Monday, November 28, 2011

Beautiful article.

Why more than 100,000 attended his funeral

This article about the late Rosh Yeshiva, Reb Nosson Tzvi Finkel, is beautiful. I don't know why, but this piece more than any of the others brought tears to my eyes...

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks at YU

I enjoy Rabbi Sacks' writing style, but he's an even greater pleasure to listen to.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Awesome fundraiser idea.

An Evening With Rebbe Nachman

The Breslov Research Institute is trying to finish the final volume of their momentous translation of Likutei MoHaRaN. All proceeds of this event is going toward the project, which is a boon to those searching for a lucid text and clear explanation of Rebbe Nachman's Torah.

I would love to go, but it's beyond my budget at this time.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

"Buzz"-worthy reading...

From Hirhurim, an important piece to read that brings the necessity of being dan l'kaf z'chus into light.

Catharsis on Paper

A recent paper I wrote for one of my college Psychology courses:

Judaism has always been a religion of positive focus, its adherents finding inventive ways to infuse their service with joy, meaning, and fervor. It is taught that through honest, selfless worship of God, one can simultaneously elevate the mundane through divine service as he transcends his physical trappings in spiritual bliss. Perhaps more so than other religions, Judaism takes pains to ensure that humans – not just constituents of the faith – live a life of pleasantness, compassion, and ultimately happiness.
Similarly, Psychology has a focus on health and wellbeing. For a while, the zeitgeist focused on the pathological aspects of the psyche, focusing on abnormalities, mental illness, and other negative characteristics that crop up in the field. However, both the field’s philosophical beginnings as well as its shifting focus of research have been that of helping others achieve healthier lifestyles and mindsets. Indeed, even during that era of psychopathology, it is self evident that the original intent and subsequent efforts of therapy, psychoanalysis, and other innovations were with the goal of returning the patient to an point of origin beyond sickness, on the road to health. As such, the field has grown rich with many interventions, designed to help people cope, adjust, heal and determine the best possible path in life.
The Importance of Language
In both Judaism and Psychology, there is a primacy placed on language. The way we give expression to feelings, thoughts, and emotions, as well as our conceptualization of many different ideas and theories is contingent on the common language that we share. It is as integral a tool for the rabbi sermonizing to his congregation as it is for the therapist establishing a rapport with his client; coreligionists and colleagues alike rely on the jargon of their respective communities, yet strive to find the words to make it accessible for the “outsider” or layman, when necessary. Language allows us to reify the abstract, to clearly delineate and define our magnificent ideas into something coherent and structured.
Ultimately, language bestows us with the power to create; every instance of speech or communication is a creative process that we tap into, usually unaware of the amazing power that we yield. Practically speaking: using language we can build bridges between people, and perhaps more importantly, inroads into our selves.
Most of therapy is predicated on some sort of communication; the same can be said about religious worship. While it often seems as if the dialogue is one-sided, there is an inherent belief in both instances that there is a reciprocal relationship occurring, albeit in a more nuanced fashion. Beyond the dynamics of the sessions themselves, however, is the utilization of the written word as a helpful, effective intervention with various applications.
Writing as a Cognitive, Behavioral Practice
Psychologist Martin Seligman has written extensively about the positive effect of writing exercises. One of his innovations is “gratitude writing”, in which the client makes a list at the end of the day of all of the good things that happened to him or her throughout the day. Seligman stresses that when it comes to these exercises, nothing is too small or insignificant, but rather the person should strive to remember and record each positive occurrence, along with why he or she thinks such a thing happened (e.g. “My wife pressed my shirts the way I like them today.” and “She did this because she is a thoughtful, caring person.”). The effect of this exercise is twofold: it trains one to view the world, and others in a good light. Seligman also exhorts the practitioner to keep a physical record of the list (Seligman, 2011): the writing itself is of equal importance, due to its role in the habituation of the practice, as well as the creative awareness that writing engenders.
A parallel practice exists in Judaism as well. Hasidic thought – especially that of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov – is preoccupied with focusing on the positive elements of life. The inherent joy that can be found in our existential roles in the physical realm is a main tenet of Hasidic philosophy, and most of the practices associated with Hasidism reflect this sensitivity. Rabbi Nachman in particular battled the human tendency toward depression by preaching the necessity of finding the “good point” (nekuda tova) in every person – most all, the good point within one’s self. That infinitesimal spark of goodness – hidden in even the most depraved, wretched being, mired with the filth of sin – can be found, cultivated, and blown into a raging fire of holy passion that resuscitates the soul of that person. That is the deeper meaning of the verse in Psalms: “I will sing to God with what I have left.” (146:2) To wit: with that small part of what is left of the Godly soul, the sinner rapturously clings to it and returns to God (Sternhartz).
Utilizing the above teaching, Grand Rabbi Aryeh Wohl of Sudilkov (based in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel), a contemporary Hasidic teacher, has designed a similar – yet unique - practice to Seligman’s. Here is an excerpt from a student who received instruction from the Sudilkover rebbe (explanations and translation of terms mine):
The Rebbe then advised me to get a notebook and draw lines down the pages and divide them into three columns. In the first column, I was to record things that I did good [sic] that day; to include even small things like washing negel vasser (ritual hand washing upon arising from sleep) in the morning upon arising. In the second column, I was to record the challenges and nisyonos (Hebrew for “challenge” or “test”) that I experienced that day. This was to include things such as occurrences when I failed to maintain my composure and expressed my anger. Finally, in the third column I was to record examples of Hashem's chasadim (kindnesses) that I observed that day.

The Rebbe instructed to read what I had written down out loud before I said Krias Shema al HaMita each night… (Anonymous, 2007)
After several weeks of carefully following the instruction of his teacher, the student observes with pleasant surprise:
…Each night my list of good points and the list of chasadim grew longer and longer and my list of challenges/nisyonos grew shorter and shorter. The process of having to be conscious each day to write something down made me stop and think at intervals throughout the day. What am I doing good today? What am I not doing good today? (Anonymous, 2007)
As with Seligman’s intervention, Rabbi Wohl’s methodology helps the practitioner build up a sense of self efficacy, allows the person to place matters in a proper positive perspective, and increases the cognizance of one’s actions in day-to-day dealings. People who engage in these sorts of exercises will seek opportunities to find the good in daily occurrences. They will be more aware of the consequences of their actions when they recognize that they will have to make an accounting at the end of the day. This is in line with the Jewish concept of cheshbon haNefesh (“accounting of the soul”), a similar exercise wherein one keeps extensive, detailed records of nearly every action and thought that he had, with the intention of examining these records at the end of the day to discern the areas of his character refinement that require attention.
Structure Building Exercises
The above ideas can be adapted for nearly anything. Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Shapira of Piaseczna, a Hasidic Rabbi who lived (and perished) in Poland during the Holocaust, wrote a masterful volume geared toward young students. The book, A Student’s Obligation (Chovat HaTalmidim, Warsaw 1929) is replete with behavioral (as well as cognitive) exercises designed to help the youth overcome such common deficiencies like laziness, poor planning skills, lack of commitment, and inefficient task completion. He too emphasizes the importance of writing things down:
It is beneficial to write out a schedule for yourself on a sheet of paper, starting with the time you wish to get up in the morning and continuing with all your activities. Use the sheet as a reference, checking back during the day to see if you have accomplished what you set out to do. (Shapira, 1995)

While the rebbe's target audience for the book was yeshiva (Rabbinical seminary) age students, and thus he mentions this in the context of learning sessions and finding spare time for extra study sessions, the rebbe clearly saw the value in this technique for people in all walks of life:

Whether you are in yeshiva or not, the schedule of study that you set for yourself should be followed to the minute. You should get to the point that if for some reason you are not able to complete a period of learning, you should feel pained, as if the day itself remained uncompleted....
Each day, make it a practice to check yesterday's schedule. What you did not complete yesterday, you should attempt to complete today. You should only do this, however, if you were unable to finish because of laziness or lack of diligence. If you were thrown off schedule because of a difficult passage...then you should not force yourself to complete [what] you missed yesterday.
The whole idea of keeping to a quantitative schedule is to discipline yourself to learn crisply and without meandering. (Shapira, 1995)
While it is clear that the rebbe's focus was on Torah study, his advice can be applied to the totality of the day. The carefully mapped out day will more often than not yield far better results in accomplishment than the haphazard approach to our busy lives. Moreover, it introduces the concept of discipline into everyday operations, which generates consistency, an important ingredient to a healthy lifestyle. There are varying degrees to the stricture of your structure; some people may prefer an outline as opposed to a minute-to-minute checklist. As with everything, it has to be done with a keen sense of self awareness and intellectual honesty.
This suggestion also lends itself finely to the idea of cheshbon haNefesh, as explained above: at the end of the day, one can refer back to his schedule and see how he did. As he starts to sort through the day's events, determining what held him back here, why he dragged his feet at that point, etc. that will aid him in recalling the particularities of the day, and his interactions with people. This segues perfectly into a real, honest soul-searching, which is Rabbi Shapira’s ultimate intent.
Writing as Therapy
Perhaps one of the most important elements of writing is the therapeutic nature of writing. As Ernest Hemingway once said, “There is nothing to writing – all you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” As we mentioned earlier, the process of writing is no less than a creative act, one in which we conceive an idea and carry it within us until it is ready to emerge into the world. The “birth process” – fleshing out an idea and putting it out into the common reality we share with others is simultaneously painful and exhilarating. By giving voice to our passions, our hopes, even our fears, we proclaim our existence to the world and lend credence to our innermost thoughts by acknowledging them openly. Moreover, the very act of writing may assist in relieving tension by serving as an outlet for strong emotions, the medium serving as a “safe” forum for expression. Those thoughts that are too provocative, frightening, or hurtful to be shared with another person can be let out in a private journal. The writing process is a pressure valve, an opportunity for catharsis that is almost unparalleled.
Returning to Rabbi Shapira for a moment, he offers another daring intervention based on this principle. At the end of the ninth chapter, the rebbe addresses the issue of reconciling with an enemy with whom the mutual hate is so great that you simply cannot find any redeeming qualities in this person:
This is what you should do. Write him a letter. Don't send it to him; hide it somewhere in your home. In the letter, insult and shame him as much as the serpent of anger in your heart desires. For some days, read the letter aloud, and imagine that you are standing in front of him, taunting and abusing him with all the expressions of the letter. After some days, you will find your anger has dissipated, and if you are a sensitive person, you may discover yourself running to reconcile with him. (Shapira, 1995)
More than an act of catharsis, the rebbe's advice shows a profound quality in our nature. After pouring out all the venomous feelings and thoughts about this person into this composition, the student is encouraged to reread it every few days. Despite the fact that in the heat of the moment he was able to pen such hateful, hurtful words, a few days later those words will seem to be alien and foreign, and he will have a hard time believing that we actually wrote them.
With every subsequent reading, the student will observe "Wow, I was being pretty harsh. He's not like that all the time..." and he will begin to see flaws in his hateful view of this person. Moreover, he will begin to find ways to counter the arguments made in the letter, and find redeeming qualities in this fellow as he subsequently revisits the letter. Eventually, the feelings of hate and anger will have been replaced by a powerful desire to reconcile with this person, and like Rabbi Shapira asserts, he will run to make peace with him.
Writing allows one to work through a problem, to record all the different factors swirling around in his thoughts and categorize them, and give him something to work with. When ideas are brought into the practical realm, it makes them more manageable to deal with – and a lot less scary.
Writing as Legacy
Writing serves another important function: the giving others a part of one’s self, preserved for posterity. Writing provides an opportunity to bestow on others an intellectual legacy, his curriculum vitae that can be passed on to subsequent generations of family members, students, and general audiences. Lord Byron wrote: “But words are things, and a small drop of ink, falling like dew upon a thought, produces that which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.” Giving the world works that inspire creativity, that challenge people to consider (and reconsider) their tightly held notions, that encourages people to imagine something larger than themselves is an important value for many. Writing helps them achieve this goal and reach the greatest amount of people.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Rabbi Meir Kahane

Today is Rabbi Kahane's yahrtzeit - he was murdered in New York by a member of an international terrorist group.

Many did not agree with Kahane's views, neither politically nor hashkafically, but one thing you have to give the man was his backbone, his ability to stare his adversaries straight in the face without backing down. He believed in what he held, with a might and brazenness. We can all learn a lesson from him when it comes to dealing with the various mockers in our lives who try to discourage us from doing what we need to do. The above video is amazing to watch, as he deftly, calmly handles a large crowd of ignorant, immature kids who think they know what they're fighting about.

Sounds familiar these days, right?

HaShem Yikom Domov.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

For shame...!

Here is something that bothers me a little (okay, more than a little):

Today was Reb Shlomo Carlebach's yahrtzeit. Last year, I wrote a little post about him, in acknowledgment of the day, but I also observed another very important yahrtzeit - that of Rabbi Elazar Menachem Mann Shach, the "late" Gadol haDor.

Unfortunately, Rebbe Shlomo's yahrtzeit seems to have eclipsed the "other" yahrtzeit. Granted, Rebbe Shlomo died first, but still. In shul yesterday (Shabbos), the gabbai got up and made a lengthy announcement about the Carlebach memorial concert that was held on motzei Shabbos in New York City. He encouraged everybody to go, because it was important. I approached him after the services to ask him what he was doing for Reb Shach's yahrtzeit - he hadn't even realized that they were on the same day, and by his response, he couldn't care less, either.

I understand the significance of Rebbe Shlomo's life and legacy, of course. He had a profound influence and impact on me as well. But the fact that we place the remembrance of an entertainer - even a saintly, holy entertainer who meant so much to so many - over the remembrance of someone who assumed the mantle of leadership (accepted almost universally by religious Jews as the bottom line in halacha and hashkafa), and after the deaths of Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, shouldered the burdens of American Jewry as well...that is so very, very sad.

And par for the course, as well.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Remembering the Rosh Yeshiva

The Jewish world suffered another shock earlier this week with the news of the passing of Rav Noson Tzvi Finkel, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim.

Under his tutelage, "the Mir" continued to grow and expand, its ranks swelling until it became the largest yeshiva in the world. A bastion of Torah learning and values, the Mir offers a place for literally anyone looking for somewhere to learn - ranging from newly minted ba'alei teshuva to bachurim who as of yet haven't been accepted into Brisk, and everyone in between. While some criticized the Rosh Yeshiva's open-door policy, others viewed it as a natural expression of his dedication to the yeshiva - and those who learned there.

Indeed, despite the fact that the Rosh Yeshiva suffered from a debilitating disease, when it came to matters concerning the yeshiva and the b'nei hayeshiva, he spared no effort. Even as he grew progressively weaker, he maintained his schedule of shiurim to the best of his abilities, and continued to travel far and wide on behalf of the yeshiva's needs.

I remember the first time I met the Rosh Yeshiva. It was chol hamo'ed Succos, and my family was in the Holy Land for the holiday. My older brothers - both Mir talmidim - went to the Rosh Yeshiva's house to pay him a visit in his Sukkah. I tagged along with them, out of curiosity.

I was in high school, and going through a difficult time; I was in the market to transfer to a new yeshiva, but I had no idea where I was going, or what to look for in a new yeshiva.

When we came to the Finkel home, we were led upstairs to the sukkah, where the Rosh Yeshiva was greeting visitors. I had never seen him before, so at first his erratic movements frightened me, but I got over it. My brothers spoke with him for a while, and then introduced me. He asked me where I was learning, and we spoke for a minute or two, at which point one of my brothers interjected "And one day, he'll come here, too!"

The Rosh Yeshiva nodded, looked straight at me, and said "We're waiting for you!"

I was taken aback. In my experience, prospective yeshivos made you feel like they were doing you a favor, by allowing you to come to them to benefit from what they had to offer, leaving you in a position of indebtedness. When I would mention that I was considering applying to a certain yeshiva, invariably the representative of that yeshiva would say something to the effect of "Well, what are you waiting for?!" That arrogance was something that I was looking to get away from.

Rav Noson Tzvi's comment was the exact opposite of what I had encountered up until that point. His response was that of a person looking to serve others; someone who wanted to offer whatever he could to help someone, while at the same time giving the impression that it was the recipient who was in fact doing the "favor".

I will never forget that kindness. It lifted me, filling me with a sense of value, but more importantly it showed me exactly what to look for in my next yeshiva.

Z'chuso Yagein Aleinu!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

My Soul Thirsts...

Thirst is a very great desire. The more thirsty you are, the greater your pleasure in drinking water. 
The same is true of your holy thirst for God; this is the delight of the World to Come. - Rebbe Nachman, Sichot HaRan 259
Rav Moshe Weinberger once related a story that happened when he and his father went on a fishing trip. As they were sitting out in the middle of the lake, it began to rain. His father showed him that the fish swam to the surface, and jumped to catch the raindrops in their mouth.

He explained that indeed, these fish are surrounded by water all the time. But when it comes down straight from the Source, there is nothing that tastes better.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Moshe Hecht: Heart Is Alive (debut album)

Moshe Hecht is an inspiring singer/songwriter whose debut album recently came out. A few years ago ago he released a song "Lamplighters" that pays tribute to ChaBaD shluchim everywhere.

I picked up his album "Heart Is Alive" last week, and something just clicked as I was listening to it. There are a few tracks that jumped out at me right away, including HaMavdil, which is in the embed below:

The lyrical flow dovetails nicely with the original verses; I hear a certain earnest quality, a yearning that I can relate to.

Here is his website; there is a free download available on the site, but the whole album is worth it.