Friday, December 31, 2010

Rabbi Shneor Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812)

Today (the 24th of Teves) is the yahrtzeit (anniversary of death) of Rabbi Shneor Zalman of Liadi, the first Rebbe of Lubavitch.

Reb Shneor Zalman is an important figure in Judaism in general, and in Chassidus specifically. The youngest member of the inner circle of Rav Dov Ber (the maggid of Mezritch; the Ba'al Shem Tov's primary disciple and successor), Reb Shneor Zalman was charged with disseminating the teachings of Chassidus through Russia and Lithuania. A tremendous scholar and a deeply pious man, the Alter Rebbe (as Reb Shneor Zalman is affectionately referred to) further developed the philosophy and structure of the Chassidic movement by penning several masterful works.

Likutei Amarim - Tanya was Reb Shneor Zalman's magnum opus, in which he defined his singular approach to Chassidus, Kabbalah, and philosophy. With a heavy focus on intellectuality, the Alter Rebbe formulated his system of ChaBaD thought, which re-introduced fundamental concepts like panentheism in Jewish thought, the absolute Oneness of God, the structure of the Sefirot and the Tzimtzum process, and the parts of the Soul. What set the Tanya apart primarily was its insistence that one can approach Chassidus not only through faith, but by using the rational faculties as well. The Tanya is a staple for anybody who wishes to really enter the world of Chassidus.

Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk reputedly marveled at the brilliance of the Tanya, remarking that he didn't know how Reb Shneor Zalman had managed to fit a "God so big into such a little sefer!"

The Shulchan Aruch HaRav was Reb Shneor Zalman's response to the Maggid's challenge that he write a codification of the Chassidic customs based on the original Shulchan Aruch, complete with his own insights in    halacha. Indeed, not only is his Shulchan Aruch "required reading" for any serious student of halacha, some of his innovations were adopted universally, such as the use of a honed-steel blade for shechita (ritual slaughter) as opposed to the traditional iron blade. The honed-steel not only made for a sharper edge, it lasted much longer without the need for resharpening.

There is so much to write about this important figure, it could fill an entire book. As a matter of fact, someone did write a biography about the Alter Rebbe, and I highly recommend it.

Z'chuso yagein aleinu.

By the way, tomorrow (Shabbos) is Rav E.E. Dessler's yahrtzeit; please check out B'nei Machshava Tova for a special item tomorrow night in his honor.

Have a great Shabbos!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

This video fills me with a lot of hope.

For a very long time, I've been hearing members of the older generation bemoaning the fact that today's generation of Israelis don't feel any connection to the Holy Land. They're too complacent, concerned more with pursuing life's "pleasures" than building the land, defending it from our enemies, etc. ( Time magazine even had a cover story devoted to this theme a few months ago.)

This video shows that at least some young Israelis still care. I hope this inspires more of them to join forces...

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


I love snow.

Growing up in Cleveland, snow was a very large part of the winter experience; some years we would have snowfall as early as Succos and as late as Pesach. In my hometown, your attitude towards snow was very clear - you either loved it or hated it.

If you were anywhere in the Tri-State area earlier this week, then you're probably still feeling the lingering effects of the mini blizzard we had on Sunday. Although the forecasts predicted heavy precipitation in the early afternoon, I had decided to go to yeshiva anyway, and play it by ear. Sure enough, by noon the snow was coming down steadily, and our Rosh Yeshiva encouraged the commuters (the bulk of our kollel) to return home before conditions worsened.

On my way home I made a detour to the local grocery to stock up on important items in anticipation of being snowed in for an extended period of time. As soon as I got home, the sky really opened up and covered us with layer upon layer of beautiful white snow.

One of the things I love about being snowed in is the chance it gives me to spend time with my family. Yesterday I spent time playing with my two little boys, and snuggling on the couch reading Safta Simcha to them (I don't think either of them understood the story, but they still enjoyed it.). My wife and I had a chance to sit and talk and enjoy each other's company in a way that is usually reserved for Shabbos, when we're both already extremely tired.

Moreover, I love the contemplation and insight that I get from the snow. After a fresh snowfall, I love to gaze out at the white expansiveness and reflect. The virgin snow reminds me of what my neshama once was - pure and unadulterated - and what it could be again, with the right amount of dedication, consistency, and honest teshuva.

Walking to ma'ariv on Sunday night, I looked back at the knee-high depressions that my thick soled boots made in the freshly driven snow; I knew that when I came back this way fifteen minutes later, not a trace of those seemingly permanent tracks would be found. What a lesson about our time on this plane of existence - we think we are leaving a mark on this world after our relatively short lifespan, but can we ever be sure? Only with our focus on the real priorities of life, the values set out by the Torah and its paths to righteousness...

Finally, the silence. When it snows, the world is covered by a muffler that dampens all the ambient noise. In the stillness, you can finally hear yourself think. Bundled up in my coat, hat, hood and gloves, I stood outside in this beautiful white-washed world - serene in its cold quietness - and prayed like I've never prayed before...

Sunday, December 26, 2010


I received some pretty harsh e-mails responding to my posting of a YouTube video parodying a scene from a World War II movie featuring Adolf Hitler, in which the original subtitles were replaced with a rant about the Lakewood yeshiva system.

As Reb Y. commented, it's in very bad taste, and I regret posting the video. The truth is, I don't know why I decided to publish the video; to try and find a reasonable explanation after the fact would cheapen my words, and would insult my readers' intelligence.

Instead, I am apologizing.

I am sorry if anyone was insulted or hurt by this video.

Most of us know at least a few people who went through the horror of the Nazi death machine, and so many years later, the Holocaust is still a painful subject. I should know better. None of my grandparents would be laughing at this, despite the fact that the video makes a mockery of an enemy of Israel.

Again, please forgive me for my callousness.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Monday, December 20, 2010

SHeMOS (Shnayim Mikra v'Echad Targum)

This week we begin reading the second of the five Books of Moses, Sefer Shemos (literally the book of Names, but the world knows it as the book of Exodus). The commentaries explain to us that Shemos is actually an acronym for Shnayim Mikra v'Echad Targum, which is a formula prescribed by the Torah for our weekly review of the Torah. Simply put, SHeMOS consists of reading each verse twice, with it's translation once, and proceeding through the entire portion. However, like everything in Judaism, there is much more to this concept than meets the eye.

More than an effective tool for review, the codifications of Jewish law state that this practice is an obligation on every Jewish male. The Shulchan Aruch and the Mishna Berura discuss the various ways that one can fulfill this obligation. While "targum" is classically interpreted as the Aramaic translation provided by Onkelos that accompanies the scripture in nearly every single printing, most authorities agree that this should be supplemented by any of the classic commentaries on the Torah, such as RaSHI, RamBaN, or the Ohr HaChaim. Additionally, there is a time limit to each week's portion: ideally, the portion should be completed before the first Shabbos meal of the week that we read that particular portion. Of course, the deadline can be extended by ever increasing increments, up until the next Simchat Torah, but this is the preferred method.

As such, the system is set up in a way that the portion can be broken down into daily sections, paralleling the seven aliyot of the Shabbos reading. Moreover, there are various methods to how one may go about accomplishing the act of Shnayim Mikra: some sources suggest going through the portion reading each individual verse twice, followed by it's translation and commentary, and continuing in this fashion. Others maintain that one may read through the entire portion once in the verse, followed by a read-through of the targum and commentary, and then yet a fourth read-though of the verses again.

It should be noted that there is a method which consists of reading through the verses only once, and then relying on the Torah reading to complete the "double" verse obligation. This only works if one continuously reads along with the Reader; listening to the Reader does not count towards fulfilling the obligation.

Of course, there are several other methods but these are the most common. For more information, see Mishna Berura 285 (see, I even supplied a link - you have no excuse!).

It cannot be stated forcefully enough how important this particular mitzva is. Aside from the fact that this is a way of fulfilling the directive to learn the entire Torah, this is a valuable source for major foundations of faith. To my mind, there is a direct correlation between crises of faith and the laxity in observance of this practice. If a person never continues past his childish, elementray school level of understanding the Torah, how can he ever have a firm gounding in the face of the powerful elements of heresy in the world?

In yeshiva, I see an astounding display of ignorance in basic knowledge that people would have if they went throught the Torah portion every week. They're not rebelling, of course - they simply aren't aware of the value of Shnayim Mikra, or the fact that it's an obligation. Truth be told, I myself was negligent in this for a very long time, and to this day I regret it.

This week also marks the beginning of a very special time, the period of the year known as Shovavim (in an earlier post I provide a brief explanation to what Shovavim is). This is no coincidence; this time of year is a very potent time, full of opportunities to make innovations in our personal service of God, as well as fix and uproot negative traits. Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk writes in the Tzetel Kattan (#17) that if a person wants to develop and strengthen a trait, or change an aspect of his nature, he must strive consistently for forty days, with great effort and single mindedness. Through this practice, he will receive Divine assistance and continue to elevate himself to the greatest heights, successfully altering his spiritual makeup. To that end, Reb Shalom Noach Berzovsky of Slonim (author of Nesivos Shalom) writes that this is why Shovavim is longer than forty days, to provide a greater opportunity to take on new "projects" that work toward the goal of reaching shleimut (literally completion or wholeness) in serving God.

May we all merit that our innovations take root, and that we continue to grow and find new ways of coming closer to God!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Rabbi Nosson Sternhartz of Breslov (1780-1844)

The tenth of Teves is also the yahrtzeit of Reb Nosson of Breslov.

Although not the first, Reb Nosson was by far the foremost disciple of Rebbe Nachman. During the rebbe's life Reb Nosson diligently recorded his holy words, and even after Rebbe Nachman's death Reb Nosson continued to proliferate the rebbe's teachings. A prolific writer, Reb Nosson expanded upon Rebbe Nachman's lessons with volumes upon volumes of innovations in avodat HaShem culled from Likutei MoHaRan. These seforim run the entire spectrum of Torah showing how each path can be followed with the rebbe's teachings as a guide.

Reb Nosson was the ultimate student, joining the illustrious ranks of Reb Chaim Vital and Reb Chaim of Volozhin, among others. In fact, Rebbe Nachman himself is recorded saying that Reb Nosson was "his Yehoshua"; this has deeper significance, as Rebbe Nachman held himself to be a reincarnation of Moshe Rabbeinu. Reb Nosson was content to sit at his master's feet, drinking in the wisdom with an unquenchable thirst. By Rebbe Nachman's death, Reb Nosson affirmed that there would be no more rebbe henceforth in Breslov, rather everyone would be considered a student of Rebbe Nachman.

Reb Nosson struggled his entire life with adversity and people trying to stand between him and Reb Nachman. It was only with tremendous mesiras nefesh that he ever made it Rebbe Nachman's side, sometimes for extremely brief intervals. His dedication to something he believed in is an inspiration to me...

Z'chuso Yagein Aleinu

10 Teves, 5771

Today is the tenth of Teves, which is a fast day commemorating several dark events that occured around this time of the year.

First of all, the siege on Jerusalem commenced on this day, as the Roman legions surrounded the city walls. This was the beginning of the destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash (the Holy Temple) and our exile which we are currently still in.

Also, the ninth of Teves is traditionally known as the yahrtzeit of Ezra HaSofer (the Scribe).

The third major occurrence was the completion of the Septuagint, Ptolemy of Egypt's directive that seventy different Torah scholars translate the entire Torah into Greek, which actually happened on the eigth of Teves. The translation was a miraculous feat, as each scholar determined what and how to alter certain parts of the Torah in a completely consistent fashion with each other, despite their being cloistered in individual rooms. Nevertheless, we still view the translation as a tragedy, and our sages teach us that upon completion, "a great darkness descended upon the world." Indeed, the Septuagint ultimately served as the template for the Christian Old Testament, and has been used as a weapon against those who are unfamiliar with the original text...

As mentioned above, the day is observed as a fast day; the event is so severe, that unlike any other fast day we fast even when the tenth falls out on an erev Shabbos, like it does this year.

I would like to wish everyone a meaningful fast; may we all meditate on the significance of the day, and learn valuable lessons to apply to our lives...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Acknowledging Inner Strength

B'nei Machshava Tova: Belief in "Self Empowerment": "Pearls of wisdom from the Chovat HaTalmidim: Just as it is impossible to accomplish anything without will, or to practice a discipline on a ..."
It's starting to get really cold outside here in the Tri-State area, and I have always felt that some good music can get the juices flowing, and be a viable source of chizuk. Here's a small sampling of what I have playing lately on my iPod...

Bustan Abraham is a Middle Eastern ensemble that has had a rotation of members over the years, keeping their sound fresh and tight. Naor Carmi (who has recently been playing with Chilik Frank as part of the haLev v'haMaayan quartet) plays on this album.

What a beautiful rendition of a beautiful piyut. For some reason, I often find myself humming this niggun when going to the mikvah on erev Shabbos. Look at how intense the Rebbe was - vibrating with this quiet, pulsating energy waiting to burst forth...and when the levee breaks, he really gets into it.

Shivi Keller (aka Shirat Ha'Asavim or Ein Od Milvado) makes some of the most transcendent music that I've ever had the pleasure of listening to. If you're in the mood for an uplifting experience, Shivi's your man.

These guys are relatively new to the scene. I enjoy the music, but the rapping is kind of hit-or-miss. When the MC's flow is on, then he's great, but sometimes it just falls flat. Nagila is an old favorite of mine (I firmly believe that I was Sephardi in an earlier lifetime), and Shtar's version has some groovy bass to it...

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"Children, remember..."

From the Aliyah Blog, a transcription of a beautiful story from Rebbe Shlomo that carries significant weight with me, as it is the first introduction I had to Reb Kalonymos Kalman (kudos to my friend Neil Harris for pointing me in its direction):
The Holy Hunchback
By Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach zt”l
In the Warsaw ghetto there was a Rebbe, the heiliger Reb Klonimus Kalman. He wrote a book and knowing prophetically that he would not survive, he put the manuscript under one of the stones in the ghetto where it was found after the war.   
He had a yeshiva not of young people but of children. He was accustomed to say, “My followers eat on Yom Kippur. You know why-they are not bar mitzvah yet.” A great Rabbi would come to him, or an old man and a little girl of four or five. He would say to the older man, “You’ll make it without me. This child needs me.” With older people he would spend five minutes; with children all night. He had thousands of kids. He was their father, their mother, their best friend. After the war, there was nobody left.

My whole life I was hoping and dreaming to see one of these people. A few years ago I was walking on the Yarkon in Tel Aviv and I saw a hunchback -a street cleaner. Do you know that sometimes we are all little prophets? Our heart tells us something. I had a feeling this person was special. He was a real hunchback. That as his face was very handsome, but every part of his body was disfigured. And I said to him. “Hey, shalom aleichem my friend.” And he answered me in a very heavy Polish-Yiddish Hebrew, “Aleichem shoolum.” I said to him in Yiddish, “Mein zeisse yid, my sweet yiddele, where are you from?” He said, “I’m from Piaseczna .” I said “Piaseczna . Gevalt! Did you ever see Reb Klonimus Kalman?” “What do you mean, did I ever see him? I was a student in his yeshiva from the age of five to eleven. I was in Auschwitz for five years. I was eleven when I got there. They thought I was seventeen; I was so strong. They beat me up so much I never healed. That’s why I look this way. I have nobody in the whole world, really nobody, ” I said to him, “You know something-my whole life I have been waiting to meet one of the students of Reb Klonimus Kalman, Would you be so kind to give me over one of his teachings?” He kept on sweeping the street, “You really think that after five years in Auschwitz, I remember the teachings?” I said, “Yes-the words of the heileger Rebbe penetrate you forever.”

He stopped sweeping. He looked at me and said, “Do you really want to know?” He touched me so deeply and although you shouldn’t swear, I said to him “I swear to you, and I mean it with all my heart, that whatever you tell me I shall tell all over the world.” You know he was a real chasidisher Yid, so he put the broom against a wall and went to wash his hands. And this is what he said: “There will never be a Shabbos as by my holy master, my heiliger Rebbe. Can you imagine -hundreds, sometimes thousands of young people dancing with the holy rebbe in the middle. What a sight! Not until Meshiach is coming. Can you imagine the Rebbe making kiddush sitting with hundreds of children with so much holiness. He gave over teachings between the fish and the soup, between the soup and the meat, between the meat and the dessert and after every teaching, he would always say, “Kinderlach, taire kinderlach, my most precious children, gedenkst shon, remember, die greste sach in die velt ist, tun emetzin a tova. Children, precious children, just remember the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor. ”
When I came to Auschwitz, 1 knew my whole family had been killed and I wanted to kill myself. Each time I was about to, I suddenly heard the Rebbe’s voice saying to me, “Gedenkst shon, the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor.” Do you know how many favors you do in Auschwitz late at night? People dying, people crying; nobody had the strength even to listen to their stories anymore. I would be up all night. A few weeks later I wanted to kill myself again but always at the last moment I’d hear my Rebbe’s voice. Now I’m here in Tel Aviv, but believe me, I’m all alone, There are moments when I decide to commit suicide. I go into the sea until the water reaches my nose. Then suddenly I hear my Rebbe’s voice again and I just can’t permit myself to do it and I run back to the streets. Do you know how many favors you can do on the street?”
My friends, this was before Rosh Hashana. After Succos I came back to Israel and the first morning I went to the Yarkon and I asked the people on that street corner where the hunchback was. They said he died on the second day of Succos.
Listen to me, my beautiful friends, when the Meshiach comes, when all the holy people will come back to the world and the holy hunchback, the holy street cleaner will come back. He will clean the streets of the world. Do you know how he will clean the world? He will go from one corner of the world to the other and he will say, “Yiddelach, gedenkst shon, the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor.”

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Lighting a Spark...

The mishna in Shabbos describes the very specific types of oils and wicks that may be used for the Shabbos candles. Only the pure oils that can give off a steady, unwavering flame - drawn through a wick spun from fine material - are considered appropriate for the Shabbos licht (Shabbos kindling). Lesser quality oils, kerosene, and flammable substances that give off unpleasant smells cannot be used.

On Chanukah, however,any type of oil and wick is usable. Indeed, while using olive oil is the preferable method of kindling for the Chanukah lights (pure olive oil is even better), the halacha states that anything may be used, as long as it can last the required amount of time.

What is different about Chanukah? Chanukah's essential mitzvah is the lighting of the menorah; logic would dictate that of all the times of the year that we would be didactic about what sort of kindling we use would be on Chanukah, not Shabbos!

Reb Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger (author of Sfas Emes) offers a beautiful explanation. "The flame of God is the soul of Man." - every soul is an aspect of flame, created from a Godly spark. Some, by virtue of their good deeds and merits, have a strong, clear flame, fed by the very purity of their actions; they glow brilliantly and radiate light towards others. Others, through their sins and shortcomings have more coarse material to use as kindling; their fire is lit, but it can be weak, unsteady, sputtering, hardly able to light their own lives, let alone anyone else's.

These latter souls can go through an entire year and not be affected by the radiance of the Shabbos light; their coarseness simply doesn't allow for it. Chanukah possesses the unique ability to warm any Jew's heart, no matter the quality of their "oil". On Chanukah, even the simplest, lowliest Jews feel the stirring of something deep within them, a dim light fighting to shine forth and illuminate the recesses of their hearts. They feel this way because Chanukah is different than all the other holidays; the eight days of Chanukah represent the existence of something Beyond - above the natural order. Seven alludes to the finite, the world of limitations and physical laws. Eight is outside of those restrictions, unfettered by limiting forces. On Chanukah, we are awakened to that Beyond because the Chanukah lights allude to the Or HaGanuz (the "hidden light" reserved for the righteous), and we yearn to be drawn close to it and to draw it into our lives.

This is apparent even today: there are many Jews who remain unaffiliated, who want nothing to do with Judaism. The three exceptions are Pesach, Yom Kippur, and Chanukah. Of those three, the one that they enjoy the most is certainly Chanukah, and that is the secret of the oil, and the light that shines into their souls...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

It's Almost Here!

This morning I shifted all of our kitchen furniture around to make room at the window for our menorah. Chanukah begins tomorrow night, and I'm quivering with excitement!

There is so much beautiful Torah about Chanukah and the wonderful opportunities these special days present us with. I bless all of us that we should capitalize on the chag...

I've got a few new sefarim I'm eager to learn from: Reb Tzvi Meir's latest kuntres; a beautiful little book called Lev HaShamayim. I look forward to sharing things I've learned with my readers, God willing, over the course of Chanukah.

In the meantime, here's a new song to listen to while you make your preparations, and hone that wrist-flick-dreidel-spin technique (but stay far away from kvittlach [cards]!). It's Matisyahu's latest single Miracle, and while it's more than a little on the "pop" side of the music spectrum, it's cheerful, lively, and catchy. Enjoy!