The Essence of the Month of Elul

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Elul

Elul – The Month of Maaseh\Action

With siyata d’shmaya, we are nearing the month of Elul, may it come upon us for good tidings. Let us try to understand a little, with the help of Hashem, the avodah upon us during these days, and hopefully we will each merit to also act upon these words, each on his own level.

Each month contains a special power that is connected to the particular time of the year that it is found in. The power of Elul is called maaseh, action. The power in man to “act” is especially manifest in Elul.

The Sages state (according to one opinion) that the world was created on the 25th of Elul. The Creation is called the “handiwork of Hashem”, His maaseh (action), thus the month of Elul is rooted in the original maaseh of Creation. Hashem revealed the power of His maaseh in Elul, so to speak; He “made” the heavens and the earth, which is all in terminology of “maaseh”.

When Elul arrives each year, the power of Hashem’s maaseh returns each year, as it were. Being that man has an avodah to resemble Hashem (as the Sages say, “Just as He is merciful, so should you be merciful; just as He is compassionate, so should you be compassionate”), there must also be a power of maaseh on man’s own level, in some small resemblance to Hashem’s power of maaseh. What exactly is that maaseh, though, that we must perform?

The Gemara says that “the purpose of Torah is teshuvah (repentance) and maasim tovim (good deeds).” The simple meaning of this is that these are two different things the Torah leads to: repenting, and good deeds. It seems as if these two matters bear no connection; simply speaking, if a person commits a bad deed, he must repent over it, and thereafter he must perform good deeds. But the depth of the matter is as follows.

When Hashem created the world, He made it over the course of six days. This was an utterly pure and holy action, but even more so, Hashem created it with His ten expressions; His dibbur (word). He said “Let there be light” and there was light. He told the heavens to be created, and they were created. All of Creation is thereby powered by His word. When people perform an action, we usually attribute it to ourselves, thinking that it is our hands which do things. Our hands are the symbol of human action. But the symbol of Hashem’s actions are His word, for it is His word which created each thing.

Elul are days of maaseh, but it is hard to understand how exactly these days are days of maaseh. The Tur says that Moshe Rabbeinu stood for 40 days to receive the Torah, and the first 30 days of this were in Elul. The 40th day was Yom Kippur. Where is the ‘action’ in these 30 days of receiving the Torah? Moshe stood there for 40 days to receive the Torah, but how was this “action”? In truth, however, it shows that Elul is both a time of action and a time of receiving Torah. It is just hard to understand how exactly it is a time of action. What we need to understand is that these days are of a different kind of action that the usual kind of “action” that we are familiar with.

This is a deep concept, so we will need to explain it very thoroughly.

Action\Building In Elul: Using Our Power of Speech In Selichos

The Gemara says that Torah scholars are called builders[1], for it is written, “And all your builders are those who learn [the Torah of] Hashem”. How is something built? The power to ‘build’ [in the spiritual dimension] is not like how we build physically, which is through our hands, but through speaking words of Torah. A Torah scholar spends his day speaking of Torah, and that is how he builds the world.

This power is also given to all of us as well: we can build and perform deeds, through our power of speech. Just as Hashem created the world through His word, so did He give us the power to build, through words.

Where do we see this kind of ‘building’ take place, though? In Elul and in the Ten Days of Repentance, we make heavy use of our power of speech. There is Selichos, where we repeatedly ask Hashem for mercy. This is surely connected with the fact that we must increase our good deeds during Elul; but we just need to understand what exactly the connection is.

The way we know the answer to this depends on knowing what our soul’s power of maaseh is. What does it really mean to ‘do’ something? In the spiritual dimension, how can we ‘do’ something? We can understand that our body ‘does’ something, but how does our soul “do” something? If we understand what it is, we can understand what the avodah of “maaseh” in in Elul, but if not, then perhaps we will be able to increase our good deeds in Elul, but we will not have succeeded in developing the soul’s power of maaseh.

Let us reflect into the soul’s power of maaseh. The body performs actions, and it is our words which execute actions. Man is called “nefesh chayah” (living spirit), and Targum translates this to mean “ruach memalelah”, a talking spirit; man’s power of speech is essentially his spiritual power to “do” things. Thus, our power of dibbur (speech) is the source of our power to perform deeds (maaseh).

To illustrate this [on a deeper level], a Torah scholar lives in the realm of Torah words. He is constantly accessing his spiritual power of maaseh. In contrast, someone who does not live in the realm of Torah is not making use of the spiritual power of maaseh; the only maaseh he performs are physical actions with his hands,

Being that dibbur (speech) is identified with man’s title of nefesh chayah (living spirit), dibbur\speech is the source of all our spiritual actions. In Elul where we use the power of dibbur a lot [through prayer and Selichos], we are thus involving ourselves in a dibbur that leads to maaseh; we are involved with a kind of dibbur that is all about maaseh. Soon we will explain what it is, but this is the outline of the concept.

Action Is About Completion

What exactly is the soul’s power of maaseh\action that is contained in the power of dibbur\speech?

The Gemara says that one should perform that which he says. Otherwise, he has not completed that which he spoke about. We can learn from here that an “action” implies the completion of something. [On a deeper level], the “world of action” we live in is the finalized and completed form of all the higher worlds which precede it. What we “do” here on this world is the last step of everything that emanates from the higher worlds; it all ends here. Hashem intentionally created an imperfect world – and it is “completed” in the world of action we live in. We were created imperfect, and it is our task to complete ourselves, here on this world, this world of action.

A person thinks, then he says what he is thinking, and then he acts upon what he says. The action is the final step of the thinking process; it is the final step of everything. So action is not just an action – it is the completed and final step of a process.

What is the soul’s power of maaseh, then? It is essentially the completion of the soul. Our body completes an action when it finishes “doing” some kind of labor or work, and our soul “does” something when it has completed its spiritual work on this world.

The Depth of Teshuvah: Uprooting The Reason To Sin

Let us try to understand a little more about the concept of maaseh.

Elul is the time where the world began (according to one opinion in the Sages, as mentioned earlier), but in the order of the months, it is the final month of the year. This shows the connection between Elul and maaseh: because Elul is the completion of the year. This is not because it is the ‘last month on the Jewish calendar’; it is the time of the year where our soul has finished its work for this past year.

Teshuvah (repentance) includes regret and confession, and the Ramban famously writes that Hashem knows what the person is really thinking as he does teshuvah, if he is earnest or not. The depth of his words is because teshuvah is about putting an end to the sinful action. If one continues to sin, his “action” continues, thus he has not reached completion. If one confesses the sin but he continues to sin, he has not yet ended his sinful action. He is missing his soul’s completion. But if he does teshuvah, that means he has put an end to the sinful action; he has reached completion.

Thus, the soul’s power of maaseh is to put an end to things; for one to place boundaries and limitations on himself that he will not cross.

Elul, the days of maaseh, are also days of teshuvah. The connection between these two facts lies in the understanding of the earlier-quoted statement of our Sages, “The purpose of Torah is teshuvah and good deeds”. It is because when we do proper teshuvah, we access the power of maaseh. The concept of teshuvah is thus connected to the soul’s power of maaseh, which is essentially the idea of putting and end to things, to place boundaries and limitations on any sinful acts which we were doing, so that the sinful actions won’t continue to spread any further.

There are some parts of the soul which do not need boundaries to be placed on them. The desire in our soul to learn Torah, to daven, and to do mitzvos are all holy desires, which should only be increased, not decreased. But there are parts to the soul which we need to place limitations on. That is the idea of teshuvah.

Teshuvah is about returning the soul after one has sinned, not just to stop sinning. In order to do teshuvah in which one will not return to the sin, it is not enough to do teshuvah over the act itself, but to do teshuvah over the reason that motivated the person to sin. Often we are used to doing teshuvah over the sinful act, but not over the reason that caused us to sin. For this reason, the teshuvah of many people does not last. The depth of teshuvah is to stop the particular aspect in the [external layer of the] soul that is being motivated to sin.

Whenever our Sages said their words, they were not speaking to our bodies. They were speaking to our souls. The language of the soul is different than the language that the body understands. Of course, our body is a factor; much of keeping Halachah affects our body, not just our souls. But teshuvah is about returning the soul, not just to stop sinning. When one sins, the action is no longer here, but the motivation to sin is still here. We aren’t supposed to do teshuvah just on the mere actions that we did; we are meant to do teshuvah on the motivations to sin, which remains on this world long after the sin is over. That is how we return our soul when we do teshuvah – and that is the depth of teshuvah.

To Feel Complete

Let’s attempt now to explain this in clearer terms. We will ask: Why does a person sin? What is the internal source in the person that causes a person to do the opposite of Hashem’s will, chas v’shalom?

In the blessing of Borei Nefashos, we say, “Borei Nefashos rabbos v’chesronam” –the Creator of many souls and their deficiencies.” A person sins when he feels deficient about something and he seeks to fill that deficiency. If he would feel filled, he would not seek to fill himself with anything from the outside, and he would never commit the sin.

Thus, we can now understand better how the depth of teshuvah is not merely about stopping to sin, but about uprooting the reason that caused the sin in the first place.

For example, if a person spoke lashon hora about someone, why did he speak lashon hora? He was jealous of him, or doesn’t like him. What is his teshuvah? To stop talking lashon hora about the person? Or to uproot his negative emotions towards him? The only reason why he spoke evil speech about the person was because he had an evil ‘eye’ towards the person. Every sin stems from some deficiency in the soul. That is where the main aspect of the teshuvah lies.

The main avodah of a person in doing teshuvah, besides for avoiding the sin, is to do “complete teshuvah” – to uproot the inner reason that caused one to sin. Incomplete teshuvah, by contrast, is to repent over the evil deed that was committed, without regretting the evil motivation that caused it. Teshuvah is therefore about returning the soul’s abilities to their pure source, after they had been used for evil.

For example, when a person steals 100 dollars, not only should he return the money; his teshuvah should be about regretting the desire he had to steal. If he would have been “happy with his lot” as the Sages teach, then he wouldn’t have come to steal. He only stole because he felt deficient about himself. Had he felt complete within himself, he never would have come to sin. The main part of the teshuvah is thus to return the soul from its deficient state into its original, complete state.

This is the meaning of “complete teshuvah” which we daven for in Shemoneh Esrei, and this is also the idea behind the soul’s power of maaseh.

Now we can understand better what the power of maaseh is. Maaseh is to feel complete and to feel that we lack for nothing; to feel complete within ourselves.

Of course, this is a power that needs to be used in its proper time and place. It does not mean that one should not have aspirations for holiness. If one learned a page of Gemara, he must certainly want to learn more pages of Gemara and he must not remain satisfied with the page of Gemara he learned. The power of maaseh, to feel complete, is only referring to being at peace from avoiding materialistic desires, not spiritual desires.

If a person is jealous of another person, if a person lusted after something, it was because he felt deficient about himself. The root of sin is always about some kind of deficiency the person felt. Thus the depth of teshuvah is to nullify the very desire for the sin, not just to regret the act of sin itself.

The days of Elul are called yemai ratzon, “days of will” – for it is the time to get in touch with our innermost will; to uproot the negative desires we have. This is what lays in the power of maaseh. When I don’t feel a necessity to pursue a desire, because I feel complete within myself, this is called maaseh – the “action” is complete.

The Deep Source of Teshuvah

This is a subtle and deep approach towards teshuvah. We all know we must do teshuvah, we all resolve to be better this year, but there is much more to teshuvah than this!

Chazal say that teshuvah was one of the things that existed already before Hashem created the world. Why was there a need for teshuvah if nothing was missing at that point from Creation and there was no possibility of sin? It is to show us that the level of “complete teshuvah” is only when one connects to his deep inner source which lacks nothing.

If we do not know this deep source of teshuvah, it is very hard to actually do teshuvah. We all know what teshuvah is, we all want to teshuvah, but if we do not understand the deep source that it comes from, we cannot really do teshuvah.

The Sages said (concerning physical action): “The eyes sees, the heart desires, and the actions complete.” Not only does the body complete and “do” action that begins in the eyes and the heart (this was said in the context of physical desire), but so does the soul contain the power to “do” actions that complete: by feeling complete within itself, with no need for anything else outside of it. In this way, a person will never feel deficient, and he will never come to sin.

On Rosh HaShanah, it is brought in Halacha that one must rejoice[2]. How can we rejoice on Rosh HaShanah, when Hashem is judging the world? It is because if one doesn’t rejoice on Rosh HaShanah, it is because he feels deficient. If he is incomplete, he cannot come to do real teshuvah.

So we must really know what teshuvah is about. Teshuvah is not only about regretting the sin and resolving not to sin again. The depth of teshuvah is to reach the deepest part of our soul, where we feel complete. When we feel that completion, we will find there that we have no desire to sin.

“One who is greater than his friend, has a greater yetzer hora than him.”[3] Why is this so? Compare this to a person who has a hundred dollars, who wants two hundred dollars. The more one has, the more he wants. But how indeed does one get rid of all his extraneous desires? By accessing the power of teshuvah that came before Creation. (In spirituality, we must aspire endlessly and always want more. But when it comes to materialistic desires, we must nullify all of these desires.)

That is complete teshuvah: to return to the deepest part of ourselves, where there are no desires. In that place in our soul we find the deeper power of teshuvah that has been around before Creation.

The teshuvah in Elul leads to Rosh HaShanah, the beginning of the year; thus the teshuvah in Elul leads to a new beginning. It is not simply leaving this past year and entering the new year. It is about reaching an entirely new beginning.

Elul are days of maaseh. It is not about simply doing more good deeds, although that is also true that we must increase our goods. It is about reaching the completion of our soul, where we feel complete inside ourselves, where we are so attached in closeness to Hashem that we feel the greatest sense of completion from this.

Elul is depicted as “Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li” (“I am to my Beloved, and my Beloved is to me”)– one who does not feel this in Elul cannot feel completion, and then he will be missing the true depth of teshuvah. But if one feels the meaning of “Dodi” (“my Beloved”) in Elul – that Hashem is our Beloved companion Who fills all of our life – this enables him to feel completion at this, and from that place in himself, he is spurred on to do “complete teshuvah”.

The Deep Source of Our Completion

Thus, we can now understand that “Torah scholars are called builders” in the sense that they build from a place of completion in themselves, not out of deficiency. They build the world through their words of Torah, and the Torah is complete; thus they are building the world from a complete source.

The more a person is attached in closeness with Hashem, he is connected to completion and perfection, and he lacks for nothing. It won’t be possible for him to sin, because there is no more reason that motivates him to sin. Of course, we are human and imperfect. But when one is close to Hashem, he receives a special spiritual light of completion, which makes him feel complete and doesn’t allow him to sin.

In the days of Elul and Yomim Noraim, we should know that these are not just days to increase Torah learning and to do more mitzvos, although that is certainly truthful to do; it is not the purpose. The purpose of these days is to enter the depth of this time, to enter the deepest part of our own souls, where our soul is connected to the reality of Hashem. It is a place in the soul which is attached to perfection, and when we connect to this place in our soul, we are connected to completion and perfection, and there is then no possibility of sin there, with the more we are connected to that place. It is there that we can do complete teshuvah.

In Conclusion

We ask Hashem in Shemoneh Esrei, “Return us, in complete repentance, before You.” To do teshuvah “before Hashem” is to do teshuvah and become closer to Hashem through it. If the teshuvah doesn’t bring one closer to Hashem from it, it is not “complete” teshuvah.

May the Creator merit us to reach this perfection in our souls and to connect ourselves to the reality of the Creator, and to do His will always, throughout every day of the year.

[1] Berachos 64a

[2] Tur: Orach Chaim 597:1

[3] Sukkah 52a

Clearly Defining Service of Hashem

There is a verse in this week’s Parsha, that the Mesillas Yesharim, The Path of the Just, says is the basis of our Avodas Hashem, our service of Hashem.

As we probably know, the Mesillas Yesharim, was written by R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzato, also known as “the Ramchal”, and is one of the two most studied character development books of all time (the other being the Duties of the Heart).

The reason why Mesillas Yesharim is so popular is because the Ramchal teaches us:
– What it means to serve Hashem (Ramchal’s Introduction).
– Why we should devote our entire lives to serving Hashem (Chapter 1 – Man’s Mission in the World).
– How to methodologically improve our service of Hashem (Chapters 2 through 26)

The verse that the Ramchal says is the basis of our Service of Hashem, is Deutoronomy 10:12 in Parshas Eikev:
“And now, Israel, what does Hashem, your God, ask of you?
– Only to fear (be in awe of) Hashem, your God,
– to go in all His ways,
– and to love Him,
– and to serve Hashem, your God, with all your heart and all your soul,
– to observe the commandments of Hashem and His decrees, which I command you today, for your benefit. “

The Ramchal continues and says:
“Here, has been included all the components of complete Divine service that are pleasing to Hashem, blessed be He and they are: fear (awe) of Hashem, walking in His ways, love, wholeheartedness, and observance of all the commandments.

The Ramchal then writes a paragraph on each of these five components, which can be summarized as follows:
1) fear (awe) of Hashem – like you would fear (be in awe of) a great and awesome king,
2) walking in His ways – refining our character traits, leading to strengthening of Torah and improved friendships,
3) love – ingraining in our hearts a love of Hashem, and being inspired to please Him, like we would want to please our parents,
4) wholeheartedness – doing mitzvos with pure motives, focused on serving Hashem, not by rote, with heartfelt devotion,
5) and observance of all the mitzvos – observing the entire body of mitzvos, with all their fine points and conditions.

The Ramchal then says, “I have found that our Sages of blessed memory have categorized these elements in a different, more detailed formulation, in which they are arranged according to the order necessary for their proper acquisition.”

This is based on the Beraisa by Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair in the Gemora which says that Torah leads to Watchfulness, Zeal, Cleanliness, Separation, Purity, Saintliness, Humility, Fear of Sin, Holiness, Divine Inspiration, Revival of the Dead. The Mesillas Yesharim is based on this Beraisa.

I always wondered about the order of pasuk and why the Ramchal is so focused on it as the basis for Divine service, while the Gemora and the commentators are focused mainly on the fear (awe) part of the pasuk. I believe that the Ramchal sees that the Pasuk is in the reverse order of the Beraisa, with
5) observance of all the mitzvos – take us from the beginning through Cleanliness
4) wholeheartedness – takes us through Purity
3) love – takes us through Saintliness
2) walking in His ways – takes us through Humility
1) fear (awe) of God – takes us through Fear of Sin.

I believe that this is why the Ramchal is all over this pasuk, because it has the same structure as the Beraisa delineating the components and levels of Divine Service.

This is a fantastic opportunity to review the first chapter of Mesillas Yesharim, which can be found here.

Flourishing in the Spiritual Dimension

This is the next in the series on Four Dimensional Flourishing.

The components of the Spiritual Dimension consist of recognizing three things:
1. the timeless existence of Hashem;
2. that Hashem is the authority of everything in existence; and
3. that Hashem has a plan for the world.
The flourishing currency is purpose. The habit we need to create is service and the deterrent is comfort.

In Derech Hashem, the Ramchal teaches that Hashem created the universe for the purpose of bestowing the greatest good upon man; closeness to Hashem. Closeness in the spiritual realm is defined by the degree of resemblance.

For this “greatest good” to be most significant, the one enjoying it must earn it. Hashem, therefore, created the world with elements of perfection and deficiency and gave man the means to move toward perfection and avoid deficiency. To maximize the challenge, He created man with a soul inclined toward the spiritual and a body inclined toward comfort and the material.

Hashem gave man the commandments, through which he can consciously subjugate himself to God and reverse his inclination towards the material. The Ramchal goes further, explaining that when we do non-commandment activities, like eating and sleeping, with the motivation of maintaining our body in order to serve God, then they also become acts of perfection and fulfill the purpose of the world. As such, everything that we do has the potential to be aligned with the ultimate purpose of creation.

The major deterrent in the Spiritual Dimension is comfort. We are inclined towards the material and to rest and relaxation. We don’t want to exert our physical, emotional and mental capabilities. The key is to focus on serving God as the most significant aspect of our lives.

Sometimes, even when we are doing things that are inherently spiritual, such as saying a brocha, we lose track of the tremendous opportunity to come close to Hashem and fulfill our purpose. Let’s look at how we can transform the brocha over washing our hands into an opportunity to flourish.

The “Baruch” makes us aware that Hashem is the source of all blessing. The “Atah” focuses us on the fact that we’re talking directly to Hashem. Yud Kei Vav Kei, signifies that Hashem always existed and is the source of all existence. “Elokeinu” says that He is the authority over all creation while “Melech” brings that authority to a more concrete Kingship. “HaOlam” recognizes that His Kingship extends to the entire universe. “Asher Kid’shanu” says that Hashem has set us apart with a special mission and holiness. “B’mitzvosuv” tells us that we accomplish our purpose through the commandments. “V’tzivanu Al Netilas Yadim” awakens us to the fact that, in this very moment, I am fulfilling that purpose with the mitzvah of washing my hands.

Thirteen, sometimes mumbled, words which when said with a little thought, awaken us to the fact that we are currently performing an act that is a part of fulfilling the purpose of creation. We can multiply this amazing experience a hundredfold with all of the brochos and mitzvos we do each day.

When we flourish in the Spiritual Dimension, we will often also flourish in the other Dimensions. That’s because our focus on purpose in the Spiritual Dimension makes our actions meaningful, which is flourishing in the Mental Dimension, and the knowledge that we are connecting to the Master of the Universe and doing His will produces profound happiness, which is flourishing in the Emotional Dimension.

In summary, the path to purpose in the Spiritual Dimension is to focus on our constant service to Hashem. The deterrent is comfort and avoidance of exertion in our actions. We can overcome this deterrent if we bring to mind that with proper service, we are fulfilling our purpose in creation and flourishing in all four Dimensions.

Flourishing in the Mental Dimension

This is the next in the series on Four Dimensional Flourishing.

The components of the Mental Dimension consist of acquiring knowledge, developing deeper understanding and applying that knowledge and understanding. The flourishing currency in the Mental Dimension is meaning. The habit we need to create is mindfulness. The deterrent is distraction.

The Ramchal teaches that the mind has three natural mental processes:
1. Acquiring knowledge about things and ideas by reading, listening and observing.
2. Developing a deeper understanding of our knowledge and deriving new ideas.
3. Applying our knowledge and understanding as practical wisdom by forming opinions and making decisions.

The goal of these processes is to see things as they really are and then spend our time and energy on the most significant and meaningful things.

The currency of the Mental Dimension is meaning, and meaningful things are defined by how significant they are. Doing meaningful things is often outwardly focused because we find that helping others has significance. For example, health care providers and teachers often find their occupations to be meaningful because they are directly helping others.

If we want to live with meaning, we need to pay more attention to the significant things in our lives. The problem is that we are often distracted by insignificant things. This fact is starkly portrayed in a popular video which shows people glued to their smartphones while their significant others become invisible.

Let’s use a simple example from the daily activity of parenting to see how seemingly insignificant matters can be meaningful:

You ask your son to go to the bank to make a deposit. He responds that he’s about to go to his friend’s house and asks if he can make the deposit afterwards. The simple response would be to tell him to make the deposit first. But the simple response isn’t always the best one. There are many factors you might want to consider before you make the decision, such as: the importance of the deposit and what would happen if he forgets to make it, showing him that you trust him to keep track of time, giving him the responsibility to juggle social and family responsibilities, etc.

Many times we are too distracted to think deeply about our interactions with our children. But these, sometimes seemingly small, interactions are the bread and butter of the meaningful activity of parenting.

In summary, the path to meaning in the Mental Dimension is to act with mindfulness so that we can focus on the more significant things in our life. The deterrent is distraction. We can overcome this by using our thought processes to actively determine and pay attention to what is significant.

Turning the Tables on the Constant Test of Summertime Immodesty

By Rabbi Yonah Levant

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.

Flourishing in the Emotional Dimension

This is the next in the series on Four Dimensional Flourishing.

The components of the Emotional Dimension are positive emotions, specifically love and awe. The flourishing currency is happiness. The good habit we need to create is connection and the deterrent is ego.

Our Sages tell us that the key to enduring happiness is a feeling of completion or wholeness which can come from an appreciation of what we have, accomplishment, or building good relationships. We’re going to focus on happiness generated by good relationships.

Jewish mysticism teaches that our positive emotions are rooted in love and awe. Love is a connection to another person based on an identification with his positive qualities. Awe, along with its honor and fear components, is a connection based on a recognized hierarchy.

Relationships between man and God and between child and parent have strong components of both love and awe. The husband and wife relationship is built mainly on love with some mutual components of awe. The relationship between friends is built primarily on love.

To increase our happiness, we need to improve our connections to people. When meeting a person, ask yourself two questions: “How can I give to this person?” and “What can I learn from this person?”

Giving is not limited to physical things, it includes advice, showing you care by inquiring about the other’s welfare, and offering words of encouragement. Learning from others includes not just subject-matter information but appreciating insights offered from their unique vantage point.

The main deterrent to creating positive connections is our ego. As Dr. David Lieberman says “The body wants to feel good, the ego wants to look good and the soul wants to be good”. When we are driven by ego, we want to look and feel superior to others.The Mesillas Yesharim says this is an extremely difficult challenge to overcome. The desire to be on top leads to the negative traits of envy, pride, honor and anger, each of which builds barriers to connection.

The key to negating the ego is humility. In his famous letter, the Ramban prescribes that we should view every person as greater than ourselves. If the other person is wiser or wealthier, we must honor him for that. If he is neither wiser nor wealthier, we should realize that he is less guilty than we are, since we have fewer extraneous pressures to sin and we have greater knowledge of Torah. This approach will allow us to subvert our ego and develop better relationships.

Let’s take a look at a simple example of how a focus on subverting the ego and understanding hierarchy can produce flourishing:

A friend walked into a local store where a wealthy man was talking to a clerk. He wasn’t being nasty but he was clearly asserting his authority over the clerk within the discussion. The clerk was responding appropriately, although he didn’t seem happy about it. When it was our friend’s turn, the clerk, seeing that she was a young woman, started asserting his authority over her and was not being so nice about it. Our friend, who had recently learned these concepts, recognized the hierarchies at play, understood the workings of the ego and kept her emotions in check, allowing her to respond without anger.

In summary, the path to happiness in the Emotional Dimension is to increase our connection to people, primarily by giving to them and learning from them. The deterrent to these connections is our ego. We can overcome the need to feel superior by developing the trait of humility.

The Essence of Our Existence and the Six Constant Mitzvos

In the first chapter of the Mesillas Yesharim, the Ramchal writes:

“We thus derive that the essence of a man’s existence in this world is solely the fulfilling of mitzvos, the serving of God and the withstanding of trials, and that the world’s pleasures should serve only the purpose of aiding and assisting him, by way of providing him with the contentment and peace of mind requisite for the freeing of his heart for the service which devolves upon him.”

The Chofetz Chaim in the beginning of his Biyur Halacha commentary on the first Halacha in the Shulchan Aruch writes:

“I Place Hashem Before Me Always – Is A Crucial Principle Of The Torah.” The person who wants to fulfill “I place Hashem…” properly, must make himself zealous to fulfill what is written in the name of Sefer HaChinuch. And because this is so greatly precious, many Torah authorities copied this in their books. The Chinuch mentioned this in the introduction and in several sections. This refers to six mitzvos that are obligatory continuously. These will never stop or part from a person, even for a single moment, all of his days. At every time and moment that a person thinks into these, he fulfills active commandments, and there is no limit to the amount of reward given for the mitzvos. ”

The Chofetz Chaim gives a short commentary on these six mitzvos and here is an excerpt specifying the mitzvos and the Pasukim from which they are derived:

1. To believe that there is one G-d in existence Who made to exist everything which exists…And this is an active commandment, as the Torah says, “I am the L-rd your G-d Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.”
2. We are to never believe in any other god beside Him, as the Torah says, “You will not have any other gods besides Me.”
3. To attribute oneness to Him, as the Torah says, “Hear, Israel, the L-rd is G-d, the L-rd is one.”
4. To love the Omnipresent, may He be blessed, as the Torah writes, “And you will love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart…”.
5. To have fear of Hashem, may He be blessed, before oneself in order to remain free of sin. On this the Torah says, “Fear the L-rd your G-d.”
6. Not to stray after the impulses of the heart. The substantiation for this is the Torah verse, “And do not go straying after your hearts and after your eyes.”

(For a full translation of the Chofetz Chaim’s commentary on the six constant mitzvos, please see Rabbi Jeff Forsythe’s translation here.)

Hashem in his kindness gave us Six Constant Mitzvos, six constant opportunities to connect to Him and take a step towards fulfilling our purpose in life. It just takes a quick thought when we’re sitting, standing, walking, driving or about to perform a mitzvah. As the Chofetz Chaim says “there is no limit to the amount of reward”.

Conquering Bad Religious Experiences

By Yakov Lowinger

There has been some discussion regarding the reversion of some from religious observance due to a “bad religious experience” (BRE), which seems to cause the sufferer to swear off involvement in organized religion much like a bad omelet will repel one from associating with eggs in a pan for a good while. I personally feel strongly about this discussion and find many of its assumptions to be misplaced, and I hoped to share some of my insights gleaned from inside, then outside, then inside the frum world if I can be so presumptuous.

1. Being rejected is no cause to reject

The problem is that the lovable eggs in a pan that we encounter every day in the frum world, the ones that often drive us crazy and perhaps even give us real indigestion, are our fellow Jews who we are commanded to love and accept. Why are we so concerned on the contrary with their love and acceptance of us as ba’alei teshuvah, so much so that we take their little acts of rejection as proof of the error of our ways? There is a bit of the parable of the sour grapes in an ex-BT who turns away from observance mainly because he/she didn’t feel accepted. You don’t want me? Well I didn’t want you anyway. Unfortunately little of this dance gets either side closer to the questions of finding the Emes that becoming religious was meant to represent. The BT is no less obligated to respect and tolerate those in the community where he lives, as the community is obligated to respect and tolerate him.

2. The derech ha’emes is not contingent on our experiences, good or bad

The story of the aspiring BT who rushes toward ever-increasing levels of observance as long as it feels good, and then backs away once reality (i.e. other people) sets in, has a disturbing undertone. I would argue that Rabbi Jacobson’s comparison to Nadav and Avihu is nice but in the end, there is no distinction between the two brothers’ fate. A more apt comparison is to Rabbi Akiva and R’ Elisha ben Avuya, who went into the pardes together to learn the secrets of Torah. Rabbi Akiva came out unharmed, while R’ Elisha became a heretic and was henceforth known as “Acheir,” the other. In other words, a person’s greatness or lack thereof is defined by how he/she responds to a real challenge to emunah and a genuine exposure to holiness. In the case of the modern day BT, it is in response to a BRE, or even an overwhelming religious experience, that the title ba’al teshuvah is earned or forfeited. It is irresponsible to suggest that the choice between being a Rabbi Akiva or becoming an “Acheir” is ever in the hands of other people, regardless of how insensitively they may sometimes treat us. Those challenges are there for us to use in order to grow, not to become bitter like Acheir, who gave up completely and considered himself beyond repair because of his experience at the pardes.

3. No such thing as an FFB

Unless we take it to mean “filtered from birth”, there is no usefulness to the term FFB as it is generally used. In the first place, as it is meant to be the residual category of BT, it de-individualizes those who happen to have parents who gave them the gift of frumkeit. The argument then almost makes itself – those FFBs are anti-individual – much like saying that anteaters are anti-ant. The term ba’al teshuvah has an exalted status in Torah, considered in some respects higher than a tzaddik. The term FFB in contrast enjoys no comparable prestige, highlights no distinguishing feature of those so categorized except accident of birth, and therefore tells us nothing about those who supposedly bear this title. The label should be discarded, in my opinion, as the terms BT and FFB are in no way commensurable. The former is exalted and laden with meaning, the latter a mere statistic. The term FFB just gives frustrated ex-frum people something to bandy around, some identifier that we all supposedly understand and relate to and toward which we can direct our complaints. By relying less on these labels, we can more easily identify the real source of our challenges, which is more often than not in ourselves and not in those ______s out there.

4. Cluelessness and misplaced meticulousness

That said, it is not as if there are not prevalent problems in certain frum communities that might drive a sensitive person away from strict observance. I will just point out two that I think are important. Compared to what they are used to, BTs are likely to encounter a certain clulessness about the world at large that may make them uncomfortable. The reality is that the strong filters that we grow up with as frum yidden foreclose the possibility of relating to a BT on most things of interest to them, and thus create that familiar dynamic where we look quizzically at the BT as he tells his/her story at the shabbos table and make him/her even more uncomfortable. This would normally lead to some sort of alienation on the part of the BT who just can’t be understood, whereas a healthier approach might be to accept this limitation and even offer to give some background on the topic in question, in a way consistent with the decency implied by a Torah lifestyle, instead of rolling eyes or sighing knowingly. This cluelessness should be treated with sensitivity and understanding, and the BT should take the acharayus to educate his or her new friends and family in a way that establishes the basis for mutual understanding. Those in the frum community in turn should take it upon themselves to listen and learn from the BT. Their strong filters should be more than adequate to the task.

A second difficulty is the misplaced meticulousness displayed by many in the frum community. This goes for BTs and non-BTs alike. In short, it goes like this. I am frummer than you in outward appearance. This causes me to displace my concern for my own frumkeit (what should I do to be more frum, which I may not know) onto you (because it seems that I do know what you need to do to be more frum). I nitpick on your appearance and seeming observance in my head rather than on my own faults which may not be so visible to others on the surface, because it is easier and seems equally valid. The problem is that nobody benefits from this arrangement. I don’t improve and neither do you. If I became as meticulous in my observance as I was in staring down/talking down to the BT on the other side of the shul we would both win. When we self-professed frummies see someone whose appearance makes us uncomfortable in some way, we should see it as a wake up call to fix what’s lacking in our own avodah. Because anyway, I can only be meticulous on my own account, not yours.

5. Living in a frum community requires a thick skin

We are all growing, hopefully, and learning every day. A BT should try to make him/herself sensitive to this and apply it across the board when confronted with the dreaded BRE. Because that BRE is going to happen. And it may even be horrible (I’ve heard some downright Jerry Springer ones — I bet he’s had a few himself). Here’s where the thick skin comes in — tough up and remember that those people responsible for your BRE are having one too. Rather than have it prick at all your sensitivities and throw you off, which in all likelihood it’s designed to do, remember that it’s also put there by Hashem to make you a stronger, more serious and committed Jew. I know people who have actually gone as far as to thank those who threw really terrible BREs at them, because they couldn’t be who they are now without them. Once your done being carried away with all the fun frills of being frum (I’ve heard there are a few), stare down that BRE in the face and become who you really are meant to be. And as for those bitter acheir’s out there, it’s not too late either. I hope there’s something here for all to take to heart.

Fifty Ways to Meet Your Lover (Sefirat HaOmer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Step by Step

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

Seven Shepherds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riding the Escalator of Life

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

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

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

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

First Published on May 14, 2008

Beyond Observance

For many of us, observance fills an important need. We have food and other permitted pleasures to fulfill our physical desires. Our family, friends, and sports buzzer-beaters are there for our emotional needs. Business, politics, and science challenges us intellectually. And Religious Observance gives us that important spiritual dimension.

This four dimensional perspective was popularized by Covey in the 7 Habits, and as long as we learn Torah, fulfill the mitzvos and think about God on occasion, many would argue that there is nothing wrong with such an approach.

But the Torah offers us so much more. We can move towards human greatness and be in control of our desires, our ego, and our wandering attention. We can develop deep loving relationships with hundreds of people. We can develop a constant connection to God which brings amazing spiritual pleasure and helps us successfully navigate the trials and tribulations of the world. And we can develop our immortal souls which will exist for all of eternity.

Every one of us has the ability to go Beyond Observance towards the greatest pleasures the world has to offer. The Ramchal provides us with the path. I am working with a number of friends on making this a reality and the progress everybody is making is extremely exciting. It’s not an overnight quick fix. It’s Hashem’s guide to achieve our purpose in this world. The key is to follow the plan. I’ll keep you updated.

Aish Appreciation

One of the foundations of spiritual growth is connecting to Hashem through appreciating all that He does for us on a regular basis.

Another foundation of spiritual growth is connecting to people through appreciating all that they do or have done for us.

With that being said, we at Beyond BT, would like to express our appreciation for Aish HaTorah and their web site Aish.Com.

Another source for Aish Appreciation is their web site Classic Sinai where they have a number of free mp3s on Torah Fundamentals. Here are some of the Classics available for instant download at that site.
Great for a dose of inspiration!

Our Bodies Our Souls – Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller
Forget the glass ceilings you are expected to exceed. Take a different route to smooth out the impossible juggling act between life, work and everyone else’s expectations.

Happiness – The 48 Ways – Rabbi Noah Weinberg
Happiness is today’s most sought after pleasure – and also the most elusive. Hear sound advice to break common unhappiness habits, regain lost optimism, and increase your energy level for a more rewarding life.

The Matrix and Jewish Reality – Rabbi Motty Berger
This probing discussion on ‘The Matrix’ explains how the movie is an excellent representation of how Jewish philosophers have always perceived reality.

World Perfect – Rabbi Ken Spiro
Rabbi Spiro exposes the secret immorality of ancient civilizations and gives a surprising glimpse of where modern society really draws its existing moral lessons from.

Mysticism, Meaning & Life – Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb
To what extent is it possible to make life decisions without pride or passion getting in the way? Go beyond the mask of self-interest to deepen your objectivity and discernment.

And many more at Classic Sinai.

Can a BT Earn the Right to Coast?

Hi

I’m frum for about 16 years and I have a close friend who’s been frum for about the same amount of time. We’re both married with families. My friend worked very hard on his Yiddishkeit for many years, but in the last 2 years he has noticeably declined in devotion to his learning and his seriousness about davening. I asked him about it and he told me that after all the years of applying pressure on himself to advance further he decided that he had made enough progress and he thinks Hashem will be happy with him because of the struggles he’s endured to become frum and raise a frum family.

Is it possible that his assessment is not so crazy and he’s earned his right to coast?

If he’s making a mistake how can inspire him to return to the path he was formerly on? The for-the-kids argument didn’t work because he argued that they’ll do fine because his wife does a great job with them.

-Akiva

—————–
From the Comments

This post could have been written by me as well.

For the past two years, after 15 years of observance, I feel less connected with my daily practices than before and have been frankly-coasting. Not with belief and not with ahavas Yisrael or most day-to-day observance, G-d forbid, but with the entire lifestyle. I don’t feel compelled to learn or to run to shul 3 times a day anymore. I feel I have bought into a bill of goods that really no longer moves me spiritually as it once did nor do I find it particually appealing. And the Rabbinic answer always seems to be more more and even more perfunctory observance. This absolutely manifests itself with Sleichot in my opinion (which I find detrimental to my attempt to do t’shuva) and the inability of leadership to address people like me on an intellectually honest level. And I find most of the outreach programs intellectually dishonest.

I can trace this to the general complacency in shul as a whole (so its not just me); my observation that Judaism is being measured by hat size not by spirit size; the pull away from the middle that every single American Jewish community is experiencing; and last but not least, the inability to come to grips with the financial strain tuition and kehilla have placed on me. Frankly, I am a little sorry I went down this road – not that I would turn back – but I got much more than I bargained for when I had no kids.

I am not an indulgent person, I just wanted Shabbat and shul in my life many years ago and to level the playing field for my children to marry Jews. I seem to have gotten a lot more baggage than that.

-Chaim

Coercion, Acceptance and the Spiritual Inputs of Purim

Rabbi Noson Weisz explains the spiritual input that God offers on Purim:

There is much more to Judaism than the outer trappings of observance. Observance is the body of Judaism, but its soul requires the Jews to place their relationship with God at the very center of life. The observance of the commandments is only meaningful when it is the outer manifestation of this inner reality. One cannot be truly Jewish without dreaming of the Temple and of Jerusalem. Jews who manage to find a good life in the absence of this dream are on their way to annihilation as a distinct people no matter what their level of observance may be.

There is a famous saying in Yiddish, S’is shver zu zein a Yid! “It’s hard to be a Jew.” Israel has lost far many more Jews through its history to this statement than to the persuasive power of foreign ideologies.

The spiritual input of the Purim holiday is provided to counter this tendency. In essence, it comes to counter the protest of coercion. We see the Torah as coercion as long as we feel that strict observance is impractical and burdensome in the context of the realities within which we are forced to live. But Jews in exile must be able to find joy in the practice of Judaism to be able to maintain their commitment to Judaism as the focus of their existence. They must still feel that despite all the hardships of exile, their commitment to the Torah is the force that gives them life.

When they were faced with Haman’s edict, the Jewish people found the strength to reach deep into their collective soul. Israel realized that the physical annihilation which threatened them was an indication of the spiritual level to which they had sunk. They were threatened with outward physical annihilation only because they were close to dying as a people spiritually on the inside. They reexamined their attitude to their own commitment to Judaism, located the protest of coercion in their collective Jewish soul, and gave it up for good. As a result, the physical edict was rescinded and the Jews were blessed with “light, happiness, joy and honor.”

The joy that comes from Torah observance under seemingly unfavorable circumstances is the spiritual input that God offers on Purim. May we all merit receiving a powerful dose of it.

Read the whole thing here

I’m Not on That Level

There are five words that really hamper our Avodas Hashem and they are: “I’m not on that level”. The first problem with that statement is that it’s true. We’re not on that level!

We’re certainly not on the level of Chassidus (Saintliness), always looking to go beyond what the halacha requires because we have an always present deep love and connection to Hashem. We’re not on the level of Nekiyus (Cleanliness), which involves meticulous observance of all mitzvos, all the time, including such tough ones as wasting time, getting angry and being careful in all our speech. We’re probably not even at the lower level of Zehirus (Watchfulness), being careful not to sin, since we’re probably not in the habit of always thinking before we act, nor reviewing our actions on a daily basis. If we were to honestly rate our overall performance, “I’m not on that level” is quite accurate.

The major problem with “I’m not on the level” is that it can be used as a justification to remain at our current level. Hashem wants us to continually advance in our observance. The Mesillas Yesharim makes it quite clear in the introduction that low levels of service are not acceptable. We need to continually up our game. That’s why we were created and it is a doable achievement.

Improving our Service of Hashem goes much further than obligation. A life driven by spirituality is the most fulfilling life possible because: 1) we are controlling and leveraging our bodily drives like eating and using them to stay healthy and have God commanded pleasure on Shabbos and Yom Tov, 2) we have the opportunity to connect to people in every interaction, 3) we can connect to God in all that we do and thereby fulfill our purpose in this world with our every action.

Yes, we’re not on that level. But whatever level we are on, we can take it to the next level and continually strive to live a life of more purpose, meaning, happiness and purposeful pleasure. We are quite fortunate that the Mesillas Yesharim speaks out everything mentioned here and he gives us an extremely practical playbook on how to keep on increasing our level.

Working Smarter — After Working Hardest

VaYetzai

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

She (Leah) was pregnant once again, and bore a son. She said: “This time let me express gratitude to HaShem.” She named the child Yehudah. Then, she stopped having children.

-Bereshis 29:35

Rachel saw that she bore Yaakov no children. Rachel was jealous of her sister (Leah) and she said to Yaakov: “Give me children, or else I will die.”  Yaakov became furious with Rachel: “Shall I take HaShem’s place?” he said “It is He who is holding back the fruit of the womb”.

-Bereshis 30:1,2

 There are teachings of Chaza”l that, when measured in the crucible of reality, challenge our emunas chachamim– faith in the Torah sages.  Perhaps none so regularly and personally as this one: “If one were to tell you ‘I have toiled but I have not found- tried hard but have not succeeded’ do not believe him.  ‘I have not toiled but I have found- have not tried but have succeeded’ (again) do not believe him” (Megillah 6B).

How many of us have been frustrated by failure in our personal lives, our academic efforts and/or our careers despite having put forth our very best efforts? Conversely, how many times has unanticipated success come our (or our competitors) way, relatively effortlessly?

The Izhbitzer teaches that our two matriarchs Rachel and Leah, are, to all appearances, the exemplars of these two claims, equally lacking in credibility.   Rachel, after years of heartfelt prayer and buying a “fertility drug” (the mandrakes) was still childless. To that point, her life story had been one that veritably shouted: “I have toiled but I have not found”.   On the other hand, Leah named her fourth son Yehuda as a way of thanking HaShem for having “taken more than my fair share” (Rashi ibid). Taking more than ones fair share is another way of saying “I have not toiled… but I have found”.

But the Izhbitzer tweaks the claims of the sisters and, in so doing, answers our questions. For now, we’ll concentrate on Rachel’s claim that “I have toiled but I have not found”.

Imagine a person wanting to enter a home, banging loudly and repeatedly on one of the homes windowless and doorless solid exterior walls the livelong day, but, tenaciously maintaining his position at the solid wall and refusing to move towards the door.  While expending great efforts and burning many calories to achieve the goal of entry, he’s banging in the wrong place, his enormous efforts are misdirected. He may be working hard but he is not working smart. Were he to move a few feet and just rap on the door ever so lightly, it would immediately swing open and he would gain entry.

HaShem provides every individual soul with a unique makeup and an incomparable defining middah– characteristic, a leitmotif that colors all their perceptions, impacts all their decisions, tests them at every juncture and motivates all of their thoughts, words and deeds. The Divine Will desires that one’s leitmotif  be both their greatest strength, their supreme source of good and their worst weakness, their most horrible enabler for evil.

Rachel was toiling mightily in prayer but where she really needed to concentrate her efforts was on the birur-the purification of her particular defining middah.   Rachel’s soul was endowed with a matchless capacity for jealousy. But jealousy can be a stingy, malcontent green-eyed-monster or the engine that drives self-improvement and self-actualization.

Unholy, evil jealousy begins with an attitude of “It’s not fair. You don’t deserve that. I hope that you lose it. Only then will justice be served!”  But jealousy can be sublimated into something good and holy, into the proverbial kinas sofrim –the academic envy of the wise students that spurs them to greater scholarship. The anthem of kinas sofrim is: “Hmmm…that looks good.  You’re certainly entitled to what you’ve gained but I’d like some too.  Some is good so more must be better. There’s plenty to go around and I won’t rest until I’ve gotten it, and more, too.” Kinas sofrim observes a good mousetrap and the boons that it brings  to the mousetrap builder and to society. It then goes out and builds a better one.

The Ramba”n fails to understand Yaakov’s vehemence.  What did Rachel do wrong?  After all, the Gemara advises those suffering from illnesses, in her case infertility, to approach sages and ask them to daven on their behalf (Bava Basra 116A).  Yaakov grew testy over Rachels misplaced yegiah-efforts and exertions. All her prayers, or any that Yaakov might have added, were like knocking on a brick wall instead of on a door.  He recognized that she was jealous, that this was her defining characteristic. But he realized that she had yet to be mevarer– to clarify and purify her middah.  Was her jealousy of the run-of-the-mill, catty, begrudging variety, or, was it the high-minded kinas sofrim that utilizes the irritants of envy to produce the pearls of ever-greater effort, innovation and achievement?

Rachel said: ‘Here is my handmaid Bilhah. Come to her and let her give birth on my lap.  Through her I will then also have a son.’

-Bereshis 30:3

“Isn’t it enough that you’ve taken my husband away?” snapped Leah “Now you’d even take my sons mandrakes? “All right” Rachel responded “Yaakov will lie with you tonight in exchange for your son’s mandrakes.”

-Bereshis 30:15

 Rachel offered Yaakov Bilhah, and negotiated a deal resulting in yet another pregnancy for Leah. These concessions brought more “competitors” into the marriage. By doing so she had rid her jealousy of any elements of pettiness and malice and distilled pristine kinas sofrim from her defining middah. With this small, yet significant step, she had stopped working hard and started working smart. She’d stopped pounding the brick wall and began lightly rapping on the door. Unsurprisingly, the door then swung open and she soon conceived Yoseph.

Essentially Yaakov bellowed at Rachel “I’m skeptical when you claim ‘I have toiled but I have not found’ because you’ve toiled, but in the wrong way, at the wrong spot. To unlock the doors of fertility you don’t need to pray anymore.  Purify your jealousy and you’ll be knocking on the doors.  You have not “toiled” smartly and that’s why you have not yet “found”. Work smart and those doors will swing open “

The second Izhbitzer adds that the efforts Rachel expended at working hard were not wasted.  The Gemara teaches that if one sees that their prayers were not answered they should pray again (Berachos 32B). The Divine Will decrees precisely how long we must work our hardest before we attain salvation by working smart. There is no free lunch and there is no free epiphany that allows a person the sudden intuitive leap of understanding to correctly identify precisely which middah is their own leitmotif . Once discovered, one may begin the “working smart” of distilling the goodness of, i.e. being mevarer, their middah.

To carry the allegory further, there is something about banging on walls that eventually, cumulatively points us towards the door. And so, even while working hard and, apparently, ineffectively; claiming “I have toiled but I have not found” is a lie. All the banging on te wall eventually culminates in allowing the wall-banger to see the door that he must knock on. We toil, then we find. We work smarter, davka after working our hardest.

Adapted from Mei HaShiloach I VaYetzai D”H vaTomer haPa’am

Bais Yaakov VaYetzai Inyan 66 (page261) 

Making Judaism Great Again

If I had to describe the presidential election in one word it would be “disillusioned”, which means to be disappointed in something that one discovers to be less good than one had believed. Many Americans are disillusioned with America. Diminishing economic opportunities coupled with an increasingly unstable world turned the “American Dream” into a fantasy for many. Donald Trump was a vote against the status quo and most people underestimated how disillusioned the America people actually are.

Many Jews are disillusioned with Judaism. The non-Orthodox are moving out in droves as they intermarry and retain little or no connection with Judaism. The Baalei Teshuva are disillusioned with the unfulfilled promises and second class citizenry in which they find themselves. The greater Orthodox community is disillusioned with the tuition-induced economic pressures, the under-performance of our Yeshivos, and the great difficulty in finding shidduchim for our children.

The solution to our disillusionment is much different then the American Electorate in that we don’t need a change in leadership – we need a change in mindset. We need to internalize the fact that the goal of Judaism is to create a deep connection to Hashem by learning Torah, performing mitzvos, improving our character traits, praying, and doing acts of kindness. Committing to this path with our friends and relatives will truly make Judaism Great Again for all of us.

Flourishing in the Physical Dimension

The components of the Physical Dimension are the five senses. The flourishing currency is physical pleasure. In order to make pleasure purposeful and to prevent it from becoming destructive, we need to develop the good habit of self-control. The deterrent to purposeful pleasure is desire.

The two most common pleasures are eating and sensual pleasure. These are also the areas where people have the most problems. Let’s use eating as our example.
We have to eat to survive and our hunger drive reminds us when we need to eat. The challenge is choosing which foods to eat and determining when to stop eating. Here is where we need to do battle with the deterrent of desire. Desire attracts us to the best tasting food, regardless of nutritional value, and we want more of it and we want it now.

We have to control our desire with the conscious thought that eating during the week is primarily for health and energy. When we do that, we make the pleasure that we get from eating purposeful. This raises the physical act of eating to the loftier Emotional Dimension since successfully exercising our self-control creates happiness. And that happiness lasts longer than the physical pleasure of food which is only good until the last bite. One way to develop self-control over the way we eat is to maximize pleasure by eating slowly and being mindful of the aroma, taste, texture and satiation of our food.

Imagine you’re at a barbecue and you’ve just started watching your weight. So, you take a hot dog, which is approximately 100 calories, cut it into 15 small pieces and eat each bite slowly, focusing on all the pleasures. The guy next to you grabs 2 hot dogs with buns for 450 calories and finishes them in half the time it takes you to eat your one dog. At the end of the day, who had more pleasure? It’s fair to say that you experienced more pleasure savoring all of the pleasures of your one hot dog than he did gobbling down two.

In summary, the path to healthy pleasure in the Physical Dimension is to make it purposeful. The deterrents are our inborn physical desires. By focusing on self-control, we can resist these desires and choose our pleasures with purpose.

Previous posts in the Four Dimensional Flourishing series
Four Dimensional Flourishing – Introduction
The Four Dimensions – Spiritual, Mental, Emotional and Physical

The Four Dimensions – Spiritual, Mental, Emotional and Physical

By Mark Frankel & David Linn

The Four Dimensions

Both secular and Torah sources discuss that human beings experience the world in four Dimensions: Physical, Emotional, Mental, and Spiritual. For example, eating occurs primarily in the physical dimension. Love is an emotional experience. Learning takes place in the mental realm. And prayer is a spiritual pursuit.

Each Dimension has four important aspects:
core components, through which we experience that Dimension best
a flourishing currency, the thing that you are trying to access in that Dimension
a primary good habit that we need to cultivate
a deterrent that keeps us from flourishing

Although we experience the world in all four Dimensions, they are not equivalent. There is a hierarchy which starts with the Physical Dimension, where we are focused on self and which becomes increasingly less self-centered as we move towards the Spiritual Dimension, where we are focused on God. Let’s take a look at some examples of this.

The pleasure of the Physical Dimension is completely self-focused; that chocolate cake tastes great, but that’s only because I like chocolate cake, it has nothing to do with anyone else. Emotional happiness, achieved through positive relationships, involves me and at least one other person. When I move up to finding meaning in the Mental Dimension, I’m even more outwardly focused and involved in pursuits that help others and improve the world. Finally, purpose in the Spiritual Dimension places God at the center of all my activities, it’s about what He wants, not what I want.

The lines between Dimensions are porous, meaning that flourishing in one Dimension often creates flourishing in another. Indeed, that’s one of the goals of Four Dimensional Flourishing, to take an activity in one dimension and raise it to a higher level. For example, eating a delicious Yom Tov meal is a physical pleasure that becomes spiritual when I’m focused on the fact that this is the type of pleasure that Hashem has commanded me to have on Yom Tov.

At the same time, two different activities might cause flourishing in the same Dimension but they may be of a very different quality. For example, eating a delicious weekday meal will provide physical pleasure but might also make me happy, which is an emotional state. Doing something meaningful, like volunteer work will make me happy as well, but it’s easy to see that these are different types of happiness. The happiness from pleasure ends after the last bite, while the happiness from meaning is more deep seated and enduring.

The chart below summarizes the Four Dimensions and the overview that we have just covered. You might want to refer to the chart as we discuss each Dimension individually.

FourDimensionalFlourishingV1

Four Dimensional Flourishing – Introduction

By Mark Frankel & David Linn

An Amazing Life

Two friends are watching a football game. One is a huge football fan and he gets excited about every aspect of the game: how the offense and defense lineup, the movement before and after the snap, clock management, perfect execution and the small miscues that make big differences. The entire three hours of the game are amazing for him. His friend likes football but is not a tremendous fan. He mostly cares about the big plays, the great catches and the bone-crushing hits. They’re both watching the exact same game, but their experience is completely different.

Life is like that as well. Some people live amazing lives–every moment infused with purpose, meaning and joy– and some people just can’t wait to get home for a quick supper, some web surfing and sleep. Then there’s the place where most of us probably live, somewhere in the middle. But we can all move towards amazing.

What does an amazing life look like? It’s a life where we experience physical pleasure without being controlled by it. A life where we reduce our anger and envy and develop happiness, and deep connections to others. It’s living in a way that finds significance and meaning even in seemingly mundane endeavors. It’s having a clear understanding of our purpose and living each day in accordance with that purpose. We can consistently move closer to an amazing life by creating four key habits and eliminating four key deterrents. Let’s dig deeper.

Four Dimensional Flourishing

In 1980, Dr. Martin Seligman developed Positive Psychology which focused on actively increasing happiness, rather than the traditional focus of psychology: treating mental illness. Dr. Seligman defined three types of happiness: The Pleasant Life, increasing positive emotion through pleasures, activities and attitudes; The Engaged Life, using your specific individual strengths in your work, love, friendships, leisure and parenting; and The Meaningful Life, using your strengths to serve something larger than the self. In 2010, Dr. Seligman expanded the focus of Positive Psychology by adding healthy relationships and accomplishments to the happiness mix. He called this expanded focus: flourishing.

We’ve been working on Four Dimensional Flourishing for a number of years in response to the fact that, despite positive psychology’s increased focus on life-satisfaction and well-being, the average person seems to be living an increasingly less amazing life. In this work, we have defined flourishing from a Torah perspective and have created a practical framework and process to increase flourishing.

The first step on the road to a flourishing life is understanding that all human experiences fall into four dimensions, physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. To flourish, we need to know the goals we are striving for in each dimension. In the physical, we are looking for pleasure. Emotionally, we are in pursuit of happiness. In the mental realm, we are searching for meaning. And in the spiritual dimension, we seek to fulfill our purpose.

In each dimension, there is a specific habit that is critical to flourishing and a major deterrent that can distance us from flourishing. In order to increase the degree of flourishing we experience in our lives, we need to develop these habits and address these deterrents.

We have enumerated a five step process to integrate flourishing into our lives. The process transforms this material from interesting information into life changing sustenance. When we use this process to integrate Four Dimensional Flourishing into our lives, we will be living amazing lives on a moment by moment basis.

To be continued.

Some BTs Lose It, Some FFBs Never Had It


Rabbi Menachem Zupnik
From Mishpacha Magazine BT Symposium – September 13, 2012

THE PROBLEMS IDENTIFIED here are very real and serious, and the answers are very personal and complex, and can’t be properly addressed in a short forum. I am also uncomfortable that perhaps classifying these courageous Jews and their problems separately in this way is shallow and disrespectful. I try to be understanding of each individual, weighing his strengths and limitations as we talk. I experience each one as just an Orthodox Jew trying his best to juggle the stress and difficulty of fidelity to Hashem and His Torah in today’s day and age.

I have been privileged to be inspired by many Jews who demonstrate incredible dedication and modesty in the face of great nisayon; but I have also encountered Jews who unfortunately do not seem concerned enough about compromising their Yiddishkeit. There is a spectrum of connection to Hashem and His Torah that exists equally among both the frum from birth and the baalei teshuvah. Indeed, some FFB people demonstrate weaknesses requiring compromises that dwarf any I have ever made for a person due to his secular past. In my experience, it is not a person’s upbringing that defines who he is; his past is something for consideration, but no more.

You wonder how to deal with a baal teshuvah’s “buyer’s remorse.” In response, I query: Is their problem of disenchantment essentially any different from that which so many of our young FFB adults are feeling, and is the answer to “their problem” any different from the answer to “ours”?

Regarding the sheer difficulty and expense of being frum, I again suggest that the problem is no different for the FFB individual. What would you say to a good, well-meaning Jew who, following his rebbeim, struggled to raise daughters who wish to marry only bnei Torah? His wonderful success in raising six exemplary daughters is greeted with the harsh reality that the really serious bnei Torah “cost” more than he can afford. His daughters, he is told, must settle for boys who are not such big learners but can support themselves. He regrets having thoughtlessly followed the course of our community, he is disil-lusioned by the system, and angry that it does not value his precious daughters and give them the chance they so very much deserve. How does one respond to his remorse and anger? The problem is not essentially any different from the one described here as a baal teshuvah problem. Indeed, in my experience, the latter problem arises more often than the former.

The issue of full integration into the community is also a personal question that depends on the individual and the community. I cannot overemphasize the importance of making the effort to belong to and be part of the larger Orthodox Jewish community. This is especially important for their children’s sake, since they are lacking the added support of an extended frum family.

But once again, this is not only an issue for baalei teshuvah. They are not the only ones who want to retain their own identity and are hesitant to conform entirely. This is a larger problem with frum behavior in general; we may eat similar foods and wear similar clothes, but we are far from conformists. Just listen to the attitudes expressed among FFBs: This rav is too stringent and that rav is too lenient, that rosh yeshivah is too rigid and the other one does not give the boys a clear direction. Tragically, this occurs regarding gedolei Yisrael as well, with too many FFBs assessing their wisdom and deciding at a whim whether to heed their guidance.

The sad reality is that most frum Jews are in actuality very — perhaps too — independent. People resist committing themselves to any one shul, or rav, or any particular derech. This is not spiritually healthy for the FFB any more than it is for the baal teshuvah. So, before we start pondering whether an intelligent, well-educated baal teshuvah has to give up his or her independence and perspective to join our derech, perhaps we should address our own deficiencies in this regard, and ask ourselves: Do I have a rav and a derech? Have I given up my ideas and issues in order to conform to a kehillah?

The term ben Torah, although part of our lexicon, lacks a clear definition. I use the term to describe a particular type of Jew who may not have ever even stepped into a yeshivah, but understands that being frum entails striving to be a better Jew and constantly growing in avodas Hashem. In general, the life of a ben Torah is less secular and more intensely Jewish. One might therefore expect that he would have the hardest time in accepting newcomers to Judaism, with their “strange and different ways.”

Yet, I have observed over many years that the very opposite is true. It is these very intensely Jewish individuals who have the least problem accepting the newcomers. And that is simply because they have the most in common with them; they both are seekers of the truth. They value substance over style, and appreciate each other’s mesirus nefesh to try and do what is correct. Others who accept mediocrity and stagnation in their Jewish lives do not share this common bond with the baal teshuvah. And, although their more liberal form of Jewish living and familiarity with secular culture might seem closer to the baal teshuvah’s own experience, in reality they find little in common with the baal teshuvah’s sincerity and quest for meaning in life.

There are many baalei teshuvah who, after a while, lose their initial vitality, and there are many FFBs who never had it. Yet we find in both of these groups dedicated Jews who maintain their enthusiasm for everything Jewish throughout their observant lives. This is the only meaningful distinction that exists within our community in an effort to deal with its problems; it is a mistake to continue grouping Jews by irrelevant superficialities.

The best thing we can do for our newly observant members is to continue to strive and grow to become better Jews. Most baalei te-shuvah will feel accepted and comfortable among such Jews. The worst thing we can do for them is to lose our own vitality and become more involved with style than substance. That is a tragedy for us as well as for them.

Rav Menachem Zupnik is the rav of Bais Torah U’tefillah in Passaic, New Jersey, a yeshivah community that is also a magnet for baalei teshuvah. His kehillah is noted for its ability to make the yeshivah worldview and experience accessible to newcomers.