How Would You Help Other BTs Transition?

A fellow BT has been blessed by Hashem with great insight and great financial resources. Looking back at what was missing when he became frum, he has allocated significant funds to provide learning opportunities specifically for BT’s — at this point specifically for BT women who he feels are really under-served!

Yes, finally, someone understands that many of us – especially the newcomers – need something other than more outreach classes to help us really feel like we ‘get it’ and fit in!

He, together with the team he has hired, are interested in our input – -what we need / want /long for etc. And they’re asking two simple questions:

1) If you could spend a few days with fellow BT’s and have the perfect schedule of classes, lectures, discussions, activities, etc – what would you want included in the curriculum/schedule?

2) If you had the money and the time, what would you do to help other BTs make the transition – or maintain the transition – more smoothly?

As Rosh Hashana approaches…

As a sometime contributor to BeyondBT, I’ll let you in on a little secret. From time to time the administrators send out emails with suggestions for written submissions. Usually these suggestions are great springboards for someone with the patience and time to write to actually come up with something meaning, relative, and thought-provoking. And then, there’s me.

I got my email from them August 10th. This week, during a casual email exchange with one the administrators very sweetly asked for a submission. The first thought that I had was basically that I have nothing to say. This is what I’ve been thinking most of Elul. I’ve attempted to become more serious about davening (read: take time to think about what I’m saying in the siddur) of the past few weeks. I’ve checked my “cheshbon hanefesh” (spiritual accounting) that I keep on a daily basis to see what areas I’ve excelled in over the past year and what area I need improvement in. I’ve been to the gravesite of a grand-child of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter and said Tehillim. I’ve given tzedaka to organizations. I’ve got my volumes of Strive for Truth by Rav Dessler and the Rambam’s Hilchos Teshuva all marked at the passages de jour. I have even have committed to 10 minutes of daily hisbodedus (speaking directly and informally with Hashem).

Without try to sound to pretentious, can it be that even with all that I think I’m doing to prepare for the Yom HaDin, I still feel like I have nothing to say? Probably, but I can only say this because I’ve thought long and hard about it, even prior to writing this. What is there to say, when I know that very soon I’m going to be having a one-on-one with the Rabbono Shel Olam (Master of the World) and I know that I didn’t do my best this year. There are times when you get caught by the principal or your supervisor at work and you just simply have “nothing to say”. Even saying that you were wrong and that you’re sorry doesn’t feel like it will make a difference.

To us, it might not make a difference. To Hashem, though, every step we take towards Kedusha (holiness) makes an incredible difference. That’s why we have Elul, the Ten days of Teshuva, and the concept that we not only return, but have an even closer active relationship with our Creator. I suppose that it’s not so much about Rosh Hashana approaching, as it might be about how I approach Rosh Hashana.

Recipes for a New Rosh on Rosh Hashanah

With all the new food recipes available for this Rosh Hashanah . . .
it might also be good to have a Recipe for a New Rosh this Rosh Hashanah, so . . .

For 5771 and going forward I will do my best to . . .

1) only think and say nice things about a fellow Jew
or say nothing and try to minimize any negative thoughts . . .

2) remember that only G-d knows our madragas (levels)
and observe that comparisons and judgments (uttered or not) on ritual observance, hecksherim (kosher supervision), and households goods, etc. are potentially harmful to everyone
. . . and may plant the seeds that foment baseless hatred . . .

3) look at the man in the mirror, and ask him to make a torahdich change . . . e.g. deter and avoid sessions of sanctimony with myself or fellow Jews

Preparation: initially slow cook for best results then simmer for a lifetime …

– David Lichtenthal

Is Anti-Muslim Bias Acceptable when Considering the Ground Zero Mosque?

Dear Beyond BT

I was having a discussion with a friend about the Ground Zero Mosque and he felt that the greater you associate 9/11 with Islam in general, the more likely you are against the Mosque.

He also pointed out that even President Bush said that we are not at war with Muslims, but with the terrorists, and he thereby disassociated 9/11 from Islam.

My friend agreed that showing sensitivity to the families that lost loved ones is important, but if that sensitivity is based on some degree of undeserved anti-Islam bias, then how strong is our sensitivity obligation? Would they object to a church or a synogogue built there?

He finally stressed that Freedom of Religion was such an important principal to uphold to the highest degree that it should outweigh any existing anti-Islam based sensitivities.

My feeling is the there is clearly some association of 9/11 and Islam and we need to show sensitivity, but I’m not clear whether it is enough to override Freedom of Religion considerations or to perpetuate an anti-Muslim bias.

Furthermore as Frum Jews, is there a Chillul Hashem consideration that we don’t come off looking like we have a anti-Muslim streak?


Finding a Seat When You’re a Guest in a Shul

On a Shabbos a few years ago, I was davening out of my neighborhood. As we walked into the Shul on Friday night, my host told me that we can sit anywhere, except in the aisle seats, because the more involved members of the Shul sat in those seats.

In the shul where I daven, we have Makom Kevuahs (reserved seating for Davening) and when people requested seats when we first move in, the aisle seats where the most requested and generally we allocated them to the more involved members. In both cases, involved members where the ones who volunteered most in the running of the Shul, or were members for the longest amount of time or were very generous in supporting the Shul.

I don’t think in either Shul, any guest would be asked to move if they took someone’s seat, whether they were involved members or not, but I think it makes sense that when you’re a guest in a Shul, not to take an aisle set unless you know the person who normally sits there won’t be there. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s a rule that makes sense if you’re like most people and don’t want to unnecessarily upset a person to any degree by taking their seat.

What seat should you take? Well the best section in our shul is the one furthest from the door. As far as which seat, it’s generally a good idea to ask any member already in the Shul, informing them that you don’t want to take another person’s seat.

I think some people will respond to this idea that any Shul member should be accommodating to guests and not care that somebody is taking their seat. While that is true, I think there is also a case to be made that the guest should try to avoid taking a member’s seat if they can avoid it.

In summary, as a guest try to avoid sitting in someone’s seat and as a member if somebody does sit in your seat, don’t make them feel uncomfortable.

Embracing Bais Yaakov Dress Standards – Differences Between Mother and Daughter

Bais Yaakov school dress standards often include duty length skirts (to the calf and not to the floor), loose fitting, legs fully covered with knee socks or stocking, past the elbow, staying away from fashion trends, etc..

Some FFBs and BTs did not embrace all these standards in their own dress, so they are faced with a contradiction between what they do and what they’re children are expected to do from their schools.

How have parents dealt with this issue?

Being Before Hashem In Whatever We Do

All of the Torah is holy. Every bit of it. Every letter of every word. Lists of names and the Ten Commandments are equally holy. Yet, it is inevitable that certain portions of the Torah speak to us more than others. It may be the content. It may be the circumstances or timing when it was read. It may be other things. Last week’s sedra has a פסוק/verse that I think is especially well timed for this time of year. And I think that at any time it could be a fair motto for guiding our attitudes and choices as Jews.

תמים תהיה עם י-ה-ו-ה א-להיך Be whole with Hashem your God. This mitzvah (according to Ramban it is to be counted as a positive commandment) is stated after the Torah warns us away from various manners of foretelling the future and divination. Right after this mitzvah we are told to listen only to a true prophet. Smack in the middle of this contrast is the command: be whole with your God!

Hizkuni explains the idea ‘tamim’ to be a matter of wholeness; that we shouldn’t think that we can be in awe of anything aside from God. This indeed happens, as Hizkuni points out from the Kutim who were in the Shomron, described in the book of מלכים/Kings as ‘they feared God and worshiped their deities.’ In contrast to this, says Hizkuni, we need to be a whole, unblemished vessel filled with only one thing; that means we must be wholly with God in all our actions and all our thoughts. So said King Solomon in משלי/Proverbs, בכל דרכיך דעהו – in all your ways know Him.

We marked the anniversary of the passing of our holy teacher and guide, Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook, this past erev Shabbat. In his book, Musar Avicha, Rav Kook explains the above idea from Proverbs (my translation).

“A person must seek the Holy One in all the ways that he acts. When he is busy with prayer he should seek the Holy One in the understanding of the issues of prayer and appropriate intent with a faith of the heart concerning those same matters of prayer. He mustn’t seek at that time knowledge of other things. Since he is presently engaged in this particular service/worship, the Holy One so to speak is present beside him specifically in this manner; and so that is how he will find Him, and not in some other place.

And when he is engaged in Torah study he must know that he will find the Holy One when he delves deeply to understand a matter in Torah clearly, and to retain and reveiw it well. In this he will know the Exalted One through His Torah, and not in another manner; because at this moment He is revealed in this way.

And so when a person is busy with an act of kindness to benefit his fellow, then he should seek the Holy One only in deepening his attempt at understanding how to benefit his fellow with some great, suitable, and lasting good.

And so in all the manners that one acts. Truly there is nothing in the world that is not for His Exalted honor. Therefore whatever one does should be His command and His will, and through those actions he should seek the Exalted Presence. When one tries with all his mind and abilities to do whatever he is doing completely and wholly in all manners of complete absorption, he will find that he knows the Holy One in all activities. The word ‘in’ means ‘within’, that in the very path or activity one can know the Holy One.”

In an additional note from one of Rav Kook’s notebooks, it says, “when someone does something wholly, whether in thought or deed, he should rejoice in his lot and not pursue anything else at that moment, because the entire universe is folded before him in that specific thing.”

Rav Kook once expressed a wish. “If only all my days could be in prayer.” The truth is, our sages seem to have taught us otherwise. We aren’t capable of only praying all the time! But the rav’s intent was that in everything, at every moment, he wanted to experience clearly that he stands in the Presence of God.

Rosh Hashanah is in a bit less than a month. That is the time that more than any other we recognize God as King in His world. But we can bring some of the holiness and wholiness of that recognition and experience into every day and every thing we do, if we are wholly and solely intent on recognizing Him in His world. In the King’s realm, everything is truly His. All that His subjects do is truly His. All that they have is a benefit of His rule and presence and grace. Nothing occurs outside His will.

The month of Elul is especially a capable time to develop the constant awareness of God’s presence. It is a time especially suited to direct ourselves in all that we do to recognizing and experiencing His presence. In all your ways know Him. In everything, everything! that you do, know Him.

May Hashem bless us that this year we will universally know His Presence, like the waters cover the oceans.

Finding G-d In Gaza

Daniel Peer first found his Jewish spark on a battlefield in the heart of Gaza.

Peer grew up in Nivot Alit in the north of Israel. Though he didn’t grow up observant, he knew how to pray and occasionally put on tefillin.

Peer entered the IDF in November 2001. As a boy he had learned Taekwondo, and the IDF trained him further in hand-to-hand combat. When he finished basic training, Peer was sent to Gaza.

Peer typically worked in teams with three other soldiers. Their mission was to scout out territory, collect information and find and destroy Kassam missile factories. They also routinely were assigned the job of locating and arresting wanted terrorists. Peer’s close-combat experience proved essential for the assignment.

“Every day in Gaza people are trying to kill you,” Peer said. “A lot of bad things were going on. It was scary.”

In addition to combat missions, Peer was also trained later as an operator of the IDF’s large armored bulldozers, some of which are the size of monster trucks. He was sent to Gaza on several occasions to destroy missile factories and terrorist hideouts.

Peer spent a lot of time in Gaza, both in his bulldozer and on foot. He would prefer to forget most of the missions, but one experience will always stay with him.

He and another soldier were in Gaza on an operation. They were running between buildings just feet from each other. Suddenly Peer saw his partner stumble and then crumple to the ground. His uniform was stained with blood. He had been shot by a sniper hiding in a nearby house. Within minutes, his life drained out of him.

The incident was a wake-up call for Peer. The fact that he had survived when the other soldier did not left a deep impression on him.

“HaKodesh Baruch Hu saved my life. It was not like lot there were a lot of people. There were only two people and it was either him or me. Something was going on. You have to believe it.”

Peer clearly saw Hashem’s hand in his salvation. He knew that Hashem had saved his life, but he did not understand why.

Peer was discharged from the IDF in 2004. He was called up for reserve duty in the summer of 2005 to help remove Jews from Gush Katif during the Disengagement. The IDF sent him one letter calling him up, then another and finally a red letter, which is typically followed by arrest if not followed. Peer refused all of the orders.

At the time, the Israeli government was debating whether IDF soldiers should tear down synagogues in the communities of Gush Katif. Though they eventually decided against it, if the government had given the order to destroy the synagogues, Peer knew that it would be his job as a bulldozer operator to carry it out. Hashem had saved his life in Gaza and Peer knew he could not return now to destroy a synagogue there.

Something deep inside Peer cried out to him to refuse the orders. The pintele yid in him, the Jewish spark that he had discovered on the Gaza street, reminded him that synagogues were places of holiness.

“I couldn’t take Jews out of Gush Katif. I told them I won’t do it,” Peer said. “I would have had to destroy a Beit Knesset.”

The Disengagement came and went. Peer did not participate, and yet he somehow avoided arrest. Throughout this time questions kept filling his head – Why did I survive? Why did G-d save me? What’s my purpose in this world?

Following that summer, Peer moved to the United States with an army buddy and settled in New York City. Peer’s friend had family members who lived in Lakewood and who invited him to come for Shabbat. After a few months in America his friend decided to spend a Shabbat in Lakewood and Peer tagged along.

With their long hair and sandals, the two men looked exceptionally out of place in Lakewood. But the family welcomed them with open arms.

Though he had gone to synagogue every Saturday growing up, this was the first real Shabbat he had ever experienced. During Shabbat they sang songs together with the family and delved into the deeper meaning of many fundamental Jewish concepts. They also learned together some of the laws of Shabbat. Peer was deeply touched by the experience. He was mesmerized by the love he saw in the family and the beautiful community of Lakewood.

“Baruch Hashem my soul liked to listen to everything,” Peer said.

Peer felt the strong tug of the Jewish spark inside of him. After Shabbat he went back to New York City, packed up his stuff and soon after moved to Lakewood. He wanted desperately to soak up everything, to learn more about his religion.

“HaKodesh Baruch Hu kept me safe and sound in the army for this.”

Peer learned for one year in a yeshiva in Lakewood, and then spent time learning in Monsey and Boro Park. He’s now back living in Israel. The spark that he discovered on the Gaza battlefield has been the thrust of his Jewish growth ever since. And just as it helped him to survive his physical battle, it continues to inspire his daily spiritual battles as well.

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 To receive Michael’s articles via email or see back issues, visit

Published in the Jewish Press in February, 2010

How to talk to Our Children about Personal Safety

Here are signs to protect our children from danger:
In 95% of cases, the molester’s not a stranger. He’s someone you know and respect. He’s disarming. He is drawn to children. And he’s awfully charming.

This is a handy little jingle for parents to keep in mind, but even though it’s short, my rhyme is not for little children. In order to adequately prepare our children, however, first we need to be aware of the red flags ourselves. Then we simply need to schedule an “annual check-up” time to clearly and calmly bring up the subject of personal safety with our children.

What would be a good day each year on the Jewish calendar for us to easily remember to discuss this safety topic with our children? It’s useful to pick a particular day that comes once a year, so we’ll be more apt not to forget to do it. (We don’t want to discuss it too often, as we do not want to instill excessive fear in them, but we do want them to remain cautious.) Holidays that require substantial preparation are not appropriate times for such a discussion, but how about Lag B’Omer? The warm weather has arrived, so it could be a good time to remember to have a yearly frank, yet upbeat conversation about this important safety issue – maybe even right along with reminders about fire safety rules.

But if Lag B’Omer has long since gone by, and we have failed to have a prevention education with our children, it is essential for parents to cover this topic with their children before they have gone off to camp.

Parents can have a safety talk about the prevention of molestation with children as young as three, with age-appropriate adjustments being made gradually as maturity and understanding grows, year by year. We do this just as we would discuss any other safety hazard, with some increased detail for our older children.

We can start off by telling our three year olds that nobody should ever touch them in the areas that are covered by a bathing suit. The only exceptions would be a parent or a doctor, who may need to check those areas for health reasons and put cream on a rash in those private areas. If anybody wants to touch them there at any other time, for any other reason, they should say “no” to that person, even if that person is a family member, babysitter or counselor. And if somebody has already touched them in their private areas, they should tell you about it. We can tell them that if anybody ever touches them in a way that doesn’t feel right, they can ask the person to stop, try to get away as fast as they can, and tell you about it afterwards.

Another conversation, at age four, could remind the child of the basics that were discussed the previous year and add that family members may include older brothers, uncles, a step-father, grandfathers, and cousins. Neighbors and family friends may not touch the areas that need to be covered by a bathing suit either. And not only should nobody touch their private parts – nobody should touch any part of their body in any way that doesn’t feel right. If a touch feels strange to them, and they are not sure if it is wrong or right, they should come and ask us about it. We really want to know. Even if they feel silly asking us about it, we very much want them to ask us. We can explain that there are good touches and bad touches. And we can encourage them to ask us about any touching that they are not sure about as well.

At age five, we can tell them that they will probably have some questions for us after we talk with them about personal safety, and we hope they will feel comfortable to ask us their questions at any time. Too much information is overwhelming to a child, so we want to try to keep each annual conversation about this topic, short and simple. We can remind them annually that if anybody ever tries to touch them in a way that feels scary or wrong, even if it’s just a soft, stroking of their arms, some tickling, or picking them up, they can tell the person doing it to stop, and then they can let us know about it.

We can also add on, at whatever age we feel it’s appropriate, that nobody should ask them to touch or look at their private parts either. And every year there can be a reminder of this safety rule as well. We can ask them, “What if someone wanted to touch you and said to keep it a secret?” And wait for their responses. We can remind them that secrets like that are bad and dangerous, and those are secrets that they need to tell us.

Another important point that could be added one year would be that somebody who has been treating them nicely for awhile by giving them extra attention, treats, money, or gifts, may gradually or quite suddenly start acting in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. We can explain that this could be very confusing, as a child might feel that if the person has been so nice to them, that they should go along with whatever confusing touches the person may have started giving them. It’s very helpful to explain the typical “grooming” process in this way, so the growing child will at least be familiar with this possibility. With this awareness, a child or teen is much more apt to respond to inappropriate touching as an unacceptable real danger if, G-d forbid, his safety is ever jeopardized in this way.

As the children grow older, even through their teens, we can annually add to their basic training that if anybody ever asks them to watch or do things that feel scary or wrong, we hope that they will not feel embarrassed to tell us. We can let them know that it’s best to tell us right away, but even if they didn’t tell us right away, whenever they do tell us, we still very much want to hear about it because if something disturbing or frightening may have happened to them,it was not their fault. This needs to be emphasized, calmly and clearly, once a year.

It would also be helpful to explain to an older child that confusing touches can lead to holding on for a long time to confusing feelings. Some children may have even enjoyed certain aspects of improper interactions, like the extra attention it brings, and they do not need to feel ashamed of having this mixture of feelings. The best thing for their neshamas, however, is to not keep any kind of confusing feelings locked up within them. Great relief can come from talking about any disturbing secrets they may have with someone they feel they can trust. We need to reassure them that such burdens don’t have to be carried by them alone. We can also let them know that if they ever feel that they have something to share that they do not feel they can tell us, we can help them find an appropriate professional with whom they can speak.

In age-appropriate ways, as our children grow, we need to reaffirm to them on a yearly basis that victims of abuse are not responsible for the abuse. They need to tell an adult they trust about what happened, and continue telling until someone takes action to stop it.

By teaching our children how to guard the precious bodies that Hashem has given to them, we will not be abdicating our responsibility to them. It is still our responsibility to protect them, but this annual training will make it that much more possible for us to fulfill our parental obligations. In helping to protect our children from molestation, we are guarding not only their vulnerable bodies, we are also shielding their innocent souls.

Bracha Goetz is the author of twelve Jewish children’s books including Remarkable Park , The Invisible Book and The Happiness Box. She also serves on the Executive Board of the national organization,Jewish Board of Advocates for Children, and coordinates a Jewish Big Brother and Big Sister program in Baltimore, Maryland.

Originally published in the Jewish Press on Jun 28 2010

Outline of Parsha Re’eh

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

# 11 Blessing & Curses
# 12 17 Mitzvot
# 13 The False Prophet – Missionaries – Apostate City
# 14 Forbidden Animals – Fish – Birds
# 15 Laws of Shemitta
# 16 Pesach – Shavuot – Sukkot

# 11 Blessing & Curses
* Look! I have set before you a blessing or a Curse, the choice is yours!
* The Brachot are read on Mt. Gerizim, the curses on Mt. Eival.
* Warning to practise all the Mitzvot.

# 12 17 Mitzvot
* Destroy idols in the promised land.
* Don’t destroy any item with Torah on it
* Bring vowed offerings to The Temple on the 1st available festival.
* Only bring your offerings to the Temple site.
* Don’t bring an offering anywhere other than the Temple!
* Redeem invalid offerings.
* Don’t eat Kodshim Kalim before spraying its blood.
* Maaser Sheni produce can only be eaten in Yerushalayim.
* First-born male cows, sheep and goats eaten in Yerushalayim.
* Don’t eat Shelamim, Olah & Todah outside the courtyard.
* Don’t eat the first-fruits (7 items) outside Yerushalayim.
* If you have no Maaser Rishon for the Levi, give him Maaser Oni or invite him to your home for a meal. Thus you will not be neglecting him.
* All non-sacrificial meat must be ritually slaughtered.
* Never eat any part of an animal while it is still alive.
* Don’t eat the blood of an animal.
* Don’t offer an Asham, Chatat, or voluntary offering outside Yerushalayim.
* Blood drained from the offering must be poured on the Altar as prescribed
* Review the Oral Law. I have taught you and practice it for yourself and your children forever, onlywith learning and review will you be able to do what HaShem wants from you (rashi).
* When HaShem removes all your enemies from the Land, be warned: Don’t fall into the trap of following the idolatrous practices of the nations.

# 13 The False Prophet – Missionaries – Apostate City
* The Torah is perfect and complete, so don’t add or delete a single Mitzva.
* A dreamer or prophet that demonstrates his credibility with open miracles and then invites you to try a new god or religion, kill him.

Laws of Missionaries:
* Forbidden to love a missionary.
* Don’t agree or listen to a missionary.
* Don’t save his life.
* Don’t pity or have mercy on him by speaking in his defence.
* Judge him unfavorably.
* Kill him since he tried to persuade you away from HaShem.

Laws of an Apostate City:
* A claim made of a city that was persuaded to follow another god must be checked thoroughly by The Sanhedrin.
* If the claim is true, the entire city is burned.
* Don’t ever rebuild an apostate city.
* Don’t derive any benefit from the destroyed apostate city. 

# 14 Forbidden Animals – Fish – Birds
* You are My children
* Don’t mutilate your body in over-mourning or for idol worship.
* Don’t over mourn by removing your hair.
* Don’t eat any animal that is an abomination to HaShem.
* Signs of Kosher Animals
* Signs of Kosher Fish
* Signs of Kosher Birds.
* Don’t eat flying insects.
* Don’t eat an animal that was not ritually slaughtered.
* Separation between Milk & Meat
* If you are strict to give one tenth of your profits, you will become rich.
* Maaser Sheni Tax and its laws.
* Maaser Rishon Tax to the Levi.
* Maaser Oni Tax (poor man’s tax) 3rd & 6th years.
* The purpose of eating is to acknowledge HaShem’s Presence.

# 15 Laws of Shemitta
* Loans are canceled in 7th year.
* Don’t press fellow Jew for repayment.
* Press a gentile for repayment.
* Don’t refuse to lend just before Shemitta afraid your loan will be canceled.

Laws of Tsedaka:
* The only reason G-d blesses you w/ wealth is to give it to the poor.
* Don’t refuse to help a poor person.
* Open your hand.

Laws of a released Jewish Servant:
* After he served you, don’t send your Jewish servant away empty.
* Send him away with food gifts

Laws of First Born animals:
* Cannot use it for any work.
* Cannot shear its wool.
* First born animal is consecrated by the owner in its first year of life.
* It’s eaten by the Kohen in Yerushalayim and no Levites or Yisrael can eat it.

# 16 Pesach, Shavuot & Sukkot
Laws of Pesach:
* Destroy Chametz before 6th hr.
* Don’t leave over any meat from Korban Pesach after dawn.
* Count Sefira.
* Shavuot.
* Sukkot:
* Be happy on My festivals.
* Appear three times a year in Yerushalayim.
* Don’t appear on the festivals empty of gifts.

Chelsea, Marc and Gitel – Studies in Dark and Light

Like millions of others this morning I opened my browser to photographs of Chelsea Clinton clad in a rhinestone studded Vera Wang gown embracing her new husband investment banker Marc Mesvinsky clad in tuxedo, yarmulke and tallis.

According to news sources, Mesvinsky who attended Hebrew school as a child, is a halachic Jew, from both sides. It was he who insisted on the interfaith ceremony incorporating elements from two faiths and his bride, the former first daughter, herself a baptized Methodist agreed.

While all know too much about the ensuring traffic snarl ups and which A list celebrities did and didn’t attend, the media will never capture the real meaning of this event. To any Jew steeped in Torah, what happened last Sunday in Westchester was a disgrace. In front of several hundred of his closest friends and paparazzi cameras streaming his face all over the globe, Mesvinsky committed spiritual suicide separating himself and his future generations from the Jewish people for all eternity.

What is even more disturbing is that no one said a word in protest. Once upon a time, not so many years ago even non religious Jews were distressed when their children married out . They cried and wailed, boycotted the ceremony, some sitting shiva and cutting ties with their beloved children sometimes for life.

But in multi-cultural, multi-ethnic America we have so called rabbis who are eager to officiate at these ceremonies and. Jews like Mesvinsky who feel that by donning kipa and talis they are honoring their Jewish roots.

The ludicrous farce of the Clinton-Mesvinsky wedding is emblematic of the Olam HaSheker, the world of lies in which we dwell. One can take some consolation in the fact that many intermarriages fail..The odds of Chelsea and Marc ending up at opposite ends of a courtroom are quite high. In the meanwhile though any believing Jew must shed tears for this couple and the others following in their example.

As to the triumphant feelings this event certainly evokes in some assimilated Jews intermarried can hardly be regarded as a solution to anti Semitism. Jewish history proves over and over again that whenever we Jews fail to “make Kiddush” (sanctify our lives according to the Torah’s dictates) the non Jews “make havdala” (divide us from them through anti Semitic attack).

While the media glare of the Mesvinsky nuptial increased the quotient of global darkness, the world has other simple unknown people who leave a legacy of light. Consider, Gital Schwartz the 93 year old Aushwitz survivor who died last February leaving an estimated 2000 Torah observant decendants. From one lonely orphan emerged an entire dynasty, which even the New York Times described as a “fist in Hitler’s eye.”

Becoming Selfless

By Rabbi Micah Segelman

Rav Dessler made a number of important contributions to Jewish thought. One of the ideas that he helped to popularize and develop is that there are two powerful and opposing forces which motivate human action – the impetus to give and the desire to take. He writes that, “These two forces – giving and taking – are at the root of all character traits and all actions (1).” Taking can lead to great evils while giving is an essential trait of Hashem which we are enjoined to emulate.

The act of taking can appear in many different forms – accumulating possessions or enhancing social status are obvious examples. But even many seemingly generous acts are motivated by self interest. The common thread is that the motivation is to address a personal need. There is a void which we are trying to fill.

Giving is the opposite. For a person to give he must first feel complete. He (or she) feels no unmet needs – and from this position of strength reaches beyond himself to address the needs of others. In Rav Dessler’s words he is “like a river whose waters increase and overflow the river’s borders (2).” The distinction between giver and taker isn’t necessarily based on any objective difference in what they have – only in how they relate to what they have.

I’d like to focus on what I believe is an extremely important application of this idea. The need to feel good about oneself is almost as basic as eating and drinking. When a person’s need for self esteem is unmet he looks outside of himself for validation, usually in one of two ways. One way is to seek the approval and esteem of others. And the second is to try to find validation through achievement – I can feel good about myself if I’ve accomplished enough. When a person seeks outside validation he is taking instead of giving.

When a person looks to other people for validation he isn’t able to give to them because he’s too busy trying to take from them. Furthermore, a person who is dependent on other people’s approval is under a lot of pressure to conform to their expectations and is focused on the need to impress them rather than on doing what is most constructive in any given situation.

The tendency to allow our self esteem to depend on our accomplishments is common in our society where the prevailing mentality equates our worth with our achievements. This is counterproductive and will result in accomplishing less, since it’s very difficult to handle setbacks if they bruise our fragile ego. Our achievements will be limited and our judgment will be distorted by this conflict of interest. And as long as a person seeks to feel worth through his accomplishments, he is focused on meeting his own needs and is unable to selflessly give of himself for the sake of a larger purpose.

So how do we move past these unhealthy patterns? Leading psychologists advocate not allowing our self acceptance to depend on our accomplishments. Albert Ellis writes, “For when you do badly, or think you do badly, or think that others see you as doing badly, you denigrate your whole self and feel worthless . . . your conditional self acceptance often leads to self damning . . Unconditional self acceptance works much better than conditional self acceptance. It consists of your decision to accept yourself independent of your performances – whether or not you do well and whether or not you earn approval by others (3).” David Burns writes in a similar vein, “If you insist your worth is determined by your achievement, you are creating a self esteem equation: worth = achievement. What is the basis for making this equation? . . . You can’t prove the equation because it is just a stipulation, a value system (4).”

What I have found perplexing is how to reconcile these powerful and useful ideas with a Torah perspective. The Torah certainly doesn’t suggest that we look to the approval of others to feel worthwhile. But doesn’t our religion stress the importance of achievement? Don’t those who achieve more, or at least achieve a greater share of what they are capable of, have greater worth than those who don’t? Furthermore, how do we reconcile our insistence on doing what is correct and condemning sin with a perspective of unconditionally accepting ourselves when we may feel significant regret for things we have done? Doesn’t sin diminish our worth?

I believe there are powerful Torah ideas which can help address these questions. Ultimately the Torah provides a strong and resilient basis for self esteem while simultaneously giving great meaning to our achievements and life struggle to choose right over wrong.

Basic to Torah thought is that the G-d given mission of each individual person and the mission of mankind as a whole are of profound importance. The Torah’s basis for self esteem thus comes from the fact that we are worthy of the attention and interest of Hashem Himself and that we can give meaning to our lives and fulfill our mission by making good choices (5).

We must realize that our mission in life is to do our own individual best. Who among us thinks that their life will have the impact of Rebbe Akiva? Of Rashi? Of the Chofetz Chaim? Others are greater than us. But so what? My own individual mission has great meaning. Comparison to another person of greater talents is irrelevant. This idea is expressed in many places including in Rabbeinu Yonah’s explanation of the Mishna which tells us that “The work is not upon you to complete it (6).” He says that even if we are of modest intellect our Torah study is of great significance. And the Mishna in Sanhedrin (37a) teaches that the creation of the world was worthwhile even for a single person. This doesn’t only apply to the greatest among us – it applies to each of us. So our self esteem shouldn’t suffer even if we feel that we haven’t achieved everything we wanted to.

But what if we have squandered opportunities to achieve by making poor choices? In reference to the Mishna in Sanhedrin (37a) cited above, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel explains 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. Rav Finkel stresses that this applies even to a wicked person. Even the rasha can choose to change direction in life and thus his life decisions have great significance to Hashem (7).

My life continues to have great significance in spite of mistakes that I’ve made. Is it unfortunate that I may not have realized 100% of my potential and that perhaps others have done a better job actualizing themselves? Yes, of course. But does sin diminish our worth? If we go through our entire lives without utilizing life’s opportunities for positive and meaningful activity then our life will have had little value. But throughout the course of life our lives have deep meaning and worth because of the choices we can still make. Rabbeinu Yonah tells us that we should never be discouraged by the mistakes we have made. We shouldn’t be burdened by the weight of our sins. Becoming despondent is unhelpful and we should instead focus on the fact that Hashem desires that we improve ourselves (8).

The Torah approach to self esteem differs, not surprisingly, from the secular approach. But the common ground is that we must not be discouraged when our achievements fail to measure up to those of others or when we realize our failure to have fully achieved all that we can. Common to both approaches is also that dependence upon the approval of others is unhelpful.

As long as we look to our achievements or to outside approval for validation our interactions with the outside world will be circumscribed by our restrictive perspective. When we no longer have this dependence we’ll be able to look beyond ourselves. If we can focus on achieving greatness with our ego removed from the equation then our actions won’t be tinged with self interest. We will become selfless and will be emulating Hashem who is the quintessential giver. Our actions will emanate from loftier motives and we will achieve much more profound success.

(1)Rav Dessler, Michtav M’Eliyahu,Vol 1: Kuntras HaChessed, chapter 1
(2)Rav Dessler, Michtav M’Eliyahu,Vol 1: Kuntras HaChessed, chapter 8
(3)Ellis, Albert, Feeling Better, Getting Better, Staying Better (Atascadero, CA 2001) page 24. See also Burns, Dr David, Feeling Good (New York 1999) chapters 11 and 13, and Twerski, Rabbi Dr Abraham, Ten Steps To Being Your Best (Brooklyn, NY 2004), chapters 2 and 3
(4)Burns pages 331-332
(5)See the writings of Rabbi Dr Twerski and Dr David J Lieberman
(6)Rabbeinu Yonah, Avos 2:16
(7) Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel (The Alter of Slobodka), Ohr Hatzafun, Sefer Toldos Adam: Part B
(8)Rabbeinu Yonah, Yesod Hateshuva, and Rabbeinu Yonah, Avos 2:1

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