Feeling Human Beings

HASHEM said to Moshe, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the land; it shall become lice throughout the land of Egypt.’” (Shemos 8:12)

Say to Aaron: This plague was not initiated by Moshe for the soil did not deserve to be stricken by Moshe because it protected him when he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. Therefore it was stricken by Aaron. (Rashi)

What great deference is shown to the soil of Egypt!? Even while Egypt is being disassembled plague after plague Moshe is disqualified from striking the dust because it had saved him. What’s going on here? Does the dust of Egypt really care whether Moshe or Aaron hits it? What would be so terrible if Moshe would be the one?

I recently heard the following remarkable story: Rabbi Yisaschar Frand was approached after a lecture he gave somewhere in Connecticut, by a somewhat elderly gentleman with a slight European accent wishing to register a serious complaint. Politely but firmly the man insisted that he had a problem with something that Rabbi Frand had written in one of his books on Parshas “Lech Lecha” on the verse where Avraham is promised by HASHEM that He will bless those who bless Avraham. Rabbi Frand asked to be reminded what he had written. With almost perfect recall the man reminded the Rabbi.

There was a story told there with great attention to historical detail, about a Jewish family during the 2nd World War that in desperation, anticipating the brutal invasion of the Nazis, had to give up their precious son to a gentile family. They understood there was a good chance they may never return, and therefore they made an appeal to the host family that if by any chance they did not come back they should contact family in Silver Spring, Maryland. They were provided with all the necessary information before the parents disappeared.

After the dust of war had begun to settle it became clear that the parents were not coming back to pick up their child and it was a safe assumption that they had perished. The host family then took the child to the local priest and requested that he baptize the boy. The priest asked them why they were baptizing a now older child. It is usually done earlier. The parents gleefully related that it was a Jewish child that they were left to care for and how the parents had intrusted them to send him to relatives America if they failed to return. The priest listened to all they had to say and he then refused to baptize the Jewish child. He insisted that if the parents wanted him to be sent to his relatives that is what they are morally obligated to do, and that is what they did. As it turns out that Polish priest was later appointed to become Pope and so he stood on the world stage for many decades, Pope John Paul. Rabbi Frand was highlighting that perhaps the enormous honor that redounded to that priest was for doing the right thing and refusing to baptize a Jewish child and insisting he be reunited with his family’s family.

Rabbi Frand asked the man what was wrong with the story or the message of the story. At this the man became very emotional and he told Rabbi Frand, “I am that boy! How could you cast my adopted parents in such a negative light.?! They saved my life! They are like my real family! I send them money! I visit them every year! How could you write about them that way?!”

Rabbi E.E. Dessler ztl.. explains that of course the dust of Egypt is inanimate and void of feelings. Striking it would only have had a negative effect on the character of Moshe. For him to do so would diminish his sensitivity in the realm of gratitude. Now we can estimate “how much more so” with feeling human beings”.

Truth or Happiness.

It seems that many people come to Torah because they believe it’s true or because they think it will lead to a better lifestyle that will make them happier.

Which was the driving factor in your return to observance?

What was the driving factor in the majority of BTs you’ve spoke to about the subject?

Which reason leads to the most disappointment or disillusionment?

What are some of the obstacles with either reason.

It’s Starting to Look a Lot Like … December 25th

We American Jews of today are fortunate to be living in a place and a time that is very kindly to Jews. America has indeed been described as a “medina shel Chesed,” and truthfully, I don’t believe that there’s been any other place and time in our long Galus that was friendlier. Yes, occasionally in our long history, princes and caliphs welcomed Jewish merchants and their families to settle in their lands, bringing businesses and jobs and tax revenues that benefited both the ruler and the local populace…but we know all too well the painful end to most of those narratives.

I’m not of course shutting my eyes to the anti-Semitism that exists here, or to the many Orthodox Jews who still have fight in court for the right not to get fired from their jobs for keeping Shabbos or for wearing a yarmulke or for not shaving off a beard. But compared to the many places we Jews ran away from, or used to live in, or where there are now more dead Jews than live Jews (think Egypt, Syria, Lithuania, Poland, Spain….) it is blessedly peaceful.

And then we get to the month of December. Actually, now it seems more like November and December.

There’s no escaping it. The music is ubiquitous. Thankfully, a lot of the holiday hype is cultural-secular-kitsch rather than religious. Listen to the words of some of these so-called “Xmas” songs. (Or maybe not, they’re mostly terrible). For example, “Jingle Bells,” despite its long connection with the holiday, says nothing about “X” or “Xmas,” it’s just about riding in a “one horse open sleigh.” But that song, like a lot of other winter traditions, got co-opted, so to speak. I wouldn’t sing it near a shul or Yeshiva, but it’s not “Xtian.” I don’t think the songs “Let It Snow” or “Sweet Silver Bells” have anything to do with any “Xmas” themes either: they’re just winter songs.

I can remember once years ago that my oldest daughter, a Bais Yaakov graduate, ran around the house singing, “Frosty the Snowman.” (She evidently inherited my own offbeat sense of humor). Obviously she wouldn’t sing it at the Bais Yaakov, but it was more funny than anything else (again it’s not so much “Xtian” as hijacked into the holiday music repertoire). The best thing about all this Xmas music is that it vanishes on Monday, January 3rd, not to reappear for another ten or eleven months.

Also, somebody a long time ago decided that red and green are “Xmas” holiday colors, and that white and blue are Chanukah holiday colors. While I can sort of see the reasoning behind it (green for pine wreaths and trees, red for decorations, while white and blue are the colors of the Israeli flag and the tallit), it’s still sad that you can’t wear a red and green scarf because it looks too “Xmasy.” Likewise you can’t buy a kid pajamas with a snowflake design or a snowman pattern. Too “Goyish.” Too “Xmasy.”

The best thing about all this is the attitude of the Xtians themselves, we’re lucky that most Americans living in Year 2010 of the Common Era.don’t buy into the “Jews killed Jesus” rhetoric, we just have to keep out of their way at the “Black Friday” sales and smile when we ask the non-Jewish postal clerk for the flag stamps, please. I could buy into that smiling “Peace on Earth, Goodwill Towards Men,” stuff too, don’t we Jews greet each other with, “Shalom Aleichem,” and “Aleichem Shalom?” Then again, Muslims greet each other with, “Salaam Alaikum,” and “Alaikum Salaam,” and we all know how peace-loving the Muslims are….but this article is about December 25, not Eid al-Adha. (Another posting).

I live in the Borough of Queens, which is part of the City of New York. It is truly the melting pot of America. So many different nationalities, ethnicities and religions. Besides us Jews (who are also variously Americans, Russians, Israelis, Bukharians, Hungarians, etc. etc. etc.) there are also Buddhist and Confucianist Chinese, Hindus from India, Muslims from Pakistan and Bangladesh, West Africans from Mali and Ghana, Greeks, Italians, Koreans, Japanese, Roma [Gypsies], and American-born Blacks who belong to the many Xtian denominations. Nowhere else in the world could you find Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist storekeepers putting up Xmas decorations to lure in the Xmas shoppers buying gifts for the holiday. Only in America.

The December experience may be far different in towns and communities outside the City of New York. Friends who live in a suburb of Toronto, Canada tell me that the December experience where they live is far more serious and far more religious than the secularized-kitschy-wintery-Disneyized version that we get around here. Even then, my friends don’t go hide in a basement on “Nittel Nacht,” as Jews did in Eastern Europe years ago, fearing that the local “Galach” had whipped up “Xtian” frenzy, aided by alcohol, to go do a pogrom against the “Xkiller” Jews. Even those American and Canadian Xtians who attend church faithfully and deplore the secularization of their holiday generally don’t cause any trouble for us Jews. We’re in more danger from punk teenagers throwing frozen eggs on the night of October 31, Halloween, than we are from religious Xtians on the night of December 24th, Xmas Eve.

The biggest problem is what to say to our kids and grandchildren growing up who get exposed to all this. My daughter and her husband have a TV set, mostly used for kiddie videos and DVDs, the Sprout kiddie channel, “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse,” and football games for my son-in-law, a New York Giants fan. Their kids, my cute grandchildren, are 6-1/2, 5-1/2 and 3. Now when the commercials come on….the music comes on….the TV programs come on….this is the only programming during December, and now it reaches back to November too: Xmas programming. One Xmas special after another.

The obvious solution is get rid of your TV set. Of course, as a mother-in-law I don’t or can’t tell them what to do, they have to make their own life choices. For a lot of reasons (not the least being parental sanity) they prefer to keep the television. My son-in-law was saying the other day, he doesn’t know what to tell the kids about Xmas. I gave him some ideas, but as a shvigger I keep them just suggestions, not nagging. It’s best that he speaks to his own mentors, his own Rav, his own posaik, for advice as to what to do. How do you explain about Xmas to young Orthodox Jewish children? And maybe that’s only one part of the larger question of how do we raise our Orthodox Jewish children in a world that is mostly not Jewish and in many ways amoral and antithetical to our values? We have a lot more than just Xmas to explain to our children; we also have to explain to them on their level in a kid-friendly way about “bad touching” and “bad strangers,” and how to keep themselves safe from individuals who would hurt them. We can’t keep them in a bubble, and maybe we wouldn’t even want to keep them in a bubble, because then they wouldn’t recognize what evil is and how to stay away from it.

In the meantime, this week I’ll smile and wish my Latino Xtian co-workers “Happy Holiday” and “Have a nice weekend,” (they all wished me “Happy Chanukah” two weeks ago), and plan to spend December 24th like any other short winter Friday, cooking for Shabbos. Identical plans for December 31 the week after. (You might even catch me humming a “winter” song in my kitchen; shame on me – I should be humming Carlebach or Shwekey).

If enduring eight weeks of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is the price we have to pay for living in this Medinah Shel Chesed, then it’s a pretty small price to pay. If it all seems too much, get out the earplugs, and just remember…only 12 more days left until January 3!

Remembering the Conservative and Orthodox Jewish worlds of the 60s and 70s

I have been a B.T. since 74. This is how I remember the Conservative and Orthodox Jewish worlds of the 60s and 70s.

Orthodoxy was a lot less extreme right-wing at that time, and Conservative Judaism was a lot less extreme left-wing.

People were actually able to describe themselves as “Conservadox,” which would be nearly impossible to do nowadays.

Many Conservative Jews at that time kept some form of Kashrus and Shabbos, while there were married Jewish women, even Rebbetzins, who considered themselves Modern Orthodox but wore pants and did not cover their hair.

Most Jews had families of only two or three children (birth control was never discussed but unofficially practiced in some form by even strictly Orthodox Jews) and all Jewish children were pushed to attend and graduate college.

All Jewish boys, whether religious or not, were expected to support their families, and so were steered to become doctors, lawyers and dentists; girls were encouraged to pursue female friendly jobs like teaching as a sideline to their most important job, raising Jewish children and running a Jewish home.

Holocaust survivors never talked about their experiences, preferring instead to look ahead to the future generation of Jewish children rather than look back at the awful past.

The only hint was in the names of the Jewish children: e.g. Michael would be for the grandfather Mordechai who had died at Auschwitz, Linda for Leah the grandmother who had perished at Bergen-Belsen.

All Jews, Orthodox or Conservative or Reform, fervently supported Israel and bought Israeli products and State of Israel bonds.

Orthodox Jewish men wearing felt hats and dark suits were indistinguishable from the Conservative and Reform Jewish men of the 1950′s, as all men at that time wore felt hats and dark suits.

Few Orthodox Jewish men had beards, as all needed to go out and earn a living in a society that was hostile to bearded men; however, nobody asked a sheilah of a Rav as to which brands of electric shaver were kosher to use or not.

What ultimately changed the Orthodox Jewish world was that Jewish education, being low-paid, ended up attracting only the extreme right-wing, rebbes and morahs who pushed an extreme right-wing Orthodox Judaism on their students, for better or for worse.

Conservative and Reform Jewish education dwindled from the hated every afternoon Hebrew school down to once-a-week Sunday school down to a couple of Bar- and Bat- Mitzvah lessons at age 12.

Meanwhile, soaring crime and declining academic standards at public high schools sent concerned Orthodox Jewish parents to yeshiva high schools with demanding double curricula in secular studies and limudei kodesh.

Originally published as a comment.

The Value of Vignettes

Ron Coleman recently wrote about Gedolim biographies and their place within our “literature”. While some of the stories or vignettes that we read about a tzeddaikus (holy woman), an adam gadol (great person), or a baal mussar (ethical leader) might seem somewhat hard to believe and might even fall under the secular label of an “urban legend”.

One such story, that appears below, has several versions. It’s almost like one of those old “Chose your own Adventure” kids’ books from the early 1980s. The versions I have read sort of follow this pattern and you can pretty much switch around any variable:

Once, while traveling at night with a student
a) Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin, aka Rabbi Yisrael Salanter
b) Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm
c) Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagen, the Chofetz Chaim

stopped at
a) an inn.
b) the home of a former talmud.
c) a local eating establishment.

Since it was evening, he decided it was time to eat and asked for some soup. When the bowl was placed before him and he took his first spoonful, he found that the soup had
a) been undercooked.
b) spoiled.
c) way too much salt in it.

Not wanting to embarrass the cook, he order multiple bowls of the soup, until there was none left in the kitchen for anyone else. Even his companion didn’t get any. After their meal, the two travelers left and the student asked is teacher why he ate up all of the soup? The student knew that his pious teacher wasn’t one to give into excessive cravings for any type of food or drink. The teacher then explained what the soup tasted like and that he decided to the entire supply of it, so that he could save the cook the embarrassment of
serving something inedible to others.

Most will admit that this is a cute store (no matter what version you pick). The idea behind it is threefold. Firstly, it emphasizes the important Jewish value of not embarrassing another person. Secondly, it shows that Jewish leader was willing to put his own hunger, health, and nourishment aside at any given moment. Thirdly, it’s important to sometimes share with others the reasons we do what we do, especially if it seems out of the norm.

It happens to be a great story to share with kids or guests at the Shabbos meal (but after everyone has eaten desert and thanked you for the meal). Recently I experienced something that made me not only think of this story, but actually got to “live out” the story. Recently I was eating Shabbos lunch and I decided to pour myself some water from pitcher. As I poured the water into my glass I noticed that several tiny bubbles were forming inside my cup. This meant either one of two things. There must have been soap left in the pitcher or soup was left in my glass. I quickly drank my cup and then became quite thirsty and ended up finishing the entire pitcher of water. Afterwards, offered to go into the kitchen and refill the pitcher and my glass. I rinsed both a few times and returned with a bad taste in my mouth and plenty of water for everyone else.

Am I a nice guy? Usually not. Was I willing to take one for the team? Maybe. Did I end up blowing soap bubble from my mouth? No. However, I did read a store about someone much greater than myself and tried to apply the lesson.

Chaim and David Linn – the Cover Story Article on Hamodia Magazine This Week

David Linn and his brother Chaim are the cover story of this week’s Hamodia, so we thought it was appropriate that we repost this piece and the great song Chaim wrote: Davey Pray mentioned in the Hamodia article.

Yasher Koach also to regular Beyond BT contributor Michael Gros for penning the article.

Live on the Radio: The Seeds of Teshuva of a Nascent Rock Star

I previously posted a little bit of my brother’s story here. Here’s the prelude.

Back when Chaim was Jonny, he and I lived in different worlds. He on the West Coast, I, in the East. He, a bohemian dabbling in New Age religion and eventually “Messianic Judaism”, I, an observant BT. He, fully living the life of a single, recent college grad, I, a Law School Student in my Shana Rishona (first year of marriage) expecting my first child.

The best advice anyone ever gave me was my Rov telling me not to cut ties with my brother, even after he wrote me a letter advising that he had accepted Jesus as the messiah. My Rov told me “Let him know that you think what he’s doing is wrong but tell him you love him and will always love him and tell him that you will be there for him if he ever needs you. Do not cut him off!”
Read more Chaim and David Linn – the Cover Story Article on Hamodia Magazine This Week

Almost Trashed

This is what Alan found in the garbage one day:
movie ticket stubs,
crumpled candy wrappers,
a partially eaten ham and cheese sandwich,
yesterday’s newspaper,
empty soda cans,
crushed cigarette butts,
and an old pair of tefillin.

Then Alan suddenly understood why
he had been desperately searching
through garbage
for years and years.
He must have known,
deep down,
that along with the trash,
what still had value, the most value,
was also being thrown away.

Alan stuck his hand into the garbage
and pulled out the tefillin.
for years and years,
in turn,
the tefillin searched desperately,
found its way
through the garbage piled high in Alan,
and pulled out Aharon.

Bracha Goetz is the Harvard-educated author of fourteen Jewish children’s books, including Remarkable Park, Let Your Fingers Do the Mitzvos and The Invisible Book.

A Roadmap for Torah Chinuch

By: Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan

A parent in our community, who had consulted with me over the past several years concerning the chinuch of his children, recently informed me that he pulled his children out of our local schools and chose to “home-school” them instead. When I expressed my shock over his decision, a story of woe followed. He told me that the midos of insensitivity, rigid conformity and skewed values displayed by the schools in our community were the direct cause for this decision. Though I am not in a position to confirm or disprove the assertions that were made, I felt compelled by these unfortunate circumstances to address the matter of chinuch in my drasha on Shabbos.

A Road Map for Chinuch.

The first Rashi in Chumash poses the following rhetorical question: why does the Torah begin with the narrative of creation instead of beginning with the first mitzvah of “hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chodoshim” (this month is for you the first of months). Rashi’s answer concerning HaShem’s right to give Eretz Yisroel to the Jewish people explains why the first parsha (or parshios) of Beraishis appear at the beginning, but it doesn’t fully address the need to have the entire narrative of the Avos precede that first mitzvah.

One possible explanation might be that by using this particular order (the story of creation followed by the narratives of the Avos, yetzias Mitzrayim and the giving of the Torah), the Torah intends to teach us the general structure of Avodas Hashem and most importantly the paradigm of Torah Chinuch for all time.

The Baal HaTanya in the first Igreres HaKodesh (holy letters) describes the structure of the body and how it relates to Avodas HaShem. The first part of the structure is the mosnayim, the thighs, which represent emunas HaShem – belief in HaShem as Creator of the world. This is the foundation of everything, as the Gemara states (Makos 24a): “bo Habakuk v’he’emidon al achas, tzadik b’emunoso yichyeh” (Habakuk came and set it on one thing: the tzadik (righteous person) lives with his emunah). The next part of the structure is the body and the extremities. The body is the means for observance of mitzvos and the extremities (right, left and center) represent the emotions of love, awe and mercy which provide the energy that drives actions and are therefore all integrated with the body.

This structure reflects the course that the Torah follows as well. First we find the narrative of creation, which is the basis of our emunah that Hashem is the creator of the universe and controller of everything. This emunah represents the “thighs” of the Torah, upon which all else is built. The Torah structure is laid out in the first two parshios of the Torah. This foundation is followed by the narrative of the Avos (patriarchs). The Avos are well known to represent the three primary emotions: Avraham, love; Yitzchok, awe/severity; Yaakov, mercy/praise. So once the foundation of emunah has been established, the next step is to develop the emotions of love, awe and mercy/praise of Hashem. In this way, we learn to experience the love that Hashem has for each one of us. This represents the body and the extremities. Finally, we come to story of Matan Torah, the receiving of the Torah which represents the head – the study and knowledge of Torah.

This system also describes the process of Torah Chinuch.

The first step in chinuch is to inculcate emunas HaShem into the child – the pure, simple belief that Hakadosh Boruch Hu created the entire universe and everything that is in it. Furthermore, we teach the child that each and every one of us was personally created by HaShem and chosen, individually, to be one of His people. This foundation (the sturdy “thighs”) must occupy the most important place in the chinuch of a child and must constantly be reinforced, as Dovid Hamelech tells us in Tehillim “ure’eh emunah,” feed (pasture) the emunah because it requires continuous nurturing. This is the first priority of the chinuch process.

The second step is the development of the emotions of love, awe, and mercy (praise) of HaShem. Since it is these emotions that drive action, the success of this facet of avodas HaShem determines the way an individual actually lives his daily life. This, therefore, must be the second priority of the chinuch process.

The third step is the acquisition of knowledge and the skills to engage in the lifelong affair of Torah learning. When this order of priority is properly developed, the learning (driven by love and awe of HaShem) is a joy and a pleasure, rather than an anxiety-producing experience that is avoided as soon as one is able to do so.

Unfortunately, it seems that the chinuch system we now have in place has these priorities inverted! Knowledge and skill-sets have become the supreme priority, if not the sole measure of successful chinuch. The magnitude of the problem (which is growing at an alarming rate) that we observe today with drop-outs from the system and the general disinterest of so many of our children, can be directly attributed to this distortion of the true Torah chinuch process.

Let me take this a step further.

The Gemara in Pesachim explains the posuk in Lech Lecha where HaShem promises Avrohom that ואעתך לגוי גדול ואברכך ואגדלה שמך והיה ברכה I will make you into a great nation (this is why we say in the Shemoneh Esrei “the G-d of Avrohom”); and I will bless you (this is why we say “the G-d of Yitzchok”); and I will make your name great (this is why we say “the G-d of Yaakov”). I might think that we should also conclude the blessing with all three names, but the posuk states and you shall be a blessing (with you, Avrohom, it [the blessing] is sealed and not with them). Therefore, we conclude the blessing with “[the] shield of Avrohom.”

As mentioned earlier, the three Avos represent the three primary emotions: love, awe/severity and mercy/praise. These three are also in their appropriate order for the proper chinuch process. The first approach to chinuch by parents or teachers must be love. The child must truly feel that he/she is loved by the teacher/parent, and they must emphatically communicate the love that HaShem has for the child just as he/she is.

Next in sequence comes discipline. Love without discipline is destructive. However, discipline can only come after love has been well established. Otherwise, discipline can produce negative consequences. As the posuk states: “(only) the one whom He loves does HaShem rebuke;” first love, then rebuke.

Next in sequence is praise. Praise is a critical factor for a child’s development. However, praise should only be given when the child has some real achievement and success. A child must feel that he/she is succeeding and deserving of the praise that is being given. Only then is the praise genuine and meaningful. In order for this to happen, achievable goals must be set for the individual child. The posuk in Mishle states חנוך לנער על פי דרכו. The posuk uses the Hebrew singular, “the child,” not “the children,” and “according to his way,” also in the singular. Unrealistic and non-specific goals are perhaps the single most destructive force in chinuch.

Here again, our current system is often programmed for failure by establishing scholastic goals and values that are unattainable for many of our children.

Finally we are told “with you (Avrohom) it (the blessing) is sealed and not with them (“the shield of Avrohom.”) Other emotions are necessary and important, but in the final analysis, love is the bond that holds everything together. A child who is convinced that his/her parent/teacher truly loves them is the child who will put in the effort to succeed, provided, of course, that the goal is attainable.

Let me share with you what the parent at the beginning of this article told me.

“Rabbi you know how much effort I have put in to my Yiddishkeit. I wasn’t brought up this way but came to it later in life. It was a real struggle to change my entire life around and make Torah the focus of everything I do. Rabbi, of what value will all of this effort be if I will not have ‘frum’ grandchildren?”

I don’t know about you but I tears came to my eyes when I heard this.

Can we, as a community, justify telling this father: “Sorry your children just don’t have the skill sets we are looking for in our school”? Can we bear the thought, as we stand before HaShem, that we are telling Him: “Sorry, they just weren’t a good fit, so we abandoned them”?

It is essential for us to demonstrate that the Torah way of life places its highest value on simple emunas HaShem, sincere commitment and love of HaShem with genuine, passionate fulfillment of mitzvos. In fact, the Torah teaches us that the ultimate quality that HaShem values above all others is “You found his heart faithful before You” (Nechemia, 9:8). These are also the qualities to which everyone can aspire and which they can indeed attain. We also must stress the value of Torah learning, but that is a goal that has to be tailored for each person individually.

When this becomes the ideological orientation of our chinuch system, we will succeed in bringing up a full generation of Torah-committed Jews.

Chanukah – the Prototypical Baal Teshuva Holiday

What’s the prototypical Baal Teshuva holiday? Perhaps it’s Rosh Hoshana with it’s new beginning. Or Yom Kippur with it’s focus on Teshuva. Or the unparalleled joy available us on Succos. Or the rediscovering of true freedom on Pesach. Or the celebration of our new found wisdom in Torah on Shavous. Or partying for the sake of Heaven on Purim.

Let’s make the case for Chanukah. The Greeks opposed Judaism because it’s G-d centered viewpoint was in direct conflict with their nature centered perspective.

Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky explains:

The Greeks believed that the only reality is the physical reality of nature, and that nature was an absolute. If there is a drought, it is the result of natural cycles, and man has to wait out these natural cycles. If calamities befall the world, we search for geopolitical, economic, social, or psychological factors to explain them. G-d has no input in the world after its creation, and it is propelled by fixed forces.

The Jews believed that there is an ongoing relationship between G-d and man, and that the laws of nature are related to a spiritual reality. These two ideas are embodied in Shabbath and in Kiddush HaChodesh, sanctification of the New Moon. Shabbath, the seventh day, imbues the six days of creation with a Kedusha, an INTERNAL spiritual reality which the Greeks denied could exist. And Shabbat embodied a Brith, a covenant, between G-d and the Jewish people, testifying to a unique relationship that existed on an ongoing basis between them. Kiddush HaChodesh manifests man’s influence over the spiritual process. Without man’s input, there are holidays with no holiness. Man can actually create (hidden) spiritual reality.

Rabbi Karlinsky explains how the miracle of the oil brings home the message that the physical is rooted in the spiritual:

The Mishkan and the Beit Hamikdash are the meeting places between infinite G-d who descends to manifest his presence in the finite world, and finite man who strives to elevate himself to the heights of an infinite G-d. It is the most tangible manifestation of the concept of “chibur elyon v’tachton,” the unification of the transcendent spiritual world with the material physical world.

But the challenge of a Jew is to reveal that unification in the ongoing functioning of the world, in nature, and in man himself.

The rising and setting sun, the rainfall, the birth of a baby, and all the daily events which we take for granted as “nature” are in fact as miraculous as a one-day quantity of oil burning for eight days. To answer the classic question of the Beit Yosef, we can understand the eight days of Chanukah as our declaration and as a revelation of the existence of Divine reality in every aspect of nature, an identity between the one day for which the oil burnt naturally and the seven days when the Menora burnt with no natural explanation. The days of miraculous burning were made possible through the recognition of that inner reality of the natural burning, a reality that truly exists only because of the unification of the Divine with physical matter. This is a reality not apparent when one looks only at the surface, limited to observable nature, represented by the number seven.

I think this is what attracts many BTs to Obsrvant Judaism. They sense that there’s something greater than the physical and when the portal of Torah introduces them to the world of the spiritual they know they’ve found the truth.

Unfortunately many ex-BTs don’t actually cross the threshold to the reality of spirituality through Torah, Tefillah and mitzvos so they retreat back into the world of the physical.

Chanukah is the prototypical holiday of the Baal Teshuva because it’s focus on the battle between the physical and the spiritual is familiar territory for us. It’s also our holiday because it keeps us aware that we need to continue to learn and progress in Torah, Tefillah and mitzvos to continue to hold on to that spiritual reality.

An Issue of Trust

An Excerpt from

An Issue of Trust

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

Parshat Mikeitz overlaps this week with the celebration of Chanukah. Interestingly, it brings up an issue that defines the very essence of the holiday — bitachon, trust in God.

But the story of Chanukah illustrates a deeper concept of bitachon as well. The victory over the Syrian Greeks that Chanukah serves to commemorate is the redemption of one of the four major exiles of Jewish history.

When the earth was astonishingly empty, with darkness upon the face of the deep (Genesis 1:2). Rabbi Shimon interpreted this verse as referring to the four kingdoms that took Israel into exile. The word “empty” refers to Babylon, as it is written, I have seen the land and behold it is empty (Jeremiah 14); “astonishingly” refers to Persia, as it is written, and they made extreme haste; and the word “darkness” refers to Greece, who darkened the eyes of Israel with their edicts, because they said to them “write on the horns of the ox that you have no share in the God of Israel…” (Genesis Rabba 2:4)

Each of the four kingdoms is distinguished by the fact that it provides an alternative organizing principle to the one offered by Israel around which human society can be organized. As humans are intelligent, they cannot live in a senseless world.

Israel explains the world as a place God created in which man can earn his reward by serving God. But the Greeks envisioned the world as a self-contained entity. God was a part of it, but Aristotle defined God as a first cause who created the world not because He chose to, but because it was in His nature to do so. Consequently, the world He created was exactly the world He was compelled to create. Man has no recourse but to come to terms with the world he lives in, for the natural world constitutes his entire reality. Greek culture rejects Judaism on the grounds of practicality.

This rejection is focused more at Torah study than at actual observance. The investment of so much effort in knowledge that does not seem to improve man’s lot by an iota seems futile to the Greek mind. All the divisions of knowledge organized by Aristotle were designed to improve man’s lot.

Jews cannot live without a close relationship with a personal God.

But perhaps it can be argued that Judaism is a practical necessity for Jews as Jews cannot live without a close relationship with a personal God. Just as one doesn’t think of one’s children in terms of practical advantages, and would never consider selling them for any kind of price, an emotional attachment to God cannot be measured in terms of its utility either.

Maharal explains that this is the proposition the Greeks were shooting down by making the Jews write on the horns of the ox. This ox is a reference to the golden calf. If the people who stood at Mount Sinai could serve an idol a mere forty days after the experience of bonding with God in such an intensive way, this amply demonstrates that Jews can manage quite well without their attachment to this God of theirs. In the post- First Temple world, Judaism is of no practical or emotional necessity, so why stubbornly cling to it?

The downside of Greek knowledge, which is fully shared by the modern secular culture (which is its great grandchild) is that it is forced to accept a pointless universe. If the universe was not created for any purpose by an intelligent God who designed it in conformity to His purpose, it just is. And, human beings, as they are a part of this pointless universe, also have purposeless lives — they live and they die and it all makes no difference.

It is precisely in this area that Torah knowledge is focused. The Torah teaches us the purpose of the universe. It explains how and why it was created, what God wanted to accomplish with it, and how the purpose of human life relates to God’s design. Man lives in a world of relationships, not in a world of practicalities. The practicalities of the world are related to its purpose and have no importance in themselves. They merely provide the venue in which the relationship between God and man can develop.


The clash of cultures that Chanukah commemorates was over the willingness of the Jewish people to live in a practical but purposeless world, or to insist to the point of self-sacrifice on leading lives of significance and meaning.

Bitachon is only rational in a word that has purpose and meaning. If this is truly such a world, than we can place our trust in God that He will never allow considerations of practicality to force us into leading meaningless lives. No matter what economic or military force may be aligned against the practice of Judaism, a Jew can always succeed in leading his life according to Torah values if he is willing to undergo some self-sacrifice.

Bitachon is the certainty that God will never demand more self-sacrifice than one is capable of. A person who approaches life with bitachon learns to expand his own self-perceived limits. He knows that, if God asks him for more self-sacrifice, then he is capable of demonstrating it.

Read the whole piece here.

What’s Your Chanukah Inspirational Take Away?

What’s Your Chanukah Inspirational Take Away?

a) Miracles are a reality

b) Wars are won through Hashem’s help

c) Hashem always saves the Jewish People

d) We need to show Mesirus Nefesh for Torah

e) We must view the secular through the prism of the spiritual

f) We need to introspect on our Hellenistic tendencies

h) We should always strive for spiritual greatness

i) Our first focus should be burning away the negative like Shammai

j) Our first focus should be increasing the positive like Hillel

k) Even in the darkest hour, the Jewish People always have the pilot light on

l) Other