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.

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.

Internalizing Torah Lends Confidence … NOT Smugness

Why is the Torah’s system called Halachah?
How does Halachah tread the fine line between confidence and conceit?

If you will “walk/go in” My statutes and are careful to fulfill my commandments…

— Vayikra 26:3

 What nation is so great, that they have Elokim so close to it, as HaShem our Elokim is at whatever time we call Him?

— Devarim 4:7

Rabi Tanhuma taught: Once there was a ship that set sail on the Great Sea.  All of the passengers were idolaters except for one Jewish youth. A furious storm ensued and the ship was tempest-tossed and in severe danger of sinking. Each and every one of the travelers grasped his icons or idols in hand and began reciting his prayers, but to no avail.  So they said to the Jewish youth “cry to the L-rd your G-d, for we have heard that when you [people] cry to Him; that He responds and that He is mighty. The youth immediately cried out [to HaShem] with all his heart, HaShem accepted his prayer and the storm calmed.  When the ship docked at a port on a unfamiliar island the other passenger told the Jewish youth “Here; take some of our money, go into the island and secure some provisions for us.” He said to them: “Aren’t I lodger and a stranger in these parts [the same as everyone else, how will I find my way around?] They responded “is there such a thing as a Jewish ‘stranger’ ? No!  Wherever you wander … your G-d is with you! behold; ‘that they have Elokim so close to it!‘ ”

— Talmud Yerushalmi Berachos 9:1, Midrash Devarim Rabbah 2:16

 “And he [Yaakov] come into contact with the Place” (Bereshis 28:11) Rav Huna said in the name of RavAmmi “Why do we euphemistically refer to HaShem as ‘The Place’? because HaShem is the Place of His Cosmos … His Cosmos is not His place.” As another pasuk indicates (Shemos 32:21): ‘Behold there is a place with Me i.e all space is under My domain’. And so we see that  HaShem is the Place of His Cosmos … His Cosmos is not His place.”

— Bereshis Rabbah 68:9

The all-encompassing system of Torah observance is known as Halachah; a conjugation of the Hebrew verb translated as “walking” or “going”. Arguably, this term derives from the opening pasuk of our Sidrah. “If you will walk/ go” in My statutes etc.”  The system of Torah statutes empowers those who study and observe it to move about and not static. Absent Torah knowledge one is left essentially paralyzed.  It’s often said that knowledge is power. In particular, Torah knowledge proffers the power to move.

The Ramchal offers this famous metaphor for the strategy and tactics of the yetzer hara-the inclination to evil:

For the yetzer hara literally blinds his eyes and he becomes as one who walks in the darkness, where there are stumbling blocks before him which he fails to see. As our Sages of blessed memory said (Bava Metzia 83b), “You laid down darkness and it was night” (Psalms 104:20). This refers to this world [manipulated by the yetzer hara ]which is similar to the night.” … the darkness of night can cause two types of visual errors: it may conceal things completely such that one does not see what is before him at all, or it may deceive him so that a pillar appears to him as a man, or a man as a pillar. … The second error … is even worse than the first … inasmuch as it causes people to see evil as though it were goodness itself, and good as if it were evil, and, because of this, [the wicked] strengthen themselves in clinging to their evil ways. For it is not enough that they lack the ability to see the truth, the evil staring them in the face, but they also see fit to find … empirical evidence supporting their evil theories and false ideas.” (Mesilas Yesharim 3)  If a wanderer finds himself lost in a forest that is either pitch black or, at twilight time, where beasts appear to be men and vice-versa then, in this type of dangerous situation, the wisest strategy is to hunker down and not move.

Shifting from the realm of the metaphoric to the sphere of the practical, this means that the greater ones Torah expertise is — the more luminous his “lighting” — the greater his agility and maneuverability in living his life becomes.  Many of us have desisted from making certain moves for fear that we might be breaking some Torah law unknown to us. So — on a very pragmatic level Torah knowledge and observance confers the power and the confidence to move about in ways that would have been avoided while shrouded in the shadows of Torah-ignorance. Thus Torah transforms “standers” into “walkers” and “goers”.

The Izhbitzer teaches that the meaning of the opening pasuk is Im b’Chukosai– if My statutes become chiseled into you; — part and parcel of you — then and only then … Teileichu-will you go; i.e. will you be empowered to move. Only when the Torah becomes engraved upon a person’s heart, if it becomes an intrinsic part of him can he then “go” and move. Otherwise shev v’ahl ta’aseh ahdiph-it’s better to sit and do nothing.

Internalizing the Torah essentially means inculcating the Divine Giver of the Torah as well. As our sages taught: Oraysa V’kudshah Brich Hu kulo Chad-the Torah and the Holy Blessed One are all One (Zohar I, 24A; II, 60A). With HaShem directing traffic kivyachol-as it were; he who has chiseled the Torahs statutes into himself possesses an internal moral compass and an ethical GPS kivyachol. As the Midrash indicates the nearly-shipwrecked philo-Semitic gentiles traveling with the Jewish youth expected him to be incapable of losing his way or making a misstep even in a literal, geographical sense.

The Izhbitzer reveals an even profounder level of the mobility of those who “walk in/with the Torahs statutes/ decrees.”

The possibility of one losing one’s way or entering terrain or seaways fraught with danger is predicated on the notion that there are, in fact, diverse locations with dissimilar characteristics; some that are out of harm’s way while others are perilous. But if this were all a mirage, if a man thought that he had journeyed a thousand miles but had in truth never left the room; then whatever dangers or missteps that he confronted along the way were, in truth, illusory. One who walks with HaShem is in THE Place.  HaShem is sometimes referred to as “the Place” because, as our sages taught, He transcends space.  He is not situated within a particular space, on the contrary all individual spaces and locations are situated within HaShem.

Mindful of this inner truth, the Talmud resolves a very thorny question:  We derive all 39 melachos-categories of the creative activities; prohibited on Shabbos, as well as the precise specifications of each prohibited category, from the Mishkan-the portable Tabernacle that was home to the Divine Indwelling during the forty-year sojourn in the Wilderness. The category known as stirah-deconstruction/ demolition; is derived from the breaking-down of the Mishkan’s structure into its component parts whenever the Bnei Yisrael-the Jewish Nation; would break camp. Yet among the precise specifications for the prohibited category of stirah is that the one demolishing intends to build new construction on the site that he is now clearing:  “Rabbah asked Ulla, ‘Consider; all forms of melachah are derived from the Mishkan, yet there[in the case of the Mishkan]  it was deconstructing in order to rebuild elsewhere?’ Ulla answered ‘It was different there for since it is written: “By the Word of HaShem they camped and By the Word of HaShem they journeyed “(Bemidbar 9:23) it was like demolishing in order to rebuild on the same site.’ ”(Shabbos 31B). When one “travels” with HaShem no real change of location has occurred! In Halachah one can be a “traveler/ walker” with complete confidence. Still, the Izhbitzer cautions us not to allow confidence to outgrow healthy proportions and metastasize into arrogant smugness. In the pasukIf you will ‘go in’ my decrees etc.” the emphasis is on the word “if”.  Presuming that G-d walks with you, that G-d is on your side or, even, that you are on His; is always an uncertain, iffy proposition.  For even one who toes the halachic line may be contravening the depths of the Divine Will.

E.g. Debts are to be absolved during shmittah-the sabbatical year, and the Torah harshly criticizes potential lenders who withhold loans for fear of having to clear these loans. (cp Devarim 15:9) Yet the Mishnah still teaches (Shvi’is 10:8) that “If the borrower seeks to repay his debt during shmittah the lender should tell him ‘I absolve it’ but if the borrower persists and says ‘even so [I want to repay my debt]’ then the lender should accept payment from him. As the pasuk says ‘and this is the matter/ word of absolution.’ (Devarim15:2)” The very next Mishnah exclaims “the spirit of the sages is with all those borrowers who repay their loans on the seventh year.” (ibid:9).

On the surface, these Mishnayos seem counterintuitive and contra-halachic.  If the Torah refers to the sabbatical year as the shmittah-the absolution/ forgiving-of-debts year then it would seem that the releasing of loans is the very definition of such years. Then why should borrowers earn the sages favor by repaying their loans? We are compelled to dig beneath the surface and understand that the Torah contains depths of meaning beyond what is “written”, even within the oral tradition. Sometimes the halcahah, is like a baggy, loose-fitting cloak that conceals the true shape of what lies within [i.e. the Divine Will], rather than being a revealing, form-fitting, second-skin, leotard that conforms to the precise contours of that which/He Who is being clothed.

Regarding the mitzvah of shmittas kesafim-absolving loans during shvi’is; HaShem enlightened the sages to the Depths of His Will — that verbal forgiveness of the debt suffices and that actual absolution of the debt is not required.

But this is but a single example among the myriads of Mitzvos and Chukim of the Torah.  HaShem, kivyachol, is hedging His bets on us, His People.  He is, kivyachol, praying that we succeed in hewing to and completely fulfilling His Will. “If you will ‘go in’ my decrees etc.” because even if one observes every jot and tittle of the Shulchan Aruch-Code of Torah Law there is still no guarantee that he has conformed to the Will of HaShem on the profoundest levels, for what human being can plumb the Deepest Depths of the Divine Mind and Will?

~adapted from Mei HaShiloach I Bechukosai D”H Im
(the second of three)

Mei HaShiloach I Bechukosai D”H Im (the second)

The Three Keys To Jewish Happiness – Connection, Connection, Connection


The Improbable Happiness of Israelis

The WSJ ran an article yesterday titled “The Improbable Happiness of Israelis”, which pointed out that Israelis rank 11th of 158 countries in the United Nations’s World Happiness Index, and 5th out of the 36 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries on the OECD’s Life Satisfaction Index—ahead of the U.S., the U.K. and France. The author, Avinoam Bar Yosef, asks how can this be given that Israelis live in a hostile and volatile neighborhood, engaged in an endless conflict with the Palestinians and under the threat of nuclear annihilation by Iran.


The Nationality, Culture and Tradition of Israelis

Mr. Bar Yosef posits: “The explanation probably lies in indicators not considered in standard surveys. For instance, a new study by my organization, the Jewish People Policy Institute, looked at pluralism in Israel and found that 83% of Israel’s Jewish citizens consider their nationality “significant” to their identity. Eighty percent mention that Jewish culture is also “significant.” More than two-thirds (69%) mention Jewish tradition as important. Strong families and long friendships stretching back to army service as young adults, or even to childhood, also foster a sense of well-being. All of these factors bolster the Jewish state’s raison d’être.”


Connecting Within Ourselves, To Hashem, and To Others

I would like to suggest a different explanation of Jewish Happiness from a Torah perspective. Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the popular Bilvavi and Da Es seforim, points out that our purpose in this world is rooted in three types of connection: connection between our body and soul, connection between ourselves and Hashem, and connection between ourselves and other people.


The World Stands on Connection Via Torah, Service, and Acts of Kindness

The Mishna in Avos (1:2) says the world stands on three things, Torah, Service of Hashem, and Acts of Kindness. The Nesivos Shalom says that the world refered to in the Mishna is our personal world which we build each and every day. Torah provides us with the concepts and mitzvos that enable us to use the material world in a spiritual way – which connects or physical bodies to our spiritual soul. Service of Hashem is accomplished through prayer which connects us to Hashem on a daily basis. Acts of Kindness, both large and small, connect us to our family, friends and community.


Happiness is the Result of Completeness

The Maharal in his commentary on Avos (6:1) says that happiness flows from completeness, just as grief is the result of loss and deficiency. When we are connected within ourselves, to Hashem, and to other people, we are more complete and the happiness flows. Happiness is not the goal of Judaism, but when we accomplish our purpose through the pursuit of three types of connection, happiness is the result. If we are not feeling the resulting happiness, then we are not pursuing the connections properly.

May we continue to pursue our connections so that we can soon witness the day when Hashem is One and His Name is One in the eyes and hearts of the entire world.

Live Or Let Die

Feldheim Publishers has just released New York Times bestselling author, Dr. Dovid Lieberman’s book, ‘How Free Will Works’ for just $9.99.

You can read about it here and purchase it at Feldheim.com, Amazon.com and at Jewish bookstores everywhere.

We, at Beyond BT, are big fans of Dr. Lieberman and we highly recommend this book.

Here’s a short excerpt:

Live Or Let Die

Within all of us exist three inner forces that are often at odds with one another: the soul, the ego, and the body. In short, the soul seeks to do what is right; the ego wants to be right and see itself in the optimal light; and the body just wants to escape from it all.

Doing what is comfortable or enjoyable is a body drive. Examples of indulgences of this force are overeating or oversleeping — in effect, doing something merely because of how it feels. An ego drive can run the gamut from making a joke at someone else’s expense to making a lavish purchase that’s beyond one’s means. When the ego reigns, we are not drawn to what is good, but to what makes us look good — in our own eyes and in the eyes of others.

Over time, these choices erode our self-esteem because when we routinely succumb to immediate gratification or live to protect and project an image, we become angry with ourselves and ultimately feel empty inside.

When we do not like who we are, we punish ourselves with activities that are disguised as pleasurable: excessive eating, alcohol or drug abuse as well as meaningless diversions and excursions. We long to love ourselves, but instead we lose ourselves. Unable to invest in our own well-being, we substitute illusions for love. These ethereal delights mask our self-contempt, and since the comfort sought is rewarded instead by greater pain, we descend further into despair.

As our behavior becomes increasingly reckless and irresponsible, the ego swells to compensate for feelings of guilt and shame. Our perspective narrows, and we see more of the self and less of the world; this make us even more sensitive and unstable.

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

Today is Tu B’Shevat.

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 Tu B’Shevat – 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)

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.

10 Years of Beyond BT – The State of the Union

We started Beyond BT in December 2005 to offer friendship, support and advice to those who have committed to a Torah lifestyle. The main issues BTs face are still here, and that should be expected. Hashem wants us to grow, so he sends us challenges. Everybody I know, FFB and BT alike, has them. With that caveat, let’s take a quick look at the current State of the Union of the BT.

Demise of Blogs
Changes in Social Media, specifically the rise of Facebook, have lead to the decline in the use of blogs and their longer lasting discussions. That’s unfortunate, because there’s a lot to be gained from connecting and learning from other Torah Observant Jews in similar situations. On the plus side, it takes much less time to maintain BBT, so we’re planning to keep it going with a mix of posts and comments from the past along with new posts.

Integration
I may be wrong about this, but from my vantage point it seems like integration has become less of a problem for the typical BT. Perhaps this can be attributed to the growth of Torah communities in America and the ability to accommodate more diversity. This does not mean that BTs will find it easy in all communities and I would still recommend Far Rockaway, Passaic, Kew Gardens Hills and Baltimore as great places for a BT to live.

Shidduchim
The Shidduch situation has become more difficult. I think the main reason is that there are a lot more Torah-centered and growth oriented girls than there are boys out there. Perhaps, that’s because the requirements, in terms of becoming less ego-centric, learning Torah and davening, coupled with the need for a good livelihood and man’s greater tendency towards distraction, make it more difficult for men than women to be growth oriented and Torah-centered.

Chinuch
Choosing a High School for boys who are not natural learners has become harder. This is an unintended consequence of the continual raising of the bar of Torah learning, which is a good thing for the community. My advice is to make sure that you choose a high school that does not damage the self-esteem of the B-class learner, and provide supplemental learning opportunities (specifically tutors) if you have a B-class student.

Plateauing
Keeping that growth candle burning is as hard as it ever was. There are no shortcuts and it’s not a communal issue. Chazal have given us the prescription, and it comes down to Torah, Avodah and Gemillas Chasdim/Middos. It’s hard to work on all those things, but they truly are requirements of being higher-level functioning Torah Observant Jews.

Kiruv
Organized Kiruv in America has declined noticeably in the last 10 years. I think that’s primarily because we’re still using the same playbook from 30 years ago–marketing “Torah as a better lifestyle”. After the successful harvesting of the low lying BT fruit, this message in no longer effective, although it’s certainly still true. I think the next stage of bringing Jews closer to Hashem and His Torah will require that we, as a community, BT and FFB together, markedly and noticeably improve our Torah-observant game. The ball is truly in our court.

Here’s to the next 10 years of Beyond BT. Lechaim!

The Ramchal on Eating

In Mesilas Yesharim, Chapter 15 – the Ramchal says:

There is no pleasure more tangible and more palpable than that of eating. Yet is there anything more short-lived and fleeting that the pleasure of eating?

The food is enjoyed for the short time when it is in a person’s throat, and once it leaves the throat to descend into the intestines, its memory is lost and the food is forgotten, as if it had never existed.

Enough black bread will satiate one to the same extent as fattened geese.

One will be made especially aware of the truth of what is being said if he considers the many illnesses connected with eating or the heaviness and dull mindedness that one experiences after eating improperly.

These considerations would unquestionably cause one to avoid unhealthy eating, after seeing its limited upside and big downside.

If You Could Be Supergirl

The new CBS drama “Supergirl” premiered last night to surprisingly positive reviews. (No, I didn’t watch it.) Critics liked the return to an all-American, disarmingly optimistic protagonist after the recent rash of moody, brooding, self-doubting superheros who spend one moment saving the world and the next wallowing in their own personal angst.

Perhaps “Supergirl” is a step back toward lost innocence, and maybe a step forward toward a future when traditionalists don’t have to apologize for their commitment to traditional values.

We can only hope, and contemplate these thoughts on heroism, which were originally published in 2008 on Aish.com.

If You Could Be Superman

The question caught me off guard, which doesn’t happen often after 15 years in the classroom. “If you could have any superpower,” asked Aliza, the ‘reporter’ for the school newspaper, “which would you choose?”

I pondered my choices. Super strength? Invisibility? Mind control? X-ray vision? I wouldn’t like becoming a green mutant like the Incredible Hulk, but swinging on webbed ropes like Spiderman might be cool.

The question is more than a variation on the genie-in-the-bottle scenario. Three wishes make narrowing the field of possibilities much easier, and focus on what you want to have, as opposed to who you want to be.

Ironically, it was two Jews who brought the whole genre of superheroes into the collective consciousness of popular culture. In 1933 Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish teenagers from Cleveland, responded to Hitler’s rise to power in Germany by reinventing their comic character, Superman, as a defender of truth, justice, and the American way. The only time they couldn’t work on their project was Thursday nights, when their “drawing board” was confiscated by Joe’s mother, who used it to knead the dough for her Shabbos challah.

Batman, Spiderman, Captain America, and the Green Lantern were all created by Jews as well. For the not-yet assimilated Jew trying to find his place in gentile society, the invincible alter ego of the mild-mannered misfit was the perfect symbol of cultural ambivalence.

Jewish tradition has its share of larger than life heroes. Samson defeated the Philistines with superhuman strength. Jacob’s son Naftali possessed supernatural speed. The biblical prophets predicted the future and performed countless miracles, including at least two incidents of resurrecting the dead. The kabbalistic literature includes credible accounts of sages possessing knowledge of other’s secret thoughts or personal histories.

A proper understanding of these narratives requires an appreciation that the personalities in the Bible are not cartoon characters. Moses was infinitely greater than Charlton Heston could ever make him out to be, and the memory of Samson is poorly served by his common portrayal as a World Wrestling Federation caricature. The biblical heroes of Judaism were real people who, through extraordinary dedication and self-sacrifice, achieved extraordinary things.

The Responsibilities Of Power

Nevertheless, there is a critical point in common between the heroes of Jewish tradition and the heroes of comic book fantasy: all recognized that their unique talents and abilities obligated them in service beyond individual self-interest. As Cliff Robertson says to Tobey Maguire in Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility”.

crossing-the-red-seaThe heroes of the Bible did not seek greatness. Moses tried to argue his way out of the yoke of national leadership. The prophet Jeremiah protested that he was too young and inexperienced to rebuke his fellow Jews. Samson’s divine mission was prophesied before his birth. Yet each of them rose to the responsibility imposed upon him by the power with which he was endowed by his Creator.

Consider the structure of the Jew’s daily prayer, composed by the sages to include every possible category of request. We ask for knowledge, so that we can know the difference between right and wrong. We ask for forgiveness, repentance, redemption from our problems, health, guidance, and for the arrival of the messianic era. In short, we ask for the Almighty to bestow upon us the resources we need to help bring His plan for creation closer to its fulfillment.

None of which requires superpower.

The Real Heroes

So what should one ask of his Creator? It is with this request that the devout Jew begins his day: Bring us not into the hands of careless sin or wanton transgression, nor into the hands of trials or disgrace; let us not fall under the dominion of the inclination to do evil, and distance us from wicked men and every wicked companion. We do not ask for super power to defeat our enemies, but for the inner strength and the divine protection to rule over ourselves.

The attraction of superhuman power and the mystique of superheroes springs forth from a romantic adventurism that renders ordinary life unsatisfying by comparison. We find our lives mundane and therefore long for the excitement of fantasy. We discard the value of the everyday and seek to live vicariously through the imagined and the unattainable.

It is noteworthy, therefore, that Biblical Hebrew contains no word for either romance or adventure. These are concepts of the modern world, both of them betraying the modern world’s dissatisfaction with reality.

So what superpower would I ask for? I still can’t say. And when I asked a group of my students, not one would commit to an answer. Perhaps our reticence comes from our innate appreciation that we are already supermen by virtue of the soul that resides within us. How else to explain the courage that compels human beings to battle daily against ignorance, prejudice, laziness, impatience, dishonesty, and deceit. To conquer those enemies, day after day and year after year, and to return to the fight when they have conquered us — this is the measure of true heroism.

We don’t need super powers to become extraordinary. Striving to fulfill the potential with which we were endowed by our Creator makes us the greatest hero of all.

Take a look at Rabbi Goldson’s latest book: Proverbial Beauty: Learn to Love Life.

Yisrael and Torah … Two Halves of One Whole

Why are the demographic categories of the Jewish people divided into two distinct pesukim?
What is the underlying dynamic of the conversion process?

Today you are all standing before HaShem your Elokim — your leaders, your tribal chiefs, your elders, your law enforcement people, every man of Yisrael.  Your young children, your women, and the righteous converts in your camp  — even the lumberjacks and the water-carriers.

— Devarim 29:9,10

Yisrael-the Jewish People; and Oraysa-the Torah; are one.

— Zohar III:73

Our nation is a nation only through her Torah

— Rav Saadiya Gaon

When our Masters entered the vineyard at Yavneh, they said,”The Torah is destined to be forgotten in Israel, as it is said, “Behold, HaShem Elokim says ‘days are coming and I will send forth a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of HaShem.’” (Ahmos 8:11).  And it is said, “And they will roam from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east; they will flail about back and forth to seek the word of HaShem, and will not find it.” (Ibid 12). … Rabi Shimon bar Yochai said: Heaven forefend that the Torah should ever be forgotten in Yisrael, for it is written, “for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their descendants.” (Devarim 31:21) Then how do I interpret, “they will flail about back and forth to seek the word of HaShem, and will not find it”? They will not find a clear halachah or a clear Mishnah in any one place.

— Shabbos 138B-139A

There is a one nation scattered abroad and divided among the nations in all the provinces of your highness’ kingdom …  

— Esther 3:8

Rabi Yohsi of the Galilee said “ There is no ‘elder’ other than one who has acquired Torah wisdom”

— Kiddushin 32B

In both the written and oral Torah a rich and diverse metaphorical imagery exists to describe the relationship between K’lal Yisrael– the Jewish People; and Torah. Torah is alternatively described as our sister, our bride, our legacy, our primary topic of conversation, our obsession, our “tree-of-life” lifeline — and more. The relationship is layered and complex and every metaphor illustrates a different facet of K’lal Yisraels rapport with the Torah.

Yet there is one teaching of our sages that seems to go beyond describing a multifaceted relationship between two disparate entities and, instead, portrays the fusion of K’lal Yisrael and Torah into a single being. Torah is not something that we enjoy a relationship with, Torah is our alter-ego … our secret identity.  Accordingly there are direct corollaries between what happens in the life of K’lal Yisrael and in the texture of the Torah.

To use a somewhat coarse allegory to correspond to the subtle abstraction being allegorized; one could not stab Mr. Hyde in the heart and express surprise at the news of Dr. Kekyll’s death nor could one feed a starving Dr. Jekyll and be disappointed that Mr. Hyde had survived the famine. As they share an identity what happens to one must happen to the other.

The Maharal of Prague utilizes the truism of the shared identity of K’lal Yisrael and Torah to explain the Gemara in Shabbos 138-9: “how do I interpret, ‘they will flail about back and forth to seek the word of HaShem, and will not find it’? They will not find a clear halachah or a clear Mishnah in any one place.” On the one hand, just as Klal Yisrael, while battered and beaten in a seemingly interminable exile, is ultimately indestructible, so is the Torah.  A Torah forgotten is a Torah annihilated and destroyed.  But on the other hand, explains the Maharal, just as Klal Yisrael is a the one nation or, more precisely, the nation of oneness, scattered abroad and divided among the nations so too is the Torah , the truly integrated discipline, disorganized and scattered unlike any other field of study.  The Torah cannot remain intact and integrated as its alter-ego, Klal Yisrael, suffers dispersion and disintegration as a result of galus.

Another classic application of this truism is provided by the Izhbitzer at the beginning of our Sidra.

Read more Yisrael and Torah … Two Halves of One Whole

Don’t Grow it Alone

We had a wonderful young BT couple over for lunch recently and we were discussing two of the main attractions to Torah observance, the values of the community and the search for truth that a life of Torah entails. However I think I would add a third pillar and that is the pursuit of continual growth found among so many members of the Torah Observant community.

Growth is hard, whether it be emotional growth, intellectual growth or spiritual growth. It is made harder by the fact that a growth oriented person never rests on his or her laurels. There is always another level. You may have successfully worked long and hard on dealing with anger, envy and honor but there’s still another step you can take, and another step after that.

Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford has helped put a growth Mindset on the agenda of the secular world, but it is just a pebble’s ripple when compared to wealth of insights, strategies and nuances that the sea of Torah contains. But it’s not easy. We each have our own individual challenges in we have to find and apply the right prescriptions for our own unique situations day in and day out.

Thankfully the Torah observant world is full of people working on growing. In my little corner of the Torah Observant world in Kew Gardens Hills, I’m constantly surrounded by FFBs and BTs who understand that life is growth and pursue it with a passion. We have our faults. We have our disagreements. We have our struggles. But I’m so thankful to the local and worldwide Torah Community where we Don’t Grow it Alone.

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

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