Dec 31, 2012

Misplaced Compassion

Two news items:

The top official in Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, sends rockets into civilian centers in Israel and is dedicated to the Jewish state’s destruction. But this month, his brother-in-law, accompanied by Haniyeh’s sister, traveled to Israel to undergo emergency treatment for a heart condition in Beilinson Hospital in Petach Tikva.

Israeli soldiers gave emergency first-aid and saved the life of a 10-day-old Palestinian baby, whose panicked mother rushed her to the nearest army base. The IDF reported this was the third time in recent weeks that local Palestinians turned to the nearest army base for acute medical care.

And we help them because ....?

Would we do the same for an Amaleki with a heart condition? For an Amaleki baby?

Why do we have compassion on those who seek to destroy us while allowing our brothers and sisters in Sderot to live under attack, on a regular basis, for years on end?

Why are we proud of having Jews and Arabs sharing rooms in our hospitals?

Why is the country's popularity at an all-time low internationally if we are so incredibly kind to our enemies?

Chazal tell us, when you have compassion when you are supposed to be cruel, you will be cruel when you are supposed to be compassionate.  Sadly, we see this in action on a regular basis.

Dec 30, 2012

Children - Seen but not Heard

In a previous post: here I quoted Dennis Prager who said we should not be giving children equal status to adults.  I have since heard a story related by Rabbi Manis Friedman about a 14 yr old boy who was thrown out of yeshiva for chutzpa.

MF asked the boy what he was going to do about this. The boy said he would be going back to yeshiva.

MF asked how?! The boy said he wouldn't do it again.

MF asked: "How will you convince the hanhala and why won't you be chutzpadik again? If you think the teacher is stupid, you'll say it again!"

So the boy asked, "What should I do?"

MF wasn't sure this was remotely possible but he said, "You have to be convinced that you are not entitled to an opinion. You are 14 years old and not entitled. Not that you shouldn't voice an opinion, but you are not entitled to one.

The boy asked in astonishment, "I can't have an opinion?!"

MF: "You can have one, but nobody has to hear it, consider it, or obey it. You're not entitled to it. You're just practicing. When a teacher asks you for your opinion, he's helping you practice. And you have to convince your friends of this too."
Surprisingly, the boy did.
A 14 yr old attends a lecture and says, "It was good, although I didn't agree with everything the speaker said."
Parents today are likely to be proud of their intelligent child who expresses such a mature critique.  However, asks MF, what are the chances they did not understand what was said rather than disagreed? Probably 98% of the time they didn't understand, but they already have an opinion and they feel entitled to agree/disagree. It's very dangerous. The relationship between student and teacher is terrible.

A high school teacher recently told me that the hanhala asks the students to tell them what they "feel" about each teacher.  If I didn't hear it directly from a teacher, I'd find it hard to believe this is going on in a frum school.  Hashem yirachem!


Dec 28, 2012

Shulchan Aruch versus Psychology

Rabbi Binyomin Ginsberg from Minnesota, a longtime teacher and principal was speaking to parents and someone asked "How can we get our children to behave?"

His response: "When you walk into the room, do your children stand up for you?

The parent said no.

R' Ginsberg concluded, "So, what do you want?!"

Can you imagine a child psychologist saying that?

Dec 27, 2012

Cultural Shift

I found the following description of the evolution of American culture in a book called Quiet.  The author quotes cultural historian Susman as saying that at the turn of the 20th century, America shifted from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality.

"In the Culture of Character," she writes, "the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable.  What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private.  The word 'personality' did not exist in English until the 18th century and the idea of 'having a good personality' was not widespread until the 20th.

"But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them.  They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining."

"The advice manuals of the 19th century were less religious than previously, but still preached the value of a noble character.  By 1920, popular self-help guides had changed their focus from inner virtue to outer charm - 'to know what to say and how to say it.' 

"The earlier guides emphasized attributes that anyone could work on improving, described by words like:

Golden Deeds

"The new guides celebrated qualities like:


In an earlier post here, I posted a list of secular values that we are exposed to and influenced by.  If we look at the list of traits emphasized in the earlier guides, we see that every one of them reflects our Torah guidelines: dina d'malchusa dina, achrayus, gedola melacha ..., maasim tovim, kavod shomayim-kavod ha'briyos, sheim tov, yiras shomayim, derech eretz, yashrus-emes.  As for the second list ... 

Dec 26, 2012

Say "May I" (part 2)

As a follow-up to the post here about children asking permission before taking food at home, here's a story:
R' Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk said that his stepmother saved him. When he was young and was orphaned of his mother, his father remarried a woman who had children. She was more concerned about her own children than about R' Menachem Mendel and she discriminated against him. At mealtime, she would give R' Mendel her children's leftovers. R' Mendel got used to this and accepted this resignedly.

One time, R' Mendel went home and was very hungry and he took food on his own. He made sure to take only those parts he would usually get, those items that would be left over in any case.

When his stepmother came home and saw that he had taken food without permission, she beat him. When he complained, saying but I took what I usually get, she said: Even if you'll get it anyway, you don't take it on your own.

This message got through to him. Years later, when he was sitting and learning in the beis medrash, a man appeared and suggested they learn together. Remembering the lesson he had learned about not taking on his own, he told the man he had to consult with his rav.

When he consulted with his rav (either the Baal Shem Tov or the Maggid), his rebbi told him: Don't
allow him near you because he is the sitra achra and he wants to ensnare you.

And thus, the lesson of - don't take on your own - paid off.

Dec 25, 2012

Where Have All the Sefarim Gone

I grew up surrounded by bookcases full of sefarim.  We are in a transitional stage, in which technology keeps on evolving and some of us have one foot in the old world and one foot in the new. 

A lecturer was addressing a class and he referred to a fax machine.  Seeing blank stares he realized what the problem was.  He said, "When I was your age, fax machines were a new item and we hadn't heard of them yet.  Now they are obsolete and you haven't heard of them ..."

Many people have e-readers and many don't.  Many have advanced gadgets and many don't.  Among frum people especially, with all the warnings about the Internet, there are many who have fancy phones but no computers.  And yet, I wonder.  How much longer will we feel a need to have many sefarim? If it reaches a point where we access all our reading material on a computer, and only need sefarim on Shabbos and Yom Tov, how much will people want to invest in a library of actual sefarim? Why would I want to spend thousands of dollars on an extensive library of sefarim to be used a few days a year?

This is a troubling thought since as wonderful as it is to have tens of thousands of sefarim at one's fingertips with the clicks of some keys, we will lose out tremendously if we forgo the atmosphere provided by bookcases full of sefarim. 

Dec 16, 2012

Fat and Happy

There was an interesting letter to the editor of Ami Living this past October.  The letter-writer was outraged by a line in a dieting article which said, " ... in the morning, you actually will look forward to getting dressed!" 

Why? Because she is an overweight woman who has no interest in losing weight.  She assures us that she does her best to lead a reasonably healthy life in which the drink of choice in her home is water and every supper is served with salad and vegetables.  She tries to exercise regularly (though she doesn't always get around to it).  She has regular checkups and her numbers are all fine.

She is interested in being healthy, not in achieving a certain weight.  She says she is happy, successful and confident and her husband thinks she is beautiful.  She is perfectly happy when she gets dressed in the morning.

She wants to dispel the myth that overweight people are all unhappy and want to be thin.  She concludes by saying, "Please stop telling me that in order to be happy with the way I look, I need to be thin.  You are doing a disservice to women everywhere.  Instead, adopt a Torah-true outlook that encourages women to make healthy choices and feel good about themselves no matter what size skirt they put on in the morning."

Yes, I'd like to get a look at this person who attempts to live a healthy lifestyle, whose numbers at the doctor are good and who is overweight nonetheless.  She does not say how overweight she is. Is it 15 pounds? 50? For it is possible for lean people to have poor numbers and heavy people to have good numbers.

She is right that our society's obsession with the scale and size is not a Torah-true outlook.  What's true is that if you look at pictures of Jewish women and men of previous generations, you see they are not as thin as people want to be today.  In fact, if those of yesteryear saw how thin people strive to be today, they would be appalled.  Years ago, this was considered unattractive and cause for immediate action, i.e. eating. So apparently, our outlook has changed and it is not because we've learned more Torah!

Dec 9, 2012

Who's a Gadol Ha'Dor?

The term "gadol ha'dor" is used freely, but what does it mean? Literally, it means great one of the generation, or the greatest of the generation.  How does one earn this title? It seems rather arbitrary.

Some people are referred to as a gadol ha'dor due to their knowledge, but then there are others who have the same or greater knowledge, but are not referred to as a gadol or gadol ha'dor.  There are some people who are referred to as a gadol ha'dor due to their position, but then there are others who have no official position who are also referred to as the gadol ha'dor.  And there are those with official positions who are not referred to as the gadol ha'dor! So if it's not knowledge nor position, what is it? Nobody is voted as gadol ha'dor.  It seems to happen by consensus by a certain number of people, although that does not mean that A's gadol is necessarily B's gadol.  That's why it seems random.

While listening to a lecture, I heard the following definition for a different term, that of "Nasi Ha'Dor."  The speaker said a Nasi of the generation takes responsibility for every Jew.  Well, that makes it very easy to see who is not a Nasi.  Not even ardent followers of those individuals called gedolei ha'dor would claim that their gadol takes responsibility for every Jew.  But that's if they're pressed against the wall. When not pressed against the wall, and when making grandiose claims that nobody is going to dispute, they say things like Rabbi X was/is the leader of all Klal Yisrael.  It makes me want to pipe up and ask: You mean even those Jews in America and Amsterdam and Finland and Bolivia and ... who never heard of him? In what way was this Rabbi X the leader of these Jews?

But I never get to ask, so I can't tell you what their answer might be.

Dec 8, 2012

I'm Grateful for My Gratitude List

I did it.  For an entire year.  Yay me.

One year ago, on December 8, 2011, I started writing down two things every day for which I feel grateful.

see my post here

726 entries later I've covered many sorts of things including childhood, schooling, family, modern conveniences, kindnesses, opportunities.

I did not repeat entries, so even though there were numerous gorgeous weather days, for which I was grateful, I only included that one time. 

Some days' entries were easy to write, they were obvious.  Other days, I had to struggle to come up with something new.

Some entries are items to be grateful for all the time, while other entries pertained to that day only like being grateful I caught the bus. 

I'm thinking of printing out the list and reviewing it, maybe two a day again.  Because I found that although the exercise of writing down two things a day was excellent, now I think I will benefit from going over the list and giving more thought to the items I wrote down. 

Dec 7, 2012

Personal Choices

Back to the topic I wrote about here about wanting to do something that demonstrates our caring about Eretz Yisrael.  I read an interesting article by Tali Simon in which she writes about meeting a girl who did not eat chocolate because she wanted a personal, constant reminder of the churban.  The idea was that each time she missed a piece of chocolate cake or chocolate bar, she'd be reminded of a a more important thing that we are missing.  Isn't this extraordinary?!

The author thought she was crazy at first, it seemed too extreme, but then she grew to like the idea and adapted it for herself.  She had committed, at age 16 to settle in Eretz Yisrael but knew she had to finish her schooling first in America and would then be involved in shidduchim.  She was afraid she would lose her resolve and end up living elsewhere.  So she decided that she would not ice cream out of Eretz Yisrael.  She kept her commitment for six years (which included 10 months in an Israeli seminary).

Two things impress me about this.  One, that a person cared enough about something to come up with a practical and personal way of handling it, and two, the follow-through, the discipline to stick with it.  We may often be inspired and have good intentions, but how often do we follow through?

Dec 1, 2012

The Best Imaginable Mussar Teacher


Yet another Orthodox student has been named a recipient of the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship award.  Ela Naegele, who is a German citizen, said, “Baruch Hashem, I have amazing parents and it is to them that I owe everything. There are three things for which I am particularly grateful towards my parents: that my siblings and I grew up without any television, that my parents read to us every night before going to bed and that they encouraged us to learn to play musical instruments.

"Playing an instrument has shaped my character like nothing else: it is the best imaginable Mussar teacher. It teaches you to win and to lose, to find a balance between body and mind, between individuality and team-work, between creativity and discipline, and between charisma and perseverance.”

Well! If anyone can explain what she means about playing an instrument, please do.  I can pick out a tune on a keyboard but did not study music and formally learn to play an instrument, so I have no idea what she means.

Nov 29, 2012

Feeling Good versus Actually Helping

I'm impressed with R' Shais Taub's approach to addiction.  I haven't read his book but I've see a number of his articles.  In an Ami article he says that addictions are a person's attempt at a solution to his problems.  Therefore, he sees no reason for a zero-tolerance policy against teenaged drinking, for it's not the alcohol that's the problem.

He points out that the government has spent billions on drug and alcohol education and he doesn't think it stopped a single person from becoming addicted.  ""Awareness and prevention" campaigns make people feel good, and they're easy to get funding for, but do they help anyone?" he asks.  He goes on to say, "If someone has the underlying issues that make them feel the need to self-medicate, then no amount of "awareness and prevention" will help.  They will still have the same inner pain.  I think we should focus far more on giving our children the spiritual tools to be emotionally healthy people."

The frum world has latched on to the "awareness" campaign in many areas as can be seen in the subjects of articles covered in frum magazines.  You sense the self-congratulatory spirit in these magazines.  They feel so virtuous for taking taboo topics out "from under the rug," and for attempting to "debunk stigmas."  They feel even more justified when people write in letters lauding them for being "courageous" in "tackling these painful subjects."  But is this awareness only making us feel good, as though we are helping anyone merely by talking about these problems publicly? If yes, let's see the evidence.

related posts:

Nov 27, 2012

G-d is Alive and Well in America

According to a 2007 Newsweek poll, 13% of self-described atheists or agnostics believe that "G-d created humans pretty much in the present form at one time within the last ten thousand years or so." Makes me wonder why they describe themselves as atheists or agnostics!

Young earth creationism is the most commonly held belief about the origin and development of life, held by 48% of all Americans.  How nice!

Another 30% believe that humans developed over millions of years but that the process was guided by G-d.

Interestingly, among firm religious believers alone, denial of evolution correlates with high education.

I find it encouraging that in this modern day and age, after decades of evolution indoctrination which eliminates G-d from the picture, 78% of Americans believe G-d is very much in the picture.

Nov 25, 2012

Ripple Effects

We want to do something to help Eretz Yisrael.  We can daven and say Tehillim and that helps.  Some write checks.  Some feel they want to do more, they want to do something tangible that demonstrates, to themselves, that they care about what is going on in Eretz Yisrael. 

Last week, while the rockets and bombs were still flying, someone said that she was not going clothing shopping.  While otherwise, she would stop in to certain stores and see if they had gotten in anything of interest, now she was avoiding that.  Why? As an act of sensitivity; shopping isn't appropriate while our fellow Jews are diving for cover, getting hurt, and having their homes smashed.

I understand the sentiment, however ... What about the store owner? What if avoiding unessential clothing shopping, in deference to our brethren, became a widespread phenomenon? Should store owners not make sales because of our sensitivities? Surely, there are other ways to share in others' pain that do not affect people's parnassa. Then again, maybe avoiding unessential clothing shopping is a good thing and something to promote, regardless as to whether there is a war going on (or people are homeless due to Sandy).

A similar question can be asked about wedding takanos.  Wedding takanos minimize wedding expenses.  When wedding expenses are minimized, they also minimize the earnings of those who provide those items.  If the takana is no diamond ring, just a zirconium, that minimizes the earnings of diamond dealers.  If one-man-bands replace multiple musicians, that minimizes the earnings of other musicians and bands.  If silk flowers are rented from a gemach, it minimizes the earnings of those who sell fresh flowers.  If l'chaim/vorts are made at home, halls are not being rented.

Does the parnassa of those providing these services need to be considered when cutting expenses? Apparently not, since leaders of various groups have established takanos.  And when considering parnassa, I can consider my own bank account and choose to minimize expenses without putting someone else's parnassa before my own.  However, not shopping because of a sensitivity to those suffering in Eretz Yisrael doesn't seem quite the same thing, because it's not about my parnassa versus anyone else's; it's about wanting to do something that reminds me that Jews are suffering.  That can be done in ways that don't affect anyone else.

Nevertheless, I admire the sentiment and the follow-through.  Somebody cared enough to do something.

Nov 24, 2012

Talk to Me

It has become popular to decry the current state of affairs in which people don't communicate properly anymore.  Articles have been written extolling old-fashioned verbal communication and bemoaning the fact that today, people no longer communicate in meaningful ways.  Of course they are unhappy with the texts and emails that pass for communication these days.  A variation on this theme is the complaint that people no longer write letters and how meaningful letter writing used to be, how people looked forward to receiving a letter and kept precious letters and how they are a valuable source of information of life long ago.

To respond to the first complaint, about verbal communication, well, letter writing has been around for millenia and people didn't complain about it! It was understood that written communications were sometimes the only way to communicate.  They also have an advantage over verbal communication in that you can write a draft, review what you wrote, correct and refine it and then have the reader give it his full attention which is not as likely with verbal communication.

As to the complain that people no longer write letters, yes, with phone calls being so cheap and cell phone ubiquitous, kids and parents are not writing letters to one another when in camp and Eretz Yisrael, the way they used to.  Then again, there were always those who were writers and those who weren't.  The fact that phone calls are cheap won't stop a writer from keeping a diary, blog or writing emails.

When I said I have contacted people via email that I wouldn't otherwise be communicating with, someone said to me - that's because you used to write before the advent of emails.  Those who are born to the email/texting/cell phone generation, are not as likely to write in meaningful ways.  That might be true.  But I think in other ways, we are more connected, knowing what is going on (sometimes more than I would like) with Jews all over the world through daily frum news sites.  It's different these days, and like most things in life, there are advantages and disadvantages.

Nov 22, 2012

The Truth of the Matter


R' Yosef Viener (rav in Monsey) saw chess players sitting for hours over a game. He commented about it and one of the players said to him, he thought he wasn't cut out to learn. He got married and became a day trader which required him to sit for 6 and ½ hours and concentrate (or he'd lose a lot of money). It was hard but he learned to do it and did it well.

Then he realized, a few years later, that he had been living a lie, convincing himself he couldn't learn Torah for hours. Money is a great motivator and he saw that money was important to him so he worked at it.  Learning wasn't important to him, so he gave up. When parents, teachers or the kids themselves say they aren't "cut out for learning," and say programs are needed for those "who can't sit and learn," maybe the truth of the matter is, Torah is not important enough to them to hold their interest.

Nov 21, 2012

The Rabbi's Daughter

A video was recently produced which profiled three prominent religious-Zionist rabbis whose daughters have left the fold.  The parents of these girls cooperated in the making of this film, so there is no issue here of publicly embarrassing them.

It has been said that the girls and their parents exhibited great courage in going public.  I think that applies to the parents rather than to their daughters.  The daughters are regularly seen in public and are obviously not religious.  They don't make an attempt to appear religious while secretly sinning.  The parents though, well, why did they appear in this film? Perhaps this is their way of doing what all those articles and speeches say to do, "keep lines of communication open," "be supportive," "don't be judgmental."

It bothers (angers?) me that their daughters put them in this position of having to publicly appear in a video that embarrasses them.  I think it was reprehensible to do this to their parents and maybe the parents felt they had no choce but to appear in a film that would, at least, make them look kindly and reasonable, as opposed to refusing to take part and having who-knows-what kind of film made about them. So no, I don't applaud either the parents or the children for allowing themselves to be exposed to the world. 

I found it interesting that the irreligious men in the video have more respect for the rabbis than their daughters. The rabbis were their teachers, and as such, the men felt they were deserving of respect. 

The daughters don't explain why they are no longer religious.  When one of them whines about Judaism, her husband gently counters with - you haven't searched for answers to your questions.  What comes across with two of them is their tremendous discomfort being the "rabbi's daughter," of being in his shadow, of being held to a higher standard and with one daughter, feeling different than her less religious peers when she was growing up. 

Why was this film made? What was the goal? Simply to fulfill today's mandate of sharing one's private life with the world? Let me guess ... "if it helps one person ..." blah blah blah, that tiresome, often silly line.  Was it meant to support other children of rabbis in going off the derech? Was it meant to show parents in the same situation how to be loving despite being spat at in the face? We aren't told. And at this point, the video was removed and I don't see it available online anymore.

Nov 14, 2012

Nature or G-d?

First in a speech.  Now in an article.  Am I being overly sensitive or is it shocking that rabbis use phrases like "Even as nature demonstrated its capacity for ruthlessness," and "the cruelty of the storm" when talking about Sandy?

Do they really see nature as being separate from G-d or is it just a figure of speech to them?

Is it that they can speak in terms of ruthlessness and cruelty when the subject is nature or the storm, but not if G-d is the one who inflicted the storm?

Nov 8, 2012

"Everything is a Gift from G-d"


I'm reading a book about an irreligious Jewish woman and her quest for a baby.  She was raised Conservative, dropped all religious practices, married a goy, was an ardent feminist to whom her career was her top priority.  Then she woke up and discovered that having a baby in her late 30's was not going according to plan.

A particularly interesting chapter is when she goes to visit a childhood sweetheart who became frum after his bar mitzva, married a frum girl, and went on to have 15 children.  Needless to say, the author cannot begin to relate to their religious choices and to their chaotic household with kids coming and going.

The beautiful part is where she writes that her friends assumed that Larry had made Beth have all those kids, but that wasn't true.  Beth told the author that they had so many children because she wanted them.  She said, "When I was young, I spent a lot of time at our rabbi's house.  They had 11 kids.  I liked the atmosphere there.  I wanted a big family too.  And I'm excited every time I find out I'm pregnant.  It never gets old.  It's such a miracle.  It's the same with the milestones; it was just as exciting when number fourteen took her first steps as it was when number one did."

Larry was a doctor, often doing 16 hour shifts.  He said, "I like everything I do.  I like the kids. I like my job.  Everything is a gift from G-d, everything.  Part of this for me is realizing we're not in control of everything.  Some people don't use contraception and have no kids at all or, unfortunately, have difficulty. Other people have two children or six.  If we have fifteen children, that's what's supposed to happen."

* This is not the family from the book.

Nov 3, 2012

In My Not-So-Expert Opinion

As I've written several times before, I find finding one's passion to be a fascinating topic.  Back to the book I was reading about the guy who collected Yiddish books so they wouldn't be gone forever, there are a number of things that struck me about his story.  One is, he stumbled upon his passion. 

Two, he threw himself heart and soul into his work (which is what people do when they feel passionate about something).  This meant that he traveled extensively, exerted himself physically, extended himself financially, and did whatever it took to further his ambition.  Perhaps this is why he had extraordinary success because yogaata u'matzasa taamin - he singlemindedly pursued his dream and Hashem allowed him to succeed even though Hashem couldn't be thrilled with the rescue of kefira and other nonsense.  It should be noted that hundreds of the books he saved are worthwhile, such as the 700 yizkor books and Holocaust memoirs that were written right after the war.  And perhaps, indirectly, his raising awareness of the importance of Yiddish books  has inspired Jews to reconnect in some way to Yiddishkeit.

Three, he had many helpers and supporters who shared the same dream.

Fourth, he broke the rules.  After his first direct mail letter campaign which he did with a professional letter writer and was successful, he wrote subsequent fundraising letters himself.  Rather than short letters with lots of underlining and bullets, he wrote four to six pages, single spaced, writing to the members of his organization as though they were friends.  More and more members joined.

When he was ready to build a 7 million dollar center to house the books and offer all kinds of services and programs, the largest gift, up to that point, with one exception, was $10,000.  Most contributions were $18 and $36 a year.  The experts told him it couldn't be done.  They told him that 90% of the money would have to be raised from 10% of the donors and that he'd need 40% of the money before he could announce the campaign to the public. 

He did the opposite.  He wrote a letter to the members and the money poured in.  Some donors, who had been sending $18 a year, mailed checks for $50,000! The phones didn't stop ringing and within two months, through direct mail alone, he had raised over two and a half million dollars.

A project is different than parnassa which we are told is set on Rosh Hashana.  Are there people who throw themselves into projects, exerting themselves mightily, and then fail? We don't hear about them unless they finally succeed (like Rabbi Noach Weinberg who failed many times before he succeeded with Aish Ha'Torah). They don't  write books, so we don't know.  What sets those who succeed apart from those who fail? Anything that we can learn from or are there heavenly considerations that make some succeed and some fail?

Nov 2, 2012

Upping the Odds for a Miracle

A letter that I wrote to a frum publication:

I'd like to share with your readers what it says about prenatal sonograms in the book Aleinu L'Shabei'ach (Devarim, p. 242) by Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein. After a patient refused to have an ultrasound done, with Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky's support, a doctor asked R' Zilberstein to explain this to him. He asked his brother-in-law, R' Kanievsky who said that if there are no specific medical problems with either the woman or the fetus, it is preferable for her not to do a routine sonogram. As long as no problem has been diagnosed, prayer is more beneficial. If, however, a woman has a sonogram done and it shows a defect in the fetus, it will require an open miracle to heal the baby and not everyone is worthy of a miracle.

R' Zilberstein brings support to this position from the miracles related about Elisha and the Shunamite woman with the oil and later with her son, in which the miracles needed to be performed discreetly. Hashem wants miracles to be done in as inconspicuous a manner as possible. A blessing from a sage and prayer are more effective when an illness or defect have not been discovered and a big miracle need not be performed.

R' Zilberstein said he heard in the name of the Klausenberger Rebbe zt'l that a person should go to a sage for him to pray before he goes to the doctor, because once the doctor says there is a serious problem, it is much more difficult for the sage to reverse it.

R' Zilberstein adds that many times, women have the routine sonogram which reveals a possibility of a problem and this causes the woman to be extremely anxious and fearful, especially when many defects are incurable. Doctors often recommend the termination of the pregnancy, which is forbidden. All of the anguish suffered by the mothers is therefore pointless, he says, since there is nothing they can do about the defect and there is a good chance the baby will be fine. It is better not to take these tests since Hashem created the world in such a way that a woman should not know what is in her womb, as Shlomo Ha'Melech says in Koheles 11:5.

I have read numerous stories of women who were given dire news upon taking a sonogram and were pressured to terminate the pregnancy. These stories ended with a healthy child. Were the doctors wrong or did a miracle occur? We don't know. What we do know is that those reading the sonograms don't even get the gender right 100% of the time, or the size of the baby. If sonograms are about saving even one life, as one letter writer wrote, thought should be given to all those lives that are ended, r'l, because of routine sonograms. Likewise, thought should be given to the effects of prolonged and extreme anxiety on the expectant mother and the fetus.

Oct 31, 2012

In the Aftermath of the Storm

I've been reading that the man killed in Flushing, the two boys killed in Salem and the man killed in Pearl River were killed in their homes by fallen trees.
G-d is in charge.  We can and should take reasonable precautions, but we are not in control.  People can listen to instructions to avoid going outside and get killed by the storm by being inside.
Apparently, rabbonim in safer zones did not think it was forbidden to leave the house during the storm for minyan, yeshiva, mikva and weddings because I did not hear or read of any such announcements. Whoever was mesader kiddushin at weddings during the storm (with at least one chuppa outdoors) held it was permissible to be there and for guests to attend the wedding.
You know how sometimes (often) people say, "If only one person is affected/killed/inspired/helped  ..."  But that does not seem to be how the halacha or logic works in many of these cases.  Rabbonim didn't say, if only one person might get injured or killed nobody should leave their house.  It's good they didn't, because indoors wasn't necessarily the safest place to be.
May all those still lacking electricity have it restored immediately!

Oct 30, 2012

Musing about the Upcoming Election

A major US election is around the corner.  The election was decided already in heaven on Rosh Hashana when decisions were made about all the nations. 

Should I give the election any of my time and thought? I will vote, but other than that, what is there to do? I'm not even sure prayer is appropriate.  Do I really know who is best for the country? As for whoever wins, the verse in Mishlei says, that the hearts of kings and ministers are in Hashem's hands, so Hashem manipulates them as He wishes.

Maybe I'm feeling fatalistic because I don't think "my" candidate will win.  Maybe I should pray more.

Oct 29, 2012


It wasn't the first time I've read or heard that guilt is not a Jewish idea.  The time before that it was in a pre-Rosh Hashana lecture.  Each time, I come across this thought I'm taken aback. 

The reasoning they give is that halacha provides for teshuva in which you acknowledge what you did, feel bad about it, and resolve not to do it again.  Guilt is not seen as playing a role in the teshuva process and is called a waste of time and energy.

Perhaps the reason they say this is because too many people get pulled down into depressive states and this no-guilt approach is meant to enable people to remain b'simcha and move on.  However, it doesn't sound correct to me.  Doesn't feeling bad about it entail feeling guilty? And, after all, what did Dovid Ha'Melech mean when he said in Tehillim (51:5), "“V'chatasi negdi samid" (my sin is always before me)? True, Rebbi Eliezer ben Yakov learns from these words that it is always good to confess one's sins before Hashem, no matter how long ago one transgressed.  But there is also the understanding that Dovid always kept his sins in mind.  Not to depress him, but perhaps to remind him of his frailty, to keep him humble, and to prevent him from stumbling.

Our generation has been called the "disposable generation" which refers to the appliances which don't last and are not worth fixing, plastic plates and utensils, and even marriages.  The no-guilt approach to teshuva is so simple.  Just acknowledge sin, regret it briefly, and commit to not repeating it.  Then move on.  We can dispose of our sins as easily as tossing them into the water during Tashlich.  But is it really so easy? Is there no middle road in which we can and should feel guilty and be left with residual guilt? Is our teshuva done with such love for Hashem that our sins were transformed into merits? If not, shouldn't some guilt remain?

Oct 28, 2012

Yiddish - for those living Yiddishkeit

In continuation of the previous post -
I'm towards the end of an interesting book about a secular Jewish guy who takes such an interest in Yiddish that he and his friends decide to rescue all the Yiddish books they can get their hands on.  They do this through the 80's into the 90's, mostly by elderly Jews donating their libraries of Yiddish books to them.

Yiddish books and newspapers flourished in the early part of the 1900's, but with the massacre of millions of Yiddish-speaking Jews and the integration of the survivors and immigrants into the culture of their host countries, the generations that followed were not interested in Yiddish.  The older generation lamented this lack of interest in Yiddish on the part of their descendents and were thrilled with the idea of giving their books to those who would appreciate them.  He ends up collecting a million and a half books!

The book is a good read with all sorts of wonderful Jewish characters.  It is quite interesting that young people, including non-Jews, have taken such an interest in Yiddish that they are flocking to classes in universities in many cities.

At one point, he describes picking up thousands of volumes that were thrown down into the cellar of a building that was taken over by a yeshiva.  Since many heretical books were written in Yiddish, pious Jews rejected Yiddish literature that sought to wean Jews away from Yiddishkeit.  This is why the hanhala of the yeshiva discarded the books. 

The author speaks negatively of religious people, whom he considers narrow-minded, while I thought - does he not realize that the cry of "Where are our [Yiddish-speaking] youth" is being answered in Yiddish-speaking enclaves in Boro Park, Williamsburg, New Square, Tosh, and Monroe? The very people he looks down on are the very ones who are perpetuating Yiddish as a living language.  While Chassidic children are chattering in Yiddish on the playground, he and others are studying and preserving Yiddish as a relic of yesteryear.  To him, Yiddish books are a source of information about Jewish culture in our past, not something alive in the present.

Oct 27, 2012

Es Felt Eppes

I attended a shul today that I never attended before.  I just walked in and sat down.  As I listened to the Kerias Ha'Torah which was read in a Chassidic pronunciation that was more "extreme" than some milder ones I'm familiar with, it got me thinking. 

Although unlike many of my peers who grew up in a decidedly European atmosphere, I grew up in quite an American home.  Nevertheless, I absorbed so much of the European-Yiddish flavor in my surroundings.  There was Yiddish spoken all around me and we translated Chumash and Navi into Yiddish in school.  There were many Europeans, mostly Holocaust survivors, everywhere.  Meshulachim who frequently came to our home spoke Yiddish.

As I sat in shul and was able to follow the unfamiliarly pronounced keria,  I thought - today's kids who are growing up much more sheltered than I grew up, are not exposed to that rich, Yiddish atmosphere I was exposed to.  I daresay that my fine, frum nieces and nephews would not be able to find where this baal korei was up to, nor would they be able to understand what he was saying.  They either don't learn Yiddish in school or learn it minimally.  They don't encounter the Yiddish speaking or accented grocer, landlord, or grandparents. 

Life does go on and I feel somewhat saddened that the younger generation felt eppes (are missing something) or more than eppes.  It's not just the language.  It's a culture that they're missing.  A gefil.  Merely speaking Yiddish/Yinglish at home isn't enough, though it's something.  It's the exposure to an Old World culture that is lacking and that you can only get by growing up in and around it.  Years ago, our communities and schools were mixed, with children of American, Polish, and Hungarian parents playing together.  Today, we are far more segregated.  A shod.

Oct 19, 2012

Challenging Ourselves

"The not-yet-frum may not know a lot of Torah (yet), but we err when we treat them as a remedial group."

So said Rabbi Moshe Taub of Buffalo in an article in Ami magazine.  He describes someone involved in kiruv who, instead of giving lectures on light subjects and on topics that that typically draw people in ("The Kabbala of "... this or that), gives over what he hears in Gemara shiurim from someone considered a top Litvishe rosh yeshiva.  These shiurim are complicated discussions on the Gemara and the men he is being mekarev haven't even learned Chumash! Nevertheless, he is able to present to them the Gemara and commentaries, the questions and the resolution, and has made people frum in this way.

Artscroll biographies have been mocked for portraying gedolim as brilliant and perfect since childhood, putting them completely beyond the reach of the average Jew.  R' Taub says that throughout the year, we convince ourselves that we are not on "that level" of the people we hear and read about.  Although it is true that people can be dismissive when they read about people who do things way beyond what the average person does, the opposite is true too - we can be uninspired if we are not challenged to go beyond what we think we are capable. 

I am reminded of a description of the Arrowsmith approach to learning problems.  The usual remedial approach is to assess a student's strengths and weaknesses and to design a program that works around the student's weakness.  If they find it difficult to learn visually, they learn by listening instead.  With Arrowsmith they do the opposite.  If the student finds it difficult to learn visually, they concentrate on improving their ability to learn visually! They don't accommodate weaknesses; rather, they work to raise the student's capabilities. 

A lot of outreach lectures and classes are easy-listening.  That's fine, as long as real learning takes place too.  I admire the baalei teshuva who started with no, or minimal, language skills and progressed to being able to read and understand texts in the original.  Wherever we are at, in learning and doing, let's see how we can move forward.

Oct 13, 2012

There is No Outsmarting G-d

In Aleinu L'Shabei'ach Bereishis, there is a letter from the Steipler Gaon (R' Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, d. 1985) which sets out a fundamental outlook on life.  It is written in connection to women and children, but the message applies to everyone. 

He writes that women make a big mistake when they think that by choosing not to have many children their lives will be easier.  All difficulties in life are decreed by Hashem on Rosh Hashana and there is no getting around them.  If a person tries to escape from some burden that brings suffering with it, a different affliction will take its place so that his portion of suffering is neither more nor less than it would have been.

Hashem has many messengers: illnesses, financial woes, humiliations, controversies, quarrels between spouses or other family members, friends, neighbors or business partners, inexplicable mishaps, anxieties etc. No strategy in the world will add or detract from what was designated for us, both in pain and pleasure.  If a person chooses to lighten his burden in one way, Hashem will provide an alternative.

This reminds me of this post: here and Rosie's comment about it is Hashem who enables mankind to make discoveries such as penicillin and vaccinations.  Hashem has given us the way to eradicate many formerly fatal illnesses, but ... like it says in the Steipler's letter, whatever is meted out on Rosh Hashana is what we will experience, no matter the progress of modern medicine.

And what about the modern-day scourge of self-inflicted misery? People in western cultures are making themselves sick with all sorts of emotional problems due to unbalanced thinking.

I think it would be incorrect to say that if we were able to teach everyone healthy thought patterns, well, so Hashem would afflict us with other problems.  Just as it's a mitzva to take care of our physical health and doing so is not a matter of attempting to get around any gezeira that may have been decreed, so too and even more so, it is our obligation to guard our minds.

On another note, on the words “And they[the Egyptians] embittered their lives with hard work, in mortar and in bricks…by which they made them serve with rigor” (Shmos 1:14). “And they embittered their lives” – the Zohar says this is the Torah (of which it is said [regarding words of Torah], “for they are our life”); “with hard work (b’avoda kasha)” – this refers to a quandary in learning (kushia); “in mortar (b’chomer)” – this is the kal v’chomer; “and in all work in the field” – this is a Braisa; “and in bricks (l’veinim)” – this is the clarification (libun) of Torah law.

We learn from this that it is possible to replace and exchange all the hardships of galus – making a living, other troubles, etc. – for spiritual matters.

Oct 10, 2012

Tell Us the Reasons!

This is a letter I plan on sending to one of the popular frum publications:
Regarding the constant talk about the divorce rate among frum couples - it would be most edifying if rabbonim who preside over divorces would be interviewed and tell us the reasons that marriages end and what has changed since 20, 30, 40 years ago.  It seems to me that bemoaning the divorce rate is useless if we don't hear why marriages end. 

I'd love to see a pie chart showing the percentages for each reason for divorce: 1) immaturity and unwillingness to get along  2) discovery of medication usage that was not revealed before the wedding  3) extreme incompatibility  4) meddling family members 5) intimacy problems 6) the discovery of severe personality problems  7) great disillusionment about the person they married  8) financial commitments not upheld  9) lies discovered.

A separate pie chart is needed for those divorced after being married briefly and those married for many years.

There should be no problem about breach of confidentiality as no names and identifying information of divorcing couples need be given.

The approach to minimizing divorces would be drastically different depending on the reasons!

Sep 29, 2012

Our Evolving Headspace

Years ago, I read an interesting article called, "Replacing Secular Values with Torah Values" in which the baal teshuva author wrote about her struggle to adjust her thinking to Torah values:

"When I first came to Israel ... I was already technically religious—I kept Shabbat and kashrut and wore mostly modest clothes—but my values and beliefs were still half-and-half. It took hearing a real Torah perspective on certain issues (mostly relating to Eretz Israel and Jewish morality) to shake me up and help me see that while my behavior had begun changing to be in line with Torah, my thinking still had a ways to go. I resolved to work to change my thinking as well as my behavior, until both would be according to Torah.

"I found this second round of changes to be more challenging than the first. After all, in order to keep Shabbat, you just have to not do work. It might be difficult or frustrating, but in the end, it’s a simple physical act. Even when I felt like turning on my computer on a Saturday morning, I could just force myself not to. When I found myself thinking something that clearly came from my old perspective and was not in line with Torah values, I couldn’t force a change. I had to be patient and spend a lot of time learning and growing before those thoughts would be replaced by something better."

This got me thinking about what secular values and ideas have crept into the minds of those who have grown up with a Torah education.  In discussing this with others, we came up with a long list:

feminist ideas such as women are wasting their lives if they are only raising their children

what I do defines me and gives me value (as opposed to working solely to support oneself)
vegetarianism as a philosophy
emphasis on appearance (ex. "body sculpting," fashion)
the packaging (chitzoniyus) is all important
when anything is wrong, therapy/medication is the answer
life should be easy and comfortable
compassion for the wicked
the inherent value of secular education (not merely as a means to earn a living)
secular humanism
democracy (when no, parents and children are not equals, and yes, there is a hierarchy among Jews according to Torah)
youth worship
it's not my fault (it's my genes, my parents, my background, my brain chemistry)
happiness is the goal ("Whatever makes you happy")
romance, falling in love and living happily ever after, love conquers all
esteeming oneself

I deserve, I'm entitled
questioning the sanctity of life
questioning the blessing of having numerous children
independence as a value (we should be feeling utterly dependent on G-d)
that feelings are sacred (If I feel something, then who are you to tell me I'm wrong for feeling that way?)
"it's none of my business" "live and let live" (when applied to ignoring wrongdoing)

It's interesting that many of these concepts were not even prevalent in the secular world until recently, and are still not prevalent in certain parts of the world.  Today, some of these ideas can be found even within sheltered frum communities.  They sometimes appear in our frum publications and in lectures given by frum speakers.  If we can mentally step back and look around us with some measure of openness and objectivity while also reading memoirs and other material which convey the mindset of Jews of decades and centures past, it can be enlightening to see how we've changed.  It is eye-opening to see what we take as "givens" which were not "givens" in a previous generation.  It can be illuminating to examine how we think.


Sep 28, 2012

Under One Roof versus Independence

One view:

"I like the idea of my children beginning their married lives in Eretz Yisrael.  It allows them to establish themselves as a couple without hanging onto Mommy's apron strings."

Another view:

"I like the idea of my children beginning their married lives close to home.  It allows them to ease into married life with the support of family."

Is one view better than another? It probably depends on the individuals involved, the couple, the sets of parents, and how close they are.

What was done in previous years and countries? You read of couples moving in with parents when it's her parents and couples moving in with parents when it's his parents, very different scenarios! Sometimes, this was in a distant city, and without modern communication the married child was all but cut-off from his or her parents. You also read of couples growing, marrying and dying in the same town.  In the Soviet Union it was commonplace for young couples to share a small apartment with parents due to the lack of available apartments.  It's astonishing to read of numerous people living together in two room apartments and having guests too!

What they did back then does not sound contrived; it wasn't a trend of young couples doing this or that.  It was a pragmatic decision usually based on finances.  Today, along with concerns about finances, we are even more concerned about our emotional temperature and that of young couples.  How will we feel, how will they feel; our privacy, their privacy, and the all important independence.  

Different times, different concerns.

Sep 23, 2012

You Need a D&C (Determination and Commitment)

Surgical solutions to obesity are written about here and there in frum publications.  After one such article, someone wrote a letter to the editor expressing her surprise that the woman in the article who had lap band surgery feels guilty for taking the easy way out:

"As someone who underwent the same procedure, I think it's basically the only way out and not so easy at all ... Actually, you need major determination if you want to be successful."

She repeats the warning, "If you want to be successful, you need to be extremely determined and committed."

I seem to be missing something here.  If you need to be extremely determined and committed with the lapband surgery in order to be successful, why can't the identical determination and commitment be applied to proper eating without undergoing surgery? Can she muster that singlemindedness only upon going under the knife?

In an article about lap band surgery I read, "The most important aspect to the success of lap band surgery is its follow up care. Without suitable modifications in lifestyle, it is not possible to lose any weight through lap band surgery. It is not easy to lose excess weight; however with the right attitude and commitment, it is possible to change your life for the better."  Hmmm. Again, wouldn't modifications in lifestyle and the right attitude and commitment make all the difference without surgery?

Blessed will be the person who can devise ways of helping people gain control and learn self-restraint with the power of their mind.

Sep 20, 2012

When Pointing Fingers is a Good Thing

In a letter to the editor of a frum publication, a parent writes, "I have often wondered about the emphasis rebbeim place on having students keep their finger on the place.  Several years ago, my son was a third grader who had a difficult time with this practice....  He was a good student who knew the material and was not disruptive in class.  Yet somehow, keeping his finger on the place and chanting the pesukim in unison with the class was just 'not his thing.'"

I'm not going to discuss the merits of finger-pointing here.  What concerns me about the letter is that this is a third grader who doesn't do what his rebbi says to do.  The rebbi is the authority in the classroom, just as the parents are the authorities at home.  When the rebbi says to keep your finger on the place, this is not optional, to be done if a child feels like it or not! Whether or not the child knows the material is not as significant as the child obeying the authorities in his life.  If a child feels that he can decide to do his "own thing" when it comes to his third grade rebbi, what will stop him from deciding that certain mitzvos are just not his thing?

This leads me to the topic of choices.  It is very popular nowadays for parents to give choices to children as young as toddlers.  Do you want the Rice Crispies or the Corn Flakes? The red shirt or the green shirt? The idea is that if a child is able to make choices from the youngest age, this will train them to make choices when they are older, and if a child is able to make choices this will make him feel empowered and wonderful about himself.

Rabbi Aaron Dovid Gancz, a mechanech, says offering these choices to children undermines the foundation of kabbolas ol we want to instill in them.  Giving many opportunities to choose ruins the child for life, he says.  Why? Because it is not training him to be a soldier in the army of Hashem.  Because the child's feelings and preferences have been given so much importance.  A child who has been trained all his life to think, "What do I like? What do I want?" never to learns ask himself, "What does Hashem want from me." R' Gancz concludes, "Chinuch is based on mesorah from G-d Himself.  It is absolute truth and there are no choices."

Back to the third grader for whom pointing at the place is not "his thing," that's the problem right there.  Who asked him whether it's his thing or not? His rebbi said everyone should point, and everyone should point.  The parent thinks the issue is the value in finger-pointing.  The actual issue is kabbolas ol.

Sep 19, 2012

Me-Centered Hypersensitivity

It was refreshing to read a letter in a frum publication decrying the popular practice of castigating readers for insensitivity, for no matter what people say to the sick, mourners, childless, single, they are bound to be hurting someone's feelings.

The letter-writer (Francesca Zuckerman) recently sat shiva and she said, "Things that upset me one day, could sooth on another.  The shiva visit I found most touching, my sister found irritating.  The rav my brother felt was the highlight of the shiva for him, I was sure had overstayed his welcome."

She went on to say so eloquently:

"It seems we have traded our Jewish value of being sensitive to the feelings of others, for a Western, politically correct, me-centered hypersensitivity.  How often do we hear people crying 'insensitive' to something that really could be totally pareve, or treating an everyday event like a nisayon? ... We have become experts at tending to our own wounds, but unaware of those of others."

Then her wise conclusion:

"I am not advocating ignoring another person's tzaar.  Yes, when meeting an avel (or anyone suffering), we should try not to say something hurtful.  But at the same time, a person in pain has to realize that no one knows what is in his heart, and his pain stems from his nisayon, not from the people around him who cannot guess what he feels."

When people say and ask foolish things, let's regard the remarks as just that - foolish.  The intentions are almost never malevolent.  Don't we all have memories of words that slipped out that we soon regretted? Let us not allow those who made a mistake or those clueless people out there to ruin our day.

Sep 12, 2012

Fallible Experts

I keep on bumping into articles and true stories in books about experts who made pronouncements and were proven wrong.  Examples include those who said a four minute mile is impossible (as I posted recently), doctors who said a baby has no chance of survival (she went on to marry and have children), and doctors who said an autistic child would never talk and he went on to become a professor.

Experts share their expertise on politics, the economy, world events and the weather and are not infallible.

What is their track record? Are they way more right than wrong? I don't know.  I know that we revere experts and take their word for whatever is their topic.  Or we take their word when it coincides with our beliefs.

Perhaps G-d makes them wrong some of the time in order to give us a chance to bring Him into the picture.  If experts were right 100% of the time, it would make it almost impossible to have hope, to believe in a different outcome.  Being wrong some of the time ought to make the experts humble.  At least, it should reinforce our belief that G-d is in control.

Sep 4, 2012

What Moves You May Not Move Me

Back in April, I wrote: here about people who are moved by different things, and what appeals to one in his mitzva observance or in not violating a prohibition, may not speak to someone else. 

I was reminded of this today as I was reading about a former Mirrer talmid who said there were countless times that he was tempted to enter a business deal that wasn't perfectly honest, but then he thought, "How can I do this? Rav Nosson Tzvi [the rosh yeshiva] respects me!"

It's like when Yosef Ha'Tzaddik was on the verge of sinning and he saw the image of his father Yaakov which prevented him from sinning.  In both cases, the motivation was not the prohibition involved, that G-d said, "do not commit adultery," "do not steal," but an image of someone respected whom they could not let down.

Our minds work in interesting ways, don't they?

Sep 3, 2012

No Inevitability

The Gemara says that we read the curses in Parshas Ki Savo before Rosh Hashana so that, “tichleh shana v’kililoseha” (may the year and its curses end).  Rabbi Breitowitz points out an astonishing concept:

It seems to us that the reason things are a certain way today, is because that is how they were yesterday and the day before and things don’t tend to change.  We are in a routine and our life is set up a certain way. We need to know that even if that is true as a rule, there is no connection between the last day in Elul and the first day of Tishrei. Whatever the decree is for the last day of Elul was decreed last Rosh Hashana, and whatever happens in Tishrei is rooted in the new year’s decrees! However, if things remain the same maybe it’s because we didn’t change.

The idea of there being a fundamental disconnection between the old year and new year can be reassuring or frightening, depending on how last year went. If it was a bad year, you can come to Rosh Hashana with thoughts of a fresh start, that if things were bad last year that doesn’t mean it will be that way this year. It gives us hope. But if things went well last year, on Rosh Hashana you can think – this may not continue!

To take Rosh Hashana seriously means that you realize a change and new decrees are taking place based on new considerations and this point is driven home by Chazal with “tichleh shana …” There is no inevitability of the curses of the previous year.  May we be inspired to make it a good new year.

Sep 1, 2012

Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel z'l

This is a follow-up post to this post in which I said I looked forward to reading the books about R' Nosson Tzvi Finkel z'l.  I have a few pages left to the Artscroll book and my recommendation is: read it! I enjoyed it very much.  His accomplishments were astounding, from becoming the huge talmid chacham, masmid, and marbitz Torah that he was when he was coming from an all-American life in the mid-West where he wasn't an astonishing ilui, to his absolute love for Torah and his desire to promote it anywhere, his genuine love for people, and all with a normalcy that endeared him to thousands and to this reader.

Aug 30, 2012

Even if it's not Relevant

What does this parsha, these pesukim, this sefer mean to me? What is its relevance to our lives nowadays? These are questions that teachers today need to focus on because otherwise, students will be turned off.  If it is not "meaningful" to them and their lives, why should they learn it?

Something is sorely lacking in this attitude and that something is an appreciation for the chashivus of Torah.  Of course there are lessons to be derived in every generation and every culture from our Torah, "hafoch ba v'hafoch ba, d'kula ba" - turn it and turn it, for the Torah contains everything, and we should seek them out.  However, this should not be at the expense of Torah for Torah's sake.

I've discussed this point many times over the past fifteen years or so as the importance of relevance in chinuch has gotten greater.  Today, I read a thought on this week's parsha from R' Yisrael Salanter that is ... relevant. 

The Gemara says that the ben sorer u'moreh case never happened and we have its laws in order to gain reward for studying it.  He says, the Torah is plenty big! Do we need these pesukim in Chumash and the discussion in the Gemara to gain reward?!

Rather, the lesson here is that there is value in learning something that has no practical application! It's the word of Hashem and that's enough.

Aug 28, 2012

A Different Way of Looking at it

R' Fischel Schachter tells a story about a man from London who had a heart attack in America and did not have travel insurance.  He had to pay $10,000 out of his own pocket.

He frustratedly asked his rav, why?! Why did this happen on my first trip out of the country? I never had a heart condition before!

The rav asked, how much would it have cost you in England for those ten days in the hospital? He said $2 a day!

The rav said, obviously, you were meant to spend that amount on medical expenses. Do you know how long you would have had to stay in the hospital in England for that?

We don't know what Hashem's cheshbonos are.

We need to trust and believe that it's all good.

Aug 27, 2012

Bi-Polar Judaism

Elul is an incredible gift. 

Elul is a time when even the fish in the sea tremble.

Elul is a time of Divine grace, when the 13 Middos of Mercy prevail.

Elul is when we prepare for our upcoming court case in which our lives hang in the balance.

Elul is a time of Divine love, joy, and closeness, when "I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me."

Elul's shofar is like the bell that signals the end of recess.  Time to buckle down and do teshuva.

Hashem is our loving father.

Hashem is the judge who examines every thought, word and deed we did.

If a capital case is going to be tried, the defendant doesn't feel like it's a gift and a joyous time.  Love and closeness don't go together with intense scrutiny.

Will the real Elul please stand up?

Aug 26, 2012

Bechira, not Victimhood

I read chunks of a fascinating though creepy book in which the author describes in detail what it was like growing up with drug addicts for parents.  I didn't read the entire book because some of the descriptions of street life and the underworld were too seamy for my sensibilities.  However, it is quite remarkable that with such a turbulent, unstable, poverty-stricken upbringing, the author and her sister have made fine lives for themselves.  The following quotes are taken from interviews that were held with the author:

I grew up with a family surrounding me and a home full of love.  It just so happened that my parents were addicted to cocaine and heroin and my mother was an alcoholic.
I realized my life is a blank slate.  I had the freedom to declare - what do I want my life to be about?
It occurred to me that the answer is education.  I felt invigorated by going back to school.
Nobody knows what's possible until they do it.
Every single day is another chance.
I learned to say - it's unlikely but it's possible, and put all my efforts into possibilities rather than limitations.
I felt deeply loved by my parents.  I don't hold anger towards them.  I saw them as sick.  People can't give you what they don't have. 
I knew I had to be independent.  It was up to me to figure out my life.  I felt no one owes me anything.  I'll have to figure stuff out on my own. I'll have to create what I want in this world.  I was responsible for my life.  No one was going to pave the path for me.  It was normal for me, something I understood instinctually, not a realization that I had.
I was homeless at the same age that my mother was homeless and I wanted to break the cycle of poverty I had come from.  So choice by choice, day by day, I went to school.  Part was choice and part was having the help, the support.
After my mother died, and we loved each other deeply, her dying unlocked my mind to possibility in my own life.  At one moment I had a family, I had my mother and then I lost everything.  Life changed rapidly, for the worse.  I saw that life can change and I was inspired by this. 

What transforms a life? One empowered choice after the next, over time.
I had a passion that I felt of - what if I just kept going?

You either move on or you don't and I decided to move on.

Let go of being stuck in the energy of all the things you don't have, and be grateful for the things you do have and calling that enough, and moving forward from there.

In the frum world we have children, teenagers, young adults and even older adults who need to hear messages like these.  Even if their circumstances were not quite like those of this author, the message of bechira rather than victimhood is powerful.  The downside is that this author doesn't speak about G-d; it's all about her choices.

It would be enormously helpful if we had the frum version of this woman's story, the story of a contemporary frum boy or girl who overcame adversity to become solid people with firm Torah values.

No matter what your history is, no matter where you've come from, every moment is a new possibility.

An Elul message indeed.

Aug 24, 2012

More on Gratitude

I just got a phone call from a friend who was calling to thank me for sharing the "two a day" gratitude entries idea earlier this week.  It has been "life changing," was how they put it.  I wrote about it back in January here

I've kept going too.  I'm in the 500's by now!

Some people write it down.  Others go around the Shabbos table and say it.  As R' Lazer Brody writes in his "Garden of Gratitude," the root of our problems is lack of gratitude, as we see with the Meraglim and how they engendered a "crying for nothing" to which Hashem said, "I will give you something to cry about."  We are far better off feeling and expressing gratitude, for then Hashem gives us more for which to be grateful.

If you know you will be writing down two things, it makes you look for them (if they aren't obvious).  You also get more creative when you don't want to repeat what you've written before.  Of course you are not only grateful one time for feeling well or for beautiful weather, but rather than repeat entries, I look for something new each time.  Now I need to make time to review my entries, to remind me of the wonderful things in my life and to thank Hashem for them.

Aug 20, 2012

The Evolution of Kosher Cookbooks

A small sampling of cookbooks for the frum cook:

1977, revised throughout the 70's into the 80's, 3-4 recipes per page, close to 200 pages, no photos of recipes

1985, 2-3 recipes per page, 260 pages, no photos of recipes

1990 2-3 recipes per page, nearly 500 pages, no photos of recipes

1995 1 recipe per page, lots of explanations, 400 pages, no photos

1999 Usually 3-4 recipes per page, nearly 300 pages, a small section of color photographs of a few recipes in the book

2003 1 recipe per page, close to 300 pages, many pages taken up by color photos and words from the author

2007 mostly 1 recipe per page, 300 pages, many pages taken up by color photos and lots of talk from the author

2009 1 recipe per page, many pages taken up by color photos, 200 pages

end of 2011 - 1 recipe per page, many pages taken up by color photos, 350 pages, many of which are not recipes

Summary: Years ago, we usually got more recipes per cookbook and no photos.

Commentary: Are there other parts of frum life that are similar to the evolution of cookbooks - less substance and more frills than in years gone by? In certain areas, yes.  Though romanticizing frum life in previous decades does not give us an accurate picture either.

Aug 15, 2012

Breakthroughs, Spiritual and Otherwise

I was reading about runners breaking records, with the most famous example being Roger Bannister who was the first to run a mile in under four minutes.  I find it fascinating because 1) experts considered it impossible 2) some even thought it would be dangerous to attempt it.  And then, he did it and 3) others did it too!

This reminded me of the story about Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, who encountered a very difficult passage in his Torah study.  After working on it for a long time, he finally unraveled its meaning.  How dismayed he was when he heard an ordinary man learning the same passage, encountering the same difficulty, and easily coming up with the same answer that had taken him so much effort to discover.  This made him question his own abilities if it was so hard for him, yet so easy for the ordinary person.

It was then revealed to him from heaven that nobody had comprehended that point before.  It was only because he had worked so hard that he had opened a channel of wisdom in which this passage was illuminated.  This made the wisdom accessible to others.

The same thing is said about mesiras nefesh.  If a person were to say, if Hashem spoke to me and told me to bring my son up as a sacrifice, of course I would, aren't the people who sacrificed their children without Hashem's direct command, greater than Avrohom? - the answer is that Avrohom opened the channel for mesirus nefesh.  It is because of his mesirus nefesh that subsequent parents can do the same.

What channels might we open for others with our own efforts? On a darker note, what possibilities are we opening for others by publicizing the breaking of taboos and the crossing of lines that should never be contemplated let alone acted upon?