Pesach and the Three Components of Emunah

One of the hardest aspects of Judaism is to turn our intellectual knowledge into heartfelt knowledge and then to have our actions reflect that knowledge. Rav Yisroel Salant addressed this issue with heart-focused Mussar learning, while the Baal Shem Tov addressed it with Chassidus (and today Neo-Chassidus). The teachings of Rav Itamar Schwartz (http://www.bilvavi.net/english) are focused on transferring intellectual knowledge of G-d from our heads, into our hearts, and into our actions.

Belief in G-d and His Torah must begin with the knowledge that G-d created the world, took us out from Mitzrayim, and gave us the Torah. The mitzvah of “Telling of the Exodus Story” along with our twice daily mitzvah to “Remember that G-d took Us Out of Egypt” form the foundation of that intellectual knowledge.

However, the telling of the story on Pesach requires a deeper, more ingrained, heartfelt knowledge. In fact, there is a mitzvah to “See ourselves as if we actually left Mitzrayim”. The commentators discuss that this is a difficult mitzvah because we know that we personally did not leave Mitzrayim. We need to use visualization and the Torah provides the Pesach Offering, Matzah and Maror to assist us in this task. In addition, we can consider that we left Mitzrayim, by viewing the Exodus as an ongoing process which will be completed with the future redemption from our current exile. Lastly, Pesach is a night of Hodaah, a night of Hallel, Dayenu, and endless praise of G-d. Gratitude is one of the most powerful tools to develop a connection and love of G-d for all He does and all He has done for us.

Emunah of the mind is accessible, while Emunah of the heart doesn’t need recall – it’s always there. Emunah of the heart is developed by thinking often about G-d during time bound mitzvos like the Shema, constant mitzvos like the Six Constant Mitzvos, and opportunal mitzvos like Chesed Opportunities. The goal is to always feel G-d’s presence. It’s a lifelong process, but the Pesach Seder is the number one yearly opportunity to develop Emunah of the heart.

The third component is Emunah in our Actions. Not only do we need to know and feel G-d’s presence, but we need to act on those thoughts and feelings. Emunah in our actions focuses on acting faithfully to G-d in all we do and by performing His Mitzvos properly, with thought and feeling. According to the Vilna Gaon, the Pesach Seder provides 64 mitzvos in which we can act faithfully to G-d. It is a great opportunity to perform our mitzvos at our highest level of capability.

We can all improve our service of G-d. Pesach is the opportunity to supercharge our spiritual growth with Emunah of the Mind, Emunah of the Heart, and Emunah of our Actions.

64 Mitzvos According to the Gra from R’ Silverstein
in the name of R’ Elchanan Wasserman

1-Kiddush;
2-Kiddush on Wine;
3-Borei Pri HaGafen;
4-Kiddush HaYom;
5-Mentioning Yitzias Mitzrayim in Kiddush;
6-Bracha of Shechayanu;
7-Drinking First Cup;
8-Leaning for the First Cup;
9-Washing hands for Karpas;
10-Bracha of Netilas Yadayim (we don’t pasken like this);
11-Borei Pri Hoadama;
12-Eating Karpas;
13-Dipping it in Salt Water;
14-Bracha achrona (we don’t pasken like this);
15-Shankbone for Korban Pesach;
16-Egg for Korban Chagigah;
17-Yachatz to show Backbreaking Work;
18-Mah Nishtana;
19-Saying over the Story;
20-Starting with the Bad and Ending with praise;
21-Saying the Haggadah Over Matzah;
22-R’ Gamliel’s 3 things;
23-Seeing Ourselves as Leaving Egypt;
24-Thanking Hashem for Taking us Out;
25-Bracha of Asher Gealanu;
26-Bracha on Second Cup;
27-Drinking Second Cup;
28-Leaning for Second Cup;
29-Washing Hands for Matzah;
30-Bracha for Washing Hands;
31-Bracha of HaMotzie;
32-Bracha of Achilas Matzah;
33-Lechem Mishna;
34-Eating First Kezayis of Matzah;
35-Eating Second Kezayis of Matzah;
36-Leaning while Eating Matzah;
37-Eating the Meal;
38-Bracha on Maror;
39-Eating Maror;
40-Charoses for Zecher Mitzrayim
41-Dipping Maror in Charoses;
42-Korech;
43-Leaning for Korech;
44-Eating First Kezayis of Afikoman;
45-Eating Second Kezayis of Afikoman;
46-Leaning for Afikoman;
47-Mayim Achronim;
48-Kos for Bentching;
49-Mezuman for Bentching;
50-First Bracha of Birchas Hamazon;
51-Second Bracha of Birchas Hamazon;
52-Third Bracha of Birchas Hamazon;
53-Fourth Bracha Birchas Hamazon;
54-Bracha on Third Cup;
55-Drinking Third Cup;
56-Leaning for Third Cup;
57-Hallel;
58-Zimun by Hallel;
59-Bracha after Hallel;
60-Bracha on Fourth Cup;
61-Drinking Fourth Cup;
62-Leaning for Fourth Cup;
63-Al HaGefen after Fourth Cup;
64-Simcha on the Seder night;

Finding Joy in the Practice of Judaism

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

Why Do We Say Brochos Quickly?

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 our Brochas each day with a little 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 continue to travel together on the path of improving our Service of Hashem.

Fanning The Flame

Rabbi Tatz has a shiur that I listened to many years ago about how the initial spark of inspiration to any new activity or dream is extremely intense. After a while, the intensity dies a bit and what is left is a lower-burning flame that must be worked at, with much effort, to be kept alive. This is certainly true for myself, and I think many, baalei teshuvah, when it comes to spirituality, religious committment, and davening.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It would be incredibly difficult to stay at such a high for an extended length of time, and one would likely burn out altogether after a while. It’s important for a person to find their equilibrium, to reach a point of balance between that intense spark and their former lower level, and to find it in a place where it is possible to sustain for life.

But it’s hard when you come down from that high. It’s difficult when you realize that you can’t channel that height that you once achieved, and if you can, it’s only for a short period of time. It sometimes makes a person want to give up altogether.

But it’s important to realize that you have to keep plugging away, that this decline is completely normal, and to maintain an equilibrium is an accomplishment in itself. Continuing to daven when it’s by rote, going to shiurim that don’t awe as much as they used to, and learning even when you aren’t as enthusiastic are all still important ways to continue feeding the flame of yiddishkeit that was once lit by a great spark.

I think it’s important that one immerses themselves in a community during these times as well. It’s much easier to feel motivation to continue performing mitzvos when he is not doing it alone. Friends, family and rebbeim can all contribute by adding kindling to the fire, and fanning the flame to stay lit. Having a support system in place to hold one up in times of darkness, to give chizuk during difficult challenges, makes a huge difference in one’s will to keep hanging on.

I think it’s also important to continue reminding oneself that this is a normal phenomenon, instead of beating oneself up for not always feeling the same level of intensity. It’s a normal part of being human to have ups and downs, peaks and plateaus, in any part of life, not just in religion.

The spark inside all of us can stay lit, but it’s not something that doesn’t take hard work and effort, and it’s important that we realize that the flame won’t always burn as bright, the fire as high, as it might initially. The important part is that we keep it burning at all, that we fan the flame, giving our souls the oxygen they need to continue shining.

Originally Posted July 2006.

Getting to Know Your Feelings – Understanding The Power of Love

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

View this and other Drashas on the Bilvavi.Net site

Feeling On The Outside, Da’as On The Inside

Although there are many emotions in the soul, they are all branches of one single root: love.

What is love? Our Sages say:[1] “The prayers of the righteous turn the da’as of Hashem from cruelty to mercy.” Hashem doesn’t just transform His cruelty to mercy; He also transforms His “da’as, because the root of everything is da’as. Hashem sometimes uses da’as for “good,” such as when He exhibits mercy, or He can sometimes use His da’as for when He has to be “cruel.” Da’as is the root of everything, the essence of the soul, as we explained before.

We may think that cruelty and mercy are just emotions, but our Sages say that they are more than that: emotions are really da’as. The Rambam classifies emotions as “hilchos da’as,” because our emotions and our da’as are really one entity. The inner layer of emotions is da’as, and the outer layer is comprised of the feelings that emotions engender. Looking at emotions as only feelings and nothing else is a superficial approach, since the focus is only looking at the garment of the emotions, and not at the essence.

Once we have internalized this concept, it becomes clear that love has two layers to it as well. Love has da’as within it, as well as the feeling of love we are familiar with. The da’as of love is its essence, and the feeling of love we know of is only the outer layer of the love.

What, indeed, is the essence of love? What is the “da’as” of love?

Conditional Love And Unconditional Love

The words of the Sages[2] are well-known: “Any love that is dependent on a reason, the love goes away when the reason goes away; any love that is not dependent on a reason, the love never goes away, even when the reason goes away.”

What are these two kinds of love, and what is their root?

A love that is dependent on something is a superficial emotion of love, and doesn’t involve da’as. A love that isn’t dependent on anything is a love that stems from one’s da’as.

When love is unconditional, the feeling of love that the person experiences is only the garment of the love, while the essence of the love is his da’as.

The numerical value in Hebrew of the word ahavah (love) is the same as echad (one). True love, which is unconditional love, is reached when we want to become one with another. When we view another as being one with us and then we a feel love for the person, we are utilizing the da’as of love. The accompanying feeling of love we experience is only its outer layer, but the love itself is the da’as – the oneness, which we have with another.

The source of conditional love is what we identify as the “emotion” of love. It is not the kind of love that connects people; it is just a feeling, and nothing more. These feelings of “love” toward another can come in numerous ways: either from “loving” him for his money, or for the honor the person gives us, or simply because of our personality tastes.

The love that one is feeling in these cases derive its strength from any of these superficial reasons, but as soon as any of these reasons go away, the feeling of love disappears with it.

Unconditional love is thus when one uses da’as, to foster a sense of unity with another. When a person is at one with another, he can love him. After this process is completed, the feeling of love he then experiences is a garment of the love, resulting from his da’as behind the love, but it is not the love itself. The actual love is the da’as behind it, which in this case is the desire to truly unify with the other.

Every feeling has it’s source. The root of conditional love comes from a superficial source, dependent on something external that causes the love; there is no sense of oneness with another here, and no da’as. Whatever it depends on is subject to change, so the love goes away when that factor changes. Unconditional love comes from tapping into the power of our da’as – to desire unity with another; it lasts forever, because oneness doesn’t change.

Unconditional love is the true and deep kind of love, while conditional love depends on liking something about the other person’s personality, which is subject to change, and thus can never be considered true love.

Natural Love

Now we can understand that there are two sources from which we draw forth our power to love.

Every person is born with a natural love for himself, and we can love ourselves in two ways. One of these ways is a superficial way to love others, while the other way is the true source of love that we have within ourselves.

The primary source of our natural self-love is the love that a person has for himself and his very existence. This is evident from the fact that every person wants to remain alive; a person loves himself for just existing. A second source of self-love we have in ourselves is the superficial kind of self-love, which is to love ourselves for our personality and good middos and qualities.

A person loves himself and his children unconditionally. Even if a person’s child would be evil, and even if the child would be as evil as Amalek, Heaven forbid, the father would still love his child. Why?

It is because he sees the child as a part of himself. He loves his child just as much as he loves himself, and sees him as an extension of his own existence. This love doesn’t come from admiring his child for any specific qualities; it comes from just loving one’s very existence which is a deeper kind of love.

Just like a person loves himself even if he wouldn’t be able to find anything admirable about his personality, so does a parent love his child unconditionally, and not because he admires anything in particular about his child.

These two kinds of natural love – unconditional love for ourselves, as well as conditional love for ourselves – exist within every person. A person can love himself simply because he exists – or for a variety of different reasons, most of which are superficial.

People who love themselves with the second kind of love only love themselves partially, depending on how positive they are toward themselves.

With this kind of love, a person born with a more positive kind of personality will be able to love himself, but a person born with a tendency toward negativity will love himself less.

But when a person loves himself unconditionally – simply because he exists – he loves himself totally no matter what.

Every person needs to recognize these two kinds of love within himself. Most people who need others to admire them for their qualities are usually unaware of how to truly love themselves. People don’t know how to truly love themselves. They think that they should love themselves by finding their good middos. If one has a positive self-image, he may be able to generate feelings of self-love, but if he’s negatively inclined toward himself, he will not feel loved, and he’ll look for love from others, instead of being able to give it to himself. Either way, he has no inner source of love, whereas a person who loves himself unconditionally experiences a constant flow of love for himself, and from himself.

People who feel they don’t really love themselves believe that this is because of their low spiritual level. They have no idea about the true love for themselves they could be having.

When a person loves himself conditionally, he will often feel down about himself and he will feel unloved, when his reasons to love himself fall away. But when a person loves himself unconditionally, such love is consistent, and it rarely fluctuates. This is an ability that exists within every person, whether it is has already been revealed, or whether it remains dormant in the person. His own unconditional love provides a constant inner flow of love from within himself that doesn’t depend on anything external.

It is impossible to find unconditional love from an outside source. Unconditional love comes from one’s inner world; it is not a feeling of love towards oneself, but it is rather a pure kind of love that comes from one’s power of da’as.

This inner flow of love that a person has within himself comes from one’s very existence.

It is the pure kind of love that comes from one’s da’as, and it extends to become a pure feeling. A person can only love himself unconditionally if he loves his very existence; any other type of love can only be conditional.

Revealing True Love Towards Others

However, when it comes to loving others, there has to be both conditional and unconditional love present. For a person to really love others, he has to love them both because of their qualities and because of their very existence. We will explain why.

When a person feels a love toward another person, he must be able to recognize the source of that love: Is it an extension of the unconditional love he has for himself, or does it depend on external factors? We will explain the difference.

If a person only loves himself conditionally, his love for others will be the same kind of love he has for himself. He will love Reuven…but not Shimon. This is why people have a hard time loving others. A husband and wife might only love each other based on certain factors, and thus the love between them is only conditional. A child who loves his father solely because he knows that his father gives him things only loves his father because he gives him things. This kind of love is shaky and impermanent.

When a person loves himself unconditionally, he will have no problem loving others the same way. His love for others won’t depend on anything.

All of us are able to love unconditionally, but our conditional love can hold back the unconditional love if we don’t access it within ourselves. But once the unconditional love pushes itself to the forefront, even if we find a reason to love another, the unconditional love will remain unchanged, and we will be able to experience both types of love simultaneously.

This was the great love that existed between David and Yehonasan.[3] Although they had reasons why they loved each other, they still loved each other unconditionally, because they had recognized unconditional love within themselves and allowed it to be revealed.

Let us review this again: We all have within us two abilities, the power to love conditionally and to love unconditionally. Unconditional love is to love yourself simply because you exist, while conditional love is to love yourself based on a reason. These are not two separate powers, but rather two layers of the same power. The inner layer of love is unconditional love, while its outer layer is conditional love.

One who only loves himself conditionally, however, will not be able to love others unconditionally, even if he tries to.

Let us ask: if a person has unconditional love toward himself, why doesn’t he automatically love all others equally? The answer is because he also has conditional love for himself, which prevents him from loving everyone equally. He is incapable of loving others who don’t appeal to him. His conditional love prevents his unconditional love from being truly revealed.

How, then, can we access our unconditional love for others? Won’t the fact that we love others conditionally get in the way? Conditional love doesn’t totally prevent[4] us from loving the other, because at least a little bit of love for the other has been revealed.

After all, at least we have uncovered a conditional love toward the other, which is already a step. Once we reveal at least a conditional love for the other, we will then be able to reveal even an unconditional love for the other, reminiscent of the love between David and Yehonasan.[5]

Eternal Love

Let us return to the Mishnah in Avos:[6] “Any love that is dependent on a reason, the love goes away when the reason goes away; any love that is not dependent on a reason, the love never goes away, even when the reason goes away.”

This is difficult to understand. It is clear that if the love was dependent on a reason, then the love stops as soon as the reason goes away. But unconditional love cannot go away because it doesn’t depend on anything. Why does the Mishnah point this out?

Unconditional love can be hidden by the conditional love, so the Mishnah is teaching as follows: When a person loves another unconditionally, then even when his conditional love for the other falls away, he will still love the other, because unconditional love will always remain.

The lesson of the Mishnah is that even when the conditions for the love fall away, the person will still be left with unconditional love toward the other. Once there is unconditional love, there will always be love, even when the reasons for the love are no longer there.

Hatred Is Only Possible When The Love Was Conditional

Now that we have explained love, we can understand hatred, the opposite of love. Hatred is whatever love isn’t, and love is whatever hatred isn’t.

Only conditional love has an opposite emotion of hatred; unconditional love, though, has no opposite.

There is no such thing as unconditional hatred, because something that has no conditions to it cannot, by definition, have an opposite.

Hatred is only possible when a person only knows of conditional love.

Once a person reveals his unconditional love, he cannot hate.

Unconditional Love Is Love Based On Da’as, Conditional Love is Love Based On A Feeling

Now we can understand the opening words of this chapter, that the inner kind of love is love that comes from da’as.

What is the difference between a feeling coming from da’as, to a feeling that isn’t coming from da’as?

Da’as is the awareness of reality as it is.

A feeling without da’as, though, is just a “feeling” to us and nothing more.

Unconditional love is an awareness of reality (even if one might also love himself for other reasons).

A person can love himself either due to his da’as, which translates into unconditional love towards himself; or from a mere feeling of love for himself, which translates into conditional love towards himself.

Recognizing Another’s Existence

Before a person is able to love another, he has to first acknowledge their existence based on more than his physical senses.

Most people, though, evaluate others based on externalities, even by something as superficial as seeing or hearing them.

Reb Yeruchem Levovitz zt”l once stated that “A person cannot murder another person.” If so, he asked, how was Kayin able to kill Hevel? It was because he wasn’t aware that Hevel existed. He was cruel; he had no mercy. Only a merciful person is aware that another person exists. Anyone who is cruel enough to kill could only come to such behavior because he is not aware of others.

This can be applied similarly to the idea of loving others. We have a mitzvah to love other Jews on the same level that we love ourselves;[7] “And you shall love your friend like yourself.”

We must love every Jew – absolutely! But there is something that comes before this! If we really want to love others, we need to first be truly aware of the other’s existence, in the same way that we know that we see ourselves as existing. Just as one senses his own existence – in a very real way – so can he sense others’ existence in a very real way.

But if a person never thought about his own existence and doesn’t love himself unconditionally, then his awareness of himself is hidden, and he only experiences his awareness of others in a superficial manner.

Because his love for himself is dependent on a reason, he recognizes the existence of others in the same way.

True love is revealed when one utilizes da’as. Only by realizing the reality of your own existence will you be able to truly love yourself for who you are – and only then will you be able come to love others, simply because they exist.

[1]  Sukkah 14a

[2]  Avos 5:19

[3]  Avos 5:19

[4]  Editor’s Note: The author previously stated that love will not last if it is based on conditional love. Here the author explains that conditional love is still essential in the process of reaching true love and to the contrary, we need to begin with conditional love which eventually will reveal unconditional love but only if that is the underlying motivation.

[5]  Avos 5:19

[6]  Pirkei Avos 5:19

[7]  Vayikra 19:18, Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim Perek 9

Nobody Told Me

A Rabbi was talking to a BT and questioned “you’re follow such a big leniency!?” The BT responded, “but you told me I could do that!”. The Rabbi responded, “but that was 10 years ago”.

Parents teach and send their children to schools where they learn about Torah, prayer, and mitzvos. Was it made clear to them that they have to continue learning about Torah, prayer, and mitzvos for their entire lives?

At some point spiritual growth becomes the individual’s responsibility. After 120 (or even after 30), I don’t think blaming our parents or kiruv/high school/beis medresh/shul/ Rebbeim is going to cut it.

Observant Judaism is not about becoming frum, being frum, or staying frum. Observant Judaism is about continual growth. It’s about growing in learning Torah, growing in Prayer, growing in Chesed, growing in our Love of Hashem.

I’m glad somebody told me.

Shovavim

It’s the period of Shovavim. Here’s some links on the whys and wherefores of Shovavim.

Shovavim and Self Improvement:

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

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

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

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

Shovavim Tat:

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

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

A Sign of the Times:

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

Confessions of a BT Wannabe

By Charlotte Friedland

It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I’m not a ba’alas teshuvah (BT). As I was born to observant Jewish parents, the outreach networks dismiss me as an “FFB”—a “frum from birth” specimen, not worthy of attention. The term itself suggests staleness. After all, an FFB arrives in a world where traditions and education are clearly outlined, and from that moment on, it’s same ol’, same ol’.

So there are no special Shabbatons, no charismatic rabbis seeking me out, no books written about my kind—except those describing us as smug, spoiled and spiritually indolent. But that’s not all: the fact that our families held onto religious Judaism renders us likely to indulge in excessive triumphant bleating. And nobody invites a triumphalist to parties.

Thus it is written, and thus it is believed. Lord knows, I’ve tried not to be triumphant, curbed my pride in rabbinic ancestors, lowered my voice in shul. Yet the image persists. To remedy the situation, I’ve been hanging out at outreach events, skulking around, trying my best to look lost. One must appear to be searching, that’s the key.

Usually, in fact, I am searching for my keys, but no one seems to care about the small stuff. Everyone is so busy describing their personal epiphanies, so full of that glowing exuberance over critical life choices, that they can’t hide their disappointment when I confess my lineage. “Oh, an FFB,” they mouth politely, “how nice,” and then move on to that fascinating individual who just entered the room, fresh from an ashram.

No, I don’t remember my first Shabbos. I never struggled over reading Hebrew, nor had a defining moment of truth. But I’ve had a few good cries on Yom Kippur, really, and once in awhile I think to myself, “If I weren’t born religious, would I be doing this?” And then my mind clicks off, unable to fathom the question.

Trained to think in Biblical terms, I look for guidance to the first FFB in history—Yitzchak. After all, his father and mother had grown up “out there.” He was born after they had mastered Shabbos zemiros and correct hemlines, and he was raised to be a perfect Jew from day one. Granted, it appears that he has no trace of his folks’ flair for convincing people of an invisible God. Kind of withdrawn and sullen, he seems—and I think I know why. He probably felt out of place at his parents’ “Judaism 101” weekends. There he is, the first FFB, standing awkwardly among all those repentant pagans, struggling to empathize with their turmoil, while his father works the tent, cheerfully spreading his light.

He nods dumbly as the caravan driver describes to him his disillusion with idols, his attempts to find meaning in camel racing, his sixteen failed marriages, his forty-three children who “just don’t seem to have any values, no values at all. That’s why, I’m here. I’m told that Abraham is onto something big, something that could change my life. You know what I mean? Did you ever wonder ‘what’s it all about?’” Abraham’s son shifts uneasily. “Yeah, sure. I know. I have a brother like that….” But his voice sounds hollow, his tone unconvincing. Better to leave kiruv to the professionals.

The outreach pros in my life have told me how lucky I am. I should be part of their army, they say, marching (but not too triumphantly) along with them. I should be descending upon the secular world with the light of heritage glowing in my eyes. Dunno. Like most FFBs, I’m scared silly that someone will ask a basic question that I can’t answer. I’m not an authority, just a plain Jew.

At least I could invite somebody for Shabbos now and then, that’s true. And the fact is that whenever we do have “late starters” at the table, I always learn something from them. They ask questions that never entered my mind; they marvel at the easy-going confidence with which we roll through the rituals—–to the point that even I take notice. And they make me feel blessed because I have never been without a hearty, meaningful Jewish life, the kind of life they want so badly it hurts.

I think it was the Bluzhover Rebbe—who so valiantly led others through the Holocaust—who once commented that the “ruach teshuvah,” the spirit of awakening rippling across our world today, is the spiritual outcome of the horrific war years. The problem, he mused, is that only secular Jews are taking advantage of it, though it is meant for all of us.

Imagine that. Spiritual growth is not limited to those born on the outskirts of Jewland. You can live your entire life as an Orthodox Jew and still have room to emerge as a ba’al teshuvah. Could that be the challenge? I wonder if there are other people like me—BT wannabes who are beginning to think that maybe being an FFB is deceptively simple, that our goals have been set too low.

Are there enough of us to launch a new era? Dare we raise our banner as FFBBTs, create our own chat room, gather at conventions?

Who am I kidding? In my heart of hearts, this generic Jew knows that the title doesn’t matter and never did. It’s a question of direction. Let’s face it: clawing your way up from being 85 percent frum to 86 percent is a real struggle, even if it doesn’t earn accolades, even if it has no name. There’s no dramatic story, but you have the quiet satisfaction of knowing that you live your Judaism as genuinely as the BT next door.

I suspect that it’s time for us all to drop the labels and move on.


“Reprinted with permission from Jewish Action – Winter 2007, the magazine of the Orthodox Union. “

© 2007 Charlotte Friedland

Charlotte Friedland is a former editor of Jewish Action and also served as book editor at Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

The Influence of Society

Parshas Vayeitzei
“And I will return in peace to my father’s house, and Hashem will be to me G-d.” – Bereishis 28:21

When Yaakov Avinu was told that his brother Aysav was plotting to kill him, he ran from his father’s home and prepared for an extended stay in exile. Along the way, he davened, prayed and asked Hashem for a number of things, including: “I should return to my father’s house in peace.”

Rashi assumes that this can’t be referring to Hashem protecting him physical harm because Yaakov already asked for that. Rather, says Rashi, it means that, “I should arrive safe from sin,” – that Hashem should protect him learning from devious ways of his future father-in-law, Lavan.

This is very difficult to understand. Why would Yaakov have a fear of learning deciet from Lavan? Each of the Avos “specialized” in a particular trait. Yaakov was the Ish Tam – honest and straightforward, integrity was his hallmark, and the mainstay of his avodas Hashem, service of Hashem. While this was a trait that he worked on extensively, it was also something that he was predisposed towards. On some level, it was part of his nature. Of all people, why would he be afraid of learning to cheat?

What makes this question even more difficult to understand is that at this time, Yaakov was seventy-seven years old. He had just completed a long period of uninterrupted Torah study. For the previous fourteen years, he had been learning in the yeshiva that Shem had established. During that time, he never lay down to sleep at nights because he was constantly toiling in Torah. Surely, such a holy person in that state of kedusha, holiness, wouldn’t be affected by being in the presence of a thief. So what was Yaakov’s great fear? The answer to this question can best be understood with a moshol, a parable.

An eye in the sky
A nanosecond is a very small segment of time. One second split into a thousand parts is measured in milliseconds. One millisecond split it into a thousand parts is measured in microseconds. And one microsecond, (a millionth of a second) split it into thousandths is measured in nanoseconds. A nanosecond is a billionth of a second – not a very long splice of time.

You may wonder: What need is there to measure such infinitely small intervals of time? One application is in one of the wonders of the modern world, the GPS. The Global Positioning Satellite system operates by measuring a signal that travels from a satellite in the sky to the ground-based monitor. A GPS unit can determine your exact location, and then guide you along to your destination by measuring the time it takes for that signal to travel. But the precision is excruciatingly demanding. One nanosecond off, and the GPS will be off by one foot. A mere millionth of a second off, and the readings will be off by a thousand feet, making it almost useless. And if it is miscalibrated by as much as a hundredth of a second off, you might as well toss the thing in the garbage. When you are measuring against objects at a vast distance, precision is vital. Even miniscule errors will show themselves in very real results.

The Greatness of the Avos
This seems to be a very apt moshol to our situation. It is very difficult for us mere mortals to even perceive the greatness and level of perfection that the Avos attained. Every action, every nuance, and every thought was weighed and measured with extraordinary precision. The result of living a life with such attention to detail was greatness of unparalleled proportions. And the Avos were very aware of human tendencies.

Yaakov Avinu wasn’t afraid that he would learn to steal because of Lavan; he was afraid that his image of what is considered normal behavior might be affected. He was afraid that by living in the house of a thief, his standard of what is considered acceptable conduct might be affected. While this wouldn’t directly change his actions, he would now be measuring from a very different standard, and that distinction might show itself many years down the line in an ever so small deviation from honesty.

This concept is very applicable to us. The Rambam (Hilchos Dayos, Perek 6) says: “It is the nature of man to be pulled after his friends and acquaintances, and act in the manner of his neighbors.” The reality is that we are shaped by our experiences and the times that we live in.

We live in wondrous times, and we have opportunities that Jews of previous generations couldn’t imagine. However, it has been a very long and bitter exile, and unfortunately we have adopted much from the people amongst whom we live. When we recognize how much the society shapes our understanding of what is normal, we can protect ourselves from the dangers of those changes.

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

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Just One Dance

My wife’s comment on Simchas Torah pretty much summed it up, “I feel like this is the biggest tease for you.” You see, my mom a”h was niftar right before Pesach and when I asked a shiloh about how I should observe dancing on Simchas Torah I was told that I should just dance once during each hakafah. In a way it was the biggest tease. I was in a shul whose Morah d’Asra is the person I have learned more Torah from than anyone else in my adult life. I was surrounded by both baalei batim and klei kodesh that were inspired and on fire for Yiddishkeit. While not being the most physically active dude I really do live for dancing on Simchas Torah. Yet, I spent a majority of the night and day sitting with a sefer. I felt as if I’d been put on “pause” while the rest of the world kept moving.

Gnawing at me was a story that Rav Moshe Weinberger, Rav of Cong. Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY always tells before Maariv of Simchas Torah.

Rav Isaac l’Kalover recounted that there was once a Jew who came to a trade show in Leipzig to sell his merchandise. He planned to make a lot of money so he stayed in the nicest hotel he could find. While things didn’t workout as he planned in terms of selling his merchandise, he had a great time in the hotel. He ate the nicest meals that he had even eaten in his life and the bed and room were more comfortable than he had ever experienced in his little town. After a few days, the management began to get a bit worried. They noticed that he wore the same clothes every day, seemed to be enjoying the food a bit too much, and generally didn’t act like someone accustomed to such wealth. One day after this Jew enjoyed a big meal the manager came over to him about his stay and the food. He assured the manager that the had never experienced such nice accommodations or such delicious food and that he was very satisfied.

Still concerned, the manager showed him the bill and asked whether he thought there would be a problem paying it. The man admitted that while he had intended to make a lot of money at the big trade show, things had not worked out and he had no money to pay the bill. Infuriated, the manager grabbed the man and was about to take him to the police who were likely to beat him up and kill him. Protesting, the man said, “Wait! You won’t get any of your money back by handing me over to the police. But I will make an arrangement with you. I am a very talented dancer and I attract big crowds back home. Let me dance outside the restaurant and you will see that my performance will attract a crowd and you will see that the additional business brought into your restaurant will far exceed my bill.

Indeed, the Jew danced up such a storm that a large crowd gathered and ultimately, the business brought in by his dancing far outweighed the cost of his own hotel stay and use of the restaurant. Reb Isaac’l concluded that during the previous year and even Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we have enjoyed the beautiful accommodations of this world, but that we do not have the Torah and mitzvos to “pay” for our stay here. But as the days of judgment come to an end on Hoshana Raba, we say to Hashem that he should not take us away from the world. The dead cannot serve Hashem. Rather, we promise that we will dance in honor of Hashem and the Torah on Simchas Torah and that our dancing will bring so much honor to heaven, that it will more than “pay” for our stay in this world. (Adapted from Rav Weinberger’s 5775 drasha by Binyomin Wolf)

So, I was left with the question of how effective was my “payment” this year if I was only dancing once per hakafah? Aside from the learning I attempted do do using hakafos this question was running hakafos in my head. I tried to have the kavanah of being as “Simchas Torahdik” as possible while not going as nuts as I would had I not been in a a a aveilus. Even when I came home that night I still wasn’t sure if I had fulfilled my chei’uv by dancing.

However, what questions and reservations I had were washed away when I recalled an offhand remark I heard on my way to shul just the day before on Shabbos morning. I had the honor of waking my friend’s mother to shul (she uses a walker and I had trouble keeping up with her). She mentioned that like myself, she had a son-in-law that was also in aveilus. In the course of our conversation, she said that the whole year of mourning is the last act of kibud av v’em that a person can do, even if it means curtailing your dancing.

“Make His will like your will,” says Rabban Gamliel ben Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi in Pirkei Avos 2:4. I often find ascribing ideas like ‘being m’vater’ (to give up) or ‘bittul’ (to nullify or be selfless) my actions or lack of actions as something of an afterthought. I’m probably not as mindful as I should be about putting my wants or ‘will’ in the proverbial back seat in my Avodas Hashem. In this case the back seat ended up being a front role seat in the social hall/basement of a shul. All in all, not too shabby.

Yom Kippur – Putting Our Mistakes Behind Us

Dr David Lieberman summarizes the human experience as follows:
– The body wants to do what feels good.
– The ego wants to do what looks good.
– The soul wants to do what is good.

We all possess a pure soul that wants to do the right thing. However the drives of the body and the ego often lead to mistakes in the form of harmful words, harmful actions, and harmful thoughts.

God knows we make mistakes, after all He is the one that created us with the body-ego-soul conflict. In His infinite goodness, He gives us one day of the year which is set aside for some serious soul-searching. A day that we set aside the drives of the body. A day that we can freely admit out mistakes. A day that we can reconnect to the pure soul that we each possess. That day is Yom Kippur.

Fasting and abstaining from other physical pleasures is not a punishment, but rather a means to break free of the demands of the body, so that our beautiful souls can shine through.

The other key component of the day is the quiet verbal admission, that we’ve made mistakes. We say things that are hurtful. We’re not 100% squeaky clean in financial matters. We eat things we shouldn’t. We fantasize about things that are unhealthy. We don’t always offer or show the love, care, and comfort that our family, friends, and neighbors need.

But the admission of our faults is really the foundation on which we can grow. We are great people, with the potential to increasingly be loved and loving towards people and towards God. On Yom Kippur, God gives us the opportunity to put our mistakes behind us. That is why many Jewish Sages consider it the happiest day of the year.

Have a meaningful Yom Kippur!

Four Words that Fuel Spiritual Growth

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains that the key to establishing a palpable closeness to G-d when we say the Shemoneh Esrai, are the words Melekh (King), Ozer (Helper), uMoshia (Rescuer), uMogen (Shield) in the first brocha. We start off addressing G-d as a majestic but somewhat distant King. A Helper is more available and closer than a King, like a friend who we know we can call on. A Rescuer is closer than a Helper, because he is right there to save us when we need help. A Shield is closer than a Rescuer because he is surrounding us, protecting us from harm. If we say these four words slowly (4+ seconds per word), focusing on the different perceptions of closeness, we can sense Hashem’s protection.

This four word progression is also applicable to the Yomim Noraim. On Rosh Hoshana we focus on Hashem as King. In the ten days of Teshuva, we call out more in Selichos to Hashem, our Rescuer, because He is more available in this period. On Yom Kippur, we pray and confess to Hashem, our Saviour, as He saves us from the consequences of our sins. On Succos, we focus on Hashem, our Shield, through the mitzvos of the Sukkah and the feelings of protection that it generates.

The idea of the progression from King, to Helper, to Rescuer, to Shield, might help explain a question regarding brochos. Every standalone or sequence-beginning brocha must contain Hashem’s name and the word Melekh. However, the beginning of Shomeneh Esrai is missing the Melekh. Tosfos gives the most quoted answer: the first Brocha mentions Avrahom, who was the first one who made Hashem King over himself. The question still remains: why not just put the word Melekh, like we find in every other brocha?

Perhaps we can say that the word Melekh by itself represents a distant King. However in Shomeneh Esrai we are talking directly to Hashem, To help us create that conversational closeness, the Men of the Great Assembly, put the word Melekh at the end of the brocha in the progression leading to Magen. This is the relationship Avrahom personified, and that is the relationship we are pursuing in the first brocha and in the entire Shomoneh Esrai.

May we all merit to make the progression from Melekh to Magen in these upcoming Yomim Noraim, and in every tefillah that we daven.

The Importance of Developing Emotional Connections

The Need For Emotional Connection
The Mesillas Yesharim teaches us that 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.

We are quite good at observing the commandments, but many of us have trouble with the emotional component, specifically that of loving Hashem. We know we are supposed to love Hashem, but do we actually experience that love emotionally?

Without a strong emotional connection to Hashem and Torah, our mitzvos become rote, our davening becomes rushed, and we look to our possessions, our vacations, our vocations, and the worlds of sports, entertainment, and social media for emotional stimulation. It’s very likely that the spiritual malaise effecting large segments of our community is a result of a lack of a strong emotional connection to Hashem and Torah.

How Can We Develop Love
Rabbi Yitzchok Kirzner zt”l taught that to develop our Love of Hashem, we should work on Loving Our Fellow Jew, which is a commandment in its own right.

Love means to have a strong emotional connection. Most people have a strong emotional connection with their spouses, their children and their parents. But when we walk into Shul, with how many people do we actually feel a strong emotional connection?

To develop our love of our fellow Jews, we have to identify and relate to their positive qualities. One such quality is that at the root of every Jew is a pure spiritual soul. Every Jew is part of the collective soul of the Jewish people which unites us all. Every Jew is a child of Hashem and is loved by Hashem. Every Jew in our community places a part in creating an environment where we can grow through Torah and Mitzvos. And every Jew in our minyan, is instrumental in increasing the likelihood that Hashem will accept our Tefillos. We’ve identified a few positive qualities that give us the ammunition to develop our love.

Having identified the positive qualities, we have to actively and repeatedly think about that we love our fellow Jews because of their qualities. Thinking that we love someone is instrumental in actually developing that love. We shouldn’t be sidetrack by the fact that we love our spouses, children and parents more then our Shul members. We are obligated to love every Jew and each Jew has inherent positive qualities that form the foundation of love.

Actively thinking about our love of our fellow Jews is critical to developing that emotional capacity – and using it to love Hashem. So on a regular basis we can look around our Shul, and think about how we love this person, and that person, etc..

Loving Hashem
When we develop the practice of experiencing emotional love on a regular basis, we can then use that capability to Love Hashem. Our prayer books are filled with praise of the positive qualities of Hashem which give us many reasons to love Him. We have to actively think about how we love Hashem. It’s not enough to know it intellectually, we have to develop that love, by regularly thinking how we love Hashem.

It’s interesting that Chazal have put a special focus in the Three Weeks on developing a Love of our Fellow Jews. This is followed by the month of Elul, where we focus on Love of Hashem as indicated by ‘Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li’ – ‘I am for My Beloved and My Beloved is for Me’. Loving people and loving Hashem are commandments that are achievable. We can start on the right track every day in Shul with thoughts of Love. Don’t worry, nobody will know, but don’t be surprised if we start feeling them loving us back.

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

The Bilvavi’s Personal Teshuva Journey – From the Mind to the Heart

Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh and the Getting to Know Yourself, Getting Know Your Soul, Getting Know Your Emotions seforim has a free download available of Elul Talks here.

The Rav Speaks
We all know and believe that Torah and mitzvos are what life is all about, but do we really feel that these are what make our lives meaningful? Read Rabbi Shwartz’s personal account of how he searched and grappled with these issues, and how he came to feel these truths in his own heart. He promises that we can get the same results as he did.

Feeling Empty

I remember about 17 or 18 years ago I looked on the calendar and saw that it would be Rosh HaShanah soon.

Since the Yomim Noraim were approaching, I knew that I must feel something, but I didn’t know what to feel. I didn’t see anything in my life that is missing. I knew that I felt empty, but I didn’t know what it was that I was missing.

Why did I feel so empty? I learned all day; I had three full sedarim in the day where I learned. I davened and did all the mitzvos. So why did I feel empty inside?

I sat and thought: Am I missing something? Why do I feel empty if I am doing everything I am supposed to?

It bothered me very, very much.

I started to look at others to see if I could know how others are happy, and I saw that everyone else was happy except myself. Then I became very lonely, because I felt that everyone else was happy and enjoying their learning – everyone except me.

After many years, I met many people who felt what I felt then – people who feel like they’re empty inside and haven’t found themselves in life. There is no one here in Eretz Yisrael who hasn’t found themselves when it comes to mitzvos and Halacha. So what was missing in my life that I have to change myself?

I began to ask people if they felt like me. No one understood me – they were like Pharoah’s servants who couldn’t interpret his dream. No one gave me answers I was satisfied with.

This was one of the hardest times in my life – I can’t forget it. I had no idea what to do and where to go in my life. But I knew that I shouldn’t give up; I knew I’m not an old person at the end of his life, that I’m young and that I have hope.

I davened to Hashem to help me

After some time, I went to a private room and cried to Hashem. I asked Hashem, “Hashem, I know there is no more prophecy anymore, but what do You want from me? Tell me what You want from me!”

I cried terribly to Hashem. But I had faith that Hashem would send me my answers and show me what He wants from me in my life.

I hope no one goes through what I went through then. But if you ever went through this too, I want you to know that I was there too and went through it – and I came out of it.

After this, I remember that I made a list of all the things I was unhappy with my life, and I wrote how I feel like an old person who has no satisfaction in life. But I told myself not to give up, and I knew that Hashem will help me and show me what He wants from me. I didn’t know where my answer would come from, but I trusted in Hashem that He would send me the answer. How?

I knew it wouldn’t come from my mind. I knew that when Hashem opens up my heart, it will be then that I understand – to understand what the reality of this world is.

The Realization

I remember this clearly. I was sitting and learning with a sefer, and suddenly it hit me: I felt the reality that Hashem exists. Then, everything became clear to me.

I grew up in a frum home and learned in a good yeshivah, and I knew all about Emunah that a person is supposed to have. I was taught the 13 principles of faith of the Rambam about belief in G-d. But I realized that although I knew a lot, I didn’t feel what I knew.

Then I knew what I was missing.

This is what I realized: There is a place in one’s heart where he can feel the Endlessness of Hashem’s existence, and when a person doesn’t feel this, he feels empty. He will search and search and he will not find the answers to his emptiness.

Some people were not blessed by Hashem with much feeling, and this emptiness doesn’t bother them, the same way a table doesn’t feel anything. They get up and go to work or even if they go learn, they simply don’t feel this emptiness. They feel fine. But any person with a little feeling can see how this world is full of so much emptiness – tohu and vohu, and utter darkness. They want light – the light of Hashem – to illuminate their darkness.

The more feeling a person is, the more unhappy he is with what the reality is. XXX
There are a few people who are very deeply feeling people and they are in a lot of pain. They see others who are fine and look happy, and they don’t know why they themselves aren’t happy. These people suffer greatly inside. In addition to this, they are searching to fill their emptiness, and they don’t know how.

The more feeling a person is, the more unhappy he is with what the reality is. He sees others sitting and learning and enjoying their learning – he sees how by others, the Torah is their life. But he doesn’t feel in his own life how the Torah is life. He knows that it is supposed to give him life, but he doesn’t feel it. He feels that Torah doesn’t give him life, so maybe life is found elsewhere… such as the streets…

We must know one thing. The world is full of false pleasures; the Sages say that our soul will never be satisfied with this world’s pleasures, whether it is forbidden pleasure or whether it is permissible pleasure. Why? It is because our soul comes from Heaven; it wants something else.

The Root Of All Problems

At one point in my life, I realized what the root of all problems in the world is.

Baruch Hashem, people know most of the statements of Chazal, but they only know it intellectually – and that’s it. People know that Chazal say that the world stands on Torah, and that Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world, etc. But what is missing from us? We only know it – but we feel differently in our own life.

What we need to do is truly feel the truths about Torah and how it is everything, and then everything will change.

Falafel and Vacations

For many years, I thought about this until I finally came to this conclusion.

One time I passed by a falafel store and I saw a long line waiting out the store; a new kind of falafel came out, and everyone was waiting in line to try it. I thought to myself, “Maybe they’re right – maybe there really is something to this falafel? Maybe this falafel will make me happy?”

I waited on line, I bought it, I ate it – and I was very disappointed.

I began to think about what makes people feel more happy and alive.

I realized that some people feel a certain vitality from the honor they receive from other people, but I knew right away that that this was a false kind of vitality.

I saw people who were always going on vacations who seemed to really be enjoying it, though. I thought maybe there really is something special to all these vacations. I went on one of these vacations, but I was terribly disappointed. I rented a car, checked out into the hotel room, and as soon as I got into the room, I threw the keys onto the bed in frustration. I realized that while going to a hotel may have given me some more relaxation, it didn’t make me feel happier with my life.

It took many years for me to go deep into my soul and realize that I couldn’t be happy with my life based on anything external, but that it has to come from within myself. The more connected I felt to Torah and to Hashem, the more alive I felt. The more I would run after pleasure from the outside of myself, the more I realized I was chasing wind.

This is not a lecture. I am talking about a true story of my life – I am talking about my search, and what I found. Candies, cigarettes and walking on the beach can all give a person relaxation, and sometimes a person does need to relax in order to have some yishuv hadaas, but these things don’t give a person life. A person can only feel alive when he is truly connected to Hashem and the Torah.

More Frustration

It took me a lot of time to come to this conclusion.

One of the hardest times in my life I remember was when I learned in Yeshivah. I learned in Yeshivas Ponovezh, and I learned a lot. But I didn’t feel that my learning was giving me more life. I knew that the Torah is supposed to give me life, but I didn’t feel it. I thought that maybe I am the kind of student that the Sages say doesn’t see success in his learning. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to learn; I knew how to learn very well. I was regarded as an excellent student. But I didn’t feel like the Torah is what is giving me life, which is what I am supposed to feel.

I thought maybe I should leave yeshiva – I didn’t feel like I came onto the world to learn Torah. I knew that there are people who feel that they came onto this world to learn Torah, but I just didn’t feel that way.

I went to Jerusalem and decided that I will speak to one of the Gedolim who was there and ask him for his advice.

I went to his house, but he wasn’t available. I was very frustrated that I didn’t get into him, and I didn’t know what to do. I was very, very frustrated!

The Answer

At some point later, I realized what the answer was.

I thought to myself and realized clearly that if Hashem was the one who said that the Torah is our life – “Ki heim chayeinu” – then it must be so, and that I should never give up.

My Message To You

Don’t ever give up, even for one moment. Hashem is Avinu Av Harachaman – He is a merciful Father, and He wants you to have life. If you really want to find life in the Torah, you will find it.

If someone feels empty inside – or even if he doesn’t – he must know that he will not find anything pleasurable on this world; it’s all in his imagination that maybe there is something good out there other than the Torah.

Any pleasure on this world is fleeting and will not give a person enjoyment out of his life. If you really want to have a true life, cry to Hashem from the depths of your heart, “Open my heart to Your Torah” – not just that Hashem should open your mind, but to open your heart that you should have the true life – and then you will become a truly happy person, plain and simple.

I hope with all my heart that all of you should merit this and that Hashem should open up your hearts to realize that besides for a deep connection to Hashem and learning the Torah, there is nothing else we have that will give us enjoyment out of life.

The Never Ending Road of the BT

“I’m a BT.” This statement has an air of finality to it, doesn’t it? Like, “I’m a graduate of Harvard Med School”, or “I’m a doctor”, or “I’m a mother”. “I’m a BT” could be right up there with the other descriptors that apply to me: Jewish, female, wife to Stephen, age 47, professional author, mother of three. “I’m a BT.” I like the ring of it. I don’t have to give over the long complicated story of how I journeyed for twenty years as an adult before committed to a Torah way of life. This is the thirty-second elevator speech: “I’m a BT.” Then, the person to whom I’m speaking can nod his or her head in an understanding way. “Ah, I get it. You’re a BT!” Now we understand each other. . .

After I mastered the art of announcing myself as a BT without stumbling over the words, or feeling embarrassed about it, it came as a bit of a surprise to me that the label can be quite misleading. I AM a BT makes it sound like I have graduated from BT school, and I can now pronounce myself as holding a Masters in BT’dom. I AM a BT makes it sound as if I traveled down a road, picked up this identity along the way, and now I am, forever more, a fully formed BT, with all the credentials. I AM a BT is a bit of a cop-out, an easy way to size up a complex journey that is impossible to reduce to an elevator speech. More accurate would probably be this: “I am growing and learning in Torah.” But of course that expression isn’t as jazzy sounding, doesn’t quite sum it up in a few easy to remember initials.

I now find it more accurate to use the expression “I am a BT” to identify the direction to which I am moving — closer towards Torah and the Torah ideals of my long-ago ancestors who stood at Mt. Sinai and pronounced themselves ready to follow Hashem’s commandments. I am no longer moving away and disowning my Jewish heritage, I am embracing it. I am no longer focused on successful assimilation for my children, but rather, successful indoctrination of my children into the yeshivas way of life. I am no longer satisfied with just knowing enough Jewish learning to get by — I want to learn something new every week. I am a BT, growing in Torah, and trying not to be discouraged by how far I have to go, but rather, looking back at how far I’ve come.

My seventh-grade daughter is studying the laws of Shabbos in school. I’ve been fully shomer shabbat for about six years, and to my knowledge there isn’t anyone in our Highland Park community who won’t eat in my home. I pass the test, so to speak. I can hang the BT kashrus certification on my fridge. But just the other day, my daughter came home from school and told me — nicely, because that’s how she’s been trained to speak to her Ima on such sensitive matters — that I was opening the black olive can wrong on Shabbos. I knew not to use the electric can opener. I knew not to tear off any letters from the label. I didn’t know that before I opened the top of the can, I was supposed to puncture a hole in the bottom, so that I would be rendering the vessel unusable. News to me. I’ve opened about 200 black olive cans the wrong way. Please forgive me, Hashem. I am a work in progress.

The longer I am a BT, the longer the road ahead of me appears to be. Way in the early days, I worried about such basics as separating milk from meat, and wearing a hat on Shabbos. I was figuring out how to say the right thing on the Yom Tovim, so that I didn’t just say “Good Shabbos” to everyone when it was a Tuesday. I felt like I was at the bottom of Mount Everest ( or should I say, Mt. Sinai), and the top seemed out of sight. But then, as I started climbing, with the help of some very special teachers, I started feeling more confident. I CAN DO THIS! I can keep a kosher home that even the Rabbi will eat in. I can wear a sheitle and a long skirt and look every bit the part of an FFB. I can go to classes and learn, and learn, and learn, and then practice, and practice, and practice, and I can DO this. I can raise my children to be frum yidden who will also choose to raise their children to be frum yidden. I have returned.

Funny thing about climbing this mountain. I’ve discovered that it’s somewhat comforting to keep looking “down” – it reminds me, when I get discouraged, of how far I’ve come. And I’ve also discovered that there really is no summit to reach when, should I get there, I can just kick back and enjoy the view. Thank G-d, I have three children, ages 8, 11, and 12 1/2 (in 2007), who keep teaching me how much more I have to learn. Thank G-d.

*******

Azriela Jaffe is the author of “What Do You Mean, You Can’t Eat in My Home, A Guide to How Newly Observant Jews and their Lesser Observant Relatives Can Still Get Along”, which can be purchased at Barnes and Noble and other online booksellers.

Originally Published Feb 27, 2007

The Internet, The Smartphone and my Deepening Connection to Rabbi Uziel Milevsky zt”l

The first time I heard Rabbi Uziel Milevsky zt”l speak was at a Rosh Hoshana program close to 30 years ago. Over the years I have read his two published works: “The Ohr Someach Haggadah” and “Ner Uziel – Perspectives on the Parsha”, a number of times. Rabbi Milevsky received smicha from Ner Yisrael, served as Chief Rabbi of Mexico and taught Torah at Ohr Somayach in Yerushalayim and Toronto. Unfortunately he passed away at the young age of 50 on December 31, 1992.

These days I feel fortune to feel more connected to Rabbi Milevsky due to the following set of circumstances:
1) Ohr Somayach taped his lectures from his Chumash classes over 30 years ago,
2) Ohr Somayach converted the tapes to mp3 and offered them for sale on the Internet.
3) Ohr Somayach made its entire audio library available for free.
4) I now download his available Chumash classes every week and since my phone is also a mp3 player, I have Rabbi Milevsky teaching me Torah where ever I go.

What I appreciate the most about Rabbi Milevsky’s parsha classes is that he is looking to say pshat on a posuk, a Rashi, a Ramban or other commentator. He will often say a chiddush but it is always based on sources and is well grounded. Give him a listen to at https://audio.ohr.edu/showperson/id=5 .

I want to also thank Ohr Somayach for freeing up their library which was a source of revenue at some point.

In 1984, at the first Hackers Conference, Stewart Brand told Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak: “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

If this is true of secular knowledge, how much more so for Torah, which has can changed so many of our lives. There really is no reason we can’t be listening to Torah an hour or two a day thanks to our Smartphones, the Internet, and the proliferation of free Torah sites.

So please make your way to
https://www.simpletoremember.com/media/ or
https://audio.ohr.edu or
https://torahanytime.com or
https://www.yutorah.org or
http://www.mp3shiur.com or
http://torahdownloads.com/
and load up your phone. It’s also appropriate to donate to the sites from which you benefit.

The Joy of Mussar

You might be questioning whether it’s appropriate to use the words “Joy” and “Mussar” in the same sentence. Mussar has a strong judgemental tone. When you give somebody Mussar, you’re not telling him to “Have a nice day”. Rather, you’re telling him that “You need to make some serious corrections, brother.”

If we look at the Mesillas Yesharim, the classic textbook on spiritual growth and Mussar, we’ll see that the perceived judgemental tone of Mussar is well founded. The early chapters deal with the trait of Zehirus, watchfulness. The first essential spiritual practice of Zehirus is thinking before you act so that you don’t come to do something wrong. The second essential spiritual practice is reviewing your daily actions to identify and work on correcting in the future the things you did wrong today. This type of self-judgment sounds intense and it may turn a person away from Mussar, but please read on.

The key is to put this self-judgement in its proper perspective, as the Mesillas Yesharim does in the first two chapters of the sefer. He tells us that the highest pleasure that can be achieved in this world (and the next) is the pleasure of connecting to Hashem. We know that positive emotional and spirtual pleasures are the result of love and connection, as we experience in the pleasure of loving our spouses, our children, our parents, and our friends. We can experience an even greater pleasure when we love and connect with the Master of the Universe and the Source of All Existence. Achieving this great spiritual pleasure takes work. However, when we do put in the proper effort and achieve success, the fact that we worked hard to earn that pleasure makes it even sweeter.

The Ramchal teaches us that the work primarily involves overcoming three spiritual deficiencies: 1) controlling and directing our physical desires; 2) reducing self-centeredness and ego; and 3) overcoming our natural inclination to be lazy. Corresponding to the extent that we overcome these deficiencies is the extent to which we can experience the greatest of pleasures—connecting to Hashem. We correct these deficiencies through the positive and negative mitzvos. And just like a businessman must judge his activities to achieve his goals, so too must we judge our activities to see why we are not achieving the intense spiritual pleasure available to us.

This is the Joy of Mussar. We have the ability to achieve intense connection and pleasure and Mussar helps us to keep moving on that path. We know from our professional, friendship-building, parental, and spousal experiences that achieving success in the most important things in life takes work. How fortunate are we to have an avenue like Mussar, and a sefer like the Mesillas Yesharim to instruct us on what we need to do to help us achieve the greatest pleasures and happiness available in this world.

Attaining the Needs of Our Soul

Rabbi Itamar Shwartz (Author of Bilvavi Mishkan Evner)
Download Rav Shwartz’ Shavous Talks here.

Three Kinds Of Love: For the Creator, For Torah, and For Another Jew

With the help of Hashem, we are approaching the time of the giving of the Torah.

When the Torah was given, there were three great revelations. The first revelation was that Hashem came down onto Har Sinai, and opened up all the heavens and showed us that Ain Od Milvado, there is nothing besides for Him. The second revelation was the Ten Commandments, which contains the entire Torah. The third revelation was that we all stood together with one heart.

The sefarim hakedoshim reveal that there are three kinds of love that we need to seek: love for Hashem, love for the Torah, and love for the Jewish people. These three kinds of love were all revealed at the giving of the Torah. Our love for the Creator was revealed when Hashem revealed Himself to us. Our love for the Torah was revealed through the Ten Commandments. Our love for the Jewish people was revealed when we had complete unity with each other, standing together with one heart.

The Love We Have Towards Ourselves

When a person is born, his power of love isn’t developed yet. He does not know of love for Hashem, for Torah, and for another Jew. He loves himself – and he identifies himself as a body, so he loves his body. As a person gets older, he is supposed to mature and develop his love to become more spiritual, forming a love for Hashem, for Torah, and for other Jews.

When a person loves himself, there are two kinds of love: love for his body (guf), and love for his soul (nefesh).

Unless someone works on his middos, he naturally worries for himself all day, from morning until night. People also think a little about others, more or less, and it depends on each person; some are a bit more purified.

A person worries about his physical needs and for his emotional needs (we are referring to his nefesh habehaimis (“lower, animalistic layer of the soul) and not to the deeper, spiritual needs of the soul).

Most people put more focus on their physical needs. This is usually a very strong kind of love. People eat and drink because they love their body.

Most people are concentrating on their body’s physical needs – and not their soul’s basic emotional needs.

We are not even addressing how people neglect their soul’s spiritual needs, which are higher needs; even the basic emotional needs of a person are often neglected. Most people are busy and occupied with [shopping for] clothing and food. And if that is the situation of Jews today, surely non-Jews are like this too. The world today is mostly running after physical gratification.

Unless a person works to change this, when it comes Shavuos time – a time to prepare for loving Hashem the Torah and the Jews – it is far from him. If he doesn’t meet his soul’s basic emotional needs, he won’t even care about his spiritual needs.

How We Love Others

A person who pays attention to his body and neglects his soul only loves others superficially. He might feel like he “loves” his friends, but in reality, he only loves their bodies.

Even with his family he’s like this; he only loves his wife and children with a “body” kind of love. The Chovos HaLevovos writes that our family is part of our flesh. Therefore, if a person loves only his ‘flesh’, and not his soul, then although he will love his family, he only loves the physical ‘flesh’ of his family. He can love his wife who is called his ‘flesh’ (that is, if he even reaches the basic love for his wife…), but he only loves her from his body, not from his soul.

If a person doesn’t love his own soul, he does not know what it means to love the soul of another. This is because love is an extension of how much a person loves his own self[1]. If a person only loves his ‘flesh’, he will love others only for their ‘flesh’. (One he truly loves his soul, though, is a very inner kind of person). His whole Ahavas Yisrael towards other Jews will be superficial, because he only loves others’ ‘flesh’, and not their souls. This is not Ahavas Yisrael.

We can find that there are certain people who only love their own ‘type’ – similar to how the chassidah\stork only does kindness with other storks, and not with other animals. (And for this reason, the stork is a non-kosher bird, because it does not do real kindness – only to those who are the “same type”…) It is all because most people are only loving the flesh of others, because they only know of love for their flesh, and they do not know of love for the soul.

A person can only love others in the same way he loves himself, because love to others is an extension of how much you love yourself. If one only loves his ‘flesh’ – his physical existence – his love can only go so far as to love the ‘flesh’ of others, but he cannot love their souls. He doesn’t love his own soul.

Simchas Yom Tov

When Shavuos comes, it’s a time of Simchas Yom Tov (rejoicing in the festival). What is the simchah? Is it physical contentment, or it is a spiritual feeling?

Of course, Chazal say[2] that the mitzvah is fulfilled through meat and wine; these things do bring a degree of happiness. But it’s clear that meat and wine are not the entire of happiness of the Yom Tov. This is not only true with regards to Simchas Yom Tov. It is true with regards to all of life: the physical aspects of our life cannot be everything. There is more to life than our physical needs.

When a person does mitzvos – like if he puts on tefillin – it might be on his ‘body’, but it’s not necessarily affecting his soul. This is because if a person identifies himself as a body and not as a soul, it will hamper his connection to anything spiritual.

Learning Torah is spiritual. Even the intellectual aspect of it is spiritual. If a person only identifies with his body and not with his soul, then even if he learns Torah for many hours of the day, it won’t affect his soul.

Overeating: The Prime Example of Materialistic Pursuit

The generation is full of physical desires (including kosher and non-kosher). New things come out every day. When a person pursues them, his soul gets concealed more and more, as the person only gives attention to his physical body. He embodies the possuk, “Ach besari” – “Nothing but my flesh”…

When a person eats and eats, he can get so involved in it that he feels as if the food is a part of him! The Chovos HaLevovos writes that when people indulge in food, it connects a person more and more to materialism, and the more a person indulges, the thicker he is entrenched in the materialism. The person begins to feel very connected to food with the more and more he indulges, and he identifies the food as a part of himself…

Nowadays, when a person meets with a friend, he usually eats with him. Rarely do people meet each other without seeking to have some kind of meal with each other. Why can’t people meet each other and just be happy that they see each other, without eating with each other? With many friendships, it’s based on how eating they have with each other!

When it comes to spending time with family, all people often do is eat meals with each other, and that’s the basis of their whole relationship…

The physical desires of this world all affect us with the more we indulge in it. When we only give attention to the needs of our physical flesh, we experience life only through our physical flesh – and that is how we will see others: as mere physical flesh. Our whole relationship towards others will only be based on recognizing them as physical bodies of flesh.

And, taking this further, rachmana litzlon, that is how a person will also relate to Torah and to Hashem: he will have a very superficial connection with Torah and with Hashem, because he is only living life superficially. Even if he tries to experience a connection with Hashem, he won’t get to it, because he is living only in his physical flesh.

The Maharal says that the more a person attaches himself to choimer\materialism, the less the Torah can enter him. The Torah is spiritual, and it cannot enter materialism.

Physical Affection: Feeling The Other’s Body – Or Feeling The Other’s Soul…?

When two friends meet each other and they feel really close with each other, they will usually hug and kiss each other, as signs of affection. What are their motivations, though? If they only love their bodies, and not their souls, then they are hugging and kissing the other person’s body, not the other’s soul!

They should really wish to hug and kiss the others’ soul, and the signs of physical affection would be a reflection of that inner love for each other. But because they live life through their bodies, they can only know of love for the others’ body…

It is similar to when Esav kissed Yaakov. When Esav kissed Yaakov, he wasn’t kissing the soul of Yaakov. He was kissing the body of Yaakov. It wasn’t a love emanating from his soul, because he only knew of physical gratification. The rules is that “Esav hates Yaakov” – even though he kissed him. Because it wasn’t a real kiss.

But if a person lives a life of the soul, and he loves his soul in turn, he will open himself up to begin to love the soul of others.

The Needs of A Child

The love that most people have for their families is only for their bodies, and not for their souls.

We can see this from the fact that most parents do not provide even the most basic emotional needs of the child, such as that the child should feel loved and happy. They give lots of things to their children, but they don’t provide the emotional needs.

Why? It is because they don’t even give themselves their own emotional needs. Therefore, they don’t realize that their children aren’t getting their emotional needs met, because they don’t give importance in their own life to their own emotional needs.

The Test

If a person was given a choice if he will be given 10 minutes of good food or 10 minutes of happiness, what would he choose?

Here is the litmus test. If a person says he’ll go for the food, it shows how he views life, that his life is all about loving his physical flesh. If a person says he’ll choose happiness, it shows that he identifies with his soul’s needs.

We are not describing a high level to be on. We are talking about how a person experiences life.

What Weddings Have Become Today

Take a look at simchos (celebrations) today. When people go to a wedding, how many of them can say that they rejoiced the chosson and kallah? What is the simcha that most people have by weddings? The food! People go to weddings and eat and eat and eat; weddings nowadays have become an entire evening for one to simply fulfill his physical desires! What does this have to with rejoicing a chosson and kallah?!

A person often gets caught up in all the good food there, and he often doesn’t even get around to rejoicing the chosson and kallah. If we ask him, “Did you get to rejoice the chosson\kallah?” The answer is, “I didn’t even think about that. I was too busy eating the food and having a good time.”

If you ask him if he enjoyed the wedding, he might answer, “Sure, I enjoyed the wedding.” Baruch Hashem, he enjoyed it. He enjoyed it all for himself; he didn’t even think to rejoice the chosson or kallah. Can we call this simcha?! Is this the simcha of a wedding?!

The only happiness that we have today – conceptually – is (besides for Yom Tov) by a wedding, a simchas chosson v’kallah. But to our chagrin, weddings today are not about simcha – people go just for the food. They gratify their bodies through it, not their souls.

Changing

The choice that everyone has on this world is: If he will live life through his body, or through his soul.

A person should ask himself how much physical gratification he’s getting, versus how much of his basic soul needs that he is getting. One should try thinking about this every day.

If anyone reflects, he’ll find that most of the day is spent on physical gratification – whether it’s coffee, smoking, food, newspapers, etc. Each to his own.

To begin to change this, one should try to make sure that he’s giving himself at least a little attention each day to his soul’s needs.

Today, pleasure is often only experienced sensually, with the physical. People often are completely devoid of experiencing any enjoyment whatsoever with regards to their souls.

A person can start to change this by making sure to give his soul a little pleasure each day. This is just the beginning step.

When a person then feels a desire for something physical, such as for food – if he feels that he can give it up for something that is a soul need, he is making progress with this. It shows that he has begun to change his perspective at least a little.

Someone who does this and gets used to this will come to an amazing discovery. He will begin to actually feel others. He will feel other’s happiness when they make a simcha, and he will feel their sadness when they go through a loss. His soul will be able to feel the other’s soul.

A Newly Developed Awareness

The more a person gets used to satisfying his soul’s basic needs, he will begin to live a life of the soul. It will open a whole new kind of awareness in himself.

Most people identify themselves as a body and live life through that awareness. People know intellectually about the soul, but they are mostly experiencing life only through their body.

Once a person identifies himself more with his soul, he will feel like his body is a heavy weight upon him. He will feel like, “This body of mine that I’m carrying all the time is so heavy!” Even if he isn’t a heavy person, he will still feel that his body is like a heavy weight upon him that he has to carry around. He used to think his body was himself, so he didn’t feel this heaviness as a burden. He thought his body was “Me.” Now that he has begun to identify himself as a soul, his body feels like something on top of him that’s a heavy load. Slowly, his desires for the physical will listen.

This has to become a natural feeling toward oneself, and in this way, one will begin to naturally feel that others are souls as well – as opposed to feeling them as mere bodies of physical flesh.

Feeling Another’s Soul

To give an example: When two friends meet each other and they shake each other’s hands, what do they feel? Do they just feel each other’s hands, or do they feel the other’s soul? If the person only feels the other’s hands, then he is acting with the same emotions with which a non-Jew lives life.

When a person meets another, why doesn’t he feel if the other is in a happy mood or a sad mood? It is because he only feels the other’s body. He doesn’t feel the other’s soul.

The more a person gives attention to his own soul’s needs, the more he will naturally feel another soul, as he begins to pay attention to his own. He will feel both the emotional as well as the spiritual needs of others. Without feeling oneself as a soul, love for others doesn’t even begin.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that after beginning to change his mindset that he will have perfect love toward others; he will still feel bothered by some people. But at least he has begun to open up in himself the ability to love others, and he’s on his way to building his love for others.

Leaving The Body And Entering The Soul

When we heard the Torah at Har Sinai, our souls left us. In other words, we left the perspective of the body and entered the perspective of our soul!

This shows us that the way to prepare for the Torah – [at least] one of the ways – is to leave our body’s perspective and to instead enter into our soul a bit. This will resemble how the souls of the Jewish people left their bodies at Har Sinai.

May we be zoche to leave the thick materialism of this world and instead feel how we are a soul, beginning from the most basic needs of our soul [our emotional happiness], and then to the more spiritual needs of our soul, until we finally reach the highest part of our soul – the point of total d’veykus (attachment) with Hashem.

Getting Beyond the Proofs

In the introductory program of the baal teshuvah yeshivah in Jerusalem where I was introduced to Torah Judaism, the “Proofs of God and Torah M’Sinai” was the hottest thing going. We fought over them, stayed up until three o’clock in the morning debating them, and spent weeks and months on them. Having a degree in the life sciences I was particularly loathe to drop the idea of random evolution or accept the idea of a soul. After three months of fiery debates, participating in them and also observing some of the best minds of the finest universities getting shot down to the dust, I was pretty convinced.

Then came summer break. With a new addition to my backpack – a pair of tefillin – I made my way with a few guys down to the Sinai for scuba diving and fun in the sun. From my present perspective it’s hard to envision what there was to do on the beach for so long, but suffice it to say that a month later the “Proofs of God and Torah M’Sinai” were a distant mirage. The tefillin didn’t see the light of day anymore.

What happened? It’s not an uncommon phenomenon. One can see valid evidence and be convinced by intellectual proofs, but the influences of peer pressure from the surroundings and physical urges hold sway.

No one brought any evidence to the contrary. I never even discussed the proofs. But the entire edifice crumbled under the onslaught of vacationing youth on the beach.

Although I had chosen at this point to remain non-religious, I returned to the yeshivah, feeling distant from what had begun to be a tentative tasting of the Torah lifestyle. I needed a base to plan my next step, graduate school or work, so I returned to the dorm. Someone from the administration sat down with me and offered the next stage of programming: Mishnah, Gemara, Chumash, Ulpan. I liked the idea of getting textual, and gaining some Hebrew language skills.

That’s what did it for me. It was a case of “boy meets Gemara, and they lived happily ever after.”
There are no questions for the yeshivah student who is happily engrossed in the intricacies of the Gemara, gaining an intimacy with spiritual Intellect that is the foundation of creation. It is literally the authentic “soul food.”

Now, I’m not naïve. I understand that peer pressure and environment is a two edged sword. I’m not claiming my spiritual experience of the love of Torah is any kind of proof.

What I am saying is the experience of spiritual pleasure in Torah life, whether it be derived from Torah study, prayer, Shabbos, or good deeds, is the counterbalance to the physical urges and egocentric motivations that disturb us from perceiving the truth.

The existence of God is the single most obvious element of existence. What sometimes prevents the greatest minds from perceiving it are the biases of ego, physical desires, and a desire for unrestricted moral freedom.

No one is going to be able to batter ram the truths of Judaism down the throats of millions of secular Jews. Although presenting the evidence for the claims of Torah Judaism is an important first step, and absolutely vital in today’s marketplace of ideas, it cannot be the basis for a commitment to Torah.
This is because a human being generally does not operate on a rational basis. For example, Rabbi Galinsky tells the amusing story of a college professor who passionately lectured to him for hours about the dangers of smoking and then lit up a cigarette after the lecture.

The evidence for the existence of God and Torah M’Sinai is out there (check out www.simpletoremember.com for a selection of the material). A person can and should base his emunah on reason and knowledge. However, the crux of free will necessitates that we need something more to counterbalance the effects of egoism and physical desire, which influence us to conveniently overlook our intellect.

That’s the way to get beyond the proofs. A Jew who is sincerely motivated to become close to God and His Torah has to find an avenue of lasting spiritual pleasure that works for him/her on a personal basis and has the power to overcome the siren song of this world.

First published on Jan 10th, 2008