Jul 28, 2010

I've got to stop speculating!

When am I going to learn?

Not to speculate.  Definition: To engage in a course of reasoning often based on inconclusive evidence.

What a waste of time.  But it's easy to get drawn in:

- Maybe he/she meant ...
- Probably what happened was ...
- I think it means ...

We (I) do it when someone doesn't return our call, when we wonder about some news item and come up with theories about this and that, when we assume motives.

I'm not talking here about "dan l'chaf zechus" (judging favorably).  It's more about coming up with explanations for things we read and hear about.  It's usually a waste of energy because a) we don't have all the information and b) we simply can't read other people's minds.

In some cases, just by waiting things become clear.  In other cases, we can take the initiative and ask questions.  Otherwise, no speculating!

Jul 21, 2010

The State of Israel Acts as our Stepmother

I am reading Eretz Yisrael in the Parashah by Rabbi Litchtman which contains divrei Torah that highlight the centrality of Eretz Yisrael in the Torah.  The author, a modern Orthodox rabbi, made aliya in 1991 and urges all Jews to do the same.

I have no argument with his divrei Torah (at least the ones I've read so far) for he quotes from reputable sources.  However, his conclusions are another story.

What particularly aroused my ire this week is a section called "Foreign Labor" that begins on p. 326.  He refers to the Chazal which says, "Jews [who live] outside the Land worship avoda zara in purity."  Elsewhere in the Gemara it says that the term "avoda zara" can mean "work that is foreign to him."  Based on this idea, R' Shalom of Belz explains, "Jews who live outside Eretz Yisrael do foreign work in purity."  Meaning, they work for the sake of others.  All the effort they put into building up the lands of galus is foreign to them because whatever they build or produce there eventually falls into the hands of others.

The Zionist author of the book learns a lesson from this that we should leave the diaspora for Eretz Yisrael.  He quotes Eim Ha'Banim Semeichah where the author urges us to return to our "true mother," Eretz Yisrael.  He bemoans the money we invested in other lands which he calls our "stepmother."  How did our stepmother treat us? "She took a staff and hit us cruelly and mercilessly .. She also banished us completely and took our money from us.  We were forced to leave her house ... Now should we put our faith in her for the future and return to her once again? How can we be so sure that after a few decades she will not do this to us again?"

The author of Eim Ha'Banim Semeichah was murdered in 1945.  Not in his wildest dreams would he have imagined what took place during the summer of 2005.  Five years ago, the State of Israel destroyed Gush Katif and settlements in Northern Shomron.  1700 families were forced to leave their homes where some had been living for 30 years.  Jews bulldozed homes, 33 kindergartens, 6 elementary schools, 3 high schools, 6 yeshivos, 3 kollelim and 21 settlements.  They abandoned hothouses that were estimated to be worth over $80 million.  The agricultural produce of Gush Katif represented some 10% of all agricultural produce raised in Israel.  They dismanted 38 shuls which were later desecrated by the Arabs.  47 bodies were exhumed from the cemetery.

And yet R' Lichtman urges us to make aliya! My questions to him are:

If our "true mother" [his beloved State of Israel] acts like a "stepmother," why should we go to her? How did Jews in Israel treat us? "She [Jews in Israel] took a staff and hit us cruelly and mercilessly .. She also banished us completely and took our money from us. We were forced to leave her house ..."  The chilul Hashem picture of Jews in riot gear throwing the Jews in Amona out of their homes, won the Pulitzer Prize. 

I quote R' Teichtel and ask R' Lichtman: Should we put our faith in her [the State of Israel] for the future and return to her once again? How can we be so sure that after a few decades she will not do this to us again?" when this calamity was not even the first of its kind.  Israel gave the Sinai and its oil fields to Egypt and destroyed the settlement of Yamit.  In fact, some residents of destroyed Yamit resettled in Gush Katif only to have their homes destroyed yet again, by Jews who act as our "stepmother."

When will the religious-Zionists open their eyes?

Jul 11, 2010

Campers' Expectations

In an article about summer camps in the Catskills, the director of Camp Aguda-Bnos and the director of Camp Hedvah both said that they must adjust to new expectations from their campers.  Meir Frischman said, "Our learning groups have been held in these gazebos for decades.  Nowadays, the campers expect air conditioning in their gazebos.  Each of the past three years we've enclosed a few gazebos; this year, we're enclosing three more."

I would like to know where these expectations came from. Surely it was hot in camp for all those decades.  Presumably some campers moaned about the heat all along.  So what made him decide to accede to the campers' wishes for air conditioning? Was it the campers who exerted the pressure or their parents? Did parents say, "We are paying plenty of money and we would like our children to be able to learn comfortably"? What would happen if he said, "We have never had air conditioning and what worked in the past will continue to work"? Would he lose many campers to other camps?

R' Levi: "Comfortable accomodations and standard on-site activities just don't do it anymore.  Girls expect many more trips and special days.  My wife and the head counselor hold weekly meetings beginning in December to organize a fun schedule."

Going away to camp is not good enough.  You have to go off camp grounds in order to have fun.  Having activities on camp grounds is booooring.  The change of scenery from city to camp is not enough.  Why do the girls expect many more trips and special days? Is this about spoiled kids or is it about competition between camps - if one camp puts in a go-kart track, then other camps do the same.  If one camp takes its campers to Hershey Park, ice skating, bowling etc. then other camps follow because otherwise their camp won't be patronized.

Day camps are joining the manic activity frenzy. Someone told me she wanted to keep her 7 yr. old home from a day camp trip, a full day trip to a big amusement park followed by a BBQ.  There was an extra charge involved though this wasn't the main or only reason to be opposed to it.  If this is what is provided a 7 year old, what will you give a jaded 10 year old who has been everywhere and done everything? And how should parents handle it when they are opposed to these extravagant outings for chinuch and other reasons? Should they complain to the director (who will tell them they have the option of not sending their child on the trip)? How should they explain their views to their child?

According to an article in Mishpacha's Family First women's section about sending nosh to kids in camp, "Today's campers aren't as easily impressed as we were when we were kids." The article goes on to describe just how to overcome this challenge with package themes etc. rather than DECRY the situation and offer suggestions on how to properly mechanech children.

Seems to me like a topic that ought to be discussed at conventions and addressed by mechanchim.  Perhaps we need to put forth our chinuch expectations so that there is another message being heard by camp directors.

Jul 8, 2010

Jews are Great

I read a Chizuk message that said:

We are far from perfect. We sin, we fall, we fail.
And we come to Hashem with requests for life, health, zivugim, etc. and when we are ready to show what we are giving in exchange, we open our palm and discover - nothing!
What do we have to 'pay' for these gifts?
Our palm lies open, and empty.
We lower our eyes in embarrassment. We are asking for a free handout.
Not only do I not deserve the kings good, but quite the opposite; I deserve to be punished for all the times I accidentally failed you! Yet you treat me with kindness anyway. I have no way to ever repay you for all you give me, king. But I can promise to always try."

We can't ever deserve Hakadosh Baruch Hu's chesed.

Hashem doesn't expect us to, as He knows it's impossible.

It's probably because I have fallen prey to the Entitlement Generation's sentiments but I don't relate very well to the ideas presented above.  I find it amazing that after all G-d put us through we, the Jewish people, are still hanging in there, doing mitzvos. 

Over the past 250 years or so, Hashem inflicted us with pogroms, government persecution such as unfair debilitating taxes, abduction of Jewish children to serve in the Czar's army, abduction of Jewish children in Moslem countries when they were orphaned or unmarried, socialism, communism, the development of modern scientific thought, World Wars, the Blue Laws in America and on and on.  And when it comes Pesach and I think of all the Jews, all over the world, with and without a Jewish education, who are celebrating a seder, and come September, all the Jews who attend shul, who fast on Yom Kippur.  Those who light Chanuka Menorahs, who support Jewish education when they themselves are not even religious. The newly religious who may be the first in their family for several generations to be shomer Shabbos.  Those who kasher their kitchens.  The Jews who have received a proper Jewish education who stick proudly to Jewish observance despite the fact that the outside world is very tempting and they are a tiny minority within the Jewish people.

Hilchos Shabbos.  Hilchos Shemiras Ha'Lashon.  Hilchos Talmud Torah.  Love and Fear of Hashem.  Do not stray after your hearts and eyes.  Eliminate anger.  Be exceedingly humble.  Fargin others.  The chesed that is done.  Opening up homes, hearts, wallets.  Attending shiurim.  Listening to shiurim in cars, on phones, on mp3 players.  All the obligations.  The exhortations to grow spiritually.  To cultivate good middos.  To be grateful.  To make good use of our time.  To love every Jew.  It's a very, very tall order.

I like Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev's approach.  He addressed G-d and said: If You placed Olam Haba and Gan Eden and (l'havdil) Gehinnom right in front of us, and You put the enticements of the world into a sefer, then surely no Jew would sin.  But now that You put all the enticements of the world right in front of us and You put Gan Eden etc. in a sefer, well, it's not surprising ....

Jul 7, 2010

Feeling Good

Fox News reported:

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a recent interview that his "foremost" mission as the head of America's space exploration agency is to improve relations with the Muslim world. Please tell me he isn't serious!

Though international diplomacy would seem well outside NASA's orbit, Bolden said in an interview with Al Jazeera that strengthening those ties was among the top tasks President Obama assigned him. He said better interaction with the Muslim world would ultimately advance space travel. No explanations as to how this will happen when Moslems get zero credit for any advances in space travel made to date.

"When I became the NASA administrator -- or before I became the NASA administrator -- he charged me with three things. One was he wanted me to help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math, he wanted me to expand our international relationships, and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science ... and math and engineering ," Bolden said in the interview. Now this is post-worthy!

Never mind that Moslem contributions in recent centuries are negligible and the claims made about inventions associated with Moslem countries are so far in the past that many of them have no reliable confirmation.  Let's put aside, for the moment, the extremely alarming attitude our president has towards the nations of the world and his groveling before our enemies and focus on just how far the self esteem movement has gone.

All those books, articles, and speeches on self-esteem that we have been subjected to, in and out of the frum world, are not just about positivity and confidence. It goes much, much further than that. It's all about "feeling good about yourself" just l'sheim feeling good.  Can you imagine people in the shtetl or wherever Jews lived throughout the ages, being asked: Tell me, do you feel good about yourself? For that matter, l'havdil, any non-Jew past a certain age finds this sort of talk odd for this is very, very new talk.

In days gone by though not so long ago (1973-1983), heading the list of qualities that American parents said they most valued in children were:

obeys parents well
has good sense and judgment

followed by being responsible, considerate and other similar values.

My guess as to what today's American parents would say as their #1 priority for their children is a toss-up between "their being happy" and "having self esteem."  And how are children faring today as compared to a few decades ago? In the frum world we seem to be suffering from a multitude of problems that no, I don't think were merely hidden before and were there along to the extent we have them today.  I think we are experiencing an explosion of destructive, counter-productive, undisciplined, un-Jewish behavior.  I don't attribute all our problems to the promotion of self-esteem as opposed to G-d-esteem, but it definitely ranks up there as a major contributor to our lack of well-being

The focus in Avodas Hashem is, or ought to be, Hashem, not self. It's not about feeling good about yourself, but about whether Hashem is happy with you.  Time to get back to basics.

Jul 6, 2010

Follow-up post about Judging

Previously, I wrote (see here) about the tension between the injunction to judge others favorably while not fudging on what's right and wrong and rebuking others when the halacha says to do so.  Note - When it says in Pirkei Avos to judge others favorably it is telling us: Yes, judge them! How? Favorably.

I am astonished and amused time and again when in conversation, someone piously repeats the popular mantra of our times, "I'm not judging anyone ..." while proceeding to do just that! See for yourself.  The next time someone tells you, "Far be it for me to judge," or "Who am I to judge?" see if they actually do judge nevertheless. 

I don't think it's because they mean to be hypocritical, espousing a standard but not living up to it.  I think it's because they are mindlessly repeating a line without acknowledging that our human intellect is constantly observing and sorting the information it takes in.  It is dishonest (and they don't seem to realize it) to eschew judging when our critical faculties judge as automatically as we breathe and quite silly to disdain judging while judging! Aren't they judging others negatively when they say, "You are being judgmental"? They might say, no, I am simply observing that you are judging, but where does that get us ... Anybody can claim they were just making an observation and not, G-d forbid, judging anyone.

Bottom line:

The human condition is that we are discerning and this is good as it says, "Im ein daas, havdala minayin?" (If there is no daas-understanding, how can you differentiate between things?). 

Actions can and should be judged as right or wrong, according to halacha.

There are times to judge favorably, times we can be neutral, times to judge negatively (see previous post on the subject).  There are times to rebuke others.

As for the statement, "Do not judge your fellow until you reach his place," that means we can never fully understand another person since they grew up differently than us (even within the same family) and were given a unique set of genes, drives, Yetzer Hara, understanding and circumstances and therefore we cannot come to conclusions about their motivations.   Hashem can.

Jul 5, 2010

Most Often Repeated Stories

Here is my list of most often repeated Jewish stories (post Gemara era) told in books and lectures.  If you have additional suggestions, please let me know!

1) R’ Aryeh Levine and his wife at the doctor: “Our foot hurts us.”

2) R’ S.Z. Auerbach at wife’s funeral, nothing to ask mechila for

3) R’ Zushe – they won’t ask me why I wasn’t like Moshe Rabeinu

4) Told about the Maggid of Mezritch and the Chofetz Chaim – “Where is your furniture?”

5) Maggid sends poor man to R’ Zushe to find out how to deal with troubles. R’ Zushe said, “I don't know why he sent you to me. I haven't had troubles in my life."

6) In the time of the Baal Shem Tov a community was threatened with severe Divine punishment. Aware of this, the Baal Shem Tov davened unusually long that Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. A Jewish shepherd boy, illiterate, expert at imitating animal sounds and seeing the excitement in the shul and the hearing the weeping loudly cried out, “Cock-a-doodle-do, Hashem have rachmanus!” The Baal Shem Tov later said that it was this boy’s sincere prayer that cancelled the heavenly decree.

7) Wife of R’ Michel of Zlotchov smashes his esrog's pitem, upset that he sold the precious tefillin, he keeps quiet, he lost the esrog, should he also lose his shalom bayis?

8) R’ Yisrael Salanter – learns lesson from the shoemaker: “As long as the candle burns, it is still possible to repair”

9) R’ Akiva Eiger, man spills wine at the seder, R’ Akiva shakes the table to spill wine too and says the table seems to be shaky

10) Man who escorts R’ S.Z. Auerbach home notices him straightening his clothes at the entrance to the house and asks whether he is expecting an important guest. He says yes, the Shechina. When husband and wife live together in peace, the Shechina dwells there.

11) Man complains to the Steipler that his wife is disorganized erev Shabbos. The Steipler yelled, “Nem a bezzem” – take a broom! Help her out!

12) R’ Moshe – ink spills over his new Gemara and rather than be upset he says it looks better that way

13) R’ Moshe – someone who drove him accidentally slammed the door on his fingers but he didn’t utter a sound. Later, those who observed it asked him why he restrained himself and R’ Moshe said, he was kind enough to drive me. Did I have to make him feel bad?

14) The Chofetz Chaim once testified in a Polish court as a character witness on behalf of a student who was accused of a crime. After he did so, the student’s lawyer told the judge, “I would like to tell the court the greatness of this rabbi. A thief once stole something from him and he pursued him shouting, “I forgive you! It’s yours!” so that the thief wouldn’t be guilt of sinning because of him. Skeptical, the judge said, “You believe that?” Said the lawyer, “I didn’t personally witness it but people aren’t relating these stories about you and me!”

15) The Satmar Rebbe gives a tzedaka donation to someone who asks for one and afterwards is told the man is a phony to which he says, “Boruch Hashem, I’m glad to hear he’s not in need.

16) R’ Aharon Kotler would say to use the manned toll booth because it’s not kavod ha’briyos to pass up a man for a machine

17) Story about nasty neighbor in Yerushalayim who cut down the woman’s laundry and yet she kept quiet. The nasty neighbor’s child became sick and she came running to her to ask for forgiveness. The woman forgave her and she merited giving birth to a special child who grew up to be a tzaddik. (Story erroneously attributed to the mother of R’ Elyashiv but he was born in Europe and came to Israel when he was 12)

Jul 4, 2010

Language and Us

 He was a typical macho Israeli who did not even want to sit down next to a religious man, he so despised what he stood for.  Nevertheless, when he eventually sat down and began speaking in Yiddish, to the astonishment of the rabbi, his persona was transformed.  When asked how he knew Yiddish, the Israeli said, "Ich shtam fun Vizhnitz" (I originate in Vizhnitz) - a Chassidic town in the Ukraine. 

I found the idea fascinating, that the language we speak has an effect on our demeanor.  Does the melodic tone or harshness of our primary language shape our outlook? Or perhaps it is because Yiddish speaking people have been closely associated with religious observance that by reverting to Yiddish, the man was also slipping into a more traditional mindset ...

As for Yiddish in our schools where the children don't speak Yiddish at home, I am familiar with the arguments against it and they are reasonable and yet, I think it's such a pity that so many of today's children are deprived of it.  Children are adept at learning new languages, the younger they are the easier it is.  If they had Yiddish immersion at a young age, the arguments about the burden of another language the children don't otherwise use would fall away for it wouldn't be a burden. 

I am seeing the products of the no-Yiddish approach and it seems to me that they are lacking in a way that maybe I cannot express in words.  A language goes along with a culture and mentality and otherwise fine and frum children are missing out because their Yiddish expressions are limited to "nebach" and "gezuntheit" and they cannot follow a Yom Tov Ehrlich song.  These songs and the Yiddish language are saturated with gefil that does not carry over in translation.

The solution: Go beyond Yinglish (yeshivish-English like geshmak and gevaldig sprinkled in English language sentences) and learn Yiddish!

Jul 2, 2010

Not So Beautiful

I have enjoyed Hanoch Teller's books in the past but his new book, written after a ten year hiatus, has me disappointed with the very first story.

Why was this story told with pseudonyms when the story was written up years ago with the real names of the people involved?

1) He says the woman was blind from birth when she became blind in her 40's.

2) In his rendition, the woman knew she would be able to see if she could be operated on when in reality, the woman had been told her blindness was genetic and nothing could be done.  A remote possibility that laser surgery could help her was something she planned on exploring.

3) He has the heroine of the story attending a Bais Yaakov school when she actually attended Beis Rifka.  Why not give the girl and her community the credit due them?

4) In his rendition, the idea of seeing an eye doctor is that of the young girl when what really happened was this was a response of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.  Why not give the proper credit?

5) He has them dropping out of the blue on the the local ophthamologist when in reality, they got a recommendation to a specialist.

6) He says the young girl's mother dreaded confronting the doctor about the cost of the surgery when in reality the doctor waived the fee (beyond what the government would cover) immediately.

7) The newly sighted woman made a Seudas Hoda'a to thank the community of Crown Heights who stood by her.  In Teller's inaccurate recounting of the story the many people who played a part in helping out are set aside.

R' Paysach Krohn is to be commended for verifying the details of the stories he tells.  Unfortunately, Teller and another popular story writer don't bother.  They hear a story or read a story and write it as they please, with embellishments and no interest in verifying it for accuracy.

When the talmidim of R' Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch, delivered a Torah discourse, they viewed it as the Oral Law and when they heard a story from him, this was considered the Written Torah.

In the Written Torah, every detail matters.

Jul 1, 2010

That's A Madreiga ...

It often happens that someone tells an inspiring story or concept and the reaction from the listeners is, "That's a madreiga (spiritual level)," meaning - that's beyond us, that's reserved for great people.

But is this so or is it a cop-out? Is it a genuine protest that this is just not for us, or is it a defense mechanism in which something special - an outlook or an action - is dismissed so we are not obligated to do the same?

Here is how I understand when something is actually a madreiga: Someone is inspired by a story about a doctor who saved a life and decide they want to emulate him.  Can they start practicing medicine then and there? Of course not! They have to go to college, medical school, do an internship, residency ... There are steps (madreigos) needed to achieve the goal.

True, often the inspiring stories and ideas that we hear and read are about extraordinary people who did work step by step in their avodas Hashem, in their davening, on their middos, over the course of many years and consequently achieved great things.  But when we hear these stories we can still think about what we can take from the story, what we can emulate in our less rarified lives.  And today, with the numerous books and magazines and online stories about all sorts of people doing special things, not just tzaddikim and great rebbetzins, we can't really fall back on the ol' madreiga excuse, can we ...