Wednesday, June 30, 2010

War on two fronts...

Last week, I saw a very encouraging thought in the sefer Nesivos Shalom, from the late rebbe Reb Sholom Noach of Slonim. 

Concerning the story of Pinchas, the rebbe establishes that there were two disparate sins: 1) the sin of worshiping Ba'al Pe'or and 2) the sin involving the Moabite women. The implication from the text is that the plague that struck the Jews was related to the sin of Ba'al Pe'or, specifically, whereas Pinchas' act (an act of mesiras nefesh - risking his own life by rising up against a prominent member of the tribe, and taking the law into his own hands) was in response to the sin of the Moabite women. 
The rebbe poses a two-pronged question: why was Pinchas' act related to the sin of immorality, and not on the actual sin of Ba'al Pe'or (which was the main sin, after all)? The sin of Ba'al Pe'or was a considerably more severe sin that actually requires capital punishment, as opposed to the sin of immorality, whose punishment is lashes! In addition, why was the rectification (i.e. the justice meted out by this Nasi's death, and subsequent halting of the plague) of this sin done through Pinchas, and not through Moshe? Up until this point Moshe was the savior in every situation, so why did Pinchas have to be the one to carry out this deed?

The rebbe answers that Emunah (belief) and Kedusha (holiness) are two foundations in serving God; when one elevates himself through them, he enhances and raises up his own actions and the Torah itself. Conversely, if he does something that diminishes either of these two foundations vis-a-vis his own service of God, the whole Torah is diminished, God forbid. The source of emunah is embedded within a person; it is an integral part of his being, his nature, his essence. This is an inheritance from the patriarch Avraham, as shown in the medrash: "my children are believers, the sons of believers". It follows that even at a time when a Jew doesn't feel this emunah, we must believe that it is there - albeit buried deeply within him - hidden by the many shortcomings that come along with the human experience. 
When a person is plagued by doubts and questions that chip away at his faith and resolve, those crises can be traced to the diminished effect of kedusha; the satisfaction of base desires for pleasure's sake (the antithesis of holiness) begins with the intellect, and once the mind is corrupted with licentious thoughts, the basis of emunah falls prey as well. This concept is found by the primordial Snake, when God tells it "[man] will pound your head, and you will hiss at his heel" (Gen. 3:15): the destruction of the snake comes through the force of emunah, which is found in the mind, the head. But the downfall of man comes through the attack on holiness (represented by the heel - the lower part of the body where the reproductive organs are found), in which the Evil Inclination possesses greater strength.

In our case, we find that the sin of immorality allowed for the sin of Ba'al Pe'or. Therefore, Pinchas risked himself to root out the source of the evil. When a Jew has issues of faith, their roots lay in issues of holiness, and Pinchas realized that he would have to stop the immorality in order to properly bring an end to the sin of Ba'al Pe'or.

So why Pinchas?

We know that Bilaam and Balak names contain the name of the Jewish People's arch-enemy, Amalek. Amalek's modus operandi is to weaken our resolve with questions of belief and by cooling our enthusiasm for fulfilling the directives of the Torah. To do this, they wage a multi-front battle, bombarding us with attacks on our emunah and kedusha. During the epic war with Amalek, Moshe directs Yehoshua to gather men and fight against Amalek; Yehoshua was a descendant of Yosef haTzaddik. Yosef's defining characteristic is his ability to withstand the most trying temptations, in spite of his surroundings and his station in life.

The war with Amalek, therefore, was waged on several fronts, as well. Moshe led the Jews in matters of emunah, while Yehoshua led them in matters of kedusha, channeling his ancestor's strength.

The same concept applies here, as well. Pinchas, channeling the trait of Yosef haTzaddik (the gemara [Sota 43a] tells us that Pinchas' maternal grandfather was Yosef) was able to challenge and defeat the spiritual blemish that the sin with the Moabite women caused, thereby rectifying the aspect of kedusha, which was in peril. This is why it had to be Pinchas, why he had to risk his own safety in a true act of mesiras nefesh.

The rebbe concludes with an observation that is very pertinent to us, especially in this time of the year, with the Three Weeks upon us:

This is also the challenge of the generation of Ikvus d'Meshicha, in these two subjects (i.e. belief and holiness). 
The closer we draw near to the final redemption and the great revelation of the Messiah, the Evil Inclination's power increases as well, in these matters. The rectification for this is through the aspects of Moshiach ben Yosef and Moshiach ben Dovid; Moshiach ben Yosef will first mend the blemishes of the Covenant (i.e. diminished holiness through immorality), and afterward Moshiach ben Dovid, who exemplifies the trait of Malchut, of Emunah, will arrive and mend the diminished emunah.

It is incumbent upon the Jew to learn from Pinchas, who was one man, and sacrificed himself for the sake of all Israel, for all of Israel is responsible for one another. Similarly, when a Jew strengthens himself in these matters, and withstands trial [of faith and holiness], he brings the salvation to Israel!
May we all gird ourselves in preparation for battle; when we feel a sense of responsibility toward one another, and we wage battle shoulder to shoulder, we can bring Moshiach! I bless us all that this year we should merit to observe the Ninth of Av as the festive holy day that it is destined to be, when we stand on the solid foundations of belief and holiness!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A very good read...

While we're on the (general) subject of kiruv, there's a book that I just finished reading that I'd like to mention.

Rav Moshe Weinberger (of the Aish Kodesh shul) has a book called Jewish Outreach: Halakhic Perspectives (I had it on my sidebar to the left of this page). It's a fascinating book that studies relatively in-depth issues that pertain to the world of kiruv, and raises many interesting points, issues, and topics on the subject of kiruv. Anybody even marginally interested in kiruv would benefit from this book, as well as people who haven't given it much thought; if you read it, you may find that kiruv appeals to you!

An article he wrote for the "The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society" in the mid 80's about the Ba'al Teshuva's reintegration into the religious world appears as an appendix to the book.

You can find the book by clicking here. It's a very good book!

Also suggested: Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's Reaching Out; it is thoughts on the nature and necessity of Jewish Outreach from a master...

Good Intentions?

I was confronted this past Friday night with a sentiment that disturbed me greatly, and has continued to bother me since then. It's not a new problem, but I hardly see it in stark contrast to the ideals that we try - as religious Jews - to live by, and I certainly don't hear it acknowledged verbally, unashamedly.

We're staying at my in-laws while my wife recuperates from the surgery, and there is a neighbor down the street who has an open home for kiruv (Jewish outreach). This family constantly has unaffiliated Jews as guests for Shabbos, and they take an interest in these people's lives, assisting them in any way they need help. It's truly a beautiful thing to behold, and I have had the pleasure of joining this family for some Shabbos meals.

Earlier in the week, the head of the household approached me, requesting that I help form a minyan (prayer quorum) in their home for the Friday night service, beginning with mincha (the afternoon prayer) and continuing through ma'ariv (the evening service). One of the many ba'alei Teshuva (returnees to observant Judaism) that they took in is getting married, and they are hosting her relatives who are not religious; he wanted to make a spectacular kabbolas Shabbos (reception of the Shabbos) for them, to give them a taste of the joy that accompanies Shabbos.

Naturally, I agreed. An opportunity to partake in an important mitzva like kiruv is not one that I would give up quickly, and it sounded like we were meant to have an exciting experience in the minyan, with singing and dancing, etc. The basic minyan consisted of folks from around the neighborhood (ensuring that we would have a quorum of people who are observant), with the bride's family interspersed throughout the room, sitting near the more seasoned folks who could help guide them through the prayers. It was a very nice experience; there was a little awkwardness at first, but eventually people got into it, and everyone had a good time.

Now, to give a little background information, for those of you who are unaware: the Friday night liturgy is different than the standard weekday ma'ariv. The amidah (also know as the Shemoneh Esrei, the climax of the service) prayer is altered to reflect the sanctity of Shabbos, and after everyone is finished, the prayer leader (chazzan) recites a special formula that consists of a special blessing that makes up part of what is known as the bircas me'ein sheva. According to the halachic sources, this blessing is reserved only for an established prayer group (a minyan kavua) that is either meeting in a synagogue, or has a sefer Torah in the home that they meet.

A minyan that does not convene on a regular basis (a minyan arai), however, cannot say this blessing, and we are warned to be careful about this, because saying it raises issues of whether we have said a blessing (and by extension, God's name) in vain, which has serious ramifications. A minyan such as ours is the exact definition of a minyan arai, and thus, we cannot say the bircas me'ein sheva. The chazzan finished the amidah, and then began with the opening words of the me'ein sheva; I tried to stop him - he paused, listened to me, and then waved me off and continued reciting the blessing.

Afterward, I tried to explain to the host what had happened; I realize that although this is a clear, explicit halacha, some people are unaware of it, so I offered to show it to him inside. At that point, the chazzan ambled over and started harassing me and debating whether he was in the right or not. I held my stance, and insisted that what he had done was not in line with the halacha; eventually he waved me off again, and said dismissively "I'm telling you: it's not a big deal, and we're not going to gehinnom (Hell) because of this."

That statement is a very telling one, and upsets me very much. It's not enough that so many of us (myself included) are ignorant of halacha - we mistakenly believe that as long as we avoid the "big no-no's" that we're doing okay. This nonchalant, uncaring approach is very serious, and is found unfortunately among a vast majority of people.

 I'm not trying to be an alarmist by blowing things out of proportion, but the attitude that allows someone to express such an idea without the faintest hint of irony is a dangerous one, indeed. It is a certain complacency that leads us to err greatly, in increasing severity. I know that I may sound like a zealot (apropos for this week's Torah portion), but this is a very dangerous idea to subscribe to. It will eventually lead to halfhearted, lethargic fulfillment of the mitzvot (if it hasn't already), and end in negligence and transgression.

So what can we do? How do we combat this danger that everyone (obviously including myself) is susceptible to? There are many ideas and suggestions that have a wide range of application, but one thing that is of utmost importance is to establish a regular study session of basic halachot that pertain to our everyday lives. There are numerous programs, websites, and books that cater to this particular need; everyone can find a way to learn these important things that are relevant to our every waking moment.

Another necessity is to somehow increase our sensitivity to the world around us, and how we interact with it. This can be done by learning mussar, or chassidus (or a blend). We need to internalize the idea that every single thing we do has some sort of effect on our spiritual and physical environments, and that nothing is irrelevant. It's not just avoiding the "major" issurim (prohibitions) and being careful about the "major" mitzvot - everything is there for a reason, so we should give the proper amount of reverence to them all.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

On The Wings Of Eagles...

Briefly, for a few fleeting moments, I was soaring over the hills of the Holy Land...

Early this morning, I had my inaugural chavrusa (lit. study partnership) session with my good friend Rabbi Ally Ehrman via telephone, creating an international bond of Torah. We began learning Rav A.Y. Kook's Ein AYaH, his commentary on the Ein Ya'akov (the foremost commentary on the Aggadah sections of the Talmud). Reb Ally has the wonderful z'chus (merit) of living in the Old City of Jerusalem, and hearing from him is like feeling the warm breeze as I walk to the Kotel through the ancient streets. I miss it so...

The infusion of the Holy Land into my daily routine as a result of our overseas connection, plus the content of what we were learning (the Ein AYaH is chock full of references to the inherent holiness of the Land of Israel, and words of great yearning to return to Zion) gave me such a boost...! It's really difficult to describe.

Rav Kook's words are infused with such poetic beauty, such meaning and open-heartedness, that I find it almost overwhelming to learn; it takes all my reserves to keep from breaking down. I've been struggling to learn the Orot HaTorah, but it's very difficult. Rav Moshe Weinberger's shiurim (lectures) on the Orot have been a real godsend.

Beautiful stuff. Very highly recommended.

Monday, June 21, 2010

More details about the bris...

A lot of people wanted to know how I was successful convincing my wife to name our son after the holy rebbe of Piaseczna, Reb Kalonymos Kalman. After all, it's not a very common name.

Aside from the fact that he was a very holy Jew who has had a tremendous influence on my life, we still had to deal with the issue of our custom to name after deceased relatives. Our bechor was named after my wife's father's father; this time it was my turn. My father's father is still alive (until 120, Amen!), and my mother's father shares the same name as my father-in-law who is thankfully still with us.

Since I had this opportunity, I begged my wife months ago that - if it is indeed a boy - we should name him after Reb Kalonymos Kalman. She was resistant, yet she understood how important it was to me that I honor this man in such a way.

In any event, our son was born a half hour after sunset on motzei Shabbos, 1 Tammuz, 5770. I checked to see which relevant yahrtzeits (anniversary of deaths) there were on that day, and a chill ran up my spine.

1 Tammuz is the yahrtzeit of the author of the Meor V'Shemesh ( a seminal book in chassidic literature): Reb Kalonymos Kalman Epstein, a major disciple of Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk, and the great grandfather (and namesake) of Reb Kalonymos Kalman Shapira.

Now tell me that that isn't a sign! Just to be sure, I asked a rav whether I should lend this credence, and he told me that I could take this as a sign with confidence.

I also had the tremendous z'chus (merit) to perform the chituch (the actual circumcision) on my son this time. I had really wanted to do it last time, but since everything was touch and go in terms of scheduling, there was no opportunity for a real tutorial. This time around, I followed our mohel to several other "jobs" he had last week. He showed me how to hold the blade, how to manipulate the blade and move it along the protective shield (there is a steel shield that simultaneously hold the foreskin in place and protects the rest of the member) so that there is one fluid motion, to ensure that there is a clean cut, and that the pain is minimal.

I stayed up the whole night before the bris, as is customary in many communities; there is this concept that the night before the bris there is a need for extra protection from malevolent spirits, so the father stays up and learns and prays.

I learned about milah, put the finishing touches on my speech, and then went to the mikvah. I had special intentions while underwater - it is said that one of the most potent times for prayer is while completely immersed in the waters of the mikvah (this resembles the womb, which is the closest thing in the physical world to the spiritual world)- and when I got back home, I recited Rebbe Nachman's Tikkun HaKlali.

The actual cutting is pretty straightforward; as described above there really isn't any marging for error, thankfully. Plus, I was performing the circumcision under the watchful eye of the mohel, who is a very competent, careful man, as well as a big Torah scholar. It felt wonderful to be such an active part in this great mitzvah - in reality, the obligation is on the father of the child, but most people are not trained, or are unwilling...

I hope that my performance of this bris will serve as a tikkun for the wrongdoings of my youth...

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bris Speech

For those of you who couldn't make it, this is the speech that I gave this morning at my son's bris. More details to follow in future posts! May we merit to see only joyous occasions in Israel, amen!

Many of you are probably wondering where we got the name Kalonymos Kalman from. My son, the rach hanimol, is named after Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman ben Reb Elimelech Shapira, who was the rebbe of Piaseczna before being relocated to the Warsaw ghetto during World War Two.
For many reasons, I have found Reb Kalonymos Kalman’s writings to be particularly inspiring, and his words resonate within me in a manner that is hard to describe.
Those who are somewhat familiar with Reb Kalonymos Kalman’s story know about his activities in the ghetto, how he sacrificed personal safety for his fellow inhabitants, and gave rousing sermons full of hope and chizuk, which remain with us as a testimony in the sefer Aish Kodesh. Indeed, during the war, he was a shining example of resilience and spiritual resistance in the face of utter horror, the apotheosis of faith in times of crisis.
But there is more to his life - and his greatness - than those years in the ghetto.  As his writings display, Reb Kalonymos Kalman had a profoundly sensitive soul, always looking to elevate himself and others in their avodas HaShem. Never complacent, Reb Kalonymos Kalman devoted himself to the search for meaning, feeling, and vitality that is necessary to properly serve the Master of the World. His ideas concerning chinuch and the importance of each individual student’s need for expression had a large impact on my life; they helped me grow as a bachur, and they inform my own approach to parenthood, today…
I did some research into the meaning of the name Kalonymous Kalman, and like all things in Judaism, found a difference of opinions. Kalman is a shortened version of Kalonymos, but what does Kalonymos mean?
According to some opinions, the name is derived from a contraction of two Greek words, “Kallos” and “Nymos” meaning “good” and “name”, respectively. Apparently, this is a translation of the name Shem-Tov.
The mishna in Avos states that there are three crowns – the crown of the Torah, the crown of the priesthood, and the crown of the kingship. The mishna concludes that the “crown of a good name surpasses them all.” Rabbi Shamshon Rephael Hirsch explains that the Keser Shem Tov is attainable by all, without exception – the crown of priesthood is hereditary, in contrast, while the kingship and the Torah are gifts from God; in addition, the other crowns are dependent on the Keser Shem Tov to be of value and to fully actualize their own potential. It seems that we have hit upon another necessary ingredient for the achievement of shleimus, perfection, which the Sefer HaChinuch explains is inherent in the mitzvah of milah, as the pasuk states: “Hishalech lefanai, v’heyei tamim.”
Another source that I saw for the meaning of the name Kalonymous Kalman is that it means “merciful” in Hungarian.
The mishna in Nedarim says “Reb Yishmael said: great is the mitzvah of milah, for thirteen covenants were formed over it.” Rashi explains that the verses that contain the directive of milah contain the word “bris” thirteen times. Rabbi Yaakov Emden explains the significance of these thirteen times as an allusion to the thirteen attributes of Divine mercy; HaShem reveals Himself to us with all of His mercy in merit of our fulfillment of the mitzvah of milah.
This explanation seems especially relevant to us in our times. If we look at the world around us, it is very clear that there is an overwhelming need for Divine mercy. Indeed, our sages tell us that we are living in a time of Ikvus D’Meshicha, on the heels of the Moshiach. I once heard that one of the reasons our generation is referred to in such a way is because the heel is an area of the body that has to support a lot of weight. In order to ensure that there is no pain as a result of the tremendous pressure the heel is thick and callused.
We are following a long period of galus that has been fraught with much pain and hardship; it is only natural that to be able to withstand this enormous heritage that we carry, we have to be a little bit hardened, a little bit calloused. We are also living in a time of such technological advancement. Despite the myriad innovations in communications that effectively shrink our world, we run the risk of becoming more isolated from each other, with people eschewing traditional means of contact with the outside world.
This lack of personal interaction can eventually manifest itself in insensitivity towards others; this callousness is also an aspect of our generation, and has far reaching implications that range from our relationships with others to our service of HaShem. The pasuk says “UMaltem es orlas l’vavechem” – we need to peel away the barrier that surrounds our heart, in a similar spirit of that of the bris milah. In order to do this, we need Divine mercy, in the sense that we leave ourselves vulnerable to a certain degree, by removing this barrier.
It is my fervent hope and prayer that HaShem should continue to bless all of us with abundant mercy, and that we should be able to feel His presence as a reality in our lives, the way that Reb Kalonymos Kalman yearned to feel Him. And in the spirit of his namesake, may the rach hanimol, Kalonymos Kalman merit to wear the keser Shem Tov, and grow in Torah and yiras Shamayim with hisragshus and hislahavus, Amen.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Did You Get The Chickpeas?


Last time around, I had virtually no involvement with the Shalom Zachor  prep, save for actually showing up to it. My older son was born Thursday night, and I spent the whole night in the hospital with my wife, so when it came to the rush to prepare for the shalom zachor, I was fast asleep.

Not this time!

Thank God, since I woke up this morning, I have been running around trying to get all the necessary ingredients for a successful shalom zachor. I am, of course, referring to the main event: beer and chickpeas. Seriously, every person I spoke to asked me if I had those two items. The urgency in their voice was clear until I would answer in the affirmative, after which they would calm down...

In any event, have a wonderful Shabbos! Enjoy this video from Pey Dalid:

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Building Blocks Of Creation

In the Kuzari, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi examines the inner workings of the Sefer Yetzira, which is an ancient text that he attributes to Avraham Avinu (other commentators trace it back to Adam). The Sefer Yetzira holds the secrets of creation contained within the Aleph-Beis (the Hebrew alphabet); every body part corresponds to a different letter, for example.
According to various midrashim (exegetical interpretations of the Biblical texts), the children of Yaakov Avinu used the Sefer Yetzira to either create quasi-human beings or quasi-animals.
There is some speculation that the MaHaRaL of Prague may have used the Sefer Yetzira to create the Golem that protected the Jewish denizens of Prague from pogroms and blood libels.
In any event, the Kuzari uses the Sefer Yetzira to buttress his claim that Hebrew is indeed referred to as Lashon HaKodesh (lit. The Holy Tongue) precisely because of its unique nature: it is the only language that comes directly from God, and its power to create is unparalleled by the other, mundane languages (this is consistent with the 'HaLevian' point of view, which is  Judeo-centrist).

A main theme of this idea that the Sefer Yetzira represents is that everything in the universe is a complex structure of letters, carefully - with Infinite Wisdom - constructed and arranged into a Divine code. To underscore this point, there is a famous story involving Rabbi Shneor Zalman of Liadi, the author of the Tanya, and his grandson, the Tzemach Tzedek. When lying on his death bed, the Ba'al HaTanya summoned his young grandson over, and pointed to the ceiling of the room. "What do you see?" he asked the Tzemach Tzedek. The Tzemach Tzedek replied that he saw the beams that comprised the structure of the roof. Reb Shneor Zalman shook his head: "I see the aleph-beis that make up the beams!"

If we are attuned enough, and we reach certain elevated states of purity, we can also be sensitive to see this!

The Lubavitcher Rebbe (1902 - 1994)

Today is 3 Tammuz, the yahrtzeit (anniversary; usually used in reference to the day of someone's death) of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

A brilliant man, Rabbi Schneerson (known as 'the Rebbe' by most people) assumed leadership of the ChaBaD-Lubavitch Chassidus in 1951, following the death of his illustrious father-in-law Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, the previous Rebbe (the 'Rebbe RaYaTz'). It was under his tutelage that the Chassidus become a global movement, with the Rebbe mobilizing his followers to spread out all over the word and disseminate the message of Chassidus.

His writings and discourses displayed an erudition that was nearly unrivaled; a groundbreaking discourse about the essential nature of Chassidus entitled On The Essence Of Chassidus captures the Rebbe's genius as he deftly shows how Chassidus is not only congruent with Torah values, but is a natural extension of the other innovations in Judaism throughout history. The discourse also illustrates how Chassidus seeks to synthesize all the different aspects of Judaism and the exegetical system (Pshat, Remez, Drush and Sod - PaRDeS), and the book is a must read for anyone who would like to gain an understanding into the nature of Chassidus through the scope of ChaBaD philosophy.

A handsome, charismatic individual, there are numerous accounts where foreign dignitaries, politicians, Torah luminaries, and simple folk alike were made to feel as if the Rebbe was paying attention to him, and him alone. The Rebbe exemplified true leadership, always aware that his every move was under scrutiny.

The Rebbe passed away in 1994; I never had the z'chus (merit) to meet him, but I wish I had.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Important Read...

I just read this post over at the Mystical Paths blog, and I believe this is worth reading, thinking about, and then sending to anybody is who is in an authoritative position in the Jewish community.
A percentage of our youth are disaffected. Orthodox Jewish youth.  A subset of the generation that is drawn to the excitement of the world or turned off by a dry education system or parental and communal restrictions.  Or so I say.  But as my own teens remind me regularly, what do I know?
So I’ve asked and challenged them, tell me “Why does Judaism suck?”  Yes, a provocative question designed to get their interest and get a deep answer from them.
They’ve taken up my challenge.  A worldwide group of disaffected Jewish teenagers, girls and boys from orthodox homes, have responded.  Here it is, here’s why, in their own words, the Judaism of today doesn’t work for them.  From Ramat Beit Shemesh Israel, Passaic New Jersey, Jerusalem Israel, Crown Heights New York, here’s why Judaism sucks….
(These are their own words. Very minor edits for grammar and spelling to keep the reading easy.)
A: It’s not that Judaism sucks, it’s that people these days really corrupted it and teach it totally the wrong way.  So I think that that’s one of the main problems.  It’s the people, not the religion. The school systems need to be changed, and the way that it’s taught.
B: Maybe like the adults and teachers are hypocrites. They don’t keep what  they teach.  They teach to fear God which isn’t good. They should teach that we should love God and not fear him. They also focus too much on like external stuff these days, like how high your socks are and are not teaching the more important stuff like morals
and how to act and behave. They should focus more on being a good person then how high your socks are.  For example adults and teachers say you shouldn’t speak lashan hara, then go and talk to all the parents and teachers about you! People should just be real and true.
C: They say when you are young (a child) everything can influence you and they are right.  Their influence is what screws with you, confuses you, makes everything complicated.
D: Judaism doesn't provide enough answers. How do you expect a young child to go about his life with no answers just curiosity?
E: I think it sucks because it’s a shallow minded religion. Things that it says don’t work for our generation. Kids don’t want to hear how they can’t do anything enjoyable.
F: I think Judaism itself is fine. The basis of the true religion is
great. But rabbis and sages have made up all these extra rules to add here to the original rules which, because they are man made, might be spoiling the purity of the religion.
G: I don't think the religion sucks, I think that it's not being taught properly. There are people out there distorting it and taking things a little bit too far. I don't think that the extra rules the rabbi's added on a while ago spoils the purity, I think its more all the extra rules being added on NOW.  And while “E” is right about kids not wanting to hear about it now, but often it’s because they don't get what it's really about and don’t understand why they can't do the things they want to do.
H: Know ANYBODY who teaches it well? Can’t say I know any one or any rabbi who does.
I: In short I find even when you do all the right things it still seems to be a dark world, and basically that’s why I think it’s all (feces).
J: Judaism is awesome, it’s just the people who represent it nowadays are stuck in a steel box and are doing it all wrong. But Judaism in and of itself is beautiful. If it was taught in the right way people would be a lot more into it.
K: Judaism is creator, angles, spirits, mysticism, heaven,.... But it’s based on ancient culture.
L: What the rabbi's added in the times of the Gemara isn't bad at all, it's just as pure as the rest of the Torah. But people are adding on their own stuff and taking it too far now, which is wrong.

Some of the complaints may seem like they are merely used as excuses to facilitate negative behavior, but when you look deeper at the contents of many of the complaints, you'll see a common theme.
 - The seeming incongruity between the modern world and what is perceived to be an antiquated system.
 - The unbearable hypocritical messages that adults and authority figures send to our youth
 - The idea that some of these kids feel stifled in their curiosity, and that maybe are yearning for more

I am not trying to assign any blame to anybody here; we all know that there is a struggle to 'keep our heads above water' - especially when it comes to daily living. But this is our future talking here; these kids represent the next generation, and we have a responsibility to teach them according to their needs. That does not mean that we have to make concessions in halacha, but we do have to engage them! Some of these kids seems to be pleading with us, if you read between the lines. They are not rejecting Judaism - on the contrary, in their own eyes they believe that they recognize (to an extent) what Judaism is really about, and what is important. 

The truth is, they have some really good points...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Mazel Tov!

For some reason, over the past few weeks, I've felt this strong urge to cry.

It comes every once in a while; I can't explain it, but it feels like the smallest thing gets me misty eyed...

I'll read something beautiful, like that Tur I posted a short while ago. I'll see an amazing display of bravery on a clip someone e mails me, and I feel the waterworks.

I'm not embarassed - everyone needs to cry sometimes - but I feel like like I have to fight the tears back until I have a good opportunity. Sometimes that manifests during prayer, sometimes it is apropos for a certain occasion.

Which is why - in the lull of activity that began a few hours before Shabbos ended - I sit here, crying tears of thanks and gratitude to the Master of the World, who has seen fit to give me another gift: a beautiful baby boy.

My wife is doing well, thank God, and my son is oblivious to the fact that he has to share the attention now...

...and I can barely contain my joy.


Thank You!
Thank You!
Thank You!

May it be His will that we all share in only joyous occasions, forever, Amen!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Prepare For Glory!

Read these words very carefully. They are so deep, that you just might miss it...
I often lie awake at night thinking about how it's not so much the Shabbos of my childhood that I miss; in America, Jews are also shomer Shabbos. There are Jews who keep Shabbos. But my heart aches for the erev Shabbos that I recall as a child. - Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
Shabbos is so beautiful, but sometimes we don't prepare properly for it. An important aspect is the eager anticipation with which we make ourselves ready for this holy day. In truth, the way we prepare for Shabbos determines to a degree what sort of Shabbos we will have...

Our erev Shabbos begins Thursday night; we start peeling vegetables for the soup and the kugel, and we listen to a shiur together. We start straightening up around the house...

First thing Friday morning, the cholent goes up, so it will be ready by the early afternoon for some sampling later on, in keeping with the verse "Those who savor it will merit life." All the shopping, cleaning, and setting of the table is done to the background of nigunei Shabbos; when buying flowers for my wife, I say l'Kavod Shabbos kodesh!

A certain silence descends on the house about an hour or so before candle lighting. There is a tangible force in the air as our weekly worries start to slip away, making room for the Queen. I try to take another crack at Derech HaMelech, Reb Kalonymos Kalman's sefer of derashot (sermons) from before the war. It's extremely difficult to understand, with very advanced concepts in Kabbalah and Chassidus...

I look forward to donning my special Shabbos clothes every week. My bekishe, my shoes (nothing special about the shoes, per se, but I do not wear shoes during the week. For Shabbos' honor, I am willing to dress uncomfortably, because that is what I feel is appropriate), the watch my wife bought for me when we got engaged, and all the other special accoutrements that accompanies the Shabbos dress...

I think I have an inkling about what the Rav was talking about. I hope we can all merit to have a wonderful erev Shabbos!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

To keep you busy...

...while I'm busy this week, you can check out this site, which takes your name and finds all the relevant gematriot (numerical equations based on the Aleph-Beis). It's a lot of fun, and some really random stuff pops out. A few of mine were:

Elokim, kamma aht yaffa; (How beautiful are you, God)
Elokim notein hakol; (God gives all)
Archie Bunker (huh? did I say really random?);
M'Eifo tavo haNechama?; (where does the comfort come from)
medina metumtemet; (a stupid country)
Rak Simcha (only Joy!)

There were many others, some completely inappropriate, so be careful with the results.

Thanks to Raisin Soul; I found this site through his blog...

Saturday, June 5, 2010

I Will Raise Up A Cup Of Salvation...

Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust in Him and not fear. (Isaiah 12:2) - from the Havdala of Motzei Shabbos
Even when it seems that all hope is lost, one should not despair, because God can save him. When a person understands that God is capable of anything and trusts in God that He will save him, he gives himself completely over to God. His troubles become God's troubles, and his battles become God's battles. It then become God's responsibility to fight for him and save him. - Rabbi Yehuda Loew, the MaHaRal of Prague (Nesivos Olam, Nesiv HaBitachon 1)
Wishing everyone a wonderful week, full of light and joy.

It may be a little quiet around here for the next week or so; things that need my full attention will be happening this week, God willing.


Friday, June 4, 2010

Holy Chutzpah

Amidst all the ruckus, all the vitriol, a lone bachur stands against the current and silently, proudly shows his support.

This boy acted maturely, and that is shown in stark contrast to the hysteria of the hate filled mob.

In my opinion, it's a tremendous kiddush HaShem (sanctification of God's name).

Maintaining Eye Contact

Here's something to take with you into Shabbos (and keep with you all the time).

The Tur (a 13th/14th century codification of halacha authored by Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher [Rabbi Asher is also known as the RO"Sh, a foremost commentator on the Talmud]) discusses in The Laws of Daily Living article125 the prescribed method of action during the recitation of the kedusha (the main responsive element between the Shaliach Tzibbur and the minyan during the repetition of Shemoneh Esrei). While those of sephardic descent keep their eyes cast downward, the ashkenazic Jews - as well as the French Jews - keep their eyes lifted to the heavens, and raise up on their toes with each pronunciation of "kadosh, kadosh, kadosh..." ("holy, holy, holy"). The Tur seems to rule that it is better to do like the ashkenaz community, and explains:
The Sefer Heichalot says: God says "blessed are you...if you tell My children what I do when they are sanctifying (i.e. saying the kedusha) and saying 'kadosh, kadosh, kadosh', and you teach them that their eyes should be directed upward towards heaven, and they should lift themselves up. I have no pleasure in the world like the time that theirs eyes are gazing into Mine, and My eyes are looking into theirs."
I originally saw this quoted in Chovat HaTalmidim, where the holy Piaseczner is encouraging us to feel HaShem's presence during prayer, and gives practical advice couched in guided imagery to help. Two days ago I found it in the Tur itself, and like before, I was struck by the beauty of the idea, and deeply moved.

I realize that some people are more emotive than others, and have an easier time expressing themselves. I have also noticed that a lot of people squirm when the conversation turns to talking about God and His relationship with us. Maybe for some, it is the inability to appear vulnerable, while others believe that such emotional matters are better left in the realm of privacy and tzniut. I respect those positions - even though I don't really understand them - but I do believe that everyone needs to recognize how much HaShem loves us.

In a fundamental halachic work - one that is considered a predecessor to the Shulchan Aruch - there are absolute rulings based on the principle of God's love as it manifests in our realm. We cannot separate the two!

To me, that seems to be a powerful indication of how we need to relate to that knowledge. It has to inform our every action, and it should be reviewed over an over: the immutable fact that God loves us, His love is infinite and boundless. Everyone can believe this, and internalize it, and it doesn't have to be in a public forum. Go look it up, think about this FACT, and have a private moment reveling in the knowledge that HaShem loves us so much, the 'highlight' of His day (as it were) is when we step on our tippy-toes and try to look into His eyes...

Have a wonderful Shabbos!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


For a long time, nothing.

Ater what seems like days - weeks, even - the blows come.

They rain down on me, hard and fast. Devastating. Crushing. They land on my head, my shoulders, my torso. For the moment, all I can do is try and protect my vitals. I shield myself, covering my face, and try to ignore the pain. There will be a lull after the opening salvo; he has me right now, but if I can just live it out until he needs to catch his breath...

An opening. I duck, lunge, roll and spring to my feet, arms raised. I stagger as I try to find equilibrium, try to keep him centered in front of me at all times. My peripheral vision is gone, but I ignore it and keep pace with him, my hands clenched into tight fists.

I'm bloody, and hurting. But I'm also catching my breath, and for the time being he won't get the drop on me again.

He laughs. He knows what I'm thinking, and he's smart. He's got all the time in the world...

If you think our battle with the Evil One is any different...

REAL Freedom

I heard this wonderful mashal (parable, illustrative concept) in a lecture from Rabbi Shmuel Skaist about what freedom means:
We think freedom is the freedom to do anything. My wife told me an example many many years ago that I think is wonderful:
A guitar string that is sitting in the package could say "I am absolutely free. I can do anything; I can bend this way and that way, I could be used for anything. Somebody could design all sorts of new uses for me, for who knows what, but I'm free! - I can be anything."
That's true, but one thing that guitar string is not free to do is to actualize it's own potential to produce beautiful music. It is only when you take that guitar string and you tie it down with a certain amount of tension to the guitar - you restrict it's movements, it can't go anywhere it wants, it can't bend into any shape, it has very limited availability of what it can do - it's only then that it's free to produce the beautiful music that is it's potential.
I'm sure the lesson is quite clear. Judaism and the Torah offers us a framework that allows us to maximize our potential, very much like the guitar string. As a musician, this idea really spoke to me; I hope that everyone else enjoys it as well!

Rabbi Shmuel Skaist is a very talented educator and musician who is involved with the great mitzvah of kiruv (outreach). I find his lectures to be dynamic and enjoyable, and he is one of the most patient people I have ever seen. His lectures can be found on Torah Anytime, and this particular one can be found here.

While we're on the subject of music and potential, I'll share with you a video that I found on Raisin Soul's blog last week. It moved me so much, and if you have the time (about a half hour) it is well worth watching it in it's entirety.

I believe that Zander is really touching on the chinuch techniques that Reb Kalonymos Kalman describes in his introduction to Chovat HaTalmidim. You have to enlist the student in his own training and education, and make him believe in his own capabilities...