Jan 26, 2012

How Are We Different 2

Here is a follow-up story to my post on "mi k'amcha Yisrael" click here for post which Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon heard from Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz and related at the 11th Siyum Ha'Shas.  The latter had asked a Holocaust survivor how he survived, how he retained his faith. 

The survivor said: We were not able to keep any mitzvos in the camp.  We had no Shabbos, no Yom Tov, we could not learn, we could barely daven.  We were taken out early each morning to work in the forest and marched back to our barracks after dark.

But there was one thing that the Nazis could not take away from us, the moon.  There were men who kept track of the Jewish calendar and knew when Rosh Chodesh would be.  A couple of days later, we would look in the sky to see if the moon was out.  Then, as we were being marched back to the camp, with soldiers on both sides of the column, someone in the middle would whisper, Men ken machen Kiddush Levana (we can perform Kiddush Levana).

We would join hands and as we marched we began the bracha.  We came to the words, "He said to the moon that it renew itself, as a crown of splendor for those borne [by Him] from the womb, those who are destined to renew themselves like it .."

The moon symbolizes renewal, the renewal of the Jewish people, the renewal of the Malchus Beis Dovid.  We said those words and we felt strengthened.  We told ourselves that we will one day experience renewal.

Mi k'amcha Yisrael

(from "Living the Parsha, Bo)

Jan 25, 2012

Finding Your Passion 2

Hamodia magazine had an interesting article (July 27, 2011) about the exciting work of Rabbi Dan Roth, director of Torah Live: click here to see website.  He provides multi-media presentations on topics in halacha and hashkafa in an engaging way.  He saw that students today who spend their free time texting and using other gadgets were not interested in a traditional shiur, so he decided to use the same media the kids use, to teach them.

As I've written previously: click here, I find it fascinating to read about people who have found their passion, whether they do so as a child or teen or unexpectedly later in life.  R' Roth had been learning Gemara full-time in kollel and there was a Torah topic (Pirkei Avos) that he wanted to write about.  He didn't think it was right to leave his Gemara learning to do this. 

He asked Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky for his advice which was: "בּן עשׂרים לרדוף Age 20 is for pursuing; בּן שׁלשׁים לכּח age 30 is for strength (as it says in Pirkei Avos 5:25).  Martial arts experts are able to break slabs of wood and concrete with their bare hands because they know how to focus all their energy into one point.  Your twenties are meant for exploring various life goals and options, to learn what you like and what you're good at.  By the time you reach thirty, however, you are expected to know enough about your strengths and character to be able to strip away everything else and focus all your energies and abilities into your unique talent.  That's what strength means."

R' Roth had just turned thirty.  Inspired by what R' Orlofsky told him, he spent the next three years writing a sefer on Pirkei Avos.  Then he got a job teaching OTD youth.  The class was a disaster with the students ignoring him.  This prompted him to present material in today's language, via computer, and it was a big hit.

He says, "This is my life's calling.  It drives me day and night.  I feel a responsibility to help as many Yidden as possible get clarity about Hashem's Torah.  My biggest dream is to increase k'vod shomayim in the world.

"Hashem gave each of us natural talents and abilities that we have to use in avodas Hashem.  A few years ago, when I was in kollel, financial and family pressure for me to get a job was mounting, but I couldn't figure out what I was going to do with my life.  I literally couldn't sleep at night, wondering what my next step would be.  I never had any idea that I would end up doing anything like what I'm doing today.  Hashem guided my every step."

Jan 24, 2012

Medical Treatment that Kills

Rabbi Moshe Sherer a'h, was chairman of Agudath Israel of America.  There is a 600+ page biography about him out of which I read a few hundred pages.  He was a dynamic, driven person who could have made millions if he ran a company but devoted himself to the welfare of Klal Yisrael. 

How shocked I was to read that he contracted acute leukemia as a result of the chemotherapy he had taken for lymphoma (which happens in 8% of cases)! That medication is accompanied by unpleasant side effects, is one thing; that the medication causes a virulent disease when being applied to cure a virulent disease, is outrageous.  Similar to one of the side effects of antidepressants being suicidal thoughts.  May Hashem spare us such cures and keep us well.

Jan 23, 2012

More Tzaros or the Same As Always?

One often hears discussions about whether there are more people dying young today, toddlers, children, teens, young adults, young marrieds, middle-aged marrieds who are diagnosed with cancer and other illnesses, in addition to "accidents" (car, fire, drowning), or not.

I am referring to the constant tzaros we hear and read about, the emails requesting Tehillim. The huge Tehillim lists. The ads and tzedaka requests for families that are suffering from tragedies. 

So first, we have to decide what period of time we're comparing our times to! To life in Europe? To life in America?

the past 30 years?

Of course life expectancy has gone up and today we expect all live births to result in live adults when long ago (though not SO long ago), before vaccinations, many babies and children died! It was common for a woman to have many live births, let's say 13, but only have 5 survive childhood!

So I'm not talking about comparing our days to back then.

I'm more interested in knowing whether things have changed since say, the 1950's. 
I'm inclined to believe that it's because communications today are so advanced that we hear more than we used to.  When a kalla was in a car accident or became seriously sick years ago, it was just a local issue, but now, people all over the world are hearing about many more tzaros through frum news websites and emails. 

May we soon know of no more sorrow.

Jan 22, 2012

Simple Faith

There has been a great push in recent years to teach frum kids and adults the material that is taught to those who are new to Judaism.  Many a letter to the editor of frum publications and many an article espouse explaining everything we do in Yiddishkeit and providing a foundation for our beliefs.  Many consider doing things because "that is what I was taught to do", or "that is what my parents do", an inferior motivation.

This came to mind when I read that the Baal Shem Tov told his disciples, "After all that I have achieved in understanding the supernal secrets of the Torah and the sources of the mitzvos, I put aside all of this and strengthen myself with simple faith in Hashem.  Ich bein a naar un ich gloib - I'm a fool and I believe.

In the teachings of the Rebbe Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov it says, "I have heard from people who are well-known for relating stories correctly that R' Meshulam Zishe of Anapoli said, "I am not expecting a reward in the world to come for the avodas Hashem that I did after I understood the true greatness of Hashem.  I am only waiting for the reward for the avodas Hashem that I did when I served Him with simple faith, because it was what I had received as a tradition.

This is what is meant when the pasuk says, "I am the G-d of your fathers."

There is a place for teaching and learning taamei ha'mitzvos (reasons for the mitzvos) but this must be predicated on kabbolas ol, on serving Hashem because that is what we are here to do, whether we understand or not, whether we like the reasons or not.  And this service of Hashem with kabbolas ol is not meant to be begrudging, with teeth gritted, or as we hum "Tradition."  We need to find role models who do this b'simcha!

Jan 21, 2012

What Doctors Say

A mother said, "My daughter was valedictorian recently. I'm proud to say it because she had a very hard beginning, and spent many weeks in an ICU after she was born. The neonatologist said she will never be in a regular classroom."

Time and again, I read stories in which doctors make dire pronouncements and are proven wrong.  In Judaism we have the principle: doctors are permitted to heal (with Hashem's help).  They have no right to make pronouncements about the future.

They make dire prognostications in the name of honesty and enabling parents or the patient to be prepared, but since they aren't prophets and are sometimes (often?) wrong, what they say is cruel and counter-productive.  As authority figures, what they say carries a lot of weight and it can be very hard to be optimistic and have bitachon in the face of bad news from a doctor.

How many parents have gone through months of agony because a doctor said their unborn child would not be normal, would be deformed, until to have a healthy child be born? I'm always left wondering whether the doctor interpreted the information correctly and the couple's prayers changed things, or the doctor was mistaken from the get-go.  I don't know, but I have read numerous stories in which this happened.  True, the doctor's negative expectation may have been the impetus for lots of prayer and good deeds, but that did not give him the right to scare people who won't abort and can't do anything about the situation.

It would be helpful if someone collected many of these stories, verifying the information, i.e. what the doctor said and what actually happened, in categories like: pregnancy, preemies, illnesses, comas, what faculties and abilities patients were told they could and could not regain, and how many years they were told they would live.  It would be a great resource in bolstering our faith in the Rofei chol basar.

Jan 20, 2012

Mind Over Heart

I recently completed a marathon book-reading.  I had a book out of the library that was due which I could not renew because it had a hold placed on it.  It's a book that I had out once before and did not read and could not renew and I didn't want to take it out a third time.  Instead, I started reading it and it had me engrossed for a few days.  It was a Holocaust memoir called The Seamstress.

Shortly after I finished it, I read yet another article about OCD in a frum magazine. This time, it was from the perspective of a woman with OCD.  She describes in excrutiating detail an insane day in her life.  I use insane literally.  Her behavior is that of a crazy person.

Coming right after the Holocaust book, the contrast between self-imposed, demented suffering and externally-inflicted anti-Semitic suffering was vast.  I will admit that the article elicited emotions from me that are probably not what the author and publisher had in mind.  I am sure the article was meant to evoke tremendous compassion on the sufferer, and yet, I felt outraged  that someone could bring such suffering upon themselves.

Of course that was followed by thoughts like - that's not nice, I'm not understanding that she is trapped, that she is miserable, that she deserves more compassion because she brought this upon herself, not less.  

And of course, those writing about mental health these days insist that these are illnesses just like physical illnesses and just as we do not choose to have tumors, we do not choose to suffer from mental illness.  The problem is, I am not convinced.

Coming on the heels of the Holocaust book in which the author was 44 pounds by war's end, doesn't help make me sympathetic to anorexic people either.  Self-imposed starvation with all the food around us?! But then again, I think, these are psychological problems and those enmeshed in unhealthy thinking don't think, "I will ruin my life by having these unhealthy thoughts."

And yet, the self-absorption at the root of so many of these problems is a modern-day luxury.  If the woman of the OCD article had to struggle to survive, had to use her wits to get food and remain alive, avoid beatings and various threats to her continued existence, she would not be fixated on imaginary threats to her well-being.

I came across a post online by a man who refers to his "selfish OCD" who writes:
OCD is a very selfish disorder, and I was always thinking about myself. It was all about me and my obsessions and the compulsive checking I needed to do to make myself feel better. My wife was an outgoing, caring, loving person with a great personality but my OCD was changing all that. We didn’t go out anymore because of all my obsessions, and my wife wasn’t a happy and laughing person anymore. Instead she was crying every day.
I was very selfish, and I was using her all the time for compulsive reassurance, trying to use her to get rid of my obsessions or to confirm that everything was fine and that I hadn’t done anything wrong or bad. I would ask her for reassurance over and over again and would push her so far as to make her put her hand on the Bible and swear that she was telling the truth. While I was seeking reassurance from her it was all about me. I didn’t care how she felt; I only wanted to get rid of the obsession. After she gave me the reassurance that I needed and everything was fine again, I would feel guilty about putting her under so much stress, but only for a short time. Soon I was doubting again and needed to ask her for reassurance again, and then it was all about me again, all about my obsessions and feelings. I didn’t care how she was feeling as long as I felt better.
... Even when my wife was sick it was all about my obsessive thoughts. I didn’t think about how my wife was feeling ...  The doctor told her that she had an infection in one of her glands and that she needed to have an operation. When my wife told me, I immediately started my checking methods. I had to be sure I hadn’t done something wrong that could have caused my wife to get ill. (I would do these same checking methods when I hear anyone I know is in the hospital. I need to make sure they are fine, and then I need to make sure that I am not responsible for making them ill.) Instead of worrying about how much pain my wife must have been in and how she must have felt about the operation, I was busy with my obsessive compulsive thoughts. 

Human beings possess the quality of mo'ach shalit al halev--"the mind rules the heart." Unlike animals, who act on instinct, a person is capable of achieving full control over his thoughts and moods.  This fundamental principle needs to be taught very early on in life.  It requires constant reminders and is often not easy to act upon, but knowing that this is what constitutes our humanity and that we can control our emotions is step one.  It is often said, happiness is a choice, not a condition.  Likewise, unhappiness, anger, sad feelings are a choice.  We can and must exercise hesech ha'daas - diverting our minds from the unhealthy thoughts that occur to us.  It is our choice, and bechira is what being a human being is about.

Jan 19, 2012

Two A Day

I've been doing it.

Writing two things every day that I feel grateful for, that I benefit from, that I enjoy.

I rarely do the "exercises" suggested in books, articles and speeches but I decided to try this one.

I'm enjoying it. 

I can look back at my very long list, over 80 items long already, and say, "wow!"

Try it.  You might like it too.

Jan 18, 2012

Do It for Them

Another thing (in addition to Tehillim lists) I haven't gotten a satisfactory explanation for is when people announce at a shiur or event that the learning should be a zechus or l'ilui nishmas someone.  What does that actually mean?

I would understand if people got together solely for the purpose of providing a zechus for someone, but if the shiur is happening regardless, because it's a weekly or daily event, how does tacking on the words "this should be a zechus" accomplish anything?

So too, the calls for "Do a mitzva for ----." If someone does a mitzva as a zechus for someone else, does that mean they forgo the reward of that mitzva and bestow it on the other person? That's an enormous gift! Is that what they mean?

I saw lists of mitzvos that people from all walks of life committed to doing in honor of the slain Holtzbergs.  I can understand being moved by the Holtzbergs' devotion to the Jewish people and how they enabled and encouraged others to do mitzvos, and wanting to do something that they valued, i.e. a mitzva.  If that is what they mean by doing a mitzva in their honor, fine.

But how about pages in books, and entries on websites, which say "dedicated to ..." What does that mean? The person paid money for what purpose? I must be missing something because to me, it simply looks like a way for the publisher to raise money and for the person to have a name mentioned.  Does it go beyond that to accomplish anything else?

Everyone else seems to go along with it as though it makes sense.  I just don't get it. 

Jan 17, 2012

Endless Names on Tehillim Lists

As far as I know, it's a new thing in the Jewish world to have long lists of names of people we don't know who need a refuah shleima that are recited in some shuls for a Mi Sh'Berach or recited before a shiur or recited before saying Tehillim. 

Whatever happened to saying the few names of people you know or have some connection to, and including the rest in the phrase, "rofei cholei amo Yisrael" that ends the bracha of Refa'einu in Shmone Esrei? Or in the phrase "b'soch sh'or cholei Yisrael" that is sometimes inserted in the Yehi Ratzon in the Refa'einu bracha and is in the Mi Sh'Berach?

Is anybody responsible for ensuring that these long lists of names are updated? Do names on the list remain there forever no matter if the person recovered or passed on? I think it's an imposition on the tzibbur when long lists of names are recited.

As for myself, the names I keep in mind in my prayers are people I know personally or people whose condition I can readily check out.  If a request is made to say Tehillim for someone via email or some other announcement, I will often say one perek of Tehillim then and there and that's all.  They don't go on my list.

Jan 16, 2012

Our Frum Therapists

I was taken aback to read, in a frum publication, a reference to the "primitive brain" in connection with our self-defense mechanism, the flight or fight response.   That is jargon used by those who espouse evolution who claim it's the oldest  part of the human brain and a piece of brain anatomy that we share with reptiles.  Not something I expect to see in a frum publication or hear from a frum person!

It reminded me of an article I read on a frum website in which the author referred to "our reptilian brain."  In both cases, frum therapists whose books and articles are very popular in the frum world, show how they have been negatively influenced by their secular education. 

It's disheartening because these authors have a lot of good things to say and it's too bad that we cannot rely on frum authors and frum publications and websites to provide us with untainted Torah-true material.  It also belies the claim that frum men and women can study for a profession and somehow (magically?), because of their yeshiva education and allegiance to Torah, remain unsullied by anti-Torah ideas.  We are encouraged to seek out frum counselors and yet, these same frum counselors may promote ideas that are antithetical to Torah.  Caveat emptor.

Jan 8, 2012

How Many Products Do We Need?

I often read about the thousands of kosher products now available and how the kosher market is huge and is still growing, by leaps and bounds.  That's all fine and good.  It's helpful to Jews who live all over the US (and other countries) to have numerous kosher products available to them at their supermarket. 

What bothers me is where I think the kashrus field has gotten out of hand.  I read about mashgichim who travel to distant countries, leaving wife and children behind for long periods of time.  For example, a mashgiach who makes a trip to China, who has to fly to a remote area where the factory is located.  The factory produces the chemical sustance that stabilizes pareve ice cream, and another substance that stimulates the taste buds in an amazing way so pareve ice cream can taste better than dairy.  If all goes well, the ice cream company will be able to improve the taste, smell and quality of their ice creams.  The cost? The husband away from his family, without a minyan, without any Jewish amenities, without a proper Shabbos if he has to stay away that long.  And for what? For enhanced pareve ice cream.

Have you noticed the aisles full of kosher chips and kosher cookies and crackers? Do we need more kosher snacks? More sauces? More cereals? While we read articles about obesity and eating disorders in our frum publications, we turn the pages and see advertisements for more food products!

I saw a Chanuka ad in a frum magazine which said:

2011 Doughnut Collection
It's Natural to Lose Control

I was singularly unimpressed by this grubbe marketing idea.  But I digress.  Back to kashrus. If the kashrus agencies could explain why it is vital for ordinary products to be supervised by mashgichim living or visiting remote places, I would back down.  But I suspect that too many of the kashrus supervisors' visits could be cut out and those products wouldn't be missed.