Faigy Mayer…the story of the lost princess

For those of you who have not yet heard of the tragedy of a young woman who took her life then you should. Faigy was a young woman who grew up in the Chassidic community in New York and after a turbulent life dealing with mental illness left that community. Last week she ended her life, leaping from a 20 story building. Her death torments me. I find no peace and share my troubled thoughts…

My heart aches and my eyes shed endless tears for you Faigy. For your dreams that are no longer, for the talent that is no longer and for the search that has ended prematurely. For those that refused to see and feel and reach out when you were obviously hurting so much. For your friends. For your parents, siblings and family. For Hashem whose pain must be far greater then mine.

You ran away from a world that I was drawn to. In the world that you felt imprisoned I found my freedom…and yet I feel your agony. Behind the images you posted and the anguish you expressed I see a princess lost in the abyss of her struggle to find inner peace and purpose.

Are you not the lost princess that Rebbe Nachman spoke off…I guess that the wait for the warrior that was meant to come and rescue you took too long and the pain was too unbearable to sustain.

We judge you not….for who are we to judge…we are all on a journey fraught with challenge, hope and uncertainty. Along the way each of us rise and fall while we experience the events and interactions that bring us closer to our purpose…although at times it appears that our experiences are in fact distractions from that purpose.

Faigy my heart doesn’t just ache for you…I cry for all the other lost princess and princes who in their search become so lost that they rather surrender then persist. I cry that a community that I love chose to abandon rather then understand you.

We need to find a way forward. We need to ask some hard questions and talk openly to find the answers. The truth is that there is a growing number of our youth that are opting out and we need to ask ourselves why? I don’t pretend to have the answers but I cannot bare the agony of another lost princess choosing to surrender rather then live.

To all the other lost princesses and princes out there my heart is open and my prayers are that our ever patient G-d grant you the time and means to heal the wounds and reconnect in a meaningful and inspired way.

Rabbi Aryeh Goldman writes at hitoreri.com

Fear and Loathing in Jerusalem: the Olam Ha’Sheker Excuse

By William Kolbrenner
Open Minded Torah

Spring time in Jerusalem, so yet once more, my wife and I embark on the path of finding a place for our son Shmuel with Down syndrome, this time in a cheder, a pre-kindergarden class in our neighborhood.

So earlier this week, we set up a meeting with the principal of a school around the block from our house. Not only was he cordial, but he had the look of someone who was genuinely interested in helping us with the education of our son. There had not been a child in his school with Down’s syndrome for a generation, but listening carefully to our description of our son, his cordiality turned into what seemed like understanding. He invited us back the following day to meet with a rebbe and an administrator to discuss logistics – and how to integrate Shmuel and his ‘syat’ or ‘shadow’ into the classroom. The teacher of the class which the principal had in mind for Shmuel put it simply – ‘my business is to teach children; and I’d do my best to teach Shmuel as any other child.’ ‘Though I am not a professor,’ he continued with a wink, ‘I do have thirty years of experience.’

As we were leaving – s’yata d’shmaya my wife said – another one of the rebbes, seeing Shmuel, stopped us, and mentioned that he had been a classmate of the boy with Down’s syndrome from years back. To the questions which reflected the principal’s main concerns – ‘will he be disruptive?'; ‘will he be accepted by the other boys?'; ‘will he want to participate in class? – the rebbe answered with reassurance. As Tolstoy might put it, no two children are alike, and no two children with Down’s syndrome are alike, but the rebbe only affirmed what we had told the principal – his classmate had been full of joy, eager to participate and imitiate, not at all disruptive. Shmuel’s affability and good cheer – traits which prompt my wife to wonder what I would be like with an extra chromosome – and his cognitive high-functioning, we explained eagerly to the principal, are what brought us to mainstreaming and his neighborhood school in the first place.

A few days passed. I left some messages at the school, but my calls were not returned. When I finally reached the principal, he suggested I speak to someone else in the school -now a fourth person – who I was told would make the ‘final decision.’ It didn’t sound good; so I pressed the principal instead.

‘It’s a very difficult decision…’ His voice trailed off. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way Rav Kolbrener, and please don’t be insulted….’

Calling me rabbi, I thought to myself, was a bad sign.

‘It’s a matter,’ he hesitated, ‘of considering the mossad.’ It was now not just an elementary school, but an institute.

‘What about the mossad?’, I asked.

‘Its reputation.’

I was silent.

‘We have to think of what other parents will say when they see a child like Shmuel in the class with their normal children. How will we be able to justify it to them? They also have to be respected. It simply will not be good for the reputation of the school.’

I wasn’t insulted, in fact I had heard versions of this before.

There was an undoubtable hint of frustration in his voice – likely I thought that those from whom he had sought advice had a different view of the ‘mossad,’ and were forcing him to do something against his better judgment. So I responded: ‘we both know that what you are now advocating – acquiescing to close-mindeded and sanctioning fear of difference – is against our hashgafa, indeed I continued, any Torah perspective.’ ‘It’s a chilul hashem,’ I continued, ‘a desecration of G-d’s name, to send us away to schools outside of our community – to other schools, and other communities – when you yourself acknowledged that Shmuel could find a place in one of your classrooms.’

‘And as far as ordinary children,’ I went on, filling the silence, ‘we are not children of Esau who find perfection in this world, but the b’nei Yisrael, children of Israel, of Jacob, who acknowledge that this world is a place of lack and imperfection.’ ‘I am a pragmatist,’ I continued: ‘if Shmuel is disruptive or can’t be integrated into the class room, then we will take him out immediately, but if the experience of our home is true, if that of our building is true, of his nursery school are true, then Shmuel’s presence will be a blessing for him, and for all who have the chance to be around him.’

‘Rav Kolbrener’ – again the wrong title – ‘what you say is all emes l’emiso’ – the undeniable truth, ‘k’dosh k’doshim,’ the holy of the holies, but, and I could almost see and feel his shoulders shrugging, ‘we live in ‘olam ha sheker – a world of lies.

Here it was – the olam ha’sheker excuse! I had heard people exclaim ‘olam ha’sheker’ as an expression of frustration; this was the first time I heard it as an explicit excuse. Using the olam ha’sheker excuse, not as a form of self-consolation, but justification for doing the wrong thing, turns Torah into something theoretical – ‘we can’t actually live by the words of Torah!’ So Torah ceases to be a manual for life – a handbook for tikkun olam – the redemption of the world, but an ideal to which we aspire when not in conflict with our prejudices and fears. The principal couldn’t help being honest: so he acknowledged that my words were true, even holy, but from the olam ha’sheker perspective, such truth and holiness don’t have a place in the world. So Judaism transforms into a religion of ideals only. How often is such an excuse – even if not explicitly uttered – used as a means of justifying our laziness, self-interest or even corruption?

Traditions in the West in literature, philosophy and theology – from Homer to Plato to the apostle Paul – separate the ideal, take it out of the world. But Judaism – and this was one of the reasons that I started, years ago, to begin to split my time between the library and the beit midrash – transforms the real into the ideal, elevating the world. Judaism offers the promise of a learning which is not simply theoretical – those earnest discussions I used to have in the seminar room in graduate school – but a learning leading to action and tikkun olam.

Or perhaps this is naive? too idealistic?

First published here

Righteous Indignation—the Root of Prayer and Salvation

Shemos-An installment in the series

From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

Blessed is Elokim, who has not removed my prayer, or His loving-kindness from me.

-Tehillim 66:20

The Izhbitzer taught that before the Divine Will to liberate is at hand a person remains blind, deaf and dumb to his own need for deliverance. The person cannot see his deficiencies and has no idea as to what he is lacking. However, once there is a Divine Will to liberate, It allows the one in need of deliverance to see the root cause of his deficiencies and proffers him the capacity to pray and cry-out for salvation.  Next, the one in need of deliverance begins to bluster and create a prayerful ruckus to HaShem. Then, HaShem shines his chessed– loving-kindness and the actual salvation transpires.

This is what the psalmist, King Dovid, meant when he wrote said “ … who has not removed my prayer, nor His loving-kindness from me.”  Even though the prayer is “mine” it is HaShem who implants the desire to utter it in my heart, He could remove it — but He chooses not to.

A long time then passed and the king of Egypt died. The children-of-Israel groaned (due to) [from] their slavery and they cried out; and their supplications ascended to G-d from [amidst] the slavery.

-Shemos 2:23

If one wanted to create a timeline charting the Geulah-salvation from Galus Mitzrayim-the Egyptian exile, the split second of this collective national groan would be the starting point of the timeline.  Before that moment they had no impetus, no drive to pray and call out to G-d. When the Divine Will decreed that the time for Geulah had come, HaShem stimulated their desire to be extricated from Galus and the will to pray for this salvation.  For the naissance of every salvation is the desire for salvation.

The Izhbitzer’s elder son, the Bais Yaakov, develops this concept further: The period of nocturnal darkness that is most intense and most concealing is the one directly preceding the dawning of the light. Our sages refer to this as קדרותא דצפרא–the starless morning gloom, and use it as a metaphor for the intensification of Jewish suffering. “A man and his young son were wandering on the seemingly interminable road and the boy began despairing of ever returning to civilization. ‘Father’ he asked ‘Where is the city?’ The man responded ‘Son, when we pass a graveyard that will be the sure sign that a city is not far off.‘  Similarly the prophet told K’lal Yisrael–the Jewish People ‘If you are swamped by travails you will be redeemed immediately — HaShem will respond on the day of your suffering’ ” (Yalkut Shimoni Tehillim 20:580)

When the new king ramped up the sadistic slave-labor he had overplayed his hand.  Somehow, the human capacity for adaptation to trying circumstances had allowed K’lal Yisrael to endure the slavery up until that point. They had grown inured and insensitive to the agonies and the indignities that their taskmasters heaped upon them.  But when the oppression intensified they finally sensed their own innate freedom and free men cannot tolerate being enslaved. They felt the pain and suffering of their slavery and began to sniff the sweet aroma of liberation. When it hurts, one groans and screams; ויזעקו   –“and they cried out.”

It wasn’t so much that the liberation was a response to the crying out, as the crying out was a reaction to the liberation process that had begun internally. By implementing the Geulah from the inside out it was, in fact, HaShem who gave them the drive to cry out.  This is the meaning of the pasuk “HaShem, You have heard the yearning of the humble: You will prime their heart, Your Ear will be attentive” (Tehillim10:17).  Once the human heart is primed for prayer that is the sure sign that the Divine Ear has already been attentive to the distress and taken the initial steps towards ending it. HaShem develops Geulah gradually until it is actualized. It begins with the end of endurance of Galus and the capacity to feel the pain, progresses to hope and the conviction that HaShem can help, flowers into crying out in prayer and culminates in the actual Geulah.

The Bais Yaakov adds an etymological insight: two nearly synonymous words in lashon kodesh-the holy tongue mean “to cry out”, זעקה-zeakah (beginning with the letter zayin) andצעקה  –tzeakah (beginning with the letter tzadee). Tzeakah is the verb employed when things are hopeless and the path to salvation is completely obscured. As that pasuk says “This case is identical to a man rising up against his neighbor and murdering him. After all, she was assaulted in the field, even if the betrothed girl had cried out (צעקה beginning with a tzadee) there would have been no one to come to her aid and save her (literally: she would have had no savior.)” (Devarim 22:26, 27)

Whereas zeakah is the verb employed when things are no longer hopeless and the salvation begins to become palpable. This type of “crying out” takes place when, sensing the possibility of salvation, one begins marshalling and concentrating all of his faculties towards the achievement of this goal, evoking a corresponding Divine response.  At its root the verb zeakah means to coalesce and band together as in וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶל-עֲמָשָׂא, הַזְעֶק-לִי אֶת-אִישׁ-יְהוּדָה שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים; וְאַתָּה, פֹּה עֲמֹד “And the king said to Amasha: muster the men of Judah together for me within three days, and you be present here.”  It is this latter verb that connotes hope and faith in the salvation, which our pasuk uses to describe the crying-out; וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה, וַיִּזְעָקוּ – The children-of-Israel groaned due to their slavery and they cried out.

The first of the four famous expressions of Geulah (Shemos 6:6) is typically translated as “and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.” But the first Gerrer Rebbe, the Chidushei haRi”m  reads it in a way that resonates with the Izhbitzer’s  fixing the split second of this collective national groan as the starting point of the Geulah from Galus Mitzrayim. The Ri”m renders the first expression of Geulah as “and I will extricate you from your patience (savlanus), from your capacity to bear it [Galus Mitzrayim] anymore” for the redemptive process cannot begin as long as the exile can be tolerated.  Only after the Bnei Yisrael can no longer bear it and are disgusted by it, can the Galus be liquidated.  Getting in touch with their inner freeman, they must first grow furiously offended about the affront to their dignity — the insult, more than the injury, of slavery.

Hashem doesn’t take the slaves out of slavery until he takes the slavery out of the slaves.

Adapted from:

Mei Hashiloach II Shemos D”H Vayeanchu
Bais Yaakov Shemos inyan29 D”H Vayeanchu page 29 (15A)
and inyan 30 D”H Vayeanchu page 30 (15B)

Originally posted Dec 2014

The Ethics of “What’s in it For Me?”

Why was Yehudahs approach to saving Yoseph so different from that of Reuvens?
Why do the sages condemn those who find merit in Yehudahs tactics?

Reuven heard these words [the brothers’ plot to murder Yoseph] and tried to rescue him saying “Let’s not kill him.” And he said to them “Don’t commit bloodshed … “

— Bereishis 37:21,22

Don’t spill the blood of an innocent man

— Targum Yonasan ben Uziel ibid

Reuven responded and said “ didn’t I tell you not to commit a sin against the lad [Yoseph]? but you didn’t listen. Now a Divine accounting is being demanded for his blood”

— Bereishis 42:22

And Yehudah said to his brothers: “What will we gain [ מה בצע] if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?”

— Bereishis 37:26

And the greedy one desirous of gain [ובוצע ברך] blesses himself … in having infuriated HaShem

— Tehillim 10:4

Rabi Meir says: This passuk  [ובוצע ברך] refers to none other than Yehudah, for it is written, And Yehudah said to his brothers: “What will we gain [ מה בצע] if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?” So all who praise/bless Yehudah, the botzeia; infuriate [HaShem] …

— Sanhedrin 6B

There was a small city, with only a few inhabitants; and a great king came against it, surrounded it, and built great siege-works against it.  A poor wise man was present in the city who, by his wisdom, liberated the city; yet no one remembered that poor man.

— Koheles 9:14,15

[The above passage is interpreted as referring to the milchemes hayetzer-man’s internal moral battle to exercise his free will properly. The “great king” refers to the yetzer hara-inclination to evil; while the “poor-wise” man represents the yetzer tov-inclination to good. The Gemara comments:] “At the time that the yetzer hara holds sway no one can even remember the yetzer tov.”

— Nedarim 32B

Rabi Yehudah quoting Rav said  “One should always busy himself with Torah [study] and Mitzvah [performance] even if he does so for ulterior motives for the result will eventually be that, from within the ulterior motives, he will [develop to] attain the level of [Torah study and Mitzvah performance] for its own sake.

— Nazir 23B

Both Reuven and Yehudah tried to dissuade their other brothers from harming Yoseph. But their diverse approaches are markedly different. Reuven is an ethicist exhorting the brothers to avoid sin and spilling the blood of innocents. Reuven appeals the better angels of their natures and argues, in effect, that virtue is its own reward and that they ought to do the right thing for its own sake. Yehudah is a pragmatist.  His tactic to get the brothers to drop their murderous plan is “What’s in it for us? What do we stand to gain either monetarily (Rashi’s interpretation) or in terms of our fathers affection?”  There is no trace of a moral or halachic argument in Yeudah’s words.

The Izhbitzer explains that Yehudah based his approach on the psycho-spiritual dynamic revealed by the Gemara-Talmud; that “At the time that the yetzer hara holds sway no one can even remember the yetzer tov.” When the Divine Will chooses to test us It causes us to completely forget the severity of the prohibition and to put the moral repugnance of the sin out of our minds. HaShem designed the mechanism of bechirah chofshis-human free-will; to function such that, in the heat of the nisayon-test; when the yetzer hara asserts itself, none can even remember the yetzer tov. While enmeshed in the ethical challenge to reject evil and embrace good, exhortations for moral and ethical behavior, to do the right thing for its own sake, will fall on deaf ears.  The time for understanding  and internalizing the lessons of the superiority of good over evil and that virtue is its own reward is pre-need. In the heat of the moment of trial the inclination to do good is nowhere to be found.

It is at times like these when the most efficient tool against embracing evil, abusing our bechirah chofshis, is to appeal to pragmatic considerations and ulterior motives. The Izhbitzer maintains that Yehudah was a down-to-earth “man of the world” well acquainted with hardheaded realities and that he recognized that the brothers were in the very thick of a great nisayon. There internal voices of conscience and morality had been silenced and he understood that any appeals based on morality and ethics emanating from him would be similarly ignored.  And so he forwarded the מה בצע –what’s in it for us?  What will we gain?; argument. Even when the yetzer hara holds sway people “remember” such practical considerations and, if compelling enough, they can dissuade would-be-sinners from doing evil or, at least, affect some damage-control and diminish the intensity of the sin.

The brothers were in the midst of a great nisayon, their collective memory loss of their yetzer tovs was so great that they were convinced that the murder that they sought to do was justified and was, in fact, the moral and ethical thing to do.  Many meforshim-commentaries take the approach that the brothers convened as a Sanhedrin and ruled that Halachah demanded that Yoseph  be put to death.  The Sforno (37:25) opines that they had ruled Yoseph to be a rodeiph-a “chaser” with homicidal intentions. In such cases anyone may kill the rodeiph to save the life of the would-be murder victim. While the Izhbitzer asserts that the brothers ruled that Yoseph, trying to drive a wedge between them and their father was amounted to sundering the unity of HaShem. In so doing Yoseph had committed a capital offense akin to idolatry.

Read more The Ethics of “What’s in it For Me?”

Nothing is Perfect Until it’s Incomplete

Why did Avram seek advice before proceeding with milah-circumcision?
Why did some of his closest friends and disciples oppose his undergoing milah?

HaShem appeared to him [Avram] in the Plains of Mamre while he was sitting at the opening of the tent as the day[‘s heat] blazed.

— Bereishis 18:1

Why did HaShem appear to him in the Plains of Mamre?  [He appeared there] as a reward Mamre for his offering Avram positive advice and encouragement concerning circumcision.

— Rashi ibid

… And He said to him [Avram] “I Am Keil Shakai. Walk yourself before Me and become perfect. And I will tender My covenant between me and you …

— Bereishis 17:1,2

This is My covenant between Me, and between you and your offspring that you must observe: you must circumcise every male. You shall excise the flesh of your foreskin and this will be the mark of the covenant between Me and you.

— Bereishis 17:10,11

The refugee came bringing intelligence to Avram the Hebrew who was living serenely in the Plains of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshkol, and brother of Aner; they were the masters of Avram’s covenant.

— Bereishis 14:13

Why was Kiryas Arba-the Town of the Four; so called? Because of the four saintly people living there; Aner, Eshkol, Mamre and Avram

— Bereishis Rabbah 58:4

When the Holy Blessed One told Avram that he should circumcise himself, Avram sought the advice of his three beloved friends; Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. He first went to Aner and said “HaShem commanded me to do such and such.” Aner responded “He wants to make you a baal mum– someone defective/ an amputee?! The relatives of the Kings that you slew will seize this opportunity to kill you in reprisal as you will not be able to flee.” He left him and then proceeded to Eshkol. “HaShem commanded me to do such and such.” Eshkol responded “You’re old. If you circumcise yourself you’ll hemorrhage and lose too much blood. You won’t be able to endure it and you’ll die.” He left him and then proceeded to Mamre. “HaShem commanded me to do such and such. What is your advice?” Mamre responded “You ask me about this? Wasn’t it HaShem who saved you from the fiery furnace and wrought all the miracles for you?  Wasn’t it HaShem who saved from the kings? If not for His Might and Power the kings would have slain you in battle. HaShem has saved all 248 of your limbs and organs [numerous times] and you’re asking my advice about the small appendage to a single organ?  Do as He commands.

— Midrash Tanchuma Vayera 3

הקנאה, התאווה והכבוד – מוציאים את האדם מן העולם
Jealousy, lust and the pursuit of honor eradicate a person from the world

— Pirkei Avos 4:28

The Izhbitzer School addresses various questions that arise from a superficial reading of the Tanchuma. How could Avram, greatest of the believers in HaShem, who had already withstood many Divine trials, grant Aner and Eshkol and Mamre “veto power” over a direct command from HaShem? Had all three advised against circumcision would he have actually complied with their advice instead of obeying HaShem? Why did Aner and Eshkol, described as “the masters of Avrams covenant” and as tzadikim-righteous ones; advise against circumcision? In Avrams previous and subsequent trials he did not seek anyone’s advice. Why did he seek advice regarding circumcision?

Rav Shmuel Dov Asher-the Biskovitzer, understands the dialogues between Avram and his consultants as not being a question of “yes or no?” but of “how”?  What’s the best way to go about this? He wanted to decide whether to undergo circumcision inconspicuously or publicly.

The fact was that 20 generations had passed since Adam without anyone undergoing circumcision and that people have a strong predilection for resisting change and having a skeptical attitude towards innovation. Avram considered the possibility that publicizing this groundbreaking development in Man’s relationship with G-d would evoke enough opposition of others to try and prevent him from going through with it or, at minimum, mocking and scorning this bizarre operation, after all circumcision affects a most sensitive area. This societal ridicule and scorn would diminish the gravity and appeal of the Monotheism that Avram had devoted his life to teaching and preaching. Avram did not want HaShem to become cholilah-Heaven Forefend; a laughing-stock.

Additionally, Aner opposed publicizing the covenant of circumcision because of the personal danger it would expose Avram to. Opportunistic relatives of the 4 kings bent on vendetta killings would consider a circumcision-weakened Avram an easy target. Aner reasoned that one shouldn’t rely on miracles when natural means to avoid danger, in this case keeping the circumcisions secret, were available. While clear-headed and cautious, this advice did not appeal to Avram. HaShem had Chosen to Grant him victory over the kings in the most transparent, prominent and famous way. How then could fulfilling HaShem’s command publicly and openly lead to his downfall?

Eshkol thought that the threat of Avram dying as a result of post-operative complications was very real and that, perhaps, the trial of circumcision was a kind of auto-Akeidah; would Avram be willing to kill himself at G-d’s behest? But Eshkol fretted over the disastrous PR consequences of “passing” such a test. How many potential new monotheists would be discouraged and dissuaded? How many of Avrams proselytes would drop out of a religion demanding such supreme human self-sacrifice? How many people would condemn the G-d of Avram as a wrathful and capricious Deity?  If the circumcision-related causes of Avrams death were to become widely known an epic chilul HaShem-desecration of G-d’s name; would result.  On the other hand if the circumcision was a well-kept secret and, worst-case scenario, Avram did not survive it, the cause of death could reasonably be attributed to Avram’s “old-age” or any number of causes. Avram rejected this as well. He thought it inconceivable that HaShem would command him to do something that would result in his death.

Mamre’s recommendation and encouragement resonated with Avram for all the reasons that the suggestions of Aner and Eshkol did not.  Avram followed the advice of his consultant Mamre and “B’etzem hayom hazeh-In the very core of that day; Avram and his son Yishmael were circumcised. All the men of the household both homeborn and bought for cash from a stranger were circumcised with him.” (Bereishis 17:26,27).  Elsewhere Chazal have taught that the phrase “B’etzem hayom hazeh” connotes an in-your-face challenge to would-be opponents, scoffers, skeptics or those who would stop it outright.  As if to say “I/We did it out in the open at high-noon … stop us if you can!”

As he often does, the Biskovitzer concludes with a take-away lesson that we can apply to contemporary Avodas HaShem. He maintains that each of us have an internal Aner, Eshkol, Mamre. When we exercise our free-will to do good and perform mitzvos there are still “voices” within us that will try dissuading us from performing HaShem’s Will in the best and most fulsome way, more often than not by voicing some iteration of the fear of ridicule and public misunderstanding.

Read more Nothing is Perfect Until it’s Incomplete

The Cry of the Decaying Kernel

Why does Mikra Bikurim-the declaration accompanying the bringing of the first fruits/produce begin with a review of the Egyptian exile and exodus? In particular, why is there an emphasis on the population explosion during the Egyptian exile? Why do these pesukim-verses; serve as the opening of the maggid section of Pesach evening Haggadah-telling? Is there a common denominator between the two?

And then you shall respond and say before HaShem your Elokim: “my patriarch was a wandering Aramean. He descended into Egypt with a small number of men and lived there as an émigré; yet it was there that he became a great, powerful, and heavily populated nation.

Devarim 26:5

 … This was to teach you that it is not by bread alone that the human lives, but by all that comes out of HaShem’s mouth.

Devarim 8:3

According to the Jewish mystical tradition all of creation is divided into four tiers domem –silent (inert); tzomeach-sprouting (botanic life); chai-animate (animal life); medaber-speech-endowed life (human beings). Each tier of creation ascends to higher tiers through an upwardly mobile food-chain by nourishing, and thus being incorporated into, the level directly above it until, ultimately, it is assimilated into the human being, the creature that can face and serve the Creator. Minerals nourish plants and are absorbed through the roots buried in the soil and through photosynthesis. Plants are eaten by herbivorous animals providing nutrients for the animals’ sustenance and growth. Animals are ingested by carnivorous humans supplying the calories, vitamins and minerals human beings need to live and flourish.

This upwardly mobile food-chain has a spiritual dimension as well.

Man is more than highly developed biological machine that expires when enough of the moving parts wear down.  Man is endowed with a cheilek elokai mima’al-a spark of the Divine; and it is the union of soul and body that defines human life. Superficially the external symptoms of death may appear to be too many of the moving parts breaking down; in truth human death occurs as a result of the dissolution of the marriage between body and soul. This begs the question: If there is a spiritual element inherent in human beings what is it that nourishes the soul?  Eating food is often described as “keeping body and soul together” but how is this accomplished?

The Rebbe Reb Chaim Chernovitzer cites a teaching of the Arizal in response. Our sages teach us that even the smallest blade of  grass here below has a guardian angel on High that “bangs it on the head and exhorts it to grow”(Bereishis Rabbah 10:6). In other words, even the lowest tiers of creation have a spiritual element that animates them, lending them existence, form and substance.  In the case of grass, being a plant, a tzomeach-that which sprouts and grows; the grass’ “soul” demands growth. Presumably for animals the soul would demand and promote movement and vitality and for soil and all inert creatures the soul would demand and promote silence and stillness. Such that all food substances are also composed of both a body and a soul, albeit inferior to the human body and soul both physically and spiritually. The manifest, visible food is the “body” of the food, while the sacred emanation from on High exhorting it “to be” and not revert to nonexistence lending it form and substance is the foods “soul”.  When absorbed or ingested the physical element of the food nourishes the consumer’s material component while the “soul” of the food, i.e. its spiritual element, nourishes the consumer’s spiritual dimension.

This is the meaning of the pasuk “that it is not by bread alone that the human lives, but by all that comes out of HaShem’s mouth.” The motza pi HaShem-that which emanates from HaShems mouth; refers to the Divine Will that this thing/ foodstuff exist. It is the motza pi HaShem lending tzurah-form; and spirituality that is indispensable for human beings to live, not the corporeal, apparent bread alone.

 

Read more The Cry of the Decaying Kernel

Strike the First Blow and the Fix is In

Why is the war mentioned at the beginning of Ki Seitzei offensive while the one mentioned in Behaaloscha defensive?
Why is victory guaranteed in the war mentioned at the beginning of Ki Seitzei ?

 And when war will come in your land against the tormenter that puts pressure on you, you shall sound a staccato on the trumpets. Then HaShem your Elokim will remember you and will save you from your adversaries.

BeMidbar 10:9

When you set out to wage war against your adversaries HaShem your Elokim will give you victory over them such that you will capture [his] prisoners.

Devarim 21:10                                                                                                                         

In the day of good be absorbed of good, and in the day of evil observe; for Elokim has made one parallel the other.

Koheles 7:14

And the two of them were naked, the Adam and his wife, but they felt no shame.

Bereshis 2:25

 Prior to the sin they were purely good and they related to “the face below” as they did [and still do] to “the face above” [i.e. as there is no shame in eating, hearing, smelling or seeing or in the organs that are the channels of these senses so too there was no shame in reproduction or the organs of reproduction]. For the component of evil that became incorporated in human beings is what differentiates between the two “faces”.  It is in the lower portion of the human gestalt where evil acquired an abode. By way of proof observe: The sign of the holy covenant is surrounded by a husk, the foreskin, which HaShem commanded to excise for it is there that shidah rested [see Yeshayahu 34:14].

— Ohr HaChaim ibid

There are several marked differences between the two pesukim-verses; describing the wars of the Bnei Yisrael– the Nation of Israel.  The pasuk in BeMidbar describes a defensive war, a war that “will come” to you while the pasuk at the beginning of our sidrah-weekly Torah reading; speaks of an offensive, aggressive war: “When you set out to wage war”.  While rescue and living to fight another day is promised in the former pasuk, victory over the opponent is guaranteed only in the latter pasuk.

When weighing the decision of whether or not to wage war there are a myriad of factors that require consideration. The first among them is if the projected war or fight is winnable. No individual, nation, tribe or even terrorist entity launches a fight or a war that they know that they can’t win.  While combatants may be prepared to lose many rounds or battles and to clash for years and even decades; no one sets out to lose the war.

That said few war decision-makers are 100% certain of their ultimate victory. Military history is replete with many “David vs. Goliath” upset victories. Hubris, megalomania, underestimation of the enemy, bad intelligence, poor diplomacy and a host of other uncontrollable factors may delude combatants into thinking that their victory is assured. Still, most rational military men understand that it takes more than valor or superior technology and manpower to win a war.  They understand that they must remain ever vigilant, persistent and brave because; “it ain’t over till it’s over”.

This is what makes the opening of our sidrah so odd. The prophecies of war should have been stated conditionally; “When you set out to wage war against your adversaries IF HaShem your Elokim will give you victory over them and if you will capture [his] prisoners.” In point of historical fact the Bnei Yisrael were not victorious in every war nor did they always capture prisoners. Why then does the pasuk guarantee victory?

Understanding that all of the wars of Bnei Yisrael are not merely physical and geopolitical but metaphysical and spiritual and that, when applied to the microcosm of individual Jews, they translate into milchemes hayeitzer-the war against our inclinations to evil;  Rav Leibeleh Eiger explains the distinctiveness of the war described at the beginning of our sidrah allegorically.

Imagine a great warrior king whose crown prince is his only son. While the king wants the prince to achieve the glory and honor that only military victory can accord, he is unwilling to actually risk his only, irreplaceable son’s battlefield defeat and death. And so the king, aware of the tactics, strategy and covert intelligence reports, waits until “the fix is in” and does not dispatch the crown prince to wage a war until and unless he, the king, knows that victory is not only probable — but a foregone conclusion. Military observers, combatants and reporters following the war may imagine it to be a closely contested competition — but the king knows better.

Read more Strike the First Blow and the Fix is In

Turning the Tables on the Constant Test of Summertime Immodesty

By Rabbi Yonah Levant
The entire zechus of this post should accrue to, and contribute to the immediate freeing of the Yeshiva bochrim kidnapped by terrorists:
1. Yaakov Naftali ben Rachel Devorah,
2. Gilad Michael ben Bat Galim
3. Eyal ben Iris Teshurah

The 1st Mishna is Pirkei Avos, Chapter 2 says:
Rabbi [Yehuda haNasi] said:…
Be careful with a minor mitzvah (commandment) as with a major one, for you do not know the reward for the mitzvos. Consider the loss incurred for performing a mitzvah compared to its reward, and the ‘reward’ received for sinning compared to the loss….

The two parts of the Mishnah, the encouragement to keep mitzvos, and the steeling oneself to avoid aveirah, seem to be distinct and can be fully understood independent of each other. It seems.

I saw a chiddush (novel insight) that manages to link the סוֹר מרע (turn away from bad) with the עשה טוב (do good) in a way that can have a very big impact on a person’s entire relationship to Hashem.

This is based on what we all intuitively know – that it is most worthwhile to daven to Hashem during an עת רצון (time of divine favor). “Worthwhile,” in terms of having one’s tefilos heard and accepted. The Ohr HaChaim on the pasuk ואתחנן אל ה’ בעת ההיא לאמר (and I davened to Hashem in that time saying) explains that the בעת ההיא (in that time) meant that it was an עת רצון (time of divine favor), and that is why Moshe davened then. Moshe knew when it was an עת רצון (time of divine favor) and he took full advantage to daven then.

Wouldn’t we love to know when there is an עת רצון (time of divine favor), or better yet, be able to create such a thing, by ourselves!

Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein shlita of Bnei Brak quotes the Ba’al Sefer Shomer Emunim who says that whenever one does a mitzvah, it is an עת רצון (time of divine favor). And especially when one sees inappropriate scenes, pritsus (immodesty), and one looks away with proper שמירת עיניים (guarding of one’s eyes) , that creates a עת רצון (time of divine favor) such that your tefillos will certainly be accepted by Hashem.

What does this mean to us? What does it mean to us who live in a very degraded generation in terms of tsnius (modesty), and what does it mean to us in terms of our lives as Jews, in the Big Picture.

Before this insight, a person might feel overwhelmed by a non-tsnius (immodest) world, especially in the summer, where one is put to the test all the time. A person might end up feeling aggravated endlessly, that the world is so antagonistic to Torah observance. You can’t look around and walk around like a normal person. You always have to be on edge, like in a battle.

And Shemiras Aynayim (guarding ones eyes) is a tricky business, since willpower doesn’t stop your optic nerve from working! The Ran in Nedarim says (I don’t have the source location) “אבל עיניו ואזניו של אדם אינם ברשותו, שהרי על כרחו יראח בעיניו ובאזניו ישמע.” – (but the eyes and ears of a man are not his possession, because one sees with his eyes and hears with his ears, even when he doesn’t want to). So, it’s a mitzvah where you practically start off on the wrong foot all the time! You see something inappropriate and only then do you look away.

If you need to be on the street, or driving, etc. you can’t prevent your eye from seeing something un-tsnius (immodest) if it (or her) steps right in front of you. The chiyuv (obligation) is obviously to look away immediately. So, it is a nisayon (test) of great proportions, considering that a healthy human being is not Parev (neutral) about these things. It pulls at a person’s very base nature. If the mitzvah of Shemiras Aynayim (guarding ones eyes) was to avoid looking at wool, it would be much easier to observe, even though wool is also everywhere! Nobody has a deep desire for looking at wool!

So, a person can be exhausted and aggravated from the ongoing nisayon (test) , even if he is successful! Or, chas v’shalom (G-d forbid), a person can give up the fight, and not keep the mitzvah, and abandon that level of kedushah (holiness) that Hashem wants of every single Yid.

With the insight of the Shomer Emunim, a person can change each nisayon (test) of Shemiras Aynayim (and any other aveirah nisayon (trangression test)) into an opportunity for tremendous dveykus (closeness) to Hashem. When one looks away, one can proclaim “Hashem, I am yours, I do not belong to the street! And since I am yours, and since I am overcoming my desires, for You, please help me with…” A person can become Davek to Hashem amidst the shmutz of our world. A person can grow, because of the opportunity hidden within the nisayon (test). “I am not looking Hashem, because I am yours! I am not theirs!”

Rav Zilberstein in his sefer טובך יביעו ח”ב עמ’סח quotes an unnamed Godol who said that a person who doesn’t practice Shemiras Aynayim sullies his davening and learning which require Kedushah. But it also robs him of his ability to get real pleasure and sweetness from learning, and davening, and the like.

You essentially end up switching the forbidden pleasure for the pleasure Hashem wanted you to have in dveykus (closeness) with Him through a geshmak (wonderful feeling) in learning, a heartfelt davening, etc.

I think it was the Steipler Gaon zatzal who was quoted (2008 Men’s tsnius asifah in Lakewood, Rav Wachsman drosho) as saying that when a person foregoes a forbidden pleasure, because of Hashem’s Will, then he will get a תשלומים, an equivalent, a replacement pleasure through Avodas Hashem. He will find real pleasure, real earthly pleasure in davening, or learning, or some other kosher venue. You will not lose out, says the Steipler Gaon.

Let us all try to turn this constant test into an opportunity to have our prayers answered, especially in this troubling time.

So Bad That it MUST be Good

A SPECIAL REQUEST: Please do not begin reading this devar Torah unless you intend to learn it thoroughly and reach the disclaimer at the very end. To do otherwise could prove hazardous to your spiritual development and health.

How can it be that a small spreading of the white negatzara’as rash causes ritual impurity but that if the rash spreads over the entire body it then becomes a sign of ritual purity?

Why is it that on a Sanhedrin tribunal judging capital offenses a mere majority of two voting for guilt is sufficient to execute capital punishment but that if the Sanhedrin votes for guilt unanimously that the accused is declared innocent and “walks”?

But if the white mark increases in size on the skin after it was shown to the Kohen, who purified it, the person must again show it to the Kohen.  If the Kohen observes that the rash on the skin has increased in size he shall declare the person impure, it is the leprous curse.

—Vayikra 13:7,8

[This is the law] if the leprous area flourishes over the skin so that it covers all the skin of the afflicted person from head to foot wherever the Kohen can see: When the Kohen sees that a leprous discoloration has covered all the [person’s] skin he must declare the afflicted person pure. It has turned completely white [and so] he is pure.

—Vayikra 13:12,13

Rabi Kahana said: If the Sanhedrin unanimously found [the accused] guilty, he is acquitted. Why? —Because we have learned that final sentencing must be postponed till the next day [after the completion of the trial] in the hope of finding new points in favor of the defense. But these [judges who voted unanimously] will no longer [be capable of] see[ing anything exonerating or meritorious] for him

 —Sanhedrin 17A

Rabi Yochanan said, “Yehudah wanted to pass by [Tamar], but God sent the angel who is appointed over lust. The angel said to him, ‘Yehudah!  Where are you going? Where will kings come from? Where will great men come from? Where will redeemers come from?’”… “And he veered towards her on the road” (Bereshis38:16)—Coerced against his will [not in his best interests

                                                                                                                                      —Bereshis Rabbah 85:8

Belief in human Free-Will is a fundamental of our faith. In Hilchos Teshuvah (chapters 5,6) the Rambam argues spiritedly and convincingly for the veracity and reality the human Free-Will refuting the arguments and beliefs of the determinists and incompatibilists, even the ones who attempt to support their contentions by quoting pesukim from the TeNaC”h.  Later commentaries point out that the eleventh Maimonidean article of faith is Divine Reward and Punishment and that such a belief is untenable unless human Free-Will is real and not a myth.

That said it is equally important to remember that our Free-Will is limited and not absolute or all-encompassing.  In his treatise on Free-Will, Rav Elya Lazer Dessler uses the following allegory to illustrate this point: When two neighboring countries are war with one another in theory the potential exists for the absolute victory of one country or another.  In this scenario country “A” would conquer and annex every last acre of enemy country “B”s land, raising their national colors and imposing their laws and governmental system over every inch of what was formerly enemy territory.  But in practice, on any given day during any given battle of the war only a small portion or, in a multiple front war, several small portions of territory are actually being contested.  Armies advance and retreat and what was firmly under the control of one country or another last week, last month or last year may be in enemy hands today.  Nevertheless, in a long wars ebb and flow the actual current battlefronts comprise a relatively small to tiny portion of the combatant countries total land mass. Read more So Bad That it MUST be Good

Denying G-d and Denying Humanity

Beshalach 5774-An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

 This weeks From the Waters of the Shiloah is dedicated in memory of Gitel Leah A.H. bas Menachem Mendel HY”D; Mrs. Lidia Schwartz, the authors mother, whose yuhrzeit is Thursday, 8 Shevat.
Please learn this dvar Torah l’ilui nishmasah.

HaShem will wage war for you [against Egypt] and you must remain silent. And HaShem said to Moshe, Why do you cry out in prayer to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and let them travel.

-Shemos 14:14,15

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “This is no time to pray at length, when Israel is in distress.” Another explanation [of God’s question (Why do you cry out to me?) implies]: “The matter depends on Me and not on you,”

-Rashi ibid

And so it was that as long as Moshe held his hands up Israel would be winning but when he let his hands down then the battle would turn in Amalek’s favor …  and his hands remained faithful; steady until sunset. 

-Shemos 17:11,12

All is foreseen, yet autonomy is granted

-Avos 3:14

And Rabi Chanina said “all is in the Hands of Heaven except the awe of Heaven”

-B’rachos 33B

There are two conflicting approaches to confronting the enemy that appear in this week’s Sidra.  Towards the beginning of the Sidra, when the Jewish people literally had their backs against the wall with the pounding surf of the Sea of Reeds before them and the Egyptian cavalry giving chase from the rear, the Divine command for silence came.  Not only were the Jews not allowed to wage war against their enemies; they were not even permitted to pray for Divine intervention.

In sharp contrast to this, at the end of the Sidra, we find that prayer was the weapon of choice when the Jews were waging war against the Amalekites. Our sages teach us that during the Amalek war, when Moshe had his arms outstretched in prayer, the tide of the battle would turn in the Jews favor (Targum Yerushalmi ad locum).  When the hands would drop and the prayers stop, so would the military advances.  The Mei HaShiloach asks: why were there such a drastic difference in tactics and strategies for confronting these two mortal enemies?

His answer is based on the succinct epigram that encapsulates kivayachol -if you will, the “division of labor” between HaShem and human beings. “All is in the Hands of Heaven except the awe of Heaven IE how one serves HaShem.” This means that absolutely everything in our lives; our health, our wealth, our popularity and the success of our relationships is up to HaShem.  The only area in which we enjoy a true autonomy is in exercising our human free-will to make moral and ethical choices.

Both halves of the axiom are equally true.  To claim that “not everything is in the Hands of Heaven” is patently heretical.  This position advances a false theology that would limit HaShem’s Infinite Power.  But in Judaism it is not enough to have an accurate and true theology.  One must maintain an accurate and true “humanology” (for want of a better word) as well.  To deny the second half of the axiom by saying that there are no exceptions to the rule; that ALL is in the Hands of Heaven, period, including “the awe of Heaven” IE including how one serves HaShem, is no less heretical.

The Mei HaShiloach explains that, historically, the nations of the world that have opposed, antagonized and oppressed  Klal Yisrael-the Jewish people have been proponents of one of these two heresies.  Their cultures, their weltanschauungs, their very collective national beings, were predicated either on the proposition that not everything is in the Hands of Heaven or that, on the contrary, all is in the Hands of Heaven including human awe of Heaven IE that human free choice is an illusion and that all human behavior, even apparent moral and ethical choices, are entirely controlled by HaShem .

The Egyptians under the Pharaoh are archetypes of the first heresy.  Having positioned himself as a deity in his own right Pharaoh could hardly have conceded exclusive and absolute control of the cosmos to a “rival” deity.  On the contrary Pharaoh portrayed himself as the one in total control of all the transpired in Egypt as he declared; “The [Nile] river is mine, and I have made it.”(Yechezkel 29:9).  He was a living incarnation of “It was my own might and the personal power of my hand that has brought me all this prosperity”(Devarim 8:17)

The nation of Amalek is the quintessence of their progenitor, Esav. Esav is portrayed by our sages as a yisrael mumar-a Jew who has traded true faith for heresy (Kiddushin 18A). There are as many ways to become a heretic as there are heresies and the precise nature as of the Esavs heresy is unclear.  However, Chaza”l (Sanhedrin 60A,Berachos 10A-Hagahos HaBac”h footnote 2) use this term, yisrael mumar, to describe another Biblical character; Ravshakei.

He was the one who said to the emissaries of King Chizkiyahu “Did I now arise against this land to destroy it without HaShem? HaShem said unto me: go up against this land, and destroy it.” (Yechezkel 36:10). Ravshakei and the emperor he represented, Nebuchadnezzar, had exercised their free-will to arrive at the decision to destroy Chizkiyahu’s kingdom.  Yet he did not consider himself accountable.  He attributed his own choice to G-d.  In his soliloquy Ravshakei asks many rhetorical questions.  Expecting no answers, he was actually telling Chizkiyahu’s emissaries “don’t rely on your military alliance with Egypt.  But don’t rely on HaShem either, for it was He who sent me to destroy you.   I am no more than a knight in the hands of the Divine chess master.”

The Izhbitzer asserts that Ravshakei’s ostensible affirmation of emunah is, in fact, a denial of humanity, of the grandeur of human free-will and that this denial of humanity is the precise heresy of Esav and Amalek as well. Esav/ Amalek is a mumar because of believing that all is in the Hands of Heaven, there is no “except etc.” Amalek maintains that all of the evil that he does is, chalilah, the Will of G-d, that absent HaShem’s Will he would never have been able to have done it.  Superficially, it is almost as if Amalek accords greater honor to HaShem than K’lal Yisrael does.  The stance of Amalek-Esav is that HaShem’s control and authority is absolute.  They deny that humanity has any autonomy at all.

As one great 20th century thinker put it, when our sages taught that Amalek is “one who knows his master and intends to rebel against Him” they don’t mean that Amalek intends to rebel against HaShem in spite of knowing  that HaShem is their Master, but because of knowing  that HaShem is their Master; that their rebellion consists of knowing that HaShem’s mastery over them is absolute.  There is no wiggle room.  Not one small space, albeit a tiny one, for human independence, autonomy and free choice.

We can now resolve the apparent contradiction between the dissimilar tactics of war employed to battle the Egyptians and Amalek.  When the enemy rides under the banner of “not everything is in the Hands of Heaven” then the Jewish response must be to emphasize HaShem’s control.  Against the Egyptians it would’ve been out of place for the Jews to highlight and emphasize human free-will.  Free-will, AKA “the awe of heaven”, human avodas HaShem, is best exemplified through prayer; the “service of the heart”(Ta’anis 2A). So they silenced their prayers, eliminating their part in the “division of labor” and HaShem took total control of the battle. All, absolutely everything, was in His Hands.

But when the enemy rides under the banner of “ALL is in the Hands of Heaven with no exceptions” and that human free-will is a sham, then the proper Jewish response is to exercise our free-will. Human free-will is best exemplified through our service of the heart , our avodas hatefilah.  And so, during milchemes Amalek when Moshe would raise his arms in prayer the Jewish warriors would advance.  When his prayers faltered IE when his arms grew weak so would the Jews military efforts. 

~adapted from Mei Hashiloach Beshalach D”H HaShem yilachem

Living in the future

When I had more time for posting and commenting on the Beyond BT, I was very busy with the topic of former BT’s, many of whom not only gave up Jewish observance but, for whatever reason you may want to posit, did it with a vengeance. Those days were a lot of fun, positively heady. I got to make very good and stimulating use of my God-given talent for polemics and usually found that critics and ankle-biters preferred to slink away than engage with me, though of course they might not agree with my characterization. To some extent, this post is dependent on some familiarity with the back-and-forth of those days.

Despite whatever points I may scored and whatever lurkers I may have encouraged in these debates, I have always had two nagging question about those days and those arguments: One is, was I right when it seemed that I was right, or was I just a better debater? And the other one is, how much of the vigor of my efforts was motivated not by a sincere belief in the truth at all, but rather an insistence on rationalizing my own choices — choices which are irreversible now, for all practical purposes?

The first question, I decided, shouldn’t nag me so much, because I’m good, but so are a lot of other people who disagree with me. And I didn’t, after all, “win” every point. As I remember it, in the course of the great battles we fought in those days I made concessions and admitted to problems or gaps with the overall worldview I argued for. I will say, thought, that my interlocutors (not only mine, but of the many who basically agreed with me) could or would not answer this question: Separate and apart from your point about Issue X or Issue Y, or the way kiruv professionals or amateurs do or don’t deal with it, what alternative, systematic and internally consistent approach to Judaism do you offer that could possibly be recognized as Judaism? For the premise of the discussion was and is that if your point of view is that this is all a fantastic fakeout, that nothing means anything, then we really have nothing to discuss. We share no common ground.

My experience was, in fact, is that few of the most vigorous debaters are the complete nihilists they perhaps think of themselves as being; after all, if they were, they shouldn’t care about anything at all anyway. Generally people will admit that they aren’t that — that they (a) want to be Jewish; that they (b) want being Jewish to matter; and even that (c) past attempts to redefine or dilute Judaism to the point of eviscerating it of any meaning with respect to how it governs our conduct or our identities have not met the criteria of (a) and (b).

I think I can say, being intellectually honest to myself, that the above “works.” I think I believe that this addresses the first question: We may not have it all figured out, but it seems that we — observant Jews, born that way or otherwise — are probably on the right track.

How about the second question — whether despite that conclusion, is it still all just rationalizing motivated by the fact that the implications of realizing you’re wrong are just too frightening? After all, the fact that no one has a better or answer or even a close tie doesn’t mean your answer is correct. That’s true no matter how “true” it feels emotionally, or what people call “spiritually” (I don’t really know what that means) or even intellectually. How can we separate rational from rationale?

And do we have to?

A very well-respected, very intellectual rosh yeshiva once told me: There comes a point where you can chase your own tail or, perhaps, disappear down your own navel in contemplating your own contemplation. And you’ve simply got to trust yourself to know when you think that’s happening. So let’s have no more of that here than necessary.

But I am going to ask that second question from a point of view that I can articulate today in a way I could not ten or even five years ago: If all this is true, if all this is good, how can so much in our community be so false? How can so much be so bad? How can so many questions be so unanswerable?

The disclaimers must be interjected here, not because it is protocol to do so but because they are appropriate and right. There are so many merits, so many marvelous and unique and extraordinary things to say about the Jewish people, and especially shomrei mitzvos, that my question should vanish before them. I promise you, I’m not just saying this: I could list them for six posts, not a paragraph in one post. They would make BT’s, especially newcomers, feel warm and fuzzy inside.

But my question does not vanish, because so much that is so painful refuses to recede from view and memory. I am thinking not of just individual outrages, but communal ones. Not just trends and phenomena in our community that are hard to understand, but ones which, instead, are all too easy to understand. And these I will not list here, because I am not going to act, even rhetorically, as a prosecutor against the Jewish people, G-d forbid — much less in Elul.

How do these things affect the second question, i.e., “Are you rationalizing?” After all, we all learn early on the aphorism that we “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews.” Fair enough; let’s don’t.

But these things we see, we hear, we experience sometimes cannot but bring us down if we’ve retained our critical faculties, and shouldn’t we?

I also have my own pet issue, which is the flip side of the coin: The role models and the idealized life of the haredi [strictly orthodox] subculture and indeed a great many of what are accepted as authoritative rabbinical sources of earlier times could not, based on their words, respect the way most of us live and indeed what most of us are — no matter how well we dish it out and take it on Beyond BT or host Shabbatons or whatever other super things we do.

I readily understand that view that to aim for compromise is to guarantee mediocrity, but I cannot figure out how it is better to pretend to aim for levels of scholarship, moral rectitude and detachment from physical pleasure that as an empirical matter can be achieved and are achieved by only a sliver of the population — and that are held out for us routinely as the ideal Jewish existence. Could all the cynicism and dysfunction we do encounter, all those unmentioned negatives alluded to above, be the fruit of this cognitive dissonance?

So how can we defend this without rationalizing, when we know we are falling so short of the ideals we espouse? Is it enough to say that it works because pretty much every other way of life can be shown (I posit) to implicate even more untenable compromises? Is it enough to have faith in greater and holier minds than mine that say “yes, do strive for this truth; the striving is the thing”? Is it that by almost any measure the good outweighs the bad? Is it the fact that part of growing up is living with paradox, and realizing that only God has a comprehensive understanding of the whole?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

And if I am, still, rationalizing?

Well, no one’s proved it to me yet. And every day, you see, I think today is going to be the day that it works a little better, and maybe it will. And if it doesn’t, I will know that I fought the good fight.

That works for me.

Maintaining Derech Eretz in the Face of a Loaf of Bread on Pesach

Blast from the Past. First posted on 11/13/2006.

By Westbank Mama

I’ve written before about what started me on my journey to observant Judaism, and I’ve been thinking lately of another incident (pothole?) on this long road of mine.

My brother decided to become observant also, and we both attended Yeshiva University. At some point in our learning of the various halachot (Jewish laws) we realized that the upcoming holiday of Pesach (Passover) might be problematic. The laws of kashrut (what foods are permissable to eat) are very strict when it comes to Pesach, and we both knew that what we thought was acceptable to eat in past years in my parent’s house wasn’t going to be acceptable for us anymore. We also knew that refusing to come home for the Pesach seder wasn’t an option – it would hurt my parents too much.

The issue of Kibbud Av V’Em (honoring your father and mother) is very complex, and is an extremely sensitive issue among Baalei Teshuva (those who aren’t born in religious homes but become observant later on). My brother and I became observant through NCSY (an Orthodox youth group involved in outreach), and we had some excellent Rabbis and counselors give us advice. They told us that except in cases where your parents ask you to do something which explicitly demands you break Jewish law, then you should listen to them. (Like most issues of this sort, it is important to ask a Rabbi if you have a specific case in mind and need an answer. I am just giving the outline here).

This complex situation touches on an issue that unfortunately is misconstrued by many who are not intimately familiar with observant Judaism. Most people know that there are myriad laws governing the “ritual” aspects (laws between man and G-d) of Orthodox Judaism – what you can and cannot eat, what you can and cannot do on the Sabbath, how you dress, how you pray, etc. At the same time there are just as many laws concerning the “ethical” aspects – how one treats other people (laws between man and man). The second type of laws are just as binding on Orthodox Jews as the first. There is no concept of the “letter” of the law referring to the first type, and the “spirit” of the law referring to the second.
Read more Maintaining Derech Eretz in the Face of a Loaf of Bread on Pesach

Aren’t We Supposed to Question?

We had a bunch of guests over for Shabbos lunch. This was on a summer afternoon, just a couple of years ago. Since my husband hadn’t returned yet from shul, everyone was passing the time in the living room, waiting. There was a relatively new guest, David, seated on the couch, who had only just started coming to us to experience Shabbos. Sitting on chairs across from him, was a couple who had become Orthodox about fifteen years ago, and a few others guests were milling about too.

The couple was discussing something about what the rabbi had said in shul, and David piped in with a question about what the rabbi said. I don’t even remember anymore what the actual topic was. All that I remember vividly is the brief exchange that transpired next.

The wife stated very emphatically that one must never question a Rav. David responded very innocently that he thought that Judaism was a religion that welcomed questions, so rabbis would welcome being questioned. “Aren’t we supposed to question?” he asked, and a stiff silence followed. Nobody responded to David. Not even me. I just didn’t know what to say then. Another guest must have changed the subject, thank G-d, and the conversation in our living room shifted somewhere else. But David’s comment had scooped me up out of the living room, and it got me sailing back through time.

Back to an innocent time of questioning. Over thirty years ago, the wonderful Orthodox rabbis that we discovered – or that discovered us – encouraged the questioning of everything. They taught us that Judaism was all about questioning, and then questioning more, until you reached greater and greater levels of clarity. Keep asking until you find emes, we learned, within the Torah and within yourself. And we thrived on this – this freedom to examine and sift for absolute truth.

No stuffing dogmas down our throats – as in other religions, we learned. No more unconsciously accepting assumptions – as in the subliminally anti-religious mind-sets we hadn’t even realized we’d adopted. Develop delving skills, sift for truth! We were so thrilled to see that the way to study Torah was through questioning. It was open for genuine exploration, earnest close examination, and so were its welcoming teachers.

We loved discovering that wise people learned from everyone. And even though the rabbis and rebbetzins who taught us, had so much more Torah knowledge than we had, they let us know that through our questions, they were gaining new and refreshed perspectives on just about everything. They really helped us understand that we were expanding and deepening their wisdom through our challenging inquiries.

Then I was jolted back to the present. When did the encouragement of questioning stop?

And why don’t we feel safe anymore to question?

I’ve been trying to figure that out ever since.

It no longer tastes like the Torah we were first offered, when those with clout invalidate sincere questioning by dismissing it as being presumptuous.When people only feel unafraid to voice their doubts and questions as anonymous comments on frum blogs, we can be grateful for these opportunities for suppressed voices to be heard, but it also highlights that a fear of speaking up is prevalent. Instead of feeling threatened by these anonymous comments, and seeking to forbid them by imposing bans on these venues, we need more leaders who can garner genuine respect by encouraging as much open questioning as possible. Then they too can actually benefit from the perspectives and challenges presented.

Critical feedback is needed by all of us, if we really want to improve. The man recently caught on video kissing a mezuzah before stealing from a store, can serve as a kind of ridiculous caricature to keep in mind of how far off the derech we have gone, with plenty of our extra stringencies or just mere cultural trappings covering up – from others and even from ourselves – our inner spiritual lacking.

Painful experiences have taught us to fear communal reprisal, arrogant attacks from those who wield power, and mafia-like intimidation tactics within our midst. We discovered that our leaders made decisions based on financial backing and political favors, instead of on pure spiritual motivations. And we found out that this has been going on unquestioned. As we learned a little more Torah that we hadn’t initially been taught, we also came to understand that in the hands of unscrupulous people, Torah can be misused as a deadly poison (Yoma 72b).

Thank G-d, this isn’t supposed to be the religion that promotes viewing its leaders as infallible or even unapproachable. Throughout Jewish history, there has been an ebb and flow of leaders who became mired down by corruption. Power corrupts, and the Torah emphasizes concern, in reference to a Jewish ruler “lest his heart become haughty over his brethren” (Devarim 17:20). The ruling elite can too easily come to place its own preservation above all else, if left unchecked.

Nearly every day I hear from a baal teshuva who has become disgusted by an excessive focus on the superficial aspects of frumkeit at the expense of the intrinsically meaningful aspects that initially drew the individual to yiddishkeit. They describe their disillusionment with the stress on the façade and on sheer phoniness in place of underlying true moral behavior. Many of those who have been burnt by the corruption that has become entrenched, have been slinking away, but that’s exactly what intimidators are trying to achieve.

The ones whose eyes have been opened and the ones whose hearts are full of essential questions, could be just the ones needed most to help us all return to more pure practice.

Yes, we are supposed to question, alright.

Hope you’ll come back someday, David, along with everyone else who left, disillusioned. I’m sorry it took so long for me to have the clarity to answer. Your question really helped.

Originally posted here.
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BT Martyrdom: There’s Really A Name For It!

My personal life calendar operates around the great upheaval through my discovery of Yiddishkeit. If that is “year 1”, then 10BC (Before Change) was my Bar Mitzvah, and 5AD (After Discovery) was when I got married. This being the case, there were other notable events which had far reaching consequences as well. And, like they say, timing is everything.

In 2BC, my father was remarried, this time to a non-Jewish woman. I secretly would have preferred that he marry the Jewish woman he had been dating a few years back, but, alas, he decided this wasn’t to be. (She was quite upset, I happen to know.) Nevertheless, he’s my dad, so I celebrated with him in the Hall on the lake, and I wondered what was going through my grandmother’s mind as her siblings paraded around her. Perhaps it made no difference, since her husband, my grandfather, had done the same thing.

In 1BC, my brother, faithful to the ways of his avos, became engaged to a non-Jewish woman as well. A very nice lady, she was, and I congratulated him on his choice and wished him the best. However, as he was making his plans, my life went on, and the wedding wouldn’t be until 2AD.

In 1AD, my brother announced he was to be wed in a church (they liked the stained-glass windows, they said). Already I had a bad feeling about this, since in 8BC, I attended a cousin’s wedding in a church, and felt quite nauseous while sitting in there. (Perhaps it was that statue on the wall accusingly staring at me.) But now, more than ever, I was quite troubled. When I asked our local posuk about going into a church, he answered that he would think that if an Arab is chasing me with a knife it might be permissible, but probably not. The strong language was so I would get the picture.

In 2AD, life was so confusing. Despite knowing the direction I wanted to go, I still had so much to sort out. Did I really care if my brother married someone not Jewish? Really really? None of the terutzim regarding intermarriage sat well with me at that early stage, but I had to chose a derech…and stick with it. I understood what the rabbis say, and felt they were right, but what about my family?

I told my brother I wasn’t going. He thought I was joking…I wouldn’t be best man at his wedding?? I’ll skip the blood and gore…it was awful. Devastation doesn’t even come close. My father’s blood pressure became a steady 400/200. It was actually a relief when he stopped talking to me (although perhaps five years was overdoing it a bit.) My mother did understand to some extent, but cried anyway. And now, in 20AD, my brother still hasn’t said a word to me, despite numerous attempts to reach out.

My extended family was horrified. I could not help but think that this was some sort of chillul H-Shem, despite the rabbis telling me it was the opposite. But how could that be? What does my family think about orthodox Jews now? They’re not exactly running to their local kiruv center. How could I have answered my father’s main objection: “You danced at my wedding, didn’t you?! What happened since then?” See? Timing is everything.

I was alone. I just threw my family over a bridge. Goodbye family. And did the rabbis understand? I wondered. So there I was at 2AD, thousands of miles away and nothing to say. Looking back, I know that not going was the right thing. I bet, though, that it could’ve and should’ve been handled much differently, but that’s in the past. But what I didn’t know is that my whole experience had a name!

Rabbi Mayer Schiller – The Biggest Challenges Facing Baalei Teshuva

This article was posted on Tuesday, December 9th, 2005, but many of our current readers might have missed it and it’s definitely worth reading again.

Part 1 — Challenges

I have been asked to write on the “biggest challenges facing baalei teshuva.” Of course, every Jew in his life’s pursuit of Hashem and His Torah encounters challenges. However, the challenges we face and how we respond to them is forever colored by who we are and where we come from. Thus, much of what follows may be relevant to all Jews but it strikes me that these challenges are of particular concern to baalei teshuva.

The tikkun that each individual’s life is to achieve requires a realistic assessment of the nisyonos that are specific to one’s place in life, human/Jewish history and cultural context.

Also, any discussion of this issue must be colored by much subjectivity. We can, in the end, only speak with authority about our own “challenges.” Part of us is always alone in the world. Yet, life is also a shared experience. Hopefully some of what I – and others on this site – have to say may resonate in the heart of another and together we may be worthy of giving and receiving a bit of chizuk as we seek to ascend the har Hashem.

In all honesty, I have encountered so many challenges, born of the baal teshuva experience, that one almost doesn’t know where to begin. Plus, the challenges change, some deepen, while others become weaker over the years, as one spends more time in the Orthodox community.

At the beginning, I think a baal teshuva is haunted by a certain loneliness in, and sense of alienation from his new environment. Everyone else practices Judaism as a matter of second nature. To baalei teshuva, at first, everything done, learned and experienced is new, startling and , at times confusing. Everything is a big deal. Everyone else seems to know what is a big deal and what isn’t.

As part of this problem there is the, at times, blasé attitude of FFBers who seem less than enthused about things that the BT has been taught are of the utmost importance. This too can be most disconcerting.

Before long, one realizes that Orthodoxy is not a monolith and that there are many different models of how to live in the Torah world. Should the baal teshuva select a significant sage to tell him where to go or, should he seek a derech that fits his own soul’s needs as he perceives/experiences them?

Perhaps, the most daunting challenge faced is the ever growing awareness that not all Orthodox Jews are paragons of empathy or kindness or patience or even honesty; or even very much engaged in proper study and prayer. Further, to some of them, their religion is simply a rote practice, little cherished and almost no source of inspiration to them. The personal encounters with all the above can give many a baal teshuva moments of pain and doubt. To a degree that pain will never pass. We all entered Yiddishkeit in search of a good, more meaningful and certainly more spiritual, moral and ethical life. The grim knowledge that this is often far from the reality hits baalei teshuva very hard.

Indeed, the pain for the BT intensifies when he later confronts the fact that his children are FFBs and often far less passionate about the same things that inspired him.

Often the BT learns by experience that it is even those Torah teachers that may have once seemed so perfect to him that are, in reality, flawed human beings as well.

For the thoughtful BT the process of engaging with Torah and halacha may at times prove disquieting. Laws and ideas concerning non – Jews, women, the disabled, slaves and the like are apt to be unsettling and the proposed answers often apologetic and/or seemingly inadequate.

Finally, there is the general stance of Orthodoxy in relation to non – Orthodox (or haredi towards Modern Orthodox and, more surprisingly, Modern Orthodox to haredi) society both in Israel and America as self absorbed, insular tribes with little interest in or responsibility towards “outside” groups /individuals, be it of a material or spiritual nature. This attitude inevitably costs many BTs some sleepless nights.

All or some of the above are among the challenges BTs face. As a BT member of the Beth Shraga Beis Medrash said to me in the summer of 1968, “In the end we are different. It is not just that we can’t go home for Shabbos. We are built differently and always will stay that way.”

This is both a blessing and a curse. Just as the BT will often carry some alienation and doubt throughout life, he will also experience Torah in powerful, wondrous, insightful and joyous ways that might be inaccessible to most FFBs.

In my next entry I hope to discuss the possible means (thoughts, seforim, leaders, books, communities and the like) that will help a BT through the moments of darkness just outlined.

For the interim, the essential issue is to retain the fervor and devotion of one’s initial experiences in Torah while living in the real world with its ambiguities. complexities, paradoxes and disappointments. This is the calling of the mature, thoughtful BT.

May we all be worthy of success and joy in our service of the Ribbono shel Olam.

Rabbi Mayer Schiller

Adjusting to Alien Atmospheres

I spent my high school senior year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A first, all of my 20-year old roommates thought I was crazy, and for the first few weeks, I did too. Not only had I never traveled by myself before nor had I been on an Israel program, I still had yet to receive my high school diploma. I continuously struggled to acculturate not only to the foreign society, but also to the equally foreign “college atmosphere.”

A few weeks in, I was expressing these frustrations to my father, who was in town on a family-business call, as I helped him clean out my grandmother’s apartment library in Tel Aviv. Although I am paternally Israeli, I explained, I felt lost trying to adjust to the culture. After much frustration, I was toying with the idea of returning home. My dad explained that despite his unconditional support, he thought I should give it a few more weeks. He and I both knew I would never again have this opportunity.

Restraining tears, I was barely paying attention to the memorabilia being tossed into the “discard” pile. Only after throwing numerous faded photos did I notice a weathered, blue pamphlet with Hebrew writing on the cover. Intrigued, I opened it to find a black and white photo of my grandfather fastened next to his signature and the years 1939-1941. Stunned, I considered what I was holding. Remembering what my parents told me about my family’s history during the Holocaust, I realized that my grandfather’s family sent him to an Israeli university in the late 30’s. During his first year abroad, they warned him not to return to Poland over his Passover break. Fearing he would never come back to Israel, my grandfather listened, and never again saw his Polish classmates that went home during Passover. I immediately flipped to the fragile blue cover and deciphered the Hebrew aloud: “The Hebrew University of Jerusalem: Student Card.”

I then realized I was holding a piece of family history, as well as the motivation I needed to stay. My grandfather’s decision to stay in Israel saved his life, and my decision to stay in Israel completely enriched mine. I truly owe the person I am today to my experience abroad. After I changed my attitude, I embraced my obstacles as learning experiences. I put more effort into my Hebrew, roommates, and acculturation. As a result, I learned so much about myself and my heritage.

Mainly, though, my year abroad taught me the importance of ensuring Jewish continuity. We are, and always have been, under attack: whether it’s external through anti-Semites or internal through assimilation, Jews all over need to unite and return to their roots. Studying in Israel allowed me to re-prioritize my life and recognize the importance of embracing my heritage. Ever since I returned to the states, I have been extremely involved in Hillel at the University of Texas at Austin. There, I am a Mashgichah for the kosher kitchen, I co-chair the Orthodox Minyan, and I have represented Hillel on various trips around the world, including Israel and Argentina. Adjusting to the alien atmospheres and living independently before I graduated high school was difficult, but I knew I was in Israel for a reason, and I am glad I had a role model to keep me motivated and strong.

Dealing With The Pain of a Difficult Year

Last Rosh Hashana, 2008 – I can’t even remember where I was. I mean in the sense of where my wife, myself and three children were for the Jewish New Year. How can one forget something like that? Either we were in Passaic, or in Far Rockaway or Pittsburgh – as well, we lived in Passaic, and usually for the holidays went out-of-town.

How can I forget which place I sat for all those hours? Whose home I was in? How can a healthy 35 year old forget?

I’ll tell you. Now, after I wrote that I just realized that in 2008 I was not even in the US! I was in Beit VaGan, Israel. Whew. But how could I even forget something like that and think that I was in another country altogether?

I’ll tell you. January 21, 2009, my wife gave birth to a dead baby. A baby that was 37 weeks old. Everything since that day has consumed my mind/spirits/energy surrounding the death of this potential person. Even today, September 11, 2009, I was thinking about it in an intense fashion while at a morning minyan.

Normally, and unfortunately, I do not make morning minyans. I work from 10pm until 5:45am. Sometimes, I stay on the phones for about a half-hour longer trying to get one more client and make one more commission. However, 99% of the time, by about 4am and until the end of the “night” I am wiped out and barely able to stay awake to make the calls I am supposed to make. Additionally, my bus back to Beit Shemesh doesn’t even run until around 7am, so what I am supposed to do from 6am until 7am? Daven.

For a while, I tried to walk to the closest minyan from my work location, but by the time I arrived that minyan was half-way done, and by the time I got my tallit and tefillin on, they were even closer to being finished, and by the time I sat down to start my prayers, I was asleep. Basically, it is not advised or “allowed” to sleep with tefillin on.

Now, no one at the minyan knew that I was awake all night and had walked about 15 minutes just to fall asleep. What they saw was a 35 year old man, healthy falling asleep with tefillin on his head. Since, this is not allowed, they would gently try to wake me up. Several times I was asked to leave and go home. Little did the people in this shul know that my home was another 45 minutes away by bus. We only know so little when we see things – we almost never see the whole picture when we observe people – and even if a person tries to describe the greater picture, like I am, they leave out so many details that one still really never knows exactly what the background story is or was. Especially, if the person telling it cannot even get the facts right, even though they experienced them! How insightful is for criminal lawyers?

Anyway, my wife gave birth to a dead baby. I know, I dropped that little nugget on y’all way up at the beginning and I am sure that this is why I am writing this letter. I just wanted you to know a bit of the background as to why I couldn’t remember where I was last Rosh Hashana.

So, today, I was at shul, when normally, I am not. I was supposed to go into work. Thursday, however, after my pre-work/pre-bus ride nap at 8pm, I just felt incredibly sick and did not want to go into work. So, I called in sick.

That meant I slept in my own bed at night and woke up around 6am. Two of my three children had already joined my wife and I in our beds and were trying to wake us up. I wanted to sleep more. I wanted to never wake up. Sometimes I hope that I just won’t wake up. But not in a suicidal way – that I want to kill myself – more in the way, that I just sometimes don’t want to get out of bed. That the view I’ll see is the ocean with white sand and seagulls.

Finally, around 6:30 my wife and I get out of bed and start our day. By the time 7:30am rolls around we’ve already dressed two of our children, fed them, and started to get dressed. I already took out a load of laundry and brought in clothes from the line on our porch (merapeset) and put another load of laundry into the machine. Our daughter was finally waking up, my wife was saying her brachot, and the boys had already spilled cheerios on the floor. One of the boys spilled cheerios on the other, so I had to change those wet clothes. It was now getting closer to 7:45am, and I still had not gotten fully dressed and wanted to go to a minyan, since I don’t normally go to minyan’s in the morning.

My wife had other plans, and she was about to tell me. “Honey, I have an idea,” she starts. I cut her off, “I am sure you do, and I bet it involves me running an errand,” I retorted in a mean voice. “Wait, let me finish,” she pleaded. “Hadassah, I know that it will involve me running some rather productive errand, meanwhile, I’ll miss the 8am minyan, and by the time I come home I’ll be tired and won’t want to daven at all.”

Okay, I didn’t say those exact words, but the argument had already started. Fortunately, my wife had the foresight to stop it, and we moved on. I left the house and made it to shul, only to realize that I was exhausted. After I put on my tefillin and tallit and tried to start my morning prayers, meanwhile the seleach zibbor (chazzan/or person leading the morning services) was already way ahead of where I was, even though I got there 10 minutes before the officials start.

Sigh – I’ll never fit it, I’ll never keep up. Why do I even bother? The negative tape had begun and now it was beating the crap out of my emotionally. See that guy in the corner in the front? He can daven. You? Don’t even start. See that guy in the side over there? I bet he never does laundry, work over-night, make the bed, and all the other things you do – he, he, gets to learn all day and his wife works, and their children don’t need to watch videos every morning. Why do you even start. So, I close my eyes. Wait, I am wearing tefillin! I try to open my eyes, I look at the Hebrew words. Sigh. Who am I kidding? I can’t read this and understand. But when I try to read the English, I just don’t believe. Why are you even bothering to come to this shul. The weather is beautiful outside, wouldn’t you rather be sitting on the grass and letting the world move by? Sigh. I close my eyes again. Wait, you’re wearing tefillin and why are you so tired? You slept in your own bed – none of your children woke up in the middle of the night. Sure, they came into your bed at 5:30am or some un-godly hour, but you should be awake and singing to Hashem. Okay. I start to try to sing the words that I know and quickly realize that I don’t have any tunes that I know well to fit the words that are on the page. Meanwhile, the minyan is speeding along and I still haven’t gotten to Baruach Shamar.

Anyway – I close my eyes. Again. Wait, I am wearing tefillin, I can’t sleep with tefillin on. There on the table is yet another distraction. A pamphlet about Hidraboot, the “Charedi” TV station. Yes, there is a Charedi TV station and according the materials that I started reading, instead of davening, has been revolutionizing the Jewish world.

Wow! I got excited, hey, maybe I could work for them? I started thinking about that idea, instead of davening of course. Wow – I bet I could really contribute. I mean, I am baal teshuva, I’ve been through a lot! People always say I have a great story, maybe I could inspire some one else? I know, it’d have to be English speakers, and I am not a rabbi, but maybe I could focus on people who are just starting on the path and need a “normal” voice/person to help them through the transitions in habits.

Wait. I can’t even daven, so what good can I do anyone? I close my eyes again. This time, while the minyan has started to get to the shomei esray, I start to think about the dead baby.

I start to imagine it’s last hours inside my wife’s body. I start to imagine all the water, the umbilical cord – that eventually killed my baby. I imagine it struggling for life-choking to death – drowning in the very source of its life.

I recall the hours in the hospital after we knew that the baby was dead inside – and that my wife had to give birth to a dead body. Since her last child was a C-section, we had wanted to have a “V”-back. Everything was planned around this idea – And now the baby was dead. We were at Hadassah Ein-Karem with a dead baby.

And my wife wasn’t even 1 centimeter dilated. No petosin, as that could rupture her internal scar from the C-section and make it impossible for her to have a vaginal birth again (of course, not that you two are thinking about other children right now, the doctors said).

Basically, because it was a horrible experience, I’ll skip all the crying, the fact that we left the hospital, went to a mall and had dinner!, and skip the part were we took a tour of the hospital to find the plaques that reported my wife’s grand-father who had donated money to the very hospital we were in (yes, we did those things – all in a fog – and all in the knowledge that we had a dead body with us).

I’ll skip the details of the hours of waiting until my wife was further dilated and all the kooky and odd things that her and our birthing coach did to get her to the point of delivery.

Now, “normally” babies send a signal somehow, and the internal pitosin kicks in, and contractions start and well, babies are born. Millions of them every day. For thousands of years. How can a dead baby send the signal? Yet, contractions started with some help – which I won’t describe, but it was not chemical drips from the nurses.

Eventually, my wife, our labor coach, and myself were trying to get a dead baby out of her body and into the ground.

They asked us if we wanted to know – to know its gender, to know what happened, to know. Before we left the hospital, to go eat – one of my brothers and his wife came. This brother is close with the Amshinov Rebbe in Beit Vagan. Now, this person, the Rebbe is known to keep himself in shabbot beyond the 24 hours that Shabbot exists for every other Jew. Anyway, it was Tuesday when we were in the hospital, around 6pm, when we were officially told via the sonogram that the baby was indeed dead.

By the time my brother and his wife arrived, it was close to 8pm – I think. My memory as demonstrated above is not so great.

The rebbe had told my brother to tell me the following: no shiva, no period of mourning, no ripping of our garments “kriah”, no knowledge of where the baby was going to be buried, no going to the site of the burial for myself or my wife – and the rebbe advised that we should not see the baby, we shouldn’t find out its gender and not to find out what happened. Okay – well – what can I say?

Put yourself in my shoes – I mean you can’t really, because you don’t know anything about me – except what I am revealing – which is not the complete picture.

So – now the baby comes out. Have you ever been at a birth? The three other children that were born to my wife – all were accompanied by their tears/screaming our tears of happiness, relief and exhaustion. G-d enters the room at a birth.

Don’t believe me? That’s fine too. G-d also enters the room when a baby dies. It is a silent entry – the quiet stillness of death – Judaism says that G-d has an Angel of Death. I don’t know anything about Angels. I am sure I know nothing about G-d – I do know that G-d was in the room. G-d came in the form of the nurses, the midwives, the small crib that our dead baby was placed in and wheeled out in – never to be seen again. I did see its face.

We did eventually find out its gender. We did eventually find out that the umbilical cord had wrapped itself around the baby’s neck. “There’s nothing you could have done to prevent this – and there is no reason to think it was preventable. It is not genetic. We are sorry for your loss.”

Today, September 11, 2009, is also my sister’s English birthday and also, the anniversary of September 11, 2001.

So, there I was exhausted at this minyan, trying to distract myself from thinking about the death of our baby – and just couldn’t even keep my eyes open, when really I should have all this energy – I mean I am a 35 year old man….

And the self-punishment starts. Finally, the minyan is finished with davening – and I am still at the Shema. I’ll never keep up with the Schwartz’s in this town. Sigh, I think I just want to home and go to sleep.

Instead, I wrote this. See, one can find energy for the things that are distractions – but where is the energy for the things that matter?

Rosh Hashana is next Shabbot. Does G-d suspend judgment because of Shabbot? What “trumps” judgment? Does the holy shabbot interrupt the din that is hanging on the world?

As I keep on trying not to daven, these thoughts enter my mind. Again, I just close my eyes –

And there is my baby.

Four Common BT Road Bumps

Partners in Torah recently listed four road bumps a BT might hit:

• Daily life as an observant Jew is not always easy. Many demands are made of us, and life is infinitely more complicated for a person concerned with Shabbos, Kashrus, a large family and yeshivah tuitions than it is for one with 1.2 children, a dog, and a boat.

• Very few BT’s can afford to sustain the high level of learning and regular interaction with inspiring personalities that they enjoyed in the introductory stages of their return.

• They’re no longer courted and wooed by people eager to ease their entry into the frum community. They’re viewed as successes, and the attention is focused elsewhere.

• Their view of the observant community is transformed from that of an outsider to an insider. Suddenly they see warts and imperfections that they somehow missed in their initial encounters. Reconciling these imperfections with their initial, overly-positive perspective is never easy, and often discouraging.

There’s No Going Back

In the beginning of the BT journey, it’s easy to feel on fire, excited about what is ahead, determined to plow ahead no matter the obstacles. Then, as the years unfold and the children start coming, and growing, and requiring more money than we can fathom for their stellar yeshiva education, I would presume that most BT’s have a few conversations like the one I had the other day with a friend.

My friend, we’ll call her, “Tina”, and I were commiserating about the new bill for rising yeshiva tuition, the increasing property taxes for the community we live in, and the ever-rising price of kosher food, insurance, clothing, and all other needs, combined with both of us worried about husbands employed in very volatile jobs. It’s easy to joke about pulling the kids out of yeshiva and sending them to public school, or selling our homes and moving to a place in the country where housing is a fraction of the cost. We can pretend this is a viable solution in a moment of panic, but both of us know the truth – we are way too far down the path to ever turn back. No one ever said it would be easy. Sometimes, it feels much harder than we ever imagined it would be, but she and I have been frum for a decade or so, and the option of chucking it all and moving to an inexpensive community with kids in public school, is as much an option for either one of us as donning a nun’s habit and joining the cloisters.

A few days ago I had a “kitchen accident” that was, in its own way, a strong metaphor for this conversation. I was cooking some meat and I placed it in an ovenproof glass pan and roasted the meat for a few moments at 450 degrees.

I opened the oven door and with my oven mitts, pulled the pan out of the oven to check the meat. Within a few seconds, the pan exploded. With a loud boom, the glass pan, apparently unhappy about the transition from the hot oven to the room temp of my kitchen, shattered into thousands of pieces of glass – all over my kitchen, the oven, and me. There are no words to describe the mess it created (and I’m an author by profession!) It was just awful. Meat was intertwined with glass, meat gravy was splattered all over my nearby fridge and my clothing, and my kitchen floor was now coated in tiny pieces of glass.

Apparently, my “ovenproof” pan was not a good candidate for the oven, after all.

It took me hours to clean up the mess. It is now, as I am writing this column that it occurs to me that it serves as an excellent metaphor for the “no going back” statement. I could just as soon put my kids in public school and move to Hobunkville, as I could separate out the meat from the glass and serve it for dinner. It’s not happening. It’s too late. There’s no going back.

My husband and I daven every day that Hashem will continue to give us the means for providing for our family, so that our children should grow up to be under the chuppah, then B’ezras Hashem, become parents themselves, so that they can have the same conversation with their frum friends: “How are we going to do it?”

It’s a much better question than, “Should we do it?”

Syndicated newspaper advice columnist and author of twelve books, Azriela Jaffe is an international expert on entrepreneurial couples, business partnerships, handling rejection and criticism, balancing work and family, breadwinner wife and dual career issues, creating more luck and prosperity in your life, and resolving marital conflict. Her mission: “To be a catalyst for spiritual growth and comfort. Visit her web site here.

Ayelet Waldman and Me – or – Dear Lord….Do Not Bring me to Challenges and Ordeals.

My Toughest Jewish Moment.

In my other life—when I’m not being Anxious Ima, I’m a freelance journalist and it isn’t an easy road. Good writing gigs are hard to come by so it was with great delight that I snagged one — interviewing Ayelet Waldman for a top national webzine.

I didn’t know much about Waldman, just that she was a home girl, married to Pulitzer prize winner novelist Michael Chabon and that she’d written a new essay collection intrigningly titled called “ Bad Mother, A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace. ” Anxious Ima meets Bad Mother. It sounded so perfect that I got goose bumps just thinking about it.

I emailed the publicist for an advance copy—for free, a journalistic perk and embarked on what started out as a fun, easy read.. Waldman has a good message, that mothers should give up on judging themselves, an engaging style and a wicked sense of humor. Several of the chapters are gems . My personal favorite was the one detailing her nearly superhuman efforts to express breast milk for her newborn cleft palate baby.

Another chapter explores Waldman’s own handicap, hereditary bipolar disorder and its role in her wrenching decision to abort a possibly deformed infant. I know that she’s taken a lot of flack for that, but I wasn’t troubled. In my halachic mind, I sensed ample grounds for a heter, though Waldman didn’t seek one out (she probably never even heard of that option) chosing instead , to confess her “sin” publicly before her reform (Jewish) congregation on Yom Kippur. To my orthodox mind, that was somewhat misguided, a bit odd but not enough reason to make me wish the book had never been published.

It was when Waldman veered into the area of sexuality that I started to wish that censorship would come back into style. True, Waldman lives in Berkeley, not Meah Shearim, but am I the only one out there who thinks that placing a bag of colorful birth control devices in a preteen boy’s medicine cabinet is over the top? And when Waldman gushed about how delighted she would be if one or both of her sons turned out to be homosexual I was about ready to empty the contents of my lunch onto the book.

With gay marriages rapidly becoming legal all over the US map is this the new normal,? I certainly hope not and it certainly isn’t for us orthodox Jews who take their cue from Leviticus 18:22.
Now I had a dilemma. How in the world was I supposed to interview someone who wrote stuff that went against my deepest core values?

I could called Waldman on what I saw as her garbage, but the publication was so left-liberal that raising the red flag of protest, would have most likely resulted in a rejection for my piece. I wasn’t sure I wanted to take the risk of alienating this publication. They had given me the best gig I’d gotten the whole year, perhaps in my whole writing life. Wasn’t there a way to do this job and be true to myself and G-d.

A local Rov suggested that I focus on Waldman’s good parts and ignore the bad but I heard a reluctance in his tone, that he didn’t feel good about his advice.

I thought about following his advice and somehow finessing the interview but it just seemed like a whitewash, not the kind of journalism I wanted to do. I wanted to be real but how. Waldman’s book had unleashed an existential crisis in me, the likes of which I hadn’t experienced since I was a teen. With grey hairs and wrinkles sprouting each day, I stood in the mirror and asked myself who I really was,—a Yiddishe Mama with a sheitel and black hatted sons in yeshiva or a media hipster? Could I be both? For years, for years I told myself that I could. Now, I was no longer sure it was possible.

With the deadline looming near, I consulted another Rav, a son and nephew of gedolim, sages, who has known me and my family well for years.

“This book espouses views that are anti Torah. Why do you want to have anything to do with it,” he asked. His words got to me, I think because he said them so softly, lovingly without even a drop of condemnation.

Yes of course he is right, I thought feeling that brief flush of joy that our wise men say comes with the resolution of doubts. Then, before I could change my mind, I sent out two emails, one to the publication and the other to Ayelet signing off. No explanation. I couldn’t imagine that any explanation I could give would make any sense to them.

And now I see that the book getting good press all over the media. When I read the reviews my heart sinks a little. No one seems to notice what I noticed.

I’m alone here, like Abraham the Patriarch, looking on from the opposite side of the river with a tear in my eye for Waldman, a talented Jewish woman so far away from her essential soul that she can take a public stand against her Creator without even realizing that she’s done something wrong.