Thursday, July 28, 2011

When the city of Brisk was looking for a new rabbi, they sent a delegation to Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (author of the Beis HaLevi and former Rov of Slutsk) to offer him the position. When they met with him in his study, Rav Yisroel Meir HaKohen Kagan (author of the Chofetz Chaim, Mishna Berura, and numerous other works) was visiting as well. The Chofetz Chaim related how the delegation presented Rav Soloveitchik with a deed and promised him the world - which was why they were astounded when the Rav flat out refused their offer!

No matter what they said to try and convince him, Rav Soloveitchik maintained his position. "I had enough of the rabbinate when I was in Slutsk," he declared. "From now on, I want to sit and learn in peace."

The Chofetz Chaim watched the whole matter, waiting to see what would happen. Being the Rov of Brisk was a very prestigious position; aside from the size of the community itself, the citizens of Brisk were known to be very intelligent, learned people.

As the delegation was getting ready to leave, one of the members - who had as yet remained silent - stepped forward. "Rabbi - there are 25,000 people in Brisk waiting for you. We know that we need someone to guide us, and we know that it must be you."

When Rav Soloveitchik heard this, he started to shake. He called to his wife "Get me my hat and my cane - we're moving to Brisk!" He recognized that if there a that many Jews waiting for him to come, he was compelled to go.

The Chofetz Chaim used to relate this story to his students, concluding with the message that if this was how the Beis HaLevi reacted to the need of 25,000 Jews, how much more so would Moshiach react if he knew that we all need him!

The work, then, is reaching the point where it becomes clear to us that we need Moshiach. Then, we need to ask for it truthfully.

These three weeks are especially potent times for true accentuated prayer. We can still merit that this coming Ninth of Av should be turned into a real holiday...

Monday, July 18, 2011

Searching for the message

Since the events of last week, I have found it very hard to consider writing anything else on this blog before addressing what happened. To not say something while blithely posting anything else seemed to me to be to callous; on the other hand, what could I possibly say, when I am clearly at a loss in my own thoughts over this horrible matter.

I waited this long before even attempting anything, because I wanted to distance myself at least a  little bit from the overpowering emotional  weight that this whole episode has carried; to my mind, it would be equally disrespectful to the poor victim to respond to the events in a visceral, uncontrolled way as it would be to not write anything at all.

Indeed, I have read numerous essays and blog posts where the writers reacted in such forceful ways that I felt embarrassed reading them. In their impotent rage at the brutality, they lashed out at the alleged murderer, sometimes in a ghastly manner that somewhat mirrored the gruesome demise of this innocent little boy.

In the few days immediately following the awful climax of the search for Leibby, I heard otherwise refined people speak in the most disgusting, harsh, depraved language concerning this man, and what they would do to him were they to find themselves alone with him. The topic of discussion in one of my classes was about the events of the week, and it quickly descended into a fantasy session among my classmates as they engaged in one-upmanship, describing the acts of vengeance they would carry out on the alleged killer.

It is clear that the Jewish "media outlets" possess a distinct bias against Levi Aron, the man who has been charged with the murder of this boy. Not only have they judged him and found him guilty, they have seen fit to label him with every pejorative that equates him with Evil Incarnate. Left to their own devices, it seems that the Jewish community would make this man quickly disappear (after meting out some serious vengeance). While I don't doubt that this man is responsible for the crimes he has been charged with, I do believe that by law (American and Jewish) this man must be found guilty, and until then we must treat him as someone with rights. Due process of the law must be upheld; there is no room for frontier justice in these circumstances. I firmly believe that one way or another, Justice will be done; whether that happens in the criminal justice system of the United States or on a different plane of existence altogether, it will be done - it is not for us, the laity, the bystanders with our clouded priorities to get involved where we don't belong.

And while my natural reaction is to stand with the crowd and join in the demonizing of Levi Aron, I cannot do so with a clear conscience. Nor can I join in with the "piling on" of other offenses to his "repertoire" without any evidence or indication that such suspicion is warranted. In an article published on Cross-Currents, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein quotes a rov who prefers to remain anonymous as saying that:

I am sure he was, and I am sure he molested many others, and i [sic] am sure that there were people that knew and hushed it.
This was in response to Rabbi Adlerstein's query whether that rov thought that Levi Aron might be a pedophile. I understand that pedophilia is one of the *popular* crises that the Jewish community is contending with now (rightfully so, unfortunately), but to accuse anyone of that crime without any justification is terribly irresponsible, even if that man has confessed to abducting and killing a young child.

I am not trying to advocate on Levi Aron's behalf, save for the assertion that he is entitled to representation, to face his accusers, and to a full mental assessment to determine whether he suffers from mental illness or not.

Another thing that has bothered me is the response of the Jewish community in general. I feel awful for saying this, but it appears to me that we still haven't gotten whatever message we were supposed to receive with this horrible tragedy. I witnessed soul numbing apathy in the hours leading up to the discovery of the body; in shul, people filed out after ma'ariv lost on their cellphones and BlackBerry's, oblivious to the enormous signs displayed prominently at eye level exhorting every minyan (even ma'ariv, a special exception for times of crisis) to say tehillim while hundreds of volunteers searched for Leiby. I tried to stop them but was ignored. Nor was there any significant change in my yeshiva; I heard that attendance at shacharis was lackluster, as if nothing had happened.

Of course, there was a tremendous show of support and unity from the Jewish community - but much of it came after the fact. When it was too late, and we already had a tragedy to cope with. And now, how do we respond? We have institutions using Leiby's angelic image as an advertising gimmick to stir us to donate to them; we have people using the tragedy as a tool to further their own agendas, from child safety campaigns to those who would attribute this occurrence to the misuse of the Internet and cellphones, in some form of Divine retribution.

It seems to me that our response to this tragedy has been almost entirely superficial. We say a few platitudes, shake our collective heads morosely, and return to regular programming as soon as possible. People were busy with rumors concerning Levi Aron and his dubious Jewish heritage - as if confirming that a Jew couldn't possibly have done such a heinous crime would alleviate the remorse and guilt and pain that we should all be feeling. I know that there are many individuals who are taking this seriously, and I am sure they have made tremendous changes or have resolved to make changes, but as a whole, what have we done in earnest?

Tomorrow is the 17th of Tammuz, a fast day. We will read in the Torah how our teacher Moshe pleads for our forgiveness, because we are a "stiff necked people."

Let us for once not be stiff necked. Let us not forget this tragedy any time soon. Let us turn our gazes inward, each of us, and try to find the personal message that Leiby's untimely death speaks to us on a personal level.

I don't know what to make of this whole story, but I do know that I have deficiencies that need to be worked on. One of those is reminding myself that we are in a very difficult galut, and though the end may be in sight, we still need to yearn for Mashiach.

The Lubavitchers got it wrong. It's not "We want Mashiach now!"

It's "We need Mashiach now."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Rabbi Avi Shafran wrote a great article that I believe a lot of us "out-of-towners" can relate to, especially those of us who find themselves currently living in the Tri-State area.

This subject - if not a point of contention - is a mildly frequent topic of discussion between my wife and I. We come from two different types of communities, so naturally we have our differing opinions about the pros and cons about living in the Tri-State (or any major Jewish community) area versus living out-of-town.

Of course, there is a certain security in the knowledge that when it comes to Judaic specific amenities, a large community offers availability, variety, and convenience. Moreover, when it comes to things like minyanim, what could possibly be better than having myriads of places to go to, at any time necessary? For all intents and purposes, it's practically impossible to miss a tefillah b'tzibbur if one wants to pray with a minyan. There's a broad selection of schools that cater to every type of affiliation, so you can find exactly the kind of like-minded people that you want to associate with.

But I believe that all those good things listed above possess a certain danger as well. Although we're influenced to feel that convenience is important, it really isn't, in the grand scheme of things. It's nice, and by definition it makes life *easier*, but at the same time it doesn't really nurture a value for things. Not having that value can very quickly lead to complacence, and carries over into other realms as well. Concerning minyanim: I don't have any hard statistics, but I think that people who come from communities where there is a limited amount of places and times to pray develop a certain ethic when it comes to timeliness and will tend to procrastinate less when it comes to prayer times.

Going home to my parents' house every summer had a tremendous effect on me. Knowing that in my neighborhood, the latest minyan for shacharit was at 8:30 and if I missed it I would have to drive all the way to the other neighborhood (a hassle when you're still sleepy-eyed) made me get up in time. This culture of choices creates a difficulty for developing persons who don't have the maturity to make proper decisions; I think that they will ultimately struggle more to develop a strong work ethic, punctuality, and an appreciation for certain things that they take for granted...

Like Rabbi Shafran wrote, the potpourri of people that pray in my shul in Cleveland helped instill in me an appreciation for character, not just external appearances. The school that I attended also lent to this effect; the charge that such a school (due to its attempt to cater to all groups) ultimately results in an academic deficit in Talmudic skills and Hebraic studies is a fallacy, to my mind. At the time of entry into high school, I doubt that there is any significant difference between kids from the respective schools (although there may be apparent differences); any differences that exist as a result of the school attended will sort themselves out by the end of freshman year...

I have more to say on this matter, but I'll leave you with this to chew on.

Friday, July 8, 2011

"Come in peace..."

An old family favorite:

A special thanks to Eitan Katz who recently released his second "Unplugged" album, essentially a vehicle for getting more "obscure" niggunim from Rebbe Shlomo out to the rest of the world. It's a great album, and I highly recommend it! This song is the first track on the album, a really pleasant surprise.

Have a wonderful  Shabbos!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Both the Chassidim and the Mitnagdim are mistaken. The Mitnagdim are mistaken in that they believe that they don't need a Rebbe. The Chassidim are mistaken in that they believe that they have a Rebbe. - Reb Yisrael Lipkin of Salant
Reb Yisrael is teaching us two very important lessons in his own inimitable fashion. When it comes to continuous growth in our character refinement and devotions,  it is not enough to just sit and learn (although that obviously goes a long way in the right direction), but rather, one must attach himself to a master, a tzaddik around whom a group of people with like-minded goals in spiritual improvement can rally around. This tzaddik should be able to recognize the particular strengths of each individual, to help that individual actualize his potential. But cleaving to a tzaddik cannot be a mere cultural thing, either. It is very easy to fall into a false sense of security through mere association, but that is not the essential nature of the relationship. One must seek out the tzaddik, question him and engage him; the relationship between tzaddik and pupil is mutually beneficial for true growth.

UPDATE: For more on this idea, see this post by the wonderful Reb Ally.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Gimmel Tammuz 5771

I know that I haven't posted in a while - I've been really busy since starting my truncated summer semester. The workload is just staggering!

In any case, the following shiur is really more appropriate for sefirah, but because it features a phenomenal story about the Lubavitcher Rebbe OBM (whose yahrtzeit begins tonight, the third of Tammuz), I felt it fitting to post now. Enjoy!

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For more on the Rebbe, see this post that I wrote last year.

Also, take a look at the below video, in which the Rebbe meets a grandson of the author of HaSulam, a commentary on the holy Zohar: I appreciate the Rebbe's reverence for his forebears - it's a lesson we can all learn from. Especially important is his assertion that chassidus is not synonymous with kabbalah, despite the fact that we are exposed to kabbalistic concepts through our study of chassidus. Moreover, his respect for other paths toward Truth is apparent.

Z'chuso yagein aleinu.