Feb 25, 2010

Mind versus Heart

A Maggid arrived in town whose arrival was highly anticipated because he was such a terrific speaker.  When his drasha was nearly finished, he would look at the packed shul.  He had just finished telling them a very sad story and the men sat with lumps in their throats and tears in their eyes.  He suddenly shielded his face with his hand so that only one half of the shul was able to see his expression.  Then he stuck out his tongue and made a funny face.  The half that could see it burst into laughter.  The other half, still moved by his sad story, were still on the verge of tears.  Each side stared at the other, one side unable to understand why the other was not crying and the other baffled why the rest were not laughing.

The Maggid explained to them what he had done and why.  "A moment ago I had you all on the verge of tears and I can make you laugh just as easily.  I can make you feel whatever I want! Never listen to someone just because he is a brilliant speaker.  The message has to be true!"

I was taken by this story, by how we can be manipulated, by how we are susceptible to a good talker or a good writer and are so easily swayed in our emotions.  The prevailing attitude is you can’t argue with feelings and feelings are not right or wrong, they just are – but this is not a Torah view.  And yet, I see it often expressed by frum people.  Our minds are supposed to rule our hearts (mo'ach shalit al ha'lev) but you wouldn't know it nowadays! Today it's "this is how I feel" and that is supposed to give it the stamp of legitimacy.

Feb 22, 2010

Saying "I Love You"

R' Binyamin Ginsberg said he has asked hundreds of children, ages 5-14, whether their parents love them.  He said 84% said "no" or "I don't know," and of the 16% who said "yes," when he asked how they knew, they didn't say -as he would have liked - "because they tell me they love me", but they said their parents buy them things etc. R' Ginsberg urges parents to tell their children, daily, that they love them.

I understand why he finds this so urgent but disagree on a few points.  First, numerous children, myself included, were not told "I love you" by their parents on a daily basis or any basis and yet we know, good and well, that our parents love us.  How do we know? I'll answer as follows.  There are some frum people who maintain that husband and wife should be physically demonstrative in front of their kids because otherwise, the reasoning goes, "how will they know that mommy and daddy love each other?" The response to that is (from those who oppose being physically demonstrative in front of the children), that children know from how their parents speak and look at one another, whether they love each other.  Some might go so far as to say that many a divorced couple hugged and kissed in front of their kids and so those demonstrations don't necessarily reveal the truth of a relationship.  It's the more subtle forms of interaction that are more revealing.

In America there are many people who have adopted the habit of saying "I love you" on a regular basis, when ending phone calls, when leaving the house, at bedtime.  They'll say it to family and friends too. That's okay, I'm not saying it's not, but sometimes it seems so frequent as to be cheap or meaningless like "have a nice day" when the phrase doesn't seem to come from the heart but from habit.  Perhaps the actions, the buying things and doing things for us, express the love far more than words do.

Second, I think the answer "because my parents buy me things" is a good answer from a young child who is probably not capable of articulating how he knows how his parents love him but is secure in the feeling that they do.

Third, we say in our davening that Hashem loves us.  Knowing that Hashem loves us is a basis, says the Chovos Ha'Levavos, for trusting in Him.  Now if you did a poll and asked people whether Hashem loves them and how do they know, what would the answers be? I suppose some learned people would say, "because it says so in the pasuk and Siddur."  Perhaps that is the equivalent of "because they tell me they love me." 

I think many people would respond, "I know Hashem loves me because of all the kindnesses He does for me."  Is this not the equivalent of the children who say they know their parents love them because their parents buy them things?

Which answer reflects a deeper awareness of Hashem's love?

Feb 15, 2010

What to do with Gifts from G-d

In a chapter on talents, Rabbi YY Rubinstein tells of a rosh yeshiva who had displayed a phenemonal talent for art when a child.  The question was asked, "If Hashem has given you such a gift, isn't it a pity that you don't use it anymore?"

The rosh yeshiva answered, "I see symmetry in the Gemara's argument."

R' Rubinstein also tells of one of his own rebbes who was offered a place at Cambridge University because he was such a gifted mathematician and of a well-known rosh yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael who displayed a tremendous talent for chess as a child, so great that he could have easily played at the international level.  He says that no doubt, his rebbe would see logic and structure in the Torah and the rosh yeshiva woudl anticipate the "next move" of a talmid challenging his argument in a shiur.

A close friend of his is a maggid shiur who, long ago, played the flute in the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  When he asked whether the maggid shiur has time to play anymore, the answer was that sometimes he takes time out for relaxation.  In his shiurim though, he often uses music to illustrate a point and make a difficult idea comprehensible.

R' Rubinstein concludes, "The violinist can create a symphony with Torah and the artist can paint the Talmud's pictures (metaphorically) so that thousands can see and appreciate them for the first time.

It doesn't sound right to me.  A potential artist who instead of using the gift Hashem gave him, sees symmetry in the Gemara? I have no idea what that means and what it has to do with his artistic gift which is presumably for drawing.  I can see it more clearly with the mathematician and chess player because in using their brains for Torah study, they are using their gift.  After all, a brilliant person can't use his brains for everything: math, medicine, economics, chess etc. But talents like art and music?

The Midrash (Pesikta Rabasi 25) says that during the times of the Bais HaMikdash, there was a man named Navos who had a very beautiful voice. On Yamim Tovim, when everyone gathered in Yerushalayim, thousands would gather to hear him daven. One year, Navos decided he couldn’t be bothered to come, despite the disappointment of his admirers. Shortly afterwards he was killed and his land confiscated (see Melachim/Kings I 21).

The commentators explain that Navos’ error was that he thought his melodious voice was his gift – to use or not use as he pleased – when in fact it’s ‘on loan’ from HaShem to use in ways that increase His honor and bring pleasure and joy to others. Since he misappropriated his ‘property,’ he had his property taken away from him.  If we don't use our gifts, we will be held accountable, in this world or the next.

So what should we do with children who exhibit gifts for art, music, and working with their hands? If they are boys, many parents are reluctant to cultivate those gifts lest that be a distraction from the child's fulltime Torah study.  I think that if a boy displays a passion for something, not just a passing fancy, that might be a sign from Heaven that he needs to channel it l'kavod shomayim and not ignore it.  Consulting with a wise person is imperative.

Feb 14, 2010

Yiddishkeit - doing it all the way

I was reading a book by a kiruv rabbi and he said he was talking to someone who knew nothing about Judaism.  She said she had heard things about religious Jews and wanted to know "what we do."  The rabbi replied, "We laugh a lot and worry about things like the mortgage and the phone bill and whether we will be to afford a well-earned vacation.  We particularly worry about our children, and sometimes we argue with our spouses.  We try to make what the Torah says the compass by which we steer our lives.  Apart from being religious, we're very much like everyone else."

Now, I can understand why he would say that to someone he was trying to mekarev.  He wanted to convey our normalcy.  He wanted her to be able to relate to religious people.  And maybe this was a fine answer under the circumstances.

But ...

But is it accurate? Are religious Jews the same as everyone else - with our jobs, families, worries and joys - with the addition of a bunch of mitzvos that prevent us from working on Shabbos, eating many things, and that require us to pray and dress a certain way? Are religious Jews accountants, lawyers, doctors, homemakers, writers, entrepreneurs, like everyone else with the addition of Yiddishkeit: i.e normalcy plus

The answer for many of us (most of us?) is yes.  We live like everyone else plus we have to get ready for Shabbos, we have holidays to celebrate, we watch what we say and eat and wear and do.  And that's fine.  There are very few religious Jews (Surveys show that Orthodox Jews account for about 10 percent of the 5.2 million Jews in the United States and about 20 percent of synagogue-affiliated Jews) and the few who follow the Torah are the standard bearers. 

And yet, have you ever met or read about a Jew who is not merely "normal plus" but Yiddish through and through? The kind of person you can't imagine being anything other than religious? When we think about ourselves or people we know and we can say - hmm, yes, if they weren't Jewish or weren't religious, they would be pretty much the same, they'd be in the same profession or doing the same things minus the religious stuff, then to me that says that the commitment, the utter devotion to Hashem is lacking.  If we can view the two - the person and their Yiddishkeit - as separate items, then the love for Hashem is not "with all your heart(s), with all your soul, and with all your might."

Feb 11, 2010

What drives us?


I read that according to one popular author, the 5 most common things that drive our lives are: guilt, anger, fear, materialism, and approval.

Sounds too bleak to me. I would include love-connection.   And search for meaning.

What do you think drives us?