Being Thankful for Thanksgiving

When it comes to Thanksgiving, some families within Torah observant Jewry tend to have the attitude: “I’m thankful the whole year. I say Modeh Ani every single morning. Why should I celebrate Thanksgiving?”

The truth is that when I was growning up, as a third generation American with marginal Synagogue affiliation, my family ‘did’ thanksgiving, but it was never a big deal. When I got married, things changed (for the better).

As a married couple, Thanksgiving became a big deal. My wife is a first generation American and her family is totally into Thanksgiving. When we spend it with family or friends we go all out. Turkey, sweet potatoes, stuffing, my homemade “I can’t believe the’re pareve” mashed potatoes, and apple pie.

For Baalei Teshuva, Thanksgiving is almost the best of both worlds-the secular and the holy. It provides an opportunity to be with family and friends whom we might not normally have a meal with,a meal without the pressure of: zimiros, accidentally turning off of lights, constant explaining of why we make tea or coffee differently on Shabbos, etc.

Over the years I’ve listened to my co-workers complain about the pressure of making such a lavish meal, “All that hard work just to eat food for one hour”. For the Torah observant Jew, Thanksgiving is a piece of cake. We make “lavish meals” every weekend.

I often tell friends of mine that I love Thanksgiving because we can eat like Shabbos, but still turn off the lights and watch TV (although I’m not a big sports fan, so I usually don’t watch the big games).

Over the past few years, due to geographical logistics we haven’t spent Thanksgiving with my wife’s family, but this year, Baruch Hashem, we will. There will be kashrus challenges, like a limited supply of kosher pots, pans, and utensils but they are letting us make the entire meal kosher. Armed with the ability to kasher an oven and several phone numbers of various Rabbis on speed dial, we’re looking forward to it. The zechus (merit) of the family members hosting our ‘kosher Thanksgiving’ is something they might never understand, but my wife and I do. The memories that my kids will have of spending Thanksgiving with family is something very dear to us. I am very thankful.

Originally Published on 11/11/2006

“Just One Shabbos” Project

How many times have I sung the song, “Just One Shabbos” With the monumental Shabbos Project starting soon and involving over 212 cities and 33 countries, the magnitude of this grassroots project is pretty amazing. While I have heard some people brush off the whole event in various communities, I think the success will speak for itself.

While the primary goal of the Shabbos Project is to get all Jews to keep on traditional Shabbos together, I think we’ll end up seeing positive results on a few different levels. There is incredible achdus potential in having groups of woman get together to bake challah in various communities. Aside from the obvious excitement of strangers all getting together and being involved in a mitzvah, there’s an added bonus for those in the observant community. Often in larger communities both men and women can spend years in their own neighborhood and not even see others who live a block or two away. Throw in the idea of multiple frum communities in a city or in suburbs getting together in one place to make challah and it’s got to be mind blowing. Seeing the larger observant and not-yet observant community gives us view of bigger communal picture.

For those hosing guests who might have a limited halachic and hashkafic background, the Shabbos Project reinforces the idea that with a little common sense, it’s possible for the non-kiruv professional to reach out to others. For many, myself included, spending time at a Shabbos table and with a family was a major factor in my journey to becoming observant. So what if all of your kids don’t stay at the table for the whole seduah or that an argument erupts over who gets the last piece of gefilta fish. It doesn’t really matter because the idea is that the kedusha of Shabbos trumps everything.

Finally, the shul experience could be intense, in a good way. Inviting those less familiar with the structure of a traditional Orthodox services opens up many doors. I’m guessing some shuls will have specialized explanatory services and modified programs for kids and adults. Even without these, hosts will bring their guests to their local house of worship and will have the opportunity to not only help their guests follow along, but answer questions that might come up. And if you don’t know the answer to the question (s), then you have an opportunity to bring your guest over to someone after shul and see if you can get an answers. This is a powerful lesson because it shows the host that you take their question seriously and that we have a “chain of command” when it comes to finding answers. Another interesting thing about having guests in a minyan is that the “regular” daveners tend to be aware that they are being observed and we all behave better when we know we’re being watched.

While I think this Shabbos is going to be historical, the truth is that I’m more excited for what happens after the event. Will we still feel a sense of achdus as we keep Shabbos next week? Will there be follow up in communities? I’m hoping I will take away a lesson on the importance and excitement of the preparations lead me into Shabbos. Any Shabbos is a project, not simply spending 25 hours on auto-pilot.

Living with Regrets

I happen to enjoy and appreciate that fluid flow of online information. A friend (as in, I had meet him years ago and then we were ‘friends” online, and I actually met him recently over Sukkos) recently posted a link on Facebook to an article published in July of 2013 in the New York Times. The article contained the full text from a commencement speech at Syracuse University given by George Saunders. I highly suggest you read it since there are a number of lessons related to chessed. You can read it here. I read it, thought about it, and forwarded it to a few people, and now trying to write about one of several things I gleaned from it.

Saunders’ theme was based on the age old question of, “Looking back, what to you regret?” In the article he gets very specific about something he regrets from his past (really, you should read it). That question about things I regret started creeping its way into my thoughts. I know, must of us probably don’t think about regret until Elul or Tishrei. I’m right there with you. The question pushed me to think about two specific and related things, my relationship with my father a”h and with my own kids. It is not easy to write some of this, as it is uber-autobiographical, but I hope it may be useful to other growth oriented people.

My father was niftar in November of 2009. He was always, Baruch Hashem, supportive of my gradual move from “traditional” Jew to Orthodox Jew. Since 2006 we would speak at least 4-6 times a week, about things in general, no seriously deep discussions or vulnerable moments. Our relationship was warm, but it lacked emotion at times (mostly from my end). On his last trip to see us my wife who knew that I and my father both wanted more out of relationship decided to sit us all down at the table and we talked. We laughed. We listened. We explained. We cried. In 45 minutes we pretty much answered questions, healed wounds, and gained insight into a 38 year old relationship I had with my father. Our relationship blossomed and I have my wife to thank for this. That relationship screeched to a halt 3 months when he was diagnosed with pneumonia on top of battling leukemia. So, the regret related to my father is one of lost time, time when he was alive. We both spent years not being as emotionally connected as we could have. I often find myself telling friends to let their parents know that they are loved, not only by saying it, but showing it.

Regret number two. I know that I am not alone in this, even though most people won’t admit it. As an observant Jew I often find myself losing patience with my family. Sometimes to the point that I feel like any self-control, any middos management, or learning about kas (anger) and salvonus (patience) is totally thrown out the window. In the heat of the moment, when I look at my kids and only see the negative in them I am not thinking about the mitzvos of chessed (kindness), V’ahavta L’rei-acha k’mocha (loving your friend as you love yourself), or the concept of B’tzelem Elokeim (being created in God’s image). It is something I regret. It pushes my family away from me, which down the line might result in my own kids having a less than stellar relationship with me. Truth be told, for the past 2 weeks (prior to even reading the above referenced article) I have been going out of my way to point out to them positive things they do and the traits excel in.

So, when all is said and written, I am left with two regrets (I have several more, seriously). One I can do nothing about and one that, with Hashem’s help, I can put an end to. As cliché as this is, when you finish reading this, find a piece of paper and ask yourself, “Am I Living with Regrets?” It might be the start of something extremely powerful.

The Dreidel of Life

This article is cross-posted at Oy!Chicago.

Just like the notion that there are two sides to every story, there are four sides to every dreidel. Over the years I have found myself associating the sides of that little dreidel (made out of recycled plastics) with memories of the past and the present along with thoughts about identity and perseverance

Let’s face it – playing dreidel is probably the closest thing to ancient kosher gambling. It takes skill and savvy, and that little kiss that you blow onto the dreidel cupped in your hands can make all the difference between a gimmel (getting all the pot) and a nun (getting nothing). I was enamored with the official game and would play it all the time in my Hebrew School days. My friends and I would have contests to see whose dreidel would spin the longest (I think my record was 45 seconds). Around fifth or sixth grade the game became pretty lame, but I was back to the dreidel circuit during my college years, though that’s a whole other story.

My kids (ages 14, 11, 7) are big fans of this seasonal game of chance. Although they have mastered the art of the upside-down spin, it’s the access to parent-sanctioned candy that keeps them playing the game year after year. In fact, they will keep playing it through the winter and into the spring. I’m guessing it’s the chocolate coins that keeps them playing and not the feeling of being historically connected to our ancestors who played the game when Greek soldiers would pass by.

I think the dreidel is one of the best Jewish symbols ever. Its size and function impart valuable lessons. I identify and navigate through many different social (and social media) circles during the day. A dreidel is small enough that if I were to put it in my pocket for a day, I think it would remind me that there’s another circle that I’m intrinsically part of.

No matter how many times we spin the dreidel it will always fall down on one of four sides. The outcomes are often this way in life. Sometimes we gain everything we want and sometimes we gain nothing. Sometimes we have to compromise and give up our half of what we want and sometimes we all have to pitch in a little of what we have for the greater good. Regardless of what side out dreidel lands on, we can always pick up the dreidel – and ourselves – so that we can continue trying to win the game.

Sacrificing for Our Children – Creating Our Future

I have seen the future of Orthodox Judaism. It is a future not fueled or defined by either a stringent or a lackadaisical approach to halacha or by the type of shul where one davens. Those are, of course, important aspects of our Yiddishkeit, but I see something different that paves the way for our future.

The future of Orthodoxy lies in the hands of the parents and families who make conscious choices and exhibit mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, on behalf of their children.

It is often said that today’s generation has it much easier than previous generations with regard to maintaining an observant lifestyle. We have kosher restaurants, plenty of food with kosher certification, many choices for fashionable yet modest clothing, easy availability of sefarim, online divrei Torah – even Daf Yomi on an iPad.

I admit that we do have it easier, but there are also different challenges that today’s parents face. As this generation’s teens and young adults grow up and eventually become parents themselves, I think it is key that they understand some of the lengths to which their parents went to for them.

For example, there are many parents who choose free or low budget “staycation” options for their family not because they can’t afford something better but because they feel any “extra” money should be earmarked for tzedakah. This is a powerful life lesson for all of us.

What about the parents who look past social stigma and put their teenagers in substance abuse rehabilitation programs? These programs can put an additional strain on an already tight budget. Somehow, though, such parents figure out a way to make it happen because the alternative is unthinkable.

Recently I met a mother who canceled subscriptions to several magazines she had read for years because she realized the articles, pictures, and advertisements were not what she wanted her children exposed to. This has made a clear, tangible, and positive impression on those she is close with.

I know a mother and father who, instead of putting their children in a local public school, both walked away from successful and established careers and moved their family halfway across America to a community that offered yeshiva high school options. How many of us would be willing to do that?

I will never forget the parent who had a limited budget for a bar mitzvah and sold some of her jewelry in order to help pay for her son’s simcha. To part with sentimental and irreplaceable keepsakes must not have been easy, but when it comes to one’s kids, one does whatever it takes.

None of this is done for accolades or to be singled out at a shul tribute dinner. Acts of mesiras nefesh need not be grandiose and life altering. Every little thing we do has an impact. The parents who make sacrifices for their children are investing in and raising the future of Orthodox Judaism.

First published in a Letter to the Editor, from the Jewish Press, Oct 16, 2013

An Open Letter to Teachers before School Starts

Dear Rabbi and Morah,

Hi and thank you for taking on the challenge of teaching my child this year. I am entrusting you with a precious gift that Hashem gave given my family and I know that you will do your best to help my child grow and reach his/her potential. I know that your classroom will probably be overcrowded this fall and that you have probably only had about 3 days of the entire summer not involved with school or your summer job.

I want you to know that you are appreciated. You have dedicated yourself to a system designed by Yehoshua ben Gamla that was meant to help our community’s children grow in their learning. I know that you feel your job is never done. I know that behind any trip to the grocery store, Target, a walk in the park on Shabbos, or minyan lurks the shadow of an impromptu parent-teacher conference. You have taken on the responsibility of children other than your own and this shows how big your heart really is.

I also want you to realized that my child, like most, is an individual. He might not learn the same as the other kids. She might not be as social as the other children. He might feel that that he is always picked last for sports during recess. She might love to draw. He might be the one that says, “Stop it!”, when the others are picking on someone and you are out of the room. She might give her snacks to another girl, who only brings a sandwich for lunch.

As an educator, I know that you value the positive influence you can have on my child. As a parent, I value the time and effort you put into your work. Many schools stress the importance of a partnership between teachers and parents. If we both have the goal of helping my child become the best person they can be, then we are bound for success.

Warmly,
Neil Harris

Filters and Upgrades

Rabbi Moshe Weinbeger, of Congregation AishKodesh in Woodmere, NY recently gave shiur on an essay of Rav Kook’s titled “Al pnimiushaTorah” and spent a few minutes discussing the issue of the internet and filters. One of the many things that Rav Weinberger mentioned which I found to be meaningful was that while filters are extremely important in addressing the information we can access on the internet, filters do not address the person who is using the internet. You can have, in his words, the biggest filter in the world for the internet, but if a person has a tayvah (urge) for something, using a filter will not change that urge. He offers the example of someone hiding the candy jar at home. If an adult hides it, then the child and the adult will still have that desire for the candy. Rabbi Weinberger’s view is that have to address the person, not just the use of the internet and start educating people from an early age about the pneminus (inner essence) of the person, of the innate Kedushah (holiness) the each of us possess and the greatness within.

Rav Weinberger says in the shiur, “People would like to install Yiras Shamayim. You can’t do that, you can’t install Yiras Shamayaim, that’s the only problem. You can install a filter, but the person is the same person sitting down to the computer.” When dealing with a computer and a web browser, we can install a filter. A person needs to change his behavior.

My own take on what I heard from his shiur was that there needs to be more of a focus on the positive within the person. I have to upgrade myself and how I think and a feel as a Torah Jew and how I relate to Hashem. I have to focus on the greatness within, which is what the concept of Gadlus Ha’Adam is all about. I have to find the greatness within myself (this idea can be found in both Chassidic and Mussar writings). Changing how I see myself is only part of the upgrade. It is probably just as important, in my mind, how I see others. When speaking with my children, do I focus on the negative or accentuate the positive? Do I try to reveal and teach my children about the greatness within themselves? Do I view my wife as a neshamah or a person? It’s way easier to write these questions than have to actually address them in real non-electronic life.

I believe that Rav Weinberger is correct, we all want that magical quick-fix, we want the Yiras Shamayim app installed and not have to put in the effort to grow. Anyone who is growth-oriented knows that isn’t how it works. RavY itzchok Blazer (one of the main disciples of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter) writes that Yiras Shamayim encompasses the worry and discontent that that one feels, “lest he transgress and not fulfill one of the Divine commandments or not perform the mitzvah according to specification” (Kochvei Ohr 8, from Rabbi Zvi Miller’s translation). We have to understand the gift and responsibility of being created by Hashem and, while filters are great for helping us steer clear of problematic territory, we really have to work diligently and change who we are and how we think.

High School Life

Recently we had two freshman boys join us for Shabbos lunch. They attend are both “out of towners” who attend a boy’s yeshiva in the area. I listened to my 6th grade son ask them questions about dorm life, the daily schedule, what’s expected of them with school work, and what they do in their free time. It got to thinking about my own experiences in public high school.

Aside from the duel curriculum, the school life of my children, is pretty much the same as what I went through from kindergarten through middle school. It dawned on me, during this Shabbos lunch, that my children’s high school experiences will be radically different than what I went through.

My high school had multiple cliques and sub-cultures and plenty of sporting and extra-curricular activities to join in. Homework and reports were fairly uncommon and while cheating and skipping class were fashionable, I never subscribed to these temptations.

Every weekend night (well, only Saturdays once I started keeping Shabbos) was spent either at a party in someone’s home, going to an “all ages” concert, or hanging out in public areas in downtown Wichita, KS just chilling, listening to music, and trying not to cause too much trouble. While my punk friends and I looked rather fierce and counter-culture, we were all pretty much harmless.

These boys told me that their Motzei Shabbos activities usually include basketball and pizza. Sometimes they’ll go to a friend’s house to watch movies or just hang out. I am sure there are other students that do more “incriminating” activities.

I’m curious, if anyone with high school or post high school children can offer some insights into parenting issue during the yeshiva high school years?

Shabbos Gets Better and Better Because…

Shabbos Gets Better and Better Because…

…it starts earlier. I know that some of us think this, but I’m saying it. Hear me out, it’s the same 25+hours. While I am all for a long afternoon in the “Shabbos” park and playdates that seem to go on for hours, I like the winter months.

I happen to like the fact that in the winter, I can chose to go to a longer Shabbos night davening (like a Carlebach-style minyan) and not have to worry about keeping my family starving and waiting for me at home.

I like the fact that after dinner, my wife and I have time to spend with our kids without feeling guilty about keeping them up late. We often play games, schmooze, and on occasion, I have learned with my older kids. Also, our shul has an oneg every few weeks at the home of our Rabbi, so it’s nice to be able to get out and socialize, as well.

The truth is, Shabbos gets better and better as we and our children get older. Having children in kindergarten, fourth grade, and sixth grade means that they sometimes play together, are able to initiate and participate in parsha-based discussions and general “table talk”.

My son, recently was learning the halachos of kiddush in school and mentioned that by drinking from the kiddush cup and pouring the wine into other cups, I am creating in a “Kos Pagum,” a “deficient cup,” from which it is improper for anyone else to drink from. After looking up his source (the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch), researching it, and consulting my Rav, we altered the distribution of the kiddush process. Had my son not been learning this, we would have never changed our system.

My two older children also are in sleep over mode. Sometimes they will will have friends sleep over and other times they will sleep someplace else (for Shabbos or after Shabbos). Not only does this allow our children to be exposed to how other Torah homes operate, but it gives them a feeling of independence.

As someone who started keeping Shabbos when I was 16 (now I am 41), I never went through the often rough transition of switching in my adulthood to Shabbos-mode (like the oven). In the end, Shabbos is totally what you make.

NCSY and the Sweet Sounds of Gratitude

It always happens to me during mussaf of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. On a good morning it will hit me during Hallel. On a recent Shabbos, I thought about it while an excellent baal tefillah was davening the kedusha of mussaf.

What plagues my mind at these odd times? Basically that I am thankful to NCSY (the youth movement of the Orthodox Union). Ok, I said it.

Why, you might ask? Well, not for the obvious “opening my eyes to the beauty of Torah observance” reason (that’s for another time). I have hakoras hatov to NCSY because had I not spent 8th-12th grade as a participant of their programs (and a number of years as an advisor), I probably wouldn’t know 75% of the songs/niggunim I hear in shul during the year and at simchos. I would feel like the odd man out.

I think it’s important for both men and women to know niggunim and zemiros. It helps with inclusion and isn’t something that is stressed enough in the more popular adult outreach organizations. For me, music has always been something I’ve been into. While the current state of popular Jewish music doesn’t always leave me satisfied, I know that music is an important component part of Jewish life. Over the years I’ve been able to find musicians that I like and music that directly goes into my neshama.

If you have kids, eventually they will start singing songs they hear in school, camp, or in carpool. That’s just how it is. Personally, I find being able to sing with my children to be an incredible bonding experience. A great resource that I first saw on BeyondBT is a website called called ShirHalev, http://shirhalev.com/ , where they have posted downloads of dozens of commonly sung songs. I think you can even submit your own.

As I alluded to at the beginning of this post, on Shabbos the baal tefillah used an old tune from D’veykus IV (1990). It was an interesting moment, because I quickly realized exactly which people davening with me had been around the observant block long enough to know the tune. I did, and I was thankful.

Do I Really Have to Wake Up?

Do I really have to wake up?

I like to sleep, but I always got up for school without too much prodding (until college). However, like I wrote, I like to sleep. So, I get it when the Rambam writes that hearing the shofar relays the message:

“Wake up you sleepy ones from your sleep and you who slumber, arise. Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator. Those who forget the truth in the vanities of time and throughout the entire year, devote their energies to vanity and emptiness which will not benefit or save: Look to your souls. Improve your ways and your deeds and let every one of you abandon his evil path and thoughts.” (Hilchos Teshuva 3:4- translation from chabad.org)

There are times that I am just not too motivated. Elul is one of those times, despite “going through the motions” (I actually wrote about this last year), I don’t always “feel it”. The difference between my Elul last year and this year is that I can look back now and see several times during the year that I was fairly motivated with bettering myself. I have found, since Rosh Chodesh Elul that I’m not interested in writing much (even this submission was difficult), I’m dragging through the work day, I’m not taking my 3 times a week doctor-recommended 30 minute walks, I’ve gained a quarter of a pound (I’ve been on Weight Watchers since June), etc. I could come up with a number of logical reasons why I have been acting this way, but the proverbial snooze button that is my lack of motivation during Elul is probably my yetzer hora. Ok, I said it. I feel a little better. By blaming my yetzer, I feel less responsible (just joking). In actuality, admitting that there is a force that designed to pull us away from kedusha only emphasizes our greater mission as Jews.

Of course, like most important things in life, there’s no magic spell to fix my problem of motivation. I might be the only one who feels like this, but I doubt it. Most of us probably just don’t want to admit that we’re not motivated all the time. It’s sort like having to complain about the heat of the summer when you’re wearing your black hat, it’s just not socially appropriate. For whatever sociological reason, it’s not fashionable to admit life isn’t peachy and blissful. It’s full of challenges and opportunities to reach our potential. There are times that it’s difficult to do even the easy things (like walking for half an hour), let alone issues involving working on Avodas Hashem and Tikun HaMiddos. It’s so easy to say, “I don’t want to do this now”. My kids say it all the time to me. Not wanting to do homework or eating your vegetables only makes things more difficult later on down the line. Usually, with me, it boils down to having narrow vision.

Losing sight of the big picture, no matter if it’s becoming a healthier person, approaching Rosh Hashana with the understanding that I am a child of the King of Kings, or getting out of bed so I am not late is an often employed tactic of our yetzer hora. Seeing a bigger picture, or even a slightly not so smaller picture, of anything in life only happens if you wake up.

Expanding the Backyard

One of the things that initially excited me about find beyondbt.com was that the website/community allows me to interact with fellow Jews who are growth-oriented and get advice from others. As a parent of a boy entering 6th grade, a daughter entering 4th grade, and a daughter entering kindergarten I am always looking for eitzos (advice) on parenting.

Growing up with parents who were both politically and religiously fairly Conservative/traditional I was, ironically, given pretty much free reign in terms of set rules in our home. Aside from the standard “let me know where you’ll be and who you’ll be with” my parents were not to strict when it came to what I read, watched on TV, style of clothing I wore, or what music I liked. Thus, growing up in the 1980s I ended up reading, watching, wearing, and listening to things that, for sure, would raise eyebrows within some Orthodox circles (and probably a red flag with the words “At-risk” printed on it).

We are blessed to live in a thriving frum community, with great chinuch options, and my children are surrounded by positive influences. So far, so good. However with the trend of those raised in observant homes keeping “half-Shabbos” (a term that describes teens and adults using their cell phones to text and go online with on Shabbos) and the constant danger of kids-at-risk rearing its’ not-so-attractive-head I, like most, am concerned about my own children.

Recently my wife had the opportunity to speak with a father of 7 who has, with much help from his wife, raised fairly “normal” frum kids. She asked him what their secret was, and he said simply that they let their kids have choices within defined parameters. When my wife told me this, I said that it’s sort of like making your backyard a little bigger so your kids feel that they have more room to play. For a few years, as I look back now, I’ve been doing this unconsciously.

There are always, in our family, issues like: the yarmulke vs the baseball cap (on top of the yarmulke), the skirt is “too long” vs “too short”, my friends watched parents rented this movie and why can’t we, etc. I think that most of us can make our own list. Now, my kids are far from perfect, but we have tried to raise them to know what’s expected of them. Overall, they are good kids. We attempt to be aware of what they watch, give them choices of what to wear (in the summer, when they are don’t have to wear school uniforms and follow dress codes), and let them think they have a little freedom about what they listen read and listen to (BH they don’t read beyondbt.com or all of our tricks would be for naught).

I think, based on what the conversation my wife had, that we are going to take on a much more active role in structuring the choices we give our own children. Hopefully (with a lot of davening) they will find enough leg and elbow room within Torah Judaism to stretch out and get comfortable.

I’d love to hear any advice or thoughts about what seems to work and not work with raising kids.

The Value of Vignettes

Ron Coleman recently wrote about Gedolim biographies and their place within our “literature”. While some of the stories or vignettes that we read about a tzeddaikus (holy woman), an adam gadol (great person), or a baal mussar (ethical leader) might seem somewhat hard to believe and might even fall under the secular label of an “urban legend”.

One such story, that appears below, has several versions. It’s almost like one of those old “Chose your own Adventure” kids’ books from the early 1980s. The versions I have read sort of follow this pattern and you can pretty much switch around any variable:

Once, while traveling at night with a student
a) Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin, aka Rabbi Yisrael Salanter
b) Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm
c) Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagen, the Chofetz Chaim

stopped at
a) an inn.
b) the home of a former talmud.
c) a local eating establishment.

Since it was evening, he decided it was time to eat and asked for some soup. When the bowl was placed before him and he took his first spoonful, he found that the soup had
a) been undercooked.
b) spoiled.
c) way too much salt in it.

Not wanting to embarrass the cook, he order multiple bowls of the soup, until there was none left in the kitchen for anyone else. Even his companion didn’t get any. After their meal, the two travelers left and the student asked is teacher why he ate up all of the soup? The student knew that his pious teacher wasn’t one to give into excessive cravings for any type of food or drink. The teacher then explained what the soup tasted like and that he decided to the entire supply of it, so that he could save the cook the embarrassment of
serving something inedible to others.

Most will admit that this is a cute store (no matter what version you pick). The idea behind it is threefold. Firstly, it emphasizes the important Jewish value of not embarrassing another person. Secondly, it shows that Jewish leader was willing to put his own hunger, health, and nourishment aside at any given moment. Thirdly, it’s important to sometimes share with others the reasons we do what we do, especially if it seems out of the norm.

It happens to be a great story to share with kids or guests at the Shabbos meal (but after everyone has eaten desert and thanked you for the meal). Recently I experienced something that made me not only think of this story, but actually got to “live out” the story. Recently I was eating Shabbos lunch and I decided to pour myself some water from pitcher. As I poured the water into my glass I noticed that several tiny bubbles were forming inside my cup. This meant either one of two things. There must have been soap left in the pitcher or soup was left in my glass. I quickly drank my cup and then became quite thirsty and ended up finishing the entire pitcher of water. Afterwards, offered to go into the kitchen and refill the pitcher and my glass. I rinsed both a few times and returned with a bad taste in my mouth and plenty of water for everyone else.

Am I a nice guy? Usually not. Was I willing to take one for the team? Maybe. Did I end up blowing soap bubble from my mouth? No. However, I did read a store about someone much greater than myself and tried to apply the lesson.

As Rosh Hashana approaches…

As a sometime contributor to BeyondBT, I’ll let you in on a little secret. From time to time the administrators send out emails with suggestions for written submissions. Usually these suggestions are great springboards for someone with the patience and time to write to actually come up with something meaning, relative, and thought-provoking. And then, there’s me.

I got my email from them August 10th. This week, during a casual email exchange with one the administrators very sweetly asked for a submission. The first thought that I had was basically that I have nothing to say. This is what I’ve been thinking most of Elul. I’ve attempted to become more serious about davening (read: take time to think about what I’m saying in the siddur) of the past few weeks. I’ve checked my “cheshbon hanefesh” (spiritual accounting) that I keep on a daily basis to see what areas I’ve excelled in over the past year and what area I need improvement in. I’ve been to the gravesite of a grand-child of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter and said Tehillim. I’ve given tzedaka to organizations. I’ve got my volumes of Strive for Truth by Rav Dessler and the Rambam’s Hilchos Teshuva all marked at the passages de jour. I have even have committed to 10 minutes of daily hisbodedus (speaking directly and informally with Hashem).

Without try to sound to pretentious, can it be that even with all that I think I’m doing to prepare for the Yom HaDin, I still feel like I have nothing to say? Probably, but I can only say this because I’ve thought long and hard about it, even prior to writing this. What is there to say, when I know that very soon I’m going to be having a one-on-one with the Rabbono Shel Olam (Master of the World) and I know that I didn’t do my best this year. There are times when you get caught by the principal or your supervisor at work and you just simply have “nothing to say”. Even saying that you were wrong and that you’re sorry doesn’t feel like it will make a difference.

To us, it might not make a difference. To Hashem, though, every step we take towards Kedusha (holiness) makes an incredible difference. That’s why we have Elul, the Ten days of Teshuva, and the concept that we not only return, but have an even closer active relationship with our Creator. I suppose that it’s not so much about Rosh Hashana approaching, as it might be about how I approach Rosh Hashana.

Do We Show Enough Respect to Secular Jews?

Like most really good questions, the typical answer would be, “It depends.” It depends on the basis for the respect towards a Jew and how we personally define a “secular” Jew. The following few lines are my personal thoughts on the above question.

When I think about ways or reasons to respect another Jew, my first thought (and this really applies to non-Jews as well, based on what I’ve been taught) is the concept of Kavod HaBriyos (respect towards one of Hashem’s creations). There is an intrinsic respect that we should be giving to anyone created by Hashem, simply because their own existence is a manifestation of Hashem’s ratzon (will or desire).

The second thought regarding respect is the concept of “pintele Yid”, a Yiddish term that refers to that innate Jewish “spark” that is in each of us. The neshama of Jew contains part of Hashem and it’s that “spark” that might be another basis for respect towards other Jews, regardless of if they are “secular” or not. An understanding of both of these levels of respect is, ideally, something that should be emphasized both in the home and in our school stystems.

A third level of respect, and this is sort of “out there” depending on your religious outlook, is a feeling of respect for a Jew’s secular accomplishments. This might be on an educational, professional, or a personal level. When I use the term accomplishments, I’m not referring to financial success, but more of the effort involved in pursuing a goal. For example, in a previous profession of mine, I was the Kashrus supervisor (mashgiach) for a local Kashrus organization in a Midwestern City. At times my job required me to be at the Jewish Community Center as early as 5:30 AM. I was always impressed with the number of people I saw who were also at the JCC that early in the morning using the exercise equipment. Their dedication, on a personal level, to their health, gave me food for thought in regard to my own struggles with getting up in the morning for minyan.

The term “secular Jew” is, in my opinion, can have a few definitions. A “secular Jew” could be someone who has no connection to Judaism on any level. Without getting in any halachic obligations of Kiruv (or mitzvah of “Loving Hashem”), it’s probably safe to write that we all agree it’s important to have some connection to Judaism.

A fellow Jew who is “secular” might also be a non-affiliated Jew who has craving for gefilta fish and matzo ball soup. On an dietary level, this Jew is connecting with Judaism on their level. This secular Jew might be a co-worker, old friend from the neighborhood, or a relative. They might fell connected to Judaism not by any outward religious observance, but by purchasing Israel Bonds, donating to their local Jewish Federation, or eating a bagel with a shmeer of cream cheese on a Sunday morning.

Another view of a “secular Jew”, and I don’t personally feel this way, might be that anyone who isn’t Torah observant is “secular”. I wasn’t taught to view Jews in this way, but some people within our camp do. I have met many Jews affiliated and involved with reconstructionist, reform, and conservative congregations that are far from “secular”. They are very committed to their Judaism and very serious about it. To label them as secular is really problematic. It’s possible to respect them for their own level of observance, even if it isn’t the same as our lifestyle. This doesn’t mean that Torah-observant individuals, organizations, or educational institutions shouldn’t approach them, but try to understand where they are coming from. For a Jew to choose to attend a Shabbos evening or morning service instead of a sporting event, one-day sale with door busters, or watch TV can be as much as a challenge as it is for me not to speak loshon hora.

I’ll be honest, I think some Torah-observant Jews show tremendous respect towards secular Jews. I also think that some of us could show a bit more respect. Remembering that we are “a nation of Priests” who were given the opportunity to teach by example can only help in showing respect towards secular Jews.

Holden Caulfield and the Lack of Observance

Note: A few of the thoughts and ideas that make up this post have been sitting in my Blogger Dashboard since 08/09/06, after I sent an email to someone regarding banned seforim and authors.

I heard on CBS radio that J.D. Salinger had died. As a former fan of fiction, avid reader of THE NEW YORKER, and someone who thought, once upon a time, of going into writing, I had to pause and give some thought to Mr. Salinger and, of course, The Catcher in the Rye. The primary thing that comes to mind whenever I think about The Catcher in the Rye is the fact that, sometimes, it takes just one written work to make an impact. Culturally, this book was one of the first written works to speak to and about teenage life in post World War II America. As often noted, while the book was intended for adults, many young adults felt that it spoke to them and reflected their feelings of alienation. It was published in 1951 and banned very quickly due to language, adult situations, promotion of smoking and alcohol drinking, etc. The book continues to be banned.

Even though I attended what was know as a “top” public school in Kansas, this book was never required reading. In fact, it wasn’t until I was 22 (summer of 1992) that I first read it. Holden Caulfield, the main character, was a mouthy teen who had been expelled from four schools and was rather discontent with society, adults, and especially people who were “phony”. Holden saw the hypocrisy within his society and in many of the people he encountered. In many ways, not so different from some individuals that would be labeled as “at-risk” or “in-risk”.

One of my favorite quotes (of all time) can be found in chapter two. Holden says, “People never notice anything”. I have always thought this to mean that Holden felt that people didn’t understand him and that they were not even willing to attempt to understand him. It is that lack of observance (not the Torah u’Mitzvos kind), that feeling that we are not important and what we say doesn’t matter that can often lead to a lack of observance (yes, the Torah u’Mitzvos kind). Most people want to be recognized and valued. When parents, teachers, family members or the community give the impression that someone isn’t important or “worth the time” it can have a devastating effect on a person. Of course, when a teen or adult gets to the point that they even contemplate the idea that Hashem forgets about them, then we get into a situation that might bring about that lack of observance.

“People never notice anything,” is a mindset that seems to go against many Jewish values. Part of the reason I like the quote is because I see how it resonates with many people. That’s I attempt to notice things. I try the be first to wish others a “Good Shabbos Kodesh” or give a “Yashar Koach”. I attempt to take an interest in what is going on in my life of those around me. Lately I have become keenly aware of when people have a birthday coming up (mostly thanks to Facebook). To simply ask someone how they are doing, but not push beyond the answer they give is really going only half the distance.

I know this personally, because friends will ask me how I’m doing, and my first reaction is to say, “everything is fine”. Mostly I do this because R Yisrael Lipkin (Salanter) held that “one’s face is a Reshus HaRabim”, a public area (I believe the story goes that he saw someone looking obviously very serious during Elul and commented to this person, that showing distress might bring others down, as well). I’m slowly realizing that if a good friend asks how I’m doing, the they do deserve a better answer than, “fine”. This is sort of like R Dessler’s idea that even though we want to be givers and not takers, sometimes you can be a taker, like when someone really wants to give you a gift, and by taking you are giving to that over person.

“People never notice anything,” just isn’t true. It’s easy to think that, in the big picture, our actions don’t really make a difference. I fall into this mentality quite often as of late. Usually, it’s really before I’m about to do something nice for someone or prior to actually making a difference. If a novel, movie, song, or other aspect of what’s called “pop culture” speaks to our youth, I think, for myself, that it is important to find out why. If you meet a teenager and they are into an author or a musical artist then there’s something (even if it’s completely off base) that “speaks” to that person. This isn’t meant as an academic critique of Mr. Salinger’s book, but I’ve often wondered to myself, “What if Holden had felt that an adult understood him?” Had that been the case, we would have had a very different story.

Originally posted on Neil’s blog here.

Soul Movements

In the sefer Da Et Atzmecha (Getting to Know Yourself) the author describes something amazing, the movement of the soul:

In physical movement, we are familiar with six directions: the four sides, and up and down. Our teachers have taught that the soul moves in only two directions: expansion and contraction. Every movement must either be a contraction or an expansion.

When a person analyzes himself, he must categorize all movements as either expansion or contraction. Certainly, the degree of expansion and contraction will not be identical in every situation. For example, when a person runs, he may run quickly or slowly. So, too, there are more extreme movements and more measured movements.

In general, the soul moves either to expand or to contract. In the language of Chazal, expansion is referred to as the aspect of chessed, and contraction is referred to as the aspect of din. There are no other kinds of movement.

When a person understands that all his movements are either contraction or expansion, he can begin to understand himself. On a simple level, a person seems happy, and feels that this is an inherent quality in the soul, or he may be sad, and feel that this is the soul’s quality. Or he may feel generous, and believe that such is his soul’s quality. But the truth is that happiness comes from expansion; sadness, from contraction; giving, from expansion; and taking, from contraction. (Section two, chapter two)

What I found amazing, when I first learned this sefer last summer, was how nicely this idea of expansion and contraction fits into Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Desser’s concept of giving and taking. Rav Dessler z”tl divided the world into two types of people: Givers and Takers. To quote from Rabbi Aryeh Carmell’s translation of Michtav Me-Eliyahu, “Man has been granted this sublime power of giving, enabling him too be merciful, to bestow happiness, to give of himself.” (Strive For Truth! Volume I, page 119)

When we choose to give to another we are expanding our soul and growing into being a bigger and better person. Conversely, by taking we become smaller people. I attempted to teach this to my older children (ages 10 and 7) by blowing up a balloon inside a box and showing them how as the balloon expanded it touched more of the box and as air was let out and it contracted the balloon became smaller. The question is, do you want your soul to expand or contract?

I have found this teaching has totally changed the way I look at my actions. Offering someone a ride somewhere is no longer just an act of chessed, it allows my soul to grow. Making the choice to do something that I want to, at the expense of others in my family (like going to a museum that only I would enjoy) I now see as an action that would be considered a contraction of my soul. When I think about things in these terms, the choice is pretty obvious which way I want my soul to move.

This way of looking at things has also trickled down to my kids. At my minyan’s kiddush this past Shabbos, my 7 yr old daughter proudly told me that she was going to pour some 7-UP for herself, but thenMrs. Cohen asked for it, so she gave the bottle to Mrs. Cohen before she took for herself. My daughter then proudly told me that her neshama expanded.

The sefer Getting to Know Yourself is available for purchase online and at most Jewish bookstores. It is also available for reading online here.

Some Thoughts On Kiruv By Non-Kiruv Professionals

I was recently asked how likely it is that a non-Kiruv professional will help a non-observant person become observant?. Well, after a Shabbos afternoon (3 hours) of watching my 6 yr old daughter and her friend at the park, I have a few thoughts.

My view is that helping a ‘person become more observant’ doesn’t always mean that the person will become frum. I know that this is a very unpopular view, but with intermarriage out of control, and plenty of bad press in the news about Torah observant Jews, any positive connection or view of our Torah lifestyle is a major ‘win’. I know that the pressure of being able to help someone shomer Torah u’Mitzvos, is in fact, the major reason that most non-kiruv ‘professionals’ don’t think that they can ‘do kiruv’. Perhaps that’s one of the goals of the current kiruv seminars (from Project Inspire) that were scheduled in the NYC area.

When I worked for 7 yrs for NCSY, there was always this inner-debate about quality vs quantity of NCSY advisors. One opinion was that only certain people had the ‘skills’ and ‘sechel’ to really be ‘good advisors’. The other view was that because different NCSYers had different types of personalities, we need a larger staff so that each NCSY had an opportunity to connect with someone they might make a kesher with.

As I look back today the advisors who were viewed as having kiruv ‘skills/sechel’ were sort of the ‘kiruv professionals’ and everyone else were the ‘non kiruv pros’. I think that each has their place.

Whenever I read or end up taking about kiruv I always think of a great story about the Chofetz Chaim and one of the early Aguath Israel meetings. It’s online here: http://www.neveh.org/price/price1.html

Many years ago I was privileged to hear the ‘Magid of Yerushalayim,’ Rav Shalom Shwadron Shlit’a. When he began to speak, he said over a Moshol of the Chofetz Chaim, which he had heard from Rav Teitelbaum zt’l, who heard it from the Chofetz Chaim.

The Chofetz Chaim was speaking at the K’naisia Gedolah – The Great Assembly (of Agudas Yisroel, where the Torah leaders of the generation gathered together to discuss the spiritual status of Klal Yisroel). The Chofetz Chaim spoke once in the morning, and then strangely enough, he requested to speak again later. Naturally, they let him speak. He pointed out that he spoke in the morning requiring everyone to spread Torah in different places, but that he was not happy with the reaction. The people were saying that of course the Chofetz Chaim is right, but who am I to go and spread Torah among others? I’m far from perfect; The Chofetz Chayim’s address was referring to those who have already have perfected themselves; they have a right and obligation to work on others. As chazal say (Baba Basra 60b) ‘First adorn (work on) yourself, then adorn others.’

The Chofetz Chaim continued, ‘I want to tell you a moshol – a parable about the feudal system. During that period the lords of the manor had the power of life and death in their hands. One of these lords came for a visit, and naturally they made a big reception for him. At the end they gave him a glass of tea, but since the water system wasn’t so clean, the tea was very muddy. When the lord tasted it he spat it out. They explained to him the problem of the water system, so he made a new law. From now on no water may be used unless it was sterilized and cooked first. Some time later the lord heard that this town burned down. When he came to see why they couldn’t put out the fire, they told him that they tried, but as the new law required, they had to cook the water first, and by that time the fire had burned down the town. The lord was furious, and he told them, ‘You fools, when you want to serve tea then you need to sterilize the water first, but when there is a fire burning, you are not choosy as to what kind of water to use; you use any kind of water.’

‘So too, when are you choosy about who should spread Torah? When there is no fire of ignorance burning, but currently there is a fire raging out there, this is not a time to be picky. Anybody who knows something, even if he is not perfect, should try to give it over to others.’
Rav Shalom said that even though he is not worthy to speak, he uses this moshol of the Chofetz Chaim as a license to speak. I too certainly have to rely on it to be able to speak.

This is the situation today (I should really post that story online). We are losing Jews left and right everything from inter-marriage to, sadly, very effective marketing by both the reform and conservative ‘movements’.

To return to the question, I think anytime a Torah observant person makes a Kiddush Hashem we are, at least, planting a seed in the mind and eyes of a non-observant person that our lifestyle isn’t so bad. Being honest in the workplace, a mensch on the subway or LIRR, sending Rosh HaShannah cards or calling your non-frum relatives (something that I really don’t do as much as I should), or being the token ‘Frum Jew’ in the office that people ask questions to brings others closer to the Emes of Torah. A network and community, like that described on the kiruv.com website, has that potential. As you know, there are many things that can light a spark (as Rabbi Shafran wrote) within another Jew. If a kiruv minded person (professional or non-pro) keeps their eyes open, opportunities do come up.

It would only make sense in an age where you don’t need a recording contract to put out a CD, a contract with a national newspaper or publishing house to get people to read what you write (I’m still floored that anyone even ends up reading anything I write), a degree in film making to get people to watch a short video you make, that a ‘grass-roots’ counter kiruv “professional” movement would, and should start up. Aish HaTorah and Chabad have always been at the forefront of outreach, especially as the world has gone digital. Aish seems willing to accept the power of the lay person, and rightfully so.

As most people write, being sincere and non-threatening (yet religiously anchored), is key. Knowing that we don’t have all the answers and being able to consult those more experienced in Kiruv than us is also key. Ultimately we have to realize that we are merely a k’lei, vessel, that Hashem is using to bring another Jew back and, as R Simcha Wasserman z’tl said (and I actually asked R Akiva Tatz about this a few months ago in Chicago), fullfill the mitzvah of Hashavas Aveidah, returning a lost object to its’ owner. In the case of Kiruv, the lost object is a neshama that yearns to be reunited with its creator.

The Other Type of Assimilation

Several months ago I joined an online “social-networking site”. For a while it served as a great way to reconnect with old friends that I hadn’t contacted in years. In fact, may of them were involved in NCSY when I was becoming frum and many others were participants in NCSY when I was working for the organization. Until about 2 months ago, my “friends” from the “social-networking site” were actually about 90% Torah observant and the other 10% were not-yet observant (oddly enough some of them from my hometown and I am probably the only frum person they are in contact with).

Then there was a change in my friend demographics. Due to a public high school reunion coming up, someone from my high school found me online. He became my “friend”. Then other non-Jews that I really hadn’t thought of in almost 20 years started requesting my “friendship”. My demographics when from 100% Jewish “online friends” to about 20% non-Jews and 80% Jews.

During my last two years in high school I was Torah observant. I was also, then, submerged in the whole punk/alternative music scene sub-culture. My life revolved around bands, music, and concerts. In addition to all the outer signs of individuality that I displayed it was almost, to most people, incidental that I wore a yarmulka, didn’t go out on Friday nights, and didn’t eat much food outside my home.

Of course, once I was able to leave my hometown and engage in formalized Torah education many of my priorities changed. Eventually most of my old cassettes/cd from all the bands I couldn’t live without were sold and the money was used for seforim. Like most of us, I have over the years, immersed myself in the “frum” sub-culture. I realized as I started seeing names of friends from high school that I really haven’t spoke to in almost 20 years that I probably come off (via an online profile) as a very different person with different reading and music tastes that the ‘Neil” they once new.

It’s funny, because during my years in a ‘traditional’ conservative Sunday school and Hebrew school program we were constantly told that assimilation is, like, the worst evil. We were told that a Jew should never give up their identity as a Jew. Because the word ‘assimilation’ means to make similar I was raised that as a ‘traditional Jew’ I couldn’t be come similar to those around me. Well, as I examine who I am today, I think I’ve become an assimilated Jew. When I write ‘assimilated’ it is in the sense that I have submerged myself into a lifestyle and culture like that of my fellow Torah observant Jews.

I probably didn’t assimilate the way my old Hebrew school teachers thought I would, but then again, most of us BTs don’t when up where we thought we’d be. As for my friends from high school that have some out of the cyber-woodwork, let them go ahead and look up books like “Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh” and bands like “Piamenta”. This is who I am, someone ‘assimilated’ in Torah observant culture.

Perspective

As I was making pizza the other night, I was listening to A CLASSIC CASE: The London Symphony Orchestra Plays The Music Of Jethro Tull.

My son (7 years old) runs into the kitchen as Ian Anderson is going crazy on the flute and says, “Whoa! Abba, is that a new Piamenta album?”

“No, I wish. It’s actually a non-Jewish band and their music is being played by a symphony”, I answered.

“Too bad”, he said.

As I went back to pizza making I got to thinking. How cool is it that my son’s musical references are primarily based on what he listens to…Jewish music?

Just like eating Kosher food and keeping Shabbos are aspects of the only lifestyle that he’s experienced in his long seven years of existence. He has the right perspective.

As I, a BT, raise my kids as FFBs I realize it’s all about perspective.

The truth is that what we value and how we live our lives really forms and defines our perspective on things. This is true for each of us and, of course, for our families.

I have often tell myself and my kids that one has to look for mitzvah opportunities that Hashem sends our way. It’s my perspective.

I’m glad my son could show me his perspective.