Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Worrying is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do for a while, but in the end it gets you nowhere. - Unknown source

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Winds of Change

I think that the coinciding of Shabbos Mevarchim Elul (on the Shabbos preceding the new month, we announce the arrival of the new month, and the exact time of the appearance of the new moon) and the approach of Hurricane Irene is particularly apropos. Anyone who lives in the Tri-State area was very busy on Friday preparing for the storm, stocking up on dry goods, batteries, emergency supplies, and the like. I know that I myself entered into Shabbos with more than a little anxiety, as I considered the responsibility of protecting my family in the event of an emergency, God forbid. I knew that ultimately the One Above would protect us, but I also recognized that I would have to be ready to take action...

Reb Kalonymos Kalman writes (see B'nei Machshava Tova; Hachsharas Avreichim) that any feeling is a key to the inner recesses of a person's soul; even if said feeling is completely related to the mundane, the physical, it can be capitalized upon to allow us into our deeper selves. During davening yesterday, as the prayer leader announced the imminent arrival of the month of Elul - the month that officially kicks off the season of repentance and Judgement - I tried to grasp this feeling of wary dread that Hurricane Irene inspired. I imagined hearing the news about the arrival of the King, and quickly running out to stock up on provisions - the mitzvot a parallel to batteries, Torah and prayer spiritual provisions that would keep my family and I sustained during times of scarcity, God forbid...

I think that whether or not Hurricane Irene inflicts major damage on our region, there are valuable lessons to learn from this occurrence...

Stay safe!

Rav Avraham Pam OBM

Rav Avraham Pam's tenth yahrtzeit is today. This poignant article encapsulates but a thimble-full of the Torah VoDaath Rosh Yeshiva:
The majesty of man: Remembering Rabbi Avraham Pam

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Feet of Clay

How are you supposed to deal with the possibility of people whom you expect to hold up certain standards miserably failing?

A prominent kiruv personality on the lecture circuit lives in my neighborhood. I have heard him speak numerous times, and am quite aware of his erudition and charisma. And yet, when he leads us as the shaliach tzibbur (the prayer leader), he gives off the impression that he's engaging in something tedious, a chore that he can't finish soon enough.

A talmid chacham who I have known for the better part of my life, who is intimately involved with community affairs. The lack of respect and dismissive comments he makes about people who don't quite adhere to his idea of what a religious Jew is is appalling.

What sets these people apart from the rest of us is the fact that they are so closely associated with Torah, considered to be among those who have taken upon themselves to travel a special, lofty path. I understand that no one is infallible, but I worry that if we can so easily lose faith in these "junior level" personalities, there is a risk of seriously undermining the reverence we have for those who especially personify the Torah ideal.

Just a thought...

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Intellectual Honesty

You can not be a good Zionist unless you know Vayoel Moshe by heart. Once you know Vayoel Moshe by heart, with Al HaGeula Ve’Al Hatemura…then you can be a Zionist. Until then you’re a faker. 
- Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, in a lecture given in 2009

I was so impressed by the above statement, I had to share it.

I don't know V'Yoel Moshe by heart. Nor do I consider myself a Zionist, with a capital "Z". All I know is that I truly, deeply, love the Holy Land, and how to move there very soon.

If not because of Mashiach, then because I got accepted into Bar Ilan University's doctoral program in Psychology...that would be nice (hopefully mashiach will come first).

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Magic School Bus revisited

Comic courtesy of xkcd. (a thanks to Ezzie for pointing me to this comic in the first place.)

This comic portrays a startling reality of how our information gathering paradigm has shifted so much over the last two decades. While the Internet and modern technology have provided tremendous services toward making the world a better place and shrinking the globe down to a "local" community, we have to be aware of what is at stake: the value of hard work, diligence, and patience.

Because they are becoming obsolete at an alarming rate.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A must read

A heartbreaking wartime sacrifice and later, a father's quest

Comfort, comfort my people...

Unfortunately, Tisha B'Av came and went as the sad, mournful day that it has been for so long. As we emerge from the Three Weeks into the weeks of Comfort, we have to remember to console each other as well as ourselves. Not only for the pain of yesteryear, but the pain of our continued endurance of this galut...

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Storming the Barricade

You spread a canopy over heaven to cover my Temple;
You concealed Yourself and vanquished my strongmen.
- Rabbi Elazar HaKalir, Kinah 6
In his commentary on the Kinot, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik OBM compares the above stich to a similar verse in Megillat Eicha: "You have covered Yourself with a cloud, so that no prayer can pass through." (3:44) The implication of these verses is that God has effectively shut the Jewish Nation out; He has not only enshrouded the physical location of his Presence in an opaque cloud to block the supplication of the Prophet, but has concealed Himself as well, as it were.

Rav Soloveitchik expands upon this idea as the fulfillment of the kabbalistic notion of hester panim (Divine concealment). Hester panim is the signal of a new low for the Jewish people - the Jews have reached a spiritual nadir wherein the Master of the World does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked (Bava Kamma 60a). Essentially, hester panim is a fate far worse than the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, as it symbolizes the converse of the Cloud of Glory, and the Cloud that descended upon Mount Sinai during the Divine Revelation. Those Clouds signified that the Presence of HaShem was among us, that we were worthy of the moniker "The Chosen Nation"; the paytan is lamenting the advent of a different sort of "cloud".

However, Rav Shimshon Pincus OBM presented a more positive element to this very theme.

He begins with a "novel" explanation about the nature of a mechitza, by reifying the very purpose of this structure. The common conception is that the mechitza is a barrier, something that is created into order to make a separation between people, to divide them. The truth is actually more sublime: the intent of the mechitza is not to separate, but rather to bring people closer. Halachically speaking, if there is no mechitza then men and women cannot be in the same room during prayer, or kriyat haTorah; with the presence of a mechitza, women are able to participate in the same services as the men. In this sense, the mechitza helps people achieve a closeness to God that is otherwise not possible, by bringing them into the prayer hall together with the congregation.

Similarly, when it seems like God is erecting something that separates us from Him, it is really serving the purpose of bringing us even closer to Him. The Cloud at Sinai was necessary for the Revelation; without it, we would never have been able to honor our rendezvous with our Creator! HaShem's glory is too great for us to bear without something "filtering" the splendor and luminescence.

Hester panim works along similar lines. The fact that God has shrouded himself in an impenetrable barrier of thick cloud is not meant to be a deterrent for our attempts to draw close. It is a sign that we must try harder, and that he wants us to strive to draw ever nearer to Him. Like a father who dresses up in a scary costume to frighten his children, the intended effect is that although the children are indeed scared by the horrid mask, they run into his outstretched arms!

Even in terrible moments of hester panim, in our darkest experiences of suffering and anguish, we must call out to Him in heartfelt prayer. Longing for the salvation, we beg with tearful eyes turned toward that very cloud, for we know that He is just on the other side, listening intently. The Gates of Prayer can sometimes be closed, but the Gates of Tears will never be locked.

Although the cloud seems to be thick, seems to be made of a unnatural density that swallows up sound entirely, it is not. Every prayer has immense power, and carries with it the capacity to break through the barrier, causing the rest of the cloud to dissipate like fog. This is true even in our generation, the Ikvisa d'Meshicha, when we are at our weakest; common sense would dictate that if our great predecessors were unable to bring the Redemption, then what can we possibly do?

Rav Moshe Weinberger likens this to the stronghold of a Kingdom that has successfully rebuffed numerous campaigns to infiltrate its fortress, led by some of the greatest military minds in the world. At one point, a small kingdom gathers its men and prepares to make an attempt on this bastion of security. Scoffers mock the men of this modest campaign - if the greatest armies could not prevail, then what chance do these civilian warriors have? But the general reassures his troops: according to his calculations, the previous onslaughts have seriously weakened the barricade of the fortress. With just one more strategic push, they can break through and overtake the city.

Tisha b'Av usually falls out on the week that we read Va'Eschanan, when Moshe relates his attempts to pray for a chance to enter the Holy Land. The commentaries explain that the word Va'Eschanan alludes to the 515 separate, distinct prayers that Moshe offered, pleading for God to allow him entry into Eretz Yisrael. They continue with the note that had Moshe offered just one more prayer, his request would have been granted. We must learn from this a most important lesson about our prayer - we can never know just how much is "enough", so we must always make an effort to pray, consistently and constantly.

HaShem is listening; our prayers can pierce the veil, and bring about the final redemption, so that this 9th of Av can be a real holiday.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Mini Doc about the Piaseczna Rebbe

I found this a while ago on Dixie Yid's blog. If you understand Hebrew, it's worth seeing. Also, it has two photos of the rebbe that I have never seen elsewhere. if anyone knows where I can find those two pictures, I'd be much obliged...

Monday, August 1, 2011

waitaminute... Mussar WORKS?!

I just had an interesting conversation with one of my cousins. We met at a pool party today, and were making friendly chatter; we're not very alike - he's more yeshivish, and while he's a nice enough guy, I don't find him to be very open minded about anything. We were catching up on each other's lives, and he asked me what I'm up to. I tell him that I'm trying to get semicha and that I'm almost finished with college, after which I'm trying to get into a doctorate program in Psychology.

Once Psychology comes up, he starts asking me all sorts of questions about what I'm planning to do with my degree once I'm done. I inform him that God willing I am going to work within the Jewish community. He snorts in derision. "Come on, how many frum people go to psychologists?" he asks me.

I reply that while there are a lot more people than he probably thinks, there's still more who can benefit from having someone to talk to, and how Judaism places emphasis on having someone to confide in. He waves me off: "Yeah, but you're probably learning all sorts of kefirah and apikorsus (heresy and blasphemy) anyway." I patiently try to explain to him that while I do encounter blatant instances of concepts and beliefs that are incompatible with Judaism, I ten to let those things slide, because they are not important. For all intents and purposes, I assure him, I am trying to learn the techniques that can be utilized in therapy and in determining how to respond and identify certain emotional issues. But the core understanding of what makes a human being tick, I hope to get from Torah sources.

He looks at me, confused. What do I mean?

I try to explain that my insights into human nature is not coming from the secular sources, but rather from classic and contemporary Jewish sources.

"Which sources?" he wants to know.

Alei Shur, Chovot HaLevavot, the writings of the RamBaN, etc. I list off a few more works to make sure he understands.


Yes, Mussar, chassidus, Chumash. All of the above.

He shakes his head: "But mussar doesn't work!" he protests.

I look him in the eye and gently tell him "I can tell by your response that you've never learned mussar properly. If you had, you wouldn't be so shocked."

"But mussar is hard!" he insists.

Of course it's hard - in the sense that it takes a tremendous amount of intellectual honesty, bravery, and effort to implement and maintain the strategies toward refinement that the tzaddikim have prescribed. And therapy is also hard and time consuming, and involves similar ideas. A synthesis of the two isn't so far fetched, after all.

The conversation came to an end at that point; I think I left him in a daze...