I’m Not on That Level

There are five words that really hamper our Avodas Hashem and they are: “I’m not on that level”. The first problem with that statement is that it’s true. We’re not on that level!

We’re certainly not on the level of Chassidus (Saintliness), always looking to go beyond what the halacha requires because we have an always present deep love and connection to Hashem. We’re not on the level of Nekiyus (Cleanliness), which involves meticulous observance of all mitzvos, all the time, including such tough ones as wasting time, getting angry and being careful in all our speech. We’re probably not even at the lower level of Zehirus (Watchfulness), being careful not to sin, since we’re probably not in the habit of always thinking before we act, nor reviewing our actions on a daily basis. If we were to honestly rate our overall performance, “I’m not on that level” is quite accurate.

The major problem with “I’m not on the level” is that it can be used as a justification to remain at our current level. Hashem wants us to continually advance in our observance. The Mesillas Yesharim makes it quite clear in the introduction that low levels of service are not acceptable. We need to continually up our game. That’s why we were created and it is a doable achievement.

Improving our Service of Hashem goes much further than obligation. A life driven by spirituality is the most fulfilling life possible because: 1) we are controlling and leveraging our bodily drives like eating and using them to stay healthy and have God commanded pleasure on Shabbos and Yom Tov, 2) we have the opportunity to connect to people in every interaction, 3) we can connect to God in all that we do and thereby fulfill our purpose in this world with our every action.

Yes, we’re not on that level. But whatever level we are on, we can take it to the next level and continually strive to live a life of more purpose, meaning, happiness and purposeful pleasure. We are quite fortunate that the Mesillas Yesharim speaks out everything mentioned here and he gives us an extremely practical playbook on how to keep on increasing our level.

The Biggest Problem in Judaism

What’s the biggest problem in Judaism. A lot of things come to mind, the Yeshiva System, the Shidduch System, the Chinuch System, the Left, the Right, the Middle, the Open, the Closed, the Leadership, the lack of Leadership, etc.

However, I think the biggest problem in Judaism is clearly stated in the pasuk in Devarim:
And now, Israel, what does Hashem ask of you, that you
1) fear Him, 2) walk in His ways, 3) love Him, 4) serve Him with all your heart and all your soul and 5) observe all the mitzvos.

That’s what’s expected of us!

On top of that we have an animal soul that’s impulsive, loves physical pleasure, and detests exertion. We have a yetzer hara that makes us ego-centric leading to selfishness, anger, envy and honor seeking. And we live in a world loaded with intellectual, emotional and physical distractions like politics, business, sports, shopping, gadgets, social media, and entertainment.

And even when we are able to overcome the physical, emotional and intellectual deterrents and create some connection to Hashem through fear, middos development, love, wholehearted service, and meticulous mitzvos observance – the majority of the payoff will not even be received in this world, but in the world to come.

This challenge is a tall order and it’s not really emphasized to FFB/BT children or BT adults, because it would just discourage them. So Yeshivos focus on the information and thought development of Torah study, and Kiruv and non-Yeshivish environments offers Torah as the best of all possible lifestyles. So it should be no surprise that many people want to move to a town where they can sit back a little and enjoy the Torah lifestyle.

That is the Biggest Problem in Judaism – a lot is expected of us and it’s really hard given our nature and environment. However, this is a problem that Hashem created. And if He created this problem, we know that He created a solution. We’ll take a look at the solution in a week or so.

Making Judaism Great Again

If I had to describe the presidential election in one word it would be “disillusioned”, which means to be disappointed in something that one discovers to be less good than one had believed. Many Americans are disillusioned with America. Diminishing economic opportunities coupled with an increasingly unstable world turned the “American Dream” into a fantasy for many. Donald Trump was a vote against the status quo and most people underestimated how disillusioned the America people actually are.

Many Jews are disillusioned with Judaism. The non-Orthodox are moving out in droves as they intermarry and retain little or no connection with Judaism. The Baalei Teshuva are disillusioned with the unfulfilled promises and second class citizenry in which they find themselves. The greater Orthodox community is disillusioned with the tuition-induced economic pressures, the under-performance of our Yeshivos, and the great difficulty in finding shidduchim for our children.

The solution to our disillusionment is much different then the American Electorate in that we don’t need a change in leadership – we need a change in mindset. We need to internalize the fact that the goal of Judaism is to create a deep connection to Hashem by learning Torah, performing mitzvos, improving our character traits, praying, and doing acts of kindness. Committing to this path with our friends and relatives will truly make Judaism Great Again for all of us.

Noach was a good man

Noach was a good man
a good man, a good man
Noach was a good man
….In his time
– A Cheder Song

Noach is described as a Tzaddik, but the first Rashi on the Parsha casts a shadow on his righteousness.

The major points against Noach are
– Rashi brings down the Chazal that says that perhaps only “in his generation” was he righteous, but in Avraham’s generation he wouldn’t have been righteous. The other opinion in the Chazal says that he was unquestioningly righteous
– There are suggestions that he didn’t rebuke others sufficiently
– There is an indication that he lacked emunah on whether the Flood actually would happen and only entered the Ark when the waters began

So what are we to make of Noach, why such contradictory messages?

Perhaps the Ramban gives us a clue when he describes Noach as completely righteous in judgment, meaning that he did not get involved in any of the negative acts of his generation. He did not violate any negative commands and we can assume he did the appropriate positive commands, which technically classifies Noach as a Tzaddik.

But there is much more to accomplish. A person has an obligation to positively influence those that he can. He must try to increase his levels of chesed. He needs to constantly strengthen his Emunah. A person has to increase the positive acts he does.

Perhaps that is the lesson of Noach. Yes, it’s extremely important not to damage by transgressing negative commandments, but it is also extremely import to build yourself and the world through the positive acts of chesed and increasing emunah. If you fail on those grounds you might technically be a tzaddik, but you are slightly deficient.

Rabbi Dessler in Michtav M’Eliyahu says the Noach was a complete Tzaddik but didn’t reach the level of Chassid (the Mesillas Yesharim type of Chassid).

I spoke to a local Rav and he said that Noach was an unqualified righteous person:
– For the “in his generation” question, he learns like the Chasam Sofer that if Noach was only at the same level in Avraham’s generation then he would have been not been considered righteous
– The Medrash is clear that Noach did give his generation rebuke
– The lack of emunah when he only went into the Ark when it started to rain, was that he didn’t believe totally that Hashem would not have mercy on world and forestall the flood.

Rabbi Nebenzhal has a good analysis of the above issue here.

As mentioned previously, Rabbi Rietti was kind enough to allow us to post the outline here, but you can purchase the entire outline of the Chumash for the low price of $11.95 for yourself and your family.

Noach
#6 Building Noach’s Ark
#7 The Flood
#8 Mt. Ararat
#9 Rainbow – Noach Drunk
#10 The Descendants of Shem, Cham & Yafet
#11 Tower of Bavel – 10 Generations of Noach

#6 Building Noach’s Ark
* Praise of Noach
* The Three Sons of Noach
* World corruption
* “Behold! I will destroy them utterly!”
* Build an ark
* Compartments
* 300 X 50 X 30 cubits
* Skylight – Slanted Roof – 3 Stories
* 1 Male – 1 Female of every animal – Store Food

#7 The Flood
* 7 pairs of kosher animals
* 2 pairs of non-kosher animals
* 7 pairs of birds
* Noach 600 years old when flood began (2nd month, 17th day)
* 40 days & 40 nights – 15 cubits above the highest mountain
* Total destruction
* 150 days

#8 Mt. Ararat
* 150 days till water receded
* 7th Month, 17th day, the Ark rested on Mt. Ararat
* 10th Month, 1st day mountain tops become visible
* Raven
* Dove #1, #2, #3
* 1st Tishrei Noach opened gate of Ark
* 2nd Month, 27th day, land was totally dry (exactly 365 days after the flood began).
* ‘Leave the Ark!’
Noach built an Altar
* G-d appeased & promises never to flood the earth again
* Four seasons

#9 Rainbow – Noach Drunk
* Blessing to Noach “Be fruitful and Multiply!”
* All living creatures will fear you
* You can eat meat but not flesh from living animal
* Violation of suicide
* Death penalty for murder
* Command to be fruitful and multiply
* G-d promises never to flood entire world again
* Rainbow is sign of this promise
* Noach planted a vineyard
* Drunk
* Canaan cursed: slave of slaves to his brothers
* Blessed Shem and Yafet
* Noach died 950

#10 The Descendants of Noach
* Descendants of Yafet and Cham (Nimrod grandson of Cham & 1st world despot)
* Descendents of Canaan
* Descendants of Shem

#11 Tower of Bavel – 10 Generations of Shem
* One Language
* The Tower
* HaShem scattered them
* 10 Generations of Shem
* 11th Gen. Shem 600
* 12th Gen. Arpachshad 438
* 13th Gen. Shelach 433
* 14th Gen. Ever 464
* 15th Gen. Peleg 239
* 16th Gen. Re’oo 239
* 17th Gen. Serug 230
* 18th Gen. Nachor 248
* 19th Gen. Terach 205 – Avram-Nachor-Haran
* Haran – Lot – Milka & Yiska (Sarai). Haran dies in Ur Kasdim
* Avram marries Sarai
* Nachor marries Milka
* 20th Gen. Avram
* Terach leaves Ur Kasdim with Avram, grandson Lot & Sarai
* Terach dies in Charan

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (Ramchal) From Derech Hashem.

The significance of Yom Kippur is that God set aside one day for Israel, when their repentance is readily accepted and their aveiros (sins) can easily be erased.

Kapora actually erases aveiros, which is way beyond what Selicha (forgiveness) and Mechila (pardon) accomplish. Yom Kippur is the one day set aside for this Kapora and the Ramchal points out that they can easily be erased on this day.

This rectifies all the spiritual damage caused by these aveiros, and removes the darkness that strengthened itself as a result of them.

Every time we do an aveira (sin) much spiritual damage is caused and darkness (which includes the concealment of G-d) is strengthened. But the Kapora of Yom Kippur corrects the spiritual damage and removes the resulting darkness resulting from our sins.

Individuals who do teshuva (repent) on this day can therefore return to the levels of holiness and closeness to God from which they were cast as a result of their sins, for it is on this day that a Light shines forth that can complete this entire concept.

To accomplish this erasing of Aveiros we need to do teshuva. Yom Kippur has a special Light (spiritual energy) which enables us to return to the level we were at before we did our Aveiros.

Rabbi Dessler points out that the Teshuva of Yom Kippur is of a different nature and is much more achievable than the Teshuva of any other day. In the Rambam’s Hichos Teshuva, the formulation for Teshuva for Yom Kippur is noticeably different from the formulation for every other day besides Yom Kippur. Perhaps the Ramchal is alluding to this difference when he said above that our aveiros “can easily be erased on this day”.

In order to receive this Light, Israel must keep all the commandments associated with this day.

To access this spiritual cleansing we need to do the mitzvos of the day.

This is particularly true of the fast, since this causes each individual to be greatly divorced from the physical and elevated, to some degree, toward the aspect of the melachim (angels).

The fast is a Torah level mitzvot as opposed to a Rabbinic enactment. By abstaining from our main daily physical activity, eating, our spiritual side is more pronounced and this increase in spiritual character moves us in the direction of the purer spiritual creations, like the melachim (angels).

Other details of this day depend on the particulars of this rectification.

It’s a good day to follow all the mitzvos to the best degree possible.

Elul is the Time to Start on the Little Things

At the beginning of Shaarei Teshuva (The Gates of Teshuva), Rabbeinu Yonah teaches that if we make our efforts in Teshuva, then Hashem will assist us in return, even to the extent of reaching the highest level of loving Him. But we have to make our efforts. Rabbi Welcher says that Elul is the time to start making efforts on the little things as we work up to dealing with some of our bigger issues.

Kavanna is a Big “Little Thing”

Where does kavanna fit in? On the one hand, we all know how difficult it is to daven a full Shomoneh Esrai with good kavanna, but on the other hand saying one brocha or doing one mitzvah with the proper kavanna is something that all of us can achieve. Being focused on Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh this year has shown me the importance of kavanna and awakened me to the fact they we can spend our whole lives involved in Torah, Mitzvos, Tefillah and Chesed, but if we are not focused on Hashem during our day to day lives, then we are not properly building our souls and achieving our purpose in this world and the next. The obvious place to start building is when we’re involved in Hashem focused activities like davening and mitzvos.

Kavanna during Mitzvos
There are three basic thoughts to have in mind before performing a mitzvah:
1) Hashem is the one who commanded this mitzvah;
2) I am the subject of that command; and
3) Through the act that I am about to perform, I am fulfilling Hashem’s command.
It’s that simple, the Commander (Hashem), the commanded (me), the fulfillment (the mitvah). So, perhaps we can focus ourselves before we do a mitzvah and have these three things in mind.

Kavanna during Prayer
Shacharis davening consists of four basic components, while Mincha and Maariv and brachos contain some subset of those components which are:
1) Thanking Hashem for the physical goodness He gives to us (Berachos/Korbanos)
2) Praising Hashem for His general awesomeness (Pesukei D’Zimra)
3) Intellectually accepting and appreciating the Kingship and Oneness of Hashem (Shema)
4) Standing before Hashem with spiritual awareness that He is the source of everything
Obviously there’s a lot to talk about here and I highly recommend Aryeh Kaplan’s Jewish Mediation as a primary source for understanding kavanna and prayer.

Kavanna during Shacharis
Let’s go through a typical Shacharis and pick some potential Kavanna points.
1) When putting on Tallis and Tefillin, have in mind the three points of Kavanna during mitzvos described above
2) When saying morning Brachos, be thankful that Hashem has given you the opportunity to say these Brochos
3) During Korbonos, say at least Parshas HaTamid and Ketores with extra focus concentrating on the simple meaning of the words
4) During Pesukei D’Zimra in Ashrei say this line with focus: Poseach Es YoDecha… – You open your hand and satisfy every living thing’s desires”. A basic understanding is that although Hashem runs the world through orderly natural laws (as symbolized by the aleph-beis structure of Ashrei), He is constantly active in running the world.
5) During Shema, before the first verse have in mind that you are accepting Hashem’s Kingship and oneship with the implication of following a Torah way of life. According to some you should have in mind that you would actually give up your life for Hashem, if necessary.
6) Before Shmoneh Esrai have in mind that you are about to stand before Hashem and pray to him, that He is awesome, and that we are relatively small compared to Him, the source of everything.

These are just some ideas. Certainly we can do one a week, or one a day, or possibly more. Whatever works for you, but let’s make the effort and earn the merit to grow closer to Hashem at this time.

Approaches to Judging Favorably

We’re in the midst of the Three Week period leading up to Tisha B’Av and the Avodah (work) of this period is on Bein Adam L’Chaveiro (improving relations between man and his fellow). Here are some short thoughts on how to judge favorably.

Focus on the Overall Good
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz in Sichos Mussar points out that the Pasuk in Koheles says “There is no Tzaddik who only does good and doesn’t sin”. He takes this a step further and points out that even a positive act has some bad in it, yet nonetheless we can judge the overall act as good. We should try to identify and focus on the positive aspects of the actions people perform and judge there overall acts as positive.

There’s a Part of You in Every Jew
Rabbi Moshe Cordervo in the Tomer Devora describes the level of soul conceptualized as the collective Jewish soul. Every person has a piece of that soul so in reality there is a spiritual piece of every Jew in every other Jew. The mitzvah to love your fellow Jew is really self-love, for one’s fellow Jew is oneself on the collective soul level. As each of us contains a piece of each other’s soul, when my fellow Jew is better off so am I. This framework can help us love our fellow Jew.

Other Peoples Mistakes are More Accidental
In his Iggeres, the Ramban writes “Consider everyone as greater than yourself. If he is wise or rich, you should give him respect. If he is poor and you are richer — or wiser — than he, consider yourself to be more guilty than he, and that he is more worthy than you, since when he sins it is through error, while yours is deliberate and you should know better!” Less observant Jews don’t understand the obligations of the Torah to the degree we do, so relatively, their sins/mistakes are by accident, while ours are done on purpose. Knowing this should help us humble ourselves and judge others more favorably.

The Essence of All People is Good
In the third Bilvavi sefer, the author book points out that our souls are pure and our bodies are just garments. Identifying with our pure souls as opposed to our stained garments is at the root of true self-esteem and enables us to work on removing our stains from a healthy perspective. In the same way we can view ourselves from this aspect of purity, so to we can view our fellow Jews from this perspective. At their root, every Jew has a pure good soul and that is their essence, even when their acts or personalities are negative.

Dealing With The World’s Inherent Conflicts

Korach is the parsha of Machlokes or conflict. The Gemora in Sanhedrin 110a says:
The Torah states: “Moshe rose and went to Dasan and Aviram” – Reish Lakish said: From here we learn that one should not persist in a quarrel. For Rav said: Whoever persists in a quarrel violates a prohibition as it is stated: “He should not be like Korach and his Assembly”.

Hashem created the world with conflict. The most fundamental conflict is between our physical side which includes our desires and ego, taiva and gaiva, and our spiritual side, our soul, composed of our nefesh, ruach, and neshama. Dr. Dovid Lieberman phrases this conflict as “the body wants to do what feels good, the ego wants to do what looks good, and the soul wants to do what is good”.

Torah is the antidote for the man vs himself conflict – as it teaches us how to properly integrate all our actions, emotions and thoughts with our soul.

When Hashem created us as Tzelem Elokim he gave us the ability to create our own spiritual reality and become a creator like He is a Creator. This creates a conflict between ourselves as creators and Hashem as Creator.

We address the man vs God conflict through prayer in which we regularly acknowledge that all our accomplishments are dependent on Hashem.

The third conflict is man vs man. In the Mesillas Yesharim Chapter 11 on Nekiyus, the Ramchal discusses the big four negative character traits of pride, anger, envy and honor – which are all rooted in gaiva. The Ramchal says “a person would be able to overcome his desire for wealth and the other pleasures and still be pressed by the desire for honor, for he cannot endure seeing himself as inferior to his friends”.

The antidote for the man vs man conflict is Gemilas Chasadim. When we give to another person we connect to them and we no longer view our relationship from the ego perspective of superiority and inferiority, which is at the root of the big bad four.

One final helpful piece of advice from Rabbi Itamar Schwartz author of the Bilvavi and the Da Es Atzmecha seforim. He says that we need to change our perspective from a body with a soul – to a soul clothed with a body – which takes mental work, given that we experience the world primarily through our bodies. The nature of spiritual souls is to connect whereas the body and ego cause desire, division and sadness.

We can’t eliminate the world’s inherent conflicts, but we can lessen their divisive effects and work on the connection generating properties of our spiritual soul-oriented world.

The Three Keys To Jewish Happiness – Connection, Connection, Connection


The Improbable Happiness of Israelis

The WSJ ran an article yesterday titled “The Improbable Happiness of Israelis”, which pointed out that Israelis rank 11th of 158 countries in the United Nations’s World Happiness Index, and 5th out of the 36 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries on the OECD’s Life Satisfaction Index—ahead of the U.S., the U.K. and France. The author, Avinoam Bar Yosef, asks how can this be given that Israelis live in a hostile and volatile neighborhood, engaged in an endless conflict with the Palestinians and under the threat of nuclear annihilation by Iran.


The Nationality, Culture and Tradition of Israelis

Mr. Bar Yosef posits: “The explanation probably lies in indicators not considered in standard surveys. For instance, a new study by my organization, the Jewish People Policy Institute, looked at pluralism in Israel and found that 83% of Israel’s Jewish citizens consider their nationality “significant” to their identity. Eighty percent mention that Jewish culture is also “significant.” More than two-thirds (69%) mention Jewish tradition as important. Strong families and long friendships stretching back to army service as young adults, or even to childhood, also foster a sense of well-being. All of these factors bolster the Jewish state’s raison d’être.”


Connecting Within Ourselves, To Hashem, and To Others

I would like to suggest a different explanation of Jewish Happiness from a Torah perspective. Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the popular Bilvavi and Da Es seforim, points out that our purpose in this world is rooted in three types of connection: connection between our body and soul, connection between ourselves and Hashem, and connection between ourselves and other people.


The World Stands on Connection Via Torah, Service, and Acts of Kindness

The Mishna in Avos (1:2) says the world stands on three things, Torah, Service of Hashem, and Acts of Kindness. The Nesivos Shalom says that the world refered to in the Mishna is our personal world which we build each and every day. Torah provides us with the concepts and mitzvos that enable us to use the material world in a spiritual way – which connects or physical bodies to our spiritual soul. Service of Hashem is accomplished through prayer which connects us to Hashem on a daily basis. Acts of Kindness, both large and small, connect us to our family, friends and community.


Happiness is the Result of Completeness

The Maharal in his commentary on Avos (6:1) says that happiness flows from completeness, just as grief is the result of loss and deficiency. When we are connected within ourselves, to Hashem, and to other people, we are more complete and the happiness flows. Happiness is not the goal of Judaism, but when we accomplish our purpose through the pursuit of three types of connection, happiness is the result. If we are not feeling the resulting happiness, then we are not pursuing the connections properly.

May we continue to pursue our connections so that we can soon witness the day when Hashem is One and His Name is One in the eyes and hearts of the entire world.

R’ Noah Weinberg’s Lakewood Seminar

Download the 6 part mp3 series from R’ Noah Weinberg’s Lakewood Seminar.

Kiruv Training Seminar by Rabbi Noah Weinberg zt”l

This 6-talk series was presented to the advanced rabbinical students of Lakewood Yeshiva, New Jersey. The sessions focus on the full array of issues raised by today’s questioning youth. This is probably Rabbi Weinberg’s most comprehensive explanation of the principles of kiruv – and is considered his most brilliant performance.

Guide to the Seder and The Five Minute Seder

The Beyond BT Guide to the Seder contains all the steps of the seder along with some commentary and halachic instructions.

A few years ago I edited the above guide and compiled a Five Minute Seder for a non-observant friend and his family. Five minutes may be stretching it, but it’s pretty bare bones for those who have trouble going through the whole thing.

And here’s the One Minute explanation if you’re really pressed for time.

The Events of the Exodus
The process of the Exodus began when our forefather Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, and his family settled in Egypt as the honored guests of the Pharaoh at that time. The process continued through the Jewish enslavement by the Egyptians; the 10 nature-defying plagues prophesized by Moshe and activated by G-d over a period of 12 months; the subsequent release of the approximately 3 million Jews to freedom after the plague of the death of the first born; the splitting of the Red Sea 7 days after their release; and the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai 7 weeks after their release.

The Centrality of the Exodus
The centrality of the Exodus in Judaism is predicated on the fact that the Jewish people were freed and separated as a unique nation through the clear actions of G-d Himself. Besides the physical freedom achieved, G-d chose us to be the world’s spiritual leaders by giving us the mitzvos of the Torah at Mount Sinai The mitzvos free us from a purely animal-like physical existence, to one in which we can elevate all our actions to be spiritual and G-d connected. Passover is a time where we commemorate the Exodus and renew our spiritual focus.

The Seder
The Seder with its focus on the telling of the story enable us to experientially reconnect with the slavery and freedom of the Exodus and express our appreciation to G-d for our redemption and selection as His chosen people. The salt water in which the green vegetable is dipped and the bitter herbs are associated with our bondage. The four cups of wine and the festival meal help us relive our freedom.

The Holiday of Matzah
The Matzah is the central component of both the Seder and the 8 days of Passover. Matzah, consisting of just flour and water was our no frills food when we were slaves in Egypt. It’s also a symbol of our freedom because we hastily left Egypt without time to bake bread.

On a spiritual level, the leaven in bread makes it more digestible and flavorous. This is appropriate for the rest of the year when our main challenge is to integrate the physical into the spiritual. On Passover, we eat only Matzah and abstain from the physically oriented leaven. This allows us to keep spiritually focused as we recharge our spiritual mission and focus during the holiday of Passover.

Understanding the Structure of the Haggadah

According to the Malbim (although there is a dispute as to whether it really is the Malbim) the structure of the narrative portion of the Haggadah is based on the verse in the Torah from which the obligation to tell the story is derived:

And you shall relate to your child on that day, saying “It is because of this that Hashem acted for me when I came forth out of Egypt.” (Shemos (Exodus) 13:8)

This source verse is broken up into six parts corresponding to the six sections of the story in the Haggadah.
— And you shall relate to your child
— on that day
— saying
— It is because of this
— Hashem acted for me
— when I came forth out of Egypt.

“And you shall relate to your child…”
The first eight paragraphs correspond to this verse and teach us about this obligation to tell the story
— “We were enslaved unto Pharaoh and G-d freed us”– tells us we should relate this to our children who would also still be enslaved had G-d not taken us out.
— “It once happened that Rabbi Eliezar..” –shows that our greatest sages told the story, since the main function is to recount it for our children.
— “Rabbi Elazar, son of Azaryah, said…” –shows the duty to do so at all times.
— “Praised be the Ever-Present, praised be He…” –shows how every type of child is to be instructed at the Seder.
— “What does the wise son say…” –shows how to teach the wise son
— “What does the wicked son say…” –shows how to teach the wicked son
— “What does the naive son say….” –shows how to teach the naive son
— “And regarding the one who does not know how to ask a question…” –shows how to teach the son who can’t ask a question

–“on that Day…”
The next paragraph tells us when the obligation to tell the story applies
— “One might think that the obligation to talk…” –explains when the special duty applies.

–“saying…”
The next paragraphs contain the actual saying of the story of the Exodus
— “In the beginning our fathers were worshippers of idols…” –shows the deeper roots of the exile and the Exodus as the way to spiritual redemption.
— “Blessed is he who keeps His promise…” –shows that G-d kept His promise to Abraham that we will be enslaved and redeemed
— “It has stood firm…in every generation there are those who rise against us..” –shows that G-d continually redeems us
— “Go and ascertain what Lavan the Aramite intended to do…” –describes the beginning of the Exodus when Jacob went down to Egypt
— “And he went down…And he sojourned there…With few people…And he became there a nation…” –Great, mighty…And formidable…describes how we became a great nation in Egypt
— “And the Egyptians made evil of us…” –And the tormented us…And laid hard labor upon us…describes how the Egyptians enslaved us
— “And we cried out unto G-d… And G-d heard us…And He saw our distress… And our travail… And our oppression…” — describes how G-d heard our pleas
— “And G-d took us out of Egypt…With a strong hand…And with and outstretched arm…And with great terror…And with signs…And with wonders…” –describes how G-d redeemed us
— “Blood, and fire and smoke…An alternative explanation…These are the ten plagues…Rabbi Yosi the Galiliean says…Rabbi Eliezer says…Rabbi Akiva says…” –describes the miracles and wonders G-d did for us during the redemption
— ‘How indebted are we…How multiple, then is our debt to G-d…” –describes additional accounts of G-d’s benevolence which were not yet mentioned

“It is because of this…”
can be read this is because of.… Rabban Gamliel reads it this way… this refers to Pesach, Matzah and Maror
— “Rabban Gamliel used to say…” –explains the concrete Mitzvos ordained for the Seder: Pesach, Matzah and Maror.
— Pesach… Matzah…Maror…explains the reason for these Mitzvos

“Hashem acted for me…”
The next paragraphs describe how we should consider it as if Hashem took us out of Egypt
— “In every generation, one is obliged to regard himself…” –emphasizes that, in celebrating the Seder, we must see ourselves as having gone out from Egypt.

“when I came forth out of Egypt.”
The next paragraphs are the introduction and recitation of Hallel songs of praise, similar to the songs of praise that were recited when we left Egypt.
–“Therefore it is our duty to thank, praise…” — since Hashem took us out from Egypt, we praise Hashem for his kindness ending the Haggadah with a Bracha.
–“Praise G-d…” — When Israel went out of Egypt…is the beginning of Hallel which describe the going out from Egypt

The 60 Second Guide to Purim

The Essence of Purim
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato writes in “The Way of G-d”:
“The significance of Chanukah and Purim is to bring forth the particular Light that shone at the time of their original miracles as a result of the rectification that they accomplished.

…Purim involved Israel being saved from destruction during the Babylonian exile. As a result of this they reconfirmed their acceptance of the Torah, this time taking it upon themselves forever. Our Sages teach us that “they accepted the Torah once again in the days of Achashverosh”.

The Particular Light That Shone at That Time
The physical world functions through spiritual input from G-d. This spiritual input has a constant component known as “nature” as well as an infrequent component which occurs as needed in the course of history. The infrequent input, which we call “miracle”, illuminates the understanding that even when G-d’s presence is not obvious, He’s still running the show.

During the Babylonian Exile
Megillas Esther, the story of Purim, which we read at night and during the day, takes place about 70 years after the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and exiled the Jews from Israel. It records the roots of modern anti-Semitism as Haman, the prime Minister of Persia, convinces King Achashverosh to decree a holocaust, the destruction of the entire Jewish People.

A Hidden Miracle Saves Us From Destruction
The Megillah records how the Jewish leaders, Mordechai and his cousin Esther, work to prevent the holocaust and the Jewish People turn towards G-d in communal prayer and fasting. A series of seeming coincidences facilitates the victory of Mordechai and Esther over Haman and the Jews avoid destruction. G-d’s name is not recorded in the entire Megillah, teaching us that He’s always the guiding force, even when His presence is not apparent.

Reconfirming The Acceptance of The Torah
Although the Jewish People accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai after the Exodus from Egypt, the obvious presence of G-d at that time indicates that the acceptance was based on fear and awe. The re-acceptance of the Torah during the time of Purim, when G-d’s presence was hidden, remedied the original fear-based acceptance. This re-acceptance, accompanied by a commitment of intense study and observance of Torah, gives the Jewish People the spiritual fortitude to stay connected to G-d during the exile that we continue to face until this very day.

Celebrating Through Jewish Unity
In addition to hearing the Megillah, there are three other mitzvos of Purim: having a joyous meal, giving charity to at least two poor people and giving a gift of food to at least one person. These mitzvos focus us on helping others and uniting with our fellow Jews. Unity is a necessity as we continue our mission of leading the world to a spiritually focused existence through a constant awareness and connection to G-d in our thought, speech and actions.

Hishtadlus and Parshas HaMon

We are taught that although Hashem runs the world we have to do our Hishtadlus (our own efforts). What that is in any situation differs for each person and is dependent on a person’s bitachon (trust) and his or her personality type. It’s hard to get the hishtadlus factor exactly right, no too much and not too little. The key for us believing Jews is to remember that even after our hishtadlus, everything is in Hashem’s hands. This is something we have to continually work on to internalize.

The halachic works suggest that we read Parshas Hamon everyday to internalize this message. (Tur 1; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 1:5; Aruch Hashulchan 1:22; Shulchan Aruch HaRav 1:9). The Mishna Berurah says “And the parsha of the Manna is such that he will believe that all his livelihood comes through special Divine direction (hashgacha pratis)”.

From my observations, most people are lucky to get through all the davening, let alone recite extras, like Parshas HaMon. However, it just so happens that Rebbe Mendel of Riminov said that saying Parshas HaMon on Tuesday of Parshas B’Shalach is a Segulah for Parnossa. And guest what – today is that Tuesday.

Here’s a link to the Art Scroll Interlinear translation of Parshas Hamon.

10 Years of Beyond BT – The State of the Union

We started Beyond BT in December 2005 to offer friendship, support and advice to those who have committed to a Torah lifestyle. The main issues BTs face are still here, and that should be expected. Hashem wants us to grow, so he sends us challenges. Everybody I know, FFB and BT alike, has them. With that caveat, let’s take a quick look at the current State of the Union of the BT.

Demise of Blogs
Changes in Social Media, specifically the rise of Facebook, have lead to the decline in the use of blogs and their longer lasting discussions. That’s unfortunate, because there’s a lot to be gained from connecting and learning from other Torah Observant Jews in similar situations. On the plus side, it takes much less time to maintain BBT, so we’re planning to keep it going with a mix of posts and comments from the past along with new posts.

Integration
I may be wrong about this, but from my vantage point it seems like integration has become less of a problem for the typical BT. Perhaps this can be attributed to the growth of Torah communities in America and the ability to accommodate more diversity. This does not mean that BTs will find it easy in all communities and I would still recommend Far Rockaway, Passaic, Kew Gardens Hills and Baltimore as great places for a BT to live.

Shidduchim
The Shidduch situation has become more difficult. I think the main reason is that there are a lot more Torah-centered and growth oriented girls than there are boys out there. Perhaps, that’s because the requirements, in terms of becoming less ego-centric, learning Torah and davening, coupled with the need for a good livelihood and man’s greater tendency towards distraction, make it more difficult for men than women to be growth oriented and Torah-centered.

Chinuch
Choosing a High School for boys who are not natural learners has become harder. This is an unintended consequence of the continual raising of the bar of Torah learning, which is a good thing for the community. My advice is to make sure that you choose a high school that does not damage the self-esteem of the B-class learner, and provide supplemental learning opportunities (specifically tutors) if you have a B-class student.

Plateauing
Keeping that growth candle burning is as hard as it ever was. There are no shortcuts and it’s not a communal issue. Chazal have given us the prescription, and it comes down to Torah, Avodah and Gemillas Chasdim/Middos. It’s hard to work on all those things, but they truly are requirements of being higher-level functioning Torah Observant Jews.

Kiruv
Organized Kiruv in America has declined noticeably in the last 10 years. I think that’s primarily because we’re still using the same playbook from 30 years ago–marketing “Torah as a better lifestyle”. After the successful harvesting of the low lying BT fruit, this message in no longer effective, although it’s certainly still true. I think the next stage of bringing Jews closer to Hashem and His Torah will require that we, as a community, BT and FFB together, markedly and noticeably improve our Torah-observant game. The ball is truly in our court.

Here’s to the next 10 years of Beyond BT. Lechaim!

Our Divinely Approved Chanukah Service

In response to the question “Why Chanukah”, the Talmud relates the story of one jug of oil miraculously lasting for eight nights. In our extra prayers on Chanukah, we mention the underdog military victory of the Greeks. A military victory would probably not be enough of a reason to institute a holiday for all generations. But, neither would a miracle, as the 24 books of the Bible and the Talmud are replete with miracles for which on holiday was instituted. So perhaps there’s another approach to the question “Why Chanukah?”.

There are two major spiritual periods in history. In the first period, God’s presence was palpable and the Talmud relates that there were over one million Jewish prophets. In addition, the Written Torah (the 24 books of the bible) were received via prophecy during that period. The presence and belief in a God was strong, and living with an awareness of God was normative.

However, man was created with a strong ego and drive for self-sufficiency, and many people rebelled against serving God. This rebellion took the form of idol worship–the serving of other gods. The first spiritual period ended with the destruction of the First Temple (587 BCE). The rebellion against God had reached such a high level that He withdrew His presence from the world to a great degree. This withdrawal resulted in the gradual loss of prophecy, and since God’s presence was no longer palpable, the desire for idol worship also diminished.

When the Temple was rebuilt, there were no prophets, no open miracles and the service was at a much lower level. It was during this time that Greek philosophy and scientific exploration flourished. Increased intellectualism led to a heightened focus on the physical world and a lessened focus on the spiritual world and service to God. The Greeks sought to eliminate spiritual practice altogether and, eventually, the sacrificial service in the Second Temple was discontinued.

The Maccabees, who were Kohanim, were willing to give up their lives to restore spiritual service to the world. Since connecting to God through spiritual service is our purpose, they surmised that a life without service is not a life worth living. After many years, they eventually defeated the much larger and better equipped Greek army. The first spiritual act they performed was the lighting of the Menorah. The Menorah is a symbol of using our intellect to access the light of God, and the Maccabees desired to perform this inaugural service in the best way possible.

The Hebrew word for miracle is Nes which means “a sign”. A miracle is a clear sign that there is a force beyond nature, namely Hashem. Hashem wanted to give a clear sign that He fully approved of the Maccabees efforts and desire to serve Hashem in the absence of the Temple. The Nes of the oil was the sign of approval and Chazal instituted the Chanukah Service of lighting the menorah, accompanied by song and praise to Hashem, should take place on a yearly basis.

When we light the Menorah on Chanukah, it is the service of the Kohanim in the Temple that should come to mind. We are showing our dedication to serve God and fulfill our purpose in this world. Hashem has given His divine stamp of approval of this service. After Chanukah, we can keep in mind that the morning davening is also a replacement for the Divine Service in the Temple. Even after the destruction of the Temple, we still have powerful ways to serve Hashem. We should use these opportunities to improve our Divine Service with the desire that Hashem should restore the ultimate services of the Beis HaMikdash soon in our days.

Why We Needed an Open Miracle on Chanukah

Chanukah Brings Forth the Light of Man’s Connection to G-d through Torah

In Derech Hashem, the Ramchal states:

“The significance of Chanukah and Purim is to bring forth the particular light that shone at the time of their original miracles as a result of the rectification they accomplished.

On Chanukah, the Kohanim prevailed over the wicked Hellenists, who wanted to disuade Israel from serving G-d. These Kohanim overcame them, and thus brought all Israel back to devotion to G-d. This especially involved the concept of the Menorah, since the Accusers were against what it stood for. The Kohanim, however, were able to restore everything to its rightful state.”

The Greeks Wanted to Eliminate the Spiritual Realm

Man relates in four ascending realms, the physical, the emotional, the intellectual and the spiritual. The Greeks advanced the intellectual realm but they did not recognize a spiritual realm beyond that. They tried to eliminate all spiritual practices involving G-d, because they contradicted their man-centered orientation. The Greeks sought natural explanations for everything in an attempt to explain away G-d. Although the Greeks recognized the Torah as a great work of wisdom, and even had it translated into Greek, they wanted to sever the Torah from its source, G-d.

The Macabees Restored Our Connection to Torah to Its Full Light

The Macabees clearly understood that the Jewish people (and the world) could not exist without man connecting to G-d through the Torah. The Macabbes defeated the great Greek army even though they were greatly outnumbered. They subsequently rededicated the temple and lit the Menorah which symbolizes man’s connection to G-d through Torah. The miracle of the oil burning for eight days occurred in the course of this rededication.

The War Was Also a Miracle

The Maharal of Prague teaches: “The main reason that the days of Chanukah were instituted was to celebrate the victory over the Greeks. However, so that it would not seem that the victory was due only to might and heroism, rather than to Divine Providence, the miracle was denoted by the lighting of the Menorah, to show that it was all by a miracle, the war as well …”

Nature, Hidden Miracles and Revealed Miracles

According to the Ramban and others, the essential difference between nature and miracle is that natural events occur frequently while miracles are unexpected. Miracles can be divided into two categories: those where Divine control is openly revealed; and those where Divine control is hidden and the miracle is made to appear as a natural occurrence. But, clearly, Hashem is behind nature, hidden miracles and open miracles.

If we know that everything emanates from G-d, what is the significance of the Maharal’s explanation of the re-categorizing the Macabee victory as a hidden miracle as opposed to a natural event?

The Need for Intellectual and Emotional Integration

Although we know that everything is from G-d, if that knowledge remains solely in the intellectual realm, it doesn’t transform who we are. The regularity of nature can obscure the fact that G-d’s hand is behind everything. To affect who we are, intellectual knowledge has to been transformed into emotional intelligence, because the heart/emotion controls our actions and the actions of man are integral to defining him. The integrated person uses his intellect to focus his emotions to perform appropriate actions.

Necessity of the Miracle

Seeing G-d’s hand in the open miracle of the oil and the hidden miracle of the military victory enables us to effect the spiritual changes necessary to reconnect to G-d through the Torah. This clear spiritual signal enables us to transform our intellectual knowledge of G-d to the emotional and, subsequently, to action in the service of G-d. After the Greeks had tried to disconnect the intellectual from the spiritual, G-d’s spiritual signal enabled us to re-integrate all four realms of man.

Miracles Lead to Praise and Thanks

In the normal Modim prayer of Shomoneh Esrai, we thank G-d every day for the miracles in nature that He performs as He sustains us each day. When G-d performs a greater miracle, a hidden miracle, greater praise and thanks is required. When we reclassify the miracle of the victory as a hidden miracle, we are obligated to praise and thank Hashem in a more recognizable fashion and thus we have the Al HaNissim addition to Modim on Chanukah as well as the recital of Hallel. This praise and thanks should be on a higher emotional level than normal and should prompt us to focus our actions more acutely on Torah and mitzvos.

In Summary

– Man has four ascending realms: physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual
– The Greeks wanted to eliminate the spiritual realm and it’s accessibility through Torah
– The Macabees realized the impossibility of a world with Torah
– They won the war and G-d performed an open miracle of the oil burning
– The open miracle clarified that the military victory was a hidden miracle and not a natural act
– Although we know nature is also G-d directed, its regularity can obscure G-d’s presence
– Intellectual knowledge must affect the heart so that it can direct the actions of man
– The open miracle revealed the hidden miracle enabling us to reconnect the spiritual leading to action
– Miracles require higher levels of thanks and praises which is why we have the extra Tefillos of Hallel and Hodaah on Chanukah

Originally Posted 12/18/2009

Messages From My Grandson’s Bris

The remnants from the Shalom Zucher were scattered around the dining room during Shabbos lunch as my son-in-law casually remarked: “We would like you to be the Sandek at the Bris”. My heart filled with joy and I could only muster a three letter interjection in response: “Wow”. After gaining some composure, I thanked my children and said it would be a tremendous honor.

The next day I contacted two friends who were previously Sandekim and asked them how they prepared. They told me what their research had uncovered, including a trip to the mikvah. At the mikvah, a third friend shared some additional insights. Most of the ideas shared are applicable for any person attending any bris, so I wanted to share them with you.

The first idea is that the Bris is considered the spiritual birth of the boy baby. It is the first spiritual act in which the baby is involved and we should pray that the baby will continually pursue their purpose, which is a life focused and filled with spirituality. It is also an opportunity for us to commit more fully to a spiritually focused life.

During the actual Bris, the cries of the baby and the Mesiras Nefesh involved activates Hashem’s attributes of loving-kindness and mercy. This creates an opportune time to daven to Hashem for our special needs and the needs of our friends and family.

Finally, the Bris is a sign that focusing on the spiritual over the physical is especially necessary in those areas which have tremendous physical pull. We can use the occasion to re-energize our own committment in these challenging areas.

Being the Sandek at my grandson’s bris was a tremendous event, but focusing on the ideas behind every bris helps make our life’s spiritual purpose a more central part of our lives.

Cross posted on Shul Politics.

Using The Power of Yom Kippur

The human experience is quite conflicted. As Dr. David Lieberman says “Our body wants to feel good, our ego wants to look good, and our soul wants to do good.”

On Yom Kippur we set aside the desires of the body by not eating, drinking, bathing or having marital relationships.
We tone down the demands of the ego by confessing our faults and mistakes to G-d and by making restitution and asking for forgiveness from any people we may have harmed financially or emotionally.

When we eliminate the demands of our body and ego we can discover who we really are: amazing spiritual people who want to control our drives, love other people, and live with the awareness of our purposeful Creator who has given us the spiritual tools to perfect ourselves and the world.

May we all use the fasting, confessions and the power of the day to strengthen our spiritual foundations, so we can organize our lives and our world around loving, giving and fulfilling our purpose.