Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Watch your back

 "...והסר שטן מלפנינו ומאחרינו"

I finally have a better conceptualization of this request from the weekday evening services, to remove Satan from before us and from behind us. Sometimes we can pass a test, or do a good deed, only to later regret the fact that we were able to perform the mitzvah. That is another weapon in the Evil Inclination's assault on us, to strip away the merits by causing us to rethink our position.

A few months ago, I had an important interview for one of the prospective doctoral programs I wanted to attend. I prepared myself, groomed myself properly, printed out several copies of my resume on quality paper, and prayed very hard that at the very least I should make a kiddush HaShem. As part of the interview process, we met with several faculty members for half-hour, one-to-one sessions. I had anticipated the possibility that I might be selected to meet with one of the female professors, and knew that they would most likely offer their hands in greeting at the beginning of the session.

I had done the research, and while I was aware of the fact that there are reliable leniencies within halacha, among a broad and varied debate among poskim, I decided (as a value judgment) to employ a tactful approach to refusing her handshake. My concern was twofold, informed by an "inner" perspective on the significance of physical contact with members of the opposite sex and my hesitance to embark on a "slippery slope" - you can't only shake "once"; if you start making exceptions, it becomes increasingly more difficult to stop each subsequent time.

Sure enough, one of my interviewers was a nice woman who took my refusal in stride. While those few moments may have set the balance of the meeting off initially, I think that ultimately it was a fairly positive meeting.

For those who are unfamiliar with the application process, it's a very competitive field to break into; while hundreds may apply to a single program, usually a cohort of fewer than ten students are invited to join. With that in mind, I made alternate plans and applied to several Masters programs as well, in an effort to do the appropriate hishtadlut and have something to fall back on in the likely event that I wouldn't be accepted. On a cognitive/attitudinal level, I prepared myself for the possibility as well, and although I was disappointed when I received rejections from the doctoral programs, I think that I accepted it with a certain amount of equanimity (a trait I am trying to work on in general), and turned to finalizing my plans for alternate schooling.

Of course, a short while later a little voice in the back of my mind began chiding me for my "inflexibility" concerning the matter of shaking hands with women. "You insulted the interviewer. You made her feel stupid, worthless," the voice would say, "what a chillul HaShem! She probably thinks religious Jews are chauvinists now."

If I tried to push the thought away -after my very tactful, carefully worded refusal, I don't think there's any need to be concerned about bruised egos, especially in this "enlightened" "open-minded" culture where people trip over themselves trying to give everyone space to express their identities - the voice took a new approach: "This is called being a chassid shoteh - there's plenty of room to rely on a leniency, especially considering the fact that this can come to a loss of parnassah!"

Again with the equanimity - I am trying to have trust that parnassah comes from God, and nothing changes that. After carefully considering the matter and discussing it with my wife and an older mentor, we decided that this would not be a breach of hishtadlut, so I carefully ignored this little voice that was trying to make me second guess myself, and regret a decision I made concerning this challenge.

But I learned firsthand that the latter type of approach of the Satan was in some ways even more compelling!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Picking up cues

The other night as we were leaving shul after the evening services, one of the regulars was complaining to me about a moderate sense of unwellness that he had been experiencing for several weeks. After being examined by doctors, the results had been inconclusive; as far as they could tell, there was no apparent physical source for this fellow's symptoms - no virus, bacteria, or infection.

I asked him what his symptoms were, and whether he could remember at which point he began to feel unwell. Perhaps there was some new stressor - or new element of a source of stress - that coincided with the presentation of these symptoms. He demurred, not wanting to get into specifics, but he acknowledged that there were external factors that were almost certainly contributing to his state of health. Unable to do anything else, I wished him well and "blessed" him that he should find the strength and resilience to deal with these new elements in a healthy way.

As we parted ways, he thanked me for my concern, and told me that he had thought that I had picked up on his stress much earlier, prior to our traveling to the Holy Land for Pesach. He was one of the few people that I approached with an offer to take a k'vittel to Eretz Yisrael, and he read that as my intuiting that he needed some sort of help dealing with some issues.

In his own words "I thought you picked up on it already back then."

Unfortunately, I couldn't honestly say that this was the case; I don't quite know why I approached him over anyone else, although it could be a perceived something at a subconscious level. However, this brought to mind something that I think about often, especially when considering my chosen line of work: I fear sometimes that I don't have the ability to "read" people, to pick up subtleties and non-verbal cues.

I know that listening to people and understanding them is extremely important, and thank God, I try to exemplify that element of counseling. But I am also concerned with what goes on between the lines - to sense things unsaid, to empathize with people when they are trying to communicate silently or unconsciously. That is how I always understood Reb Shlomo Radomsker's explanation of "Gal einai...", that I should be able to see (to sense) another's pain, not just from what they tell me with language, but with their eyes, their gestures.

According to neurological studies, we are wired to empathize with one another through the firing of special brain cells called "mirror neurons" - we see someone performing an act, and our brains mimic the same neural firing associated with the action (despite our not necessarily performing the action at the time). The studies suggest that this gives us an enormous capacity for understanding others' motivations, and even emotional leanings during the performance of the action.

This is an amazing thing that HaShem has encoded into our natures. The question is, is this a skill or ability that can be worked on and improved? How?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Sheva Brachot speech

The basic text of my speech from my sister-in-law's wedding.

 In his Ma’amarei Hadracha l’Chassanim, Rav Wolbe develops a concept that sheds light on the husband/wife dynamic. He notes that in numerous places, the Torah uses the same language, the same terminology when discussing the relationship between husband and wife and the relationship between God and man. One example is the kabbalistic terms of chesed and din – without getting into the deeper meaning of these terms, we know that the male represents the trait of chesed (kindness), whereas the woman represents din (judgement). This has practical ramifications: in every relationship there is a giver and a recipient. The husband is the primary giver – it is up to him to initiate the process, to give and give and give again. The wife receives this giving, this outpouring of chesed, and it makes her feel cherished, appreciated, and she feels good about the relationship. Then a wonderful thing happens: she turns back to the husband and reciprocates a thousand fold, far surpassing the original acts of giving on the husband’s part. 
In Rav Wolbe’s words, the ribis is a ribis d'ribis. 
At this point it’s important to clarify exactly why the woman represents din when we see that her role in the relationship ultimately brings forth an abundance of chesed. When we say that the woman is din, we are not referring to her character traits per se (although that certainly has significance), but addressing a matter of entitlement. The woman has a right to expect certain things from her husband and if she doesn’t get them she can make a legal claim with the full force of the beit din. Moreover, the longer the giver delays in fulfilling his duties, the stronger the claim and the harsher the judgment, ad infinitum. Conversely – and this is so important – when the giver does do his job, this din - the role of the receiver - is elevated into another middah entirely: the middah of rachamim. When the recipient turns back to her giver and gives back ribis d’ribis she has transcended her role of din and has become a source of rachamim, most notably signified by the creation of new life in the womb – the rechem. There is indeed no greater chesed between two people as when life is brought into the world! 
This dynamic is also clear when we speak about the relationship between ourselves and God. We have various obligations that we must fulfill – if we do not, then the claim against us become increasingly more severe. But if we dutifully, lovingly perform our tasks, then the Holy One opens the floodgates of chesed beyond our wildest dreams – v’harikosi lachem bracha ad bli dai!
One must take care to emulate the tzaddikim who “sweeten the judgment” – with good deeds. Through this the harmony of chesed and din will permeate every aspect of the relationship in an ever increasing level of reciprocity.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

New release from Matisyahu - Sunshine

The studio version of Sunshine, of his forthcoming album Spark Seekers. Look for it this summer.

I like this; it's considerably different than the acoustic version I posted a while back - different enough that they can be enjoyed independently.

The track is still available for download for free, for a limited time.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Holiest Generation

The following story never fails to bring tears to my eyes. After hearing it once again in a shiur from Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz, I decided to share it.

Dr. Isaac Steven Herschkopf is an attending psychiatrist at the NYU Medical Center and the author of Hello Darkness, My Old Friend: Embracing Anger to Heal Your Life. This excerpt is from a forthcoming memoir.

I could not have been more than four or five when I asked her. It seemed to me, at the time, to be an innocent, straightforward question: “Mommy, when do I get my number?” 
I was, of course, upset when she burst into tears and ran out of the kitchen, but I was also confused. This was Washington Heights in the 1950s. It was an enclave of survivors. Every adult I knew had a number. Even my teenage sister had one in blue ink tattooed on her forearm. 
They were as ubiquitous on the benches of Riverside Drive as they were on the footpaths of Fort Tryon Park. If you saw an adult with some sort of hat on his head, he invariably also had a number on his arm. In the summer, when the community traveled en masse to Catskill bungalow colonies, or to Rockaway beaches, the numbers came too. 
I presumed it was a ceremonious part of becoming bar mitzvah, or perhaps graduation from Breuer’s or Soloveichik, our local yeshivas. No one appeared to be embarrassed by their number. ARG! I never saw anyone try to cover it up when they went swimming. It seemed to be a matter of fact part of life. 
When, as children, we would ask our parents why there was a “Mother’s Day” and a “Father’s Day,” but no “Children’s Day,” the automatic response was “Every day is ‘Children’s Day’!” In Washington Heights, in the ’50s, every day was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. 
Ironically enough, at the same time, no day was Yom HaShoah. The commemoration, as it exists today, was not around then. Breuer’s and Soloveichik consisted almost exclusively of children of survivors, yet neither school had any assembly, or recognition of any type, of the Shoah. 
The very word Shoah didn’t exist. The word Holocaust did, but it was never invoked. When on rare occasion our parents would make reference to the events that led them to leave Europe to come to America, they would label it “the War.” 
They spoke nostalgically of life “before the War”; they never spoke of what happened during “the War.” They spoke reverently of their parents and siblings who were “lost in the War”; they never spoke of their spouses or children who perished. After all, they had new spouses and new children who didn’t need to be reminded that they were replacements. 
I was already bar mitzvah when I first realized that my parents had been previously married and had prior children. Years later I was shocked to discover that my sister with whom I was raised was not my father’s daughter. 
When I finally came to understand that not every adult was a survivor, and people would ask me what survivors were really like, I never knew what to answer. There was Mr. Silverberg, our seatmate in shul, as jovial as Santa Claus, who always had a good word for everyone. On the other hand, there was Mr. Grauer, our neighbor whose face was indelibly etched in a frown and was always threatening to hit his wife or his children. In retrospect, as a psychiatrist, I could understand both, but who truly defined what it meant to be a survivor? Did anyone, or anything? 
I learned the answer from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. 
This gadol hador, the greatest sage of his generation, was so renowned he was referred to simply as “Rav Moshe.” The closest I came to this legend was at Yeshiva University High School, where my rebbe was his son-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Tendler. Rabbi Tendler, and every other rabbi, would speak of Rav Moshe in awe-stricken tones usually reserved for biblical forefathers. 
One summer I was spending a week with my aunt and uncle in upstate Ellenville. Uncle David and Aunt Saba, survivors themselves, as the doctor and nurse in charge of the concentration camp infirmary, had managed to save the lives of innumerable inmates, including my mother and sister. After “the War” they had set up a medical practice in this small Catskill village, where, I discovered, to my amazement, they had one celebrity patient - Rav Moshe. 
My aunt mentioned casually that Rav Moshe had an appointment the next day. Would I like to meet him? Would I? It was like asking me, would I like to meet God. 
I couldn’t sleep that night. I agonized over what I should wear. Should I approach him? What should I say? Should I mention that his son-in-law was my rebbe? Should I speak to him in English, or my rudimentary Yiddish? 
I was seated in the waiting room, in the best clothing I had with me, an hour before his appointment. It seemed like an eternity, but eventually he arrived, accompanied by an assistant at each side. He didn’t notice me. 
I was frozen. I had intended to rise deferentially when he entered, but I didn’t. I had prepared a few sentences that I had repeatedly memorized, but I sensed that my heart was beating too quickly for me to speak calmly. 
My aunt had heard the chime when he entered and came out of the office to greet him: “Rabbi Feinstein, did you meet my nephew Ikey? Can you believe ashaygitz [unobservant] like me has a yeshiva bochur[student] in the family?” 
Rav Moshe finally looked at me. I was mortified. My aunt was addressing him irreverently. She was joking with him. She had called me Ikey, not Yitzchok, or even Isaac. 
Then it got even worse. She walked over to him. Surely she knew not to shake his hand. She didn’t. She kissed him affectionately on the cheek as she did many of her favorite patients. She then told him my uncle would see him in a minute and returned to the office. 
Rav Moshe and his attendants turned and looked at me, I thought accusingly. I wanted to die. In a panic, I walked over to him and started to apologize profusely: “Rabbi Feinstein, I apologize. My aunt, she isn’t frum [religious]. She doesn’t understand…” 
He immediately placed his fingers on my lips to stop me from talking. He then softly spoke two sentences in Yiddish that I will remember to my dying day: “She has numbers on her arms. She is holier than me.” 
Rav Moshe had understood what I had not. Our holiest generation was defined by the numbers on their arms.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

When intuition is (in)appropriate

Rav Hershel Schachter expounded on the concept of intuition as an ingredient in psak as well as policy making a short while ago. He used a not-so-amusing anecdote as his springboard, and if you have thirteen minutes, it's worth a listen.