An Alter Mirrer and Beyond BT

By Yakov Spil

Years ago, I had the privilege of meeting a Yid who was among the distinguished group of talmidim, who are becoming more and more rare, known as Alter Mirrers. They learned in the Mir Yeshiva in Poland before the war broke out and then were transported “al kanfei haShechina” to Shanghai, Japan where they stayed through the war for three years. The stories that came from this period are just miraculous and go to show how the Yad Hashem intervenes for His Chosen People.

It was on Pesach, that I met this Rov. I wish I could remember the rest of his shiur on the “Arbah Kayses,” but it certainly was enchanting. But I do remember one resounding message to us.

Us? Yes, he spoke to us as Baalei Teshuva.

He said, “I met a yid and he comes to tell me that he’s a Baal Teshuva for ten years. I don’t understand dis. Ven a Yid decides to come to learn Tayreh, he is no longer a Baal Teshuva. He is a Yid like the rest of us doing all the things choshuveh Yidden do.”

It appears that this Alter Mirrer saw the term Baal Teshuva as something of a moniker, a label that was not really helping the person. It was tying him to his past in an unhealthy way. It could even be dragging him down and he didn’t even realize it!

When I recalled this last night after I heard he passed away, I thought how appropriate the site is called Beyond BT, it is exactly how he thought we should approach our treasured lives being a part of the Am Hanivchar.

His name is Rav Aryeh Leib Baron zl. He was known as Rav Leib Baronivitcher because he grew in Baranovitch and was very close with Rav Boruch Ber zl. When I met him, he was a Rosh Yeshiva in Montreal. He passed away in Yerushalayim Ir Hakodesh.

May Rav Baron’s memory be a blessing for us and we should be zoche to carry on with our Avodas Hakodesh k’dei lo sishochach m’pi zaro, in order that Torah is never forgotten from our lips and from those of our children!

Find Hashem where He can be found, I think what the Rosh Yeshiva told us is a mission: find yourself as a Yid and go beyond any labels. Be a yid who attaches himself to Mesorah the way the Torah wants us to and not according to any contemporary ideas and we will see the success we are looking for.

Teens at Risk and Baalei Teshuva Study- What do you think the results will be?

Last week’s AJOP weekly email contained the following:

Results of the First Study on Teens at Risk and Baalei Teshuva to be Released at AJOP Convention

Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education in partnership with the Association for Jewish Outreach Programs (AJOP) has conducted a groundbreaking study comparing adolescents who grew up in families who are newly observant, to adolescents born into families whose parents have been observant from birth. Conducted under the direction of world-renowned psychologist Dr. David Pelcovitz, this study was the first to look at this segment of the Jewish community.

I think that possible results might include:
a) A disproportionally high percentage of Kids at Risk have BT parents
b) Lack of parenting experience is a major cause
c) Not setting appropriate goals for children is another cause
d) More post BT mentoring and instruction by outreach professionals is needed
e) The many wonderful BT parents out there will be acknowledged

What do you think the results will include?

Do you think the recommendations for more post BT mentoring will bear edible fruit?

Do you think this will result in a further degrading of BTs in the Frum public’s eyes?

Over My Head

I don’t “wear” at work.

A yarmulke, that is.

Oh I wear it. Everyone who works in my office has seen me in my yarmulke. I wear it when I make a brocha [blessing] on my coffee and when I wash for lunch. You might see me in the corridor muttering something when I come back from the men’s room. My office is full of family pictures with me and my male family members all neatly capped on top. I’m not hiding anything, really. But the “modality” of my everyday interaction with colleagues and support staff and the rest of the professional world I inhabit is secular.

There is a little irony here. On my own blog, I used to describe myself as an “‘award winning’ ‘journalist.'” Lots of quotes, lots of irony, but the journalism I won an award for was an article I wrote for a magazine called Student Lawyer in 1988 called “A Lawyer and His Sabbath.” It traced my experience of becoming more religious during the time I was in law school and starting out in a big law firm. Despite its title the piece uses not Shabbos but the wearing of a yarmulke as a unifying theme. I describe how I concluded, way back then, that the right thing for me to do was to “wear” back when pretty much nobody “wore.”

I don’t think it was really journalism, being entirely first-person, but the award was from the Chicago Newspaper Guild. It’s called a Stick-O-Type Award and they make you a little stick o’ type describing what you won, your category, and your name, of course. I still have the award. I don’t still have the yarmulke.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. But it wasn’t. It was an awful idea, for a number of reasons, though they only became really clear much later. Each reason could justify its own Beyond BT essay. I will spare you that, however. In brief, here’s what happened:

First of all, while I was very cognizant of the moral responsibility I bore as an assertive, strongly identified orthodox Jew in the workplace, and I think I acquitted myself decently well on that score, I failed to appreciate an aspect of “representing” that was no less important: Competence. And while given half a chance I will try to demonstrate to anyone interested that I am a decent city lawyer at age 48, at age 27 I was a pretty mediocre big-firm associate. In an environment where you are the only one “wearing,” beware: You have to be more or less the best at what you do, and pretty much have to be the best at it to everyone who beholds you. That was a burden I failed adequately to bear.

Secondly, even at one’s best moments, in 1990 if you wore a yarmulke in a Park Avenue law firm, the message was, “I’m a rabbi who doesn’t really want to be here. But, you know — parnassah [the need to support myself]” It’s even worse when it’s almost true.

Third, internally, in the “Jewish” law firm where I worked, this yarmulka idealism went over like a lead balloon. I mean with the orthodox lawyers. They didn’t wear a yarmulke. Now this young guy living in Brooklyn who deferred his starting date by two years for yeshiva even comes in and he’s turning the firm into a bais medrash [talmudical study hall] with his black-velvet yarmulke?

And finally, there was the question I really should have thought through first: I do litigation. I go to court. I appear before judges, juries, court personnel. I interact with adversaries, witnesses. And I do so on behalf of a client — not myself. Not even, if I may be permitted, HaKadosh Boruch Hu [the Holy One, Blessed be He].

That’s not what I’m paid to do.

And if clients, especially, as it was at the time, clients of my employer, wanted “a rabbi” to represent them, that’s who they would have hired.

I tried. It didn’t work. That was then, that was there, that was me. I’m not telling anyone else what to do. But sometimes people who know me “wearing” are stunned to see me bareheaded. Others, even orthodox clients, have been utterly unable to recognize me when they meet me at a wedding, not only “wearing” but wearing a hat, too. And it all came, um, to a head when a frum magazine carrying my column accidently ran my law firm head shot — bareheaded. The calls I got from my kids when that hit the streets!

So now I’ve written it all down in one place. I don’t “wear” any more.

Ron Coleman blogs at Likelihood of Confusion.

Learning the Parsha

Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg has been quoted saying that a person can fulfill the Targum (translation) portion of Shnayim Mikra V’Echad Targum by reading the Art Scroll translation. (I’m assuming that a Metsudah translation would also suffice.) In addition the Mishna Berurah says one can fulfill one of the Shnayim Mikras (two readings) by following along in Shul on Shabbos during the leining.

Chazal want us to be conversant with the entire Torah so they instituted Shnayim Mikra. We can work towards that goal by reading the parsha once at home and once in the Shul and learning the Art Scroll or Metsudah.

It’s an important relatively easy Mitzvah to fulfill so why not embrace it.

If you want some additional English commentary on the parsha has compiled quite a collection over the years. Why not check it out.

A Sukkale a Kleine – Meaningful Succos Music

By Gershon Seif

When I was in elementary school back in the 60’s, Jewish music was a bit different than the kind of stuff that you hear nowadays.

On an album called The Rabbi’s Sons, there was a an old Yiddish song about a Jew who built himself a simple little Sukkah that can barely stand. His daughter comes in to serve the first course and tells her father that she’s afraid the Sukkah is about to collapse. He tells her not to worry. Their Sukkah is similar to the Jewish people living through their long and bitter exile. The sukkah will endure just as the Jewish people have endured.

There is something that gets me every time I sing this song. Powerful stuff from another world.

Here are the lyrics with their translation:

Ah sukkale ah kleine
Fun bretelech gemeine
Hob ich mir ah sukkale gemacht
Tzugedekt dem dach
Mit ah bissele schach
Zitz ich mir in sukkale banacht.

A sukkale, a little one,
Of meager boards
I made myself a sukkale
Covered the roof
With a bit of schach
I sit myself down in the sukkale at night.

Ah vint ah kalten
Blozt durch di shpalten
Un di lichtelech
Zei leshen zich fil
Es iz mir ah chiddush
Vi ich mach mir kiddush
Un di lichtelech zei brenen gantz shtil.

A wind, a cold one,
Blows through the cracks
And the little candles
They flicker so much
It’s a chiddush to me
How I make me kiddush
And the candles burn so still!

Tzum ershten gericht
Mit ah blasen gezicht
Brengt mir mein techterel arein
Zi shtelt zich avek
Un zugt mit shrek
Tatele di sukka falt bald ein.

For the first course
With a pale face
My little daughter brings in
She stands there
And says with fright
Tatale, the sukka is about to fall in!

Zai nisht kein nar
Hob nisht kein tzar
Di sukkaleh vet nisht ainfaln;
Di vintn vos brumn
Mir veln farkumn
Di sukkaleh shteit shoin gantz lang.

Don’t be a fool
Don’t have any tzaar
The sukkale won’t fall in
The winds that are howling
We will overcome
The sukkale, has already stood quite a long time!

Zie nisht kein nar
Hob nit kein tzar
Zol dir di sukka nit tun bang
Es iz shoin gor
Bald tzvei toizent yor
Un de sukkale zi shteit noch ganz lang.

Don’t be a fool
Don’t have any tzaar
Don’t let the sukka give you any grief
It is already
Almost two thousand years
And the sukkale, she is still standing all this time!

First Posted on Oct 12, 2006

Sukkot/Succos Links

Beyond BT Contributor, Rabbi Yonason Goldson on Sukkot and the War against Terror.
In his visionary writings, the prophet Ezekiel describes a great battle on the eve of the messianic era, when the all forces of evil in the world combine themselves into a great army called by the name Gog and Magog. The brilliant 18th century thinker, Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, interprets the prophet’s vision not as a military battle but as an ideological war between the philosophy of “gog” — which means roof in Hebrew — and the philosophy of sukkah, where those convinced that their fate lies in the power of their own hands and their own resources will attack the values of those who recognize the limits of human endeavor to influence the world.

Beyond BT Contributor, Yaakov Astor on Paradise Found.
Sukkot is the time we realize that even the “reject” has value. The bad — that which we thought had only negative value — suddenly becomes a springboard for the greatest good. Though we distanced ourselves from God due to sin, it is that very sin which now becomes the fuel upon which the fire of ahavat Hashem, love of God, is kindled. And it is that fuel which catapults us past the gravitational pull of our earthly makeup to heights unattainable via fear alone.

Rabbi Leiby Burnham on Turning Nothing into Something.
But what made it unique was that it commemorated someone finishing an entire chapter of Talmud by heart, and that every piece in the entire chapter was learned at least 400 times!

He is a world-renowned physician who has a practice that consumes enormous amounts of time, while simultaneously being a devoted father and husband, and an active leader in community organizations. Where was he going to find the time to finish a chapter of Talmud 400 times, a feat that he estimated would take a minimum of 800 hours?

In his remarks at the siyum, he told us that his solution was to look for “dead time” in his day, and to put it to use. He calculated that he had close to 100 minutes a day of dead time.

Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky on Why a Joy Filled Sukkot?
The source of the happiness described as simchah lies in enhancing one’s awareness of God and His providence, for with this awareness, one feels more complete. A person is beset with shortcomings and frustrations only because he considers himself a separate entity, unattached to God. Then his shortcomings are indeed shortcomings, and feeling that he is missing something is a true indication that he is genuinely lacking in an essential aspect of his life. Thus, atzav — “despair” — is a synonym for idolatry (Psalms 115:4), for its source is alienation from God.

The 60 Second Guide to Succos

Three Principles of Judaism
Judaism believes in the importance of both action and belief. The Jewish principles of belief can be divided into three categories 1) G-d is the source and ultimate authority over all existence, 2) G-d revealed his plan for the perfection of the world through the prophetic experience, 3) G-d exercises providence over the world in response to man’s actions to assist in bringing the world to its ultimate perfection.

Jewish Holidays and The Three Principles
Every Jewish holiday has a spiritual energy which man can access in pursuit of self perfection. Three of the primary Jewish holidays help us strengthen our understanding and connection to the three principals of Jewish belief. Pesach is focused on G-d’s existence, Shavuos is focused on G-d’s revelation and Succos is focused on G-d’s providence.

Succos and G-d’s Providence
Succos is a reminder that G-d provided and continues to provide a special level of providence over the Jewish people. This special providence guarantees the physical survival of the Jewish people throughout history and provides a special continuing spiritual connection between G-d and every Jew. This special providence was originally provided by the special clouds that surrounded the Jews when they left Egypt. This providence is renewed every Succos when we live in the Sukkah and when we hold and wave the four species of the lulav, esrog, willows and mytle branches.

Happiness and Pleasure
Succos is a time of special happiness. Pleasure is the experiencing of unity and completion, while happiness is the active pursuit of that completion. We experience unity in the physical realm in a musical piece, work of art or the beauty of nature, in the emotional realm when two hearts beat as one, in the intellectual word through the understanding and reconciliation of ideas and concepts, and in the spiritual world through the experience of the unity of the body and soul.

The Happiness of Succos
On Succos the end of the harvest season provides physical happiness, the connection to others through the many meals and collective prayer services promotes emotional happiness, while the spiritual cleansing of Yom Kippur and the sense of G-d’s presence in the Sukkah creates a spiritual happiness.

May we all merit to use the tools G-d provided us to achieve the highest levels of understanding and happiness.

For My Husband, Ode to Our Last Sukkah

We didn’t realize it would be,
The last sukkah of you and me.
Those boards, they stretched – it wasn’t wide,
Still all our children fit inside.
And grandchildren, as they came too,
And all the guests, thanks most to you.

The decorations that you saved,
All through the years, everyone raved.
How our grandchildren loved to see
What their parents once made at three!
The decorations grew and grew,
As each year brought us something new.

Now we go to our children’s home.
Now we are the ones who roam.
Yes, over thirty years have passed,
Our fragile house of hope did last.
As baal teshuvas we began this trend.
May our chain of sukkahs never end.
What was built came out of our hunger, our thirst.
It wasn’t our last sukkah. Just our first.

Bracha Goetz is the author of sixteen children’s books, including Remarkable Park , Let’s Stay Safe! and The Invisible Book.

The 60 Second Guide to Yom Kippur

While Rosh Hashanah is focused on G-d’s existence, authority and supervision of the world, Yom Kippur is focused on our role in G-d’s plan for the perfection of humanity.

We’re created half-spiritual and half-physical with a strong ego, so we’re conflicted between doing what is good (spiritual) and what feels (physical) or looks good (ego).

Judaism does not deny us physical or accomplishment pleasures, rather we’re instructed to make these pleasures secondary to a focus on becoming giving, emotionally mature, G-d aware individuals.

However, because the ego and body drives are so strong, we make mistakes and instead of driving towards the long-lasting perfection of our spirit, we pursue short-lasting and often self-destructive physical and ego satisfaction pleasures.

G-d expects that we’ll make mistakes and He gives us the means to self-correct and erase the negative effects of our mistakes on the day of Yom Kippur. In fact Yom Kippur is considered a joyful day and we eat a festive meal before the day begins and one after the fast ends.

To assist us in our self-correction, G-d instructs us to refrain from physical pleasures like eating, bathing and intimate relations and we focus on the greatness of G-d and put our egos on the shelf for a day.

Eliminating our physical and self-centered pleasures gives us the opportunity to introspect, admit and express regret over our limiting self-destructive actions and negative character traits. When accompanied by sincere intent to improve, G-d assists in removing the effects of our mistakes and allocates the resources we need to become the better people we want to be.

May we be successful in using this awesome day to set ourselves on the path of actualizing the greatness each of us possesses.

Poetry of Repentance

Only when I began to study Paradise Lost, John Milton’s epic re-writing of Genesis, did it to occur to me that being religious was not a sign of neurosis or flaky otherworldliness. In graduate school at Oxford and later at Columbia, for me and many of my fellow Jewish students, Milton was a safe way, without the risk of embarrassment, of experiencing the poetry of a religious sensibility. In earnest discussions of Christian redemptive history, the relationship between free will and divine providence, I lived, through Milton, the possibility of religious engagement.

I may have been able to suspend my disbelief about Christian theology, but when it came to the Jewish High Holidays, I preferred going to the West End Bar on Broadway to returning to my parents’ Long Island Temple. If I were lucky, the assistant rabbi would give a sermon resonating with my graduate school politics. But the public spectacle of repentance, the responsive reading, the instructions – ‘please rise,’ ‘be seated,’ ‘turn to page 374’ – was distant from the inner voice I had been cultivating through reading Shakespeare, Donne and Keats. Turning worship into political activism may have satisfied my social conscience, but it made repentance into something external, a way to avoid myself.

For us, today, the question of repentance, of teshuva or literally ‘return’ to a more authentic self, unblemished by past habits and misdeeds, may be even more vexed. Our knowledge of the complexities of psychic history – of transgressions, dysfunction caused by trauma, and obstinate devotion to self-destructive behavior – may make repentance seem an unrealizable fantasy. Further, an enlightened conception of the self as creative, not merely passive, makes us skeptical about miraculous atonement activated through divine intervention.

Yet the Talmudic sage, Reish Lakish, says:

Great is teshuva, for deliberate transgressions are accounted meritorious deeds; as the Prophet Ezekiel says, ‘when the wicked man shall turn from his wickedness and do that which is lawful and right – through them he shall live.’

Through them – transgressions – ‘he shall live’? To understand the paradoxical words of the sage – for me, it was a matter of granting him as much credit as I did Milton – requires a different suspension of disbelief, starting with a notion of time.

For Shakespeare’s Macbeth, there is only the ‘tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow’ of successive moments leading the ‘way to dusty death.’ Macbeth’s time is now popularized on t-shirts, in paraphrase, ‘stuff happens.’ Teshuva, however, is based upon a different sense of time, and the High Holidays, starting with the New Year, Rosh Hashanah, challenge us to see our histories – as a people and as individuals – in the shape of coherent stories. In the cosmic history described in the Rosh Hashanah service, the sounding of the shofar marks the beginning and ending of Jewish history, as well as the significant middle. Heard through the Rosh Hashanah prayers, the shofar-blasts resonate with the first breath inspirited by God into man at the Creation, the sounds of the shofar on Mount Sinai, and the shofar-blast that marks the end of time. Through this story, the present is no longer merely part of a chain of unrelated moments – ‘tomorrow and tomorrow’ – but infused with the knowledge of the future when the shofar announces the redemption of humanity.

This consciousness of time makes repentance on Yom Kippur possible. Not only does the nation have a sense of an ideal future, so too does every person – in which time-future connects back with time-present as well as time-past. Through the retrospective glance of repentance, past history – now not just neurotic obsessions weighing down the self – can be redeemed. But teshuva is not a divine fiat, nor a human one. For repentance is creative, an active process of integration, bringing together the diverse parts of the self.

So important is repentance, the Talmudic sages say, that God created teshuva before Creation, allowing for the unconventional story-telling that undoes normal cause and effect. Past actions do not bring about future events, but the ideal of an unrealized future re-creates the past so that a different outcome is possible. But though I may regret past deeds, indeed, in some cases must, I also acknowledge that I am who I am now because of who I once was. My imagined future was generated by my desires and, this is the sage’s insight, even my transgressions.

Atonement may be a divine gift, but one requiring the courage to acknowledge that the past, no matter how seemingly recalcitrant – no matter how ‘damaged’ I may feel – is mine to transform. The repentance that is transformative is an ‘act of love’ for only by accepting the self, however daunting a prospect that may be, are transgressions turned into a source of life. When repentance comes out of fear of punishment, and the past is merely renounced, transgressions are made null, but the self remains unchanged. But repentance based upon love works because intentions and actions, never simple, are open to reframing. The story I tell now reveals that the past about which I feel regret, perhaps even shame, is not only consistent with, but propels me towards a future I had not yet imagined.

‘No one,’ the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes, ‘can be better at living your life than you.’ But we find excuses in the personae we adopt – sometimes our public political and even religious commitments – to avoid who we are, and who we want to be. Repentance neither means neurotic fixation on past failure nor avoidance of aspects of ourselves we prefer to ignore. Nor does it mean believing in external rituals that guarantee purification.

Teshuva does mean a commitment to living our lives, and a faith that the stories we tell can give both past and present a new voice. Not a vicarious engagement, teshuva permits cultivating the poetry of a personal religious sensibility – starting with our own rewriting of beginnings (finding signs of life in transgression, trauma and loss), continuing in the reinvention of the present, and opening, finally, to the possibility of a different future.

Originally posted on Aish.Com

Get Moving

Sometimes you hear something short and to the point and it motivates you. My daughter sent me an email with the following short moshel:

There are a group of boys playing in the street. A bus pulls up and stops. The bus driver honks his horn because he needs to get through. The boys don’t flinch. They continue playing ball as if the bus doesn’t even exist. The bus driver honks again. The boys look up and, almost in unison, shout “We heard you!”. The bus driver replies “It’s not enough to hear me, you also have to move.”

It’s not enough to hear great and inspiring droshas and profound insights. You also have to move. Take a step, a small step. Get moving.

Share a SHORT insight or story for YK in the comments. G’mar Tov.

The Path Towards Truth is One You Often Tread Alone

Like everyone, I have my faults. I spoke a bit of lashon hara last week. I squabbled with my husband because our overdraft is plumbing the depths of our bank account; and I skipped bentching on shabbos because it was just us for lunch and I couldn’t be bothered.

But ultimately, I believe that I am accountable for all of these ‘little’ things, and that on Yom Kippur, if I don’t properly hold myself to account, then G-d will do it for me in a myriad of wonderfully aggravating ways.

Yom Kippur Teshuva and Baal Teshuva Teshuva are similar inasmuch as they are both ultimately a search for truth, and an attempt to get past all the little lies and flattery we feed ourselves to see who we really are, and whether we are really living up to the covenant agreed by our forefathers.

But I find Yom Kippur Teshuva is harder. It’s harder because when you are a BT you get very used to swimming against the stream. Becoming a BT is a constant battle against the people who think you’ve turned into a religious fanatic, and the people who you think are giving religion a bad name by acting like a religious fanatics. You get used to it; perhaps a part of you even relishes the fight – because you are fighting for a just cause.

And when you know that pursuing the truth in the secular world is often a lonely calling, it doesn’t bother you so much to be doing it alone.

But come Yom Kippur, I’m aching to go to shul and to feel like part of a wider community, asking Hashem to have mercy on us as individuals, as a kehilla and here in Israel, as a country, too.

But it’s just so hard. It’s hard because in many shuls, even where everyone is outwardly observant, there is a palpably complacent sense that ‘G-d will understand’. And, ‘I’m really a good person’. G-d is educated, you see. He knows that we all have busy lives, and that we both need to work long hours in order to pay for the house and the two cars and the expensive High Holiday tableware.

He appreciates that after a long day at the office, we are too tired to visit a sick friend, take a meal to a newborn’s mother or watch our neighbour’s kid for a couple of hours.

But I often wonder if the value system that we judge ourselves by is the one that Hashem himself uses. Sure, we say vidui and we bash our chests, but how many of us actually take a moment to really internalize what we are saying? We do lie, steal and cheat. We do embarrass other people and act insensitively. We are selfish and lazy – and these things apply to pretty much anyone you’ll meet in any shul in the world. And let’s not even get started on the fraudsters and adulterers.

Yet most of us act as if the millions of things we do wrong a year are petty infractions that G-d will wink at come Yom Kippur.

I was recently at a shiur where we were discussing the power of prayer. One of the participants told us that she doesn’t believe it makes any difference, but she still does it as a form of therapy.

In our secret souls, I’m sure that many of us would agree with her. Yom Kippur is not so much about making amends to G-d, as much as about making ourselves feel better.

And that’s why I find Yom Kippur Teshuva harder than becoming a Baal Teshuva. Every year, I wish that my neighbours in shul and I were on the same page, and that we all honestly believed that we had done some serious sinning that we needed to atone for, and that our prayers really matter.

And every year, I realize that most of us are just going through the motions. I’ve realized that even in a shul full of observant people, the path towards truth is still one you often tread alone.

Originally published on Sep 27, 2006.

The Ultimate Rebellion

By Rucheli Manville who posts great photos and writings at Rucheli’s Ramblings.

There was once a young man. He was raised in a good home filled with positive influences. He had the best education in a great community. His parents set him on a straight path towards success, but he had his own ideas of what he wanted from life. And so the downward spiral began. He started indulging in the “pleasures” of life… He demanded meat; he started drinking more wine than normal. His parents tried to curb his newly-formed habits and give him life advice, but to no avail. He declined to listen to them, and worse, he demanded that they fund his selfish habits! No matter what his parents did, he refused to turn his life back around. Left with no other choice, his parents are instructed by the Torah to bring him before the Beis Din (Jewish court) to have him sentenced to death. A tragic ending to what could have been such a promising life…

This is the story of the “wayward and rebellious son” in the parshah, Ki Seitzei. The Talmud (in Sanhedrin 71b) tells us that this story never actually happened… that in all the years of history, not a single “rebellious son” was ever actually found among the Jewish people. Supposedly, it was included in the Torah so that we can reap the reward for learning something simply l’shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven. Well, I’m not normally one to disagree with the Sages of the Talmud… but they’re wrong. The story of the rebellious child has actually happened. Don’t believe me? Just ask my parents.

My parents, thank G-d, did a fantastic job raising my sister and I. We lived in a modest home in a great neighborhood in one of the top areas of South Florida. I went to the best elementary, middle, and high schools in the state. My parents taught me self-confidence, self-motivation, and self-worth. I excelled at whatever I chose to do, and graduated high school with a full-ride offer to not one, but dozens of different colleges. I knew that within 10 years of graduating high school, I would be making 6 figures and be well on my way to becoming a CEO of a Fortune 500 Tech company.

I went away to university and things were right on track. My grades were great, I had incredible internships with some of the top engineering companies in the world, and life was good. Little did I know that a crazy Rabbi dressed in a penguin suit, along with his wife, was about to turn my life completely upside down…

A little bit of background first. When I started college, I was a “devout” atheist. I preached atheism. I was 100% convinced that science had a perfectly reasonable and logical explanation for everything. It came with the territory: I was an industrial engineer by trade with the small side hobby of quantum physics. Yet my Jewish soul was still alive and kicking after all those years of being suppressed once I had given up my Judaism after laining (chanting) this very parshah on my 13th birthday. Yes, my bat mitzvah was on my 13th birthday instead of my twelfth. Yes, I lained. Anyway, once I got to college I began looking for Jewish groups on campus. Not for the “religious” aspect of it, of course. I just missed the synagogue’s social scene. (At least that’s what my subconscious tricked my evil inclination into thinking.) And so I tried out Hillel at UCF. They had a nice building and plenty of money, but like David Brooks of the New York Times said last week, they had gone too far and “crossed the Haimish line.” It felt too cliquey and impersonal for me. At the time there were no other options, and so I decided that it just wasn’t meant to be and dove headfirst into the engineering and honors clubs instead. For the next year, Judaism was pushed to the back of my mind again.

This was my mental state when the Lipskiers moved to Orlando during my second year of college. Now, I’m not sure how he did it, but Rabbi Lipskier, being totally in tune with the times, somehow found a way to get the email address of every Jew on campus and proceeded to spam us constantly. From the second they moved into town, I had at least three event invitations in my inbox every week. Shabbat, a class, a barbecue, you name it. He even went on to campus a few days a week to hunt us down. Now for a while, I managed to successfully ignore their blatant attempts at attracting students to their events, but eventually they wore me down. And so one day, I called my mom.

“Sooo there’s this new Jewish group on campus and they’ve been spamming me with invites to stuff nonstop for a few weeks so I’m thinking about just going to check it out…”

She was SO excited that I actually wanted to do something reminiscent of my childhood days in Temple Sunday School. “Really? That’s great! What’s the group called?”

And so I told her: “I dunno, Cha-bad or something.”

And her response? “Oh my G-d, Kabad?! DON’T GO!”­­­

She then proceeded to spend the next seven and half minutes lecturing to me about how ‘Kabad’ is that group of crazy people that walk on Saturdays and they brainwash people and they oppress women because they’re so old-fashioned and that under no circumstances whatsoever should I set foot anywhere near this so-called Jewish group.

But, like the rebellious son, I could only listen to my parents for so long and so started the “downward spiral.” About three weeks after that conversation (and to be totally honest, I’m surprised it actually took three weeks), I decided to go check out ‘Cha-bad’ anyways. And so I called up Rabbi Lipskier at about 4:30pm on a Friday afternoon (which we all know is just about the worst time ever to call a Rabbi) and proceeded to explain at length how I kind-of wanted to come check out this event thing he was doing that night… but I didn’t know what it was, and I hadn’t been to Temple in about six years, and I didn’t know how to pray, and I didn’t know what to wear, and, and, and… And so Rabbi cut me off mid-sentence and told me to stop worrying, wear whatever I was wearing, and just show up at such-and-such address in three hours. And so, three hours later, I showed up to the Lipskiers’ house wearing jeans, a tank-top, and a pair of flip-flops. For Shabbat, my very first one.

Of course, like any Chabad family would do, Rabbi and Rivkie took me in with open arms despite my completely-underdressed-for-the-occasion attire. It was the exact opposite of the experience I had at Hillel. It was warm, the food was delicious, the people were friendly, and the conversation was relaxed. And somewhere deep inside, my little spark of G-dliness –my Jewish soul– was having a ball. And so I went back the next week. And the week after that. Rapidly it became my weekly pre-game before Friday frat-parties and clubbing. I mean, who wouldn’t want a four-course meal and several glasses of wine before meeting up for a night on the town??

After about a month, I think I finally told my oh-so-pleased mother. And after a few more weeks, I started going to the Tuesday night “Kabbalah and Kabobs” barbeques also. And then I started going over on Thursdays to help Rivkie cook for Shabbat. And eventually I started going on Sunday for the infamous “BLT” (Bagels, Lox, and Tefillin) event, even though I wasn’t exactly putting on tefillin. Before long, I added in Wednesday women’s programs, Monday night classes, and even gave up my hung-over Saturday mornings for some quality “family” time at the Chabad house. It was an addiction, I was out of control. I was losing myself… thank G-d.

That summer, my Rabbi convinced me to go on Birthright to Israel with the Mayanot program. I went. It was the most incredible experience of my life, and I loved it so much that I extended my trip and backpacked around Israel with six total strangers. One of them was the guide from my trip, a modern-Orthodox-ish college student from FIU. So even though the rest of us weren’t at all observant, we were respectful. The result was that when I got back to the states, I was keeping Shabbos(ish), Kosher(ish), and was even dressing more Tznius(ish). I wasn’t observant by any means, but turning off my phone on Friday nights and lighting Shabbos candles, paired with giving up pork, and on top of that, always covering my knees and shoulders (even if it was a t-shirt and jeans) was a HUGE deal for someone who was raised as Reform as it gets. And so when I got home, my mom broke down and cried. Literally, on the floor pleading with me not to be crazy because she would never see her grandchildren because she wasn’t Jewish enough for me. It was ridiculous, and it was all my fault… all a result of my rebellion.

Just as things were starting to get better and my family was getting used to my unruly behavior, I went with the Lipskiers to Crown Heights for my first Chabad Shabbaton. It was like a different planet… a whole city of penguin-looking rabbis and women wearing way too much clothing. I was overwhelmed, but something about it was entrancing. The modesty, the confidence, the respect people had for each other… it was enticing to someone who grew up in a culture of “bare all or be nothing.” I was hooked.

Before I even realized what was happening to me, it started getting more serious… All of the sudden I was demanding to have special (Kosher) red meat on Fridays and Saturdays… And I was drinking more wine than normal (making my own Kiddush when I was at home with the parents)… I started talking more about G-d than about my plans for taking over the tech world. I spent more time reading than the latest articles about the Big Bang. I stopped wearing all the nice clothes that my mom had bought me and started buying a whole new wardrobe full of “frumpy” skirts. And worst of all, I expected my parents to fund all of my crazy new habits. I had to have been the epitome of the rebellious child in the eyes of my family. Why couldn’t I just be normal?! But no matter what they did, no matter what they said, I refused to turn my life back around.

I’m sure there were times that my parents would have dragged me off to Beis Din if they had remembered the parshah I had read all those years ago. Fortunately, they didn’t. Not that it would have mattered, since keeping Torah and Mitzvos wouldn’t have seemed so rebellious in the Beis Din’s eyes anyway. But still, it was a cause of much strife in my family.

My grandfather was really the only one who was okay with everything that was going on at the beginning. One of the acronyms of Elul is “Es levavcha v’es levav”, speaking about how “G-d will circumcise your heart and the heart of your children,” an act that will arouse teshuvah (return). Well, it must have skipped my parents’ generation, but in Hashem’s quirky idea of humor, I was the one bringing it around full-circle. Grandpa’s acceptance was a start, and before I knew it, things were getting better. It wasn’t long before my family was making Glatt-Kosher Christmas dinners so that I could come home for the holidays (oh, the irony) and adjusting to my incessant need to dress like it’s mid-winter outside. I wouldn’t say that they were quite happy, but they were no longer ready to disown me.

I kept finding new ways to push my limits, to stoke the fire of rebellion just a little more. Eight days in the Florida Keys with 100 Jewish girls for Bais Chana’s Snorkel and Study program. A few more college Shabbatons in Crown Heights. The Sinai Scholars class on campus. Random plane trips to New York to visit the grave of a man I never met but felt like I had known my whole life. Lavish five-star JLI retreats every summer to listen to Jewish topics that no one else in my family cared about. But no matter how many curve balls I threw, my family adapted with ease.

Left with no other choice, I did something totally insane. You’re adjusting to my rebelliousness? Well then, that’s no longer rebelling! I’ll push you even further!! And so, almost exactly a year ago, I turned down a full-time engineering position making $65K a year to go be dirt-broke in a yeshiva somewhere in the middle of Israel. Surely, that would push any parent completely over the edge… and they lost it. Again.

My sense of social responsibility was completely out the door, I had no regard for the economic welfare of myself or those closest to me, and I had clearly given up on the idea of ever using my brain. I had effectively reduced myself to a life of “sitting in the kitchen and popping out babies,” as my sister so eloquently put it.

Hardly discouraged, I spent the year living life to the fullest. I was soaking up information like a sponge, trying desperately to catch my pathetic childhood Jewish education up to par with my college degree in engineering in the span of 10 months in a Beis Medrash. I was taking trips to places that could be found nowhere else on earth. I was walking on the same stones that my ancestors walked on thousands of years ago, when the Temple still stood. I was tired, I was poor, and I was loving every single minute of my time at Mayanot.

A few weeks after I got to Israel, my dad got a camera and Skype. We talked face-to-face for the first time in a little over a month. He had a beaming smile on his face the whole time, a novelty for my emotionally-grey father. When I asked why he was in such a good mood, he answered, “I wish you could see your face. I’ve never seen you so happy in my life.”

That was it. That was the turning point. I was happy, truly happy, and my family could finally see it. I guess distance really does make the heart grow fonder. Within a few months, my dad was more supportive than he had been since he was my softball coach when I was 12 years old. My mom and I were racking up triple digit phone bills again. My little sister was over the fact that she had a freak for a sibling. My grandpa started reading articles and watching videos on and and my grandma started lighting Shabbos candles again for the first time in decades. The tables had turned… The rebellion had spread. We’re all rebelling now, rebelling against the status quo, rebelling against this materialistic world with its fake morals and pathetic values system. We’re rebelling against the idea that money buys happiness. We’re looking for more out of this life, and I’m no longer the only one finding what I’m looking for in the letters of Torah.

The last four and a half years have been a constant battle, always uphill and never easy. But that’s what this parshah, my parshah, is all about… ki seitzei, going out to war. In this case, against myself. And although I’ve won many battles, the war continues on. But this month is Elul, and that makes the struggle completely different. Ki seitzei is always read in Elul, a time for teshuvah, a time for return. It’s time to win the battle and go back to what’s important.

And so, I’ll close with a blessing… may we all continue to live “ki seitzei.” May we constantly go out from our comfort zones; l’milchama – to go to war; al oyvecha – over our enemies, the yetzer hora and material desires; un’sano Hashem Elokecha B’Yadecha – we should always be able to realize that Hashem is on our side and that He will help us win these battles. And let us right now shavisa shivyoi – capture the captives of the yetzer hora, and let us recapture our souls and our very lives. May the beautiful spark that has been trapped inside each of us take this month of Elul to weep in Teshuvah, for a full month, as the parshah says. And through this battle and rebellion, let us be truly victorious over our enemies, and may this victory bring us to the beginning of next week’s parshah, where it says “v’haya ki savo el haaretz asher Hashem Elokecha noisen lecha” “And it will be that you will enter the land which G-d, your Lord, has given to you.” May we enter the Land of Israel together for the final time in the ultimate rebellion against the status quo, with the coming of Moshiach speedily in our days. Amen.