzchak to reach Yaakov? Why could He not have just started with the embodiment of emes in Yaakov? Apparently, emes could only arise out of a creative tension between chesed and din. That tension was a necessary condition for reaching the ultimate perfection.

My friend Rabbi Aharon Lopiansky first articulated this insight while counseling a young ba’al teshuva who was torn between his desire to deepen his own Gemara learning and his sense of obligation to share what he had already learned with the great majority of Jews who have never tasted Torah in their lives. The most important thing, Rabbi Lopiansky told him, was to continue to live with the tension rather than try to deny the validity of either goal.

Many of the most difficult choices in life are of this nature. The choice is not between life and death, good and evil, but how to balance two Torah values. The easiest course is often to suppress one side of the equation and to remove the tension. But from such a course, emes will not emerge.

Avraham Avinu and Yitzchak Avinu both were tested in ways that required them to act against their dominant middah. For Avraham, the greatest test was Akeidas Yitzchak, which required him to act contrary to the message he had taught the entire world for decades by sacrificing his own son. Yitzchak’s greatest test, as described by Rabbi Dessler in Michtav M’Eliyahu, came when he affirmed the blessings to Yaakov.

Yitzchak knew that Yaakov was at a higher spiritual level than Esav, and thought therefore that Yaakov should not receive any material blessing but rely exclusively on strict justice. When Yitzchak sensed, because of Yaakov’s voice and the scent of Gan Eden emanating from his clothes, that it was Yaakov standing before him, he recognized a Divine hint to depart from his lifetime emphasis on strict judgment and that Yaakov might need a blessing of material bounty. Thus his great fear and trembling.

Avraham and Yitzchak were severely tested. But only Yaakov, the man of emes, experienced a life of unbroken travail – from being forced to flee from his brother Esav, to the twenty years in Lavan’s house, to the confrontation with Esav, to the twenty-two years that he mourned for Yosef. Only Yaakov could have said, “Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life. . . (Bereishis 47:9). From Yaakov we learn that fashioning a new synthesis, while holding fast to two competing poles, is the most difficult task. But only by doing so can emes emerge.

Too frequently, when we hear something with which we disagree our initial inclination is to suppress it. Yet often times, both on an individual and a communal level, we would benefit from an airing of both sides of the debate. On most important issues that affect us as individuals and as a community, there is more than one perspective that is relevant. And the truth is more likely to emerge from the clash between the varying approaches than from one side of the debate trying to censor the other.

The great historian of the Italian Renaissance Jakob Burkhardt wrote in the 19th century that the future would belong “to those who see things simply.” And in the next century, we witnessed totalitarian regimes that slaughtered tens of millions of human beings in the name of some easily grasped ideal promising to free human existence from all tension and complication.

THE NECESSITY OF Avraham Avinu and Yitzchak Avinu, with their diametrically opposed defining characteristics, preceding Yaakov Avinu also has important implications for our understanding of Jewish history. Far from being static, Jewish history follows certain cycles and patterns. The Ohr Somayach, in a famous passage, describes one such pattern with respect to recently exiled Jews arriving in a new land and the change from one generation to the next.

After every catastrophic event that destroys the previous equilibrium, there is a pendulum swings until a new equilibrium is found. Let us take one contemporary example. The period between the beginning of World War I and end of World War II completely destroyed a European Jewish civilization built over nearly two millennia. In order to rebuild the entire world of Torah learning destroyed by the Nazis, Rabbi Aharon Kotler in the United States and the Chazon Ish in Eretz Yisrael declared a societal ideal of long-term Torah study for all males that had few precedents in Jewish history. The pendulum swung in one direction, as part of the rebuilding.

As the original small flock of dedicated idealists who rallied to the banner of Reb Aharon and the Chazon Ish has miraculously swelled today to an entire community of hundreds of thousands, encompassing a wide range of abilities and spiritual levels, the pendulum has begun to swing in the other direction in search of a new equilibrium.

But whatever happens in the future it is s crucial to understand that the extreme response was absolutely necessary, just as the pure chesed of Avraham and the pure din of Yitzchak were necessary for Yaakov to emerge. And so it has been with many of the great conflicts in Jewish history, like that between Chassidim and Misnagdim. In retrospect, the extremes of the early Chassidic movement and the fierceness of the Misnagdic response can be seen as necessary for the synthesis of the qualities of both that has emerged.

We could all gain a great deal in the way of tolerance if we recognized that approaches that we dismiss out of hand are often the necessary expression of one pole of an inherent tension. Our task as individuals and a community is too forge our own synthesis from the tension.

Reprinted with permission of Jonathan Rosenblum.

The Eight Neshamas Of Chanukah

There are countless Torah volumes dedicated to Chanukah, its deep meaning and ramifications. One question I have never seen addressed is the
following: We know that Hashem runs the world through Midah Kneged Midah, (the way one acts is the way Hashem reacts). Why, then, was the consequence of the Yidden going out to battle rewarded with the miracle of the oil?
What is the intrinsic connection between their actions and a miraculous flame?

To answer the question, we must understand the circumstances of the time.
It was a tragic period, one in which our nation had never before experienced. We were infused with foreign morals. A new set of values began to prevail in the hearts and minds of the precious Klal Yisroel. Mitzvos and Torah learning were discarded and ignored. The Torah and the very fabric that we clutched onto to guide and unify us was being torn away. There were many casualties. An entire movement of Jewish sympathizers emerged amongst the people. Many put their hope into a false doctrine as they fell into the lure of the culture of the times.

You probably assume that I am referring to the Greek Empire and to the time of Chanukah. I am not. I am referring to our culture and the state of Klal Yisroel today. “Bayamim hahem bazman hazeh” – In those days as in our time.

The inexperienced and courageous Yidden took arms. With relentless determination they pursued the enemy. They fought for Mitzvos, for the Torah, and for G-d. They fought for their families and their future generations. They were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for the Jewish people. It was a time that called for Meseras Nefesh – the giving of one’s Nefesh/soul for the cause. They rose to the challenge. I am now, referring to the time of Chanukah.

What happened to us? Where are our spears? Where is our commitment?

“Ner Hashem nishmas adam” – The flame of Hashem is the soul of man. I believe there is a reason why upon return from the battlefield, the Chashmonaim were rewarded with the Chanukah miracle. Simply, the Chashmonaim were willing to give their Neshama/flame away for the eternity of the Jewish people. In turn, they were rewarded with a miraculous flame.

That is what each light of Chanukah represents: the souls of the Jewish people. Klal Yisroel was reignited and would now rise on high in its service to its Father in heaven.

Why eight flames?

Statistically it has been calculated that if every Frum Jew would reach out to just eight unafiliated Jews, we would have assimilation licked! Eight …
could the message for us on this Chanukah be any clearer?

The word for eight is Shemonah. The Mekubalim explain that it is the same letters as Nishama.

Today we are not asking for Meseras Nefesh. For generations, we have lit the Menorah with care and love. A seemingly small gesture, but one that has ignited the bitter, dark exile. Like a flame, when one reaches out and touches another, nothing is lost. It only takes a little love, a little warmth.

The Bnai Yissaschar explains that hidden in the flames of Chanukah is the light of Moshiach. Now, is it any wonder that igniting these flames will usher in the time of our redemption?

“Bayamim hahem bazman hazeh” – In those days as in our time. May we all have the fortitude to go a bit beyond our comfort zone and reach out this Chanukah. Through the wonderful Mitzvah of Kiruv, may we all experience great light in our own lives, as well as the lives of our families and all of Klal Yisroel.

Some Questions about Chanukah?

A few questions about Chanukah:

Do most of your non-frum neighbors, friends and relatives light a Chanukah menorah?

What does Chanukah mean to you?
– Seeing the miracles in our lives.
– The need to fight against persecution.
– Understanding the limitations of a man centered society.

What actions has Chanukah inspired you to take?

A Hellenist Left Standing

It was the twenty-fifth of December,
And when she closes her eyes she remembers,
Just how it was.

A Jewish girl from Queens,
Had fulfilled her secret dreams,
Decorating that bright, forbidden tree.
A Jewish girl from Queens,
Had fulfilled her secret dreams.
She helped hang tinsel merrily.

Her boyfriend’s family,
Was friendly as could be.
They had fun watching her delight.
Her boyfriend’s family,
Was friendly as could be.
By the fireplace they sang carols that night.

Then they piled into the car.
It wasn’t very far.
Greetings called to those they’d pass.
Then they piled into the car.
It wasn’t very far.
Each year the family went to Midnight Mass.

But there in a church pew,
She didn’t know what to do,
As everyone else bent down to kneel.
But there in a church pew,
She didn’t know what to do.
In those moments was her future sealed?

Alone, trembling, she stood,
Still uncertain if she should.
What stopped her from kneeling in that place?
Alone, trembling, she stood,
Still uncertain if she should.
The word “Jew” was stamped on her face.

The twenty-fifth makes her remember,
Because it’s Kislev – not December.
She almost fell, like Hellenists of old.
The twenty-fifth makes her remember,
Because it’s Kislev – not December.
Once she, too, chose tinsel, not the gold.

So radiant – hidden away.
A golden light, still pure today.
Flashing bulbs can’t come near its glow.

So radiant – hidden away.
A golden light, still pure today.
Her Jewish home shines with treasures she didn’t know.

For now many years have passed.
Each Chanukahs spins by so fast.
And as grandchildren light, my past becomes less real.
For now many years have passed.
Each Chanukah spins by so fast.
Standing by lights, I whisper thanks I didn’t kneel.

Bracha Goetz is the Harvard-educated author of eleven children’s books, including Aliza in MitzvahLand, What Do You See in Your Neighborhood? and The Invisible Book. To enjoy Bracha’s presentations, you’re welcome to email

Soul Movements

In the sefer Da Et Atzmecha (Getting to Know Yourself) the author describes something amazing, the movement of the soul:

In physical movement, we are familiar with six directions: the four sides, and up and down. Our teachers have taught that the soul moves in only two directions: expansion and contraction. Every movement must either be a contraction or an expansion.

When a person analyzes himself, he must categorize all movements as either expansion or contraction. Certainly, the degree of expansion and contraction will not be identical in every situation. For example, when a person runs, he may run quickly or slowly. So, too, there are more extreme movements and more measured movements.

In general, the soul moves either to expand or to contract. In the language of Chazal, expansion is referred to as the aspect of chessed, and contraction is referred to as the aspect of din. There are no other kinds of movement.

When a person understands that all his movements are either contraction or expansion, he can begin to understand himself. On a simple level, a person seems happy, and feels that this is an inherent quality in the soul, or he may be sad, and feel that this is the soul’s quality. Or he may feel generous, and believe that such is his soul’s quality. But the truth is that happiness comes from expansion; sadness, from contraction; giving, from expansion; and taking, from contraction. (Section two, chapter two)

What I found amazing, when I first learned this sefer last summer, was how nicely this idea of expansion and contraction fits into Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Desser’s concept of giving and taking. Rav Dessler z”tl divided the world into two types of people: Givers and Takers. To quote from Rabbi Aryeh Carmell’s translation of Michtav Me-Eliyahu, “Man has been granted this sublime power of giving, enabling him too be merciful, to bestow happiness, to give of himself.” (Strive For Truth! Volume I, page 119)

When we choose to give to another we are expanding our soul and growing into being a bigger and better person. Conversely, by taking we become smaller people. I attempted to teach this to my older children (ages 10 and 7) by blowing up a balloon inside a box and showing them how as the balloon expanded it touched more of the box and as air was let out and it contracted the balloon became smaller. The question is, do you want your soul to expand or contract?

I have found this teaching has totally changed the way I look at my actions. Offering someone a ride somewhere is no longer just an act of chessed, it allows my soul to grow. Making the choice to do something that I want to, at the expense of others in my family (like going to a museum that only I would enjoy) I now see as an action that would be considered a contraction of my soul. When I think about things in these terms, the choice is pretty obvious which way I want my soul to move.

This way of looking at things has also trickled down to my kids. At my minyan’s kiddush this past Shabbos, my 7 yr old daughter proudly told me that she was going to pour some 7-UP for herself, but thenMrs. Cohen asked for it, so she gave the bottle to Mrs. Cohen before she took for herself. My daughter then proudly told me that her neshama expanded.

The sefer Getting to Know Yourself is available for purchase online and at most Jewish bookstores. It is also available for reading online here.

Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser, Chanukah: “Seeing Hashgacha in Times of Challenge” Monday, Dec 14 at 8:00 PM in KGH

Kollel Toras Chaim presents a special Chanukah Shiur by Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser,

Chanukah: Seeing Hashgacha in Times of Challenge.

27th of Kislev 14th of December, 2009
8 PM Monday Night

Young Israel of Queens Valley
141-51 77th Ave. , Kew Gardens Hills

Followed by refreshments with
Rabbi Goldwasser and
Rabbi Travis, Rosh Kollel Toras Chaim

Chanukah – G-d Fights Our Wars

By Rabbi B. Shafier

Gemara Shabbos 21b: The miracle of the oil

Why do we celebrate Chanukah?
The Gemara tells us the reason that we celebrate Chanukah is that when the Yivanim entered the Bais HaMikdash, they defiled all the oil set aside for lighting the Menorah. When the Chashmonoim were victorious, they searched and were able to find only one small jug of oil with the Cohain Gadol’s seal intact. It had sufficient oil to last only one day, but miraculously it lasted eight days. In honor of the miracle of the oil lasting eight days, Chazal inaugurated these days for Hallel and thanksgiving.

Al Ha’Nisim: the miracle of the battle

The Maharal states that this Gemarah seems to contradict what we say in Al Ha’Nisim, a Tefilah written by Taanim hundreds of years before. In the Al Ha’Nisim, we proclaim thanks to HASHEM for the miracle of the war. We thank HASHEM for delivering the Yivanim armies into our hands: “You fought their battles, judged their judgments, took their revenge. You put the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few…” According to the Al Ha’Nisim, the miracle of Chanukah was that HASHEM delivered us from the armies of the Yivanim. Yet the Gemara in Shabbos says that we celebrate Chanukah because of the miracle of the oil lasting eight days. The Maharal asks, “Which one is correct?”

The miracle of the oil revealed the miracle of the war.

The Maharal answers that both are true, and both are consistent. The actual event for which we give thanksgiving and sing Hallel is the salvation of the Jewish people. We won a war against all odds. However, it wasn’t clear that the victory was a miracle. To people living in those times, military success seemed to be natural. It was attributed to Jewish resilience and bravery. It didn’t appear that HASHEM had delivered us from the hands of the Yivanim; rather, it appeared as “their might, and the strength of their arms.” It was only through the miracle of the oil that they came to understand the miracle of the battle. Once people saw the oil last eight days – an overt miracle from HASHEM — they then came to see that their success on the battlefield was from HASHEM as well. The miracle of the oil revealed to them the miracle of the war.

Israel didn’t have a standing army

This Maharal becomes difficult to understand when we take into account a basic historical overview.

The events of Chanukah take place around the middle of the era of the Second Bais Hamikdash. From the time that Bavel destroyed the first Bais Hamikdash until that point; the Jewish People lived under the reign of gentile monarchies. Our right to exist and our form of government was decided by the ruling parties. We were a vassal state under foreign rule, and when the Yivanim entered Yerushalayim, the Jewish people did not even have a standing army.

This wasn’t a war of a stronger army against a weaker opponent. It was a war in which the most powerful empire in the world was pitted against a band of unorganized, unarmed, private citizens.

While the war itself lasted 3 years, during the entire first year of fighting, there were no formal battles. Two armies were not squaring off against each other; there was no Jewish army. The fighting consisted of guerrilla skirmishes. Some Jews would sneak up on a lone detail of Yivamim soldiers, kill them and take their arms. Bit by bit, more Jews would join Yehudah Ha’Macabi, but at every point during the wars, the Jews were far outnumbered, outgunned and preposterously less battle-ready than their enemies.

The leaders of the rebellion were Kohanim

Even more startling is that almost all of the original fighters had no battle experience. The leaders of the rebellion were Kohanim. A Kohain is a Torah teacher, one who serves in the Bais Hamikdash, one who guides the Klal Yisroel in Ruchnius. He isn’t a soldier. So this was a war led and fought not by soldiers, but by Roshei Yeshiva. It was akin to Reb Shmuel Kaminetsky leading the Lakewood Yeshiva in battle against the US Marine Corps.

How could anyone not see the miracle of the war?

No intelligent assessment of the situation would have predicted a Jewish victory. How then is it possible that the Jews at the time saw these events as anything other than the miracles that they clearly were?

This seems to be natural to the human

The answer to this question seems to be that when one is many years away and far removed, he gains a historical vantage point. He is able to see an event in context and can easily recognize it as a miracle. But to those living in the day-to-day heat of the battle, it is much more difficult to see the event from that perspective.

To those involved, it seemed to be a natural course of events. Granted the odds were slim, but the Jews won. Skirmish after skirmish, battle after battle, the Macabis came out victorious. There is no question that they did well, which is why it seemed that it was their skill, their cunning, our wisdom in battle that won those wars. And as such, to people living in those times, the miracle was hidden. And then a single event focused their sight.

When the Kohanim returned to the Bais Ha’Mikdash and took out that little bit of oil that couldn’t possibly last for eight days, and saw it remain aglow night after night, everyone knew this was miraculous. When they experienced the miracle of the oil, it reshaped the previous three years in their minds, and they then saw the battles themselves as the miracles that they were.

We see the same phenomena in our times

In our own times we witness an eerie parallel to these events and to the same mistaken interpretation.

For almost 2,000 years we have existed as a lone sheep amongst 70 wolves. Universally hated and oppressed, the Jewish People have survived. And now, after almost 1900 years of wandering, we find ourselves back in our own land.

Since 1948, the Jewish Nation has witnessed profound miracles in the repopulation and development of the land of Israel. But it is the survival of our people that is the greatest miracle.

In 1948, the population in the Middle East numbered roughly 650,000 Jews, surrounded by some 50 million Arabs. On May 15th, 1948, one day after the State of Israel was declared, five nations attacked, each with well-trained armies and air forces, each alone capable of annihilating the small band of Holocaust survivors. At the time there was no Jewish Army, Navy or Air force. Yet, against all odds, we won that war, and against all odds we continued to win war after war – until now, ironically, the Jews are considered the super power in the region.

To most people, Jew and Gentile alike, it seems that this is just the way of the world. To the average witness to these events, it isn’t a demonstration of the hand of HASHEM — It is just the ebb and flow of history.

The lesson of Chanukah is to see behind the veil of nature – to tune our sight into the true cause of events, and to see that it is HASHEM who runs the world, and HASHEM Who fights our wars– then as now.

For more on this topic please listen to Shmuz #15 – G-d Fights Our Wars
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Should We Distance Chanukah From Xmas?

Many families celebrate Chanukah with gift giving. Some people are concerned that this makes Chanukah look a lot like Xmas.

Should we refrain from giving gifts to distance Chanukah from Xmas?

Should we ask our relatives to eliminate or tone down the gift giving?

Should we consider our children’s disappointment in a reduced gift-giving scenario?

Are BTs more sensitive about this issue?

What major messages of Chanukah do you try to impart?

Adjusting to Alien Atmospheres

I spent my high school senior year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A first, all of my 20-year old roommates thought I was crazy, and for the first few weeks, I did too. Not only had I never traveled by myself before nor had I been on an Israel program, I still had yet to receive my high school diploma. I continuously struggled to acculturate not only to the foreign society, but also to the equally foreign “college atmosphere.”

A few weeks in, I was expressing these frustrations to my father, who was in town on a family-business call, as I helped him clean out my grandmother’s apartment library in Tel Aviv. Although I am paternally Israeli, I explained, I felt lost trying to adjust to the culture. After much frustration, I was toying with the idea of returning home. My dad explained that despite his unconditional support, he thought I should give it a few more weeks. He and I both knew I would never again have this opportunity.

Restraining tears, I was barely paying attention to the memorabilia being tossed into the “discard” pile. Only after throwing numerous faded photos did I notice a weathered, blue pamphlet with Hebrew writing on the cover. Intrigued, I opened it to find a black and white photo of my grandfather fastened next to his signature and the years 1939-1941. Stunned, I considered what I was holding. Remembering what my parents told me about my family’s history during the Holocaust, I realized that my grandfather’s family sent him to an Israeli university in the late 30’s. During his first year abroad, they warned him not to return to Poland over his Passover break. Fearing he would never come back to Israel, my grandfather listened, and never again saw his Polish classmates that went home during Passover. I immediately flipped to the fragile blue cover and deciphered the Hebrew aloud: “The Hebrew University of Jerusalem: Student Card.”

I then realized I was holding a piece of family history, as well as the motivation I needed to stay. My grandfather’s decision to stay in Israel saved his life, and my decision to stay in Israel completely enriched mine. I truly owe the person I am today to my experience abroad. After I changed my attitude, I embraced my obstacles as learning experiences. I put more effort into my Hebrew, roommates, and acculturation. As a result, I learned so much about myself and my heritage.

Mainly, though, my year abroad taught me the importance of ensuring Jewish continuity. We are, and always have been, under attack: whether it’s external through anti-Semites or internal through assimilation, Jews all over need to unite and return to their roots. Studying in Israel allowed me to re-prioritize my life and recognize the importance of embracing my heritage. Ever since I returned to the states, I have been extremely involved in Hillel at the University of Texas at Austin. There, I am a Mashgichah for the kosher kitchen, I co-chair the Orthodox Minyan, and I have represented Hillel on various trips around the world, including Israel and Argentina. Adjusting to the alien atmospheres and living independently before I graduated high school was difficult, but I knew I was in Israel for a reason, and I am glad I had a role model to keep me motivated and strong.

Kislev – Make a goal, (and we don’t mean the Guinness Book of World’s Record on eating latkes.)

Keshet – bow

The Jewish astrological symbol for the month of Kislev, is the bow – from the bow and arrow. While this symbol has a number of implications, one of them is to focus on a goal. An archer must aim well for the bow to do its job.
What are your goals? If they are physical, material, like $100,000, a new car, a buffed bod, then they have no potential to give you truly lasting joy. Just as the physical world is temporary, all the joy we get from it is also only temporary.

Don’t get distracted

When the baseball season is over, football, hockey, and basketball seasons get rolling. When the NHL and NBA are done its back to baseball. You can be a sports fan all year long. Watching sports can be fun, and when “your team” wins it can make you happy. But the happiness is only temporary. If you don’t access joy in spiritual things, the happiness of winning the Super Bowl is over when you come home from the game, or turn off the T.V. and you go back to lacking happiness. People who lack happiness and meaning will seek distractions. They will use a Jägerbomb or an Adam Sandler movie. There’s nothing wrong with all of these things. There’s nothing wrong with movies, sports, and alcohol. It’s what we use them for is the issue. If we’re using them for enjoyment to distress or put us in a better mood to enhance our life or allow us to serve God with more joy, then, in moderation, they can be a mitzvah. If, on the other hand, they are an escape from reality because we don’t know where to turn, if our job becomes the place and time when we long for the weekend to escape what we do the rest of the week, there’s something seriously wrong.

We need a goal

A goal directs our attention and helps us focus our efforts. And the goal needs to be spiritual. Our soul will never be satisfied with hamburgers or even tofuburgers, turkey or tofurky, duck or um..well, skip that one. We need to satisfy the soul. There is no alternative. There is no substitute. Everyone has a soul and that soul has a yearning, and that yearning is to become one with the Infinite. It’s time to get in touch with your inner mystic.

A lot with a little

One of the quirky mystical things involves the miraculous. Not the mind blowing sea splits type of miracle, just a highly unusual event where you strongly sense the hand of God. This is the symbol of Chanukah. Sure the oil lasted 8 days instead of one, but if you looked at it you couldn’t tell there was anything out of the ordinary going on. It was somewhat hidden. Only if you stared at the flame for 30 hours straight would you be witnessing a miracle. And the seats weren’t that comfortable back in those days for such a long spell. But the menorah did a lot with a little. We fought off the Greeks who were more numerous and better armed. We did a lot with a little. That’s the power of this time period. Look at your resources and your spiritual goals. Do you feel you lack what you need to accomplish what you want to accomplish? I’ll bet anyone alive at the time of Chanukah felt that way too. Until God showed them the secret. With the Almighty’s help you can do a lot with a little.


When the Jews fought the Greeks during the time of Chanukah they were fighting not for physical survival – the Greeks would have let them live as Greeks – they were fighting for spiritual survival. Ancient Greece was the embodiment of Yavan, a descendent of Noah’s son Yafes. The word Yafes in Hebrew means beauty. All of Greek thought whether its science, logic, or art, can be used to adorn spirituality, it was imbedded in the creation by God not as an end in itself, but to be subservient to spirituality. What the Greeks did was like taking the handle off a large beautiful jug and saying, “What a beautiful work of art this handle is! Let’s make a museum of handles like this.” They missed the whole point. A meteor shower should put awe of God and His creations in your heart and mind. The design of the human body should astound us with God’s intricate design.

It would seem that this is the time period to examine our lives and the world around us. Perhaps we should look for ways we can orchestrate it all in one direction, towards one goal… to be one with the Creator.

Great Children’s Books By BBT Contributor Bracha Goetz

Bracha Goetz has just released her latest book:

What Do You See in Your Neighborhood?
A wonderful everyday word-and-picture book for toddlers which teaches basic vocabulary – in a Jewish kind of way! This could be a great gift to give anyone with a little one! You can get it online from or at local Jewish bookstores.

Bracha is the Harvard-educated author of eleven children’s books, including Aliza in MitzvahLand, What Do You See at Home? and The Invisible Book. To enjoy Bracha’s presentations, you’re welcome to email


To Give or Not to Give – a Dvar Torah.

It’s the non-frum family Chanukah party and everybody’s enjoying the latkes and fun and you’re faced with a big dilemma – do you share a Dvar Torah with everybody. On one hand, you know the importance of Torah at a gathering, while on the other hand you want to avoid the eyes-glazed-over look.

Do you share a Dvar Torah at non-frum family gatherings?

Does it depend on your oratory skills?

Can you pass up the opportunity?