Friday, April 29, 2011

This Shabbos, many in the Jewish world have the custom of baking a challah either in the shape of a key or with an actual key stuck into the loaf (a shlissel challah; shlissel is Yiddish for "key"). As this is the beginning of the season for planting, sowing and harvesting, we reinforce our prayers to God for material and spiritual sustenance. The key in the Shabbos challah demonstrates our desire and willingness to make our own efforts toward this goal, elevating our physical input through the sanctity of Shabbos, which nourishes the whole week; in this way, we hope to unlock the heavenly gates of sustenance.

A fresh home-baked shlissel challah, courtesy of my rebbetzin:

It is You, God, Who nourishes the largest to the smallest of creatures. No angel or minister has the ability to provide nourishment, sustenance, or support, but You, as it is written by Your servant David "The eyes of all look eagerly to You, and You give them their food in its proper time. You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing." It is also written "He gives food to all flesh, for his kindness endures forever."
The key (to sustenance) is in Your hand, in order to refine and purify people, by causing them to rely on You and to know that there is no Savior but You. - 
Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (this version appears in the sefer Reishis Chochma; a lengthier version is available in the siddur of Rabbi Shabbatai Sofer)
May we all merit be able to provide for our families and loved ones!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Reb Kalonymos Kalman on Pesach

I found this over on Cross-Currents, courtesy of a guest contributor.

by Rabbi Binyomin Gidon HaLevi Kelsen, Esq.

Note: The following is a letter written in 1939 by the Piasceztna Rebbe to his followers before Pesach 5699 (1939). At this time, though the war had not yet begun, there were some indications of the horrors to come. The Piasceztna Rebbe had urged as many of his followers as possible to leave Europe. By April of 1939, Pesach 5699, it was becoming difficult if not impossible to get out of Poland. This letter sent out to his followers on Erev Pesach was meant to be a source of comfort and chizuk to his people. This letter was originally printed in Hebrew in Sefer Derech HaMelech, letters, p. 409.

My dear ones, I am calling to you and speaking to your souls. The Holy days of Pesach are approaching. The holiness of these days infuse us thoroughly; inside and out. Their light fills us and encompasses us.

Nevertheless as Dovid HaMelech is stated in Sefer Tehillim (97:11) “Ohr zarua laTzaddik, U’ l’Yishrei lev simcha” “Light is sown for the righteous and there is joy for the upright of heart”. Light is like a seedling; at the beginning it requires our nurturing and our efforts to foster its growth. Like a field needs plowing and hoeing and weeding watering, so do we need to prepare ourselves before the Chag. Without the preparation, there can be no joy, no growth and no light. With all the preparations needed for the festival, we must be careful not to divert our attention from ourselves, not to forget to draw down the Holiness of the season.

The main aspect of the festival is to be joyful; to praise and glorify Hashem Yisborach for all the miracles and all the goodness. This is actually the purpose of the entire creation and the essence of the relationship between the earthly creation and the heavenly family above.

When the time comes for the Pesach evening Ma’ariv prayer, you should rejoice in your tremendous fortune, in the great privilege you have to be engaged in the Avodah of Pesach. You should say to yourself, “My joy is without bounds that I have been granted the opportunity to achieve my purpose in the world and to be elevated to the upper spheres. True I have my problems, both material and spiritual, but for now I discard them, the entire world is longer important to me. I even nullify my own self in order to stand in the company of angels, awaiting the presence of the Ribbono Shel Olam. My only thought is to praise and glorify his great name and to draw down the Holy splendor of HKB”H’s light into the world, into my own soul and into the souls of my family.”

Your joy should so exalted that you feel that you can barely hold yourself back from breaking into an ecstatic dance; leaping from the earth to the heavens.

Afterwards when you sit at the Seder table, you imagine yourself sitting down to a festive meal in Gan Eden itself, participating in the celebration of the final redemption. All of the aspects of the Seder, eating the matzo and maror, drinking the four cups of wine, and reciting the Haggadah, Hallel and other songs of praise, comprise a holy service to Hashem. The angels above are crowded around to hear our praises of Hashem. Even Hashem himself rejoices in delight as he receives our praise and song as is known from the esoteric literature. A Jew is able to feel Hashem’s delight with each word that he utters from the Haggadah. He is imbued with such holiness that he is replete with sorrow when he finishes each word; if only he could go back and recite the Hallel another 1000 times, he would does so. His whole being is at one with his Creator as he recites words of incredible sweetness; the Haggadah lying open in front of him. One must endeavor to provide sanctuary for the holiness of this night, so that it will abide by him for the whole year.

…Continue to foster your love for your fellow Jew for that is the hinge on which all divine service revolves. . . I bless you with… Chag Kasher v’Sameach.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Thoughts on the Holocaust

I just finished reading an amazing book concerning the Shoah, specifically the spiritual resilience of those religious Jews in the the ghettos and camps. With God in Hell: Judaism in the Ghettos and Deathcamps, by Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits is a compelling, gripping narrative of the battle of the Jew's eternal soul against the onslaught of the Nazi German death machine. Full of inspiring anecdotes about *regular* Jews and the lengths they went to in order to fulfill the slightest shadow of a mitzvah, Rabbi Berkovits shows us that Jewish pride was upheld not by singular moments of astonishing heroism by a few individuals, but rather on a constant basis by every single Jew who struggled to serve his Creator despite (or more appropriately, in spite of) the insufferable conditions. Throughout the book, Rabbi Berkovits (a survivor himself) pulls back from the wartime narrative to discuss the behavior and psyche of the religious Jew during these times, examining what drove the Jew to defy the horrors he faced on a daily, hourly, minute-to-minute basis.

A brief excerpt that jumped out at me:
To surrender one's life for the "sanctification of the Name" is the highest mitzvah of all, but the Jews in the ghettos an concentration camps had no previous experience in fulfilling this particular commandment.
Thus the question arose: what was the correct formula for the blessing prior to the mitzvah of Kiddush haShem? Of course, the question was not altogether a matter of ignorance. On the contrary, it was prompted by a discussion in the Talmud, dealing not specifically with Kiddush haShem but generally with all categories of divine commandments.
How is one to bless an to thank God before one dies in fulfillment of the commandment of sanctifying His great name?
Uncomprehendingly we stand before our people, the Jews.
Overwhelmed by awe, we stand before these human beings, flesh like our own flesh, bones like our bones, who in the midst of the miseries of the ghetto and the sufferings of the death camps, were preoccupied with the question of what was the correct formula for blessing and thanking God when their ultimate hour would arrive! Even in Auschwitz, Maidanek, Birkenau, and Buchenwald..."Blessed art Thou, Eternal, our God, who hast commanded us through His commandments and commanded us to sanctify His name in public."
Admittedly, I have a slight obsession with the Holocaust; as a grandchild of survivors who was partially raised by them (we lived around the corner from my mother's parents - they had nearly as much a hand in raising me as my own parents), I grew up with "the War" as a permanent fixture in my life. The War, which had so totally altered my grandparents' lives in an indelible way - shaping their world view and their approach to even the most seemingly trivial things in life - continued to influence my parents' and my own upbringing.

We were taught never to waste a morsel of food; this teaching extended to other areas of life, but became most prominent at mealtime. While I've heard disparaging talk about how this is an indicator of some sort of "unfortunate residual scarring" (not my own words, God forbid) as a result of the utter starvation experienced in the camps(which subsequently "burden" the children and grandchildren of those survivors...again, not my own words), I only see the benefit of having learned not to be a glutton or a spendthrift. Moreover, I had to acknowledge the consequences of my own greediness - no matter what, I had to finish what I took onto my plate, even if it took all night.

I learned to appreciate what I had, both in terms of material possessions as well as the religious freedoms I was lucky to experience. My parents never missed an opportunity to remind me of how lucky I was to have grandparents, as they in turn had been reminded of their fortune to grow up with parents - a "luxury" many survivors couldn't claim as their own. To live as a Jew without fear of persecution in this great country; to be able to cross borders with ease and expedience; to visit the Holy Land in comfort and health - so much to be thankful for, and more.

As I got older, I felt an urge to learn more about this cataclysmic event that my beloved grandparents had endured. I began to read volumes upon volumes of books about the subject. Personal testimonies, historic overviews from both Jewish and non-Jewish sources, and philosophical treatises written both during and after the war that attempted to put this enormous tragedy into some sort of perspective. The philosophies always had a certain draw; how can anyone deny the implications about God and His providence that the terrible accounts of the Nazi horrors seemed to make? As a microcosm, the Holocaust contains all the important existential questions that a thinking, feeling human (and certainly a Jew) must ask about his Creator. But these questions carried with them a certain danger, as well. In my teenage years, the Holocaust served as a convenient peg to hang all of my rebellious behavior upon. Unjustifiably, I would point my finger toward the past, as if to say that the experiences that my grandfather went through at the hands of cruel humans who God allowed to mercilessly slaughter millions of Jews (and others) gave me license to disobey His divine Word. The irony of such a stance gradually became clearer as I matured, and witnessed those who actually went through the war, suffered, and yet continued to be faithful God fearing Jews. Some (like my grandfather, who should live and be well) even attributed the Holocaust to being an event that buttressed their faith, spurring them to become more religious, to affirm and uphold their beliefs with untold sacrifice of their own well being, in order to ensure that they survive and rebuild.

Only the hubris of youthful pseudo-intellectualism can view this dichotomy of the survivor's fervor and steadfastness vis-a-vis the one or two-generation removed descendant's rebellion in the name of the Holocaust, and not be bothered by the contradiction. This is only brought into very clear perspective by the below mini-documentary, which follows three generations (father-son-grandson) and their approach to the Holocaust.

This film disheartened me so much when I first saw it. The elderly survivor clearly recognizes the unseen Hand that guided him throughout the war, protecting him at every turn. His son and grandson, on the other hand, get lost in a cloud of confusion as they try to come to terms with something they didn't even experience, let alone relate to.

Another thing that was taught to me at a very early age was not to judge any survivor's personal life choices. While various teachers of mine shunned writers like Elie Wiesel and denigrated Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal as mechalelei Shabbat (Sabbath desecrators), we were taught that what they lived through was beyond our comprehension; to lambaste them for who they became as a result was not only disrespectful, it was disgraceful. Each in their own way, these men (and women) are honoring their fellow victims to the best of their capabilities. Their religiosity is a matter between them and God, with few others possessing the right to intervene, certainly not us.

The generation of survivors is slowly dwindling; my grandfather is the last remaining grandparent that I have today. Now, as he begins to approach the end of his days (until 120, amen), he has become more forthcoming with his own experiences. I find myself listening intently when I visit him; sometimes he is lucid, and his accounts hold me at attention. Other times, he rambles, a symptom of his age. Either way, I listen, because that is what we must do - listen, and bear witness for them when they no longer can.

Friday, April 8, 2011


You know that your child doesn't conceptually grasp the idea of a "potty" when you see him traipsing around with the seat cushion of the potty around his neck, singing at the top of his lungs.

Back to the drawing board...

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

This is one of the two speeches I wrote in honor of my brother-in-law's wedding last week in my hometown. This is the basic material, minus the personal words I addressed to the new couple:

The last mishna in Ta’anis quotes the pasuk in Shir HaShirim:
  צְאֶנָה וּרְאֶינָה בְּנוֹת צִיּוֹן בַּמֶּלֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹה--בָּעֲטָרָה שֶׁעִטְּרָה-לּוֹ אִמּו,ֹ בְּיוֹם חֲתֻנָּתוֹ, וּבְיוֹם שִׂמְחַת לִבּוֹ. 
Explaining the last phrase, the mishna elaborates: “B’yom chasunaso” is referring to matan Torah, and “b’yom simchas libo” is alluding to the Beis HaMikdash.

But this explanation needs further elaboration: first of all, what is the qualitative difference between b’yom chasunaso and b’yom sichas libo? The fact that they are listed separately connotes that there are varying levels of simcha as characterized by these days, the lesser being the first and the greater, the second.
Second, if these two days are symbolized by kabolas haTorah and the Bais HaMikdash, respectively, wouldn’t it seem to make more sense if it were the other way around? Matan Torah was a once-in-a-lifetime event, never to occur again, when an entire people witnessed the Divine revelation! And although the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, in theory it could have remained forever. Why is the seemingly greater level of joy associated with the apparently lesser of the two? Why is it that the Bais HaMikdash is regarded as a greater simcha than mattan torah? What is the deeper meaning to this ma’amer?

I heard from a great talmid chacham a very important insight that can shed light on this mishna:

Of course matan Torah is the greater event, by definition. The entire Creation was geared toward this tachlis; essentially, this was the kiddushin between God and His chosen people, the bnei Yisrael! But like any wedding, there is the recognition that this elevated spirit, this time of unbelievable joy will not last. There will be a wedding, and then an entire week of sheva brachos, - but then the chosson goes back to yeshiva, and the kallah goes back to school and life as we know it picks up again. Matan Torah happened, but on the next day, everyone returned to their regular business, because life continues. Because we intuitively understand this, the joy of the wedding has this feeling mixed into it, and it is not an ultimate level of joy.  Additionally, while matan Torah was a crescendo in the history of Creation, it was by no means the climax of Creation; just as the kiddushin is only the beginning of the path towards shleimus with our soul mates, so it is with matan Torah – the embarking on a magnificent journey toward our Creator.

But the Bais haMikdash represents the hope and the ideal of the bayis ne’eman b’Yisrael. The beis haMikdash takes that awesome event and filters it into our everyday lives. It is a testimony and an affirmation to the unique relationship that we alone have with the Master of the World. Yes, we’ve gone back to our regular programming, but we have the blessing of the Shechina’s Presence with us. We can make our home anywhere – from Yerushalayim to Brooklyn to Cleveland – and we will never be alone, because we strive to maintain a binyan adei ad.

That is b’yom simchas libo – when we take the reality of HaShem’s Presence and internalize it in our day-to-day dealings, filtering that Divine input of kabolas haTorah into our very own mikdash me’at, letting it guide us through our lives. That is true joy.