Drowning on Dry Land

Why are so many segulos ineffective?
In particular why doesn’t fulfilling the Mitzvah of tzitzis transform us into spiritual supermen, as promised by the Torah?

These shall be your fringes and when you look at them, you’ll remember all the commandments of HaShem, and do them; and will not [continue to] go astray [following] after your own heart and your own eyes, which [have had the ability to this point of] leading you to immorality.  So that you will remember and do all My commandments, and be holy unto your Elokim.

—BeMidbar 15:39,40

 “So that you will may remember and do all My commandments.” This is comparable to one thrown into the raging waters to whom the ship’s captain flung a rope. The captain told [the man thrown overboard]  “grasp this rope in your hands and don’t let go for if you do  … you’re a goner.” Similarly, the Holy Blessed One told Israel: “as long as you hold fast to the mitzvos [you will live] [as it says] ‘And [only] you who cling to HaShem your Elokim are all alive today’ (Devarim4:4). And it says ‘Take fast hold of mussar-reprimands /moral instruction; don’t let go; guard her, for she is your life.’ (Mishlei 4:13)”

—Midrash Rabbah BeMidbar17:6

 In this allegory the life-preserving rope represent the strands of the tzitzis-fringes. Through them, we remember HaShem’s commandments and do not “drown” in the “raging waters” of malicious transgressions.

—Commentary of Rav Dovid Luria ibid

 Antigonus ish Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: “Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of receiving reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of receiving reward. And the awe of Heaven should be upon you.”

—Pirkei Avos 1:3

We live in an era when the ideal of serving HaShem with no ulterior motives has become almost passé.  As one wit put it “How did the Ahm Segulah become the Ahm Segulos?” It seems as though almost every worthy cause and endeavor is marketed as a “you scratch My Back and I’ll scratch yours” tradeoff kivyachol-as it were; with HaShem … Many people grow bitter and disappointed when, despite their best efforts at adhering to the segulah-prescribed practices, the promised yeshuos-deliverances; never come about.

Yet distinctions must be made between latter day segulos of unripened vintage and of dubious provenance and segulos that appear in the Gemara — or in the Chumash itself. For notwithstanding Antigonus ish Socho’s admonitions for completely selfless, non self-serving avodas HaShem-serving G-d; there are many mitzvah practices whose promised rewards are, in fact, guaranteed by the Gemara or in the Chumash.

Apart from the article of our faith that, in a general sense, observance of the Torah’s commandments reaps rewards (while transgressions evokes Divine retribution in the form of punishments); there is a lengthy causality list linking particular mitzvos and areas of Torah study to earning specific rewards: “Length of days” for honoring parents or shooing the mother bird away from the nest before taking the eggs or hatchlings, bountiful crops in the years preceding the Sabbatical and Jubilee years in consideration of scrupulous halachic observance of those years, wealth for proper tithing and offspring who are Talmidei Chachamim-Torah sages; in exchange for care and concern in the kindling of mitzvah lamps/candles — to name but a few.

Still another distinction must be made between activities that are mesugal– supposed to cause material benefits to accrue; and those that are mesugal for spiritual advances, greater intellectual acuity and / or ethical edification.  This last category comes a lot closer to Antigonus ish Socho’s paradigm than those segulos that promise temporal benefits.

Rav Shmuel Dov Asher Lainer, The Biskovitzer Rebbe, maintains that the mitzvah of tzitzis–ritual fringes on four-cornered garments; is a segulah for comprehensive tzidkus-righteousness/ saintliness. Moreover, this segulah is explicitly described by the Torah. After all, the pasuk says that when we see our tzitzis we recall all of HaShem’s commandments and, knowing that they are commandments, not non-compulsory suggestions, and that we are the commanded, how could we do anything but carry out our Divine orders? Thus, the pasuk concludes with the promise/ prediction … “and you will do them.”

Read more Drowning on Dry Land

Judaica Dreams

A trip into a Jewish bookstore is really a stunning experience these days. They’ve got everything! Things you’d wished they’d have written when you were first starting — in translation; in transliteration; in syncopation. Every topic, every major thinker — well, most of them; it’s quite interesting which ones remain shrouded in mystery despite the explosion in Judaica publishing. But it is an explosion.

Not every explosion is caused by a smart bomb, mind you. It’s not just that there’s more out there than you could ever read, or afford, or fit on your bookshelves. But there seems to be some engine that just gets books out there regardless of quality. Evidently, someone out there can read them, or afford them, or fit them. The economic justification of these books seems way out ahead of the editorial. Either that, or there are a lot of people out there dying to get their names in hardcover print and will knock out material for whatever little recompense they’re offered. (I contrast this with those who write for frum newspapers and use such adorable noms de plum as “Brocha Goykadosh” on their journalistic jottings. They, and the anonymous letter writers who gobble up the column inches in the frum papers, evidently fear putting their monickers where their mutterings are — but this is deserving of another article entirely.)

But a lot of these works are written by very sincere, very able people. Unfortunately, however, Judaica publishers seem to take their market for granted, for sincerity and even knowledge are not the same as quality. Writing a book is hard; I’ve written a few, none of them best sellers, but at each juncture my manuscript was only the beginning of the process between word processor and Barnes & Noble. There are editors, copy editors, in some cases agents in the mix. Stuff should not come out in book form until it’s worked over “but good.” It appears, however, that desktop publishing is taken quite seriously in the frum world, and as baalei teshuva whose are used to higher quality, perhaps we should be demanding it — or publishing it ourselves.

There are several strains of problems. One is the “almost perfect” author — one of the best known frum writers out there, and one of us (a BT). He is deservedly acknowledged for his fine work. Unfortunately, it is so good that it is quite clear that no attempt is made whatsoever at editing his sometimes purple prose or convoluted thoughts, which in Judaica publishing is taken for just plain profundity. (I am very sympathetic.) Perhaps there’s no one good enough to edit him? I doubt that. Many great editors freely acknowledge they are not great writers. It is a different skill. But there’s no money to be earned turning what is already the best into even better. That would require pride over what you put out into the market — a commodity, unlike logorrhea, which is unfortunately in disappointingly short supply in this environment.

Then there’s the passionate but hopeless author. One wrote a book about one of the greatest roshei yeshiva in our lifetimes, full of stories from his life that had never been published before. The writer is clearly a committed and accomplished ben Torah of the highest caliber — and an execrable writer. His book, thick enough to choke any kosher animal, is utterly unreadable, from page one. Sentence structure, style, punctuation, block letters, Yiddish, Yinglish — they’re all chucked into the word processing version of the old “Bass-O-Matic” and just poured out in a chunky, gucky mess between the covers. What shocked me about this book is that it is published under the imprint of one of the oldest and most respected Jewish publishers. I literally felt as if nearly $30 had just been stolen from me. Despite my guilty appetite for hagiographic biographies of gedolim, to this day I have not been able to finish the book.

I was doubly disappointed when that same publisher sent out preview pamphlets of a new “learn this at your Shabbos table book” that promised to solve an old problem — finding that broadly age-appropriate devar Torah for the Shabbos seudos. It was beautifully produced, and the promised bound version looked — as all these sets do now — just like an Artscroll Gemora, fake brown pleather and everything. My first hit was not unexpected, but the insult to my intelligence was still a disappointment: I noticed that all the drawn illustrations depicted only men. Men mopping floors; men buying groceries; men baking challos. I don’t know whose chumra this is, but I would say if you can’t make realistic pictures of Shabbos activities undertaken by the people who actually do them, skip the pictures. (The men, of course, also had very long beards, peyos and hasidic style clothing. All the major Jewish publishers pretend there are no clean-shaven orthodox men in illustrations today — otherwise the illustrations could not be used, I gather, in Israeli editions aimed at charedim.)

That was bad enough, but the substance broke my heart, too. As usual, the English text is surrounded by “rich” Hebrew footnotes which offer additional explanations, sources and other material. The text, in this case, referred to a pasuk about Shabbos observance I’d never seen before. I looked at the Hebrew footnote — and it referred me to a sefer that describes the principle involved, and, presumably, associates the pasuk with the principle. Very nice. But it never told me where the posuk was to be found! This is inexcusable — and in a free preview pamphlet! Think I’m going to drop $30 or $40 a volume on this gazillion-volume set?

I mostly return to my bookshelf full of 1980’s, and earlier, Judaica. They don’t make them like they used to, I guess. Not a terrible thought for our kind of religionists, I guess, but not much of a compliment for people in the Judaica publishing business.

What’s the moral of the story? Don’t judge a Judaica book, any more than any other book, by its cover. The growth of the Judaica book market bespeaks a great willingness, especially among English speakers desperate to get information and inspiration, to buy whatever comes out. But we are entitled to demand quality, intellectual honesty, and some degree of editorial effort. Not only BT’s demand this, by a long shot — but we, at least, should.