Defeating Self-Defeat

Why do people constantly sabotage themselves?
How does the scapegoat atone for the sins of Uza and Azael?

And Ahron [the Kohen Gadol-high priest] should place two lots on the two goats; one [marked] for HaShem and the other [marked] for Azazel

— Vayikra 16:8

And Ahron should press his two hands on the live goats head and confess all the sins of the Bnei Yisrael-Jewish people; on it, rebellious acts and unintentional offenses.  When, by doing so, he has placed them [all of these sins] on the goats head, he should send it into the desert with a man of the hour.

— Ibid 16:21

What would he [the man of the hour] do? He would take a crimson ribbon and tear it in two.  Half was tied to a sharp boulder while the other half was tied between the goat’s two horns.  He then pushed the goat backwards [over the peak] and it would roll down the mountain.  The goat was ripped limb from limb before it got halfway down the craggy mountain.

— Mishnah Yoma 6:6

The Rabbis taught: [why] “Azazel”?  That it should be strong and hard … the academy of Rabbi Yishmael taught [why] “Azazel”? for it atones for the deeds of Uza and Azael [two fallen angels].

—Yoma 67B

Rami bar Chama taught: the numerical values of the word Hasoton-the Satan; is 364. This implies that for 364 days of the year he has authorization to prosecute but that on [one of the year’s 365 days] Yom Kippur … he does not.

—Yoma 20A

Reish Lakish taught: The Satan-the prosecuting attorney on High; the Yetzer Hara-the inclination to evil; and the Malach Hamaves-the Angel of Death; are one and the same entity.

—Bava Basra 16A

It is odd and almost counterintuitive that man, allegedly the most highly evolved of all organisms, should have the weakest of all survival instincts.  From the cradle to the grave humans are capable of reckless behaviors that endanger lives and limbs.  Humanities self-destructive tendencies manifest themselves in a wide variety of ways.  From subconscious acts of self-sabotaging predicated on the excessive fear of failure, to cuttings and other forms of self-inflicted mutilation; from anorexia to obsessive overeating; from rampant consumerism that spells ecological disaster to nuclear fueled geopolitics that continue to push the envelope towards assured mutual destruction.

The most striking expression of the inclination to self-destruct is found in individuals who commit suicide including the most faddish and trendy iterations of murdering oneself including physician-assisted suicide, cop-assisted suicide and murder-suicides characteristic of both domestic violence and terrorist bombings. All in all both individual humans and humanity as a whole seem hell-bent on self-destruction.

Whence this uniquely human drive to destroy ourselves?

The centerpiece avodah –Divine service; of Yom Kippur was the lottery of the two goats; one goat dedicated to HaShem whose blood was sprinkled in the inner sanctum while the other goat was designated as the sair laAzazel-the goat “dedicated” to Azazel; and was pushed off of a jagged cliff in the desert wilderness.  In the popular vernacular the goat that “lost” the lottery is commonly known as the scapegoat.  Many a proverbial quill has been broken in the commentaries attempts to explain such a puzzling avodah, especially on the holiest day of the year. The Ramban characterizes it as a bribe to the sitra achara-“the ‘other’ [dark] side”; while the Lubliner Kohen does not mince words and calls it an act of idolatrous worship that is, nevertheless, the Will of HaShem.

The Bais Yaakov, the second Izhbitzer Rebbe, offers a novel approach that recasts the sair laAzazel as the antidote for the human drive for self-destruction. But before presenting it I must introduce the foundation to unlocking the mystery of human self-destructiveness upon which the Bais Yaakov’s approach is based. It is a teaching found in the text and a hagahah-margin gloss; in Rav Chaim Volozhiners Nefesh Hachaim (pp.21, 23).

Read more Defeating Self-Defeat

Is Torah Everything … OR is Everything Torah II

Why is the Zodiac sign of the month of Sivan the twins?
Why are we often frustrated by failure despite having put forth our very best efforts?
Conversely, why does unanticipated success sometimes come our way, relatively effortlessly?

… Similarly the Holy One, blessed be He, say to [the Children of] Israel: ‘My children! I created the inclination to evil but I [also] created the Torah, as its antidote [lit. seasoning]; if you busy yourselves with the Torah, you will not be delivered to your inclinations to evil.

— Kidushin 30B

Our Rabbis taught: There are two kidneys within Man, one of which counsels him to good, [while] the other counsels him to evil; and it is reasonable to suppose that the good one is on his right side and the bad one on his left, as it is written, “A wise man’s heart /insight is at his right side, but a fool’s heart/ insight is at his left.” (Koheles10:2)

— Brachos 61A

I considered my ways, and retraced my footsteps towards your testimonies.

—Tehillim 119:59

If you will “walk/go in” My statutes (Vayikra 26:3)” This alludes to what is written in Tehillim “I considered my ways, and retraced my footsteps towards your testimonies” [King] David was [really] saying “L-rd of the Universe every day I used to think ‘I plan on going to a certain place, and to a certain dwelling’ yet my feet walked me [as if of their own accord] to synagogues and Yeshivos.  Thus ‘[I] retraced my footsteps towards your testimonies’ “

—Vayikra Rabbah 35:1

He enthroned the letter Zayin as king over motion and he bound a crown to it and he combined one with another and with them he formed Gemini (i.e. the zodiacal constellation sign of twins) in the Universe (Space), Sivan in Year (Time) and the left foot in Soul of male and female.

— Sefer Yetzirah 5:7

In the above excerpt cited above from Sefer Yetzirah we find an example of, the kabbalistic– teaching that we’ve learned about in recent weeks; that all that HaShem created exists on the three parallel planes of olam/shanah/nefesh-world/year/soul i.e. in the realms of space, time and spirit.

For Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, the parallel between motion, feet and Sivan are all fairly self-evident.  Sivan is the month of Mattan Torah-the Revelation at Sinai; when Torah was brought from Heaven to earth and the all-encompassing system of Torah observance is known as Halachah; a conjugation of the Hebrew verb translated as “walking” or “going”. In Parshas Bechukosai we analyzed passages of the Mei HaShiloach in which the kinetic nature of Torah, i.e. how Torah transforms “standers” and “sitters” into “goers” and “walkers” was explored at length.

What is less self-evident is why the motion of the Torah-of-Sivan relates specifically to the souls left foot rather than to the souls right foot. After all, the wisest of all men taught that mans inclination to evil is associated with the left side of his being (heart/ kidney) why should the Torah-of-Sivan, the source of all that is good and the antidote to the yetzer hara-the inclination to evil; parallel the foot that is on man’s “bad” side?

Read more Is Torah Everything … OR is Everything Torah II

Jewish Survival – The Paths of our Great Grandparents

By Rabbi Meir Goldberg

While in the Janowska Road Concentration Camp, Nazi SS officers forced the Bluzhever Rebbe and fellow prisoners on a death march. The Rebbe walked with a maskil (free thinker) whom he befriended, a man who did not believe in G-d. As they approached several huge ditches, the prisoners were ordered to jump across, an almost impossible feat. If they landed in the ditch, they would be summarily shot.

“Well Spira,” said the maskil to the Rebbe, “It looks like we’ve reached our end.” “Just hold onto my coat and we’ll jump across together” replied the Rebbe. They closed their eyes and jumped. They opened their eyes alive on the other side. Shocked, the maskil turned to the Rebbe and asked, “Rebbe, we’re alive, we’re alive because of you! There must be a G-d! How did you do it Rebbe?” The Rebbe replied, “I had zchus avos (ancestral merit). I held on to the bekeshe of my father and his father and all of my ancestors. But tell me,” asked the Rebbe to the maskil, “how did you reach the other side?” The maskil answered, “I was holding on to you!”

I related this story to my students during an inspiring Shabbos in Krakow, Poland, while on a tour of old Polish towns and concentration camps. We had been singing and speaking words of chizuk for hours on that cold January Friday night and nobody wanted to go to sleep. We thought we came to Krakow and would inspire the town. Yet it was 600 years of kedushah from some of the most notable names in the Jewish world whose bekeshe we were hanging on to.

When living in the large frum population centers, we sometimes have the tendency to think that there are so many frum Jews, who view life and our surroundings much the same as we do. Yet we all realize that Torah Jews are but a minute fraction of the world population. What are the odds that out of the close to 7 billion people in the world, we are one of the 14 million of Hashem’s chosen people? And out of those 14 million, what are the odds that we would be one of the 1 million Jews who observe his Torah? How did each of us get here? Why are we frum, while so many of our estranged brothers and sisters are not?

The answer is that each one of us has a great grandfather and a great grandmother who made a conscious decision at some point in their lives, that living as a Torah Jew was the most important thing in their lives and they would pass it on to their children. And whether they lived in Frankfurt or Warsaw, Pressburg or Casablanca, Vilna, Allepo or Munkacz, they swam against the tide of assimilation that surrounded them on all sides. They chose to remain shomrei Shabbos, though they were in the minority. Many had to make these decisions after they came to these prosperous shores, while faced with the pressures of providing for their family, while some have made this decision on their own, after growing up in already secular households. This is why each one of us is here today, keeping Shabbos, going to a shiur, living as a Jew should, and passing these ideals on to our children.

The monotony of life has a way of breaking us down. Words, actions, life choices, often seem to be trivial. We subconsciously convey these messages to our next generation. They take note of our deeds and foibles, what we look at and whom we praise. Everything we do matters and will leave an impression on the next generation. The decisions we make now, however small they seem, echo in eternity.

A friend of mine is well known in the Kiruv world for his incredible success in inspiring hundreds of Jews to Teshuva. I often wonder what it is that makes him so successful. While he does speak beautifully and has a certain dynamism that creates an aura of life and vitality around him, he isn’t much different than many others who have not nearly made quite such an impact on Klal Yisroel. It was when he told me his grandfathers story that it all made sense.

His grandfather grew up in Germany and instead of spending his years in Yeshiva, he fled the Nazi’s. By war’s end this man was half dead, barely surviving the camps; 70% of his stomach needed to be removed. He was nursed back to health by his wife, my friend’s grandmother, who was determined to make a new life for both of them.

The couple moved to America and this German survivor, who knew not much more than how to daven, set out to find employment. During his first year here, he had 39 W2 forms, as he got fired almost weekly from his job as a tailor, because he refused to work on Shabbos. This simple man, educated in almost nothing other than the horrors of life, would not budge when it came to shmiras Shabbos. He finally found steady work which allowed him to keep Shabbos and he raised his family as Torah Jews.

When I heard this story, I understood the secret to my friend’s kiruv success.

Poland, the land inhabited by so many of our ancestors whose Torah life we cling to, is a land of paradoxes. It has a certain old world charm in its rolling, green pastures and quaint European small towns. Yet its big cities look something like the Bronx, with its throwback communist buildings and infrastructure. It is a land so rich in history, with nearly a millennium of a rich and varied panorama of Jewish life. Yet its soil is so saturated in Jewish blood that the ground nearly cries out wherever one goes. Is this land one of kedushah due to the presence of so many great Rabbinic luminaries and millions of Jews who died al Kiddush Hashem or is it a land of tumah because of the hate, murder, death camps and crematoria?

This is what brought 46 secular college students and their frum kiruv staff to the ultimate paradox. As we marched out of Auschwitz-Birkenau we walked along the old train tracks on which millions of Jews were brought in to death or misery. Yet unlike those Jews of 70 years past, we marched out singing Yaakov Shweckey and Yonatan Raizel’s classic, V’hi Sheamda. We gathered underneath the archway entering the camp, this archway of death, singing the words, “V’hakadosh Baruch Hu matzilainu miyadam.” 70 years ago they tried to annihilate us, yet here were 46 college students seeking life. Not merely in the materialistic sense, but more so, yearning for something real; for a fresh, spiritual vitality.

We sang together for a half hour and when we finished singing, we looked up at another paradox. During the Polish winter it is almost always cloudy, dreary and overcast. Yet on this evening a full moon shone. This same moon to which the broken inmates looked to in eager anticipation during Kiddush levana, one of the only Mitzvos they could perform; the moon of which they knew that although it may be small now, it will someday become full and complete again, just like themselves and the Jewish people. Now, 70 years later, it shone on us in all of its wholeness, on a group of 46 students looking to become spiritually whole once again, who were treading down the path of life of our great grandparents.

Rabbi Meir Goldberg is the Director of the MEOR Rutgers Jewish Xperience. He can be reached at mgoldberg@meor.org

Thanks to the Lakewood Scoop for permission to republish this tribute to Jewish survival.

It’s Never as Bad, or as Evil, as It Seems

How does Jewish sin differ from sin in general?
Why do we read Parshas Parah only at this time of the year?

I have recorded a homiletic interpretation … of R. Moshe Hadarshan … And have them take for you… just as they took off their own golden earrings for the calf, so shall they bring this [cow] from their own [assets] in penance. A red cowThis is comparable to the baby of a maidservant who soiled the king’s palace [with fecal matter]. They said, “Let his mother come and clean up the mess.” Similarly, let the cow come and atone for the calf.] … [Midrash Aggadah and Tanchuma Chukath 8]

–Rashi Bemidbar19:22

A Kohen who converted to an idolatrous religion should not “raise his palms” in the priestly blessing. Others say that if he repented then he may perform the priestly blessing.

–Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 128:37

But if he actually worshipped an idol, even if he was forced to do so and even if he subsequently repented, he may not perform the priestly blessing.

–Be’er Heitev ibid footnote 63

Approach the altar: [The salient corners of the altar reminded Ahron of the juvenile horn-buds of the Calf] because Ahron was embarrassed and frightened of approaching [the altar] Moshe said to him: “Why are you ashamed? You have been chosen for this [role]!”

– Torath Kohanim on VaYikra 9:7

Fire came forth from before HaShem and consumed them [Nadav and Avihu], such that they died before HaShem. Then Moshe said to Ahron, “This is precisely what HaShem meant, [when He said], ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me (Shemos 29:43) … “

–VaYikra 10:2,3


מוֹצִיא מִזָּלוֹת יְקָרוֹת. מַתִּיר מֵאֲסוּרוֹת מֻתָּרוֹת. נוֹתֵן מִטְּמֵאוֹת טְהוֹרוֹת
HaShem brings forth the priceless from the worthless, He allows the permissible from the prohibited, He produces the pure from the impure.

Piyut-“Yotzros” for Parshas Parah

The mei chatas-the waters whose main ingredient were the ashes produced from immolating the carcass of the Parah Adumah-the Red Heifer, are the only means to gain purity after contracting impurity through contact with the dead- tuma’as meis. A person who has become tamei meis may not consume the korban Pesach-the Passover sacrifice. (Or, for that matter, any consumable sacrifices.) When the Bais HaMikdash-the Temple in Jerusalem, stood those who were tme’ei meis would undergo the mei chatas purification process required to enable them to offer their korban Pesach.  Nowadays, as the Bais HaMikdash lies in ruins, the four special parshiyos/ maftir readings that precede Pesach are all meant as a preparation for the holiday.  So we can easily understand that it is apropos to read Parshas Parah at this time of the year.

However, during each of the shalosh regalim-pilgrimage holidays, multiple offerings had to be sacrificed and consumed in a state of ritual purity.  This being the case, the Biskovitzer asks: Why is the reading of Parshas Parah limited to pre-Pesach preparation?  Logically, we ought to be reading it before Shavous and Sukkos as well. The insights that he and other members of the Izhbitzer school provide by way of answering this question reveal a profound and deep-seated difference between Jewish sin, and sin in general.

Read more It’s Never as Bad, or as Evil, as It Seems

If You Can’t Stand the Light, Get Out of the Vision

Bo5774-An installment in the series
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

And Moshe said [to Pharaoh] “HaShem said as follows: ‘About midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt; and every firstborn in Egypt will die …’ “

-Shemos 11:4,5

The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are staying; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you and there won’t be any lethal plague in your midst when I strike the land of Egypt.  

-Shemos 12:13

G-d will then move across to afflict Egypt. When He sees the blood over the door and on the two doorposts G-d will pass over that door and not allow the force of destruction to enter your homes to strike.

-Shemos 12:23

There was a pronounced difference between the Jews and the Egyptians during all the plagues prior to “the striking of the firstborn”. The Jews were invulnerable to the destructive effects of the plagues.   During the first plague, if a Jew and an Egyptian would drink from the same vessel, the Jew would swallow sweet fresh water while the Egyptian would gag on blood.  The ninth plague caused a palpable; immobilizing darkness to lie upon the land but the children of Israel had abundant light in all of their dwellings.  The same applied to plagues two through eight. Moreover, it was G-d Himself who produced these disparities.  No heroic measures were required on the part of the Jews.

These differences were so pronounced, foretold and deliberate that the Izhbitzer School interprets them to be part of the exodus process itself. HaShem sought to take one nation out of the midst / “the innards” of another nation.  Debunking the alleged equality between Israel and Egypt was part and parcel of the process. Yetzias Mitzrayim-the exodus from Egypt, was about more than liberating a group of Egyptian slaves; it was the birth of a nation and the creation of a new man.  Thus understood, the sequence of the plagues was not just a war of attrition to break the will of the Egyptians. The disparities that existed between the Jews and the Egyptians during the plagues gradually advanced the nation of Israel “through the birth canal” as it were, towards the ultimate goal of a new, distinct identity and absolute individuation.

In light of this Rav Tazdok, the Lubliner Kohen, asks several pointed questions:

1. The Egyptians had “earned” the striking of the firstborn as the wages of the sin of their continued refusal to release the children of Israel. But the Jews had done nothing to delay their own release. So why did they warrant the striking of the firstborn?
2. During the final plague, why were the protective measures of daubing the blood of the Passover sacrifice on the lintel and the doorposts and not leaving their homes all night necessary when no such measures had been needed during the first nine plagues?
3. As HaShem moved across Egypt to strike the firstborn Himself the rule of “once the destroying angel is given a license to act he does not distinguish between the wicked and the righteous”(Bava Kama 60A) should not apply. Then what did the Jews have to fear?
4.  How, in fact, did HaShem dispense kivyachol-as it were, with the services of the destroying angel when our theology teaches that “no evil (i.e. punishment or suffering) emanates out of the mouth of the Most High” (Eichah 3:38)

Before presenting his answer the Lubliner Kohen introduces a novel understanding of a particular type of death.

Imagine a simple, standard-issue garden hose being attached to a fire hydrant to extinguish a fire.  After just a few moments the hose would crack and burst.  Garden hoses are not engineered to withstand that level of water pressure per square inch.  This serves as an allegory for the human soul’s interface with G-d’s Infinite Light.  An overload of Divine Light accrues to “the breaking of the vessels.” This is the meaning of the pasuk “And He said: ‘You cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.’ “(Shemos 33:20) to which Chazal appended this significant addendum: “But at the moment of death, man shall see [HaShem]” (Sifri B’Ha’aloschah 103).

The Tenach and the Talmud are replete with examples of those who reached for medregos– levels that exceeded the grasp of their own actual madregah and who perished from an inability to endure the intensity of the Divine Light:

Four great Tannaim entered the Parde”s. One of them, ben Azai, tragically “glimpsed and died” shattered by the intensity of the G-d knowledge he’d grasped there. (Chagigah 14B). This was the cause of death of Ahron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, as well. Those baalei teshuvah-masters of repentance, who fast-track their teshuvah-turning and reacquire perfection proverbially בשעתא חדא וברגעא חדא -“in one hour–one moment” also part with their souls in this manner. This was the cause of death for the exemplary baal teshuvah “Rabi” Elazar ben Durdai. (Avodah Zarah 17A).

This was precisely the dynamic at work during the final plague; the striking of the firstborn. HaShem Himself, (or as our sages put it בכבודו ובעצמו) kivyachol “emerged” and “moved across” Egypt. This was an unprecedented gilui Shechinah-Divine revelation. The Egyptians, engrossed as they were in idolatry and licentiousness lacked the necessary “vessels” to contain this tsunami of light.  In fact, the grossness of rank-and-file Egyptians’ impurity actually left them with no capacity to sense the light of holiness at all.

But before Matan Torah– the giving of the Torah, sacrifices were offered by firstborns. The firstborn of every nation possessed some modicum of sensitivity to holiness. Still, their capacity for absorbing holiness was minimal and constrained. The gilui Shechinah at midnight of the exodus came into the souls of the non-Jewish firstborn with all of the force of fire hydrant-pressurized water entering a garden hose. Unsurprisingly, they were instantly shattered.  Their deaths were not punishments in the conventional sense.  On the contrary, nothing became their depraved and debauched lives so much as leaving it through this one glorious moment of G-d-perception. No evil had emanated from the Most High.

As for the Jews; eventually they would develop “vessels” broad and sturdy enough to absorb the light of gilui Shechinah.  The Torah, when describing the revelation at Sinai, attests to this after the fact: “has any nation ever heard the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have, and lived?” (Devarim 4:33) Yet, at midnight of the exodus this potential was underdeveloped.  For the Jews to have ventured outdoors then would have been a reckless exercise in “reach” that exceeded “grasp”.  As was the case with Rabi Elazar ben Durdai, such a meteoric ascent, in which lofty madregos are gained “in one hour–one moment” would have cost them their lives.

Paradoxically, it is the Jewish capacity for mesirus nefesh-giving up their lives for HaShems sake, which transforms their souls into vessels broad and sturdy enough to absorb the light of gilui Shechinah.  This was manifested just prior to Matan Torah, when they agreed to take the Torah, no questions asked.  All the other nations lacked this capacity.  When the other nations were offered the Torah they would ask “what is written within the Torah?” and when they discovered something in the Torah that rubbed against their grains; that disagreed with their constitutions, they rejected the Torah and its Author.

The blood of the Passover sacrifices that the Jews daubed on their doorposts served as a sign of the Jewish potential for mesirus nefesh.  On the night of the exodus the Jews were passing and skipping over the gradual, slow-and-steady approach to attaining madregos.  Even so, behind these doors signed with mesirus nefesh they were protected from the shattering and soul-taking effects of HaShem’s awe-inspiring, devastating Infinite Light.  As they could not stand the light they stayed out of the vision.

Adapted from Resisei Laylah 58 pp 172174
See also Mei Hashiloach II Bo D”H Vayomer (the first such D”H)

 

Working Smarter — After Working Hardest

VaYetzai 5774-An installment in the series

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) 

Over My Head

I don’t “wear” at work.

A yarmulke, that is.

Oh I wear it. Everyone who works in my office has seen me in my yarmulke. I wear it when I make a brocha [blessing] on my coffee and when I wash for lunch. You might see me in the corridor muttering something when I come back from the men’s room. My office is full of family pictures with me and my male family members all neatly capped on top. I’m not hiding anything, really. But the “modality” of my everyday interaction with colleagues and support staff and the rest of the professional world I inhabit is secular.

There is a little irony here. On my own blog, I used to describe myself as an “‘award winning’ ‘journalist.'” Lots of quotes, lots of irony, but the journalism I won an award for was an article I wrote for a magazine called Student Lawyer in 1988 called “A Lawyer and His Sabbath.” It traced my experience of becoming more religious during the time I was in law school and starting out in a big law firm. Despite its title the piece uses not Shabbos but the wearing of a yarmulke as a unifying theme. I describe how I concluded, way back then, that the right thing for me to do was to “wear” back when pretty much nobody “wore.”

I don’t think it was really journalism, being entirely first-person, but the award was from the Chicago Newspaper Guild. It’s called a Stick-O-Type Award and they make you a little stick o’ type describing what you won, your category, and your name, of course. I still have the award. I don’t still have the yarmulke.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. But it wasn’t. It was an awful idea, for a number of reasons, though they only became really clear much later. Each reason could justify its own Beyond BT essay. I will spare you that, however. In brief, here’s what happened:

First of all, while I was very cognizant of the moral responsibility I bore as an assertive, strongly identified orthodox Jew in the workplace, and I think I acquitted myself decently well on that score, I failed to appreciate an aspect of “representing” that was no less important: Competence. And while given half a chance I will try to demonstrate to anyone interested that I am a decent city lawyer at age 48, at age 27 I was a pretty mediocre big-firm associate. In an environment where you are the only one “wearing,” beware: You have to be more or less the best at what you do, and pretty much have to be the best at it to everyone who beholds you. That was a burden I failed adequately to bear.

Secondly, even at one’s best moments, in 1990 if you wore a yarmulke in a Park Avenue law firm, the message was, “I’m a rabbi who doesn’t really want to be here. But, you know — parnassah [the need to support myself]” It’s even worse when it’s almost true.

Third, internally, in the “Jewish” law firm where I worked, this yarmulka idealism went over like a lead balloon. I mean with the orthodox lawyers. They didn’t wear a yarmulke. Now this young guy living in Brooklyn who deferred his starting date by two years for yeshiva even comes in and he’s turning the firm into a bais medrash [talmudical study hall] with his black-velvet yarmulke?

And finally, there was the question I really should have thought through first: I do litigation. I go to court. I appear before judges, juries, court personnel. I interact with adversaries, witnesses. And I do so on behalf of a client — not myself. Not even, if I may be permitted, HaKadosh Boruch Hu [the Holy One, Blessed be He].

That’s not what I’m paid to do.

And if clients, especially, as it was at the time, clients of my employer, wanted “a rabbi” to represent them, that’s who they would have hired.

I tried. It didn’t work. That was then, that was there, that was me. I’m not telling anyone else what to do. But sometimes people who know me “wearing” are stunned to see me bareheaded. Others, even orthodox clients, have been utterly unable to recognize me when they meet me at a wedding, not only “wearing” but wearing a hat, too. And it all came, um, to a head when a frum magazine carrying my column accidently ran my law firm head shot — bareheaded. The calls I got from my kids when that hit the streets!

So now I’ve written it all down in one place. I don’t “wear” any more.

Ron Coleman blogs at Likelihood of Confusion.

Identity Theft of the Biggest Kind

Just about all of us have had our identities stolen from us. I think I lost mine about 53 years ago, but I only realized it last night. Thanks to my husband. Over dinner last night, he pointed out to me that we’d had our identities stolen.

Truth is, it was probably a lot longer than just the 53 years of my life. It could have happened centuries ago, for all I know. But who’s going to notice these things? When our spiritual identities are stolen from us, we don’t panic at all. Because we don’t even know they are missing. And we don’t even know what we’re missing.

Did it begin when crammed boats of us came over from Europe around the turn of the 20th Century?How many thousands of pairs of tefillin were gleefully tossed overboard on the way to the land of new opportunities? That can’t be when our spiritual identities got lost, though. Most of the Jewish people on board were carrying with them an extremely heavy tradition that they, generally, did not understand. They honestly did not know why they should continue holding onto it. Why did so many Jews toss their legacy overboard into the Atlantic Ocean – before even going ashore? They were convinced that their heritage would weigh them down in a land of – freedom.

Today we are mostly free of the Jewish identities that were taken from us. “Why be Jewish?” isn’t even a question anymore for the vast majority of young assimilated Jews who feel that all religions are equivalent and “falling in love” with non-Jews should be embraced. Judaism, if thought about at all, is viewed as a cultural relic, with restrictive archaic traditions. And if we aren’t spiritual beings with a noble mission here on earth, who needs spiritual directives anyway?

In kindergarten, they did teach us to share. Beyond that, it was exceedingly rare for us to be provided with any useful knowledge about our development as spiritual entities – anywhere around us. Not on TV, not in movies, not on billboards, not in Seventeen Magazine – and not even iback n Hebrew school!

Just as with financial identity theft, which basically disconnects us from our financial abilities, spiritual identity theft essentially disconnects us from our spiritual abilities. Here’s one important difference between them, though. With financial identity theft, our identities are used by others. With spiritual identity theft, nobody bothers. Once stolen, it’s tossed in the garbage, like an old worn-out wallet.

Spiritual Identity Theft has an acronym that fits. Spiritual Identity Theft usually causes its victims to sit and do nothing about it. Since we don’t even know what we’re missing, it is so easy to”successfully” cover up the underlying emptiness by going after other pursuits. And if the painful awareness ever does surface, it gets shoved down as quickly as possible with a vast array of distractions from which to choose. Some are harmful, and most are numbing, but even the benign material pleasures just don’t last long enough.

It appears as if financial identity theft is much more important than spiritual identity theft, but before you know it, we’ll have to throw all the Monopoly money back into the box anyway. Even Boardwalk and Park Place too. Soon they’ll all disappear.

And we just cannot accept that nothing will remain from our entire lifetimes. There has to be something permanent in this throwaway society. We know it. Within each of us, there is a still small voice that won’t give up insisting something lasts.

The voice comes from within each empty soul that has had its spiritual identity stolen.

What finally fills my soul, nurtures what has always lined the inner walls of my being. Each morsel of pure nourishment enlivens something that was already present, but dormant. I found morsels of spiritual nourishment in other religions and practices as well, while out searching. But it is only Jewish spiritual wisdom that could fit, like the missing puzzle piece, in my neshama.

I am still peeling off the layers that “successfully”covered up my essence. Through understanding more and more about why being Jewish is vital, I identify more closely with my neshama. Just as with financial identity theft, it can be a long and difficult process to reclaim one’s identity. But as I come to recognize my true self, the pleasures I am experiencing aren’t fleeting and they aren’t shallow. They go deeper than even the Atlantic ocean.

It can take years of work and determination, but every struggle is so worth it. Those credit cards with our Jewish names – they can still be found.

This is what Alan found in the garbage one day:
movie ticket stubs,
crumpled candy wrappers,
a partially eaten ham and cheese sandwich,
yesterday’s newspaper,
empty soda cans,
crushed cigarette butts,
and an old pair of tefillin.

Then Alan suddenly understood why
he had been desperately searching
through garbage
for years and years.
He must have known,
deep down,
that along with the trash,
what still had value, the most value,
was also being thrown away.

Alan stuck his hand into the garbage
and pulled out the tefillin.
Then,
for years and years,
in turn,
the tefillin searched desperately,
found its way
through the garbage piled high in Alan,
and pulled out Aharon.

Bracha Goetz is the Harvard-educated author of eleven children’s books, including Aliza in MitzvahLand, What Do You See at Home? and The Invisible Book. To enjoy Bracha’s presentations, you’re welcome to email bgoetzster@gmail.com.