Friday, April 30, 2010


Master Of The World!
Help us to receive Shabbos properly, with great joy and gladness, and with wondrous d'veykus, according to Your beneficent will. May we merit to know and grasp the ultimate purpose of heaven and earth, which is to know and perceive You through everything in the world, according to Your will and the will of those who truly revere You - until we attain the "day that is entirely Shabbos and contentment for the eternal life."
Reb Noson of Breslov, Likutei Tefillot II, 28
English translation courtesy of Entering The Light, by Rabbi Dovid Sears.

My favorite part of the week - the preparation, the visit to the mikvah, the special clothing, the sampling of the special foods made just in honor of holy, holy Shabbos!
The beautiful words of Reb Shlomo Alkabetz's L'Cha Dodi, the holy Arizal's Azamer b'Shvachin, the melody sung to sanctify the day and bless the wine of Kiddush...
Blessing my son in the tradition of my father, and his father, and his father, extending all the way back to the patriarch Jacob...
Reb Yisrael Ibn Nadjara's deep, mystical hymnal Kah Ribon, Reb Aharon the Great of Karlin's Kah Echsof...
The Shabbos table, decked out in white and silver, and fine china; delicacies shared with family and loved ones, words of Torah abounding, the happiness of Shabbos permeating the air, subliminal, wondrous, holy...

Want to join?

Wishing all a wonderful, beautiful, enlightened Shabbos Kodesh!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Funky Jewish Art

Someone e-mailed me the other day wanting to know where I found the image that I am using as my profile picture:
The art comes from the mind of Avraham Lowenthal, a well known painter who lives in the holy city of Tzfat; Avrohom draws inspiration from certain Kabbalistic teachings to inform his work, and designs some of his pieces to be mandalas to facilitate meditation. I personally love his usage of vibrant colors and concentric circles in a lot of his paintings. His site can be visited here.

Another artist whose work I really enjoy is Rabbi Yoel Rackovsky, a teacher in Netiv Aryeh, a yeshiva in the Old City in Jerusalem. He specializes in beautifully intricate papercuts - mainly Ketubot - but he also has an array of Eishet Chayil and Shabbos Candle Lighting pieces as well. His site's name is Ituryn, and it's worth it to take a look. An added bonus is that when you buy from him, you're supporting the Torah, because he is involved with the learning and dissemination of Torah on a daily basis.

The last art site I want to feature is Alefs in Wonderland by Josh Baum, a british artist who draws on the beauty of the hebrew letters to inspire his papercuts and other forms of art. Below is a small sampling, but you really need to check out the site to get the real feel of his style...


Sunday, April 25, 2010

A "Jewish Heart" Is Not Enough

Penetrating words from Reb Kalonymos Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczna Rebbe:

Many people console themselves by saying, "Well, if I am not serving God as I should and am not as refined as behooves me, at least I have good aspirations. Many times my heart cries out in the pain of my distance from Him."
But would the drowning person console himself with his desire to rescue his life and with his heart's cry facing imminent death? What use is it if he doesn't act to save himself and try to get out of the water?
The above passage can be found in the Rebbe's personal diary, Tzav V'Ziruz. Each entry packs a punch, and while the Rebbe's wordings may be spare, they are rife with meaning and depth. In all honesty, I can say that there hasn't been a single entry that didn't contain a message that pertained specifically to me; the Rebbe's candor and frankness concerning his own struggles in life resonate with me and hopefully with others as well.

As for the subject matter mentioned in the entry I quoted above, more on that topic later.

Tzav V'Ziruz is usually printed in the back of Hachsharas Avreichim, the Rebbe's second book which deals with education and growth through Chassidus (you may notice the title from the sidebar...). It has also been translated into english by Rabbi Yehoshua Starrett under the title To Heal The Soul: The Spiritual Journal Of A Chasidic Rebbe; I used the translated version of the excerpt for my quote above.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Let not the Land vomit you out for having made it impure... (Lev 18:28)

This can be compared to the son of a king whom they fed something repulsive, which cannot stay in his stomach, but rather, he vomits it out. Similarly, Eretz Yisrael does not abide transgressors. (Rashi, ibid.)
The above verse has always fascinated me; the use of such imagery is a graphic warning to those who would transgress the Torah's dictums and bring impurity into the Holy Land. However, over the past few years - especially after my tenure there as a Yeshiva student - there has been one question that to me is glaringly obvious: The fact of the matter is, we have the misfortune of seeing all sorts of horrible things happening in the Holy Land - things that are in direct conflict with the Torah's laws, sometimes even purposeful violations - and nothing has happened!

Some of the very acts described in the verses preceding ours are being carried out day and night, and the Holy Land hasn't even let out a tremor of nausea? What's happening here?

I have a theory - for which I haven't found any corroboration in the classic commentaries yet - that may explain why the Holy Land has yet to vomit us out.

We all know that vomiting is the body's way of purging a foreign, harmful substance from inside it; it is a protective measure against illness, wherein the body rejects the potentially dangerous material before it can do any substantial damage. This is what happens in the early stages of illness as a way of staving off infection. Antibodies flood the affected area and begin fighting off the offending bacteria or virus and help restore the body's health. But what happens when the body is overwhelmed by the sickness, when there is simply too much to deal with, when the sickness has metastasized and spread through to other parts of the organism?

At some point, the body starts to shut down, and reroutes its reserves toward maintaining the vitals - the brain, the heart, the lungs, etc.

I believe that this may be a very powerful way of understanding what is happening in our Holy Land. The inherent holiness of Eretz Yisrael, coupled with the many fine institutions that continue to grow and proliferate and spread a message of Torah-true Judaism - these are all keeping the Holy Land alive, but just barely. Those are reserves that keep the Land running, but more than that, there just isn't enough power to do anything else, certainly not to unceremoniously expel all those who bring sin into the Land.

But lest you think that this is a polemic against the secular Israelis and the Israeli government, I want to dispel that notion. To blame the non-religious exclusively would be foolhardy and unfounded; while they may be actively involved in some of the transgressions listed previously in our Torah portion, that doesn't leave us off the hook, not by a longshot.

What happened to our approach to the Holy Land? Our attitude? How do we perceive Eretz Yisrael - more importantly, how do we conduct ourselves when we have the merit to be there? The unfortunate truth is that many of us see 'Israel' as a tourist destination, the final stop on a tour through Europe. The ruins that can teach us so much about our past; the holy sites where our sages and antecedents are buried and memorialized - these are all brief stops on our pilgrimage to Ceasaria or Eilat (Ceasaria was built by Herod to honor the Romans, and Eilat isn't even within the biblical borders of Eretz Yisrael). In the holy city of Jerusalem - less than a twenty minute walk from the Kotel and the holiest physical place in the world - girls and boys presumably there to further their spiritual education in the various seminaries and yeshivot gallivant around town until the wee hours of the morning. People actually complain about the Land, and bemoan the fact that they don't have the exact products that are so readily available in America and elsewhere.

The truth is that even the people who live there don't always appreciate what they have. How else do you explain the utter squalor that smacks you in the face when you approach some of the more religious neighborhoods? Trash literally lines the roads, and the overflow of debris is astounding! People spit on the ground as they walk, and carelessly drop their crumpled up receipts on the ground as the exit stores.

All the things that I just mentioned are mere symptoms of a much more serious problem. What has happened to the reverence, the respectful approach that we must have concerning our Land? We have transferred our assumed lack of dignity onto the Holy Land which is a birthright given to us by God. We have taken that for granted, and in our lack of sensitivity to the Land, we have all weakened it, to the point that it can barely maintain its vitals, and certainly not actively reject any wrongdoing.

Remember this on your next trip to Eretz Yisrael: it is a holy Land, unlike any other, deserving - demanding - our respect and love. Only by treating it in a dignified manner will we be able to appreciate what has been given to us.

May the Master of the World help us to raise our sensitivity to His Land, and may he redeem us and restore the Land to it's elevated state soon, Amen.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

An interesting read...

...with a few very important ideas that I know I can benefit from ruminating about. Maybe you can too.

I'm going to post it in full, so that you don't even have to follow a link. That's how important I believe it may be. Let me know what you think!

It is time to stop justifying G-d. Morally speaking (1), His ways are sometimes inexcusable. Allowing a Holocaust in which six million Jews were killed in the cruelest ways imaginable, causing unbearable pain to innocent children, is morally intolerable. Creating earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados and other "natural" disasters which kill people and other creatures is insufferable. Any attempt to justify these deeds of G-d is to profane His holy name.

G-d is too great to be justified. In fact, trying to do so undermines His very being. It is an attempt to bring G-d into the limited dimension of human comprehension, which invalidates His total otherness. It is like explaining a three dimensional reality with the aid of a flat surface — a hopeless task that would ultimately lead to the worst of prohibitions, idol worship. Idol worship is an endeavor to limit the Infinite to the constraints of the finite.

To believe in G-d is to believe not only that there is ultimate meaning to our existence but also that this meaning is completely beyond our comprehension. We do not know why G-d created the universe and man; to know that, we would have to be G-d. We would have to abandon the human condition and confront a metaphysical reality that our brains are not equipped to absorb. A reality that asks us to do the impossible — to utterly reject our thoughts, go beyond the shore of our reason and enter into the unfeasible situation in which G-d's thoughts become ours.

As long as we do not know why G-d created anything, we cannot deal with the question why G-d allows, or even causes, so much pain to be inflicted on us. Only if we would know why the world was created would it be possible to see if there is a need for pain and if it could be justified.

The very fact that we do not know why G-d created the world forces us to admit that we cannot know what place morality and justice plays in the divine scheme of things. It may well be that morality is only one of many necessary elements in creation and that it sometimes has to yield to other divine considerations. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard spoke of the "teleological suspension of the ethical" when he discussed the moral problem inherent in G-d's asking Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac.

From a moral point of view, it is clear that the creation of the world is unjustifiable as long as even the slightest form of pain accompanies it. The anguished cry of even one baby undermines the very moral pretext of creation. However, we cannot infer from that that G-d does not exist or that He had no "right" to create the world. It only means that by purely moral standards He had no right to do so.

Any attempt to explain all of G-d's deeds in terms of moral standards is doomed to fail. It only leads to apologetics, which ultimately produces no satisfactory explanations. That does not mean that G-d is not moral or that He lacks the attributes of goodness, mercy and other lofty qualities which could make man happy. What it does mean is that morality and justice is not the whole story.

The need for morality is the necessary result of creation, not the purpose of creation. In fact, moral criteria may be required to temper the severe conditions under which the divine purpose of creation had to be realized. This may also be one of the goals of Halachic living. It is G-d who asks us to live by His Law so as to moderate the consequences resulting from His creating the world in a way necessary for it to exist. To argue that He created man so as to grant him happiness is of little meaning

To argue that He created man so as to grant him happiness is of little meaning once we ask why man needs to be happy at all and therefore to exist.

To argue that good can exist only in relationship to that which is bad is to ask why there is a need for good to exist at all when it can only be accomplished through the creation of that which is seriously flawed.

To argue that G-d formed man so that he can earn his reward in the world to come is of little comfort once we realize that man would be much better off having never been created. What, after all, is the virtue of reward when it constantly comes at the cost of so much pain? It is true that not having been created would deny us happiness, but in what way is this to our disadvantage? If we would not exist, we would never know what we fail to enjoy. Would, then, our non existence not be more pleasant than our existence? To try and answer this question is to ask for the impossible.

The great rabbinical schools of Beis Shamai and Beis Hillel fully realized this fact: Man was created despite moral norms, that he realizes the need to live his life most carefully. And it is in this knowledge that he will find great joy. Only by acknowledging that human existence is beyond all moral comprehension can man realize how important it is to G-d that man nevertheless needs to exist. Not because man knows what G-d's reasons are, but because he knows that it holds ultimate meaning in His eyes.

To deny G-d's existence on the basis of the Holocaust is to misunderstand His supremacy. To try and justify His ways is to violate His omnipotence.

To live a life of Torah is to live a life of the greatest nobility in the presence of G-d, fully aware that the purpose of life is to live the ultimate mysterious "why" while never understanding it. Therein lies its meaning.

(1) Morality: Ethical behavior. Attempting to prevent human suffering and living by the highest ethical standards with the goal of achieving the greatest amount of happiness.

The author is Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, and this article was brought from the Jewish World Review website.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The necessity of confusion...

Rebbe Nachman constantly refers to those moments when we seem completely turned around and disoriented, and their value and necessity for growth.

For example, in Likutei MoHaran II - 12, he describes how confusion is an active ingredient in original Torah ideas. Before one can produce novel insights in their study of Torah, he first has to go through a period of doubt, where there is no crystal understanding. Only by removing those doubts through striving for understanding can he reach any clarity.

Also, sometimes when a person sincerely wishes to grow, he is subjected to enormous amounts of pressure by the Evil Inclination. Tests which he previously believed he had passed suddenly rear their ugly heads again, and casts upon this person a shadow of self doubt and confusion. Not so, says Rebbe Nachman - one must realize that when he is being tested, it is because he is moving upward, to the next level! To progress further, one must experience a certain amount of negative energy, a trial that tests his resolve and confronts him with the very things he rails against so much. The resulting confusion can result in a much stronger clarity, as he cuts away the layers of confusion and delves deeper into the heart of the matter, recognizing the tests and tribulations for what they are.

This idea can be a tremendous source of positive reinforcement for us all, if we utilize this teaching correctly...

Sunday, April 11, 2010

EVERY day is supposed to be a memorial...

At least, that's what my grandparents - survivors of the monstrosities carried out by the Nazis and their cohorts - always taught my parents, who in turn taught that to my generation.

Every family celebration, each new addition to the family, every aspect of our lives is a testimony to our resilience as God's chosen people, and how, no matter the strength and severity of adversity facing us, we will not be broken, we will not be cowed, we will rise again and rebuild, with His help and guidance.

This is one of the many reasons why we never observed the 27th of Nisan as "Yom HaShoah". Granted, on the established days of mourning in the Jewish calendar (such as the tenth of Teves and the ninth of Av), we did additional acts of remembrance for the millions of Kedoshim (holy ones) who sanctified God's name with their lives during the Holocaust. And yet, we were encouraged to learn about the Shoah all year round, to read as much literature as possible on the subject, to listen to our grandparents' stories about their experiences, and to be sensitive and respectful to the people we knew who had made it out alive.

As I was surfing the Jewish blogs today, I saw many religious bloggers talking about the Holocaust in honor of Yom HaShoah, sincerely wishing to pay their respects and remember the holy souls of our people who died in the inferno. I appreciate their desire, as I'm sure everyone does, but I have to take issue with the fact that many people seem to believe that Yom HaShoah is just that: "Yom" in the singular; only one day a year.

It isn't, and it can't be perceived that way.

First of all (and as a disclaimer, I want everyone to be aware that this isn't in any way meant as a political statement against the Israeli government), the month of Nisan is a month of joy. As such, we do not observe certain acts of mourning throughout the entirety of the month, and that includes days of rememberances with moments of silence and the lighting of candles and the like.

Whether those who established Yom HaShoah in the month of Nisan were aware of this is irrelevant to this discussion, because I am not trying to condemn anyone of any organization; I am only trying to raise an awareness of the issues at hand.

The second point is as I wrote earlier: I (humbly) don't beieve that one day does justice to the events we are striving to pay our respects to. One day simply cannot bear the strain of so many painful memories that are still so very fresh on our collective consciousness, and certainly not when observed the way it is. The ninth of Av, which is replete with fasting, sitting on the floor, observing traditional mourning customs, and abstaining from any relatively pleasurable activity, hardly does justice for the terrible suffering and anguish that we have suffered over the many years of Galus - how can Yom HaShoah possibly expect to accomplish anything if it is basically comprised of a few speeches, a memorial service, and two minutes of silence, and then "we return to your regular programing"?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Descending in order to ascend...

It's hard to come back to the States after spending any time in the Holy Land, however brief that time may be. On the one hand, it's good to be home, yet it's saddening that I have to call Galus "home". The only consolation I take is from the additional memories that each subsequent visit to the Holy Land gives me. Those experiences enhance my bond with the Land;they enrich my spirit, nourish my soul, and allow me to feel strengthened until the next time I have the merit to return to my real home.

On the flight home, I had an opportunity to reflect on our trip, and I have a few observations to share...

- I found that the experiential value of visiting the Holy Land with a spouse and child far outweighs visiting alone. This is especially true when you have so much to share with the other person, and you have an opportunity to see things through their point of view. It was very enjoyable to rediscover the beauty of things I found during my tenure in Yeshiva in the Holy Land through the perspective of someone else, and to get their take on it.

- In a similar vein, introducing my family to those people who I built strong relationships with is even more gratifying. It underscored for my wife the warm memories and stories that I often share of my time spent in Israel. The Israeli family that I spent nearly every single Shabbos with at some point or another (usually around mealtimes)was as impressed with her as she was with them. By bridging these two separate points in my life together, it helps me appreciate everything that HaShem has done for me, and helps me share myself with my loved ones. Another highlight of the trip was visiting the Tolna Rebbe of Jerusalem to bask in his presence. Thankfully, the Rebbe encouraged me to bring my family into his study to receive blessings of health and wellness. I think that the impression he made with his warmth and insight did more than any glowing description I could regale her with. I used to go to his Shul on Friday nights to greet the Shabbos and listen to his lectures on the Torah of the previous Rebbe of Ger, the P'nei Menachem, who was his mentor. I sought advice from the Rebbe several times during my Yeshiva experience in the Holy Land, and this trip was no different. As always, he put my mind at ease with some encouraging words, and gave me advice I needed to hear.

- I had a chance to visit the newly reopened Churva shul in the Rova Yehudi (the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem), and it was absolutely breathtaking. The shul - which is being affectionately referred to as the B'nuyah ("rebuilt"; the word "Churva" literally means "destroyed") - has the old ruins incorporated into the actual structure, and the original artwork that adorned the walls of the main room have been faithfully reconstructed. the shul is only open for prayer times, so my father and I went there for Mincha on Friday, before continuing on to the Kotel to greet the Shabbos.

- Sometimes, the most valuable source for a lesson in Emunah (belief) and Bitachon (faith) is an Israeli cab driver. My nieces, who joined us for the Chag without their parents, took a cab ride from Ramat Shlomo to my parents' apartment one night, and they couldn't stop gushing about the cab driver. He showered them with blessings, and told them that they should tell their father to say the prayer for sustenance and fortune with more kavanah (intent) so that they should be able to afford to move to Israel, as they had been planning to do before the economic meltdown. He also gave a rousing sales pitch advocating for them to make aliyah, and had them near convinced by the end of the ride. I myself always look forward to those cab rides where I get to sit in the front and just chat with the driver.

- Nothing smacks in you in the face with the reminder that you're a Galus jew harder than walking to the Chutz minyan on the eighth day of Pesach and smelling fresh croissants wafting down the street from the Cafe nearby...

Friday, April 2, 2010


I haven't been able to get this song out of my head the whole Chag.

There aren't many albums that I can listen to repeatedly over and over even close to a year after I originally got it. "Light" is one of them...Maybe I'll get back to it for a full explanation why it's so good.

Have a great Shabbos!