How to Answer Difficult Questions

I met a friend recently and he told me he was reading through his Jewish Publication Society Bible presented to him by his Hebrew School at his Bar Mitzvah.

He had two specific questions at the tip of his tongue:

Wasn’t the conquering of Eretz Yisroel and the wiping out of the inhabitants genocide?

Wasn’t the death penaltly meted out to Nadav and Avihu for their improper service excessively harsh?

How would you suggest handling these questions?


Where is G-d?

By Michael Freund
First published in The Jerusalem Post on May 27, 2010

Yesterday at 11 a.m., air raid sirens sounded across the country. Emergency crews went into position, security forces entered a heightened state of readiness and thousands of people made their way to public shelters.

It was a chilling scene, as schoolchildren were shepherded to safety, and the innocence of our nation’s youth was disrupted by the din of the alarm. Thankfully, it was only a drill.

As Col. Chilik Soffer of the IDF Home Front Command bluntly noted: “Every country trains for emergency scenarios like earthquakes and fires. Here in Israel we train for those as well as for enemy attacks.”

Living in the Middle East, it would appear, like any tough neighborhood, requires taking all sorts of precautions, however unpleasant.

And while the government tried to calm the country’s nerves, assuring us that this exercise was routine and bore no relation to the dire state of the region, it was hard to escape the feeling that something ominous is in the air. Indeed, the headlines of late have been filled with all sorts of warnings and threats, as our foes dispatch daily reminders that their intentions are anything but peaceful.

In the past few days, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad spoke openly of war and embracing the “resistance option,” while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reasserted his determination to bring about Israel’s demise. To our north, Hizbullah is busy rearming, and its thug-in-chief Hassan Nasrallah boldly declared that Israeli commercial and civilian shipping could come under attack.

Meanwhile, to the south, rocket-fire emanating from Gaza resumed, and Palestinian terrorists sought to attack soldiers guarding the frontier. In every direction, it seems, our enemies are gearing up for a war of extermination, each one trying to outdo the other in a frenzy of blood-curdling intimidation.

The arc of iniquity that stretches from Beirut to Damascus, and from there to Teheran and all the way back to Gaza, is not just rattling its saber, but may be getting ready to unsheathe it.

IN THE meantime, our closest ally, the United States, has increasingly turned hostile to us and our interests, badgering us to make still more concessions to the enemies gathering at the gate.

Like it or not, we are very much a nation that is dwelling alone.

In the face of all this, there is a knife-like question piercing through the fog of fear: Where is G-d?

Some might take this as a challenge to divine justice, but that is not what I intend. I am a man of faith, and I believe our deliverance will assuredly come.

What I mean to say is: Where is G-d in our public discourse? Why aren’t we turning to Him in this hour of need?

Sure, diplomacy and military readiness are crucial, and we must continue to invest our efforts in these areas, even as we hope for the best. But the piercing siren sounded yesterday brought to mind the wailing of the shofar on Yom Kippur, penetrating the serene obliviousness that characterizes much of our daily lives. This was a spiritual wake-up call, sounding to arouse us and jolt us into action. We can choose to ignore it, but we do so at our peril.

Each night, our generals and defense officials grace the television screens, insisting that “Israel is strong” and “we are ready.”

I’m glad to hear it and hope it’s true. But as we have seen in the past, overconfidence can breed arrogance, which is a recipe for disaster.

A dash of humility and a healthy dose of faith are just as critical to ensuring success. That’s why I’d like to see our leaders projecting a little less conceit and a lot more conviction.

How refreshing it would be to hear them invoking some reliance on the Almighty and putting G-d back into the national conversation, injecting the sacred into their public discourse – and ours.

This is more than just semantics; it goes to the very heart of the challenges we face. Belief in a higher power and in the justness of our cause is our spiritual ammunition, giving us the strength and determination to turn back any foe.

The great hassidic leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, once asked a student where G-d could be found. The surprised young scholar offered the seemingly obvious answer: Rabbi, He is surely everywhere! “No!” said the Kotzker, with fiery certitude. “G-d is only where we let Him in!”

Now, more than ever, would be the perfect time to do so.

A College Education?

A blast from the past. Originally posted on June 13, 2006.

I’ve seen many comments in response to “Sam Smith’s” “Financial Realities in the Frum World” that talk about the undesirability of sending one’s kids to public schools. Specifically, part of Alter Klein’s comment #169 stood out to me:

“If we send our kids to public school it is like offering them up as korbonot (sacrifices). Yes, they could turn out ok, however odds are against it. Don’t stand by while your brother’s blood is being shed. The so called colleges that many kids are going to are also destroying many of those kids. ”

While I do not have kids (nor am I even married), and am therefore not yet thinking about educating them, I’d like to offer an opinion from the “other side.”
Read more A College Education?

The Benefits of Buy In for the Newly Observant

Originally Posted on Orthonomics.

My husband brought home some reading material for me on Shavout. One of the pamphlets available at our shul was from a well known Kiruv group. The first column was regarding setting priorities. The scenario set up is as follows: A man’s tefillin are stolen and he decides to replace his tefillin with a $900 pair. Later that week he receives a call from an outreach yeshiva asking him to sponsor a pair of tefillin for a newly observant Jew through a subsidized program at the cost of $250. The man asked to sponsor the tefillin does not have extra ma’asser funds and if he were to sponsor the tefillin at $250 it would come at the expense of his own purchase.

I’m not interested in reprinting the methodology used to reach the conclusion that perhaps the man would indeed have a responsibility, or privilege, to underwrite his fellow’s first pair of tefillin even at the expense of his own higher level of performance.

The choice that was not given or discussed, is the choice that I think would be the best choice: enabling a newly observant man of limited means to purchase his own (discounted) tefillin.

I don’t believe I’ve ever dedicated a post to kiruv, but I do know that there is both kiruv and a kiruv industry. I’m not sure if it is a recent trend in kiruv to offer so much up “free of charge” or if it is a more recent development (when I was in college, the community kollel charged a small price for the lunch part of the lunch ‘n’ learns, today I am aware that there are incentives offered to students who attend courses), but I’m not sure that it is a particularly productive trend.

Now certainly I would expect a strapped student or even a strapped young professional who is just starting out to have the funds available for a pair of tefillin, especially where becoming more observant comes with some other costs. As such, it is obviously necessary that he have tefillin to don in the meantime. However, from a psychological standpoint, there is something extremely healthy about “buying in”. Chazal recognized this discussing na’am dekisufa [bread of shame] in which it is assumed that a free handout is enjoyed less than what is earned by one’s own labors. I’ve read more than one biography/autobiography of a competitive athlete who believes that taking ownership of his/her career (i.e. footing the bill) has been a great motivation and very transformative. In other words, there is a psychological difference between how something “tastes” when it was handed to you, gifted to you, or purchased by you through the “sweat of your brow.”

While I do believe that the reason a wedding band needs to be owned by the chatan is a legal issue, as opposed to a psychological issue, I think there is great value in a man giving something of value that he worked for and saved up for to his bride. Tefillin is symbolic of a marriage and I think there would be great value to the wearer of the tefillin to pay for his tefillin, perhaps through some sort of work-study or even a loan (yes, I did use the word loan although that wouldn’t be my personal preference).

To sum up this post, I do believe that all things worth striving for, religion especially, requires “buy in”. I have heard it argued that one cannot ask [American students] targeted for kiruv (for lack of a better term) to help share in the any of the costs of dinners or events, and that sometimes you have to attract them with other incentives. And perhaps that is true if you are looking to attract large quantities of students. But, I think that when the line has been crossed from experimentation to growing commitment, helping to facilitate “buy in” would be the best choice of all.

When given two options, I’ve been known to choose the 3rd option.

Chukas in a Nutshell

Here’s Rabbi Rietti’s outline of Chukas. You can purchase the entire outline of the Chumash here.

# 19 The Parah Adumah – Red Heifer
# 20 Moshe hit the Rock
# 21 The Snakes
# 22 B”Y Encamped Across the Jordan Opposite Jericho

# 19 The Parah Adumah – Red Heifer
* The Parah Adumah – Red Heifer.
* The Ritual Purification of a Tameh Met.

# 20 Moshe Hit the Rock
* Beny Yisrael arrive at Kadesh in Midbar Tzin.
* Miriam Dies
* “No Water!”
* Beney Yisrael complain against Moshe & Aron.
* HaShem instructs Moshe to speak to the rock.
* Moshe speaks with anger
* Moshe hit the rock.
* HaShem decrees Moshe and Aron will not enter Eretz Yisrael.
* Moshe sent messengers to Edom to let Beney Yisrael pass through.
* Edom warns Beney Yisrael not to pass through.
* Aron dies on Hor Hahaar & entire Jewish People cried over Aron’s death.

# 21 The Snakes
* Canaan attack and take a captive
* B”Y swear to dedicate entire spoils if victorious & recapture the captive.
* Complaints about “No water and bread in the desert, just this Munn!”
* HaShem sent snakes to attack Beney Yisrael.
* Moshe makes a copper snake.
* Journeys: Ovot – Eye-Yay Ha’ivrim – Nachal Zered – Aver Arnon
* Shirat Yisrael: Miracle at ‘Aley Bear’ ‘Song of the Well’
* Journeys continue: Matana – Nachliel – Bamot.
* Messengers sent to King Sichon of Emor “Let us pass through your land”
* Emorites refuse entry and attack Beney Yisrael.
* Israel defeats the Emorites.
* Og, King of Bashan goes out to wage war against Beney Yisrael.
* Israel defeat Og and his people.

# 22 B”Y encamped across the Jordan opposite Jericho

Making Choices

R’ Micah Segelman

The Mishna in Sanhedrin (37a) teaches that the creation of the world was worthwhile even for a single person. The Alter of Slobodka explains the Mishna that the creation of the entire world is justified in order to provide an opportunity for a single person with free will to choose to fulfill Hashem’s commandments (1). Rav Hirsch describes the “sublime mission and lofty purpose of man” that “The Law to which all powers submit unconsciously and involuntarily, to it you shall also subordinate yourself, but consciously and of your own free will (2).”

Rav Soloveitchick writes that “Halakhic Man is engaged in self creation, in creating a new “I” . . . Choice forms the base of creation . . . then man becomes a creator of worlds (3).” The Ramchal tells us that Hashem created man to give him ultimate goodness and perfection. Yet Hashem didn’t simply grant this to man. Only by actualizing himself through making choices could the goodness be perfect and Hashem’s will fulfilled (4).

It is commonly known that the Torah teaches us that the purpose of our existence is to strive for perfection in our service of and connection to Hashem. These sources emphasize that only through people freely making choices can this purpose be realized.

However, the ability to make decisions is not automatic. Rav Dessler writes that only a person who has successfully overcome his natural tendencies perceives his power to make choices. Someone who has never exercised self control has learned from his experiences to think that he is controlled by outside forces (5). A person must learn, as Stephen Covey writes, that “between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose (6).” We must discover that freedom.

We can sometimes feel powerless against external forces. There are many things which are, in fact, outside of our control or influence. Yet we often don’t perceive the opportunities we have to be proactive and exert our influence. I’ll cite seven illustrations of this principle which I hope people will find meaningful.

We often blame other people for problems that exist. Blaming other people is natural and easy. It is also self defeating. When we take responsibility for ourselves and our decisions we are empowered because we’ve put ourselves in control. Rachel Imeinu turned to Hashem in prayer only when she saw that she couldn’t rely on Yaakov to pray for her. Relying on Yaakov to take the initiative and then blaming Yaakov stymied her whereas by taking responsibility for herself she was able to come closer to Hashem (7).

When we have difficulties in interpersonal relationships we again often blame the other person. It is often possible, however, to unilaterally change the dynamics of the interaction by changing the way that we act and react. This is particularly true for parents and teachers. Changing our attitude and approach can dramatically impact our relationships.

People can feel overwhelmed by emotions. Many psychologists maintain that our emotions result from the way that we think. We can become more aware of our own thinking and thus exercise greater control over the emotions we experience. This requires becoming aware of our inner dialogue and examining the way in which we look at the world. In the words of Aaron Beck, a person “is generally aware of the following sequence: event or stimulus — affect. He must be trained to fill in the link between the stimulus and the affect: stimulus — cognition — affect.” (8).

Exposure to an outside value system can rob us of the ability to truly make decisions. For example, our attitudes to money and career are influenced by our exposure to the prevailing mentality which equates our worth with our achievements (9). We’re not truly free to make decisions until we shape our own world view. Otherwise we are pressured to conform to norms which are imposed on us.

Similarly, people who strongly depend on the validation of others curtail their own freedom to choose. The pressure to conform to other people’s expectations precludes free choice. Growth requires one to learn not to depend on the approval of other people (10).

As Torah Jews, there are aspects of our Jewish contemporary culture that can hamper our ability to make choices. Young people, especially, can feel pressured by communal expectations to conform and thus be stifled. Rav Wolbe writes, “Both planting and building are essential to the development of our children and students. We must build them. We cannot rely exclusively on their spontaneous, independent growth . . . However, if we only build our children by inserting behaviors into their personality, without providing time and space for them to sprout, then their ability to grow on their own degenerates and they turn into robots . . . they will lack initiative. Initiative flows from vivacity, but that quality rotted away long ago (11).” When we block legitimate avenues of self expression for our children or students we interfere with their proper development. And we ourselves need to develop the ability to think issues through carefully and seek the appropriate guidance where necessary. And we must learn to do that which is right because it is right – not because of what others will think.

We are justifiably proud of our Torah weltanschauung. But when improperly understood our ideology can interfere with people assuming proper responsibility for their decisions. We legitimately emphasize the importance of consulting Talmidei Chachamim when making decisions. People must, however, develop their own independent judgment. We should never relinquish responsibility for what we do. We don’t cede control of our medical decisions to our doctors though we seek to benefit from their expertise. We are the ones affected by the results of our decisions and we must be willing to stick with our choices when the going gets tough. To do this we need to feel ownership of our decisions. In the final analysis we must answer for ourselves.

There are two sources that essentially make this point. Rabbeinu Yonah says that ultimately we bear responsibility for our own spiritual growth. Receiving advice and inspiration from others is valuable. “But if we don’t inspire ourselves – what will mussarim accomplish (12) ?” Only we can change ourselves. And the Seforno explains the pesukim in Netzavim that teshuva is unlike other mitzvos. Recognizing the way to move forward in our personal growth doesn’t require the input of great scholars (13). We ourselves can and should determine where we need to improve and how to approach Hashem– it is “within our own mouths and within our own hearts to do.”

Fundamental to Slobodka Mussar is that only by appreciating our potential for greatness are we empowered to achieve greatness. Only by understanding that we have the capacity to grow can we truly grow. Let us all feel empowered to make the necessary choices.


(1) Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel (The Alter of Slobodka), Ohr Hatzafun, Sefer Toldos Adam: Part B

(2) Rav Hirsch, The Nineteen Letters (Spring Valley, NY 1988), Letter Four

(3) Rav Soloveitchick, Halakhic Man (Philadelphia 1993), Part Two: IV

(4) Ramchal, Derech Hashem, 1:2

(5) Rav Dessler, Michtav M’Eliyahu,Vol 1: Kuntras Habechira

(6) Covey, Stephen, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (New York 1990), page70

(7) Ramban, Pirush al HaTorah, Breishis 30:2

(8) Beck, Dr Aaron, Depression: Causes and Treatment (Philadelphia 1967), page 322. See also Burns, Dr David, Feeling Good (New York 1999)

(9) see Burns chapter 13, and Twerski, Rabbi Dr Abraham, Ten Steps To Being Your Best (Brooklyn, NY 2004), chapter 2

(10) see Burns chapter 11, R Twerski chapter 3

(11) Wolbe, Rav Shlomo, Planting & Building (Jerusalem 1999), page 16

(12) Rabbeinu Yonah, Shaarei Teshuva 2:26

(13) Seforno, Devarim 30:11-15

Fitting In

Do you feel that “fitting in” is one of the biggest challenges facing BTs?

What factors have you seen contribute to being successful in this area?

What are some strategies if you’re committed to Torah Judaism, but feel the “fitting in” goal is too difficult?

Harav Mordechai ben Salman Eliyahu – A Simple Reminiscence

This is not a eulogy. It will not fulfill the demands of such. The praise is far too faint, not for any lack of the deceased’s exalted qualities; but for my inability to even approximate his true praises.

Just a few hours ago, our master and teacher Harav Mordechai ben Salman Eliyahu was buried. May his merit and memory be a blessing and protection for all Israel. Truly, a very large segment of Israel is deeply mourning this loss. This loss of the Rishon L’tzion (the Principal of Zion), such an appropriate title, is a national and generational loss. But it is also the loss of many little people like myself.

The rav was turned to for guidance in great matters of halacha and policy. Phone calls came to him from all over Israel, and all over the world. Rabbis of all sorts turned to him. Sefardim, Ashkenazim, Chabadnikim, and others. Yet he was always available to little, everyday folks as well.

In 1978 I arrived in Yerushalayim to start learning in yeshiva. I went to study under Rav Dov Begon at Machon Meir. At some point I had a question of halacha that needed to be answered, and Rav Begon said to me go to Rav ben Eliyahu (as he was then known). Okay, what did I know? So I got directions and walked about 5 minutes to the other side of the neighborhood. I knocked on the door, the rabbanit let me in, and within a minute or so I was speaking with the rav. That was the first of tens of meetings. Nothing fancy, nothing complicated. I would walk in, the rav would waive to a chair in a friendly but matter of fact manner, and I would ask what was on my mind. Mostly matters of halacha; occasionally something more philosophical or personal.

The truth is, in those early months I had no idea that I was in the presence of a giant. I noticed soon enough that the Torah scholars, young and old, lined up to see him each morning after morning prayers. Nearly every time I went to his home in the morning or afternoon, there were other yeshiva students or rabbis waiting their turn. For each he had a smile and a matter of fact approach to the issue at hand. But even in Kiryat Moshe, a neighborhood with important yeshivot and Torah scholars, it took an uninformed new immigrant a little while to catch on that I was consulting with one of the great rabbis of the generation.

The rav was held in the highest esteem by Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook, by Rav Avrum Shapiro, Rav Shach, and any of the other influential rabbanim of that time in Israel. When he was chosen Chief Sefardi Rabbi/Rishon L’tzion, I had occasion to ask him a question shortly after the announcements. He was receiving congratulatory phone calls from rabbanim all over the world. And he still found a few minutes to help with my relatively small issue, even while fielding the calls. His wife had whispered to me on the way in how he had received a call even from Lubavitch in America!

He had a special respect for the OU, and spoke at the Israel Center when we were on Strauss Street. Even though he had recently been chosen Rishon L’tzion, he kept all his appointments and teaching commitments. He gave a pre-Passover talk at the Israel Center that was simply outstanding. Erudite, yet organized for the common audience; and he stayed and answered questions afterwards.

The rav was turned to on matters great and small by all segments of the Jewish people. He decided matters of halachah with equal ability for Ashkenazim and Sefardim, and took interest in immigrants like the Ethiopian Jews. Only once can I recall him advising me that my question needed an Ashkenazi-informed rav, and he sent me to the other side of the neighborhood to speak with Rav Shaul Yisraeli. For an extended time I went to the rav with questions while I was learning the laws of Sefer Torah, Tefillin, and Mezuzah. He was familiar with every aspect, and interested. At one point, he told me that I should also go speak with his brother, Harav Naim, who was especially expert in these matters. Rav Naim ben Eliyahu was a deep, humble man who handled my every question with kindness and thorough competence.

The rav told me that as he learned each section of Shulhan Aruch as a young man, he also learned the skills needed to carry out what he was learning. Writing, slaughtering, whatever it was. He told me I should do the same. Sadly, I didn’t follow his advice on that.

When I was preparing to be married, I started learning the laws of Nidah, as many yeshivah student grooms-to-be do. Rav Eliyahu had been giving classes to local women on the topic, which were summarized and printed in popular yet authoritative pamphlets by his son. (Later, this became the book Darkei Taharah.) When I asked the rav what we would do if there were specific questions in our new home about stains, etc. he said, bring me every question you have, and I will show you what to do with it. And so, much like King David in his time, he did for me and many others in the neighborhood.

I recall one time going to the rav with a question. He answered in his usual succinct manner. I asked for clarification. He replied. I raised an objection. He dealt with it. I questioned his answer further. He answered. Finally, he said to me, look, you don’t have to do what I say. You asked me a matter of halachah. I told you what I think is the correct answer. When you get to the heavenly court, they will ask you to defend your actions; but they won’t ask you why you didn’t listen to me. You ask. I answer. But the responsibility is yours. For me, this was a great lesson in retaining my sense of answerability and responsibility. The rav could instruct me; but I couldn’t pass the buck. We each kept our own weight of responsibility in the rav-talmid interaction.

Israel mourns tonight. The Eliyahu household mourns; may Hashem comfort them among all the mourners of Zion. But also, in many anonymous homes like mine, countless unknown individuals are mourning the loss of a great, giant of Torah who yet was the rav of the whoever came to him, myself included. The ship has lost its captain. I have lost my rav.

Please Help Lancaster Yeshiva With a Click of the Mouse

In November 2008, we all did our part in helping Leah Larson win the $100,000 grand prize in the Wells Fargo’s Someday Stories Contest.

Well now we all have a another chance to help our fellow Jews. Lancaster Yeshiva is entered in Pepsi’s $50,000 good idea contest.

A Beyond BT reader describes the Lancaster Yeshiva:

First it was the Mikvah. When the Rabbi arrived in this dwindling Jewish community right in the middle of Amish country, one of his first projects was to build a Mikvah. With the assistance of several congregation members, they raised penny after penny until finally the Mikvah was built. But that was just the first step in attempting to revitalize the kehilla.

Next it was the Yeshiva. Indeed, it is not your ordinary off-the-block Yeshiva. Geared towards bochurim who sometimes fall in between the cracks, the kind who want to be in a yeshiva but are more talented in the hands-on department. The Yeshiva provides a combination of morning learning with afternoon vocational training in residential construction. It is well suited for the kind of bochurim who don’t see themselves as academically oriented and need something different than just sitting all day and learning. As such, it serves a vital need in the Jewish community at large. And it seems to be succeeding. From a recent article in Mishpacha Magazine:

“We started the yeshiva shelo lishmah,” Rabbi Sackett says, “as a means to a different end, as a means to building up the Lancaster community.But before we knew it, we were doing it lishmah. The yeshiva took on a life and a reason for being all its own.”

In other words, in teaching boys how to build, the Lancaster Yeshiva Center accomplishes an even bigger objective it builds up the boys themselves.

But of course running a Yeshiva requires funds. It’s not often that such an easy opportunity to take part in a Mitzva comes along. You’ll be helping this unique Yeshiva itself, and at the same time showing some hakoras hatov to the Lancaster Jewish community by helping it grow into a more vibrant kehilla. Anyone who has been to Hershey park and benefited from the Kosher stand has benefited from the Lancaster Jewish community.

With just a few clicks of the mouse you can help the Yeshiva – – so hurry up vote early and vote often (once a day – per email address) and don’t forget to spread the word!

Is it a Fair Goal to Expect a Baal Teshuva to Strive for a Level of Greatness?

Is it a fair goal to expect a baal teshuva to strive for a level of Greatness?

Is that realistic?

Or should we be content thinking, “we know what we know, which is a heckuva lot more than the average Jew and it’s a world different (if not two!) than how I myself used to be, and I am content with the fact that I am radically different than how I was growing up.”

Or should the approach be, now that you are a frummeh Yid, you carry all the obligations of a regular frum Yid and that means working toward greatness in mitzvah performance and greater levels of middos tovos.

From a guest contributor


This weekend was my 25th college reunion. The big one.

Reunions at Princeton is a big, big deal. I use the singular because “Reunions,” which is also capitalized, is an event, a time, a place, an institution among the old Tigers, in a way that, I am told by alumni of comparable schools who also know Princeton Reunions, is not comparable to anything else.

As an undergraduate I dreamed of attending Reunions as an established alumnus of Old Nassau. Reunions gears up late Thursday the weekend before graduation, peaks on Friday night as everyone checks in from their week of work and gets local accommodations (on campus or off) and hobnobs under the orange-and-black tents spread throughout the residential areas of the campus, and is capped off by breakfasts and brunches and catching ups Saturday morning until it’s time for the P-Rade, a procession of alumni from oldest to youngest in their official Reunion togs (“beer jackets”) up and through the campus toward something vague that happens at the end somewhere.

I’m the kind of guy who really loves to “stay in touch” (perhaps to a fault). The idea of a structured, socially accepted way to keep acutely enjoying Princeton, which I enjoyed a lot, for the rest of my life appealed to me strongly. That only increased when I experienced it for the first time the weekend before graduation.

For all kinds of reasons, I decided at the last minute that, instead of cross-country drive with an old friend, to go to Aish HaTorah after graduation, before continuing with my law school plans the next fall. (If I haven’t already written that post, well, this isn’t that post.) And while my worldview changed, and continued to change, as did the place of Princeton in that worldview, I did go to Reunions twice after that.

The first time was our first Reunion — not a “major Reunion,” of course (i.e., not an increment of five), but it was major for me. I guess I felt I had to “go back,” I think I felt, in order to reassure myself — and my old Princeton friends — that I was still “me.” And I did, and I think, mainly I was. I threw in my lot with the orthodox Jewish students on campus, who had a very respectable presence on campus, and had a great Shabbos with a bunch of people whom I had gone to college with but who knew me little, and I them, and who all of a sudden had this “frum” classmate in their midst. It was great fun, and the people at what was then known as “Stevenson” (the name of the building where orthodox Jewish life resided in Princeton in those days) made me feel great. They were supportive, welcoming, warm. During Shabbos I had very little or nothing to do with Reunion events on campus, which I thought would not be appropriate. On the other hand, after havdalah [the Shabbos-ending ceremony] … I kind of left Stevenson behind.

I didn’t come back to Reunions again until my Tenth, and this I did only after saying havdalah in Passaic, a healthy hour north of Princeton. I was an alumnus now also of a famous “black hat” yeshiva in Brooklyn now; married, with children; and I wasn’t going to uproot my fundamental approach to Shabbos for Reunions. But I had made a commitment. I did not leave “Passaic” behind, as I had done at during that first Reunions after Shabbos, when I arrived at the Tower Club, where I used to “eat.” There, in the upstairs leather-and-paneling library, a claque of my old friends impatiently nursed beers and pretended to enjoy cigars as they awaited my arrival so that we could proceed as we had all solemnly arranged ten years earlier. We had business to do: The “Survey.”

The Survey was a series of questions we had distributed among ten or so of us Tower Club friends, all men, mostly Jewish, in the spring before graduation, in which we predicted all sorts of things about ourselves and each other ten years hence. It was kind of a dress-up version of the Game of Life, if you remember that Milton Bradley board game, but instead of proceeding through a formulaic “life” step by step and pursuant to the arbitrary spin of a dial, we predicted our respective way stations, circumstances and foibles for review at our Tenth.

It was a warm, fun time evening with a bunch of guys with whom my relationship had not advanced a whit since 1985, in which we determined that most of us had ended up more or less along the lines of where most of us thought most of us would be. No, no one had predicted Aish HaTorah, or what followed, for me, but my otherwise bourgeois existence in the ensuing decade had followed what was the predictable course of a kind of square, gregarious Jewish guy going to a good law school after college. Most of the other guys had taken similarly standard paths (a lot of them to medical school) and there wasn’t all that much “play” there, either. We didn’t quite talk about just how fantastically wealthy a couple of the fellows had become, which hadn’t even been a subject on the Survey, as I recall. And I didn’t exactly make a point of noting how far off my own expectations were that ten years after Princeton I would be, at least, financially comfortable. I was happy that the guys had waited for me, and were happy to see me, and we could share the whole thing together as we had planned. They even were at pains to use more refined language — well, certainly more refined than the way we expressed ourselves “in the day” — but even, as I recall, more family-friendly vocabulary than they might otherwise have employed even as thirty-somethings in the mid 1990’s.

We went through the Surveys and the answers in an informal but efficient manner, and agreed that we should distribute another set for our Twenty-Fifth, and that seemed like something right up my “staying in touch” alley, and I volunteered to do it, and all assented, and that was that. We broke up, and that was the last anyone heard of the idea.

And a month or two ago I got emails from all those guys talking about our Twenty-Fifth, and who’d be staying where, and who would be coming or not coming due to conflicts, and it was a warm moment of reflection of the Best Years of Our Lives, as it were, and the warm, friendly celebration of them we’d had a decade later, and then the radio chatter stopped.

And of course there’s no more Reunions for me. It’s not something I “can’t do.” It’s something I can’t do. Princeton and my Tower Club boys will always be a part of me, of course — a part I never stopped wanting to treasure and never felt I had to be ashamed of. Those four years made me who I am today, and I do not doubt that though I have a long way to go in my avodas Hashem [service of God], I am not entirely dissatisfied, at the admittedly superficial “Survey” level of inquiry, with who I am.

But due tribute having been paid to Auld Lang Syne at The Tenth, I’m finished with all that. What I discarded from Princeton is, I think, gone forever; what I still ought to jettison is still hanging on, a tiger-striped but not life-threatening plaque on my persona; and, as I said, what I took from the “Best Old Place of All” is just plain “Ron Coleman ’85,” which is to say, Ron Coleman.

And those friends are, despite a finger-wagging lecture to the contrary I received from a leading figure in kiruv [Jewish outreach] many years ago, always going to be regarded by me, if only viscerally, as friends.

Because they are.

Still, there will be no more paneled libraries, no more tents reeking of stale beer, no more comparative life surveying. The fifteen years that have passed in my life since the Tenth took me across a divide I can never traverse again. This year, like a more famous classmate, I didn’t “go back to Nassau Hall.”

It’s a bittersweet resolution. I’d love to see “everybody,” in theory. But keeping away certainly makes it easier for things, in my mind’s eye, to remain just as they were, too. I consider myself fortunate because I negotiated a balance among what was, what is, and what will never be that works for me and keeps one file folder full of conflict relatively at bay.

And with apologies to those baalei mussar [proponents of demanding Jewish disciplines of self-improvement] who may disagree with the approach, if I refuse to deny completely the old me, but instead use it as a platform on which to stand a hopefully better new one, is this such a terrible way to capture and preserve, tolerably harmless, that side of Paradise?