Shabbos Gets Better and Better Because…

Shabbos Gets Better and Better Because…

…it starts earlier. I know that some of us think this, but I’m saying it. Hear me out, it’s the same 25+hours. While I am all for a long afternoon in the “Shabbos” park and playdates that seem to go on for hours, I like the winter months.

I happen to like the fact that in the winter, I can chose to go to a longer Shabbos night davening (like a Carlebach-style minyan) and not have to worry about keeping my family starving and waiting for me at home.

I like the fact that after dinner, my wife and I have time to spend with our kids without feeling guilty about keeping them up late. We often play games, schmooze, and on occasion, I have learned with my older kids. Also, our shul has an oneg every few weeks at the home of our Rabbi, so it’s nice to be able to get out and socialize, as well.

The truth is, Shabbos gets better and better as we and our children get older. Having children in kindergarten, fourth grade, and sixth grade means that they sometimes play together, are able to initiate and participate in parsha-based discussions and general “table talk”.

My son, recently was learning the halachos of kiddush in school and mentioned that by drinking from the kiddush cup and pouring the wine into other cups, I am creating in a “Kos Pagum,” a “deficient cup,” from which it is improper for anyone else to drink from. After looking up his source (the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch), researching it, and consulting my Rav, we altered the distribution of the kiddush process. Had my son not been learning this, we would have never changed our system.

My two older children also are in sleep over mode. Sometimes they will will have friends sleep over and other times they will sleep someplace else (for Shabbos or after Shabbos). Not only does this allow our children to be exposed to how other Torah homes operate, but it gives them a feeling of independence.

As someone who started keeping Shabbos when I was 16 (now I am 41), I never went through the often rough transition of switching in my adulthood to Shabbos-mode (like the oven). In the end, Shabbos is totally what you make.

Why BTs Should Not be Part of the “Chumra of the Month” Crowd

By David Feinder

There is currently a phenomenon in the frum world to follow adopt Chumrot in a manner that almost resembles the “Keeping up with the Jonses” from the 1950s. While it is true that Pirkei Avot may say that a Torah Scholar should sleep on the floor, eat bread and salt, etc., that is something to strive for. It does not mean that you should do so, nor must it be taken literally. BTs are often under pressure to do as much as possible and be as strict as possible as quickly as possible. However, there are plenty of reasons to not belong to this crowd and here are a few of them.

It is always easier to simply forbid something than to permit it. To permit something requires more study of Torah as you must understand the reasons why something is permitted and under which circumstances. Simply saying “You can’t do xyz” is lazy. BTs who have worked to reach the level that they are at quite simply are above taking the easy route and should try to understand when something is forbidden, when something is allowed and when to consult with a Rav.

Many Chumrot originated as personal Minhagim that a given Rav or Rosh Yeshiva had for a specific reason and their students or community took on that Chumra without understanding the reason. My younger brother nearly did this while in Yeshiva when he asked his Rav if he should fast on Erev Shabbat. His Rav gave him a resounding no and proceeded to tell my brother that fasting on Erev Shabbat is his personal Chumra and if my brother wished to do, he needed to understand the reasons first. My brother does not fast on Erev Shabbat and now understands that one man’s Chumra often should remain that person’s Chumra.

If you accept a Chumra upon yourself, you may need to say Hatarat Nedarim just as you would if you switched between different sets of Minhagim, i.e., from wearing Tefillin on Chol Hamoed to not wearing Tefillin and then back again (a subject for a different post). Just the thought of convening a Beit Din should make a BT – and FFB – think twice about Chumrot.

There is also the fact that many of our leaders have been on record criticizing Chumrot. For example, the Mishna Berura says in regards to fasting on Yom Kippur that those who stretch fast days out beyond Tzeit HaKochavim are foolish. It should also be noted that the Nazir brings a Korban at the end of his Nazir period for having committed a sin by being excessively strict during that period of time. If the Nazir is penalized, certainly unnecessary Chrumot tacked on to Halacha – which can be said to be quite strict at times – should be second-guessed as well.

Finally and most importantly for a BT, if you accept a certain Chumra upon yourself and then find yourself unable to keep adhering by it, you will feel like a failure on some level. In addition, in a world where we all unfortunately judge each other when we see the slightest deviation from what we’re used to seeing, this could affect you socially as people will want to know why you stopped doing whatever Chumra you were doing. BTs should take their time and only accept Chumrot when they feel ready and not when some outsider says they should.

The Most Famous Ramban in Chumash – The End of Parshas Bo

The Ramban at the end of Bo is a classic work on Jewish philosophy and probably the most quoted Ramban in Chumash. It’s well worth seeing inside. Art Scroll has come out with the Ramban on Bereishis and Shemos, Bamidbar and Devarim, so if you won’t (or can’t) read it in Hebrew, consider picking up the English translation.

Here is a summary:

Reason for the Plagues

The Ramban says that from the time of Enosh there were three types of heretics: 1) Those that didn’t believe in G-d at all; 2) Those that believed in a G-d, but didn’t believe He knew what was happening in the world; 3) Those that believed in G-d’s knowledge, but didn’t believe that He oversees the world or that there is reward and punishments.

By favoring the Jews and altering nature through the plagues, the falsity of the heretical views became clear to all. The supernatural wonders indicate the world has a G-d who created it, knows all, oversees all and is all powerful. And when that wonder is publicly declared beforehand through a prophet, the truth of prophecy is made clear as well, namely that G-d will speak to a person and reveal His secrets to His servants, the prophets, and with acknowledgement of this principle the entire Torah is sustained. (The Ramban brings down a number of pesukim supporting this.)

Reason for so many Mitzvos regarding the Exodus

Now, because G-d does not perform a sign or wonder in every generation in sight of every evil person and disbeliever, He commanded that we should have constant reminders and signs of what we saw in Egypt and we should transmit it to our children thoughout the generations. G-d was stringent in this matter as we see from the strict penalties regarding eating Chometz on Pesach and neglecting the Pesach offering. Other mitzvos regarding the Exodus are tefillin, mezuzos, remembering the Exodus in the morning and evening, Succos.

There are also many other commandments that serve as a reminder of the Exodus (Shabbos, the festivals, redemption of the firstborn,…). And all these commandments serve as a testimony for us through the generations regarding the wonders performed in Egypt, that they not be forgotten and there will be no argument for a heretic to deny faith in G-d.

The Reason behind Mitzvos in General

When one does a simple mitzvah like mezuzah and thinks about its importance, he has already acknowledged G-d’s creation of the world, G-d’s knowledge and supervision of the world’s affairs, the truth of prophecy and all the foundations of Torah. In addition he has acknowledged G-d’s kindness towards those that perform His will, for He took us from bondage to freedom in great honor in the merit of our forefathers.

That is why Chazal say, be careful in performing a minor commandment as a major one, for all of them are major and beloved since through them a person is constantly acknowledging his G-d. For the objective of all the commandments is that we should believe in G-d and acknowledge to Him that He created us.

Purpose of Creation

In fact this is the purpose of creation itself, for we have no other explanation of creation. And G-d has no desire, except that man should know and acknowledge the G-d that created him. And the purpose of raising our voices in prayer and the purpose of Shuls and the merit of communal prayer is that people should have a place where they can gather and acknowledge that G-d created them and caused them to be and they can publicize this and declare before Him, “We are your creations”.

This is what the sages meant when they explained “And they shall call out mightily to G-d” as from here you learn that prayer requires a loud voice for boldness can overcome evil.

Everything is a Sign of Hashem

Through recalling the great revealed signs of Hashem of the Exodus, a person acknowledges the hidden signs of everyday life which are the foundation of the entire Torah. For a person has no share in the Torah of Moshe unless he believes that all our affairs and experiences are signs from Hashem, that there is no independent force of nature regarding either the community or the individual.

Reward and Punishment

Rather if one observes the commandments his reward will bring him success and if he transgresses them his punishment will destroy him. Hidden signs of Hashem can be more clearly recognized as regards the affairs of a community as in the predictions in the Torah in the matter of the blessings and the curses as it says – And the nations will say, “For what reason did Hashem do so to this land…?” And they will say, “Because they forsook the covenant of Hashem, the G-d of their forefathers”. This matter will become known to the nations, that this is from G-d as their (the Jews) punishment. And it is stated regarding the fulfillment of the commandments, “Then all the people of the earth will see that the Name of Hashem is proclaimed over you, and they will revere you.”

First published in January, 2008. Last 2 paragraphs updated January 2012

Hallel’s Excellent Adventure

Reprinted from JewishMom.com.

“Umm, well, you see Morah Achinoam…”

“Hallel needs to take two weeks off from school in January in order to travel to Canada to ‘discover her roots’…”

A “Masa Shorashim.” That was the embarrassingly lame white lie I invented in order to justify Hallel’s upcoming two-week absence from 6th grade. But “discovering her roots,” a phrase that evokes images of Eastern European graveyards and forgotten synagogues being used as Hungarian city halls, was infinitely loftier than the true purpose of Hallel’s upcoming trip to my husband’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario…

On this much-anticipated trip, Hallel would go skating on a frozen lake and tobogganing and (can you believe this?) SNOWMOBILING by the family cottage.

In other words, the point of Hallel’s pre-bat mitzvah trip (which her older sister went on as well before her bat mitzvah 2 years ago) was to have lots of fun in lots of snow with my husband’s parents.

So Hallel’s been away now for a week in Canada, and she’s having a fantastic time…

So far, she’s adored “boganning” and snowmobiling with Savta and watching an entire (completely mystifying) Patriots game with Saba…

But something that I hadn’t really thought so much about before Hallel left for Canada was the fact that we were sending our 11-year-old girl off entirely on her own to an entirely secular environment…

B”H, my in-laws are long-standing experts at “kosherizing” and the “kosher rules” as my mother-in-law calls them. And, miraculously, a very lovely, friendly young couple just opened up a Chabad House on THE SAME BLOCK as my father-in-law’s house and they generously hosted Hallel for both Shabbat meals.

But, in addition, during our phone calls Hallel’s been updating me on how she’s trying her best to live as a Jew in Kingston. She told me about how she decided to wear a skirt over her snowpants when she went “boganning” with Savta, and how she made Kiddush all by herself on Shabbat morning, and how she’s been davening almost every day, all on her own.

And I realized something that I hadn’t realized before.

My husband and I are two baalei teshuva raising a family-full of FFB children. And our children have never ever spent time on their own outside of an Orthodox home and framework.

So for the past week, for the first time in her life Hallel has been presented with a choice. With no Orthodox parents or teachers or friends or random busy-bodies looking over her shoulder, she has had to choose whether she would actually keep the laws that she has grown up with for the past 11 years…Despite the fact that if she didn’t daven or wash before bread or wear skirts, no Kingstonian would even bat a frost-bitten eyelid.

But there, in that totally secular environment, Hallel has decided to live in accordance with the Torah, just like Josh and I decided to when we lived in our own secular environments.

And I realized that my lame white lie to Morah Achinoam was actually the truth after all.

Hallel IS discovering her roots, retracing the route of the journey back to Hashem that Josh and I took ourselves 20 years ago.

The Teshuva Journey: Blame the Amish!

If you want to know Beth Rubin’s role models to becoming religious, it was the Amish.

Beth* grew up in a very Jewish neighborhood of Philadelphia. Everyone that she knew was Jewish, and they all went to afternoon Hebrew school and had lavish Bar and Bar Mitzvah parties. In such a uniform community people took their Jewish identity for granted and felt no need for religious activities.

However even as a young girl something gnawed at Beth’s insides. She felt that she was missing something. Beth had a deep desire for purity, truth and a meaningful life. When her Nursery School teachers in the Conservative Synagogue sang about Shabbas and talked about Kosher food, Beth decided this was for her.

“I really wanted to live a life where there was more to it,” Beth said. “I wanted to keep Kosher to be close to G-d.”

Growing up in Philadelphia meant frequent school trips to the nearby Amish Country. Beth loved seeing the simple, basic lives lead by the Amish. Having never come into contact with religious Jews, she assumed that the Amish were the only people living a pure, clean lifestyle.

“I thought I belonged there,” Beth said. “I told my mother I was born in the wrong generation. I should have been born in the time of Little House on the Prairie. I wanted to move to the Amish Country.”

After college Beth went not to the Amish Country, but to Texas to attend medical school. Soon after arriving, she was invited to attend a Revival Meeting by a local Born Again Christian group. Beth accepted the invitation out of curiosity.

At the Revival Meeting were hundreds of people singing, clapping and standing on chairs. Energy filled the room, but Beth felt completely out of place.

“I thought to myself, ‘what is a nice Jewish girl doing here?’” Beth said with a laugh.

The event made Beth realize that she could no longer take her Jewish identity for granted. In Philadelphia she didn’t need to do anything to remember she was Jewish, but here in the Bible Belt under the threat of missionaries, she realized she needed to be proactive in practicing her religion.

Not sure where to turn, Beth called the Jewish Federation and asked them to send her materials on local Jewish life. One of the items they sent was a copy of the city’s Jewish newspaper. Flipping through it she saw an ad for a local Jewish outreach and education organization. She was drawn to the ad and called the number.

The organization operated out of nearby Orthodox Jewish community and offered classes and Shabbat hospitality. Beth was invited for Shabbat and loved it. She began attending events in the local Orthodox community and returned for more Shabbat meals. She was especially impressed with the attributes and morals of the people in the community

One day during the week Beth was at a local business. A man passed by who looked like he had just stepped out of Amish Country, complete with a black hat, black beard, suit and all.

“He looked Amish, but I knew he wasn’t. I thought he was the Jewish version of the Amish,” Beth said. “I ran over to him and said ‘I think I need to talk to you.’ I spoke to him, and he introduced me to his wife.”

The couple lived in the local Orthodox community and invited Beth to join them for Shabbat. In time they became close friends. Beth began meeting more people in the community and saw that they were the models of the purity and truth that she valued. By this point, Beth had decided that she no longer wanted to be Amish because she realized that her own religion held the answers for her.

“I just wanted truth and wanted to be around people living a life of truth,” Beth said. “I just wanted to be close to G-d.”

One other event at this time convinced her of the existence of G-d and the truth of Judaism. During the first semester of medical school Beth was in the anatomy lab and saw a cadaver for the first time. She stared at the cadaver’s face and had an epiphany.

“I looked at the face and nothing looked back at me. It was just flesh and muscles and fat and organs. I almost felt at that moment that Hashem is palpable. When I look at you and you look at me, who is looking at me? It’s not your eyeball in you, it’s the Hashem in you looking at the Hashem in me,” Beth said. “My ears started ringing. I said that’s it, it’s Hashem! That was a major realization for me.”

Following this experience, Beth began to see the hand of Hashem more and more in the human body and the entire world. Combined with her new knowledge of Judaism as the source of purity and truth, she began to realize that this was the path that she desired. She is now a fully observant woman living not in Amish Country, but in the Texas community that inspired her return.

Michael Gros writes from Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. The Teshuva Journey column chronicles uplifting teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. To read more articles and sign up to receive them via email, visit http://www.michaelgros.com

* Name and some details have been changed.

Published in the Jewish Press in June 2011

A Knowing Heart

And Moshe said so to the children of Israel, and they did not listen to Moshe because of “shortness of breath” and the difficulty of the work. (Shemos 6:9)

Because of shortness of breath and the difficulty of the work: not because they didn’t believe in HASHEM and his prophecy, but they just couldn’t pay attention to his words because of the pressure from the hard work. (Ramban)

Now Moshe had just given over the news – the prophecy of the redemption. That should have excited the hearts of the people but they remained numb. It should have been cause for celebration but it turned out to be a point of frustration for Moshe. The Torah does not tell us that they did not believe in Moshe or his prophecy, but only that they could not hear it because of the pressure. It is explicitly stated earlier that they believed in Moshe but now they were just unable to process the promise. Since “we are believers and the children of believers”, it’s therefore, not natural for a Jew not to believe. Not everyone is fully aware of the presence of this “believing-self” though, for multiple reasons.

My own personal experience interacting with many types of people for a few decades plus- tells me the same. An anecdotal- case in point: A young man I know very well who is, how shall I say, married to a situation that closes his mind to an authentic search for meaning in Torah and Mitzvos; He was out of work for some time and was very excited to tell me when he finally landed a new job. He explained in detail how the event unfolded. He had gone for a job interview on a late Friday afternoon in midtown Manhattan and then proceeded to Grand Central Station for the train ride home. He got the call first thing Monday morning. He realized then retroactively that they must have been discussing which candidate was most worthy for the job just at that time when he was going through Grand Central Terminal on his way to the train.

He explained with the conviction of a “true believer” that as he entered the train station that frigid evening he confronted a cold and hungry man begging for help. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a bundle of money including a load of loose change and while pouring into the fellow’s cup he implored him not to spend the money on a drink or drugs but rather on a warm meal.

This secular minded mechanist was convincing me that it was exactly at the same time that he was exercising compassion for this poor stranger that they were making the decision about the fate of his employment status. He then looked to me for approval but I was too stunned with amazement.

Foolishly I fed him his very own words and asked him if he is telling me that that act of charity had somehow catalyzed and caused the committee to select his resume above the others?! Upon hearing my understanding of his account, he recoiled with incredulity and immediately began to re-explain the dynamics at play. “Oh no- they saw the quality of kindliness in me when I was there and they realized that this job requires a people-person not just a number-cruncher. That’s why I got the job!”

Only when confronted consciously with his own chronicle, which was unmistakably filled with a naturally deep faith and trust in the Divine Providence of a living G-d, did he feel the need to revise his-story! He just couldn’t hear of it because of certain external circumstances.

Recently a young lady called me stressed out with news that a cousin of hers had declared that he does not believe in HASHEM. After a lengthy discussion about how she might approach him, I told her that I don’t believe that he doesn’t believe in HASHEM. He might speak brazenly with bold words and loads of bravado to make some shocking proclamations, but deep down inside, I strongly suspect, there beats a knowing heart.

Has Torah Observant Lead You to a More Meaningful Life?

One of the leader’s of the positive psychology movement Dr. Martin Seligman states that there are three distinct kinds of happiness: the Pleasant Life (pleasures), the Good Life (engagement), and the Meaningful Life. The first two are subjective, but the third is at least partly objective and lodges in belonging to and serving what is larger and more worthwhile than the just the self’s pleasures and desires.

Has Torah Observant lead you to a more meaningful life?

Has this made a major difference in your happiness?

Is a meaningful life a promise that Torah Observance can consistently deliver on?

How Can We Bring Baalei Teshuva and Their Teachers Even Closer

We’re (Mark & David) speaking at the AJOP conference this Sunday, January 15, 2011, at two sessions. There’s also an “Inreach” inspirational conference going on for only $36 at the same location and time which you might want to attend.

We’ve been doing a lot of thinking and discussion among ourselves and with Kiruv professionals about reasonable goals for our sessions.

Through our thinking and discussions we’ve seen and heard the following:

– The Baalei Teshuva we know in the offline and online are mostly very thankful to their teachers for all they’ve done for them

– Supporters of Kiruv understandably want to invest their money in higher impact areas, where people adopt a Shomer Shabbos lifestyle

– Although there are between 3,500,000 and 5,000,000 Jews in America who are not Shomer Shabbos, very few adopt a Shomer Shabbos lifestyle each year

– Kiruv professionals correctly believe that the most or all non-observant Jews will greatly benefit if they bring Torah significantly into their lives

– It is impossible to have all the information available about what adopting a Shomer Shabbos lifestyle entails

– When Baalei Teshuva hit bumps in their spiritual progress they are often bothered by the fact that they didn’t have all the information available at the beginning of their journey

What can Baalei Teshuva do to help this situation?

Keep in mind that most observant Jews correctly believe:
– Torah is true and extremely beneficial when observed properly
– Not all paths of observance are equal
– As human beings, we do not have answers to every question

Denouncing Spiritual Terrorism

On March 16, 1968, soldiers of the 1st Battalion’s Charlie Company committed one of the most notorious war crimes in American history when they brutally massacred over 300 villagers in the Vietnamese hamlet of Mỹ Lai.

Was every soldier in the American army complicit in the crime? Did the perpetrators of the massacre act in accordance with the dictates and the mission of the American military? Was the savagery inflicted on innocent men, women, and children indicative of the country whose soldiers wore its insignia on their uniforms?

The simple answer is: no.

We can talk, legitimately, about collective responsibility and the mixed cultural messages that may have contributed to the atrocity. But when Americans learned about the barbarism of their own soldiers, the untempered outrage that poured forth testified that the individuals had acted as individuals, and that their inhumanity in no way represented the values of their country.

The same was true about the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in 1995 by the marginally religious zealot Yigal Amir. As unpopular as Rabin may have been among the religious community, only the most extreme ideologues saw his actions as anything other than an aberration of the Torah values he invoked to justify cold-blooded murder.

And the same is true now with respect to the hideous spitting incident in the Beit Shemesh community in central Israel. It doesn’t matter that the perpetrator may wear a frock coat and sidelocks. It doesn’t matter that he may refrain from kindling fire on the Sabbath, may keep a strictly kosher diet, and may stand in prayer before his Creator three times a day. It doesn’t matter that he may study Talmudic texts and analyze the finest points of Jewish law. It doesn’t matter if his neighbors, whether few or many, sympathize with his attitudes and his actions.

At best, he is a misguided fool. At worst, he is an imposter and a terrorist. Whatever he is, he does not represent the ideals of Torah Judaism.

The sad truth is that the Torah, the Almighty’s guide to morality and virtuous conduct, is only as good as we allow it to be. The Torah may be a perfect expression of the Divine Will, but it only works to the extent that imperfect humans are willing to let it shape their conduct and, even more essentially, their character. It does not mystically or magically turn us into saints; rather, it teaches us how to transform ourselves into spiritual beings. But it remains up to us to follow the path it lights before us.

The sad truth is also that there are imposters among us; the Talmud itself laments the “pious fools” who clothe themselves in the external trappings of religiosity with no comprehension whatsoever of true spiritual values. The Jew who prays fervently and then cheats in business, the Jew who clops his chest in repentance then slanders his neighbor, the Jew who meticulously trains his son to read from the Torah scroll and then spits on a child who may have innocently absorbed the social mores of the surrounding secular world – a Jew such as this is worse than a fraud. He is nothing less than a terrorist, for he brings violent derision upon the Torah and all its sincere practitioners.

Frequently at odds with contemporary Western values, Torah values are easily mocked, satirized, and misrepresented by intolerant skeptics who would rather ridicule than seek answers to their questions. But the Orthodox community includes tens of thousands of Jews like myself, Jews raised in irreligious homes who chose to return to Torah observance, Jews who learned to appreciate the ancient wisdom of our people by asking those same questions, by searching for teachers and mentors who could articulate the answers, and by listening patiently to their explanations.

Unfortunately, many secularists and most of the media prefer to deal in stereotypes. It’s easier to depict bearded men in long coats as fanatics than it is to examine the historical and philosophical foundations of their tradition. It’s more provocative to caricature women wearing head-scarves, three-quarter sleeves, and knee-length skirts as burqa-clad Jewish Wahabists than it is to concede the modest elegance projected by many Orthodox women. It suits the progressive agenda better to decry separate seating on buses in religious communities as Shariah-like segregation than it does to contemplate how sensitivity to sexual boundaries bolsters the integrity of the family structure against the hedonism of secular society.

The useful idiots who masquerade as devoutly orthodox but possess little understanding of authentic spiritual refinement empower cynics eager to smear an entire theology with the broad brush of condemnation based on the actions of a few. But amidst the outrage, consider this: Does it make any sense that true adherents of the culture that taught the world the values of peace, charity, and loving-kindness would endorse the public humiliation of a little girl in the name of piety?

It doesn’t. And we don’t.

Rabbi Goldson writes at http://torahideals.com. To subscribe to Torah Ideals email newsletter, go to the website and find the subscription link on the sidebar. Articles are posted, on average, every week or two.

Rabbi Goldson recently published Dawn to Destiny – Exploring Jewish History and its Hidden Wisdom. A captivating analysis of Jewish history and philosophy from Creation through the era of the Talmud

My Brothers Do I Seek

My Brothers Do I Seek

By Jonathan Rosenblum

I came to full Jewish observance relatively late in life. I was nearly thirty and married when I first walked through the doors of Ohr Somayach. I don’t fully remember the entire process of becoming religious. But certainly the most important element of our decision was exposure to people of a refinement and depth that we had never before encountered.

For the last twenty years, I have been writing biographies of modern Jewish leaders. If one bright thread unites the lives of all the disparate figures whose lives I have researched it is their commitment to the Torah imperative that “the Name of Heaven should be become beloved through you.”

In the 1930s, Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, today renowned as one of the premier Jewish thinkers of the century, supported himself in London tutoring young public school students. He instructed one of those young students to drop a coin in the cup of all the numerous beggars along the way. To another, he suggested that he should always go to the upper-deck of the London bus he rode to the lessons. Since he only travelled one stop, perhaps the conductor would not reach him to collect his fare, and then he – an identifiably religious Jewish boy – would hand the change to the person next to him and say in a loud voice, “The conductor did not collect my fare, please pay him for me.” The lesson: Not only must one sanctify G-d’s Name through one’s actions; one must seek out opportunities to do so.

These figures saw themselves as teaching about Torah in every situation. Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, the wise man of American Jewry, once took a ball out of his pocket in a doctor’s office and started playing with a young boy. When asked if it was not beneath his dignity, he replied, “He may never see another old Jew with a white beard. I want his association to be a good one.” When he passed away, a group of nuns in Monsey wrote a letter lamenting the loss of the old rabbi who always smiled at them on his walks.

For thirteen years, the Klausenberger Rebbe traveled the globe raising the money to build Laniado Hospital in Netanya, to create a model of a Torah approach to healing. Once he learned that a pamphlet on the laws of family purity was being distributed to patients, and ordered it be stopped immediately. He built the hospital not to do missionary work but to demonstrate how the Torah views healing, he explained. That was reflected in the no-strike clause in every doctor’s contract, the surfeit of respirators so no triage decisions would ever have to be made as to who would receive a respirator, the willingness of nursing students, inspired by the Rebbe, to spend days and nights by the beds of patients upon whom everyone else had given up; and the use of much more expensive, but less painful, disposable syringes for shots.

The Rebbe was famous for his stringency with respect to shmiras einayim (guarding one’s gaze). But in the DP camps after the War (in which he lost his wife and eleven children), when he heard that young Jewish girls, dehumanized by what they had been through, had set up a red light district, he personally went to bring them back to their heritage.

These great Torah leaders treated each every person with whom they came into contact with respect and empathy. Reb Yaakov Kamenetsky and another rosh yeshiva once entered a cab, in which the music was blaring. The other rosh yeshiva asked the cabdriver to turn-off the radio. But Reb Yaakov told him not to. “The driver’s work is so monotonous that he’ll go mad without out it so we have no right to ask him to turn it off,” said Reb Yaakov, citing a Talmudic passage in support.

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach would not jump up from his seat on the bus if a woman not dressed according to halachic standards sat down next to him, lest she feel insulted. He would simply push the button as if his stop was coming up and get off the bus.

A religious family undertook to cover the expenses of the fertility treatments of a non-religious Jewish couple, and sent them to Israel to receive blessings from great tzadikim, including the Rosh Yeshiva of Mirrer Yeshiva, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel. When the couple arrived at the Rosh Yeshiva’s house in summer attire, not usually seen in Meah Shearim, Rebbetzin Finkel greeted the wife with a hug and words of encouragement – “You are both Jewish. It is such a big thing to marry Jewish today.”

So as not to embarrass her visitor, the Rebbetzin explained that her husband was such a holy man that out of respect she dons a shawl when she goes into speak to him, and offered her guest another shawl and a piece of matching jewelry.

Reb Nosson Tzvi remained silent when the couple entered. The person who escorted them in started to explain their situation, but the Rosh Yeshiva stopped him short: “Of course I know who they are, I’m thinking of their pain.” Then he turned to the husband and asked, “Do you ever feel people are staring at you?” The husband nodded. Reb Nosson Tzvi added, “I often feel that way and that people cannot understand what I’m saying [on account of the loss of muscular control from debilitating Parkinson’s disease].” Let’s cry together. And that’s what the Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva and the childless couple did.

Non-religious Jewish politicians who worked closely with Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the long-time president of Agudath Israel of America never felt that he looked down on them. New York Mayor Ed Koch said, “He personified the Talmudic rule, ‘Hate the sin, not the sinner’.” Upon Rabbi Sherer’s death, Alexander Schindler, the head of the American Reform movement, wrote a eulogy in The New York Times. The morning after his funeral, the black woman behind the entrance desk at the building housing Agudath Israel’s office, whom Rabbi Sherer always made a point of greeting effusively and inquiring after, and the Latin American building superintendent, whose family had been spared deportation because of Rabbi Sherer’s use of his political connections on their behalf, both wept openly.

LAST FRIDAY NIGHT, a rav who was one of my role models at the beginning of the journey and remains one today spoke about yesterday’s fast of Aseret b’Tevet, which, according to some opinons, is the date of the sale of Yosef by his brothers. The Torah portion of the week, VaYigash, relates how Yosef and Binyamin fell on each other and wept. Rashi comments: Yosef wept for the two Temples that stood in the portion of Binyamin, which would be destroyed; and Binyamin wept for the Mishkan at Shiloh, in the portion of Yosef’s son Ephraim, which would also be destroyed.

What is the connection between those destructions and the reunion of Yosef and Binyamin? Yosef had constructed an elaborate test for his brothers to see whether his brothers would stand by their half-brother Binyamin, and thus rectify their sale of him. The brothers passed that test. But only in part. Throughout Yehudah’s plea to Yosef on Binyamin’s behalf, he refers to the latter as the son of their father Yaakov and as “the lad”, but not as “our brother.” Something was still lacking in brotherly unity. And that lack was felt in the destruction of the Temple for causeless hatred.

Until we can repair that lack of brotherhood, the Temple will not be rebuilt. Mrs. Tzila Schneider, the head of Kesher Yehudi, is trying to do just that. In recent years, she has organized thousands of learning partnerships between religious and non-religious women. The main message she offers the hareidi volunteers is: “If you see yourself as only a teacher in this relationship, but don’t feel you have anything to gain or learn from your secular partner, this program is not for you. This program is only for those who believe every Jew is special and that we are all intimately bound to one another.” I have been present at events in which the phone study partners met each other for the first time, and the warmth and excitement was palpable. Many pairs sat with their arms around each other for the rest of the evening.

Last Shabbos was spent with a group of over 100 women university students receiving an introduction to Torah Judaism under the auspicies of an organization called Nefesh Yehudi. I was amazed by the sophistication and command of the breadth of Jewish thought of the lecturers, including Mrs. Miriam Kosman, who made her debut in these pages last week. The conversation on Friday night lasted until 4:00 a.m., and the students did not hold back with their questions on every topic – relationships, homosexuality, why most hareidi women wear wigs, and, of course, Ramat Beit Shemesh.

Neither that Shabbaton or hundreds like it or 7,000 phone partnerships in Torah learning will fully repair the tear in Klal Yisrael. But they are steps in the right direction.

I HAVE NEVER REGRETTED the decision to become religious. I cannot even imagine how much less rich my life would have been without Torah. But it must be admitted that there is much in our society that does not conform to the paragons one meets upon entering the hareidi community. And much that I have subsequently been exposed to would have made the decision much harder at the beginning.

It is unrealistic to expect an entire community to attain the level of the great figures I have spent the last two decades writing about. But, at the very least, we should strive to emulate their example of turning every encounter with a fellow human being, and especially a fellow Jew, into a positive experience. Those whose insularity has rendered them oblivious to that message fill me with pain and anger.

Jonathan Rosenblum founded Jewish Media Resources in 1999. He is a widely-read columnist for the Jerusalem Post’s domestic and international editions and for the Hebrew daily Maariv. He is also a respected commentator on Israeli politics, society, culture and the Israeli legal system, who speaks frequently on these topics in the United States, Europe, and Israel. His articles appear regularly in numerous Jewish periodicals in the United States and Israel. Rosenblum is the author of seven biographies of major modern Jewish figures. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago and Yale Law School. Rosenblum lives in Jerusalem with his wife and eight children.

Ten for the Tenth of Teves

Ten points about the Tenth of Teves from an article by Rabbi Berel Wein.

1) The Tenth of Tevet marks the onset of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylonia, and the beginning of the battle that ultimately destroyed Jerusalem.

2) The date of the Tenth of Tevet is recorded for us by the prophet Yechezkel, who himself was already in Babylonia as part of the first group of Jews exiled there by Nebuchadnezzar, 11 years earlier than the actual destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem itself.

3) The Tenth of Tevet is viewed as such a severe and important fast day that it is observed even if it falls on a Friday (erev Shabbat), while our other fast days are so arranged by calendar adjustments as to never fall on a Friday, so as not to interfere with Shabbat preparations.

4) On the eighth of Tevet, King Ptolemy of Egypt forced 70 Jewish scholars to gather and translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek. Even though the Talmud relates to us that this project was blessed with a miracle

5) The 70 scholars were all placed in separate cubicles and yet they all came up with the same translation

6) The general view of the rabbis of the time towards this project was decidedly negative. The Talmud records that when this translation became public “darkness descended on the world.”

7) The ninth day of Tevet is held to be the day of the death of Ezra the Scribe. This great Jew is comparable even to Moses in the eyes of the Talmud. “If the Torah had not been granted through Moses, it could have been granted to Israel through Ezra.”

8) Ezra led the return of the Jews to Jerusalem from their Babylonian exile. It was under his direction and inspiration, together with the help of the court Jew, Nechemiah, that the Second Temple was built, albeit originally in a much more modest scale and style than the grandeur of Solomon’s Temple.

9) Since fasting on the eighth, ninth and 10th days of Tevet consecutively would be unreasonable, the events of the eighth and ninth were subsumed into the fast day of the Tenth of Tevet.

10) The rabbinic policy of minimizing days of tragic remembrances played a role in assigning the Holocaust remembrance to the Tenth of Tevet for a large section of the Israeli population.

Just Six Words

My daughter’s English teacher assigned the class six word memoirs. The six word memoir has become a popular vehicle for breaking the ice and for stimulating creativity. Basically, you sum up your life (or a major aspect of it) in six words. Ernest Hemingway is said to have penned this somber six word memoir: “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn”.

I thought it would be interesting to see how creative our BBTers can be with BT related six word memoirs. So, let’s see it. Here are some to get the juices flowing:

Try so hard. Never fit in.

Just can’t make it work. Dikduk.

Hope Grampa’s kvelling. My first siyum.

My sister (inter)married. I’m still single.

Eight years later. Can’t say ‘ch’.

Finding Our Voice When We’ve Stretched Too Far

By Sara Taub

The question of this post is directed at brave and inquiring minds which let go of attachments to material and professional accomplishments and replace them with goals more eternal. It is among people such as these that I think this question would most likely arise. It is not a particularly convenient question, as it requires courage and honesty to ask. It is probably an unpopular question, because the potential outcome could involve some disharmony and re-adjustment, if only in your internal space. But I think it is an important question to ask and I am curious to know whether any of you ask it of yourselves.

First let me tell you what the question is not. The question is not about mistaken life choices or doubt that they reflect the ultimate truth; the question is not a crisis in belief or a desire to compromise Torah true standards of personal conduct and behavior; the question does not reflect an agenda that would promote self-expression at any cost; and the question is not about the society, with its takanon sanctioned by gedolai hador, in which we have chosen to live.

The question is about fine tuning and it is this:

Does there ever come a time when you have stretched so far outside your comfort zone and self-definition that maintaining your spiritual status-quo or even a slight regression would be an act of avodas Hashem?

Is it fair to say, “I can do no more right now” even when that means that your husband or children will be affected, maybe even negatively? Could you risk shalom bayis for holding your ground and refusing to accommodate a spiritual request?

Is it ever okay to let the neighbors think what they will and to dodge the masses for a while?
Do I render myself unrecognizable to the one that knows me best, namely, me, to accommodate standards generated in a world from which I do not originate, or any world for that matter?

I’ll give you an example of what I mean: A few days ago I met a friend of mine at the Seminar we are both trying to get our girls into. She came dressed in the required costume, wearing a wig she has not put on since her last appearance at the Bais Yaakov. This friend, mind you, is among the holiest rollers I know, with a clarity and devotion that I can only aspire to. Nervous, nauseous, a little resentful, and completely out of her element, the first thing she said to me was exactly what I have been thinking for some time now. “I am constantly being asked to stretch and accommodate way beyond what I am capable of or comfortable with.” And then walked in the menahelet…shalom! Whatever…

And when I challenged her with the possibility that perhaps she should do what it takes to maintain her own equilibrium she said, “No, no matter what, I have to keep trying, even if I die trying.” Further into the conversation she alluded to the fact that for her, the suffering was meaningful because it served as some form of atonement for past misdeeds; that Moshiach was on his way and people today are the bottom of the barrel so it was wise to make torment your faithful companion, as in today’s world, it is in everyone’s repertoire in one form or another.

But it pained me to see that she was, in fact, dying in small ways as each accommodation was sure to be followed by greater, more difficult ones. And as I watched her put on a grin-and-bear-it façade, I had to wonder, does service of G-d require this? Was it, in fact, Torah true?

There are two camps, I presume, that form around this question. One would have you consider the “I” null and void. “I” am a self-fashioned robot, who devotedly follows the path laid out before me by those wiser and more accomplished than me. The other would shout in protest and demand an accounting for the unique and inimitable character that Hashem placed in each one of us. Where are my fingerprints that no other human being can duplicate?

It is difficult to know when to reach in the pocket that carries the note “I am nothing but dust,” and when to reach in the other that hides the message “the world was created for me.” But the two are equally holy, and crumbling up the paper that would require I lay my uniqueness on the altar of accommodation without at least launching an inquiry is, in my humble opinion, cowardice. And my experience has taught me that going into self-imposed exile leaves me alone with a self that makes joy a stranger and wilts the flowers of Simchas HaChayim, Ahavas Hashem, and achdus with Am Yisroel planted in the vineyards I have so carefully and consciously cultivated.

“I did it my way” is not a song that is found on Jewish lips. No one would advocate letting the individual mandate the Godly. But is there room in the spaces of obligation and ritual in the foreign world in which we find ourselves big enough for me? Presented with a demand that would necessitate a metamorphosis of size-able proportions do I even consider what my personal cost would be? What do I weigh that up against and how do I know which is the priority?

Much to my delight and gratitude, my husband came through with an answer to this dilemma that I found both wise and satisfying. He believes that within the robot there is a mechanism for self-regulation; that there is a default mode triggered by crises of this kind which would have you honor the voice that shouts discontent and seek a competent audience in which to vocalize and resolve the tension that it generates (for which he offers his services, of course.) The Torah and our leaders do not shy away from the conflicted – out of the box in which we live, they are divinely endowed with a bird’s eye view that can embrace and set free the complicated and multifaceted creation that is called a human being.

And further, my husband regards it as a duty incumbent on each and every one of us. Belief and service should not mandate that we die a thousand deaths in its name unless we are counseled that that is what we must do. There is room, he believes, for an individual to live within the robot. The wise seek out wise counsel to set the mark and draw the parameters around which he can walk freely, at his own pace and in his own stride.

How would you answer the question?

The Halachos of New Year

Over at Hirhurim, (R’ Gil Student’s blog), Rabbi Michael Broyde has a good analysis of the halachic issues regarding “celebrating” secular holidays.

Here’s an excerpt:

It is quite clear that on a historical level that Catholic Europe celebrated New Years day religiously for centuries. Indeed, consider the simple remarks of the Rama writing in the Darchei Moshe YD 148 quoting the Terumat Hadeshen. He states:

It is written in the Terumat Hadeshen 195 that even nowadays one who wants to send [gifts] on the eighth day after Christmas which is called New Years should send such [gifts] during the day before [December 31st] and not on the day of the holiday, itself. And if the day before the holiday falls out on Shabbat, one may send on the day of the holiday, itself as there is a matter of hatred [eiva] if one sends later than that or more before then.

While the Rama in the Shulchan Aruch (YD 148:12) does not quote this formulation exactly, it is clear to me that this is function of censorship within the Rama and not because the matter is in dispute. According to Rama, New Year’s day is a Christian Holiday (indeed the formulation in the Terumat Hadeshen makes it clear that we are discussing the eighth day of Christmas as much as New Year’s day) whose celebration must be avoided and can only be marked when long term life threatening hatred to our community will result if gifts are not given.

On the other hand, the reality seems to have completely changed. New Year’s Day – like Valentine’s Day and unlike Christmas – seems to have completely lost its Christian overtones.[4] Even in the deep Christian South where I live there are no indicia that connect New Years Day to Christianity. The “first generation” Hindu and Muslim communities in Atlanta – who would never celebrate Christmas – have New Year’s Eve parties. It is obvious that the status of New Year’s Day has changed in the last three hundred years.

Indeed, in contemporary America there is little religious content or expression to New Year’s Day. Few would classify it as a religious holiday, as there is a clear secular method and reason to celebrate New Year’s day, and thus it has lost its status as a Christian Holiday. Rabbi Feinstein notes this directly himself in Iggerot Moshe (Even Haezer 2:13). He writes with regard to New Year’s:

The first day of the year for them [January 1] . . . is not prohibited according to law, but pious people [baalei nefesh] should be strict.

This insight, written in 1963, is even more true nowadays. The Christian origins of New Year’s is even more cloaked now than a half century ago.

Read the whole post here.