Keep the Change

As the Neilah service on Yom Kippur reaches its crescendo, the congregation cries out in unison: “Hashem Hu HaElokim” (Hashem is G-d) seven times. We can probably still hear this cry echoing in our minds. At that precious moment, we have reached the peak of the spiritual heights we have been climbing since the beginning of Elul.

“Hashem Hu HaElokim” finds its source in the tanakh, Melachim I 18:39. At that point in history, it had already been three long years since Eliyahu had imposed a drought in order to: 1. prove to King Achav that Hashem grants great power to his Prophets; and 2. inspire the Jewish Nation to teshuvah. King Achav and Ovadiah HaNavi then separate in order to search for fertile land. While traveling, Ovadiah “happens upon” Eliyahu HaNavi who convinces Ovadiah to arrange for a meeting between Eliyahu and King Achav. At this meeting, Eliyahu proposes a contest between himself and the 450 prophets of Ba’al to be held on Mt. Carmel. A “Battle of the Prophets”, if you will. King Achav accepts the challenge and sends for the prophets of Ba’al.

After the nation congregates on Mt. Carmel, Eliyahu reproves them, asking “How long will you stand on both sides of the threshold? If Hashem is G-d, follow Him! And if Ba’al is god, follow him.” The People could not answer. Sometimes the truth hits that hard.

Eliyahu then set down the contest rules: Both he and the prophets of Ba’al would be given a bull to sacrifice. Each was to slaughter the bull, cut it into pieces and place them on top of firewood on their respective altar. But they were not to kindle the firewood! The prophets of Ba’al were to call upon their god to send down fire, and Eliyahu was to call upon Hashem to send down fire. The One who would send down fire would be recognized as the true G-d, and the other as a falsehood. Both the People and the prophets of Ba’al agreed to this trial.

Eliyahu encouraged the prophets of Ba’al to go first and they took one of the bulls, slaughtered it and prepared it for sacrifice on their altar. They then called upon Ba’al all morning, hopping and dancing and cutting themselves till they bled, as was their manner of worship. But there was neither a sound nor any other response from heaven! As time went on, Eliyahu began mocking the priests of Ba’al, saying “Call louder, maybe your god is with his advisors, or maybe he is at war with an enemy; maybe he is asleep”. (Rashi states that Eliyahu even said “maybe your god is relieving himself”.) The prophets of Ba’al increased their efforts and continued to call upon Ba’al until the time of Minchah. Still, not a murmur, not a sound, not a sign from the heavens.

Then Eliyahu HaNavi cried out to the People, “Come near to me,” and they came near. He took twelve stones and he made a trench around the altar. He put the wood in place and cut the bull into pieces and placed them on the altar. Eliyahu commanded the People “Fill four jars with water, and pour it on the offering and on the wood.” Then he said, “Do it a second time.” Then he said “Do it a third time.” Eliyahu himself then filled the trench surrounding the altar with water as well.

Eliyahu drew close to the altar and prayed, “O L-rd, G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yisrael, make it known today that You are the G-d of Israel, and that I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your command. Answer my prayer, O L-rd, answer my prayer that this People may know that You, O L-rd, are G-d and that just as You allowed them to slip backwards from You – if they repent, You will also bring them closer to You.” At that moment, the fire of Hashem fell from Heaven and consumed the offering, and the wood, and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that Eliyahu had poured in the trench. Amazing!! The people had no means of response other than to spontaneously proclaim “Hashem Hu HaElokim, Hashem Hu HaElokim, Hashem is G-d! Hashem is G-d!” There was no question. Afterwards, Eliyahu had all of the prophets of Ba’al killed.

When word got back to Queen Izabel, the wife of King Achav and a fervent idol worshipper herself, she sent a message to Eliyahu HaNavi: “At this Time tomorrow, I will make your soul like their souls.” In other words, just as you killed the prophets of Ba’al, I will kill you. Queen Izabel was incensed, she was roused to the level of cold blooded murder. Why then did she say “At this time tomorrow”? Why not now? Does the schoolyard bully say “You’re in trouble now, meet me at the flagpole next month”? Why did Izabel, in all of her red-blooded passion, in the throes of vengeance, say “I’ll get you tomorrow”. The simple answer is that all of the People had witnessed the miraculous workings of Hashem and Eliyahu earlier that day. Queen Izabel would be unable to muster even a single mercenary at the highest of prices, to carry out her murderous intent. But tomorrow, ah tomorrow, after going back to their workaday lives, they’ll all begin to forget already. Then, Queen Izabel will be able to find men to oppose Eliyahu.

Unbelievable? Not really. In the inimitable words of Nasan HaNavi to David HaMelekh, “You are that Man”. You and me both. We walk out of Yom Kippur motivated, with resolve, “I’m going to change.” “I’m going to be better.” “I’m going to be great.” “I’m going to be a Tzadik!” “This is gonna be the year I turn it all around.” “Hashem Hu HaElokim” resounds through the canyons of our minds. But the next day, the very next day, when we return to our everyday lives, we begin forgetting. When we go back to our jobs, to the traffic, to the lack of sleep, to the financial worries and day-to-day troubles. Our resolve weakens, we are already on our way back to where we were.

How do we avoid falling into this repetitive cycle? Sure, we’ve changed but how do we keep the change. The torah in Parshas Va’eira says “And G-d spoke to Moshe and Aharon and commanded them regarding the Children of Israel and regarding Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to take the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt” The Talmud Yerushalmi in tractate Rosh Hashana infers from this pasuk that while still in Egypt, G-d commanded Moshe to inform the Jewish people of the Mitzvah of Freeing Slaves. When the pasuk tells us that Moshe and Aharon were to command the Children of Israel, it means that they would be delivering a command for the future: when they live in the land of Israel, and they have Jewish slaves, they should send them out to freedom after 6 years.

Why did Hashem deem this to be an appropriate time to tell the bnei yisrael about ‘shiluach avadim’- freeing slaves when they wouldn’t even be in a position to fulfill the commandment for more than fifty years. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt”l, answers that, in actuality, there was no more appropriate time to tell them about ‘shiluach avadim’ than that very moment. When they are slaves, they know the burden of servitude; they know what its like to have a master. Presumably, it’s not an easy thing to send away a slave. After one has had an unpaid worker who has toiled exclusively for him for six years, it is not easy to let him go. If G-d would have given Bnei Yisrael this mitzvah later on, when the Jewish people already had their own slaves, they would have heard it in an entirely different way. Now is the time to tell them about sending away poor slaves. Now it will make an impression. Now it will be meaningful.

Rav Shmulevitz points out that a person needs to hear something at the precise time when he will be most receptive to it. One has to “seize that moment” of opportunity before it eviscerates.

The Gemara in Sanhedrin praises Palti Ben Layish as exceeding even Yosef HaTzaddik in Yosef’s ability to stave off the advances of Potiphar’s wife. What did Palti ben Layish do to deserve such praise? The Talmud relates that Shaul HaMelekh had a daughter who was married to David, but Shaul argued, erroneously, that based on a technicality she was not married to David and, legally, had no husband. Shaul took this daughter and gave her as a wife to Palti ben Layish.

Palti ben Layish was faced with a dilemma of epic proportions: He could not refuse the King; he had to take his daughter as a wife. Yet, he knew very well that this was a married woman. There he was in the bedroom, on his wedding night, with a married woman. What did he do in order to ensure that he would succeed in withstanding temptation? He took a sword and stuck it in the ground and said “Anyone who ‘occupies himself with this matter’ will be stabbed by this sword.” The Gemara goes on to say that because of this tremendous act, Palti Ben Layish merited the assistance of Heaven and was able to live with the King’s daughter for many years and never so much as touch her.

What was so incredible about the act of sticking the sword into the ground? Why did he merit this unbelievable “siyata d’ishmaya”. The answer is that on that first night, Palti ben Layish clearly knew what was right and what was wrong. On that first night, he had his priorities straight. On that first night, it was crystal clear. He knew that she was a married woman and that it was forbidden to touch her. But, he also knew himself and he knew the human condition. He knew that when “Izabel’s tomorrow” came and as the days and the months and the years passed, his feelings would dissipate, his clarity would become murky. He would come up with an excuse, he would become weak, and he would rationalize. Therefore, he said to himself, “I need a reminder; I have to seize this moment of absolute clarity and take a concrete step that will remind me of the time when I knew what is right and wrong in this situation.” There are moments when one does not rationalize, when one can clearly see the truth. Those are the moments to seize as our permanent reminders.

This, says the Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva, is something that we all can and must do. There are many occasions when we will be put into situations where in the beginning we will know what’s right and what’s wrong. We know “Hashem, Hu HaElokim”. We know we can be better. We know we can change. We know we can be great. But, later on, there will be reasons– financial reasons, professional reasons, practical reasons and a whole library of rationalizations. How will we know what is right and what is wrong? We have to seize the moment. We have to stick that sword in the ground and say to ourselves “I know what’s right and what’s wrong, and I’m not going to let that change and become unclear!”

That is the lesson of Palti ben Layish. We have to grab the opportunity so that when the time comes, when we have temptations and questions, we will always be able to look back and say “We knew it was right then — and we know it is right now!”

Succos comes quickly on the heels of Yom Kippur. Hashem himself provides us with a reminder. Look around you, Hashem Hu HaElokim! For those of us who have not already “Seized the Moment”, it is beginning to wane. “Izabel’s tomorrow” is creeping in. Pretty soon we’ll all be back at work. It is time to plant our swords. Peg an area of growth to some part of the day that will serve as a reminder. I won’t eat dinner before I learn one page of mussar. I won’t go to bed before I say one kapitel tehillim for sick people. I won’t eat lunch before I call my parents. I won’t take off my tefillin before I learn one mishnah. Plant your sword today so that tomorrow you will still remember, with perfect clarity “Hashem Hu Ha Elokim.”

Originally Published 10/10/2008

Minhag BT

A BT goes to his Rabbi and says “Rabbi, I’m a Baal Teshuvah and since my father wasn’t religious, I don’t have any minhagim.” The Rabbi, with a hint of a grin, slowly shakes his head from side to side and says “That’s not true.” The BT doesn’t understand. The Rabbi continues: “Your father didn’t stand for Kiddush, right?” “And your father didn’t wear tefillin on Chol HaMoed, right?” OK, bad joke but a good introduction to the subject of Baalei Teshuvah and minhagim.

It seems that there are at least three prominent opinions on the minhagim of baalei teshuvah:

1. The pick and choose opinion which basically says that a BT does not need to follow any particular set of minhagim. He or she can choose which minhagim are meaningful to him. This opinion is most likely partially based on the fact that (in America, at least) there is no one single prominent minhag. Of course, if someone is living in a particular community within which the entire community practices one particular set of minhagim, such as in a chasidishe community or a strong German kehillah he or she would most likely be encouraged to accept such minhagim upon himself;

2. The BT should accept upon himself the minhagim of his or her Rav. This has clear practical advantages such as observing the practice of those minhagim and inquiring about the way such minhagim are conducted. It may also help speed integration; and

3. The BT should research the minhagim of his father’s ancestors based upon either actual knowledge from family members or research into the prevalent minhagim in the geographic locale from where his father came. This has the advantage of connecting to one’s past in a manner that is often of great importance to particular BTs.

Two personal notes regarding my own minhagim. I used to stand for Kiddush on Friday night. I’m not quite sure why but it’s most likely because that is the most prominent minhag I had seen. While learning shulchan aruch and its supercommentaries, it appeared to me that it seemed most proper to stand for “vayechulu…” since this paragraph is considered testimony which is given while standing (even those who state that it is not necessary to stand advise a small seated rise for the first four words) and most proper to sit for the actual Kiddush (either because that more practically attaches the Kiddush to the meal or because it more formally establishes a group and provides those listening with more kavanah). I asked my Rav whether I should continue making Kiddush as I had in the past or whether I should employ the seemingly more “preferable” method. My Rav inquired with others and advised me that, since my usual method was not based upon any family or community minhag, I should stand for vayechulu and sit for the remainder of Kiddush. So, that’s what we do.

The second personal note regards a minhag I had read about where immediately after making havdalah, the family gives tzedakah so as to start the new week with a mitzvah. I thought that this was a beautiful, meaningful minhag and so decided, bli neder, to do it in our home. Now, when we set up for havdalah, we place a tzedakah box on the table. Immediately after havdalah, we pass around coins to the family and any guests so that we can all start the week with a mitzvah.

I’d be interested in hearing how others have approached/been advised to approach the issue of minhagim.

Originally Posted 11/28/2007

Bittersweet – Rosh Chodesh Av

Rosh Chodesh Av is amongst the strangest of days.

As we’re aware, Rosh Chodesh Av marks the commencement of the nine day mourning period culminating in the most tragic and mournful day of the year, Tisha B’Av. As the gemorah states “MiShenichnas Av MeMa’atin B’Simcha” when the month of Av enters, we decrease our joy. Yet, it is still Rosh Chodesh, a joyful day, a semi-holiday. Quite the discordant mix.

On Rosh Chodesh Av, the melody of Hallel is tinged by the portending sobriety of Kinos and Eichah. Leining and mussaf which speak of the korbanos offered on Rosh Chodesh in the Beis Hamikdash remind us of the fact that we were deprived of the ability to bring such korbanos when the Beis HaMikdash was torn from our lives and hearts.

One of the causes for the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash was sinas chinam (baseless hatred). The Netziv explains that the sinas chinam that caused the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash was not exactly what we commonly think it was. The Netziv points out that the sinas chinam that caused the destruction included hatred between Jews with different hashkafas or a different psak in halachah. If someone would see another frum jew serving Hashem in a way that was different from his own, he would judge and vilify that person. The Netziv grieves over the fact that this type of sinas chinam existed in his time as well. Is our time any better? Are we getting closer to ahavas chinam (groundless love, the cure for sinas chinam) or further?

Rosh Chodesh Av is also the yahrtzeit of Aharon HaKohen, the ultimate lover and pursuer of Peace. Perhaps the fact that Aharon’s yahrtzeit falls on Rosh Chodesh Av serves as a reminder to us to make peace with our fellow jews, even when they are very different from ourselves. In doing so, may we be zocheh to see the tinge of sadness of this Rosh Chodesh removed and the fulfillment of King David’s statement “You turned my mourning into dancing, you have removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.”

This post originally appeared on July 26th, 2006.

Catching Bagels

It’s probably happened to most of us. You’re out somewhere, it could be at work, a museum, a park or anywhere else, and someone walks over and throws you a bagel. If you’re lucky it isn’t frozen. Well, I’m not really talking about that kind of a bagel. “Being Bageled” is a phrase that, while not coined by him, is becoming popularized by Rabbi Mordechai Becher. It’s basically when a person who is not visually identifiable as being Jewish (at least in their own eyes) says something to you so that you know that they too are Jewish.

Example: I was sitting at a real estate closing when the buyer walked in with 4-5 additional family members. The buyer’s attorney turned to me and whispered “Oy, they brought the gantza mishpachah!”

Rabbi Becher tells a hilarious Bagel story. He was traveling in Budapest when a couple of tourists approached him and asked how to find a certain marketplace. Rabbi Becher pointed the way and one of the tourists said “Thanks a lot. You know what, we’ve been wandering around for a while, we wouldn’t want to be wandering around for forty years like last time!”

Why do people bagel? Is it because they are looking for commonality? Friendship? Something else? How do you respond to a bagel? A shmear and some lox? A discussion of where the person is from? Something else? Rabbi Becher says that being bageled is siyata deshmaya (divine providence) but how we react to the bagel is part of our “free will” and can often be quite critical. Anybody out there have a good bagel story or some good insights on the bagel phenomenon?

Originally Post May 15th 2008

The Making of a Passover Seder

Chapter 1 The Great Pesach Divide

I don’t think there are many days in the year that can cause greater strife in BT-Familial relations than Pesach. I think the reason for that is twofold. First, Pesach is a holiday that involves a high level of kashrus scrutiny. Second, many non-religious people take Pesach seriously on their level and a BT’s unwillingness to eat in their home often comes across as offensive.

Growing up, one seder was always held at my Aunt’s house, approximately 45 minutes away by car. Although my Aunt and Uncle weren’t religious, they were fairly traditional and they took Pesach seriously. My Aunt is one mean cook and my Uncle (he should rest in peace) always prepared the entire seder, complete with written explanations for each participant to read at the appointed time and his strawng awshkenawzi pronawnciation. He also freshly grated horseradish that could clear a stuffed nose from across the room. Other than my eternal fear of botching the four questions, I actually looked forward to those Seders every year. I was one of the few youngsters who stayed with the older men to complete the hagadah long after the others had retired to watch a post-meal hockey game. The seder at my Aunt’s was also pretty much the only time of the year that my extended family would get together.

So, it was with great trepidation that I approached my parents when I was approximately 16 and told them that I was no longer willing to ride in the car on Passover. At the time, I thought I might have more easily launched the first missle of WW III but, though my Aunt was not pleased, my parents handled it as well as could be expected and my Aunt, I think, eventually forgave me.

Chapter 2 A Teenager’s Seder
To my parents’ credit, they decided that if I wasn’t willing to go to my Aunt’s, they would stay home as well. That meant that I would have to prepare the Seder. Every year I would meticulously prepare my father’s hagadah with notations, explanations and parts so that he could “lead” the Seder. My father a’h, mother, brothers and any guests bravely persevered as we completed the entire hagaddah both nights for years. Knowing that this experience would not be the most pleasant one for the others, I did everything I could to try to make the seder relevant to them. I would spice it with history, family remembrances, riddles, jokes, etc. (One year we went through an entire scientific analysis of the process of leavening, another year I contacted the seder participants and asked them to submit advance questions about pesach the answers to which I researched and presented at the seder)

Chapter 3 The Seder in My Own Home
Though I am only in my mid-30s, I have been preparing a seder for the past 20 years. I think that my early seder experiences have helped fashion the seder I presently run. I am blessed with my own children now and I try to prepare a seder that is fun, interesting and relevant to them and any guests. Our seder is becoming well known for our children’s Ten Plagues skit (especially the famous water into blood scene, a must see), mixed minhagim (I have incorporated many of my Father In Law’s sephardi minhagim), interesting niggunim (kadesh, urchatz… to the tune of the Egyptian National Anthem) and the signed, notarized statement I procured from my wife and mother-in-law promising that they will not stay up all night the day before Pesach. I still think the time my father-in-law, already in his 70s, stood on his chair like a little boy to recite the Four Questions so he could get a chocolate covered marshmallow was the best.

Though my decision to break from my extended family’s passover seder was a difficult one that had relationship reprecussions, it forced me to develop a deeper understanding of the Hagadah and to (I hope) prepare a seder that is interesting and meaningful to its participants.

First posted on April 10, 2006

A Succos Reawakening

A few years ago, on Chol HaMoed Succos, our family headed to New Jersey for a few days of outdoor fun. It’s the time of year when our family spends the most extended time together. One of the expected highlights was a ferry ride between Delaware and New Jersey where we hoped to spot dolphins and whales sporting in the water. Unfortunately, on the morning of the ferry ride, we got a late start and the ferry left without us. We missed the boat! The following year, our family excitedly set out for our annual Chol HaMoed Trip.

On this trip we headed, once again, for New Jersey making our first stop at Allaire State Park, a restoration type village twenty minutes from Lakewood. At the Park, we rode an old time railroad and the children placed coins on the tracks and marveled at how the locomotive flattened them and smoothed them out. Afterwards, we walked through the village watching a blacksmith perform his trade, 1800s style. Next, we rented old-time fishing poles: a reed of bamboo, a piece of string, a cork, and frozen hot dogs for bait! We fished in the village pond and it seemed like the entire village was cheering us on when we snagged quite a large tenacious fish, along with two other smaller fish. Finally, we hiked along the Manasquan water table surrounded by streams, creeks, a small waterfall, lush greenery and, to the delight of the children, lots of mud. That night, upon returning to Lakewood, we had a barbeque in the Succah complete with S’mores.

The next morning, we were off vegetable picking. We visited a farm where you can pick just about any vegetable you could imagine. Potatoes, string beans, sweet potatoes, peppers (even hot ones which left the kids red in the face, teary-eyed and screaming for a drink!). There were black-eyed peas, eggplants, cucumbers, onions, you name it. We picked zucchini nearly the length of my arm and about as wide as my thigh! We ate corn, sugar sweet, straight out of the husk, no cooking or butter needed, thank you. On the way back, we stopped at the Manasquan Reservoir where we took in a gorgeous sunset and the children romped in a park complete with a zip-line. The evening was topped off with pizza and ice cream in the Succah.

The next morning, back on the road again. This time to the Shenedoah River where we rented row boats and attempted to fish with a broken rod and reel and uncooperative worms. The setting was bucolic; shimmering water, bright sun, a light breeze and ducks diving for their lunch as we floated along.

After this whirlwind, incredible three days, I asked my four year old daughter which part of Chol HaMoed she liked the best. She looked up at me through her wispy bangs, widened her big blue eyes and said, in her sing-song voice: ‘The Lulav’. Whoa! You could have knocked me over with a feather. I almost missed the boat again! I almost got so caught up in the Chol, that I forgot the Moed. I picked up my daughter, swung her around, gave her a big hug and a kiss, and secretly thanked her for her unintended lesson.

The next morning, Hoshana Rabbah, I took advantage of my last chance of thr year to bentsch lulav. I made the brocha with extra focus and kavanah and with sincere thanks to Hashem, and my daughter, that I didn’t lose the lulav for the trees.

This piece originally appeared in Horizons magazine.
Originally posted October 23, 2006.

Prolonging Your Tan

Rabbi Label Lam often explains that when someone comes back from vacationing in a warm climate, everyone knows that they have been away because they can see their tan. Rabbi Lam continues that when you come back from Eretz Yisrael you have the “inner tan”. When I was a kid, my mother used to have this cream called “After Tan” that you would “apply liberally after showering” to prolong your tan for weeks after your vacation memories had faded.

Having recently returned from Eretz Yisrael, I’ve been contemplating how to prolong my “inner tan”. In EY, I was on a high. Waking up for shachris on three hours of sleep was not that difficult. Running to the kosel to daven a midnight maariv in the rain, a privilege. Now, back home, exhausted, pushing myself to the 9 o’clock shacharis on purim morning was not easy. What happened? And how did it happen so fast?

In actuality, this is not something limited to a trip to Eretz Yisrael, it is something that, IMO, happens to every growth oriented person and perhaps more particularly to BTs. After the initial excitement of an event or an inspiration, people tend to slink back to their previous “less inspired” self. What serves as the “After Tan” for the inner tan?
Read more Prolonging Your Tan

Making Time To Do What we Really Need To Do

Time is a critical factor in the lives of observant and growth oriented Jews. Can’t talk, I’m late for Shul. 5 minutes to candlelighting! Last time for shema is 8:43. Gotta find time to learn. Sometimes, I feel like I’m constantly on the go. The fact that we generally have more responsibilities and time constraints than others makes time management that much more important.

Over the past few years, Mark and I have been employing a simple time management and time focusing technique that, quite simply, helps you get a hold of time and use it more efficiently. It is called The Pomodoro Technique. Pomodoro means tomato in Italian and is derived from the fact that the inventor of the method, Francesco Cerillo, used a traditional kitchen timer, shaped like a tomato as the timekeeper for his technique.

The great thing about the technique is that it is simple to effectuate and does not require any fancy tools or manuals. In fact, all you really need is a Pomodoro or some other accurate timer that counts down.

Mark and I have benefited so much from the technique that we chose to share it through a free video on Brevedy. Take just 2.5 minutes out of your busy schedule to watch the video and see how a tomato can change your life. Just imagine working more efficiently so that you have more time to learn, spend with family or friends or recharge your batteries.

Check out the video and let us know what you think.

Memorial Day – Hakaros HaTov

Today is Memorial Day here in the United States. It is the day that we mourn those soldiers who gave their lives so that we can enjoy the freedoms offered by this great land.

Although we are still in Golus, it’s incumbent upon us to appreciate all of the good bestowed upon us by our country and to honor the memories of those brave men and women who fought and died to protect our freedom.

So today, be you democrat or republican, conservative or liberal or anywhere in between, take a moment to offer your thanks to the over 1,000,000 soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice for your freedom.

First published May 29, 2006.

All Dressed Up…

Years back, as I was beginning to become more observant, I had the opportunity to learn for a few months at a Yeshiva in Yerushalayim. I was fortunate to have found a chavrusah who was a great guy and at a similar stage in life; becoming more observant, thirsting for growth while struggling to maintain balance. We would learn Hilchos Brochos together, play soccer and trade our inchoate philosophical insights late into the night.

We both returned home to the States shortly before Succos that year. Not long after, he called to ask me to join him for the last days of yom tov at a family friend in Monsey. I gladly agreed.

As newly minted Baalei Teshuvah, we were quite concerned that our lulavim be well protected during the long bus ride from Port Authority in Manhattan to Monsey. We gingerly wrapped our respective lulavim in a manner that we hoped would provide proper cushioning. We cringed at each jostling of the crowd and we silently prayed that our carefully selected specimen would not be damaged or, worse, rendered unusable. Upon reaching Monsey, we carefully disembarked with our precious cargo and when we finally reached our host’s home we were both proud and relieved that we had protected our lulavim throughout the journey.
Read more All Dressed Up…

Nothing Missing in His World

Once, on a short chol hamoed day, my wife and I took our kids to a botanical garden not far from the house. We simply walked through the gardens taking in the fresh air and enjoying the diversity of the various blooming trees. On the way home, we appropriately stopped by a fruit tree in the neighborhood to make Birkas HaIlan, the Blessing over trees.

The blessing over trees is mentioned in the Talmud (Brachos 43b) and can be found in most siddurim in the section of brochos listed after Birkas HaMazon (Grace after Meals). It is a blessing that is made only once a year and the optimum time to make the blessing is in the month of Nisan. The blessing is only made on fruit bearing trees and can only be made after the tree has begun to blossom, preferably before the fruit has begun to grow. The Blessing loosely translates as: Blessed are You, Hashem, Our G-d, King of the world, for nothing is lacking in His world, and in it He created good creatures and good trees, in order for mankind to take pleasure in them.

There are three things that have always struck me as interesting about this blessing. First, why, of all blessings, does this one state that “nothing is lacking in His World”? Second, why does the blessing on trees mention “good creatures”? Third, what does making good trees and creatures have to do with “mankind taking pleasure in them”?

I have heard it explained that the reason that it is preferable to say the blessing after the tree has begun blossoming but before the fruit has begun to grow is that we are thanking G-d for the beauty of the blossoms. G-d could have easily created a fruit tree that is ugly and simply squeezes out fruit. But G-d wanted the world to be beautiful for us “to take pleasure in”. So, we thank Him for providing us these beautiful often aromatic, flowers. That is why the blessing says “nothing is lacking in His world” and that is why the blessing says that these things were created for mankind to take pleasure in.

The Ben Ish Chai (Chacham Yosef Chaim, Chief Rabbi of Baghdad in the mid to late 19th Century and renowned Sephardic Halachic decisor) explains why the blessing for trees includes the statement that Hashem created “good creatures”. The Ben Ish Chai explains that just as dry, withered and seemingly lifeless trees burst forth with beautiful flowers and bountiful fruit, so too can we as individuals shake off our spiritual slumbers and stagnating depressions to a blossoming, reinvigorating renaissance.

First Published 4/23/2006

Beyond Teshuva Unmasked – A Look Behind the Scenes

Purim is the holiday where G-d parts the curtains and gives us a glance at what goes on behind the scenes. In that spirit, we here at Beyond Teshuva would like to give you a glance at what goes on behind the scenes adminstering the blog. In doing so, we have reproduced a sample of private emails sent to the administrators as well as conversations between the administrators so that all of you can get a snapshot of what has to happen before you see the fruits of our collective efforts here on the blog.

Sometimes it appears to readers of the blog that we don’t give any hard and fast answers. Below I have excerpted an email conversation that exhibits Mark’s ability to cut through the morass of nonspecific advice and give a straightforward, direct answer. The results are life changing.

Dear BeyondBT:

I love your site, it has been so helpful to so many in so many ways. I’m hoping you can help me with my specific problem. I didn’t want to put it on the blog because it is a little personal. Here goes: My 1999 Mercury Grand Marquis has aprox 50,000 miles on her. I recently installed a rebuilt alternator that I boosted to 100 amps instead of the normal 65-70-amp type. How can I make sure that it’s working properly?

Buddy, Topeka Kansas

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Buddy,

This is a question we get all of the time. Basically, if the battery in your car is in good condition, the best way to test your altenator is to perform a cold start of your engine. Keep your eye on the voltage across the battery terminals to verify that it registers somewhere between 13.5 to 14.5 volts. If not, double check that the alternator belt is in good condition and properly tensioned then perform the cold start test again.

Mark

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Dear Mark,

Thank you for you speedy response. Worked like a charm. You the man.

Buddy

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Buddy,

Rock on.

Mark

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Almost brings tears to your eyes, no?

When people see the blog, they see it as a finished product. They are often not aware of the deep thought and wrenching decisions that go into the determination of what to post and when to post it. Take a look at this email exchange between Mark and me which illustrates exactly what I mean.

David,

I’ve got nothing in the submission bank to post today. Your thoughts?

P.S. What are you having for lunch?

Mark

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Mark,

I was thinking of chinese.

David

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David,

I thought you said you were trying to watch your weight.

Mark

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Mark,

I am. I might just get some chicken and vegetables, steamed with brown rice and sauce on the side.

David

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David,

You call that chinese food?

Mark

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Mark,

You’re right. Maybe I’ll just get some sushi.

David

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David,

Do you mean sushi or sashimi?

Mark

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Mark,

Dunno. It’s all the same to me.

David

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David,

Ok. Now that that’s resolved. What are we going to do about the post?

Mark

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Mark,

Look, I gotta get back to work. Maybe just throw something together about a BT who can’t eat in his parents house or somethin’.

David

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Not as easy as it looks, huh?

Finally, administering this blog often requires us to discern the nuances and differences contained in the written language. (And I’m not just talking about having a thesaurus handy for Rabbi Dovid Schwartz’ posts). In order to do so, one must have a handle on where the writer is coming from, where they are going and what is important to him/her. I have excerpted a correspondence between prominent blogger and commenter Steve Brizel and Mark and me.

David,

IMO, as a BT, a former YU and NCSY guy, a FYUANCSYABT, if you will, when RYBS addressed the issue of FW vs PD he, IMHO, IIRC, quoted RAIK based on the RASHBA, the RITVA and another acronym that escapes me now LOL. Anyway, when GL posted regarding TFS and EP, I was taken aback. Do you think I should IM him or JFAI?

SB

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Steve,

Huh?

David

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Mark,

Where did you find this David Linn guy? He barely speaks english!!

SB

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Steve,

Its not like this is a paid position or something so you take who you can get. What can I tell ya?

Mark

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And these are just a few examples!

So, dear readers, before you criticize the blog please take into account the time, effort exerted and the acumen applied to get you the finished product.

Happy Purim to all.

Originally posted – March, 2006

Fisking Uncle Moishy

Fisking is blogosphere slang describing a point-by-point criticism that highlights perceived errors, or disputes the analysis in a statement, article, or essay…A Fisking is characteristically an incisive and fierce point-by-point rebuttal, and the aim is generally to weaken the target’s credibility rather than seek common ground.
This article was partially inspired by Fisking Aunt Mary.

Dear Uncle Moishy,

Everyone’s faaaaaavrite Uncle. Well, you’re not mine. In fact, I’ve spoken to the oldest living members of both sides of my family and they have confirmed that we’re not even related. Moving forward, I’ve received your latest email regarding Shabbos and I will not take it sitting down.

You write:

“Shabbos is coming…”
as if to say that if you didn’t tell me that, I wouldn’t know it. Who died and made you the calendar?

You continue “…We’re so happy.”
Oh, YOU’re so happy. So, your saying that I’M not happy that Shabbos is coming?. Oh you’re soooooo frum.

“We’re gonna sing …”
Once again with the exclusionary language. I know I’m not a world renowned singing superstar like you but there’s no reason to get uppity about it.

“…and shout aloud.”
Oh that makes sense, shout at your family when shabbos preparations are lagging and candle lighting is approaching. Sounds like someone needs a heavy dose of some Marvelous Middos Machine.

Then, you simply repeat yourself with some more shouting, some whispering (I have no clue what that’s about) and telling things to the world (as if people in Bangladesh are actually buying your CDs).

Well, it felt good to get that off of my chest but if you think I’m finished, just you wait until you see my response to your “Hey Dum Diddly Dum” missive. Strap yourself in and hold on to your Mem hat, buddy.

All my love,

David (not your nephew)

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’.

Can the Ends Really Justify the Means?

In this week’s Mishpacha magazine, Yonoson Rosenblum’s weekly column presented an interesting point. He writes:

“Chazal enjoin us in many places to carefully consider the impact of our words. Yet in many instances, it is impossible to know in advance what that impact will be, or to anticipate the ways in which the same words will have a radically different effect on two people. That is perhaps why Chazal also commended silence so highly — an option not available to columnists.

Last June, I had an opportunity to interview my friend Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz on the early teshuvah revolution in South Africa. The discussion turned to his first book, Anatomy of a Search, which describes his own path toward religious observance and that of a number of other baalei teshuvah. Written with the fervor of a still relatively recent baal teshuvah, the book contained one sentence laden with adjectives decrying the emptiness of secular society. When he subsequently showed the book to Rabbi Aharon Feldman, rosh yeshivas Ner Israel, Rabbi Feldman told him that he thought the book was very good, but he would have left out that particular sentence, as it would only alienate those he wished to reach by making them feel under attack. And indeed that was indeed the reaction of at least one set of Rabbi Tatz’s relatives, who told him that they felt personally offended by the sentence in question, and had promptly put the book down.

But here’s where it gets a bit complicated. Some years later, Rabbi Tatz met another South African, approximately his age. He described how as a young attorney, he and his wife had left South Africa as a personal protest against apartheid. They then spent a number of years in India as part of an idealistic search for meaning. Eventually they ended up on a beach in Israel, where it seemed to them that their search had reached a dead end, with no further avenues to pursue. At that point, the husband came across Anatomy of a Search, and was struck by the sentence in question, which seemed to encapsulate all the feelings about the secular world that had launched him and his wife on their journey in the first place.

All this took place many years ago. The former lawyer went on to learn for many years in yeshivah, and is today a rosh yeshivah.

Unquestionably, Rabbi Feldman’s advice was correct: Rarely is there any purpose served by making ones message unpalatable to those whom one is trying to influence. But in this case, davka the sharpness of the phraseology was what hit a young couple, at a moment of desperation in their lives, when they were prepared to make a dramatic change.”

If you could travel back in time to before you decided to connect more closely with Judaism, how would you have felt about these words? Does the fact that these precise words motivated one young couple (and, I assume others) excuse, justify or outweigh the fact that they turned off or offended others?

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.

These Canvas Shoes

Growing up in New York City public schools in the 70s and 80s, one would simply just not wear canvas sneakers. These verboten items of apparel were derisively called “skips”. The unaware male student who breached this fashion taboo was subject to jeers and was most likely to suffer the gravest of schoolyard humiliations– being selected last when choosing sports teams.

Looking down at my canvas. sneakers during my father’s shiva awakened me to the fact of how much things had changed over the past twenty-odd years yet how much some things remained very much the same. Back then, wearing canvas sneakers was a clear marker, right or wrong, of a certain schoolyard stereotype. Now, wearing canvas shoes is also a clear marker but of one who is in mourning or in a state of solemnity. Now, as then, the “clothes make the man”. What we wear affects how we feel and how others feel about us. Funny how the world turns in such a way that the very item one would rail against his parent to avoid wearing is the same one he is now obligated to don to mourn that parent. These canvas shoes are heavy… with meaning.

According to Jewish law and custom, the shoe symbolizes our physical existence. Just as the shoe encases and protects the lowest part of the body and allows it to navigate the physical world, so too the physical body encases and protects the lowest level of the soul and allows it to live in and relate to the physical world. It used to be that each of the birchas hashachar (morning prayers),were recited in conjunction with a certain stage of awakening and preparation for the day. For example, after putting on clothing, the bracha of malbish arumim –blessing the One who clothes the naked– was said. The bracha specifically associated with donning shoes is sheasa li kol zarki—blessing the One who has provided me with all of my needs. We see from here that shoes, specifically leather shoes, are the ultimate paradigm of physicality. Our sages teach that one of the reasons that we don’t wear shoes on Yom Kippur is that on that Holy Day, we are considered as angels and angels, since they are purely spiritual beings without physical needs or desires, don’t wear shoes.

When G-d sees that a person needs to relate on a more spiritual and less physical plane, He commands him to remove his shoes. It happened to Moshe at the Burning Bush and Yehoshua when confronted by the angel of G-d. It happens to us on Yom Kippur, during Shiva and on Tisha B’Av. During these times, we need to realize that physicality must be ignored and that spirituality must be emphasized.

As we slowly and solemnly crawl toward another Tisha B’Av, it may make sense to focus on the physical/spiritual lesson that these canvas shoes teach us. We mourn for the loss of the two Holy Temples. But we are not mourning the loss of physical buildings. Remember, on Tisha B’Av we don’t wear shoes, we are ignoring the physical. As the Temples were the crossroads of the spiritual and physical worlds, we are mourning the spiritual loss of our actual proximity to G-d.

With the loss of the First Temple, we also suffered the loss of prophecy, the mechanism by which spiritual reality was voiced in our physical world. Such tragic losses have unfortunately catalyzed us to view the physical as true reality and the spiritual as a murky, irrelevant reverie.

G-d runs the world according to the principle of midda keneged midda. That means that we are punished or rewarded in accordance with the particular actions that we have taken for which we are being either punished or rewarded. If we truly wish to be rewarded with the return of G-d’s proximity, the return of the truly spiritual to our physical world, we must act in a way which begs for such reward. We must take the lesson of these canvas shoes beyond Tisha B’Av. We have to return our everyday focus toward the spiritual and away from the physical. It is not a once a year thing. It is an everyday, every opportunity thing.

May our continuing efforts to turn our focus from the physical to the spiritual lead to the exchange of Tisha B’Av’s shoes of mourning for Yom Kippur’s angelic footwear. Hey, I told you these shoes are heavy!

First published on August 2, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of One Thing You Can Be Certain

You may have seen this story:

In the mid-nineties, a Jewish advertising executive wondered: what if the New York Times – the “Paper of Record” – printed the Shabbos candle lighting time each week? Imagine the Jewish awareness and pride that might result from such a prominent mention of Shabbos each week. He contacted a Jewish philanthropist and sold him on the idea. It cost nearly two thousand dollars a week but he agreed to fund it. For the next five years, every Friday, Jews around the world would see ‘Jewish Women: Shabbat candle lighting time this Friday is _____”

Eventually the philanthropist had to reduce the number of projects he had been funding. And, so, in June 1999, the little Shabbos candle lighting notice made its last appearance in the New York Times. At least that’s what people thought.

On January 1, 2000, the NY Times ran a Millennium edition commemorating the paper’s 100th anniversary. It was a special issue that featured three front pages. One contained the news from January 1, 1900. The second contained the actual news of the day, January 1, 2000. And the third front page, featured projected headlines of January 1, 2100. It included such stories as a welcome to the fifty-first state: Cuba and a debate over the issue of whether robots should be allowed to vote. And so on. And, in addition to the creative articles, there was one extra piece. Down on the bottom of the Year 2100 front page, was the candle lighting time in New York for January 1, 2100. Nobody asked for it. Nobody paid for it. It was just put in by the Times. The production manager of the New York Times – an Irish Catholic – was asked about this curious entry. His answer speaks to the eternity of our people and to the power of Jewish ritual.”We don’t know what will happen in the year 2100. It is impossible to predict the future. But of one thing you can be certain. That in the year 2100 Jewish women will be lighting Shabbos candles.”

What lessons can be learned from such a story?