Method to Our Mitzvos

When is it appropriate, in our spiritual journey as Jews, to manipulate our own emotions — to perform, before an audience composed only of our own hearts, as an actor on a stage does, to simulate joy or other emotions in order to create… an “effect”?

I was always troubled by the suggestion I once encountered that crying during the Rosh Hashana prayers is so desirable that one should go so far as to bring on weeping, even by making oneself think of something unrelated to the day’s theme of repentance but guaranteed to bring on tears. The commentators or rabbinic sources are not universally in agreement with this approach, I have since learned; there would probably, if we knew how to count, be a majority vote against it. I was not surprised, however, to learn that among those who did not favor tearing up during the prayers at all is Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna, who evidently counseled an attitude of joy, not sadness.

The consensus among learned Internet commentators seems to be that sincere tears are even fine with the Gaon, whereas a lack of any emotional movement during this period may itself portend a troubling lack of spiritual movement. But the Gaon’s approach appealed to a younger version of myself, not only because of what I considered at the time to be my own distrust of emotion, but because of something I learned when I was a student in a major Brooklyn yeshiva, known as “Chaim Berlin.” I had noticed that in Chaim Berlin, when the Ark was opened in order to remove the Torah scroll for reading, everyone remained where he was standing. This was in contrast to what I had seen even growing up in a Conservative synagogue and in virtually every orthodox one, where members of the congregation moved toward the Ark and the Torah scroll from the time the curtain was opened until the scroll was placed on the reader’s desk; and so again in reverse when the reading was over.

I asked the late Moshgiach [spiritual dean], Rabbi Shimon Groner, why no one moved. He told me that the yeshiva followed a teaching of the Vilna Gaon that reflexive, automated manipulations of our bodies, or of space containing our bodies, held a danger of making our service to Hashem thoughtless. Counseling that we move, for example, toward the Torah and make a point of thinking about it would hardly help, because human nature being what it is, we would end up automatically doing the moving and forgetting the remembering. From the Gaon’s point of view, as I came to understand it, this was worse than not doing anything at all, because it is a lie to ourselves and to anyone observing us. It is worse, to borrow the aphorism concerning speech, to stand in place and be thought of as not devotional than to walk like a zombie and prove that you aren’t.

It did occur to me, however, that this practice appeared to represent a minority approach to the matter, and that there was probably some reason for that.

At this stage of my life, I don’t have to worry too much about whether to make myself cry on Rosh Hashana, at least a little bit. When you’re older and you’ve racked up enough mileage, you don’t need to force it on the one hand. And on the other, you have no choice about whether, “trustworthy” or not, you are going to permit it: emotion will come, and probably the damp, too. (I once read that the great Rabbi Elyah Lopian explained that he no longer wanted to lead the congregation in prayer this time of year because “tears come easily to old men,” and he didn’t want the congregation to believe he was “really” crying tears of repentance.)

And at this stage of the year, I juxtapose those thoughts about spiritual “method” acting — the better-known kind being something I actually trained in during college — to the coming holiday, which on the one hand seems emotionally less challenging but is actually the opposite: Succos. And in doing so, I come out in favor.

I find Succos a great challenge because it’s supposed to be a very joyous experience. And me, well, I’m not known for joy; and I’m not feeling so joyous inside either after Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. I’ve missed all that work, and there’s even more to miss ahead with this big weeklong yomtov; I’m bleeding money on expenses relating to the holiday and its joyous celebration; my square old feet hurt from all that standing up and davening and there’s even more ahead, with those hakofos and the full Hallel too — I could go on, but I won’t. Let’s just stay that, it’s good for you if you just lap up the joyousness “by Succos,” but for this camper, I desperately lack what the method actors call, using a term that spawned a million show-biz one-liners, some “motivation.”

And the Torah gives it to me. Lulav bundle? Check. Hold it in your hand. Esrog? Check. Hold it in your other hand. Put ‘em together. Sit in the succah. Wave ‘em front. Wave ‘em right. Wave ‘em back, left, up, down. IT’S NOT OPTIONAL. DO IT!

Did you like that Mr. Sourpuss? Good! So now that you’ve put it all way… Take it all out again and walk around the shul in circles over and over while reciting stuff!! Are you having fun yet?

Well… yeah, I am.

I am. My body, directed by the Torah to have fun, makes me have fun… which we know there is no word for in the Holy Tongue. Which must mean I am having, or experiencing, something else.

Joy. Despite myself, my aching back, my twitching feet, I end up… how do you say? “Into it.”

We learn in method acting how to use the mind and the body to create an effect. The effect is not just for the audience. The novelty of the Stanislavsky Method, and what enabled its masters to leave mere play-acting behind, is that the effect is to create a stage-reality for the performer so that he is to some extent (not entirely, for he is still performing) living the moment on stage — emotionally, for real. He is not “emoting”; he is having a real emotional experience. The audience believes because he believes, and they are entitled to do so, because it is real.

The same thing happens when I make myself jump into the circle of dancers at a wedding. Oy, it goes on too long. Oy, the dance floor is too crowded. Oy, the kid in the middle doesn’t even know me. But it’s a mitzvah to celebrate a marriage, and the way we do it is to throw our body into it, no matter how intellectual of a creature we think we are. We do it, we let go — yes, even your crusty blogger lets go, and, what do you know? HAPPY FEET!!

It’s joy. It’s ok. And I know the Gaon would approve. I know it because on his deathbed he picked up his tallis katan and said, in tears, “For a few cents, in the world I am about to leave, I could buy this and by putting it on, earn a supernal award — and now I will have no more chances to earn merit that way!”

The Vilna Gaon earned virtually every merit a Jew could earn during his life, especially the kind you earn with assiduous application of the brain — and all the more so when that was coupled with determined denial of the body. But he knew — no, not “but”; rather, therefore he knew that there is a place in this world for the physical.

In stagecraft we called it a prop. And so too in mitzvos, wise use of props gets us where we need to be; not just where to go through the motions, pantomime or pretend, but to really be.

It may not be wise for most of us to use mental props such as emotions to simulate related emotions; that’s only for true masters. But when the Torah hands us a prop — a lulav, an esrog, a circuit ’round the shul; a succah to sit in; a massive mouthful of matzah; a daunting Hillel sandwich right afterward; a tallis; tefilin; a deep square of tiled “living water”; a gooey clump of challah; a pair of candlesticks — our job is to grab the prop, remember our lines and play it to the hilt — despite ourselves, to believe it and, as we say in the theater, “live in the moment.”

The applause in our souls is guaranteed to follow. And take it from a crusty old thespian: Applause is addictive. Plus when we take what we think are our final bows, we just might have reason to hope for another curtain call!


Ron Coleman writes a blog about intellectual property law called LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION®.

Bright Line

I think one of the fundamental challenges or complaints of baalei teshuva is that there is no bright line that defines what is “enough.” And there isn’t.

When we stumble, or as the case may be when we stride purposefully, through the Teshuva Portal, we are encouraged every step of the way to the effect that “any” increase in our interest, knowledge, commitment and observance is good. Not just good — great.

Then when we’re solidly inside we come to understand the difference between being a dilettante about this business and making a real, whole commitment to it. And those of us who are still reading this “got” that, too.

But little by little it dawns on us that there’s no “enough.” And herein lies the criticism of kiruv from the Modern Orthodox point of view. It may not be a very powerful criticism, but there is some resonance to it. Yes, it is a point of view about compromise, but — don’t most of us, all of us, ultimately compromise at some point? Do we have to be all in knots about the fact that we do?

On the other hand compromise is not much of a goal. And it has its own internal wicked logic: You never know when compromise is “enough,” either.

I have written often here about how fascinated I am by the lives of the great men of Judaism of the last century. The more I read — again, especially in the newer, denser biographies that have come out in the last five or so years — the more amazed I am at just how great a person can make himself.

I am inspired. And yes, I am also somewhat discouraged each time I put these books down. Yes, we’re all very special in our special way. But the distance between me and these special, special people is approximately infinity.

No, they can’t tell you at the Teshuva Portal that there’s really no end to how much the Torah eventually asks you to ask of yourself. If they did, a lot of us would never walk through, and we would be cheating ourselves of that challenge. It is a good challenge, a proper one, a wholesome one.

It is a hard one. No one told me how hard it would be. And how it would, contrary to everything I expected early on, actually get harder, not easier.

That’s a hard truth. I’m living it, because it is the truth. But, hard it is.

Sefiras Ha’Omer: the BT Nemesis?

YY Bar-Chaiim

The typical Baal Teshuva is driven by a burning search for meaning. This often finds satisfaction within the plethora of thrilling spiritual experiences to be discovered within Torah life. But what happens when such a BT encounters one of those supremely thrilless rituals like Omer Counting?

Granted, in some communities there are spiritually gifted individuals who serve as models for infusing this Mitzvah with great fervor. Nevertheless, its technically monotonous nature takes its toll when, at least after the first weeks pass, some may find themselves mumbling the words with as much excitement as those who are “thrilled” to be done with it already!

So is there any way around this BT nemesis? The following is one perspective, relevant to every Jew, culled from the profoundly sober teachings of Nesivos Shalom.

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“Just like the four cosmic worlds can be spoken of in terms of Asiya (Deed), Yetzira (Spirit), Briah (Mind) and Atsilus (Soul), so too there are four types of piety; each one a world unto its own.

“There is a class of pietists who are people of deed… They are scrupulous in physical and material matters, never indulging their appetite nor material pleasures, even when permissible.

“… Higher than this is the Service of spirit… No materialism has sway here, whatsoever. (Such a person) need not devote to overcoming appetites and materialism, but rather (invests in) a purely refined, unblemished Service (i.e. prayer).

“… Next is the world of mind… where no evil exists, whatsoever. It is a supremely spiritual world. (Such a Jew) elevates and devotes himself to lofty conceptions and emotions pertaining to Divine Service, until his very heart and flesh rejoice in the Living G-d.

“(Yet) even higher is the world of Soul, wherein not the slightest trace of materialism exists… (This can be explained) through the words of the Mishna [Shab. 66: B; Mishna 6: 9]: “Sons go out with connections; royalty go out with bells.”

~ N. Sh. I, Chossidus, 2 ~

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An historical interjection: When parents used to take their children outside, they would tie their shoelaces to their own to ensure they wouldn’t get lost [Bartinura]. Thus, the question arises: Is this a form of carrying and thus prohibited on Shabbos? The Mishna rules that while dragging something along by your shoelace is technically carrying, in this case it’s permitted since parents and children share an inherent “connection.” So too do the bells worn by royalty express something intrinsic to their status and thus are not considered as being carried.

In jumps the Mezritcher Maggid (1710-1772). His spiritually penetrating interpretation of this Mishna sheds light on the nature of going “outside” the world of orthodox religious convention, explains the Nesivos. While this is generally a grave problem, there are two exceptions: Those who “royally” serve H’ and those who do so as “sons.” According to the Maggid, the former are totally immersed in the world of Briah/Mind. These are the Talmidei Chachamim who can rely upon the “bells” of Torah learning ringing in their heads to shield them from the onslaught of impure, worldly attractions. They are capable of engaging the non-Orthodox without being influenced by them. The “sons”, the Maggid teaches, function on an even higher level, called Atsilus,which we roughly translated as soul but literally means nearness or communion. This virtually divine sphere is reserved for those rare individuals who feel naturally at one with their Creator, far beyond their specific Torah knowledge. Like a young child feels about his parent, this Jew feels totally “connected” to H’.

To be sure, we see examples of this connection within those classic chassidic stories about little shepherd boys, or some other innocently uneducated Jews, who at one time or another are overwhelmed by their love for their Creator. The conclusion is always the same. They have NOTHING to give Him other than some seemingly very insignificant little thing, like a recital of the alphabet, a whistle or a song, which they proceed to offer with total devotion… until one of the local tsaddikim hear a heavenly voice declaring that this “little” prayer saved the entire community! Which brings us back to S’firas Ha’Omer. It is one of those seemingly insignificant little things, explains the Nesivos [vol. II Omer, 6], that can change the world or, more accurately, worldS. As per the custom to say at the conclusion of each counting, as printed in many siddurim: “…and through this (Mitzvah), may there flow an abundance (of Divine input) into all the worlds.” Accordingly, the Midrash teaches [VaYikra Rabba 28]: “One should never take the Mitzvah of Omer lightly, since it was through the merit of Omer-counting that our father Avraham inherited the Holy Land.” But could that really be? Simply by counting “today is x days in the Omer” the celestial U.N. would decree that the entire Land of Israel belongs to the Jews – for eternity!?

Indeed, concludes the Nesivos, it is PRECISELY because of the utter thrillessness of this Mitzvah that the first patriarch was able to serve his Maker with the purest, childlike devotion.
To be sure, this total purity of intention is the necessary component for inheriting the Land. As the Nesivos taught last week (Avos 4:4) about the connection between being meod meod shafel ruach, “very, very low spirited,” and the Land being called tova meod meod, “very, very good.” One is directly dependent upon the other. A thoroughly humble Jew will pine to come to Israel and vice versa.

Perhaps this also alludes to the aforementioned four levels of piety: There’s the arrogant deed doer, the humble spiritualist, the very humble learner and the thoroughly humble child. I.e. while doing godly acts is a tremendously important step in the process of Divine Service, if one stops there he has not only neglected to reign in his spiritual life but is taking pride in it! The serious Jew will accordingly give priority to prayer, which inherently involves the cultivation of humility. Yet, here too, the trial of pride digs in its claws. Meod, Meod! The Divine conscience will not give us peace within even the most heartfelt prayers until we emerge with renewed dedication to serving our Maker within two more dimensions: mind and soul.

A tall order? Certainly for the average BT who may find it difficult to maintain a steady and concentrated Torah learning regimen. To such a person it may even be a cruel slap in the face to imply he’s destined to wallow in the world of pride!
Ah – that’s why we’re given Sfiras HaOmer. It’s THE Mitzvah for BTs! Finally, we too can reach the peak of religious purity. Perhaps we can even lead the pack. For all we have to do is draw on that basic belief that got us into this business in the first place:

The belief in being “sons with connections.”

Good Press for BTs

Over a recent Shabbos, I was shmooozing with a friend. (Those of you who know me personally, and especially my wife, won’t be surprised about that!) This friend is a voracious reader and he always checks out what I’m reading and often recommends books to me. On this particular Shabbos, he showed me a parsha sefer that he had recently purchased and was greatly enjoying. I read the introduction to Sefer Vayikra and the particular piece on the parsha that he had pointed out. I enjoyed them both very much. But it was something else about the book that really struck me, the back cover.
Read more Good Press for BTs