Getting More Out of Our Brochos

A friend recently asked “Why do we often say Brochos quickly?”. The Mesillas Yesharim helps to explain why, and provides a practical path to the remedy.

In the introduction, the Ramchal points out that serving Hashem is not a natural and automatic process, like eating and sleeping. Therefore, we have to first learn what it means to serve Hashem. Then we need to make a serious concerted effort to improve and reach adequate levels of service, since this is the reason why we were created.

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

The Ramchal writes about each of these components, beginning with the loftiest, summarized as follows:
1) fear (awe) of Hashem – like we would fear (be in awe of) a great and awesome king;
2) walking in His ways – refining character traits and reducing self-centeredness, leading to improved relationships;
3) love – in our heart, and being inspired to please Him, like we would want to please our parents;
4) wholeheartedness – doing mitzvos with a focus on serving and connecting to Hashem, with devotion, not by rote; and
5) observance of all the mitzvos – with all their fine points and conditions.

The reason why we say Brochos quickly is that we are focused on the what of the mitzvah, which is just saying it. However, to serve Hashem properly, we need to also focus on the why – consciously connecting to Hashem through the mitzvos, and the how — doing the mitzvos wholeheartedly, with love, without self-centeredness, and with fear.

Improving our service is a process.
A good place to begin this process is by saying one Brocha each day with more focus.
This is what we can focus on when we say a Brocha:
“Baruch” makes us aware that Hashem is the source of all blessing.
“Atah” focuses us on the fact that we’re talking directly to Hashem.
“Hashem” in it’s Yud Kei Vav Kei form, signifies that Hashem always existed and is the source of our existence.
“Elokeinu” says that He is the ultimate authority over all physical and spiritual creations.
“Melech” brings that authority to a more concrete Kingship.
“HaOlam” recognizes that His Kingship extends to the entire universe.

We should share many simchos and continue to travel together on the path of improving our Service of Hashem.

In honor of the upcoming wedding of my daughter.

Everyone Views Things Just As I Do…

Parshas Chayei Sarah

“And I asked her and said: “Who is your father?” and she said, “I am the daughter of Bisuel…” and I placed the bracelet on her hands.” — Bereishis 24:47

Eliezer was given a mission
Eliezer, the loyal servant of Avrohom, was charged with the mission of finding a wife for Yitzchak. Before sending him out, Avrohom Avinu cautioned him, “Only take a girl from my family and my father’s house.” Eliezer then asked HASHEM for a sign: “The girl who, when I ask her for water, responds, ‘Not only will I give you to drink, but your camels as well,’ is to be the girl that You have chosen for my master.” (Bereishis 24:14) Her response was to be the indication. If it happened exactly as he outlined, then it would mean that this was the woman intended for Yitzchak.

No sooner did Eliezer finish this request than Rivka appeared at the well. Eliezer said the words, “Please give me to drink,” and Rivka answered, “I will give your camels as well.” She then moved with such alacrity and enthusiasm that Eliezer was astounded. He was so certain that she was the right one that he immediately gave her the golden bracelets, formally engaging her to Yitzchak. Only later did he ask her name to find out that she was, in fact, from Avrohom’s family.

When telling Lavan, Eliezer changes the order
When Eliezer met Lavan and Besuel, he told over the events exactly as they transpired, but with one change. He said, “First, I asked her name and then I gave her the bracelets.”

Rashi, in explaining why Eliezer changed the order, explains that Eliezer was afraid that Lavan would never believe him if he said that he first gave the bracelets and then asked her name. He would assume Eliezer was lying. Therefore, Eliezer reversed the order, “First, I asked her name and then I gave her the bracelets.”

Eliezer wasn’t afraid to say a miracle happened to him
This becomes difficult to understand when we recall that just a few moments before this, Eliezer told Lavan of a striking miracle that had occurred to him. When he began telling over the events, he started with the expression, “Today I left, and today I arrived,” recounting a startling phenomenon.

Avrohom lived many days’ journey from Charan. Eliezer had said that he set out from Avrohom’s house that very morning and arrived the same day. It was physically impossible for Eliezer, who was traveling with ten camels laden with goods, to have covered that distance in such a short time. Chazal explain that he had a Kifitzas Ha’Derech. The land literally folded under him like an accordion so that his few steps took him over vast distances, something so supernatural that it is hard to imagine.

Apparently, he wasn’t afraid to tell this to Lavan. He didn’t assume that Lavan would call him a liar. Yet he was afraid to mention that he trusted that HASHEM had brought him to the right woman for Yitzchak. The question is — why? If Eliezer felt that Lavan could believe that HASHEM did miracles for him, why couldn’t Lavan believe that Eliezer trusted HASHEM?

Seeing the whole world through my eyes only
It would seem the answer is that Lavan lived by the golden rule: Do onto others before they do you in. Lavan was devious, deceitful, and lived a ruthless existence. Because he was untrustworthy, he didn’t trust anyone else, either.

Lavan assumed that since he was too smart to trust anyone, then anyone who “had brains in his head” would never be so foolish as to trust. He saw the whole world through his eyes. The idea that someone could trust HASHEM was something he couldn’t accept. Miracles, as unlikely as they may be, he knew could happen. But for someone intelligent to actually trust — that couldn’t be.

Lavan was engaging in what is known as projection: projecting his worldview onto others, assuming that the way he was, the way that he approached life, is the same way that all others do. He could never accept that someone would let his guard down and actually trust. Therefore, Eliezer was afraid to mention that he acted with complete trust in HASHEM. He knew Lavan wouldn’t believe him and would assume he was lying.

The way we see the world
This concept has great relevance to both the way that we relate to others as well as the way we relate to HASHEM.

If a person is a giving and caring individual, it is easy for him to see the good in man. If I am a giver, then intuitively I see that in others. I assume their motivating force is generosity. However, if I am self-centered, then I tend to see that as the driving force in others, and the nature of man appears to me to be dark.

This concept applies to our relationship with HASHEM as well. Often times we find it difficult to discern the kindness of HASHEM. Where is the chessed? Where is the loving generosity that HASHEM is reported to exhibit throughout Creation?

The more that I practice doing for others without expecting anything in return, the more I can see that quality in the way that HASHEM created and runs this world. The more that I train myself to be a giver, the more accurately I learn to see giving in HASHEM.

Quite simply, my character traits and personal bias shape not only the way that I act towards others, but the very way that I view the world. My view of people, my view of those close to me, and ultimately my view of my Creator are based on my perception. My perception is based on me — who I am, how I act, and how I think. The more that I adopt the nature of a giver, the better a person I will become, and additionally, the more easily I will identify that same trait in others and in HASHEM. The whole world takes on a different view.

Rabbi Shafier is the founder of the Shmuz.com – The Shmuz is an engaging, motivating shiur that deals with real life issues.

All of the Shmuzin are available free of charge at www.theShmuz.com or on the Shmuz App for iphone or Android. Simply text the word “TheShmuz” to the number 313131 and a link will be sent to your phone to download the App.

Utilizing The Power of Concentration

Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the Bilvavi and the Getting to Know Your (Self, Soul, Feelings, Home)
An excerpt from this article which is from the sefer: Getting to Know Your Feelings available from Amazon.

Utilizing The Power of Concentration

First, before we speak of solutions for those who are in deep emotional stress, we will speak of a general solution to deal with emotional problems. (Just like we know how to take care of our body, we need to learn how take care of our soul.)

We are speaking even of the emotions found in the animalistic layer of the soul. How can we have a healthy animalistic soul?

The best way to develop healthy emotions is to access the simple power of unity in the soul, which we can reach when we lead a life of concentration. In practical words– remain focused on what you are doing, and do not do two things at once.

When a person does many things at once, he gets in the habit of fracturing his focus. The soul then stops concentrating, and disconnects from the actions he is doing. The inevitable result will be scattered emotions. In the worst case scenario, if there is one emotion that is more extreme than all the other emotions, such a person can have an emotional breakdown.

This is the first part of the solution to emotional problems: Do one thing at a time. Don’t do two things at once. Prevent your thoughts from floating somewhere else while you are doing something. Concentrate on what you are doing.

This may explain why some people have a hard time concentrating during davening. It is possible to daven out of obligation and not feel anything. When we do something, and our feelings aren’t there, then our thoughts wander away from what we are doing. Davening is a spiritual manifestation of this problem, but it also exists for the non-spiritual: the tendency to “space out” when performing a task that is not of interest.

One can invite trouble when he isn’t focused. Doing one thing, while thinking about something else at the same time, can be a recipe for disaster. The soul gets used to the idea that you can do many things at once and that you don’t have to be thinking.

Our generation has more emotional problems than any other generation. In previous times, people were focused on what they were doing. Today, it’s perfectly normal and acceptable to be talking on two different phone lines at the same time. To the first caller, the person says, “One minute…one minute,” and then he talks to the next one on the other line. People who function this way from a very young age get used to doing two things at once. His mind becomes scattered, and the soul suffers from this.

Only a life of calmness and quiet can allow a person to focus on what he is doing. Even our animalistic soul can understand this. We see that when people want to do something they are interested in, they can focus very easily. The question is whether we can learn to focus all the time instead of in small increments.

Concentration Enhances The Quality of Life

The Chovos HaLevovos[16] writes: “Smaller, pure amounts are bigger than big amounts, and big amounts that aren’t pure are just as good as small amounts – they are useless.”

When people try to “save” time and maximize each moment, it appears to be an admirable trait, but in reality it is detrimental to emotional health. A person gets used to doing so much without ever focusing totally on any one thing. People are doing too much, and there is too much emphasis on quantity over quality.

When we get used to focusing on what we do, we will begin to internalize what we are doing. Instead of just “going through” life, we will be connected to what we do and experience all that we can in a meaningful way.

The more we concentrate on what we do – actions and thoughts together and unified – the more our animalistic layer in the soul gets used to truly experiencing what the body is doing, and we start to enjoy life! We will feel vitality from living and from the concentration that we are putting into it.

Concentrating on what we do leads to experiencing what we do. When we experience what we do, and are concentrating and focused, then all the various emotions become connected into one unit. This is the general beginning of building healthy emotions.

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller on Cheshvan: Facing the Ordinary

by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

Our feet are on the floor again. Tishrei, the month of the holy days that change us forever, leads us to a place of calm that we laughingly refer to as “real life.” The question that we have to ask ourselves at this point is “how do we relate to the ordinary?” The answer that we offer as Jews is with mindfulness, with the desire to find meaning, and most of all with a deep belief that God is unchanging and, by definition, is no more or less present at any time or place.

What makes one time different than another time — say the stillness before the Chazzan begins to chant Ne’ilah, the intensely sacred end of the Yom Kippur service, and 7:45 a.m. on an ordinary weekday as we turn off the alarm clock for the second time and yearn to reunite with our covers and sheets — is not God. It is us.

There are times when the best way to serve God is to look deeply within ourselves, and He provides us with special times in which it is easier and more accessible to make the sort of discoveries that can move us forward. There are other times in which the best way to serve Him is to interact with His world, to get out of that warm bed, take a shower, get dressed, say a prayer and face the world head on. He provides us with time and space for tikkun olam, for repairing the world, and when Cheshvan, the second month in the Jewish calendar comes around, we have to take a deep breathe and say, “The time is now.” All of the hopes, prayers and moments in which we saw ourselves clearly committed to growth have to be concretized. We have to see that our checks don’t bounce.

Read the whole thing here.

A Gourmands Approach to Sukkos

From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

-For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-

A Sukkah built taller than twenty Ahmos is posul-unfit to perform the mitzvah in. What is the source of this law? Rabbah answered: The Posuk states:,” That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in Sukkahs” (V’yikra 23:43) [With a Sukkah] up to twenty Ahmos [high] a man ‘knows’ that he is dwelling in a Sukkah, but with one higher than twenty Ahmos he does not ‘know’ that he is dwelling in a Sukkah, since his eye does not catch sight of it [the schach-roofing]!

-Mishna and Gemara Tractate Sukkah 2A

 As an apple-tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the sons. I yearned for His shade and sat underneath it, and His fruit was sweet to my palate.

-Shir HaShirim 2:3

While it’s often been said that there’s no accounting for taste a societal consensus does exist as to what constitutes good taste and poor taste. While hamburgers, franks and coca cola are flavorsome and greasy comfort foods it is foie gras caviar and champagne that come to mind when we contemplate the finer things in life.  Day-Glo bright colors may appeal to kindergarteners when finger-painting, but a more developed visual sensibility perceives beauty in the muted hues and the delicate interplay of light and shadow that inform the work of the great renaissance masters. Certain artistic, fashion, cultural and even political choices are considered refined and sophisticated while others are scorned as low-brow or philistine.

Torah and Mitzvahs are the very finest things in life. While we all know this to be true on an abstract level it is the rare soul that has an inborn taste for the spiritual high-life. For the vast majority of people who hanker for ruchniyus-spirituality it is an acquired taste. We find that Dovid HaMelech-King David had “eyes to behold the goodness of the light” i.e. highbrow spiritual tastes. Here is the glowing review that he wrote about Torah and Mitzvahs: “They are more enviable than gold, even more than a great deal of fine gold, and are sweeter than honey and the drippings of honeycombs.” (Tehilim 19: 11).

The question is…how do we cultivate our spiritual palates? How should we go about acquiring a preference for the very finest things in life?

Rav Leibeleh Eiger cites a passage in the Zohar stating that the “shade” mentioned in this posuk in Shir HaShirim refers to the Mitzvah of Sukkah. He adds that the end of the posuk: “his fruit was sweet to my palate” refers to the Mitzvah of the daled minim – Lulav, Esrog etc.  By means of performing the Mitzvah of Sukkah one gains the heavenly assistance required to develop a King David-like keen and subtle vision. The essence of the Mitzvah is about vision. The tractate expounding this Mitzvah opens by proclaiming that a Sukkah that the eye cannot catch sight of is no Sukkah at all.

Accordingly, a more in sync translation of the posuk (and, coincidentally, a more literal one as well) would be: “In/ due to His shade [the shade of the Sukkah- described in the Zohar as “the shade of faith”] I have come to covet, to crave [the truth]…and due to His fruit [the various produce of the Holy Land that comprise the Mitzvah of the four species the truth has become] sweet and savory to my palate.”

But here’s the rub: How does one acquire a taste for the Mitzvahs of Sukkah and the daled minim ?

To carry the food analogy a bit further we should regard these specific Mitzvahs as Hors d’oeuvres. Appetizers, as their name suggests, are items served at the beginning of the meal to stimulate the appetite or small samples of the main course that fuel the desire for more. Antipasto and Hors d’oeuvres are cooked and spiced by design to make the consumer crave, and better enjoy, the other courses.  One who arrives at a banquet with a poor appetite will nibble on them and they get his gastric juices flowing. Rav Leibeleh proposes That we begin thinking of Sukkah and the daled minim as appetite stimulants and palate refineries for spirituality. If we do, we will seize upon them with gusto.

Contrary to the popular cliché seeing is not believing.  It is, well, seeing!  There is no longer any need for faith in something’s coming or existence once we behold it with our own eyes. This is among the things that our sages were alluding to by calling the Mitzvah of Sukkah “the shade of faith”.  Faith precedes actual vision like an appetizer precedes a real meal.

As we work on acquiring a more refined taste, a more cultivated palate, a subtler sensibility we must have faith that we will get there one day.  You can’t wean a person off of hamburgers and beer unless he comes to believe that, if he keeps working at it, at some point he’ll find filet mignon washed down with a good cabernet sauvignon even more delicious. The shade of the Sukkah provides shelter and relief to all those who can’t yet see the light or taste the sweetness of Torah and Mitzvahs but who deeply believe that in the shade of the Sukkah, in the Sukkahs delicate interplay of light and shadow , they will come to covet and crave the truth.

Adapted from Toras Emes-1st Day  Sukkos 5634-1874 A.C.E. (page 81)  

What Is The Most Important Thing That You Want In Life?

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Elul

The days of Elul are here, and a new year is before us, approaching. There is no Jewish soul during these days who isn’t inspired at least on a minimal level. Every Jew has some feeling, at least a tiny feeling, to do teshuvah (repentance), to change.

Let us try to understand a bit more about this matter, so that we can have a clearer and deeper understanding of it.

Everyone has many things in his life that he wants. A husband wants his wife to be a good wife to him, a wife wants to have a good husband, and they both want good children, good health, ample livelihood, and a comfortable home. Each person has many more things to add onto this list as well. Now let’s come to a person and ask him: “Now that you’ve listed all these things that you want, from all of these 50 things you wrote down, what do you want the most?”

There’s a saying in Israel going around, “Ha’Ikar, Berius” – “The main thing, is health.” A 20-year old isn’t concerned about health, though. Only when people get older do they start to worry about their health. And if they have good health, what, then, do people think about? Happiness.

The truth is, however, that even if a person would have both complete health and happiness, he would be in a lot of danger [spiritually speaking]. Why? Because he would grow complacent and feel, “I have everything!”

Every person, as we said, has many desires. But what is the main thing that a person wants in life? One needs to think about this at times. It’s possible for a person to live 70 or 80 years yet not even once did he think, “What is the thing I truly want, more than anything, in my life?”

Of course, a person might give a quick answer to this. But it won’t be truthful. It is not a question that you can answer so quickly. It needs more than half a year’s worth of time to answer!

If Elijah the Prophet would reveal himself to a person and say to him: “Hashem has decreed that whatever you asked for, will happen. You can now ask one thing, as in the verse “One thing I seek from Hashem, that is which I sought” – what would a person ask? That his oldest daughter should become engaged? That the bank shouldn’t put his house in foreclosure? What would a person ask for…?

As long as a person hasn’t yet thought about this, he remains unclear about the main point of life. If he is unclear about it, he is like a person who has many important businesses yet he is unaware of what his main one is. He will invest most of his money in the businesses that are less important, and the main business will be financially neglected for the most part. His main business will surely fail with this approach – clear and simple.

So a person first needs to become clear what the main point of life is that he is living for. The question is: How much is a person willing to invest, in order to figure out what he truly wants in life?

When a person goes for a blood test and the results don’t come back good, he goes back for more blood tests, until they tell him, “We see that something here is abnormal. But we don’t know exactly what it is. Maybe go to a certain doctor for this, Dr. X. He is an expert and he will almost definitely know what the problem is.” In such a situation, a person would be prepared to spend much money in order to find out what the illness is in his body. It is directly affecting his health and his entire life. Now: How much is a person willing to invest in knowing what he truly wants in life?

If a person is sure that his main interest in life is money, a nice house, a nice car, or getting lots of honor, then he also has a problem to deal with. It is clear that such a person is living for a purpose that is clearly not the purpose of life, and he will have to deal with this problem.

The first thing, then, that a person needs to do, is to try to figure out to himself what the main thing is that he wants in life. After that he can begin to understand on what level his Avodas Hashem is.

Before a person figures this out, chances are that he is living in a totally delusional realm. He might be a person who has regularly fixed times for learning Torah, for an hour at night or more; he might regularly give tzedakah and try to be a baal chessed and to host guests, and many other wonderful things. But what does he really want in life? It is not tzedakah, hosting guests, or the hour of learning Torah he has every night. Those things rank at either #9, #17, or #36 on his list of what he considers “the most important things that I want”….

What is the main point in life that a person wants more than anything else?

A Big Surprise About The Reward In The World To Come

We all Baruch Hashem do the mitzvos, for the most part. We make effort to daven, to put on tefillin, to wear tallis and tzitzis, to keep Shabbos, etc. What will be our reward for all of this? We will be paid back with spiritual reward. But if a person doesn’t care too much for the spiritual, he can’t enjoy the reward for all his mitzvos! He will come upstairs to the High Heavenly Court and there is nothing physical there, only spirituality. But that is not what he wants, so he will remain there with nothing.

If a person wanted a nice car more than anything else, after 120 when he goes upstairs, with millions of mitzvos at his side, he will be told: “Here is payment for all of the millions of mitzvos that you did. Here is your greatest wish: the new car which came out this year.” Understandably, he will not want to get into that car, realizing that he has lost his entire spiritual reward! This is what is meant in the verse, “A man according to his praise.”

This is not some kind of joke, and it is not a mere thought of mussar.

If anyone is working at a job and he finds out that he will not get paid at the end of the month, what would he do…? What happens if a person finds out after 70 years of living that he will not get any payment for anything he did? Does anyone have a guaranteed ‘insurance’ in the World To Come that he will get paid for all the mitzvos he did?

Compare this to a child who did something good, so his father buys him a new car as a gift. What can the child do with the car? Only after 16 years old can he can get a permit to drive. Right now, he can’t do anything with the car. Hashem is loyal to pay back anyone with reward, but who says that the person when he gets upstairs will be able to use the reward that was given to him?

Imagine a person who works for someone for a month and then at the end of the month, he is given a pair of glasses as his payment. He doesn’t need glasses, he can see quite fine. This is not considered payment to him, because he doesn’t need the glasses.

We all Baruch Hashem make effort to do the right actions, each person on his own level. But is it clear to any of us what we want? If a person wanted what they will give to him in the Next World, he can enjoy it as reward. But if this isn’t what he really wanted in his life, he cannot enjoy his reward in Heaven, because this is not what he wanted. Chas v’shalom, it can be the realization of the verse, “He pays back his enemies….to destroy them.”

Knowing What You Really Want In Life

Every person needs to figure out for himself if Hashem is satisfied with his actions or not, and this is a very important issue to know. But that is a second question to know. The first question one needs to answer for himself is: “What do I want from myself??”

Here is an example from the physical world to illustrate what we mean. Sometimes there is a boy who is 19, 20, 21 or 23, and he has no idea what trade he wants to learn. To our chagrin, his parents do not really understand his soul and what he really needs, and what his true interests are. A year goes by and he still hasn’t decided what he wants to do with his life; perhaps he has some options now, but he hasn’t yet decided. He learns about a certain trade for another half a year, then he stops, thinking that it’s better to switch to a different field. The parents are at a loss of what to do. They are prepared to spend all of the money in the world, just so that their son should become focused and learn something. But the boy doesn’t even know what he wants from himself.

In the physical world, it is clear that if a person doesn’t know what he wants, he won’t be able to make something out of his life. How can it be, then, that a person can remain unclear about the entire meaning of his life altogether?!

Of course, a person can say: “I want Torah, mitzvos, and good deeds.” But is that really what the person wants? Or does he want other things than this too [which he considers more important]? A person might do good deeds, learn Torah, and keep the mitzvos, and surely his deeds are important, but what does he really want in his life?

Dovid HaMelech testified about himself what he wanted: “And as for me, closeness to Hashem, to me, is good.” [1]There is a well-known question: Was it only ‘good’ for Dovid HaMelech? Is it ‘not good’ for everyone else? The answer is: No! Most people do not want closeness with Hashem! Therefore, for them, it is not called “good”. Most people, if you would come to them ask them if they want to have the reward of dwelling all day with Hashem (as Dovid HaMelech says) and nothing else, they will say: “I don’t want the mitzvos, or the reward.”

A story is told over about one of the tzaddikim who was asked to be shown what Gehinnom (hell) is and what Gan Eden (paradise) is. They showed him a person sitting with a shtender and learning. They said to him: “This is Gan Eden, and it is also Gehinnom.” He didn’t understand what this meant; either it’s Gan Eden, or Gehinnom, but how could it be both? They explained it to him: “It is very simple. If a person loved to learn Torah, this will be Gan Eden for him. If he did not love to learn, for him, this is Gehinnom.”

Gehinnom is experienced by one who never connected to the heavenly realm, and he remains connected to this lower realm. What happens the moment he dies? If all he wanted his whole life was money, a car, a nice home, and other worldly desires, what happens the moment he dies? He has nothing to do when he goes upstairs. He will have no car and no house there, nothing. That is his Gehinnom – the fact that none of his desires can be actualized.

It is certainly possible that a person learned Torah (Baruch Hashem), put on tefillin every day, gave tzedakah and hosted guests, but in his heart, he wanted other things entirely. He doesn’t even understand what the issue is. He would come to his Rav and ask: “What sin did I commit? Where is it written that I did anything wrong?” But it doesn’t have to be written anywhere – rather, he’s in a situation that is entirely the wrong place to be in.

This is not another side issue, but a root issue, of where a person is living from, what he wants, what he breathes from morning until night, what interests him, what he is involved with in his life.

Every person has ruchniyus (spirituality), but the question is, how much percentage it takes up in his life, and how much of a percentage of balance there is between his spiritual side of life and his material side of life. Where is he found? Is he 99% found in the material, and only 1% in the spiritual? Or the opposite? Or are the percentages different?

A person gets up in the morning, and until he goes to sleep at night he is thinking about the material side to life, such as making money and his health. Only at night does he grab an hour to learn Torah (in the best scenario, that is). If he is worried about his spiritual situation, he uses even more time for Torah study, but since he only cares for his material situation, he doesn’t.

There are some people who want to feel good about themselves, so they give maaser (a tenth of their earnings). Once I was speaking to a wealthy Jew, who entered into a million-dollar business deal. I asked him: “For what reason do you need this?” He answered, “So that I’ll be able to give maaser from all the profit.”

I said to him: “You didn’t do it to give maaser. You did it because you wanted to make millions of dollars. But to quiet your subconscious, you tell yourself that you’ll give away a tenth of it for Hashem. If you would have really entered this investment for the sake of giving tzedakah, for Hashem, why are you only giving away a tenth of the profits? Why not 100% of the profit? Obviously it must be because you are really doing it to become a millionaire. Your heart isn’t at peace with this, though, because deep down you know it stems from a lust for money. So you are trying to ‘bribe’ Hashem, by giving away a tenth of the profit.

“But this won’t help you. Hashem knows exactly the reason why you entered this business endeavor. It is not because you don’t have what to eat and you need to support your family, or because you really want to give it all to tzedakah and increase the honor of Heaven. It is simply a desire for more money. Giving maaser from it is just the excuse.”

The deepest, most fundamental question in life for each person is: “What do I really want?”

If a person answers that what he really wants is ruchniyus (spirituality),he should think of the following: If that is really what he wants, then why doesn’t it take up his mind the entire day? If a person has an affidavit in the bank which he doesn’t succeed in finishing by the end of the month, he thinks about it the entire day. If a person has a child who is ill, Heaven forbid, he searches for the right doctors and healthcare and it occupies his mind the entire day. Not because it’s ‘written’ anywhere to do so, but because this is what he wants.

If a person claims that he really wants ruchniyus, he should think about it for most of the hours of the day, besides for anything else necessary that he needs to think about, which he needs to take care of. In the end of day, there are other things which also must occupy our mind, due to the various responsibilities of life. But in spite of that reality, there is one main point which you should want with all your heart.

Ruchniyus Should Be Real To You

Each and every one of us wants, with Hashem’s help, to merit a good, sweet year. Who doesn’t? On Rosh HaShanah night, everyone is blessing each other to have a shanah tovah u’mesukah, a good sweet year. But does anyone think that the year will suddenly become transformed into a good, sweet year, just because his friend said so?

Let’s imagine for ourselves a person standing in front of the Heavenly court in judgment, and it is decreed upon him that he must die. His friend comes to him and says to him, “May you have a happy, sweet new year.” Will anyone think this will help?

The problem is that we have gotten used to a lifestyle where the spiritual side of life is ambiguous and unreal to us.

When two people lift a glass of wine together and declare, “L’chaim” (To life), does that really mean that we are given a new year of life? How exactly does that work? When we are dealing with the spiritual, suddenly things seem unclear to us.

Think for a moment: If a person owes a thousand dollars to his friend, and he comes to him and says “May it be the will of Hashem, as if I have paid you”, will his friend accept that? Will it solve anything? No! Why is it then that when it comes to the spiritual side of life, suddenly people believe that eating all of the simanim will make everything good? We eat different foods on Rosh HaShanah night, confident that we will merit a good year, in their merit – but where do we get this from?

Our words here are aiming at something deeper of what the intention should be in this custom, and not G-d forbid to nullify the custom of eating these foods. The point we are driving at here is that we have gotten used to being imaginative and unrealistic about the spiritual world, without approaching it as real.

A person may think that just because he has done certain customs on Rosh HaShanah night, everyone at the table will have a good year! But he did the same thing last year, and it didn’t work. His blessing didn’t ‘work’ for everyone. It is unrealistic to assume that the coming year won’t have any troubles in it, and that everyone will have it all good and pleasant, in their health, livelihood, etc.

The point here is very basic and fundamental: Ruchniyus (spirituality) has to become a simple reality in our lives, no less real than the material side of life. If ruchniyus would be a clear reality to us, our desires for ruchniyus would be realistic, in turn.

But when ruchniyus is cloudy, unknown, and unclear to us, when it is not tangible to us, this causes us to be immersed in the material side of life, and ruchniyus to us is then limited to all kinds of various segulos (spiritual charms). A person will think, for example, that if he gives a fifth of his earnings to tzedakah, says certain tefillos on Motzei Shabbos and also gives some tzedakah to Vaad HaRabbonim, then, everything will be fine. But he is not living this ruchniyus in the same way he experiences the material side of his life.

Changing Our Life

Each of us has already been through many Rosh HaShanahs. Does it help anyone, having been through Rosh HaShanah many times?

Maybe you’ll say: “We have good hopes for this year. We hope this year will be a better one.”

One year, about one or two days after Rosh HaShanah, I was walking in the street and I thought to myself: “The world looks exactly as it did, when it was the 28th of Elul. Nothing has changed at all!” Does anyone think that after Rosh HaShanah anything will change? Where will this sudden change come from?

Now let’s come and think about this: We know that life continues. We aren’t little children anymore who are 2 or 3 years old. Do we want the coming year to look like the past year? Or do we want to change one day?

If a person has a business that isn’t making any profit, and his wife comes and tells him, “Enough. This business used to be doing well, and it seemed profitable. But now you need to spend 2 or 3 years learning a different trade, so that we can support our family, with Hashem’s help.” In the same way, we must change the entire direction of our life. It is not one detail we have to change, but our entire life.

In simple words, a person needs to reach the conclusion of what he really, truly wants. If he discovers that he really wants material comfort, he must change the direction of his life and desire the spiritual. And if he says that he really wants ruchniyus, he should examine his life and see if everything he wants throughout the day is matching up with his desire for ruchniyus.

No one can succeed 100% in changing, because no one in the world is perfect. But it is always upon a person to keep checking himself to see if he is getting closer to the goal of life, or if his actions are contradicting the goals which we are supposed to want.

First, we need to clarify what we want, and after that we can begin to examine our actions. A person gets up in the morning and says Modeh Ani– does he really want to say it, or not? If he eats before davening, does that match up with what he really wants in life? If he learns Torah, does this fit in with what he wants or not? One can take apart all aspects of his schedule and keep seeing if they fit his spiritual goals in life or not. The point is to become aware of what you truly want in life, and to then inspect all your deeds and see if they are aligned with your goal.

The point of this is not to start changing everything you do, from this day onward. Rather, there are some things which require quick change, and some things which you will only be able to gradually improve in. Compare this to a person who has a house in need of repair, and he doesn’t have enough money to get all the repairs done. He must sit down and make a list of what’s most important to fix first, then what’s second to most important, etc. Every year he can do another repair, in order of preference. Slowly as each year passes, the house can get more and more repaired.

Dealing With The Truth About Life

If a person doesn’t clarify to himself what he wants in his life, he has no reason to live!

Once there was a Jew who passed away on Erev Yom Kippur, and when the Brisker Rav heard about it, he said, “He was born a fool, and he died a fool.” Someone there who was close to him (perhaps it was one of his children) exclaimed: “Rebbi! Of all times to speak lashon hora! It’s Erev Yom Kippur!!” The Rav zt”l responded: “You don’t understand what I said. I tried finding merit for this person, who led a sinful life. The only single merit that I could find about this person was that he was born on Erev Yom Kippur as a fool, and he remained foolish until he died, so there is no complaint we can have on him.”

But does anyone think that this would be a true way to live? Is that how we should lead our lives? Would our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchok, and Yaakov, and the rest of the leaders throughout the generations, live this way? Have the times changed so much that people now consider priorities to be secondary, and what was secondary has now become priority? Has everything become completely upside-down?

This is not an inspirational lecture for Rosh HaShanah, nor is it a program. I am presenting to you a very simple question which each person needs to ask himself: “What do I really want? Am I taking the right direction in my life?”

The fact that most people don’t want to think about this and that there is almost no one who speaks about this publicly doesn’t show us that it’s not true. It is the truth and there is nowhere to run to from it. It is as unpleasant as thinking about the day of death, which no one likes to think about, yet that doesn’t help us evade death. People die even if they never think about it; it is useless to avoid thinking about it. The same is true for our question of what we are living for.

The issue is if we are truly prepared to deal with the truth in life. One needs to ask himself: “Do I believe that there is a Creator of the world, or not? Yes. Do I believe He gave the Torah at Har Sinai? Yes. Do I believe that there is an eternity? Yes. Do I believe that there is no physicality in the eternal world? Yes. Do I believe that in the eternal world there is only One alone – the Creator of the world, together with His Torah? Yes. Is my life really aligned with all of this?”

Take apart all the parts of your life, bit by bit, and inspect them truthfully, to see if they are matching up to the truths you recognize. If one hasn’t yet made this clarification of the truth, he should begin to do so, starting today. Sit and learn the sefarim that deal with this topic, or speak to Torah scholars who are knowledgeable in this topic, those who know what the truth is. But whatever option you choose, begin to do it, immediately! Now!

We all know that there is a truth, that there is a Creator of the world. The question is if a person is prepared to align his lifestyle with this truth. We live in a world where there are many well-known truths that all people know about, yet many live in a way that is totally opposite than this knowledge. The world today is not lacking in this knowledge; it is not found at the other side of the Sambatyon. Most people know the truths, but they behave differently.

When Rosh HaShanah arrives, the Rav in the shul might get up and say a nice idea for Rosh HaShanah. Everyone will praise the derasha and say how good it was. But what did the idea help? Perhaps everyone listening fulfills a mitzvah of learning Torah for two minutes. But did it change anyone? Did a person become a different person from listening to the Dvar Torah he heard, as the Rambam says, that one who does teshuvah is not the same person anymore and he becomes an entirely new being?

I hope that you understand that I did not say here anything new, not even one thing. So if they are not my own novel words, you should agree to act upon them. Don’t do it because I said to, but because each of you alone knows it on your own.

May we merit with the help of Hashem, each of us, to align our lifestyle with the goal and purpose of life.

[1] Tehillim 73:28

The Essence of the Month of Elul

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Elul

Elul – The Month of Maaseh\Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Action Is About Completion

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

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

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

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

The Depth of Teshuvah: Uprooting The Reason To Sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Feel Complete

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Deep Source of Teshuvah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Deep Source of Our Completion

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

[1] Berachos 64a

[2] Tur: Orach Chaim 597:1

[3] Sukkah 52a

Clearly Defining Service of Hashem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flourishing in the Spiritual Dimension

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flourishing in the Mental Dimension

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning the Tables on the Constant Test of Summertime Immodesty

By Rabbi Yonah Levant

The 1st Mishna is Pirkei Avos, Chapter 2 says:
Rabbi [Yehuda haNasi] said:…
Be careful with a minor mitzvah (commandment) as with a major one, for you do not know the reward for the mitzvos. Consider the loss incurred for performing a mitzvah compared to its reward, and the ‘reward’ received for sinning compared to the loss….

The two parts of the Mishnah, the encouragement to keep mitzvos, and the steeling oneself to avoid aveirah, seem to be distinct and can be fully understood independent of each other. It seems.

I saw a chiddush (novel insight) that manages to link the סוֹר מרע (turn away from bad) with the עשה טוב (do good) in a way that can have a very big impact on a person’s entire relationship to Hashem.

This is based on what we all intuitively know – that it is most worthwhile to daven to Hashem during an עת רצון (time of divine favor). “Worthwhile,” in terms of having one’s tefilos heard and accepted. The Ohr HaChaim on the pasuk ואתחנן אל ה’ בעת ההיא לאמר (and I davened to Hashem in that time saying) explains that the בעת ההיא (in that time) meant that it was an עת רצון (time of divine favor), and that is why Moshe davened then. Moshe knew when it was an עת רצון (time of divine favor) and he took full advantage to daven then.

Wouldn’t we love to know when there is an עת רצון (time of divine favor), or better yet, be able to create such a thing, by ourselves!

Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein shlita of Bnei Brak quotes the Ba’al Sefer Shomer Emunim who says that whenever one does a mitzvah, it is an עת רצון (time of divine favor). And especially when one sees inappropriate scenes, pritsus (immodesty), and one looks away with proper שמירת עיניים (guarding of one’s eyes) , that creates a עת רצון (time of divine favor) such that your tefillos will certainly be accepted by Hashem.

What does this mean to us? What does it mean to us who live in a very degraded generation in terms of tsnius (modesty), and what does it mean to us in terms of our lives as Jews, in the Big Picture.

Before this insight, a person might feel overwhelmed by a non-tsnius (immodest) world, especially in the summer, where one is put to the test all the time. A person might end up feeling aggravated endlessly, that the world is so antagonistic to Torah observance. You can’t look around and walk around like a normal person. You always have to be on edge, like in a battle.

And Shemiras Aynayim (guarding ones eyes) is a tricky business, since willpower doesn’t stop your optic nerve from working! The Ran in Nedarim says (I don’t have the source location) “אבל עיניו ואזניו של אדם אינם ברשותו, שהרי על כרחו יראח בעיניו ובאזניו ישמע.” – (but the eyes and ears of a man are not his possession, because one sees with his eyes and hears with his ears, even when he doesn’t want to). So, it’s a mitzvah where you practically start off on the wrong foot all the time! You see something inappropriate and only then do you look away.

If you need to be on the street, or driving, etc. you can’t prevent your eye from seeing something un-tsnius (immodest) if it (or her) steps right in front of you. The chiyuv (obligation) is obviously to look away immediately. So, it is a nisayon (test) of great proportions, considering that a healthy human being is not Parev (neutral) about these things. It pulls at a person’s very base nature. If the mitzvah of Shemiras Aynayim (guarding ones eyes) was to avoid looking at wool, it would be much easier to observe, even though wool is also everywhere! Nobody has a deep desire for looking at wool!

So, a person can be exhausted and aggravated from the ongoing nisayon (test) , even if he is successful! Or, chas v’shalom (G-d forbid), a person can give up the fight, and not keep the mitzvah, and abandon that level of kedushah (holiness) that Hashem wants of every single Yid.

With the insight of the Shomer Emunim, a person can change each nisayon (test) of Shemiras Aynayim (and any other aveirah nisayon (trangression test)) into an opportunity for tremendous dveykus (closeness) to Hashem. When one looks away, one can proclaim “Hashem, I am yours, I do not belong to the street! And since I am yours, and since I am overcoming my desires, for You, please help me with…” A person can become Davek to Hashem amidst the shmutz of our world. A person can grow, because of the opportunity hidden within the nisayon (test). “I am not looking Hashem, because I am yours! I am not theirs!”

Rav Zilberstein in his sefer טובך יביעו ח”ב עמ’סח quotes an unnamed Godol who said that a person who doesn’t practice Shemiras Aynayim sullies his davening and learning which require Kedushah. But it also robs him of his ability to get real pleasure and sweetness from learning, and davening, and the like.

You essentially end up switching the forbidden pleasure for the pleasure Hashem wanted you to have in dveykus (closeness) with Him through a geshmak (wonderful feeling) in learning, a heartfelt davening, etc.

I think it was the Steipler Gaon zatzal who was quoted (2008 Men’s tsnius asifah in Lakewood, Rav Wachsman drosho) as saying that when a person foregoes a forbidden pleasure, because of Hashem’s Will, then he will get a תשלומים, an equivalent, a replacement pleasure through Avodas Hashem. He will find real pleasure, real earthly pleasure in davening, or learning, or some other kosher venue. You will not lose out, says the Steipler Gaon.

Let us all try to turn this constant test into an opportunity to have our prayers answered, especially in this troubling time.

Flourishing in the Emotional Dimension

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Essence of Our Existence and the Six Constant Mitzvos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conquering Bad Religious Experiences

By Yakov Lowinger

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

1. Being rejected is no cause to reject

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

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

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

3. No such thing as an FFB

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

4. Cluelessness and misplaced meticulousness

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

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

5. Living in a frum community requires a thick skin

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

Fifty Ways to Meet Your Lover (Sefirat HaOmer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Step by Step

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

Seven Shepherds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riding the Escalator of Life

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

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

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

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

First Published on May 14, 2008

Beyond Observance

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

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

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

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

Aish Appreciation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And many more at Classic Sinai.

Can a BT Earn the Right to Coast?

Hi

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

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

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

-Akiva

—————–
From the Comments

This post could have been written by me as well.

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

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

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

-Chaim

Coercion, Acceptance and the Spiritual Inputs of Purim

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the whole thing here

I’m Not on That Level

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

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

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

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

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