Monday, May 31, 2010

Music To My Ears...!

For out of Zion will go forth the Torah, and the word of God from Jerusalem. (Micha 4:2)
I always find it exhilarating when I hear a hailing from the Holy Land. My good friend Rabbi Ally Ehrman has come to the States for a simcha (a joyous occasion), and hearing his voice on the phone evokes wonderful images and reminiscences of the beautiful city of Jerusalem.

It's easy to underrate the power of the voice, and the ability of an encouraging word, but when we offer a kind word to a friend (or even a stranger), we can literally move mountains, and lift up spirits!

Pool fool...

At the end of Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood makes a comment that "man has got to know his limitations."

Much as I try, I cannot be in two places at once. I was reminded of that this morning, when I tried to fill the kiddie pool I bought for my son.

Last night, my wife asked me to wake her up when I come back from shul in the morning so that she could help me fill the pool. When I came home, I assessed the situation, and decided that I could manage by myself, so why take away those precious moments of sleep from her? We did it together yesterday, but there wasn't anything so terribly complicated that I couldn't do it solo.

We don't have a water spigot sticking out of the wall like a lot of people have; we have just the regular kitchen sink faucet, and I had to buy an attachment that can adapt the kitchen sink into something that a garden hose can connect to. The only thing that the Home Depot had was a coupling system that had two pieces: one to screw onto the faucet, and then another piece that attaches to the hose and fits over the adapter with a locking mechanism.

Because the sink we want to use is in the kitchen, and the porch where the pool is is on the opposite end of the house, we also needed a long hose. My wife was in Target, and saw a 50-foot hose there for only ten dollars. When she called me excitedly from the store about the bargain, I was surprised myself: most hoses that long cost around twenty five dollars - ten dollars sounded too good to be true.

As it turns out, the hose was not quite what I had expected. When I envision a hose, I imagine something made of green rubber, hardy material that has structural stability, that practically falls into a neat coil when you're finished using it. The kind that hurts a lot when your brother smacks you with a foot long length cut from an old, unused hose. The type that Target was selling was a distant relative: a bright red vinyl thing, that smelled like new shower curtains.

Oh well, I thought, a hose is a hose, right? Sort of, but not really.

The main issue is that the hose has to be uncoiled from the porch through the living room, dining room, into the kitchen, and attached to the sink. I carefully played the hose out, keeping one end in the pool, and wound it through the house. I connected the coupler to the other end of the hose, and then fit the coupler over the adapter, and turned the water on full blast.

The reason why we did it together yesterday was so that we could watch the respective ends of the hose. I stood outside on the porch and watched the pool fill up; my wife stayed in the kitchen and kept an eye on the sink making sure everything was okay.

When you're doing things alone, you need to run back and forth between both ends. After turning the sink on, I ran alongside the hose to check that the water was coming out of the other end, as well as coming out into the pool, not the floor.

I hear the water in the hose, but I don't see anything coming out. I look down at the hose and see the problem: a regular, good quality rubber hose that has a cinch or a slight bend in it will accommodate the water pressure and straighten out on its own - not so a vinyl hose.

As that little bit of information is registering in my brain, I hear the clatter from the sink as the coupler comes flying off the faucet. The water's built up pressure has to go somewhere. That somewhere happened to be everywhere in my kitchen. Fifty feet (approximately, but who is counting?) of water emptied out onto the kitchen floor. As the hose came whipping off the sink, it must have sprayed, because the counter-tops look like erev Pesach all over again...

My wife is still sleeping, the kitchen is cleaned up now (more or less), and my son's pool is filled up. She doesn't have to know this ever happened, right?

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Simple Prayer

Father said in the name of the holy Baal Shem Tov:

Even this person, who is occupied with his businesses all day, in the markets and streets - and nearly forgets that there is a Creator: when the time to pray the afternoon service comes, he remembers what time it is. He grieves over the fact that he must spend his whole day immersed in futilities, and he runs to a corner off to the side and prays the afternoon prayer.

Even if he is unaware of what he is saying, his words are important and precious before the Creator, Blessed Is He, and his grief shatters the Heavens.
I took that picture over four years ago, in Amuka, at the grave site of Rabbi Yonasan ben Uziel. The sign's message has always struck a chord within me.

I believe that it's an extremely important lesson for us to keep in mind; so many times we can mistakenly think that our tefillot, in their imperfection, are useless, God forbid. As the message above shows, there is inestimable value to even our most halfhearted prayer.

That shouldn't be taken as a license for complacency, of course; we must always work on improving our service an way that we can. On the other hand, I have personally seen the pitfalls of not believing in the power of the simple prayer. For some folks, they end up placing to much emphasis on the peripheral forms of worship, getting lost in the minutiae - others barely pray at all, taking an unfortunate "all or nothing" stance.

There is no question that tefilla is difficult, and that we have to constantly strengthen our resolve to succeed and pray properly. As with any thing that is done constantly, repetitively, several times a day, there is a struggle to take it seriously, with the proper reverence. That is why understanding the meaning of the words, the deeper significance of the prayers, and (for those inclined, like myself) the innovations of Chassidus (such as hisbodedus and other practices meant to intensify the relationship with God) can be such a boon for reinvigorating prayer.

But prayer is primarily an avodah sheB'Lev (a service of the heart); getting lost in the myriad explanations, the (seemingly) conflicting translations and in-depth analysis is counterproductive - those are good things for a specified study session of prayer, but not during the actual prayer! Prayer is about bitul - self nullification or abnegation before God. The workings of the mind, conversely, engender a sense of yesh - a sense of "I" (as in "I think, I say", etc. For more on this subject, see Reb Kalonymos Kalman's description of meditative techniques, printed in back of Derech HaMelech), which is counter to what tefilla is meant to be.

The same goes for the practices, kavanot, and other ritual things we do to enhance prayer: they are to some degree a means to an end, not an end themselves! There is an order of precedence; prayer and things that were established by our Sages come first, even when they are not done at their ideal performance.

Halacha is halacha; Rebbe Nachman exhorted his students, telling them that they may learn the Likutei MoHaRan any way they wanted, as long as they didn't veer from the path of halacha. Placing greater emphasis on the innovation can eventually lead to forgetting what the original "project" is, God forbid.

I am not even referring to the epidemic of praying late, way after the prescribed times for tefilla. In today's generation, I believe that there are very few individuals who can honestly say that they are concerned with ensuring that they are praying properly, and their ascetics and intentions are legitimate; those few people are also waking up very early in the morning to begin their preparations, not half past nine. But I digress...

The point I am trying to make is that even such a prayer as described in the letter above is valuable, despite it's lack of perfection. The fact that a person even ducks out of the whirlwind that is society and says a few rushed words - it's not ideal, but it is an acknowledgement of God in the midst of chaos. It is a valiant effort, because unfortunately we know all too well how easy it is to forget our Father in Heaven...

Friday, May 28, 2010

Every tiny drop...

Gift Of Life founder Jay Feinberg appeared earlier today on Nachum Segal's JM in the AM show to talk about the foundation, it's goals, successes (thank God; kein yirbu [may there be many more]), and hopes.

As I wrote earlier, they had a large presence at the Israel Day parade, and there will be another opportunity to register this week in the Five Towns and Far Rockaway.

Jay commented on the necessity for everyone to at least register; with the advent of new technology, the process is quick and painless, consisting of cheek swabs and filling out a form. If there's a match, the donation process is also less complicated than it used to be: there's a machine that pulls out the blood from the arm and extracts the blood stem cells, not unlike the way people donate platelets. It's comparatively less painful than the way they used to extract the marrow via the hip...

It's a big mitzvah; it's based on genetics, and that's one of the reason there is such a focus on getting folks from the greater Jewish community involved.

To strengthen the point about how important it is for everyone to get tested, Jay told the remarkable tale involving his own recovery from Leukemia. The story is on the foundation's website, but I'll post the specific excerpt here (emphasis mine):

Jay's story is one of transforming adversity into success. When he got sick, Jay was told that a transplant could save his life, but he would die needlessly because he would never find a matching donor. He quickly learned the reason why. A patient's best chance of finding a genetic match lies with those of similar ethnic background. Unfortunately, the worldwide registry was not representative of all ethnic groups, and Jay was Jewish. There was an urgent need to add diversity to the registry, and time was of the essence.

Jay's family and friends didn't want to see him die. They wanted him to have an equal opportunity to find a match. So they launched an ambitious grassroots donor recruitment campaign, resulting in the enrollment of tens of thousands of new donors in the worldwide registry. But after four years, and finding matches for so many other patients in need, there was still none for Jay.

That's when his miracle happened. A young man decided to run one last drive because his best friend had found a match through a drive held for Jay. He knew the odds were against him, but he was determined to return the gift. And that is exactly what he did.

Jay's four year search for a donor came to a close in May 1995. The very last donor - tested at that very last drive - turned out to be his miracle match! Jay received his transplant soon after at the world renowned Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle thanks to his miracle match, Becky, and a determined young man who wouldn't take no for an answer when he ran that very last drive!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


In this shiur (lecture) by Rabbi Ally Ehrman, I heard a wonderful idea. Reb Ally explains how he has started a new type of GeMaCh (a free loan fund; can be comprised of anything from clothes and money to baby pacifiers and diapers) in his home in the Old City of Jerusalem: A GeMaCh Chiyyuch (a Smile GeMaCh); the idea is that you give a smile to someone you see on the street, and allow them to pass it on to the next person!

This is an important idea in Judaism; our sages teach us to greet everyone with a pleasant countenance, and we also learn that our faces are considered Rishus HaRabim (public property or thoroughfare). Smiles are catchy, and we cannot quantify the actual positive effect that one tiny upward stretching of the facial muscles can do.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, after hearing this lecture, I felt quite inspired. I resolved to try and spread more happiness through smiling at people; I realized that I do a lot of traveling, and on the road - where one may not be expecting to see a fellow Jew - a smile can wield some real power (not say that Gentiles don't deserve smiles, but I did want to target Jews in the specific context of driving).

The first morning after this resolution, I am driving southbound on the Garden State Parkway toward Yeshiva. At one point, I realize that there is a chassidishe guy sitting in the minivan next to my car. He looks preoccupied; his face is vacant. I turn to him - and when I get his attention, flash a smile, and give a little wave. The guy blinks in confusion for a moment, and then his face splits into a wide grin and he waves back. He turns back to the road, and I can see the smile lingering on his face.

I was so excited. My idea worked!

The trip home was less successful - at one point, I found myself driving alongside this really straightlaced looking fellow. His beard is meticulously trimmed, his tie is knotted all the way up, and his hands are at the 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock positions on the steering wheel. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get him to acknowledge me and my smile, despite its hundred-watt brilliance...

You win some, you lose some, but the main thing is to not give up!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Video from the Salute To Israel 2010 Concert!

Yesterday was the annual Salute To Israel Parade, which goes down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and culminates in a free concert in Central Park. The last time I went was about five years ago, and the experiences were radically different.
I always enjoy seeing Jews of all stripes coming together for a common purpose; although the parade and concert are highly politicized (as always) this sort of gathering really transcends politics.

In past years, the concert has been a lot of fun, with tons of musical talent. Moshav Band, SoulFarm, Pey Dalid and the like have all played there. This year, I didn't recognize most of the performers, with the exception of Gershon Veroba and Eitan Katz, who headlined the event. I also saw Kosha Dillz and Y-Love, two Jewish rappers associated with the Shemspeed label, walking around the concert. Kosha performed after the concert was offically over; I had already left the venue to find a minyan (quorum of ten Jewish males) for Mincha (the afternoon prayer). The video below was taken by yours truly; sorry if the picture is unsteady - my hands shake.

There were also many organizations working the crowd, advocating all types of Jewish causes. SeeYou On was there, as well as several matchmaking groups, along with the Kahanist groups and the Gift Of Life, a group that helps match prospective bone marrow donors with needy patients.
Afterward, my wife and I walked around the Park. We went to Strawberry Fields, where there are designated "Quiet Areas" surrounded by trees and grass. A perfect place for hisbodedus, but the time just wasn't right...

Enjoy the video!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Hold Fast...!

Thankfully, I had a truly wonderful Shavuos - I was able to finish the Tikkun with time to spare for the mikveh. According to the Kavanot (intentions) of the ARI HaKadosh (which were mentioned in my copy of the Tikkun Leil Shavuos), the prescribed number of dunks is four, while concentrating on each of the four letters of the Tetragrammaton (the Divine name that we pronounce as Adon-i) spelled with the kometz (part of the cantillation markings of the Aleph-Bais). I don't really understand these things, but I gave it a try. The previous day, I attempted to dunk forty nine times to correspond to the Sefirot, and while I succeeded, I was out of breath and felt weak, so once was enough for me.

Rav Tzvi Meir Zilberberg comments on the latter half of the blessing on the Torah "...Who gave us the Torah of truth and implanted eternal life within us." He explains that the hashpa'ot (influences; outpourings) that we receive during Shavuos are given to us in a similar fashion as "planting". The same way that a tree seedling must be protected from even the slightest damage, shielded from the elements, tended to with great care, and nurtured constantly, because otherwise it will not blossom properly - this is true as well for the hashpa'ot that we get on Shavuos, which carry in them the potential for the rest of the year. Therefore, immediately after we receive the Torah, we must be vigilant in our protection, because that is when the Evil Inclination is strongest; this is apparent when we look at the original Revelation at Sinai, and the subsequent sin of the Golden Calf.. We have to be steadfast in our renewed commitment to HaShem and His Torah, in order for the Torah to take root properly.

To me, it seems especially fortuitous the way the Chag worked out this year. The day after the holiday is known as Isru Chag. Isru is the language of binding, of "...bind the festival offering with cords..." On this day, we make a concerted effort to maintain the sanctity of the Chag as we continue back into the mundane. We do not say the Tachanun, in effect lashing the two days together.
Today is not only Isru Chag, it is already erev Shabbos, the day when we are consumed with preparations for Shabbos; the Evil Inclination hears his death knell, and as long as we are busy with our preparing for the upcoming Shabbos he is nearly powerless.

I believe that this is a wonderful opportunity for us to maintain that wonderful, transcendent moment we had during the Chag. Not only are we binding today to the Chag, the day is carrying us straight into the holy Shabbos!

We just have to hold on, as the Torah is a "Tree of Life for those who grasp it..." (Proverbs  3:18)

Monday, May 17, 2010

What Is The Tikkun Leil Shavuos?

In a recent post, I mentioned that I planned on learning the Tikkun Leil Shavuos. A reader contacted me and requested that I give a more detailed explanation of what the Tikkun is, so that people may better understand it, and - if possible - offer an explanation for what it is meant to accomplish.

The original Tikkun was established by the ARI HaKadosh (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria; "ARI" is an acronym for "Ashkenazi Reb Yitzchak"), and is basically an abridged version of the entire Torah. It includes excerpts from all 24 books of the TaNaCh (The Pentateuch, Prophets, and Writings), taking several verses from each individual section and entire pieces of significant events in the Pentateuch (e.g. Creation, the Exodus, the Revelation at Mount Sinai, etc.). The Tikkun continues into the Oral Torah, with excerpts from each tractate in the Mishna (here's where things get a little confusing: I've heard that the Tikkun of the ARI doesn't contain any Mishna, only the Tikkun of the SheLaH Hakadosh has anything from the Mishna - I don't know, but I use the Tikkun of the SheLaH myself, and there is indeed Mishna there...), and then focuses on the esoteric sources, quoting Sefer Yetzirah (an ancient book that is attributed to the patriarch Abraham and contains secrets about Creation utilizing the power of the Aleph-Beis) and the Zohar. The Tikkun ends with the enumeration of the 613 commandments as compiled by the RaMBaM and the recitation of the entire Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs).

Reb Shimshon Pincus, OBM, gave a fascinating shiur in which he discussed the Tikkun at length, describing it and relating a famous story that occured between the Vilna Gaon and the Maggid of Dubno:
The Maggid once visited the Gaon for Shavuos, and they went to the shul to learn. The Gaon pulled out a Tikkun Leil Shavuos and began reciting it, while the Maggid pulled a gemara (a volume of the Talmud) from the shelf and started studying. When the Gaon asked him why he wasn't saying the Tikkun, the Maggid replied with a parable, likening the Gaon to a merchant who has a massive storehouse of goods, replete with every imaginable product, and the Tikkun that he was reciting as the small display of samples that he uses to advertise to the world. For such a merchant, the sample box is fine, because he has a storehouse from which he can summon any product - but for a merchant who has nothing in his storehouse (i.e. the Maggid, in characteristic humility), what good is a sample box? Better to just advertise what he does have.
Rav Eliyahu Kitov suggest the possibility that just like the general custom of learning the whole night of Shavuos is meant to serve as a rectification to the B'nei Yisrael's sleeping in on the morning of the Revelation, so too, the Tikkun serves the same purpose. It is our way of showing that we are eager to receive the wonderful gift that God is about to bestow upon us, by previewing everything that it contains...

The Kav HaYashar (the "Just Measure" or "Straight Line", by Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kaidanover) has some powerful words to say about the Tikkun (end of Chapter 93):
And on the fiftieth day Israel became cleansed of their filth and entered the last of the fifty gates of understanding, all of which are pure. The fiftieth day was holy and pure and on that very day Israel was granted freedom from the Angel of Death and the enslavement of the nations.

Therefore, it is fitting for everyone who fears HaShem and trembles at His word to study all night long on the Yom Tov (holiday) of Shavuos, reciting the Tikkun composed by the disciples of the ARI. And to toil in the Torah, the Prophets, the Writings, the Mishna, and selected passages from the Zohar.

Some recite the Tikkun on both nights of Shavuos, and fortunate is the one who does so. For through the arousal from below one arouses a unification on high, resulting in a tremendous outpouring of holiness. In this merit may the Holy One Blessed is He pour down upon us a new light and may we all merit its illumination, Amen.
The author alludes to some Kabbalistic forces at work during the recitation of the Tikkun that are beyond my capacity for explanation. However, we do see that there is enormous significance to the saying of the Tikkun, and that it is more than just a "nice thing to do".

I'm not necessarily endorsing it (it certainly doesn't need my endorsement, either), but I can explain why I chose to begin saying it a few years ago, and what it accomplishes for me. It was first introduced to me many years ago by my good friend, Reb Y. while we were in yeshiva for Shavuos. Back then, I would learn, but it was a struggle to have a real good night, filled with quality learning - there were the inevitable coffee breaks, which led into brief bull sessions in the coffee room and eventually stepping out for a cigarette (which turned out to be a more complicated halachic matter than I was led to believe. But I digress..). I wanted more, I wanted to have a night that was completely immersed in the Torah, without the myriad distractions that tug at you in the wee hours of the morning.

I found that in the Tikkun. As a matter of fact, once I start, I can't take a break or pause for more than a few seconds if a want to actually finish it, because of the sheer volume of material that I am trying to cover. Some might sniff at the seeming "ease" of the recitation, especially when compared to in depth pilpul (talmudic dialectic and analysis), but this is what works for me.

I've never tried it on both nights; after seeing the Kav HaYashar, though, I'm tempted to try this year.

The Tikkun Leil Shavuos can be found in any Jewish bookstore.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

An Observation...

One of the more pleasurable things about being married is that - when the two of you are on the same page - the view from the "moral high ground" is much nicer when shared...

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Bring Relief To Your People!

Motzei Shabbos has the potential to be the saddest night of the week. Inevitably, we must come down from the high that we attain through the wonderful experience that is Shabbos Kodesh, and it's accompanying elevated state of being.

That's why we have so many tefillot beseeching HaShem that we should merit to retain some of that holiness as we descend into the mundane, as we once again join the dust filled world with all it's hazards.

V'Yehi Noam...

Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev's impassioned plea Gott fun Avrohom...

And of course, the beautiful songs, piyutim, and requests that we sing at the Melave Malka (the Escorting of the Queen, a special meal held after the Shabbos) - when we turn our eyes to the horizon with hope for a better time, a time when we will experience an eternal menucha. Moshiach (the Messiah) cannot come on Shabbos, so after Shabbos we sing many songs about the redemption, as if to say "we're ready now, please come!"

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From the Motzei Shabbos Zemirot ; composed by Rabbi Yaakov Manui and performed by Ben Zion Solomon and the Diaspora Yeshiva Band.

Lyrics below:

בְּמוֹצָאֵי יוֹם מְנוּחָה הַמְצֵא לְעַמְּךָ הֲנָחָה

שְׁלַח תִּשְׁבִּי לְנֶאֱנָחָה וְנָסוּ יָגוֹן וַאֲנָחָה

יָאֲתָה לְךָ צוּרִי לְקַבֵּץ עַם מְפֻזָּרִי
מִיַּד גּוֹי אַכְזָרִי אֲשֶׁר כָּרוּ לִי שׁוּחָה

עֵת דּוֹדִים תְּעוֹרֵר אֵל מַלֵט עַם אֲשֶׁר שׁוֹאֵל
רְאוֹת טוּבְךָ בְּבוֹא גוֹאֵל לְשֶׂה פְזוּרָה וְנִדָּחָה

קְרָא יֶשַׁע לְעַם נְדָבָה אֵל דָּגוּל מֵרְבָבָה
יְהִי שָׁבוּעַ הַבָּא לִישׁוּעָה וְלִרְוָחָה

בַּת צִיּוֹן הַשְּׁכוּלָה אֲשֶׁר הִיא הַיּוֹם גְּעוּלָה
עַתָּה תִּהְיֶה בְעוּלָה אֵם הַבָּנִים שְׂמֵחָה

מַעְיָנוֹת אֲזַי יְזוּבוּן וּפְדוּיֵי ה' יְשׁוּבוּן
וּמֵי יֵשַׁע נִשְׁאֲבוּן וְהַצָּרָה נִשְׁכָּחָה

נְחֵה עַמְּךָ כְּאָב רַחֲמָן יְצַפְצְפוּ עַם לֹא אַלְמָן
דְּבַר ה' אֲשֶׁר נֶאֱמָן בַּהֲקִימְךָ הַבְטָחָה

יְהִי הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה כִּנְבוּאַת אֲבִי חוֹזֶה
יִשָּׁמַע בְּבַיִת זֶה קוֹל שָׂשׂוֹן וְקוֹל שִׂמְחָה

רְפָא נָא יָהּ כְּאֵבִי וְרֹב פְּשָׁעַי וְרֹב חֹבִי
לְמַעַנְךָ עֲשֵׂה נָא אָבִי וְהוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא וְהַצְלִיחָה

יְדִידִים פְּלֵיטֵי חֶרֶץ נְגִינוֹת יֶהְגוּ בְמֶרֶץ
בְּלִי צְוָחָה וּבְלִי פֶרֶץ אֵין יוֹצֵאת וְאֵין צְוָחָה

חַי יְמַלֵּא מִשְׁאֲלוֹתֵינוּ לַמְיַחֲלִים בְּבַקָּשָׁתֵנוּ
יִשְׁלַח בְּרָכָה וְהַצְלָחָה בְּכָל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ נָגִילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה

וּרְאֵה עָנְיִי וְאֶל קָשְׁיִי סְלַח מֶרְיִי וְעִיווּיִ
קְשׁוֹר נָא כְּאֵבִי בְּבֵית אִיווּיִ בְּקוֹל תּוֹדָה לְךָ אֶזְבְּחָה

בְּנֵה חוֹמוֹת אַרְמוֹנָי וְיָשִׁירוּ שָׁם כֹּהֲנַי
וְקוֹל הוֹדוּ אֶת ה' בְּקוֹל שָׂשׂוֹן וְקוֹל שִׂמְחָה
I just realized that these words are from a slightly different nusach than the one commonly found in most benchers; they're close enough to the one we're familiar with, though...

Friday, May 14, 2010

Thought versus Action

Anyone whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom will endure; anyone whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, his wisdom will not endure. (Mishna, Avot 2:13)
Action is the main thing, not study. You should see to it that your practical achievements are greater than your intellectual development.                          (Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, Likutei MoHaRan II: 5, 15)
Yearning is of value only if you put it into action as a driving force for reaching higher levels. Otherwise, it will tend to create within you a subtle despair...In the end, you will stop yearning. (Reb Kalonymos Kalman Shapira, Tzav V'Ziruz: 23)
These thoughts - and others like them - always seem to scream out at me, sending chills up and down my spine. Many times these very concerns loom large in the forefront of my mind, and it's impossible to escape them. It is one of my greatest fears that I may end up losing sight of the big picture in my quest to amass more knowledge of HaShem, His ways, how humans fit into His plans, and how my role specifically is meant to play out in the grand scheme of things. While I don't believe that existentialism itself is inherently bad (despite Rebbe Nachman's exhortation), when it remains in the world of theory, without any practical application, what is it worth?

The fact is that one can learn numerous volumes of mussar, study many different philosophical approaches to understanding our world, and spend numerous study sessions unlocking the secrets of prayer, filling his siddur with underlines and highlighted markings. But if none of that is applied towards making the person into a better man through his utilizing those tools he acquired, then it is all a waste of time.

This is my fear: as I learn more, and gain more knowledge (aside from the fact that I continuously learn how much I really don't understand), how do I use it? Do I look down my nose at my less "educated" brethren as they "fumble through their darkened lives", or do I try to relate to them by focusing on their positive aspects? How can my studies be justified it they only enable me to see my fellow Jews with a critical eye? Is that the goal of all these endeavors? Why should that be? The study of thought and hashkafah do not guarantee anything without dedicated attempts at self rectification, and certainly doesn't place the philosopher on a higher pedestal solely by virtue of his scholastic achievements. The uneducated man who prays to God with a certain simplicity can teach the philosophy student the experiential wonders of true prayer which can not be described in any book adequately. If I could pray with truth and simplicity just once like that in my life, it would be worth more than all the books in the world!

To become mired down in purely intellectual pursuits is antithetical to Judaism. We are a religion of action - with underlying intent, of course - and the primary manifestation of our intellectual pursuits in the name of God have to be through obeying His tenets and safeguarding His laws.

As we enter into the month of Sivan, when the Chag of Shavuos quickly approaching, we need to internalize this message - myself especially - in order to be properly prepared to receive God's gift to us, His holy Torah.
Remember, upon accepting the Torah, we said "Na'aseh V'Nishma" ("We will do and we will hear"; Exodus 24:7); the action precedes the thought - we want to do, it's our raison d'etre - and everything else comes afterwards.

Among other things, it is my fervent hope that this blog counts as an effort to put my thoughts into practice, both as an inspiration for others and as a catalyst for my own growth. Writing is a creative process that cannot be done passively, and I try to put a lot into my original posts. With that said, I still need feedback; your comments, critiques and observations are integral to this blog; they are a significant factor in this process, and they are invaluable.

The other day during a session of hisbodedus I composed a short prayer regarding the above. I was able to recreate most of it, and I plan to say it on Shavuos after I complete the Tikkun Leil Shavuos, which is a gloss of the entire Torah, pulling excerpts from every section of the Written Law as well as Oral Law:

May it be Your will that I be able to properly utilize all my strengths, both mental and physical, in Your service, to faithfully carry out your commandments with fear and love, and great joy. Grant me the Wisdom and Understanding to distinguish between Ego and Emes (truth), so that I may have the Knowledge to internalize that which I have learned about Your creations, and assimilate the Truth therein to better serve You. Guard me from becoming lost in a forest of questions; clear a path for me, for I am coming to purify myself.  
Master of the World - my Father, my King! - all my learning is in order to proclaim the Torah's greatness and splendor; please protect me from the doubts that plague me, please remove the barriers that block my way, causing me to stumble time and again. Allow me to extract the profound from amongst the profane. Remove the covering from my eyes so that I see my fellow Jews with an ayin tov (a "good eye"), in order that I may be able to learn the true paths of worshipping You from them.                    
Without You, I am nothing, HaShem! 
Help me!
Help me!
Help me...                                                                                                                          

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Special Prayer For Today!

On Erev Rosh Chodesh Sivan (the eve of the first day of the Jewish month of Sivan) there is a custom to say a special tefilla (prayer) composed by the holy SheLaH, concerning children and their education.

The tefilla can be said any time really, but this day has a special significance, as the Revelation at Mount Sinai and the receiving of the Torah occured during the month of Sivan.

I'm going to post it in full for those who don't have access to a siddur (prayer book); click to enlarge.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Shavuos Preparations...

A shiur (lecture) from the Tolna Rebbe of Jerusalem on getting ready for Shavuos; it's worth a listen, if you want to get a taste for one of the more dynamic Torah personalities of our generation.
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The shiur is originally available on the YUTorah website; it is courtesy of Rabbi Ally Ehrman, a rebbi in Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh (where the above shiur was delivered), who is a chossid of the Tolna Rebbe, and a close friend of mine. Enjoy!

Also, some suggested reading in anticipation of the upcoming Chag: I have always found Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov's book The Book Of Our Heritage (translated from the Sefer HaToda'ah) to be a valuable source of information concerning the Jewish calendar; Shavuos in particular has a wealth of reading material devoted to it in his book. Click here to get it!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

An Interesting Read Part II

More profound thoughts from Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, as an addendum to the essay of his that I posted previously:
What do we mean by professing that G-d is good and man was created in His image? When G-d allows and even causes unbearable pain to befall man, afflicting him with sickness, cruel death, earthquakes and the most horrible wars, there seems little room for these claims. If G-d, by our moral standards, cannot be justified for many of His actions, as we have suggested previously, how are we to revere Him?

Is pain, then, completely pointless in man's eyes, his suffering of no value, his perseverance to survive against all odds nothing but an emotional need to see purpose in his life while there really is none? Is G-d the only one who knows the story, refusing to give man any insight? And is this the G-d who is to be emulated by man?

Moreover, what do we make of the biblical claim that man was created in His image? If G-d is the cause of so much evil and pain, does this not pave the road for man to be cruel and evil, as he was created in that very image?


Jewish tradition has never denied that G-d is the creator of evil. The Bible itself attests to this: "I make peace and create evil" (Isaiah 45:7). The sages never lived in a psychological vacuum denying the realities of life. There was no attempt to cover up all the terrible things that could befall man. They tried only to understand where evil belonged in the scheme of the divine creation.

When Jewish tradition claims that G-d is good, even in the face of all evil, it speaks the Truth. But it can only make that claim from within the system of divine purpose. "G-d is good" does not mean in the moral sense of the word but in the sense that there is ultimate meaning to man's existence, known only to G-d.

With evil abounding all over the world, it is clear that the "moral good of G-d," as generally understood by man, is not the whole story. There must be a reason for all this evil, but it can only be justified in terms of divine meaning, not in moral terms. The unfathomable meaning of all existence becomes clear the moment that evil becomes apparent. It is in the deviation and violation of G-d's own moral standards as expressed in the Torah and felt in the heart of man that it becomes clear that the purpose of the creation of the world requires G-d's "teleological suspension of the ethical." The world was not created for the sake of ethics; it was created for the sake of divine meaning.


To argue that evil needs to exist so that man can grow spiritually has no bearing here. We remain with the unanswerable question of why man needs to exist so as to be able to grow. True, the sages stated that man needs to examine his deeds when evil befalls him (Berachos 5a) and that the Holy One blessed be He brings suffering upon the righteous so that they may inherit the World to Come (Kiddushin 40b). But this does not shed any light on why evil needs to exist, since it does not answer the question of why man must exist to examine his deeds or why he must suffer to merit a share in the world to come. All these arguments are a posteriori.

This is not to imply that there is no meaning to man's suffering, or that pain has no function and moral dilemmas no purpose. Throughout history we have seen how much these have contributed to the spiritual and moral greatness of man. It is through these challenges that people of moral stature have emerged and inspired millions. It has certainly been meaningful in human terms. But this is so only because there is an a priori reason for man to exist that surpasses any reason for him to be moral. The latter can never be seen as man's ultimate significance. It is of secondary importance in the overall divine meaning of existence. It is a by-product, albeit a deliberate one that G-d intended.

In fact, it is in the absence of knowing why G-d created the world that man is able to find meaning. To be part of G-d's world and play a crucial role in it without knowing exactly just what role one plays, or why there is even a need for it all is by far the most profound awareness man can ever experience.


What gives life its grandeur is living with the knowledge that one plays a role in some plan that is much greater than one can ever fathom. It is recognizing that the value of human existence is in living with fundamental questions which, like diamonds held up to the light, show the spectrum of colors without ever being able to unite all these colors in a well formulated position. The moment these questions would be answered, the light would dim and the colors refracted in it would lose their splendor.

Every answer is a killer since it destroys the art of searching, the very element that makes life exciting. A world that makes total sense is a world not livable. It is endless human curiosity, which can never be satisfied, that is the drive behind all meaningful life. It is not the knowledge of something that gives us joy. It is the relationship between what is known and what remains an ultimate question — that is what gives man the satisfaction of "being". Lacking this mystique, man can achieve nothing noble. It is G-d's gift to mankind, and for that He is to be revered.

It is this unknowable mystique that mitigates man's pain even when tortured. What raises our indignation against suffering is not the torment itself but its senselessness. What makes the anguish of a suffering child intolerable is the inability to raise it to the level of meaning. As such, it is the most disturbing form of "teleological suspension of the ethical." It is this particular case of a child's suffering, demonstrating the complete absence of divine justice, that proves morality is not at the core of all creation.

For man to truly live life he must live for the sake of G-d. Our love for G-d is tested by the question of whether we seek Him or His gifts. A G-d of only mercy is a G-d unjust. To live for His sake means to feel and sustain the ultimate "wherefore" that cannot be answered. This is what the Kotzker Rebbe meant when he said: G-d, I do not need to know why I suffer, but I want to know whether I suffer for Your sake. "For Your sake we are killed all the time" (Psalms 44:23).

It is possible for G-d to exercise mercy and benevolence only as long as His ultimate meaning for this world's existence is not violated. It is seemingly despite this divine purpose that mercy exists, not because of it. In this sense, mercy is a novelty because its existence may run contrary to G-d's purpose in creating the world. This may be a disturbing observation — it violates our understanding of who we believe G-d is and who we want Him to be — but it cannot be circumvented. It reminds us that G-d is not there for the use or benefit of man, nor does He fall within the parameters of man's understanding. No reason can be given for the nature of G-d because that nature is the foundation of rationality but not rationality itself.

It is in the image of this divine mercy that man was created in G-d's likeness. It is despite G-d's ultimate reason for the creation that man needs to live in His image. Man is asked to undo the amoral effects of G-d's ultimate purpose for His creation, since the need for morality is an integral part of G-d's being but is not His totality. G-d's demand that man live in His image is in partial contradiction to the fundamental purpose of His creating the world. It is only in its a posteriori intention that this demand can be made. Since man has no part in the reasons for this creation, he cannot play a role in its entire fulfillment; he can only do his part, which is to try to be ultimately good, as G-d's likeness. G-d's likeness is only His image, not His divine totality.
A lot more food for thought. Again, this article is courtesy of the Jewish World Review website.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


From the Israeli band, HaMadregot. Beautiful, beautiful music. Hebrew lyrics are below, with the nekudot (vowelization/cantillation marks), along with a transliterated version...

שְׁפַל רוּחַ שְׁפַל בֶּרֶךְ וְקוֹמָה אֲקַדֶּמְךָ בְּרֹב פַּחַד וְאֵימָה
Shefal ruach, shefal b'rech v'koma; Akademcha, b'rov pachad v'eimah
לְפָנֶיךָ אֲנִי נֶחְשָׁב בְּעֵינַי כְּתוֹלַעַת קְטַנָּה בָּאֲדָמָה
Lefanecha, Ani nechshav - b'einai - k'tola'at ketana b'adama
מְלֹא עוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר אֵין קֵץ לְגָדְלוֹ הֲכָמֹנִי יְהַלֶּלְךָ וּבַמָּה
Melo Olam, asher ein keytz l'godalo; hachimoni, yehallelcha uvamah
הֲדָרְךָ לֹא יְכִילוּן מַלְאֲכֵי רוּם וְעַל אַחַת אֲנִי כַּמָּה וְכַמָּה
Hadarecha lo yechilun, malachai roum; v'al achat Ani kameh, v'chammah
הֱטִיבוֹתָ וְהִגְדַּלְתָּ חֲסָדִים לְךָ תַּגְדִּיל לְהוֹדוֹת כֹּל נְשָׁמָה
Heitivota, v'higdalta, chasadim; l'cha tagdil lehodot kol neshama
This piyut (hymn) was written by Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, a Spanish poet and philosopher who was a contemporary of Rav Hai Gaon and a predecessor to Rabbi Moshe Ibn Ezra. He also wrote Shir HaKavod (Song of Glory, also known as Anim Zemirot) and Shir HaYichud (Song of Unity). Shefal Ruach is traditionally sung before Nishmas Kol Chai on Rosh HaShana.

The band HaMadregot is the spiritual yearnings of guitarist Hod Dayan and singer Ilan Demari brought down to this world through the power of music. Beautiful melodies and moods blend with original compositions and interpretations of classical piyutim and songs from across the spectrum of Judaism. I have been a great fan of theirs for quite some time...

Wow, another week gone by! Thank God that it just brings us right back around to Shabbos!


Monday, May 3, 2010

Small deeds, big rewards.

My wife and I had a newly-wed couple over as guests for the Friday night meal this past Shabbos. We knew the husband, who had grown up in my wife's neighborhood and went to the same shul as my father-in-law; and older bachur, this man just got married at age 32. His wife is a convert from the Philippines, and while we were at shul, she and my wife were shmoozing, and the conversation came around to the subject of why she converted.
The story she told my wife is beautiful, and I believe that we have an obligation to spread the story around, for the valuable lessons inherent in it.

She grew up in a very religious Catholic home, where the catechism of the Trinity confused her greatly. One elder told her to "Pray to the Father", another told her "Pray to the Son", and yet another told her to "pray to the Holy Ghost". She was in dire straits, because she really wanted to pray - but she didn't know who she should pray to!

Realizing that the faith she had been brought up with didn't have the answers she sought, she began looking into other religions that were prevalent in her country. Islam had no sway over her; Buddhism didn't interest her at all...
She felt lost, and the constant pressure from her peers and family - who were convinced she had "the Devil" in her - began to feel overwhelming. As soon as she was able to move, after graduating from school, she headed for the United States.

What a culture shock! The relative reservedness of the Philippines left her unprepared for what she encountered after moving to Bayonne, New Jersey. Suddenly, random people would stop her on the street and begin conversing with her; strange men would make advances, attempting to get her phone number, take her out for a coffee, and the like. The freedom, the provocatively loose atmosphere seemed to saturate everything American, and it took serious adjustment.

One hot day, she was walking back to her apartment. On the way, she passed a young man dressed very strangely: he was wearing a black jacket and hat, and he had these funny strings hanging out of his pants. As the passed each other, she expected him - like so many other men in the past - to stop her, or get a good look at her in her very revealing clothes. To her astonishment, he averted his eyes, looking down to the ground as he hurriedly passed her.

She couldn't believe it! To be sure, she turned around to see if he would maybe turn back after they had passed each other and sneak a peek, but as far as she could tell, he kept going on his way without stopping.

In a place where everyone is looking to satisfy their urges, could such a thing be possible? Who was that boy? Upon returning to her apartment, her roommate informed her that the boy she had seen on the street was a Jew. Until that point, she had never seen a Jew, didn't know what a Jew was or looked like, knew nothing about Jews at all.

What she did know was that she would have to find out more about these "Jews" and their intriguing ways.

She began to ask around, and meet with Jewish folks and amass as much information as possible. What she discovered was a world of dedication, integrity, sincerity, and consistent commitment. She was hooked, and she began the long arduous process to convert to Judaism. Now, thank God, she is married, and beginning to build a Jewish home in the wonderful tradition of her adoptive forebears.
We simply do not appreciate the impact the slightest gesture, the smallest action, can make. I have no doubt that this Yeshiva boy does not know what he did, what an impression he made. And yet, when he gets "up there" (after 120, God willing), he is going to be presented with the myriads of z'chusim (merits) that will come about from every commandment and good deed faithfully fulfilled by this woman and her family, and he will receive credit for each one!

One act of shmiras einayim (guarding the eyes) led a woman searching for God in the right direction. How many times are we presented with choices on how to behave, and we have no idea who is watching? It's a very important lesson for all of us to internalize, and may we all act properly at all times, whether or not anyone is watching!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Lag B'Omer 5770

I have always loved this day, for many reasons: it marked the end of the abstaining from music for me; as a kid, it meant that the school day had a slightly lighter atmosphere, usually involving a class trip to the park or some such activity; later on, the madurot (bonfires), accompanied by the singing and dancing as we celebrated the life and times of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai; later still, the day took on special significance as the day of my wedding, two years ago today.

Who was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai? Why is he referred to as the botzina kedusha (the Holy Lamp)? Why is the anniversary of his death a day of such celebration, and why do we celebrate the day the way we do, with dancing and bonfires?

We know that - historically speaking - a major part of the counting of the Omer involves the practices established to mourn the students of Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest sages to ever live. After witnessing such a catastrophe involving his students - who were from the most venerable, wisest of men - Rabbi Akiva persevered and began to rebuild, taking in another five students. An important point to note is that - due to the fact that Rabbi Akiva was one of the Ten Martyrs, and we don't want to celebrate his life on the day of his tragic death - we include the celebration of Rabbi Akiva's life with that of his greatest student, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Rabbi Shimon, who was the apotheosis of Rabbi Akiva's teachings, fully incorporating them into his life, and dedicating himself toward the dissemination of his master's Torah.

Indeed, Rabbi Shimon helped to ensure the faithful transmission of the Torah SheBa'al Peh (Oral Law), famously quoting the verse "For it will not be forgotten by their progeny." If you look at the picture posted below, you will see that the verse is written in the archway; the last letters of each word spell out "Yochai", while the verse quoted above it has it's first letters spelling out "Shimon".

Reb Shimshon Pincus OBM, once famously described Rabbi Shimon: rather than being the most scholarly of the students of Rabbi Akiva, with the most breadth of knowledge and grasp of concepts, Rabbi Shimon's strength lay in his ability to explain, to take very difficult ideas - ideas that are the foundation of creation and how everything relates to one another - and clarify their meaning in a way that our finite understanding can begin to grasp such matters. This ability to make things accessible to others was unique to the botzina kadisha, whose revelatory light paved the way for the teachings of the Zohar (which may or may not have been written by Rabbi Shimon himself).
Rav Tzvi Meir Zilberberg mentions how today - Lag B'Omer, which is the rectification of the sefira of Hod SheB'Hod (Splendor within Splendor) - is perhaps the most powerful day of the Omer, on top of the all around holiness of this time of year. The gates of Heaven are open, waiting to receive even the most pitiful of prayers, and one can literally change things for himself and his loved ones on this day. An important aspect of the rectification of this day is the increasing of unity among ourselves and our brethren. We celibrate in a way unique to the Jewish nation; we dance together, in a circle. A circle has no beginning, no end, it just continues around in a continuous fluidity (Rav Moshe Weinberger has a lecture on this specific topic that is worth listening to. Follow this link to listen to it, free!); this is symbolic of life itself, and illustrates the Oneness of the Jewish people. Rabbi Shimon himself encouraged his students to unite, because through their cohesiveness, they would merit to plumb the depths of the Torah...

For a few more stories and details about Rabbi Shimon, follow the label "Lag B'Omer" to a post from a few years ago...