Purim – It’s Not a Party for the Non-Observant

When I first came to yeshiva in Israel it happened to be this time of year leading up to the holiday of Purim. There was an interest and an excitement amongst the students and Rabbis. Since I didn’t really know what it was all about, I was kind of keeping it at a distance from myself in my mind and focusing on my studies. I had come to yeshiva seeking the answers to life’s most important questions and I had found a happy home there delving into the meaning of life, morality, and spirituality.

I noticed leading up to Purim that more and more people were saying to me how much I was going to enjoy the holiday and how much fun it would be. The implication was that since I was secular, and secular people like parties, I would like Purim because it’s a party. However, as Purim got closer, and the holiday was not really being explained to me, I forced an older student to go through the Megillah with me so I’d know a little bit more what the holiday is about.

Once Purim descended upon us I understood it to some extent, but I was highly unimpressed with the party aspect. You see as far as secular parties go it wasn’t much. Sure some costumes were interesting and it was different seeing the Rabbis more relaxed, but I was there in yeshiva for spirituality, not to party. In fact, since it was hyped so much by people it was even more of a let down.

Maybe all the guys had loved Purim their first time and thought I would too. Or maybe they forgot what it was like the first time. There are many good reasons for their enthusiasm and assumption I would enjoy the Purim parties. But my experience was flat and unexciting. My feeling was they were cheapening my search for spirituality by assuming I would love to drink cheap wine and dance in a circle.

Now that I’m frum and don’t watch T.V. or go to secular parties, the Purim parties are a lot of fun. And I’ve learned to appreciate the spirituality that’s hidden in the party.

But with my students, I try not to get there hopes up about the partying because for most of them, they could go to a party that’s a lot more fun and intoxicating. And I try to give them the benefit of the doubt that the reason they are studying with me is to get more spirituality in their lives. So I try to educate them about the deeper meaning behind the masks.

And then I pour them a glass of cheap wine.

Originally published March 6, 2006

Fifty Ways to Meet Your Lover (Sefirat HaOmer)

Mystical writings make this time period analogous to a woman preparing for union with her lover. She purifies herself for seven days. Seven is also the number of types of impurity that must be eliminated, and in our case linked to seven weeks, the time period between Passover and the Biblical holiday of Shavuot, forty-nine days called Sefirat HaOmer, “Counting the Omer”. God reveals all wisdom that there is to know on the fiftieth day, Shavuot, symbolized by the consummation of a marriage. In other words, to learn wisdom is to become one with the Infinite.

Therefore “spiritual purification” is a theme of these fifty days. Each day is designated for us to pray for and work towards a small piece of spirituality.

Don’t get me wrong, anyone who wants God’s wisdom can have it. He loves everyone and wants to give to them. But the more we are equipped to deal with it the more useful it will be.

There’s an old story of a person who seeks to speak with a wise Zen master.

As the proposed disciple sits before the master, the disciple begins to expound on his own knowledge to impress the master. The master stays quiet and begins to pour tea into a cup for the visitor. After the cup is full the master continues to pour until the tea is pouring over the sides causing the disciple to jump up and yell “Stop, the cup is full and can hold no more!”

The wise Zen master replies, “And what about you? Are you full of wisdom? If so, there is no more room for me to teach you anything.”

Wisdom is being poured out from above, but we have to be ready to receive it. Are we humble enough to know how little we know about marriage, parenting, happiness, and meaning? If so we will hit the jackpot.


Step by Step

We are commanded to count each and every day between Passover and Shavuot. This implies that spiritual growth is best achieved step by step, one day at a time. Our soul wants to soar straight to the Infinite. Our body also wants to become holy overnight so it doesn’t have to work. The real path, though, is to fire up a burning desire for purity every single day, working step by step to make progress on the ladder to the Heavens.

Seven Shepherds

One path the sages recommend to grab this opportunity is to emulate the Seven Shepherds. Each week is designated for a different holy one to try to be like.

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David each represents a different character trait. The first week is dedicated to Abraham, the second to Isaac, and so on. There are seven kabbalistic terms in Hebrew that do not lend themselves to an English translation so I will describe an aspect of them instead.

1st Week:
Abraham exemplifies the quality of Chesed, a trait evidenced in his extreme love of mankind. This first week, in order to purify yourself and tap into the flow of Divine assistance, we can look for the positive things in others that bring to the surface that natural love in our hearts for all humanity. If the Almighty can love all His children, so can we.

2nd Week:
Isaac exemplifies Gevura, a trait of discipline and inner strength. He never wavered from whatever he deemed the will of God. To imitate him we can focus our attention on things we are doing that we know are not God’s will and eradicate them.

3rd Week:
Jacob is Tiferet, the ability to be in harmony with all forces. Sometimes he fought, sometimes he bowed. He knew how to handle every single person that came his way. He even had two names which showed his flexibility. He blessed each of his children, showing that he spent time considering the nature of each child, trying to give each one what he needed, encouragement, rebuke, insight, etc. We can do this too by thinking deeply about each of our close family and friends and think about what each person needs.

4th Week:
Moses is Netzach, the Torah’s eternal conduit. We can emulate him by studying the insights of the Torah and try to remove any of our own personal influence on the insights, looking for the pure unadulterated truth.

5th Week:
Aaron is Hod, a trait which made him beloved by all who knew him. He loved peace and did everything he could to bring peace into the world at every opportunity. We all want people to get along, but how many of us are doing anything about it? This fifth week we can emulate Aaron by doing something practical and specific that brings more peace in the world.

6th Week:
Joseph is Yesod, similar to Jacob’s ability to relate to all people, Joseph’s ability was to be able to bond with, join, and become a part of each and every person he met. He easily and successfully became a trusted assistant wherever he went, whether with Jacob, Potiphar (an Egyptian official), the jailer of the dungeon, or to Pharaoh himself. He was immediately trusted because he truly felt the pain of each person he met. We can imitate him by trying to become one with the people we know and their challenges to the point they truly trust us.

7th Week:
David is Malchut, a trait that allowed him to connect his own royal power and tie it to the Almighty. Power corrupts unless you constantly remind yourself that your power is only the Divine putting you in a position like a marionette puppet. When all others were afraid of Goliath, David said, “Are you going to let this guy curse the Almighty? HaShem will help you defeat him.” David knew that the Almighty runs the show at all times. “To You are the greatness, the strength, the harmony, the permanence, and the glory….” We can look at all of our abilities or power roles this week and see how we are merely a conduit for the Almighty.

If you try to emulate each character trait for one week of the seven week period you will experience a new type of enlightenment at the end. This is a simple straightforward approach to the Sefirah period. A more complicated approach uses all seven traits each week. Because each trait is incomplete without all the other six. You can’t have real love like Abraham if you don’t include Isaac’s awe of God. Otherwise you’ll transgress God’s laws to fulfill your love. You’ll spoil your children and become a doormat to your spouse. Each trait properly includes all the others. So a complicated approach to the 50 days has a different combination of two traits each day.

Our tradition says that the Israelites accomplished this when they left Egypt and fifty days later received the Torah.

Riding the Escalator of Life

Sometimes we get a special gift. When you work on spirituality in a consistent way the Almighty opens up a gate for you that you might not have imagined. If you look for reminders of what you are working on you will also notice on a daily basis how the Almighty is guiding and directing your efforts at self-growth. This daily testament to His role in our daily life is comforting and keeps us connected. But when we get that special gift, sometimes a whole new world opens up.

Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch) had an angel come to him and teach him many secrets because of his consistent study of the Mishna, the Oral Tradition. We are not all going to have such a special and holy event happen to us like that but each on our own individual level will receive a boost.

Kind of like that way someone gets “discovered” after plugging away for many years at something. Kimya Dawson was a relatively unknown recording a performing artist for years until one day an actress in a movie called “Juno” recommended her recording with the Moldy Peaches for the soundtrack which became a chartbuster. Now Kimya Dawson is “suddenly” a recognized star. Suddenly….after years of continuous effort. In the spiritual world it happens too.

Whatever area of growth we want to grab a hold of, consistency and continuity will be helpful, and sometimes they will be the cause of a major leap that propels us into a higher level. Our small path of steps just might be turn into a springboard. Now is the time to take the first step.

First Published on May 14, 2008

Healthy Self-Love

A friend of mine told me his daughter bought him a kipah that’s half velvet and half knit, that says “I love every Jew” in Hebrew. Cute idea that expresses an important point we all need to think about more. Many of my fellow baalei-teshuva have an easy time saying “We should love all different kinds of Jews”. But some of us don’t easily fit in anywhere so it’s easy to say lets love everyone when you don’t really love anyone. Not that “not fitting in” is synonymous with not loving, but we all tend to develop a love for the members of our “group”, and cast aspersions on the others.

Within Orthodoxy against other Orthodox Jews or between Orthodox and Reform etc. Do we really need to puff ourselves up by denigrating others? If you really felt one with the Almighty, that you were an emissary of the Infinite Creator, would you feel the need to denigrate Reform Jews? As Baalei Teshuva, do we have an easier time loving all Jews or a harder time loving all Jews? If we have an easier time we need to share our thoughts with our fellow FFB’s. If we have a harder time, we need to learn from great people like R. Zelig Pliskin, and others how to generate more ahavas Yisroel.

Here’s one tip from our sages:

Healthy criticism is important and we do need to point out flaws in others to avoid them or help others avoid those flaws, but that mitzvah seems to be a little overdone. (The Chofetz Chaim cautions us regarding this in Clal Ches.) There’s more than enough of that going around.

Why does it say to love your fellow man like yourself? Why not just say “love your fellow man”? R. Moshe Rosenstein wrote that a person cannot properly fulfill the mitzvah of ahavas Yisrael if that person doesn’t feel good about his/herself. When you have a healthy self-love you can magnanimously pour your thoughts prayers and actions into others. They are an extension of you. When you feel crummy about yourself, you often will project that onto others. As the gemara says, “kol bmumo posel”. All people criticize others with their own flaws.

Whatever particular group you align yourself with, even if it’s just “observant Judaism”, or the Jewish people, or even just humanity, it’s crucial to feel good about yourself and that group. This doesn’t mean excusing flaws or ignoring areas in which we need to grow. It’s also crucial to be interested in growth. But we especially need to focus on our good points. We need to constantly reflect on what we are doing right, and what is positive about us. Not to put down others, but to appreciate ourselves.

From that base of healthy self-love we can spread it to everyone else.

Originally Published 11/05/2009

7 Habits of Highly Successful BT’s

Originally Posted on Dec 11, 2006

(OK, I’m not a know-it-all, these are just some things I THINK are extremely helpful, certainly not the last word.)

1. Don’t become irreligious. Not even for a short while. Not even to get back with your old boyfriend/girlfriend for one last fling.

2. Cut yourself some slack. You can’t keep the exact same standards in all places at all times. While in Israel and in Yeshiva life is easy, keeping kosher, doing all the mitzvos is easy. Once you leave, the real test begins. You need some wiggle room.

3. Your relationships with your family members are more important than whether or not they join your brand of observance. Don’t sever ties with your family. Don’t flaunt your stringencies to “teach” them. The people who have you over for shabbos won’t travel across the world if you’re in the hospital, your family will.

4. Learn enough halacha to know when you can be lenient. Difficult situations often can be alleviated with knowledge. Learn the difference between a Torah prohibition and a rabbinic one. Learn the difference between a minhag, a chumrah, and ikkur hadin.

5. Find a Rav who is sensitive to BT situations. The Rabbis with the most halachic knowledge and clout aren’t necessarily the best judge of how to deal with irreligious family and friends. Your local Orthodox Rabbi might be a better source than the gadol hador for certain questions.

6. When you ask a Shailph that may end up with a major family rift, make sure you inform the Rav (you ask) of the consequences of your following his psak. Don’t just ask, “Is it permissible to go to an intermarriage?” Explain how not going may mean your entire family will disown you and never speak to you again. Ask “Is there any type of compromise I can make for them?”

7. Remember that nothing is a coincidence. Always question why Hashem put you in this position. Why did he pick you of all people out of the millions of uneducated Jews to come close to His holy Torah? There must be something special about you and what you offer to the already observant and the not yet observant. Fulfill your mission.

The Joy of Repentance

Do you know anyone who relates to the idea of repentance with joy and happiness? Looking forward to that sore tuchas from sitting so long in synagogue? Can there be trepidation for the Day of Judgment and awe for the Day of Atonement and also an uplifted positive spirit? You bet your sore tuchas.

It’s all a matter of focus. When you are doing teshuva, repentance before the High Holy Days, every effort you make is rewarded. You are placed in a win/win situation. If you are able to better yourself in anyway, you will reap infinite rewards in this world and the next. When a law student is up for the Bar Exam it is either pass or fail. There is no credit given for the years of law school or the late nights preparing. You are either confirmed a lawyer or not. One gentleman in Los Angeles worked as a law clerk for 24 years taking the exam twice a year and failing each time until finally he was able to pass. Of course, you have to admire his persistence. But in the physical world, there is no real reward for preparing for the Bar Exam. In the spiritual world it is the opposite. You can feel joy every time you make the smallest effort on behalf of your soul.

The word “repentance” brings up concepts of Heaven and Hell, reward and punishment, which makes many people uncomfortable. If you are one of these people, you need to change the words. Don’t think about repenting; think about spiritual growth. You can use any words you want – “I’m giving myself a mental floss.” Or “I’m getting a moral upgrade with more speed and more memory.” Does it really matter what words you use? The main thing is to do something, anything to effect a better person.

When you think about it, each one of us is like a sculpture. We are created as raw material and our job in this life is to mold, shape, sculpt a more perfect you. Hopefully, every new year you are a tiny bit wiser and have the ability to look over all of your values and principles. Make a list of your goals. Ask yourself if you want to have more or better friends. Ask yourself if any one of your close relationships could be better. Work on controlling anger. Work on being more forgiving. Work on being less materialistic. Whatever you want. This is the time period that is ripe for introspection and self-growth. Now is the time that the spiritual world opens up to aid you in your quest to be a better person.

Any accomplishment in the physical world can only cause temporary joy. If you win a bowling trophy it only gives you joy to take it out and impress someone who hasn’t seen it yet. The experience of winning a game is momentary. The St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series last year. This year nobody really cares. It’s a new season; a new team. Now is the time to focus on spirituality. Ask yourself if by next year you want to be on a higher level of spirituality. Do you want to be less petty? Do you want to have more respect for yourself? Do you want to know how to love more?

In the time leading up to the holidays the joy is not only in the accomplishment of achieving growth in an area you want to grow in, the joy is in knowing that you have a spiritual benefit in just trying. Make a small effort, and be happy to be connected to spirituality and your Jewish roots.

Originally Published on Sept 7, 2007

Tu Bishvat – Eat some fruit! Enjoy life!

Some call it Israeli Arbor Day. Others think of it as Jewish Environmentalism Day. Mystics make a symbolic holy meal called a seder at night. Others plant a tree in Israel.

Its true name is Tu Bishvat, Hebrew for the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shvat which always comes at this time in the winter, and is known as the New Year for Trees. Years ago it was practically an unknown or un-celebrated holiday on the Hebrew calendar but over the last ten years it has grown in popularity for different groups, from different angles.

Older traditional kabbalists started the original “seder” in Tsfat, Israel in the 16th Century. The seder consists of symbolic eating of fruits combined with recitation of verses from holy books. And with the popularity of Kabbalah these past years… this holiday has also taken on new meaning for some mysticism enthusiasts.
On the other hand young people who are into environmentalism are also taking part in a seder, but for different reasons.

For example, Next Dor is a local organization in a house that offers a place for young Jews to gather for social and educational events in a non-denominational atmosphere. At the house in St. Louis City, Next Dor is hosting a Tu Bishvat Seder. According to Yoni Sarason, spokesman for Next Dor, the seder will include both traditional aspects as four cups of wine and four types of fruit corresponding to the kabbalistic concept of four realms of creation, and also, as he puts it, “more modern Eco Jewish aspects.”

In general the holiday is focused on the theme of appreciation to the Creator for the benefits and pleasure of food. Because of its sweetness, fruit is most iconic for this focus. Fruit is nature’s dessert.

And in some ways this holiday is not that unsimilar to Thanksgiving, but with kabbalistic pilgrims.

You can do your own version of a Tu Bishvat seder by merely having a variety of fruits and expressing your appreciation to the Creator for the blessings you have.

Shvat
Shvat is the month of Aquarius, the water carrier. Water is a symbol for wisdom. There is a potential outpouring of wisdom at this time. What is wisdom? The type of knowledge that allows you to become one with the Infinite.

There’s a three step process that the sages seem to be telling us is good for this:

Step One: Take a bite of a sweet juicy grape, fig, pomegranate, olive, date, apple, pear, etc.

Step Two: Silently thank the Creator for making the fruit, the tastebuds to enjoy the fruit, and your ability to have access to the fruit.

Step Three: Feel the closeness of Creator.

We celebrate the fruit in the winter when things look bleakest. Outside its pretty barren, but deep down the sap is starting to rise in the trees. This marks the beginning of the blessings to come.

Sometimes when things look bleakest, the blessings are in the making.

Eat some fruit! Enjoy life!

For more about the month of Shvat see: KME and St. Louis Spiritual Living Examiner

Kislev – Make a goal, (and we don’t mean the Guinness Book of World’s Record on eating latkes.)

Keshet – bow

The Jewish astrological symbol for the month of Kislev, is the bow – from the bow and arrow. While this symbol has a number of implications, one of them is to focus on a goal. An archer must aim well for the bow to do its job.
What are your goals? If they are physical, material, like $100,000, a new car, a buffed bod, then they have no potential to give you truly lasting joy. Just as the physical world is temporary, all the joy we get from it is also only temporary.

Don’t get distracted

When the baseball season is over, football, hockey, and basketball seasons get rolling. When the NHL and NBA are done its back to baseball. You can be a sports fan all year long. Watching sports can be fun, and when “your team” wins it can make you happy. But the happiness is only temporary. If you don’t access joy in spiritual things, the happiness of winning the Super Bowl is over when you come home from the game, or turn off the T.V. and you go back to lacking happiness. People who lack happiness and meaning will seek distractions. They will use a Jägerbomb or an Adam Sandler movie. There’s nothing wrong with all of these things. There’s nothing wrong with movies, sports, and alcohol. It’s what we use them for is the issue. If we’re using them for enjoyment to distress or put us in a better mood to enhance our life or allow us to serve God with more joy, then, in moderation, they can be a mitzvah. If, on the other hand, they are an escape from reality because we don’t know where to turn, if our job becomes the place and time when we long for the weekend to escape what we do the rest of the week, there’s something seriously wrong.

We need a goal

A goal directs our attention and helps us focus our efforts. And the goal needs to be spiritual. Our soul will never be satisfied with hamburgers or even tofuburgers, turkey or tofurky, duck or um..well, skip that one. We need to satisfy the soul. There is no alternative. There is no substitute. Everyone has a soul and that soul has a yearning, and that yearning is to become one with the Infinite. It’s time to get in touch with your inner mystic.

A lot with a little

One of the quirky mystical things involves the miraculous. Not the mind blowing sea splits type of miracle, just a highly unusual event where you strongly sense the hand of God. This is the symbol of Chanukah. Sure the oil lasted 8 days instead of one, but if you looked at it you couldn’t tell there was anything out of the ordinary going on. It was somewhat hidden. Only if you stared at the flame for 30 hours straight would you be witnessing a miracle. And the seats weren’t that comfortable back in those days for such a long spell. But the menorah did a lot with a little. We fought off the Greeks who were more numerous and better armed. We did a lot with a little. That’s the power of this time period. Look at your resources and your spiritual goals. Do you feel you lack what you need to accomplish what you want to accomplish? I’ll bet anyone alive at the time of Chanukah felt that way too. Until God showed them the secret. With the Almighty’s help you can do a lot with a little.

Chanukah

When the Jews fought the Greeks during the time of Chanukah they were fighting not for physical survival – the Greeks would have let them live as Greeks – they were fighting for spiritual survival. Ancient Greece was the embodiment of Yavan, a descendent of Noah’s son Yafes. The word Yafes in Hebrew means beauty. All of Greek thought whether its science, logic, or art, can be used to adorn spirituality, it was imbedded in the creation by God not as an end in itself, but to be subservient to spirituality. What the Greeks did was like taking the handle off a large beautiful jug and saying, “What a beautiful work of art this handle is! Let’s make a museum of handles like this.” They missed the whole point. A meteor shower should put awe of God and His creations in your heart and mind. The design of the human body should astound us with God’s intricate design.

It would seem that this is the time period to examine our lives and the world around us. Perhaps we should look for ways we can orchestrate it all in one direction, towards one goal… to be one with the Creator.

What Must One Believe to Be Considered a True Torah Jew?

Dear Rabbi Weiman:

Hi! I read your article “Hell No” on the Aish Website, and that led me to your website, kabbalahmadeeasy.com. Although I am FFB and was fortunate to have a typical Bais Yaakov education, my views on what Hashem is and wants is somewhat unique in my community. Your perspectives were like a breath of fresh air and reaffirmed what I have always believed. I will be a frequent visitor to your site. Thank you!

I have a question that has been bothering me for some time and hope that you will be able to answer it for me. The short version of the question is: what commentaries and aspects of the Oral Torah must one believe to be considered a true Torah Jew?

I will explain: obviously, I know that the Oral Torah is an integral part of our religion. Many mitzvos cannot be performed properly without guidance from oral traditions. However, I also understand, that not every commentary is necessarily accurate. For example, there are various opinions regarding Rivka’s age at the time of her marriage. Clearly, they can’t all be correct.

Also, I remember learning a pshat in school that why did Avraham tell Sarah that he knows that she is beautiful (before entering Egypt and hiding her)? Rashi provides various explanations, including one that according to the Midrash, they were very modest and now, when he saw her reflection in the river, it was the first time that he saw her beauty.

To be frank, this explanation made me somewhat uncomfortable. Is it okay not to accept it? Does that make one a heretic? So back to the short version of my question: is there a clear distinction regarding oral traditions that must and may be accepted?

If you can provide some guidance, I would be immensely grateful.

Thank you.
S.

Dear S.

Thanks for your email. Since you have a background I’ll tell you that my material on the basics come from The Way of God, Path of the Just, Duties of the Heart, and the Sefer HaChinuch.

These sefarim have deep ideas that many people gloss over. Luckily I had Rebbeim that brought out the jewels that others miss. Many FFB’s would say similar things when they would go to Rabbi Noah Weinberg’s classes. “Nobody told me the Almighty loves me. They just taught me to do mitzvos or I’ll go to gehennom.”

You didn’t mention which specific perspectives you feel at odds with your community on, but please consider bolstering yourself with some sources and spreading the truth somehow. Teach, share, set out print outs of my articles and others that support your views. Maybe together we can change the world.

On to your question. The short answer is no, it’s not clear. This is a very complicated question filled with aspects that I don’t feel qualified to deal with, and email is an awkward medium for. But lets clarify a few things.

There are three relevant commandments:

1. Know there is a God. #25 in Sefer HaChinuch
2. To Listen to the prophet speaking in His name. # 516
3. Act in accordance with the Great Sanhedrin. # 495 (#496 would also be relevant)

——

I’m not sure what you mean be “considered a Torah true Jew”. Considered by God? Considered by the frum velt? Rambam’s books were burned. Ramchal’s seforim were buried. Many gedolim held beliefs that were considered wrong or even dangerous, or even sometimes heretical. Recently a rabbi wrote some books that had viewpoints that the present gedolim didn’t like and his books were banned. Yet every one of his statements could be backed up by Rishonim. He’s branded a heritic but based in Chazal. “Considered a Torah true Jew” to other Jews leaves too much open to debate. So I’m going to assume what you mean is “What beliefs does the Torah obligate me to have?”

——

Our tradition is based on the truth of the Torah, so it would seem that without belief that the Torah is true we can’t have the religion at all. The Torah commands belief in God, but not specifically the Torah. Yet if you don’t already believe in the Torah, then you aren’t commanded to believe in anything. Therefore while not a specific commandment to believe in the Torah, belief in the Torah is a prerequisite. You can’t command it, yet it is a prerequisite. That the Torah is still in tact is also a prerequisite, not a commandment. Yet there is a commandment to listen to the Prophets which may include all of the written law. The Oral tradition seems to follow the same line. That the Mishna and the Talmud are the definition of the Oral law and without adherence to them we don’t have Judaism. Since the Oral tradition is partly in the hands of the sages, it also falls under the commandment to listen to the sages.

The main question seems to be what are the parameters of the commandment to listen to the sages. Is it only the Sandhedrin? Is it the sages in each generation? And if there is a debate amongst the sages how far to take the commandment whose opinion do you follow? We have an obligation to follow the psak of our “Rabbi” but does that include his psak on hashkafah? Can you poskin hashkafah? You sent me a sheilah, are you obligated to listen to my answer? These questions involve the area of psak halacha and are also the subject of debate. We can’t deal with Psak Halacha in one email.

Hashkafot in general that come from the Torah are sometimes debated and therefore we are at a loss to decide which hashkafot we are obligated in. Maimonides wrote up a list of 13 principles of Jewish thought. Are we obligated to accept them? They are in the Artscroll Siddur. Does that imply a psak? Duties of the Heart lists commandments of belief and attitude. Are they psak? This area of Judaism is not clear and if you find a Rav who has clarity on it, do you have to listen to him? I am leaving these questions open.

One thing is for sure, Medrash in general is homiletic and therefore open to interpretation. You can’t be bound to something that is not always taken literally. Therefore what age Rivkah was can’t be obligated as a belief. What Rashi means or the Medrash means by Avraham’s not seeing Sarah is open to interpretation. He loved her, was married to her, and presumably complimented her on her looks, her dress etc. But he may not have looked at her through the eyes of inappropriate pagans. Once he looked at her through their eyes he realized that they would be very attracted to her. This brings out another point, which is that when dealing with Medrash on the Torah, by not accepting the simple explanation, you may actually be giving the Torah more respect and your questions may lead to a deeper understanding. Isn’t that what study is all about? We encourage our children to ask questions at the Seder hoping they’ll never stop. If you accept something blindly your understanding stops there.

We seem to be bound by the halachic aspects of the Talmud, but there are homiletic parts called aggadta that are in the same category as Medrash. You can’t be bound by them either. Unless all the commentaries are in agreement as to how to interpret a passage or a Medrash, you are free to say, “I’m not sure I understand this correctly. It seems that a frog the size of Manhattan jumping through Egypt might be a metaphor, and not literal.”

In short the Torah obligates us to follow the Torah shebicsav and the Torah shebalpeh. (Unless the issue is clearly avodah zarah, even if it is potentially heretical it is between you and God. Duties of the heart says most frum Jews are unwitting pantheists.) We are encouraged to have emunas chachamim, and trust that the gedolim are honest, and the mesorah was in tact up until the time of the Rishonim. Therefore if all the Rishonim agree on an explanation of the Talmud or Medrash we should accept their interpretation. For halacha it is clear that we follow their opinion. For hashkafah there is often debate and it isn’t clear whose opinion to follow. Most of the time it there are no practical consequences. You have every right to side with a particular opinion who is a recognized sage. (However, you might be put in cherem if you print it in a book.)

Regarding your feeling of being uncomfortable with something. You never have to accept something that makes you uncomfortable in the way you mean it. Always try to articulate what is bothering you. That’s part of Machkim es Rabo, one of the 48 Things from the 6th Chapter, 6th Mishna of Pirkey Avot. You may have an obligation to say, “I’m not clear on what this means.” “I find this hard to understand.” And you should badger teachers and Rabbis until someone can explain it to you in a way that sits right with you. However, many great sages had questions that made them “uncomfortable” for years. We don’t always get an answer, but we go to the grave trying.

Thanks again for your question.

Max Weiman
Kabbalah Made Easy, Inc.
www.kabbalahmadeeasy.com

Are You Feeling It?

Imagine you bought a new car and after six months it starts to get very sluggish. You take it to the mechanic and he recommends a good wash and wax. “What? Are you crazy? There’s an internal problem,” you say. “Okay,” he says, “how about putting on some of those fancy rims?”

Believe it or not, this is what we do with something even more precious than a new car. When people are feeling negative, sad, or unresourceful, they often opt for an easy superficial solution that is more of a distraction than a cure. Go to a movie, have a drink, eat some ice cream. Sleep. These bandaids don’t address the core issue. The reason why we opt for them is because we really aren’t used to delving into our insides. If you are able to get in touch with what’s on the inside, it’s a very useful thing to do.

One of the elusive things in life is surprisingly very close to your beating heart. It’s called intuition and for most people it has a life of its own. Do you want to have more of a handle on it?

Actually, your mind and heart are in cahoots to form an inner sense called intuition. This elusive part of us can be a powerful tool, if we understand it. Since you’re more familiar with your mind, let’s start with that. The sixth chapter and sixth mishna of Pirke Avot lists “binat halev” as a tool for Torah, and some girsot have “sichlut halev”.

Mental Intuition

In Hebrew the word Binah sometimes refers to intuition, and is one of the main spiritual connections to the Almighty, as explained in Kabbalah. Binah can mean knowledge that comes to a person without an intellectual process. A flash of insight or an uncomfortable feeling about a person or situation can come to us for a variety of reasons. But usually we think of this as intuition.

Technically, binah is a word that grammatically implies making connections between two different things. (Similarly the word “bein” means – between.) Sometimes it refers to the type of analysis that takes an idea and compares and contrasts it to everything else we know to be true. We can do this naturally, or we can do this intentionally. If I say “I’m not really 47 but I’m actually 35,” you will automatically, not necessarily intentionally, start matching that statement with internal knowledge in a split second. Does he look 47 or 35? Why would he have said he was 47 if he isn’t? Does he have an expression on his face that shows he’s joking?

On the other hand, a process of comparing a statement with everything else you know to be true can also be done intentionally. The Torah states God said to love your fellow man. Here are some analytical questions: Can I choose to love? What if my fellow man is a moron and a jerk that leaves his garbage cans in front of my driveway every week? Why isn’t it enough for me to merely like my fellow man? Can I just love my fellow man in my heart or is God asking me to try to stop famine and war in the world also?

You can develop, with practice, an analytical intellect that naturally breaks information down, clarifies, defines, and then compares and contrasts. The Gemara trains people to do this, and learning this process is a large portion or any “traditional” scholar’s training.

Premonition

Have you ever had a premonition? Have you ever felt like something was going to happen before it did? The heart knows when something is about to happen. The Gemara calls refers to this as the person doesn’t know but his/her mazal knows. We all have intuitive feelings all the time, but we ignore them because they are distractions. We have no idea, usually, what information these feelings carry. Is it heartburn? A headache? Or an inkling that something is about to happen. Job, the quintessential sufferer of the Bible, had three friends that sensed something was wrong and all showed up at his door on the same day. Their friendship was so strong that they were able to get in touch with their intuition. Many people have had an experience similar to this. They say “I don’t know why, I just felt I had to call my mother or my brother, etc.” and the phone call was needed at that moment.

There is a spiritual world all around us that is complex. There are thousands of spiritual beings on your left and on your right. And there’s a good reason why we are unaware of the spiritual world. It’s too much for us to handle. But many generations held onto sensitivity to spirituality and didn’t leave it completely. For the past one hundred years people have gone away from the unseen and the mystical. They wanted facts and science, not religion and superstition. But they threw the baby out with the bathwater.

The truth is that you are not required to get in touch with your intuition. But if you do, it can be an extremely powerful tool.

Intuition

Graphology is the study of handwriting and is used by psychologists, criminologists, (some yeshivos), and job application analysts. A good graphologist can tell you many things about your personality. They can describe your relationship with your parents; they can assess your general level of honesty, tell if you’re happy or depressed. But it takes time to learn this skill, and you have to have an intuitive ability also. They studied children’s ability to assess handwriting based purely on intuition. It turns out the children were extremely accurate until they reached puberty. After that, as pre-teens they began to rely more on intellect or visual factors and less on their intuition. Children are naturally intuitive. If you want to relearn your intuition, you need to get in touch with your “inner child.” You have to choose a time and a place to feel childlike. Not immature, but more like going with the flow, having unstructured fun. Sometimes spending time with a child and letting the child dictate the flow of activities and conversation can help. Sometimes being around other people who are intuitive like artists and musicians can help too. When was the last time you sat on the floor with a child and played?

The Gemara mentions that women have extra Binah, and many people understand this to mean something similar to what people refer to as “women’s intuition”. (How this relates to “daatan kalos” is an interesting discussion but beyond the scope of this article.)

Feelings

People tend to think of “feelings” as emotions like anger or jealousy, but there are various feelings that aren’t emotions. You can feel tired, hungry or thirsty. You can feel “funny”. You can feel out of sorts, awkward, uncomfortable, upbeat, or “on your game”. You can feel like something isn’t quite right. Feelings can be synonymous with intuition. Feelings come and go all day long. An exercise you can do to get control of the power inside you is to write down on a piece of paper numbers one to ten. Carry the paper with you and every once in a while write down exactly how you are feeling. It may not be easy, but with effort you can articulate what you are feeling. This act puts your internal barometer more in the palm of your hand.

Inside

Kabbalists describe the internal workings of the human being. We all recognize that we are not our body. The physical masks the spiritual. Our body is our “mortal coil” that we are enclothed with while in this physical world. Some of us are also aware that we are not our thoughts and feelings. If you can say, “I can’t control my thoughts.” then you are not your thoughts. If you can say, “I can’t stop feeling this way.” then you are not your feelings.

But the act of getting in touch with your thoughts, feelings, and intuition gets you one giant step closer to understanding your true self. Some people say “ignorance is bliss”, but I believe true happiness comes from understanding yourself, God, and spirituality. The tool described here, of getting in touch with your inner self, is a powerful means to greater happiness.

With Kabbalah entering pop culture in a way that makes us frum people uncomfortable, the stance towards Kabbalah in the yeshiva world has become even more closed than before. But its possible that the secular world is grabbing onto something that the frum world is leaving behind. One of the gedolim said that since the frum world didn’t grab the mitzvah of settling Eretz Yisroel, the secularists were able to be zocheh to that mitzvah. I wonder if the same thing is happening with Kabbalah? This is just my personal conjecture. I throw it out as a question to you.

Be that as it may, Binas halev remains a powerful tool unused by many. Teshuva is enhanced by introspection and this requires an accurate assessment of the inner you. We need to not only look at the mitzvah scorecard, but search inside for what inner challenges the Almighty is testing us with. That’s where the real work begins, and that’s where the greatest possible gain may be.

In loving memory of Joan Lipsitz Fried. And in the zechus of a refuah shelaimah to Yisroel Noach ben Hinda and Yisroel Moshe ben Golda Basya, and Yehuda Leib ben Chava Rochel

A Friend of the Devil is a Friend of Mine…(not for Halloween)

I don’t personally celebrate Halloween because it has pagan roots, but as long as the dark forces are on people’s minds, I offer this clarity for you on the topic of Satan.

Sympathy for the Devil

One of the top ten common misconceptions about religion and spirituality is the concept of the Devil. Who is Satan and what is his purpose? Where does the concept come from?

We all sense a craving towards spirituality and meaning, and at the same time we share a desire to do the wrong thing, kill and steal, to insult and eat fatty foods. We intuitively know there is a dichotomy in the world and in ourselves. Did you ever feel like smacking someone even though you knew in your heart it was wrong? (Those of you with teenage children need not even answer that one.)

Flip Wilson used to say “The Devil made me do it.” Of course the Devil can’t make you do something but he can sure tempt you. Life’s circumstances can be tempting from the outside, and we can have desires on the inside. Is that the Devil or your own bad self?

In kabbalah the forces of desire, evil inclination, temptations to stray from morality and spirituality all seem to be one. The three main entities that we find in the texts are Satan, the “evil inclination”, and the Angel of Death, and all represent the same united force.

The Meaning of Life

If you understand well the meaning of life, you have no problem understanding Satan and the “evil inclination”, known as the “yaitzer hara”. We are put on this earth at this time to struggle to connect to the Infinite Being. In order to have an arena of challenge, we must have a desire to go away from God to fight against.

The Satan and yaitzer hara provide the challenge. This force is designed by God and follows strict rules He placed into the spiritual realm. Satan cannot go against God’s will, as an angel or spiritual force, he operates like a puppet of the Almighty, providing the exact spiritual challenges that we need at any given moment in time.

In fact, each and every person is judged based on their own set of circumstances external and internal, which makes it impossible to judge your fellow man because you don’t know their history or internal make-up. Maybe they are naturally a born murderer and hot-head and they have worked hard to control themselves and become just an average rude person. You may think this guy is a big jerk but in reality they are extremely righteous given their challenges. Another person much more pleasant to be with my have been born with a gentle demeanor and has never struggled to make him/herself any better.

To put it a different way, you are put here to make spiritual touchdowns and the Satan is like a linebacker paid to block your path. But the linebacker is purposely designed in a way that you always have the ability to make your way past him. You might not be able to bowl him over; you might have to outsmart him, tell him his shoes untied, fake to the left and go to the right, or some other maneuver. If he stops you, then your job is to review the tape and see how you can avoid him the next time. (The verb “leSatan” means to block and is used in Numbers 22:22 this way. An angel blocks the path of Bilaam when he goes to meet with Balak to curse the nation of Israel.)

The Big Mistake

So the existence of Satan is real and part of daily life. The mistake then is that people think Satan has a separate existence, power, and purpose than God. Many think Satan is somehow avoiding God’s domain and tempting people to sin when God’s not looking. This is not only wrong, but philosophically impossible. Nothing can happen without God’s will accepting it on some level. God wants Satan to tempt us and He wants us to withstand the temptation. He designs the challenges according to our spiritual level and need for growth. If we need to develop patience, God sends Satan to test our patience.

Duties of the Heart by Rabbi Ibn Pakuda tells us that even frum people make mistakes in understanding the nature of God’s omnipotence. We need to be careful not to give the yaitzer hara or Satan any power on their own, they are an extension of HaShem’s will.

Satan does nothing without God’s approval. He’s a servant of God. This is clear from the beginning of the Book of Job that starts with God and Satan having a conversation where God says Job’s a great guy, and Satan says Job is only righteous because he hasn’t been tested with suffering. Let him suffer and he’ll turn against the Lord. God says, ok then go and test him. While this type of conversation may be more metaphor than reality, it shows the basic relationship between God and Satan. The Almighty designed a spiritual universe with angels that help and angels that test. There are prosecuting attorneys, so to speak, and defending attorneys. Satan is the primary prosecuting angel.

We don’t hate Satan, and he doesn’t hate us. He was created to test us, which is our greatest asset and opportunity to accomplish spiritual greatness and closeness to God.

Max Weiman
www.kabbalahmadeeasy.com

Dear God, I’m Mad as Hell

Is it permissible to be angry with God? I asked this question in a recent survey and found many people believe it is.

Some people answered that it is permissible because it is part of our free will. This came as a surprise to me because we obviously do not share a clear definition of free will. So let’s start with that. Because definitions are crucial.

I found this out recently when my two year old informed me she had just finished washing something she had in her mouth. Later I saw her swishing something around in the toilet bowl and when I asked her what she was doing she said, “I’m washing it.”

Free will is the ability to do something. We have the ability to get up in the morning and nobody wants to stop us. In Jewish philosophy, however, free will takes on a different meaning. It refers to the ability to choose between right and wrong. These choices affect us spiritually and sometimes moral choices affect our future and our afterlife. God gives us free will to choose right and wrong because that makes us more like God. Inanimate objects and spiritual beings make no choices. Animals make choices out of instinct. Only human beings have the ability to make moral choices, and those choices have a way of defining who we are.

(Some sages suggest that the point of free will inside you is the epitome of the soul, the true you. Just in case you need reminding, it says in the Zohar “What then is man? Does he consist solely of skin, flesh, bones, and sinews? No, the essence of man is his soul; the skin, flesh, bones and sinews are but an outward covering, the mere garments, but they are not the man. When man leaves (this world) he divests himself of all these garments.”)

Therefore the ability to do something does not define it as right or wrong. We have the free will to be angry with God, but that doesn’t make it right.

Anger and Happiness

Anger does not have to destroy happiness, but it often does. We generally have a difficult time having two emotions at the same time. That’s why some behavioral psychologists recommend focusing on a different emotion when you want to change the emotion you’re feeling. If you are jealous of your sister’s millionaire husband, one way to remove that jealousy is to remove it by focusing on her husband’s lack of a sense of humor. This elicits feelings of pity which wipe away the feeling of jealousy. Two emotions are hard to hold onto. We can be tired or in pain and happy, like if you just finished first in a marathon. Every bone in your body aches, but you’re deliriously happy. But being tired or in pain is not an emotion. Anger and happiness don’t sit well together.

Are you angry with God for any your “slings and arrows” that you have experienced? Do you feel guilty about being angry with God?

It is only human and natural for us to be angry with God on occasion. If you have never experienced this then you might not be paying attention. When a hurricane causes a flood that displaces the entire city of New Orleans, we all have mixed emotions. Some of us are angry with God. When we read about Darfur, the holocaust, the inquisition, or any of life’s tragedies, we sometimes get angry with God. Whether or not this is appropriate, since it is a natural human reaction, even if it is wrong, the Almighty understands and takes our nature into account. He designed us and knows our failings. He does not look to punish those who are innocent.

Belief in God

A woman once told me that she didn’t believe in God anymore since she lost her son. Something about the way she said it sounded very much to me like she was trying to get back at God. So I said, “I don’t think you don’t believe in God. I think you’re angry with God.” And she agreed.

To be angry at God is actually one of the greatest mitzvot. It shows you believe in the God of Israel. That He is loving, all knowing, and all-powerful. That He is involved with our lives and at arms length to help or heal. If you didn’t believe all these things you wouldn’t be angry with Him.

Of course from a more holistic philosophical perspective, we may come to the conclusion that we are not really angry with God. We are merely in pain. The anger comes from not understanding God’s love. As finite beings, we can’t always fathom the will of the Almighty. After all, we have to admit that if there is an Infinite Being, He must be a little wiser than we are. And He may allow things to happen or even do things Himself that we just can’t comprehend. If you are not a doctor you probably won’t comprehend why cutting someone open and removing a piece of their insides might be the best thing for them. But we’ve seen it happen enough times that we are familiar with it. We’ve seen the positive outcome. The dilemma with God’s will is that we won’t be privy to the positive outcome until one of two things happen: either we die and go to the world of truth and understanding, or God ushers in the final chapter in the saga of life.

Knowing this doesn’t stop the pain of our loss, problem or challenge, but it allows us to move forward without anger. And without anger, the happiness again will bubble to the surface. We may not be able to be angry and happy and the same time. But we can be in pain and still be happy.

In short, we should not feel guilty about being angry with God. A. Because we are human B. It shows we believe in God. But ideally we want to increase our bitachon through meditation on God’s love or reading mussar on bitachon like Shar Bitachon from Duties of the Heart.

A Call to Normalcy

Whenever I bring my family to the East Coast, they pick up little nuances from the observant Jews of the New York area. “The counselor said I should take two dollars and pick myself up a nawmal swim cap,” my six-year-old daughter told me. Somehow in a NY accent, the word “normal” contains subtleties we don’t have in the Midwest. It seems that lots of observant Jews place an importance on keeping the status quo and not doing anything unusual. This attitude to life may be very beneficial in safeguarding Clal Yisrael from negative influences like Rap music. But we also need to be on the lookout for something new and different that might be good for us.

In the introduction to the sefer Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Kagan z”l mentions a yetzer hara that tells you that following the laws of lashon hara carefully will make you abnormal. This is one of the strategies of the yetzer hara. We are afraid not to be Normal. If, however, we were clear about how much the Almighty loves us, and how the mitzvos are only for our benefit, we would never be cautious or afraid of trying to fulfill them properly.

Rabbi Shlomo Rothenberg of Mountaindale related to me that when his Rebbe, Rabbi Yehuda Davis z”l, was about to leave Europe he went to see meet with the Gedolim of that time like the Chofetz Chaim and others. He noticed that they all ate, slept, and lived life like normal human beings. You can be a Tzaddik and a Chacham without being abnormal.

What is normal?

The question is asked sometimes – What if everyone acts weird? Is that the new normal? What if everyone speaks lashon hara? Is that normal? What happens when Clal Yisrael gets used to not having a Holy Temple, or a Sanhedrin, or a fully observant Clal Yisrael?

In Gemara Yevamos 60b it discusses the passage from the Torah, Numbers Chapter 31, where Moshe allows the army to bring back some of the Midianite women to become part of Israel. In order to determine which women are fitting to join us they use a special test. The women are brought in front of the Tzitz, the golden head-plate of the High Priest. If her face changes color she is not fitting to be accepted. Later in history (Judges Chapter 21), the gemara relates, Yehoshua , is faced with a similar situation and Jewish women are chosen with a test for a similar reason, but they use a different test. Why, the gemara asks, don’t they use the same test the Jews used on the Midianites? Why don’t they use the Tzitz? Because the head-plate is not meant to be used for punishment, only favor. So then why was it used for the Midianites? Because they weren’t Jewish. Although you might suggest that this only relates to the Tzitz, but it seems in general that God’s judgment is designated mainly for non-Jews, while His mercy and compassion is designated for Israel.

Of course all human beings are worthy of God’s love, but once you have chosen to be a part of His special army, and abide by His holy commandments, you are more inline with His essence, so to speak, and more ripe for His love.

Another indication of this is concept is brought out from the Bnei Yissaschar on the months on Tammuz and Av. He mentions from the Zohar that the months of the year are spiritually designated and divided between Yaakov and Eisav. Nisan, Iyar, and Sivan went to Yaakov, and Eisav got Tammuz, Av, and Elul. This made Eisav happy as it left little help for Clal Yisrael to do teshuva before Rosh HaShannah. Yaakov fought for the rights to Elul, and thereby mitigated the aspect of Din inherent in Tammuz and Av. Yaakov therefore represents Din – judgment, and Eisav represents Chesed – love.

It needs to be mentioned that even though the other nations are more inclined to receive judgment, the gemara also says that the major problems of the other nations all over the world stem from Clal Yisrael not acting properly. So the war and famine all over the world is a specific message to us.

We live in a time period fraught with anti-semitism, conflict in the Middle East, Israel in constant danger, much of the world lives in poverty, meanwhile most of the Jewish people are not observant. This is not normal. None of this is normal. It’s easy to fall into a daily routine, praying for moshiach and Eretz Yisrael, but at the same time relating to the worlds problems with indifference, as we’ve gotten too used to living with judgment. We think meeting a Jew who is intermarried is normal. Well it may be common, but it is certainly not normal. What “normal” should mean is the way of life the Torah and the Shulchan Aruch proscribe.

Chesed – Love

We are told by our Torah and the sages of the incredible amount of love the Almighty has for us. He’s our “loving Father in Heaven”. He wants us to live with the fullest expression of His love. Even when a father is punishing his child, all he really wants to do us hug and kiss. Does our Creator want the profanity on the airwaves and the cruelty in the streets? Does He want the drugs and rising immorality? Does He want ignorance, atheism and paganism? No.

HaShem wants goodness and wisdom to permeate the world. That’s what life is really supposed to be like. He wants to shower us with health, wealth, chachma and kedusha. As we say each time we say Birchat Hamazon, “liyadcha, hamleah, hapesucha, hakadosha, veharchav” – from Your hand which is full, open, holy, and generous. HaShem can’t wait to give us blessings. All the blessings. Big blessings.

Maybe we need to adjust our attitude a bit as to what exactly really is… normal.

Tu B’Shvat Chag Lilanot

The 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat, a holiday for the trees

The month of Shvat has the constellation Aquarius associated with it, and in kabbalistic astrology implies an outpouring of wisdom to those who want it, at this time. Water is often a symbol of wisdom in the ancient commentaries. Just like we need water on a daily basis, we need wisdom on a daily basis. Wisdom is a basic necessity, but unlike water, most people don’t realize how crucial it is.

It’s a curious fact that the most important things people tend to try and wing it. We all want a happy marriage, wonderful relationships with our parents, siblings, and kids. A friend recently related to me how a disagreement with his manager ended up spiraling out of control until the manager not only fired him but asked him not to set foot in the office. That’s pretty extreme. There must have been a very bad dynamic for it to end up like that. It seems they are both decent people who ended up in a tit for tat. Of course hindsight’s 20/20 but I wonder what would have happened if after the first altercation he had gone to a few people for advice.

We all get into situations in which we aren’t being successful, and the right advice from an objective person can often change things for the better. But are we humble enough to ask advice? At least reading a book on the subject can be of help. Being a human being is fraught with challenges. For every major challenge we need to read at least ten books on the subject. For an accounting degree you need to read a lot. For happiness, you need to read even more. Many more people can successfully complete an accounting course than can achieve a pleasurable amount of happiness. And humility, not meekness, is one of the character treats that lead people to seek advice or answers to their dilemmas.

This, the sages say, is one of the most important traits for acquiring wisdom. Just like water flows downward to the lowest spot it can find, so too the spiritual rules of the universe that the Almighty designed allow wisdom to flow to a humble person, provided the humble person appreciates, desires, and seeks wisdom.

Similarly, fruits are a symbol of God’s love since they are delicious and sort of a natural dessert. Tu Bshvat is when the sap starts to rise in the trees which will eventually cause the fruits to grow. It is a day of “judgement” on the trees, i.e. on us to see if we appreciate God’s blessings for humanity, and if we are using them in a way that is beneficial for us.

A divine flow of wisdom is waiting for us. And a spiritual source of blessing hangs in the balance. They are both two sides of the same coin.

Monday night, the 21st of January is when Tu B’Shvat falls out this year. Some people have the custom of eating fruits, especially the ones associated with Israel from the Torah, i.e. wheat, barley, grapes (wine), figs, pomegranates, olive (oil), and dates. We make blessings, show our appreciation to God, and remind ourselves that He loves us.

Eat, drink, and be mystical.

Happy Tu B’Shvat!

Max Weiman
Kabbalah Made Easy, Inc.
www.kabbalahmadeeasy.com

Powerless

What would you do if you were one of the world’s greatest magicians? No, not like David Blaine and slight of hand type magic, but real magic. Would you sell your abilities to become wealthy? If you knew God blessed you with these abilities would you use them to do something He didn’t want you to do?

Is there real magic?

The forces of power in the world are created by God and some people have figured out how to tap into them. We often find that which we desperately seek. Many of us are curious, fascinated, or skeptical of strange powers, ESP, psychics, or people into real magic. But some people strongly gravitate towards impure forces, and try in many ways to acquire unusual abilities. Others are merely “blessed” with these abilities.

Everything in life is a test and a challenge. In the areas of normal human behavior we have lots of challenges. Relationships, work, honesty, love, a lifetime of spiritual struggles follows all of us around. Along with life’s struggles comes challenges and difficulties that we don’t relate to as a spiritual task, but rather merely a hurdle from the natural world. We wish we could magically avoid or overcome the hurdle. Is this the fascination with Super Heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman? Do they help us vicariously enjoy the world through the fantasy of extra abilities?

Bilaam, the ancient sorcerer

Bilaam was one man who had special abilities and those talents merely allowed him to do more spiritual damage and become more of an egotist. His self-worth was so large that he thought he deserved the royal treatment. In Numbers Chapter 22 we see a person who appears on the outside to righteous and only want to do what God wants. Yet we see how easily he is lead to do that which we know God doesn’t want. How come? Because it’s all a show. He really doesn’t care about God, even though he recognizes Him as the source of his blessings. He is blinded by honor and gifts.

This is precisely the danger of special abilities. The stronger you are, the more people you have the power to help and to hurt.

As human beings we have incredible abilities that largely go untapped. And all the more so we are able to ask the Almighty for assistance that we lack in many areas. We are able to ask God to save our life, heal the sick, stop a war, and He often answers our prayers.

One request remains as one of the most important and often forgotten. That request is for the ability to use whatever blessings we receive only for the good. Let us not fall into the trap of using our blessings to go away from our Benefactor. What would be more of an insult to Him than that?

Baalei Teshuva often have blessing they were given because of the circumstances of their upbringing. Some want to ignore these blessings. Some are embarrassed about them. Some give them up as if they are tainted.

Nothing is an accident. If you feel like there’s something wrong the way you grew up and therefore there’s something wrong with the blessings you possess, you may be correct. But you may also be very incorrect. It might even be an extreme lack of appreciation to God to ignore or reject the blessings you have.

An alternative to shunning our blessings is to pray for assistance to use the blessings correctly.

God still runs the world

As one sage once put it, “God runs almost everything in the entire world. And the last bit left.He also controls.”

Even with all of his abilities, Bilaam was still unable to curse the Jewish people, as Balak, the king wanted him to. It wasn’t for lack of trying. He did his best, but when he opened his mouth to curse, God put in his words a blessing.

A person can point a gun, but if the Almighty really doesn’t want the victim to die, they’ll survive, or the bullet will jam, or the shooter will miss. There are so many ways for Him to circumvent the plan of the killer. Its part of the plan of life that the Almighty gives us free will and doesn’t force us into doing mitzvos or avoiding transgressions. But that doesn’t mean if He really wants to stop something from happening He can’t. He can and He does, often.

The real thing

Why did Balak choose Bilaam to hire to curse the Jews. Because he recognized their true power lies in their mouths. Prayer is the true power of the servants of God, so Balak looked for someone else who had the power of the mouth to fight them.

Our power is prayer. That’s what helps us the most because with prayer you can tap into the power of the Almighty. With His help, is there anything you can’t accomplish?

Don’t waste your time with minor powers like magic, ESP, and psychic abilities. Develop the power of prayer and you can have the world in the palm of your hand.

A Simple Guide to Happiness From a Mystical Perspective

True Happiness is a Spiritual Pleasure

Every pleasure in life is a piece of G-dliness to which we can connect. The awe of a sunset, a baby’s smile, hitting a home run, and winning the lottery are all experiences that G-d created, and they have a special connection to the Infinite. The more real the pleasure, the more of a connection to the Infinite.

Some pleasures bring a momentary happiness like an ice cream cone, or a new car. This is only a temporary joy. The Infinite Being created the physical universe as finite. The physical world by nature is temporary; pleasures that are tied to physicality are therefore limited. Our joy from these pleasures is also temporary and limited.

In contrast, we experience joy when we do the right thing under difficult circumstances. That joy is much more meaningful, and longer lasting. If you save someone from drowning, you might feel an inner joy from that event the rest of your life. Physical pleasure gives us temporary joy; spiritual pleasure gives us longer lasting joy.

True Joy Comes from Within

To access more joy, we must understand that true joy comes from within. When we have an experience that gives us true joy, like having a child, we aren’t really having an external experience, like we are when we eat a hamburger. The external event is merely allowing us to get in touch with the joy that’s inside us. That’s why a true joy experience lasts much longer.

We all have tremendous joy imbedded in our soul. The soul is a source of limitless joy. When we are able to focus correctly, we can unlock our hidden storehouse of happiness.

Max Weiman
Kabbalah Made Easy, Inc.
www.kabbalahmadeeasy.com

A Simple Guide to Happiness is available by phone and mail, bookstores and from Amazon. To order call 314-814-6629, email MWeiman@kabbalahmadeeasy.com, or write to:
Simple Guide
PO Box 32088
St. Louis, MO 63132

What is the Goal of a BT?

Should a BT just try to fit in with the rest of the frum velt? Which branch of the frum velt? What does it take to fit in?

When I was dating, a student in the yeshiva I was in decided that he wanted me to date his sister. I spoke to the boy’s mother about it and she said that she didn’t think a baal teshuva (myself) should date an FFB.
“Why?”
“Well, they’re just different.”
“What makes a baal teshuva different?”
“They’re more sincere.”

I still don’t understand.

In a different yeshiva I was in, an FFB student mentioned that he wouldn’t date a baalas teshuva. “Did you know the shadchan doesn’t have to tell you she’s a baalas teshuva?” I asked him.
Agitated, he asked the Rav walking by, “Would you set me up with a baalas teshuva without telling me?”
To which the Rav quipped, “Only if I thought you were worthy.” And kept walking.

Well, I’m not going to get started on the whole dating scene. But the question still remains, what is the baal teshuva’s goal in life.

One guy I knew was young enough and smart enough to enter an FFB yeshiva without a problem. On a visit back to the baal teshuva yeshiva he said, “Yes, you can make it there, but you can’t compete.” I’m not sure why he wanted to “compete” or why that was important to him.

After attaining the level of learning gemara on my own I spent some time in a top notch FFB yeshiva and sat and learned with a few guys. For me, every word and line of tosafos was a struggle. They could whip through a tosafos like water off a duck’s back. I was envious… Until I realized they hadn’t the foggiest idea what tosafos was really after.

I’m not knocking Klal Yisrael.

Klal Yisrael has kedusha. Klal Yisrael has collective ruach hakodesh, and maybe even nevuah. It’s important to feel and be apart of Klal Yisrael. The inner recognition of being part of the 3300 years of tradition is vital to
the identity of a Jew. And we must feel one with the group of Jews hanging on to Torah observance and values for dear life.

A BT should want to feel comfortable with, and have appreciation for, the good things in any branch of frum Jews he/she meets. A BT should have ahavas yisrael for a Satmar chassid, a Mir yeshiva student, a pajama-yalmulke-guitar playing- funky frum vegetarian, and a frum Manhattan woman lawyer with a $4000 sheitel. With a Sefardi, a Litvach, and a Hungarian. Whoever they are and wherever they’re from.

A BT should also think long and hard about the circumstances of his/her upbringing and ponder why HaShem caused him/her to have those experiences and live that lifestyle for those years.

Nothing is an accident.

We are in 5767, in this important time in history before the coming of moshiach for a reason and a purpose. Is it just to fit in? Are we merely reincarnated neshamas whose only task is to make it back to the fold?

Or are we uniquely designed to play an important role, precisely as a BT at this stage of Jewish history?

Rabbi Weiman’s new book: A Simple Guide to Happiness: From a mystical perspective is currently available at Amazon.

Is Your Turkey a Holy Bird?

Although my wife Chava is working at the hospital Thursday night, she’s still making the turkey, stuffing, orange/cranberry sauce, sweet potato pie with marshmallow fluff, and pumpkin pie. America has its pros and cons, but Thanksgiving is definitely a good thing. Eat, and thank G-d.

Even atheists and agnostics seem to appreciate the spiritual nature of the day. The delicious food and drink remind us that the Almighty wants us to enjoy and experience pleasure. That’s what life is supposed to be about.

In the biblical Creation story, Mankind was originally placed in what is usually translated as the “Garden of Eden”. Did you know that “Eden” is Hebrew for pleasure? Mankind was originally placed in a Garden of Pleasure. The implication of the story of creation should be obvious, mankind was designed for pleasure.

Treat the body well.

But food is merely a pleasure for the body. Why should we celebrate the body, when the main focus of spirituality is the soul?
Read more Is Your Turkey a Holy Bird?

Sheep and Thinkers

A conversation I overheard during Simchas Torah.

“I can’t believe how much chesed there is in your community. I’ve been to a number of different communities and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“That’s because there are kiruv rabbis here who have devoted themselves to bringing Jews back to the fold. There is a lot of young fresh enthusiastic leadership here.
However, there are a lot of ‘sheep’. There’s just starting now to be some ‘thinkers’.”

I didn’t finish the conversation because I wanted to down the bourbon and get back to the dancing. But the brief thought struck me as an important principle that underlies a lot of communities. Who are the sheep and who are the thinkers?

In order for Judaism to survive there needs to be the ability to continue what was already started. Sheep, a word not usually used as a compliment, in the context of Torah Judaism is a necessity. If everyone is a leader then nothing gets done. The Sefer HaChinuch points out the need to have one leader even if that leader is making mistakes! Because without a leader you have anarchy. You have several Torot, not one Torah.

This was exemplified by Yitzchak who imitated everything his father Avraham did. He looked like him. He had two kids, one on the path, one off. He pretended his wife was his sister. He redug the wells his father dug. Why didn’t he have his own unique identity? Because that WAS his identity. He was the pillar that continued in his father’s footsteps, that created a people of God. Abraham made many students. Where are they? They didn’t have the ability like Yitzchak did to continue what Avraham started.

But.

We are in golus. Our communities are not perfect. We have many flaws. It often takes a fresh look, or an objective look at things to notice the flaws. Sure we need sheep, but we also need thinkers. We need people that are going to fight for the practical issues that are causing problems in our communities, and for the spiritual issues that are plaguing our communities.

Nothing is an accident. The BTs have the benefit of objectivity that can help a community grow.

But only if they are thinkers.

Rabbi Weiman’s new book, which discusses independent thinking,

A Simple Guide to Happiness: From a Mystical Perspective

is available to BT readers at a 10% discount. To order call 314-814-6629 or email MWeiman@kabbalahmadeeasy.com

Short and sweet, Rabbi Weiman’s book will touch a happy chord inside your soul.

Putting Things in Perspective

I recently heard of non-religious Jews in the New York area publicly complaining about observant Jews blocking the street on Shabbos, taking money away from public school funding, and not letting their kids play with the non-religious girls who wear pants.

Well frum Jews are certainly not without fault. We’re not perfect. If we were, moshiach would be here already. But let’s put things in perspective.

The secular world is plagued with unwed pregnancies, sex on the school busses, drug problems, theft, vandalism, and even an occasional child murderer. Our problems pale in comparison. We have some of the same problems as they do (their problems seep into our society) but always on a much smaller scale.
Read more Putting Things in Perspective

I Can’t Be An FFB – But Will I Always Be A BT

When I first saw the word Baal Teshuva in a book it had a comforting feeling about it. I felt like someone understood me, that I wasn’t alone, and that something special was possibly happening all over the world with people like me turning back to Judaism. I had begun studying on my own without the aid of a kiruv professional, outreach center or even a local sensitive rabbi to guide me. I read through a copy of the Bible in English, found some English translations of tractates of the Talmud, and started to adopt observances and attitudes that I found compelling. When I finally saw that I was not alone, it lifted my sights a bit.

Later, I found out that the term Baal Teshuva is somewhat of a misnomer. I was more technically in the category of a “tinok shenishbah” a child captured by non-Jews. I wasn’t really captured, just merely brought up in a non-observant household. But the Hebrew term applies nonetheless, and it has halachic ramifications. Now the truth is I don’t really want to go around being called a captured baby, even if that’s my halachic status, but Baal Teshuva (master of return) is a term designated for someone who was observant and went away from observance and then came back. So that doesn’t really apply to me.
Read more I Can’t Be An FFB – But Will I Always Be A BT