Jul 27, 2012


Tanach is full of statements warning us to fulfill Torah and mitzvos or else dire things will happen and it tells us that it will be good for us if we listen to Hashem.

The belief in reward and punishment is one of the principles of our faith, so I can see the importance of letting us know about the consequences of our actions.  However, what see repeatedly in Tanach and later in our history is that the warnings did not help.  When the prophets urged us to do teshuva no doubt some people took the warnings to heart, but the goal - avoiding the churban, was not achieved. 

So what are we to learn from this? How should parents educate children and how should our mentors and leaders teach us? In our historical experience, if there was no rebuke, people deteriorated.  If there were exhortations to improve, it did not help enough to avert the catastrophes of our history (though it probably averted all sorts of evil decrees we don't know about).

And how do the warnings of Tanach fit with ideas that have been presented in the past few decades, based on research and experiments, that show that neither punishments nor rewards are that effective in teaching children and have even been proven to be counterproductive?

Jul 24, 2012

A Study in Contrasts

R' Benzion Shafier tells of going to visit his friend, Rabbi Simes (in picture), who became a quadraplegic as a result of a road accident, see here.  He was apprehensive, but they ended up speaking for hours.  The strange part of it was, R' Simes was so genuinely happy!

R' Simes said when he first came home from the hospital, he couldn't find a trained medical aide to help him.  He wondered why.  After all, he wasn't the only person in this condition. 

He subsequently found out the reason.  His injury, a C4-C5 injury to the spinal cord, is considered such a terrible situation that people rarely leave the hospital which is why there are no trained technicians available.  R' Simes explained that they don't actually need to be in the hospital.  They are there because they are so angry and depressed.  As for himself, he has no anger and no depression. 

R' Shafier was astonished.  Here's a man living through hell but he has joy and happiness because he's growing and changing, learning and teaching.  At a certain point, R' Simes said he believes Hashem chose him and he thinks Hashem gave him this nisayon because he can withstand it and still grow.  R' Shafier said he felt humbled.  He has spoken about these concepts and wrote a book about them, that Hashem custom designs our lives for us, but here was a man who was living it and has a simchas ha'chaim!

R' Shafier contrasted this with a talk he gave at a seminary in Israel on this subject.  A girl raised her hand and said, I hear what you're saying, that Hashem tailors our lives for us, but that's in theory, how do I apply this to my life  when I am in so much pain? The next girl said, my life is so hard - how can I apply this to my life? Out of 60 girls in the room, it seemed like 40 had the same question. 

R' Shafier looked around and saw well-dressed girls.  Someone was paying thousands of dollars for their seminary education.  They were not homeless.  He felt he was talking to a room full of Holocaust survivors when they actually came from good homes, a land of liberty and opportunity!

He concluded that so many people today are unhappy and suffering and not healthy, functioning citizens.  Although it's true we live in a time of unparalleled health, wealth and opportunity and we, as the Jewish nation, have the Torah, there is so much suffering.  The addictions, divorce, pain, anxieties, obsessions - why is this happening? R' Shafier says, it's a long bitter exile.  People are supposed to be joy-filled, living purposeful lives.  This is rare in our days.  To those who say - who needs Moshiach, the answer is, says R Shafier: look at the numbers of unhealthy people in our community which is a result of our exile.

Jul 22, 2012

A Lesson from an Immigrant Girl

Rachel Calofs Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains is an extraordinary story.  It was written originally in Yiddish by an immigrant from Russia who settled in North Dakota.  She had such a miserable life and yet, she remained positive and continuously sought to improve her circumstances.  She was an extremely hardworking woman and a loyal wife.  She did not have formal Jewish schooling but always lit candles Friday night and observed other Jewish rituals and holidays. 

Perhaps, when young people today are feeling sorry for themselves, they would do well to read this book and see how someone dealt a tough life of loss, abuse and hardships persisted.  Without therapy and anti-depressants.

Jul 17, 2012

GPS - Navigation for Your Soul

I'm really enjoying this book, "GPS - Navigation for Your Soul - inspired by the writings of the Nesivos Shalom" (an Artscroll Shaar Press publication). 

There are chapters on Hashem's tremendous love for every Jew and how nothing we can do can eradicate that love, how to respond to our challenges in life, and the power of our mind.  Rather than present fundamental ideas in ordinary essay form, the authors use an extremely friendly layout and format that engages the reader.  Although I am familiar with the ideas that are presented, I am interested in reading all 487 pages because it is a pleasure to read this book.

It is an excellent source of inspiration and a reminder about who we are, what our relationship with Hashem is about, and what we are here to accomplish, suitable for teens and up.

Jul 16, 2012

An End to Illness


I recently heard a speaker ask: Do you think that if they find a cure for cancer, that we will all be able to breathe a sigh of relief? If it's not cancer, it will be something else! Just as previously, it was tuberculosis and numerous other diseases that killed us. 

I've been thinking about that.  Radical changes have taken place in medicine.  It was once common for parents to lose numerous children to childhood illnesss* and now they don't.  Our life expectancy has gone up.** People in their 40's, 50's and 60's don't look and act old the way they once did.  Is it time to rejoice?

And yet, there is illness all around us.  People we know personally, including children, are or have been seriously sick and some have died.  There are so many ways that doctors can help people today that verge on the miraculous like heart transplants, but overall - are we burying fewer people and at older ages? Maybe this is a question for the chevra kadishas to answer.

If other forms of sickness have overtaken us, then does it make sense to be grateful for immunizations and other medical advances? Or should we not look at it that way and rather, thank G-d for the advances we have made while praying for the eradication of all illness and death with the coming of Moshiach?

* most recently, I read of a woman in the 1930's who lost five children and had five remaining children and this was not unusual

**  59-male, 63-female in 1930 to 75-male, 80 female in 2012 in the US

Jul 11, 2012

How Does G-d Fit Into the Picture?

People tend to refer to something as "hashgacha pratis" (individual, specific supervision by Hashem) when it stands out, when in truth, every single thing is under Hashem's hashgacha pratis, not only amazing occurrences. 

Furthermore, people tend to refer to something as "hashgacha pratis" when it works out well, when it truth, everything that happens, whether it seems good or not, is under Hashem's hashgacha pratis. 

To give a common example, whether someone misses a flight and it crashes or someone doesn't miss a flight and it crashes, both are hashgacha pratis.

We need to establish these as the ground rules because otherwise, for one thing, we will have the wrong outlook.  For another thing, we can end up hearing heretical ideas presented as logic and be convinced that it's reasonable. 

I'm thinking about this because of a chapter in a book I'm reading which is about how human nature is such that we focus on those things that fit our premise and ignore the rest.  We like to see patterns and so we attribute meaning to certain events whether a pattern may be there or not. 

Where the chapter went wrong, from a Jewish perspective, is when the author made it clear that he doesn't think G-d is running the world.  It's not that he says so explicitly. What he says is our minds reject randomness.  But one minute, Judaism rejects randomness! And yet, even as believing Jews, we don't say on a clear day, "Wow, I was walking down the street and no tree limbs fell on me" or "I wasn't struck by lightening."  Why don't we say that? Because on a clear day, there is no reason to expect that those events will occur, and although we believe Hashem oversees every detail, we know that He wants the world to run by teva-nature.  The reason humans look for patterns is because we innately know that G-d created the world and there is a seder here.  So the author is correct in that we sometimes attribute meaning to something that is not statistically meaningful (akin to expressing amazement about not being struck by lightening on a clear day), but he is wrong when he says everything is random!

I find this perturbing not only because he's wrong, but because he is not being intellectually honest in a book that is about how we delude ourselves! There are things in our world which are statistically rare and make no sense logically and yet he does not acknowledge this.  In the author's atheistic worldview, he must believe that all is random.  It is disturbing to pick up a book that is ostensibly objective but actually has a distinct, anti-G-d bias.

Jul 9, 2012

The Yumminess of Being a Yid

Rabbi Bloch is the rav of the Lakewood minyan in Monsey.  He recently spoke in Flatbush and said that he changed the topic of his speech on his way to giving the speech.  This was because of a story he just heard a story about a rebbi in a classroom of 14 yr olds in a good yeshiva in a very frum area. 

The rebbi was teaching the Gemara in Kesubos about a ger katan who at age 13 has the right to decline being Jewish.  A good boy in the class innocently asked - why would this kid want to become a Jew?

The shocked rebbi thought he was making trouble but he saw that the whole class agreed with the boy! He made a questionnaire and asked everyone to check one of three boxes anonymously on a paper.  Today if you had a choice, what would you pick: 1) you'd choose to be Jewish 2) you'd choose not to be Jewish  3) undecided

The entire class except for two boys wrote they would want to be goyim.  One wrote undecided and one wrote he'd choose to be Jewish.

In R' Bloch's words:

Don't tell me that that's because of the Internet! That's foolish!
We are goofing big time.
These are 14 yr old kids whose parents have some control over them; What about when they're 15, 17, 19?
How do they say the bracha "asher bochar banu ... ", "shelo asani goy"?
We had these kids for 9 years in school!
This is where we're holding.  We are failing immensely in giving over to the children: what is our religion! We are failing terribly in conveying "ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu." We say the words, do we mean them? That Hashem is our chelek and that goraleinu is olam haba and how  pleasurable-fun limud ha'Torah is (if it's done right).

If the children were given this feeling, the joy of being a yid, then "s'eis" - you'll go up.  Yes, you have to be careful of aveiros, but Hashem said, "im lo seitiv," if you won't have this warmth, desire for something higher, then "l'pesach chatas roveitz" - sin crouches at the door, with or without a computer.  Kayin did not have a computer.  The sota did not have a computer ...

If you desire to get close to Hashem, you are moving up and away from bad things.  If you're just going to fence off the bad stuff, I have news for you.  You won't be able to fence it all off.  It's impossible.
Our grandparents did something right.  It has become popular today to look at ourselves as being great and our grandparents as so-so. We have it backwards.
40 years ago, R' Dessler described our generation as one of chitzoniyus.  Our generation is completely about status-kavod.

A father came to speak to me, he's ready to die.  His son came home for bein ha'zemanim and put on a T-shirt and shorts to play basketball.  After 15 minutes or so, I asked the father about tefillin and the father said he does not think his son puts on tefillin.  The father was agonizing about the T-shirt and shorts and not ready to die over the tefillin.  That is why the kid is not wearing tefillin! Because he sees it's all about appearances.  We have honest kids and they ask, why should anyone want to be be a Jew! Good question.

We have to give kids the yumminess of being a yid.  Fear of gehinom won't do it.  People ask me what to do about their children not wanting to stay at the Shabbos table.  The Shabbos table must be the highlight of the week.  The father must be a DJ, MC, comedian, journalist.  When your daughter goes into the kitchen, you want her to say wait, don't continue until I come back.  The kids should be glued to the table.

I don't think the story with the 14 year olds is an isolated situation.  I am almost positive that it is indicative of the general situation today. 
The problem is not that the kids don't get it.  The problem is that YOU don't get it and they don't get it because you don't have it.
I repeat, we undervalue our grandparents.  What we have is more visible yiddishkeit. What they had was more genunine, internal.

The first thing we need to do is internalize "ashreinu ..."

link to his speech

Jul 1, 2012

Echoes of a Previous Post

In the Spring issue of Jewish Action magazine there was a symposium on the Orthodox Family of the 21st century.  One of the respondents, Rivkah Rabinowitz, is a social worker who is a family therapist.  I found it interesting that she wrote precisely what I wrote in a post of two and a half years ago: here, although she does not give any explanation as to the reasoning behind her wondering.

In her words:

"There are daily, weekly and monthly “kosher” newspapers and magazines published and distributed worldwide. Many of them publish well-written articles exposing important social issues and raising communal awareness. Formerly taboo subjects are often openly discussed ...

"And yet, while the proliferation of such frank discussions in frum media outlets clearly indicates revolutionary growth and thinking, perhaps there is a negative side to all of this as well.

The prevalence of divorce is one such example.

Divorce used to be a taboo topic. When I attended school in the Sixties and Seventies, I did not have a single classmate whose parents had divorced. Out of my high school graduating class of thirty-two girls, one of my classmates divorced early on, and a second after twenty years of marriage.

Out of my twenty-four-year-old daughter’s graduating class of thirty-eight, five classmates have parents who are divorced and there are already four divorces in the class itself. That’s a huge change from my day...

"I cannot help but wonder: were some vulnerable young people influenced by the constant flow of articles on divorce? Were they convinced that their marriages were so bad because they mirrored the stories in certain frum publications where the spouses divorced and then “lived happily ever after”? Did such articles provide a false sense of support and reassurance?

"These are tough questions. By bringing issues to the forefront, people are surely helped. But have we contributed to the creation of broken homes? Is all the frum media attention on the tough issues in our society a contributing factor? Does naming the pain, with titles such as “shidduch crisis,” “kids on the fringe,” “abusive spouse” and “Internet addiction,” somehow unleash a monster that feeds on itself? Is the media reporting on a particular phenomenon, or is it in fact helping to create it? This is an age-old dilemma, and the proliferation of frum newspapers, magazines, and other forms of media makes this question more relevant today than ever."