Should I Hide Being a BT?

By “Alan”

I live in a fairly black hat community and it seems to me that many BTs make great efforts to hide the fact that they are BTs. There are people here who are BTs for 5-10 years, who learned for less than 2 years full time in Yeshiva, who don’t even consider themselves BTs anymore.

One person told me that many people hold that being a BT is a negative, although few will tell you that to your face or say it publicly. Being known as a BT effects how people view you, shidduchim, and jobs in certain community organizations, so he feels it makes sense to hide the fact that you are a BT, whenever possible.

My problem is that I think that living this type of charade will cause problems for me and my family in the future. It seems like we are denying a reality instead of dealing properly with it. I didn’t choose to be born into a non-observant family and I feel that the strides I’ve made are significant and I continue to work on my Yiddishkeit. So tell me again why we should hide or deny the fact that we’re BTs?

Originally Published July, 2007.

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From the comments:

Ora says:

I’ve never felt that I had to hide my background, but I’ve chosen to do so on several occasions. Mostly for four reasons.

1) (especially when I had been religious for less than 2/3 years) It’s nice to “pass.” It takes a lot of effort to get to the point where you are knowledgeable enough and comfortable enough with Jewish life that those who grew up in religious homes can’t tell that you didn’t. I liked the feeling I got when some girl from seminary who I’d known for months would say, “Oh, your family isn’t religious? I didn’t know!”

2) I don’t want to deal with stereotypes. I don’t know if the people I’m meeting have BT stereotypes, or if they think of being a BT as a positive or negative thing. But either way, I don’t want that one part of my history to influence their opinion of me. This is especially strong when I first meet people. In fact, now I have a pattern of telling people a bit of my story after I’ve known them for a little while, and then the full story comes out after a few months.

To be honest, sometimes it’s more annoying when people are overly positive than slightly negative. I don’t like being told “Oh, BTs are so inspiring, you gave up so much, blah blah blah” when I’m feeling like an uninspired slacker. Also, I don’t feel like I gave up very much to get to where I am, because I wanted so badly to be here that all the other stuff didn’t really matter. So I don’t feel that I deserve the praise.

3) I’m afraid that people will take my opinions less seriously. As in “oh, you’re a newcomer, what do you know,” etc. I have never once encountered this attitude, but my fear of it is still there. I think a lot of BTs who hide their identities do so mostly do to their own fears and not actually FFB attitudes.

4) Ultimately I don’t think it matters very much. So many of my friends who were raised in religious households weren’t really religious until they were in their late teens/early 20s. They might use terms like “raised religious” or “FFB,” but until a certain period in life they were just going with the flow (and then at some point fully accepted Hashem/Torah). Others were seriously introspective and spiritual even as kids, but had a period where their hashkafa grew apart from that of their parents. We’re all pretty much in the same place now. So I don’t see how telling someone “I’m a BT” will give them useful knowledge. It will eventually come out in anecdotes/ when they meet my family/ etc if we’re close, but I feel no need to mention it if the subject doesn’t come up.

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From the comments:

Dovid says:

This is a wonderful post and I’m thankful to all who have commented thus far. Integration into a frum community is not an easy process. After all, we’re not talking about our first day on campus at college here. For us, “Orientation” is an ongoing process that for some continues for years or even decades,
depending on what stage in life we are when we become BT’s.

My wife and I became BT’s in our mid 30’s, so we did not have the opportunity to develop over
our younger years like most BT’s that we know. No time studying in Ohr Someach or Aish, etc. during our college years, when most of our BT friends began their BT journey’s. No, for us it was a quicker decision both for ourselves and our children (6 and 3 at the time). We were in an “out-of-town” community with a small shul that had maybe 3 Shomer Shabbos members and the rest of them either non-committed but enjoying the shul. We knew that we needed to move away, because the community presented conflicting values and observances that would confuse our children. For us personally, the “Modern” communities presented an outlook (both outward and otherwise) too similar to the secular lifestyle that we were trying to move away from. We wanted a frumkeit that was so clearly different than the secular life we left, that our children would grow up to feel “uncomfortable” with an outlook that shared the fashion and open-door philosophy we found to proliferate in these communities. After consulting with our Rav and a few good friends, we chose a large and diverse frum community that is essentially black hat, (although their are all sorts of those, and streimlach-a-plenty). Yes, it was a bold move indeed.

We have been here for 7 years now, and as expected, we have found many, many other BT’s here. BT’s seem to gravitate to each other somehow. It has been a great comfort to us that this is the way of things. We can talk and share our experiences together and help each other along the way. We have all experienced the “cold shoulder” from FFB’s who have no clue about what it is like for us, and we don’t blame them personally. They simply have lived such cloistered lives, that they don’t know what to think of folks like us. But for the most part, we have had positive experiences here. I would have to say that even though our children have adapted well, I expect that they will some day likely marry into other BT families. I would be pleased if they married into FFB families as well, but I think that people generally will be attracted to others whose families are similar to their own. There are exceptions of course, but I think it will take more than one generation for our family to more completely meld into the community that we’ve chosen. We do not hide our BT status, and do our best to show our brothers and sisters who are FFB, that we have come a long way to be here (a lot longer trip than driving from Flatbush). Some don’t feel comfortable with that, and others are most welcoming and encouraging. Upwards and onwards…

Pesach and The Essence of The Three Festivals

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Pesacb

Terms For Yom Tov

There are three festivals – Pesach, Shavuos, and Sukkos. We find different terms used by our Chazal (holy Sages) in describing the festivals. Our festivals are called zmanim, chagim, moadim, and regalim.

They are called zmanim and moadim, since they are established as certain times of the year. They are called chagim from the word machog, which means to “cycle”, because the cycle of the festivals repeats itself each year.

They are also called moadim from the word vaad, which means “meetings.” Three times a year we would trek to the Beis HaMikdash and bring a korbon; we would all gather together and ascend upon the mountain of Hashem, the site of the Beis HaMikdash. But this was not just a “vaad” in the sense that we were all gathered together. It was our meeting with Hashem – we would appear “in front of Hashem”. It was a vaad in that we were all gathered together, and it was a vaad because we were all meeting with Hashem.

Another term to describe the three festivals is “regalim.” The simple meaning of this is “feet” that we would all walk by foot to travel to Jerusalem for Yom Tov. For example, the Gemara[1] deduces from the word regalim that a person is only obligated in the mitzvah if he has normal feet to walk with, but if he limps, he is exempt from the mitzvah.

Regel\Walking – Going From One Place To Another

Let us reflect on the regalim aspect of the Yom Tov.

Chazal say that the world stands on three pillars – Torah, Avodah, and Chessed; these are like three “feet” which the word stands upon. The world stands on three pillars, and so does time. Time stands on the three festivals of Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos, which are like the three pillars that uphold time.

The word regel, besides for its simple meaning of “foot”, can also mean “because of”, like when Yaakov told Lavan, “And Hashem blessed you, because of me.” It is also written, “The feet of His pious ones are protected [because they are pious].”

In other words, the three festivals are not a purpose unto themselves; they exist “because” of a greater goal. The festivals take us and lead us to a certain point.

If a person is unaware that the Yomim Tovim serve a greater goal that they lead to, then he does not experience Yom Tov through his soul; he only experiences it through his body. The festivals are given to us so we can use them to reach a higher place than we were at until now. A festival moves us from one point to the next point.

We have so far mentioned two aspects of Yom Tov. One aspect of Yom Tov, we mentioned, is that it upholds a person. The second aspect of Yom Tov is that it leads us to a higher point. Thus, meeting with Hashem for three times a year was not just to travel there with our feet. The purpose of Yom Tov was that we should ascend to a higher point. That is the deeper implication of regalim.

Yom Tov is a time to ascend spiritually. Just as we ascended onto a certain place in the world on Yom Tov – the site of the Beis HaMikdash – so must we ascend, in our very soul, to a higher place than the one we are at now.

Holy Habits

How do we ascend in our souls through Yom Tov?

The answer lies in the following: there is another meaning of the word regel. It can also mean to “search”, as we find in the word meraglim, “visitors” of the land, who really come to search out the land. This hints to us that the way we ascend through Yom Tov\the regalim is by “searching” for something. The first regel is Pesach, which we begin by searching for any chometz.

Yom Tov is a regel, and this implies that we need to search for something on Yom Tov.

Chazal say that it is better had man not been born; now that we have been born, we need to examine our deeds. We need to search inside ourselves. What is it that we need to search for?

The word regel can also come from the word hergel, which means “habit.” We ask of Hashem, “Shetargileinu B’Torasecha”, that “we should become accustomed in Your Torah” – we want to develop a habit for the words of Torah. Doing things out of habit is usually not a good thing [this is called melumadah, doing things by rote]. But there are times in which we find that doing things out of habit is a good thing [and then hergel is being used for holiness]. On Yom Tov, we need to search inside ourselves and see which of our habits are good, and which are not good.

We count 50 days of the Omer until we get to the giving of the Torah, in which we have hopefully become accustomed to the Torah by then, when we have hopefully reached our aspiration of “And we should become accustomed in Your Torah.” At first we search ourselves out on the night before Pesach, and this is the beginning aspect of the regel. In between Pesach and Shavuos, we have hopefully become more accustomed to going to the Beis Midrash, that our feet are naturally taking us to towards the Beis Midrash [as Dovid HaMelech describes in Tehillim]. On Shavuos, we ideally reach the apex of getting used to holiness, which is the purpose.

This is the first aspect of the three regalim, which begins with Pesach – at first we search inside ourselves to see what our habits are, if they are holy or unholy. If we find habits in ourselves that are not for holiness, we need to destroy it, just as we destroy the chometz we find in any nooks and crannies. Along with this, we need to gain good kinds of habits – to become used to learning Torah, which is how we use the power of hergel\habit, for holiness. “Shetargileinu B’Torasecha.”

The First Step In Growing From Tom Tov: Inner Order To Our Soul

When we search inside ourselves to discover what our habits are, we must proceed in steps. It is written of the Jewish people when they would travel to Jerusalem, “How beautiful are your steps.” When we would travel to Jerusalem by foot, it was with “steps” – in other words, our avodah needs to be practiced in steps. We must give ourselves some inner order to our soul. As the Mesillas Yesharim says, we cannot acquire the various levels of piety all at once. Spiritual growth is a gradual, step-by-step process.

So when we search ourselves inside, we must do this in steps. It must be done with carefully planned thought; “Sof maaseh b’machshavah techilah” – “The end of actions if first with thought.”

Thus, we need to gain a clear perception of what our soul’s abilities are. As one of the Sages said, “You see a clear world.” We should be clear in what our soul abilities are, from the lowest point to the highest point, and be aware of the many parts in our soul. Then we should search our entire soul, in an orderly fashion [beginning from our lowest point of the soul, all the way to the highest point of our soul] and discover what our habits are leading towards. We need to mark down all our habits that are holy, and all our habits that are unholy, so that we can be ready to the holiest habit of all – to become accustomed to learning the Torah.

This is the first step of how we grow from Yom Tov.

The Second Step In Growing From Yom Tov: To See Where We Are Going

There is a more inner avodah we have on Yom Tov as well. This is contained in another term for the word regel – the term “aragah”, which means “thirsty.” We find this in the possuk, “Just as a deer thirsts over the banks of water, so does my soul thirst for You, G-d.” The feet of a person leads him toward something he wants and longs for. Yom Tov, which is called regel, leads a person to what he is thirsty for, to what he has “aragah” (thirst) for. Yom Tov reveals to a person what his aspirations are. It shows what we really want, what we are really getting pleasure from in life.

So the first part of our avodah is that we need to search inside ourselves and discover what our habits are, and after that, we need to discover where we are actually heading towards. If we discover in ourselves that we are heading towards habits that are bad, we need to destroy them.

When we left Egypt, we were “redeemed from a house of slaves”; we were not just redeemed in the physical sense from Egypt, but we were redeemed in our souls. There were “seventy souls” who went down to Egypt, connoting that the exile in Egypt was taking place in our souls as well. The redemption from Egypt was essentially an inner redemption, a redemption from the exile upon our very souls. Hashem took us out from there and instead “brought us closer into His service.” We became close to Hashem because we gained inner clarity within our souls. The redemption showed us what we really wanted and enjoyed and longed for.

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.[2]

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.

Make 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.

[1] Chagigah 4a

[2] Pesachim 109a

Preparing for Pesach is Part of our Avodas Hashem

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Nissan

In whatever time or situation we are in, we should always be aware that it is an inseparable part of our avodas Hashem. It doesn’t matter if it is something that has to do with ruchniyus (spirituality) or not or if it is something more mundane. Wherever we are, whatever the situation, it is somehow part of our avodas Hashem.

We must wonder in every situation: how is a Jew supposed to go about this?

In these weeks, the frum world, who keep Torah and mitzvos, is very careful to clean the house scrupulously from any trace of chametz. We have a commandment in the Torah to make sure that we do not see or find any chametz in our house; but this mitzvah has much to it which seemingly has nothing to do with Pesach.

Upon reflection, we will be able to see how preparing for Pesach is part of our avodas Hashem, and how through it we can bring ourselves to be closer to Hashem.

“Melumadah” – Acting By Rote

There is a simple point that we must all know and be aware of. This simple point is that we can find Hashem in anything – without exception!

1) When a person begins to clean his house for Pesach, he first has to get rid of the “melumadah” – the tendency to do things by rote. We are not simply cleaning out the house for Pesach “because we have to clean.” Why are you cleaning for Pesach? Because that’s what you did last year and the year before it?! That is not the reason.

2) We all know that to clean the house for Pesach is a mitzvah of the Torah, but what are our thoughts as we do this? If a person doesn’t stop to think, he is only bothered by questions such as: What is the best way to clean the house? What needs to cleaned, and how much? The whole relationship with Hashem is lost with all these questions.

So first, we must get rid of our tendency to just to things without thinking. We must realize that preparing for Pesach is purely avodas Hashem. After we know this we can begin to know how it is avodas Hashem, but the first step is this: don’t just do it like a robot. Just like we understand that learning and davening is avodas Hashem, so must we be aware that preparing for Pesach is avodas Hashem.

If a person feels that cleaning the house for Pesach is not part of avodas Hashem, we can almost tell him that he is forbidden to do it! The Chovos HeLevovos writes that there is no such thing as a gray area; it’s either forbidden or permissible. If it’s not a mitzvah, then it’s wrong to do.

We will try to explain how cleaning for Pesach can be avodas Hashem, in a way how everyone will be able to enter the Yom Tov amidst avodas Hashem, not amidst stress.

Why Do We Clean The House?

If we think into it, besides for the mitzvah of the Torah to keep the house clean from chametz on Pesach, there are more reasons why we need to clean the house.

3) One possible reason why a person cleans is because he feels bad to make the rest of his family do everything! He personally doesn’t care for the house to be clean. Most of the Pesach preparations have nothing to do with the mitzvah of destroying chametz – just various household chores. Why does a person do all these things for Pesach? Many times it is simply because he feels bad standing around and watching everyone else do all the work. He’s doing it all for the sake of chessed.

That is one possible reason why a person spends so much time with Pesach preparations.

4) Another possibility could be that we don’t like it when the house is dirty. Hashem created each person with a natural desire to have a clean house. Some people are cleanlier than others, and they can’t take even the slightest amount of messiness. But all people want their house clean somewhat, so they clean for the house for Pesach.

5) Another possibility can also be because people like it when things are orderly. During the rest of the year people are very busy, and they want to have one time in the year where they sit down and just arrange everything in its place (This is not the same thing as a desire for neatness.)

So far we have mentioned five possibilities why a person cleans the house for Pesach: Acting robotic, doing it because it’s a mitzvah of the Torah, kindness, cleanliness or orderliness.

The first kind of person we mentioned – the one who does it robotically – is obviously not doing it in the right way. That is simple and we don’t need to explain why.

The second kind of person, who does it because it’s a mitzvah, has to put some more thought into it. It is not enough to know that he must clean the house – there must be some more life involved, some more thinking.

Before he begins to clean the house, he should talk to Hashem and say, “Ribono shel olam, Why am I going to clean my house? I have other things to do; I can be learning or relaxing. The reason why I am going to clean my house now is because You, the Ribono shel Olam, commanded me that the house be free of chametz. Since I want to give You a nachas ruach, I will exert myself now to clean my house.”

While a person is cleaning the house, this is what he should be saying to himself. If someone knows how to think in learning Torah as he does something, then he should think in learning and he doesn’t have to do this. But if someone usually doesn’t think in learning as he cleans the house, and his thoughts are just floating elsewhere, then he should at least for a few minutes here and there remind himself of what he’s doing and why he’s doing it.

We are speaking about a very simple thing one can do; there are people who are on a very high level and always have d’veykus in Hashem wherever they are, but we are not speaking of this. We are speaking about something very basic and simple.

If a person cleans the house because he wants to be nice and doesn’t want everyone else to do all the work, he also has to think about this and say, “Ribono shel olam, Why am I doing this? I don’t personally feel a need to clean my house. The only reason why I am doing it is so that I can do chessed with my family.”

A person should keep talking to Hashem throughout the entire time: “Ribono shel olam, it is my will to do Your will. One of the pillars of the world is chessed, and I am thus doing chessed in order to give You a nachas ruach.”

After a day of doing this, besides for the physical exercise you get out of cleaning the house, your entire day is filled with pure avodas Hashem. In this way, a person never leaves ruchniyus even while being involved in this mundane world.

The Natural Desire for Cleanliness

Let us elaborate on the last two points, which are more subtle points about our soul.

There is a desire in a person for cleanliness. Everyone loves cleanliness – some more, and some less. The soul of a person naturally recoils a bit from messiness. People often see a mess and start cleaning it, and if you ask them, “What are you doing? Why you are cleaning it up?” the answer is, “It bothers me.”

People clean because they can’t stand the sight of something dirty or messy, and cleaning it up removes this anxiety. It seems that this has nothing to do with trying to become close to Hashem, and that a person is trying to save his soul from some pain.

But if we think into it just a little, we can connect everything to Hashem. If a person likes to clean, the first thing he should ask himself is: “Why do I like to clean? Did I make myself this way? No. Hashem gave me this nature.”

Realize that whatever your nature is, it was Hashem who gave you such a nature. Not only that, but Hashem is constantly renewing Creation; He is constantly renewing your nature, which is that you like to clean and that you hate messiness.

After you realize with certainty that it was Hashem who gave you this nature to desire cleanliness, and that He continues to renew this nature in you, now think: “Why did Hashem give me such a nature? What is the purpose of wanting cleanliness, and how do I use this natural desire in a person? What are the pros and cons of it?”

The desire for cleanliness doesn’t happen on its own. (It is absurd to think that it does, but the yetzer hora gets a person to succeed not to think.) A person must think to himself, “Hashem gave me this desire for cleanliness. It was Him who placed this desire in me.”

This realization helps you begin your relationship with Hashem.

What indeed is the root of why we like cleanliness?

Cleanliness (nekiyus) is one of the ten steps in the ladder of avodas Hashem as described by Rebbi Pinchos ben Yair, the basis of sefer Mesillas Yesharim. Cleanliness exists for us to cleanse ourselves from sin, because sin sullies our soul. Every power in the soul is also manifested somehow in our body; the power of cleanliness of our soul manifests itself in our body with the need for physical cleanliness.

The truth is that the more a person grows spiritually, the more he increases his cleanliness. Some people are very clean in their soul and others are very particular also about physical cleanliness (in addition to their spiritual cleanliness), but the point is that the more a person purifies himself, the more of a need for cleanliness he has, and the purer his soul becomes.

The root behind cleanliness comes from an inner desire to be purified. This gives us a whole different attitude to have about our need for physical cleanliness – it is rooted in our soul’s need for cleanliness and purity.

Knowing Your Motivation For Cleanliness

There are two reasons why a person wants physical cleanliness; one reason is unnecessary and more of a luxury to a person, while the other reason is coming from our soul’s need for purity and closeness.

There are situations in which we clean more than we have to, and it is extra. It is hard to say exactly what is considered overdoing it, and each person needs to decide for himself what is considered already too much. If a person is just taking a shower or brushing his teeth simply because he is very concerned about his body, this is totally unnecessary (except for certain rare individuals who won’t get affected by this).

Something even worse than this is when a person is really bothered by uncleanliness and he doesn’t clean. Such a person not only has physical messiness, but he damages his soul with this. He is denying his soul’s demand for cleanliness.

So before begins to clean, he must ask himself: What is my motivation in cleaning the house? Am I doing it out of a compulsiveness to clean (just like there are people who indulge in food and drinking), or am I doing it to help my household? If he realizes that he is doing it to help, then he should work on the avodah we mentioned before (which is to say a tefillah to Hashem).

If he discovers that he’s doing it because he has a personal need for cleanliness, he must really ask himself if he is overdoing it or not, or if it comes from a sensitivity in his soul for cleanliness (and he therefore needs it). Everyone must uncover what is motivating him to clean.

Most people do not have these issues. We will therefore discuss a more simple kind of issue that people have which is much more common: when people love to clean something that is clearly a mess. In this, we need to put some thought into the cleaning.

Before a person cleans, he should say: “Ribono shel olam, this mess really bothers me. Who gave me this feeling? You – Hashem. Where does this nature in me come from? It comes from a power in my soul to demand purity. Ribono shel olam, is it Your will that I break this nature of mine and endure the messiness? Or is it Your will that I live with purity and cleanliness? Since it is clear to me that You want my soul to desire this cleanliness, I will go clean the house in order to get close to You and give You pleasure.”

Even though you’re doing it shelo lishmah – not for the sake of Heaven (because you’re doing it out of your need for cleanliness) – you can still add this element of lishmah into your action.

But always remember that cleaning the house for Pesach is purely avodas Hashem. It must be done properly with thought and concentration.

The Importance Of Orderliness

Another point to be addressed is the fifth reason why a person wants to clean the house: to have orderliness.

Just like a person has a natural need for cleanliness, and this comes from the soul’s desire for purity which Hashem put in us, so did Hashem put in us a natural desire for orderliness.

Some people have a more of a need to be organized than others, but all people have a need to get things organized. This is not by itself – it is a nature which Hashem gave each person.

Without our natural desire for orderliness, no one would get anywhere. In order to build up anything, there is a certain order involved. Since every person on this world must build himself, Hashem endowed each person with an ability to have orderliness. Without orderliness, we wouldn’t be able to develop our avodas Hashem.

The more orderly a person is, the more he is able to develop in avodas Hashem. The less orderly a person is, the more confusion he has, and he feels like he is an exile. A person has to get out of this exile of confusion and become more orderly. This is the beginning of an inner freedom.

Orderliness is thus a need of our soul, but we often use it just for our body’s physical needs, such as the need to look very put together and organized.

Just like a dirty house makes our soul suffer, so can living in a messy house bother us so much that it is an impediment to our avodas Hashem. If we don’t care about how our house looks inside, we will definitely be affected spiritually as well.

It is well-known that when a tzaddik would look for a prospective match for his daughter, he would inspect the boy’s room and see if he’s neat. When a person has no sense of orderliness when it comes to the physical, it is a sign that he has is spiritually messy as well.

In order for our soul to get orderliness in spiritual matters, a person needs to first make sure he’s neat when it comes to his physical matters. But we must always remember that it is Hashem who gives us such a nature. We must recognize that our need for orderliness comes from Hashem, and that this need that people have doesn’t come by itself.

Realize that this need for orderliness can be used as a way to connect to the Creator. Like this, a person can take the physical world and use it to develop a relationship with Hashem. It is an inner kind of life, a life spent with Hashem even in ordinary, mundane actions.

When a person realizes that the need for organization is necessary in his avodas Hashem, he is able to realize that organizing the house is not just an act of kindness with his family, but it is a necessary part in one’s personal avodas Hashem.

In this, there are two parts. Some people were born with a need for orderliness, and it really bothers them when things aren’t in place. The avodah of such a person is to realize that this need comes from Hashem, and it is a way to serve Hashem.

But others don’t feel such a need for cleanliness. They know with their minds that a person should be orderly, but they don’t feel that this is a need for their soul. Such people feel that it makes sense to clean the house once a year, or else the house becomes unlivable…but not more than once a year.

This person’s avodah is the opposite of the first kind of person. Besides for the fact that he must organize his house, he also needs to awaken in his soul a desire to have orderliness.

Days Which We Can Grow From

A person wonders: Why did Hashem make it that people have to work so hard on Erev Pesach? Doesn’t this sacrifice our opportunities to grow spiritually by making preparations for Yom Tov? If we have to work so hard cleaning up, how do we prepare for the Yom Tov??

But if you think about it, these days before Pesach contain tremendous areas which we can use to attain growth in. If Hashem made it this way that we have to clean and organize the house, then that is the way for us to acquire all the precious areas of growth which we need.

Really, cleaning up and organizing the house are there to remind us of our soul’s need for purity. This is a precious gain in our avodas Hashem. But the yetzer hora comes and takes away the message of it and turns it into mundane actions, drying it up from all the avodas Hashem contained in it.

If a person understands the depth of avodas Hashem, he doesn’t clean the house simply because he wants it to be clean. He cleans the house because through that, he connects to an inner point in his soul – the need for spiritual cleanliness. He understands that now is precisely the time to work on this.

The truth is that all of life is like this: the yetzer hora comes and takes what’s very important and turns it into something that’s not important. In whatever we encounter, we should always see the greatness we can achieve in this situation. The more confusing and seemingly pointless a situation appears, the more greatness lies in it if we uncover it.

If a person before Pesach is caught up in this and that and he comes into the Yom Tov exhausted and stressed out, what is all our hard work worth? We don’t gain from this kind of a life.

If we don’t see how everything we do can be a form of avodas Hashem and how much being involved with the world takes away from our soul, then these days go to waste. Our preparation for Pesach should not be a physical preparation; although we do exert our body to prepare for Pesach, really, there is an inner depth taking place in what we are doing. It is really a preparation of our soul for the coming days. Through preparing for it in the right way, a person comes into Yom Tov the way he should.

Each person can take these words and open them up more to himself, each to his own. The common denominator between all people is the days preceding Pesach are days of ruchniyus, not days of materialistic pursuits. They are days of closeness to Hashem.

Hashem should help us that we prepare properly for Pesach during these days, from a sincere desire to give pleasure to our Creator. In these days preceding Pesach, each of us should merit to increase our true closeness and love of Hashem.

Purim – Rising Above Doubt

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Purim

Exploring The Connection Between Purim and Yom Kippur

There is a famous teaching of our Sages, “Yom HaKippurim is like Purim”[1] – Yom Kippur is “k’purim” – like Purim. This implies that Purim is ‘similar’ to Yom Kippur, and perhaps equally or even more holy. Let’s explore our avodah on Purim and its relationship to Yom Kippur.

The festivals of Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos are celebrated for two days outside of Eretz Yisrael, because of the doubt about their exact dates (sefeika d’yoma).[2] Since all of the festivals contain sefeika d’yoma, they all contain an element of doubt. On an inner level, this means that we are exposed to doubt during these festivals.

For example, consider Rosh Hashanah and Amalek. Rosh Hashanah is a time that celebrates the remembrance of the beginning of Creation, whereas the evil nation of Amalek represents the concept of safek/doubts. Amalek is called “reishis.” the “beginning” of the nations.2 [Hence, Amalek has power on Rosh HaShanah, since Amalek gets its strength from beginnings]. Specifically, we celebrate Rosh HaShanah for two days, because in the times of the Beis Hamikdash it was difficult for witnesses to see and pass on the exact time of the new moon. Thus, since the Sanhedrin could not be sure if the month was sanctified or not, we celebrate two days of Rosh HaShanah to cover both possibilities.

Unlike the other festivals, Purim is not celebrated on two different dates due to the reason of sefeika d’yoma. Rather, the two days of Purim is only simply to celebrate the two different military victories which occurred on two different dates. Specifically, Purim falls on either the 14th or the 15th of Adar, depending on whether the celebrant resides in a walled city or an un–walled city. The Rabbis agreed that inhabitants of walled cities recite the Megillah on the 14th of Adar, whereas inhabitants of un–walled cities recite the Megillah on the 15th of the month.

So Purim is different from the other festivals since there is no doubt about its date. However, there is an even greater reason why Purim is dissociated from doubt. Purim is a festival celebrating our victory over Amalek which has the same gematria as the word safek.[3] It is well–known that the evil force of Amalek is essentially the very concept of doubt. Thus, Purim, in which we were victorious over the force of Amalek (Haman), is the antithesis of doubt.

Furthermore, we celebrate Purim in the month of Adar, and Adar stands for “aleph dar.” “The Aleph (the One)will dwell”.23 This phrase alludes to how Hashem Himself fights Amalek during the month of Adar. Haman was an Amelekite and Mordechai defeated Haman during Purim also in the month of Adar. Thusly, Adar is a month of victory over Amalek – and we won through our emunah in Hashem. In addition, Moshe was born in the month of Adar, a leader who helped the Jewish people in their victories over Amalek.

The War With Amalek/Doubt

In summary, the very concept of Purim is the opposite of doubt. Purim is a celebration of the Jewish people’s triumph over Amalek/safek/doubts. (Of course, as we will explore below, we cannot erase Amalek completely in our times, because Amalek is at war with Hashem, in every generation. Only in the future will Hashem erase Amalek completely; when Amalek will be completely erased, Hashem’s Name will be complete.)

Every time we doubt Hashem, chas v’shalom, Amalek is winning. Amalek pounces on us at the first sign of doubt in our emunah. The generation who left Egypt surely believed in Hashem, they were in doubt about what Hashem would do to save them. We can refer to their very doubt as “Amalek” triumphing over them.

Amalek also comes to attack our kedushah (holiness). When the Jewish people left Egypt, we were on a very holy level, but the Erev Rav (the “mixed multitude.” which included Amalek) came with us and influenced us. Thus, our redemption from Egypt was not complete.

Amalek was particularly terrible since they also paved the way for other nations to fight us. Chazal compare Amalek to a person who jumps into a scalding hot bath; he burns himself in the process, but he cools it off for others. So too, Amalek were the first nation to have the audacity to attack the Jewish people, and in a brazen manner. By having the audacity to rise up and even attempt to conquer the Jewish people, they showed the other nations that such a coup is possible.

The Inner Point of The Soul Where There Is No Doubt

Now let us learn how this matter applies to our personal souls, and what power we have that can counter Amalek/safek/doubt.

Hashem is called “tzur levavi.” “Rock of my heart”.[4] The revelation of G–d lies deep in all of our hearts, as is it written, “And I will dwell amongst them.” The Sages state that Hashem dwells “in all of them.” every Jewish soul – within each of us lies an inner point in our soul, a “cheilek eloka mimaal.” a “portion of G–d above.” [5] This point is completely holy and it cannot be tainted by doubt. Only the outer parts of us are subject to doubts.

After the Original Sin, human beings were given free will to choose between good and evil. In This World, it is difficult to separate between good and evil. All of us live with two options – good and evil. We as humans are fallible, so our choices are open to imperfections, which lead us to doubt ourselves. But Hashem cannot be doubted. Consequently, there resides no uncertainty or doubt within the G–dly part of our soul, as long as a person merits successfully in uncovering it and revealing it outward.

When Bnei Yisrael fought against Amalek [there was a constant pattern], When Moshe’s hands fell, Amalek gained strength. When Moshe’s hands were raised Amalek became weakened. The possuk says that Moshe’s hands were raised in “emunah”.[6] The power of emunah in our soul is essentially the revelation of G–d within man. When one really lives with emunah – not just because he knows about Hashem, but because he palpably feels the emunah in Hashem deep inside his heart – then he lives with less doubt, and in turn, he is strengthened. But without complete emunah in our heart, we are subject to doubts and are weakened as a result.

Amalek fights Hashem in every generation. We are commanded to fight Amalek and never forget their attack on us. However, the outcome of our efforts to fight Amalek is ultimately in Hashem’s hands. Only Hashem can erase Amalek, because Amalek is all about safek, and man cannot defeat the force of safek without Hashem. We have to fight, but only Hashem can annihilate safek completely.

In other words, the only way to overcome safek is for us to completely integrate our own selves with Hashem. When a person reveals total emunah in Hashem from within himself, he is essentially revealing outward the deep, inner revelation of G–dliness within his soul. This is the only way man can defeat Amalek. Only when one erases his own doubts by connecting his existence with Hashem, will he essentially receive the power to erase Amalek.

Unfortunately, these days it is difficult for us to even identify Amalek itself, because the wicked king Sancheriv[7] mixed up all of the nations, making it impossible for us to discern the origins of the people of other nations. Thus, we are even in doubt about where our doubts lie, which creates an even more powerful safek. Even more so, Hashem’s presence is more hidden and concealed from us in exile – we constantly lack certainty in Hashem and His truth.

In summary, safek (doubts in emunah) fuels Amalek’s power. Whether the doubts are external or internal, Amalek thrives on our doubts and then takes us over. Thus, our ongoing war with Amalek is unlike any other war. It is an inner, spiritual war being fought between our powers of emunah and safek/doubt. It is about fighting forHashem’s revelation as the “Vadai Shemo” (His Name is absolute). Only when our G–dly part of our soul dominates does Amalek’s hold weaken.

Purim – Yom Kippur

Besides Purim, there is another day of the year which is completely holy and not associated with any safek – Yom Kippur. Although there should have been a sefeika d’yoma on Yom Kippur too, the Sages decreed that we should not have two days of Yom Kippur. On a simple level, this ruling was decreed because it is dangerous to fast for two days. But the deeper reasoning for having only one day of Yom Kippur is so that it should not be subject to any safek/doubt.

Chazal refer to Yom Kippur as the “yomo shel HaKadosh Baruch Hu.” the “day of Hashem.”[8] You cannot doubt Hashem. We can have doubts about ourselves, but Hashem cannot be doubted. Hashem gave the other festivals to the Jewish people and thus these festivals also have an association with humans and doubt. In contrast, Yom Kippur is called “the day of Hashem”. Unlike human beings, Hashem has no doubts, and doubt cannot mix or be associated with Hashem. As the Sages say, “Is there such thing as doubts in Heaven?”.[9]

On Yom Kippur we are like angels. This day is clearly the day of Hashem, the day in which Hashem reigns supreme. Since there are no sins and we are forgiven, so there is no room for the human concept of doubt to creep in.

In summary, the festivals were given to man, who is naturally full of doubt. Thus, there can be doubt associated with the festivals. In contrast, Yom Kippur belongs to Hashem, Who has no safek. Yom Kippur is a day in which doubt cannot take hold.

[Now we can see the connection between Purim and Yom Kippur, and why Purim is like Yom Kippur: they are both days in which can rise above doubt].

Celebrating the Doubt–free Purim and Yom Kippur

These days, we all generally live with uncertainty. We all have ‘Amalek’ in the soul!Hashem’s existence, His presence, His love for us, is all doubted and unclear to us. But Purim shows us how a situation with two or more options does not have to be confusing because both options are actually necessary. On Purim, we bless Mordechai as well as Haman. On a deeper level, we can recognize on Purim that even Haman is ultimately needed!

In the future, Hashem and His Name will be One. The Gemara raises a pertinent question: “Is He not [already] one in our times?” The Gemara then answers that in the future His name will be the name of havayah[10], while now He is called by His name of adnus[11] (Master), which is not the same thing. Chazal teach that Hashem’s name is not complete in our times due to the presence of Amalek[12] – who fuels our doubts of emunah.

There is a teaching that our “heart cannot be revealed by the mouth”[13]. This means that we do not express what is truly in our hearts. The fact that we read the name of havayah of Hashem but we do not pronounce it, and instead we currently pronounce it with the name of adnus, reflects the fact that our “mouth and heart are not in line with each other”. We can see the meaning of havayah in our heart, but the mouth cannot express it. The Torah itself is made up of names of Hashem, but Amalek causes one to doubt even His name!

We are always confounded by doubts. For example, a person gets married, but doubts if his wife is the right one for him. Or he buys a house but remains unsure if he has made the right purchase, and he agonizes over his decision. All of these doubts actually come from Amalek!

Options and doubts are the hallmark of our current exile. And as long as a person has doubts, he does not have simchah. “There is no simchah like the clarification of doubts”.[14] Simchah is when we erase our doubts, and therefore, if a person has safek, he cannot have simchah.

True simchah is achieved only when there is a harmony between our guf (body) and neshamah (soul). The opposite of simchah/joy is sadness, and sadness comes from the body, which was created from the element of earth. When Adam ate from the Eitz HaDaas, the body was cursed with death, which causes it to return to the earth. The Jewish people contain a body and a soul. Whereas the soul wants to rise to Heaven, our body wants to be here on earth. While our soul yearns for G–d, our body wants materialism. This internal war creates a force of doubt. [We are all born with this struggle with doubt, and our life is a constant battle between our spiritual and our material desires].

Thus, our life in This World is riddled with doubt. But the good news is that a person can penetrate a place in his soul where there are no doubts! When a person erases Amalek within himself, he can connect both body and soul together. This “clarification of doubts” will enable him to reach simchah here in This World even before the redemption.

On Purim, we are commanded to become intoxicated until we reach the point of not knowing “the difference between cursed be Haman and blessed be Mordechai.” When we reach this point of shedding our [consciousness] daas, the body and soul become harmonized and all doubt is left behind.

The festival of Purim celebrates the Jewish people’s victory over Haman the Amalekite and therefore doubt. Haman intended to kill us and separate our bodies and souls. Our victory demonstrated that we are “one nation.” Haman himself acknowledged this, albeit begrudgingly. And on a deeper note we also can be “one” within our own self.

In the future, Chazal say that all festivals will cease except for Purim when Moshiach comes. Chazal are teaching us a lesson pertinent to the present – that we can connect even now to the light of the future. Purim thus represents our ability to access an inner point of certainty and trust regardless of the external doubts in our current life.

Living a life full of doubts prevents us being connected to the spiritual dimension. One destined to live in the World To Come (ben olam haba) is essentially one who reveals the inner point of oneness and certainty in his soul, the revelation of G–dliness within himself. A ben olam haba refers to the place in the soul where there are no doubts.

All realities in this world can be doubted, because they are finite and are not based on Truth. Only Hashem is One and only Hashem is forever. By connecting to His Oneness and emes, we too can erase our doubts.

Purim proves that there is a time where we can exist free of doubts. Although we currently live in a world of doubt, Purim represents a time in this World where we can have both body and soul and still experience certainty and trust without a doubt.

The words here are not simply an intellectual matter. Celebrating Purim does not simply require knowledge of reading the Megillah and learning how to fulfill all the laws of Purim. In order to experience Purim properly, we must experience a day of no doubt in our heart. Then we must actualize this attitude in our life.

Practically Applying This Concept

When a person has a doubt, how does he remove it internally?

One way to get rid of doubts is to seek Rabbinical guidance, as Chazal say: “Make for yourself a rav and remove yourself from doubt.”[15] However, this is only a limited solution since doubt is deeply embedded within us.

The inner way to minimize doubt is by connecting to our inner dimension – to our inner spark of Hashem’s presence – in order to view our doubts objectively and remind our self that these doubts are not who we really are. We must bring Hashem into the picture. Remind yourself that He is the only true reality and clear out all the uncertainty – He placed the situation of doubt in front of us. We now have a choice – to focus on the doubt, or to focus on the Source of everything (including the doubt itself), which has no doubt.

When you have doubt about which path to choose, you can tell yourself that Hashem created and gave us both these two options. When you remember that Hashem does everything, your entire avodah changes – instead of finding the ‘correct’ option, you rather are trying simply to find Hashem in everything. If one really wants to do the will of Hashem in every situation, he will find how Hashem is clothed in every situation.

The simchah of Purim is that one can internally feel that everything is from Hashem. The real choice is not between the two or more options. Rather, our choice is simply whether or not to do Hashem’s will. If we focus on ourselves and our choices before us, then we will naturally be riddled with doubts, as we are human and finite and fallible. But if we manage to focus on the fact that Hashem is doing everything, and we nullify our own will to His will, then we can reach an inner place of certainty, of “HaVadai Shemo” – “His Name is absolute.”

Hashem is fighting Amalek, not us. If we fight Amalek ourselves, we are bound to lose. Only once we recognize that Hashem fights Amalek are we enabling Hashem to win in our case. The path before us will become clear only by choosing to focus on doing Hashem’s will.

Purim is the time to see that Hashem is behind all decrees. Even Haman’s decree ended up being good. Just as Hashem makes the decrees He can nullify them if He chooses. Purim shows us that though man always has doubts, there is no doubt associated with Hashem. The best way to leave all doubts is to see Hashem in and behind every action.

Practically speaking, we should try an exercise of emunah every day in order to battle against Amalek. This will gradually allow the knowledge that Hashem is the One behind everything to penetrate our hearts and overtake our doubts. When we are faced with indecision, we should tell ourselves that the situation was created by Hashem and that He is the only Truth. In this way, one will merit to erase Amalek from his heart and merit the simchah of leaving their doubts.

Through this work, with the help of Hashem, may the light of our discovery lead to the illumination of all of Creation, when Amalek will be completely erased, and “Hashem will be One, and His Name will be One.”

[1] Tikkunei HaZohar 421 (57b)

[2] a concept and legal principle in Jewish law which explains why some Jewish holidays are celebrated for one day in the Land of Israel but for two days outside the Land.

2 “Raishis goyim, Amalek” – “The first of the nations is Amalek” – Bamidbar 24:20

[3] The Hebrew word Amalek has same numerical value as the hebrew word Purim (240)

3 sefer Bnei Yissocher

[4] Tehillim: 73

[5] Iyov 3:4; Kli Yakar Bereishis 1:3, 9:201; Tanya (Ch. 2), Nefesh haChaim (Ch. 1)

[6] Shemos 17:12

[7] The king of Assyria who destroyed Babylon.

[8] Yalkut Shimeoni Tehillim 139

[9] Yoma 74b

[10] Referring to Hashem’s essence.

[11] A substitute pronunciation of the divine name, havaya

[12] Rashi in end of Parshas Beshalach

[13] Zohar Beraishis 11a

[14] Shaalos U’Teshuvos HaRema 5; Metzudas David to Mishlei 15:30; also attributed to a statement of the Rambam

[15] Avos 1:16

Rabbi Dovid Schwartz Needs Your Tefillos

Rabbi Dovid Schwartz, a good friend to many of us and a Beyond BT contributor is in very critical condition. The name Raphael has been added. Please increase your Tfillos and learning for the merit of Raphael Yitzchak Dovid Ben Gittel Leah.
Click here to sign up for a few perakim of Tehillim for a week for his recovery.

Please read his classic post on the how to deal with conformity.

Towards a Subtler Nonconformity

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz

The majority of the posts and comments on the conformity debate deal with standardization in dress and speech. The basic consensus is that swallowing hard and adopting a bleak conformity is just another of the many sacrifices that we make for integration into the Frum community. Unlike relinquishing, say, seafood this demanding sacrifice seems to reward those who make it with a lifetime of ambivalence. Here are some thoughts I hope will make us more comfortable within our own skins by recasting this never-ending and draining sacrifice as a labor of love.

We need to ask ourselves: “Do I yearn for nonconformity or individuality?” At times, nonconformity implies a grouchy contrariness simply for the sake of being contrary. It often indicates insecurity and low self-esteem that cannot be assuaged without gaining notoriety. The nonconformist may be subconsciously saying “If I can gain prominence by excelling at what I do and where, I am… terrific if not I will do so by deviating from the expected standards in obvious and attention-grabbing ways”. In short it often comes from an unhealthy place.

Individuality, on the other hand, expresses the central Human longing for self-actualization and the resistance to external oppressive forces that would squash it. It is a wholesome drive that unites rather than divides BTs and FFBs. It is born in a whisper at our innermost core that demands that we be who we truly are. Where nonconformity is reactive, individuality is proactive. The drive for individuality concerns itself not with modes of dress but with the personality being clothed, not with the language but with the message, not with affectation but with effects, not with mannerisms but with middos (character traits).

IMO, we often under valuate our lifestyle makeovers. In spite of the popular “Avrohom” and “Yisro” models for repudiation of the dominant culture, what compels a Jew to do T’shuva in the post-Sinai era is not a rejection of secularity or secularities’ excesses. These may serve as triggers to the process but they are not the key moving forces. Rather, it is the drive for individuality. A Jew is a Jew and can never hope for self-actualization without Torah and Mitzvahs i.e. living as a Jew. An eagle that has grown up among marching penguins does not take flight to spite the penguins and mock their black and white conformity. The eagle flies because that’s what eagles do. Even when both are at rest the eagle is qualitatively unlike the penguin. It need not behave differently to be different. Yet, its very being compels it towards unique behaviors.

There is a Midrash about the cruelty of S’dom. In S’dom there was only one bed for wayfarers. When the forlorn traveler was forced to spend a night in S’dom they were made to lie down on a “one-size-fits-all” bed. If they were too short a rack would stretch them and if they were too tall they would be decapitated to fit the bed.

The dominant culture with its tyrannical egalitarianism is the heir to the mantle of S’dom’s bed. While ostensibly celebrating nonconformists by allowing for some superficial dissimilarities it is a culture that demands leveling and conformity between men and women, between old and young and between criminal and victim. Many a soul has been stretched to the breaking point or constrained and crushed by this harsh and unreal steamrolling.

Paradoxically, the outward uniformity of frum societies proffers the blessing of true individuality. It is precisely because so much external uniformity is expected that people must dig deeply to discover what makes them unique and irreplaceable individuals. In analyzing both the sacred avodah of Hagrolah (the sacrifice lottery) on Yom Kippur and Shoshanas Yaakov, the anthem of Purim, Rav Hutner Z”tl explains that once we posit that two things are, in fact, different it follows that the greater the number of layers of external similarity they share then, perforce, the deeper and closer to their cores will be that which actually differentiates them.

Chazal describe Hashem as “the peerless Artist” because every piece of His work (human beings) is a one of a kind creation. Our aching to be unique is a paean to the Divine Artist. It is nothing less than the ultimate, logical conclusion of imitatio dei (Mitzvah of Divine Imitation:clinging to the ways & middos of HaShem). Just as He is Yochid (singularly individual) so shall you be! Individuality ought to be embraced and celebrated in spiritual, sophisticated, deep-seated ways that flow outward from the core of our values and our beings not relegated to some quirks at the outer limits of our most public personas. Such quirkiness represents little more than a clichéd, shallow conformist’s losing touch with their individuality by “going with the (nonconformist) flow”.

One Nation, Indivisible

Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier

Parshas Shemos

And he said, “Who placed you as a judge and ruler above us. Will you say to kill us as you killed the Egyptian.” And Moshe feared, and he said, “Now the matter is known”. Shemos 2:14

When Moshe came of age, he went out to visit his brothers — to share in their suffering. What he saw caused him great anguish. The oppression, subjugation, and cruelty were present wherever he looked. The next day, Moshe again “went out to his brothers,” this time he witnessed two Jews engaged in mortal combat. One was standing over the other in an attempt to kill him. Moshe called out, “Wicked one, why are you hitting your friend?!” This put an end to the bloodshed.

However, Moshe’s intervention wasn’t appreciated. Quite the opposite, their response was, “Who appointed you to be a judge over us? Are you going to kill us as you killed the Mitzri yesterday?” The Medrash tells us this was actually a threat. The day before Moshe killed a Mitzri guard, who was mercilessly whipping an innocent Jew. The two Jews who were fighting had seen this, and they now warned Moshe that they were going to report him to the authorities for rebelling against the king—which they did.

When Pharaoh heard that the heir apparent had openly challenged the law of the land and defended a Jew against his master, he brought Moshe to trial for tyranny. In the end, Moshe had to flee Mitzraim at the risk of his life.

Interestingly, when Moshe first heard their threat his response was, “Now the matter is known.” Rashi explains that for many years, Moshe had a question: “Why is it that of all the seventy nations, the Jews are singled out for oppression?” Once he saw that there were talebearers amongst the Jews, he understood why this nation was so fated.

3 questions

This Rashi is very difficult to understand for a number of reasons. 1. Moshe witnessed two people threatening to report him. Two individuals don’t define a nation. 2. Didn’t all the other nations speak Loshon Harah as well? 3. Even if it were true that entire Jewish People were gossipers, what is so egregious about this sin that an entire nation should suffer cruel, brutal subjugation?

The answer to this can best be understood with a moshol.

Making a hole in my cabin

Imagine a man boards a transatlantic ocean liner carrying an electric saw. Late at night, one of the ship’s personnel hears a distinct rattling noise coming from the man’s cabin. The crewmember knocks on the door – no answer. The noise continues. He knocks again. Still no response. Fearing danger, he kicks in the door, only to see the passenger standing poised against the ship’s hull, electric saw in hand, attempting to cut through the skin of the ship. The crewmember screams out, “Stop it! What are you doing?”

The passenger calmly responds, “Sir, do you see this boarding pass in my hand? Do you see that it states that I have the right to a private cabin? Why are you disturbing me? Here I am, in the privacy of my own compartment, doing what I want. If I want to drill a hole in my room, that is my choice. I have paid for this cabin and I have the prerogative to do whatever I want here. Leave me alone.”

The Chofetz Chaim compares this situation to the Jewish people. He explains that our nation is one unit – irrevocably tied together in a common fate. What happens to one affects another. The state of each individual impacts the whole. There is no such concept as one person doing what he wants in the privacy of his home and not affecting the Klal. But more than this, we are one body. Where the tail goes, the head can’t be far behind. When Moshe saw the levels that the tail had sunk to, he knew that the body of the nation couldn’t be that high. This single action shed light onto the madregah of the people.

The Chofetz Chaim explains that the antidote to Loshon Harah is “loving my neighbor.” If I, in fact, viewed him as connected to me, I would never speak negatively about him. It would be like bad-mouthing myself.

This seems to be the answer to this Rashi. The Jewish nation is one. If such an incident of vicious slander could occur, it reflected on the state of nation. If the people had been on a higher level, this could not have transpired. It meant that the nation as a whole was lacking in a key ingredient – a sense of common destiny, a sense of brotherhood, the sense that I am one with my fellow Jew. And that is why the nation deserved to be punished.

More is expected from the Chosen Nation

If the people involved were the French, the Germans, or the ancient Greeks, this wouldn’t have been an issue. They are a people by circumstance, born of common lineage and brought up in a common land, but there ends the connection. The Jewish people are different. As children of Avrohom, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, we share a common heritage and destiny. We are bound together for eternity. We are one.

For that reason, when Moshe witnessed this act of cruel gossip mongering, he took it as a sign of the health of the nation. If the bottom has sunk this low, the head can’t be that much higher. He then understood why it is that the Jews deserved such treatment. If any other nation degrades one another, there isn’t much fault found with them. If a member of the chosen people speaks badly about another, that bodes serious consequences. We are held to a higher standard.

This concept is a powerful lesson to us about the unity of the Jewish people, our common destiny, and the power of each individual to impact the whole.

Rabbi Shafier is the founder of the Shmuz.com – The Shmuz is an engaging, motivating shiur that deals with real life issues.

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Shovavim – Repairing Our Thoughts

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Introduction To “Shovavim”

The holy sefarim[1] describe the days of “Shovavim” (Parshas Shemos through Parshas Mishpatim) as days of teshuvah (repentance), based on the possuk, “Return, wayward sons”, and that the main sin which we need to focus our teshuvah on during these days is to rectify the sin of keri (spilling human seed).

We need to know what the root of the spiritual light is that exists during this time, what exactly it means to damage the Bris, and how it is rectified.

In many places, the custom during these days is to recite Selichos (prayer supplications) and to perform various tikkunim (soul rectifications) for the public.

The ancient scholars who taught the inner parts of the Torah[2] established five ways to rectify the sin of spilling seed, and each of them are based on the five different causes that can lead a person to the sin. The five causes that bring about this sin are: 1) Thoughts, 2) Desire to gaze at another woman[3], 3) Desire for gay behavior[4], 4) Wasted spittle[5], 5) One who deliberately delays circumcision[6].

In these coming chapters (Shovavim #02, #03, #04, #05 and #06) we will not delve that in-depth into the esoteric concepts here; rather, we will see the homiletic statements of our Sages about these matters.

We will begin, with the help of Hashem, with the first path of rectification of the sin, which is to rectify the thoughts.

Rectifying The Thoughts: Returning To The “Beginning”

The power of thought is described as the “beginning point” of man. To illustrate the concept, the first thing Hashem did to create the world was that He thought about it. The beginning of a matter is always with thought, thus, thought is seen as the beginning point. Thought is the first kernel of wisdom that allows for the wisdom to become expanded further and further.

Since the purpose of Creation is to reveal the sovereignty of Hashem, “the end of action is first with thought”, therefore, the end of Creation, which will be the purpose, is somewhat reflected in the beginning point of Creation. So the concept of thought, which is the beginning point of Creation, is actually a reflection of the purpose of Creation.

Before the conception of the Jewish people, the Torah describes the 70 nations who descended from Esav. Although the Jewish people are called raishis, “the beginning,” they were still preceded by the 70 nations. What is the meaning of this? It is because the 70 nations of the world are a different kind of beginning. They are another kind of tool which brings about the revelation of Hashem. We see this from the fact that in the future, Hashem will first reveal Himself to all the nations, “And His Kingdom will reign over all jurisdictions”, and after that, the Jewish people will then become the tool that will reveal the purpose of Creation. The purpose of Creation is the revelation of Hashem’s Presence upon the world, and when His sovereignty will be revealed, that will be the tool that brings it about.

Thus, there are different tools which Hashem has set into motion that will reveal the purpose of Creation. Even the gentile nations of the world will be a key factor in the process; this is actually the deeper meaning behind why Esav’s head is buried with the Avos. It is a hint to the fact that the beginning of the nations is really good at its root. The nations of the world have a good beginning, because they will be the first stage in the revelation of Hashem upon the world; it is just that their end will not be lofty as their beginning was. Their dominion will come to an end, and that is why only Esav’s head is buried with the Avos, because only the “head” of Esav is worthy. The Jewish people, by contrast, have both a beginning and an end which will reveal Hashem upon the world.

When one’s thoughts are damaged through sinful thinking, that essentially means that the “beginning” point in a person is damaged. This has several aspects to it. One aspect of our thoughts is that our thoughts are meant to remain inside us; our thoughts are private, and they are supposed to be kept private. To illustrate, we don’t know what others are thinking; the reason for this is to show us that thoughts are supposed to be kept private. When thoughts do need to become revealed, they must be revealed in a proper way, because in essence, they are really meant to be kept private.

Thus, we have a two-fold avodah in protecting our power of thought: We need to keep them private, and in addition, when we do reveal them, they need to be revealed properly.

The Root of Damaging The Bris: Feeling Completely Independent

The root of a person’s downfall is when he thinks he is perfect. “Esav” is called so because he was asuy, already “made”, meaning, he was born “complete”; the inner meaning of this is that he thought he was complete, and that is the depth of his ruination. When a person thinks he is complete, he denies the fact that he needs others in order to be completed. Because he thinks he is perfect, he doesn’t feel a need to connect with others. This is really the depth behind damaging the Bris: when a person thinks that he does not need to receive from others. When a person is unmarried, he can understand well what it means to feel lacking; he knows that he needs to be completed by another.

Although we find that the Sage Ben Azai did not marry, because he desired learning Torah alone and didn’t feel the need to be completed by a woman, still, although he reasoned well, we know that his path is not meant for us to take, for the Sages recount that when he was shown Heavenly revelations as a result of his spiritual level, he could not survive the revelations, and he died out of shock.

After Adam sinned, before Kayin and Hevel were even conceived, it is brought in the holy sefarim[7] that droplets of keri left his body; and for the 130 years that he was separated from Chavah after the sin, demons were formed from those droplets. Why was he punished? It was because he blamed Chavah for the sin; “This woman you gave me, it is she who gave me from the tree that I ate.” When he said this, the deeper implication of this was that he was basically saying that he doesn’t need her, chas v’shalom, for he was declaring that woman is detrimental to man. So he thought he doesn’t need her to complete him, and that he is better off without her.

This leads us the way to how we can fix the sin of spilling seed. When one feels incomplete, and he is aware that he needs to receive from others in order to become complete, he has fixed the sin at its root. Perfection is not achieved by feeling perfect about yourself and not needing others; rather, it is achieved precisely when one realizes he is incomplete without another to help him reach perfection.

The Deeper Implication of Misusing The Thought Process

In the power of thought, there are three kinds of thoughts: Chochmah, Binah, and Daas. Chochmah is the knowledge that one learns from his teachers. Binah is to reflect on the words of the Chochmah and thereby expand upon them. Daas is to connect the information that the Chochmah imparts and the information that the Binah imparts, bringing them to their potential. Daas reflects the concept that Chochmah needs Binah in order to become complete.

Thus, when a person has sinful thoughts, he has misused his daas, because he thinks he doesn’t need others in order to be complete.

The external part of the rectification for the sin is to feel lacking without another, but the inner layer of the solution is for a person to realize that he needs to become a tool that reveals beginnings. Soon, we will explain what this means.

The truth is that the concept of damaging the Bris was already existent as soon as Chavah’s body was separated from Adam’s; this already reflected a kind of separation between man and woman, in which man thinks that he doesn’t need woman for completion. Once Adam became separated from her, the idea of damaging the Bris became possible. It was the idea that it is possible for husband to be complete without his wife.

When one damages his thoughts, it is not only that he has misused his mental powers of Chochmah, Binah and Daas. The thoughts are damaged even when one has extraneous thoughts – when he lets his thoughts turn outward to think about things that he doesn’t need to think about. Just like the eyes are supposed to be controlled and they should not be turned outward that much, so is there a concept that the thoughts of a person not turn outward.

Repenting Over The Shame Caused By Sin

According to the Kamarna Rebbe, the 50th Gate of Impurity, which is the lowest level, is the sin of heresy, and it is created through the sin of damaging the Bris. This shows us how the Bris is damaged – but it also shows us at the same time how it can be repaired.

We can ask: Why is spilling seed considered to be the lowest level of impurity? Why can’t it just be viewed like any other desire that a person has?

The deep reason is as follows. Before the sin, Adam and Chavah were unclothed, yet they were not ashamed in their nakedness. As soon as they sinned, they realized they were naked and they grew ashamed; this shows us that the entire concept of shame began after the sin. Before the sin, there was no concept of shame. Why? It is because shame is when a person is concerned of what others think about himself; what is a person is ashamed of? He is ashamed of how he appears outwardly to others. But he is not concerned of how he appears inwardly to others. Before the sin, Adam and Chavah were so pure that they were only concerned of how they looked internally, not outwardly. After the sin, they became concerned with externalities, therefore, they were ashamed of how they appear outwardly to others.

So the pure state of mankind is to be concerned with who really is deep down, and not to be concerned of how he appears outwardly to others. Thus, the way to repair the sin is by returning to the original state of Adam, in there was no shame yet; meaning, for a person to concerned about his internal state, to keep his thoughts private as they are meant to be, and not to reveal them outwardly, not to think into things that he shouldn’t think about.

Thus, it’s not enough for a person to simply be ashamed about damaging the Bris. Although shame over a sin normally atones for all sins, the sin of damaging the Bris requires a higher kind of teshuvah, and shame alone is not enough to rectify it, for it was the sin that brought about shame to the world; the sin requires more than just shame and repentance, then, to rectify. What really needs to be rectified is the very fact that we are ashamed! Because if not for the sin in the first place, we would never know what shame is.

Of course, this does not mean chas v’shalom that one should harden himself and not feel bad after he sins. It means that a person has to reach an inner place in himself in which he returns to the state of before the sin, in which there was no shame yet, because then, when man was entirely pure, he was not concerned of anything external or outward!

When a person’s thoughts think about things that he shouldn’t think about, he is turning his thoughts outward, and this can lead chas v’shalom to eventually damaging the Bris. Our avodah during Shovavim is to return to our source, that even our power of teshuvah should be returned to its source.

During the Ten Days of Repentance, we say in Selichos that “If one’s heart understands and he repents, he will be healed”, meaning, if one is ashamed because of his sins and he repents, his teshuvah is valid. However, the teshuvah we do during Shovavim is a different concept of teshuvah than the usual kind of teshuvah. Shovavim comes after the Ten Days of Repentance, because the sin of damaging the Bris needs its own rectification and thus it cannot be covered by repenting during the Ten Days of Repentance. It is because teshuvah alone does not rectify damaging the Bris [as the Zohar states].

But that doesn’t mean that a person shouldn’t feel ashamed about damaging the Bris. Of course a person should feel ashamed and do teshuvah about it! But it is just that after he does that, he should then do a deeper kind of teshuvah – he should do teshuvah over the very fact that he has shame as a result of the sin; he should do teshuvah over the fact that he allowed his thoughts to be turned outward, that he allowed himself to be involved with the external and left the inner world of his thoughts.

Of course, now that we live after the sin, our initial nature is to seek what’s outside of us. But our avodah is to return ourselves to the original state of mankind before the sin, and to describe this in deeper terms, it’s referring to the power of emunah. Emunah helps a person stay in his proper place, where he will never feel a desire to go outward from himself.

Thus, the first way to rectify the sin of damaging the Bris (spilling human seed) is through rectifying our thoughts, and this means to return our thoughts to their source – that we should keep our thoughts inward, and not let them roam outward.

Private (Intimate) Matters Should Be Kept Private

The Chida[8] and others write that if someone reveals secrets to others when he wasn’t supposed to, he will end up sinning with damaging the Bris. This is because he turned outwardly when he should have remained inward. A secret should only be revealed to one who is modest, because he will know how to protect the secret.

When a person lets his thoughts roam around to explore thoughts that are forbidden or extraneous, that is the first root of what leads to damaging the Bris. But it also includes not to speak about private matters with others.

“Matters of the heart are not revealed to the mouth”[9], meaning, inner and private matters should not be revealed outwardly by the mouth to others. When a Bris [the covenant of marriage between man and woman] remains private between them and it is not spoken about to others, it remains as a protected covenant, as long as it is not spoken about through the mouth [to others].

This is what it means to have Kedushas HaBris, to keep the holiness of the Bris Kodesh: to protect the private nature of the Bris [the covenant of marriage between husband and wife]. Holiness means to conduct one’s private affairs in a hidden manner, in a dark room, privately, and it should be kept hidden and protected – never spoken about with others.

This is the first rectification of repairing the Bris Kodesh. May Hashem help us be able to act upon it practically.[10]

[1] Arizal: shaar ruach hakodesh: tikkun 27; further discussed in Levush, Magen Avraham, Beer Heitiv, and Pri Megadim to Orach Chaim: 685

[2] Rav Chaim Vital in Shaar Ruach HaKodesh (Arizal), ibid.

[3] This will be discussed b’ezras Hashem in Shovavaim #005 – Repairing Lust

[4] See Shovavim #04, Shovavim Today

[5] Shovavim #003

[6] Shovavim #006

[7] Shaar HaPesukim, Yechezkel

[8] Avodas HaKodesh: Tziporen HaShamir: 7: 113

[9] Koheles Rabbah 12:1

[10] Editor’s Summary: In the beginning of the chapter, it was stated that we have a two-fold avodah in repairing our damaged thoughts. The first part is to protect our private thoughts; this includes two aspects, 1)Not to think about forbidden things, which is obvious; 2)Not to reveal our private matters to others. The second part of the rectification was that when we do need to reveal our thoughts to others, they must be revealed properly; now it has been explained at the end of the chapter to mean that matters of privacy should only be revealed to someone who is modest who won’t tell it to others.

Ten for the Tenth of Teves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chanukah – Miracles Within

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Chanukah

Miracles – When Nature Is Overcome[1]

On Chanukah, we make a blessing of שעשה ניסים לאבותינו, expressing our thanks to Hashem for this time where He performed miracles for us. Although we also experienced miracles on Pesach, only the Rabbinical festivals of Chanukah and Purim contain a blessing where we thank Hashem for the miracles performed, which we express in the prayer of Al HaNissim in Shemoneh Esrei.

Hashem runs the world through a system of laws He created which we know as “nature” (teva), and He also built into this a system that works above the normal laws of “nature”: miracles (nisim). Hashem has allowed the laws of “nature” that He created to be the system of the normal “laws” (chukim) which He runs the world with.

When we analyze Creation deeper, there are actually different kinds of “nature” in creation. There are four classifications in Creation: the non-living objects (doimem), plants (tzomeiach), animals (chai), and people (medaber). Each of these has their own specific natures. Human beings, animals, plants, and inanimate objects each have their own specific kind of “nature”.

Each of the creations has their limitations. If Hashem enables a rock to grow and have life to it, it would be a miracle for the rock, because the nature of a rock is that it cannot grow. If Hashem were to allow a plant to move from place to place like an animal can, this would be a miracle for the plant, because a plant’s nature is that it does not grow. If an animal is allowed by Hashem to talk, such as the donkey of Bilaam who was allowed to talk, this is a miracle for the animal, because an animal’s nature is that it cannot talk.

Thus, what is the depth of a miracle (nes)? It is when a different “nature” is revealed in something. A miracle is not simply that Hashem changes the rules. Rather, as the Ramban and others explained, the definition of a “miracle” is when a lower level creation is allowed to function on a level that is normally above its natural level. When a rock can grow, when a plant can walk, when an animal can talk, these are all miracles, because they would be functioning on a higher level than they are normally on. Thus, in the days of Chanukah, we experienced “miracles” in the sense that a higher level of creation was revealed within this lower realm that we dwell on.

Becoming Uplifted To A Higher Level

When one has a difficulty (nisayon\נסיון), either his avodah is to find a way to run away from it (וינס), such as what happened with Yosef when he had to run away from the wife of Potiphar; and sometimes the avodah of going through a nisayon is to bear through it and thereby become uplifted from it (להתנוסס).

When the family of the Chashmonaim had to go to war with the Greeks, it was a nisayon for them, and they passed the test, becoming uplifted from it and rising to a higher level than before. That was the miracle. The Chashmonaim faced some difficulty in their avodah in their own individual souls, and because they passed the difficulty, they were elevated to a higher level, where miracles were performed for them.

In clearer terms, as mentioned earlier, a miracle is when a lower level creation is allowed by Hashem to function on a higher level. This can apply within human beings as well: what is considered nature for one person might be considered a miracle for another person, and vice versa. If Shimon is on a lower spiritual level than Reuven, and Shimon rises to the level of Reuven (which is a natural level for Reuven to be on), this is a miracle for Shimon.

Thus, every year when Chanukah returns, where the spiritual light of “miracles” is revealed, this does not simply mean that the miracles of Chanukah are revealed to us in the very same way it was revealed to us last year. Rather, the definition is that if we have risen to higher levels since a year ago, last year’s miracle isn’t considered a miracle anymore for us, because it has now become our natural level.

The spiritual light of the miracles are shined upon us during this time of the year, as our Sages explain, but the depth of this concept is that it depends on the level we have reached since last year. If one has passed more nisyonos (difficulties) since last year, he merits a greater level of “miracle” this year, because now that he has become more elevated since last year’s level, the miracle of last year is now his natural level, and he is now ready to receive greater miracles than the year before.

Overcoming Our Own Personal Natures

Applying this to us on a personal level, every person has his own “natures” which Hashem has implanted into his soul. There are four elements contained in our various “natures”: fire, wind, water, and earth. These are the roots of our negative middos (character traits). Fire is the root of conceit and anger, wind is the root of idle speech, water is the root of seeking hedonistic pleasure, and earth is the root of sadness and laziness, with their branching traits.[2] These are the natures of our middos. When one works to improve his middos, he is really working to uproot the various natures that Hashem has implanted in him.
Read more Chanukah – Miracles Within

Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman – ztz”l

Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman, the leader of Torah Jewry, passed away today at the age of 104. An estimated 600,000 people attended the funeral, held on short notice.

Here is an excerpt from Rabbi Shteinman, Humble Giant, Serving God and the Jewish people for 104 full years.

Torah Leadership

In contrast to the Western style of choosing leaders – often a self-aggrandizing popularity contest between egocentrics – Rabbi Shteinman was chosen with no elections, campaigning, or brash publicity antics. He became leader based on his deep humility, compassion, respect for God, and commitment to serve – with no thought to personal compensation or glorification. He served with no salary, no palatial office, no private jet, and no term of office – maintaining his position solely on the people’s trust.

When it came to Torah study, Rabbi Shteinman was a purist. He defined “yeshiva” as not simply a place for high-level Torah study, but as a safe haven free of forces antithetical to Torah. Particularly in the digital age, where negative influence is impervious to physical barriers, he believed that the best protection is unswerving commitment to Torah values.

Rabbi Shteinman was known as a moderate. He backed the idea of Nachal Charedi, providing a path for yeshiva students to serve in the Israeli army. For this Rabbi Shteinman took some heat, and for years courageously stood up to criticism. Rabbi Shteinman instituted a policy of “no child left behind,” starting schools for less-talented children, children of immigrants, and others at risk. And he increased Torah influence in Israel by approving the inclusion of a charedi minister in Israel’s cabinet.

Rabbi Shteinman was a role model for anyone trying to steer clear of the many trappings and pitfalls of a modern lifestyle. When Israeli Ambassador to Japan, Nissim Ben Shitrit, visited Rabbi Shteinman’s small and humble apartment, he astonishingly remarked: “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

On weekdays, his entire daily food intake was one cucumber, one boiled potato, and few spoons of oatmeal. Rabbi Shteinman had trained his body to desire food only for pure motives – to keep his body healthy – without a drop of hedonism. On Shabbat, he ate different foods in honor of the holy day. When he was offered delicacies as a guest, he obliged by eating half a grape.

Rabbi Shteinman typically sat on a word bench with no back. He used various techniques to stay awake for long hours and study. Over the years, many people offered to upgrade his accommodations, but Rabbi Shteinman always refused, insisting that he has precisely what he needs and no more.

Vayeshev Yakov: Achieving True Jewish Unity Through a Divine Division of Labor

An elaboration of the teachings of Rav Hirsch on the first two psukim of the parsha
By Yakov Lowinger

Rav Hirsch says of this week’s parsha that the overlooked feature of the original sinah and kinah — between Yosef and his brothers — was that they could have just simply focused on their connection to and service of Hashem, which carries with it a natural division of talents and labors and supersedes the formation of negative divisions. Instead, they obsessively focused on the superficial differences between them. The b’nai Leah thought they were superior and looked down upon the sons of the sh’fachos, instead of recognizing and appreciating the unique role that their half-brothers were to play. Yosef, a bit arrogant and caught up in his own beauty, would work with the bnai Leah during the day and spend time with the sons of the sh’fachos at night. Not quite a member of the first club, he basked in the superiority and adulation he felt in the presence of the second. He was not only “brotherless”, in the sense that he could not form a real connection with any of his brothers (Binyamin being too young at the time), but also “motherless”, growing up mostly without the love and attention of a mother figure unlike all of his older brothers. He develop in himself an extreme feeling of individuality and isolation, which was the cause of his attempts to win more of his father’s love by tattling on his brothers. The b’nai shfachos, on the other hand, perhaps feeling slighted and marginalized, turned inward and eventually joined the campaign against Yosef — better to be on the more powerful side than on the side of the privileged but troubled loner.

These descriptions in the Torah sound eerily like petty feuds, rivalries, and attempts at social exclusion that the world has seen untold times, and yet they are even still the primary cause of all our sufferings in exile. Just serve Me, Hashem says, and you will get along. You will develop an understanding of your own special duty to me, and cease to worry about the superficial differences over time. But they, as we, would not listen. Although we are the same, brilliantly diverse chunks of the infinite rained down into this world into more or less similar bodies and life challenges, yet instead of focusing on the differences that are real — the different levels and duties of our souls — we focus on the ones that hurt, fascinate, and occupy us on the superficial level, the exoticness of the slightly different-looking and differently quirked behavior, and so forth. How easily this obsession turns to hate and isolation, because these differences not only form no basis for a higher unity, but need to be maintained and reinforced through an ongoing effort.

The differences in our neshamos are just there, require no special maintenance, and our the basis for a beautiful coming together that the physical world can only serve as an expression of. But Yosef and his brothers occupied themselves in maintaining the differences between them, an activity which requires constant upping of the levels of jealousy and hatred just to keep those differences noticeable. Since these superficial differences are not really there, it is only through manipulation of emotions that they can be made noticeable — and this level of manipulation must be intensified over time or we would just grow numb to these supposed differences (c”v!). This effort to constantly point out surface differences and generate negative feelings about them only leads to disastrous events, from the selling of Yosef to the churban and on down the line.

It is only when the disastrous consequences of sinah and kinah are clear, do we attempt to return to each other, but this work of repairing exaggerated differences is far more difficult than the work of creating them in the first place. So the longer we are in galus, the opportunity to simply ignore our differences and serve Hashem alone, the opportunity for each of us to focus on our unique avodah in the Divine division of labor becomes more and more precious. The superficial differences among us have become so magnified over the generations that we almost can’t see past them to what really distinguishes us from one another — our neshamos and the avodah they impose on us. Only this recognition, 1) that the differences we see in the physical world are nothing in comparison to the differences in our neshamos, and 2) these superficial differences and the work that goes into maintaining them only serve to divide rather than unite, will lead us to…
3! An understanding that our neshamos were sent down here to be TRULY different from each other, uniting their special avodos to bring us to the ge’ulah, may it be soon. This will be the ultimate vayeshev Yakov, not in the sense of being settled but in the sense of shuv or teshuvah, all the sons of Yakov returning to Hashem and each other one triumphant last time.

Chanukah – Transcending Self-Centeredness

By Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

The Greeks centered their opposition to the Jews on three religious laws that one the surface of things couldn’t be less threatening to them or their way of life. Why would a Greek concern himself about someone else circumcising his son? If a neighbor likes having three rather lavish meals on Saturday after attending the synagogue why let it occupy space in your mind? The most puzzling was their antagonism towards consecrating the new moon, a religious ceremony that had no observable impact other than being the basis of the Jewish calendar. Can you imagine losing any sleep over when Ramadan comes out next year?

The underlying antagonism was caused by what these commandments represent. Circumcision is a statement. It tell you that you are not born perfect, that perfection has to be earned, and that the path towards perfection requires a certain degree of sacrifice, and a certain measure of authentic submission to a force higher than your own ego. Nothing could possibly be less Greek.

Shabbos takes us even further from the Greek vision of a human centered world. What we say by keeping Shabbos is that even our creativity and our ability to dominate nature and make it our own, is not the end of the story. The highest level from our point of view is taking all of our creative energy and saying, “let go. It’s time to step back and see what God, not I, created”. When you see things from that angle, it isn’t hard to see what was so offensive about defining time through ritual instead of through human observation.

What all of this tells you is that this is the time of year that you can decide once and for all that you can finally stop being a closet Hellenist. You body, your endeavors and your sense of reality can all go beyond the limitations of the little castle called “me” and explore a new planet, one called “transcendence”. You can be bigger than your ego and your assumptions.

Let the light of the candles that reflect eternal truth give you enough light to step into the next phase of your life, into a more holy and God aware future.

Alternate Trajectories – Part 4

Written By C. Sapir,

You can read part 1 here.
You can read part 2 here.
You can read part 3 here.

One day, Ben mentioned that he had taken a client out to eat, and I innocently asked where they had eaten.

“Don’t ask questions that you don’t want to know the answers to,” he advised me in a friendly tone.

From then on, I didn’t ask him where or what he had eaten outside the house. It wasn’t my business. What was my business was my own kitchen, and I knew I could trust him not to do anything that would treif up my kitchen. Ours is an honest relationship, and even after Ben’s commitment to Yiddishkeit eroded to the core, his commitment to me and our marriage remained steadfast. Since Shabbos, kashrus, and taharas hamishpachah were non-negotiable to me, Ben wouldn’t do anything to break my trust or sabotage my observance of those or any other mitzvos.

In recent years, I’ve been contacted by numerous women – both baalos teshuvah and frum-from-birth – who are heartbroken over their husbands’ spiritual deficiencies. Some are upset that their husbands aren’t going to minyan or aren’t learning three sedarim a day. While I wish, inwardly, that that would be all I have to deal with, I truly sympathize with their disappointment. Others are grappling with far more serious issues, like chillul Shabbos.

My advice to these women is usually to separate the marriage issues from the religious issues, and work on the marriage. When the relationship is loving and respectful, religious differences can usually be overcome. But when the relationship itself is troubled, then religious differences only exacerbate the existing chasm.

All the years, Ben and I had made a priority of spending quality time together and investing in our marriage. After we moved away from New York, our life took on a slower pace, and Ben and I had found time to play chess, cook fun things together, read the newspaper aloud to each other, and discuss politics, history, and current events. In doing so, we had strengthened our relationship to the point that it could withstand significant challenges, from the loss of a child to Ben’s gradual abandonment of frumkeit.

“How do you respect a husband who’s not frum?” a woman will occasionally ask me.

“You want to know how I do it?” I respond. “I look for the good in my husband. He’s a mentsch. He’s kind to me and to the children. He’s warm and caring to our friends and guests. He’s generous. He works hard to support the family. He works for clients and community members pro bono when they can’t afford to pay.”

“But what about bein adam l’Makom?” she’ll protest.

“Have you ever learned Tomer Devorah?” I tell her. “It’s a slim volume written by Rav Moshe Cordovero, the Ramak. He was a great kabbalist, and a disciple of Rav Yosef Karo, who wrote the Shulchan Aruch. Tomer Devorah explains Hashem’s 13 Middos Harachamim and describes how we humans, who are created in His image, can emulate these middos. For instance, Hashem is nosei avon – He carries us even in the midst of an aveirah – and we, too, can continue to ‘carry’ our loved ones even when they transgress.”

In keeping with the Tomer Devorah’s teachings, I’m not going to ruin my marriage by nagging Ben to work on his relationship with Hashem. Instead, I’m going to continue davening and try to be a shining example of someone who does have a relationship with Hashem.

Part of being that shining example is remembering that Hashem matched me with this husband, and trusting that He knows what He is doing. He could have matched me with any man on the planet, yet He chose this special person just for me. We may be on alternate spiritual trajectories, but each of us is exactly what the other needs.

Orginally published in Mishpacha Magazine August 25, 2017

The narrator of this story has formed a support group for observant women (BT or FFB) married to men who are no longer observant.

You can contact her at tomerdevora13@gmail.com

Alternate Trajectories – Part 3

Written By C. Sapir,

You can read part 1 here.
You can read part 2 here.

Ben and I hosted numerous Shabbos guests, many of whom were just discovering Yiddishkeit, and we helped shepherd these not-yet-religious people toward greater observance, even as Ben himself flagged religiously. When guests had questions at our Shabbos table, he would say, “Ask my wife!”

Much as I tried to get the kids interested in learning and Yiddishkeit, they sensed Ben’s ambivalence. The girls were less affected by that ambivalence, and grew into frum Bais Yaakov girls, but the boys showed more interest in sports and science than in Gemara.

As the children grew older, I worried about the ever-increasing materialistic standards of our in-town community, and I wished that Ben could be a more involved father and husband. Thinking that we might do better in a different environment, I consulted daas Torah for guidance.

The rav I spoke to advised that we move away from New York and the East Coast. I discussed the possibility with Ben, who agreed that it was a good idea to move, even though he had just made partner in his law firm. Although moving would mean giving up the prestige and income he had worked so hard to attain, he realized that the work schedule he was keeping was burning him out and stealing his children’s childhood from him. Later he told me that I was his “Sarah,” and just as Hashem had told Avraham “Shma bekolah – listen to her voice,” he had chosen to listen to the wisdom of why I felt we should move.

We looked at the map and considered communities that were big enough to boast Jewish infrastructure and small enough that our presence would make a difference.

The community we ended up choosing had several Orthodox shuls, but only one was in walking distance of our house. It was more yeshivish than Ben would have preferred, but he did feel welcome in the shul.

Sometime after we moved, we went on a family trip to a place in the mountains that had alpine slides. We took a ski lift to the top of the mountain, but as everyone else was getting onto the slides, I realized that the hat I was wearing would be blown off if I went down the slide. I would have to ride the ski lift down the mountain while everyone else had fun sliding.

Standing there on top of the mountain, it occurred to me that I was doing this purely for Hashem’s sake. My husband had told me many times that he thought it was ridiculous
for me to cover my hair.

I thought of the rebbetzin I was so envious of, surrounded as she was by talmidei chachamim. “Please, Hashem,” I begged, “all I want is to have a husband who learns and sons who learn. Why can’t I have that?”

Right then and there, Hashem gave me the answer. It’s because someone has to set an example of a woman whose connection to Yiddishkeit and Torah is not through a man. I don’t have a father, or a husband, or a son, or a brother who learns Torah. My connection to Hashem is about me.

Looking out at the mountains, I thought of all the Jewish women who have no man in their lives: widows, divorcees, older singles, women in lonely marriages. Someone has to stand up for these women and show them that they can have a rich spiritual life even without a man in their life to act as their spiritual conduit.

That idea became my lifeline. Holding onto it helped me to stop wishing so much for what couldn’t be, and instead embrace what was and explore who I could become with, and not despite, my husband.

Twelve years after we moved, our family suffered three losses in a span of one year. First, our married daughter had a stillbirth. Less than six months later, our teenage daughter was tragically taken from us. Then, just four months later, Ben’s mother passed away suddenly.

Ben and I were both grief-stricken by the losses, but his faith was shaken, while mine remained intact. Having bolstered my emunah by davening and learning Torah all the years, I knew that whatever Hashem does is best for me, no matter how unpleasant and painful it may feel. I also knew that the body is only a temporary garment for the neshamah, and that death is merely a separation, not an end. We all come into this world to die and go to Olam Haba, except that some people’s journeys through this world are longer and some peoples are shorter. So while the death of a loved one hurts dreadfully, I didn’t see any of our losses as reason to doubt Hashem’s existence, His goodness, or His love for me.

Ben did. At first, he was angry at Hashem. Then he started to question whether Hashem even existed.

I felt sorry for Ben that he couldn’t feel Hashem’s love and access the consolation that comes with knowing that everything Hashem does is for the good. We were both suffering tremendous grief, but my grief was so much less painful than his, because my emunah gave me a context for the pain.

For decades, I davened fervently that Ben should return to full Torah observance. My real hope was that that after his parents reached 120 and he would have to say Kaddish for them, he would get back into the habit of davening. I knew that despite his theological issues, he would say Kaddish faithfully.

And indeed, when his mother died, Ben was scrupulous about saying Kaddish. For years, he hadn’t been much of a shul-goer, and he had long since ceased davening three times a day, but during the year of aveilus, he made a point of davening every single tefillah with a minyan.

Ben wasn’t the only one in his family who was scrupulous about saying Kaddish. His sister Candice, who lived in Manhattan, said Kaddish every day, too. In her Open Orthodox congregation, that was just dandy. But when she came to visit us, things got sticky.

Ben tried explaining to Candice that this wasn’t how things were done in our community, but she would not hear of missing Kaddish. Out of respect for our shul, she dressed for Shabbos in her most modest outfit, and then went with my husband to Minchah and Maariv Friday night. She was alone in the women’s section.

The rav and congregation did not take kindly to Candice’s recitation of Kaddish, even from behind the mechitzah. The rav tried to stop her from saying it, and when she refused, he asked her to at least say it quietly.

“If you were mourning your mother, would you want to do it quietly?” she asked pointedly. And the next time the congregation got up to Kaddish, she said it aloud again.

To the astonishment of both Ben and Candice, the rav stopped the Kaddish in middle and skipped to the next part of davening.

Ben was horrified. “I’m done with shul,” he told me. “And I’m done with the frum community as well.” That was the last time he said Kaddish.

With that, my hopes for Ben to develop a deeper, richer connection to Hashem through davening regularly and saying Kaddish were dashed. But I wasn’t the only one who was saddened by Ben’s closing the door on shul and the community. He was, too.

“Do you think it’s easy to lose your emunah?” he asked me. “Do you think it doesn’t hurt to lose faith in everything you’ve believed in and wanted to believe in?”

There was nothing I could do or say that would repair the damage. From then on, I went to shul alone on Shabbos morning.

to be continue

Orginally published in Mishpacha Magazine August 25, 2017

The narrator of this story has formed a support group for observant women (BT or FFB) married to men who are no longer observant.

You can contact her at tomerdevora13@gmail.com

Utilizing The Power of Concentration

Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the Bilvavi and the Getting to Know Your (Self, Soul, Feelings, Home)
An excerpt from this article which is from the sefer: Getting to Know Your Feelings available from Amazon.

Utilizing The Power of Concentration

First, before we speak of solutions for those who are in deep emotional stress, we will speak of a general solution to deal with emotional problems. (Just like we know how to take care of our body, we need to learn how take care of our soul.)

We are speaking even of the emotions found in the animalistic layer of the soul. How can we have a healthy animalistic soul?

The best way to develop healthy emotions is to access the simple power of unity in the soul, which we can reach when we lead a life of concentration. In practical words– remain focused on what you are doing, and do not do two things at once.

When a person does many things at once, he gets in the habit of fracturing his focus. The soul then stops concentrating, and disconnects from the actions he is doing. The inevitable result will be scattered emotions. In the worst case scenario, if there is one emotion that is more extreme than all the other emotions, such a person can have an emotional breakdown.

This is the first part of the solution to emotional problems: Do one thing at a time. Don’t do two things at once. Prevent your thoughts from floating somewhere else while you are doing something. Concentrate on what you are doing.

This may explain why some people have a hard time concentrating during davening. It is possible to daven out of obligation and not feel anything. When we do something, and our feelings aren’t there, then our thoughts wander away from what we are doing. Davening is a spiritual manifestation of this problem, but it also exists for the non-spiritual: the tendency to “space out” when performing a task that is not of interest.

One can invite trouble when he isn’t focused. Doing one thing, while thinking about something else at the same time, can be a recipe for disaster. The soul gets used to the idea that you can do many things at once and that you don’t have to be thinking.

Our generation has more emotional problems than any other generation. In previous times, people were focused on what they were doing. Today, it’s perfectly normal and acceptable to be talking on two different phone lines at the same time. To the first caller, the person says, “One minute…one minute,” and then he talks to the next one on the other line. People who function this way from a very young age get used to doing two things at once. His mind becomes scattered, and the soul suffers from this.

Only a life of calmness and quiet can allow a person to focus on what he is doing. Even our animalistic soul can understand this. We see that when people want to do something they are interested in, they can focus very easily. The question is whether we can learn to focus all the time instead of in small increments.

Concentration Enhances The Quality of Life

The Chovos HaLevovos[16] writes: “Smaller, pure amounts are bigger than big amounts, and big amounts that aren’t pure are just as good as small amounts – they are useless.”

When people try to “save” time and maximize each moment, it appears to be an admirable trait, but in reality it is detrimental to emotional health. A person gets used to doing so much without ever focusing totally on any one thing. People are doing too much, and there is too much emphasis on quantity over quality.

When we get used to focusing on what we do, we will begin to internalize what we are doing. Instead of just “going through” life, we will be connected to what we do and experience all that we can in a meaningful way.

The more we concentrate on what we do – actions and thoughts together and unified – the more our animalistic layer in the soul gets used to truly experiencing what the body is doing, and we start to enjoy life! We will feel vitality from living and from the concentration that we are putting into it.

Concentrating on what we do leads to experiencing what we do. When we experience what we do, and are concentrating and focused, then all the various emotions become connected into one unit. This is the general beginning of building healthy emotions.

Alternate Trajectories – Part 2

Written By C. Sapir,

You can read part 1 here.

I had six children in seven-and-a-half years and cared for them almost singlehandedly, but that didn’t stop me from continuing to learn. I devoured Torah books and recordings, maintained regular study partners, and attended numerous shiurim. I was particularly drawn to the shiurim of a rebbetzin in a nearby community, who combined the feminine wisdom of the eishes chayil with solid Torah sources.

I viewed her as my role model, and envied her at the same time. Her father had been a famed rosh yeshiva, and after his passing, her husband – also an outstanding Torah scholar – had taken over as rosh yeshiva. Her brothers and sons, too, were talmidei chachamim. I allowed myself to envy this rebbetzin on the grounds that it was kinas sofrim.

I had a close relationship with the rebbetzin, and she coached me through many difficult moments as it became clearer and clearer that I would never achieve what I had hoped for, what I had dreamed about as a new kallah, and what I yearned for as I learned more. I was trying so hard to build a certain type of family, and while my husband allowed me to do most of what I wanted, he wasn’t the leader, and he often wasn’t even a partner in my endeavor. I felt like I was carrying so much and the load was so, so heavy.

One day, a gadol was visiting the rebbetzin’s home and she called me over to get a brachah. The gadol gave me a brachah, and then he told me to say the brachah of “Hanosein laya’eif koach” with extra kavanah. The rebbetzin then explained to me the deeper meaning of this brachah. “Ya’eif is different from ayeif,” she said. “Ayeif means sleepy, while ya’eif means weary. In this brachah, we are saying that Hashem gives special koach to those who are ya’eif in His service.” This gave me a different perspective on the load I was carrying, and as I said the brachah with more kavanah on a regular basis, my load became somewhat lighter.

I was consistently pulled in the direction of more Torah learning, more meticulous observance of halachah, more involvement in the frum community, and over the years I felt increasingly comfortable with women on the right of the Orthodox spectrum, the chareidi-yeshivish type. Ben, on the other hand, drifted in the opposite direction, feeling less and less comfortable in frum surroundings.

Rather than daven on Shabbos in our local Agudah-type shul, he began walking a mile and a half to a Sephardi shul that was more relaxed, and whose congregation included both frum and non-frum members. At some point, he began eating salads in non-kosher restaurants, and dropped his weekly chavrusa.

Yet even as this dynamic emerged, with me being the spiritual leader of the home while he was the breadwinner, we made a point of working on our marriage and maintaining a sense of full partnership on the relationship level. No matter how busy or tired we were, we went out together every Motzaei Shabbos. We’d get a babysitter and then go out of the house, even if it was just for a drive.

In the meantime, I kept learning and growing in my Yiddishkeit, while Ben kept lawyering. Eventually, my Torah knowledge, and my ability to express it, grew to the point that women in my community started asking me to give shiurim. I began to teach parshah, shemiras halashon, and Jewish philosophy to women from many different backgrounds.

to be continue

Orginally published in Mishpacha Magazine August 25, 2017

The narrator of this story has formed a support group for observant women (BT or FFB) married to men who are no longer observant.

You can contact her at tomerdevora13@gmail.com

Alternate Trajectories – Part 1

Written By C. Sapir,

“Good Shabbos!”

“Oh, rabbi, what’s good about it?”

My chassan, Ben, fielded this question while we were in a hospital room visiting a patient with advanced cancer. During our year-long engagement – we waited until he finished law school before getting married – we would often meet on Shabbos and walk over to Manhattan’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, where we were part of a rotation of volunteers who visited the Jewish patients.

At the time, Ben sported a full beard and a big black yarmulke. In his Shabbos suit, he looked like a rabbi, even though he was a fairly recent baal teshuva. The compassion he showed each patient warmed their hearts, as well as mine. How lucky I was to be engaged to such a warm and caring man!

But the pain he confronted on those visits took a toll on him. And when patients mistook him for a rabbi and looked to him for words of solace, he was often at a loss. How could he explain to parents why G-d was inflicting so much pain on their little girl? How was he to explain to a dying teenager that Hashem loved him?

To me, the existence of pain in the world was no contradiction to the existence of a loving, perfect G-d. Unlike Him, we humans are imperfect, and we therefore can’t comprehend everything about the way He runs the world.

I had discovered Yiddishkeit as a teenager, and the more I learned about it, the more I wanted to be part of it, even though I came from a completely nonreligious background.

Ben’s journey to frumkeit was very different. He hailed from a traditional American Jewish family that maintained some cultural Shabbos and kashrus observance, and he had become more religious in college, thanks to a campus kiruv organization.

When we first met some 30 years ago, we were on similar levels of observance. What I didn’t realize then is that although our religious trajectories intersected at that point, his was peaking at the time we met and would slowly decline from there, while mine would keep climbing.

I had attended seminary and loved learning Torah. Ben’s discovery of Yiddishkeit had been primarily experiential – campus Shabbos meals with gusty zemiros – but he never had the chance to study Torah in a serious way. By the time we got married, he had shaved off his beard.

Several months after our wedding, when Ben was about to begin his first job with a Manhattan law firm, he shared with me that he might not wear his yarmulke to work. “Stand up for what you believe in!” I encouraged him. “You’re either a yarmulke wearer or not. Why should you present yourself in two different ways, one at work and another at home?”

“You’re right,” he agreed. “I don’t think I’m a yarmulke wearer anymore. I’m going to stop right now, before I take that job. Thank you for helping me clarify that.” I was stunned.

When we were first married, he was davening three times a day with a minyan, but it wasn’t long before that turned into davening without a minyan, or skipping one or two of the daily prayers. Or not davening at all.

As a junior tax lawyer in Manhattan, Ben was under tremendous pressure to put in 2,000 billable hours a year at work. Most of his colleagues were working seven days a week, and many were double-billing or “padding” their hours (meaning that they would report the same hours twice if they did work for one client that they could reuse on behalf a second client). Ben did not work on Shabbos, and refused, on principle, to double-bill, which meant that during the week he had to work significantly longer than his colleagues. Most days he’d leave the house at six in the morning and return at ten pm, or even midnight. Friday afternoon, he’d slide into the house just before candle-lighting. On Shabbos, he’d go to shul and then catch up on his sleep for the week while I watched the kids.

Since he was out working all the time, I assumed the full responsibility of running the house and caring for the kids. I bought the kids’ clothing – and decided how to dress them. I got the kids out to school – and chose the schools they would attend. We agreed on no TV in the house – and I determined the flavor of the kids’ entertainment.

In the summer, I took the kids up to a yeshivish bungalow colony, while Ben stayed during the week with his parents, who looked askance at my religious fervor.

Ben’s schedule left him with little spare time, and since he had never studied in yeshiva, Torah learning was not a priority to him. It was a priority to me, however. Early on in our marriage, I would learn together with Ben: halachah, Jewish philosophy, Tanach. He went along with the learning, but it was always my initiative, my thing. Eventually, as he got tired of it, I found friends to learn with.

Orginally published in Mishpacha Magazine August 25, 2017

The narrator of this story has formed a support group for observant women (BT or FFB) married to men who are no longer observant.
You can contact her at tomerdevora13@gmail.com

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller on Cheshvan: Facing the Ordinary

by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

Our feet are on the floor again. Tishrei, the month of the holy days that change us forever, leads us to a place of calm that we laughingly refer to as “real life.” The question that we have to ask ourselves at this point is “how do we relate to the ordinary?” The answer that we offer as Jews is with mindfulness, with the desire to find meaning, and most of all with a deep belief that God is unchanging and, by definition, is no more or less present at any time or place.

What makes one time different than another time — say the stillness before the Chazzan begins to chant Ne’ilah, the intensely sacred end of the Yom Kippur service, and 7:45 a.m. on an ordinary weekday as we turn off the alarm clock for the second time and yearn to reunite with our covers and sheets — is not God. It is us.

There are times when the best way to serve God is to look deeply within ourselves, and He provides us with special times in which it is easier and more accessible to make the sort of discoveries that can move us forward. There are other times in which the best way to serve Him is to interact with His world, to get out of that warm bed, take a shower, get dressed, say a prayer and face the world head on. He provides us with time and space for tikkun olam, for repairing the world, and when Cheshvan, the second month in the Jewish calendar comes around, we have to take a deep breathe and say, “The time is now.” All of the hopes, prayers and moments in which we saw ourselves clearly committed to growth have to be concretized. We have to see that our checks don’t bounce.

Read the whole thing here.

Sukkos – The Jews Inner Self

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download this and a number of other Drashos on Sukkos

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

We will expand more upon these words, because it is a very fundamental concept which needs to be understood well.

There is no person who has no self-knowledge of himself whatsoever; all of us know ourselves to a certain extent, besides for those who have become mentally ill (may G-d have mercy upon them). But the way we understand ourselves is superficial: we recognize ourselves based on the outer parts of our self, such as our actions, our conversations, our emotions, and our thoughts. These are outer layers to our soul – garments that cover over our actual soul – and therefore these factors are not a real way to identify ourselves.

When a person only has a superficial understanding of himself, he will in turn have a superficial relationship towards G-d. It is written, “From my flesh, I see G-d”, so if a person doesn’t properly recognize his own “flesh”, his real self, he won’t come to really identify Hashem either. As a result, he will never form a deep bond with the Creator, because he doesn’t really conceptualize the Creator’s existence in the first place.

We can compare this to a person who wishes to grind flour but he has no home appliance to grind it with. The “I” in a person is a tool for one to recognize the Creator of the World, because “The Holy One and Yisrael are one”. If someone recognizes his own Yisrael, the Jew inside himself – his beginning, for Yisrael is called “the beginning” (see Rashi Beraishis 1:1), then he can come to recognize the beginning of his own beginning, which is the Creator; the Ultimate Beginning. But if a person never got to his own beginning, and he only knows of branches from his beginning – his various abilities – then not only is he missing a bond with the Creator, but he is missing his own Jew within. The essence of the Jew is that he is a Yisrael; thus, if a Jew does not recognize that he is Yisrael deep down in his soul, he is missing self-recognition.

How indeed can a Jew attain self-recognition? It is not written in any sefer\book in the entire world. A book is an outer entity, and thus it impossible for the actual “I” to be described in any book! If the “I” could be written about in a book, that would be releasing the “I” from its inner chamber out into the open world, and that itself is impossible.

The only one who can reveal the “I” is Hashem Himself. “I am Hashem your G-d.” The word anochi (I) stands for the words ana nafshai kesavis yehavis, “I Myself can write this.”[3] In other words, the only one who can write about the “I” is Hashem. Hashem has given us the tool in how we can recognize Him: the more we recognize our self, the more we recognize Him. If we have only a superficial self-recognition, then our recognition of Hashem will also be superficial. If we recognize what our essence is, then we will be able to recognize the essence of Hashem.

The Torah begins with the letter beis, in the word Beraishis. The Ten Commandments began with the letter aleph, in the word “Anochi.” The depth of this is that Hashem reveals Himself in the letter Aleph, which is the beginning letter. If we come to our letter “aleph” in our soul – our point of beginning – then we will be able to come to the total level of Aleph, the Absolute One, the Absolute Beginning – the One who existed, exists and will always exist: the Creator. But if man doesn’t recognize who he is, then he won’t be able to recognize his Creator.

What is the most hidden thing in Creation? Hashem’s Name is never pronounced. Whenever the Name of Havayah is used in the Torah, we read it as “Adonoy.” The actual “I” of Hashem, even when it is written, is never read. And when we do read a name of Hashem, it is not written there. This is not only a fact about reading Torah. It a perspective to have on Creation, a perception of our soul.

There in inner kind of writing of our soul which cannot be read. If we could read it, we would be in the state of Moshiach’s times, which we are not in right now. When we all will be able to pronounce the Name of Havayah, Moshiach will come. Nowadays, only a few individuals are allowed to use the Name of Havayah. Our Avodah is for us to reach the Name of Havayah of Hashem, which we do not currently recognize.

We usually relate to Hashem with the fact that we must do the mitzvos He commanded us with. However, there is an inner aspect to our relationship towards Hashem which we start out being unaware of, and we must discover it. It is the fact that we are not just servants of our Master, but rather, our whole existence is connected with Him.

That is the difference between the lower name of Hashem, Adonoy, and the higher name of Hashem, which is Havayah. The lower name, Adonoy, represents how we must do the mitzvos, for He is our Master. The name of Adonoy implies that our relationship with Him is dependent on the actions we do. The higher name, Havayah, reflects that we are all integrated with Hashem, regardless of what we do or not, because the connection is intrinsic. “A Jew who sins is still a Jew.”

The point of havayah – our true existence, in which we are integrated with Hashem – is the point that is hidden away deep in the soul. When we do the mitzvos, it builds the outer layers of our soul, but it doesn’t build the point of havayah in the soul.

When a person performs a mitzvah, he is doing an action. The root of all action is the power of ratzon – the will. The will represents man’s nature to always be in movement; ratzon comes from the word ratz, to “run”, to move. If a person considers his ratzon to be the deepest part of himself, he identifies himself with the power of movement, of action. He is at the level of the Four Species, which move in all six directions of the world – but he hasn’t yet gotten to his own self. He hasn’t yet gotten to the “Sukkah” inside himself – to the “Yisrael” inside him, his true “I.”

With a poor sense of self-recognition, even a person sitting in the Sukkah doesn’t grasp what the concept of Sukkah is. Although it appears as if he’s reached the point of non-movement, because he’s sitting in the Sukkah – he’s only there physically, but he doesn’t see himself as being in the tzeila d’meheimenusa, the “shadow of faith” that the Sukkah is. He’s doing all the mitzvos for His Master, but he hasn’t yet reached emunah – the sukkah that is all about emunah, recognizing Hashem’s existence.

Thus, there are essentially two stages in our bond with Hashem: first we become His loyal servants by doing all his mitzvos. At a later stage in life, we must eventually enter the second, inner stage, which is to recognize Him with our emunah. These two stages are represented by two great events that our people went through: the exodus of Egypt and the Giving of the Torah. By the exodus, we were released from Pharoah’s servitude and now we became servants of Hashem. By Sinai, Hashem revealed Himself with the giving of the Torah, and now we reached a new level: we recognized Hashem.

When Hashem revealed Himself by the Torah, He did not reveal Himself with His lower name, Adonoy, but rather with His higher name, Havayah. This shows us that the Torah is essentially the higher name of Hashem, Havayah.

For this reason, we never really begin to learn the actual Torah, because we are not connected to Havayah. And surely, we never finish it, for that reason. “The Torah of Hashem is wholesome, it settles the soul.” The Baal Shem Tov said that the Torah is wholesome and perfect because no one has ever begun to learn it and complete it. What is the meaning of his statement? No one ever begun to learn the Torah?! The meaning is that the Torah throughout the generations until the end of time is not yet the actual Name of Hashem to us, and this is the deep reason why the Name of Hashem is not allowed to be pronounced.

When a person recognizes his real essence, he merits to truly learn the Torah – the essence of the Torah. Through his learning, he can then come to recognize Hashem – not just the actions and middos of Hashem, but an actual recognition of Hashem Himself, so to speak, in the same way that he recognizes his own essence.

Only a person who feels his own essence can come to feel the reality of Hashem. Of course, anyone will claim that he can feel himself as existing, not just a Jew, but any non-Jew as well, and even animals, can feel they exist. But as we explained, most people never arrive at true self-recognition, and they only are aware of the outer layers to their existence.

Summary

To summarize: If we want to define the purpose of Creation, the definition is clear. The purpose of Creation is to recognize the reality of Hashem. The way to get there is through self-recognition. The self is the point in a person which never ceases, for Hashem and Yisrael are one; just as Hashem is eternal, so is a soul of Yisrael eternal. If a person views himself as an entity that can cease, then in turn he views his bond with Hashem with the same superficial perspective.

The soul of a Jew is a “piece of G-d from above”, and therefore, one can come to recognize Hashem through the recognition of himself. A Jew is the only nation on this world which is capable of feeling the inner self and thereby sense the Creator with just as much clarity.

This is the lesson of Sukkos: we have two mitzvos – to sit in the Sukkah and to shake the Four Species. We have both of these mitzvos because we are meant to integrate both of the lessons they represent together. The Four Species represents how we must move to do all the mitzvos, the actions through which we serve our Master with. The mitzvos are the way for us to get through to our heart and reveal it. “The heart is pulled after the actions.”[4]

What is it that we must reveal from our heart? It is not limited to the great exalted feelings of love and fear of Hashem. It is not about becoming awe-struck from elation. It is about reaching our essence, our “I.” The point of doing all the mitzvos is so that we can use all these actions to reach our I” and reveal it. In this way, we integrate Adonoy with Havayah.

The “I” can be reached in several ways. There is way to reach it directly, but only the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur knew the secret of how to do it. The other way is the way which we generally take, and that is through doing all the mitzvos so that we can get through to our essence and recognize the Creator as a result. But when we do the mitzvos, the focus should not be on the actions, but rather on the goal, which is to come to our essence.

Reaching Our Point of Menuchah\Serenity

Understandably, the words here are very deep, but they are the secret about life.

All of us want grow higher and elevate ourselves. Yet, this is still a superficial approach. It’s superficial because life is not just about feeling more elated. Elation is still a kind of movement, and as we explained, movement is only the outer layer of our existence. For this reason, there is almost no one who reaches what he wants in life, because a person keeps evading his main goal, in spite of his many aspirations to grow and become more elated in spirituality.

There is a well-known parable that illustrates this message. A man dreams that there is buried treasure underneath the bridge of his town, while in reality, there is buried treasure sitting underneath his house all along.

The lesson we can learn from this is that even when a person seeks spirituality, he might very be well be running away from his real “treasure” all along. For example, if he thinks that Hashem is in Heaven, while he is merely on this lowly earth, then all he will know of is the mitzvos, and his entire life will be limited to performing superficial actions. The truth is that Hashem is found everywhere (Zohar III 225a) – He is found inside a person! Our Avodah is to uncover our true existence, and then we will find Hashem there.

Of course, it will require a lot of “movements” to get to that inner place in ourselves, but we must at least aspire to reach this point of serenity (menucha). When a person reaches menuchah in himself, Hashem is truly revealed, because menuchah represents Shabbos, the point of non-movement and a cessation from all labor. One who attains menuchah on this world can recognize the Creator, and he attains it no less than how all of us will eventually recognize Hashem in the future. But if someone never reaches the point of menuchah in himself, the “Shabbos” in himself – he will not come to the recognition of the One who created the world.

[1] See Tanya chapter 4, and Tzidkas Hatzaddik 263.

[2] Iyov 19: 26

[3] Yalkut Shimeoni: Shemos 20: 226

[4] Sefer HaChinuch, 16

Yom Kippur – Disconnecting from Sin

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of other Drashos on Yom Kippur

A Day of Soul With No Body

It is written, “For on this day you shall be forgiven and be purified.” Yom Kippur is the time of purity, in which Hashem purifies the Jewish people. The words of Rabbi Akiva are well-known: “Praiseworthy are the Jewish people – before Whom are they purified, and Who purifies them? Just as a mikveh purifies those who are impure, so does Hashem purify the Jewish people.”

Let us think of how our purification process is compared to that of a mikveh. In the sefarim hakedoshim, it is brought that one should immerse in a cold mikveh, because the words “mayim karim” (cold water) has the same gematria (numerical value in Hebrew letters) as the word “meis” – “corpse.” In other words, when a person immerses in a cold mikveh, he is considered to be like a dead person.

What is the gain in being considered like a dead person? Hashem doesn’t want us to die – He wants us to live. A dead person cannot serve Him and do mitzvos. So what is the gain in being considered like “dead” when one goes to a cold mikveh?

There are many meanings behind this concept, but we will focus on just one point, with the help of Hashem.

What, indeed, is death? When a person dies, does he stop existing? We all know: of course not. We are made up of a body and a soul; by death, the soul leaves the body, the body is buried and the soul rises to Heaven. So the whole concept of death is that the soul leaves the body.

If we think about it, this is what Yom Kippur is all about. We have a mitzvah on this day to fast, and our body is denied certain pleasures. We have to be like angels on this day – souls without a body. Only our body suffers from this, though – not our soul. The soul actually receives greater vitality on Yom Kippur (as the Arizal writes). Normally, we need to eat and drink physically in order to be alive, but on Yom Kippur, we receive vitality from above, and thus we do not need physical food or drink.

The Arizal would stay up all night on Yom Kippur. Simply speaking, this was because he didn’t want to take a chance of becoming impure at night (from nocturnal emissions). But the deeper reason behind his conduct was because Yom Kippur is a day in which we are angelic, and we don’t need sleep. Yom Kippur is a day of soul with no body.

On every Yom Tov, there is a mitzvah to eat. Although Yom Kippur is also a Yom Tov, we don’t eat, because it is a day of soul with no body. It is the only day of the year in which we live through our soul and not through our body. The rest of the Yomim Tovim involve mitzvos that have to do with our body.

It is also the only day of the year in which we resemble the dead. We wear white, and there are two reasons for this: the inner reason is because we are resembling the angels, and the external reason is because we want to remind ourselves of death, who are clothed in white shrouds. The truth is that these are not two separate reasons – they are really one and the same: a dead person is a soul with no body, just like an angel.

Let us stress the fact that we do not mean to remind ourselves of death in order to scare ourselves. Although there is a concept of holy fear, that is not our mission on Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah is actually scarier than Yom Kippur, because it is the day of judgment. The point of reminding ourselves of death on Yom Kippur is, because Yom Kippur is a day in which one is a soul without a body – resembling an angel.

The Purity Available Only On Yom Kippur

That is the clear definition of Yom Kippur, and now we must think into what our actual avodah is on this day. We mentioned before the custom to immerse in a cold mikveh before Yom Kippur. It seems that this is because when we immerse in cold water, we are considered dead, and thus we are purified. But on a deeper note, the death which a person must accept when he immerses in the mikveh is so that he can realize that he is really a soul, without a body. Hashem purifies us on Yom Kippur – when we consider ourselves to be like a soul with no body.

Our purity does not happen on Rosh Hashanah or on Sukkos. It does not happen on Pesach or on any other Yom Tov. We are purified only on Yom Kippur – the time in which we are a soul without a body.

The Lesson We Learn from Yom Kippur For The Rest of the Year
Read more Yom Kippur – Disconnecting from Sin