A Tisha B’av Kinah for Our Times

Woe to us on this bitter day! We have what to cry about!
Woe for all the heads without Tefillin
After 3700 years from Avraham Avinu
After having survived Holocausts and Inquisitions…
Jewish boys and girls blunder
In the darkness that plagues our generation
And go lost by the millions
With visions of isms and instant pleasures
Rapt in utter ignorance
Bathed in a blue light they may never escape
And generations and giant whole families
Holy congregations have disappeared
For nothing!
And their names dead ended
Now only grace lonely stones
In forgotten cemeteries
Bearing words their children
Those that had- Could never read
Woe to us on this bitter day! We have what to cry about!

The pervasive angst of isolation!
Microwaves our very beings!
We feel beaten from within.
The continuous waves of psychological pain.
We suffer with a wry smile and a diet coke.
The gnawing insecurity and emptiness.
It brings us to search for things that do not exist.
The sublime is substituted with the virtual.
Pictures and fantasies tickle n’ dissolve like
Cotton candy for the eyes…in a world of lies
Fire works for lonely hearts that only grow lonelier
Noshing on empty calories for an endless soul
And as for the big itch…the really big itch…
That small thin voice is starved…
Portrait of a Holocaust victim!
So we turn up the tempo
Tapping like a blind man
Louder and more frantically
We are lost as never before.
Woe to us on this bitter day! We have what to cry about!

The Chutzpah around us and within.
The skirts…the so called “styles”…the pressure to conform
The lewdness …the angry language
Rap -rap -rap….bark -bark –bark!
Bitter and desperate…is the new normal
The almost total loss of respect
Nothing and no one is Holy
The good ones are ridiculed-
The object of derision
For framing a G-dly Image
And dressing as humans do
For keeping the Shabbos Holy
Watching our eyes and tongues!
While pictures of the unthinkable
The pop-ups of our lives
Invade constantly
On every bus that passes by
Our brothers and sisters
Drop like fall leaves
Fewer and fewer hang strong
Woe to us on this bitter day! We have what to cry about!

The inmates are running the asylum.
Clouds of chaos gather all around
Bombs are fashioned for our final solution
And we are lost in the mirror again.
Wondering if we are loved or looking good
70 wolves salivate with teeth like daggers
Aimed to devour our tiny flock!
Where are we?
Busy with our cell phones
Texting our way to oblivion
Dealing with emergencies of little import
Consumed by crumb size concerns
Like Chometz…And the size of our noses
Woe to us on this bitter day! We have what to cry about!

The Chillul HASHEM
We have lost our luster
Suspicion surrounds us
The Nation of HASHEM
The people of truth
Are ridiculed and considered low
While every sports team and slick politician
Has their stadium…Their edifice their complex
Where their glory is on open display
Where is the place of HASHEM in this world?
Billions speak falsely in His name
Identity theft on the grandest scale
Religion is a rejected and dirty word
We are tagged zealots and bigots
For preserving four cubit of Hallacha
This is our crime
And so we owe the world an apology
HASHEM and we His People
Share all time low approval ratings
For this we truly owe a broken heart
Woe to us on this bitter day! We have what to cry about!

What can be done when what’s done is done?
Who can rebuild such a wall torn down?
Our Holy Temple is destroyed!
Echoing in the cosmos
Is a muffled scream!
Of unspeakable abuse
A silent crime!
Against our most beautiful daughters
Made to suffer alone
Scarred in a way
No one can say
With more than broken hearts
Shattered Tablets
And bitter memories
Bleed bad blood
And families crumble
With no happy choices
But to seek greatness
And avoid the pit of insanity
There I said it! Without saying it!
Woe to us on this bitter day! We have what to cry about!

Thousands take to the streets
In a moment’s notice
To look for Leiby
The heart …my heart… where’s my heart?
How can we go up to our father and the youth is not with us?
How can we go up to our Father in Heaven
and the innocence and youthfulness is no longer with us?
HASHEM wants the heart! Where’s the heart? A frantic cry!
It’s been stifled, torn asunder in the heart of our hearts!
In the midst of our midst!
Our innocence is ravaged from within!
We cannot even trust ourselves!
A knife is driven repeatedly into our heart again and again
Where is our heart!
Where are our youth?
HASHEM wants the heart!
If not for the watchful eye of…
A camera …random… nothing is!
We could live in the shadows of doubt…
Postulating and philosophizing
So now we are all mourners …
We are done looking outward
The mirrors are covered…enough…enough
We sit low and quiet
Our eyes turned inward…at last…
We hope to find a heart yet beating…there
from where we can build-
…from where can we build
On this day of brutal truth? We have what to cry about!

How did it happen? Where are you?
Unanswerable questions!
Persist in their asking!
Where a person’s mind is…
Says the Ba’al Shem Tov
That is where he is entirely!
So with a single Holy thought!
One of 60,000 a day!
An apple…a golden apple
Is rescued from the thieves
And goodness is restored
When opening our inner eyes
We begin to realize
The ground we are standing upon
Is not less than the Holy of Holies
The shoes are easily removed
A Burning bush…is revealed
We survived! We survived!
Till this historic moment!
You and I together
With a song …the wail of a longing heart…
Brought history and destiny to meet and embrace
As tearful friends reunited!
After thousands of years!
Moshiach is born!
On this special day! We have what to cry about!

This Tisha B’Av Kinah was Composed August 2011

Rabbi Label Lam on Personal Growth Lessons from Tu B’Shevat

Today is Tu B’Shevat.

Rabbi Label Lam gave a wonderful Drasha a few years back where he looked at the Mishna in Pirkei Avos which states “Rabbi Yaakov said, one who is walking along the road and is studying [Torah], and then interrupts his studies and says, ‘How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this plowed field!’, the Scripture considers it as if he bears the guilt for his own soul.”

In questioning what is the great crime here and why the cases of a tree and a plowed field is chosen, Rabbi Lam uncovers some powerful personal growth lessons that we can glean from Tu B’Shevat – the holiday of trees.

Click on this link to listen to Rabbi Lam on Personal Growth Lessons from Tu B’Shevat. (To download the file to your computer, click with the right mouse button on the link and select Save Target As)

Kinah for Tisha B’Av

Woe to us on this bitter day! We have what to cry about!
Woe for all the heads without Tefillin
After 3700 years from Avraham Avinu
After having survived Holocausts and Inquisitions…
Jewish boys and girls blunder
In the darkness that plagues our generation
And go lost by the millions
With visions of isms and instant pleasures
Rapt in utter ignorance
Bathed in a blue light they may never escape
And generations and giant whole families
Holy congregations have disappeared
For nothing!
And their names dead ended
Now only grace lonely stones
In forgotten cemeteries
Bearing words their children
Those that had- Could never read
Woe to us on this bitter day! We have what to cry about!
 
 

The pervasive angst of isolation!
Microwaves our very beings!
We feel beaten from within.
The continuous waves of psychological pain.
We suffer with a wry smile and a diet coke.
The gnawing insecurity and emptiness.
It brings us to search for things that do not exist.
The sublime is substituted with the virtual.
Pictures and fantasies tickle n’ dissolve like
Cotton candy for the eyes…in a world of lies
Fire works for lonely hearts that only grow lonelier
Noshing on empty calories for an endless soul
And as for the big itch…the really big itch…
That small thin voice is starved…
Portrait of a Holocaust victim!
So we turn up the tempo
Tapping like a blind man
Louder and more frantically
We are lost as never before.
Woe to us on this bitter day! We have what to cry about!
 
 

The Chutzpah around us and within.
The skirts…the so called “styles”…the pressure to conform
The lewdness …the angry language
Rap -rap -rap….bark -bark –bark!
Bitter and desperate…is the new normal
The almost total loss of respect
Nothing and no one is Holy
The good ones are ridiculed-
The object of derision
For framing a G-dly Image
And dressing as humans do
For keeping the Shabbos Holy
Watching our eyes and tongues!
While pictures of the unthinkable
The pop-ups of our lives
Invade constantly
On every bus that passes by
Our brothers and sisters
Drop like fall leaves
Fewer and fewer hang strong
Woe to us on this bitter day! We have what to cry about!
 
 

The inmates are running the asylum.
Clouds of chaos gather all around
Bombs are fashioned for our final solution
And we are lost in the mirror again.
Wondering if we are loved or looking good
70 wolves salivate with teeth like daggers
Aimed to devour our tiny flock!
Where are we?
Busy with our cell phones
Texting our way to oblivion
Dealing with emergencies of little import
Consumed by crumb size concerns
Like Chometz…And the size of our noses
Woe to us on this bitter day! We have what to cry about!
 
 

The Chillul HASHEM
We have lost our luster
Suspicion surrounds us
The Nation of HASHEM
The people of truth
Are ridiculed and considered low
While every sports team and slick politician
Has their stadium…Their edifice their complex
Where their glory is on open display
Where is the place of HASHEM in this world?
Billions speak falsely in His name
Identity theft on the grandest scale
Religion is a rejected and dirty word
We are tagged zealots and bigots
For preserving four cubit of Hallacha
This is our crime
And so we owe the world an apology
HASHEM and we His People
Share all time low approval ratings
For this we truly owe a broken heart
Woe to us on this bitter day! We have what to cry about!
 
 

What can be done when what’s done is done?
Who can rebuild such a wall torn down?
Our Holy Temple is destroyed!
Echoing in the cosmos
Is a muffled scream!
Of unspeakable abuse
A silent crime!
Against our most beautiful daughters
Made to suffer alone
Scarred in a way
No one can say
With more than broken hearts
Shattered Tablets
And bitter memories
Bleed bad blood
And families crumble
With no happy choices
But to seek greatness
And avoid the pit of insanity
There I said it! Without saying it!
Woe to us on this bitter day! We have what to cry about!
 
 

Thousands take to the streets
In a moment’s notice
To look for Leiby
The heart …my heart… where’s my heart?
How can we go up to our father and the youth is not with us?
How can we go up to our Father in Heaven
and the innocence and youthfulness is no longer with us?
HASHEM wants the heart! Where’s the heart? A frantic cry!
It’s been stifled, torn asunder in the heart of our hearts!
In the midst of our midst!
Our innocence is ravaged from within!
We cannot even trust ourselves!
A knife is driven repeatedly into our heart again and again
Where is our heart!
Where are our youth?
HASHEM wants the heart!
If not for the watchful eye of…
A camera …random… nothing is!
We could live in the shadows of doubt…
Postulating and philosophizing
So now we are all mourners …
We are done looking outward
The mirrors are covered…enough…enough
We sit low and quiet
Our eyes turned inward…at last…
We hope to find a heart yet beating…there
from where we can build-
…from where can we build
On this day of brutal truth? We have what to cry about!
 
 

How did it happen? Where are you?
Unanswerable questions!
Persist in their asking!
Where a person’s mind is…
Says the Ba’al Shem Tov
That is where he is entirely!
So with a single Holy thought!
One of 60,000 a day!
An apple…a golden apple
Is rescued from the thieves
And goodness is restored
When opening our inner eyes
We begin to realize
The ground we are standing upon
Is not less than the Holy of Holies
The shoes are easily removed
A Burning bush…is revealed
We survived! We survived!
Till this historic moment!
You and I together
With a song …the wail of a longing heart…
Brought history and destiny to meet and embrace
As tearful friends reunited!
After thousands of years!
Moshiach is born!
On this special day! We have what to cry about!

Originally Published August 2011

Of Mice Traps and Men

One who reads the Megillah out of sequence has not fulfilled his obligation. (Megillah 17A)

The Sefas Emes asks, “Why is “Purim” not called “Pur”?” Why is it called plural- Purim for lots and not lot in the singular since Haman is described as having cast a “pur” to reckon the most favorable day to attack the Jews?

Michael Behe introduces in his book “Darwin’s Black Box” the concept of “irreducible complexity”. The explanation is as follows. Take for example a simple mouse trap. It has a number of functional parts that make it a mouse trap. Any component piece of the trap is useless and meaningless without the other small number parts. It could never have evolved gradually. Of what use would a spring be without cheese for bait or a board for it to slam its gait upon. The unadorned mouse trap needs all the parts present to be functional. The parts of it would have to have been created with the finished end in mind.

Similarly, a snake with poisonous venom would needs a hypodermic needle for a tooth to inject its pay load. Of what use would the tooth be without the poison and why would the creature need such a potent poison to kill a horse in seconds if it was lacking the sophisticated delivery system?

One of the keys to understanding the Megillah lies in appreciating how a sequence of seemingly simple events form an organized chain- with an eerily predetermined result. In the end, it can be observed how the aggregate is “irreducibly complex”. Minus any small piece in the puzzle and history would have looked so much different. If the King would have taken a sleeping pill instead of reading from a book of remembrances, had Esther not found grace in the eyes of the king, had the king not sent out his first foolish decree, had the king not relocated his capital in Shushan where Mordachai was quietly minding his own business before destiny backed up to his doorstep, then things would have turned out much different and the world would be unrecognizably different.

There is a growing paradigm in science that may help explain what is so deficient about reading or hearing the Megillah out of order. Surprisingly it is called, “Chaos Theory”. It does not aim to demonstrate that things are random and meaningless. Quite the contrary, it postulates the notion that all matters of seeming wild randomness display surprisingly complex and beautiful order. Even the way cigarette smoke dissipates throughout a room leaves a delicate trail of artistry. One of the proponents of this theory, Joseph Ford, refuted Einstein’s statement, “G-d doesn’t play dice with the universe!” He says, “Yes, G-d does play dice, but the dice are loaded.”

In the end Haman’s toss of the “pur” happened within a grander context of a more profound “pur” –or lot for the Jews. Haman not only could not derail the Divine scheme of things but perversely he furthered and promoted it in the most profound way. Our sages tell us that more than all the words of all the prophets were effective in returning the Jews to G-d; Haman was the catalyst to accomplish this when he received the royal signet ring of the king. His ultimatum resulted in the opposite of what he intended with his “pur”. Why? Because another “pur” dominates incorporating and adjusting to all the smaller Machiavellian moves making rather a prefect sense of this nice game of dice- a grand Purim play of mice-traps and men.

To subscribe to Rabbi Lam’s weekly Dvar Torah, go to the Torah.Org Subscription Center and subscribe to Dvar Torah in the Parsha section.

Originally Published March 8, 2006

Looking for Our Brothers

A few years back I found out something about myself that surprised and amazed me. It was Erev Yom Kippur and a colleague of mine, we’ll call him Zalman, and I were on our way to Williams College (a small liberal arts school in western Massachusetts). We were going to meet with some college students to talk about Yom Kippur and present an opportunity for some to come to Jerusalem for a winter session. We drove up the New York State Thruway before turning into the back woods of western Mass. It was hours before we found our destination and a warm delegation of thirsty souls. After our presentation and discussions had run their course it was time to make the long trek home. It had certainly been worth our while. A number of students had shown interest in coming with us to Israel and as it turned out a few from that night made it “all the way to the Wall!”

On the way home Zalman and I had tossed our hats and jackets into the back seat of his station wagon and we had ceased to talk about work and began to talk “in pajamas” as the phrase goes. I asked Zalman how he had gotten involved in Yiddishkeit and what had spurred him on. He began to tell me how he had a brother that went to camp one summer and drowned. My heart fell into my stomach. He explained how he started to wonder, “What’s it all about?” and “Where do we come from and go to?”

When he finished, I asked him if he had heard about my story. He acknowledged that he had not. I told him that I had a little brother that went to the dentist to get a load of teeth fixed and they gave him gas and he never woke up. I explained with vivid recollections all the haunting philosophical questions that have followed me since. Here we were two grown men with families at home barreling down the New York State Thruway and we were both crying about matters that happened more than three decades earlier.

Then a verse from this week’s Torah Portion came to me. Yosef confronts a man who is really the angel Gabriel while he blunders on his way and the angel asks him, “What are you looking for?” Yosef answers, “I am looking for my brothers!” (Breishis 37:15) I told Zalman, “Look at us two crazy guys! Here we are grown up guys with families and it’s Erev Yom Kippur! Under normal circumstances we should have been in bed along time ago but here it is already Two O’clock in the morning and we are hustling down the thruway to get home. If the angel Gabriel would turn on his police lights and pull us over and, instead of giving us a ticket, he would peek into the car and ask us, “What are you guys doing out here at this crazy hour so far from home? What are you looking for?” If he would ask us the same question he asked Yosef, I think we could give him the very same answer with the fullest of hearts, “We are looking for our brothers!”

I never understood this aspect of my own life until that drive. Sometimes HASHEM puts a hole in our hearts, we get such a deep hurt that we spend the rest of our lives filling the gap and it may form the basis for our main accomplishments in life.

Each year on Chanukah, at some point shortly after candle lighting, I pile the kids into the car with a handful of candies of course and we take a ride all over our town and even to some uncharted areas. We drive through some of the wealthier and some of the more modest sections of town but our goal is not to scout out real estate at all. Rather what we are looking for in the heart of the night, in the windows of Jewish homes, are flickering Chanukah flames, keeping in mind the words of the wisest of men, Solomon “The candle of G-d is the soul of man.” (Mishle’) It’s always a treat and a thrill of endless depth, especially on Chanukah, looking for our brothers.

Originally posted 12/15/2006

Kinah – Woe for all the heads without Tefillin – We have what to cry about!

1
Woe to us on this bitter day!
We have what to cry about!
Woe for all the heads without Tefillin
After 3700 years from Avraham Avinu
After having survived Holocausts and Inquisitions…
Jewish boys and girls blunder
In the darkness that plagues our generation
And go lost by the millions
With visions of isms and instant pleasures
Rapt in utter ignorance
Bathed in a blue light they may never escape
And generations and giant whole families
Holy congregations have disappeared
For nothing!
And their names dead ended
Now only grace lonely stones
In forgotten cemeteries
Bearing words their children
Those that had- Could never read
Woe to us on this bitter day!
We have what to cry about!
2
The pervasive angst of isolation!
Microwaves our very beings!
We feel beaten from within.
The continuous waves of psychological pain.
We suffer with a wry smile and a diet coke.
The gnawing insecurity and emptiness.
It brings us to search for things that do not exist.
The sublime is substituted with the virtual.
Pictures and fantasies tickle n’ dissolve like
Cotton candy for the eyes…in a world of lies
Fire works for lonely hearts that only grow lonelier
Noshing on empty calories for an endless soul
And as for the big itch…the really big itch…
That small thin voice is starved…
Portrait of a Holocaust victim!
So we turn up the tempo
Tapping like a blind man
Louder and more frantically
We are lost as never before.
Woe to us on this bitter day!
We have what to cry about!
3
The Chutzpah around us and within.
The skirts…the so called “styles”…
the pressure to conform
The lewdness …the angry language
Rap -rap -rap….bark -bark –bark!
Bitter and desperate…is the new normal
The almost total loss of respect
Nothing and no one is Holy
The good ones are ridiculed-
The object of derision
For framing a G-dly Image
And dressing as humans do
For keeping the Shabbos Holy
Watching our eyes and tongues!
While pictures of the unthinkable
The pop-ups of our lives
Invade constantly
On every bus that passes by
Our brothers and sisters
Drop like fall leaves
Fewer and fewer hang strong
Woe to us on this bitter day!
We have what to cry about!
4
The inmates are running the asylum.
Clouds of chaos gather all around
Bombs are fashioned for our final solution
And we are lost in the mirror again.
Wondering if we are loved or looking good
70 wolves salivate with teeth like daggers
Aimed to devour our tiny flock!
Where are we?
Busy with our cell phones
Texting our way to oblivion
Dealing with emergencies of little import
Consumed by crumb size concerns
Like Chometz…And the size of our noses
Woe to us on this bitter day!
We have what to cry about!
5
The Chillul HASHEM
We have lost our luster
Suspicion surrounds us
The Nation of HASHEM
The people of truth
Are ridiculed and considered low
While every sports team and slick politician
Has their stadium…Their edifice their complex
Where their glory is on open display
Where is the place of HASHEM in this world?
Billions speak falsely in His name
Identity theft on the grandest scale
Religion is a rejected and dirty word
We are tagged zealots and bigots
For preserving four cubit of Halacha
This is our crime
And so we owe the world an apology
HASHEM and we His People
Share all time low approval ratings
For this we truly owe a broken heart
Woe to us on this bitter day!
We have what to cry about!
6
What can be done when what’s done is done?
Who can rebuild such a wall torn down?
Our Holy Temple is destroyed!
Echoing in the cosmos
Is a muffled scream!
Of unspeakable abuse
A silent crime!
Against our most beautiful daughters
Made to suffer alone
Scarred in a way
No one can say
With more than broken hearts
Shattered Tablets
And bitter memories
Bleed bad blood
And families crumble
With no happy choices
But to seek greatness
And avoid the pit of insanity
There I said it! Without saying it!
Woe to us on this bitter day!
We have what to cry about!
7
Where are our boys
Our three boys
The cry of a nation
How can we go up to our father
and the youth are not with us?
How can we go up to our Father in Heaven
and youthful innocence is no longer with us?
HASHEM wants the heart!
Where’s the heart?
A frantic cry and persistent search!
The pain of parents…all parents
Amplified and Magnified
The frustration of a nation
Turned sudden victims
Imprisoned by the worst news
Too little…too late
Savages have ravaged us
In our most sacred home
Three sweet faces of joy
Plucked from our midst
For the sake of pure cruelty
Our hearts… are shattered
Our minds are raging and
We are painfully aware
They are all our children
A piece of each of us is torn away
On this day of brutal truth!
We have what to cry about!
8
How did it happen? Where are you?
Unanswerable questions!
Persist in their asking!
Where a person’s mind is…
Says the Ba’al Shem Tov
That is where he is entirely!
So with a single Holy thought!
One of 60,000 a day!
An apple…a golden apple
Is rescued from the thieves
And goodness is restored
When opening our inner eyes
We begin to realize
The ground we are standing upon
Is not less than the Holy of Holies
The shoes are easily removed
A Burning bush…is revealed
We survived! We survived!
Till this historic moment!
You and I together
With a song …the wail of a longing heart…
Brought history and destiny to meet and embrace
As tearful friends reunited!
After thousands of years!
Moshiach is born!
On this special day!
We have what to cry about!

We Have What to Cry About!

Kinah for Tisha B’Av
By Rabbi label Lam

Woe to us on this bitter day! We have what to cry about!
Woe for all the heads without Tefillin
After 3700 years from Avraham Avinu
After having survived Holocausts and Inquisitions…
Jewish boys and girls blunder
In the darkness that plagues our generation
And go lost by the millions
With visions of isms and instant pleasures
Rapt in utter ignorance
Bathed in a blue light they may never escape
And generations and giant whole families
Holy congregations have disappeared
For nothing!
And their names dead ended
Now only grace lonely stones
In forgotten cemeteries
Bearing words their children
Those that had- Could never read
Woe to us on this bitter day! We have what to cry about!

The pervasive angst of isolation!
Microwaves our very beings!
We feel beaten from within.
The continuous waves of psychological pain.
We suffer with a wry smile and a diet coke.
The gnawing insecurity and emptiness.
It brings us to search for things that do not exist.
The sublime is substituted with the virtual.
Pictures and fantasies tickle n’ dissolve like
Cotton candy for the eyes…in a world of lies
Fire works for lonely hearts that only grow lonelier
Noshing on empty calories for an endless soul
And as for the big itch…the really big itch…
That small thin voice is starved…
Portrait of a Holocaust victim!
So we turn up the tempo
Tapping like a blind man
Louder and more frantically
We are lost as never before.
Woe to us on this bitter day! We have what to cry about!

Read more We Have What to Cry About!

On Davening as a BT

Davening is the place where the BT can feel vindicated. Park for a moment the speed factor: that is keeping up or better yet catching up with the Minyan. In the private sense, I think most BT’s tend to take the Avodah- the job of it seriously and are shocked and outraged when in the place of prayer they occasionally find others involved in all kinds of distracting behavior including talking.

We BT’s are usually idealistic. We come to the table primarily interested in connecting with HASHEM. The Siddur is not seen as a school-book and Prayer was never experienced as an activity that was ever thrust upon us as a requirement. It is in fact one of the most safe and rewarding places for a BT. Why might that be generally so?
Read more On Davening as a BT

A Knowing Heart

And Moshe said so to the children of Israel, and they did not listen to Moshe because of “shortness of breath” and the difficulty of the work. (Shemos 6:9)

Because of shortness of breath and the difficulty of the work: not because they didn’t believe in HASHEM and his prophecy, but they just couldn’t pay attention to his words because of the pressure from the hard work. (Ramban)

Now Moshe had just given over the news – the prophecy of the redemption. That should have excited the hearts of the people but they remained numb. It should have been cause for celebration but it turned out to be a point of frustration for Moshe. The Torah does not tell us that they did not believe in Moshe or his prophecy, but only that they could not hear it because of the pressure. It is explicitly stated earlier that they believed in Moshe but now they were just unable to process the promise. Since “we are believers and the children of believers”, it’s therefore, not natural for a Jew not to believe. Not everyone is fully aware of the presence of this “believing-self” though, for multiple reasons.

My own personal experience interacting with many types of people for a few decades plus- tells me the same. An anecdotal- case in point: A young man I know very well who is, how shall I say, married to a situation that closes his mind to an authentic search for meaning in Torah and Mitzvos; He was out of work for some time and was very excited to tell me when he finally landed a new job. He explained in detail how the event unfolded. He had gone for a job interview on a late Friday afternoon in midtown Manhattan and then proceeded to Grand Central Station for the train ride home. He got the call first thing Monday morning. He realized then retroactively that they must have been discussing which candidate was most worthy for the job just at that time when he was going through Grand Central Terminal on his way to the train.

He explained with the conviction of a “true believer” that as he entered the train station that frigid evening he confronted a cold and hungry man begging for help. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a bundle of money including a load of loose change and while pouring into the fellow’s cup he implored him not to spend the money on a drink or drugs but rather on a warm meal.

This secular minded mechanist was convincing me that it was exactly at the same time that he was exercising compassion for this poor stranger that they were making the decision about the fate of his employment status. He then looked to me for approval but I was too stunned with amazement.

Foolishly I fed him his very own words and asked him if he is telling me that that act of charity had somehow catalyzed and caused the committee to select his resume above the others?! Upon hearing my understanding of his account, he recoiled with incredulity and immediately began to re-explain the dynamics at play. “Oh no- they saw the quality of kindliness in me when I was there and they realized that this job requires a people-person not just a number-cruncher. That’s why I got the job!”

Only when confronted consciously with his own chronicle, which was unmistakably filled with a naturally deep faith and trust in the Divine Providence of a living G-d, did he feel the need to revise his-story! He just couldn’t hear of it because of certain external circumstances.

Recently a young lady called me stressed out with news that a cousin of hers had declared that he does not believe in HASHEM. After a lengthy discussion about how she might approach him, I told her that I don’t believe that he doesn’t believe in HASHEM. He might speak brazenly with bold words and loads of bravado to make some shocking proclamations, but deep down inside, I strongly suspect, there beats a knowing heart.

The Battle of Our Lives

When you go out to war against your enemy…(Devarim 21:10)

The Torah only speaks versus the yetzer hara- the negative inclination(Rashi)

While still an unmarried yeshiva man I started learning with a friend the classic ethical work Mesilas Yesharim- The Path of the Just by Moshe Chaim Luzzato. Right before the semester was to end we reached a line in the book that baffled us. We closed the cover for the summer break with a big question mark hovering overhead. Describing the human condition, he writes, In truth a man is placed in the midst of a raging battle, since all things in this world whether good or not are tests for the man. We wondered aloud, What war? If we would ask the man in the street if hes aware of the raging battle he might accuse us of being paranoid fools.

A few days later four of us were in the Delaware River in two canoes. After passing the rough rapids, the river became wide and seemingly still, so we decided to treat ourselves. We pulled the canoes onto a flat gray slab of rock and jumped into the now calm lake like waters for a swim.

There I was floating on my back, soaking up the warm rays of the sun, and reveling in the experience. I shouted to the others, Hey guys, this is great! We gotta come back here again! I waited for some response. I soon realized that they were gone. Where were the canoes? Wheres that flat gray rock that was there moments ago? That could not have moved. I began to realize, as I was treading water, that the current had pulled me far down stream.

So, I started to swim back. It was not easy at all. The subtle imperceptible force of the river that had carried me so far so fast was now weighing heavily against me. It took a Herculean effort and it left me drained just to get back to where I had once been.

Weeks later, when we reopened the books, the lesson became clear. Why does that raging war seem to be the stuff of fiction? Perhaps, the reason is because so many are so often floating blissfully unaware going with the flow down stream. However, when we make any simple effort to improve, to change our direction, the weight of the river, the inertia of a lifetime of habits and attitudes are bearing down dissuading and discouraging us. Only with a determined will and great effort can we recover old ideals and then hope to move swimmingly beyond.

The Chovos HaLevavos-Duties of the Heart tells an apocryphal story about a certain pious man that confronted some soldiers returning with the spoils of war after vanquishing their enemy in a fierce battle. He told them, Now that you are returning victorious from the small battle, get ready for the big battle. They asked him in great wonderment, Which big battle? He answered them, The battle with your self!

As we prepare to weigh in for another new year it would be nice to think that all the effort and striving we have invested in the last many months have left us somewhat improved. We hope we have not yielded sacred ground in what we may to realize is nothing less than the battle of our lives.

Have a good Shabbos

Feeling Human Beings

HASHEM said to Moshe, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the land; it shall become lice throughout the land of Egypt.’” (Shemos 8:12)

Say to Aaron: This plague was not initiated by Moshe for the soil did not deserve to be stricken by Moshe because it protected him when he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. Therefore it was stricken by Aaron. (Rashi)

What great deference is shown to the soil of Egypt!? Even while Egypt is being disassembled plague after plague Moshe is disqualified from striking the dust because it had saved him. What’s going on here? Does the dust of Egypt really care whether Moshe or Aaron hits it? What would be so terrible if Moshe would be the one?

I recently heard the following remarkable story: Rabbi Yisaschar Frand was approached after a lecture he gave somewhere in Connecticut, by a somewhat elderly gentleman with a slight European accent wishing to register a serious complaint. Politely but firmly the man insisted that he had a problem with something that Rabbi Frand had written in one of his books on Parshas “Lech Lecha” on the verse where Avraham is promised by HASHEM that He will bless those who bless Avraham. Rabbi Frand asked to be reminded what he had written. With almost perfect recall the man reminded the Rabbi.

There was a story told there with great attention to historical detail, about a Jewish family during the 2nd World War that in desperation, anticipating the brutal invasion of the Nazis, had to give up their precious son to a gentile family. They understood there was a good chance they may never return, and therefore they made an appeal to the host family that if by any chance they did not come back they should contact family in Silver Spring, Maryland. They were provided with all the necessary information before the parents disappeared.

After the dust of war had begun to settle it became clear that the parents were not coming back to pick up their child and it was a safe assumption that they had perished. The host family then took the child to the local priest and requested that he baptize the boy. The priest asked them why they were baptizing a now older child. It is usually done earlier. The parents gleefully related that it was a Jewish child that they were left to care for and how the parents had intrusted them to send him to relatives America if they failed to return. The priest listened to all they had to say and he then refused to baptize the Jewish child. He insisted that if the parents wanted him to be sent to his relatives that is what they are morally obligated to do, and that is what they did. As it turns out that Polish priest was later appointed to become Pope and so he stood on the world stage for many decades, Pope John Paul. Rabbi Frand was highlighting that perhaps the enormous honor that redounded to that priest was for doing the right thing and refusing to baptize a Jewish child and insisting he be reunited with his family’s family.

Rabbi Frand asked the man what was wrong with the story or the message of the story. At this the man became very emotional and he told Rabbi Frand, “I am that boy! How could you cast my adopted parents in such a negative light.?! They saved my life! They are like my real family! I send them money! I visit them every year! How could you write about them that way?!”

Rabbi E.E. Dessler ztl.. explains that of course the dust of Egypt is inanimate and void of feelings. Striking it would only have had a negative effect on the character of Moshe. For him to do so would diminish his sensitivity in the realm of gratitude. Now we can estimate “how much more so” with feeling human beings”.

Not Good Enough

And Yaakov remained alone and a man wrestled with him until break of dawn. And he saw that he could not defeat him so he grabbed him in the hollow of his thigh and he dislocated the hollow of Yaakov’s thigh with his wrestling with him. And he said, “Send me because the dawn has broken.” And he said, “I will not send you unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Yaakov!” And he said, “No long will your name be Yaakov but rather Israel, because you struggled with the Divine and man and you prevailed.” And Yaakov asked and he said, “Tell me please, what your name is?” And he said, “Why is it that you ask for my name?” And he blessed him there. (Breishis 32:25-30)

This is a very odd dialogue. After wrestling an entire night, the man that Yaakov wrestled with became desperate to leave. Yaakov refused to let him go without first receiving his blessing. The man tells him that his name is no long Yaakov but rather Israel. Why does Yaakov demand a blessing from his opponent? Why does he accept a change of his name as a blessing? What does that mean? Who was the person with whom Yaakov struggled all night long?

I’m not such a numerologist. Numbers go through my system like diet soda. I like chunky calorie rich ideas. However with regard to Yaakov and his name change there is an amazingly instructive way of appreciating what happened with a few simple calculations. The numerical value of the name Yaakov (Yud-10+Ayin-70+Kuf-100+Beis-2) equals 182. Our sages inform us that Yaakov was victorious that night against not less the “yetzer hora”-the negative inclination. Another name for that opposing force in Hebrew is Satan. The name Satan when spelled out numerically (Sin-300+Tes-9+Nun-50) equals 359. It is a curious fact that Yaakov (182) plus Satan (359) together add up to Yisrael (Yud-10+Sin-300+Reish-200+Aleph-1+Lamed-30=541). What are we to make of this discovery, not my own?

The sages offer a curious comment on the verse, “And G-d saw all he created and behold it was very good!” (Breishis 1:31) Why did everything suddenly improve from good to “very good”?

The simple answer, we would think of, is that after all the good quality ingredients are harmoniously blended together a new synergistic whole that is greater than the sum of its parts emerges and that is what is “very good”. Our sages say, “Very good! This is the evil inclination!” Whoa! What a shocker! What does that mean? Let us try two approaches.

1)It could be that as Reb Tzadok HaKohen wrote that wherever we struggle the most, wherever the Yezter Hora has invested so much energy, there in that spot, is the where our greatest potential lies. If we would peak into the Kremlin during the cold war and observe that they have a thousand warheads aimed at some benign location on the plains of Kansas where there sits an elderly man on his front porch smoking a corncob pipe and rocking in his chair while his old hound Boo slumbers, we may wonder, “What’s he got in that pipe?” However, when we dig a few stories beneath the surface we discover America has a secret silo with thousands of weapons pointed at strategic locations in Russia.

It’s not unusual that in the overcoming of a given difficulty a person can make his greatest achievements. I know of a man of with a great record of helping people that testified that he has a cruel streak and in curing himself from that tendency he found the milk of human kindliness buried beneath the shale of his callous nature.

2) Imagine that the Israeli army has chased the Syrian army to the Golan and their soldiers have abandoned their tanks as they scramble back to Damascus. Would the Israeli army just leave all that valuable equipment there? No! They would incorporate them into their own arsenal.

So too Yaakov was not going to send away his negative inclination in defeat. He was now ready to subjugate and sublimate all worldly forces in the service of HASHEM. This signals a grand expansion of potential for Yaakov, and such a major merger calls for a new name. With the surrendered weapons of the Yeter Hora in his employment the promise for Israel is no longer a life of mild goodness. However good it is, it’s not good enough.

Meaning and Purpose: A Good Beginning

(B’reishis) In the beginning of G-d having created the heavens and the earth- (Breishis 1:1)

(Reishis) The beginning of wisdom is fear of HASHEM! (Tehillim 110:11)

We know the Torah is not a book of cosmology for the curious but rather a book of instruction. What can we learn from the Torah’s first words?

The story is told about an extraordinarily wealthy person, we’ll call Mr. Vanderbilt. He wanted to go on an exotic vacation so he sent a servant on a mission to prepare the way. An ideal island with a fancy hotel was discovered. The advance scout came into the impressive lobby where he was met by the manager of the hotel. This emissary suggested strongly that Mr. Vanderbilt likes Gothic architecture and if they could please make that arrangement to be done in two weeks. The manager agreed, “Sure, for Mr. Vanderbilt? Anything!” Then the manager opened the master suite. The man was favorably impressed but he suggested to the manager that Mr. Vanderbilt is rather fond of a Greek motif. “If you could just put up some Greek columns and drapes and make it like the acropolis.” The manger agreed, “For Mr. Vanderbilt? Anything!” Then they went to inspect the beach. The fine sand and blue waters were on open display. Mr. Vanderbilt’s front man informed him again that his boss likes sand with varying textures. He wondered if different size particles could be imported for the occasion of his visit. The manager responded, “For Mr. Vanderbilt? Anything!” Turning their attention to the clear blue sky and ideal weather conditions the manager bragged, “It’s always just like this!” “HMMMMMM! Mr. Vanderbilt likes a cloud in the sky. Is there anything that can be done?” With all the professionalism he could muster the manager assured him, “For Mr. Vanderbilt? Anything!”

Two weeks later Mr. Vanderbilt arrives. Entering the lobby he is excited to see Gothic décor. In the deluxe suite he beholds to his delight the sheer elegance of Greek columns draped tastefully with fine silk cloth. Striding onto the beach his feet are pleased by the variety and textures of sand particles between his toes. Now reclining on his beach chair his eyes are vaulted to blue sky where a plane has inconspicuously just deposited a soft white puffy-cloud hovering overhead. Mr. Vanderbilt breaths a deep sigh expressing his most sublime delight and then he declares aloud, “This place is so exquisitely beautiful. Who needs money?”

If this would be a fundraising dinner for a Yeshiva, this would be the time for an appeal. Who needs money? One enters a building where everything is well-built to accommodate the students’ every need: There are masterful Rebbeim, instruments of climate control, and tasty food too just to be certain learning and growth takes place. It’s all a result of great effort, planning, and yes, money that makes this setting of perfection possible. It’s engineered so elegantly that one may be deluded into thinking, “Who needs money? Everything makes itself!”

So it is with this world. In six days of creation a stage is built with such precision and care that the benefactors of that excellence may stride a bit too casually at times and imagine foolishly, “Who needs G-d? Everything makes itself!”

Rabbi Yeruchim Levovitz ztl. writes, “As soon as you start studying the Torah, right from the first verse: “In the beginning The Almighty created…” you become aware that there is a Creator and Ruler of the universe. This first awareness already makes a major change in you for the rest of your life. You realize that there is a real reason for everything. The world has meaning and purpose.” A good beginning!

The Heart Really Matters

Why do we read the Book of Ruth on Shevuos? One answer is that Ruth was the great-grandmother of King David who was born on Shevuos and 70 years later died on Shevuos. Still, what does King David have to do with Shevuos in particular?

Our sages tell us that “the king is the heart of the nation!” What does that mean? The king as a leader doesn’t tell the people what to think. He rather, amplifies the pulse of the people. He tells us what we really feel. In Tehillim-Psalms King David expresses prophetically the highest aspirations and moorings of the Jewish heart, individually and collectively. He reveals for us a G-d intoxicated intellect. He writes, “What’s good for me is being close to G-d!” (Tehillim 73:28) What King David artfully articulates in Tehillim is the authentic heart of the nation.

In the fourth chapter having to do with trust in G-d, The Chovos HaLevavos makes a surprisingly strong claim regarding the requirement to develop “duties of the heart”. He states that Olam Haba- the world to come is not a necessary result of the external performance of Mitzvos but rather a function of the internal dimension of those Mitzvos. He informs us that the outer aspect of the Mitzvos yields a “this worldly” benefit while the next world is a consequence of the depth and direction of the heart. Ultimately, Olam Haba is based on a relationship. It is not a business deal with a quid pro quo. One can no more expect by coldly dropping flowers on the table or even a diamond that love will automatically flow in return.

When I was yet an unmarried Yeshiva student, we had the great honor of meeting a holy man. The Manchester Rav, Rabbi Yehuda Zev Segal ztl. prayed with us the afternoon service. Long after most of us had finished saying our prayers he remained bent over, shaking and weeping all the while. We watched in awe without knowing exactly what we were witnessing. I remember saying quietly to the fellow next to me, “I wonder what he did so wrong!”

Days later while eating a Shabbos meal at the home of one of the rabbis we were discussing the visitor we had been treated to that week. The Rabbi told us that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ztl. had considered the Manchester Rav to be one of the thirty-six hidden Tzadikim of the generation. I had a knack for asking obvious questions that elicited sharp responses, so I queried aloud, “If he is singled out, publicly as one of these hidden Tzadikim then he’s no longer hidden. His true identity has been exposed, his cover is blown and he cannot by definition be one of the thirty-six hidden Tzadikim in whose merit the world exists.”

The Rabbi looked at me with a look that shouted. I wondered what I had said so wrong. It was a good question I thought. Then he gently but intensely explained, “Label, you think you see him? You see his beard. You see his hands. You see his eyes, but do you really think you see who he is? He holds a Siddur and prays the same words as you and me and look at the chemical reaction those words have within him. He puts on Tefillin and so do you. You can be sure that his is somehow different than yours. The outside is merely the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the limbs and the deeds he does there’s a whole hidden continent of love and devotion we could never hope to fathom.”

Where Are You?

And it was as they took them out that one said, “Flee for your life! Do not look behind you or stop anywhere in all the plain Flee to the mountain lest you be swept away!”…….Now HASHEM had caused sulfur and fire to rain upon Sodom and Gomorrah, from HASHEM, out of heaven. He overturned these cities and the entire plain, with all the inhabitant of the cities and the vegetation of the soil. His (Lot’s) wife peered behind him and she became a pillar of salt. (Breishis 19:17- 26)

This is one of the most famous incidents of the Torah. Lot’s wife looked back and became a pillar of salt. Why? Why did she look there? Why was she punished so severely? What’s so bad about looking back to survey the destruction?

Fritz Schultz was a German industrialist who, seeing an opportunity to make great profit employing Jews as laborers, ran a large group of factories in the Ghetto that provided supplies to the German army. The work was considered essential to the war effort, so the lives of the workers were temporarily spared. Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Shapiro was assigned work in a shoe factory that Avraham Hendel had owned before the war and that Hendel now managed for Schultz.

Besides providing reprieve from deportation, the shoe factory enabled Rabbi Shapiro and the other scholars to continue their studies right under the noses of their taskmasters. The atmosphere in the factory has been described by an eye witness, Hillel Seidman, in his Warsaw Ghetto Diary:

“Now I am in Schultz factory; I have come at the time when people are both hammering in nails and reciting Hoshana prayers. Here are gathered, thanks to one of the directors, Mr. Avraham Hendel, the elite of the Orthodox community; Chassidic Masters, Rabbis, scholars, religious community organizers, well-known Chassidim.

Sitting behind the anvil for shoe repairing…is the Koziglover Rav, Yehuda Aryeh Frimer, once Dean of Yeshivat Chochmei Lublin. He is sitting here but his spirit is sailing in other worlds. He continues his studies from memory, without interruption his lips moving constantly. From time to time he addresses a word to the Piaseczner Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Shapiro, the author of Chovos HaTalmidim, who is sitting opposite him, and a subdued discussion on a Torah topic ensues. Talmudic and Rabbinic quotations fly back and forth; soon there appear on the anvil, -or, to be precise, on the minds and lips of these brilliant scholars- the words of Maimonoides and Ravad, the author of the Tur, Rama, earlier and later authorities. The atmosphere in the factory is filled with the opinions of eminent scholars, so who cares about the S.S., the German overseers, the hunger, suffering, persecution and fear of death? They are really sailing in the upper worlds; they’re not sitting in a factory on Nowolopie 46, but rather in the Hall of the Sanhedrin…” (The Holy Fire by Polen)

The Baal Shem Tov had said, “Wherever a person’s mind is, that is where they are entirely.” The mind then is both an extremely useful and dangerous tool. This is perhaps where Lot’s wife went wrong. She seems to have left her “heart in San Francisco”, as the song goes. When she looked back she betrayed her longing for what was left behind which was in the process of being destroyed. Since this is where her mind was, that’s where she was entirely and so she too became a petrified piece of the historical landscape.

With this, maybe now we can try to comprehend what was meant by the words spoken to Adam and Chava after they nibbled on the fruit of the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” and because of what entered their minds they hid. The Almighty approached and simply asked, “Where are you?”

And Straight Again!

I stumbled upon a list of aphorisms and one-liners from one of the premier Baalei Musar-Masters of Ethical Teachings, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, also known as the Alter from Kelm. One phrase made me chuckle at first but I realized it wasn’t and couldn’t be a joke so I highlighted it and parked it in a file entitled, “more thought required”. The statement goes as follows: “Torah is divided into three portions; 1) Simplicity 2) Complexity 3) Simplicity!” That’s it! Get it!? Which one of these is not like the other? Two of the three are exactly the same! What are and why are there three parts when only two different ones are listed?

A model for explanation may be found in the Rosh Chodesh Bentching, when prior to each new month we pause in synagogue to recite some prayers of hope. Amongst the handful of items we cry out for is that this month should be filled with: “fear of heaven”, and that it contain wealth and honor, and not have embarrassment and shame, and then at the end of the list again we ask for “fear of heaven”. Twice! Why is it mentioned twice on the same short list? The answer is given that there is a “fear of heaven” that comes before wealth and honor and before embarrassment and shame and there’s another brand of “fear of heaven” that comes after the experience of wealth and honor and embarrassment and shame.
Read more And Straight Again!

The Blessed Present

See I place before you today blessing and curse… (Devarim 11:26)

All the days of the impoverished (of the mind) are bad while the one with a good heart- (mind) is always drinking. (Mishle’ 15:15)

Why is it often so hard to see the blessing? Why do we tend to obsess with -“what’s wrong with this picture?”

One of the three reasons offered by the Chovos HaLevavos- Duties of the Heart is that HASHEM is so consistently good that by the time we are old enough to intelligently appreciate what is happening we are already accustomed to it. However magnificent it may be most goes unnoticed.

He gives an example of a child left on a door step. A couple had mercy and raised this child from infancy to adulthood having cared for him by executing countless acts of goodness. Now that child is a married adult with a job, a house, and family of his own. The couple also took pity on an adult prisoner. They negotiated his release. They rehabbed him and eventually found him a job, a house, and wife. Who will be quicker to express gratitude? For whom was more done? For the prisoner dramatic change was experienced when his adult eyes and ears were plugged in. Similarly, men tend to quietly believe that socks are born in the sock drawer. You put them down the chute and they magically reappear clean and coupled, and so too that orb of light will arise in the east and dance overhead daily and sweet orange globes of will predictably dangle from the ends of woody branches.
Read more The Blessed Present

Rabbi Label Lam on Personal Growth Lessons from Tu B’Shevat

Tonight begins Tu B’Shevat and Rabbi Label Lam gave a wonderful Drasha earlier this month where he looked at the Mishna in Pirkei Avos which states “Rabbi Yaakov said, one who is walking along the road and is studying [Torah], and then interrupts his studies and says, ‘How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this plowed field!’, the Scripture considers it as if he bears the guilt for his own soul.”

In questioning what is the great crime here and why the cases of a tree and a plowed field is chosen, Rabbi Lam uncovers some powerful personal growth lessons that we can glean from the holiday of trees.

Click on this link to listen to Rabbi Lam on Personal Growth Lessons from Tu B’Shevat. (To download the file to your computer, click with the right mouse button on the link and select Save Target As)