Jul 31, 2011

Age is a State of Mind

I just received a special phone call. 

S is 87 today, 29 Tammuz, and she called to tell me it's her birthday and to bless me.  I take blessings from whoever wants to give them so her brachos were appreciated.

I told her that she's a role model for women decades younger than her.  S moves like a dancer.  She's light on her feet and graceful.  She drives, usually to shiurim.  She attends shiurim and gives shiurim.  She calls into radio shows and tries to make shidduchim.  She eats sparingly and follows an alternative health regimen.  She said she doesn't generally think about her age; when the thought occurs to her, she's startled.  Who me? 87?

We pray that Hashem grant S and all of us good health so that even as we age, we are as young as we feel and we should feel vibrant and eager to do more and more.  No retiring. 

Jul 28, 2011

Reverence for Parents - A Lost Midda?

As heard from the speaker:

She attended Gateshead Seminary and the school was going on a boating outing on Lag B'Omer.  She knew that her parents were opposed to her going on boats, even if it was a school activity and even if it was Lag B'Omer, so despite the importuning of her friends ("Your parents didn't mean this trip ...") and her great desire to join everyone else, she remained behind. 

She sat in the seminary and read until, to her enormous surprise and delight, there was a knock and there were her father and uncle! They had something to take care of in the vicinity and decided to drop in, unannounced, and see her.  Of course, had she gone on the trip, she would have missed seeing them and she felt oh so good, having followed what she knew her parents wanted her to do.

As heard from another speaker:

She grew up in a little town in Europe and there was a childless woman who would frequently give her rides on her bike.  One day, the woman came by to give her a ride, but her mother inexplicably refused to allow her to go.  Shockingly, the woman on the bike was in an accident and was killed.  Her mother had been guided by Heaven to protect her from going with the woman.

What I "took" from these stories, particularly the first one which involved a young lady, not a child, is how powerful family loyalty is, how priceless it is when children are proud and committed to doing as their parents say.  When a child of any age can say with pride that they do or don't do something, "Because that is what my parents do," the parents have done something right in the raising of this child.  The woman of the first story reveres her parents.  How many frum children today revere their parents? They may like their parents and think they're "cool," but reverence? Not doing what you know they wouldn't want you to do even if they are not around to see? Sounds like a firm foundation for yiras shomayim which entails not doing what Hashem doesn't want you to do, even if it doesn't look like He is around to see.

Jul 26, 2011

Seeking Inspiration

I've read a number of Artscroll biographies, which I've enjoyed. Maybe I've chosen to read about interesting personalities. I don't agree with the complaint that the subjects are boring and interchangeable. Anyone who has read the books about R' Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, R' S.R. Hirsch, and R' Pam would have to agree that each one stands out as an individual and their biographies do not consist of: he was a child prodigy, he learned a lot, he learned some more and had students whom he taught.

In an interview, Rabbi Nosson Scherman, Artscroll's general editor, said, "Our goal is to increase Torah learning and yiras shamayim. If somebody can be inspired by a gadol b’Yisrael, then let him be inspired. Is it necessary to say that he had shortcomings? Does that help you become a better person? What about lashon hara? You know in today’s world, lashon hara is a mitzvah. Character assassination sells papers. That’s not what Klal Yisrael is all about."

Is it that I'm not remembering or are the critics exaggerating when they say - the subject was a child prodigy who held from every conceivable chumrah (stringency) and who never said a word of lashon harah.  One reads nothing about the obstacles within their families or society that they had to overcome to become the great people they became.

The reason I've been thinking about this is because I heard a lecture about the Cairo geniza in which they found writing by the Rambam.  The lecturer was very pleased to see that the Rambam doodled.  The geniza expert explained that Rambam's pen was running out of ink, he filled it, and made the squiggle before he continued writing.  The lecturer loves this as he sees it as making the Rambam human, a person like us.  He asks, does it do anyone a favor to read of a great Torah leader and how he mastered this and that at very young ages?

I don't understand his question.  Favor? If the man was a prodigy, should we hide that information? The fact is, the overwhelming majority of our great Torah leaders were brilliant and mastered unbelievable amounts of Torah before they were 20.  I like knowing that the Torah leaders who have shaped Jewish life were great intellectuals.  I also like to know that they were kind, but I see nothing wrong, on the contrary, I want to hear that our Torah greats were extraordinary men! The fact that the average child or person can't measure up to them in brilliance is just fine.  It's good to know our place.  That shouldn't deter the person looking for inspiration because it's there, if you want it.  I am reading the revised biography of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.  Yes, he was brilliant but the average person can be inspired to be a masmid like him and as kind as him.  We can use these biographies as an excuse or an inspiration; the choice is ours.

Jul 25, 2011

Is Our Picking and Choosing Valid?

I am going to differentiate between the murders of the Fogel family and other terrorist attacks such as in the Chabad house in Bombay, and the murder of Leiby Kletzky which was done, sad to say, by a Jew. My question is, why aren't we even more shaken up by the legalized daily murder of Jews by Jews via abortion in Israel? According to the information I looked up, over 50,000 abortions are done yearly in Israel! In addition, there are, tragically, numerous Jews in jail in Israel for murder.

I understand that what shook people up with Leiby Kletzky is the fact that a child was supposed to meet his mother and instead, he trusted a Jewish man who took his life. This is indeed terrifying, but it seems to me that we, the frum community worldwide, pick and choose what constitutes a tragedy and what should be made a "big deal" of. Where is the outrage about the daily legalized murder of Jews in Eretz Yisrael? Where are the divrei chizuk and kinusim? Why are there numerous articles offering perspective and lessons to be learned about the Kletzky murder while other murders don't even register on our collective consciousness? Do some Jews count more than others? Do frum Jews care more if it's one of their own that is killed and is that right?

Jul 22, 2011


I was pleasantly surprised to read in a May issue of Hamodia's magazine a little note appended to an article.  The article referred to ADD and this acryonym is followed by an asterisk and a note which says:

Attention deficit disorder or ADD/ADHD, is a psychological term currently applied to anyone who meets the DSM-IV-TR diagnostic criteria for impulsivity, hyperactivity and /or inattention.  The diagnostic criteria are subjective and include behavior that might be caused by a wide variety or factors, ranging from brain defects to allergies to giftedness.  ADD as currently defined is a highly subjective description, not a specific disease (http://www.borntoexplore.org/).

How refreshing! And how daring to include this when it was likely to result in letters screaming about the author's insensitivity.

For those who want to believe that normal children's inattention and behavior are medical disorders which often require medication, this definition is quite an affront.  After all, it says:

1) it's a "term" - not a medical diagnosis
2) "currently" - implying that we don't know for sure and the next DSM might not include it
3) "subjective" - as opposed to a real medical problem which can objectively be observed
4) it is a behavior that can have numerous reasons to explain it
5) it's not a disease

Jul 21, 2011

What Makes for Effective Teaching?

The psychologist, Dr. David Pelcovitz, often tells audiences of the following experiment. A school showed a video to young children about "stranger danger". The message was simple: don't accept rides from a stranger, don't accept gifts, etc. There was a brief question-and-answer period. The children seemed to "get it".

At the end of the day, the children exited the school where they saw a man with a van, who was asking some children to enter his van where he would show them his cute puppy. Most of the same children who saw that video entered the van!

I'm not going to address the topic of "stranger danger" here.  What I'm wondering about is why did the lesson fail? And it did fail.  The message did not get through.  And I don't think it's because (or only because) kids will be kids and they needed to hear the message many more times for it to penetrate.  Is it because the children were shown a video and that medium did not work for this message? How old were the children? Would the video have been more effective for a different age child? Maybe the factor that was missing was role playing.  If they would have asked the children, "What would you do if when you left school there was a man in a van who wanted to show you a cute puppy," would the same number of kids have entered the van?

An experiment like this should have educators questioning what makes for effective teaching.  We can't always measure that, particularly in the areas of emuna and yiras shomayim.  In this case, if all the children would have rejected the man's overtures, the lesson would have been proven to be a great success.  However, since most children entered the van, it was easy to see that the lesson failed.

We read so much these days about how girls and boys go through 12 years and more of Jewish education and too many of them emerge lacking basic knowledge of fundamentals.  Maybe the lesson from this experiment is that teachers and parents have to think of ways of really getting through to children and figuring out ways of assessing whether their lessons were effective and finetuning them if necessary.

Jul 20, 2011

Passionate About Food?!

I'm seeing one new Kosher Cooking magazine debuting after another (three so far, in addition to the recipe pages in the frum magazines and newspapers) and the comments I read hail this innovation as utterly marvelous.  Is it really all that marvelous though from either a spiritual or material perspective?

Obesity is skyrocketing so I'm not convinced that magazines devoted to FOOD is the best thing for us.  A recipe column in a magazine is a nice thing; an entire magazine devoted to food is another thing entirely! It is particularly irksome when the word "inspired" is used in one of the magazine titles.  Food is as "inspiring" as the latest hit song is "awesome".  The devaluation of the meaning of words is not doing us any good.

From a spiritual perspective, I fail to see how a title like "Dairy Decadence!" belongs in a publication targeting frum readers.  Nor "Unlimited Ways to Create the Ultimate Grill Fest." Should a frum publication be advertising itself as a "Gourmet Food Magazine for the Kosher Epicure"? Should a kosher magazine with a website describe itself as being "for people with good taste who are passionate about food"? Passionate about food?! Does this fit with anything we've learned in our Jewish studies? I think not.

R' Avraham David of Botshash, a posek and a Chasid of R' Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, ate very little.  He would often say, "Eating makes a man unspiritual.  Adam sinned through eating; the angels maintain their lofty spiritual heights because they don't need to eat."

We need to eat, and Shabbos and Yom Tov are days that we honor and celebrate with special food.  Seudos mitzva are also occasions for special food.  However, it seems that our preoccupation with food and its presentation has gotten out of hand.  Special occasions like an upsheren, bar mitzva etc. are not reason enough to celebrate and a theme is sought.  I thought the upsheren, bar mitzva etc. are the theme!

I read an interview with a woman who has produced some popular cookbooks which I found quite distasteful (ha).  Her mission is to put gourmet, high-class kosher cooking into the hands of every cook, in an attempt to spark a renaissance in kosher cooking.   To me, this is Artscroll promoting "naval b'reshus ha'Torah."  As far as I know, neither the Chofetz Chaim nor any other gadol sees promoting gourmet kosher cooking as a way to bring Moshiach.

In terms of recipe hunting, this particular author says she leaves no stone unturned. Having mined the best of friends and family members' repertoires, she now works with seasoned chefs to develop novel and creative formulas. She's an avid reader of menus from kosher and non-kosher upscale restaurants. The chefs she invites to her home help her cook up exciting new recipes as she observes and takes notes.

Why are frum publishers glorifying this? Are we so lacking in recipes for good food that we need to "develop novel and creative" new ones? Or is it more likely that this is about making money and without new and exciting recipes (what's an exciting recipe?) there are no new cookbooks and no sales.  And this also explains the outrageous recent advertisement by a "gourmet kosher supermarket" that was in such poor taste (ha).  We can sustain gourmet kosher supermarkets because we buy the cookbooks that present us with recipes with gourmet ingredients.  Then we sustain the gastric bypass industry, nutritionists, the eating disorder programs, personal trainers, and weight loss programs ... and wonder why we feel spiritually empty.

I'm in favor of good cooking. I'm in favor of making special things for Shabbos and Yom Tov.  I'm in favor of showing not-yet religious Jews that kosher cooking is delicious.  But I don't think we need a renaissance in our cooking or an entire aisle of kosher snack food and another aisle of kosher cookies, and I do think we, as a frum society, need to put food in perspective and use it in positive ways, in our service of Hashem.

Jul 19, 2011

Hashem Caused It to Come About

The way I think of the Kletzky tragedy is, as Rashi says in parshas Mishpatim on the words "v'ha'Elokim ina l'yado" (Hashem caused it to come about): Two men, one who killed inadvertently and one who killed intentionally and there were no witnesses to these acts so the one who killed intentionally wasn't put to death and the one who killed inadvertently was not exiled to the Ir Miklat.

Hashem brings them together at one inn and the one who had killed intentionally sits under a ladder and the one who had killed inadvertently climbs the ladder and falls on the one who killed intentionally and kills him. Witnesses testify to this and the court sends him to exile, to an Ir Miklat.

Consequently, the one who killed inadvertently is exiled and the one who killed intentionally is killed.

In summary: Hashem arranged it all.

We don't know what took place in previous gilgulim but the yad Hashem is obvious here in that He sent Leiby directly to the person who killed him. Leiby could have met his parents. He could have asked someone else for directions. But Hashem set this up. Why? We don't know what cheshbonos were at work here. Not that this absolves the killer. But to think of this as happenstance (as the police commissioner did) is not only wrong but not at all comforting; on the contrary, it is much more frightening to believe that there are random acts of violence. G-d runs the world and all is accounted for.

The "Three Weeks" begin today.  On Tisha B'Av, one of the kinos describes the "Ten Martyrs," the ten great rabbis who were brutally murdered by the Romans.  The ten rabbis are said to correspond to the ten shevatim and they were killed, says the Medrash, for selling Yosef over a thousand years earlier! Great souls are sometimes snatched from us for reasons we don't know.  There are accounts to be settled and the only consolation is that "ha'tzur tamim pa'alo" - Hashem's ways are perfect and precise.

Jul 11, 2011

Noticing the Good

The following two incidents happened within the span of two minutes  

Scene 1:
I saw a Chassid standing and talking to a non-Jewish black woman who was clearly in need of help in finding the address on the paper she held.  She was not dressed modestly, i.e. was sleeveless etc.

Scene 2:
A Chassid was about to enter a building when he saw an elderly person being pushed in a wheelchair by her aide.  He held the door open for them.

Two "random" scenes but nothing is random.  Let's remember these acts of kindness on the part of Jews who look obviously like Jews.  Oftentimes these small good deeds are overshadowed by rhetoric in which "ultra-Orthodox Jews" are stereotyped as rude.  There is plenty of good among us.  We need to be on the lookout for it and we'll see it.