Aish Appreciation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And many more at Classic Sinai.

Can a BT Earn the Right to Coast?

Hi

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

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

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

-Akiva

—————–
From the Comments

This post could have been written by me as well.

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

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

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

-Chaim

Coercion, Acceptance and the Spiritual Inputs of Purim

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the whole thing here

I’m Not on That Level

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

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

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

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

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

Working Smarter — After Working Hardest

VaYetzai

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

For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

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

-Bereshis 29:35

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

-Bereshis 30:1,2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Bereshis 30:3

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

-Bereshis 30:15

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

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

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

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

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

Bais Yaakov VaYetzai Inyan 66 (page261) 

Making Judaism Great Again

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

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

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

Flourishing in the Physical Dimension

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Four Dimensions – Spiritual, Mental, Emotional and Physical

By Mark Frankel & David Linn

The Four Dimensions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FourDimensionalFlourishingV1

Four Dimensional Flourishing – Introduction

By Mark Frankel & David Linn

An Amazing Life

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

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

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

Four Dimensional Flourishing

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued.

Some BTs Lose It, Some FFBs Never Had It


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning the Tables on the Constant Test of Summertime Immodesty

By Rabbi Yonah Levant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internalizing Torah Lends Confidence … NOT Smugness

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

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

— Vayikra 26:3

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

— Devarim 4:7

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

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

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

— Bereshis Rabbah 68:9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Improbable Happiness of Israelis

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


The Nationality, Culture and Tradition of Israelis

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


Connecting Within Ourselves, To Hashem, and To Others

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


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

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


Happiness is the Result of Completeness

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

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

Live Or Let Die

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

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

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

Here’s a short excerpt:

Live Or Let Die

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today is Tu B’Shevat.

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

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

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

Shovavim

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

Shovavim and Self Improvement:

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

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

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

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

Shovavim Tat:

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

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

A Sign of the Times:

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

10 Years of Beyond BT – The State of the Union

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ramchal on Eating

In Mesilas Yesharim, Chapter 15 – the Ramchal says:

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

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

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

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

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

If You Could Be Supergirl

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

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

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

If You Could Be Superman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Responsibilities Of Power

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

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

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

None of which requires superpower.

The Real Heroes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yisrael and Torah … Two Halves of One Whole

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

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

— Devarim 29:9,10

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

— Zohar III:73

Our nation is a nation only through her Torah

— Rav Saadiya Gaon

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

— Shabbos 138B-139A

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

— Esther 3:8

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

— Kiddushin 32B

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

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

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

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

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

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