Purim – It’s Not a Party for the Non-Observant

When I first came to yeshiva in Israel it happened to be this time of year leading up to the holiday of Purim. There was an interest and an excitement amongst the students and Rabbis. Since I didn’t really know what it was all about, I was kind of keeping it at a distance from myself in my mind and focusing on my studies. I had come to yeshiva seeking the answers to life’s most important questions and I had found a happy home there delving into the meaning of life, morality, and spirituality.

I noticed leading up to Purim that more and more people were saying to me how much I was going to enjoy the holiday and how much fun it would be. The implication was that since I was secular, and secular people like parties, I would like Purim because it’s a party. However, as Purim got closer, and the holiday was not really being explained to me, I forced an older student to go through the Megillah with me so I’d know a little bit more what the holiday is about.

Once Purim descended upon us I understood it to some extent, but I was highly unimpressed with the party aspect. You see as far as secular parties go it wasn’t much. Sure some costumes were interesting and it was different seeing the Rabbis more relaxed, but I was there in yeshiva for spirituality, not to party. In fact, since it was hyped so much by people it was even more of a let down.

Maybe all the guys had loved Purim their first time and thought I would too. Or maybe they forgot what it was like the first time. There are many good reasons for their enthusiasm and assumption I would enjoy the Purim parties. But my experience was flat and unexciting. My feeling was they were cheapening my search for spirituality by assuming I would love to drink cheap wine and dance in a circle.

Now that I’m frum and don’t watch T.V. or go to secular parties, the Purim parties are a lot of fun. And I’ve learned to appreciate the spirituality that’s hidden in the party.

But with my students, I try not to get there hopes up about the partying because for most of them, they could go to a party that’s a lot more fun and intoxicating. And I try to give them the benefit of the doubt that the reason they are studying with me is to get more spirituality in their lives. So I try to educate them about the deeper meaning behind the masks.

And then I pour them a glass of cheap wine.

Originally published March 6, 2006

The 60 Second Guide to Purim

The Essence of Purim
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato writes in “The Way of G-d”:
“The significance of Chanukah and Purim is to bring forth the particular Light that shone at the time of their original miracles as a result of the rectification that they accomplished.

…Purim involved Israel being saved from destruction during the Babylonian exile. As a result of this they reconfirmed their acceptance of the Torah, this time taking it upon themselves forever. Our Sages teach us that “they accepted the Torah once again in the days of Achashverosh”.

The Particular Light That Shone at That Time
The physical world functions through spiritual input from G-d. This spiritual input has a constant component known as “nature” as well as an infrequent component which occurs as needed in the course of history. The infrequent input, which we call “miracle”, illuminates the understanding that even when G-d’s presence is not obvious, He’s still running the show.

During the Babylonian Exile
Megillas Esther, the story of Purim, which we read at night and during the day, takes place about 70 years after the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and exiled the Jews from Israel. It records the roots of modern anti-Semitism as Haman, the prime Minister of Persia, convinces King Achashverosh to decree a holocaust, the destruction of the entire Jewish People.

A Hidden Miracle Saves Us From Destruction
The Megillah records how the Jewish leaders, Mordechai and his cousin Esther, work to prevent the holocaust and the Jewish People turn towards G-d in communal prayer and fasting. A series of seeming coincidences facilitates the victory of Mordechai and Esther over Haman and the Jews avoid destruction. G-d’s name is not recorded in the entire Megillah, teaching us that He’s always the guiding force, even when His presence is not apparent.

Reconfirming The Acceptance of The Torah
Although the Jewish People accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai after the Exodus from Egypt, the obvious presence of G-d at that time indicates that the acceptance was based on fear and awe. The re-acceptance of the Torah during the time of Purim, when G-d’s presence was hidden, remedied the original fear-based acceptance. This re-acceptance, accompanied by a commitment of intense study and observance of Torah, gives the Jewish People the spiritual fortitude to stay connected to G-d during the exile that we continue to face until this very day.

Celebrating Through Jewish Unity
In addition to hearing the Megillah, there are three other mitzvos of Purim: having a joyous meal, giving charity to at least two poor people and giving a gift of food to at least one person. These mitzvos focus us on helping others and uniting with our fellow Jews. Unity is a necessity as we continue our mission of leading the world to a spiritually focused existence through a constant awareness and connection to G-d in our thought, speech and actions.

Outreach Leading to Inreach at the JHC

Times have changed in the 25 years since kiruv reached its first peak. The Orthodox community has grown stronger in numbers, in learning, and in observance. That growth has caused a dislocation to some members of the community, which in its most extreme manifestation has lead to some of our youth diminishing their Torah Observance.

One kiruv organization has leveraged their experience and knowledge of what excites Jews about Judaism to shine a light on some of our disconnecting youth. That organization is the Jewish Heritage Center of Queens and Long Island.

Since 1987 The Jewish Heritage Center of Queens and Long Island’s mission has been spreading the value and relevancy of Judaism to Jews of all backgrounds. The JHC has offered a full array of free lectures and classes, hotel retreats and educational and social programs designed for Jews with little or no formal background in Jewish Studies. In that time it has reached tens of thousands of Jews and has significantly impacted upon the lives of thousands of them.

Three years ago the JHC expanded its services to include inreach, strengthening the emotional and spiritual development of disenfranchised Chassidic Youth while at the same time providing prevention based programming to mainstream Yeshiva High School students.

In the last three years alone, the JHC has brought in hundreds of new young families and thousands of new young students and participants. The JHC has hired five new young dynamic Rabbis to take the organization to even greater heights.

From Monday, March 21 at 1:00 pm, to Tuesday March 22 at 1:00 pm, you have an opportunity to voice your approval and support for efforts such as this.
Click here to follow and help the JHC try to reach there $400k fundraising goal. They have benefactors who collectively will quadruple your donation. That means that for every dollar that you give, the JHC will get $4.

Support outreach that leads to inreach – which benefits the entire Jewish community.

O Daddy … Where Art Thou?

Parshas Zachor-An installment in the series of adaptations
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

Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt. When they encountered you [lit: cooled you off] on the way, you were tired and exhausted … they did not fear Elokim.

–Devarim 25:17,18

When they encountered: Heb. קָרְךָ, an expression denoting a chance occurrence (מִקְרֶה) … Yet another explanation: an expression denoting heat and cold (קוֹר). He “cooled you off” and made you [appear] lukewarm, after you were boiling hot, for the nations were afraid to fight you, [just as people are afraid to touch something boiling hot]. But Amalek came forward and started [waging war with you] and showed the way to others. This can be compared to a bathtub of boiling water into which no one could immerse himself. Along came a reckless man and jumped headlong into it! Although he scalded himself, he [succeeded in] making others think that it was cooler [than it really was]. [Tanchuma 9]

–Rashi ibid

Our Rabbis taught: [vis a vis parents] What is [i.e. how does one fulfill the mitzvah of] ‘fear’ and what is [i.e. how does one fulfill the mitzvah of] ‘honor’? ‘Fear’ means that he [the son] must not stand nor sit in his [the father’s] place, לא יסתור דבריו, nor contradict his words, nor tip the scales against him. ‘Honor” means that he must feed and hydrate him, clothe and cover him, lead him in and out.

–Kiddushin 31B

The relationship between the Jewish people and HaShem, and even between individual Jews and HaShem, is multifaceted.  Two familiar facets are those of our being subjects in G-ds Kingdom and of our being His children.  On every public fast day, most recently on Taanis Esther, we beseeched Avinu Malkenu– our Father/ our King.  To our detriment, true kings are very hard to find in contemporary society and, as such, we lack one of the primary role models for our relationship with HaShem.

Thankfully, at least fathers are ubiquitous and our relationships with our fathers can serve as ready metaphors from which we can draw relevant lessons in how to relate to HaShem.  And while, for many of us, the child-father relationship falls short of the ideal, if not being utterly dysfunctional, at least we have concrete, black on white parameters for what the ideal relationship ought to be as set down in Shas and in Shulchan Aruch in Hichos kibud av v’eim-the laws of honoring and being in awe of parents.

We are not permitted it to be soser the words/ matters of our fathers’.  This word, soser, is conventionally translated as “contradict.” But Rav Laibeleh Eiger reveals another layer of meaning in this word that impacts our understanding of the eternal war that we wage against Amalek:

Moshe Rabeinu was instructed to deliver this message at his first meeting with the Egyptian pharaoh as HaShem’s ambassador and as His agent to redeem His people from slavery: “this is what HaShem says: ‘Israel is My son — my firstborn. I’ve told you to send My son away [out of Egypt] to serve Me. If you refuse to let him leave I will ultimately kill your own firstborn son.’”(Shemos 4:22,23) As a result of the Exodus from Egypt HaShems Paternal relationship with the K’lal Yisrael-the Jewish People, became manifest and obvious for all the world to see.  Moreover, it revealed the fact that HaShem was a very involved Parent; a “helicopter Dadkivyachol -if you will, who was very concerned about his son’s welfare and insinuated himself directly into the sons affairs in order to relieve the sons suffering and to liberate him.

After the Exodus from Egypt K’lal Yisrael was cognizant of the special relationship that they enjoyed with HaShem.  However, around the time of their being attacked by Amalek, perceptions began to change.  For the nations of the world who were awestruck by the plagues of Egypt, the slaying of the firstborn and the utter destruction of the Egyptian military at the Sea of Reeds, it was not merely that the bloom was off the rose; it was that K’lal Yisrael had lost their air of invincibility.  Although Amalek had gotten its collective nose bloodied and had been “weakened” by Yehoshua; in launching their unprovoked attack on K’lal Yisrael they had blazed a trail and set the precedent for all future attacks, wars, ethnic-cleansings and genocides perpetrated by all future Jew-haters.

But, more significantly, doubts began creeping into the collective consciousness of K’lal Yisrael.  The Jews themselves internalized the implied message of Amalek’s attack. “If this could happen” the reasoning went “perhaps we are not really the apple of HaShem’s eye, maybe we are not so much different from the balance of humanity.  Who can still claim with confidence that we are His son and that He is our Father?” While the facts on the ground such as the manna bread from heaven and the miraculous cloud pillar should have eased these anxieties, nagging doubts remained.  They reasoned that HaShem must have some “hidden” agenda, something that is characterized by hester Panim-a concealment of the Divine Countenance.

Even before encountering Amalek the seeds of doubt had been planted in the national consciousness.  When K’lal Yisrael arrived at Rephidim there was no water readily available for them to drink.  Although Moshe Rabeinu worked the miracle producing the nomadic wellspring that would travel with K’lal Yisrael throughout their sojourn in the wilderness until death of Miriam; the upshot of that particular episode was this: “Moshe named the place Testing-and-Argument because the people had argued and had tested HaShem. They had asked ‘is HaShem within us or not?’” (Shemos 17:7).

Chaza”l provide a biting, acerbic characterization of  K’lal Yisrael’s ambivalence and under-confidence. “This can be compared to a man who carried his son on his shoulders and set out on the road. Whenever his son saw something, he would say, ‘Father, take it and give it to me,’ and he [the father] would do so. They met a man, and the son said to the man, ‘Have you seen my father?’ So his father said to the boy, “You don’t know where I am?” He threw him [his son] down off him, and a dog came and bit him [the son]. (Midrash Tanchuma, Yisro 3; Shemos Rabbah 26:2).  The boy in question never doubted whether or not he had a father.  He merely asked “do you see him … because I can’t!” The boy thinks that his father is out of sight — concealed.

The episode of Rephidim is the immediate preamble to the preemptive, unprovoked, initial attack of Amalek.  Amalek’s “chilling effect” did not merely cool down K’lal Yisrael in the court of public opinion but in their own self-perception and in their perception of HaShem as well.  While they still believed that they had a heavenly Father in the abstract, they were no longer able to “see” Him.  His administration of their affairs was now being orchestrated long-distance from behind a curtain, as it were.

In Lashon Kodesh-the holy tongue, there are many words synonymous with a contradiction; listor-to demolish/deconstruct, l’chalek-to argue/separate, l’hakchish-to deny/thin-out, l’hitnaged-to oppose.  Yet the verb that our sages chose to impart the lesson of not contradicting ones father is the verb in that is etymologically related to hiddenness and concealment; לא יסתור דבריו.  Rav Laibeleh Eiger maintains that one of the subtextual messages of this halachah is that a son is prohibited from characterizing his father’s words/deeds as being covert and clandestine.  The prohibition can be translated “he should not hide his father’s words/matters.” On a national level as a result of the chilling effect of Amalek’s onslaught, this is precisely the prohibition that K’lal Yisrael contravened in their relationship with their Father in heaven.

Rav Laibeleh teaches that part and parcel of our mitzvos to remember and to wage war against Amalek is to fight and suppress our own internal Amalek; the self-sabotaging a voice within our individual and collective psyches that mitigates and that dilutes the unique son-Father relationship that we enjoy with HaShem.  We need to scrap and claw to move beyond an abstract philosophical recognition of HaShems Administration of our affairs.  Knowing that we have a Father in heaven is insufficient.  We must fight the good fight to achieve a visceral awareness that we are riding on His shoulders and that He is always carrying us.  We need to develop the vision to see that our merciful father is directly and intimately dealing with us;  His firstborn son.  As the prophet thunders “O Why Yaakov do you say, and speak, O Israel: ‘My way is hidden from HaShem, and my justice is passed over by my G-d’”? (Yeshaya 40:27)

We must always remember and never forget that while our King may be remote and inaccessible and may be conducting a clandestine foreign policy or waging a covert military operation our Father is loving, merciful, intimate and directly involved in our affairs. Parshas Zachor would be a great time to start remembering this and, while listening to Megillas Esther is something that we do with our ears, in order to truly vanquish Amalek we needed to sharpen our eyes to abide by the halachah of  לא יסתור דבריו, do right by our Father in heaven and do our own personal Megillas Hester-revealing of the concealment.

~adapted from Toras Emes Zachor/ Tetzaveh 5628/1868 D”H Amru

A Guide for a Mindful Purim

Purim is a holy festival that will retain its significance even after the ultimate redemption. Purim commemorates the story of Hashem, who, while remaining camouflaged beneath the veil of nature, was and continues to be intrinsically involved throughout the history of the Jewish People. Purim is the story of a people that have a relationship and connection with G-d that defies logic and reason. Purim is the time when we train ourselves to see beyond the mask and reveal the truth and beauty contained within. Throughout the entire Megillah, there is no mention of Hashem, and yet His hand is choreographing each scene in this epic story.

It may appear paradoxical to write a guide for a Mindful Purim, especially for a festival where you are instructed to loose your mind. It is specifically because of the mayhem that Purim is that makes it so easy to miss the opportunities that the day contains. However, through mindful practice we are able to tap into the intense spiritual energy that is enclosed within the festival, and experience it in an uplifting and meaningful way.

The message of Purim is contained within the four primary mitzvot of Purim:

a. Megillat Ester: The reading of the Story of Ester.

b. Matanot La’evyonim – Gifts to the Poor.

c. Mishloach Manot – Friendly Food Packages.

d. Mishteh – A commemorative feast with family and friends.

There is a common thread that is woven through each of these mitzvot, and when performed mindfully, can transform the experience by forging deep and unifying bonds between family, friends, and members of your community. These mitzvot were established to counter and disprove Haman’s accusation that the Jews are a disconnected and divided people. This led to our near destruction, and therefore, the process of rectifying our historical blunder is by acting in ways that reunite us in a spirit of love and harmony.

Click here to download your copy of the guide where we discuss each mitzvah separately and offer practical suggestions for how to unlock the energy through mindfulness practice to achieve the desired outcome of unity and love.

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.

Amazing BTs – Chasidic Freedom Fighter Asher Yoseph Cherkassy.

For over two years the media have been reporting on a bloody war going on between Russia and Ukraine. The scenes are often grisly and violent. But amid the thundering tanks and artillery inflicting death on both sides, a surprising figure emerges: a Jewish man, a Lubavitcher chasid, complete with a long beard and twinkling eyes. He is praying Shacharis, enwrapped in tallis and tefillin, and smiles for the camera.

“I received a Communist education, not a religious one. For many years I didn’t know what Judaism was or how to observe the mitzvot or holidays,” he tells me. Cherkassky, who is tall and sturdy, worked as a laborer doing renovations. In the 1990s he served in the Russian Army. “I was in the army for several years. I learned how to fight and how to operate weapons. That was also the time when the Russian Army was fighting in Chechnya. I learned a lot.” Today, he uses the knowledge he learned from the Russians…against the Russians. Familiar with the Russian Army’s strengths and weaknesses, he takes advantage of that knowledge.

It was during those years that Cherkassky discovered Judaism and belief in God. “My father, with whom I was very close, was seriously ill. He was admitted to the hospital, but the treatments didn’t help him. The disease progressed and the doctors gave up. It was then that I realized that no one could help us except for the One Above; everything depends on Him. I went to the synagogue and learned how to pray. I asked God to heal my father. After discovering the power of prayer I made a commitment to increase my observance and to uphold the Torah and Jewish law. I began studying Judaism in depth and started to keep Shabbos and kosher and accepted all of the mitzvot. Eventually, after being sick for a very long time, my father passed away, and he was given a Jewish burial. He has now gone to the Next World, but in his merit I have continued to grow stronger.”

After living elsewhere for a time Cherkassky returned to Feodosia, got married and had two children. He became a leader of the small local Jewish community. Then, around two years ago, riots broke out in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and pro-Western rebels took control of the government. Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, who had supported Russian President Vladimir Putin, was removed from power. Yanukovych fled to Donetsk, a pro-Russian stronghold in the far eastern region of Ukraine, and everyone thought the crisis was over; Ukraine would move politically closer to the West. But Putin had other plans. “Now we have to start working on the return of Crimea to Russia,” he declared at the time.

Read the whole story about Asher Yoseph Cherkassy, the Chasidic Freedom Fighter here.here.

There Are no Lightweights or Heavyweights … Only Half-Weights

Pikudei-Shekalim-An installment in the series of adaptations
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

Everyone who is to be counted in the census must give a half-shekel according to the holy standard where a shekel is 20 gerah … the rich may not increase [their donations over and above] and the poor may not diminish [their donations below the amount of] (than) this half-shekel …

-Shemos 30:13,15

I believe with absolute assurance that the Creator, Blessed is His Name, rewards those who observe His commandments with good and punishes those who violate His commandments.

-Maomonides 11th principle of Faith

Our Rabbis taught: A man should always regard himself as though he were half guilty and half meritorious [so that] if he performs one mitzvah, fortunate is he, for he has tipped his personal scale towards merit; if he commits one aveirah-transgression, woe to him for tipping his personal scale towards guilt … Rabi Eleazar son of Rabi Shimon said: Because the world is judged by its majority, and an individual [too] is judged by his majority [of his personal good or bad], if he performs one mitzvah, fortunate is he for tipping the scale, both for himself and for the whole world, [down] on the side of merit; if he commits one transgression, woe to him for tipping the scale for himself and the whole world towards guilt …

-Kiddushin 40A-B

The silver census money collected from the community came out to 100 kikars–talents and 1775 shekels by the holy standard …  The 100 [silver] kikars were used to cast the foundation sockets for the Mishkan and that the cloth partition. There were a total of 100 foundation sockets made out of 100 [silver] kikars, one kikar for each foundation socket.

–Shemos 38:25,27

Everyone, both rich and poor was commanded to contribute exactly the same coin.  As the census numbers were calculated by counting these coins the need for a standardized contribution is easily understood.  If the wealthy were to drop multiple coins, or a larger, weightier denomination, into the contribution box it would have been impossible to arrive at an accurate tally. Still, it would seem that a full shekel coin, the standard unit of currency, would have been a more appropriate uniform contribution for one and all. On a pragmatic level, it could simply be that this level of contribution might prove onerous for the poorest people in K’lal Yisrael-the Jewish People, whereas everyone could afford a half-shekel without being pinched too severely.  But the Izhbitzer drew a great, defining lesson in avodas HaShem-serving HaShem, from the use of the half, rather than the whole, shekel.

In our newfangled economies cash money has become nearly obsolete.  With the advents of ACH, wires transfers and scanning codes for payment; even credit cards and checks, that supplanted cash, are becoming passé.  But once-upon-a-time cash was the “new” currency. The truth is that our “fiat money” — paper document banknotes, AKA cash, is intrinsically useless and valueless; they are used only as a medium of exchange. They replaced banknotes of the gold and/or silver standard economies under which governments would not print more banknotes than they had precious metal reserves to back. Under the bimetal standards, one could redeem their dollars for fixed amounts of gold and silver. Before that there was no paper money at all. Currency was exclusively coins made of precious metals; gold and silver.  These coins did have inherent value and the value of the various coin denominations was determined by the weight of precious metal that each contained.  E.g. a silver dollar weighed four times as much as a silver quarter.

We can now understand the etymology of machatzis hashekel-the half shekel.  The verb in lashon kodesh-the holy language, for weighing is sh’kol, the noun for weight — mishkal. Thus, a more precise translation for machatzis hashekel would be “the half weight”.  The full unit of currency, the shekel, was very aptly and descriptively named, as it was the standard unit of weight of precious metal for the currency system. Larcenous coin-debasement practices such as coin-clipping and coin-sweating aimed at reducing the weight of precious metal of the coin while continuing to circulate it at face value. In fact, striping or engraving the rims of coins was first introduced to prevent clipping the coins’ circumference.

Mefarshim-commentaries, have explained that Maimonides 11th principle of faith; belief in reward and punishment, also expresses the belief in human Free-Will.  For as of the Rambam himself writes; if human Free-Will was an illusion if our thoughts, words and deeds were predetermined by Divine Providence then “through what system of justice would HaShem exact punishment from the wicked or compensate the righteous with reward? Would the Judge of all the earth not render justice?” (Hilchos Teshuvah 5:4)

Based on the Gemara  in Kiddushin the Izhbitzer extrapolated from the maftir of Shekalim that we read this week, that the opposite is equally true; that there can be no human Free-Will or, at least, that human Free-Will cannot be fully exercised, unless the willful choices that we make result in the ultimate in reward and punishment. If, when facing every new situation we do not confront the ultimate in reward and punishment, then we are self-sabotaging our Free-Will.

On the Beyond Teshuva Blog the challenge of plateauing has been explored many times.  Most people begin their lives as ovdei HaShem with the period of sustained growth.  Of course we stumble and suffer setbacks but, in general, the arrows on the graphs of our spirituality head upwards.  Then, for a variety of reasons we begin to flatline.  We get into a groove (some would call it a rut) and, essentially, we stop growing.

The Izhbitzer avers that the two primary causes of plateauing are the smug self-perception of secure, set-for-life spiritual wealth on the one hand and the utter hopelessness and sense of futility arising from the self-perception of spiritual poverty on the other hand.

Like the young entrepreneurs who may have found themselves in the right place at the right time making boatloads of money in a go-go economy, some of us, who’ve already learned lots of Torah and performed many mitzvos feel as though we can coast for the rest of our lives.  The spiritually rich, and sometimes even the spiritually nouveau riche, feel as though they’re so far ahead of the game that their next move, i.e. their next free choice opportunity, could not possibly negatively impact them, nor could the next 10,000 such moves.  In their delusional organization of reality they imagine that they have a very thick safety cushion, that  they have accumulated such a huge pile of Torah and mitzvos that spiritual bankruptcy, and the draining of their heavenly reward points accounts awaiting them in the afterlife, is unthinkable.

In stark contrast, the spiritually impoverished are paralyzed by hopelessness.  Their self image tends to be one of an inveterate sinner.  Like the compulsive gambler or the irresponsible social climber who purchased a home that he could not afford, who finds his mortgage underwater and his credit rating damaged beyond repair, the spiritually impoverished delude themselves into thinking that the hole of debt that they have dug themselves into is just too deep and profound to ever climb out of. The spiritually poor, and sometimes even those who just transgressed one “whopper” of a sin, feel as though they’re so far behind the game that their next move, i.e.  their next free choice opportunity, could not possibly positively impact them, nor could the next 10,000 such moves.

But what the rich and the poor share in common in these cases is an apathetic, detached approach to the future based on a profound sense of one-sidedness and imbalance.  In their minds eye the scales of Divine Justice, reflective of their own personal ledgers, are not in equilibrium.  There is no balance at all between their merits and their demerits, between their credits and their debits between their mitzvos and their aveiros.  As a result the next move is of no consequence.  Irrespective of what they do next time, the lopsided scales will not budge.  What both the smug and the hopeless lack is the machatzis hashekel sensibility.  If only they were to follow the advice of Chaza”l and view the personal, civic and global scales of spiritual merits and demerits to be in perfect equilibrium; their every move would be invested with cosmic consequence.  There would be no room for either taking it easy or for giving up.

This, says the Izhbitzer, is what the pasuk means.  The status of the rich and the poor described in the pasuk is not determined by the size of the persons bank account.  Rather, these terms describe their personal spiritual ledger; the scales of the persons mitzvos and aveiros or, at least, their perception of those scales.  The Torah issues as a stern warning “the rich may not give a more and the poor or may not give less than this half weight.” The Torah doesn’t ask us to build a house of G-d with the full shekel sensibility.  The Torah demands that they “give” i.e. that they perceive and come to realization, that half the standard unit of weight weighs down one side of the scales and that the other half standard unit of weight weighs down the other side of the scales in perfect equilibrium, and that the persons next move, his next exercise of Free-Will, shall tip the scales one way or the other.

Chaza”l have a very close, precise reading of the pasuk “they will make a sanctuary for Me and I will dwell in THEM.” (Shemos 25:8) Per Chaza”l this means that HaShem declares “I will dwell in them (the builders-klal Yisrael) not in it (the mere building.)”  In other words each and every one of us can become a tabernacle and sanctuary for the Divine Indwelling.  Rashi (Shemos 30:15) says that there were three separate terumos and that the first one that the Torah demanded of klal Yisrael, the machatzis hashekel, was used to supply the silver for the adanim-the foundation sockets of the Mishkan. I’d like to add that in light of the Izhbitzer’s Torah that we learn this take away this lesson: Our lives are meaningful. Our thoughts, our words and our deeds are of cosmic importance and that this gift of the machatzis hashekel sensibility and perception forms the very adanim-foundation sockets, of restructuring ourselves as abodes for the Shechinah.

 ~adapted from Mei HaShiloach II Ki Sisa D”H Inyan Machatzis

See also Bais Yaakov  Ki Sisa 17

The Books in the Dumpster

Anxious Ima

Last Wednesday morning , sometime between sunrise and the arrival of the school bus, I took a few dozen of my secular books off the shelf and deposited them in the green plastic dumpster outside of my house. This wasn’t easy for me; there is something deep in my soul that resists the idea of putting books in the trash. It just seems so unJewish, even nazi.

I probably never would have done it at all had it not been for what that happened the previous Sunday with my son. On that day he tore a sheet of paper from one of his notebooks and scrawled on it a suggestion that his rebbe engage in conjugal relations with his morah.

Why? I’m still not sure. My son is only ten years old. He watches no TV, doesn’t surf the internet, doesn’t see any movies or read smutty books. But he picked up this word, knew it was something outrageous and wrote it down and to his bad luck his rebbe caught him just as he was sharing his purple prose with a boy in the next row. He was reprimanded, dispatched to the principal’s office, and my husband and I, the ultimate source of this dereliction, were summoned to school the following day.

Of course I freaked out; stuff like this drives me wild with fear, what with the exploding population of at risk youth.The last thing I needed on my head was for this son to add to their numbers. He’d already had more than his share of school troubles and this school seemed to have a handle on him. The last thing I needed was to have him thrown out .

I have to say that my prayers were answered because the meeting with the principal went much better than I expected. The principal actually smiled at us, told us how much he liked our son. He explained that the punishment, was ultimately in my son’s best interest, to teach him to control his speech and his writing. That seemed reasonable enough. After all., I wasn’t in the business of raising a future pornographer but the whole thing got me thinking.

If my son has been suspended for writing about the original biblical “knowledge ” what did that say about me? In my bedroom, I had an entire shelf of books describing just such behavior in its many permutations, not trash, G-d forbid, not Danielle Steele or Jackie Collins but classy stuff, by Phillip Roth, and Jhumpha Lahiri, Toni Morrison,and Bill Bryson, all Pulitzer prize winners of course , but with the moral sensibilities of the seven nations whom Joshua expelled from the promised land.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not against secular books or secular learning. “Chochma bagoyim ta’aminu, “ the wisdom of the nations is creditable, believable, something we can learn from, but these books contained something other than wisdom. I’d say it was more like pig flesh, with a New York Times hechsher.

As I picked the books of the shelves to ready them for incineration , the offending scenes flashed back into my mind.. I’ll spare you the unprintable details, but I’m resolved. No more dirty stuff. If I want my sons mind to be clean I have to be vigilant about my own mind.

What will I do as an alternative? Ah, that is the terrible question. I love a good book and the contemporary Jewish novels, well, lets just say that they don’t do it for me,but I’ve got a plan. I’ll try the classics. First the Jewish ones the real food for my soul. I’m proud to say that in the past year, . I’ve gone through the Hazon Ish, Emuna and Bitachon and Pirkei Avos with the Bartenura and Rabeinu Yonah, all on my own, over my morning coffee. Of course these are superficial readings but even leafing through these works has ultimate value.

And for entertainment, I’ll try to stick with non fiction, histories, sociology, and older novels, from a cleaner , more innocent time. I’ll never be trendy—that really isn’t in the cards for an orthodox Jew. So I’ll be old fashioned, harken back to an earlier age.

Edith Wharton anyone?

Originally Published Nov 19, 2007

Turning Ourselves Upside Down and Inside Out

Ki Sisa 5774-An installment in the series of adaptations
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

Moshe turned away and began descending the mountain with the two Luchos HaEdus-Tablets of Testimony, in his hand. They were written on both sides with the writing visible from either side.  The Tablets were made by HaShem and written with HaShems script engraved upon the Tablets.

-Shemos 32:15,16

Rav Chisda said: “the letters mem and samach in the Luchos stood miraculously” and, he added, “what was written on the Luchos could be read from ‘the inside and from the outside’ [i.e. from the front and from the rear] for example נבוב/בובן =nevuv/ buvan; רהב/ בהר =rahav/ behar; סרו/ ורס=saru/v’ras.

-Shabbos 104A

The writing pierced the entire Tablet. Hence a miracle was required so that the entirely circular letters of [the closing] mem and samach could be read accurately [without the circle in the middle falling out.]

-Rashi ibid

The words of Torah engraved upon the Luchos-tablets, penetrated the stones all the way through, from the front of the stones to their backs.  To illustrate this point, Rav Chisda mentions three words and their dyslexic inversions. Both Rashi and Tosafos ad locum are puzzled by the words that the he chose to use as examples.

Rashi simply states that these words did not actually appear in the tablets; that Rav Chisda chose words at random. Rashi further maintains that we learn nothing more from these examples than that the letters mem and samach in the Luchos stood miraculously. Per Rashi, Rav Chisda seems to be repeating himself.  Tosafos is more explicit and asks why would Rav Chisda do such a thing when he could have illustrated the same point using words that actually do appear in the aseres hadibros-Decalogue.

Additionally there is a margin gloss on that page of the Gemara that changes the sequence of one of the pairs of words; from rahav/ behar to behar /rahav, presumably because in the other two pairs of words the familiar, meaningful word appears first followed by the inverted, and apparently nonsensical, gibberish word.

The Izhbitzer teaches that Rav Chisda was describing two distinct miraculous, gravity-defying properties of the Torah; the ability to keep things that ought to be moving and falling stationary and the ability to effect drastic movement on things that otherwise would petrify and stay frozen in their places. The former being the stone “donut holes” in perfectly chiseled circles and the latter being the midos-character traits, of set-in-their-ways human beings.

None of the words that Rav Chisda uses to illustrate the latter point are gibberish, nor were they chosen at random.  The Izhbitzer presents a close study of the root etymology of these words to reveal that they are polar opposites and not mere word jumbles arbitrarily spelled backwards.  The inverted spellings serve as a metaphor for the words antithetical meanings. Think of an easy-to-remember lexicon of antonyms where every words antonym was merely the same letters arranged in the opposite order e. g. if the antonym of “cold” was not “hot” but “dloc” or if the antonym of “bottom” was not “top” but “mottob”.

The words that Rav Chisda chose describe midos that are antithetical to one another.  Taking issue with margin gloss the Izhbitzer asserts that the Gemara’s text stand as is, for in each illustrative example the first word describes a negative, antisocial midah-character trait, while the second defines it’s positive polar-opposite midah.

The outer, copper mizbayach-altar of the Mishkan was constructed by filling in a copper plated acacia wood shell with soil or sand.  The Torah calls this construction method nevuv luchos-a hollow structure made out of boards (Shemos 27:8).  This is the precedent for the word nevuv describing something hollow.  When applied to the psycho-spiritual makeup of the human being it refers to an empty-headed ignoramus, void of any Torah content.  Whereas the word buvan is etymologically related to the word binah, the word that defines the cognitive faculty for understanding and deductive reasoning.  Torah has the power to transform minds and spirits that are vacuum-like voids into minds and spirits filled to overflowing with meaningful, intelligent content and wisdom.

The Zohar (parshas Terumah 170B) teaches that the “prince”/guardian angel of Mitzrayim-the Egyptians, was named  Rahav.  In Jewish lore the ancient Egyptians were infamous for their licentiousness and unbridled passion.  This is the precedent for the word “rahav” describing something sensual and lusty. When applied to the psycho-spiritual makeup of the human being it refers to a ba’al ta’avah-someone overly drawn to, and even obsessed with, the temporal pleasures of the here-and-now world. Whereas the word behar-“in the mountain” connotes both being elevated from the earth and its mundane concerns and materialistic pleasures and being in an atmosphere that is less humid and drier than the air in lower elevations, in particular, in valleys.  Dry mountain air is symbolic of a dispassionate, sober and abstinent sensibility. Torah has the power to transform minds plagued by untoward thoughts and spirits drawn to immorality into drier, cooler minds and spirits that aspire to the noble, the lofty and the otherworldly.

The word saru (generically translated as: ”they strayed ”) refers, in particular, to one who has ossified and hardened because of anger and bitterness; as in “the king of Israel went to his house (סר)surly and  (וזעף) disgruntled, and came to Samaria.” (Melachim I 20:43) Or as we find the Gemara admonishing as us against verbally abusing a disenfranchised minority because “their hardened anger is terrible.” (Bava Metzia 59B)  The word v’ras is etymologically related to the root ras which connotes softness and fluidity. E.g. “so long as one would be memareis –shake or stir, the blood of the Passover sacrifice … [in order that it retain fluidity and not harden and coagulate.”] (Mishnah Pesachim 61A) Or as in laros es hasoles– and 1/3 of a hin of oil, to moisten the fine flour. (Yechezkel 46:14) Torah can help spirits hardened by rage and bitterness, regain gentleness, suppleness and goodwill.

According to The Izhbitzer’s interpretation both the word choices and the sequence in Rav Chisda’s second statement were very specific.  All three word pairings convey the concept that the Torah is more than a guide to self-improvement; it is transformative and empowers those who study it and observe its mitzvos to achieve a 180° turnaround and makeover.

ADDENDUM AS OF 12:20 AM EST 2.14.14

This concept is echoed by other Chasidic masters in their commentaries to Avos and Tehillim.

He (Rabi Yaakov) would also say: A שעה אחת sha’ah achas– single hour, of repentance and good deeds in this world is greater than the entire life of the World to Come. 

-Pirkei Avos 4:22

 … and HaShem turned towards-vayisha, the offering of Hevel. But to Kayin and towards his offering, He did not turn-lo sha’ah and Kayin became very furious and depressed.

-Bereshis 4:4,5

He [HaShem] has distanced our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west.

-Tehillim 103:12

The Kozhnitzer Maggid provides a novel translation of the word sha’ah.  Based on the pesukim describing the HaShems acceptance of Hevels offering His rejection of Kayins offering the Maggid translates the word to mean — turning. I.e. A sha’ah achas– a single transformative “turn”; of repentance and good deeds in this world — an epiphany, a consciousness altering revolution, that turns someone completely around; upside down and inside out, that kind of teshuvah — THAT is what’s greater than the entire life of the World to Come.

The pasuk in Tehillim begs the question; just how far is east from west?  Is it the vastness that intervenes between California and Eastern Europe?  Is it the expanse of continents and oceans that separate New York and China?  Or, perhaps, is it a short as the relatively minor distance between an address on west 57th street and east 57th street on Manhattan Island?  The Rebbe Reb Avraham the second of Slonim explains that the distance between east and west is minute.  If one is standing facing the east, rotates on his heels, and does a 180° about-face, he has “traveled” as far as the east is from the west. One needn’t journey far in order to be distanced from his transgressions.  What one must do, however, is to make a U-turn.

As one great and influential 20th century rosh yeshivah put it “teshuvah is nisht dehr taitch besser tsu verren … nohr anderish tzu verren-teshuvah is not ‘becoming better’ but ‘becoming different’” It is not about self-improvement but about total transformation.  This is the message and the power of the Torah words that were engraved all the way through the Luchos.

~adapted from Mei HaShiloach Ki Sisa D”H Vayifen

and from MiMayaanos HaNetzach Pirkei Avos 4:22

Is Living Simply an Ideal or an Unfortunate Consequence of Tuition Induced Pressures

By: Always A BT

My 4 children (all girls) are mostly grown. Our eldest is 31; the youngest is now in high school.

We are fortunate to have chosen a Yeshiva where no child is turned away and although there is a “minimum tuition”, those with extenuating circumstances are dealt with on a case by case basis. The Hanhalah and Board are committed to this standard. As far as I know, none of the other Yeshivas (of which there are several) in our city have this policy regarding scholarship.
We managed to pay full tuition for several years when our children first started school. We managed to paid full tuition even while going through foreclosure. Our children know that Yeshiva tuition was a priority. We are very pleased by the “return” on our “investment” in their ruchniyus.

Now, in middle age, we have made peace with the fact that we will always be renters.

Due to health obstacles and several downturns in the economy over the years, we were never able to pay full tuition again. Our limitations, both due to our own health issues & caregiving obligations, made this impossible. We have a relative who helped with tuition for Yeshiva ketana and my husband has worked for my children’s high school for the last 13 years as barter for tuition as well. He currently works 3 jobs just to put food on the table. I have been a full time caregiver for my mother for over 18 years. I have been unable to work for the last 10 years because caring for her is a full time job.

It frustrates me that there is a prevailing perception that those of us who work in “business” are well heeled, wear custom sheitels and the latest fashions, go on lavish vacations, frequent Pesach programs and drive luxury cars. Nothing could be further from the truth. We take care of our things so they last as long as possible. Yom Tov comes and goes without the “requisite” new clothes for the kids and/or jewelry for the wife. Vacations are sporadic at best and very low budget. We try not to incur debt unless absolutely necessary. We and our children are very happy with the simple lifestyle we lead. In many ways, it has brought us closer because everyone pitches in.

Our children are all hard workers and while not lacking, do not get much in the way of frills unless they have earned a good portion of the money themselves. They realize it is impractical to marry a “learning boy” because their parents cannot afford to support. They do not want to live on public assistance or charity; they want to be financially independent. My husband learns Torah daily and my daughters’ husbands attend minyanim daily and have regular learning sedarim as well. Another myth dispelled; Torah is a priority to many men and women who work outside the frum community to support their families.

Many, if not most, of those in chinuch in our community, have a higher standard of living than we do. Most own their homes, but many work multiple jobs to support their families. Many get “perks” such as cash gifts, scholar in residence at Yom Tov programs, various discounts, parsonage, etc., not available to those in “business”.

I am not complaining. But please, recognize that not all of us “businessmen” live luxury lifestyles and have large disposable incomes.

I have no answers. My question is, why are the “haves” not teaching their children to live simply as well? Is this not a Torah value?

Of Open-Book Enigmas and Whispered Secrets

Tetzaveh 5775-An installment in the series of adaptations
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

Make a  Choshen Mishpat-justice breastplate. It shall be of patterned brocade, like the ephod.  Make it out of gold; sky blue, dark purple and crimson wool and twirled linen. … Set it with four rows of mounted gemstones.

-Shemos 28:15,17

… And the gemstones shall be upon the names of the 12 sons of Israel, one for each of the 12 stones. Each one’s name shall be engraved as on a signet ring to correspond to the 12 tribes.

-Shemos 28:21

Thus, Ahron will carry the names of the sons of Israel in the Choshen Mishpat over his heart when he comes into the sanctified site; it shall be a constant remembrance before HaShem.  Place the Urim and Thumim in the Choshen Mishpat and they shall be over Ahron’s heart when he comes before HaShem. Ahron will bear the just-decision instrument for the children of Israel upon his heart, before HaShem, perpetually.

-Shemos 28:29,30

This [the Urim and Thumim refers to a] writ bearing the explicit Name, which he [Moshe] would place within the folds of the Choshen, through which it would illuminate words on the gemstones (מֵאִיר) and perfect (ומתמם) those words. [i.e., the Urim and Thumim lit up letters forming words, and those words like an incontrovertible halachah/mishpat, were dependable. (Yoma 73b)] … Because of that Name-bearing-writ, the Choshen  was called “justice,” as it is said: “and he shall seek the just-decision of the Urim before HaShem on his behalf” (BeMidbar. 27:21).

–Rashi ibid

Conventional wisdom understands the power of the Urim and Thumim to illuminate the letters of the gemstones embedded in the settings of the Choshen Mishpat-justice breastplate as some kind of a sanctified Ouija Board, chalilah-Heaven forefend.  The questions would be put to it and it would, miraculously, “predict” future events.  According to this understanding the destiny of K’lal Yisrael–the Nation of Israel, is fungible.  As an entity existing entirely in the “now”, any number of alternative histories and futures are possible.

As is often the case, conventional wisdom fails to convey the deeper meaning.  Not only does it give the wrong impression the mechanism of the Urim and Thumim, the Choshen Mishpat and the “battery” that powered it but it misconstrues K’lal Yisrael as a temporal entity rather than as the eternal being that it actually is.  Transcendent of time, K’lal Yisrael is not subject to alternative histories.

Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, teaches that the “power cell” that activated the mechanism of the Choshen Mishpat was the very heart of Ahron the Kohen Gadol-the High Priest, not merely the writ bearing the explicit Divine Name. His explanation for how it functioned follows the pasuk and midrashic excerpts:

HaShem’s wrath blazed against Moshe, and He said, “Is not Ahron the Levi your brother? I know that he knows how to speak; moreover, observe, he is setting out to meet you, and when he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart.

-Shemos 4:14

… Your suspicions about your brother, that he would resent you for your eminence as My spokesman, are unfounded. On the contrary, he will be happy for you. Rabi Shimon bar Yosee taught: “the heart of he who rejoiced in his brother’s eminence will wear the Urim and Thumim as it is written: ‘ … and they shall be over Ahron’s heart’”

-Midrash Rabbah Shemos 3:17

The opposite of love it is not hatred.  Very often, hatred is the same deep, passionate emotion as love, inverted.  As William Congreve wrote “”Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” The true antithesis of love is envy.

Love seeks to give to others and grows more tender and warmer with the success, happiness and fulfillment of the loved one(s).  In stark contrast; envy seeks to take away what others have and grows more venal and bitter with the success, happiness and fulfillment of the envied one(s).  Ahron’s heart was devoid of pettiness and was aflame with the love of Israel.  As there is no greater success imaginable for human being than to be HaShem’s spokesman and agent,  his heart had withstood the definitive litmus test determining if one is a giver or a taker in the crucible of the most extreme potential for envy; sibling rivalry.  Exulting in his younger brother success, he proved his heart to be utterly empty of envy and brimming with ahavas Yisrael-the love of Israel.

Unrequited love is the exception to the rule.  The default setting for love, as it is for all human emotions, is reciprocity.  Shlomo the king put it best when he wrote “as the face that is replicated in the reflecting pool, so is ones man’s heart to another”(Mishlei 27:19).  This axiom is borne out by the mutual and reciprocal of love that existed between Ahron and the people of Israel. When Ahron the Kohen Gadol died …  “The whole congregation saw that Ahron had expired, and the entire house of Israel wept for Aaron for thirty days. “ (BeMidbar 20:29) All of the people loved him intensely.

As Rashi, citing Chazal, says:  [both] the men and the women [loved him], for Ahron had pursued peace; he promoted love between disputing parties and between man and wife.(Avos d’Rabi Nassan 12:4).  Loving all the people and realizing that their own success and fulfillment depended upon their loving one another, the greatest gift that Ahron could bestow upon them was to eliminate the pettiness, envy and disputes and that drove them apart.  Loving them, he gave them the ultimate gift of love for each other.

It is in the nature of those in love to share secrets with one another.  In some instances this is because only those who love us will continue to accept us and not be too harshly judgmental when they discover our darkest secrets.  But, more often, it is our noblest secrets, our loftiest and dreamiest ambitions that we only feel comfortable sharing with those whom we love and who love us.  Those things about us that are closest to the core of our beings can only be revealed within the framework of love.

As a great twentieth century Torah sage explained; this may be because the supreme expression of love is, itself, a secret. Chazal interpreted the pasuk “It is the glory of Elokim to conceal a thing; but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.” (Mishlei 25:2) to mean that matters pertaining to the Genesis narrative-hishavus haOlamos, are shrouded in mystery and must remain hidden away. G-d brought the cosmos into being as an expression of His love.  As human beings are b’Tzelem Elokim– in the image of the Divine , tznius-top-secretiveness is apropos for the supreme expression of interpersonal love in that it is the closest that human beings, the  Tzelem Elokim, will ever come to emulating Elokim’s act of creation.

As we stand in the present moment, our most ancient past, lost in the mists of time, and our concealed and our unknowable futures, are secrets. Just as those in love share their most intimate secrets with one another, so too K’lal Yisrael bared her secrets to the human heart that most loved her. It was the loving heart of Ahron, the Kohen Gadol, that served as the “power cell” that activated the Urim and Thumim to illuminate the letters of the gemstones embedded in the settings of the Choshen Mishpat. The Choshen was not handicapping probabilities or predicting the future.  The letters that glowed and grew salient on the Choshen’s gemstones sounded the silent, soundless whisperings of eternal, transcendent, beloved K’lal Yisrael revealing her secrets to and through the loving heart of Ahron.

Sisrei Torah-the secrets of the Torah, are very much in vogue today. Everyone wants to learn, Kabbalah. Lamdanim-Talmudic theoreticians, have long known that even within nigleh-the more revealed, less mystical component of the Torah, there are hidden secrets; gems waiting to be unearthed. What many fail to realize is that a kabbalistic text and, in a larger sense, any Torah text, is an encoded message.  Merely setting one’s eyes upon the text and reading, or even intermittent and halfhearted attempts at deciphering, will no more force the Torah to yield any of her secrets than will with futile efforts of a third party who had intercepted love letters trying to grasp the hints and cryptic terms of endearment that these missives contain.

The Lubliner Kohen maintains that what is true for all interpersonal relationships informed by love and, writ large, what is true for K’lal Yisrael, is equally true for TorasYisrael. The Torah must be wooed and pursued. Sisrei Torah are not for weekend-warriors —  semi-committed dabblers who can take the Torah or leave it. Those who ardently love the Torah are loved by the Torah in return.  As Shlomo the king taught: “Does not Wisdom call out … ’I love them that love me, and those that seek me earnestly shall find me.’”(Mishlei 8:1,17) One’s heart must be ablaze with the love of Torah.  Torah must become a passion, an obsession and an infatuation, only then will the Torah reveal her innermost secrets.

~adapted from Tzidkas HaTzaddik inyan 198 

Twice Adar – Understanding the Halachos of Adar Rishon and Adar Sheini

Rabbi Daniel Travis
Kollel Torah Chaim

Rising to the Occasion

“When Adar arrives we increase our level of happiness” ( Taanis 29a). All year long Jews strive to feel the tremendous sense of joy that should accompany our service of G-d. As we draw closer to Purim, we are instructed to raise our spirits to an even higher level.

What is the reason for this?

We can answer this with help from the famous dictum of the Rema, “There is no joy greater than that which we feel when we have eliminated doubts” (Responsa 5). Adar and Nissan are months during which Hashem performed extraordinary miracles for the Jewish people. Through studying and celebrating these events we can achieve clarity of faith and rid ourselves of any doubts regarding G-d’s eternal dominion over the world. When everything is so clear, we know that our Father in Heaven is watching over us every moment of the day, and we are free to experience a constant state of simcha .

Haman’s lots determined that we celebrate Purim in the month of Adar, the month in which Moshe Rabbeinu was born. What do we do in a leap year, when we have two months of Adar?

Although all opinions agree that Purim is celebrated in Adar Sheni, the overwhelming joy of this period makes its presence already felt in Adar Rishon, with the celebration of Purim Katan. However, numerous other issues arise concerning the halachic question of which Adar is which.

Shabbos Mevorchim

The following scenario raises a fascinating halachic conundrum: On the Shabbos before Adar Rishon begins, the chazzan stands before the congregation in synagogue, holding the Torah scroll. As he clears his throat to announce the new month, he wonders to himself, “Should I call the upcoming month Adar, or must I say Adar Rishon?”

This chazzan’s seemingly simple question is discussed extensively by the commentators . They agree that Adar Sheni is the “real” Adar and Adar Rishon is the additional month ( Ridvaz 1:150). Although this information has relevance concerning when to commemorate a yahrzeit (a memorial day for the departed), our Sages did not define words based on halachic parameters. Interestingly enough, the meaning of a word is mainly determined by its colloquial use, i.e. what people mean when they say it.

Most Rishonim agree that when people say or write the word “Adar” by itself, they are referring to the first Adar, Adar Rishon (Rosh, Ran, Nedarim 63a). This answers our chazzan’s question, and he can say that next week will be “Rosh Chodesh Adar.” However, it is always better to avoid ambiguity, and for the sake of clarity it is preferable if he explicitly announces, “Adar Rishon” ( Mishna Berura 427:3).

An Adar Deadline

All kinds of legal questions can arise when people are not specific about which Adar they mean. Here is an interesting story of one young man whose confusion became almost overwhelming:

David’s father passed away on the second day of Adar during a non-leap year. To honor his father’s memory, David made a vow that by Rosh Chodesh Adar of the following year he would reprint a book written by his great-grandfather.

David hired a printer and wrote in the contract that the books must be ready by Rosh Chodesh Adar.

Meanwhile, David became engaged and the wedding was scheduled for the third of Adar Rishon.

Three weeks before the wedding David contacted the printer and requested that the first few hundred copies be printed as a souvenir to be given out at his wedding. The printer told him that he had not been planning to complete the books until the middle of Adar Rishon, but he could do it for him for an extra thousand dollars.

That week David found among his father’s papers a document recording a $1,000 loan given to someone three years previously, also a leap year. The document was dated “the fourteenth of Adar,” but David clearly recalled that the loan had been given on Purim – i.e., the fourteenth of Adar Sheni. The borrower had since died, but David hoped that with the signed document he would be able to collect the debt from the estate.

To add to his concerns, David wished to fast on his father’s yahrzeit , as was the custom in his family. Would this mean that he would have to fast on two consecutive days – the day of his father’s yahrzeit and the following day, the day of his wedding?

This story encompasses four halachic issues, each one discussed in a different section of the Shulchan Aruch .

The first question regards David’s vow to print the book by Rosh Chodesh Adar. Must they be ready by Rosh Chodesh Adar Rishon or Rosh Chodesh Adar Sheni?

The next question is by which date did the printer obligate himself to complete the printing?

Third, we must clarify whether the loan document is valid or not. If the loan is considered to have been predated to Adar Rishon, it would be invalid and David is not allowed to use it to collect from the property of the borrower.

Finally, we must determine whether the yahrzeit of David’s father should be observed in Adar Rishon or Adar Sheni.

The Shulchan Aruch and the Rema both rule that the word “Adar” used by itself refers to Adar Rishon. Therefore, since David vowed to print the books by Rosh Chodesh Adar, he must have them ready by Rosh Chodesh Adar Rishon ( Yoreh Deah 220:8).

Similarly, regarding the printer’s contract, since the word “Adar” without explanation means Adar Rishon, the printer is obligated to finish the job in time for David to fulfill his vow without any extra charge ( Choshen Mishpat 43:28).

Concerning the document David found, since the word Adar means Adar Rishon, while the loan was actually given in Adar Sheni, the date is incorrect, meaning that the document is predated and therefore invalid (cf. Rema, Even Ha’ezer 126:7).

In conclusion, when someone says or writes the word Adar, the Shulchan Aruch and Rema agree that it means Adar Rishon, even if he actually meant Adar Sheni.

However, other authorities differ, ruling that the word Adar refers to Adar Sheni (Bach, Shach, Yoreh Deah 220:8). Because of this and other factors that could affect the final ruling, a halachic authority should be consulted in every case.

The question of the yahrzeit depends on other factors. Let us study them in more detail.

Yahrzeits

The Shulchan Aruch writes that if a person passed away in Adar of a non-leap year, the yahrzeit should be observed in Adar Sheni during leap years ( Orach Chaim 568:7).

Regarding vows and financial contracts, the exact date usually depends on what people intend when speaking or writing. However, the date of a yahrzeit has more significance because it is a day of judgment for the deceased and his family, and can only be determined by the month which is considered halachically the “real” Adar. Since Adar Sheni is the real Adar, the Shulchan Aruch places all yahrzeits in that month.

The Rema, however, notes that even though Adar Sheni is the real Adar, we follow the principle of doing mitzvos at the first opportunity and yahrzeits should be marked in Adar Rishon ( Yoreh Deah 402:12). Yet the Rema himself cites authorities who say that since this issue is unclear, it is praiseworthy to observe the yahrzeit in Adar Sheni as well ( Orach Chaim 568:7).

The Mishna states that “the only difference between the first and the second Adar is that the megilla is read and matanos l’evyonim are given [in the second Adar]” ( Megilla 6b). In this vein, some rule that keeping the yahrzeit in both Adar Rishon and Adar Sheni is not just desirable – it is an obligation ( Magen Avraham , Gra, Mishna Berura ). As with the previous halachos , there are many different issues involved in determining which opinion to follow, so a Rabbi should be consulted.

Bar Mitzvas
While the question of when to observe a yahrzeit depends on which month is considered the real halachic Adar, regarding a bar mitzva in a leap year we calculate differently.

In order to consider a child as having reached manhood according to the Torah, it is not enough to identify the real Adar. This calculation requires us to be aware of when thirteen years have completed. Here, even the Rema agrees that a boy born in Adar during a non-leap year does not become bar mitzva until Adar Sheni of his thirteenth year, since the year cannot be considered complete until then (Rema , Orach Chaim 55:11).

Continuous Celebration

The Rambam writes that any celebration that is not accompanied by lifting the spirits of the downtrodden is mere self-gratification ( Hilchos Yom Tov 6,18). Therefore the commentators write that when preparing one’s seuda on Purim Katan , it is proper to give charity to orphans and widows ( Eshel Avraham 697,2). Similarly someone who experienced a personal miracle should distribute money among Torah scholars ( Mishna Berura 218,34). However, there is another secret for making sure that one has the correct intentions when celebrating miracles.

After discussing the opinions of whether one should make a seuda on Purim Katan, the Rema concludes his commentary on Orach Chaim , the section of the Shulchan Aruch which deals with daily life, with a quote from the Book of Proverbs: “ Vetov lev mishteh tamid ,” (One who has a good heart is always feasting). In doing so he repeats the word tamid that he mentioned at the beginning of the Shulchan Aruch where he quoted a Psalm: “ Shivisi Hashem lenegdi tamid ,” (I place Hashem’s Presence in front of me always).

The Birkei Yosef notes that the use of the word “ tamid” in both of these instances hints at a very deep concept.

The temidim , the offerings which were brought on a daily basis in the Temple , had to be offered in their specified order, i.e. the morning korban must always precede the afternoon one.

The use of the word tamid at the beginning and the end of Orach Chaim implies a connection between the two ideas. Only after a person senses Hashem’s Presence before him can he aim to achieve the second level of tamid of “One who has a good heart is always feasting.”

Mishkan and Mikdash – Joy and Awe

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler – Michtav Mi Eliyahu – Strive for Truth Vol 5 – Page 220

The Desert Tabernacle, the details of whose construction take up the whole of parashat Terumah and much of the succeeding parshiyot, is sometimes called sanctuary” [mikdash] (“And they shall make Me a mikdash”)(1). More frequently, however, it is called mishkan, which means “dwelling place.” (2)

The meaning of mishkan—the dwelling place (so to speak) of Hashem — is clearly expressed in the verse: “And so shall he (the Kohen Gadol) do to the Tent of Meeting which dwells with them in the midst of their defilement.”(3) God rests His presence amongst us even in the midst of our defilement because He knows that we have the ability to raise and extricate ourselves from defilement. How? Through the Torah.

The Tent of Meeting is so called because it is the meeting place of God and Israel — the place where Torah is transmitted. In parashat Tetzaveh, the Tent of Meeting is described as the place “Where I shall meet with you [plural, i.e. Israel], where I will speak to you [singular, i.e. Mosheh].”(4) “To speak to you” means to transmit Torah, and Torah learning creates a closeness be¬tween us and Hashem, a sense of joy and satisfaction. “The commands of God are straightforward and rejoice the heart.”(5) All this is included in the term mishkan.

Mikdash, on the other hand, means a place of holiness. Holiness means transcendence. We feel the absolute gulf which separates the Creator from His creatures. Our response must be service—offerings and prayer — by which we recognize our lowliness before the grandeur of the Al-mighty. “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (6)

But nevertheless, we find that mishkan is sometimes called mikdash and mkdash is sometimes called mishkan.(7) How they are called reflects what they are in reality, for their meaning and existence are really one. If mishkan represents the joy in the presence of Hashem, and mikdash represents the awe one feels in the transcendence of Hashem, then together they form one whole. We have to “rejoice in trembling.”(8) And the Rabbis say: “I experience fear in the midst of my joy and joy in the midst of my fear.” (9)

Notes
1 Shemot 25:8.
2 Ibid. 25:9.
3 Vayikra 16:16.
4 Shemot 29:42.
5 Tehillim 19:9.
6 Yesha’ya 56:7.
7 Eruvin 2a.
8 Tehillim 2:11.
9 Tanna de-Be Eliyahu Rabba #3.

You Have Graduated


By Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald
From Mishpacha Magazine BT Symposium – September 13, 2012

MOST FRUM-FROM-BIRTH JEWS fail to appreciate the life-wrenching decisions and monumental sacrifices that are involved in becoming a baal teshuvah. In a very real sense, becoming a baal teshuvah may be com¬pared to being asked to move to Mars. Once the decision is made, almost everything in a baal teshuvah’s life is challenged, changed, and transformed. For most who make that choice, exceptional conviction and indeed heroism are required to adapt to the rigorous lifestyle of Orthodox Judaism.

To support the development of healthy, balanced baalei teshuvah, we must be aware of a number of cogent principles. From bitter experience, I have concluded that those Jews who walk in and immediately become shomer Shabbos and kashrus might well eventually de¬part from observance just as abruptly. That’s less likely, however, for those who supplement their rapid transformation with intense Torah study. Rather than push for the quick observance of mitzvos, I would encourage additional study and deliberate religious growth.

A healthy baal teshuvah needs to be a balanced person. Yet some methods of contemporary kiruv are antithetical to that goal. Very often the mekarev, who invests many hours, days, and even years working with a potential baal teshuvah, assumes “ownership” of the new neshamah. The mekarev and his/her family generally study Torah with the neophytes, open their hearts and homes to include them in their family experiences, often adopting the beginner as an additional child or sibling.

But this is unhealthy for the baal teshuvah. I’ve long argued that baalei teshuvah need multiple, authentic religious experiences. By exposing them to other mechanchim and rabbanim, with other valid points of view, the future baalei teshuvah come away with a much greater, broader, healthier picture of Jewish life.

True, separation is often very difficult to accomplish, for both the mekarev and the baal teshuvah. When I first began conducting the Beginners’ Service, it was so difficult for me to “graduate” a beginner. I had worked on them and sweated with them, cried with them and labored with them, and I mistakenly perceived that these people were mine! It was a good feeling knowing that the beginners “loved” the service and did not want to leave, and I too, was not eager for them leave.

It was a thoroughly heartrending decision for me to have to say to someone, “You have graduated. I will match you up with someone who will help you during davening in the regular shul.” It was painful for both of us. But it was necessary, in order to create a healthy balance, and allow them to progress and develop religiously.

Another important factor that is often overlooked is that mekarvim and committed community members need to be concerned with the “whole person,” to be aware of the factors that motivate a person to explore Judaism. Is it a true spiritual search, or was it a reaction to a death in the family, or the loss of a boyfriend/girlfriend, or job? Is it possibly due to emotional or psychological instability? It is certainly not just how many chapters a day of Tehillim the newly observant recite, or how many Mishnayos they have mastered, that should concern us. We need to be attentive to the whole person, including issues of parnassah, social status, and relationships with spouses, children, I cannot think of a single instance in my many years where confrontation has proven beneficial either to baalei teshuvah or to their families and parents. Those concerns are also part of becoming a Torah Jew and living a full Jewish life.

Another important factor in the development of healthy baalei teshuvah is assisting them with coming to terms with their past. Alienating them from their parents, or encouraging them to deny their past, is almost always destructive and wrongheaded. Defiantly antireligious parents, who see their children acting with uncommon respect and concern — despite the parents’ venom — are often trans¬formed, and become more sympathetic. When children are taught not to be confrontational, but accommodating (and that can almost always be achieved), it has a most salutary effect on the entire family, and the entire adjustment process for the baal teshuvah is enhanced as well. I cannot think of a single instance in my many years where confrontation has proven beneficial either to baalei teshuvah or to their families.

I have always made it a point to keep in closer contact with those with whom I have “failed,” than with those who succeeded. It is crucial to never give up! We must try to win back the less committed to the growth mode, even if it is one tiny step forward. These so-called “failures” are the ones who receive our annual calls before the holidays. They are the ones who are invited to our home for Shabbos and holiday meals, more frequently than the “success” cases. Above all, it is important to keep the lines of communication open. And when occasionally there is a return, it is a reason for great happiness.

It is crucially important that the frum community be there to support and aid baalei teshuvah, to show them love and concern along the way. I can candidly say that being warmly welcomed in a new shul has an exhilarating effect on me, and I am no stranger to shul.

Today, unfortunately, we find trends that are going in the opposite direction, where baalei teshuvah and their children often discover that they are not welcome. I wonder if the children of Reish Lakish, who started as a highwayman, were prohibited from attending the local schools and shuls because of Reish Lakish’s ignoble past. This growing practice is not only terribly wrong, but a real turnoff to anyone who is thinking of becoming, or has become, an observant Jew.

Ephraim Z. Buchwald is the director of the National Jewish Outreach Program and rabbi of the Lincoln Square Synagogue Beginners Service.

Financial Realities in the Frum World

By “Sam Smith”

I want to share a conversation I had with the executive director of a yeshiva about the financial realities of raising and educating a family in the frum world today.

He said that households earning a combined $200,000 or more generally easily meet their financial responsibilities. Households in the $100-150,000 range, on the other hand, were “making it, but not necessarily easily” or were “making it but struggling.” He added he was talking about a typical family with 3-4 kids in yeshiva.

Then, he said, families earning less than $100,000 have “real issues” (including possible “marital” issues). Nevertheless, at his yeshiva, even kollel families, he explained, are required to pay at least $3,000 per child. No exceptions.

What if someone can’t pay?

“We’ll work with them,” he said, “but the board does not authorize me to reduce anyone’s tuition obligation to anything less” than the $3,000 per child. (And that figure doesn’t include lunch, transportation, books, tutors, etc.)

What does “working with them” mean? He wasn’t clear. Will they kick the kid out in the middle of the year if the parents can’t pay? No, he said. Will they forbid them from graduating and moving into the next grade? The conversation didn’t go that far. However, he was clear that the obligations were non-negotiable – even for the families that it might add to their “real issues.”

I thought to myself, Is there something inconsistent here?

In general I became frum to enter a society that valued the spiritual over the material. Yet, the reality is that the demands of this society create an arguably greater need for high-level material accomplishment than the society whose values I left behind. They force a person (without inherited wealth) to stay late at the office, take that second job, send the wife out to work, etc. – not to become wealthy but to pay the bills.

I glanced up at portraits of tzaddikim which stood high on the wall behind the executive director.

What would they think of this situation? What is the real message we are sending kids in yeshiva by painting romantic images of the Chofetz Chaim learning Torah in abject poverty, while at the same time, in effect, demanding parents make that $100,000 plus?

And what is the goal of yeshiva? Is it not to teach our kids the value of the spiritual over the material? Yet, what are we really setting them up for? To follow in our footsteps onto this ever-faster spinning treadmill of material accomplishment and obligation? Where does the cycle stop? How does one get out of the loop?

In my naïve, Baal Teshuvish way of thinking I guess I thought I was breaking this cycle; that my life would not be reduced to worrying about making more money; and even if it was, at least if I lived frugally and worked hard my kids’ yeshivas, if nothing else, would understand and not press me to produce money I didn’t have or make me feel worse about my financial situation than I already did; that they would seek the shortfall from the wealthier benefactors.

On the other hand, I fully understand where they are coming from. They have to pay rabbeim. They have to keep the lights on.

I have no answers. Only questions.

A popular post from 2006.

Facebook, Transparency and the Next World

Like everybody and his old chum from 10th grade biology, I’m on Facebook. Thanks to Facebook, reconnecting with people from the past has never been easier. Type in the name of someone you knew at any phase of your life – elementary school, summer camp, your first job out of college – and quite likely, you’ll find a picture of that very person, all grown up with a whole life story to tell you. So when I saw the prompt about reconnecting with old friends, I decided not to address the issue per se, but to present what I call “my Facebook moshol.”

I don’t think I’m alone when I say that joining Facebook has made me reflect on my past and my present, who I used to be and who I’ve become. Sometimes recalling the past is just pure fun and nostalgia. Sometimes, the memories are more mixed. When I try and imagine myself from the point of view of people I haven’t seen in years and who might remember me in less than flattering ways, Facebook is not so pleasant. And therefore, I want to put forth the theory – and I mean no sacrilege – that Facebook is a foretaste of the Next World.

Most of what I know about the Next World, I learned from Rabbi B. Shafier of The Shmuz, specifically his three-part lecture “Life 101,” which is the basis for his new book, The Shmuz on Life. The only things we take to the Next World are our neshomas and our deeds. Our deeds become, as it were, the clothing for our neshomas. Our mitzvos will shine on us like jewelry, but our aveiros will look like rags. And worse, they’ll have holes in them that will expose what we’d prefer to keep covered. For those, we’ll suffer eternal shame. In the Next World, we’ll experience both the honor of Heaven and the shame of Hell at the very same time.

So what does that have to do with Facebook? The neshoma of everyone you’ve ever known will be there, as visible as a profile picture – except there’s no privacy option, no choice not to upload. We’ll all be there, and we’ll all see each other. It’s the ultimate transparency.

But even transparency has mitigating factors. In the words of computer culture expert David Weinberger, “An age of transparency must be an age of forgiveness.” If I can see your sins and you can see mine, we can sympathize with each other for being such imperfect human beings. And since I want my sins erased, how can I begrudge you the same?

But the most important mitigation comes from seeing our lives in broader context. In this world, we get a little of that with the passage of time, but in the Next World, we’ll be able to see much, much more. Yes, the good, the bad, and the ugly will be part of the picture, but so will Hashem’s intentions for us, our spiritual purpose, why x circumstance was not negative, but necessary. I suppose in this sense, my Facebook moshol falls short, but even still, I heard in the name of the Chofetz Chaim that every technological innovation hints to some parallel spiritual experience, and this age of reconnection and transparency might be a taste of those aspects of the World to Come.

Originally Published Feb 7, 2011

Yisro in a Nutshell

Here’s Rabbi Rietti’s outline of Yisro. You can purchase the entire outline of the Chumash here.

Yitro
# 18 Yitro Converts – Advice: 10-50-100-1000.
# 19 Preparations for Divine Revelation
# 20 The Ten Commandments

# 18 Yitro Converts – Advice: 10-50-100-1000.
* Yitro arrives at Jewish Camp in desert with Tsiporah, Gershom & Eliezer
* Yitro blesses HaShem when he hears the details of the Exodus
* Yitro eats with Moshe in HaShem’s Presence
* Yitro sees Moshe’s method of adjudicating justice
* Yitro’s advice, delegate judges of 10, 50, 100, 1000
* Yitro returns to Midian

# 19 Preparations for Divine Revelation
* Moshe ascends Mt. Sinai
* You saw how I carried you on eagles wings out of Egypt
* Be to Me a Treasured Nation, a Priestly Kingdom & Unique People
* We declared “We will do!”
* Hashem reveals that the purpose of Divine Revelation is so that the Nation
will hear and witness G-d speaking to Moses directly.
* Purify yourselves for the third day, wash clothes, immerse in Mikveh, no
contact with wives.
* Loud sounds, thunder, heavy cloud, sound of the Shofar, everyone
trembled, we stood ‘beneath’ the mountain, HaShem came down in a fire,
entire Mountain trembled, Shofar continued blasting louder while
HaShem spoke to Moshe directly in the presence of the entire nation
* HaShem instructs Moshe to warn Kohanim not to ascend the Mt.

# 20 The Ten Commandments (14 Mitzvot)
* “I Am The Master, Your Power Who took you out of Egypt.”
* Have no other gods beside Me.
* Don’t say My Name in vain.
* Practice Shabbat.
* Honor both parents.
* Don’t Kill.
* Don’t adulterate.
* Don’t kidnap.
* Don’t bear false witness.
* Don’t envy.
* We all ‘saw’ the sounds, flames, blast of the Shofar and Mountain
smoking.
* We requested Moshe speak directly with us and not The All Powerful G-d
* Moshe ascended to the Arafel where HaShem was revealed
* See ! I spoke to you directly from Heaven
* Don’t make images of Me, gods of silver or gold.
* Make for Me an Altar where you will bring all your offerings
* Wherever I let you mention My Name, I will come down and bless you
* Don’t allow any metal to touch the stone Altar.
* Don’t ascend My Altar by way of steps for modesty sake.

The Engaging Shabbos Table

by Rabbi Aryeh Goetz

If the goal of your Shabbos table is to create a positive and unifying experience for participants of all ages and backgrounds, here are some simple techniques that encourage everyone’s participation. This format is wonderful for those who would like to invite guests who may be less familiar with Shabbos customs, but it works equally well any family or group, as well.

Set Up
The set up of the table should be to form one “circle”, so each person can have eye contact with every other person seated. It’s best not to have a separate children’s table or a T-shaped configuration, if possible. It is also helpful to have bentchers on the table, set at the places, or handed out to the guests. This is often a good job for one of the children. Remember to announce the page if you have guests that may not be familiar with the songs (Shalom Aleichem, Eishes Chayil, Shabbos zemiros). “Newcomers” that are not familiar with the songs, should be given an English/Hebrew version or a siddur to at least follow along reading to themselves in English, so they get a sense of what is being said.

Kiddush & HaMotzi
Introduce the concept to newcomers in a phrase that explains the meaning of Kiddush. It could be somewhat like this: “Kiddush is to testify that G-d created the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th day. We emulate this concept by refraining from creative work on Shabbos. The second theme of the Kiddush is that HaShem brought the Jewish people out from slavery in Egypt and formed them into a nation and gave them the Torah. Shabbos is one of the gifts in the Torah.” If there is someone who is not familiar with the washing of the hands, make sure someone in the family explains this procedure and recites the blessing of al netilas yadiam with him or her. Casually mention that there is no speaking between the hand washing and the distribution and eating of the challah. New guests enjoy this a lot!

Introductions & Theme Question
After the first course is served and everyone has some food on their plate and in their stomach, we begin “introductions”. Going around the table, I start (so I can model what I want to happen) and we go around to the right (counter-clockwise). I ask each person to say his or her name. This is especially helpful when there are guests who may not know the names of the children or the names of the other guests. I say something like, “Please say your name, since everyone may not yet know everyone else”. It is a helpful icebreaker at the start. Also, I ask each person to answer the “theme question” after they introduce themselves. The theme question is a one or two word topic to which everyone will be able to relate, and it has an “open ended” style. We are not looking for one ‘right answer’. Whatever comes to mind is a good answer. The topic is related either directly or indirectly to the weekly parsha. I announce the name of the parsha and then the theme. For instance, for parsha Bereshis the theme might be “garden” or it might be “tree” or any other related word, for Noach, some example may be “flood” or “animal”. One person may end up discussing the time that his basement flooded, and how he reacted. Another guest may talk about a big storm and how it affected her life.

The theme question gives people a chance to express themselves in a non-judgmental context. It works for all age groups and encourages speaking as well listening skills. Everyone gets to know what the others are thinking. Parents can get an insight into what is on the minds of their children. If someone can’t think of something to say relating to the theme, he can just state his name and ‘pass’ until everyone else is done and we can come back to him when he is ready, if he would like.

The Dvar Torah
The theme question is a great segue way to the Dvar Torah. When the children are younger, they are asked to speak about something they learned in school or discuss a point from their ‘parsha sheet’. Starting from youngest to oldest, keeps an orderly flow and allows the younger ones to say something that had not yet been said, since they are going first. After a young child has his or her turn to speak, he or she may want to leave the table to play if it is too much for them to pay attention to the others. They should be allowed to leave the table after their turn by asking permission. This allows the meal to be child-focused and not guest- focused for as long as it is enjoyable for the children, and the guests gain much as well by focusing on the children’s presentations.

When the children got older, I gave the Dvar Torah first and asked anyone (child or guest) who had something to share, to do so. Over the years, the children gained self-confidence in public speaking and listening skills. Some young children love the “public speaking” opportunity so much, they stand up on their chairs when their turns come.

Zemiros / Singing
As the main course ends, the singing of the zemiros is a cue for the plates to be cleared from the table. One can ask a newcomer guest if he knows any Jewish songs or a guest can choose the zemer or lead the tune, if they are willing.

The Dessert Question
The concluding question is called the “dessert question” because it is answered while dessert is served and eaten. The question is the same each week but the answer always differs, because each week has brought new experiences. The question is: “What was the highlight of your week?” This encourages people to think back from last Shabbos until now, review their week, focus on a positive experience, and share it with others. There is no particular order to answer the “dessert question.” Anyone who is ready to share their highlight, may start. It also encourages thankfulness to HaShem for many blessings.

Bentching
I thank my wife for the delicious meal, if I haven’t already done so, and all those who assisted in preparing, cleaning up or bringing something for Shabbos. We bentch together, as this brings closure to the meal. Afterwards, those who want to leave the table are free to do so. Those that would like to stay and talk are welcome to stay at the table or go into the living room. It is important that people (especially children) should not be “held hostage” at the table for too long. Children who have left the table should be called back for the dessert question and the group bentching. We usually sing the first paragraph in unison.

Our Shabbos tables have the potential to be unifying opportunities for participants of all ages and backgrounds, just by making a few simple accommodations. I hope this provides some ideas with which to experiment and enhance Shabbos pleasure!

Rabbi Aryeh Goetz is the Director of Neighborhood Investment for CHAI (Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc.) and rabbi of the Jewish Recovery Houses in Baltimore, Maryland. He can be reached at aryehgoetz@gmail.com.

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)