Monday, May 30, 2011

Author of "Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh" on preparing for Shavuos

When Rav Kook came to the United States in the Twenties as part of a delegation on behalf of various institutions in the Holy Land, one observer described him in such a manner:
One could ascribe to Rav Kook what the sages ascribed to Queen Esther, namely, that he had a special appeal for each group present. Members of Mizrahi, Agudat Yisrael, Hasidim, Zionists and others, all felt that Rav Kook's remarks supported their particular philosophy.
A similar comment could be made about the esteemed author of Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh and Da Es Atzmecha, Rav Itamar Schwartz. In a relatively short time, the until recently anonymous author reached out through his deceptively simple books into the hearts and souls of Jews everywhere and ignited a new passion for a close, emotional relationship with God. Rav Schwartz has worked tirelessly and written extensively about our inherent need to nurture our own personal relationship with the Holy One, drawing from the vast collection of Torah sources (most notably the Mesillat Yesharim) to develop a clear, methodical path of life that can help one attain this level of avodat HaShem.

Today I had the special z'chus to witness this tzaddik in person; as impressed as I was by his books, I was more impressed (although not surprised) with the man himself. A diminutive figure, Rav Schwartz does not waste a single movement; one senses that nearly every gesture, every glance is carefully measured. He sits still as he speaks, only making emphatic hand motions when he wants to stress an important point. What impressed me most was the utter lack of dead silence or hemming and hawing; the Rav never hesitated or stumbled in his words, as if he had carefully weighed everything that he wanted to say to an exacting level before proceeding with it.

His talk itself was wonderful; as I wrote earlier, the concepts that Rav Schwartz brought forth on the topic of proper preparation for kaballat haTorah drew from a wide range of conceptualizations in the various sifrei machshava, ranging from the Rishonim through to contemporary chassidus. There were no major novelties, per se, but rather the Rav's way of bringing these ideas into a perspective that we can relate to in our day-to-day living that really got me excited. Understanding how to truly achieve tranquility, and recognizing the nature of what gets between us and our authentic relationship with God were the main points of his speech. The way he brought seemingly disparate ideas and wedded them together - not only do you appreciate the breadth of the man's ability, but you gain a deeper appreciation for the overarching truth that is Judaism.

I recorded the speech, which was spoken in Hebrew and translated by a fine man who did a good job. Enjoy!

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After the speech, I had a chance to meet up with Dixie Yid, who has the tremendous merit to drive Rav Schwartz around and assist him during his visit. Dixie has worked hard to help raise funds to continue publishing and distributing the various sefarim that Rav Schwartz has written, and I envy his closeness with such a tru Torah personality. I hope that he continues to take advantage of his special proximity to greatness, and that he shares some things he's learned. 

In the meantime, I picked up the entire set of Bilvavi for my yeshiva, and also grabbed a new (as yet unavailable in stores) sefer on Shabbos Kodesh. I'm a sucker for anything about Shabbos...

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Music clips

Just because I'm in a rockin' mood...
Some Isaac Bitton demonstrating mastery over a drum kit...

...and a little Megama goes a long way...

And for those who are in the mood for some vicarious pleasure, watch this (note: it's non-Jewish and LOUD. If you don't like this kind of music [or you do but don't want to hear it] play it with the sound off. It's still funny.):

Important things YOU need to read!

Brother Dixie has a reminder on his blog about the esteemed author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh and Da Es Atzmecha series' visit to the United States in anticipation of Shavuos:
Dixie Yid - Avodas Ha'Avodah: Monsey, NY - Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh Author Speaking...
In a follow up e-mail, Dixie wrote :
Baruch Hashem Rav Itamar Shwartz (author of Bilvavi and Da Es Atzmecha) and Tuvia Heller landed in NY this morning on an El Al flight, which went very smoothly. We had a successful day in Flatbush! Things are coming along nicely and everyone present in Flatbush was deeply affected by the Rav's deep, but personal teachings on menuchas hanefesh and how it relates to preparing for Shavuos.
Part of the goal of the trip is to raise money to print sets of the Rav's peirush on Mesilas Yesharim for free distribution in schools/yeshivos/Shuls/seminaries in eretz Yisroel. Baruch Hashem we have raised/pledged about $9,900 out of our goal of $15,000. We are about 2/3 of the way there!
Please help make the trip a success by coming to one of the shiurim in Monsey (Monday, tomorrow), Atlanta, Boro Park, Lakewood, or Far Rockaway/Woodmere. Full details at Also, please either donate online (tax deductible) or mail a check made out to "Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh, Inc." to c/o Ben Wolf, 888 Cambridge Rd., Woodmere, NY 11598.
We are getting closer so please attend and/or donate and help us reach our goal in helping be marbeh k'vod shamayim!
Kol tuv,
Elsewhere, Reb Ally has an important (and potentially life changing) announcement on his blog. Anyone who can help him is urged to do so; if you support Reb Ally, you are supporting the Torah!

Also, congratulations to Neil Harris on his successful completion of the Bike the Drive cycling marathon on behalf of Chai Lifeline. Go Neil!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Now THAT was quick...

A blog dedicated towards announcements and developments concerning the Agudah recently popped up on the Jewish blog scene; Hirhurim posted a link to the site, which presumably was started without authorization of the power-that-be over at the Agudah. Considering Agudah's firm stance against the Internet, I was surprised until I followed the link and found the below message:

News at Agudath Israel of America: Statement regarding this site: "Agudath Israel of America has received inquiries about a site on the internet featuring information about the organization and its activi..."

I applaud and respect the maintaining of their position concerning the Internet. And yet, I wonder what harm an unofficial site that adheres to the original intent of the blog (i.e. news about events and announcements) can do. I don't believe that it could be perceived as facetious on the Agudah's part - after all, this is an *unauthorized* site. But then again, I'm sure that there are those who will find a problem with the Agudah no matter what they do; they seem to be perpetually caught between a rock and a hard place.

Maybe they would have been better off not acknowledging the blog in the first place...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Pesach Sheini

Today is Pesach Sheini, the day set for those people who were unfortunate to be unable to participate in the communal mitzvah (commandment) of the korban Pesach (the Paschal sacrifice). While the account in the Torah refers to people who were rendered impure at the time of the korban, this also includes those who were too distant to make it to Jerusalem on time for the Pesach holiday.

According to the holy Zohar, the special (spiritual) crown of Pesach that is bestowed upon every Jew in honor of the holiday remains with us for thirty days, until the fourteenth of Iyar, which is Pesach Sheini. Moreover, the Heavenly gates, which are opened on Pesach, remain opened for yet another seven days following Pesach Sheini, coinciding with the sefirah week of Hod, the attribute that pertains to splendor and glory. Pesach Sheini  
is no mere consolation prize; it has its own unique spiritual capacity that allows a person to take advantage and continue elevating himself in his search for completion.

Rav Tzaddok haKohen of Lublin has an insight into the nature of the day:

In the desert, those Jews who had missed out on the korban Pesach approached Moshe and protested "Why should we be deprived, and not be able to present God's offering in its time amongst the Children of Israel?" (Numbers 9)

Really, we have to wonder what these people were thinking - after all, if you know that the time is approaching, wouldn't it be wise to take the necessary measures to avoid circumstances that would prevent one's ability to partake in the korban? If you live far away, start traveling earlier! At all costs, don't become impure! How does one let it get to a point where he is prevented from joining his brethren in this important mitzvah?

Rav Tzaddok answers with a brilliant insight into human nature. Very often we tell ourselves that we will overcome our various inclinations to sin, and we won't get trapped again. We set up all sorts of protections and resolve to never get caught in the temptation - only to shake our heads in confusion ten minutes later and ask " did that happen?"

"Why should we be deprived..." isn't a grievance. It's a cry of anguish when we realize our failings despite all the times we promise ourselves that we are going to get better. We ask why should we be deprived of the peace of mind associated with being a true servant of God, why should we be denied entrance into His chambers, why is it so hard for us to do right and have a chance at being good Jews. Pesach Sheini is there for those people, another chance to get it right, to do teshuva to rejoin the nation...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Rav Naftali Ropshitzer (1760-1827)

Today, the eleventh of Iyar, is the yahrtzeit (anniversary of death) of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Horowitz, the rebbe of Ropshitz.

Rav Naftali was a disciple of Reb Elimelch of Lizensk, and later of Reb Elimelech's successor Rev Menachem Mendel of Riminov. "The Ropshitzer" was known for his scholarship, his fastidious adherence to zmanei tefillah (prayer in a punctual and timely matter in keeping with halacha), and his sharp wit:

Reb Naftali once commented that he finally understood why the Sages call the Evil Inclination an "old fool" after going to the mikvah one frigid morning. He related to his followers that as he trudged through the snow toward the frozen riverbank, a voice in the back of his mind implored him to go home.
"Naftulche, you're crazy! It's far too cold to actually go to the mikvah! You'll get so sick..."
"Really, the Torah is meant to live by; there is no mitzvah to kill yourself for this!"
"No one will know if you just say that you went...and who would blame you?"
Despite the onslaught of discouragement, Reb Naftali broke a hole in the ice quickly undressed and sank below the water before he could be convinced otherwise. As he emerged from the first dip, he heard the same voice whisper with pride: "Ah, Naftulche...what a tzaddik! To get up before dawn and go to the mikvah in these conditions? Who is like you?"

With this, Reb Naftali turned to his students: "Only the foolish Evil Inclination would act this way! In his haste to ensnare me in his trap of arrogance, he was willing to jump in with me into the frozen water! A shoiteh!"

Reb Naftali left us with numerous niggunim, aphorisms, and two works of Torah: the Zera Kodesh and Ayala Shlucha. His influence on the various Chassidic courts of Galicia is apparent through the many customs attributed to minhagei Ropshitz.

Z'chuso yagein aleinu.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Rav Elazar Kenig in Flatbush tomorrow!

Rav Kenig is the spiritual leader of the Tzfat Breslov community. He is a tremendous talmid chacham and tzaddik.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Something my wife shared with me. Have a wonderful Shabbos!

Chizuk Corner
 "Some people think very low in their weekday pursuits. 
Their activities are devoid of even a spark of sanctity. 
Then, when Shabbos comes and work is prohibited, they try to change from their spiritually 'extinguished' mode to one of spiritual fire and warmth. 
The Torah tells us, -'You must not kindle a fire . . . on the day of Shabbos'. 
 One should not light a fire - even a spiritual flame on Shabbos.  He must imbue his weekly activities with warmth and sanctity as well, so that when Shabbos comes and he increases sanctity, he is not just beginning to create the fire."

The Chasam Sofer Zatzal quoted in Sefer Torah Tavlin

Thursday, May 12, 2011

New EP from Y-Love next week

Erez from Shemspeed dropped me a line the other day about Yitz Jordan's (AKA Y-Love) upcoming EP release See Me.

In a hip-hop world full of negative messages, Y-Love (Yitz Jordan) is leading a new era of"global hip-hop" --where pounding rhythms combine with social consciousness to"elevate, not tranquilize" the world. Back with his first album since his smash debut, This is Babylon, Y-Love is set to release his hotly anticipated new EP, See Me, on May 17.
The club-friendly tracks on See Me are influenced as much by rap vet Chuck D as by new artists like Major Lazer and Nicki Minaj. Producer Diwon (mastermind behind Shemspeed Records) skillfully blends Middle Eastern beats with clubbed-out hip-hop, giving the EP an entrancing worldly sound ready for the dance floor. Y-Love explores a variety of styles, from dance and world to pop, to express his underlying message of harmony: “Unity builds the world, all divisions destroy the world.” Lead single "The Takeover," featuring Jamaican dancehall artist Tj Di Hitmaker, explodes with African rhythms and clever wordplay, while "This is Unity" sends the listener on a sonic tour of the Middle East with its Moroccan melodies and Hebrew chorus.  The title track features, pulsating rhythm and surreal vocals from upcoming superstar Ido Z. It is followed by "Move On," the pop hit that will have Young Money fans wanting more.
Y-Love's first full-length album, This is Babylon, gained worldwide praise and propelled him to appearances from BBC World TV to Late Night with Conan O'Brien. The world’s first black Jewish MC, Y-Love has featured his compelling life story has been featured in hundreds of publications, including USA Today, XXL Magazine and Italy's La Republica.  
Dubbed by The Jerusalem Post as a “crossover success,” Y-Love appeals to the mainstream through positive and constructive energy in his signature multi-lingual style -- "making hip-hop kosher," as XXL reported. With the release of See Me, Y-Love delivers a soundtrack fit for a new global revolution.
Here's a free download of The Takeover, a track on the new album.

Y-Love is a dynamic performer, whose style seamlessly blends various world influences as well as Yiddish, Hebrew and Aramaic lyrics. As Erez Safar (the DJ/producer/exec of the Shemspeed label) describes him:

Before Shyne became religious and Drake started making hip hop, Y-Love took the world by storm as the first black orthodox Jewish rapper. With "See Me", Y-LOVE departs from both the ultra orthodox world and the underground aesthetic of hip hop, Y-Love demolishes the scene with "The Takeover" featuring TJ Di Hitmaker, his upcoming single release. The club-friendly tracks on See Me are influenced as much by rap vet Chuck D as by new artists like Major Lazer and Nicki Minaj.
Responding to Erez's assertion that Y-Love "departs from both the ultra orthodox world and the underground aesthetic of hip hop", I asked him for clarification. Did that mean that Yitz no longer affiliated himself with ultra Orthodox Judaism? What about his political leanings, which manifested themselves very strongly on his debut LP This Is Babylon? Could we expect the same social consciousness that we were treated to with the first album?
Erez forwarded my response to Yitz himself, who took the time to kindly answer my questions with the hope of clearing some confusion:

I apologize for the delay in getting back to you.  I wanted to chime in with answers to these questions:
Do I consider myself part of the Orthodox community?  While I do believe in all of the tenets of Orthodox Judaism -- Orthodox Judaism is still "my religion" in that respect -- I don't consider myself part of the Orthodox world, in that I don't have the shtetl worldview and political leanings of most of the community.  I do still consider myself religious but I am far too progressive of a person to consider civil rights and other modern innovations to be bad things.
The new album will have less political overtones than "This is Babylon", but I'm currently collaborating with other artists (AWKWORD, the Guggenheim-winning video artist KASUMI, St. Louis rapper Tef Poe, among others) on a political EP to put my political views out there.  Far from sleeping on the progressive tip, I've decided to focus my political ire on a release further along in the future.
All the best!
While some of his comments concerning the religious community are open to discussion, this is not the time for it. Instead, I'd like to thank him for getting back to me so quickly and giving me a thought out response in lieu of a pre-fabricated sound byte.

Y-Love is a talented artist whose messages of unity are universal.

Enjoy the album!

Great post from Neil Harris

I found this post to be particularly touching and inspiring:
A true win in the eyes of the non-sports fan

Monday, May 9, 2011

Loose lips...

I just finished a particularly difficult session of damage control after someone wasn't careful about what information to impart on a recent shidduch reference call, nor how to phrase said information. I don't know whether I've accomplished anything, but I hope so.

A cautionary tale:
A woman called her son who was learning in the Holy Land, and asked him to find out about another student in his yeshiva. She had heard conflicting reports about this boy; on the one hand, his teachers had only nice things to say about him, but on the other hand, she had heard that he was lacking a certain refinement. Someone had told her that this boy hoarded food in the cafeteria, and spoke in an overly loud voice. The woman wanted her son to observe this boy himself, and confirm whether this boy acted in such a way.

The next day, the son went to the cafeteria and spotted the prospect; he chose a seat where he could observe the other student inconspicuously.

As it turned out, his mother's informant was correct - at least, partially.

Yes, the boy took a very large portion of order to make sure that his two brothers who arrived later than him would have lunch to eat.

Indeed, the boy spoke with an extremely loud that the partially deaf fellow who sat at the table would be included in the conversation.

We must be very careful about what we say, how we say it, and to whom we say it to, and for what purpose...

Thursday, May 5, 2011

New BRI Promo!

Get a FREE Book Sale!
The Breslov Research Institute - the organization headed by Rabbi Chaim Kramer that is primarily responsible for translating and disseminating the Torah of Breslov chassidus to the English speaking world (not to mention several other languages) is having a sale. If you buy their coffee-table edition Breslov Pirkei Avot, you can get a free book.
The BRI is a boon to those who wish to make an entrance into the world of Rebbe Nachman and Breslov thought; their various writers work tirelessly to advocate the study of chassidus and the nurturing of a close and personal relationship with HaShem.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

As we say in Hebrew: "Zeh magiah lo"

Neo-Nazi leader is shot dead by son,10

Time Share Opportunities

A prominent rav who was an ardent opponent of the nascent mussar movement once came across Reb Yisrael Lipkin (aka Salanter, the father of the modern path of mussar). Trying to bait him, this rav challenged Reb Yisrael. "Tell me something," he queried, "if one only has time to study for ten minutes during the day, what should he learn? Should he learn mussar or perhaps a page of the gemara?"

A murmur rippled through the crowd surrounding the two rabbis. Such questions don't seem to have any good answer; no matter what Reb Yisrael could answer, he was opening himself up to a counterattack by this rav who sought to discredit the movement!

Without batting an eyelash, Reb Yisrael replied: "Without a doubt he should use that time to study mussar - because one who learns mussar will learn that there is always more time in the day!"


Monday, May 2, 2011

Du, du, du!

I always appreciate it when two seemingly disparate things that I'm involved in come together; we have a tradition that if we come across similar concepts in separate limmudim during one day, there's a certain significance that we must take notice of.

This past Friday night after the seudah (meal), I came across the following:
It is well known that no Jewish person is ever utterly excluded from the totality (II Kings 14:14). When a person comes to a nadir, God forbid, and is about to commit some transgression - especially if this will cause his exclusion, God forbid - then God does not abandon him. We have learned in sacred literature that the miluy of the three Hebrew letters yud-tzadi-reish comprising the word "yetzer" (inclination) are (Y) vav dalid, (TZ) dalid yud, and (R) yud shin. The last letters of the miluy are the three letters of the name of God, Shad-dai (shin-dalid-yud). In order that the person not succumb entirely to his inclination, God forbid, the Holy Name Shad-dai is there at the end. When the person reaches the end, God does not allow him to fall any further. - Reb Kalonymos Kalman Shapira, Aish Kodesh (Kedoshim 1940)*
The next morning before shacharis, I found an idea that reflected the same concept:
There are places which are so low that they seem totally divorced from God. Yet it is precisely there that the most exalted life force is concealed: there are the "secrets of the Torah." A person who has fallen far must know that in the very place where he finds himself he can achieve unique closeness to God because of the exalted life force which is concealed in that very place. When such a person turns to God, a very high revelation of Torah comes about: the "Secrets of Torah." - Rebbe Nachman, Likutei MohaRan I:56 (as quoted in Meshivat Nefesh)**
The fact that we can find God in any place, no matter how far we seem to be from the Source, is a profound and fundamental teaching of chassidus (other paths of Jewish thought discuss this as well, but more so in chassidus, in my experience) . It is one that gives tremendous chizuk to many, including myself. I remember times when I felt so low, so disgusted with myself and my failings that I nearly despaired.

Despite all my efforts to the contrary, it always seemed like my urges and desires would get the best of me; even those times when I didn't necessarily feel the draw of my ta'avot, I would think about ways of stimulating and arousing those thoughts. Any victories would be short lived and fleeting, overwhelmed in the face of the sheer volume of times when I succumbed to my basest desires. Compounded by the existential struggles and questions that I grappled with in my adolescence, along with the negative experience of my high school years, I actually believed that there was no possible way that God would hear - let alone listen to - my prayers.

(Concerning one specific problem which is common amongst young men, I never felt so alone as when I was in high school. In my naivete, I believed that I was the only one who had this problem, certainly the only one who actually transgressed. This erroneous belief was reinforced by my teachers and peers, who stigmatized this particular sin as being heinous and particularly deviant; only the most evil minded people actually perpetrated this act. One particularly embarrassing moment was when my roommate "confided" in me that he had heard "someone" (I knew that he meant me, of course) in the bathroom, and proceeded to mock "that sicko" for what he had done, forcing me to join him in the lambasting to keep up the deceit.
The first time that I openly admitted it to a trusted friend, and he responded in kind with the reassurance that many of us go through this struggle, and that we must stay strong and help each other was like a weight lifted off of my shoulders; when I transferred to another yeshiva later I found a small group of honest individuals who were interested in reinforcing their shmirat einayim through the focus of a mussar seder with group support. But I digress.)

The teachings of Breslov and Reb Kalonymos Kalman specifically, and chassidus in general is about the omnipresence of God. The paradox of tzimtzum (Constriction) versus the panentheistic belief of God is irreconcilable to our finite intellect, and yet we believe in both. The very idea that there can be a place devoid of God's presence is antithetical to our ability to function as human beings engaged in the struggle for perfection. The knowledge that no matter how bad it gets we are not alone and all we need to do is fight back in earnest is an integral part of the human struggle. "One who comes to purify himself, we assist him."

This is the importance of real prayer, as explained later on in Meshivat Nefesh and other places: no matter where you go, the power of speech accompanies you (Rebbe Nachman explains that speech is the "mother of all children"; the same way a mother will follow her child into even the filthiest of places, so does the faculty of speech). Therefore, one should always engage in prayer and honest conversation with God, and with those whom he feels closest with, gaining mutual support.

*English translation adapted from Sacred Fire: Torah From the Years of Fury by J. Heshy Worch (Aronson)
**English translation adapted from Restore My Soul by Avraham Greenbaum (BRI)