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.

One Minute Guide to Rosh Hashanah

The foundation of Judaism is that all existence is dependent on G-d who created, supervises and influences both the spiritual and physical realms of the universe.

In addition G-d created man who was given the tools and instructions to perfect and unify the physical world and connect it back to its G-dly source.

Every year, on Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the creation of man, G-d evaluates our progress in our mission both individually and collectively and judges what resources and events are necessary to help bring the world closer to its perfection.

Although the judgment is partially based on our past year’s performance, a major determinant is our commitment for the upcoming year.

To what degree are we committed to helping others and increasing our spiritual capabilities and to what degree will we succumb to the always present pull of ego-centricity and self-centered materialism.

The Shofar which was present at the giving of the Torah and will be sounded when we have succeeded in our mission, gives tribute today to the King of Kings.

The observance of the mitzvah of Shofar testifies that we are still committed to G-d’s plan and enables the spiritual judicial system to dismiss our mistakes for mitigating circumstances.

May we all increase our spiritual commitments and thereby merit to be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

A Good Time to Think About G-d

A friend of mine was in a Mussar Vaad and was instructed by the leader to think about G-d a number of times through out the day. He confessed that it was very difficult and a member of the Vaad was texting reminders throughout the day.

I faced a similar problem a number of years ago after having been inspired by the sefer Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh to think about G-d throughout the day. I set up a few recurring reminders in MS Outlook. After a week or two the reminders were quickly dismissed without much thinking about G-d.

So we’re faced with a problem. We need to think about G-d to have a relationship, but how and when? Perhaps when we mention His name during the 100 blessings we recite each day. However, as many of us will admit, we often find it difficult to focus when we’re davening and saying brachos. We’re a distracted nation.

But we need to start somewhere. I think it makes sense to start with the most important time to think about G-d, and that’s when we say the first verse of the Shema: “Listen, Israel: Hashem Is Our God, Hashem Is One”.

The fifth chapter of the Shulchan Aruch says that when we say the four letter name of Hashem, like in the Shema, we should have in mind that Hashem exists, always existed, always will exist, and He is the Master of Everything.

Based on experience, I will warn you that thinking about Hashem twice a day during the Shema is not a simple matter. It will require some effort to do it regularly.

Teshuva is a tremendous opportunity to strengthen our relationship with Hashem. Thinking about Hashem when reciting the Shema is a good step on the road to that stronger relationship.

What I Like About You

I attended the wedding of a close friend’s son and it’s an occasion to take note and be thankful to Hashem for the wonderful communities that we live in and the wonderful Simchos we share. The Internet can often be a negative place and I think it’s important that we keep our primary focus on the wonderful things in our day to day lives.

So here are 10 things I like about my community and their Simchos:

1. You’re spiritually oriented.

2. You enjoy the food served at Simchos.

3. You can have deep meaningful conversations.

4. You’re not materialistic.

5. You know how to drink, without ever getting drunk.

6. You have great respect for Rabbeim.

7. You’re a pleasure to spend time with.

8. You care about people.

9. You have a great sense of humor.

10. You care about the community.

Keys to BT Success from a Shabbos in Monsey

I had the pleasure of spending some time this Shabbos with two Beyond BT contributors. Rabbi Label Lam was my host and he davens on Shabbos morning at a Shtiebel where he and Yaakov Astor alternate giving the weekly Shabbos drasha. Yaakov’s drasha this week included recounting some fascinating Torah lessons he taught on his recent trip as a tour guide through Poland.

The area of Monsey that they live in observes a high level of halachic stringency, which can presents challenges for a BT. Yet, both Yaakov and Rabbi Lam have thrived there. I think there are three factors which contribute to their success.

The first factor is that they have accepted the norms of the community. It’s easy to find fault in any community, and our ego makes it easy to fall into that trap. However, publicly following the norms shows respect for the residents, which makes a lot of sense if you want to live and grow there. Most communities allow for some room for deviations from the norm in the privacy of your home.

The second is that they connect with their neighbors. Connecting to others is a major determinant of happiness and success. The demographics in Monsey have become increasingly Chassidish due to a large migration of Yeshivish families to Lakewood. Although neither Yaakov nor Rabbi Lam are Chassidish, they do connect with the commonalities they have with their neighbors. They pray together in the same Shuls, they learn Torah, and they are focused on connecting to Hashem. These are major commonalities and a strong basis for friendship and connection.

Thirdly, they are continually growing in Torah, Avodah and Gemilas Chassadim. This is perhaps the most important factor. In my many years as an observer of BTs, continued growth in these three area is the number one determinant for success – by far.

These keys to BT Success are in fact universal and are highly recommended, wherever you may reside.

Sheryl Sandberg Illustrates New Directions in Kiruv

On June 3rd, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, posted her thoughts and feelings after the accidental death of her husband Dave Goldberg. Here are the first two paragraphs:

Today is the end of sheloshim for my beloved husband—the first thirty days. Judaism calls for a period of intense mourning known as shiva that lasts seven days after a loved one is buried. After shiva, most normal activities can be resumed, but it is the end of sheloshim that marks the completion of religious mourning for a spouse.

A childhood friend of mine who is now a rabbi recently told me that the most powerful one-line prayer he has ever read is: “Let me not die while I am still alive.” I would have never understood that prayer before losing Dave. Now I do.

Please read the entire post as a merit for Sheryl’s late husband.

I think that Sheryl’s post highlights the new face of kiruv going forward. Non religious people are very interested in learning about God and the Torah’s view on purpose, meaning and happiness within the ordinary and extraordinary occurrences in our lives. However if they feel like they are being proselytized to a fully Torah Observant way of life, they will probably back away and lose some interest in learning.

As Rabbi Avraham Edelstein wrote in December 2012

“Kiruv is the communicate of timeless Torah through contemporary vessels and idioms. As such, the kiruv movement is always in a certain state of transition. We are dealing with a moving target, a rapidly changing generation, and almost daily technological innovations. Woe betides the kiruv organization that thinks that it has found “the formula.” Today’s successes are tomorrow’s failures. Methodologies, goals and targeted age-groups need to be constantly reassessed and often reformulated. The kiruv world by its very nature is engaged in transformation. For us, creative breakthroughs are a part of our basic avodas Hashem. Given the enormous implications of this movement in world history, I remain with boundless optimism that we will make the breakthroughs that are necessary to take us to the next level and beyond.”

Don’t Grow it Alone

We had a wonderful young BT couple over for lunch recently and we were discussing two of the main attractions to Torah observance, the values of the community and the search for truth that a life of Torah entails. However I think I would add a third pillar and that is the pursuit of continual growth found among so many members of the Torah Observant community.

Growth is hard, whether it be emotional growth, intellectual growth or spiritual growth. It is made harder by the fact that a growth oriented person never rests on his or her laurels. There is always another level. You may have successfully worked long and hard on dealing with anger, envy and honor but there’s still another step you can take, and another step after that.

Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford has helped put a growth Mindset on the agenda of the secular world, but it is just a pebble’s ripple when compared to wealth of insights, strategies and nuances that the sea of Torah contains. But it’s not easy. We each have our own individual challenges in we have to find and apply the right prescriptions for our own unique situations day in and day out.

Thankfully the Torah observant world is full of people working on growing. In my little corner of the Torah Observant world in Kew Gardens Hills, I’m constantly surrounded by FFBs and BTs who understand that life is growth and pursue it with a passion. We have our faults. We have our disagreements. We have our struggles. But I’m so thankful to the local and worldwide Torah Community where we Don’t Grow it Alone.

The 60 Second Guide to Shavuos

The foundation of Judaism is that there is a G-d, who is completely spiritual. G-d created both a physical and spiritual world. The centerpiece of creation is man who is composed of a physical body and a spiritual soul. Our collective purpose is to transform the world into a unified G-d connected spiritual world.

To accomplish this spiritual transformation G-d transmitted the necessary knowledge and tools in the form of the Torah. The Torah informs us how to turn physical acts into G-d connected spiritual acts. Every positive act we perform can be G-d connected, but the ones with the greatest connection power are the mitzvos G-d explicitly specified in the Torah.

The holiday of Shavuos is the day that G-d spiritually transmitted the Torah. The entire Jewish nation experienced this transmission and Moses experienced it to a much greater degree. The day is filled with a spiritual energy through which we can deepen our commitment to connect to G-d through the learning of Torah. There is also a mitzvah to eat 2 special meals and in doing so we transform the physical act of eating into a spiritual G-d connected activity.

This was written to try to capture the essence of Shavuos to all types of Jews in 60 seconds.

If you think it’s useful please send it to your friends and family.

The first incarnation of this guide can be found here.

NAJDS and the Search for Meaningful Judaism

I spent the last two days at the National Association of Jewish Day Schools Conference in Philadelphia along with 1,000 other people who value their Judaism. I went as a vendor for my InfoGrasp School Management system as we prepare for the mobile version of our software.

The conferences hosts Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox schools, with the majority being Modern Orthodox. Financial sustainability is a major topic since the main value proposition of these schools is that they provide a sizable Judaism component in their education. However their cost is significantly higher than the good public school alternatives and their education quality is generally lower than the comparably-priced secular private schools. It seems that many have resigned themselves to stagnant and declining enrollments and trying to meet their budgets within those constraints.

Another theme was how to make Judaism meaningful for the students within the school. With a heavy secular studies focus, the Jewish studies take somewhat of a back seat because they are not so relevant to secular success in college and the working world. In addition the practice of Judaism by many of the students is not so rigorous.

As I returned to my regular minyan, I was reminded that the search for meaningful Judaism affects many of us. There are people who put on a second pair of Rabbeinu Tam tefillin, while glancing out their cell phones between the transition. There are Mussar Vaads working on thinking about Hashem randomly though out their work day, while admitting that they don’t have adequate focus during the 100 berachos a day that they’re already performing. And we can all find examples within our own practices.

Judaism promises an amazing life (and afterlife), if we follow its Torah and mitzvos prescription. However, as the Path of the Just clearly spells out, distraction and laziness prevents us from maximizing its benefit. I suggested to a philanthropist at one of the meals, that if we who value our Judaism take it to a higher level, those who currently place less value on it will take notice. She didn’t disagree.

Spiritual Growth Through Drinking on Purim

The Obligation to Drink on Purim
The Shulchan Orach states (Orach Chaim 695:2): “A person is required to become intoxicated on Purim until he does not know the difference between the cursing of Haman and the blessing of Mordechai.”

Drinking to Strengthen Our Emunah in Hashem
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz in his Servant of Hashem piece in his classic Sichos Mussar connects this requirement of intoxication to the essence of Purim and its comparison in holiness to Yom Kippur. He brings down a few cases where great people like Moshe, King Shaul and King Chizkiyahu were punished because they had incorrectly used their reasoning and logic to misinterpret Hashem’s directives.

Rabbi Shmuelevitz points out that although we need to use our intellectual facilities to serve G-d, the ultimate goal is to serve Hashem out of a simple faith that He is our Creator, Ruler and Ultimate Benefactor. The essence of Purim is that once a year, we become intoxicated and strip away the all traces of reasoning and serve Hashem with our faith alone.

Drinking to Strengthen Our Connection to People
Rabbi Herschel Welcher points out that Purim is a day of unity with its Mitzvos of giving charity to the poor, giving gifts to our friends and sharing a festive meal with family and friends. Drinking brings down inhibitions and allows us to more easily connect deeply with others in line with the goal of unity.

Rabbi Welcher often tells the story of former friends who had become estranged through a dispute. It was only on Purim when they were both intoxicated that they were able to bury the hatchet, embrace and restore their friendship. Many of us can also connect a little better when we are intoxicated.

Drinking to Enhance Our Self Esteem
I am reading a great book by Dr. Dovid Lieberman titled “How Free Will Works”. Dr. Lieberman, a Torah-centered psychologist, defines self-esteem as recognizing our inherent worth, feeling deserving of happiness and good fortune, and knowing that we are precious in the eyes of Hashem. It also includes recognizing both our strengths and our weaknesses and the desire to improve.

What often gets in our way is our ego. Dr. Lieberman says our body wants to feel good, our ego wants to look good, and our soul wants to do good. The more we listen to our soul and do what is good (Torah, Mitzvos and Chesed) the more we will enhance our self-esteem and increase our happiness. Our ego and the desire to look good clouds our perspective, and leads us to perform and rationalize incorrect behaviors.

Although Dr. Lieberman does not discuss drinking on Purim, I think that embracing the mitzvah of drinking on Purim allows us to disable our looking-good mechanizations and enjoy being our inherently good selves and our loving relationships with Hashem, our family and our friends.

Drinking Responsibly
When asked about drinking on Purim, Rabbi Welcher would always tell us that he strongly discouraged his high school students from drinking. The persistent among us, asked, “But what about us Baalei Batim?”. He told us that we have to teach our children how to drink responsibly.

A number of years ago we made the seudah with just our family and I stated that my goal was to teach responsible drinking. I was the only one drinking and I took out a bottle of Vodka. (Rabbi Welcher proves from a Rashi that hard liquor is a suitable drink on a Purim). I proceeded to drink shots and get intoxicated. I gave everybody long blessings and acted within the boundaries of propriety. My kids said, “You’re not drunk!”. To which I replied, “If you were inside my head, you wouldn’t say that”.

Except for a few noted exceptions, every mitzvah has its measure and that includes drinking on Purim. Somewhere between 0 and 12 shots (or glasses of wine) is the right amount. Each person can keep in mind the above mentioned goals and stop at the point where he can bring those goals to fruition.

The Grand Unification Theory of Kiruv

I’ve previously written about three models of Kiruv:

– The Chabad like Point Kiruv, where the focus is on performance of single mitzvos.
– The widely practiced Circle Kiruv, where the focus is to move people inside the Circle of Torah Observance.
– The growth oriented Line Kiruv, where the focus is to get the individual to take the next step in getting closer to Hashem.

What unifies all these models is the fundamental unit of the mitzvah. The Mitzvah is the focal point of the Grand Unification Theory of Kiruv. Point Kiruv says to just do them. Circle Kiruv says do them all. And Line Kiruv says to do them better.

If you look deeper, you’ll see that all three models believe that a person should aspire to continually grow in the performance of all the mitzvos. The difference is the emphasis and therefore the guidance they provide to newcomers to Torah Observant Judaism.

Regardless of the approach, bringing getting closer to Hashem is what Torah Observance is all about and the Kiruv organizations are extremely dedicated to helping other achieve this goal.

On Tuesday, February 17th there is a crowdfunding effort to raise $1 million in one day for kiruv.

Click on this link to find out how you can participate in this great project.

Hishtadlus, False Blizzards and Parshas HaMon

One good thing about the predictions of the record snow storms is that I was extremely happy that we only got 12 inches. Another good thing was the public humility of Gary Szatkowski, meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service in Mt. Holly, New Jersey, who apologized on Twitter (@GarySzatkowski) for the snow totals being cut back. “My deepest apologies to many key decision makers and so many members of the general public,” Szatkowski tweeted. “You made a lot of tough decisions expecting us to get it right, and we didn’t. Once again, I’m sorry.”

We can second guess the city officials for their road and transit closures, but like us, they have to do their hishtadlus to protect the citizens. And like us, 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, and many of us are home because of the snow, so we probably have a few minutes to say it.

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

Internalizing The Three Most Important Jewish Principles

The Rambam, R’ Yosef Albo and the Ramchal in Derech Hashem all focus on three key Jewish Principles.
1) Hashem who always has and always will exist, created the universe
2) Hashem communicates to man via prophecy, and through prophecy He gave us the Torah
3) Hashem supervises and guides the world based on our actions

Although it’s relatively easy to understand the above principles at some level intellectually, the real goal is to internalize and live with them on a constant basis.

The Ramban in his classic commentary at the end of Parsha Bo, connects our performance of mitzvos to these three principles:

When one does a simple mitzvah like mezuzah and thinks about its importance, he has already acknowledged G-d’s creation of the world, G-d’s knowledge and supervision of the world’s affairs, the truth of prophecy and all the foundations of Torah.

From a practical point of view, we can use every brocha on a mitzvah, such as the brochas on washing our hands, learning Torah, Tallis and Tefillin to internalize the three principles:

Before saying the brocha and performing the mitzvah be aware:

a) Hashem, the creator of the Universe is the One who commanded this mitzvah through the prophecy of the Torah

b) Hashem commanded and wants me to fulfill this mitzvah, and through this act I am fulfilling Hashem’s will

When we say the brocha we can have in mind:

Baruch Atah Hashem – Hashem, who always has and always will exist, is the creator of the universe

Elokeinu Melech HaOlam – Hashem is the Ultimate Authority and guiding force of the world

Asher Kid’shanu B’mitzvosav – Hashem separated, elevated and sanctified me, as part of the Jewish people, with His Torah instructions to fulfill the commandments

V’tzivanu Al – And He particularly commanded me with this particular mitzvos, which I am about to perform

The process of internalization involves performing the mitzvos with these thoughts again and again. Through this repeated process, the three most important Jewish Principles will become ingrained.

This is what spiritual growth is about. Try it for yourself. You won’t regret it.

Introduction to Learning Gemora

In July 2009, my Partners in Torah chavrusa wanted to learn Gemora. We started learning the second perek of Bava Metzia about returning lost objects. We used Art Scroll for the basic flow and translation and then we discussed in depth on each step of the Gemora. It caused a good deal of brain pain and he enjoyed it.

Here is the outline I prepared when we got started.

1) Purpose of Torah Study
– Understand the practical law and the commandments
– Seeking the essence, relationships and connections of all things, in every area of life, in this world and beyond.

2) Components (See Appendix)
– Written Torah – 24 Books – Torah (5), Prophets (8), Writings (11)
– Oral Torah – Mishna, Talmud
– Commentaries, Halachic Works

3) Chain of Transmission
– Moshe, Joshua, Elders, Prophets (Described in the 24 books of the Written Torah)
– Great Assembly, (transition from Written to Oral Torah)
– Tannaim (literally the “repeaters”) are the sages of the Mishnah (70–200)
– Amoraim (literally the “sayers”) are the sages of the Gemara (200–500)
– Savoraim (literally the “reasoners”) are the classical Persian rabbis (500–600)
– Geonim (literally the “prides” or “geniuses”) are the rabbis of Sura and Pumbeditha, in Babylonia (650–1050)
– Rishonim (literally the “firsts”) are the rabbis of the early medieval period (1050–1550) preceding the Shulchan Aruch
– Acharonim (literally the “lasts”) are the rabbis of 1550 to the present.

4) Two Elements of Talmudic Study
– Understanding the steps of the discussion as described in the Elements
– Trying to discern new insights and a deeper understanding of the principles (Havana)

5) Seven Elements in the Steps of Talmudic Discussions
– Statement – an idea is expressed
– Question – requesting for information
– Answer – responding to a question
– Contradiction – disproving a statement or idea and totally refuting it
– Proof – presenting evidence from which the truth of a statement or idea is apparent
– Difficulty – pointing out something untrue or unpleasing about a statement or idea
– Resolution – turning aside a difficulty against a statement or idea

6) Understanding the Steps
– A Gemora statement consists of a subject and a predicate, which is information about the subject. For example, Women are obligated in the mitzvah of kiddush. Women is the subject and “obligated in the mitzvah of kiddush” is the predicate”.
– The Gemora often chooses unusual cases to highlight the boundaries of the subjects and predicates and the principles involved.
– Rashi’s commentary helps us understand the cases and the steps.

7) Deeper Understanding
– Torah learning often involves reconciling contradictions within the Gemora.
– Tosfos’ commentary points out additional contradictions from other Gemoras and reconciles contradictions.
– This process of reconciling contradictions gives us a deeper understanding of the principles.

Originally published July, 2009
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Appendix (Mostly from Wikipedia)
Read more Introduction to Learning Gemora

Growing in Eretz Yisroel

This post is courtesy of the winter storm of 2015 currently hitting Yerushalyaim. I’m currently visiting my son who is learning here. I was staying in Yerushalyaim and my flight is scheduled to leave Thursday, but a predicted 4-8 inch snow accumulation with accompanying road closures made me change my plans and head to snow-less Ramat Beis Shemesh for the last 2 days of my trip and an easier passageway to the airport.

Fortunately, we know many people here in Ramat Beis Shemesh and I am staying with David Levin, a friend for many years from my Shul in Kew Gardens Hills. I asked him what has had the biggest impact on his spiritual growth here. He mentioned three things: the extra mitzvos that are observed like terumah, maaser and shmitta; the variety of Jewish people you come across on a daily basis; and the learning opportunities. However, like all areas growth, it only happens if you apply yourself, growth *doesn’t* just happen.

With regard to the mitzvos there are many opportunities to learn and observe them. The more you apply yourself to them the more of a growth impact they will have.

There are over six million Jews in Eretz Yisroel and wherever you live, you will be exposed to a larger variety than in the states. However, if create self-imposed barriers between yourself and other groups you will not be able to take advantage of giving and learning from this wide variety.

There is much more Torah learning going on in Eretz Yisroel than in the states. More Daf Yomi, more chavrusas more shiruim, more Yeshivos. But as we all know, Torah only has an impact if you learn it. Having more shiurim in your neighborhood doesn’t really benefit you, unless you attend them.

Eretz Yisroel is the best place in the world to increase our emunah of Hashem through Torah, Avodah and Gemilas Chasidim. G-d willing more and more of us will be able to take advantage of that as years go on. Those of us still living in Chutz L’Aretz still have many growth opportunities on a daily basis in all areas if we take advantage of them.

Our Chanukah Opportunity

Chanukah is about light, specifically the light that brings awareness, connection and closeness to Hashem. On the first day of creation, that light burned bright, but it was diminished when the first man, Adam, introduced more physicality into human consciousness with his transgression.

The light was diminished further after the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash when direct communication from Hashem through prophecy ended. Concurrent with the loss of prophecy, the Greeks shifted mankind’s focus away from Hashem and the spirtual, towards the understanding of nature and the physical. This caused further diminishment of Hashem’s light. A counterbalance to this concealment was the blossoming of the Oral Torah and the introduction of Brachos.

Our opportunity is for each of us to utilize the power of learning Torah, performing mitzvos, and davening and saying Brachos to increase the awareness of Hashem in the world. In our rushed day to day life, we often lose sight of the fact that every spiritual act we perform brings Hashem’s light into the world. The more we focus on that fact, the more light we begin.

So when we light the candles we should recognized that we are addressing Hashem, the source of all blessing who always was, is and will be. He created and is the ultimate authority of the spiritual and physical worlds. The physical world conceals Hashem, but he has set aside the Jewish people to sanctify the world through the performance of the mitzvos, and specifically during the next 8 nights through the lighting of the Menorah and the recognition that Hashem is the force behind everything that occurs in this world.

Make every candle count. A Freilichen Chanukah!

Here are some shiurim to help you fuel your flames.

Rabbi Welcher on Miracles of Chanukah

Rabbi Welcher on the Hashkafa of Chanukah

R’ Moshe Schwerd – Chanukah: Bringing The Light To The World And To Yourself

R’ Moshe Schwerd on Chanukah’s Message of Inspiration

Rabbi Tatz – Many Shiurim on Chanukah

Aish – Many Shiurim on Chanukah