Monday, September 1, 2014

Open Letter: Fresh Starts

I don't know if you left yet and whether or not you'll get this, but I just wanted to wish you lots of success in this upcoming school year. I hope you're excited about the new opportunity in a school where very few (if any) people know you; I remember that that was one of the things you complained about regarding schools in our more immediate area - that the reputation resulting from your family's problems follows you wherever you go. Hopefully you've found that anonymity and can use it to your advantage to grow. 
You had a great summer - as much as we helped facilitate that by getting you into XXXXXXX, the real credit goes to you for making a conscious decision to seek and have a positive experience. You can do that again, you can continue having great experiences by continuing to make responsible choices. 
It will be hard. Your reality and your environment for the time being basically guarantees that, and there will be many instances when it will be the easier choice to take a path of least resistance and do what's familiar and what "feels better" in the short run. But I promise you that if you keep making the effort to grow, you will become a better person for it. You will mature. You will be more compassionate for others who are struggling, and you may even be a happier person as well.
It is so important to find a positive role model in your school environment and continue checking in with people. Don't  hold things inside where they can fester and eat you up - remember that there is always more room on the outside than there is on the inside. 
You have an opportunity right now in the next few weeks before Rosh HaShana to establish the direction that the coming school year will take for you. While things can always change later on, it's always better to set off in the right direction than to change course later in the journey when you have to struggle against momentum and time lost.
I'm only telling you this because I believe in you and your desire to do good, to be good. I'm sure you're going to rock!
With blessings or success and a wonderful year!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Grandmother's Prayer

Lord on high
Let my children be healed
Help them to keep their faith in You
Soothe their pain
Let my grandchildren know no more uprooting
Let them run barefoot and joyful
Once more
In a homeland free of blood-running
Stretch out Your wings over them
Envelope them in Your protection
Enable them to grow and to love
In spite of the evil in the world
And in our land.
Grant our leaders wisdom
And integrity
Bless our people
With peace

Toby Klein Greenwald, In The Land Of Prayer

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Getting Involved

The house doesn't look so bad; hopefully a few repairs here and there, a fresh coat of paint, and an aggressive marketing angle will make this stately old manor a real catch. 

But as the developer goes through one room after another, methodically examining the extent of disrepair he becomes increasingly more discouraged. Every floorboard pried up reveals mold and decay; behind the peeling wallpaper the walls are bowed and sagging. Broken piping juts out of the walls, caked with rot and rust.

The situation is worse than the developer ever could have imagined.

Shortly after Succot this year, a few volunteers and I opened up a drop-in center for adolescents in our community who desperately needed a safe place to hang out and relax, a better alternative to the after-dark haunts of the local playgrounds and convenience store parking lots.
Until this point I had never been involved with such an undertaking from an "administrative" perspective; the amount of time, effort, actual physical labor and networking that went into our project before we even opened the doors was more than I had anticipated. Beyond that,  once we got the program off the ground the activity never ended - I have learned that there is no such thing as maintenance with a drop-in center because there are always new things that crop up vying for attention right now. As much as I had expected to come with the territory, there are so many things that I couldn't have foreseen and this has been a steep learning curve.

Nonetheless, we've been running since October, and it seems like we're gaining some traction, thank God. Due to the dynamics of the town where we operate, we've had to operate "under the radar" as it were, but slowly but surely the word-of-mouth network has come through and the people who need us know where to find us, how to get in contact with us, and hopefully that they can count on us.

There are so many problems; it would be foolhardy to think that any one issue causes kids to turn away from Judaism, to turn to drugs and delinquent behavior, and seek solace on the streets.

For some it's finances, which can have far reaching effects in all aspects of the child's life. Others have intense dysfunction in their home. Others still suffer abuse, indifference, unavailability of important role models for a number of reasons. Many have some combination of these among many other bio-psycho-social problems that present risk factors in their ability to navigate the already difficult twists and turns of coming-of-age. 
Not a night goes by since we launched that a number of us volunteers aren't on the phone - be it with each other, with a parent (a subject worthy of its own post), or someone else who is involved in some way or another (teacher, therapist, etc.). Many of the volunteers have lost countless hours of sleep, others have had to think on their feet as they struggle to properly assert boundaries without alienating the kids. It's a lively song and dance as we get to know all the steps, all the players, and all the venues. 

My wife and I talk about it constantly - how can we help more? More effectively? 

How can we do it without losing ourselves in the mix? How do you end a conversation with a kid who can't or won't go home? How do you draw the line so that you don't get caught in the middle of the tug-o-war between parent and child?

It's also been a very humbling experience for me personally.

I have a natural distaste for politics; anyone who's been a long tome reader would know that. But living in a small community like this (mentality-wise, not population) where there are a few very powerful people who call nearly all the shots and can very quickly squash a venture like ours means learning how to play nice with certain individuals. It's icky, but necessary. This has become even more apparent since the beginning of the summer when were forced to go mobile by our being kicked out of our basement to make way for a day camp. That has forced us to constantly find cost-effective diversions and activities for the kids, ending the night with taking them out for supper which puts us squarely in the center of attention. Because teens are LOUD, thank God! There has been an uptick of negative feedback from "concerned members of the community" about our endeavor since the start of the summer - that can be somewhat demoralizing, especially when we become a convenient scapegoat for angry parents.

But all this comes with the territory, and no matter how difficult or stressful that it has gotten so far, something in me keeps pushing me to strive...

Friday, May 16, 2014

Torah Studies: Bechukotai

From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' adaptation of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's Likkutei Sichot:

The Sidra of Bechukotai begins with the words, “If you walk in My statutes,” and the Sicha is in effect a profound commentary—almost a meditation—on this single phrase. It explores two central themes: The nature of Torah learning, and the relationship between faith and understanding.

1. “My Statutes”

Our Sidra begins with the phrase, “If you walk in My statutes,”1 and the Sifra comments, “One might think that this denotes the fulfillment of the commandments; but when the Torah goes on to state, ‘and you shall keep My commandments and do them’ it is plain that in this passage the fulfillment of the commandments is mentioned. How then must I explain ‘If you walk in My statutes?’ (It means) that you should labor in the study of the Torah.”

If “you walk in My statutes” referred to the commandments, we could understand why only statutes (chukim) were mentioned, without referring to the other kinds of command, testimonies (edut) and judgments (mishpatim). The reason would then be that these other commands, which have a rational explanation, should be performed with the same unconditional acceptance as statutes, which are beyond our understanding.2

But since we must understand the phrase as referring to the study of the Torah, why is the word “statutes” used at all? The study of Torah is, for the most part, an act of intellect and understanding. The labor involved is not merely to learn, by rote, the details of the law, but also to understand their reasons, as explained in the Written and Oral Torah.

But, although statutes are beyond our understanding—as Rashi says,3 “It is an enactment from before Me; you have no right to speculate about it”—they form only a small part of Torah, the majority of which is susceptible to explanation.

The Written Torah itself is small in comparison with the vast mass of oral tradition. And with the Written Torah, understanding is not crucial, so that a man must make the blessing of studying or being called to the reading of the Torah even if he does not understand what is being read. Whereas the Oral Torah does require comprehension if one is to make a blessing over it.4

The quantitative difference between the Written and Oral Torah is further emphasized by the fact that the Written Torah consists of a specified number of words and verses. There can be no additions. But the Oral Torah is open-ended. A finite quantity has already been revealed. But new discoveries are always possible—“whatever a worthy pupil will come in the future to discover.”5To it, there are no limits.

Similarly, within the Written Torah itself, the “statutes”—laws for which no reason has been communicated to us—form a minority of the commandments.

So the question becomes more forcible: Why in the context of the study of the Torah, are only statutes mentioned? Why cite a minority instance to cover the whole of the Torah? And why, in an activity of understanding, cite precisely those cases which cannot be understood?

2. Learning and Engraving

In Likkutei Torah, the Alter Rebbe explains that the word “statute” (chok) is related to the word “engrave” or “carve out” (chakikah). Thus the phrase in question uses the word “statute” to suggest that study must be an act of “carving out,” engraving the words of Torah on the soul.

What is special about engraving as a means of writing?

Firstly, the words are not added, as something extraneous, to the material on which they are written. Rather, they become an integral part of the material itself.

Secondly, and more importantly, the letters have no substance of their own. Their whole existence is in virtue of the material out of which they are carved.

So, when we are told by our verse that our learning should be “engraved” in us, we are not simply being taught that a Jew must become united with the Torah (unlike the superficial learning exemplified by Doeg, of which the Rabbis comment6 that it “was only from the surface outward”). For unity can sometimes come about by the joining of two separate things (as ordinary writing brings together ink and paper). And this, in learning, is not enough. Instead it must be “engraved,” meaning that the person learning should have no substance, his ego should have no voice whatsoever. His whole being must be the Torah.

The great example is Moses, the first recipient of the Torah. So complete was his selflessness that he could say, “I will give grass in your field.”7 “The Divine Presence spoke through his throat.”8 He was a void filled by G-d.

The same is true of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, who said: “I have seen superior men and they are but few. If there be a thousand, I and my son are among them. If there be a hundred, I and my son are among them. If only two, they are I and my son. If only one, it is I.”9 These are words of self-praise; and self-praise is not the way of the righteous. He could say them only because he was so selfless, so filled with G-d, that it was as if he were speaking about someone else.

3. The Explanations Related

All explanations in the Torah have an inner unity.10 And the interpretation of “statutes” as “engraving” complements, rather than conflicts with, its literal sense, as laws which are beyond our understanding.

To learn Torah as if it were composed entirely of statutes is to study in a state of unconditional commitment. This does not rule out the pursuit of understanding. Indeed, the point is to understand. But only if this is accompanied by commitment. Not “I will do when I understand”; nor “I will understand because I enjoy the search for knowledge”; but “I will do, and because I am commanded, I will try to understand.” This is true “labor,” meaning an effort undertaken beyond the promptings of pleasure.

When learning is of this order, then it becomes “engraved.” The person learning, and the Torah which is learned, become literally one thing.

4. “Going”

This explains one part of the phrase “If you walk in My statutes.” But what of the word “walk?” “Walking” or “going”(halicha) suggests a number of levels, and a progression from one level to the next. For example, in the emotional life, one “goes” or ascends from the lower to the higher form of love. But surely in absolute commitment, there are no levels. It seems like a state, rather than a process.

The Alter Rebbe writes that “going” relates not to a man’s task but to his reward. If one’s service is, in both senses, “in My statutes,” then the reward is “you shall go”—always higher. And true “going” is without limits.

5. Faith and Understanding

However, the simple reading of the verse takes the whole phrase “if you walk in My statutes” as man’s task, and understands the reward as beginning in the next verse, “Then I will give your rains in their seasons.”

It is written in Likkutei Torah11 that the principal element in faith lies in those levels of G-dliness which are beyond the scope of comprehension. What can be, must be understood. Faith begins where understanding ends.

This is the distinctive quality of Jewish faith. It is a faith beyond, not because of, understanding.

Now, intellect has its levels: “Days shall speak, and the multitude of years shall teach wisdom.”12And as one comprehends more, so one raises the threshold of faith. Yesterday’s faith becomes today’s understanding.

This is why “statutes,” too, have their levels. What was incomprehensible yesterday—a statute—is understood today and ceases to be a statute. So, for example, G-d said to Moses, “I will reveal to you the reason behind the Red Heifer.”13 The Red Heifer is for us a statute. For Moses it was not, from that point onwards. It was not that Moses lacked the notion of “statute,” but that for him the threshold of incomprehensibility lay higher than for us.

This is the meaning of “If you walk in My statutes.” By “laboring” in the Torah, by straining to the limit, one daily raises one’s understanding, and thus one raises the stage at which a law is a “statute.” This is the “going”: The progression to an ever-higher faith through ever-higher understanding.

And the reward is then, “I will give your rains in their season …and make you go upright” which is the unlimited “going, from strength to strength” of the future revelation, and which leads, in turn, to what lies beyond the “going”—“to the day which is wholly Shabbat and rest for life everlasting.’’14

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


There he was.

My archenemy, after all these years. I hadn't been expecting to see him, but finally this epic moment that I had fantasized about for years had arrived.

For a long time I had imagined this moment when we would meet, so long after the hell this person had put me through, and he would see the well-adjusted individual that I became despite his best efforts.
 photo Inigo25.gif
All the put downs, all the criticisms; all the countless times when I was unjustly punished and made to feel generally inferior, for no reason other than I didn't fit his conception of what a good student, a good Jew was. And now we're face to face.

I saw him before he saw me, and as he turned in my direction I stood up a little straighter, ready to stare him down as he realized who was standing before him. 

His gaze came up and briefly locked with my own. In that millisecond, there was no hint of recognition whatsoever; our eyes met (perhaps) and he just kept going, surveying the room as he entered. 

It was as if he had never seen me before!

Could the more than ten years since we had last seen each other changed my appearance so much? I didn't think so. Confused, I withdrew and returned to what I was doing before he had approached. But the incident stayed with me the whole time, distracting me. 

How was it possible that this person who was such a source of pain in a particularly difficult point in my life could not even know who I was, these years later? I could pick him out from a crowd with my eyes covered; his every gesture and sound was burned into my memory, but when he saw me a few nights ago it was astonishingly clear that he did not know me. And something tells me that even if I had walked over to him and introduced myself, he might only have a vague recollection of who I was.

And just like that, over a decade's worth of animosity towards this particular individual dissipated. The realization that this is the kind of person who can make someone else suffer so and not forever be bound to that person by the shared experience left me feeling hollow and sad for him. 

I'm a very passionate person and I have a strange habit of forming "relationships" with people when we've shared something. A fellow passenger on a particularly difficult flight - when I see that person in some other context I feel a kinship with him despite not knowing him bcause we've bonded in our shared experience. 

With this former Rosh Yeshiva of my high school, I felt a toxic bond, a twisted relationship that stemmed from our constant run-ins. How could I not have affected him some way after all that we'd been through? How could what he had done to me not have left some impression that stayed with him forever? But if that was the case then he would have surely recognized me. The fact that he didn't demonstrated that I really didn't mean anything to him.

And something in my mind clicked off, just like that. While a lot of my growth since that point in my life has been out of spite for those people from back then who said I would always be a failure I have tried to let go of that and focus on the present. But this one-sided enmity had been raging on deep down inside me. Seeing that I wasn't important to his person then, and certainly not now allowed me to finally give up on this person. I'm not saying that I'm totally healed from those years, but this incident has surely liberated another part of my psyche...

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Bringing back bakashot:

HT to Rabbi Gil Student. I think this is great, on so many levels. It really warms the heart to see renewed interest coupled with the resolve to follow up with a sense of urgency. I have an especially soft spot in my heart for my sephardic brethren; I think I was one in a previous incarnation...

Bringing back bakashot: Young Sephardic Jews embrace an old musical tradition

Monday, May 5, 2014

Dr David Pelcovitz on happiness

I love this format of videos, which are very similar to the wonderful TED talks that you can totally go "down the rabbit hole" just learning great stuff.

Dr Pelcovitz is a great guy, not only as a professional, but as a human being. I worked briefly at the Azrieli School of Jewish Education and Administration where Dr Pelcovitz is on the faculty, and had a few opportunities to chat him up. A real mentsch who is doing his part for the klal.