Dec 31, 2009

How About Our Iranian Brethren?

We have been urged to pray for Jonathan Pollard, for the boys in Japan, for Gilad Shalit and other missing Israeli soldiers, and Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin. How about our Iranian brethren?

The missing Jews are (add 12-15 years to the stated ages) :

Babak Shaoulin Tehrani, 17, of Tehran and Shaheen Nikkhou, 18, of Tehran arrested on June 8, 1994

Kamran Salari, 21, of Kermanshah and Farhad Ezzati, 21, of Kermanshah arrested September 21, 1994

Homayoon Balazadeh, 45, of Shiraz and Omid Solouki, 15, of Shiraz, Reuben Kohen-Masliakh,17 and Avrohom Kohen-Masliakh, 16, brothers from Shiraz, arrested on December 8, 1994

Nourollah (Nuriel) Rabizadeh-Felfeli, age unknown, of Kermanshah and Cyrus, 42 and Avraham, 47 Ghahramani (Kaharmany), brothers from Kermanshah, arrested on February 12, 1997

A 12th Jew, Yitzhak Hassid, 59, of Hamadan, last spoke with his sister in February 1997 and reportedly indicated he would try to leave the country. He disappeared February 15, 1997.

Between 1994 and 1997, 11 Jews, at the time ranging from 15 years of age to 59, were detained while attempting to cross the border from Iran into Pakistan seeking to be reunited with their families and in hopes of finding a secure future and a life of freedom. In addition, in February 1997, a Jewish businessman living in Tehran disappeared while visiting a provincial capital and has not been heard from since. The families of the disappeared have been virtually unable to get any information from the authorities as to the whereabouts of their loved ones.

Several eyewitnesses (former Iranian intelligence officials who are now living in the West) claim they have seen some of the missing in Iranian jails and others in a detention center, but to date nothing has been substantiated. Several years ago, two credible Iranian officials privately assured a family member in Iran that the men were alive and had been transported to a prison in Tehran. To date, no new information has emerged

In September 2006, Attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner of the Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center and New York Attorney Robert Tolchin, representing the families of the 12 missing Iranian Jews, filed a lawsuit against former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami.

The families of the 12 Jews in question say their loved ones were arrested by Iranian security authorities in the 1990s as they sought to escape from Iran across the border with Pakistan. At least some of them are believed to still be in Iranian prison. The Iranians have never acknowledged the Jews' arrest, nor have they given any word on their status or whereabouts.

Attorney Darshan-Leitner: "These individuals attempted to come to Israel at the encouragement and with the assistance of the Israeli government. It is therefore the responsibility of the Israeli government to do everything it can to gain reliable, specific information regarding their whereabouts in order to save them if we can, and give closure and end the suffering of the wives, children, fathers and mothers of those who were murdered by the Islamic Republic."

To do otherwise, the lawyer stated, means that the 12 Iranian Jews "have been abandoned.

If the prisoners were killed, we need to know and we need the bodies, the graves. There are women who are agunos for 16 years! Children are waiting for their fathers. These children were teenagers when their fathers disappeared; they remember them and are waiting for them to come back. There is no grave for them to go to; they can't say Kaddish. If we'd get the information these women wouldn't be agunos; they could be compensated by Israel for being widows of harugei malchut, people killed al kiddush Hashem.

Compiled with online information and with thanks to Mishpacha magazine for bringing this to our attention.

Dec 29, 2009

When is Kosher not Kosher?

Kosher Cruises, Kosher l'Pesach "Cereal", Kosher videos, Kosher concerts, Kosher food at baseball stadiums, Kosher Cheeseburgers (with tofu of course), Bacos (kosher bacon flavored chips), Kosher Eiruv in our town etc.

Some people decry every new Kosher thing, feeling that it drags us down spiritually, despite the kosher label. They maintain that by having a "kosher version" of just about everything, we are ba'grubbed (spiritually coarsened) and don't learn to say no to anything because we don't have to.

Others say, the Gemara says that for every non-kosher thing Hashem created, He created something similar which is permissible. Also, that everything was created to be used in the service of G-d.

So when is "kosher" good and when is it bad? Does it depend on circumstances - like whether or not it's used l'sheim shomayim (for the sake of Heaven)?

The issue here is, things that are not against halacha but might not have the proper Jewish spirit, or might eventually break down one's sensitivity towards Jewish matters.  When we are very different from the non-Jews in what we eat and do, it keeps us at a distance from them.

An example: I read an impassioned article by someone who was very upset by the kosher l'Pesach "cereal" now available. Do we need it? Why do we need it? Can children not make it through the week without imitation cereal? Whatever happened to the special sights and sounds of Pesach, the special foods, the aura of Pesach with its unusual menu?

Now someone can respond by saying: Is it perfectly kosher for Pesach? So stop with the nostalgia spiel and memories of when the only available products were matza and wine! Pesach is Pesach, and we don't need to ignore the perfectly acceptable kosher products available in the dozens! [note: I'm not getting into whether it is preferable not to buy any storebought products on Pesach].  For that matter, one can say - our great-grandmothers worked hard to make kosher l'Pesach lokshon, kneidlach and cakes and how is that different than cereal?

The same argument can be made for absolutely 100% kosher l'Pesach hotels ...

Someone gave this as the answer as to why tznius is more of a problem issue for people than other things. They said that in most other areas of life there are acceptable, kosher substitutes, but when it comes to tznius and related matters, there's no substitute. You've just got to say "no." And because we're so accustomed to having whatever we want, saying no doesn't come easy. And that an important component of chinuch is training our children to say no, so that when confronted with situations in which there is no kosher alternative, saying no won't be foreign to them.

Dec 25, 2009

Following G-d's Rules is Sane!

I heard someone use this line:

"It's crazy to be observant in today's world."

He's a frum person who wanted to point out what a challenge it is to be frum today, that there's a big nisayon to veer away etc.

The person who said it meant that living as we do as Torah-abiding Jews, strictly adhering to the minutiae of the laws, while living in a world where anything goes as long as you don't hurt anybody else, is bizarre.  And the enticements of today's world are far more attractive than say, the enticements of the Middle Ages.  The non-Jewish world didn't have much to offer at that time though even then some Jews opted out which meant shmad and the honor and money the Church gave them.

I just wonder whether his line is a good attitude for parents/educators to have, and whether the right attitude to convey to our children/students is: WE are sane. The WORLD is crazy! Following G-d's Rules is sane. Doing your own thing is NUTS!

What do you think? Come on readers out there - post your thoughts!

Dec 24, 2009

Why not you?

An American rosh yeshiva z'l (who shall remain nameless) had many pictures of gedolim hanging on the wall. He also had an empty picture frame hanging there. When asked what it was for, he said it was in order to remind him of the question: "Why Not You?" i.e. why shouldn't he do what it takes to be included as one of the gedolim pictures.

This story is told as an amazing and inspirational story and yet, when I heard this, it made me cringe.  I'm all for striving and improving but when the ambition is to be included in gedolim pictures, it seems to me to be an overt desire for kavod.  There were numerous Torah scholars who didn't "make it" to the league of being included in gedolim pictures that people hang on the wall.  Whether or not your photo is sought after by kids collecting gedolim pictures should not, it seems to me, be the focus.

Dec 23, 2009

Successful "In-Reach"

I spoke to someone who saw a problem, thought creatively about how to fix it, and who followed through and took action. 

She observed that in the homes they visited on Shabbos, people with yeshiva background were unaware of certain laws of Shabbos, particularly those concerning heating food.

She organized an event by approaching the kosher restaurants in their area, 95% of whom donated platters of food which was a tremendous draw, by sending out 1500 invitations, and by carefully selecting a speaker that would draw a crowd.

She got 100-200 people (wish I knew more precisely), and raised $6000 for needy brides along the way. The audience learned hilchos Shabbos, had a great social event, had terrific food, and gave tzedaka.\

Pretty amazing.

Has anybody participated in or heard of any creative, successful events that were geared for frum people to raise halachic consciousness on any other subject? Do you have ideas of your own?

Dec 22, 2009

Anger Elimination, not Management

On the one hand, the Gemara equates anger to worshipping idols. On the other hand, the "world out there" says you have to express your anger, in "healthy" ways of course.

So what's a Jew to do?

I find that this is yet another example of how secular values infiltrate our world and influence us to the point that many people don't even know what's what anymore.

I've read and heard frum people talk about expressing anger, or actually teaching your children to express their anger in healthy ways like punching a pillow. I once read a list of ten or so suggestions as to how to express anger positively (run around the block, scream into your pillow etc.).

What people don't understand is that expressing anger makes you angrier! When the Torah expects us not to be angry, it's not that the Torah wants us to repress our angry feelings, but not to have them altogether!

The issue is not how to express the anger, but how to get rid of it! The concept of "managing" your anger does not exist in Torah sources, not in halacha, not in mussar. For good reason too. Since anger is equated with idol worship, we obviously cannot be "managing" our worship of idols! Anger is not supposed to be expressed or suppressed. It's supposed to be eliminated. Sad that frum publications, speakers, and therapists have adopted the secular, anti-Torah approach to anger.

The term “manage” does not convey the need to stay exceedingly far away from anger because it's an evil midda, as Rambam says to do. When you manage something, you're not getting rid of it.

Rather than manage our anger, we need articles, speakers and therapists to help us prevent angry feelings from arising by telling us about hashgacha pratis, and that whatever or whoever "made us" angry, is a shaliach of Hashem, and so any anger is actually anger towards Hashem ch'v. This thought puts things in perspective and calms us down. We need to hear inspirational stories and thoughts about people who responded calmly and did not feel anger in volatile situation.

The Ramban in his famous letter advises us, “Accustom yourself to speak gently to all people at all times and this will save you from anger, a most serious character flaw which causes one to sin.”

Dec 21, 2009

G-d's Response is Positive

When the topic of prayer comes up and the question as to whether all prayers are answered, people commonly repeat the line: yes, all prayers are answered, but sometimes the answer is no. Sometimes they illustrate this belief with a story of a child who wishes and prays for a bike and some time later is asked: So? Was your prayer answered. And the child says, yes. So where's the bike? Oh, I didn't get it. The answer was no.

I read something which quoted the Baal Shem Tov, though I haven't seen it in the sefer, saying that this belief (the answer "no") is wrong, and that as soon as a prayer is uttered, Hashem answers in the positive.

Wait a minute, you're thinking. How can this be? The answer given is that we don't always get to see the gashmius realization of the "yes," but the answer is "yes" nonetheless, on some plane of existence. For some of us, that's as good as saying no! But apparently there's a difference between "no," and a "yes" we don't see.

Rashi in Ki Sisa 33:19, on the words "and I will have mercy" says, "When I will want to have mercy. Thus far, He only promised him (Moshe) that sometimes I will answer and sometimes I won't answer, but then later 34:10, He promised that the prayers will not chozros reikam (be turned away unfulfilled)."

I read a moving article by the husband (Shaul Rosenblatt) of a woman who died of cancer. He said that after his wife's illness and the harrowing experience they went through, he learned that "no matter what, prayers do not go unanswered. Sometimes the answer is positive in the way you asked for it, and sometimes the answer is positive in a way you didn't ask for it. But the answer is always positive.

He understood the positive answer to his asking Hashem to heal his wife to be yes, in a spiritual sense, and he said, "I was and am envious of the spiritual health that she attained. A few days before she passed away, she said that for the first time in her life, she truly felt that G-d loves her. She has always known it, but had never been able to fully feel it. Now she did... While her body was as sick as could be, her soul was healthier than anyone I had ever met. Even two days before her passing, she said she would not swap places with anyone."

He went on to say, "Why couldn't G-d heal her soul and body at the same time? It's a good question, but we cannot know all of G-d's ways, or we would be G-d Himself... But I do know that G-d healed her ... G-d answered when I called - just not in the way I asked for... We pray. He listens, considers, and decided how best to respond based on who we are and what we need. His answer is always positive."

Isn't this man's perspective just amazing?!

Dec 20, 2009

Knowing Right from Wrong

It seems that the highest praise you can give someone these days is to describe them as "non-judgemental." This certainly has a source in Torah as in "b'tzedek tishpot es amischa", "hevai dan es kol ha'adam l'chaf zechus" and "al tadin es chavercha, ad she'tagia lim'komo" ("judge your people in righteousness," "judge everyone to the side of merit," "do not judge your friend until you reach his place").

However, what is often forgotten is the mitzva d'oraisa of "hochei'ach tochi'ach es amisecha" (Rebuke shall you rebuke your fellow).

Not being non-judgemental has very specific halachic rules as follows:

If at all possible, you should give people the benefit of the doubt. We must always give a pious, yirei shomayim, the benefit of the doubt, even when it seems most likely that what he did was improper.

The rules about an average mitzva observer are:

If you see them doing something that looks wrong, and the likelihood of zechus (innocence) and chov (guilt) seem equal, we should give them the benefit of the doubt.

If chov seems more likely, leave it undecided in your mind, but strictly speaking you can assume they did wrong. It's still a good thing to give them the benefit of the doubt though.

Nowhere in these halachos does it say anything about blurring good and bad! In other words, even when we are giving the benefit of the doubt, the reason we need to do so is because something looks amiss!

The Torah is very clear about right and wrong. There's no such thing as tolerance or vatranus (looking away) when it comes to right and wrong. Vatranus has to do with being personally hurt or wronged, and overlooking it.

The liberal approach of "everybody is entitled to their opinion," is not a Jewish view, unless it has to do with food preferences or similar things with no right and wrong.

Some examples from Chumash: 1) Yaakov asked the shepherds why they had stopped working when the day wasn't over yet.
2) Moshe saw two Jews fighting, and he rebuked them.  Moshe didn't look away, he didn't think "live and let live," let them work it out, it's none of my business ... He judged them to be doing something wrong, and he called them on it.

The calls for unity through tolerance are misplaced and not Torah-based. We can be united despite  the fact that other people are wrong, yes, wrong. Unity is not about blurring right from wrong.

Dec 19, 2009

Elite Yeshivos

In A Tzaddik in our Time about R' Aryeh Levin z'l (I highly recommend it), on p. 33, R' Aryeh says that in the 3 years he learned in Slutzk, he acquired a sound knowledge of seder Nashim with Tosfos (except for Yevamos). The mesechtos Gittin, Kiddushin, and Kesubos, he learned by heart with Tosfos, and then he started seder Nezikin. At that point he left the yeshiva in 1901. He was born in 1885, so that means he was 16 years old!

Lest you think he was a genius, and what relevance does it have to average students, there were numerous yeshivos in which hundreds (thousands?) of bachurim learned on this level.

Where are our hundreds or merely dozens of similar achievers today? Our yeshivos are not geared towards them as yeshivos used to be. Today, yeshivos are focused on the average student and have average goals and we are suffering greatly for this.

Does this sound elitist? Well, yeshivos were always geared to the cream of the crop! To get into Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin (see picture for this post) you had to know at least 200 daf Gemara by heart with Rashi and Tosfos. That's why R' Pinchas Hirschprung z'l could do the "pin test" (stick a pin through pages of the Gemara and he could tell you which words on each page that the pin went through) And there were many applicants! And many knew more than 200 daf!

Granted, today all boys must stay in yeshiva merely to remain frum (unlike yesteryear, when boys without learning talent apprenticed and married young), but yes, I believe we still need yeshivos that cultivate and support top achievers. Leaving potentially great learners to languish in "equal-opportunity" classrooms is reverse discrimination, in that it discriminates against those with talent! And these top achievers don't have to be geniuses; someone with learning ambition will go very far.  An excellent rebbi can galvanize an entire class into setting and keeping learning goals.  Too often, special achievement goals are relegated to extra-curricular contests. 

Rabbi Reuven Bengis was an incredible masmid. One day he invited people to a siyum he was making on completing Shas. The men were shocked since they had already attended a siyum ha'Shas he had made barely a month earlier.

When he was asked how he could be making another siyum ha'Shas so soon, Rabbi Bengis explained that normally it took him a full year of intense study to learn all of Shas, and the siyum he had made a month earlier had been for this cycle of learning.

This second siyum ha'Shas was for a cycle of learning he had begun many years earlier, in which he studied Shas during those unexpected idle moments of waiting for a train, for a bus, at a simcha, etc. Over the years, with a few minutes of learning here and a few minutes there, he had finally completed Shas in addition to his annual review.

Dec 18, 2009

"And my soul should be as dust to all"

The buzz word for the past long while is self-esteem. Everybody agrees we all need it, most people don't think they have it, and there are endless numbers of books, tapes, lectures, workshops, and articles on the subject.

It says in Pirkei Avos, "Make His will as your will, so that He will make your will as His will; nullify (batel) your will for His will, so that he will nullify others' will before your will."

If you esteem your self, that is the opposite of bittul where you nullify your self.
Here's a definition: bittul is the negation of my will. My only desire is to fulfill what Hashem wants of me.  There are levels of bittul like - I still have an opinion, but I put it aside and do what Hashem wants. A higher level of bittul ("v'nachnu ma " as Moshe and Aharon said) is when I don't have my own opinion. That's what it's all about, negating the "ich," I, the ego. It's the ego that gets in the way of all the good things we want to do. Hashem wants something but I want something else! Even anava (humility) is about "ich," because it's MY brains, MY talents, MY yichus, MY knowledge, MY good looks, etc. that I don't take credit for.

Don't get me wrong, anava is extremely important, needless to say! After all, Moshe was called the anav m'kol adam (more humble than anyone)! He did not credit himself with anything, even though he spoke to Hashem face to face, unlike any other human being.

Bittul is about getting AWAY from self. Who cares what I think, what I am? The emphasis is on the mission. On getting the job done. What job? The one given to us by Hashem.

When you do a mitzvah, you have to do it because Hashem commanded us to do mitzvos, not because you understand the mitzvah.  You don't do it because you think it makes sense, or because you feel that it's the right thing to do.  You do it solely because of Hashem.  This is is called "naaseh v'nishma" - I accept the assignment; now tell me what it is.

Bittul means: I am nothing but Hashem's servant. Whatever He wants me to do, I do. I have no agenda of my own. My creation and continued existence is solely to fulfill His will.  The Avos are described as the merkava-chariot of G-d. Just as a chariot (or a car) has no will of its own, and only goes where the driver directs it, so too the Avos lived only to fulfill G-d's will.

How sincere are we when we end Shemone Esrei each day with the words, "v'nafshi k'afar la'kol tihiye (and my soul should be as dust to all)?

My self confidence is only insofar as being confident that Hashem put me here solely to serve Him, and that He gave me the ability to do so. "Im ein ani li, mi li?" (if I am not for myself, who will be for me?) means only I can fulfill the role G-d assigned to me.

Bittul entails not thinking about yourself but thinking about G-d, about another Jew.

When we acknowledge that most of our misery comes from thinking about ourselves, we'll realize that it's a whole lot easier to have bittul than not to have it.  Still and all, negating ourselves is a tough job, a lifelong avoda.

Dec 17, 2009

We are all "disordered" in one way or another

Eating disorders are “a coping mechanism when life feels out of control, overwhelming, disappointing or painful,” says Catherine Steiner-Adair, director of Eating Disorders Education and Prevention at McLean Hospital.

Yet, in 2006, the National Institute of Mental Health confirmed that anorexia and bulimia are biological, brain-based disorders.

Seems to me that to say that eating disorders are a way of coping with distress is vastly different than saying they are illnesses that are biological and brain-based!  

More and more behaviors are being labeled as illnesses or disorders.  ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder) used to be referred to as bad behavior or being a brat.  Now it's a "disorder" which is "evaluated" and "diagnosed".  The cause is "unknown".  G-d forbid that parents would be considered the cause of their child's obnoxious behavior.  That would be judgmental which is a cardinal sin.

If we categorize behaviors according to what makes people feel good and opt for a medical diagnosis rather than finding out what is really bothering the child or young adult, I am afraid that the treatment will be unhelpful.

Dec 14, 2009

This is Gan Eden

Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman, the Ponovezher Rav, related that in his youth in Lithuania candles were not yet in widespread use. Instead, they used homemade candles which consisted of a small dish filled with oil or kerosene and a wick of flax or cotton.

That winter, 100 years ago, two new things came to the city. First, a candle factory opened that sold real candles. Second, the first Vilna Shas was published which were volumes of Gemara with clear, fine print.

That Purim the community’s gabbaim held a meeting and discussed what to buy the rav for Purim. In addition to the usual food and wine in a basket, they added a new Gemara Bava Basra and two packages of candles. (They could not afford to buy an entire set of Shas).

The Ponovezher Rav was the child who carried the mishloach manos.  It was a heavy load and he felt he was going to collapse from the weight. He placed the basket on the table in relief and stood off to the side. The rav, who was a big talmid chacham, after removing the food and wine took out the packages of candles and then the Gemara. He opened it and looked at the new print. Then he closed it and gave it a kiss. He was very emotional. He broke the silence and said, “Now I know what Gan Eden is – a Gemara from the Vilna Shas and candles to learn it by.”

The load that R’ Kahaneman had carried, so very heavy at first, seemed all at once to be light. From that day forward he carried that same load all his life, working to build yeshivos, to bring Gan Eden to Jews.

There are children, young adults and older people who don’t think learning Torah is Gan Eden. They find it painful, boring, unpleasant. Someone once asked a rabbi – when Moshiach comes we will learn all the time?! That’s awful! That’s gehinnom!

How tragic when a child grows up to feel that learning Torah is gehinnom, the diametric opposite of what it is, Gan Eden.

How sad it is when parents say of their children, “He’s not a learner.”

The truth is, those children haven’t met the person who can show them that learning is Gan Eden.

Dec 10, 2009

Who do we admire?

A girl left her frum high school after 11th grade for Stern College and had plans for medical school.  She said, "There's something interesting going on. People think it's not the best for me to be in Stern and thinking of med. school, but then again, they're so, so impressed."

What did the Misyavnim (Hellenizers) want? They wanted the beauty of the Greek culture. The Greeks did not want to outlaw Torah as other governments tried to do. The Greeks said - you've got a philosophy? Great. As long as you leave G-d out of it.

What's with us frum people and out attitudes towards the "outside world"? Seems like we know the right thing to SAY about the supremacy of Torah and how all wisdom is derived from Torah, but when it comes down to it, many if not most of us are impressed and even intimidated by people with degrees and professional careers. And I don't think it's only about the money that some people with degrees earn. I think the admiration is exclusive of earning power.

So who do we admire more - the brilliant rosh yeshiva or the brilliant physicist? Or do we think that a synthesis, the Torah-learned lawyer, is best of all?

If a lecture was given on parenting-chinuch who would we be more interested in listening to, a talmid chacham/wise older woman who raised a fine family or a psychologist?

A Different Perspective on Aging

Rebbetzin Tzippora Heller said that complimenting someone by saying they look ten years younger than their age is like saying a person has a BA when they actually have a Phd! By that she means, the older you are the more wisdom you should have accumulated, so saying you look young is the equivalent of discounting your additional years of wisdom.

Dennis Prager said he got the most hate mail after he wrote a column criticizing a 12 year old girl for addressing the Democratic National Convention and ridiculing the Vice President.  He wrote that it's typical of liberal society today to equate children with adults and to think that a child has a right to the floor, just like an adult, even though a child has not accomplished anything of note and has no wisdom.

On a more positive note, someone observed it used to be that a Bubby looked Bubby-like but nowadays we have young looking Bubbies (some of whom are still having children of their own).  Their comment was that this is a foretaste of Yemos Ha'Moshiach when death will be eradicated and even before that, the pasuk says a "naar" (young person) will die at 100.

Dec 9, 2009

Promoting Shabbos and Tznius

Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon makes an interesting observation.  He says that nowadays, whenever some calamity happens, people are quick to lay the blame on deficiencies in shemiras ha'lashon (I would add the related sin of lack of Ahavas Yisrael and machlokes), but if you look into the collected letters of the Chofetz Chaim where he refers to many disasters (pogroms, fires, poverty, communism) he never connects them to shemiras ha'lashon! Usually, he lays the blame on the lack of Shabbos observance and tznius.  Occasionally, he also mentions bittul Torah and poor tefilla, but never shemiras ha'lashon.

The problem as I see it is, shemiras ha'lashon is something that applies equally to men and women, so when we are urged to improve in this area, nobody feels uncomfortable.  The same would also apply to Shabbos observance.  But if people try to promote tznius and point out failings in tznius, the response is often negative since women don't want to be made to feel that the problems we face are their fault.  You can't help but elicit a defensive reaction when you point a finger at a sub-group.

So what's the solution? Well, for one thing, to promote greater Shabbos observance.  There are certainly plenty of books available in so many different formats on the subject of Shabbos.  Some favorites of mine are: Baruch Chait's terrific book on the 39 Melachos: 

"Shabbos Secrets" for inspiration:

and there's "Shemiras Shabbos K'Hilchasa" for practical guidance in Shabbos observance:

As for promoting greater tznius, that's a tough one because it seems that those who are already doing well in this area are the ones who show up for the Kinusim on the subject.  Maybe an avenue that should be pushed more is lecturing men on the subject of tznius with a particular emphasis on urging them to encourage their wives and daughters to dress according to halacha and in an aidel manner.  Too many husbands either tacitly allow or actively urge their wives to dress inappropriately.  And who is paying for their daughters' clothing? Parents should be encouraged to put their foot down and not allow purchases of inappropriate clothing.

Other suggestions? Post your comment! :)

Just Say Yes

Lately, in lectures and articles, it has become prevalent for frum speakers and writers to reassure their audience that saying "no" to a chesed can also be a sign of strength.  After all, most of grew up hearing about those who went out of their way to do the mitzvos of hachnosas orchim and other chasadim, so when we don't feel up to doing a favor we feel guilty.  The new age frum speaker and writer is here to remedy that.  Just say no.  After all, they maintain, if you say yes when you want to say no, you will do the chesed with resentment.

Well, a lone voice is countering what they consider an anti-Torah view.  This person maintains that we need to be less selfish, less self-absorbed.  We need to view those calls for assistance as opportunities, not as a burden.  Just say no because otherwise we'll do the chesed resentfully?! How about saying yes and working on correcting our middos? How about feeling sorry if we really cannot help out? If you cannot have someone for a meal, rather than just saying no, how about helping them find another host?

What would have happened if Rivka Imeinu would have said no when Eliezer asked her for water.  What if she figured: He's an able-bodied man.  I'm a little girl.  He has other men with him.  They can manage on their own.  What am I, their servant? They're not going to take advantage of me!

There seems to be a disconnect between what we learn in Torah and the stories of old and today's new perspective.

Dec 8, 2009

Message from Lakewood Mashgiach: Prepare to Greet Moshiach!

For those who didn't get to read it or hear about it - There was a crowd estimated at 8000 people at a Hachnosas Sefer Torah in Lakewood which included nearly all the talmidim and members of the community. At the seudas mitzva, the mashgiach, Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon publicly thanked Hashem for the great progress his wife made since her heart attack in the summer and then went on to say:

"One evening, when my rebbetzin was in the hospital, I dozed off as I sat by her bedside.  I am not one who dreams or remembers dreams but I had the most vivid vision of the rosh yeshiva (and founder of the Lakewood yeshiva), Rabbi Aharon Kotler.  He looked exactly as he did when I saw him when I was a bochur in Gateshead" (R' Salomon saw R' Kotler one time when he said a shiur in Gateshead).

"He looked right at me and pointed his finger towards me, 'You ... if you accept upon yourself to remain in Lakewood as mashgiach until Moshiach's arrival, then your rebbetzin will be cured and together with her you will welcome Moshiach.'"

Then Rabbi Salomon said, "Rabosai! He said until Moshiach comes, and I am not a young man anymore.  Let's be prepared!"

Brainwashing versus Chinuch


The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines "brainwashing" as:

1 : a forcible indoctrination to induce someone to give up basic political, social, or religious beliefs and attitudes and to accept contrasting regimented ideas

2 : persuasion by propaganda or salesmanship

Is instilling your values in your children brainwashing?

What about those who refer to religious instruction, including what is taught in our frum homes and schools, as brainwashing (whether they use that word or imply it) - are they right? wrong?

It has been said that someone who raises their children with a religious education cannot be said to be brainwashing them, any more than one who raises their children with a secular education. Weren't the citizens of the Soviet Union (and other communist countries) brainwashed with atheism?

Brainwashing is to remove what is in the brain and put something else there.

Teaching is not brainwashing as it is to fill a void in the brain!

Since our Sages say that Jews are maaminim bnei maaminim ("believers children of believers") then telling our children about Hashem is telling them something they already know, albeit not intellectually.

Our Sages say that the fetus is taught the entire Torah in the uterus, so teaching children Torah and about mitzvos is teaching them something that they learned before.

So rather than indoctrinating (drilling) them with ideas about G-d, Torah, and mitzvos, chinuch is actually reminding them of that which they knew already on a soul-level.

That's vastly different than thinking that you have to convince them of the truths of Torah.

Dec 6, 2009

Increase the Light

If you read frum English publications, and there are many these days and that's wonderful, you will notice that they publish the "psychological/emotional/mental issue of the week." I am inclined to think that it is psychologically detrimental, as well as damaging to our spiritual health, to be exposed, on a regular basis, to abnormal situations.

I think that children as well as adults, need to be fortified with that which is healthy and true and good, and be as underexposed as possible to that which is unhealthy, false and bad.

I think that educators must be very wary about teaching the dangers of abnormal eating practices to young girls, for example, for their good intentions might backfire! For children who weren't aware that food could be regarded in such a sick way, it gives them ideas they never entertained on their own!

When 11 year olds tease each other using the words bulimic and anorexic, I think this should be setting off warning bells in the minds of well-intentioned teachers and parents, who think exposing children to the abnormal behavior of very few individuals is beneficial.

I am concerned not only about publicizing eating disorders, but about numerous issues that have been exposed to the frum public, seemingly with positive intentions. I wonder whether the approach backfires, and the more talk there is about children at risk, the more children at risk there are; the more talk there is about eating disorders, the more people are discovered to have them; the more talk there is about spousal and child abuse, the more abuse there is; the more learning disabilities are discussed, the more children are diagnosed with them; the more mental illness is described at length in popular magazines, the more people discover they have these illnesses.

Is it that pre-existing problems are being exposed and dealt with, OR that talking about it, dwelling on it, and teaching about it, INCREASES THE NUMBERS? Maybe it's both.

The media knows that when they report some awful teen incident of suicide or violence, there is the "copycat" effect. An article in Scientific American, Feb. 2001 said:

“Less obvious, however, are the circumstances under which social validation can backfire … An example is the understandable but potentially misguided tendency of health educators to call attention to a problem by depicting it as regrettably frequent. Information campaigns stress that alcohol and drug use is intolerably high, that adolescent suicide rates are alarming and that polluters are spoiling the environment.

"Although the claims are both true and well-intentioned, the creators of these programs have missed something basic about the compliance process. Within the statement, “Look at all the people who are doing this undesirable thing, lurks the powerful and undercutting message, “Look at all the people who are doing this undesirable thing.”

"Research shows that, as a consequence, many such programs boomerang, generating even more of the undesirable behavior."

I maintain that by spending our time and energy reading and talking about how to positively change ourselves, about good marriages, about healthy eating, about teenagers accomplishing wonderful things, etc. - in other words, “light” - we will accomplish a whole lot more than focusing on the “darkness”. This is not to say there is no darkness. It's not about denial. It's about zeroing in and highlighting the good, in order to increase it, which simultaneously diminishes the darkness. 

The secular media inundates us with negative news.  If you listen to the news on the radio in the morning you can start your day with a fire, rape, robbery and some international problem.  No wonder then that we feel the need to read articles about combatting depression!  Let there be an effort to keep it 80%-20% in favor of the positive in our frum publications so we can face the world fortified with simcha and bitachon!

"Seeking Daas Torah" - argh!

The pervasive and incorrect usage of the phrase "daas Torah," in recent years is getting quite annoying. If a halachic question is asked of a qualified rabbi, the answer is the rav's psak. If a non-halachic question is asked of a qualified rabbi, rebbetzin, zaide, parent, the answer may be an eitza or an opinion.

Now the word "dei'ah" (as in daas) means opinion, but that is certainly not how the phrase "daas Torah" is currently being used by certain segments of the yeshivishe world. Not until the rise of the Chasidic movement do we find that people consulted Torah scholars for business, medical etc. advice and followed it blindly. And the Misnagdim found this extremely objectionable! It is extremely peculiar that many non-Chasidic people today have taken on this "blind faith" approach to non-halachic issues which they have termed "daas Torah."

R' Chaim Volozhiner (Ruach Chaim 1:4) writes: It is forbidden for a student to accept his teacher's words if he has questions on them. In other words, according to R' Chaim V. there is no such thing as blindly accepting what someone tells you. You might choose to because you think the person has good advice, but people were not indoctrinated with the idea of daas Torah until recent decades.

In the "Ruach Chaim" of Rav Chaim Volozhiner on the Mishna in Avos, "Marbeh eitzah marbeh sevunah," he says that when seeking advice, you should ask numerous people, collect all the different opinions, and then use their collective wisdom to make a decision for yourself, since you ultimately know your situation better than anybody, but others are perhaps wiser than you, so if you combine their wisdom and apply it to your self-knowledge, you will have good advice.

This was certainly the approach in Litvishe circles up until recently.  But now, in frum publications you can find the misuse of the "daas Torah" phrase such as (in an article about herbal medicine this disclaimer:) "In serious medical situations, it is important to consult daas Torah ..." This sounds ludicrous. If there is a shaila to be asked, it is asked of a rav or posek!

Even worse (as seen in a popular frum publication): "They got daas Torah not to ... "


Never was such a phrase heard in the history of the Jewish people until the past few years and for good reason! It's ridiculous! If someone got advice not to do something, they should say so. If someone got a psak not to do something, they should say so. "They got daas Torah"?! What on earth does that mean?

This "daas Torah" phrase, which has crept into our speech, obscures rather than clarifies. It implies that the person who was consulted gave a ruach ha'kodesh type of answer which cannot be disagreed with, when it was nothing of the kind. Please oh please, avoid using this phrase!
Let's get back to saying:

"I asked my rav ..."

"I consulted with my rosh yeshiva ..."

"I discussed the matter with the mashgiach to get his opinion ..."

"I spoke with my Rebbetzin ..."

Dec 3, 2009

What is the REAL problem - Drinking L'Chaim?!

Rabbi Reisman publicly said at the Aguda convention last week that if he gets shnapps in mishloach manos, he pours it down the drain.  When asked by his congregants what they should serve at a yartzeit, he said cake and juice, and that shnapps is a goyishe minhag (a ridiculous and nasty assertion).

The way it used to be is that Jews drank shnapps and drunkenness was practically unheard of.  Today, because of a loosening of discipline in so many areas of our lives, R' Reisman is trying to counter this by advocating a zero tolerance to alcohol.  Is this a Torah approach? Is his approach a good one? Has zero tolerance (with no means of enforcement) proven effective in the past?

Well, when the United States tried Prohibition, 1919 to 1933, during which the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol for consumption were banned, Mafia groups which had previously limited their activities to gambling and theft took on the profitable black market for alcohol. Powerful gangs corrupted law enforcement agencies, leading to racketeering. Stronger liquor surged in popularity because its potency made it more profitable to smuggle.  When repeal of Prohibition occurred in 1933, organized crime lost nearly all of its black market alcohol profits in most states.

As far as frum people are concerned, well yes, there is a thing in halacha called swearing off consumption of something, as a geder, a protective fence.  But this is something that an individual has to commit to on his own and do so very carefully, so it works to protect him, not entice him.  An all-out ban of alcohol (other than wine presumably) which R' Reisman is promoting seems counter-productive to me and there is no source in Torah which says that we should forswear alcohol.

More importantly, is R' Reisman addressing the root cause of a problem or is he just picking on a symptom? Is the problem that too many people in frum society are drinking or is the real problem that too many frum people are lacking in discipline, lacking in yiras shomayim, lacking in simchas ha'chaim, and turning to forms of gratification that goyim are known for.


I just finished reading a book written by the Duggars, a Christian couple who are expecting their 19th child in March.  I found their description of how they teach their children obedience quite interesting.  It sounds like an old-fashioned word, obedience, because it goes against the American values of independence, democracy, freedom to do and say as you please.  It was quite refreshing to read about this!

The Duggars teach why obedience is so important.  In teaching their children to obey their parents they are also teaching them to listen to G-d.  Their goal is to get their children to understand:

1) to obey instantly because if they don't listen immediately it's not obedience

2) to obey cheerfully - they say G-d wants us to obey Him joyfully and parents want the same thing from their children

3) to carry out whatever they are told thoroughly, completely

4) to listen unconditionally, without arguing

I don't think frum parents want to hear "Yes, ma'am" when they tell their children to do something, but since we are enjoined to learn from everyone, I think we can take a lesson from the Duggars about teaching obedience.  For we say that the reason we have a mitzva of Kibud Av v'Eim, honoring our parents, is that we honor Hashem.  If we disrespect our parents' authority, we will end up disrespecting Hashem's authority.

Dec 1, 2009

Astonishing Reversal

In a recent news item it said, "Most women should wait until age 50 to get mammograms and then have one every two years, a government task force said Monday in a major reversal that conflicts with the American Cancer Society's long-standing recommendation of annual screening starting at 40.

Also, the task force said breast self-exams do no good and women shouldn't be taught to do them."


The Associated Press report said, "For nearly two decades, the cancer society has been recommending regular mammograms beginning at 40. But the government panel of doctors and scientists concluded that getting screened for breast cancer so early and so often is harmful, causing too many false alarms and unneeded biopsies without substantially improving women's odds of surviving the disease."

Someone commenting on this new item wrote:

Rigorous studies show that women screened die at the same rate as women who are not screened. The reasons are probably some combination of the fact that screening detects tumors that are less likely to be lethal and misses the fast growing lethal tumors, screening results in dangerous treatments that have life-threatening side effects, screening itself may cause tumors because of the radiation doses, still-ineffective treatments even after decades of research, or some other factor.

The ineffectiveness of cancer screening (not limited to mammography) is one of the most depressing things that I have dealt with in my career as a researcher. (I am a Biostatistics Professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.)

He went on to say:

In the general population, mammography screening for breast cancer in the general population has been PROVEN not to reduce breast cancer mortality in women under the age of 50. A drug that is proven to be useless is pulled from the market!

This morning I had an email exchange with the (frum) chief of radiology at one of the major New York hospitals. She has been concerned for a long time that radiation from imaging may well be *causing* some of the cancers that are detected by mammography.

Alarmist and Unhelpful Approach to Postpartum Depression

The frum world is doing its best to publicize more and more articles about mental illnesses and disorders.  One topic that is quite popular is post-partum depression.  In an ad for a new book published for frum people on this topic, it is claimed that PPD affects 80% of women after childbirth.  Nitza - The Jerusalem Postpartum Support Network claims 85% of women have some PPD reactions for a few weeks.

What doesn't come across clearly, is that they are referring to feelings of mild depression, crying spells, anxiety, irritability, and mood swings which, if the truth be told, women occasionally feel even without giving birth.  It is quite normal when experiencing hormonal changes and sleep deprivation to feel this way.  This is not postpartum depression.

This is a letter that I wrote to a frum publication about their handling of this topic:

In your about postpartum depression a doctor is quoted as comparing postpartum depression to diabetes and says that just as a diabetic must take medication, a woman experiencing postpartum depression must take medication.

Yet later in the article, Michal Finkelstein RN CNM says, “A loving friend, neighbor, relative, or spouse can intervene with kindness and empathy … this along with some physical support (childcare, meal preparation, and housework assistance) may even be enough to help her overcome her postpartum depression.” In other words, the comparison to diabetes is fallacious, for even if a diabetic is offered the optimum in moral and physical support, this will not help their insulin problem!

I’ve noticed that lately, the diabetes analogy is used quite regularly for conditions that bear no resemblance to diabetes. For reasons peculiar to our culture today, people prefer hearing that their condition is medical and requiring medication, rather than something they can overcome with the proper emotional, physical, spiritual help and Torah guidance.

I feel for the woman in the article who was recommended hospitalization and Prozac and I believe her when she says, “I’m not sick. You don’t understand what I’m feeling. I don’t need that. I just want someone to talk to and hold my hand.”

I think that providing listening ears and physical help will go a long way towards alleviating and eliminating most postpartum depression.

Unfortunately, frum sources tend to push medication and even when they mention nipping the problem in the bud with proper physical and moral support, the latter is drowned out by the medical model.

The way I'd like to see it written is:

Postpartum depression may or may not require medical intervention. As a first resort, women should be strongly encouraged by their spouse, doctor, and anybody who is concerned for their welfare, to take it easy, accept help, not be a martyr, to value their health over their independently taking care of everything, and to postpone commitments to the community and to their family that jeopardize their state of well-being. If women have been given the moral and physical help they need and still experience depression, then they should seek out medical intervention, but in the vast majority of cases, moral support, physical help, and reduced demands, are what a woman needs.

The Impact of Stress on Our Health

More than half of all cases of heart disease are not related to the common risk factors of high cholesterol, smoking, or inactivity. (Integration of Physiology and Behavioral Scienc)

In a Mayo Clinic study of people with heart disease, emotional stress was the strongest single predictor of further problems, such as heart attack or cardiac arrest (Mayo Clinic Proceedings)

Three separate studies have shown that stress is more closely related to heart disease and to cancer than smoking is. (British Journal of Medical Psychology)

A study conducted at Harvard showed that men who experience elevated chronic anxiety are six times more likely than contented men to die from a sudden heart attack. (Circulation)

Living with the principles of Shaar Ha'Bitachon is not only a spiritual accomplishment; it has a tremendous effect on our physical health.

In R' Bachya ibn Pekuda's Chovos Ha'Levavos, shaar ha'bitachon, he writes:

If we knew we had a friend who:

1) never ceases worrying about us

2) is able to fulfill our wishes

3) knows our exact needs and what is good for us

4) controls all the people and powers in the world and does not allow any of them to harm or benefit us without his consent

5) is overflowing with kindness and compassion even if we are undeserving

we would totally relax and stop worrying about ANYTHING.

Hashem is merciful and gracious; He neither slumbers nor sleeps, He is your Father, He made you, Hashem is good to all and His mercy is on all His creations etc.

What children admire in a parent

For the full article see book called Mothers and Daughters

Kate Shupe and her nine daughters

At 96, her back is as straight as a cutting board, her mind as sharp as her kitchen knives and her hands still strong enough to plant and tend her sprawling vegetable garden.

Born in the last year of the 19th century, married during World War I to a man who worked all his life as a guard at a Virginia state hospital.

She raised her brood during the Depression, fed them with food she farmed and cooked herself and often dressed them in clothes she sewed from feed bags. Every one of them finished high school; some graduated from college. When Kate was 54 she put aside her housework and took a job in a hospital until her retirement at 62.

Since then she has visited all but 6 of the United States, most recently camping in a tent with one of her daughters. She was 80 when she finally traded in her wringer-washer for an automatic model. She still vacuums every day, makes quilts and aprons and faithfully sends birthday cards with a dollar inside to each of her 24 grandchildren and 30 great-grandchildren. She has survived 12 brothers and sisters, her husband who died of heart disease in 1976, two daughters and one infant son, 18 American Presidents and the loss of a cancerous kidney at age 90.

7 of her 9 daughters live within 15 minutes of her Virginia home and every single Sat. night, twenty or thirty of the clan gather together with Mama for a covered-dish supper.

Mama Kate's formula for living: I lived a straight life. I never used bad language - that's a sin. Never smoked. Never drank. Worked real hard. I never think about being tired and I never complain. G-d has given me good health. The girls ask me all the time, "Mommy, are you stressed?" I say, "Tell me how you feel when you're stressed and I'll know whether I am or not."

"I stayed right in the house with my children every day they were growing up. Always tried to treat all my girls the same ... And I always told them to be nice ...

Her daughters, all grown with children and grandchildren of their own, still lean on their mother as the foundation of their family. Joan explains, "I don't think any of us could be there for our two or three children the way Mama has been there looking after all twelve of us. No matter how busy she was, in the midst of baking bread or rolls, we'd come flying in and she would always take the time to listen and tend to us. She never had an automatic yes or no answer."

She's very wise. If anyone in the family does something she thinks isn't quite right, she has a little chat with them ... I don't think Mama ever made us feel bad about ourselves ... she just instilled this feeling of security.

She's loving. She just has a loving presence. And I'll always remember her cooking.

I think of Mama as a lady. She always taught us to be kind to our fellow man ... she taught us to be independent, responsible, strong women.

She's very comforting.

Mama's strength and comfort helps us overcome most anything. I had major surgery and there's Mama standing over me saying "you have to do better, you have to fight this ..." If you're lying there dying and you've got an 85 year old woman telling you this, you're gonna try and get up.

She's appreciative, nothing you give her is too small that she doesn't appreciate it.

She's very kind. When papa died - she was the strong one ... I will always remember her encouragement ...

We never have to feel at all inhibited when she's with us, worrying there's something she might not like. She was always in our corner, making us feel secure and wanted. She taught us to accept responsibility and be independent and communicated to us by example, not by pressure. And she had such patience.

When I think of her having all those babies, taking care of us, cooking, doing laundry on a washboard, ironing with irons heated on the stove, milking cows, gardening, canning, feeding the chickens, helping Papa saw wood - how she managed is beyond my imagination.

We were poor in money but we were not poor in spirit or material things. We had plenty of food, clothing and warmth. We made our own toys, sat around nights and sang. Life with Mama is never boring. She is just fascinating.

We put her on a pedestal because she deserves it.

On the Saturday night get-togethers it is not uncommon for Mama Kate to sit at the organ in her living room surrounded by her beaming daughters while she powerfully pumps out hymn after hymn.