NAJDS and the Search for Meaningful Judaism

I spent the last two days at the National Association of Jewish Day Schools Conference in Philadelphia along with 1,000 other people who value their Judaism. I went as a vendor for my InfoGrasp School Management system as we prepare for the mobile version of our software.

The conferences hosts Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox schools, with the majority being Modern Orthodox. Financial sustainability is a major topic since the main value proposition of these schools is that they provide a sizable Judaism component in their education. However their cost is significantly higher than the good public school alternatives and their education quality is generally lower than the comparably-priced secular private schools. It seems that many have resigned themselves to stagnant and declining enrollments and trying to meet their budgets within those constraints.

Another theme was how to make Judaism meaningful for the students within the school. With a heavy secular studies focus, the Jewish studies take somewhat of a back seat because they are not so relevant to secular success in college and the working world. In addition the practice of Judaism by many of the students is not so rigorous.

As I returned to my regular minyan, I was reminded that the search for meaningful Judaism affects many of us. There are people who put on a second pair of Rabbeinu Tam tefillin, while glancing out their cell phones between the transition. There are Mussar Vaads working on thinking about Hashem randomly though out their work day, while admitting that they don’t have adequate focus during the 100 berachos a day that they’re already performing. And we can all find examples within our own practices.

Judaism promises an amazing life (and afterlife), if we follow its Torah and mitzvos prescription. However, as the Path of the Just clearly spells out, distraction and laziness prevents us from maximizing its benefit. I suggested to a philanthropist at one of the meals, that if we who value our Judaism take it to a higher level, those who currently place less value on it will take notice. She didn’t disagree.

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

Spiritual Growth Through Drinking on Purim

The Obligation to Drink on Purim
The Shulchan Orach states (Orach Chaim 695:2): “A person is required to become intoxicated on Purim until he does not know the difference between the cursing of Haman and the blessing of Mordechai.”

Drinking to Strengthen Our Emunah in Hashem
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz in his Servant of Hashem piece in his classic Sichos Mussar connects this requirement of intoxication to the essence of Purim and its comparison in holiness to Yom Kippur. He brings down a few cases where great people like Moshe, King Shaul and King Chizkiyahu were punished because they had incorrectly used their reasoning and logic to misinterpret Hashem’s directives.

Rabbi Shmuelevitz points out that although we need to use our intellectual facilities to serve G-d, the ultimate goal is to serve Hashem out of a simple faith that He is our Creator, Ruler and Ultimate Benefactor. The essence of Purim is that once a year, we become intoxicated and strip away the all traces of reasoning and serve Hashem with our faith alone.

Drinking to Strengthen Our Connection to People
Rabbi Herschel Welcher points out that Purim is a day of unity with its Mitzvos of giving charity to the poor, giving gifts to our friends and sharing a festive meal with family and friends. Drinking brings down inhibitions and allows us to more easily connect deeply with others in line with the goal of unity.

Rabbi Welcher often tells the story of former friends who had become estranged through a dispute. It was only on Purim when they were both intoxicated that they were able to bury the hatchet, embrace and restore their friendship. Many of us can also connect a little better when we are intoxicated.

Drinking to Enhance Our Self Esteem
I am reading a great book by Dr. Dovid Lieberman titled “How Free Will Works”. Dr. Lieberman, a Torah-centered psychologist, defines self-esteem as recognizing our inherent worth, feeling deserving of happiness and good fortune, and knowing that we are precious in the eyes of Hashem. It also includes recognizing both our strengths and our weaknesses and the desire to improve.

What often gets in our way is our ego. Dr. Lieberman says our body wants to feel good, our ego wants to look good, and our soul wants to do good. The more we listen to our soul and do what is good (Torah, Mitzvos and Chesed) the more we will enhance our self-esteem and increase our happiness. Our ego and the desire to look good clouds our perspective, and leads us to perform and rationalize incorrect behaviors.

Although Dr. Lieberman does not discuss drinking on Purim, I think that embracing the mitzvah of drinking on Purim allows us to disable our looking-good mechanizations and enjoy being our inherently good selves and our loving relationships with Hashem, our family and our friends.

Drinking Responsibly
When asked about drinking on Purim, Rabbi Welcher would always tell us that he strongly discouraged his high school students from drinking. The persistent among us, asked, “But what about us Baalei Batim?”. He told us that we have to teach our children how to drink responsibly.

A number of years ago we made the seudah with just our family and I stated that my goal was to teach responsible drinking. I was the only one drinking and I took out a bottle of Vodka. (Rabbi Welcher proves from a Rashi that hard liquor is a suitable drink on a Purim). I proceeded to drink shots and get intoxicated. I gave everybody long blessings and acted within the boundaries of propriety. My kids said, “You’re not drunk!”. To which I replied, “If you were inside my head, you wouldn’t say that”.

Except for a few noted exceptions, every mitzvah has its measure and that includes drinking on Purim. Somewhere between 0 and 12 shots (or glasses of wine) is the right amount. Each person can keep in mind the above mentioned goals and stop at the point where he can bring those goals to fruition.

The Exquisite Paradox of Teshuva

By Rabbi Benzion Kokis

At the core of the process of t’shuva lies an exquisite paradox.

On the one hand, a mature commitment to a life of Torah and Halacha is the ultimate self-discovery, through which a Jew connects to his spiritual roots. In fact, very often what initiates the entire process of t’shuva is the realization that the modern world not only didn’t, but can’t, satisfy the inner needs of the Jewish soul. There is a sense of coming home to a deeper and more genuine appreciation of one’s own identity.

This is a familiar theme to the thousands of men and women who have made the commitment to transform their lives, and find their place within the Torah community.

Yet, that very same commitment often has the potential to alienate a ba’al t’shuva from the norms that, until that point, had shaped and defined his life. The relationships, friendships, values and habits that had formed his personality, and made up the fabric of life itself, are suddenly destabilized. So the same experience that helps a person discover and mold his inner self, can create issues that throw the self, on some level, into turmoil.

This then is the paradox of t’shuva: the coming home to a much deeper and richer sense of self, alongside a gradual, and sometimes awkward, transition from the “pre-existing” self. T’shuva is truly not an event, but a process, that involves much more than blending in externally to the framework of the religious community.

Often there is a certain duality and subtle tension that accompany ba’alei t’shuva for many years. True, the axioms and values of Torah have become the guiding principles and signposts of life. But the echos of one’s earlier experiences and influences still assert themselves, and tug in various directions.

In future posts, we will explore this paradox in more depth and discuss practical ways to deal with it.

The Grand Unification Theory of Kiruv

I’ve previously written about three models of Kiruv:

– The Chabad like Point Kiruv, where the focus is on performance of single mitzvos.
– The widely practiced Circle Kiruv, where the focus is to move people inside the Circle of Torah Observance.
– The growth oriented Line Kiruv, where the focus is to get the individual to take the next step in getting closer to Hashem.

What unifies all these models is the fundamental unit of the mitzvah. The Mitzvah is the focal point of the Grand Unification Theory of Kiruv. Point Kiruv says to just do them. Circle Kiruv says do them all. And Line Kiruv says to do them better.

If you look deeper, you’ll see that all three models believe that a person should aspire to continually grow in the performance of all the mitzvos. The difference is the emphasis and therefore the guidance they provide to newcomers to Torah Observant Judaism.

Regardless of the approach, bringing getting closer to Hashem is what Torah Observance is all about and the Kiruv organizations are extremely dedicated to helping other achieve this goal.

On Tuesday, February 17th there is a crowdfunding effort to raise $1 million in one day for kiruv.

Click on this link to find out how you can participate in this great project.

Another World

Many years ago I sought the attention of an obgyn doc in Manhattan, Dr. Kevin Jovonovic, for a tricky problem I was having that another doctor was recommending surgery to fix. Dr. Kevin specializes in this problem and although it took me an hour train ride, and then an hour’s walk to his office by Central Park (I’ll walk two miles in the city before I’ll get into a taxicab there!), I was glad I made the visit. He correctly diagnosed the problem, gave me a non surgical fix, and I’ve been coming back to him for annual physicals twice a year ever since; once you’ve found a doctor who is smart, compassionate, and responsive, you don’t let them go over something like a less-than-ideal distance away. I joke with Dr. Kevin that I must be his patient with the longest commute to his office!

I am writing this column on the train back from my visit to Dr. Kevin this morning. When a writer is struck with the writer’s muse, unless it’s Shabbos, she has to write while the inspiration flows in!

Last night I set the alarm for 5 AM, so that I could catch the 6 AM train to New York from my Highland Park, NJ home, and then walk to his office for my 8 AM appointment. I bundled up in layers, earmuffs, gloves, and winter tights for the cold long walk, and donned my best sneakers for the mileage. As I emerged from the train, I was immediately accosted by the sights, sounds and smells of the bustling New York city streets, as every nationality, size, and cultural group whisked by me, rushing somewhere. It struck me how weird it is that I leave my suburban home in NJ, take a one hour train ride, and I emerge on a different planet, an environment so different and unfamiliar to me, with no gradual transition. Off the train, walk a few minutes, and NY City is all around me.

I search for familiar landmarks to anchor me, and to reassure me that I have not lost my way. The kosher pizza store on Broadway.The three-story high Macys.The glittering billboards of Times Square.The 5-dollar pashimi scarves selling on the corner, and the carts on every corner selling trafe food not for me. The recognizable sights remind me that I am on track to my destination, but all around me, the New York City pandemonium overwhelm my senses. I marvel: How can a trainride transport someone to such a different world in under an hour?

This feeling I had in New York City this morning is as close as I can describe to what I feel like when I spend time visiting my secular family. The landmarks are familiar – old childhood photos on the wall, familiar people, the smells and sounds and language of my childhood. I try to orient myself, so I am not lost, but I am now on an alien planet. I left my home and entered another, but it’s not just another home – it is the home of family who do not observe Torah and mitzvot the way that we do. After over two decades of keeping Shabbos and raising a frum family, I am becoming as disoriented when I visit my family of origin as I feel when I emerge from the train to New York City.

Shomer Shabbos used to be the alien world and I was a visitor from another planet. Now the secular world is strange to me.

I can’t wait to get off this train, and to be back home where I belong.

Azriela Jaffe, www.chatzos.com and www.azrielajaffe.com.Author of 32 books, holocaust memoir writer, novelist, and freelance writer for Mishpacha magazine and Ami magazine. Contact email: azjaffe@gmail.com

Eating as a Tikun

Did you ever wonder why eating is such a challenge for most people. Sarah Yehudit Schneider has written a wonderful booklet explaining the spiritual basis for the challenge and how we can use eating as a tikun. You can purchase the book from Amazon or directly from Mrs. Schneider.

Here’s an excerpt:

Humanity’s first sin, teaches Rav Tsadok HaKohen, was Adam and Eve’s eating without right intention. The Tree of Knowledge, says he, was not a tree or a food, or a thing at all. Rather it was a way of eating. When ever a person takes self conscious pleasure from the world he falls, in that moment, from G-d consciousness and eats from the Tree of Knowledge.

All neuroses, personality imbalances, and existential dissatisfaction, teaches Torah, have their root in this sin of unholy eating. Its impurity lives inside each of us as a fact of the human condition. Every person has an eating disorder, for “eating” is a much broader activity than simply taking food into one’s mouth.

Since our first sin was unholy eating only its opposite can fix it. All of life and all of history are training us for one end: to learn to “eat” in holiness, to not let the world’s pleasures wrench our attention from G-d (even for an instant). The moment we grasp this in holiness the labor of this world will end.

See more at: http://astillsmallvoice.org/?page_id=381

Rabbi Label Lam on Personal Growth Lessons from Tu B’Shevat

On Wednesday night, Tu B’Shevat begins. Rabbi Label Lam gave a wonderful Drasha a few years back where he looked at the Mishna in Pirkei Avos which states “Rabbi Yaakov said, one who is walking along the road and is studying [Torah], and then interrupts his studies and says, ‘How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this plowed field!’, the Scripture considers it as if he bears the guilt for his own soul.”

In questioning what is the great crime here and why the cases of a tree and a plowed field is chosen, Rabbi Lam uncovers some powerful personal growth lessons that we can glean from the holiday of trees.

Click on this link to listen to Rabbi Lam on Personal Growth Lessons from Tu B’Shevat. (To download the file to your computer, click with the right mouse button on the link and select Save Target As)

Frozen Jews

Originally Posted on Oct 25, 2006

When Modiin was first built, it was designed as a ‘secular’ haven for the people who used to fancy living in Jerusalem, but didn’t want hareidim for neighbours. As the city has grown, it’s begun to attract quite a few modern orthodox, including a lot of expat anglos, who for the most part, have similar feelings about the hareidim.

When we moved here last year from London, we were just happy to be somewhere where we had jewish neighbours, regardless of what they did or didn’t keep. I wonder now if we were a little naïve.
It’s not that we have had any difficulties, G-d forbid, with our secular neighbours. They have been as friendly as they can be, given the fact that we can’t eat in their homes, and they aren’t overly keen to come for a Shabbat meal.

But that ‘anti-haredi’ stance comes out in a lot of subtle, and not so subtle ways that has implications for everyone who lives here. It means that building synagogues, mikvas and schools in the area is loaded with a whole bunch of fears about being ‘taken over’ by the religious.

The irony is that if anything, the ‘religious’ people here are just as scared of being taken over by the hareidim. We also don’t want people telling us how to dress, telling us when we can drive our car, telling us what we can and can’t watch.

Until quite recently, I was firmly in this camp. How can you have free will – and the merit of doing a particular mitzvah – if you are being compelled to do it by outside forces?

But then my husband started to go to kollel a few hours a day, in the hareidi neighbourhood of kiryat sefer. There is no kollel in modiin, so that was the nearest option.

And lo and behold, we discovered that hareidim are not the scary monsters that many people persist in making them. Many of them are the kindest, non-judgemental and most genuine people you could care to meet. They have their priorities right: lots of kids, and a focus on learning and mitzvahs as opposed to accumulating pointless ‘stuff’.

In Israel, there is a long list of popular complaints against the hareidim, starting with the number of kids they have (that secular wisdom dictates that they can’t afford) and culminating with the ‘facts’ that they don’t pay taxes and don’t serve in the army.

I’m not qualified to comment on all the ins and outs of these issues. But it seems to me that they all touch on the same basic issue: hareidim act as if the ‘natural’ laws of the world don’t apply to them.

But of course, as jews, that is exactly how we are meant to act.

Once you see it in action, in a neighbourhood like Kiryat Sefer, it calls into question how many of us modern orthodox act and think.

I was talking to a hareidi woman who used to be chiloni (non-religious) and lived in Tel Aviv. She and her husband made tshuva a few years back, and now she lives in Kiryat Sefer with her five kids.

She does a lot of outreach work with girls in Ramle, many of whom don’t think twice before chowing down on a pork chop. She was telling me about her work and said something that really made me stop and think.

“A lot of these girls eat pig, but when you show them that the Torah is true, they make tshuva and over time, they go the whole way,” she said. “They understand that if the Torah is true, then ALL of it is true. Just as they shouldn’t eat pig, they understand that they should also try to do all of the other things in the Torah.

“It’s easier to work with them than to work with ‘frozen jews’, who are keeping more, but think what they are doing is enough. Frozen jews never really reach the top of the mountain, because they haven’t accepted that the Torah is true, and comes from Hashem. If you accept that the Torah comes from G-d, you can’t pick and choose which bits of the Torah you keep. They are all equally important.”

The point is not that we have to keep everything immediately. But the point certainly is that we have to continually strive to reach that goal.

It’s an uncomfortable reminder and it leads to a lot of uncomfortable questions, not least because i™ makes a very clear distinction between those that really believe in Torah and Hashem – regardless of their outward observance – and those that really don’t – again, regardless of their outward observance.

I don’t know what the answer is. But I’m increasingly of the opinion that when it comes to belief in G-d, you can’t spend a lifetime trying to sit on the fence.

Internalizing The Three Most Important Jewish Principles

The Rambam, R’ Yosef Albo and the Ramchal in Derech Hashem all focus on three key Jewish Principles.
1) Hashem who always has and always will exist, created the universe
2) Hashem communicates to man via prophecy, and through prophecy He gave us the Torah
3) Hashem supervises and guides the world based on our actions

Although it’s relatively easy to understand the above principles at some level intellectually, the real goal is to internalize and live with them on a constant basis.

The Ramban in his classic commentary at the end of Parsha Bo, connects our performance of mitzvos to these three principles:

When one does a simple mitzvah like mezuzah and thinks about its importance, he has already acknowledged G-d’s creation of the world, G-d’s knowledge and supervision of the world’s affairs, the truth of prophecy and all the foundations of Torah.

From a practical point of view, we can use every brocha on a mitzvah, such as the brochas on washing our hands, learning Torah, Tallis and Tefillin to internalize the three principles:

Before saying the brocha and performing the mitzvah be aware:

a) Hashem, the creator of the Universe is the One who commanded this mitzvah through the prophecy of the Torah

b) Hashem commanded and wants me to fulfill this mitzvah, and through this act I am fulfilling Hashem’s will

When we say the brocha we can have in mind:

Baruch Atah Hashem – Hashem, who always has and always will exist, is the creator of the universe

Elokeinu Melech HaOlam – Hashem is the Ultimate Authority and guiding force of the world

Asher Kid’shanu B’mitzvosav – Hashem separated, elevated and sanctified me, as part of the Jewish people, with His Torah instructions to fulfill the commandments

V’tzivanu Al – And He particularly commanded me with this particular mitzvos, which I am about to perform

The process of internalization involves performing the mitzvos with these thoughts again and again. Through this repeated process, the three most important Jewish Principles will become ingrained.

This is what spiritual growth is about. Try it for yourself. You won’t regret it.

Wearing My Kippah Full Time

By JDMDad
Jewish Deaf Motorcycling Dad

I’ve been slowly ramping up my level of observance for the past several years. Really, in the past year it has been almost an exponential growth. Each time I added something new (starting to use Tefillin, starting to wear Tzitzits, etc.) I kept wondering what would be the next thing I would do. None of these were preplanned. I would get an inspiration, start reading up on it to understand it better, then pick a day to bite the bullet and start.

Now I have to admit, I just said that none of these were preplanned, but in the back of my mind, I always started to wonder when, if, I would start wearing a kippah all day every day. I figured that would be the ultimate “outting” of myself. Everything else that I had been doing was pretty much internal, where nobody else would know that I was doing anything different. (except the few times someone walked into my office when I was davening Minchah)

Turns out the inspiration hit me after the Holiday season (Rosh Hashana through Simchat Torah). I think the reason it happened then was I finally went completely kosher outside the home as of Rosh Hashana. (I have been kosher in the home since getting married over 5 years ago) My conscience couldn’t justify me wearing a kippah when still eating non-kosher food. Still, this was the nerve-wracking change for me. This would be the one that shouts out to the world (or at least the people in my office) that hey, I’m Jewish, and I’m not quite as quiet about it as I used to be.

I calculated it carefully. I would begin to wear my kippah in the week between Christmas and New Years. Two reasons for this: 1) I would be in Brooklyn the week before this, and could find a kippah that doesn’t quite stand out, i.e. matches my hair color a little bit. 2) This is usually the time that the least amount of people would be around the office, most were on vacation. I could break this in slowly.

So after returning from Brooklyn, I started wearing my kippah 17/7. (I only get about 7 hrs of sleep a day, and roll around to much to keep one on while sleeping)

For the first two weeks, I was uncomfortable. (Understatement!!) It felt like I was wearing a 50 pound flashing neon arrow pointing directly at my head. I would wear a cap when I went to the cafe downstairs for my daily bottle of orange juice. When I took the cap off and moved around the office, it felt like everyone was staring at me behind my back, I could hear them commenting to each other on it. (For those who don’t know me well enough, I’m deaf/hard-of-hearing, and usually can’t hear people talking unless I’m right in front of them, looking at them; this shows how much my mind was playing with me) When I glanced back, everyone was doing their usual work, talking to each other about business, etc. No one was looking at me, or discussing the kippah at all, it was all in my head. I only received two questions about my kippah; my boss asked how I kept it from falling off (bobby pins or clips, plus now I’m letting my hair grow a little bit longer than I did before, no more buzz cuts), and someone I worked with in a previous project asked if it was called a yarmulke or something else, and was I becoming more religious. Errrr… yes, I guess I am!

I’ve noticed several immediate benefits. Now when I do Minchah in my office, I don’t forget to put a kippah on, nor do I feel guilty taking it off as soon as I’m done. It just stays on the whole time. Also, the other day I found my division head’s ID badge on the floor. That’s a “donut offense” meaning he has to bring in donuts for everyone. So he brought in a box of donuts from Dunkin Donuts. After he showed me the box, he took a closer look at me, and I could see the light bulb come on… He confirmed it when he said “Oh wait, you can’t have these, can you?” Next time I’ll print out a list of where to find kosher donuts in the area!

Really, the only problem I’ve run into with wearing my kippah full time occurred at home. Twice now I reached up when in the shower and realized I still had the kippah on. As Homer Simpson would put it… D’OH!!

Originally posted April 17, 2007

Growing in Eretz Yisroel

This post is courtesy of the winter storm of 2015 currently hitting Yerushalyaim. I’m currently visiting my son who is learning here. I was staying in Yerushalyaim and my flight is scheduled to leave Thursday, but a predicted 4-8 inch snow accumulation with accompanying road closures made me change my plans and head to snow-less Ramat Beis Shemesh for the last 2 days of my trip and an easier passageway to the airport.

Fortunately, we know many people here in Ramat Beis Shemesh and I am staying with David Levin, a friend for many years from my Shul in Kew Gardens Hills. I asked him what has had the biggest impact on his spiritual growth here. He mentioned three things: the extra mitzvos that are observed like terumah, maaser and shmitta; the variety of Jewish people you come across on a daily basis; and the learning opportunities. However, like all areas growth, it only happens if you apply yourself, growth *doesn’t* just happen.

With regard to the mitzvos there are many opportunities to learn and observe them. The more you apply yourself to them the more of a growth impact they will have.

There are over six million Jews in Eretz Yisroel and wherever you live, you will be exposed to a larger variety than in the states. However, if create self-imposed barriers between yourself and other groups you will not be able to take advantage of giving and learning from this wide variety.

There is much more Torah learning going on in Eretz Yisroel than in the states. More Daf Yomi, more chavrusas more shiruim, more Yeshivos. But as we all know, Torah only has an impact if you learn it. Having more shiurim in your neighborhood doesn’t really benefit you, unless you attend them.

Eretz Yisroel is the best place in the world to increase our emunah of Hashem through Torah, Avodah and Gemilas Chasidim. G-d willing more and more of us will be able to take advantage of that as years go on. Those of us still living in Chutz L’Aretz still have many growth opportunities on a daily basis in all areas if we take advantage of them.

Shovavim

It’s Parsha Shemos and also the beginning of Shovavim. Here’s some links on the whys and wherefores of Shovavim.

Shovavim and Self Improvement:

Shovavim is an acronym for the parshiyot that we read during the period between Chanukah and Purim. Rav Nachman Cohen writes that this period is an auspicious time to repent for Adam’s sin with the Eitz Hadaat and his subsequent errant behavior, pegimat habrit, for which mankind suffers until today. Why do we specifically repent now for the sin of Adam?

This period falls after the winter solstice when the days begin to get longer. When Adam sinned, the days began to get shorter and he thought it was because of his sin. When the days began to get longer again, he realized he was not doomed and that his repentance had been accepted. Thus this period is an eit ratzon where one can connect to Hashem.

Working on curbing one’s physical desires and avoiding inappropriate pleasures seems male focused. What is the corollary for women? The Maharal says that the primary praise of a woman is her level of tzniut. Rav Pincus writes that because Adam and Chava did not conduct themselves modestly, the snake desired Chava and devised a plot to make her sin. Therefore, in a sense, the sin of Eitz Hadaat came about through immodesty.

What is modesty? It is a call to concentrate our energies on our inner personality, our spiritual nature, which is deep and hidden within us. We must become attuned to our souls instead of getting caught up in the outer trappings of the physical world. Shovavim is not only a time to work on tzniut but a time of introspection, a time to work on our relationship with Hashem. This entails watching our behavior with the awareness that we are in the presence of Hashem. It is irrelevant what other people think. Life is about walking alone with Hashem. Elevating mitzvot to a higher level by practicing modesty in deed – not talking about the mitzvot you’ve done, is an appropriate goal to work on during Shovavim.

Shovavim Tat:

There are a number of reasons given for this period of Teshuvah:
1) During this period we read the parshiyot which describe the Jews’ suffering and exile in Egypt and their redemption, salvation, and exodus by the Hand of God. Just as Israel in the Torah called out from their physical exile, so too we call out of our personal spiritual exile. Just as the Jewish people overcame the darkness of the Egyptian exile so too we try to overcome the spiritual darkness in our lives and come closer to God from whom we are separated.

2) Many Chassidic and Kabbalistic sources describe the focus of this period as strengthening our resolve in areas of family purity (Taharat Hamishpacha) and in studying and keeping the laws of family purity.

A Sign of the Times:

Shovavim is something that came from the Mekubalim. I once heard it explained that as the generations get weaker, Hashem reveals to us the hidden light that can be found deeper into the year. Let’s face it, we didn’t really do a great job on Aseres Yimei Tshuva and Hashem is showing us these loopholes and extensions because he yearns for us to return and wants us to take advantage. This ties in nicely with something I heard from the Chofetz Chaim who when asked skeptically about Yom Kippur Katan, said that we no longer can go a whole year without a Yom Kippur. We need one once a month.

The Most Important Jewish Hierarchy

There was a lot of push back to last week’s post “Growing At The Bottom Of The Heap”. A friend pointed out that the push back supports the Ramchal’s point that people are uncomfortable being on the bottom. One friend related an experience on how a pharmacy employee treated a wealthy customer and one of lessor means. The hierarchies at play were clear as day.

Recognizing the financial, wisdom and spiritual accomplishment hierarchies will help us improve ourselves regarding pride, anger, envy and desire for honor. However the most important Jewish hierarchy is the one of self-comparison, are we better Torah Observant Jews today then we were yesterday, last month, last year, ten years ago. This is the hierarchy of constant spiritual growth.

One difficulty with assessing spiritual growth is that because it happens gradually, we don’t always see the change. A second difficulty is that the rate of healthy growth is particular to each individual based on their nature and nurture. It’s not one size fits all. A third difficult is that we’re often afraid to do the introspection which improves our growth because of the pain that it might bring.

Growth is hard and it’s easy to fall back on the other-focused hierarchies which give rise to the bad middos of pride, anger, envy and desire for honor. Fortunately Hashem gave us multiple avenues of growth such as Torah, Prayer, Mitzvos, Kindness and Middos Improvement. I think our community is more collectively focused on growth, but this is one hierarchy where today’s top becomes tomorrow’s bottom, meaning, we have to keep on working.

Growing at the Bottom of the Heap

Finding Oneself on the Bottom
Torah communities are wonderful places to live, but we may feel uncomfortable if we find ourselves near the bottom of one of the hierarchies of the community. Three of the hierarchies which are discussed in Torah sources are those of wealth, Torah wisdom and spiritual performance. Two others that come to mind are spiritual heritage and the merits of our children.

Sometimes strength in one hierarchy, like wealth or Torah Wisdom, compensates for weakness in another. Sometimes people choose to live in communities where Torah knowledge and spiritual performance standards are lower, so that they can comfortably reach the middle or the top of the hierarchy. However, we will see that viewing ourselves at the bottom of a hierarchy is in fact a tool for growth and something we can embrace.

Pursuing Honor is an Attempt to Escape the Bottom
In the Mesillas Yesharim chapter on “The Details of Cleanliness”, the Ramchal discusses taking both our mitzvos and character traits to the next level. He discusses the chief traits that we need to work on, namely, pride, anger, envy, and desire.

When discussing desire, he doesn’t talk about the base desires that usually come to mind, rather the desire for wealth and the desire for honor. In regard to the desire for honor, the Ramchal states:

The desire for honor is even greater than the desire for wealth, for it is possible for a person to overcome his inclination for wealth and the other pleasures and still be pressed by the desire for honor, being unable to tolerate being, and seeing himself beneath his friends.

The desire for honor is so strong, because we are unable to tolerate being, and seeing ourselves beneath our friends. We are uncomfortable being towards the bottom of the heap.

Using our Distaste for the Bottom to Motivate Growth

In the chapter on the “Acquiring Watchfulness”, the Mesillas Yesharim discusses motivators for spiritual growth. He discusses three levels:

1) those who are striving for perfection
2) those motivated by honor and envy
3) those motivated by reward and punishment

In relation to honor and envy, he explains that we since find it extremely difficult when we are on a lower level in regard to the vanities of this world, how much more difficult it will be to find ourselves on the bottom in the eternal world of truth. Distaste for the bottom should motivate us to embrace spiritual growth now.

The Ramban Tells Us to Embrace Bottomhood

To overcome the trait of honor we need to be ok with being at the bottom of the hierarchy. In fact in the Iggeres HaRamban, when discussing how to work on the trait of humility, the Ramban says:

Consider everyone as greater than yourself. If he is wise or rich, you should give him respect. If he is poor and you are richer — or wiser — than he, consider yourself to be more guilty than he, and that he is more worthy than you, since when he sins it is through error, while yours is deliberate and you should know better!

In regard to the hierarchies of wealth, wisdom and spiritual accomplishment, we should actively figure out how we are lower than every person to whom we speak. Not an easy task, but humility is the art of seeing yourself at the bottom.

Humility Before Hashem

One might ask why did Hashem create the world with so many hierarchies and our strong distaste for being near the bottom? My Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchak Kirzner zt”l taught that relationships between people are often training grounds for our relationship with Hashem. Developing humility among people, enables us to be more humble before Hashem and to realize that although we must make our efforts, He is the ultimate source of everything we have.

In the chapter on the “Divisions of Saintliness” the Ramchal writes that before we pray or perform a mitzvah we should recognize that we are standing before and communicating with our Creator, that Hashem is elevated and raised above all blessing and praise, and that man is inferior due to his earthly qualities and the sins he commits.

Growing at the Bottom

Hashem has created a world of hierarchies and a strong distaste for being at the bottom. Our goal is to embrace the bottom, strengthen our humility, and recognize this is the place of our growth. Acknowledging this makes us beloved in the eyes of Hashem and enables us to find pleasure as we take our next growth steps in Torah, Tefillah, Mitzvos, Acts of Kindness and Middos improvement.

Jewish Education, Learning Torah and Connecting to Hashem

Mosaic Magazine has an article by two prominent Jewish sociologists, Jack Wertheimer and Steven M. Cohen, titled “The Pew Survey Reanalyzed: More Bad News, but a Glimmer of Hope.” (link). One of their conclusions is that the non-Orthodox movements are facing major challenges keeping their constituents involved and their descendants Jewish.

On of their recommendations is “to persuade more Jewish parents to enroll their children in strong programs of Jewish education—and to support what those programs are teaching.” I agree with their conclusion that more Jewish education will lead to more identification with the Jewish community and less intermarriage. However, their report highlights for me one of the major problems with the non-orthodox Jewish education that I received in my youth. And that is the lack of focus on connection to Hashem as the goal of Jewish Education.

When I became observant, Jewsish Education was replaced with Learning Torah. One of the the central axioms of Learning Torah is that Hashem transmitted the Torah to Moshe and the Jewish People through the prophetic process. This axiom puts Hashem front and center with respect to Learning Torah.

However, even with the G-d centered focus of Learning Torah, there is no guarantee the result will be a deeper connection to Hashem. In fact for many students and BTs who have not become high achievers in higher-level learning of Gemorah, learning Torah is more likely to invoke an eye-roll, rather than represent a tremendous opportunity to get closer to Hashem.

The path to a solution is not to rail against the system, but rather for each one of us to consciously refocus our goals when we learn, daven, or perform any mitzvah. Our front and center goal has to be to develop an awareness, a connection and a deep relationship with Hashem. The Pew Report is a lesson for the entire Jewish People, that we all, regardless of denomination, need to deepen our connection to Hashem. All the rest is commentary.

Selling Yourself the Truth About Judaism

Have you ever had this conversation?

“Did you hear about Sam and Susan?”

“No.”

“They’re separating”.

“Really? How many kids?”

“I think three. And he’s far off the derech. Doesn’t believe in G-d,”

“So sad.”

And it’s not surprising. Sam was a BT and was told by many FFBs that:
– A Torah observant life is the definitive Jewish Experience
– The values and community of Observant Jews is superior to anything in the secular world
– Learning Torah is intellectually challenging and leads to meaning and truth

All the above are true, but many Observant Jews experience the following instead:
– They don’t keep working on their practice of mitzvos, so their Jewish experience degrades
– The financial pressures take their toll and they feel they are marginal members of the community
– Torah learning is difficult, and without significant time and effort, they don’t reap its rewards

In reality the Torah itself does not make “good life” promises, except for the Jews collectively. The individual promise that are made is that if you continually work on davening, developing your middos, learning Torah, and observing the mitzvos properly, you will develop a deepening relationship with Hashem.

That’s the truth about Judaism and if we can slowly cast aside our occupation with the latest distractions, and focus on bread and butter observance, we can all get a large piece of the unlimited spiritual pie.

The Practical Spiritual Growth Project

Introduction
The goal of mitzvos is to develop a deeper connection to Hashem.
If we perform mitzvos and say brachos with more Kavanna, they will have a bigger impact on our connection to Hashem.

Good places to start are with mitzvos and brachos that we perform every day. Here are four daily mitzvos/brachos:
1. Birchos HaMitzvot like Birchos HaTorah, Netilas Yedayim, Tzitzis or Tefillin
2. Birchos Hanehenin before food or drink
3. The first posuk of Shema
4. The start of Shomoneh Esrai

Process
When doing the above mitzvos, try to do them with the Kavanna described below.
After doing this for a few weeks, see whether you feel more connected to Hashem.

1. Say one Birchos HaMitzvot with Kavanna before Birchos HaTorah, Netilas Yedayim, Tzitzis or Tefillin. Have in mind:
a) Hashem is the One who commanded this mitzvah
b) You are the one who was commanded
c) With this act that you are about to perform you are fulfilling this command

Simple explanation of Birchos HaMitzvot
Baruch Atah Hashem – Hashem, the Master of all (who always was, is, and will be), is the Ultimate Source of all blessing
Elokeinu Melech HaOlam – Hashem is the source of all powers in this world, and He is the Ultimate Authority of the World
Asher Kid’shanu B’mitzvosav – Hashem separated, elevated and sanctified us by obligating us with His commandments
V’tzivanu Al – And He particularly commanded us with the mitzvos I am about to perform regarding…

2. Say one Birchos HaNehenin, before food or drink with Kavanna. Have in mind:
a) Hashem is the creator of what you are about to eat
b) You are thankful to Him for creating and providing this food for you

Simple explanation of sample Birchos HaNehenin
Baruch Atah Hashem – Hashem, the Master of all (who always was, is, and will be), is the Ultimate Source of all blessing
Elokeinu Melech HaOlam – Hashem is the source of all powers in this world, and He is the Ultimate Authority of the World
Shehakol Nihyah Bidvaro – everything was created through His word and power

3. Say the first pasuk of Shema in the morning or evening with Kavanna. Have in mind:
a) You are going to perform the Mitzvos of reciting the Shema
b) You are going to perform the Mitzvos of accepting Hashem as the Ultimate Authority over you
c) Think about the first 2 commandments of “I am Hashem your G-d,” and “You shall have no other gods.”

Simple explanation of the first pasuk of Shema:
Sh’ma Yisrael – listen, hear and understand, individual Jews and the Jewish People
Hashem – Master of all (who always was, is, and will be), upon Wwhom all existence is dependent
Elokeinu – Is the source of all powers and the Ultimate Authority of the world
Hashem – Master of all, guides the world to its ultimate purpose
Echad – Everything comes from Hashem, and some day this will be recognized by all and we will reach our ultimate purpose

4. Start one Shomoneh Esrai with Kavanna. Have in mind:
a) You are standing before Hashem and are about to begin your prayer to Him
b) Hashem is the Source and Authority over everything in the world
c) You are small in comparison to Hashem

Track your progress in the following chart
Enter the number of times you did that mitzvah/brocha on that day with Kavanna
_________________________Day 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14
1. Say Birchos HaMitzvot with Kavanna
2. Say Birchos Hanehenin with Kavanna
3. Say Shema with Kavanna
4. Start Shomoneh Esrai with Kavanna

Practical spiritual growth is possible if we just follow the prescription that the Torah provides.

The Season of the Spiritual Growth Mindset

The secular world has recently “discovered” the growth mindset:

Mindset is a simple idea discovered by world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck in decades of research on achievement and success—a simple idea that makes all the difference. In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

The growth mindset is fundamental to a Torah Observant Jew. Every BT and FFB will tell you, that where you are headed in terms of growth, is much more important than where you came from.

One advantage we have in Jewish Spiritual Growth is that the calendar orients us towards times with increased opportunities. Shabbos provides more potential than week days. Yom Tovim provide additional growth opportunities. And the Yomin Noraim provide the greatest opportunities. In Judaism the 40 days from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur is the definitive spiritual growth season.

But as we know, growth takes effort, and Hashem made us a bit lazy, so we are advised to use the entire Elul runway as we approach Rosh Hoshana, the Ten Days of Teshuva, and Yom Kippur.

In the Practical Guide to Teshuva, Rabbi S. Wagschal writes that the process of teshuvah may be successfully achieved if it is performed in a gradual manner. He suggests that we should begin with improving things we are already doing, like tefillah and brachos.

Tomorrow we will provide some practical ways to leverage the enhanced spiritual growth mindset which we have in these days of Elul.

Teaching an Older BT New Davening Tricks

It’s amazing what we remember from our youth. I went to Hebrew School at the Clearview Jewish Center in Whitestone, NY, which was recently sold to a Montessori School, with some rights retained to a small chapel. I still remember my second grade class close to 50 years ago. We were learning how to read the Shemoneh Esrai and we had progress charts on the wall, based on the speed and accuracy of our reading. I still remember Shelley L. and how fast she read, and how fast she got through the Shomoneh Esrai. I should have emulated Shelley.

Although I went to Junior Congregation, I never was the Chazzan. After my Bar Mitzvah, I followed the path of many Conservative Jews of the time and placed my siddur, tallis and tefillin secure and safe in my closet, as I would not be needing them any time soon. When I did return to Torah and mitzvos, it was through Rabbis in Queens and Long Island, so I never spent time away at Yeshiva, and missed any opportunities to acquire public davening skills.

Fast forward to this year and I still had never davened from the Amud. In fact the first time I ever davened from the Amud was in the cemetery parking lot after my father’s levaya in April of this year. The first few weeks were rough as there is a big difference between davening privately and davening publicly.

Over the past four months, many people have commented on how much I’ve improved and I hope to improve even more. When I feel I’m in a supportive environment among friends, I do pretty well because I feel at license to daven, rather than read. In other places, where I feel a read-as-fast-as-possible pressure, I’ll fumfer over a word or two or three or four.

There are many growth opportunities in this world. Some of them require us to put ourselves out there and maybe face a little embarrassment. But if your willing to learn you can acquire new skills, and you’ll probably find that the effort was worth it.