Apr 23, 2017

27 Nissan: The yartzeit of Rabbi Avigdor Miller z"l

Rabbi Miller passed away 16 years ago. Although I only attended one of the famous Thursday night classes one time, I listened to dozens of his tapes and felt that I owed him the respect of attending his funeral.

He was a remarkable man for his time (he was born in 1908). Not too many young men were raised frum in America, and of those who were, not many remained religious. He was one of the few. He was also one of the few to make the trip to the famous yeshiva in Slabodka in Europe to learn Torah. His brother Yeshaya followed his older brother there and became a rav in Boston.

What stands out about him to me are:

his discipline - every moment was accounted for
his focus on Shaar Ha'Bechina of Chovos Ha'Levavos
his hasmada
his focus on bitachon and gratitude
his humor and simcha
his talk about love for Hashem
his outreach, i.e. teaching Torah to people on all levels
his principles like only speaking Yiddish in the home
his being an American gadol
his emphasis on "asei lecha rav" and living in a makom Torah
his having a program for every goal with exercises, breaking it down into steps, leading his kehilla step by step
the supremacy of Torah learning
his half hour walk every day
his being a non-conformist
his outspokenness

His teachings are widely spread today by his books, MP3 lectures, and emails.

yehi zichro boruch

Apr 21, 2017

We Do Have Choices 2

As a follow-up to this post here, Rabbi YY Jacobson tells the following story:

He got an email from a parent. A ten year old girl started displaying apathy to Judaism. Today she is 14 and is completely irreligious. The parents are wonderful people and have a wonderful home. They could not understand what went wrong. They tried various therapists, was there trauma of some kind? What alienated her? They couldn't figure it out.

A few weeks ago, she told them what happened. She was eight years old and she did something wrong in class. The parent was embarrassed to tell R' Jacobson what she did, it was silly. The teacher went over to her in front of the class and said, "I never met someone who has a yetzer hara as big as yours."

The girl told her parents that she decided to prove her teacher right.

Why was her self-image defined by a statement by a teacher as opposed to all the things she saw and heard at home? Granted, a morah is a major force in a little girl's life, and the way the woman said it to her in front of the class made a huge impact, but still ...

Does the 14 year old understand that she is living her life as though dictated by a lady whose class she was in six years ago? That she has not thought through what life is about and made her choices accordingly, but is acting like the woman's lackey? Is her life so enjoyable this way, with her thinking every day - Yes! I will show my teacher she is right! - ?

As someone who recreated herself as an adult put it, "We are the people we decide to be, not the people others expect us to be. We can decide."

Apr 14, 2017

Splitting the Sea

With Shevii shel Pesach around the corner, which marks the splitting of the Yam Suf, here is an astonishing observation.

The term "keria," splitting, which is how the miracle is known, i.e. kerias Yam Suf, קריעת ים סוף, does not appear in Tanach. It is a much later word used by the Sages almost exclusively scores of times and is quoted by Rashi.

What is used in Tanach to refer to the splitting of the sea is the root בקע as the verse that describes the event says, ""נטה את ידך על הים ובקעהו" stretch out your hand and split it," and גזר as in "לגוזר ים סוף לגזרים."

When googling this, you can find articles that explain why this is so.

Apr 7, 2017

Some Answers 4

Answer 10:

No answer to that – but something I sense when cleaning: A Yid has to live in 2 different worlds: among the non-Jews but apart; hishtadlus in earthly matters but knowing Hashem controls everything; sadness at our pain and suffering but joy in life, serving Hashem – and, of course, chometz and non-chometz!

Answer 11:

freeing ourselves from internal and external limitations that keep us from serving Hashem in the most complete way.

Answer 12: 

From Rabbi Miller: Because as we said before, the purpose of the whole story of Mitzraim was to create seichel in us; deiah, emunah, understanding.

Answer 13:

I would say that our job is to internalize the message that Hashem loves us with a tremendous love and expressed his love in an unprecedented manner (breaking nature in numerous ways and selecting us from all the other nations despite our not being worthy at that moment etc...)

As a result of that love we should have an unending hakoras hatov to Hashem and should praise him and please him by reciprocating his love to him through fulfilling his will with passion and devotion.

In this sense Nishmas is the high point of the Haggada (I heard this from Rav Brevda zatzal).

Apr 6, 2017

Some Answers 3

Answer 7:

I think the main message is about breaking though our self-perceived limitation in our avodas Hash-m, as well as leveling out our ga'ava (ego, arrogance) -- both of which create a barrier between one another. Then we can achieve the achdus (unity) originally established at Matan Torah.

Answer 8:

I think the main message would be that Hashem is always there and when He promises something he fulfills His promise.  Hashem promised Avraham that his children will be strangers in a strange land, but they will be freed and will leave with great wealth.  Well, that is exactly what happened.  So a lesson we can take is that if Hashem says He will do something, it will come.  For example, the Mashiach will come even though it feels like it won't as it is taking so long.  
Also throughout the Hagaddah, there are things that remind us of what our role in life is.  For example we say that there will always be nations who will rise up against us.

Answer 9: 

'vehigadeta lebincha bayom hahu leimor ba'avur zeh asah Hashem li b'tzeyti mimitzrayim'  (and relate to your child on that day, saying, because of this, Hashem did this for me when I left Egypt) - the centrality of mesorah, imparting our traditions to the next generation.

Apr 5, 2017

Some Answers 2

Answer 4:

Remembrance of who we are as a people and a nation.
Our essential connection to Hashem.. who rules the world
And... it takes work to leave one's personal Mitzrayim 

Answer 5:

I think the main message or event of Pesach is that we prepare very carefully and attentively to perform a very special mitzvah. 
On Pesach, we eat a mitzvah - matzoh. 
By eating it and digesting it, it enters into and becomes part of our entire system. 
We do this mitzvah for a long time and in many forms, as the bread of faith. 
The mitzvah cannot be undone or taken off. It is the closest possible connection with Hashem.

Answer 6:

Freedom from slavery
Faith in G-d
Gratitude to G-d

Apr 4, 2017

Some Answers

(see previous post)

Answer 1:


as we say in the Pesach davening - zman cheiruseinu

Answer 2: 

Let My people go so they will serve Me.

I think that line, from the Torah, includes the ideas of 1) we are Hashem's chosen people, 2) that He is involved in the details of our lives, 3) that our purpose in life is to serve Hashem - all three vital messages encapsulated in those words.

Answer 3:

If you don't let G-d's people go you get in mucho trouble!

Mar 31, 2017

Main Message of Pesach

I've been asking people, what do you think the main message of Pesach is?

I've gotten 10 answers so far and although there is a little overlap, what I love about this is the variety of answers, all valid.

So you can think about it, and post an answer if you like, and eventually I will post the answers that I got.

Mar 30, 2017

The Fish Story that Sparked a Tikkun

14 years ago, people were buzzing about the talking fish in New Square. Some believed the story, others scoffed. It became the source for many a joke.  You can read about it here

I had no reason not to believe it and I looked askance at those who automatically dismissed the story.

Last year, before Pesach, Family First magazine had a remarkable story. In it, a woman shopping in a very busy hardware store before Pesach saw a woman who looked out of place in New Square, who looked like she needed help.  She offered her assistance and the woman said she was making her first Pesach and was not sure what to get and what to do.

The woman, who looked like she was in her early 30's explained that she drove all the way from West Haven, Connecticut to New Square because of the fish story.  Her family was traditional - they went to synagogue for Yom Kippur, and each year there was a big family seder. But then it petered out and her father died, and she did not attend a seder since she was 17.

She said her father loved to fish in a brook near her home.  When she heard the story about the fish that said "tikkun," she felt her father was talking to her through the fish, telling her to correct what she had abandoned, to make a Pesach seder again. And she thought "there was no better place to start than here (New Square), the place that was witness to the fish with a message."

The New Square lady helped the woman choose what to buy for Pesach and a few days later she went to West Haven to help her kasher her kitchen and get it ready for Pesach.

Mar 28, 2017

We Do Have Choices

In a talk, Rivka Malka Perlman told about a young man whom her brother (Benzion Klatzko) is trying to be mekarev.

The person is tough and bitter and her brother asked him what's your story?

He said, when I was younger I was okay, but then my mother got sick and passed away. I was very lonely and having a very hard time in school, and I ended up connecting with not the greatest kids.
One day, the boys threw a rock at someone's car and the alarm went off. The owner came out screaming but the other boys ran off and I was blamed for it. The man said I'm calling your father and the police. The police came and took a report. My father came and took me home and was very disappointed with me.

I was punished and I didn't know what to think. I had gone from being an average person to a horrible person. I left school and did horrible things.

One day he was at a pizza shop and a nice man came over and spoke to him. He began casually meeting him, and he gradually spent more time with the man and began to trust him. The man recommended a summer camp for him. He was excited to go and the man said he would take care of the money and speak to the boy's father.

He hadn't been in a Jewish environment for so long but this seemed like a chance to start over.
His father gave permission and camp was a fresh start and he was reminded that he's actually a nice guy, and he started to have fun again and to heal from his mother's passing.

He came back from camp a new person.

The guys back home saw that he was different. They invited him to a barbecue and he was nervous about attending because he hadn't had friends back home in a long time. He decided to give it a try. He wanted to be the kid he was in camp, but it was hard to do that at home.

The barbecue was wonderful and he felt so grateful that the good times could last. He went inside to the kitchen for more drinks and saw, to his dismay, that the host was the owner of the car that had been hit by a rock. The man yelled, I remember you, I don't forget kids like you, you think you can come to my house and be part of a barbecue here, what are you doing on my property? Get out of here, you don't belong here!

"That was the end for me. I joined a gang and that's me today."

I heard this story and thought, it is so important to teach children about free choice, that Hashem makes things happen to us, but we get to choose how to respond. We are not compelled to react one way or another.

Losing his mother and feeling lonely, made him friendly with fringe kids. Being yelled at, apparently wrongly, made him decide he's bad. Going to camp and having a good experience, made him feel he's good. Being yelled at again, made him feel turned off from everything and everyone. He behaved like a marionette - when his "strings were pulled," he moved in that direction.

One can imagine someone else in similar circumstances responding differently. It's not like this young man had to respond as he did, though he may have felt that there was no other way. It is this that I think we must convey, that we do have choices in our responses, that the way we respond is not a given.

As I read in a book about happiness long ago about a former prisoner of the Soviet gulag who spent 12 yrs. in concentration camps, starved, beaten, humiliated, who lost two fingers to frostbite who said, "Victim! I am not a victim! I survived!"

Many people can’t do this. They carry their hurt forever. They begin to define themselves as their pain.

Life hurts but you can’t allow yourself to get wrapped up in this hurt, constantly reliving it, fearing the future and grieving the past. That’s victimization.

Other people can hurt you but only you can victimize yourself.

Mar 20, 2017

Then and Now

Mrs. Grama, whose sensible view I've quoted before here, wrote another sensible piece in Inyan magazine that began with her relating three incidents.

In the first incident, a father takes his three year old to the Steipler Gaon and says, "He still doesn't talk."

The Steipler asked him, "Can he say at least one word?"

The father said yes, he says Abba.

The Steipler said, then don't worry, with Hashem's help he will talk.

In the second incident, a young father asked Rabbi Nissim Karelitz what to do about his four and six year olds who constantly fought.

R' Karelitz said, Tell them stories [that emphasize good middos]."

Third incident - an 11 year old boy's principal asked the mother to come down to the school where he told her that her son was brazenly breaking the rules and was having trouble concentrating in class.

The mother consulted with an experienced and successful mother of a large family who knew her and her son well and was told she must do a better job protecting her son from being bullied by his older brother, a child needs to feel safe in his own home, and told her how.

Mrs. Grama says the three stories ended well. She points out that nowadays, with these situations, most people would have consulted with a speech pathologist, a behavioral psychologist and a psychiatrist who would likely have:

asked the parents why they hadn't started intervention earlier and advised immediate speech therapy

discussed sibling rivalry and appropriate parental intervention followed by behavioral therapy

prescribed medication to calm the child followed by therapy.

She asks, are we made differently nowadays? Or is it our way of thinking that has become corrupted?

Mar 10, 2017

We Can Daven for Anything

Rabbi Dovid Kaplan, in an Inyan magazine article, wrote that he heard that Rabbi Tzvi Meir Zilberberg said in a shiur that over Chanuka he slept a total of 17 hours. This is because he wanted to absorb as much of the spiritual energy of Chanuka as he could.

Someone went over to him after the shiur and asked how it was possible to go for eight days on a little more than two hours of sleep a night.

R' Zilberberg responded, "Do you know how many years I've been davening to need less sleep?"

R' Kaplan said his embarrassed reaction to that was, "Oh, I didn't realize you can daven to need less sleep." He had thought that davening was just for parnassa and health and things like that.

I had a teacher who, if I'm not mistaken, said not to ask Hashem for the petty things. This is wrong. We can and should daven to make the bus or train, to find parking quickly, to get a seat or a good seat, to find what we're looking for, for the dish to come out good, to get a quick response, and everything else! Not that R' Zilberberg's tefilla was for something petty. The point is, Hashem is the address for everything, and we shouldn't limit our requests to the standard ones.

Mar 4, 2017

Women Are Absent

I find it interesting how we never hear a story about the beis din shel maala (Heavenly Court) that has a woman involved. If you know of any, please tell us ...

All those stories, about arriving in the next world and having one's deeds scrutinized, and piles of mitzvos and sins, and angels or tzaddikim getting involved in the judgment, and what it is like in the place of reward or punishment, never have a female as the protagonist! Why is this so? For that matter, I don't think I've read any stories about Jewish women who are nearly dead or apparently died, who come back to life to tell what they've seen in the next world.

I'm not talking about women who are no longer living coming to someone alive in a dream; there are stories like that.

For that matter, some of the questions that the Gemara (Shabbos 31a) says a soul will be asked do not apply to women. The questions are:

אמר רבא בשעה שמכניסין אדם לדין אומרים לו נשאת ונתת באמונה קבעת עתים לתורה עסקת בפו"ר צפית לישועה פלפלת בחכמה הבנת דבר מתוך דבר ואפ"ה אי יראת ה' היא אוצרו אין אי לא לא. Rava said: After departing from this world, when a person is brought to judgment for the life he lived in this world, they say to him ... Did you conduct business faithfully? Did you designate times for Torah study? Did you engage in procreation? Did you await salvation? Did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom or understand one matter from another? And, nevertheless, beyond all these, if the fear of the Lord is his treasure, yes, he is worthy, and if not, no, none of these accomplishments have any value. 

Did you conduct business honestly? (some women are in business; many aren't).
Did you set fixed times to study Torah? (not for women)
Were you involved in being fruitful and multiplying? (a man's mitzva)
Did you look forward expectantly for the redemption?
Did you engage in the pursuit of wisdom?
Above all else, does the person have fear of heaven?

Mar 3, 2017

The Pious Ones

I read The Pious Ones and thought it was quite good. The author, a writer for The New York Times, describes himself as "a fairly assimilated Jew who nevertheless attends synagogue and observes many biblical traditions," and yet he looks very favorably upon Chassidim. He puts a positive spin even on things that don't seem so positive.

His first chapter, about Yitta Schwartz, refers to a NY Times article he wrote about her: here . He said that the less than prominently placed article ended up at the top of that day's list of most emailed stories and stayed on the list for many more days.

Feb 26, 2017

Update on Modern Forms of Communication

As a follow-up post to this one here about communication nowadays, there was an article in Binah by someone who says she was as anti-cellphone as they come.  Whatever advantages owning one had, they were outweighed by the disadvantages, as far as she was concerned.

But there was a price to pay, she says and she finally bought a cellphone. Why? Because the lack of communication was disturbing.  Her friends and people she knows all text, and she missed out on more and more things that were important to her like meetings she attends that are arranged by text. By not texting, the organizer had to remember to call her (which is a bother) which she did not always do and not having a cell phone was putting the organizer out each month.

There were mazal tov texts that she never received, bris information she didn't get, and carpooling texts in which she wasn't included. "Not having a cellphone, I was separating myself from the klal, a klal that embraced texting as an easy mode of communication. Because like it or not, cellphone ownership (including texting) is a societal expectation."

She has since seen other advantages to owning a cellphone, though she says they are side benefits and not reason enough to own one.  She now owns one "in order to stay connected with my family, friends and community. In my opinion, cellphone ownership and close relationships are only mutually exclusive if you allow them to be."

This supported what I wrote years ago, that I communicate more with people with modern technology. It may still be true that for young people, it stifles their communication. I'm not even sure that is true.

Interestingly, kosher phones in the US are filtered phones which may allow some Internet connection and texting, while kosher phones in Israel do not allow any Internet or texting. So what in America is called "kosher," in Israel is called "treif."