The Three Weeks – Building The World

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on the Three Weeks and Tisha B’Ave

Binah/Binyan – The Power To ‘Build’ Through Our Understandings

ומלמד לאנוש בינה Hashem teaches “binah”, intuition, to us.

The word binah is related to the word binyan, to build. Torah scholars are called “builders” – they are blessed with the power of binah. When a person exerts himself in learning Torah, he is really building the world.

How can we reveal our power of binah to build the world – and to be more specific, to rebuild the Beis HaMikdash?

The Depth Behind ‘Sinas Chinam’ (Baseless Hatred): A Viewpoint of Disparity

Chazal tell us that the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed because of sinas chinam (baseless hatred)6. What is the root of sinas chinam? From where does this negative emotion come from?

Simply, it comes from being egotistical. When a person only cares about himself, he couldn’t care less about others, so he will hate others for no reason.

But the deeper understanding is as follows.

When we build a structure, a brick is placed on top of another. Hashem created many details in Creation; we are all like many bricks that need to get added together, and form the complete structure of Creation. All details in Creation are many parts of one whole which will ultimately have to come together.

When we see the world – inanimate objects, as well as people – from a superficial perspective, we do not see how all these connect. But it is this superficial perspective which actually brought about the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash!

We are supposed to see how all the details in Creation are really meant to come together and form a structure. Therefore, the many details going on in Creation are not just a bunch of random details. They are many parts of one whole, which need to come together in a structure. The purpose of everything is always one and the same – to come together, to become unified, and form one structure.

Applying this to our own development, when a person is young, he doesn’t connect outward beyond himself. When he gets a little older, he begins to realize that there is a Creator, and he wants to connect with the Creator, but he does not necessarily see connection with others as part of his connection with the Creator. If a person gets a little wiser, he realizes that his connection with the Creator really depends on how he connects with others.

When a person views Creation through a lens of disparity, this was the perspective which enabled destruction to come to the world. This is the depth behind sinas chinam.

Sinas Chinam – To Be Inwardly Apart From Other Jews

Even more so, sinas chinam means “I can live on my own; I don’t need other Jews in order to exist.”

What about the mitzvah to do chessed? The person rationalizes, “Chessed is like any other mitzvah that is outside of myself, like shaking a lulav. I don’t need chessed to exist.” When a person views Creation with disparity like this, that is sinas chinam – this perspective is what destroyed the Beis HaMikdash.

What was the Beis HaMikdash? It was the place that contained the Shechinah. But what is the Shechinah about? It is about Hashem’s Presence dwelling in Klal Yisrael, when we are in union. When we are not unified and we are instead apart from each other in our hearts, there is no point of having the Shechinah.

“The king is called the heart of the nation”; Hashem called is our “heart”. But if our hearts are full of disparity towards each other, and we each feel like we can survive without other Jews, then our damaged heart will not allow Hashem to be the heart of the nation, and thus the Shechinah will not dwell among us.

Sinas chinam has two layers to it. The outer layer of it is to show signs of hatred, simply speaking. The essence of sinas chinam, though, is that a person feels himself apart from other Jews, that he feels fine without other Jews, that he feels like he can live without other Jews. Sinas chinam, at its core, is to have a perspective of disparity towards Creation, a lack of awareness that Creation is supposed to become unified.

Moving In The Opposite Direction of Sinas Chinam

How do we go in the opposite direction, then, and get ahavas chinam (‘baseless love’)? We know that we have a mitzvah to love other Jews like ourselves but, how do we actually get it?

Simply speaking, we need to get rid of sinas chinam and reveal our deep ahavah for other Jews that we have really deep down. True, but there is more to it.

Ahavas chinam is when we realize, “I cannot exist without another Jew’s existence, for we are all part and parcel with one another.” There is no individual Jew who can live without another Jew’s existence; when we internalize this understanding, we reveal ahavas chinam. Thus, hatred can only exist when a Jew thinks he can exist fine without another Jew.

This perspective of ahavas chinam is the power that can rebuild the Beis HaMikdash, as well as the world as a whole.

Learning Torah To Build The World

As an example, when a person learns Torah, does he realize he is building the world? Or is he learning it all for himself…?

Learning Torah is what unifies the details of the world together. When a person learns Torah, he must be aware that his learning causes unity in Creation, for Torah is the root of all souls. But if a person is learning Torah and he has no love for other Jews, he’s learning Torah all for himself, and such Torah does not build the world.

Uprooting Hatred, and Getting To The Root of Love

The Rambam describes our middos as “daas”. The essence of all our middos and emotions is daas. The depth of ahavas chinam, and removing sinas chinam, is thus not by working with our emotions. Our emotions of love or hatred can only be the result of what perspective we have deep down. If we reveal daas – and we come to actually sense it – then we can reveal love.

We know that doing things for other people can bring love, for “the heart is pulled after the actions”, but at the same time we must realize that we need daas. When we do actions for others, we need to reveal daas with it – to realize that we must unify with others.

To uproot sinas chinam, and to develop ahavas chinam, we need to do good actions for others and help others, but along with this, we also need to reveal our daas – to realize that we need to unify with others. It is a perspective which we need to gain on how we view others. This is the way to access the real emotion of love for other Jews. Destruction comes when we are missing this perspective.

Love For Other Is Not A Novelty

What does it mean to love? It is not simply to shower love upon others. Love is when we reach our daas, when we connect with others, by realizing that all of Creation needs to become unified.

When a person gets married, he believes this is his bashert (soul-mate). He believes the words of Chazal that finding a wife is like finding his lost object. He does not view the love towards his wife as something new; he realizes that he is revealing a reality which is already there, for Chazal say that husband and wife were already destined to be bound together in love.

In the same way, we should view other Jews in Creation – our love for other Jews must not be some novel concept to us. When you meet another Jew, don’t think to yourself that Ahavas Yisrael is some new concept that you have to work on. Rather, it is the reality, and you need to align your way of thinking with that reality. This is because we are all one at our root.

The only reason why we don’t feel that unity is because we are currently living in a world of darkness, which blurs us from seeing the true reality. Therefore, we feel apart from each other, but it’s only because we are not in touch with reality.

What We Cry About on Tisha B’Av

We cry on Tisha B’Av over the ruins of Jerusalem, which lies in disgrace. We are living in a time of hester panim (concealment of Hashem’s revelation). But even more than so, we should cry about an even more painful situation: there are many of our fellow Jews today who are going through all sorts of pain, suffering, and predicament. In our times we live in, our fellow Jews today have both physical suffering as well as suffering of the soul.

We cannot really cry over the destruction of Jerusalem if we do not feel unity with other Jews. Why we do we cry on Tisha B’Av? Is it because we can’t bring our own Korbonos for ourselves? Or are we crying because we don’t have the Korbonos that atone for the entire congregation…? Which of these aspects means more to you…?

In Conclusion

“Whoever mourns Jerusalem, will merit to its rebuilding.” Even if we do not merit the actual rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash, we can each have a part in its rebuilding, when we build the world through the deeper understanding that comes from our “daas”, towards our relationship with the other Jewish souls.

May we all merit to unify with other Jews, as one piece, and come together into one structure, in which “Hashem will be One, and His Name will be one”.

Learning to Get Along with People of Wildly Different Persuasions

By Zev Gotkin

There is a lot of talk these days in the media about ‘polarization,’ especially within the context of politics. Often it seems as if being a ‘moderate’ is going out of style. Being labeled a centrist is to be seen as ‘wishy-washy’ or indecisive. Perhaps going to extremes makes people happy, because it means they don’t have to do too much thinking. When you see everything in black and white, you don’t have to worry about the shades of gray. I conjecture that this mentality is (and always has been) the reason behind why many exclusively hang around those who share their views and opinions. Dialogue poses a threat…especially to the insecure individual. Can we be friends with those who hold opinions and world-views that dramatically differ from ours? I venture to say that it is possible.

I remember when a few years ago that attention-loving, political pundit Ann Coulter made a comment on national television that Jewish people are “im-perfected Christians.” According to Ms. Coulter we Jews are ‘almost there.’ We just need to accept the man on the cross and salvation is ours. Even though Ms. Coulter wasn’t really saying anything new or original, but echoing the sentiments of Christianity since its inception, her statement caused quite the media storm. Naturally this not only offended many in the Jewish community, but rapidly became a subject of much discussion and derisive comments in the media. It is understandable why her comment shocked polite company as it recalled centuries of persecution Jews suffered at the hands of the Church and Christian regimes. However, if one is familiar with Christian teachings which clearly state that a person needs to have faith in Jesus being divine and/or the Messiah in order to attain salvation, one can almost see Ms. Coulter’s remark as her way of delivering a compliment to the Jewish people – if not a back-handed one.

At the time of this controversy a Jewish friend angrily told me how a mutual Catholic friend of ours told him point-blank that he agrees with Ms. Coulter. I privately took our Catholic friend aside and questioned him about it. “Do you believe I am going to Hell?” I asked. He stammered and sputtered before admitting that yes, he did in fact believe that I was destined for the underworld in accordance with Catholic doctrine. Of course it is hard to tell if this is in fact reflective of Catholic doctrine today as the Church’s position on this matter has done a bit of flip-flopping as of late, but you may wonder whether or not I became angry or upset with my Catholic friend.

The answer is no. I was not offended. This is my friend’s sincere religious belief and as long as he is not proselytizing me or trying to impose his religious views upon me, I can respect it. I actually like to occasionally discuss religion with this particular friend. As an observant Jew I feel I often see eye-to-eye more often with religious people of other faiths than I do with many Jews. My Catholic friend and I share many common values even if our theologies radically differ. I respect him the same way I would hope many of other religious or no religious affiliations would respect me.

Orthodox Jews have some customs and beliefs that seem strange to other people. I myself having become orthodox in my early twenties after having grown up in a secular Jewish home can understand why someone might find many aspects of Orthodox Judaism strange. While I seriously doubt I could be friends with someone who passionately hates Judaism and/or the Jewish people (I doubt they’d want to be my friend either), I don’t see a conflict between living in accordance with Torah and associating with those who do not share many of my values or points of view. In fact Judaism teaches that one does not need to be Jewish to be a good person or get to Heaven. The Torah teaches that a non-Jew who is an honest and ethical person and believes in the Creator will actually earn a share in the World-to-Come.

What about secular Jews? Surely, those heathens are going to Jew-Hell, right? Wrong. First of all while Judaism does have a concept of Hell known as Gehinnom, it is believed to be a temporary rest-stop to get the stains out of our souls before being moved into a blissful existence. We do not believe in eternal damnation (except for a select few, horrible individuals). Furthermore, most secular Jews today are not considered heretics by contemporary rabbinic authorities. Most Jews simply do not know enough about their religion to actively rebel against it and are therefore not liable to punishment. In fact even many Jews who grew up religious and abandoned it don’t usually go ‘off the path’ out of pure rebellion, but due to family problems or negative experiences in school.

Those of us who consider ourselves observant Jews must treat those Jews who self-identify as secularor non-orthodox with loving kindness in accordance with the dictum of our Sages that “all Jews are responsible for one another” (Shavuos 39a). Our Sages also teach that “all Israel have a share in the World to Come”(Sanhedrin 11:1). Furthermore, Chassidic philosophy and Kaballa explain that all Jewish souls emanate from the same root in G-dliness. Plenty of my friends and family members are secular and some are even anti-religious or hostile toward my way of life. The best thing we observant Jews can do is increase Ahavas Yisrael (love of one’s fellow), answer questions that are posed to us sensitively and honestly, and remember to love the person even if we vehemently dislike what the person says or does. This is not always easy and I don’t pretend to be flawless in this arena, but if we want to perfect the world and bring the Final Redemption it would be prudent to do our best.

Our Sages teach that we lost the Holy Temple due to senseless hatred between Jews. With senseless love we will rebuild it. Even though we can disagree and get into heated discussions about various topics we must work hard to make sure it doesn’t get personal and if it does to quickly apologize and make peace. It doesn’t matter who ‘started it.’ During the Three Weeks when Jews traditionally mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple we should make an extra concerted effort to ponder these ideas and put them into practice.

Originally Published on 7/10/2012

The Mesorah Of Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz

Admins note: Art Scroll has a special place in the hearts of almost every Baal Teshuva. Imagine how much more difficult our entry into Torah Judaism would have been without the guiding hand of the Art Scroll Siddurim, Gemorahs, Tanach and everything else they publish. Thank you Rabbi Zlotowitz and may your neshamah have an aliyah as a result of the great service you have performed and continue to perform for the Jewish People.

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Five Towns Jewish Times

Perhaps his e‑mail address said it all: “Meir at Mesorah.com.” Perhaps more so than any individual in the past 800 years, Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, zt’l, brought Jewish people back to their mesorah—their birthright of Talmud, their yerushah of Torah.

Rabbi Zlotowitz and his partner in a remarkable revolution, Rabbi Nosson Scherman, ybl’c, achieved something that others could only dream about. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement, envisioned that perhaps one day there could be a translation of the entire Bavli. Reb Meir made it happen.

And, as everyone knows, it wasn’t just Gemara. The ArtScroll Mishnayos project is a masterful work. There is the Siddur, the Chumash, the Yerushalmi, the Midrashim. There is the Yom Kippur Kattan Siddur. There is the beautiful Tishah B’Av kinnos. ArtScroll has well over 2,000 titles—each one unique and exceptional. Because of Rabbi Zlotowitz, English speakers are now privy to the depths of the Talmud, the shmuessin of Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zt’l, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt’l, and others, the insights on tefillah of Rav Shimon Schwab, the Chofetz Chaim on lashon ha’ra, and the crystal-clear yet deep expositions of halachos by such poskim as Rav Binyomin Forst and Rav Simcha Bunim Cohen.

There is not an English-speaking Torah home in America that does not possess a sefer that Rabbi Zlotowitz published. There is almost no aspect or field of the oeuvre of Torah literature that was not reintroduced to Klal Yisrael in a language that they could understand—and with an unprecedented scholarship as well.

It could not have happened without “Meir being Meir.”

When he made up to do something, he did it. And at almost every juncture, his vision was initially dismissed as sheer madness. Yet his perseverance enabled him to achieve the well-nigh impossible. Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman was initially not a supporter of the ArtScroll Gemara project. He feared that people would no longer horveh on unfolding the latent processes of reasoning in the Gemara when it was handed to them on a platter. After he saw the ArtScroll Hebrew Yerushalmi, Rav Shteinman changed his mind. Reb Meir was there and shared a picture of Rav Shteinman giving shiur out of the Schottenstein Yerushalmi. Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, as well, learned out of the ArtScroll Hebrew edition. Reb Meir shared the picture with a number of people.

Meir had a remarkable gift of writing and presenting complex aspects of Torah to the reader so that the reader could truly comprehend it.

He was larger than life. He had enormous creativity, passion, and drive combined with a fantastic sense of humor.

Once in shul, Reb Meir had fainted into the lap of someone sitting next to him. The atmosphere was tense and grim. People were concerned. When he came to, Reb Meir realized what had happened. He gathered his energy and yelled, “Kohanim arois!” (“Kohanim out!”). The entire shul burst out in laughter. Even when ill, this was Meir being Meir.

One Shabbos during Parashas Zachor, he approached a young child who knew he was the publisher of ArtScroll. He whispered to the young man, “Come here. I work at ArtScroll. I know whether it is really ‘zecher Amalek’ or ‘zeicher Amalek.’ But I’m not telling anyone.”

I once met him at a local zoo on a Wednesday—when admission is free—on chol ha’moed Pesach. This was after ArtScroll had picked up financially. I told him, “Reb Meir, I understand why I am here today; I am in chinuch. But you? You are now a successful businessman.”

He responded, “Are you kidding? I have almost all of my grandchildren here, too. This would have cost me four or five times what it would cost you.”

I teased him about a comment in the first edition of the ArtScroll Shalosh Seudos publication. It said that shalosh seudos commemorates the three meals in which the evil Haman was handed over to the Jewish people, citing the Aruch HaShulchan. “How could ArtScroll have allowed this error to creep in?” I teased. He responded that it was a practical joke someone had pulled that had gone awry. I had my doubts. The three seudos in which “ha’man”—“the manna”—was given seemed more likely to be a 3 a.m. bleary-eyed rendering. The twinkle in his eye indicated that he might have agreed.

Reb Meir had a kindness and generosity of spirit that endeared him to people. When people were down on their luck, he not only helped them, he lifted their spirits by treating them with the utmost respect as equals. He was a friend to those who did not have friends. He understood pain. He was a kindred spirit to Ronnie Greenwald, a’h, and they were good friends as well. They worked on numerous projects together—helping others, helping Klal Yisrael.

He also had a deep and abiding relationship and friendship with the gedolei Torah of the last generation and of the current one. And they were his friends as well. Recently, Reb Meir spent an hour with the Belzer Rebbe on his last trip to Eretz Yisrael.

A while ago, one leading gadol saw him uncharacteristically feeling down. Reb Meir confided in him that he did not think he could continue with his dream of translating Shas into English. He was having enormous difficulty finding a sponsor for the second volume. The gadol encouraged him and loaned him $25,000 in order that he could continue.

But how did it all start?

Reb Meir was a talmid of Mesivta Tiferes Yerushalayim. He was a talmid muvhak of Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, and later of his son Reb Dovid. His relationship with Reb Dovid became very close. They would speak each erev Shabbos.

After leaving yeshiva, Reb Meir entered the business world, printing brochures, invitations, and kesubos. In the meantime, he learned and continued in the high level of Torah scholarship as he had done while in yeshiva.

Reb Nosson Sherman, his partner at ArtScroll, once told me that “the ArtScroll revolution” was actually part of the aftermath of a tragedy in 1975. Meir Fogel, z’l, was a rebbe in a yeshiva who was a close friend of Meir Zlotowitz. He passed away in his sleep one night as a young man—he had married but had not had children. Reb Meir Zlotowitz was so distressed that he wanted to do something in memory of his friend, to give him a legacy. He had the idea of doing a translation and commentary of Megillas Esther that would be completed by the sheloshim.

Reb Meir asked Reb Nosson Sherman, a principal at Karlin Stolin, to edit it and add an introduction—which turned out to be the first ArtScroll publication.

The publication caught on and went through many printings before the first Purim. There was nothing like it before. It was a need that had not been recognized. They were encouraged to continue such work by the leading gedolim—Rav Moshe and Rav Yaakov. Soon they embarked upon the rest of the megillos too.

Reb Meir himself then penned an incredible commentary and anthology on Bereishis. The rest was history.

Reb Nosson Sherman remarked that it would be fair to say, “No Meir Fogel, no ArtScroll.”

This is not to say that the ArtScroll company would not have existed. ArtScroll was originally a graphic-arts company. Reb Meir was talented and artistic; indeed, he was a perfectionist. He created beautiful invitations and kesubos. He would later use these talents to create the masterpieces that the ArtScroll publishing house would bring forth.

One year during the Yamim Nora’im, Reb Meir had difficulty following which particular section to say. He commented, “That’s it. Next year I am coming out with a Rosh Hashanah Machzor that is clear.” And then he did.

While making that Machzor, they had a question about what to do when Shabbos was accepted but Ma’ariv was not yet davened. Is “l’eila u’l’eilah” added? They posed the question to Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky. He responded, “Ich veis nisht mir; daf freggen an alter gabbai—I don’t know. We will have to ask an older gabbai.” Subsequently they posed the same question to Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l. Remarkably, he responded with the exact same line.

Gedolim recognized the revolution that Rabbi Zlotowitz had wrought and of which all talmidei chachamim were the beneficiaries.

A number of years ago, Reb Meir showed remarkable personal strength. He had taken it upon himself to lose quite a number of pounds. He successfully kept it off. The loss of weight imbued him with a greater dignity. People commented that they did not recognize him at first.

A mere five weeks ago, he had trouble with his hip. He had suffered with arthritis for a while. That brought the realization that there was trouble with internal bleeding and issues of the liver. After transferring to NYU, there were further, dire complications. The family was called in, but miraculously he recovered. By Friday he was back to his usual self. But then he started bleeding internally once again. A short while later he passed away.

Thousands of people and the gedolei Yisrael have lost a friend. And Klal Yisrael has lost one of the most innovative and visionary minds of the past eight centuries.

Reb Meir is survived by his wife, Mrs. Rochel Zlotowitz, and a family of bnei Torah, including their children, Reb Gedaliah Zlotowitz (who is at ArtScroll), Reb Ira Zlotowitz, Reb Boruch Zlotowitz, Reb Chaim Zlotowitz, Mrs. Estie Dicker, Mrs. Faigie Perlowitz, Mrs. Devorah Morgenstern, and Mrs. Tzivi Munk, and, bli ayin ha’ra, numerous grandchildren. Some of his grandchildren attend TAG and Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway.

All of us should think about where Klal Yisrael would be if the ArtScroll revolution had not happened. What would have happened if a caring young man had not decided to make an English Megillas Esther to honor the memory of a friend who had tragically left the world without children? Reb Meir Zlotowitz, zt’l, was at the forefront of restoring the mesorah to Klal Yisrael.

He leaves Klal Yisrael with a twofold legacy—a shining example of what a human being can accomplish if he sets his mind to it, and an ever-growing body of Torah-true publications that embody the highest ideals of Torah and Mussar. Reb Meir, tehei nafshecha tzrur b’tzror ha’chaim. We will all miss you.

The author can be reached at yairhoffman2@gmail.com.

Turning the Tables on the Constant Test of Summertime Immodesty

By Rabbi Yonah Levant

The 1st Mishna is Pirkei Avos, Chapter 2 says:
Rabbi [Yehuda haNasi] said:…
Be careful with a minor mitzvah (commandment) as with a major one, for you do not know the reward for the mitzvos. Consider the loss incurred for performing a mitzvah compared to its reward, and the ‘reward’ received for sinning compared to the loss….

The two parts of the Mishnah, the encouragement to keep mitzvos, and the steeling oneself to avoid aveirah, seem to be distinct and can be fully understood independent of each other. It seems.

I saw a chiddush (novel insight) that manages to link the סוֹר מרע (turn away from bad) with the עשה טוב (do good) in a way that can have a very big impact on a person’s entire relationship to Hashem.

This is based on what we all intuitively know – that it is most worthwhile to daven to Hashem during an עת רצון (time of divine favor). “Worthwhile,” in terms of having one’s tefilos heard and accepted. The Ohr HaChaim on the pasuk ואתחנן אל ה’ בעת ההיא לאמר (and I davened to Hashem in that time saying) explains that the בעת ההיא (in that time) meant that it was an עת רצון (time of divine favor), and that is why Moshe davened then. Moshe knew when it was an עת רצון (time of divine favor) and he took full advantage to daven then.

Wouldn’t we love to know when there is an עת רצון (time of divine favor), or better yet, be able to create such a thing, by ourselves!

Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein shlita of Bnei Brak quotes the Ba’al Sefer Shomer Emunim who says that whenever one does a mitzvah, it is an עת רצון (time of divine favor). And especially when one sees inappropriate scenes, pritsus (immodesty), and one looks away with proper שמירת עיניים (guarding of one’s eyes) , that creates a עת רצון (time of divine favor) such that your tefillos will certainly be accepted by Hashem.

What does this mean to us? What does it mean to us who live in a very degraded generation in terms of tsnius (modesty), and what does it mean to us in terms of our lives as Jews, in the Big Picture.

Before this insight, a person might feel overwhelmed by a non-tsnius (immodest) world, especially in the summer, where one is put to the test all the time. A person might end up feeling aggravated endlessly, that the world is so antagonistic to Torah observance. You can’t look around and walk around like a normal person. You always have to be on edge, like in a battle.

And Shemiras Aynayim (guarding ones eyes) is a tricky business, since willpower doesn’t stop your optic nerve from working! The Ran in Nedarim says (I don’t have the source location) “אבל עיניו ואזניו של אדם אינם ברשותו, שהרי על כרחו יראח בעיניו ובאזניו ישמע.” – (but the eyes and ears of a man are not his possession, because one sees with his eyes and hears with his ears, even when he doesn’t want to). So, it’s a mitzvah where you practically start off on the wrong foot all the time! You see something inappropriate and only then do you look away.

If you need to be on the street, or driving, etc. you can’t prevent your eye from seeing something un-tsnius (immodest) if it (or her) steps right in front of you. The chiyuv (obligation) is obviously to look away immediately. So, it is a nisayon (test) of great proportions, considering that a healthy human being is not Parev (neutral) about these things. It pulls at a person’s very base nature. If the mitzvah of Shemiras Aynayim (guarding ones eyes) was to avoid looking at wool, it would be much easier to observe, even though wool is also everywhere! Nobody has a deep desire for looking at wool!

So, a person can be exhausted and aggravated from the ongoing nisayon (test) , even if he is successful! Or, chas v’shalom (G-d forbid), a person can give up the fight, and not keep the mitzvah, and abandon that level of kedushah (holiness) that Hashem wants of every single Yid.

With the insight of the Shomer Emunim, a person can change each nisayon (test) of Shemiras Aynayim (and any other aveirah nisayon (trangression test)) into an opportunity for tremendous dveykus (closeness) to Hashem. When one looks away, one can proclaim “Hashem, I am yours, I do not belong to the street! And since I am yours, and since I am overcoming my desires, for You, please help me with…” A person can become Davek to Hashem amidst the shmutz of our world. A person can grow, because of the opportunity hidden within the nisayon (test). “I am not looking Hashem, because I am yours! I am not theirs!”

Rav Zilberstein in his sefer טובך יביעו ח”ב עמ’סח quotes an unnamed Godol who said that a person who doesn’t practice Shemiras Aynayim sullies his davening and learning which require Kedushah. But it also robs him of his ability to get real pleasure and sweetness from learning, and davening, and the like.

You essentially end up switching the forbidden pleasure for the pleasure Hashem wanted you to have in dveykus (closeness) with Him through a geshmak (wonderful feeling) in learning, a heartfelt davening, etc.

I think it was the Steipler Gaon zatzal who was quoted (2008 Men’s tsnius asifah in Lakewood, Rav Wachsman drosho) as saying that when a person foregoes a forbidden pleasure, because of Hashem’s Will, then he will get a תשלומים, an equivalent, a replacement pleasure through Avodas Hashem. He will find real pleasure, real earthly pleasure in davening, or learning, or some other kosher venue. You will not lose out, says the Steipler Gaon.

Let us all try to turn this constant test into an opportunity to have our prayers answered, especially in this troubling time.

Getting to Know Your Thoughts

Rabbi Itmar Swartz (Author of Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh)
Link to post from which this post was excerpted.
Link to whole sefer on this topic.

Our Goal – Reaching Our Soul So That We Can Become Close To The Creator

We will attempt to study the power of machshavah (thought) in a person.

“The end of actions is first with thoughts”. First we need to learn what the purpose of this study is before we learn about what it is.

The purpose of learning about our thoughts is not for the sake of developing our thoughts, but it is only a tool to reach a greater purpose – to reach our soul.

There are three parts to the soul – the Nefesh, the Ruach and the Neshamah. To be specific, the Nefesh is located in the liver, the Ruach is in the heart, and the Neshamah, which is the Godly intellect of a person, is located in the brain[1]; the Neshamah is the highest part of our soul. Building up our mind is thus essentially to reveal our Neshamah. The reason why we should want to reveal our Neshamah is because we want to become close to Hashem. The Rambam[2] writes that we are attached to Hashem only through our minds, and that is why we should want to develop our mind.

In short, that is the purpose of this book. We will now, with the help of Hashem, begin to explain the foundations of how we build our power of thought.

Our Thoughts Can Take Us Beyond Our Limits

What are our thoughts? Thoughts are termed by the Sages as “a bird flying in the sky.” A person can be lifted up by his thoughts and fly away from where he is, when he thinks of something that isn’t in front of him.

All of the physical senses – such as smell, hearing, and speech – have limits. The root of all senses is the brain, but the brain itself can go above limits. Thoughts are not limited to any one place or time – a person sits in one place, but his thoughts can go to another place. This is why thoughts are called “a bird that flies in the sky”, because thoughts can fly above all boundaries!

However, the disadvantage to our thoughts is that we can fly too much with them. Our thoughts, if unbalanced, will be unstable and fly around too much, just like birds that can fly wherever they please.

We are referring to the problem of dimyonos – imagination. When a person’s thoughts take him too far, he enters into his imagination. Reb Yisrael Salanter[3] wrote that a person’s imagination roams around to go wherever it pleases – which is detrimental. Our thoughts can take us away to faraway places that we should not go – the imagination. Most people who have not worked on developing their thoughts are wandering around with their mind, and their minds are lacking stability.

When it comes to our abilities to act and talk, most people are able to stay focused. But when it comes to our thoughts, people usually don’t focus and go from one subject to another in their minds, and all this takes places very quickly.

This is why we see that most people who haven’t worked to build their thoughts have a problem in that their heads are wandering around all day with all types of thoughts. They are lacking a stability in their thoughts.

When it comes to our actions, we don’t jump too quickly from one action to another; we stay focused on what we are doing before we start something else. When we talk, we usually do not jump from one kind of conversation to another within three words; we focus on the topic at hand. But when it comes to thoughts, we think many different things in one minute!

This is unlike our actions and our speech, which we usually don’t lose focus on. Of course, our actions and our speech could also use some improvement, but with our thoughts we can see clearly that we are jumping around too much.

If a person goes over what he thought about the entire day, he would discover that he thought about thousands of different things each day. Our thoughts literally fly around like birds in the sky.

Forming A Place In Our Mind To Build Our Thoughts

If we don’t develop our thoughts, they wander to far-away places that we shouldn’t go – places which our mind doesn’t belong in.

It is written (Mishlei 24:3), “With wisdom you shall build a house.” In order to build anything, one needs wisdom. If a person’s thoughts are roaming around, he lacks structure to his mind.

The root of this is really because ever since Adam sinned, the world became mixed up with good and evil, and so our thoughts as well are all mixed up. This affected our thoughts to become shaky and unstable, lacking a certain groundwork to hold it up.

In order to build up our thoughts properly, we need to first build a foundation to lay the ground upon. Just like when you want to build a building you first clear a big space on the ground so you can have a foundation to build it on, so do we need spiritual groundwork in order to build up our thoughts.

This is the root of beginning to build it – we need the ground to build it upon. Without this solid foundation, our thoughts will not last, just like a building that isn’t founded on anything; it will topple over.

If we try (and with the help of Hashem, we should succeed) to build and understand what this groundwork for our thoughts is, then we will be able to have the groundwork to be able to build our thoughts. But before we learn how to actually build our thoughts, first we must know what the groundwork of it is.

The Effect Of Our Thoughts

Before we` build up our thoughts, first we need ground to lay upon its structure. This groundwork we need is essentially to enter a new world. We need to enter a whole different world if we are to begin building our thoughts.

The ground we need to build upon our thoughts with is not from this physical world. Just like if you go to the moon you will find different material there than on the earth, so will we need different material to build our thoughts — a spiritual kind of material. We will explain what this is.

What is this groundwork we will need? People usually think that thoughts aren’t real. We think, let’s say, if we have to do something or not…but what we actually think doesn’t seem to be reality. But the truth is that thoughts are real. How do we see this?

The Sages (Avodah Zarah 20b) warn a person not to think lewd thoughts during the day, because if he thinks such thoughts, he will become contaminated at night. Why does this happen? It is because when he had these thoughts, these thoughts were like reality to him. The reality of these thoughts are revealed at night in his sleep.

Thoughts are reality. In the example of one who thinks about forbidden thoughts, we see this in an evil usage. But the very reality of our thoughts can be either evil or good.

In the case of one who thinks evil, he is laying the “ground” for his thoughts by giving in to his thoughts for an evil desire. The evil thoughts are then built up on this ground, and eventually he will commit evil acts as well from those thoughts. He absorbs the evil thoughts during the day, which lays the groundwork for the building of further evil thoughts.

From a superficial viewpoint, thoughts seem to be intangible. But from an inner viewpoint, which is the truth, there is nothing more clearly felt than a thought.

The Downside of Spirituality

An Excerpt from Rabbi Noson Weisz: To Believe or Not to Believe, That Is the Question

The downside of spirituality is that it is infinite. There is no limit or measure to the spiritual union that one can form with God who is infinite Himself. You have to give it your all without reservation. Mediocrity is just not acceptable.

Moses was a great teacher and an inspiring leader. But to attach yourself to him you had to be willing to live purely on the manna. He drove his followers to a life of unalloyed spirituality, to maximum attachment to God. It was not by accident that the food available during his tenure as leader was the manna. Manna was the sort of food that matched Moses’ vision of the purpose of existence; the Jewish leader is a conduit for transporting the Divine emanation that sustains the world; Moses provided the wherewithal of survival for a spiritual life. He was not able to serve as a conduit to God for the provision of meat.

The meat they sought in the desert was not our sort of meat; we have no manna to eat as an alternative; to the desert generation meat was the antithesis of soul food; it was being demanded by people who were interested in indulging their physical desires and retreating from their level of spirituality. To be able to obtain such food from Heaven, Israel needed other leaders, who were not on the high spiritual plane of Moses.

“But you who cling to YHVH your God, you are all alive today.” (Deut. 4:4) How is it possible to cling to God when it is written in the same passage “For YHVH your God, He is a consuming fire” (ibid., 24). How can a human being cling to fire? He should connect with a Talmud Chacham, a Torah scholar. (Talmud, Kesubos 111b)

The gulf between Moses and the ordinary Jew is too great to bridge in one step. First one must connect to slightly lesser people and be inspired by them to grow spiritually until one is ready to connect oneself to Moses. Without the help of the elders Moses could not supply any meat.

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Yom Tov – Finding Our True Source of Happiness

R’ Itamar Shwartz
Download Rav Shwartz Shavous Talks here.

Defining The Joy of Yom Tov

The unique mitzvah of all three festivals is that we have a mitzvah to rejoice on Yom Tov. Chazal state that the mitzvah of Simchas Yom Tov (joy on the festival) is fulfilled through meat and wine.

Yom Tov is a revelation of our happiness, and it also shows us what makes us happy. The meat and wine only satisfies our nefesh habehaimis, the lower and animalistic part of our souls, but this is not the entire simcha of Yom Tov. It is only needed so that we can give something to our nefesh habehaimis to satisfy it, because if we don’t satisfy it, our nefesh habehaimis will rebel and get in the way of our true, inner happiness.

Therefore, if a person thinks that Simchas Yom Tov is all about dining on meat and wine, he only satisfies his nefesh habehaimis, and he only knows of an external and superficial Simchas Yom Tov. Woe is to such a person!

What is the real happiness of Yom Tov? The possuk says, “And you shall rejoice in your festival.” Our true happiness on Yom Tov is the happiness we have in Yom Tov itself. It is to rejoice with Hashem, Whom our soul is thirsty for. It is from this that we derive the depth of our happiness, on Yom Tov.

“The righteous rejoice in Hashem.” When a person lives a life of truth, when he lives a very internal kind of life, his entire happiness is “in Hashem.” He is happy “in” his feeling of closeness with Hashem and with His Torah – the place where true happiness is derived.

So Yom Tov, the time to rejoice, is the time in which we discover the happiness we are used to. It is a time to discover if our main happiness is coming from externalities such as meat and wine (for the men) jewelry and clothing (for the women) and candy (for the children) – or if our happiness is coming from an inner place. It is only inner happiness which satisfies our spiritual needs – our Nefesh HaElokus (G-dly soul).

Yom Tov is thus not just the time in which we rejoice, but it is a time in which we clarify to ourselves what our soul is really rejoicing in. On Yom Tov, we do not just attempt to ‘connect’ ourselves to happiness, as if happiness is somewhere on the outside of ourselves. The festivals are called regalim, which implies that we reveal from within ourselves where we are habitually drawn towards, where we really are.

When a person never makes this internal clarification – when he never bothers to search himself outside, and he never discovers what truly makes him happy – he is like a dove who cannot find any rest. Yom Tov to him will feel like a time of confusion; he is like the dove who could not find any rest from the mabul (the flood), which is from the word bilbul, confusion.

A person should cleanse himself off from the desires for this world’s pleasures and instead reveal his thirst for the true happiness.

Making This Assessment

When Yom Tov arrives, the first thing we need to clarify with ourselves is: If Yom Tov really makes us happy.

You should know that most people are not really happy on Yom Tov – not even for one second do they really experience Simchas Yom Tov! [This is not just because the Vilna Gaon says that the hardest mitzvah to keep is Simchas Yom Tov, due to the fact that it is for a 24-hour period lasting for seven days. We are referring to a much more simpler and basic level, which most people do not even reach].

Most people enjoy some moments of relaxation on Yom Tov, but they never reach one moment of true simcha. If someone experiences even one moment of Simchas Yom Tov, he has begun to touch the spiritual light of Yom Tov.

In order to reach true simcha on Yom Tov, we need to remove the various bad habits we have towards the various ambitions we have that are not about holiness. We must remove any “thirsts” we may have for things that are not truthful sources of pleasure. When we begin to feel our souls’ thirst for its source – Hashem – we will find our source of happiness there.

A person needs to discover: “What makes me happy?” If someone’s entire happiness on Yom Tov comes from meat and wine, then according to Halacha he has fulfilled Simchas Yom Tov; he has made his nefesh hebehaimis happy, but he did not reach the goal of Yom Tov; he did not reach “And you shall rejoice in your festival.” He hasn’t even touched upon the real happiness of Yom Tov.

The three festivals are called the regalim. They have the power to awaken us to spiritual growth, and to know what is making us happy. From knowing that, we are able to continue that very same happiness and extend it into the rest of the year.

Lag Ba’omer, Rebbe Akivah, and Kabbalah

By Rabbi Tzadok Cable

As we cross over the midway point of Sefiras Ha’omer we approach the milestone of Lag Ba’omer – the 33rd day of the Omer. What significance lies within this special day and what connection does it have to the days of Sefiras Ha’omer? When we look into this question the first thing that comes to mind is that Lag Ba’omer marks the day when the students of Rebbe Akivah stopped dying and it also marks the yartzeit (the day of passing) of Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai.

Rebbe Akivah was of course the great master and leader of the generation who saved the Torah from being forgotten through his sacrifice. One of his main cornerstones of teaching was “Ve’ahavtah L’reacha Kamochah – love your neighbor as yourself. Rebbe Akivah understood and emphasized in all of his teaching and in all areas of life, the importance of interpersonal relationships and the high level of sensitivity that the Torah demands us to have towards one another. To Rebbe Akivah this was not only a central precept of Judaism but also one that by mastering it would lead to growth and increasing levels of completion in all other areas of Torah.

With this in mind we must certainly be perplexed by the following teaching from the Talmud

“They said that Rebbe Akivah had 12,000 pairs of students between the cities of Geves and Antifrus, and all of them died during one period of time because they didn’t conduct themselves with the proper respect for one another. And then the world was desolate and the Torah was in danger of being forgotten until Rebbe Akivah came down to our Rabbis in the south – Rebbe Meir, Rebbe Yehudah, Rebbe Yosi, Rebbe Shimon, and Rebbe Elazar ben Shamuah and they reestablished the standing of Torah at that time. The Tannah teaches us that the period of time when Rebbe Akivah’s first students passed away was between Pesach and Shavuos. Rav Chamah bar Abbah and some say Rav Chiyah bar Avin said they all died a very bitter death, what is that referring to “Askarah”(according to our tradition this is the most painful form of death in the world). Yevamos 62b

The Beis Yosef in his comments on the Tur in Siman 493:2 says that there is an alternative version of this story found in a Midrash. The Midrash says that all of the first students of Rebbe Akivah died between Pesach and “pros ha’atzeres” which means fifteen days before Shavuos. He goes on to explain that this means that the students died between Pesach and the 33rd day of the Sefiras Ha’omer period.

These two alternative texts are the foundation for the different customs of mourning that we observe today during the Omer period. These practices of mourning include not getting married, not getting haircuts, and not dancing during this period of time. Some keep this custom for the entire 49 days of the Omer period based on the text of the Gemara above. However, the prevailing custom amongst Ashkenazic Jews today is to keep these customs of mourning for the first 33 days of the Omer (or what is otherwise known as “Lag Ba’omer – the word “Lag” – ‘lamed’ ‘gimmel’ has a numerical value of 33).

But putting the legalities of this time period aside there is a very difficult problem in this historical accounting. How is it possible that the 24,000 students of Rebbe Akivah were guilty of not conducting themselves with the proper respect for one another? Rebbe Akivah was the one who lived and taught to the greatest degree the foundation of “V’ahavtah L’reachah Kamochah”. How is it possible that his message wasn’t clearly established and practiced amongst his students? We can find the answer to this dilemma from our tradition. We know that there is a general rule in how Hashem deals with people in this world called “Hakadosh Baruchu Medakdek al Hatzadikim K’chut Hasa’arah” which means that G-d is actually more exacting in judgment (even to a hairsbreadth) with the righteous than he is with normal people. We know the famous Gemara in Bava Kamma 50a

“There was once a story that happened to the daughter of Reb Nechunia Chofer Shichin where she fell into one of the water wells that he had dug for the Jews coming up to Jerusalem for the 3 festivals. People went to tell this news to Rebbe Chaninah ben Dosa who was a very pious individual so that he would pray for her. The first hour passed and Rebbe Chaninah said she is still alive, the second hour passed and he said the same. The third hour passed and he said she has come out of the pit. When she came back from being saved she related a miraculous story of how a sheep had wandered and fallen into the opening of the well. There was an old man following it and he saw me and saved me. (Rashi comments that the old man was actually the spirit of Avraham Avinu who had come to save her) They asked Rebbe Chaninah if he had prophecy in order to know she was saved and he said I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet but I knew that the mitzvah that her father sacrificed so much for could not possibly be the cause of death for his offspring. Nevertheless Rebbe Acha said that Rebbe Nechunia’s son died of thirst as it says “and for those in G-d’s close surroundings it is extremely tenuous”. This verse is teaching you that G-d is exacting with the righteous ones even to a hairsbreadth.

The question once again is that we understand why Rebbe Nechunia’s daughter was saved from this form of death. What we don’t understand is how it could have been that she should have fallen into that well to begin with. Would Hashem not protect the offspring and descendants of Rebbe Nechunia from any form of danger with regards to these wells which their father dug with such self sacrifice? The answer lies in a deeper understanding of why Hashem is exacting with the tzadikim even to a hairsbreadth. This seems so unfair. Shouldn’t it be that someone who is so dedicated to reaching the highest level of service of Hashem, and who sacrifices to such a great degree to do so, should receive some sort of immunity?

The answer is of course – NO! This is a warped view of the ways of the Almighty. He doesn’t offer diplomatic immunity to his righteous ones. On the other hand, if this is true then why would anyone want to make this sacrifice and try to be so great when all that is waiting for him on the other side is being treated with such exacting judgment? The answer is that the advantage and the benefit of living life on a higher plane of completion and to such a degree of sacrifice far outweighs the comfort of being treated with greater mercy but remaining less connected to Hashem. You can’t have it both ways. The tzaddik realizes that even though he will be judged more strictly as he reaches greater levels in the service of Hashem, it is worth it because in return a deeper level of closeness and a stronger bond with the Almighty becomes available. The normal person who doesn’t make that push may be treated with more mercy and allowed a more lenient form of judgment. However, in return for that he looses out on a greater level of closeness that can only be gained by the path of the tzadik. This is the insight of this teaching about Hashem’s way with the tzadikim.

Therefore, not only is the righteous person treated with greater exactingness in judgment, but he is judged more strictly specifically in the areas where he is great. It is no coincidence at all that Rebbe Nechunia’s daughter fell into one of his wells, nor is it a coincidence that Rebbe Akivah’s students passed away specifically because they weren’t complete in the area of “Been Adam Lachaveiro” – interpersonal relationships. Specifically because Rebbe Akivah was so great in this area, he was tested and judged so strictly with regards to it. Perhaps more than anything else we focus our attention on the centrality of “Bein Adam Lachaveiro” during the Omer. This is the time that the Torah wants us to make the transition between the barley offering on the second day of Pesach to the two wheat breads of Shavuos. We discussed in another article about the significance of the counting of the Omer that the whole point that the Torah wants is for us to realize that our productivity both physically and spiritually needs to be refined from more selfish to more selfless. The more selfless a person becomes the easier it is to fulfill the precepts of “Bein Adam Lachaveiro”.

We saw above that Rebbe Akivah wasted no time after his 24,000 students passed away. He immediately picked up the pieces and started to rebuild. He knew what needed to be done and he knew where he had fallen short in the past. It is therefore by no coincidence that one of the students that developed from his second try was Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai, the father of the Kabbalistic teachings and the author of the Zohar. The Tosefta in Chagigah 2:2 teaches us the following:

“Four men entered into paradise Ben Azai, Ben Zoma, Acher, and Rebbe Akivah. Ben Azai gazed at what was there and died, Ben Zoma gazed at what was there and went insane, Acher gazed at what was there and became a heretic, and Rebbe Akivah went up there in peace and came back down in peace”

Our tradition says that this idea of going up to paradise has to do with learning the mystical secrets of Kabbalah. To enter paradise means to gain access to the mystical secrets of the universe and thus be able to incorporate them into the way and manner in which we perform our Divine Service. Of the greatest scholars of his time only Rebbe Akivah was able to go into this realm of thought and absorb the depths of understanding available there. Only Rebbe Akivah was prepared and worked out enough to manage to gain access to the deepest ideas in the Torah and bring them back down to the physical realm, to the mundane day to day life we live.

What gave Rebbe Akivah this ability? It was his mastery of Bein Adam Lachaveiro. Because Rebbe Akivah had mastered the art of being selfless, therefore he was able to absorb the deepest secrets of the unity of G-d. He had no sense of self to distort the ideas and twist them to fit his “personal interest”. Clearly, one of his greatest students – Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai, was the benefactor of the greatness of his master and followed in his footsteps to the greatest degree. This is specifically what gave Rebbe Shimon access to the secrets of the Kabbalah like his master. Interestingly enough, we find throughout the Zohar that Rebbe Shimon constantly referred to his students as “a group of friends”. He saw the crucial element of Bein Adam Lachaveiro as being central to reaching the levels of depth and insight that can only be found in the Kabbalah.

Of course it is by no coincidence that Rebbe Shimon passed away on the 33rd day of the Omer. This is the same day that marks the ultimate breakdown of Rebbe Akivah’s first attempt at healing the rift in the world between the Almighty and His children. Rebbe Akivah’s message was clear even then. It’s all about Bein Adam Lachaveiro. This is the only way to bring the ultimate level of completion to the world through Torah. Anything short of striving for this ideal will leave a warping and a distortion in our full understanding of the Torah. The source of this distortion will be rooted in the aspect of selfishness. Rebbe Shimon passed away on the same day but in a totally different context. He left behind the “close group of friends” with whom he had shared such a close and deep relationship, that together they were able to bring down the revelation of the deepest secrets of the mystical teachings of the Torah. He left behind the Zohar with all that this gives us as Jews and with all that adds to the world. One of the most common and basic teachings in the Zohar is that someone who has truly mastered the stages of preparing himself to attain an understanding of the secrets of the Kabbalah, is capable of making the most profound and deepest form of transformation on the world. He can fix the world more powerfully and more intensely than others. Certainly if we understand that the Torah is “the precious tool that G-d used to create the world” (Avos 3:18), than all the more so we understand that someone who has refined themselves from all selfishness and thus attained the clearest and deepest understanding of Torah can wield the greatest change and the greatest impact on our universe through his Divine Service.

Perhaps we can now understand what David Hamelech was saying in Psalms 119:18 “[Hashem] – Open my eyes and I will see the wonders of your Torah”. The word for open in this verse is “gal” – the letters are ‘gimmel’ ‘lamed’ the same numerical value as 33. David says “Hashem open my eyes, meaning – allow me to see you and the others in the world that you have Created in the true form in which they exist without the distortion of selfishness. Then as a result of this “I will see the wonders of your Torah. This is a reference to the deeper teachings of the Torah. Furthermore, in the selichos we say in one of the stanzas “purify our impurities and to the light of Your Torah open our eyes”. Again here the word for opening the eyes is ‘gimmel’ ‘lamed’. In other words we say “Hashem purify our impurities – meaning our point of selfishness which constantly drives us away from you, and as a result “open our eyes to the light of your Torah”. Again here the reference is to the deeper element of the light of the Torah. This is the aspect that can only be perceived and revealed to a person when they are ready to absorb it.

Based on this it is clear that the 33rd day of the Omer is a very special day. It marks the bridge and the transition of our preparation during the Omer from selfishness to selflessness. We have 17 more days to go until Shavuos but we have crossed the bridge. The seventeen remaining days have the same numerical value as the Hebrew word “good” – TOV. This is when we can cross the threshold into a new level of understanding the world. We can see the good in everything. We can understand the secrets of our universe and learn to use them to bring the ultimate good into the world. This is the legacy of our great master Rebbe Akivah and his giant of a student Rebbe Shimon. Let us take this special day and use it to give us inspiration that we too can reach selflessness. And through this we will merit to stand again on Shavuos as a nation at the base of Mount Sinai like one man with one heart!

Rabbi Tzadok Cable:

My name is Tzadok Cable. I am originally from Miami Beach, Florida, but I have been living in Israel since 1992. Over the years I have had the opportunity to learn Torah from some of the leading Rabbis of our time including: Rabbi Noach Weinberg zt””l, Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz, Rabbi Yirmiyahu Kaganoff, Rabbi Yonason Berger, Rabbi Nosson Weisz, and Rabbi Yochanan Bechoffer. Over the last 8 years I have been running the Rabbinical Ordination Program at Yeshivas Aish Hatorah.

I have realized during my years of learning and teaching that there is a tremendous thirst and interest in the world today for deep, explorative, and impacting Torah content. I strive to address this interest in my teaching style. In recent years I have seen the trend in the world towards the usage of the World Wide Web and social media on the internet. My vision is to use this trend to provide an opportunity for people to find what they are looking for.

I have developed a vast range of resources and made them available to you on binyanhaolam.com.

Conquering Bad Religious Experiences

By Yakov Lowinger

There has been some discussion regarding the reversion of some from religious observance due to a “bad religious experience” (BRE), which seems to cause the sufferer to swear off involvement in organized religion much like a bad omelet will repel one from associating with eggs in a pan for a good while. I personally feel strongly about this discussion and find many of its assumptions to be misplaced, and I hoped to share some of my insights gleaned from inside, then outside, then inside the frum world if I can be so presumptuous.

1. Being rejected is no cause to reject

The problem is that the lovable eggs in a pan that we encounter every day in the frum world, the ones that often drive us crazy and perhaps even give us real indigestion, are our fellow Jews who we are commanded to love and accept. Why are we so concerned on the contrary with their love and acceptance of us as ba’alei teshuvah, so much so that we take their little acts of rejection as proof of the error of our ways? There is a bit of the parable of the sour grapes in an ex-BT who turns away from observance mainly because he/she didn’t feel accepted. You don’t want me? Well I didn’t want you anyway. Unfortunately little of this dance gets either side closer to the questions of finding the Emes that becoming religious was meant to represent. The BT is no less obligated to respect and tolerate those in the community where he lives, as the community is obligated to respect and tolerate him.

2. The derech ha’emes is not contingent on our experiences, good or bad

The story of the aspiring BT who rushes toward ever-increasing levels of observance as long as it feels good, and then backs away once reality (i.e. other people) sets in, has a disturbing undertone. I would argue that Rabbi Jacobson’s comparison to Nadav and Avihu is nice but in the end, there is no distinction between the two brothers’ fate. A more apt comparison is to Rabbi Akiva and R’ Elisha ben Avuya, who went into the pardes together to learn the secrets of Torah. Rabbi Akiva came out unharmed, while R’ Elisha became a heretic and was henceforth known as “Acheir,” the other. In other words, a person’s greatness or lack thereof is defined by how he/she responds to a real challenge to emunah and a genuine exposure to holiness. In the case of the modern day BT, it is in response to a BRE, or even an overwhelming religious experience, that the title ba’al teshuvah is earned or forfeited. It is irresponsible to suggest that the choice between being a Rabbi Akiva or becoming an “Acheir” is ever in the hands of other people, regardless of how insensitively they may sometimes treat us. Those challenges are there for us to use in order to grow, not to become bitter like Acheir, who gave up completely and considered himself beyond repair because of his experience at the pardes.

3. No such thing as an FFB

Unless we take it to mean “filtered from birth”, there is no usefulness to the term FFB as it is generally used. In the first place, as it is meant to be the residual category of BT, it de-individualizes those who happen to have parents who gave them the gift of frumkeit. The argument then almost makes itself – those FFBs are anti-individual – much like saying that anteaters are anti-ant. The term ba’al teshuvah has an exalted status in Torah, considered in some respects higher than a tzaddik. The term FFB in contrast enjoys no comparable prestige, highlights no distinguishing feature of those so categorized except accident of birth, and therefore tells us nothing about those who supposedly bear this title. The label should be discarded, in my opinion, as the terms BT and FFB are in no way commensurable. The former is exalted and laden with meaning, the latter a mere statistic. The term FFB just gives frustrated ex-frum people something to bandy around, some identifier that we all supposedly understand and relate to and toward which we can direct our complaints. By relying less on these labels, we can more easily identify the real source of our challenges, which is more often than not in ourselves and not in those ______s out there.

4. Cluelessness and misplaced meticulousness

That said, it is not as if there are not prevalent problems in certain frum communities that might drive a sensitive person away from strict observance. I will just point out two that I think are important. Compared to what they are used to, BTs are likely to encounter a certain clulessness about the world at large that may make them uncomfortable. The reality is that the strong filters that we grow up with as frum yidden foreclose the possibility of relating to a BT on most things of interest to them, and thus create that familiar dynamic where we look quizzically at the BT as he tells his/her story at the shabbos table and make him/her even more uncomfortable. This would normally lead to some sort of alienation on the part of the BT who just can’t be understood, whereas a healthier approach might be to accept this limitation and even offer to give some background on the topic in question, in a way consistent with the decency implied by a Torah lifestyle, instead of rolling eyes or sighing knowingly. This cluelessness should be treated with sensitivity and understanding, and the BT should take the acharayus to educate his or her new friends and family in a way that establishes the basis for mutual understanding. Those in the frum community in turn should take it upon themselves to listen and learn from the BT. Their strong filters should be more than adequate to the task.

A second difficulty is the misplaced meticulousness displayed by many in the frum community. This goes for BTs and non-BTs alike. In short, it goes like this. I am frummer than you in outward appearance. This causes me to displace my concern for my own frumkeit (what should I do to be more frum, which I may not know) onto you (because it seems that I do know what you need to do to be more frum). I nitpick on your appearance and seeming observance in my head rather than on my own faults which may not be so visible to others on the surface, because it is easier and seems equally valid. The problem is that nobody benefits from this arrangement. I don’t improve and neither do you. If I became as meticulous in my observance as I was in staring down/talking down to the BT on the other side of the shul we would both win. When we self-professed frummies see someone whose appearance makes us uncomfortable in some way, we should see it as a wake up call to fix what’s lacking in our own avodah. Because anyway, I can only be meticulous on my own account, not yours.

5. Living in a frum community requires a thick skin

We are all growing, hopefully, and learning every day. A BT should try to make him/herself sensitive to this and apply it across the board when confronted with the dreaded BRE. Because that BRE is going to happen. And it may even be horrible (I’ve heard some downright Jerry Springer ones — I bet he’s had a few himself). Here’s where the thick skin comes in — tough up and remember that those people responsible for your BRE are having one too. Rather than have it prick at all your sensitivities and throw you off, which in all likelihood it’s designed to do, remember that it’s also put there by Hashem to make you a stronger, more serious and committed Jew. I know people who have actually gone as far as to thank those who threw really terrible BREs at them, because they couldn’t be who they are now without them. Once your done being carried away with all the fun frills of being frum (I’ve heard there are a few), stare down that BRE in the face and become who you really are meant to be. And as for those bitter acheir’s out there, it’s not too late either. I hope there’s something here for all to take to heart.

Can a BT Earn the Right to Coast?

Hi

I’m frum for about 16 years and I have a close friend who’s been frum for about the same amount of time. We’re both married with families. My friend worked very hard on his Yiddishkeit for many years, but in the last 2 years he has noticeably declined in devotion to his learning and his seriousness about davening. I asked him about it and he told me that after all the years of applying pressure on himself to advance further he decided that he had made enough progress and he thinks Hashem will be happy with him because of the struggles he’s endured to become frum and raise a frum family.

Is it possible that his assessment is not so crazy and he’s earned his right to coast?

If he’s making a mistake how can inspire him to return to the path he was formerly on? The for-the-kids argument didn’t work because he argued that they’ll do fine because his wife does a great job with them.

-Akiva

—————–
From the Comments

This post could have been written by me as well.

For the past two years, after 15 years of observance, I feel less connected with my daily practices than before and have been frankly-coasting. Not with belief and not with ahavas Yisrael or most day-to-day observance, G-d forbid, but with the entire lifestyle. I don’t feel compelled to learn or to run to shul 3 times a day anymore. I feel I have bought into a bill of goods that really no longer moves me spiritually as it once did nor do I find it particually appealing. And the Rabbinic answer always seems to be more more and even more perfunctory observance. This absolutely manifests itself with Sleichot in my opinion (which I find detrimental to my attempt to do t’shuva) and the inability of leadership to address people like me on an intellectually honest level. And I find most of the outreach programs intellectually dishonest.

I can trace this to the general complacency in shul as a whole (so its not just me); my observation that Judaism is being measured by hat size not by spirit size; the pull away from the middle that every single American Jewish community is experiencing; and last but not least, the inability to come to grips with the financial strain tuition and kehilla have placed on me. Frankly, I am a little sorry I went down this road – not that I would turn back – but I got much more than I bargained for when I had no kids.

I am not an indulgent person, I just wanted Shabbat and shul in my life many years ago and to level the playing field for my children to marry Jews. I seem to have gotten a lot more baggage than that.

-Chaim

Coercion, Acceptance and the Spiritual Inputs of Purim

Rabbi Noson Weisz explains the spiritual input that God offers on Purim:

There is much more to Judaism than the outer trappings of observance. Observance is the body of Judaism, but its soul requires the Jews to place their relationship with God at the very center of life. The observance of the commandments is only meaningful when it is the outer manifestation of this inner reality. One cannot be truly Jewish without dreaming of the Temple and of Jerusalem. Jews who manage to find a good life in the absence of this dream are on their way to annihilation as a distinct people no matter what their level of observance may be.

There is a famous saying in Yiddish, S’is shver zu zein a Yid! “It’s hard to be a Jew.” Israel has lost far many more Jews through its history to this statement than to the persuasive power of foreign ideologies.

The spiritual input of the Purim holiday is provided to counter this tendency. In essence, it comes to counter the protest of coercion. We see the Torah as coercion as long as we feel that strict observance is impractical and burdensome in the context of the realities within which we are forced to live. But Jews in exile must be able to find joy in the practice of Judaism to be able to maintain their commitment to Judaism as the focus of their existence. They must still feel that despite all the hardships of exile, their commitment to the Torah is the force that gives them life.

When they were faced with Haman’s edict, the Jewish people found the strength to reach deep into their collective soul. Israel realized that the physical annihilation which threatened them was an indication of the spiritual level to which they had sunk. They were threatened with outward physical annihilation only because they were close to dying as a people spiritually on the inside. They reexamined their attitude to their own commitment to Judaism, located the protest of coercion in their collective Jewish soul, and gave it up for good. As a result, the physical edict was rescinded and the Jews were blessed with “light, happiness, joy and honor.”

The joy that comes from Torah observance under seemingly unfavorable circumstances is the spiritual input that God offers on Purim. May we all merit receiving a powerful dose of it.

Read the whole thing here

Chanukah – G-d Fights Our Wars

By Rabbi B. Shafier

Gemara Shabbos 21b: The miracle of the oil

Why do we celebrate Chanukah?
The Gemara tells us the reason that we celebrate Chanukah is that when the Yivanim entered the Bais HaMikdash, they defiled all the oil set aside for lighting the Menorah. When the Chashmonoim were victorious, they searched and were able to find only one small jug of oil with the Cohain Gadol’s seal intact. It had sufficient oil to last only one day, but miraculously it lasted eight days. In honor of the miracle of the oil lasting eight days, Chazal inaugurated these days for Hallel and thanksgiving.

Al Ha’Nisim: the miracle of the battle

The Maharal states that this Gemarah seems to contradict what we say in Al Ha’Nisim, a Tefilah written by Taanim hundreds of years before. In the Al Ha’Nisim, we proclaim thanks to HASHEM for the miracle of the war. We thank HASHEM for delivering the Yivanim armies into our hands: “You fought their battles, judged their judgments, took their revenge. You put the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few…” According to the Al Ha’Nisim, the miracle of Chanukah was that HASHEM delivered us from the armies of the Yivanim. Yet the Gemara in Shabbos says that we celebrate Chanukah because of the miracle of the oil lasting eight days. The Maharal asks, “Which one is correct?”

The miracle of the oil revealed the miracle of the war.

The Maharal answers that both are true, and both are consistent. The actual event for which we give thanksgiving and sing Hallel is the salvation of the Jewish people. We won a war against all odds. However, it wasn’t clear that the victory was a miracle. To people living in those times, military success seemed to be natural. It was attributed to Jewish resilience and bravery. It didn’t appear that HASHEM had delivered us from the hands of the Yivanim; rather, it appeared as “their might, and the strength of their arms.” It was only through the miracle of the oil that they came to understand the miracle of the battle. Once people saw the oil last eight days – an overt miracle from HASHEM — they then came to see that their success on the battlefield was from HASHEM as well. The miracle of the oil revealed to them the miracle of the war.

Israel didn’t have a standing army

This Maharal becomes difficult to understand when we take into account a basic historical overview.

The events of Chanukah take place around the middle of the era of the Second Bais Hamikdash. From the time that Bavel destroyed the first Bais Hamikdash until that point; the Jewish People lived under the reign of gentile monarchies. Our right to exist and our form of government was decided by the ruling parties. We were a vassal state under foreign rule, and when the Yivanim entered Yerushalayim, the Jewish people did not even have a standing army.

This wasn’t a war of a stronger army against a weaker opponent. It was a war in which the most powerful empire in the world was pitted against a band of unorganized, unarmed, private citizens.

While the war itself lasted 3 years, during the entire first year of fighting, there were no formal battles. Two armies were not squaring off against each other; there was no Jewish army. The fighting consisted of guerrilla skirmishes. Some Jews would sneak up on a lone detail of Yivamim soldiers, kill them and take their arms. Bit by bit, more Jews would join Yehudah Ha’Macabi, but at every point during the wars, the Jews were far outnumbered, outgunned and preposterously less battle-ready than their enemies.

The leaders of the rebellion were Kohanim

Even more startling is that almost all of the original fighters had no battle experience. The leaders of the rebellion were Kohanim. A Kohain is a Torah teacher, one who serves in the Bais Hamikdash, one who guides the Klal Yisroel in Ruchnius. He isn’t a soldier. So this was a war led and fought not by soldiers, but by Roshei Yeshiva. It was akin to Reb Shmuel Kaminetsky leading the Lakewood Yeshiva in battle against the US Marine Corps.

How could anyone not see the miracle of the war?

No intelligent assessment of the situation would have predicted a Jewish victory. How then is it possible that the Jews at the time saw these events as anything other than the miracles that they clearly were?

This seems to be natural to the human

The answer to this question seems to be that when one is many years away and far removed, he gains a historical vantage point. He is able to see an event in context and can easily recognize it as a miracle. But to those living in the day-to-day heat of the battle, it is much more difficult to see the event from that perspective.

To those involved, it seemed to be a natural course of events. Granted the odds were slim, but the Jews won. Skirmish after skirmish, battle after battle, the Macabis came out victorious. There is no question that they did well, which is why it seemed that it was their skill, their cunning, our wisdom in battle that won those wars. And as such, to people living in those times, the miracle was hidden. And then a single event focused their sight.

When the Kohanim returned to the Bais Ha’Mikdash and took out that little bit of oil that couldn’t possibly last for eight days, and saw it remain aglow night after night, everyone knew this was miraculous. When they experienced the miracle of the oil, it reshaped the previous three years in their minds, and they then saw the battles themselves as the miracles that they were.

We see the same phenomena in our times

In our own times we witness an eerie parallel to these events and to the same mistaken interpretation.

For almost 2,000 years we have existed as a lone sheep amongst 70 wolves. Universally hated and oppressed, the Jewish People have survived. And now, after almost 1900 years of wandering, we find ourselves back in our own land.

Since 1948, the Jewish Nation has witnessed profound miracles in the repopulation and development of the land of Israel. But it is the survival of our people that is the greatest miracle.

In 1948, the population in the Middle East numbered roughly 650,000 Jews, surrounded by some 50 million Arabs. On May 15th, 1948, one day after the State of Israel was declared, five nations attacked, each with well-trained armies and air forces, each alone capable of annihilating the small band of Holocaust survivors. At the time there was no Jewish Army, Navy or Air force. Yet, against all odds, we won that war, and against all odds we continued to win war after war – until now, ironically, the Jews are considered the super power in the region.

To most people, Jew and Gentile alike, it seems that this is just the way of the world. To the average witness to these events, it isn’t a demonstration of the hand of HASHEM — It is just the ebb and flow of history.

The lesson of Chanukah is to see behind the veil of nature – to tune our sight into the true cause of events, and to see that it is HASHEM who runs the world, and HASHEM Who fights our wars– then as now.

For more on this topic please listen to Shmuz #15 – G-d Fights Our Wars
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A Member of the Tribe

By Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz

Before my family moved to Baltimore, I spent a great deal of time traveling internationally as a scholar in residence, speaking primarily on the topic of sustainability as refracted through the prism of a Torah-true lifestyle. My venues typically included shuls, Hillel and Chabad houses, JCC’s, Pesach programs and various environmental conferences. This week marks the anniversary of one of my most memorable teaching – and learning – experiences.

Several years ago, I was asked to participate in the Tribal Lands Climate Conference jointly hosted by the Cocopah Nation and the National Wildlife Federation. The conference, which that year was held on the Cocopah reservation on the outskirts of Yuma, AZ, highlighted the debilitating challenges facing the Native American population and their fight for survival in the face of crippling poverty, disease, rampant alcoholism and drug abuse all set against the backdrop of the tragic loss of tribal traditions which for a variety of reasons are not being transmitted to the next generation. I felt simultaneously honored and humbled that I was being asked to present a Torah perspective in an effort to help address their existential threats.

To be sure, despite the serious nature of the conference, there were lighthearted moments. A question on the registration form asked “What is your tribal affiliation?” Naturally, I responded in kind – “10 lost tribes – not sure which one”. Similarly, several of the media figures asked me to pose for photos with several of the tribal elders. One of the elders quipped, “Back in the day, we used to get 50¢ to pose for photos” to which I responded “Surely then a photo of a rabbi out here has to be worth at least a dollar!” He began asking me questions about shrouds and sitting shiva – it turns out he had done a stint with the Chevra Kadisha in California! Truth is often stranger than fiction!

So there we were – 155 Native Americans, including tribal elders from a score of tribes together with members of the AYEA (Alaskan Youth for Environmental Action – sort of an NCSY for Native American youth) and one bearded Orthodox Rabbi. One by one the speakers approached the podium each greeting the audience in their native tongue. Each tribal elder articulated their tribe’s historic but now tenuous relationship to the natural world. One of the elders lamented that his people were the People of the Salmon. Now that the (Colorado) River had been diverted, the salmon were disappearing and “once the salmon disappear, the People of the Salmon disappear”. Similarly, a tribal elder from Alaska (who lived more than 200 miles from the nearest road!) added that his people were the People of the Bear. Now that the bear were disappearing, it spelled certain death for the Bear People.

When it came my turn to speak, I greeted the crowd with a “shalom aleichem” to which the attendees joyfully responded “shalom” and “peace”. I explained that in my world there were no coincidences – that this conference could have been held anywhere in the universe but instead it was being held here in Yuma which in my sacred tongue meant “judgment day”. Further, I pointed out that 364 days a year, my people were people of the moon but on one day a year – December 5 – that very day – we were considered the people of the sun as we shifted the language of our prayers using the autumnal equinox as a baseline.

After my presentation, in a ceremonial gift exchange, one of the tribal elders presented me with a vial of what he called “living waters” from the pristine Navajo aquifer which his tribe (the Hopi) safeguards. The aquifer is reputed to be one of the purest water sources in the world. As the author of an article entitled “Water Conservation and Halacha – An Unorthodox Approach”, the gift was especially meaningful to me. I explained that in our culture as well the waters were similarly designated as “mayim chayim – living waters”. According to chassidic tradition, the well of Miriam – which sustained B’nai Yisrael through the desert until Miriam’s passing -courses through the veins of the earth and ascends every motzaei shabbos through all water sources the world over – even running up and down the maple trees on our farm as sap. I then closed the circle by presenting him with a bottle of maple syrup that we had produced on our farm in Vermont, ostensibly including the waters from his aquifer.

On the flight home from Phoenix, I contemplated why Hashem had sent me to this remote corner of the earth to speak. What was I doing there? Was I sent to “give over” or to receive or both?

Several months later, I was invited to conduct a “maple tisch” at a Jewish food conference where the sweetness of Torah, chassidishe stories, zemiros, niggunim and maple syrup flowed freely. I was sharing my experiences out in Yuma and then touched upon my unsettledness – as of then still unresolved – as to why I had been sent. I began to narrate the famous passage in Rashi’s Torah commentary wherein he describes the ephod worn by the high priest as an apron worn by noblewomen while they ride horseback. I explained the celebrated back story of Rashi seeing a noblewoman riding one day. Characteristically modest, he was bothered by the sight and he wondered why he had had to experience it. It was only years later when he sat down to compose his immortal commentary on the Torah and needed to describe the ephod, that he realized that in retrospect, his seeing the noblewoman afforded him an insight as to what the ephod probably looked like as well as what function it served.

I shut my eyes during a soulful niggun and began to hear the words of the Native American tribal elders in my head – “When the salmon disappear, the Salmon People disappear – when the bear disappear, the People of the Bear also disappear.” Suddenly it became clear why I had been sent. When we concluded singing, I continued to the mostly not yet frum audience, “So too, we are the people of the Shabbos – the Shabbos People. When Shabbos disappears, the Shabbos People also disappear. We are the People of Kashrus – the Kosher People, if you will. If kashrus disappears, then the Kosher People also disappear. Heads nodded knowingly, smiles all around, glasses raised, throaty “l’chayims” offered and the niggunim continued to echo over the frozen lake into the small hours of the wintry Shabbos night.

Dealing With Children and Non-Observant Parents

A home hitting post and extensive comments from 2007 – Good prep for Thanksgiving.

Here are some highlights from the comment thread:

– Almost every BT has to resolve conflicts with their parents, it is a normal process.

– Obviously every parent and every situation is different, but it does need to be pointed out.

– There is an emotional factor of rejection that the parent often feels when the BT chooses a (radically) different lifestyle.

– There is also an implicit (and sometimes explicit) statement that what I’m doing is right and what you’re doing is wrong.

– One general approach is to be as accommodating and accepting as possible and over the long term expose the relatives to the depth and beauty of Torah.

– Another approach is to encourage mitzvos observance (positive and negative) whenever possible in a reasonable manner.

– We generally should set the rules in on our own houses, but we should consider which rules to set and how to gently enforce them.

– When our children are negatively effected by non-Torah behaviors we have to weigh that factor in heavily.

– We need to internalize the truth that our non observant relatives are good people and impart that understanding to our children. Non-observance is generally due to a lack of knowledge in our generation.

– BT conflicts with parents can be shalom bayis issues and a Rav should be consulted.

By “Nancy”

I have been lurking around on beyond bt for a little while, and am amazed by the amount of information and support that is provided. I am having an issue right now, and would like some advice from someone who has been doing this longer than I.

My parents and sister came to visit us from out of town. Right now, my father, mother, sister and young children are sitting around the dining room table enjoying dinner. (it is the 17th of tammuz) I am sitting on the couch, starving and trying to find some meaning. This situation just feels so wrong. I cannot explain why. I am not angry at my family for eating, growing up I did not know this fast day even existed, why would I expect them to fast?

I feel angry trying to explain to my 5 year old why mommy and daddy are not eating and everyone else is. It is easy to tell him he is a child, so he can eat… It was even easy to explain that when mommy was really sick on other fast days, I ate. But how can I explain why 3 healthy adults are sitting around enjoying their dinner? Why will my kids chose to fast when they are old enough, when they see that people they love and respect do not? Should I have forbidden people to eat in my house? Am I freaking out over nothing? Any advice would be appreciated.

A Sukkale a Kleine – Meaningful Succos Music

By Gershon Seif

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

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

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

Here are the lyrics with their translation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Posted on Oct 12, 2006

Sukkos – The Jews Inner Self

From Bilvavi.net Succos – The Jews Inner Self
Visit the link to download a number of Sukkos Talks from Rabbi Itamar Schwartz.

Sukkah and the Four Species – The Dual Natures of Man

On Sukkos, we have two mitzvos: to sit in the sukkah, and to shake the Four Species. These two mitzvos represent the two sides of man. The Four Species, which we shake around and move, represent how man is always in movement. We are full of various retzonos (desires), and all of these desires are a kind of movement. The mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah represents a totally different side to us. In a sukkah, we don’t move; we sit there.

Hashem is mainly called by two names. The lower name of Hashem is “adonoy” – He is our adon, our master. This refers to how we serve him with the mitzvos. The higher name of Hashem is the four-letter name of havayah, and this refers to the simple recognition of His existence. The two names of Hashem reflect the two sides of our life’s mission. On one hand, we “move” constantly by doing all the mitzvos. This is how relate to Hashem as our Master, Whom we serve; that He is adonoy. But the inner essence to our life is that we recognize his existence and integrate our own existence as a part of Hashem. This is how we relate to Hashem with his higher name, havayah. It is the deeper part of our life.

The fact that Hashem exists is not just a fact about life, but it is something which we can connect ourselves to. The mitzvah of sitting in the Sukkah is entirely about this concept – to sit in Hashem’s Presence, with no need to move around, and instead to connect to Hashem’s Endlessness.

In this discussion, the intention is not merely to say a nice dvar Torah for Sukkos, but rather, to define the very essence of Sukkos: accessing our innermost point of our self – our point of non-movement – when we integrate with Hashem. It is also a concept that has ramifications to our entire life. It is the way how we can prepare for the future, when we will sit in the Sukkah made of the leviathan skin.

The depth of our Avodah on Sukkos is to combine the two sides of mankind and integrate them together: the Four Species, which represents our mitzvos\movement, and the mitzvah of sitting in the Sukkah, which represents our recognition of Hashem\non-movement.

Our Actual Essence Vs. The Outer Layers of the Self

We will try to explain this as much as Hashem allows us to understand it.

The most complicating thing in the world is our self. Anything else we recognize are all superficial realities – such as our house, the block we live on, the country we live in, even the world; it’s all an external, superficial kind of recognition. If this is all a person knows of, then he lives a superficial kind of existence – he lives on the outside world. He is thinking all the time about things that are outside of himself. The clothing we wear is not either a part of who we are.

When a person begins to look for his inner essence, he is apt to think that he “is” what he “does.” He identifies himself based on his actions, his emotions, and his thoughts.

For example, a person has an affinity to do chessed (kindness), so he thinks of himself as a “good person” since he sees that he is drawn towards doing good things. When he has to reprimand his children sometimes, he feels horrible inside, because now he thinks he’s a “bad person” by having to act cruel to them.

If a person is deeper, he knows that there is more to himself than the actions he does. He is aware of his thoughts – and he identifies himself based on what’s going on in his mind. Yet this is erroneous as well, because a person is not his thoughts either.

Our actions, our emotions, and our thoughts are just outer layers that cover over our essence. They are like garments that clothe our soul.[1] But there is more to who we are than our actions, emotions, and thoughts.

How can a person identify who he really is?

To be frank, there is almost no one who truly knows who he is, and there is almost no one as well who really recognizes Hashem. If a person doesn’t know he really is, he can’t either recognize Hashem!

There are many people who are searching to find Hashem. But, it is written “From my flesh I see G-d”[2]; in other words, we need to know who we are in order to be able to recognize Hashem.

Only By Recognizing Our Self Can We Recognize Hashem

Read more Sukkos – The Jews Inner Self

Complete Teshuva

Rabbi Itamar Shwartz

In the blessing of השיבנו, we mention three kinds of Teshuvah – returning to Hashem, returning to the Torah, and returning in “complete” Teshuvah. What does it mean to do complete Teshuvah? Teshuvah means to return, to return to the original state we were in. Every sin affects a certain part of the body; when a person does teshuvah, he returns the damaged part of the body, to its original, undamaged state.

The Nefesh HaChaim says that every word of Torah is pure, even words such as “Pharoah”, “Bilaam”, and “Amalek”, who represent the most evil and impure forces in Creation. Therefore, first we ask Hashem to return us to the Torah, because from the power of Torah, we can have the strength to restore everything back to its original purity. That is the first part of the blessing, in which we ask Hashem to return us to the Torah.

But what is teshuvah shelaimah? The soul of man is comprised of five layers – Nefesh, Ruach, Neshamah, Chayah, and Yechidah. Each part of our soul requires a different Teshuvah. Teshuvah doesn’t end with stopping to sin. Shaarei Teshuvah writes that a person has to abandon the improper path he is on; it’s not enough to abandon sin – a person has to leave the very path he is on. Our soul abilities are mixed together, thus, we need to give ourselves inner order to our soul.

The Teshuvah we can do during Elul and Tishrei can rectify the entire soul, all five layers. It can be a Teshuvah shelaimah. If a person only does Teshuvah for the bad deeds he did that year, he has only done Teshuvah on the lowest part of his soul, the Nefesh, which is the sphere of his actions. A person has to penetrate into his entire soul and do Teshuvah for all of the soul’s layers.

Our soul is like a ladder footed on earth, and its head reaches the heavens. The Yechidah, the highest part of the soul, is really in the Heavens.

Our soul, beginning from lowest to highest, is: actions (Nefesh), emotions (Ruach), thoughts (Neshamah), life-source (Chayah), and connection to Hashem (Yechidah). When we do Teshuvah, we need to clarify what’s going on in our soul, beginning from lowest to highest.

For example, we are examining our actions. We need to become aware of the emotions behind our actions – like if we are doing the mitzvos with enough enthusiasm. This is how we connect Ruach with our Nefesh. Then we need to connect Ruach to our Neshamah, which is by analyzing if our emotions are in line with the thoughts of Torah we learn. If our feelings aren’t matching our thoughts, and if our actions are lacking feeling, we see that there is more Teshuvah to be done.

What is Teshuvah? The superficial answer is that we repent from our sins. This is what we are used to thinking ever since we were young. This is true, but that is not all there is to it. The first thing we must know is how we begin doing Teshuvah. First we need to begin with the lowest part of soul, our Nefesh, which is our deeds. But at the same time, we must be aware of the goal of all this, which is to arrive at the highest part of our soul – to deeply connect with Hashem, to stand “before Hashem”.

So if a person does Teshuvah for his deeds, and when it comes Yom Kippur he takes upon himself resolutions to better himself, and he feels elation and purity from Yom Kippur (anyone who doesn’t feel purity on Yom Kippur is very far from any vestige of spirituality…) and then he stops doing teshuvah at a certain point, it shows that he’s missing a certain understanding. We need to really understand what teshuvah is, by using our power of daas. To just go through learning Hilchos Teshuvah of the Rambam is being superficial. Even if a person feels some purity on Yom Kippur, this is not enough. We can’t be satisfied from this.

Teshuvah is a five-step process, as we said, and the goal is to deeply connect with Hashem, to be able to stand in front of Hashem pure. A person has to see how much he came to realizing that he is in front of Hashem after all the Teshuvah of Elul.

Moshe went up to Heaven for 40 days to receive the Torah, after the sin with the Calf. The depth behind this was not just so that he should wait for 40 days until Hashem forgave us. It was because he wanted to receive the Torah from the One who gave it. This helps us understand what teshuvah is.

Hashem breathed into a man a breathe of His life, so to speak. When a person does teshuvah, he has to return to the original breathe of life which Hashem breathed into us.

When we come to do teshuvah, we must seek teshuvah shelaimah – to do teshuvah with awareness of the goal, that we want to be able to stand before Hashem in purity when it comes Yom Kippur, after we do teshuvah from Elul.

Thus, we ask Hashem to return us to the Torah and to serving Him, because this will prepare us to have to be able to have complete Teshuvah. Real Teshuvah is not just to “return” to Hashem from sin. It is to return to our “Father”, as we express “Return us, our Father”. We must understand that only Hashem can return us to teshuvah. It is all due to the spiritual light which Hashem allows us to have during these days.

We can only do teshuvah because Hashem helps us, and in addition, we need to do teshuvah with Hashem in the equation. We return to Hashem from Hashem’s help and with awareness of Hashem, as we do teshuvah.

This understanding will totally change how you approach teshuvah. “Your right hand is open to accept those who return.” These are days in which Hashem can return us to Him.

All of our avodah during Elul must be done with awareness of the goal, that we want to arrive at deep closeness with Hashem. We must do teshuvah with Hashem in the equation. We can only do teshuvah with Hashem’s help, and our goal of doing teshuvah is to reach closeness with Hashem.

We must absorb this inner perspective on how to do teshuvah – the perspective that comes from our neshamah, as opposed to the superficial perspective towards teshuvah that comes from our body.

May we all merit to reach complete teshuvah.

From Bilvavi.net

Why Judgment?

An important article in preparation for Rosh Hashana: Why Judgement – By Rabbi Noson Weisz

An excerpt:

INVESTMENTS VERSUS REWARDS

The very first point that must be emphasized is that contrary to popular belief, Rosh Hashana is not about reward and punishment. The Talmud informs us that mitzvot cannot be rewarded in this world (Kiddushin 39b). The commentators explain that the physical world simply does not have the resources to deliver the amount of joy required to compensate the performance of even a single Mitzvah.

Only people who do not have the merit to make it to the World to Come are written into the Book of Life to compensate them for their past good deeds; we certainly hope that none of us are in this position, The conclusion: when we stand before God and pray for a good life in the coming year, we are not asking Him to provide it fo rus as a reward.

But if the judgment we face on Rosh Hashana does not concern reward, what exactly is being weighed? According to Rabbi Dessler, the model we should study as an aid to understanding the deliberations of the Heavenly Court on Rosh Hashana is an economic investment model; the judgments of Rosh Hashana are the heavenly equivalents of earthly investment policy decisions. On Rosh Hashana it is decided how much Divine energy God will invest in the world in general and in our own lives in particular in the course of the coming year.

Please read the whole thing.

Getting Chiyus/Vitality From Torah and Mitzvos

From this longer article on www.bilvavi.net

Throughout the year we need to handle many challenges, and everyone knows the difficulties that he must face.

Usually the solution does not involve making more kabalos. Certainly one needs also to make kabolos, but they are not the solution itself.

It’s like a man who doesn’t feel well. He goes to the doctor who examines him and prescribes three pills a day – morning noon and evening: take these pills and you will get well. The man goes back home and stops eating and drinking. What’s wrong with that? Didn’t the doctor tell him all he has to do is take three pills a day, so then – why should he need to eat and drink too?…

His family urges him: If you carry on like this, in a few days you will die! “But I don’t understand”, he complains, “didn’t the doctor tell me just to take three pills every day?”

The answer is: “You need to eat properly, drink properly, and in order to cure the illness you need to take the three pills daily, but you can’t survive on just three pills alone!”

We have problems, all kinds of illness and diseases, and we need our ‘pills’, prescriptions to heal body and soul; but before anything else, we need to eat the “bread” of Torah and “drink” its water and its wine. Once we have a source of chiyus / vitality internally from the Torah and its mitzvos – it’s like we have a proper diet of food, and now when problems arise we can look for solutions like kabolos. But if we aren’t going to eat a constant and proper diet of food next year, how can we fix what needs to be fixed?!

It’s clear to me that everyone has good intentions and deep desire to be better than last year, but an earnest desire alone will not help.

For example, a man wants to be mezakeh es harabim, and he wants that every Jew throughout the world will say Tehillim. So he gets an idea: publish 6 million sifrei Tehillim, for the zechus of the rabim. The problem is that each sefer Tehillim costs 10 shekel, meaning that he needs 60 million shekel that he does not have.

His intention is very good, his desire is excellent, and he can pour out his heart before the Borei olam to be mezakeh him, but in the meantime he doesn’t have 60 million shekel at his disposal, so he cannot just yet approach a publisher and order 6 million sifrei Tehillim.

We all desire to correct the coming year, but if we don’t have a source of chiyus, how will we do anything?!

There are many problems, and people try to fix up all sorts of things: one works on tznius, another on internet issues, a third on shmiras haloshon. They are all right. All these really are aveiros and we need to correct them. But what is the root of these issues? Why is it that people actually reach the point of having these problems in the first place?

Sure it’s easy to say: Look, it’s the generation, it’s the street, the yetzer hora today is so strong. . .

True and good, but where is the root of the problem? The root of the problem is that when a person does not have life internally, he has to look elsewhere. “Batallah (Boredom) leads to insanity.”

What is meant by “batallah”? That a person doesn’t have what to do? No. A person can sit in a beis midrash from morning till evening and learn, and not waste a moment, and nonetheless he is like someone who sits idle, as if he was asleep! His heart has no chiyus in his learning! The brain is working – sure; he understands the material very well, he even exerts himself, but his heart is disconnected from his learning. He is lacking chiyus, and he needs it, so what does he do? He goes outside to search for some kind of fulfillment. He looks at this, reads that, is drawn after whatever is available.

It is like what the Rambam writes: “A person only thinks a lot about immoral relations if his heart is empty of wisdom.” If the heart is filled with wisdom of Torah, the Torah would be to him a Toras chaim, and then he would have satisfaction from his ruchniyus.

A person who has satisfaction is much less likely to look for things outside. For example, people who have problems in their home look for fulfillment outside of it. By contrast, a person who lives in a good home will naturally, quite naturally be less drawn toward things pulling him from outside.

Someone who has in his heart a source of chiyus from a day of toiling in Torah and keeping the mitzvos, davening, emuna and connection with the Borei olam – he comes out feeling truly alive. Such a person isn’t going to be looking outside for chiyus, because he has something inside giving him life. A person looks outside only when inside he is empty, inside he is missing something, and if that’s the situation, he doesn’t have the self-control to handle the enticements that he sees. If he doesn’t have chiyus inside – he will search for it outside and he is liable to be drawn there.

We should understand that before making any kabolos, and before any corrective action on all sorts of things that need to be corrected – in order that we be able to correct them, we need a source of chiyus within ourselves.

We do not mean to say a person shouldn’t daven for his needs, but like we said before, first he should understand that what’s lacking for him in life is chiyus from holiness. It could be that he has very many maasim that are holy, yet he has very little chiyus from the holiness.

So the first thing he has to daven for on Rosh Hashanah is “Zochraynu l’chaim,” that we should have chiyus in the life that we have! How many people live without chiyus! How much chiyus is there within each one of us? We need to request and to plead, every one according to his where is at in life: “Ribono shel olam, Give me more chiyus in my life, allow me to feel internal chiyus within myself.”

When one has chiyus inside, he can then ask for parnassah, health, and whatever he needs, but the preparation for Rosh Hashanah needs to begin with hisbonenus about how much chiyus he had in his life last year, and from where he derives it. When a person contemplates this, he will be astonished what he is really “living” off of.

Once it’s clear to him what he’s living from, he can come and pleads honestly before Hashem: “Zochraynu l’chaim” – but which kind of chaim? “L’maan’cha Elokim Chaim”, the kind of chaim that my chiyus will be in serving the Creator. Chaim, that when I learn Torah in first seder, I will leave at the end with an inner feeling in my heart of someone who feels “alive”. Chaim, that when I finish Shacharis, I will go out of shul with the inner feeling of chiyus that results from the connection with Hashem when I talk to Him.

When tefillah is done with chiyus, and the Torah is learned with chiyus – then upon that, it’s possible to correct all the rest of our actions too.

Tu B’Av – Completing the Circle

By Yossi from NJ

Tractate Ta’anis ends with a fascinating and somewhat enigmatic Mishna:

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, Israel had no days as festive as The Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur; for on those days, the maidens of Jerusalem would go out dressed in borrowed white clothing – borrowed, in order not to embarrass those who had none. All the garments required ritual immersion.

The maidens of Jerusalem would go out and dance [in a circle] in the vineyards.

And what would they say?

“Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself. Do not consider physical beauty. Consider rather family. ‘For charm is false, and beauty is vanity. A woman who fears Hashem, she is the one to be praised..’ (Mishlei/Proverbs 31:30) “.

And it is further stated ‘Go forth and gaze, O daughters of Zion, upon the King Shlomo, adorned with the crown His nation made Him on the day of His wedding and on the day of the joy of His heart’ (Shir HaShirim 3:11) On the day of his wedding – this is the giving of the Torah; and on the day of the joy of His heart – this is the building of the Holy Temple, may it be rebuilt speedily in our days! Amen.

Chazal often use the metaphor of a wedding for the giving of the Torah; Hashem, the groom, joining in an intimate relationship with his people. In fact, the Alshich explains that Moshe broke the first luchos when he saw the chet ha’eigel as if to say, “the ring (the luchos) has not yet been given, so rather than being like a married woman who has commited adultery, the Jews were still not in the ‘betrothed’ stage”.

Yom Kippur was the day that Moshe brought the second luchos down; therefore the Mishna compares it to a wedding day. And Shlomo HaMelech consecrated the first Beis Hamikdash on Yom Kippur – that year they did not fast, but rather celebrated it as a festival.

The Gemara (Ta’anis 30b) raises the obvious question:

I can understand the Day of Atonement, because it is a day of forgiveness and pardon and on it the second Tablets of the Covenant were given, but what happened on the Fifteenth of Av?

At least six reasons are recounted, each, it seems to me, has the common denominator of a renewed relationship, and ultimately, hope for the future.

  • R’ Yehudah in the name of Shmuel said, it is the day on which the tribes were permitted to intermarry. While in the desert, each tribe would only marry within, so as not to complicate the division of the land (since a woman’s property would transfer to her husband upon her death), on Tu B’Av of the fortieth year, this ban was lifted.

  • R’ Yosef in the name of R’ Nachman said, it is the day on which the tribe of Binyamin was again permitted to marry into the congregation of Israel. The ban, due to the incident of the concubine at Givah (see Judges 19-20), only applied to that generation.
  • Rabah bar bar Chanah in the name of R’ Yochanan said, it is the day on which they realized that the decree of those destined to die in the desert had ended. Rashi explains, every year on Tisha B’Av, the men who were between the ages of 20 and 60 at the time of God’s decree, would dig graves and lay in them. In the morning, an announcement was made, “Let the living seperate from the dead”. In the fortieth year, no one died – the people thought they had erred in their calculation and repeated the procedure every night until the 15th of Av, at which point they realized that the decree had expired. Alternately, Tosafos (B”B 121a) raise the possibility that people did die in that year, but the mourners got up from Shiva on Tu B’Av, the seventh day (inclusive) after Tisha B’Av.

    The Gemara continues, only then did Hashem continue to speak to Moshe “face to face” – in the interim, Moshe received prophecy, but not in the intimate manner that he did before the “dying in the desert” began or after it ended.

  • Ulla says, it is the day on which Hoshea ben Eilah removed the guards that Yeravam had set up to prevent people going to Yerushalayim for Yom Tov.

    Yeravam ben Nevat was the first king of the divided kingdom of the ten tribes of Israel. In order to sever the people’s attachment to Jerusalem, and to prevent them from going up on the three festivals, he established and enforced the idolatry of the golden calves (see I Kings 12).

  • R’ Masna says, it is the day on which the slain Jews of Beitar were allowed to be buried. On that day, they established the Beracha of ha’tov v’ha’meitiv. ha’tov – that the bodies had (miraculously) not decomposed; v’ha’meitiv – that they were allowed to bury them).

    The destruction of Beitar was seemingly the end of hope for the kingdom of Judah. This had been the stronghold of Bar Kochba – the last hope for organized rebellion. The Gemara says that 2.1 million people were killed there by the sword. The Emperor Hadrian did not allow the bodies to be buried, rather, the corpses were used as “fences” around his vineyards. After his death, (12 years later) the new Caesar allowed their interment – on Tu B’Av.

  • Raba and R. Yosef both say – It was the day on which they stopped chopping wood for the pyre on the Mizbe’ach. As R’ Eliezer ha’Gadol taught, from the fifteenth of Av, the sun’s strength wanes, and they stopped cutting wood for the pyre as it wouldn’t dry properly. It was called the axe-breaking day. From this point on, whoever adds on to his night-time Torah study will have years added to his life.

    My Rav explains that this last reason is the primary one. Now that the men could go back to learning Torah full-time, this alone was cause for celebration.

The Gemara, as it often does, concludes the tractate with an Aggadic teaching:
Ulla Biraah said in the name of R’ Elazar: In the future, the Holy One, Blessed is He, will make a circle of all the righteous people, and He will sit among them [in the middle of the circle], and each one will point with his finger, as it says, And he shall say on that day, ‘Behold! This is our God; we hoped to Him and He saved us; this is Hashem to whom we hoped; let us exalt and be glad in His salvation” (Isaiah 25:9).

Ben Yehoyada explains that just as a bride circles her groom, so the righteous will form a circle, as it were, around God. Further, the “finger” suggests a bride’s ring finger.

The Yaavetz points out that the word used here for circle “Machol”, has the same root as mechila, forgiveness. The Gemara thus implies that in future God will forgive all the sins of Israel, enabling all of Israel the privilege of joining this circle.

The Apter Rebbe wrote,
The circle has no top and no bottom, no beginning or end. So too, in the future the righteous will experience no jealousy or dislike, for no one will be said to be on a higher level than another…

This itself is the “holiday for Israel” – when there is no jealousy, competition or envy between them. This is what our sages allude to: Israel had no holidays like Tu B’Av – as the 15th letter of the Aleph Bet is the letter Samech, which is a round circle, with no top or bottom. This is the concept of the dance, and this is the greatest holiday for Israel.
(Ohev Yisrael Likutim 113:B)

So perhaps the last verse quoted by our Mishna can also be refering to Tu B’Av – certainly, it is a day of weddings, of gladness of the heart, and of Torah. Further, the Pri Tzaddik wrote that the future Beis HaMikdash is destined to be built during the month of Av.

“May it be rebuilt speedily in our days! Amen.”
Originally Posted August 9. 2006