Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Real Education

Over at Mevakesh Lev, Reb Ally posted a wonderful story about Reb Shimon Skop OBM, and what being a "real" rebbe means. It's a must-read, and Reb Ally had the courtesy to cross post it over to B'nei Machshava Tova where Reb Micha took the opportunity to share his own memories of a student of Reb Shimon's (and a phenomenal Torah personality in his own right) in a subsequent post.

I read these stories and several thoughts strike me. The first is regret that I never merited the chance to meet these giants and learn from them (I've referenced numerous times in the past an ever-growing list of great people who I would have loved to have met and basked in their presence). The second thought is another sad observation about the seeming scarcity of true Torah educators whose primary concerns are their young students' wellbeing in spiritual, physical, and emotional terms - an issue that many realize exists, but don't know how to fix the problem. The sad reality is that our system focuses on rote learning, with unmotivated teachers devising ways of simply imparting information...

My last thought is a word of thanks to God for helping me find my rebbe, the Rosh Yeshiva of the little yeshiva that I have called home for nearly ten years now. Like Reb Shimon and Reb Dovid OBM, what sets this man apart is his genuine concern for the boys under his tutelage. And as they progress, move on, and continue into stages of life beyond the confines of the "four walls of the beit medrash", he remains available to give advice and encouragement, to share in joyous times and be a source of support during times of distress and pain.

When I came to that yeshiva, I was going through an especially dark period in my life, struggling with all sorts of things. The yeshiva high school that I had attended was really not the ideal environment for me, for numerous reasons, and I needed a very special place to even have a chance of succeeding in any meaningful way with my spiritual searching.

The first day of yeshiva, the Rosh Yeshiva called me into his office. After sitting me down, he told me that he realized that sometimes a guy needs to let off steam, to get away for a few hours and decompress. As long as I let him know ("not ask for permission," he stressed) beforehand, and assured him that I wasn't going anywhere unsafe, and that I would be refreshed the next day to learn - "go ahead, do what you need to do!" My rebbe treated us as adults, capable of making our own choices and coming to the beit medrash because we wanted to, not because we were compelled by a strictly enforced system of rules.

Because we knew that he trusted us, and cared for us, we tried very hard not to disappoint him. Of course, boys will be boys, and we got into trouble from time to time, but the specter of the possibility of hurting him by betraying his trust kept us in line.

His interpersonal dealings left us spellbound as we saw true humility. Today, I can count on the fingers of one hand (and have plenty more fingers on that same hand) how many times I have seen him truly angry. Constantly smiling, he always has something warm and friendly to say, and when he gives mussar, he does it with warmth and care.

While I may not have met any of the giants of yesteryear, I am proud to have the opportunity to know a giant in my own personal life.

Monday, September 27, 2010

In His Own Words

In this interview with ABC, Matisyahu tells us a little about himself, his music, and his view on what role his religious experience and his music plays...

I realize that many people take issue with his approach and style, but I personally believe that Matis is one of the most sincere musicians - Jewish or otherwise - out there. The more I listen to the music, the more I find things within it that I identify with. His style has grown and matured, reflecting his own spiritual searching. His struggles reflect that of your average thinking person, and his lyrics contain some of the most profound thoughts ever expressed in the medium...
A certain talmid chochom (learned person) with a reputation for his stern, no-nonsense demeanor once called upon the Brisker Rov to discuss certain matters of importance.

As they were talking, the Rov's children were playing in the same room, maiking all sorts of noise and behaving in the ways of children. Much as they tried to ignore the ruckus and continue their conversation, the talmid chochom soon grew annoyed with the children and their non stop activity. Exasperated, he turned to the Rov and said "What's the matter with these children?! They're making such a racket!"

The Rov calmly replied "You're mistaken - there is nothing wrong with these children. They are in the most natural state that each and every Jew is supposed to be, with their boundless simchas haChaim (joy of living). It is we - with our sins and loss of innocence - who have lost our way. What's the matter with us?!"
To serve HaShem and come close to Him you must learn three things from a child: to always be happy,  to never sit idle, and that you must cry for what you want. - Reb Zusia of Anipoli

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Hisbodedus for Succos

Master of the World!

See this Sukkah that I have built - toiling with hands unused to physical labor, hands softened by laziness and material excess - see the sweat and injury that I have undergone to prepare my service to You. So too should all my preparations for Your service be accepted and viewed as if I had labored intensely and with all of my faculties to their limits.

May it be Your will that as I completely surround myself in Your commandment of the Sukkah tonight, I should merit to fulfill the mitzvah properly, with all my heart and soul and might. And as I surround myself tonight, so may I merit to be enclothed in all of Your mitzvot, to perform them wholeheartedly.

May it be your will that as I take the four species together and shake them, so too should all my faculties and body parts come together in a cohesive unit to perform Your service.

And as the species represent the diversity of Your children, may our taking them together merit that all of our brethren should unite and identify with Knesset Yisrael, and we should witness the redemption speedily, Amen.

Wishing everyone a happy, healthy chag kosher v'sameach!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I just saw this on youtube. I think it's pretty cool:

The Power of Will

Rousing words of encouragement from a master:
Our problem is not that we don't have the opportunities to grow. It is that we don't have the proper will and desire to grow. In all circumstances, there are always excuses. The kids were sick. the boiler broke. I had to work overtime. I was so tired when I came home and I had to spend some time with the family. We know the excuses, and they're all valid excuses. But they don't really explain our failures.
We fail because we despair of being successful.
We fail because we do not believe that we have it within us to succeed. It is not the interposition of obstacles that prevents us from succeeding but our own lack of confidence and determination and sheer will.
We fail because we are making a mistake. Because the truth is that we do have it within us to succeed. Because the truth is that each of possesses the most incredible Divinely-powered instrument that can help us smash all obstacles and scale all peaks.
It is called the human will.
 - Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld, founder and dean, Yeshiva Sh'or Yoshuv

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Niggun as positive reinforcement...

I've been slacking off when it comes to cross-posting my own stuff to here, but in any case you should check out B.M.T. for the other contributions...

B'nei Machshava Tova: We know that the ideas of kol ram and peh malei ha...: "We know that the ideas of kol ram and peh malei have very effective results in tefilla and in learning. Rav Yisroel Salanter used to emphas..."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Tune In, Tune On, Tune UP! (or, "FEEL the vibes...")

I have a weekly seder (study session) in Tzav V'Ziruz (Reb Kalonymos Kalman's "personal diary") that usually takes place on Shabbos morning before shacharit (the morning prayer). The sefer is unique in that it gives us an inside look on the inner workings of a tzaddik (righteous man), and allows us to see the effort, challenges, and even turmoil that your standard hagiography wouldn't allow.

Learning the sefer (in either language) is more often than not a visceral experience that breaks down the barriers of awkwardness and other defensive structures that people erect to shield their innermost feelings. It is by far one of the most inspiring seforim that I have had the z'chus (merit) to study. I learn one entry a week, and ruminate on what I can take out of it for the duration of the time, looking for ways to apply the lessons.

In one of the more emotionally charged entries that chronicles the rebbe's son's illness, recovery, and death a few years later, there is a passage that I found to be so stirring, I knew I had to share it:

Why can I not express my heart's rumbling in song and the flames of my soul in tune? Enough that we cannot see the visions of the holy prophets, but why are our very own souls beyond our ken? Our spirits are storming like myriads of singing angels, yet we remain deaf to it all. Sweet songs of God are singing within us, yet we remain unaware of it all. *

The rebbe's frustration is so palpable here, it's frightening. This idea that we have these powerful urges, ideas, burning passions for God roiling underneath the surface - dying for release, but lacking the ability to articulate them, to even recognize them for what they are - hits so close to home on so many levels. Too often I find that I lack the vocabulary - my own simply isn't sophisticated enough - to express myself in any medium - prose, poetry, or music.

On many occasions, I'll plug the tape cassette adapter in my car into my iPod and only get warbled sound and static. What I think is a terrible recording usually turns out to be the connector not being fully plugged into the jack. The moment that I push it in all the way, I get clarity, and a beautifully robust stereo experience.

That very problem is analogous to what Reb Kalonymos Kalman is opining, in essence: the music is there, but we simply aren't plugged in properly (an especially sobering thought is how often we believe that we are in fact plugged in the right way, and we miss the whole point entirely). That's part of our job on this existential plane - to make that connection, to figure out how to tap into that life-song that resonates through every fiber of our being, coaxing delicious strains of melody out of experience. The unfortunate reality is that we have created a cold world, a world that is seemingly barren of any vitality or vibrancy. A world where we seem distant - from each other, from our true selves and ultimately from God (God forbid).

At points throughout the amidah (the silent prayer) of Rosh HaShana, I found myself pausing for extended periods of time. Under the safety of my tallit I hugged myself as I tried to listen to the notes of my soul - clumsy, amateurish, childish as they may be - and I begged HaShem to allow me to feel - to feel His Presence in my life, to recognize His imprint on everything, to hear what my soul is so desperately trying to tell me. I prayed for this, and I prayed that everybody should merit this feeling as well...

* English courtesy of Rabbi Yehoshua Starrett's To Heal The Soul: The Spiritual Journal of a Chasidic Rebbe

Sunday, September 12, 2010


I could bear the greatest loads in the world
but the burden of my iniquities
weighs heavily upon me
bringing me to my knees
with a moan
I shrug this weight from my broken back
and gratefully shoulder the yoke of Your service

my hands grasp the gates of Your Kingdom
...let me in
hoping to travel
along the King's Highway
by way of Sixteenth Avenue
running alongside Your chariot
with the barefoot urchins

the blasts of the trumpets wash over me
their sounds pushing me, pulling me
as I am reminded
that the further I get from You
the closer to You I come
running into Your embrace
closing the circle

as I breathe You in
I remember Your mercy
as I feel Your rod
I thank You for Your justice
as You draw me into Your chambers
I recall our intimacy
and I dissolve in newfound love...

I hope that everyone had an uplifting Yom Tov. I have many things that I want to share from the past few days, but right now this brief expression of my feelings should do...

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

L'Shana Tova

I'd like to wish all (which implies many, but we know are some) my readers a sweet, happy Rosh HaShana. May we all merit to accept the throne of God's sovereignty properly, and may He continue to give us life and everything that we need for many years to come.

Additionally, I'd like to bless us all (Jewry and the world in general) that this coming year should be the year that Moshiach comes...

Monday, September 6, 2010

Leading by example

My wife just showed me the cutest - and scariest - thing.

My 18 month old is sitting in the bathtub right now, holding a little spray bottle. Carefully, he takes the oblong object, cranes his neck, and carefully inserts the nozzle of the bottle into the spigot of the tub. Slowly, he begins to turn the bottle clockwise, simulating the most basic movement of the most basic of home improvement tools: the tightening motion of a screwdriver.

The other night at my in-laws house, he took a toy drill and inserted it into a hole and started making "drilling" noises.

Over the summer I busied myself around the house by making small repairs here and there. Although I hardly noticed it at the time, now I recall that my son would sit there watching me very intently.

At his age, he could only have learned such things from observing others' behavior, which brings to mind a very important lesson that must be applied to all realms:

Children are always watching and taking note. They are very observant, and rarely miss a thing. What they learn, they will try and emulate to the best of their abilities. Additionally, they do not have a developed sense of nuance, and cannot necessarily differentiate between specific cases to know when to copy daddy and when not to. All they see is what they see - without all the numerous excuses and reasons.

We would do well to remember that when it comes to chinuch; "do as I say, not as I do" is one of the most uninspiring (not to mention confusing) messages we can ever send a child. Let's face it - we didn't enjoy it when our parents told us that...

Friday, September 3, 2010

Songs for Shabbos Kodesh!

I'd like to share a small sample of the special playlist I have for my erev Shabbos preparations:

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The first song is Reb Aharon of Karlin's Kah Echsof, a deeply moving song that we sing at the Friday night meal. Here, it is performed by Yitzchak Meir & Friends, on the Neshamot Chadashot album that just came out recently. It's a very good rendition, and the album as a whole is very solid.

Me'ein Olam HaBa'ah (A Bit of Heaven) is taken from the last stanza of the song Mah Yedidut also sung at the Shabbos table on Friday night. Yitzchak Fuchs' composition is powerful and stirring, and this song reaches a rousing crescendo toward the end. It can be found on the At This Time album.

L'Cha Eli Teshukati draws from the Sephardic bakashot, recited either Friday night or Shabbos morning. Yosi Azulay's take (found on the Tefillot: Shabbat album) borrows from the traditional Moroccan tune that accompanies this hymn, but then adds in a modern touch. I enjoy seeing a real "pop star" putting his talent to good use to introduce a younger generation to their rich, textured roots.

El Adon is a classic Breslov tune from the Shabbos morning liturgy, performed by clarinetist (and Breslover) Chilik Frank on his collaboration album with bassist Naor Carmi, The Heart and the Wellspring.

By the way, if anyone knows who did the cover art for the Chilik Frank album, please let me know. I've been trying to find out for a long time already, and I want to see more of it...

A Must Listen - The Three Relationships We Have With God

Courtesy of YUTorah, this shiur (lecture) by Rav Moshe Weinberger is apropos not only in content, but in mood for the rapidly approaching Yomim Nora'im.

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Some people told me that they had difficulty with previous widgets that I posted, so the shiur can also be found by following this link.